Take Me Off the List
A story of leaving New York in 13 bands or less.
Illustration by Rob Dobi
The day before I got on a plane to bid New York adieu, Ezra Koenig and Despot released their remix to Makonnen’s “Down 4 So Long.” If you haven’t heard the track, listen to it now. To me, it’s the perfect song for leaving: The caverns between the synth hits have a funny way of making you feel like the only person left on earth; Makonnen’s verse makes you feel like shit for being said only person alive; and Koenig’s bit serves as a reminder that people, on the whole, can be awful.
Koenig’s part starts with, “I’m leaving New York,” which was—considering I was also leaving New York— beautifully serendipitous and meaningful in that sort of way only an improbably relevant pop lyric can be. Despite the fact that, “I am moving away from this major metropolis in which I reside” is a normal and universal sentiment, the line resonated with me deeply. I think I listened to the song maybe a hundred times over the next three weeks, just playing Koenig’s verse over and over on my phone, dragging my finger an inch or so to the left to hear it again. Maybe it was because I loved the verse. Or, maybe it was because I just liked hearing someone else say “I’m leaving New York” to me, hearing I wasn’t alone.
I felt alone a lot in New York. I felt that way pretty much continuously for the first six months I lived there. The first time I didn’t feel alone, in fact, occurred as a direct result of my having attended concerts by Insane Clown Posse and Gwar in the same week. It was late on a weeknight, and I was waiting for the L Train on the way home back from the Gwar show. The only other person on the platform was a young man who, just like me, was drenched in the fake blood and real sweat one willingly submits oneself to when seeing a band of grown men pretending to be aliens (one of whom shoots fake blood from a prosthetic penis). Unlike me, he had a mohawk and a large, red tattoo of the ICP hatchet man logo running the length of his calf. I introduced myself and we compared notes on the show, which just so happened to have taken place a few days after ICP played the Hammerstein Ballroom. He lived on the outskirts of Brooklyn with his family, and he liked ICP openers Twiztid better than the Posse proper, which I am told is a dominant opinion among discerning Juggalos these days. I lived in Williamsburg and was further away from my family and friends in North Carolina than I’d ever been. I, a non-Juggalo, had relatively little in the way of pointed observations to contribute to the conversation, but I liked listening to him, and he seemed to like talking to me. Either way, I was learning new things. It made me happy. I’d come to New York to meet new people and have interesting, dynamic experiences. Talking to a Juggalo on the train at 1 AM is nothing if not that. We got on the train together and talked all the way to my stop. Then I got off. We both knew we’d never see the other again. We were fine with that.
I’m not one of those people who ever fell head-over-heels, Facebook-Official, no-you-send-the-last-Drake-referencing-Snapchat in love with New York. New York, to me, was where I sort of just ended up. I moved there after college because I wanted to be a writer, and moving to New York seemed to me, a kid from a town of 1,200 in North Carolina, to be a thing that writers did. I stayed for three and a half years, mainly because I couldn’t think of anything better to do.
When I first moved, I lived in a windowless room on North 7th Street where, friendless, I would play video games alone for hours on end as a way to distract myself from the fact that I knew absolutely no one. I eventually got an internship at a magazine whose offices were in the same Ludlow Street loft the Talking Heads used to practice in, and the knowledge that I was working in the same room as history had occurred kept me warm in the winter, because the heater sure as hell wasn’t. That internship won me my first true New York friend, with whom I would eventually share the beautiful moment of drinking tequila sunrises as we watched the sun rise over Williamsburg. (He’d fled a hookup’s apartment nearby because, if I recall correctly, he’d been attacked by her cat.) It is a testament to the human ability to adapt to one’s surroundings that I shared a beautiful and perfect moment of friendship with someone in the same physical location that I spent sullen hours in, convinced I would always be alone.
I spent the first bit of my time in New York hoping—as anyone does in a new place—to find friends, a community, a sense that I belonged. My homesickness eventually subsided and I gradually assembled a new life. The first time I felt connected to a room full of strangers was at Glasslands, as I gleefully moshed along to Titus Andronicus, screaming “Your life is over!” at the top of my lungs. In the process I realized my life had yet to begin. I’ll never forget the night I got in a screaming match with someone near a dog park off Metropolitan as we argued about whether Bon Iver sucked or not. The next day we made up, and over time ended up becoming the sort of friends that people from small towns value intensely. Because when you grow up as your small town’s token weirdo you’re conditioned to believe you’ll never find someone else like you. (Even though, for the record, listening to Bon Iver is still as boring as having a conversation with a stick.) These little moments, when you divine meaning and discover a context in which to place yourself, feel like tiny victories in the face of a city so big and so fast-paced. You receive no brownie points for achieving them. They are worthless. Your only reward is not being plunged into all-encompassing despair.
When I was young, New York City did not exist to me. I mean, I knew it existed, and I’d even been there with my dad on a business trip, but I still could only conceive of it in an abstract, Taylor Swiftian manner. It was not a place where I, or anyone I knew, would dare to even aspire to live in. To me, if you made it to New York, then you’d made it. Not, like, if you “make it” in New York, as in: You succeeded in your chosen field and achieved a modicum of wealth and personal happiness/fulfillment. To me, back then, if you made it to New York, as in: You managed to keep your body in New York for an extended period of time—that was a tangible signifier to the people back home that you were living your best possible life. It was what I told myself when, one summer, freelance checks were scarce, and after I paid my rent, I was left with so little money that I had to resort to buying bagels with change I found on the floor of my room, coming up with mostly nickels. I was elated when I found a quarter because it meant I could get cream cheese on my toasted everything instead of just butter. Still, I didn’t care, because it also meant that another month had gone by where I hadn’t asked my parents for money—which meant another month that I was truly making it.
