Escape From New York: A One in a Million Story

How the city of Brooklyn tried to prevent us from leaving

IMG_3107This has been our daytime view. We sit at the table by the window, gazing out toward the busy city street a few feet away, waiting. Beyond a certain point, all we could do was wait.

New York is not a bad place to hang out, truly. Millennial New Yorkers do it all the time. Countless tourists come here to enjoy doing that.

But we’re not tourists, though in a way we are behaving that way. We’re expatriates already gone, yet even now, as we count the remaining days, we’re still waiting.

It ain’t over till the fat lady sings, says the old operatic adage. She’s still only vocalizing in the wings, after we have dedicated two whole months to learning the fine art of waiting.

We’re part of a mass exodus. Since 2010, more than a million people have left New York City, according to an article in the New York Post headlined “People Are Fleeing New York At An Alarming Rate.”

After raising our children in Brooklyn (during which we spent four vacations in Wyoming), we bought a second home in Dubois more than a decade ago and began driving back and forth twice each year. We’d live the summers and winters in Wyoming, spending the rest of our time in the garden-level apartment on the ground floor of our townhouse.

Three years ago, much to the amusement and perplexity of many neighbors in New York, we relocated to Wyoming full time. A year ago, we decided to leave entirely, and we put our 1880 townhouse on the market. We were “so over” New York, as the saying goes.

Another article in the Post named some of the reasons. It’s noisy. It’s dirty. And it’s darned expensive, especially compared to the remarkably low cost of living in Dubois.

Bleak House

This must be a long story, because the progress toward our final farewell has been painfully slow and involved. It was a process of Dickensian proportions, as I keep saying, because the legal proceedings bring to mind the evidently endless and pointless lawsuit in Dickens’ Bleak House. Alas, I have come to think of our lovely Victorian brownstone by that same name. It’s been bleak.

Living_Room0716At last, sometime last winter, our buyers materialized. We signed a contract. My husband arrived at the empty house the day before Easter, after a four-day drive eastward, and set about helping our son move out of the garden apartment, clearing out the basement and making other changes that had been agreed.

He started “glamping” in our former home with a few sticks of our orphaned furniture, an inflatable mattress, and some excess-to-needs cookware and cutlery. He had dinner with some neighbors. He spent a weekend with old friends in the suburbs. He repaired the dryer. He swept the basement clean.

The inflatable mattress sprang a leak. He had to buy another.

I began to receive images texted from New York with questions: Do you want the crèche? Do you want these old curtains? And, so often, do you want this framed picture or child’s drawing?

At first, I’d intended to go to New York to help in this process. But other commitments intervened, and we decided I’d simply fly out for the closing a few weeks later, and drive back with him. Then came the jolt: It would not be “a few weeks later”. We could not know when the sale might be closed.

Dickens and Kafka

Back in January we had learned of an obstacle deep in the records of the Brooklyn buildings department. A contractor who renovated the kitchen and bathroom in the garden apartment in 2003 had not closed the books on the work permit. He had since gone out of business and could not be contacted.

What one does in this situation, our lawyer said, was to (a) hire an “architect-expediter”—an architect who would file the same plans all over again, (b) hire a new contractor to pretend to do the demolition/construction all over again (and take responsibility before the Department of Buildings inspector for the work), and (c) hire a new plumber to pretend to do the plumbing all over again (and take responsibility before the Department of Buildings inspector for the work).  The architect also has to file with the Landmark’s Commission.  After the “work” is done there are multiple inspections by the Department of Buildings which may result, eventually in either the 2019 application being closed, or an audit of the whole mess, delaying things further.

You didn’t know you were in the clear until the buildings department posted a notice on their website. But you were not allowed to inquire when that might happen.

“This can take months,” the expediter told us. But there is a limit to how long a prospective buyer must wait between contract and closing before walking away from the deal.

Katies_RoomThe expediter, meanwhile, seemed to have no urgency about completing the paperwork or coordinating the contractor and plumber. My husband came to New York three weeks before the scheduled closing (and three and a half months after hiring the architect) primarily to push the process forward.

He began visiting the architect’s office every day, just to inquire about his progress. At one point, the architect took off on a vacation overseas.

One day in May, my husband texted that the new job application had been successfully closed (without the dreaded audit).  Both buyers and sellers thought the story was over.   I cheered – and then the other shoe fell.

