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 been notified they’d had a half million dollars of funding cut by the NY state government 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 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 which needed to be kept on life support with an external keyboard, hard drive, and cooling pad) and write it down on paper or just try to remember the directions. When I would walk out of my apartment, sometimes I would walk the wrong way 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 a bunch of creative misfits fitting 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 to work there 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 9am, 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 “Devil’s Advocate” scenario, and my decision set me on the trajectory that would fulfill all of my New York dreams.
The next 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 for so long makes me think I could be tossed into any environment and somehow figure stuff out and be OK. 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.
The night I heard the news of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, I did what I used to do to cope with stress — dissociate using any kind of chemical I could find. I went to the store and bought a pack of cigarettes after not smoking for two months, and went to my local bar where I proceeded to get wasted. I always liked going to this bar alone because on any given day it was inevitable that some interesting person would come along and strike up a conversation.
That particular night I found myself seated next to a man from Sierra Leone. After a few martinis, I wound up confiding in him that I felt like the scum of the universe that night because an earthquake had just struck Haiti, the bodies were piling up, it was possible that my family there was hurt or worse, and all I could do was sit in the comfort of my life in New York, in this bar, and worry about it. I told him I wanted to be on a plane there doing something to help, but instead I was sitting there not helping anyone, especially not myself.
He sort of chuckled and in a very wise old man way (even though he was only 25) took me to look here: he was from fucking Sierra Leone. Most of the people there live in poverty, there are civil wars and violence all the time and people generally live in fear. It wasn’t until the Blood Diamond came out that most people in the US even heard of the place, which is an indication of how little foreign intervention they get there. He told me wants to do so much to help his family and friends there all time, but he was sitting right with me and not feeling guilty about it at all. Why? “Because that’s all anyone wants, is the ability to because to just sit somewhere and not have to worry about anything in that moment. It’s all my family wanted for me,” he said. And then he told me something for the first time that I would hear many times over the next few years, which is that you have to help yourself first if you want to have any hope of helping other people.
I struggled with this concept at first because on the one hand it sounds like rationalization for laziness and selfishness. But when it comes down to it, it’s just accurate at a very basic level. That’s not to say that you can’t always be helping people. I help people when I can and love doing so. But in the past few years I have found myself overextending. I tend to attract people who try to take advantage of my compassion, who perhaps haven’t quite figured out how to sever the parental ties and look for mothers and fathers in other people. They look for it in me because they see me as independent, someone who “has her shit together,” and they cling for dear life hoping I can help them be the same way. And I want to, and part of the reason I work so hard is so that someday I will be able to, but sometimes I just can’t. But I’m terrible at saying no to people when they ask for help, so sometimes I try and try and it drains all my energy from my very core, and I turn into this listless shell who can’t even walk to the corner store let alone address an international crisis. I am independent and I probably do have my shit together more than the average 26-year-old living in New York City, but I am that way because I have to be. I don’t have a safety net like so many of my peers, so when I fall, it really hurts. I can’t afford to fall anymore.
So don’t worry if you hear me going on about raw food and meditation. I’m not joining a hippie cult or something, although the yoga studio across the street could pass for one. I really just want to try everything that crosses my path to be healthy, so I help other people in the biggest way possible while I’m still able, and I’m really grateful for the people who are able to help me do that right now.
I went to my old wagon wheel bar tonight. The place I’ve gone more consistently than anywhere else in the city on Tuesday nights these past (almost) five years. The place I’ll take my kids when they’re 21 and I’m 51, where I’ll get drunk like I did when I was 23 and complain about how much things have changed since the good old days and the kids will have to figure out how to navigate a cab through New York while I’m pretending to be passed out, but am secretly just closing my eyes and listening to them try to handle themselves.
My bartender was there. His new girlfriend was sitting in my seat at the end of the bar, so I sat at the opposite side with my friends to avoid her. I felt a tad dethroned, but only a tad, as we were always better friends than lovers. I felt a nagging twinge of annoyance as she sat there and watched me with laser eyes, not just because she was doing that, but because she didn’t have anything better to do. I did, but I was choosing to be there despite. I was in full judgment mode, ignoring her and him until she finally retreated off into the night.
“Girls do that to each other, way more than guys do,” my bartender said, once I finally had him to myself and I asked him if his girlfriend still hated me for knowing what we were. “Perhaps,” I said, thinking of Lana Del Rey.
With her away, he engaged my friends and poured me drinks when I wasn’t looking, like he used to do. He was mine again, only insomuch as he ever was from moment to moment, which was barely. But it was relieving to have my friend back. I’d worried that he’d changed.
He told me he did, that he was thinking about quitting the bar, as the hours were wearing on him and his new domestic life.
