I’m not in touch with any of my high-school friends. I skipped my 10th reunion, and it’s too soon for my 20th, so I have no clue what any of them are doing. I am in touch with a handful of church friends from growing up — my church friends and my school friend were basically non-intersecting sets — but I see them at best every few years. I left the town I grew up in after high school and moved on to new people in new places.

This weekend I took the train down to Harrisburg, PA, to celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday with her. We first met in Maryland, where I was a grad student and she an undergrad. I had my very first seizure while watching the Oscars at her house, making our bond unbreakable.

She moved back to Harrisburg, her home town, after graduating. I’ve visited her there a few times and hung out with her friends, almost all from the same high school, now back from college or never having gone away.

A weekend night in Harrisburg, described from a certain angle, is quite similar to one in New York: maybe you go see a band play, maybe you just start at a bar. You move on to another bar or maybe someone’s place. Now that the gang is getting older, some of them duck out earlier than they used to — someone has to make an early start tomorrow, someone else is pregnant and not drinking. Things often finish late and drunkenly; the next morning, survivors might collect for a hung-over brunch.

One difference between the Harrisburg and New York versions of this type of evening, though is in the much greater quality of repetition in Harrisburg. There are only so many bars, most of them from what I can tell located on a single half-mile strip downtown. The gang has been to all possible bars in Harrisburg countless times. They have stories for each one, including the gay bar with the dancing guy whose sparkling thong is always visible above the waistband of his jeans.

In New York, by contrast, there’s a constant, restless sifting of venues. Most of my friends here are transplants, too, and even the true barflies haven’t exhausted the city’s nightlife. You get impatient. There might always be a better bar somewhere else, so staying put feels like surrender. (I recently spent an entire evening wandering Alphabet City with a couple of friends, looking for a hipster-friendly bar that was also hipster-free. The phenomenon of the self-hating hipster is a subject for another post.) It takes a significant readjustment of attitude to realize how good you have it some place in the city and just stay put.

Driving through Harrisburg on this trip, I found myself projecting onto the town and its residents the kinds of stories that are often told about places like that by people like me who have moved to the big city: stories of conformity, quiet desperation, limited horizons, and constricted souls. But I don’t think those stories are particularly apt. They certainly don’t apply to the individuals I know in Harrisburg, or in my own home town.

We can just as easily say that there are people who are infected with this modern disease of migration, always looking for something better and afraid of being trapped with the old. At worst, we use constant novelty to hide the sameness and emptiness that we cannot truly avoid. At best, we open ourselves to the world and become something better than would have been possible for us, the restless ones, if we had stayed in place.

20 responses to “Restless”

  1. Scotty says:

    I often finding myself wishing that I was the kind of person who never felt a need to leave my home town, and I think this is what has led to most of my hipster self-loathing.

    Back in the ’90s I tried to lose my hipster identity by moving to a small town in PA. I didn’t last long, as it was apartment that I was not going to be accepted by the locals. To them I was just a weird outsider who lived in an attic apartment next to the bowling alley — not so different from reality.

  2. brooke says:

    I’m a restless one too, Dave. I have been thinking about leaving the Bay Area recently, longing for the edge and energy of the east coast, but also tired of the same old quotidian junk here, and wanting something new and different. There’s part of me that’s looking for a new challenge, but also a part that’s looking for a place to settle down.

    I’ve been in SF for nearly 10 years, and despite how comfortable I am here, my friends and such, it still feels like a temporary home to me. Maybe it’s the housing prices. Or maybe it’s what my mentor said when I told him I was thinking about moving out here – “It’s a very transient place, with very transient people.” That might have been what attracted me to this place to begin with, but maybe now, in my old age, I’m less restless. Not that I’m moving to Harrisburg, but, you know…

  3. LP says:

    Brooke – I’ve heard that “transient” line about so many places — Washington, San Francisco, LA, even New York. Perhaps it’s not the places that are transient, but the kinds of people who leave smaller towns for bigger towns, who have a restlessness that isn’t sated by going to one place and staying there forever, no matter how great it is.

