Category Archives: New York

Leaving NYC

MarcyAve

The Subway stop I’ve waited at the most. Photo 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 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 can't pay my rent but I'm fucking gorgeous." -Justin Tranter, Semi Precious Weapons. Photo by Arikia Millikan.

“I can’t pay my rent but I’m fucking gorgeous.” -Justin Tranter, Semi Precious Weapons. Photo by Arikia Millikan.

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.

Me in the public gardens on S. 2nd Street, my first month in NYC. Photo by Jamie Killen

Me in the public gardens on S. 2nd Street, my first month in NYC. Photo by Jamie Killen

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.

My Hope Street roof in Williamsburg, before the luxury condos obscured the view.

My Hope Street roof in Williamsburg, before the luxury condos obscured the view.

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:

Dear Camille,

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,

Arikia

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.

Me in front of the Internet Garage.

Me in front of the Internet Garage.

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?

My old office at Wired.

My old office at Wired.

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.

Cismetropolitan

I’ve been reading Transmetropolitan again. It’s about a cynical bastard named Spider Jerusalem who also happens to be an a cutthroat gonzo journalist. He tried to retreat into hermitage in the mountains but the city keeps drawing him back. He loathes it, but he loves to loathe it. It is the seething hatred for all that is fucked up with America that inspires him. The way it’s on display here, ungracefully strewn about the city streets and exposed for all to step around on their daily commutes fuels his pursuits — that and the loads of futuristic uppers he inhales.

SpiderJerusalem

On Friday I had drinks underneath Grand Central with a man who is something of a real life Spider Jerusalem. He collects knives and has the best fake “go fuck yourself” smile I have ever seen — a necessary adaptation for people who are acutely sensitized to bullshit. We sat amongst the oyster-sucking white-collar commuters, talking about fear, throwing back martinis and refilling them with the sidecars. He told me he was glad I’ve been taking on the fear that used to hold me back from writing. “It’s like Oz,” he said, “you had the power all along, my dear. You could have gone home whenever you wanted.” He warned me though, that I need to keep chipping away at the fear every day, lest I become one of the could’ve-beens. There are not many people who could tell me that without me telling them to go fuck themselves, but coming from him I appreciated it.

I thought about this all night, mourning all the could’ve-beens I know, and woke up this morning with my brow furrowed. It’s been that way ever since, save a few hours of solace I found at the Met this evening. I wrote in my head all day long, formulating the phrases that I would later find the time to transcribe, trying to sear them into my mind. I was being beckoned in three different directions but I went to see Side Effects by myself instead. Twenty minutes into the feature, a man stood up and vomited in the aisle right next to me, repeatedly. I moved up a few rows, thinking that there would have to be something in the movie to top the everyday crazy I witness in New York, but the vomiting was the highlight of the movie.

Afterward, I ducked into the subway at Union Square looking forward to waiting for the L train since I had Transmetropolitan with me to read. On the platform, a man was standing in one of the typical performance art spaces with his back against the stairwell. He had two balloons, a pink one above his head and a purple one between his knees, and was slowly releasing the air out of them both, along with two high-pitched squeals.

“Is this guy seriously doing this?” a plain-looking guy said near me to no one in particular.

“You must be new here,” I said back in his general direction.

I leaned against a pillar and watched this performance art. He looked about my age, and was skinny enough that you could see the outline of his ribcage through his grey shirt. Beside him there was a cardboard sign with “fuck the police” scrawled over and over in black marker and a box with various dirty objects sticking out. I wondered if he was crazy or just an artist, then reminded myself there’s really no difference and instead tried to tell if he was on drugs or suffering. When the balloons ran out of air, he placed a harmonica in his mouth and began breathing through it in a repetitive tune. He placed a mask over his head that made him look like a neon pink fly, and removed various baby doll parts. The head rolled out into the middle of the platform, and he dove onto the filthy floor to get it, crawling like an alien or the little girl from The Ring as she climbs out of the well.

Then, obviously, he crawled over to me. For a split second I thought he might be an alien because his hand looked twisted in an inhuman way, but I realized he just had a baby doll foot stuck akimbo on his thumb. He was at my feet, crawling his dirty baby doll hand towards my shoe. The woman next to me ran away, but I didn’t move. It was then I noticed his hands were rubbed raw at some parts, bright pink inner layers of skin exposed. I considered the possibility that perhaps this was his first and last act of performance art, and that he his goal was actually to select one lucky observer to hurl onto the subway tracks a few feet behind me. He touched the top of my shoe, and I stepped back. He looked at me through his fly eyes. Spider Jerusalem would have kicked him in the face. I just shook my head to indicate there was no consent on my behalf. He did a back somersault across the dirty platform, baby head in ragged hand. He rolled around to other people that way for a while. When the train came, I wanted to give him a dollar for disturbing me more than anyone else on the subway ever has, but I didn’t have one, so I got on the train and resumed reading Transmetropolitan.

Barfly reminiscence

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.

Galapagos humans

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.

God Hates Us All [New York Subway Art]

Yesterday I was walking up the stairs from the L while transfering to the 6 train at Union Square, when I passed the a subway ad for the new season of Californication featuring this image:

Californication

For once, I thought, an ad appealing directly to me. First of all, David Duchovny is the perfect man. Second of all, you may be aware of my X-Files obsession (see previous post, “Why TV sucks but The X-Files is AWESOME“), and if not, know that I am currently on a mission to complete the final season of the X-Files, which I originally boycotted when Duchovny dipped out of the show, but realize now it is actually underrated.

