It was lonely for a day or so until one morning some man, more recently arrived than I, stopped me on the road.
“How do you get to West Egg Village?” he asked helplessly.
I told him. And as I walked on I was lonely no longer. I was a guide, a pathfinder, an orignal settler. He had casually conferred on me the freedom of the neighborhood.
If you have never moved to a new city, this particular passage may not have much resonance with you. Possibly you recognize it from the opening chapter of The Great Gatsby, and possibly you do not (if not, for shame). I first read the book the summer after graduating high school and have read it every summer since (ironically, I was never assigned any Fitzgerald for any class I ever took in high school or college, even though I was an English major… I may have read the short story “Babylon Revisited” for a class, but otherwise, nada).
Since I started moving every year, reading this book has taken on new life and meaning. You see, for me, this is not just a story about doomed love or the symbolism of the American Dream squandered. This is the story of Nick Carraway, a man who doesn’t quite belong anywhere and finds himself enigmatically linked to Jay Gatsby, a man just as disconnected from the world.
I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all – Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.
The truth is, Nick and Jay were no longer Westerners, and I’ve always felt that if we were to follow Nick after the end of the novel, we would find a character somewhat like Rabbit from John Updike’s novels (though, more sympathetic), a person not really suited to be tied down to one place (or one life). You could simply call that projection, but in many ways Fitzgerald was the same way, so it’s not too much of a stretch.
The reason I opened this post with that passage is because it is one of the little nuggets peppered throughout the novel that makes me love the book. It’s so manifestly true. I’ve had that moment in every city I’ve lived in when some driver or pedestrian has stopped me while I was walking and asked me the directions somewhere and when I was able to point them in the right way, I instantly felt like I was home. It’s the moment when you realize, I know this minuscule portion of the world. It’s one of those exhilarating instances that makes the whole grand ordeal of relocating survivable and perhaps, even, worth it.
I think the real moment when I feel like a new city is truly home is when I (finally) get a job. Starting a new job sucks. You don’t know the procedures, you don’t know your coworkers, you sit there doing your job watching from the outside of the inside jokes, relationships and gossip that makes any job worth it. When you get down to it, unless you’re doing something you truly love for a living (like, say, writing), every job is exactly the same. You’re doing a task that is meant to increase the bank account of your boss(es), usually someone you will never ever meet. And for reward, you get a paycheck that’s never big enough. Liking your job is all about enjoying your coworkers and feeling like you fit in. So, inevitably, the first couple weeks to a month of a job will suck (certain jobs never stop sucking, but that’s a different issue).
I’ve been working at a job for just shy of a month here, doing retail work I care nothing about with a product I have no interest in (I’ve bitched plenty about working at bookstores, but in the end, when all else fails, at least with books I love the product I’m selling), and all the while I’ve been very slowly getting to know my coworkers. It’s one of those jobs where the amount of people I work with far outnumbers the amount of names I’m capable of remembering at any given time (that number, by the way: 4, and one of those is mine). So, needless to say, this has been a job that’s taken me awhile to start to feel like I have a place. But I’m getting there, slowly.
Regardless, I have a job (for the moment). In this economic climate, that statement is one to be happy about. All the more so for having moved to a new city. When you get that call and are offered a job position, it has the same sort of euphoric effect that Fitzgerald illustrated so well. You aren’t just a visitor to the city, you aren’t just a hobo waiting for the next train out. You are a part of the mechanism that makes the city run, and even though you as an individual are as replaceable as the proverbial cog, you have a role. If you’re one of those people who defines themselves by their work, well, that might not sound so satisfying. But, if you’re like me, and a job is just the means to an end (keeping me alive long enough to finish my 10 cities goal and get a novel or two published), then being a part of the machine can be just as satisfying as the couple in the Ford asking you how to get to Lake Shore Drive.
Straight ahead, take a left on Irving Park.