Escape from New York — a third-generation migration tale
On March 7, I took a picture of a “child pile” in my Brooklyn apartment. Ten of my daughter’s friends had spent the night, celebrating the closing of a school play they’d worked on. The floor was a mess of sleeping bags, pillows, backpacks, soda bottles and empty bags of Doritos. A Happy Birthday banner hung between the windows, and a decimated ice cream cake was crammed into the freezer – a sleepover had doubled as somebody’s birthday celebration. As we cleaned up, my daughter left the banner up – her own 18th birthday party was coming up soon.
On March 16, my daughter packed a few boxes and said goodbye to her childhood room, furniture and all. We left the birthday banner hanging, because neither of us could deal with taking it down – it was too much of a time marker, a sign of how much had changed in less than ten days.
When New York City’s public schools officially closed, ostensibly for just two weeks, it was obvious to me, from looking at Wuhan and Italy, that they would be unlikely to reopen for the rest of the year. My daughter’s school had been the last strictly practical reason for us to remain in the city, and when Mayor DeBlasio announced it was closing, I knew we had to leave.
For the last ten years, we had lived in a huge, spectacularly neglected Brooklyn building we’d nicknamed the Hovel. At the Hovel, the two hardest things to imagine were clean surfaces and social distancing. What would happen in the warmer months of the pandemic when the Biblical armies of cockroaches would arrive as usual, but the exterminator didn’t come? But more important, as soon as the scope of the pandemic became clear, it also became clear that we would need to save every penny of the Hovel rent, starting immediately. I haven’t exactly been “making it” in New York City after I got laid off from a magazine design job a year ago. Most recently, I got fingerprinted to become a substitute teacher, and signed up to take a city exam to become a 911 operator. Now that masses of people were becoming unemployed, I held no hope of getting a job. My daughter and I would have to survive, possibly for months, off the child support payments I still receive from her dad. For years, I’d been complaining that I couldn’t afford to stay in Brooklyn. Now, I really couldn’t afford to stay in Brooklyn, not even for one more month, so we were moving upstate.
We wore masks and gloves as we carried the boxes down to our U-Haul.
“I’m sorry,” I said to my kid, for probably the hundredth time that day.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “Can I drive the van?” She appeared remarkably untraumatized.
I kept a straight face, made easier because I was wearing a mask. But inside, I was a mixture of guilt and disbelief.
Almost thirty years ago, in 1991, I packed a backpack and said goodbye to my own childhood apartment, furniture and all. Leaving Russia for Arizona with a tourist visa amid the chaos of the disintegrating Soviet Union, my family was entitled to a minimal luggage allowance. While I got to take almost nothing, my daughter got to pack several boxes of her favorite possessions. And she was merely moving to the country, not to *another* country. Still, an evacuation with one day’s notice wasn’t supposed to be part of her middle-class American childhood. Also, I had actually wanted to go to America, while my kid had been looking forward to prom and graduation.
I’d grown up with an idealized vision of the U.S. as the land of prosperity and opportunity. No matter what difficulties I encountered in my adopted country, from the time I came to Arizona and until Trump was elected president, I had lived, on some level, in that aspirational version of America. In my mind, the U.S. wasn’t just economically and politically superior to where I’d come from – I experienced it as somehow disaster-proof, indestructible. Deep inside, I felt that it was a place where for every problem, there had to be a solution. Armed with white privilege and a huge measure of luck, I had my disaster-proof babies in this disaster-proof place. I belonged to a class of people who allowed themselves to think that if we fed our kids organic food, read to them, limited their screen time, and sent them to good schools, their biggest problem would be getting into “a college of their choice.” Now it seemed that hurried migration ran in my family, hitting every generation like a stress test.
“When the Nazis came,” was the opening sentence to a lot of my grandmother’s stories. These stories usually had a moral. “When the Nazis came, and we were on the train to Siberia, I saw a boy from our building,” went the Story of the Picky Eater. “Before the war, this boy had been a picky eater, but now he was hungry, and he was begging his mother: ‘Can I please have some bread?’ But this time, no one had even a crust to give him!”
As I struggled to finish my soup or kasha or cottage cheese, grandma would reward my eating with more stories: about the bombing of Kiev, about the one-potato-per-day-rations in Siberia, about the huge snow shoes an old man had lent her in Novosibirsk so she could walk to the factory in the winter, because she’d been an idiot and brought only her fancy pumps.
