How to Survive in NYC When All Your Friends Have Moved Away

Michael Musto enjoying a holiday with his late parents and his since-relocated friend, Bill Love. (Photo from 1996, via Michael Musto’s collection.)

BY MICHAEL MUSTO | COVID lockdown in ’20 was important for safety reasons, but it also managed to serve a personal purpose for me: Since so many of my NYC friends had moved out of town through the years and were continuing to flee, it allowed me the chance to connect with absent pals via Zoom, a practice I continue to this day, to water down the isolation. Of course, we’ve always had phones and for a long time we turned to various apps for chatting, but as Zoom became the new norm, it dominated our social lives and helped give the illusion that my faraway friends hadn’t left after all.

But trust me, they had! Starting in the late ‘80s and mounting through the ‘90s, I noticed that a lot of my besties couldn’t afford to live in New York anymore or they were suddenly having families and wanted more space, so they split for California, Florida, upstate New York, Europe, and other parts of the globe. They said New York had lost its edge, so they were moving to Albuquerque—or Secaucus—where there’s no edge, but at least you have a backyard.

File photo courtesy of Michael Musto, whose use of Zoom to stay in touch.with friends won’t remain relegated to the pandemic era.

My friend Ann Cummings-Ellwood and her husband left in 1989 for L.A., and it was always great to reconnect on either coast, so I made my way there. But after that, she and the hubby eventually moved to the UK and France, and since I don’t travel much anymore, our friendship has been relegated to an occasional Zoom chat and some Facebook messaging.

In 1997, my compadre and mentor Stephen Saban—a nightlife writer who paved the way—relocated to L.A. to work for World of Wonder’s website. Our mutual friend James St. James also made the trek westward, and I now only see him when we do panels for RuPaul’s DragCon (a gender bending convention) here in NYC or some other public conversation. In fact, we did a podcast last September and it felt more like a kiki session between old friends than a podcast, which undoubtedly made it even more delicious for the listeners (if more bittersweet for moi).

My friend and confidante Bill Love—whom I first met in the 1970s—was unhappy with the way his neighborhood, Little Italy, was becoming yuppified, and he longed for greener pastures and career opportunities. In 2004, he split for Florida, then 10 years later to Italy, and now he happily lives in Atlanta.

And my peeps kept running away, as I felt like Bette Midler in The Rose (“Where’s everybody going?”). Hanging out on the comedy scene in 2006, I met a wonderful new friend—a designer/stylist named Amber Meyer—and was amazed that there was someone new who actually got me and vice versa. But Amber had met someone new too, lol. In 2007, she and Will Becton moved to California, got married, and had two daughters! I’m waiting anxiously for their next visit back.

By now, I was losing it even beyond Bette Midler-level. I started feeling like a Chekhov character in mourning for my own life, as so many carefully built-up relationships dissolved due to sudden geographical changes. And I couldn’t turn to my Village Voice photographer pal Catherine McGann anymore either. She had also gotten married, had a kid, and left for California, where they then had another kid, and I only get to see them when they swing into New York once in about 13 full moons. Fortunately, I can look at Catherine’s old photos and reminisce. Her departure happened to be in 2001, just a couple of weeks before 9/11. And after that horrid attack, yet more natives bolted in terror (as if bad stuff can’t happen anywhere else). In the aughts, New York somehow kept getting pricier and shinier, which many found unmanageable—but conversely, in the last few years, crime spurts have erupted that have scared aging bohemians into running for their lives. (So, I guess NYC is now too edgy for them.)

In addition to all of that, as you get older, some friends literally just die! I was beside myself when Stephen Saban developed cancer, moved in with his daughter Chloe upstate and passed in 2018—though we made sure to have some powerful face-to-face time before that. And there’s one more reason for my diminishing Rolodex: No fewer than four friends—growing more and more frustrated over their own failures—separately went psycho on me, with all kinds of screaming misinterpretations and recriminations. Buh-bye!

Lord knows I’m happy for the people that relocated and found what they needed, but for me, it’s like being the loser in a game of musical chairs. Generally, it’s harder and harder for me to find people to go to events with because, aside from my dwindling core group, so many people are simply not here. That would be less damaging if I could continually make new friends to fill in for the old ones, but as you get older, it’s not that easy. You become set in your ways and find that younger companions have a different dynamic (and set of references) than you do. As a single person, I find that I depend more and more on my inner circle, and we’ve become so close that the New York Times did a splashy spread on us last year, to commemorate the “original gangstas.”

As we cling to each other for dear life—except for all the times they insist on traveling out of town—the exodus remains an ongoing process. My longtime buddy Susan Anton (not the actress) left Gotham in 2018 to be near her father in Fort Lauderdale. She will occasionally ship me unannounced gifts—like an air fryer—and while I’ve named the air fryer “Susan,” I’d rather have the real thing in my house.

Michael Musto spends festive quality time with friend Cathay Che, who is now bicoastal. (Photo from 1996, via Michael Musto’s collection.)

My therapist pal Cathay Che, who I’ve gone to many events with, is now married and bicoastal. And I was in shock when my rocker friend Kenyon Phillips became a husband and daddy and moved somewhere more family friendly, with a lawn. Good for them, though I do miss our vocal duets and movie nights. Another show biz partner—Judy Garland impersonator Tommy Femia—was devastated when his husband died, so he moved…everybody now…upstate! Tommy and I still chat on the phone, but the possibility of us ever getting together again seems as slim as the chance that Judy will come back from the great beyond.

And now, one of my best friends, Peel James, is planning on eventually moving to New Jersey and the aforementioned Bill Love is aiming to segue from Atlanta to Brazil. Farther and farther!

So what to do, what to do? Well, as I always remind people, I’m not moving anywhere else, no matter what. I still like New York and depend on the culture and queer-friendliness. And I don’t drive! So, I simply stay put and grasp at my nearby friends, stay in touch with my absent ones, and remain open for fresh blood. What’s more, as an only child, I’m able to cope with alone time and found during lockdown that it can actually be cleansing and cathartic.

What gives me the most hope is that the world is a much smaller place than before because we can easily communicate with virtually anyone with little effort. Remember when long distance calls used to cost a fortune? Good—then please remember to call me! It’s free!

Michael Musto is a columnist, pop cultural and political pundit, NYC nightlife chronicler, author, and the go-to gossip responsible for the long-running (1984-2013) Village Voice column, “La Dolce Musto.” His work regularly appears on this website as well as Queerty.com and thedailybeast.com, and he is writing for the new Village Voice, which made its debut in April of 2021. Follow Musto on Instagram, via musto184.

 

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