For My 30th Birthday, I Moved Back to New York

Feature image by Nico De Pasquale Photography via Getty Images

During my freshman year of college, when my peers and I were still high on the possibility of New York — the city, the concept, the fantasy — my professor assigned us Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That.”

This much referenced and imitated final essay of Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem documents her youthful pull to New York at age 20 and her disillusionment eight years later. Stubborn, thorough, and curious, I read the entirety of Bethlehem before writing my class rebuttal. (And I read Play It As It Lays and The White Album soon after.) The detail I returned to again and again was that Didion came back. Beautiful essay aside, twenty years later she came back. At 28, she may have called New York “a city for the only very young,” but at 48 she returned. Not only did she return — she remained for the rest of her life.

Like Didion, I also grew up in California. Like Didion, I also resented the boredom of my personal corner of the state, longing instead for New York City. And, like Didion, I moved back to California in my mid/late 20s.

I didn’t leave due to disillusionment. I left due to circumstance. I got a job in LA that led to another job in LA and then I broke up with my girlfriend and decided 3,000 miles might make things easier. In lieu of disillusionment, I narrativized. I rounded up to seven years spent in New York when the reality was more like six. I emphasized to people that I wasn’t moving back to Los Angeles, because I technically grew up in Ventura County an hour away. With every reframe, I insisted that I was not someone who left their hometown for college only to return. I was simply moving from one major city to another major city. If work or love called me, I might move again. Chicago? Portland? Paris? Who knows!

I first transitioned while still in New York, but I was reborn in LA. Coming out as trans isn’t like coming out as gay. A week into being gay, you can have sex with another woman for the first time and feel your entire world erupt. A week into being trans, you can only shave your legs for the first time and feel your skin erupt in cuts and rashes. Transitioning takes time and it wasn’t until I got to LA and ended my relationship that I felt settled enough for the fun kind of new beginnings.

Even with the trauma of the pandemic, I’m grateful for my five years in Los Angeles. I’m no longer afraid to call them a return to LA. It was a homecoming of sorts. Maybe I needed to go back to where I grew up in order to reparent myself, to rediscover who I was and who I could be.

But once that work had progressed — it is never done — I felt the itch to leave again. Work had failed to call me away, but love brought me to Toronto. I’d made it international (barely) and had another major city to nest within. And yet even as I fell in love with Toronto, I longed for home. And yet back in LA, I became aware that being an hour from where I grew up would never be the answer.

As a teenager, I was desperate to move to New York. I made myself sick trying to get the grades and resumé that would allow entry into a NYC-based university with a scholarship. I succeeded, but I wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t. Before transitioning, I worshiped the false idol of expectations. Going to New York at all was a rebellion; I’m not sure I would’ve managed to get there without the excuse of school. It’s silly to me now. I exhausted myself in order to pay (let my parents pay) for a socially acceptable excuse for me to live where I wanted to live. The NYU corporation wasn’t totally useless — the professor who assigned Didion was among those who were life-changing — but the city itself was the worthiest aspect of my education. I didn’t need permission from the NYU admissions team to go where I wanted to go.

I’ve fallen into the same trap even after transitioning. I didn’t decide to move back to LA. I got a job. I didn’t decide to start splitting my time with Toronto. I fell in love. I could only make a choice with an excuse. Sure, I could’ve passed on the job, I could’ve ignored my Instagram crush. But they were excuses all the same.

I turned 30 this week — an age that is both annoyingly young and undeniably adult. Almost everyone in my life is older than me, so I’ve been hesitant to let myself have a crisis. But I have spent the last six months reflecting on the choices that make up a life. I’ve started to realize the difference between a passive choice and an active one.

Of course, I came up with excuses for my return to New York. It’s easier to split my time with Toronto. Since the pandemic, LA has become increasingly difficult to navigate without a car. The company I work for is based in Manhattan. But, if I’m being honest, this was an active choice. I moved back to New York because I wanted to. I moved back to New York because when I closed my eyes and longed for home I knew what filled my mind.

I hope my 30s are filled with active choices. As I sit in my new Brooklyn apartment, half-filled with new old furniture, I hope I’ve realized the control I have over my life. Because the truth is even though I love my job, like most people, I’m not where I thought I’d be at 30.

I’ve wanted to make movies since I was four years old and I spent my childhood studying the career paths of the cis male filmmakers I admired. NYU was as much about following Martin Scorsese as it was about moving to New York. But when I transitioned, my timeline changed. I was suddenly a woman filmmaker and that changed the expected timeline. Not to mention my queerness and transness. I’m so proud of the short film I made this past year — I still mourn the part of me that assumed I’d be making features in my 20s.

But if I can choose where I live, I can also choose what I do. Even as the job I love consumes most of my time, I can still find time for the other, deeper job I love more. Part of being an artist is balancing the realities of life with creativity. I haven’t written for myself as much as usual these past few months. I can change that in the new year like I changed my address. It’s easy to let the months, the years, pass by. But nothing is inevitable.

Essays about turning 30 are almost as annoying as essays about moving to or from New York. It’s like telling someone your dream. What feels of overwhelming import to us as individuals means little to others. But I love listening to other people’s dreams. And I love acknowledging that something as mundane as a birthday can feel monumental to the person experiencing it.

In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion wisely admits the personal limits of her subject. “Of course it might have been some other city,” she writes. “Had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York.”

There is nothing uniquely important about New York City, unless for you there is. There is nothing uniquely important about any birthday or any artistic pursuit, unless for you there is. Each of our lives have their own textures — details and desires grafted upon us and those we manifest.

When I turned 20, I was a film student living in New York. At 30, I’m back in New York with dreams left to fulfill and dreams fulfilled I never could have imagined. This move was a way to prove to myself I have free will. If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and I Heart Female Directors. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 476 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. HAPPY BIRTHDAY DREW!

    i’m very excited for you to be the NYC girlie of your dreams. i will miss having a pal in LA, but i’m excited to have another person to see when i’m visiting the city.

  2. Welcome back to NYC, Drew! I also decided to move to New York when I turned 30! Granted, this was like February 2020, aka the most auspicious time to move to this particular densely populated area, but tbh, it was still one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
    What I like to say about living in NY is “everything is so expensive, the trains are crazy, I hope I never leave”. Really, though, I think you’re right– it’s not that we don’t leave, it’s that we inevitably find ourselves coming back. Thanks for the beautiful essay! May you have many New York adventures.

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