Part Three: A Year Later


Every night, after a day of walking on New York City streets, I wash my feet before slipping under the covers.

The city demands a lot out of you. You’re required to walk everywhere, squeeze in between unshowered bodies on the train, stand for long periods of time, and collect grime under your feet. It’s so easy to ruin shoes here. In a city with the world’s most expensive stuff, I find it best not to get too attached to anything because I’ll most likely leave it somewhere or mess it up. This disposability works well for New Yorkers. Apartments here are so tiny there’s not much room to possess more than what you need. It’s why a lot of people eat out; kitchens are too damn small and, in the summer, a hot stove  just warms an already unconditioned living room.

Before moving here, I’d learned to let go of most of my possessions. I’d lived out of suitcases while traveling abroad and interning in the summer. It’s amazing how quickly humans adapt because I didn’t miss anything. So, imagine how surprised I was to see just how much stuff I’d amassed as a young professional in Virginia. There, my room had hardwood floors, a wall-to-wall bookshelf, a fireplace, two closets. Here, despite downsizing, my room barely fit the furniture I brought with me, and I had to let go of my beloved reading chair.

I haven’t missed it. Too much.

It doesn’t quite feel like it’s been a year. But in a few weeks, when the opressive summer heat gives way to what I hope will be a cool fall, I’ll have been here for exactly that long.

This time last year I was probably obsessively scanning messageboards and blogs to learn from people who made the same move. If you’re ever at a loss for what to say to someone in New York, always start with, “Where are you from?” The rest will come naturally. Everyone has a story, a goal, a reason for being here. Many don’t stay longer than a year or two, which makes it difficult to forge deep friendships. You have to keep in mind it’s a transient city that attracts certain types of people separated by their motives. There are the ambitious sort who are here to work; there are the vagabonds who stay for a while and move on. And then there are those who discover the city isn’t really for them and, chalking it up to life experience, leave for good.

They say the first year is the hardest, and afterward things get easier. I’ve been lucky.

As soon as I arrived, I hit the ground running. I started writing unpaid for news sites to update my clips. I made some contacts, with the intention of freelancing or finding a job, any job that paid the bills. I explored the city, taking pictures and recording my observations on my blog. I spent much of my time alone, though spending time with friends from college and the Bronx helped stave off loneliness. Then there were the friends I made elsewhere, from my past life as a reporter, from some random experience somewhere. It was easy to find someone to do something with, though difficult to run into anyone because different groups of people like different kinds of things. I still don’t have a favorite bar for that reason.

A year later, I’m reminded that moving somewhere doesn’t make it your home. It takes time, especially because I moved right before the holidays, which required a few trips home, and especially because I’m at that age when everyone’s graduating, getting married, or still expecting you to make it to things that used to take you 20 minutes to get to.

Nearly four months after I moved, a year since my former life ended, and with my money running low, I found a job in publishing.  It’s challenging, it pays the bills, and I’m currently functioning on caffeine and alcohol. Though I’m looking forward to taking a break in a few weeks, the masochist in me is totally enjoying it.

Looking back, it would be easy to say I was lucky. Which I was. But, when you think about it, it took a lot of blind faith to even get here, with no contacts in my field, no prospect of anything waiting for me.  There were some rough spots, given that not everyone supported my decision and money was always tight.  My friends kept me sane.

Overall, I’ve found that the fear of what’s to come is often far more crippling than when it actually happens, though it doesn’t come without sacrifice. It’s true that to live here and to succeed, you have to be willing to forgo the amenities you can get elsewhere for much cheaper.  What makes it even more daunting, though, is being away from everyone who matters.

Fortunately, I’ve found some great people here, too, and the rest are just an e-mail away.

This is the third and last installment of the series I’ve so dramatically titled “The NYC Chronicles.” You can find the first two here and here.

About the picture: I’d been sitting on Union Square for a while, reading a book and listening to the street musicians nearby. It was interesting to see them interact with everyone who came up to them, European tourists, random passersby. Then there was a guy who asked them if his son could play the drums for a bit. They humored him and were immediately surprised by how good the boy was. He drew a bigger crowd than the two men could muster — After all, who doesn’t love magical little boy musicians (See August Rush)? Afterward, one of the street musicians said to the boy, “You made my day, my week, my hope for the next generation.”

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Part Two: Falling & Rising

“Why do you want to work so hard?” my dad asked. He was against it from the start. So was my mother.

After getting laid off from a reporting job, I moved back home to think about what I wanted to do with myself. Teach English abroad, go back to school, consider nonprofits, move somewhere, anywhere. The list went on and on, and I was so sure I’d left journalism for good.

I saved my unemployment checks and the money I earned from a summerlong stint as a document reviewer at a law firm. The pay there was decent, the job easy but incredibly tedious. Day in and day out I sat in front of a computer scanning thousands of documents, barely getting up except for a 30-minute lunch break. I knew I didn’t want to spend 40 hours of my week on something I wasn’t passionate about. I still wanted to be a writer.

