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Susan Spano's Homecoming: Life Unpacked, At Long Last

The morning I left New York in 1998 I closed the door to my apartment, went downstairs and found a drunk sleeping it off in the lobby. I took it as a sign. It was time to move on. I’d lived in the city for almost 20 years,in a studio so small that everything had to be stowed away when not in use, as if on a boat. All my friends had been mugged at least once. My clothes were all black and my driver’s license had expired.

I spent the next five years in L.A. mostly missing New York, especially on 9/11 when I sat on the stoop with my neighbors in Hancock Park, nursing a lighted candle, secretly feeling like a defector who could never go back to the homeland. Then came eight glorious, nutty years abroad, writing about travel for the L.A. Times: 7th Arrondissement Paris, Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, eternal Rome in the shadow of the Coliseum.
Along the way, I rented furnished apartments, moving in with only a few suitcases. My stuff -- an inadequate word for my mother’s writing desk, family albums and my college diploma -- ended up in an eerie Hollywood storage unit. If I ever kill someone, that’s where I’ll hide the body.

On visits back to L.A. I sometimes added things I’d collected on my trips: Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags from Lhasa, a Vietnamese water puppet, dried French lavender clipped at a friend’s place in Provence. God only knew what all was in there.

A couple of months ago I found out because I moved back and wanted my stuff. I don’t know why I returned: It just seemed like time. Or why I decided to make New York home -- whatever that means -- except that I‘d tried all the bears’ chairs and needed to sit down.

You can‘t come back to the U.S. after living abroad without sounding insufferable at dinner parties, throwing things at the talking heads on the evening news and making endless loops through grocery stores, wondering where they keep the food. But my reentry was easier than it could have been because New York is America’s most European city, full of public spaces, less inviting to cars than to people; it has history, culture and airports a seven-hour flight away from Paris and Rome.
But it gets better. I moved into the same building -- a five-story walk-up in the West Village -- where I’d lived 20 years before in a studio so small that everything had to be stowed away when not in use, as if on a boat. Back in the day, I made friends with the owner, an ex-New York City cop who’d starting buying buildings in the real estate-depressed 1970s, ultimately accumulating about a dozen he managed from an office on the ground floor. I often stopped by to discuss love and politics; he watched whom I took upstairs and supported the first Gulf War.

My landlord died while I was away, but his daughter remembered me and showed my her father’s old apartment on the fifth floor, a stiff climb for a 57-year-old woman who’d recently been advised to have knee replacement surgery. I looked at a couple of smaller, cheaper places on lower floors. But there was really no contest. Unit 5C had a bedroom, kitchen and living room, two working fireplaces, a 12-foot ceiling, a big skylight, hardwood floors, a recently re-fitted bathroom and three windows looking over the leafy West Village.
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