Tag Archives: youth

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.

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NYC wormhole

I stepped onto the crowded subway at First Avenue, cold, wet and annoyed that my dentist was out sick after I’d gone all the way over to NYU’s dental school. The train car was packed almost to capacity, the five or so people who exited barely making room for people to enter. I noticed there was space near the midpoint of two entrances in the car, and got more annoyed. One of my serious pet peeves is when there’s a lot of people who need to get onto the train, and the people already on the train just stand there, blocking the entrance. It’s the kind of inconsideration that can make one miss a train when she’s already running late, and I’m always careful to move toward the middle in those situations. So I said, “excuse me” with detectable annoyance, ready to move into the empty middle space if the person next to me was determined to hold on to her hand rail.

Then I noticed that the terrible offender was a little girl. She looked up at me with wide eyes and hurridly stepped backward until she wound up in the middle of a crowd of people much taller than her with no access to a rail. I instantly felt bad, like one of *those* New Yorkers who give us all a bad name. She looked really flustered. “Do you have something to hold onto?” I asked her, managing a half-smile and moving slightly to make the railing available to her. She scrambled for a few moments to get situated with the tangled headphone cords plugged into her iPod mini, and I really thought she was going to go for a tumble when the train started moving. But she managed to get the earbuds in place and grasp the rail just before the train lurched forward.

I think it must have been her first time riding the subway alone. She was so small, couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, yet was dressed in the style of your typical Williamsburg-dwelling resident. Black peacoat, a long gray t-shirt over black leggings, brown and white Oxford shoes. Everything about her outfit was striving to proclaim an exaggerated maturity — except for the  pink fabric flower clip that held back part of her hair. It was a kid’s item, purchased by a grandmother or aunt at a kid’s store, a dead giveaway.

I glanced down at her iPod and saw she was spasticly flipping from song to song, only spending about 10 seconds at a time on each. Curious as to what kids are listening to these days, I peered over her shoulder and glimpsed her screen.

Snoop Dogg?????

Little girl, don’t you know what goes on at Snoop Dogg shows? Women sit on the shoulders of their male friends, waiting for the camera to broadcast them on the big screen so they can flash the crowd. He smokes blunts on stage and fires t-shirts into the crowd through an oversized bong. He raps about bitches and hos. What is an adorable, innocent girl like you doing listening to that?

Where were her parents?

I wanted to sit her down and talk to her about school, and priorities, and ask her why she was riding the subway alone at night. She exited the train ahead of me at Bedford Avenue, slipping between the crowd with ease as people ran into me, and walked up the stairs with faux confidence. Out into the night. I thought it a possibility that some bartender would be fooled by her hip outfit, overlooking her height and obvious age, and accidentally or apathetically get her trashed.

I don’t know why that girl fascinated me so much. I think that when I was 10, I was roaming cities by myself and listening to vulgar lyrics while not understanding what they mean too. I think she shocked me because I wondered if I was looking at her how other people look at me… as a little girl in a big city, striving to play a role that might be out of her league. And I think that probably, if I told that little girl what I thought, she would tell me to go fuck myself, just like I would tell someone who might say that to me.

There’s something about this city that accelerates life. It’s like a time machine that ages the minds of people at 10X the rate of people living in average suburban cities, while keeping their bodies the same. Sometimes it causes mental growing pains as the layers of comforting naïveté are removed, one by one, sometimes peeled other times ripped off. Maybe if you want to get by here, you have to get used to standing naked in the cold. If you want to make it, you have to like it, or at least convince yourself it’s better than being smothered in all that god awful comfort.

Why don’t young people blog?

Today I came across a post by the famous Bora Zivkovic, whose sense of Internet omnisciency makes my own pale in comparison. Bora has been following an experiment of sorts by Mason Posner, a professor of biology at Ashland University in Ohio, in which Posner had his students create science blogs as part of the curriculum.

Bora writes:

…take a look at last year’s (2009) student blogs – wonderful writing on all of them, good stuff. But! One of them is already deleted. There are four other blogs that stopped posting around early May of last year, probably at the time the course ended. Only one of the blogs is still running today. Why did they stop?