“The fat lady has laryngitis,” he texted a day later. The so-called expediter had failed to tell us at the outset that he then had to apply to the buildings department for permission to rescind the original 2003 work order, and then do so. This could also take months.

As ever, he showed no inclination to hurry. Assistants in his office apologized and said they were doing all that could be done.

Neighbors in Brooklyn rolled their eyes and said they’d never heard of such a debacle. It seemed as though the city of New York was actually trying to prevent us from leaving.

Back in Dubois, of course, I began to feel lonely and to miss my husband intensely. In early June, I proposed to fly to New York to join him. We argued about the timing. Who knew how long this would take? Should I buy a one-way ticket or a round trip refundable fare? Should I leave from Riverton or Jackson or Denver, and if so, how would I get there? Could I drive myself there, and leave the car in long-term parking until who knew when? Who would take care of the dog with an indeterminate conclusion to his stay?

The last thing I wanted to do was argue. I wanted to give him a big hug. I wanted to share his vigil in that empty house full of memories.

One evening on the phone he sounded especially depressed and despairing. I went to bed very troubled, and couldn’t sleep. What should I do? This had gone on too long!

Suddenly it came to me: I have a car. I have the dog. I have a driver’s license. I have credit cards. I know the way. This had gone on too long.

The next morning, I set off on the days-long journey east on I-80, without even telling him. During our next phone call, the dog and I were taking a break in a state park in Iowa. It was too late to turn back.

Like a Free Airbnb

Thus I joined the long farewell to our former home and home town. Doubtless many other empty-nesters have had the same nostalgic moments, pausing in a doorway to recall what a child once did inside, or watching as other mothers take their turn at duty in a playground that has special meaning to me.

IMG_2991I met former coworkers for drinks. I smiled at people on the street whose faces seemed familiar, and some greeted me. “I don’t see you in three years, and now I see you three times in a week,” said a woman whose name I recalled with effort. “What’s up?”

I would try to explain about the lure of Wyoming, but the words fall flat here. Somehow Brooklyn feels even more remote than Dubois, populated with fairly friendly people who don’t care to imagine being somewhere quite different and can’t really do so. These were odd conversations

We acted like residents in an unfurnished airbnb, pretend-living like locals in a city that we knew all too well in a former life. We noted which shops had come, and which had gone. I bought flowers from a street vendor and vegetables from the produce market. We revisited favorite restaurants. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and took the ferry back. We heard folk music in a bar. We saw Shakespeare in the park. It was pleasant, but it’s been weird.

My husband continued to haunt the architect’s office. One day the architect barked back at him: “You know, owners can go to the buildings department too. I’ll just give the papers back, and you can take care of it!” (I won’t say how much we are paying this man to complete the process.)

IMG_3004An assistant in the office may have been so embarrassed at this outburst that she took charge of the problem. She spoke to a public-advocate consultant in the buildings department, and got the job done at last, within a few days. We saw the final clearance on the website.

Then we waited yet again while the lawyers and bankers settled on a closing date. And now we wait for that.

It’s been poignantly pleasant, bittersweet, and awkward, like an unexpected encounter with a lover you jilted long ago. “I’m so sorry,” you want to say (though really, you’re not). “It was good, but nothing good lasts forever.”

Not even, we hope, the final farewell.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com

Author: LivingDubois

I am a retired science journalist, devoted to enjoying and recording the many pleasures of life in the Wyoming's Upper Wind River Valley.

4 thoughts on “Escape From New York: A One in a Million Story”

  1. Wow, how this is resolving for you and Mark! Great writing even though the subject is painful. And you’ve missed the Dubois snow last week….

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  2. I’m so glad it all worked out and you’re back home in Dubois.. and also glad we got to have a delightful catch up dinner in Brooklyn. See you out West someday soon 🙂

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  3. I relate to this article, having spent 30 years in midtown Manhattan. City life has wonderful things to offer. Almost an addicting lifestyle. I remind myself , life in a rural community, surrounded by nature and the beauty of the land has different things to offer. In Each destination one can have experiences which are not possible living in the other. I am lucky to value the best of both worlds and to appreciate each.

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  4. Wow! That almost reads like a lifetime movie network late night movie one might eventually be in need of therapy to recover some sanity… The peace, quiet, and tranquility of Dubois awaits you!

    Like

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