The primary reason for Season 9’s brilliance is that, once you let the show take you past your irrational annoyance with Agents Doggett and Reyes for replacing Mulder and Scully on the X-Files cases, which it affords you by giving them some of the most gruesome x-files ever, they lead you to the biggest LOL of the whole X-Files series when they start immediately hooking up. There’s no discussion about company policy, no walk down the hall to HR to follow whatever protocol was keeping Mulder and Scully apart for SEVEN SEASONS. It’s just like, obviously when two attractive people are working together side-by-side every day in the most stressful situations imaginable and they return home from a near-death situation, they are going to immediately bone. The fact that the directors toyed with viewers for seven seasons, impregnating Scully with Mulder’s seed artificially and not having them even so much as kiss until the last episode of season 7 was cruel and unusual, and awesome in a way.

I’ve only watched the first two seasons of Californication, but anything that involves the intersection of Mulder, sex, and professional writing is automatically win. I was pondering all of these things when I walked past the ad again near the NQRW entrances, this one with a special addition:

IMAG2910

Did I say Mulder? I meant Lulder. Thank you subway ad defacers, you made my day.

PS: Everything is better with googly eyes.

Self-esteem tax hike

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.

Why it’s so hard to date in NYC

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

One of the top things I get asked by friends who have visited NYC but never lived here is why it’s so hard to date. I’ve thought about this a lot in the five years I’ve called myself a New Yorker, but tonight while walking home, I came up with a summary.

It doesn’t have anything to do with the Beauty Contest Problem, the Dowry Problem, the Secretary Problem, or any of the other explanations conceived of by mathematicians who have clearly never encountered a New York woman (which is exemplified by the fact that all of these problems are based on the assumption that the man is doing the picking). These “Problems” were defined in 1966, so I’ll cut them some slack (not you though, Satoshi, your evolutionary psychology example makes even less sense). But I’d like to see present-day statisticians take a whack at this, mathematically. Soma did a pretty awesome job visualizing the # of singles in the US, but as you can see from the beautiful, adjustable map (that you need an updated Java plug-in to view), NYC has some of the most singles per capita, so this still doesn’t explain why dating is hard.

Introducing: The subway door problem.

Say you are exiting the subway on one of those elevated platforms that have swinging doors before the stairs, like on the J/M line (such as I did today). Most people will reach out to push open the door for the person behind them as they’re walking through it. It’s a courteous thing to do that requires very little effort. There are three scenarios in which people won’t do this though: If they’re an asshole, if they are unaware someone is behind them, and if they are carrying heavy bags or are for some other reason physically incapable of holding the door.

Already we’ve solved one mystery: There are more assholes in New York, per capita, than in other places. Now, I think NYC gets a worse rap for this than it deserves, and that most of this perception comes from tourists who have had bad encounters with New Yorkers because they were doing something dumb to deserve it. But there are a lot of sociopaths here. In the world of dating, this is also true. There are tons of people here who have no desire to get emotionally close to another human being, who proceed to pillage what they want, sexually, using whatever deceptive techniques necessary, and then split.* In other, smaller cities, this behavior is rare because the asshole will build a reputation and will eventually not be able to successfully execute this type of feat. In New York though, you never have to see anyone again if you don’t want to. It’s not exactly like a slighted lover can come bang on your door and convince you to give them a shot—New Yorkers have locked outer doors, buzzers (sometimes with video surveillance), and door men to ensure that they can’t.

If you’ve had one of these encounters, which most New Yorkers have, you’re going to build some walls to decrease the chances of this happening again, which brings us to the second subway door scenario: It’s hard to see over walls. Like the subway exiter who is oblivious to the person behind them because they have headphones on or something, New Yorkers who have become disillusioned by previous dating experiences have a harder time recognizing when someone is attempting to genuinely emotionally bond with them and enter into any kind of “relationship” situation. So the door closes, and the person who just got it slammed on their face suffers, as does the person who did the slamming, if they happen to glance behind them and realize what they accidentally just did. They didn’t know anyone was there, they didn’t mean to inconvenience them! But now they feel guilty. Or maybe they’ve just encountered so many assholes they gave up on holding the door for anyone, and even though you just got the door slammed on you, maybe seeing your sad eyes through the glass made them realize there are some people worthy of door-holding out there, and they’ll make an effort for the next.

In the third and final scenario in this reductionist thought experiment, you’re exiting the subway and your arms are full of grocery bags. You know someone is probably behind you, but the person in front of you pushed the door open just enough for you to slip through without it smashing your eggs, so you go for it. In that moment, your priority is what’s in those bags; you can’t worry about the person behind you, because there’s no way you can help yourself and them at the same time. If you reach out a hand to hold the door, you’ll drop something. In fact, what would be really nice in that moment, is if the person behind you would reach forward and stop the door from closing, giving you more time to slip through, lessening the chance that your eggs will be crushed. The problem with New Yorkers is that we are all carrying bags, and many more of them than the average American. Inside them are our high-powered jobs, our dreams, and our egos made fragile by the emotional wounds and feelings of being lost that drove us to this city in the first place. And while we might dream of someday being able to walk around without them so we wouldn’t have to worry about damaging what’s inside, we have to protect them now, and let the door slam shut on others.

So we New Yorkers will continue to move about in our lonely commutes. But don’t feel bad for us. We’ve got serious loot in those bags that suburbanites in podunk USA won’t ever know about. And it’s not so cut and dry, anyway. Some of us learn how to meet each other half way, where you slow down to stick a foot out, propping the door open just enough so the person behind you can slip an elbow in, and everyone gets through unscathed.

The good news for the person who just got the door slammed on them though, is if you’re someone who would like to hold the door for someone else, the chick standing there with her arms full of groceries is probably going to be especially grateful to the guy who saw the door slam in her face and rushes over to open it for her.

*I’m not claiming to have never done this. I have and I’m not proud of it. I’m simply acknowledging this is how some people operate.