  4. LP says:

    Meaning, whatever city people like you, Dave, other Great Whatsiters settle in, we’ll be drawn to the kind of people who are “restless,” whether about finding new places, new work challenges, new friends, whatever. I’m not sure it really matters where we are, as much as who we tend to draw our energy from.

  5. LP says:

    Woo, that was a totally yellow comment, btw

  6. LP says:

    Also, and I know I’m the only person who cares about this, but it’s a personal obsession so please bear with me:

    The NY Times ombudsman has taken Deborah Solomon to task for manipulating questions and answers in her Times Magazine “Questions For…” feature. Here’s the ombudsman’s column, and the NY Press investigative piece that preceded it. (I’d have put this with the original post, but the comments capability is turned off for older posts.

  7. Dave says:

    D.C. felt very transient to me — a lot of people who were planning to be there for a limited time, for a particular career phase. New York is paradigmatically a city to which outsiders relocate, but I think of it as a place to move to and put down roots in. Although that’s probably never been the reality — waves of immigrants established enclaves in New York and then moved on as they became more prosperous. And these days a lot of young people move here expecting to work and party for five or ten years and then find a mate and move away to raise kids. Annoying and bad for the civic life of New York and its neighborhoods, but also motivated partly by economic necessity.

  8. Dave says:

    Our very own LP, out in front on the Solomongate story.

  9. Missy says:

    I was thinking of you when I read that. Glad you weighed in. She sucks.

  10. brooke says:

    Wow — I usually enjoy reading Solomon’s “Questions For” pieces, and I admit to never really giving it much thought what sort of, ahhh, creative editing, goes on. This puts the Q & A in a different light entirely. Thanks for passing this on LP.

  11. Trixie Honeycups says:

    LP, you were on to her from the start.
    maybe you could get signed on to write a new magazine feature when she gets booted out.
    note to self: email editor of NYT magazine on LP’s behalf

  12. Bryan says:

    now that i’m happy where i live, i think my restlessness manifests itself in coming up with new projects. at the moment i’m writing two books, editing two novels, reviewing a book, contemplating a special issue of an online magazine, editing a selection of eighteenth-century magazine prose, planning two conferences, contributing to two blogs, living as a faculty member in residence (which requires substantial activity organizing) … oh, and being a partner and a parent, which at the moment includes touring several high schools a week and trying to organize college students to give volunteer music lessons at my kids’ middle school. it’s a good thing i’m on leave this semester so i can get all this stuff done …

  13. Bryan says:

    oh. i forgot about the collection of essays i’m co-editing. silly me.

  14. Bryan says:

    and the movie soundtrack dave and i are working on.

    my head hurts.

  15. Rachel says:

    Bryan, I totally know what you mean. I am so crazy-busy. There’s Heroes and Damages to watch on TV, ice cream in the freezer to eat, my standing appointment to nap at 3:30, new movies opening every Friday, a new copy of the New Yorker every week, a rigorous schedule of daydreaming…geez. Talk about restless.

  16. Dave says:

    Rachel, you live in the Midwest. By definition you are a settled, centered soul.

  17. Rachel says:

    Yes, but I’m a New Englander deep in my bones. We are, by definition, crotchety and neurotic.

  18. Kate the Great says:

    Bryan, are you sure you’re just one of those people who, from everyone else’s eyes, is a genius because you’re immersed in all this stuff, and yet the truth is you just never sleep?

    I have a friend who did also constantly had lots of things to do. For years, I thought she was just some genius at time management and that all of these tasks were nothing to her because she did them ALL. Now I find she’s an insomniac and does a lot of this stuff at night.

  19. Bryan says:

    did you mean “are you sure you’re *not* one of those people”?

    in any case, i don’t think “genius” *or* “insomniac” works for me as well as restless … or simply unable to say “no” very easily, especially when something sounds fun.

  20. John R. says:

    I don’t know how many times I’ve walked down Avenue C or B or maybe even D (no, I guess not D, would have remembered the Projects) and through Thomson Square Park looking for just the right place to have one more drink, and didn’t manage to find it. Always settled for something not quite right. If you did stumble across the exactly right place, please let me know in case I ever pass that way again.