Three years ago I wrote this essay, right before I left NYC. Since then, I’ve traveled to:
Canada, Iceland, England, Spain, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, Hawaii, Norway, The Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Turkey—and some of those places for second, third, and fourth times. I’m going to Stockholm on Tuesday. Then Bangkok. Beyond that, there’s a lot of blank space on this map that has yet to be filled in with stars. I’m game for it all.
I’ve never been very good at living according to conventional standards. Some people consider the height of accomplishment making it onto one of those 30 Under 30 lists. You probably won’t ever see me there, but by the time I turn 30 I will have traveled to 30 countries. Why be concerned with other people’s standards when you can create your own?
When I wrote this essay, I was being grated by the forces of NYC living. I knew something needed to change, and nobody was going to change it for me. So I decided to do what I like to call “shaking the Boggle board of life,” in the biggest way I’d tried yet. This essay was, in effect, me lighting a flame under my own ass—putting my resolve out there in public so I couldn’t back out. It was the best decision I ever made. Please don’t misunderstand me: my life is a roller coaster, and it’s not something most people would want, which is why they don’t choose to live this way. But it’s working for me, for now, and maybe forever. Maybe not, but I doubt any regrets I may have about spending my 20s in a state of manic orbit around the earth would outweigh the regrets I would have had if I’d stayed home. And honestly, I may not have made it to my 30s if I’d stayed home.
So here it is again, because something made me look for it today and I realized it wasn’t published on my own blog, but on Medium where, you never know, it might just evaporate. I wanted to preserve it on the (sort of) open web. I needed to remember my scrappy New York beginnings, because the things that happened there and the people I met still follow me around the world, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
By Arikia Millikan
I moved to New York when I was 21 with two suitcases and a credit card. I had zero savings, zero checking, and didn’t know very many people in the city. I had a job lined up writing copy for exhibitions at the New York Hall of Science, but they called me the day before my flight to tell me that they’d just had a half million dollars of funding cut and couldn’t hire me after all. I had two choices: to get on the plane and figure it out, or stay in Ann Arbor, Michigan and figure it out.
In retrospect, there was only ever one option. I came here, clueless, nervous, broke, scared, but with a lust for life so great it propelled me past all the inhibitory emotions. I told myself from the very beginning that I would stay for five years. It was a seemingly arbitrary goal, but one that has never stopped making sense to me. Only after living here for five years, I told myself, could I say that I “made it” in New York City. But upon reaching five years, I would go, so as to not become jaded by the city. I didn’t have any ideas about how this would happen, but I had an image in my mind of the stereotypical New York spinster woman, hardened by success and embittered by all she’s seen. I decided this wouldn’t be me.
My first apartment was a second story walk-up on S. 4th street in Williamsburg with my very own fire escape outside of my bedroom window. Late at night, I would sit out there and smoke cigarettes while watching musicians move their instruments in and out of the practice space across the street. I wondered if I would ever be cool enough to hang out with them.
I had no idea what I was going to do for money or work, so I just began exploring. The guy I sublet the room from recommended a temp agency, so I decided to apply, but first I needed to make a copy of my passport. I was told I could do that at a place called The Internet Garage.
For the first month I lived in NYC, I had no idea where I was going. I didn’t have a smartphone then (it was 2008 but I was poor), so I would look up my destination on Google Maps on my computer — a 4-year old Adveratec, kept on life support with an external keyboard, hard drive, and cooling pad. I’d write the directions down on paper, or just try to remember them. When I would walk out of my apartment, sometimes I would start walking in the wrong direction. I’d wind up making three more turns in that same direction so as to not get completely lost and go home, defeated. The first time I tried to find the Internet Garage, I went to South 5th instead of North 5th and wound up in a slightly sketchy area thinking maybe I wasn’t cut out for New York.
The next day I tried again, with my hand-written map, and I found the Internet Garage, right off of Bedford Avenue. I suddenly understood what Williamsburg was all about. It was the place where a bunch of creative misfits could fit in amongst their peers for the first time in their lives. I asked the tattooed guy wearing a Yankees hat who helped me scan my passport behind the desk if I could work there. I told him I’d gone to school for engineering and was a fast learner. He arched an eyebrow at me and said most people who have worked there probably couldn’t do high school math. But if I really wanted a job, he’d think about it.
