I left New York for San Diego and now I don't know where I am

I'm a New Yorker. I don't think Californians really get where I'm coming from.

Published April 18, 2007 10:10AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm from New York City originally, I've lived there since I was about 4 years old. About eight months ago, when I was 23, I sold everything I owned, bought a car and took off to San Diego, where I knew absolutely no one. It was a quick decision. I made up my mind one day, and three weeks later I was on the road. I remember going through the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey, and being struck by the notion that I hadn't even stepped foot outside of the city in over a year, and that I was leaving the place I had called home for most of my life. Not only that, I was leaving all the people I had called friends for years, and all the allure of familiarity. Nonetheless, I was excited, more so than I had been in my entire life. I remember coming out of the New Jersey end of the Holland Tunnel, and feeling like I had finally done what was a long time coming.

My reasons for leaving, looking back, are fairly vague. I had been working the same job since I was 18; it was the type of job that made everyone jealous. It wouldn't be a long shot to call it a "dream job." But it just felt like it was becoming stagnant and going nowhere. And, somehow I had developed a very conflicting view of NYC. On the one hand, I associated it with being the cultural epicenter of the universe, where you can find something genuinely fun and interesting to do at any time of day or night. And lots of other great things come with living in a place like New York. On the other hand, it had come to represent a lot of very unhappy times as well -- seeing several shootings up-close, a very serious, near-marriage relationship gone incredibly sour, close friends in jail, and so forth. I was beginning to feel like I was horribly trapped, and I had visions of being 35 years old with a family, still living in my same dark apartment, unable to leave.

So off I went, and for the first few months it was great. I got a great job that was a big salary increase for me, I live in a large, sunny apartment with a pool and beautiful flowers everywhere outside, I can be at the ocean in five minutes (and not the Coney Island type of ocean, either), and I even managed to make a few decent friends. By all accounts, I should be incredibly happy.

But I'm not. I'm pretty miserable. I wasn't able to put my finger on it for quite some time, but I've realized recently that I feel incredibly out of place. This may sound ridiculous, but it's almost too nice out here, like all of society's grimy elements are conveniently swept beneath a rug of nice cars and palm trees, out of sight and out of mind. Not only that, I feel as if I'm living on another planet, particularly when I deal with people in work and social situations. I have been scolded at work for being too "confrontational," which is particularly bizarre to me as I was always considered pretty timid when I worked in N.Y. God forbid I try to have an honest and adult -- but very civil -- conversation with a co-worker who did something wrong. All that's gotten me are officewide nasty looks and the silent treatment. And socially speaking, I seem to have somehow alienated all of the friends I've made out here at once, but as for how or why, I have absolutely no clue since none of them will pick up my phone calls.

Under other circumstances I would just think I was a world-class asshole, but I never had any of these problems back East. I always made friends really easily and got along great with all of my co-workers. Sure, I could try a little harder to "fit in," but if fitting in involves being thin-skinned and passive aggressive, then no thanks.

Unfortunately, the isolation and the feeling of being out of place are starting to get to me, and just about every day New York starts to look more and more attractive. The thought of running back with my tail between my legs doesn't sound so bad anymore.

Should I try to stick it out through the loneliness or just get out now?

Big East-Coast Jerk?

Dear Big East Coast Jerk,

You came out here for a reason. You were looking for something. You were fleeing something. You didn't know at the time what you were looking for or what you were fleeing or what was the name of that small, still voice in the night that told you to sell your stuff and buy a car and barrel through the Holland Tunnel headed for the West Coast. But you heeded the voice and came out here.

Now you are like a man who doesn't know how he got here. You are baffled and confused. So your task, before you go back, is to answer these questions: What were you looking for, what were you running from and what did you find? Buy a notebook and write it down. Give words to your longing, your disgust and your discovery: what you wanted, what you hated, what you found.

That's the story in a nutshell. It doesn't have to be all that deep or all that penetrating and poetic. The important thing is to make the statement: interrogate yourself and provide some answers. You can say I came here for the sand and the water and the sun. You can say I came here for the adventure and the not knowing what was going to happen next. You can say you came here because you like things to be new and different. You wanted to be the different guy. That's not too complicated.

It isn't as important to have the right answer as it is to just have an answer. Write down the reasons you came here, the things you wanted, the images you had in your head when you were driving through the Holland Tunnel, the things you were hoping for and expecting.

Then list all the things you were fleeing, all the things you hated about New York, all the pain you had experienced, what was the name of the pain, how did the pain occur, who caused the pain, how bad was it, what was the address of the pain, what neighborhood did it come from, what apartment did it live in, and who else was there, and all the things you could do without, all the things that drove you nuts, the grit, the grime, the subway, the whatever.

Then list all the things you found here, the flowers and trees, the beaches and rocks, the mountains. What else did you find? You found what it was like to be the stranger, the odd one, the one who is not understood.

Buy the notebook and put it all in there. Put in the trees and the girls, the jail time and the shootings.

And then return to your home.

Don't go back empty-handed with your tail between your legs, but go back. Go back with what you found. New York is your home. It's where you are known and understood. If you walk around strangers too long you get strange. You get estranged from yourself. They don't understand who you really are. They haven't seen what you have seen. It is a struggle to make them understand.

Nobody comes to California for no reason. They just don't know the reason or won't admit the reason. There's always a reason. There's something you're searching for and something you're running from; there's desire and pain. So you come out here and you sit on a mountaintop for a week with a bearded guy and you figure out what it is, what is the shape of your pain, what is the shape of your desire, what is her name, what brand of knife was it, where does it hurt still and why, where did that limp come from, what are you hiding from yourself?

You come here chasing dreams and fleeing nightmares. Name them. Name the dreams. Name the nightmares. Give them shape and form. Then go home.

I too came to California at the age of 23 for reasons I did not completely understand. I too was searching for something and running from something. This is the paradox: We encounter what we are running from, and we realize that what we desire is where we left it, back home.

So don't stay so long you lose who you are. Just stay long enough to understand what you came here for and what you were fleeing. Get what you came for. Go back and face what you were fleeing. Go back home and live a good life, honoring what you are and where you come from.

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