Migrating to New York
Freshman Orientation, The New School University, August, 2017
by Diana Goetsch
A few weeks ago I got a call from Larry Jackson, Assistant Provost of The New School, asking if I would address you as part of your orientation. I told him I’d be glad to help, though since I myself am new to The New School, I was unsure of how good an orienter I could be. (I don’t even know what a provost is.) But when Larry said he wanted me to talk about migration, I knew I could do that. Like so many New Yorkers, I’ve done my share of migrating, and continue to do so.
In many ways, New York is the ultimate place of migration. Perhaps you’ve heard about a certain statue in the harbor bearing a poem by Emma Lazarus (who lived around the corner on 10th Street). That statue doesn’t just welcome migrants, it longs for them:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I didn’t think it would ever be possible for a presidential administration to come out against the Statue of Liberty—but this actually happened, two weeks ago at a White House press briefing. So I would like to officially come out in support of the Statue of Liberty; I am pro-poor, pro-huddled masses, pro-breathing free—I’m especially big on breathing—pro-anyone coming to this city, as you are doing, to seek its refuge, and add to its vitality. There is nothing more American than being from somewhere else, and New Yorkers might as well have post graduate degrees in Somewhere Else.
The subject of migration also puts me in mind of E.B. White’s 1949 essay “Here Is New York,” in which he writes,
There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.
The “trembling” presence of three cities, spinning simultaneously like plates, feels as true today as it was in 1949—or as it was in 1985, when I came to New York for graduate school. Though I first came in 1963, for I was born here. My family moved from Flatbush to Jamaica, Queens, then out to the suburbs, and so my father became a type II New Yorker, a commuter.
I did too. The city was our destination for school field trips—theater, art, music, sports. One intrepid high school teacher took us to see the Meatpacking District back when they still packed meat there. I don’t know why he wanted us to see that, but it was fantastic. He also took us on a Harlem walk, down Striver’s Row, past the Abyssinian Baptist Church, to Sylvia’s Restaurant, where Sylvia, “the Queen of Soul Food” herself, plunked a can of Fanta orange soda in front of each of us, to wash down our collard greens.
I think that traveling to New York was different for me than for children born of suburbia. Riding the Long Island Railroad, I felt a smoldering in my blood the closer we got to the city, as the trees and lawns of Nassau county gave way to cement and metal, brick and mortar and elevated subways swathed in graffiti, and people of every color, and a drumbeat that felt like home. The older I got, the more often I fled the cultural backwaters of suburbia, 35 miles west, for art, for movement, for life itself, which I could smell even in the bus fumes.
So I have been all three New Yorkers, though it’s the third, the migrant and settler, that figures most importantly for me, as it did for E.B. White. I came after college and did a degree in American Civilization because I didn’t know what else to do. (We often joked that American civilization was neither.) During the day I trained as a dancer—modern, jazz and ballet—because I liked to move and I liked to lift women. I walked down every street, hungering to understand every block. On weekends I’d go to different neighborhoods, Fort Green, Jackson Heights, Sheepshead Bay, just to go there. I’d take pictures with my Pentax camera of people in their Sunday best outside store-front churches. I’d read thick books in unfamiliar cafés—some of the thousand pages a week graduate school demanded of me, making me dreamy and nearsighted. I wanted to know this city down to the cavities of its teeth, install it inside me.
You can’t, of course. The city itself is continually migrating, from this to that, because it doesn’t know what else to do. If you think you know a neighborhood, go back to it in three months’ time and you’ll see some new high-rise sprouted like a weed. You’ll see an eviction notice in the window of your favorite place—even cultural institutions such as the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB’s, or Julian’s Pool Hall, disappear in a flash. Half the poems from my last book were started in cafés that no longer exist. You’ll see a new place in its place, where someone is selling bubble tea or cell phones or smokeless cigarettes, or offering to thread your eyebrows, or persuading you to spend a half-hour in a floatation tank.