I began to cobble together a career, freelancing and going to shows, and through process of seeing the same people at those shows over and over again, I began to see my place in a city that’s so big that it has no qualms about denying you your perspective. I remember standing outside in the rain at an at-capacity 2 Chainz concert at S.O.B.’s as the bouncer screamed at the throng. The promoter whisked me in at the last second. I once danced onstage next to Waka Flocka at an industry party at the Bowery Hotel. Flocka put his arm around me and called me “trill” to a room full of people who had jobs, jobs that I wanted, jobs that I was convinced I would never have. In that moment it didn’t matter. I was covering music full-time, and then people—“Industry” people!—had to be nice to me, or at least not be so overtly mean to me that I might write something bad about them.
This, to me, is something unique to New York. It is so large and has so many people that it can support pretty much anything, to the point that there has effectively become two cities—that of the hipster transplants who have colonized the ever-expanding Williamsburg/Greenpoint/Bushwick/Ridgewood/Bed-Stuy amoeba of gentrification, and that of the people who actually grew up there. While this is certainly not a good thing, it is also not a bad thing. It is simply a thing, a thing that has affected the New York music scene in unpredictable ways. This is especially true of New York rap, where, in a certain period around 2012 the enthusiasm of young transplants would bolster the buzz of a different rapper every few weeks as New York rap radio, which lest we forget is still one of the most important ways to get an artist’s music heard, wanted nothing to do with them. This was, all in all, an awfully exciting time to be a young rap fan in New York, one fueled by a flurry of micro-trends and style experiments which found me dabbling in camouflage pants, bucket hats, and tie-dye, sometimes all at once. It was markedly less exciting if you were a rapper, as you tended to get pushed out of the limelight for the next hot thing. If you were lucky, you rose above the din to became A$AP Rocky or Action Bronson, becoming accepted by both the young tastemakers and the old guard. If you were unlucky, you would get you signed to a major label who had no idea what to do with you, and you would languish in relative limbo, never to be heard from again.
In the music industry, you tend to see the same people pretty much all of the time, and so your professional colleagues become your social peers. It turns you into a fake human being, always sizing up someone’s "influence"—the hazy, nonexistent confluence of social status and professional clout upon which which careers are built and the only place follower counts double as actual human currency. If someone holds a job that many of their peers professionally benefit from—perhaps they are an editor who gives work to many people they know or are a publicist who gives access to high-profile clients to their friends—then this person suddenly has the ability to act like a sociopath without any real consequences. Conversely, if someone is incredibly charismatic, loyal, and flat-out nice (or if this person is, to put a cynical eye on it, incredibly good at working the angles), they may get ahead in their industry, even if they are devoid of talent and creativity. Interactions between people in these little hermetically sealed worlds that exist in the larger solar system of New York are governed by the reality that there is a distinct possibility that the other person is potentially using the other for their benefit. It’s always in the back of your mind, the urge to consider someone’s ulterior motives digging at you in the same way you’re constantly tempted to check your cell phone. Even if you know nobody’s texted you, there’s always a part of you that has to check, just in case, against all odds, you missed the vibration and something URGENT has occurred that needs your IMMEDIATE attention, like a dead roommate or three of your friends simultaneously getting herpes. The idea that people are being nice to you because they want to use you will, if you are not careful, eat at you until you are a crusty, unlovable husk of a human. The only thing more maddening is the lingering feeling that you might be trying to somehow use them too.
Perhaps because of this, New York values exclusivity. It is the only place in the known universe where the poorest person in the room can still be the coolest, and it’s so big that it supports so many little mini-ecosystems—Music! Tech! Finance! Media! Fashion!—that if one makes the right moves, one can be at the top relatively easy. The way this is measured, in my experience, is the “guest list.” People on the guest list, of course, are the guests of the show’s performer/throwers of said show. They get to wait in a special line, and they do not have to pay to enter. But because everyone wants to feel exclusive, the guest list gets warped into formulations so strange and unnerving one would need a quantum physicist to explain. I’ve been to shows where the guest list was longer than the list of people who bought actual tickets to see the performer—Important People with Influence do not have to pay, and to many the perceived status that comes with being above the $12 it would take to see the 32nd-tier Wedidit affiliate who does a day shift at Del Taco is worth WAY more than chucking up the $12 and just waiting in the shorter line with all the peasants. I also once attended the debut show of a band who, despite having written a total of four songs and having recorded a scant two, had already been signed by a large, well-respected label. (If I recall, they were white people who made R&B and had a strong sense of aesthetics, and were just quirky and winning enough with their ironic appropriation of black music to not be racist. No, I will not tell you their name.) There were five people at the show, not including the band. Four people were on the list. I was not, and subsequently, I funded the entire show with my $10.
The most magical New York ever felt to me was the day before I left. It was around noon, and I was walking home from my friend Kevin’s apartment in the Lower East Side. We’d been up until 5 AM the night before smoking and drinking and eating pizza and bullshitting, and I was feeling that sort of transcendent where you’re not quite awake but not quite hungover yet, when you feel electrified by the sheer beauty and possibility of life. I walked through the city on my way to the train, soaking in one of the last nice days New York would have before it descended into a depressing spiral of cold and isolation. People were walking through the streets, smiling, and I could see them each enjoying their own personal kingdoms. It reminded me of why leaving hurt so bad, and why, after three and a half years, living there felt exhausting. I felt at peace.
I turned to my left and noticed a homeless man furiously masturbating, not five feet away from me. Enjoying his own domain. As the light changed and I began to cross the street, we made eye contact. There we were, New Yorkers, coming and going at the same time.
Drew Millard now lives in Los Angeles. Feel free to call him a fuckboy Joan Didion on Twitter.