“I’m getting old, babe, ” he said, smiling. Smiling the friendliest smile in the world that so quickly twists into a grimace when the switch flips come 5am and he acts like he hates everyone including me, but secretly just himself which is why I never take it personally. I looked at him with my ‘whatever I don’t see age’ eyes, and initiated a thought experiment.
“What do you think I’ll be like at your age?” I asked.
His eyes widened and he replied all too quickly: “Scary. And smart. And smart. Scary smart.”
“Better keep drinking then to balance it out,” I said, and he poured me another glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
He came up to me, sitting in the corner of my local bar, as I was holding back tears related to a betrayal I’d rather not get into right now.
“Is that yours?” this man with wild blonde hair asked me making a splayed gesture to nothing specific with his hands.
“Yeah,” I said tentatively, grabbing my beer from the counter in from of me.
“No no, is that your vase?”
I looked at the vase on the table in front of me. It had all kinds of ancient inscriptions on it, with drawings of two women playing catch, and one sitting on a floating rock looking off into the distance at nothing.
I laughed, as he went on to explain to me what the paintings on the vase meant. It was the only thing preventing me from spiraling into my worn internal rhetoric about how I’m not good enough.
Defensively, but politely on the surface, I fired questions at him about the who what when where why how. Something about him immediately struck me as free in a way that I’ve been annoyed with people for not being.
He kept dancing in his chair to the music in a completely unselfconscious way. I wound up asking him where he was from, which is something I try to avoid doing because I like to guess and usually the fact reveals itself without my asking, but in this case I just had to know.
“I’m from a small island,” he said, “off the coast of Rhode Island.”
I’ve never been to that state, and the only things I remember learning about it are that is the smallest state and the state with the largest per capita crystal meth habit. I studied him more closely to see if he was on crystal meth, but found no signs. Instead, he just kept pulsing to the music and talking with me. He asked if I wanted another drink, and when I opted for water, he returned with two cups and said “here, I’ll let you pick which one so you know I didn’t drug it.”
To be quite honest, at that point roofies would have been welcome. I sipped my water one sip at a time, hoping there were drugs in it that would slip me into a state of oblivion that I could recognize in a mild form with enough time to walk home. There were none, and my new friend kept beguiling me with conversation.
I learned he had been traveling around doing charity work, and that he hadn’t lived in the US for some time. He was passing his way in Bushwick on his way to Thailand to volunteer. He was one of those indigenous ex-pats, it seemed. I was skeptical I was being conned.
At one point, Carly Rae Jepson came on. Let’s just be clear: The song is played out, officially. The bartenders at my local bar payed it unabashedly, without looking up, because they know this was the one place that would fly, where it was finally ironic. I groaned and rolled my eyes, but my new friend pumped his fists.
“Have you ever heard this song?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “but it’s kind of catchy!”
At that point I was sure I was either dealing with a full-on con artist or someone of the likes I’ve never met before.
“You’re like a Galapagos tortoise,” I blurted out. He was. He was like a creature who’d been raised completely oblivious to the evils of the world and was now dumped right in the middle of the biggest cesspool of the US and picked me to sit next to at a bar.
“No, I … ” — he went on to start to explain how he’s in touch with society in a number of ways, but then quickly and ultimately concluded: “I am like a Galapagos tortoise.”
He invited me to go somewhere to smoke weed with him. I declined, but invited him to my squid party. Because essentially, at its core, the party is for we creatures in the world who are singular, glorious, and oft misunderstood.
I hugged him goodbye, and asked if he thought that was actually my vase. He shook his head no. I was glad.
There’s nothing that will ruin your day like getting street harassed walking both to and from the subway. I try to always wear headphones when I walk around during the day to shield myself from the intrusive comments of ill-mannered men. I wish I could wear them at night, but I’d rather get catcalled than mugged.
I had my recorder in my pocket. Every time it happens, I tell myself that next time I’ll take the recorder out and ask them to explain what they hope to gain from catcalling, both for article fodder and to put them on the spot and diminish some of the power that they get from doing that. But every time I just keep walking.
So many of my guy friends have asked me why it pisses me off, because don’t I like getting compliments? I tell them these things aren’t said to make me feel good, they’re said to make me feel like a snack food.
Catcalling obviously is not an effective mating strategy, but I know why they do it. I know they don’t have any real power in their lives, that objectifying women walking down the sidewalk alone is their attempt to compensate by making us feel powerless. I try to keep a straight face, to not be compelled by the men who lurk on the stoops of my street to crack a polite smile or even whip back a “fuck off”. Sometimes though, like this morning, they get right next to you and tell you directly in your ear how much they love “girls like you”, then wait to catch your surprised expression. If women were slot machines, my horrified reaction was a jackpot for him I’m sure.