So there I was, standing in the kitchen probably with a glass of water or whatever I innocently went there for, and there was my dad or mom, taking turns it seemed, asking the same questions.

“Why do you want to work so hard?”

“Why don’t you just stay here and live here for free?”

And the just as irritating non-question: “I think you’re making a mistake.”

I’d always planned to move to New York; it was just a matter of when. When it became clear I wouldn’t be able to afford to go to college in the city, I decided to postpone the move until graduation. Then, when it became clear I’d probably position myself better with meaningful work experience at a small newspaper, I postponed it until after my first post-college job. Five years, I told myself. In five years, I’ll move on from here and see what happens.

But after about two years, my job was gone. I hadn’t counted on the economy collapsing or for the newspaper industry to be in shambles so quickly. Not interested in churning out stories in another small city in another small newspaper that probably would have its own round of layoffs, I knew I was done. This, despite sacrificing my grades and sleep to produce the college newspaper. This, despite spending my summers in remote towns in southwest Virginia to work 40 hours or more, often including weekends, at small newspapers. I cried about it once. Once, a few nights after I learned the news, I had a few glasses of wine with my roommate and cried, alone, before bed.

But I’m pretty ambitious, naively so, that after two weeks back home sleeping and doing nothing, I decided to make new goals. I began waking up earlier than I did when I had a job, running for fun, and planning my move, jobless, to New York. I didn’t tell many people about it, partly because I was afraid of failing. And in a world where friends broadcast the most inane things on Facebook, no one else really needed to know.

I knew regardless of what I ended up doing in New York, I was going to write about it. It all came down to what drew me to journalism in the first place. But at 24, I didn’t quite have the life experience that made for compelling writing. I needed to jolt my system, to venture outside my comfort zone, and to be around others who were looking for the same thing.

Eight months after I moved back home, I was gone.

This is the second of three entries in a series I’ve so dramatically titled “The NYC Chronicles.” You can find the first one here and the third and last installment here.

Image: A summer night in downtown Richmond, 2009

Part One: Daily Battles

Living in New York is different as an adult.

Before moving back, I had a 13-year-old frame of reference of city life — rollerblading in the park, sitting on someone’s stoop on hot days, going to Manhattan in herds.

Most have a hard time believing I spent part of my childhood in the Bronx. There’s a certain accent I apparently am supposed to have, a certain mannerism I lack. But if you looked hard enough, you’d see flashes of the Bronx. The chicken neck in fits of annoyance, the love of ’90s R&B and hip-hop and, at the time, only ’90s R&B and hip-hop, a wariness of unsolicited acts of kindness.

I didn’t move here with delusions that once I got here, everything would take care of itself. I knew life in New York was hard. You compete for everything, not only in jobs against the top overachievers from who knows where, but for even the most routine things. You fight to be the first in line, the first to get a seat on the train, to walk faster than the next person so you can get to where you need to be just a second earlier. Luckily, I’m competitive, though I haven’t won every battle. Once, my foot got caught in the train doors while I was still on the platform. Just as my life flashed before my eyes, I managed to wiggle free. These days, I’m a bit more patient. There’s always another train.

But years of winning and losing daily battles builds resilience. You know how to forgo amenities you’d enjoy elsewhere for much cheaper. Just doing laundry involves lugging or carting a Santa Claus-sized bag to a laundromat. Doing groceries requires you to buy only what you can carry because you most likely don’t have a car. Wearing heels is one of the most impractical things girls can do, given the physicality of getting anywhere, and we have the scars to prove it.

In the Bronx, I remember trudging in snow (Wow, I’m so sounding like a grandpa right now) for several blocks to get to school. I’d turned down rides from my parents’ friends long ago, opting for the autonomy of being able to go anywhere after school, usually cheerleading or Girl Scouts. And because I went to a parochial school, the only thing that shielded me from inclement weather was a plaid skirt and tights.

I remember my dad getting mugged in our apartment building after work one night, sharing a studio apartment with my family (five of us in all), the hubcaps of our brand new Camry getting stolen after being parked outside for five minutes. I remember walking down the street with my friends and having racial slurs hurled at us because we were Asian.

By the time I moved to Virginia, at 14, I’d emerged from my formative years a bit hardened. Still, I knew how to cross the street, the kinds of places and people to avoid, and to walk briskly, anywhere. I was once again different, this time different from something more homogenous. But I knew how to fend for myself. I’d done it before.

That’s why people who have lived here — I mean, really lived here — are always proud to say so. Sure, the hubris that comes with it can be grating, but it’s the only sort of arrogance that comes from having lived, no, survived something.

In about two months I’ll have been living here on my own for a year. People ask me whether the excitement has worn off yet, now that I’ve seen that living in the city is different from visiting it. What they don’t realize is the New York visitors see was never the New York I wanted to come back to.

So, no, the excitement hasn’t worn off yet. I still have so much fight left in me.

This is the first of three entries in a series I’ve so dramatically titled “The NYC Chronicles.” Find the second and third installments here and here.