The slogan ‘I ❤ NY’ is so ubiquitous in New York City that I think everyone just accepts the premise as true. Of course everyone loves New York! When I moved there in December 2005, I was open to the possibility of falling in love with the city, and I had some exciting times there, but in the end, like many doomed relationships, I just grew tired of putting up with all the shit.
Look, New York City is an incredible town. Everyone knows that. There is no place like it. When you are living there it feels like you are a part of the most important place on the planet. It’s the center of the business world, the fashion world, the media world. It hosts the best restaurants, museums, architecture, theater, shopping, operas, sports teams and musicians. Just ask anyone who lives there.
That’s the thing. When you actually live there you believe it, whether it is true or not. ‘I Love NY’ becomes less of a slogan and more of a mantra. A self-justifying pep talk that you use to justify all the unnecessary shit that you have to put up with: the exorbitant cost of rent and food; the absence of a machine to wash your clothes in your tiny apartment; having to move your car and play musical parking spaces twice a week so the street can be cleaned; sharing your tiny apartment with strangers; the dirt in your nostrils; the summer garbage smells; the 24 hour noise; the mutant rats; the grey snow and sludge; the crowds of tourists; the crowds of commuters… and then you go to work for 12 hours.
It’s not all bad of course. We had some experiences in New York that we will never forget. We learned a lot about ourselves and our careers. We had a really nice apartment in a great neighborhood of Brooklyn and we were able to make it work financially. We ate out all the time and we met loads of famous people. I met Bill Clinton one day walking around on the Upper East Side. I had dinner with Andy Gray one night in TriBeCa (‘take a bow son!’). I shared a bagel with Rick Wakemen one morning on the Staten Island Ferry.
I’m generally ok meeting famous people but if I really really like that person then things can get a bit weird. Farah refers to it as me ‘mad-dogging’ them. I don’t mean to be weird, it’s just that the wheels in my head all start spinning at the same time, and I try to think of something really cool and funny to say to these people. I think I’m acting normally, but Farah says that my eyes glaze over, my head tilts to one side, and it looks like I’m staring at them like a stalker. That happened once with Eddie Vedder. And then again when I met some of the actors from the TV show Lost. I’m basically useless in those situations.
Anyway, there wasn’t one symbolic moment when Farah and I decided that NYC was not for us. Although the day that Farah saw a man do a shite on a subway platform was certainly a low point for her. For me, I would see the senior attorneys I worked with, who were commuting in from Connecticut or Long Island, leaving their family home at 6am, returning at 10pm, and I would just think “that’s not where I want to be in 30 years”.
We were ready to start a family, and we wanted to love our home. So Farah and I made the decision together to leave New York and move to Scotland.
That was the plan. We wanted to be close to family. Farah’s family were in Austin, and mine were in Scotland. I’d always thought that once I’d ‘made it’ I would return to Scotland and it was never really my idea to leave in 2002.
I started things like Dear Scotland and the Scottish Bar Association of New York (ScotBarNY) to keep in with things Scottish and hopefully make my return easier. By 2009 I’d been away from Scotland for 7 years. I was part of the so-called ‘brain drain’ that had been leaving Scotland for a generation. But here I was, ready to return. Ready to bring my experience of working all over the world back home.
We decided that we would be ready to leave in February 2010, so a few months before that I wrote to the Law Societies in Scotland to see what I would need to do to qualify as a lawyer there. With my Scottish law degree, Australian and London legal experience, Texas Legislature work, and 5 successful years as a litigator in New York, I was hopeful that I would not have to do much, if any, additional training to get my Scottish law license.
I remember the moment that I got the replies back from the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates. I had just woken up on a cold autumnal New York day. I sat on the edge of my bed reading the emails on my work blackberry telling me that I would not be given any credit for my 12 years of international legal experience. If I wanted to be a lawyer in Scotland I was advised that I should go back to Edinburgh University for another year, get a diploma, then spend two years as a trainee solicitor in a law firm. Basically I would need to pay for three more years of study and training.
I was really pissed off. Everyone I knew had been telling me that going back to Scotland was a bad idea. My Scottish friends in New York thought I was crazy. My Scottish friends in Scotland told me that the economy in 2009 was tanking and no one was hiring. Even my parents were trying to talk me out of it. I remember my Dad telling me that Scotland was a ‘shitty little country’. But I really wanted to prove everyone wrong.
Then I got those responses and it just felt like the hurdles were becoming insurmountable. I love Scotland. That I know. But it can be frustratingly pessimistic at times. It’s one of the major differences for me between the US and Scotland. It seems like whenever I had an idea to do something unconventional or unusual in Scotland, the standard response was “hmm, I don’t think that’s a good idea”, or “I’m not very sure about that”. These are generalizations I know, but in the US, when I’ve tried do something different, I usually hear things like it: “go for it” or “why not?”
So I wrote to the Texas Bar Association. I sent them my details and asked what I would have to do to be an attorney in Texas, having only been to US law school for one year. They wrote back and told me – just take the bar exam. That was it. Pass a test and I could continue to be an attorney. So three years of unpaid work and study in Scotland, or six weeks of part-time study in Austin. Farah and I talked it over a lot and, in her beautiful way, she told me that she would be happy wherever we were, as long as she was with me.
I still hadn’t made up my mind when we went to Austin for Thanksgiving in November 2009. But it seemed that everyone we met there was trying to convince us to move back. It started to make sense. Farah had maintained her clientele by returning every 6 weeks from New York. I had kept in touch with my friends. Then one morning Farah’s mum casually told us that she was going to move in with her new boyfriend, (now her husband) and that she would sell us her old house in Travis Heights. Of the two options in front of us, it seemed like one was now significantly easier and more welcoming than the other.