It’s like there’s a self-esteem tax that only women have to pay.
Not just an ordinary bar, a speakeasy bar tucked away in Williamsburg proper with an entrance so discrete you could walk right by it while knowing the address. Above the narrow gray cement entryway is the word “bar” painted in the most delicate of fonts. The heavy wooden door gives way to a long hallway and a second door, which finally lets out into a huge, wooden room with no decorations except for the back light on the bottles of liquor positioned in an array across the wall behind the bar.
This is my place of sanctuary in New York, my Cheers, where everybody knows your name and if they don’t they learn it within minutes because all the weird night owls of Brooklyn go there to banter with strangers when they need to be alone in public. “Regularity” isn’t a term you can apply to much about my life in New York City, but going to that place on Tuesday nights is probably the most regular thing I’ve done throughout these past four years. On Tuesdays, the bar is pleasantly scarce, allowing my favorite, long-haired, Alkaline Trio-loving bartender plenty of time to pay attention to me. Sometimes he sings my name when I walk in, as I saunter across the room before I take my place on the last bar stool, the seat that is reserved for the bartender’s favorite by unspoken speakeasy law.
So last night, I was sitting there when a man walked into the bar. He was a patron of some regularity, as the bartender and Mary, the regular sitting next to me, greeted him by his name, Connor, and introduced him to me. I watched him interact for a few minutes, without saying anything. There are so many instances in my everyday life where I am compelled to force pleasantries with people who simply must be liked, but when I am out by myself in Brooklyn, I allow myself be as standoffish as I want.
Connor started explaining to the three of us that he had come here to escape an odd situation in which he had felt compelled to suddenly leave his girlfriend’s house. “I just had to get up and go right at that moment,” he said, confused. “I don’t know what came over me, I just got up and left.”
“Why?” the bartender asked.
“I don’t know,” Connor replied. “I asked myself that and I just couldn’t come up with an answer.”
“Do you usually?” I asked, entering the conversation. My participation was like a prize for him, and he began to speak animatedly as if his words were a return gift.
“Yeah. You know how like, when you’re thinking about something, and you ask yourself a question, and your brain answers back with the answer? It’s usually a back and forth, but this time it was just a blank. There was no answer. Don’t you do that when you think?”
“It’s a pretty fluid process for me,” I replied flatly. There was something about Connor and his lack of introspection that set my loser alerts on high.
“So you just left your girlfriend?” Mary asked.
“Yeah, I just needed to leave.”
“What happened that prompted you to leave?” I asked, playing psychologist.
“It was a pretty normal night,” he said.
“But what happened right before you got up and left?”
“Well…” he said before pausing for a moment, “there was a dysfunctional vagina incident.”
The end of the bar erupted in a chorus of “Ooooh”s and “Okay”s, glad to finally have the logical truth. I said nothing but put my elbow on the bar and pressed my fingertips to my temple. He continued:
“Yeah, we’ve been dating for a while and whenever we have sex it’s like fucking PEMDAS. You know what PEMDAS is, right?” he asked looking at me with a challenge in his eye.
“Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” I said, squinting at him. “How does PEMDAS apply to sex?”
“Because she needs everything to be done in a certain order or else it derails the whole train.”
“You know, just because you can’t get your girlfriend wet, it doesn’t mean she has a dysfunctional vagina,” I said. The bartender stifled a laugh.
“I knew one of you women was going to say that,” Connor said.
“So you got mad at her for not getting wet and then you just left?” Mary asked in disbelief.
Connor shrugged, and said he would have stayed if it had been later or he was tired, but there were waterworks of self-doubt, so he left and came here. The bartender was shaking his head at this point and caught my eye. Once upon a time in college, I used to think there was something wrong with me, that my body was broken somehow because it wouldn’t respond the way the boys I dated expected it to. I decided that sex was inherently unenjoyable, that the whole act was just a patriarchal plot to keep women submissive, and that women who claimed to like it were probably just deluded in a way similar to Stockholm Syndrome or were simply enduring it to obtain some power in the relationship. It wasn’t until that bartender and a few sets of soaking sheets that I realized how wrong I was.
I wonder how many women live their whole lives thinking they’re sexual misfits because the men who govern their sexuality aren’t comfortable or giving or skilled enough with their own to activate the sexual response mechanisms innate in their partners, physically and mentally.
Connor did a shot and asked the bartender if he wanted to roll the dice with him in a game of threes, but the bartender dismissed the idea. Connor didn’t ask Mary and I to play, obviously, since we’re women and all. But I slapped a bill on the table and told him to roll.
I took his money every game with a smile on my face.