I applied with the temp agency and got hired at the world’s largest stock holding company, as a secretary. They told me I was to be an envelope-stuffing office monkey from 9-5 every day, and must abide by their dress code by wearing corporate attire. I shuddered to think. The night before I was to go in for fingerprinting and processing in the financial district at 9 o’clock in the morning, I went out with my pseudonymous blog stalker and wound up getting wasted and staying up until 7am making out on a rooftop overlooking Manhattan.
I just looked up the actual email I sent to the agency when I woke up and realized I’d slept through the meeting, and it is pretty hilariously Arikia-ish:
I just woke up and realized that I missed my meeting. I don’t really know how it happened – I remember setting my alarm last night before I went to bed – but I have some idea as to why it happened. I don’t think I want to work at DTCC, and my subconscious mind made that happen. Actually, I don’t want to work at any corporation. I’m a writer and I want to write. I ‘m done doing meaningless work just because someone said so. That’s what a lot of college was, and I graduated.
So, please relay my apologies onto Michael and Jamie over at DTCC that I’m sorry for wasting their time. I suppose I’m sorry for wasting your time as well.
Best of luck to you,
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my real life “The Devil’s Advocate” scenario, and my decision set me on the trajectory that would fulfill all of my New York dreams.
Later that day, after my hangover subsided, I went to retrieve my passport, which I had forgotten in the scanner at the Internet Garage, and lo and behold, they hired me. For $8/hr, I got to blog my little heart out while I helped people use the Internet Garage’s ridiculously ’90s machines to get online. And I was happy. Some of my fondest New York memories were made in that place, and it provided all the fodder I needed to find my footing in the online media world.
With the Internet Garage as my base of operations, I became a fixture among the creative misfits, quickly becoming part of the barter system that propped up the struggling artist class in Williamsburg. If someone identified themselves as a Bedford Avenue vendor, I would give them prints and internet usage with a wink and a smile. To repay me, people invited me into their slivers of Williamsburg, and I got to experience it all. One night, some musicians I met at a bar invited me back to drink beers at the practice space across from my old apartment. I stayed up all night learning how to play piano.
In those days, I would sit on the rooftop of my Hope Street sublet and stare out at the Manhattan skyline for hours, wondering what paths I would take to make my way to the top of one of those skyscrapers. Last year, I would stare for hours out of the window of my office on the 19th floor of 4 Times Square, thinking about how I had managed to achieve my lifelong dream of working at Wired so soon, scared shitless about what that meant for the rest of my life. Had I peaked at 25?
Thinking about my five year quota now, with the deadline approaching July 8, it makes more sense to me than ever to leave. I won New York City. I did, I beat it. I came here with nothing, and I survived. I’m not any richer than I was when I came here, which to some, might not constitute winning. Before I started writing this blog post, I was being kind of mopey about just that — about the fact that five years later I am still struggling to pay my bills every month just like I did when I first moved here. But after reflecting on everything, I realized that what I gained in the past five years is impossible to buy: I made a name for myself.
Now, it’s time to leave. I am tired. The old rooftop where I used to perch is sealed off with fences and motion detectors, and the view is obscured by luxury condos anyways. The Internet Garage moved, and it will never be what it used to be. The way this city chews people up and spits them out is almost vulgar, and I am tired of watching it. I am tired of struggling to stay on top. I can feel my shell beginning to harden, and it’s not a good look for me. Plus, the fact that I’ve sustained myself for so long makes me think I could be tossed into any environment and somehow figure stuff out. So, I’m going to try that, and hopefully find the same inspiration in new places that I once got from New York. I’m going to take my show on the road and keep looking for the things I didn’t find in New York: love, inner peace, financial success. I know that life may not ever be easy for me, I think I would die of boredom if it was, but right now I need to find environments that will nurture the skills I’ve been developing. I need room to breathe, as anyone who’s ever lived in New York knows, there’s not a whole lot of space here.
So, New Yorkers, you have three months and some change to squeeze the last of the New York hustle out of me, and I do intend to hustle. And then off into the world I will go, testing Frank Sinatra’s theory that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. It’s been real.