Leaving New York and Also Technology

by Benjamin Hart


It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when New York and also technology started to feel like such a chore. Maybe it was when I urinated in a slim-fit adult diaper while waiting in line for the iPhone 4 for ninety-three hours and pronounced the experience “worth it,” or when I found myself testing out tweets on my wife during foreplay, or when a rat scurried across my face and into my mouth while I was checking Facebook and waiting for a C train that never arrived. But a few weeks ago, on a gray April day, as I ambled by the Duane Reade where my favorite dive bar McHurlihan’s once stood, while joylessly scrolling through my Twitter feed in between reading a saved Instapaper article about how to live in the moment, I realized I had to leave New York and stop using the Internet for a while.

When I moved to Williamsburg in 2002, scraping by in the center of the universe seemed like a grand adventure. I’d drink until dawn at places like The Station, Whirlybird, and JJ’s Good Time Emporium on the Lower East Side (now closed); I’d do lines off the grimy concrete of McCarren Park Pool (now clean); and then take the L to Bushwick and try not to get mugged on my way to a warehouse party (now safe). Instead of staring at my phone compulsively, I’d smoke a cigarette. Inside. I didn’t yet know what a “meme” was. I became passing acquaintances with the guys from TV on the Radio, but I didn’t feel the irrepressible need to share such information with everyone, because social networking hadn’t yet transformed us all into greedy approval-seekers. When I began face-to-face conversations with “I know the guys from TV on the Radio,” people looked impressed, and that was enough for me.

My neighborhood has changed, too. As I occasionally glanced away from my glowing screen to avoid bumping into the twenty-five-year-old hedge funders moving in, I noticed the local color of the place draining out like an Instagram filter. Bobby’s, the mom-and-pop pharmacy that was frequently out of toilet paper but nonetheless charming, was forced to move to Jersey City after its rapacious landlords jacked up the rent a hundred and thirty thousand percent. (The Walgreens that moved in always has toilet paper.) And Zgliewzki, the Polish diner everyone loved (though nobody I know had ever been there) shuttered to make way for Polski, a modern take on Slavic cuisine featuring a forty-two-dollar ramen kielbasa stuffed with sustainably farmed foie gras.

More importantly, my wife and I wanted a family, and thanks to my crippling addiction to Zillow and the Styles section, I knew all too well that a two-bedroom apartment was way out of reach. Friends who had once shuddered at the thought of leaving the city spoke of a happier, healthier lifestyle elsewhere. Some of them even moved to Los Angeles, which they reported didn’t suck after all. During the fifteen-month winter, I became so consumed with jealousy over California Instagram feeds that I deleted the app for seven minutes. The last straw came in February, when, while waiting in a Trader Joe’s line that snaked around the block twice to buy conflict-free hummus, I learned via Periscope that my co-worker Steve had been selected for Amazon drone-delivery beta testing. I teared up and then stepped directly in a giant slush puddle to get into my one-dollar UberPool ride from Chelsea to Eastern East Williamsburg.

That night, my wife and I began scouring real estate listings, and almost immediately warmed to Satchel-on-Hudson, a lovely village two hours north of the city. For a quarter million, which would have gotten us a bed bug-infested closet in the city, we purchased a ramshackle fourteen-bedroom house with a pool, a tennis court, a bridle path, and even former butler quarters, which we could rent out on Airbnb. We have two Priuses, two washers and dryers, a dishwasher, and total peace of mind. Life out here is placid and wonderful, and has afforded me the time and space for things I could never do in the city, like jarring my own salsa and not living in New York. Our Japanese garden is actually planted with the books I told myself I didn’t have time to read. I’m most proud of the War and Peace cacti, which is flourishing.

The same week we closed the sale on our place in Williamsburg, I announced my plan to leap off the grid to everyone I knew, posting lengthy farewells on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Sina Weibo, WhatsApp, GroupMe, Adult Friend Finder, and John Wick message boards. I explained that I wouldn’t be responding to any electronic communication for an indeterminate period of time, so anyone who wanted to get in touch with me would have to pick up the phone and call, or better yet, send me an old-fashioned letter, since they’re inherently more special than emails.

I thought my craving for instant gratification and the big city would be unbearable. And for the first week, it really was. I desperately missed the convenience of email, the immediacy of Twitter, the diversity of the different kind of white gentrifiers on my block, the pizza. And I admit to relapsing once or twice — one Saturday I just took off for New York with nothing but a selfie stick in my hand and the wind at my back before pulling myself together just ahead of the George Washington Bridge. But something funny happened around ten days into my experiment: I slowed down and stopped caring so much. I began not to miss the pinging and the bleeping and the blooping of life in the twenty-four-hour information cycle. Gradually, I even became more attuned to the rhythms of everyday life. In the old days, I’d automatically reach for my phone as soon as I woke up. Now, I meditate for fifteen minutes, then do some recreational roof-thatching while chipping away at Emoji Dick. I feel in tune with my surroundings in new and unexpected ways. Case in point: as I was writing this, a red bird sat on a tree branch outside my office window (I actually have three offices in this house) and I really looked at it. I think it was a robin.

My friends haven’t abandoned me because I’m offline. Just a day after signing off, I got a phone call from my buddy Nick. I had mostly kept up with his life through social networks, so it was nice to actually hear his voice. He told me that his marriage is on the rocks, and that he feels unappreciated at work. Now that’s the kind of thing you don’t get from a status update. My marriage has changed, too. Instead of arguing about what to watch on Netflix, my wife and I argue about which obscure Italian neorealist film to rent from the adorable local video store (we finally settled on The Rock), or which beautiful hiking trail to conquer, or whether to have kids now that we need to fill up so many rooms in our house.

It’s now been a month since I left New York and quit the Internet, and I don’t regret what I did for a second. In fact, I want people to know everything about my life now, but it’s hard since I lost all my followers and nobody gives a shit what some piece of shit from upstate has to say. That’s why I’m writing this letter on parchment paper, and that’s why I’m having it hand-delivered to every major media outlet in America. Because you can quit the city and you can quit the Internet, but you can never quit telling people how much better you are than them.

Photo by Andy Atzert