I’m tempted to deny that these stories had any psychological effect on me, because claiming that they had would seem like a cliché. My childhood in the late 1970s suburban Moscow had been aggressively uneventful. My entire built environment, from the concrete tower block where I lived, to the plywood-and-veneer furniture in our apartment, was roughly as new as I was, unconnected to history. My neighborhood didn’t even exist in 1941, when my 24-year-old grandmother, a communications engineer classified as a “valuable worker,” was evacuated out of Kiev, saving herself, her mother, and her sister from certain death at Babi Yar. Her stories seemed like the stuff of television movies, not like something that actually happened to a woman who was force-feeding me lunch at a spotless Formica table.
Still, words like “evacuation” and “incendiary bomb” entered my vocabulary probably earlier than an average peacetime child’s. My nightmares featured the building next door going up in flames. I also played, rather compulsively, different versions of “What would I take? What would I leave?” mind games. Predictably, these games evolved to feature people: “Who would I save? Who would I leave?”
Was it possible that all this had been training for when it would be my turn to leave behind my teenage attachments – my childhood room, my friends, my city, my grandparents?
When you’re young enough and not set in your ways, you get perverse enjoyment from overcoming the discomforts of migration. It’s fun to watch yourself transform, grow psychological muscles you didn’t know you had. You learn to prefer new places simply for their newness. You sleep better in unfamiliar beds. You learn to throw the wet tarp of irony on the grass fire of your homesickness before it spreads. You learn to literally forget: people you can’t see, places where you can’t go, songs, poems, voices that touch you in raw places. You notice the precise moment when you don’t remember to speak your old language and automatically use the new one. You pretend to like flavorless food, laugh at unfunny jokes and understand unfamiliar references – until you actually like, laugh and understand. This feels spiritually athletic, and, like exercise, can be addictive. Leaving and arriving become your most comfortable states. When the Coronavirus pandemic expelled us from Brooklyn, I knew exactly what to do: what to take, what to leave. I didn’t second-guess myself; I lingered minimally at the Hovel; I erased texts from my “I can’t believe you’re doing this” friends without replying. Apart from the guilt about the emotional damage I was doing to my daughter, I felt calm and in control.
I didn’t let her drive the U-Haul – you can’t drive a rental vehicle if you only have a learner’s permit. As I drove through our neighborhood toward Prospect Expressway, I thought of the different perspectives my daughter and I had on it. To her, this part of Brooklyn was the only home she’d known, and New York City may as well have been the universe. To me, New York City was a just another place I happened to move to, and where I happened to stay for a very long time. It was the third city I loved and would miss.
I came to Brooklyn twenty years ago, raised two kids there, and achieved a measure of creative success accompanied by an equal measure of financial failure. An artist and a writer, I increasingly saw no path between my earning prospects and the city’s cost of living. I blamed myself: I should have worked harder; I should have learned to program computers; I should have written more novels; I shouldn’t have written novels; I should have applied for university teaching positions back when Russian immigrants were in vogue; I should have cared more deeply about my LinkedIn profile. I gave myself credit for raising two humans, but this category of labor wasn’t the sort of thing you could put on a resume. Even if I wanted to give up on creative work, regular jobs I could do – babysitting, driving an Uber — resided in a whole different money reality than New York City rents.
The 100-apartment Hovel had boarded-up basement windows, several trash-choked courtyards, and permanent scaffolding. In the lobby, buzzing fluorescent bulbs were screwed into ornate ceiling medallions. Rotten garbage liquid sloshed across the basement floor, and stalactites of lint hung from the laundry room ceiling. A flier saying “Due to Emergency No Hot Water Until Further Notice” appeared regularly in the elevator, and was graffitied with comments: “Is this even legal?” and “If this happens all the time, why is this an emergency?”
Once, I found my bathroom ceiling in pieces on my bathroom floor, a giant hole gaping above. “I know, I know,” the super moaned as soon as he saw me – a major pipe had broken in the wall, and six apartment ceilings had collapsed. When the super was done with repairs, my bathroom looked as if an angry baby had blindly hurled globs of spackle at it. “I’ll be back to paint it,” he said. I knew he wouldn’t be back, and I felt sorry for him. You had to be Hercules to take care of the Hovel.
