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Back to School
At the end of August you can feel everyone in the city waiting for it. New York stays a sweaty ghost town up past Labor Day, and those of us left here turn our faces to the static sky and wait. Now everything feels like the last few saturated stayed-too-long days of summer camp; what mattered at the height of summer is temporary and can’t leave soon enough. I'm waiting for the weather to break, but bigger than that, I'm waiting for something that offers change with real teeth and consequences.
The first moment when you smell cold in the air, when the sky snaps to a crueler and brighter blue, is always a surprise. It comes as a punch to the soft belly, bringing down all the ladders back to every year before, to every grand thing on which you never followed through. Fall comes in and finally breaks the weather. I walk outside and the air smells like the relief of loss, like the way we long for the things we dread. The hint of dead leaves and sweaters offers the return to familiar difficulties. The weather turns and then the year turns, and suddenly all the long cold consequences of winter shuffle and mutter in the wings, blinking sleepy yellow eyes, lying in wait.
I grew up on the campus of a high school with parents who were both teachers and then I became a teacher myself; the academic calendar is the closest thing to a religion that I have ever had. Since I can remember, the whole world has been ordered by a school year schedule. At the end of August everything would come to life, the shuffle and bustle in the buildings out behind my bedroom window, the teachers returning from summer for faculty meetings, the campus like a ghost town repopulating itself. There was the hopefulness of buying pencils and new clothes, and the promises I would make myself that the summer had changed me and everything would be different now. This fantasy of self-reinvention was almost never true for me, or for anyone – at most, people who returned changed by the summer were back to their same previous year self again by the second week of September -- but I believed in it each time, that this year it would be different, I would be different. This turn in the seasons manages, if only for a few days, to make the known strange, to make us believe that going back to what we have already done constitutes a new start. Maybe this is what hope means, to return to the familiar and call it new.
Back to school is something larger than and disconnected from school itself. It continues on after the academic calendar ceases to be relevant to our lives. We heave ourselves up into ambition and newness with the first snap of cold in the air, the turn back to work, when we have to make the most of what is left before the year slams down into darkness. The snap in the air quickly turns into dusk at 8pm and all the seasons barreling toward winter are once again about mortality and passing time. That back to school feeling in its rising ambition and sharpened pencil smell is always about how we’re going to die; ambition is always about loss, about doors closing. The year gets colder and darker and we push toward the celebrations that rear up like roadside motels out of the cold months, as the long ending of the year goes on like a Sunday afternoon.
I moved to back New York fourteen years ago today, right at the turn from summer to fall, just as the heat gave up to this kind of clear-eyed and ruthless blue day. A lot of people’s New York anniversaries happen around this time of year, those of us who moved here for college and then just never left. I unpacked a mattress pad and a collection of suitcases out of a rental car onto a red brick sidewalk in front of a stately building honeycombed with dorm rooms. I had convinced myself of the gigantic hope of the next chapter, as though the delineation between adulthood and childhood could ever be that clean or that simple. Anything as good as fall in New York has to be a trap, but sometimes the best thing the world has to offer is a very good trap into which to walk fully aware. Sometimes a well-set trap is exactly what we want.
Since then, I have always in some persistent way understood New York as a school year. I start over again each fall here in Gatsby’s city, in this place that still promises, even as the hungry mono-city of the internet threatens to drown these promises, that one can reinvent oneself, that identity is as malleable and as perpetually available for sale as a new outfit or a fresh empty notebook.
Most of America is about middles. I like airports because they offer the same buoyant false hope as a really good opening sentence, the comfort of flash over substance. Airports are beginnings and endings; towns and counties are middles. The gigantic size of this country, with its famous long highways marking time and space through nowhere, works in the same way as the long narrative bend and lean of a novel, the center hoarding substance. New York by contrast feels more like an essay which is to say more like an airport, arrivals and departures and the drama of beginnings and endings. In its definitive strangeness, the nonsense cathedral of glass towers wrapping around a river like knives stuck upright in a kitchen table, New York is the flourish of an opening or closing phrase. A trip across to or from another part of America often starts or ends here – New York is rarely the place that one is passing through. This city is more comfortable as the opening credits than as the story, and for this reason fall is perhaps the best season to be here, the time when the city is most itself, this season hung on the myth of new beginnings.
Back to school is a stubborn hope, the thing you believe in despite knowing better, getting up and trying the dumb impossible thing again. It’s believing in narrative myths about a city that’s mostly mythology and very little real place anymore, it’s getting excited over a new beginning even though you should be cynical by now. The belief in redemption stories, the old dumb religious idea that what is lost might be brought back and resurrected, all come home to the break in the weather. Fall allows us to believe, at least for a few days, that the cold clear blue of a morning means something larger than itself, the large hopeful monster of the world stirring and coming awake. All the good things that will break your heart start their irresistible ongoings again, and we rush down the calendar into loss and celebration, into holidays and darkness, emerging out of summer ready for the good suffering, offering our long eager throat up to it.