Or there will be a hole in the ground, startlingly large, surrounded by a fence, against which a homeless person sits with a cup and a Pitbull. You’ll invariably see streets being jackhammered and excavated by Con Edison or some other entity forever tinkering with pipes carrying gas, water, steam, sewage, TV cables, phone and electric wires running like lymph beneath us. There are scaffoldings everywhere and there always will be—they just migrate to other blocks. New York is like a woman who can’t decide what to wear; she pulls outfits from the closet, holds them up against herself, and tosses them unsentimentally on the bed.
* * *
Now every good travel writer will tell you that the real story is always the inner journey, and I can testify to that. Inside New York is where I migrated from being a grad student to a high school teacher, to a teacher in a maximum security jail, to a “Writer-in-Residence.” Along the way I was a doorman, a bartender, a concert jazz dancer, and a magazine columnist. In Buddhism such migrations are called “changes of life.”
This is also the city in which I migrated from living as a man to living as a woman, which took about 30 years. When I began crossdressing in the 1980s, New York had places for me, support groups in hotel rooms advertised in the back of the Village Voice, and speakeasy type bars like The Fabric Factory on West 41st Street, where brave confused people who still called themselves men made their pilgrimage from as far as Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC—there was even a pilot from Tennessee. Some of them dressed in the basement, where a windowless room with makeup mirrors was provided. I took the subway in from Brooklyn, praying I didn’t run into any of my high school students. We exchanged stories, found friends, allies, including bartenders who called us ladies—“What’ll it be ladies?” Some of us ventured into after-hours clubs and gay bars not far from where the Stonewall riots had been, a revolution catalyzed by trans people. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
E.B. White began his essay talking about the two gifts: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” For me, those two gifts combined to make one: the gift of anonymity. New York has the market cornered on anonymity, and for those in need of a change of life there’s nothing better than coming to a place that doesn’t know you, and doesn’t mind you. I remember a friend who came here when I did, pointing out that if he wanted he could sit down in the middle of Times Square with a bowl of hot water and a hand mirror, shave his face, and nobody passing by would give him a second look. All the great books about New York are steeped in anonymity—Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Invisible Man, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Another Country—anonymity not just as the setting, but a hidden protagonist. The same can be said for great films set here: Twelve Angry Men, The Apartment, Annie Hall, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon. When people say “Only in New York,” it is always about strangeness, but also strangers. New York is, among other things, the eavesdropping capital of the world, not to mention people-watching. That person next to you on the subway this morning—were they cute? did they smell? No matter: odds are you’ll never see them again, even if you both reside here for the rest of your lives. Or you’ll see them in a month but you won’t see them, for they will have had a change of live, or perhaps you will.
* * *
To the new students of The New School, I want to welcome you here, but even more I want to welcome your weirdness. Please be welcome, and please be weird. It’s not like you have to force anything—that’s the point: you can let go now. If you’re getting ready to go out, and you’re suddenly inspired to put lipstick on your forehead instead of your lips, go for it. But you don’t have to make a big deal out of it. And try not to judge others; the most buttoned down person in the room is often the wildest. And you’re never the smartest person in the room, not in New York, not even if you’re alone.
Go to class, do the work, be impeccable. The educational journey is also a migration, and its destination is individuation (though I prefer the word weirdness). In four years, if all goes well, you won’t recognize yourself. Maybe you’ll discover you’re meant to be a podiatrist—that’s pretty wild! Maybe you’ll start a program for rape survivors to pose as models, so artists can help restore to them their beauty. (I know someone doing that.) Maybe you’ll bring a bowl of water to Times Square and shave yourself. I don’t know, neither do you, but I can guarantee your wardrobe will change.
Anyone who doesn’t know that they are essentially and irreducibly weird has yet to venture adequately into the wilderness of themselves, and we’ve got just the place for you to make that journey.
Thank you and good luck.