Into a murky future:
I returned to San Francisco from my adventure on 57th Street. The next three years were tumultuous. I separated from my wife and moved to a tiny apartment on Nob Hill. Most days were a struggle to keep my head attached, but I continued to paint and court gallery attention. A new gallery opened and showed my work. I promoted the exhibition along with the gallery director. I was glad to get the work out in public, but nothing sold and the show didn't lead to others.
One afternoon I talked to an artist friend who'd had a show in New York. He said art dealers wanted close physical proximity to their artists and if I ever wanted to show in New York, I'd need to live there. This made sense to me. I began saving money and making plans to move. I was fortunate to have other big moves behind me. I knew the first thing to do was to go scope out a neighborhood where I wanted to live, perhaps even see an apartment, then line up a job and budget to move with my stuff. Most people approach it the other way, with job and money first. I knew if I had a clear goal I was attached to, the job and money could be arranged.
I arrived in New York on a rainy autumn afternoon. My train slid through the monotonous landscape of New Jersey. I looked for Manhattan as we approached Jersey City, but I could only see the bottom half of the World Trade Center. Well, this was it!
I knew exactly where I was; I'd been in and out of Madison Square Garden hundreds of times. This time, however, the city came at me in a completely new and frightening way. The instant my feet touched the platform, I felt dizzy and hot. Walking out of Penn Station, I kept repeating the address of my hotel, which was only a few blocks away: 17 W 32nd Street. The streets were dark and narrow, under enormous facades. A bridge crossed over, between buildings. I crossed Broadway at Herald Square, down two blocks to 32nd. I was sweating. I couldn’t take in all the faces streaming past. “Just keep walking,” I thought, “17 W 32nd Street, 17 W 32nd Street.”
The hotel was a tall, narrow building, one section of an unbroken wall, facing another dark wall of stone across the narrow street. It was the sort of place where direct sunlight only penetrates a couple of days a year. I checked in at the desk; even the lobby was tiny. My room was on the 12th floor, facing the rear. I had a view of the lower floors of the Empire State Building. Even this disturbed me. I felt like I was up against a wall, facing a firing squad. My head wouldn’t stop spinning.
I sat on the bed and cried. It was damnably embarrassing and inconvenient, this extreme reaction. New York never made me nervous before, why now? I never seriously considered living there before. There’s a difference between an interesting weekend and a permanent residence. I’d asked a specific question of myself—could I live here—and I was getting a definite answer. "Oh come on!" I thought. "It can't be over so soon, can it?" and yet, I wanted more than anything to run away. Minute by minute, I managed to stay in my skin. I had to buck up and stay a few days. I'd see if I felt differently later on. It was a big decision, and I didn't want to wonder what would have happened if I'd stayed.
The next day I walked up Fifth Avenue. Again, I soon began to suffer from sensory overload. I passed five hundred faces in one block, then five hundred more in the next, then a new army in the third. I'd spent a lot of time looking closely at my surroundings, and especially at people. I couldn't turn that sensitivity down because it was inconvenient. This sounded like a reasonable explanation, but what about everyone else? Why weren't they freaking out, like me?
Some people never seem to suffer claustrophobia, but I think it's unlikely that they are immune from it. A person who never received alarms from the environment wouldn't survive long, in a state of nature. If our personal buttons are pushed with sufficient intensity, our horns will blow. I grew up with a boy who became an officer on nuclear submarines. He chose that career, and he succeeded at it. Years later, after remaining submerged for several weeks under the Indian Ocean, he felt a little tap on his shoulder, and a small voice said, "Let's not re-enlist next time. I mean it!"
I went to lunch with an actor who'd moved to New York from San Francisco a year before. I was especially interested in his experience because we had somewhat similar personalities and he'd moved for the same reasons I was considering it. We met at a deli near Grand Central Station, where hundreds of people lined up like a painting of the Last Judgment.
He said, “You wouldn’t recognize me now, John Paul. I yell at people, I push them, I slam doors in their faces. I have to, to keep my head above the tide here. When I first started work, I couldn’t get on the subway because it was too crowded. Now I push with my whole body and cram myself into that tin can every morning. I’ve been here over a year, and I’ve had one understudy part, that’s all. So I don’t know if this is going to pay off or not.”
I stayed a few more days. My nephew came down from Boston with his girlfriend and we had a nice dinner together. I endured, but I never got comfortable. I never slept through the night at my hotel. I hated to give up, but I had no choice. New York is a fantastic city. A commanding contingent of important people live and work there, and I felt defective that I could never be one of them. Like it or not, that unpleasant fact had to be accepted. I was pushing forty, and part of getting older is recognizing your limits. I had no doubts about this one; I was never going to thrive in New York. I might get by and pay my rent, but I'd never be able to paint. I'd need to spend every spare minute decompressing.
On my last afternoon in the city, I walked with my nephew and his girlfriend in Central Park. It was another perfect New York moment. Yellow leaves blew down in a slow motion ballet, but all I could think was, “I can’t wait to get the hell out of here.”
Two years later an arts organization asked to hang my paintings at a show at the Hungarian Consulate in New York. I was thrilled to return and to see my work exhibited there. I didn't freak out this time, but neither did New York charm me into thoughts of renewing our romance. I worked on my life in San Francisco and had many victories, but New York would remain unconquered.