Now, you may remember a similar experiment at Duke – see this and this and especially experiences of Erica Tsai who ran the program. Why did all the Duke student blogs end once the class was over? There is always a lot of chatter online (see the most recent commentary about a Pew study hereherehere and here) about teens and college students not blogging…

Bora notes that members of this younger demographic use social networking sites like Twitter and the facebook, sometimes more than their elders, but they are more likely to keep private accounts. His main question is, why do these Web savvy kids fall off with blogging?

My hunch is that a lot of it has to do with visibility. For some perspective, my class (graduating college in 2008), was the first to  have access to the facebook, and to have it all four years of college. I remember the day I got the invitation the August before I left for school, and how it shaped my interactions throughout college. We voluntarily exposed our personal lives in a time that was the height of our debauchery. We navigated our social worlds knowing people before we actually met them, and, more commonly, we learned way too much about people after only meeting them once, shaping our decisions for future meetings.

We saw our peers become examples of what not to do on the facebook. Their drunk party pictures became grounds for expulsion, job termination, and removal from athletic teams. Public embarrassment became easier than ever. One guy I (unfortunately) knew in college created a group called “The 100 Hottest Ladies at University of Michigan.” After reaching quota, he changed the group name to “MICHIGAN’S DIRTIEST WHORES,” and had a good laugh. Some people remained in that group for weeks without realizing.

With job scarcity what it is, and the aspect of Internet permanence introduced by companies like Google, kids are instilled with the advice to not post anything they wouldn’t want a potential employer to see with the fervor of sex ed campaigns promoting condom use: You don’t want to do something impulsive that will fuck up your life forever. One of my colleagues at The Michigan Daily published this article with some pretty compelling examples of how this could happen (which prompted me to make a facebook album called “This’ll fuck up your political career” and tag him in it. PWND!). We even had a policy at The Daily that editors couldn’t be in certain groups, as they might put a dent in The Daily’s credibility if someone cried “Conflict of Interest” on a news article. And of course, we all watched the defamation (not to mention contract terminations and loss of incredible amounts of revenue) of our classmate Michael Phelps.

So you see, the paranoia about putting yourself out there on the Web in an unedited form is a rampant inhibitory factor in young individuals. Hence, the locked twitter accounts and private facebook pages. Even though science blogging seems like a tame enough activity, and one that would promote one’s job acquisition instead of jeopardizing it, I think the overall skepticism about Web publicity could have something to do with young people’s hesitancy to maintain blogs. Also, young people want to talk about young people things sometimes. If they’re blogging on a platform where they can’t fully express themselves, then yeah, it does start to feel like a job or a chore.

Personally, I think the social networking paranoia is way overblown for the same reasons I think people worried about the Internet turning into Big Brother and enslaving us all need to relax: People just don’t care that much, and don’t have enough time to dig through all the content a kid can generate. I still keep my facebook page private with five different privacy filters for my friends, and have a locked Twitter account in addition to a public one, but I also have a lot of publicly available references to my debauchery too. My current employer Google stalked me pretty thoroughly before he offered me a job, but I’d like to think he hired me because of my quirky Web remnants, not in spite of them. Now he has full access to my facebook page, and doesn’t think any less of me or my ability to get the job done.

In the words of Bora Z himself, “20 years from now, a person who does NOT have drunk Facebook pictures online will be suspicious… ‘Drunk at a party’ is just a shorthand for having a normal, relaxed human online presence and not just something on LinkedIn that looks like a Resume.” People are people, and even if a person is your potential boss, they should understand that you’re just a person too. Maybe if we didn’t set extreme standards about people’s personal lives for admittance into certain professions, kids wouldn’t be so discouraged from sharing on the Web. And our politicians might be a little less fucked up.

So I think that if we want kids to get engaged with blogging, even science blogging at an early age, they have to hear messages from their elders that their any future employer who would judge them for expressing themselves isn’t someone they really want to work for anyway. And then we, as their potential future employers, need to follow through.

While we’re at it, I want to see older people post the remnants of their college debauchery on the facebook. I mean it, bust out the photo albums, scan those pics and post em. You all have job security! You really have no excuse to deny your students this joy.