Life Without Regret: On Saying Goodbye to the Mythic City of New York

There are two people whom I passed on the streets of New York in the past two months: Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts and Mensah Demary. They are writers. You may have heard of them, maybe not. They aren’t celebrities. Again, they are writers.

These two passings have left me feeling regret – nothing too serious, but certainly something hard to shake. Let me explain.

A girl I met in college introduced me to Jorge Luis Borges. It was the fall of our freshman year and we were sitting shoulder to shoulder in a coffee shop in Harvard Square explicating, in Spanish, Borges’ El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (or, “The Garden of Forking Paths”). She squeezed my wrist and blinked in mock disapproval every time I made a translation error. Years later I can no longer recall the color of her eyes, but I’ve retained the meaning of Borges’ story. 

The story is about choices. In each moment of the day, we make choices, decisions that alter our life paths in a way that myriad alternate ones may not have. There are an infinite number of others of ourselves who live in the alternate universes of those alternate choices and are faced in this very moment with even more that spiral ad infinitum. This is the garden of forking paths. This is the multiverse. This is the forever unknowable ghost of our many alternate paths.

And this is where my regret enters. In this world, this particular universe of reality, I chose to walk past Rhodes-Pitts and Demary without saying a word. Though I recognized both from their online writings, reviews, and stories, I didn’t have the courage to speak up, to talk to them, to just say hello. In our modern life, none of this should really matter. I could draft an email, press a button, tweet. These days people fall in love over emoticons typed across continents.

I am leaving New York in a month, and perhaps all of this matters so much because of this fact.

As I write, I sit on the empty wood floors of my new apartment in Cambridge. A horde of boxes and a sagging carton of shrimp lo mein encircle me, reminding me that I’m on the move again. Until I finish work in New York, I will travel back and forth between the two cities, unpacking boxes and eating crappy food.

Everyone has their own idea of New York, a vision of the city that’s almost always filtered through some extreme – you hate it, you love it; it’s the most this, the least that. These projections are hyperbole, of course, only existing because they derive from some bit of truth gleaned from others’ best (or worst) stories of the city. My idea of the city is stolen from the pages of novels I read growing up. Mine is the New York of Jack Kerouac and James Baldwin, the New York of the Harlem Renaissance and the Hotel Albert, the New York that teems with artists and scholars and writers, drinking and pontificating in flats in the Village. In my year here, I have yet to find this place, this idyllic vision of the city. Maybe it exists; maybe it doesn’t. I have friends who have come to the city looking for their own versions of the ideal. Some have stayed, some have left, and almost all of us are a bit lost, still trying to find the place we thought we’d find extant.

But sometimes we do find it, if only for a moment. Sometimes we catch a glimpse. The smile of a stranger. Your name in print. A callback. A gig. Sometimes a glimpse walks right past us in the street, and before we recognize it as what we’ve been searching for, it’s gone.

It is seductive, if not maddening, to think about the infinite alternate paths our lives can take – to think about, in my case, the other me in some other time chatting over coffee with Demary or Rhodes-Pitts. With Demary, I might be discussing the racial fracas surrounding HBO’s Girls. With Rhodes-Pitts, the mythology surrounding Harlem. In these other worlds, I might be learning remarkable things, meeting fascinating people, starting to live that classically Bohemian New York life that I’ve read about.

All of this restless what-if thinking has me remembering another Borges story that took place many years ago along the Charles River, a few blocks south of my Cambridge apartment.

The year was 1969. As the story goes, Borges was sitting on a bench along the banks of the Charles when a man sat next to him. To his surprise, the man was himself, only younger. The younger Borges insisted that the time was not 1969 and the place was not Cambridge; rather, it was before World War II and they sat along the Rhône in Geneva. Skeptical, the younger interrogated the older and insisted this encounter was but a dream. The older contemplated the younger’s reasoning. And then he replied:

"Perhaps our dream will end, perhaps it won’t. Meanwhile, our clear obligation is to accept the dream, as we have accepted the universe and our having been brought into it and the fact that we see with our eyes and that we breathe."

And so, the two tried to accept the world as it was: two men, the same men but different, talking to two versions (or, more precisely, “stages”) of themselves and situated, each resolutely believed, in two different times. 

This story isn’t the perfect analogy to mine, but I mention the story because it complements mine in a way. I mention the story because of its insistence that we must, no matter what, try to accept things the way they are. We must try to accept this world, even if it isn’t the world we wished we had chosen, or the world that fits our logical schemes. We must accept it because it is.

Acceptance, however, does not suggest we must surrender. It does not suggest we throw up our hands and absolve ourselves of the future sins of humankind that depend on our present actions. In fact, it seems that such acceptance of the present encourages just the opposite. It calls for a rigorous awareness of the mutable possibilities of our future. It calls for a vigilance and a guarding. Our present choices matter precisely because they determine the path of our future. They direct the future that we will inevitably be obliged to accept.

In a couple days, I will leave Cambridge and return to New York for a short while. When I return, I will walk with purpose. I will respond to friends’ emails and texts with vigor. I will stay out late and wake up early. I will miss the train and spend the night at a friend’s. I will get lost in the Met, jog in Central Park, ride the Cyclone at Coney Island, go to a reading in Brooklyn, and engage in a raucous night of karaoke in Korea Town. I will smile. 

What I won’t do is miss another opportunity. And, I won’t linger over those that have already passed.

In the morning I’m meeting someone for coffee. Her eyes – they are brown.