Many writers before me have written this very same essay, and yet they inexplicably continue to be read.
There are those who name it in passing; (author of colossus book) Joan Didion with her long goodbyes and every other person who followed in her footsteps. There are those who name the city outright, that think of long nights walking up Broadway or shivering from the cold in a too-expensive, too-small apartment. There are those who honor the city through sounds and indirectness, making a story so specific for so many a general allegory of the city, proclaiming this sprawling American metropolis and its skyline the litmus test for the rest. But you don't really know what it means to miss this place until you're gone for months, find new places to love, and suddenly step off the plane into the chaos. In an instant, after a few days, you start to learn what it means.
It means accustoming once again to a city that will not welcome you, and yet will grasp you in the icy air of its embrace, more long-lost lover than mother welcoming home the prodigal son. It means Metrocards got more expensive, and yet the trains don't seem to run any faster. It means that Roebling's Tea Room ended their lease, and will most likely be replaced by an H&M or thrift store. It means Williamsburg is still nice to walk through, but not exactly a place you want to call your neighborhood.
It means you've lost a little bit of your swagger as a New Yorker, a little bit of your credibility as one of the "brave souls" who believe themselves a brave soul for having come here with a suitcase and a dream. It's gagging, and then chuckling to yourself, about the fact that many years ago, you got off the plane at JFK or LaGuardia, another fresh face with a suitcase and a dream.
It means public art is being fought for, fervently, as something that belongs to everyone and no one. It means that everyone is as welcome as they are unwelcome. It means that protests and the groups that organize them continue to mobilize. It means building toward a future that every day is more endangered. It means starting to build everything again despite the future seeming bleak.
It's remembering the first time you cried while watching the Empire State Building light up at night. It's thinking of the dirty streets as a kind of protective mantle once more, despite knowing that you were not missed, that you won't be missed the next time you decide to leave. It means looking at everyone on the subway, engaging with little worlds, falling in love with people that conveniently get off at the wrong stop on the 6. It's the excitement of getting off your stop on the 6 and being greeted by the Empire State Building glowing so many streets ahead.
It's the nights spent reading with a view of the skyline, far out in Brooklyn, enclave of the stars away from Manhattan's light pollution. It means you're going to have nights where it gets overwhelming to be here. It means there will be nights where you'll want to leave again. It means thinking back on that first moment, oceans away, when you missed this place for the first time. It means acknowledging that you missed the chaos. It means acknowledging the chaos, your part in it, and that, for now, it's not goodbye to all that—and that you wouldn't have it any other way.