I moved to the Upper East Side during my 2003 identity crisis. Since Beverley Hills 90210 formalized the idea that you are not only what you eat, you are what you zip, I thought returning to the site of my roots would be just the ticket to answer the question that inevitably strikes with divorce and/or around age 40: “Who am I?”
For a long time I have had an excellent grasp on who I might have been. When I was born, in 1966, my family was wealthy and lived on the UES. Around the corner from our building was the house my dad grew up in. Now an embassy. We summered on dozens of beachfront acres in Southampton.
The Great Family Financial Catastrophe struck when I was twelve. The family business hit the skids. Bad decision followed bad decision, with that annoying viral quality bad decisions have. Then, my grandmother died and, in what has to rank as one of the most spectacularly short-sighted moves in New York real-estate history, all her property was sold during a profound real-estate-value nadir. For example, in ’78, a one-acre parcel of my grandmother’s Southampton land went for $275,000. Last year it sold again for $35 million.
Some things you just have to let go.
Or, you tell yourself you’ve let them go.
Starting in the eighties, I lived a pretty much normal middle class life and advertised myself as a normal middle-class person. I got married. To a dentist. Moved to the Midwest. But the Great-Gatsby chapters of my childhood always lingered, like an antique wedding dress in an old trunk, yellowing and with an eighteen-inch waist, that you fantasize you might still be able to wear someday. So in 2003 when I got divorced, I suddenly felt the gravitational pull of the Upper East Side, strong as anti-matter.
Being perfectly honest, I guess I somehow always thought my background made me special. My $35-million-dollar anecdotes kill at cocktail parties. But it’s more than the shock value. What it really is— Ancestry-dot-com disease. The idea that an interesting or wealthy or tragic or bizarre family past makes you exceptional, some kind of minor celebrity. Legions of memoirists seem to think so anyway.
In short, I thought returning to the UES might reaffirm that specialness, allow me to reclaim even just a tiny bit of the Glory Days, and make me feel more whole.
So I moved to a tiny, rent-stabilized one-bedroom. And I have to admit, I did get a thrill walking the dog every morning, passing Jackie O’s former building, having my dog sniff the governor’s dog’s butt, knocking elbows with Candace Bergen in front of Greenberg Bakery.
In the end, though, the thrill wore off, and my new address did not make me feel more whole. Solving this issue appears to be the purview of good psychotherapists, not good real estate agents. Life is life, no matter where you live it. And you always bring along YOU along to the party. But these insights took a while to reach full flower.
They were in the seedling stage in 2004 when I met a wonderful man who indulged my UES obsession. If it made me happy, it made him happy. We borrowed and scraped so by 2005 we could close on a one bedroom just blocks from my rental.
The financial collapse of 2008 brought me (and Western Civilization) face to face with the very dark side of money and its pursuit. It made me ashamed of the way I always romanticized wealth and lifestyle that goes with it—the clothes! the kitchen renovation! the low-building-number address!
Like many of us post-2008, I am in the process of re-thinking my values as they pertain to money.
As I sit down to write this blog, I am very happy, but for all non-zip-related reasons, which include having the best husband on earth. And it turns out, I do love my ‘hood. There’s the beauty of the park, the museums, the comedy of living among the some of the richest people in the world, my fabulous apartment in a sweet and anomalously down-to-earth building. And I think, unlike the reality-television denizens of the UES, I can maybe tell a few good stories about what actually goes on here for residents and voyeurs alike.
That’s my blog. I plan on writing a few times a week for a year (because it seems like a good slice of time and that’s what the gal in Julie and Julia did). In case any of you are worried about me, yes, my husband knows what I’m doing. And yes, I will change names to protect both the innocent and the guilty but mostly so I don’t get kicked out of my building.
Some editor’s notes: Despite my blog’s zip specificity, I reserve the right to stray into 10021 and 10128, the three together comprising the UES of song and story. You may also hear about my dog and my horse.