The Hovel was also home, of course. Inside our apartment, notches in the kitchen doorjamb tracked my daughters’ transformation, inch-by-inch, from cute kids to accomplished young women. When they were little, they painted murals and made mosaics on the hallway walls. In the living room, an extra-long couch, made of two IKEA couches nailed together, hosted countless parties and sleepovers. With its walls covered with artwork salon-style, the Hovel had a certain bohemian flair, but by 2020 I didn’t feel like a bohemian; I felt exhausted. The older I got, the more mental space I needed to make art, whether I was working with pictures or words. As long as a large part of my brain was concerned with figuring out how to convince someone that I was a “content creator” who cared about a “strong brand voice,” as long as I schemed how to circumvent the “native English speaker” requirement in copywriting job ads, I didn’t have it in me to be a struggling artist. I was just struggling.
Two years ago, when I still had a job with a regular paycheck, I was overcome by with desire to own a house. It felt like a biological clock that loudly chimed every time I paid rent to the Hovel’s landlord. I qualified for a mortgage, which wasn’t enough to afford anything in the city, so I went upstate and found a row house which we called the Hut. Part of a 19th century workers housing development that looked like an urban street plopped in the middle of the woods, the Hut wasn’t exactly country paradise, but it had electricity, running water and a small yard. The best part of the Hut was that my monthly mortgage payment was a quarter of the Hovel’s rent. As I spent weekends making the Hut livable on the inside, adding my bad carpentry to the DIY efforts of my predecessors, I began to wonder if I should leave Brooklyn for good.
“It took me a whole year after I moved up here to actually focus on making art again,” a sculptor I’d met upstate said to me. “In the city, all I could think about was the art market.”
This was months before the pandemic. We were standing on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge 150 feet above the Hudson River. The sky, the river, the mountains, and a dwelling I could actually afford looked like a picture of freedom to me. But the vision of New York City as a place where artists came to “make it” had rooted itself firmly in the brains of my generation, and I was no exception. This notion, and its twin – the idea that leaving the city constituted the ultimate act of giving up – kept me from making the leap. Maybe I could get a roommate in the Hovel when my kid went to college, I thought. I could make the living room into a bedroom and get two roommates!
Holding on to the city would have meant staying in the Hovel for good, because, expensive as it was for me, relative to the eye-popping rents of new Brooklyn, it was a “good deal.” I pictured myself becoming one of those old ladies I saw in the Hovel’s elevator on their daily adventures to the mailbox. Was I destined to roll my granny cart a hundred thousand times down the Hovel’s dimly lit hallways, past the dust-furry radiator, past the decade-old chunks of Styrofoam that propped open the fire doors? Could entropy actually invade the mind? It bothered me that when I tried to work at the Hovel, I derived a more intense satisfaction from killing multiple cockroaches with a single paper towel than I did from writing a good sentence.
I was surprised by how abruptly the pandemic ended my dance with defeat.
Since we left most of the furniture behind – nothing we owned was worth the price of movers – the Hovel looked mostly unchanged when we locked its doors for the last time. A map of the world still hung on the wall amid the stubble of nails and pushpins. Books that my kids have outgrown, and books that I’d planned to maybe someday read, stood on their shelves. When I’d left my Moscow apartment thirty years before, everything was also intact, because my parents weren’t sure if we would be able to legally stay in the U.S. When my grandmother boarded the train out of Kiev in 1941 with her mother and sister, they left everything behind as well.
Regular moves are different. You carefully pack what you need, and throw away what you don’t, and then say goodbye to empty rooms. The image of these empty rooms becomes a buffer between the life you left and your new life. But when you leave a place looking as if you’d just stepped out, you end up with a persistent sense that it’s still there for you to go back to.
In the weeks after my daughter and I walked to our village post office and mailed our Hovel keys back to the landlord, I have been picturing our abandoned possessions incorporated into the mountain of garbage by the side of the building. Countless times, I had seen contents of entire apartments in this trash heap. Often, the Hovel regurgitated the usual white pressboard IKEA debris. But occasionally, the discards would look older, or reflective of a certain personal taste, and they always told a story. It’s certain that by the time of this writing, my family’s twenty-year Brooklyn story has been told on the garbage mountain and carted off to the landfill. Still, when I remember how we left our place, I catch myself imagining that it’s still there, that I can just go back.
Like many of Kiev’s structures, the building where my grandmother grew up didn’t survive the war. In Siberia, my grandmother met my grandfather. He was from Moscow, and that was where they moved after the war. Both engineers, they were well off and loved to travel, but it would be a long time before my grandmother would return to Kiev, to see for herself what, and who, had been lost.
I think about how my Hovel neighbors are faring now. I’m in touch with my city friends, but not with the people with whom I spent a decade barely making eye contact as we stared at our telephones in the elevator in order to avoid coming up with things to say to each other. What is happening to the old ladies and their eldercare workers? What happened to the large families crammed into small apartments?
