I wasn’t planning to be a New Yorker. New York just kind of happened to me.
My friend Valerie was going to be the New Yorker. She had the fashion industry dreams and took off for the Big Apple as soon as she got out of college. I stayed in Boston after I graduated like someone who doesn’t know when to leave the party: I couldn’t get full-time work as a journalist and everybody I went to school with had moved on.
Finally, I’d had enough. I figured if I was destined to be a part-time freelance writer and full-time temp worker, I could do it just as well in New York City as in Boston, and I’d probably get more work as a freelancer anyway. (So said my editors. And they were right.) So in March of 1996, I packed up my bags and went.
Were that it was so easy. First I went down for a long weekend and crashed at Valerie’s pad, scouring the ads for temp agencies and possible living locations. Astoria came recommended by an editor, so I ventured into Queens for the first time, walked into the real estate agency that was actually housed in the subway station itself, and landed a second floor studio rental above a bagel shop. I then went home to move and discovered that a) all of my shit would not fit in the van I had rented (yes, a van; U-Hauls were standard and I couldn’t drive stick) so b) I’d have to do the drive twice and c) it was set to blizzard the night before I left.
Cindy, wherever you are, thank you for helping me move. Good Samaritan, who saw the two of us struggling to carry heavy things out of my apartment on the Fenway into the back of a van in the dark while it started snowing down on us: you are a saint. Susan, thank you for helping me move in once we got there. I have no idea how I’d have made it without a few extra pairs of hands: The empty van skidded on the slick roads, the full van’s wiper fluid froze in the icy temperatures, and the day after the blizzard it was bright and sunshiny and I left my sunglasses at home.
I didn’t tell mom when I was moving until after I did it. That is, after I did the drive twice. Cursing all the way.
It’s 20 years since I made that move, and no lie: one of the best decisions I ever made. If I couldn’t have the life I thought I wanted as a rock journalist in London, New York City turned out to be a solid runner up. So, because I have a blog and because someone other than me might be interested in a trip down memory lane, I’m gonna sit right down and share, in a couple of posts, what the last 20 years of becoming a New Yorker have been like. Because while I grew up in Maryland and went to school in Boston, I have officially lived in New York City longer than anywhere else.
And that should count for something.
So, to begin ….
The apartment over the bagel shop had two things going for it: Location to subway (easy walk to the N), and price. I won’t say it was cheap, but it could be done. This was what it looked like when I moved in, with my sad piecemeal furniture.
The apartment wasn’t much. Enter the front door, face kitchen. Turn left, see what should have been a single room divided into two narrow ones: I slept in the one on the right with a fold-out futon; it was a living room otherwise. On the left, my office and non-TV-based living space, with closet. The floor sloped so severely in that room if you put a Coke can on its side it would roll. Bathroom was next to the front door. That was it. But it was mine: the first time I ever lived alone. It was gloriously freeing to not care about roommates or when I went to bed or who ate the last slice of bread.
That said, the photos remind me how I was coming off a spate of hacking all my furniture and blinging things up: I painted that dumb faux-wood desk those seriously primary colors, and put fake gems and plastic trinkets on my (painted yellow) phone. And I don’t think you can officially be a grown-up until you either get rid of every milk crate you ever used as storage or put it into hiding. I wasn’t there yet.
It was a good time, figuring things out. I got temp work, as much as I wanted. (In those days it seemed you largely just needed to be a warm body; I rarely had more work than I could handle and would spend quite a bit of my days writing stories and emailing them to myself back home to work on at night. I got a lot of writing done.) In 1996 I went to a Yankee game, and we still had the Twin Towers. My friends Valerie and Susan were still in town, at least for a little while.
And at some point the following year, I scratched my cornea and ended up with an inflammation of the iris, which gave me a David Bowie look (also, seriously painful). But I also got an assignment to cover the Rolling Stones’ announcement of their Brooklyn Bridges album and tour. I wrote the news piece, then had the chutzpah to ask for tickets to their upcoming show at Giants’ Stadium — and got two of them.
At the time I was working for a mergers and acquisition firm as a temp, but a rotating one, which meant I would be in one secretary seat one week, then another another week — kind of an in house substitute. I knew one of the VPs there, a young guy named Bruce, was a Stones fan so I made an offer: Drive me to the show and back home (remember, the stadium is in Jersey) and you can have a floor ticket to the show. Deal. (Also, this was not a date. Nice guy, but not a date.)
On the way there — he got a car with a driver to take both of us, which was an ostentatious display of wealth from my $10.50/hour point of view — he gave me a warning: “I may get a little worked up,” he said (or words to that effect). “I may not stay in my seat.”
And he was true to his word. A couple of songs into the show he had his shirt off and was running up and down the aisles like a crazy person. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.
That temp job was good to me, and I had a lot of fun (considering it wasn’t doing exactly what I wanted, in a pretty standard office setup) while there. I got to work for the Big Boss for a couple of weeks — he was so big he had two secretaries, and I filled in for one — which meant I got to check out his little refrigerator full of pineapple juice, his files that contained currencies from multiple countries, and had to become deft at explaining to his second wife (who’d been gifted her own production company when she married him; life is hard on all of us equally, I see) that he would call her back as soon as he had a moment.
I also remember a secretary I worked across from who was actually part of the Junior League; when I left for my first full-time job she gave me a going-away present of an oversized mug with handle for eating soup that I still have to this day. I remember one secretary who got pissy with me because I wore a Claddagh ring yet was not Irish; she also asked in all seriousness about whether Jews used blood to make matzo. I remember one kind-faced, low-key VP who I worked for and ran into once on the subway home; he ended up inspiring a character in a book I was writing. I remember going to ’21’ with a fellow secretary one night for drinks, just because, and how we were sat at a booth table both facing the room and given our drinks in wine glasses, despite the fact that I’d ordered whiskey. I remember palling around with a junior executive who explained to me the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and who I went to see Titanic with. (Also not a date.)
And I remember caving and taking a job there after a year of bouncing around — because clearly no one was ever going to hire me to work at a magazine full time, so why not at least get benefits — with a guy who’d gone through three secretaries in a very short span, and who had tried the patience of his bosses by not getting along with anybody. Since I wasn’t invested in a career as an assistant, I didn’t kowtow and we got along splendidly.
So much so that three months after I came on full time and actually did get hired full-time at a magazine, when I wrote my resignation letter I underscored that it was not Michael’s fault I was leaving. I had just finally, finally gotten a real job in my field….
More on that next time….