On the plane back to New York from Austin that Thanksgiving, I remember thinking ‘why do I want to make life difficult for us?’ I’d also been through the experience of bringing an Austin wife to Scotland once before. That did not end well. Before we had arrived back at JFK we had ditched the Scotland plan. We decided to move back to Austin.
Once we’d made up our minds, it was just a matter of putting things in motion. We had a great White Christmas in New York that winter with my parents and my aunt from Scotland. My cousins flew in from Dubai and London too. It snowed eight inches the day before everyone arrived. I actually had a snowball fight with my Dad on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens after a few too many beers. It was a very special time. When things are good in New York, they are really good.
My best mate Allan Rooney organized a leaving curry for us on Brick Lane in the East Village. He wasn’t happy about us leaving and tried to talk us out of it. I think that it is especially hard for those in New York to see people leave. It contradicts the mantra. Why would you leave if you love New York?
But once we had made the decision to leave, it was as if the spell had been broken. New York was just another city with its good sides and its bad. I remember being completely at peace with our decision that night. I knew that I would miss our friends but I wouldn’t miss the city.
We packed for about three weeks that February. That’s also when I started listening to the Canadian band Broken Social Scene a lot. I made a playlist of all their albums, B-sides and live sessions, and I listened to them on my big headphones solidly for two months. We were comfortable with our decision to leave, but the reality of getting ready for a move across the country is pretty chaotic. That month in 2010, as well as packing we were quitting our jobs and trying to say goodbye to everyone. I was also doing all of the legal work to buy the house in Travis Heights, and we were trying to buy a car that could make the drive to Austin. Amidst the chaos I would have Broken Social Scene as my soundtrack, and everything was just beautiful. Alongside Farah’s love and support, their music kept me centered during that transition.
The decision to leave New York was not hard, but the physical process of leaving is very difficult. Maybe that’s another reason why people stay. We wanted to ship all of our stuff to Austin but living in Brooklyn, you can’t just bring in a shipping container and park it on the side of the street. Instead you have to hire a van, park the van somewhere nearby, move all the stuff down four flights of stairs and into the van, then drive the van to Queens, and load it all into a container. And that’s what we had to do. Then the night before our move, and the day before we had to be out of our apartment it dumped 8 inches of snow. So then we had to dig out our car, dig out a parking space for the van….you get the picture.
Once everything was loaded into the shipping container, Farah and I set off across the country in our new car with our two little dogs Woody and Ruby, and we didn’t look back. New York to Austin is about a 24 hour drive. On the way we stopped off in Pigeon Forge, the home of Dolly Parton’s theme park Dollywood. I don’t remember why we had planned to stop there because Dollywood was closed for the winter, but we ended up staying there for a few nights. I remember the post-New York feeling started to sink in. The silence. The fresh air. The illusion that everything was really cheap.
We made it to Austin a few days later in time to close on the house and for our shipping container to arrive. But it took me a lot longer to readjust to the pace of life in Austin. For the first few months I still drove like a New Yorker – one hand on the wheel, the other hand on the horn. And I would get really annoyed at anyone who appeared to be taking their sweet time.
I remember going to Wholefoods supermarket and rushing around trying to get all my shopping done as quickly as possible. It seemed like everyone else was just pottering around in their stupid yoga pants, getting in my way. Then as I stood in the check out line I started to get really anxious because the cashier started a conversation with the customer in front of me about something or nothing. That anxiety of needing everyone else to hurry up is a New York affliction. The New York state of mind. NYC is all about money. And of course time = money. But then in the Austin Wholefoods the cashier started talking to me and I remembered that I wasn’t even in a rush. I had a realization that it was actually quite nice to stop for a moment. And wait. And think. And smile. And take it all in.
It still took a while for me to decompress though. I even set myself the task of filming and recording a live performance of every Scottish band that attended the South By Southwest music festival that March. There were 14 of them including Frightened Rabbit, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Twin Atlantic, Broken Records and Hudson Mohawke. I don’t know why I like to set myself such difficult tasks but I did it.
Vic Galloway and Matthew Young were our first house guests in the new place that March. We recorded the first of what would become an annual SXSW drunken podcast on the Sunday of the festival at our house with Vic, Matthew and a bunch of the other Scottish artists that had come over. After the recording, we took everyone out to the old Highball to get cocktails and go bowling.
At the Highball we took over two bowling lanes. Then the guys from The Jetpacks showed up with their friend Kevin Drew, the lead singer of Broken Social Scene.
Kevin came over to our group to say hello. Remember, all I had been listening to for a month was his band. I knew every melody and every word of every song. I wanted to tell him how important his music had been to me those past few weeks. I wanted to share with him that I completely understood his poetic juxtaposition of beauty and chaos. I wanted to tell him that I loved his band. But I just totally mad-dogged him. For about 45 minutes. Eventually I stuttered out a question asking him about something he had whispered once on an obscure radio session. He had no idea what I was talking about. That was the end of our conversation.
South By Southwest ended and our whirlwind month settled down. We were Austinites again. We have never doubted our decision to leave New York or to choose Austin over Scotland. Austin is the perfect place for us to ‘grow old and do some shit’. I love Austin. My parents love it too and visit regularly. I still love Kevin Drew, and I still love Broken Social Scene. I just don’t love New York.