A friend recently texted that, although she envies people who are in the countryside during the pandemic, she “can’t imagine leaving the city in the middle of all its pain.” My grandmother told me that after the Nazis invaded Ukraine, she’d spent three nights sleeping on the steps of the Soviet army recruiting office. She didn’t want to be evacuated from Kiev – she wanted to be issued a gun and go to the front lines to defend it. To her dismay, she had been deemed a skilled worker, and the army wouldn’t have her.
After Hurricane Sandy, my kids and I spent two weeks volunteering in Coney Island and the Far Rockaways, mostly hauling cases of water and boxes of food up the stairs of flooded NYCHA buildings. I loved New York, although lately, I loved the version I saw on “High Maintenance” – a seamless tapestry of gentle connectedness across race and class – more than I loved the real-life version, in which inequality looked less cute. But had I, in fact, betrayed the city by leaving it during a disaster? The circumstances of the pandemic complicated the calculus of loyalty. As a 47-year-old inessential worker, wasn’t I helping Brooklyn the most by removing myself from it, by not shopping at its stores, by not being another breathing body in the Hovel’s stairwells?
My grandfather was a young child when his family moved from Odessa to Moscow in the early 1900s. The move involved getting baptized, so that my great-grandfather would be able to practice architecture outside the Pale of Settlement. (At least, that was how my grandfather explained it.) Unlike my grandmother’s stories about leaving Kiev, the stories my grandfather told about his family’s journey were playful, risqué, and very historically inaccurate. He said that when the Odessa priest saw my great-grandmother Klara, “a great beauty,” without her clothes during her baptism, he wrote her a letter offering to abandon his parish if she would run away with him.
It’s unlikely that my great-grandmother would have been baptized naked, but it was true that she was beautiful. One of her many artist friends made a portrait of her in the 1920s, and it always hung in my grandparents’ living room. Drawn in profile, my great-grandmother seemed to be peering out of my grandparents’ sixth-floor window, from where, on clear days, she could see the Kremlin. When my grandparents died, I inherited the portrait, and for the last ten years, Klara hung in my living room at the Hovel, staring at the Brooklyn airshaft. When I hung the portrait on the wall of the Hut, I thought of Klara’s migration trajectory – from the Russian countryside where she was born, to Odessa, to Moscow, to Brooklyn, and finally, to the North American countryside.
Procrastinating on a rainy afternoon, I Google why so many Jews become Buddhist. The question is part of my ongoing anthropological investigation of upstate New York. I find several articles on this topic, but none entertain the simplistic explanation that appeals to me. What if Jews, so versed in picking up and going, inherently trained in not holding onto things, naturally make good Buddhists? Learning to become comfortable with change beats grief and heartbreak any day. Who wouldn’t prefer it?
I Google the meaning of my great-grandmother’s maiden name, Arendar. According to hebrewsurnames.com, “around the mid 1600s, the arendars were Jewish people who leased estates in Poland and Ukraine for terms of two or three years.”
So, my ancestral name is “renter.” This sounds about right.
“Where to next?” my great-grandmother seems to be asking as she peers out of the Hut’s window at my neighbor’s truck, a gravel patch, and scraggly trees plastered with somebody’s PRIVATE PROPERTY signs. Below the portrait, on the couch, my daughter sits in her pajamas and remotely attends her last semester of high school. I wonder if she experiences the same “we can just go back to the Hovel” mental glitch as I do, and what techniques she is using to rid herself of it. She recently wrote a story for her English class, describing a human family moving out of their apartment from the point of view of a spunky teenage cockroach. Reading it, I recognized the wet tarp of irony thrown over the fire of homesickness with the athletic grace of a good migrant.
After she is done with school, we explore the neighborhood on our bikes. We pass a sign at the corner of a field. “The family tills the soil and plants the seeds,” the sign says. “The Good Lord provides the sun and sends the rain. We both enjoy the increase.”
I enjoy the farmer’s cheerful melding of capitalism and spirituality. Logically, “the increase” in this context can only refer to our expanding universe. I put in my ear buds, and Spotify’s algorithm, known for its sense of irony, plays my favorite Soviet childhood song, which I haven’t heard since the last century. “Only sky, only wind, only joy ahead,” a woman’s voice sings as I pedal home.
Anya Ulinich is the author of “Petropolis” and “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.” She is The Forward’s contributing art critic.