Brief Encounters Sans Manolos

I’d spent much of the day wandering the villages.

As I walked from the West Village to Union Square to catch the NRQ, I chatted with Phil on the phone, bypassing plenty of promising visuals — a neat building here, a charming cafe there. My pictures from the day had been disappointing, and I didn’t have the energy to attempt further.

Then, there she was.

Looking up to cross the street, I’d spotted a petite woman to my left walking toward me. “That looks like…” I thought, staring just a second too long.

Fake celebrity sightings are wondrous for that second before reality hits. Before the person gives you a proper view of his nameless face; before she speaks in an accent reserved for much too distant lands; before he insists, “No, I’m not Justin fucking Timberlake. Now, give me back my shirt.”

In this case, there was no mistaking the stranger. Sure, instead of Manolos, she wore sneakers. And instead of a Patricia Fields concoction, she had on an ensemble so regular I can’t remember whether she wore jeans or gray capris. What gave her away, though, was her hair — blond and frizzy free — and that strut, a strut recognizable only to the legions of avid worshipers of a now-defunct show seriously marred by ill-conceived movies. Digressions aside, that suddenly didn’t matter. After all, I was crossing paths with Carrie Bradshaw herself.

New Yorkers are known for being aloof in situations that otherwise would be cause for concern. Homeless man bleeding to death on the street? Mugging in broad daylight? An impromptu a capella performance on the train? All just another ho-hum day in the city, and being in the presence of celebrities is no different.

I’ve often wondered how many I pass on a daily basis, as I’m usually too engrossed in my own inconsequential goings-on to pay attention. Unlike New Yorkers, however, I am unable to brush off such encounters when I do have them. There was that time I ran into Artie from “Glee” on a busy SoHo sidewalk. “Hey!” I said to him, my arm outstretched as if serving a platter. “Hey!” he said, smiling. Instant homies. Then there was the time outside a restaurant on the Lower East Side, where Phil and I saw that Joey Fatone lookalike from “Project Runway” whose name we couldn’t remember and dared not ask, especially because he was yelling obscenities about something or other. We resorted to shameless gawking.

Perhaps the gravest transgression I committed of the Stay Cool Around Celebrities Rule involved Katie Holmes. Let me preface this by saying it occurred before I moved to the city, so it shouldn’t be held against me. In fact, I was in town looking at my future apartment, so I was very much Tourist Girl Unaware of Unspoken Rule (TGUUR in subsequent references).

It was an alcohol-fueled night on the LES, and a few friends and I were on our last legs, standing around  trying to figure out where to go next. We watched two vehicles — a truck pulling a car — stop just in front of us at a red light. On the passenger side of the second vehicle sat Mrs. Cruise, her bob largely hidden by a hat. A cameraman hovered just above her. A typical New Yorker, observing the SCAC rule, would continue on her way, frustrated by the obstruction Katie Holmes’ brigade was causing in hailing a cab home. But I, a TGUUR, could not control my impulses.

“Katie Holmes!” I said. “It’s Katie Holmes!”

I ran to the middle of the street wielding my point-and-shoot and, inches from her face, gleefully snapped away. “Your flash is ruining our shot,” said the cameraman. “Please stop.” A few defiant snaps later, I walked back to the sidewalk, extremely proud of my brief foray into paparazzi-dom — the epitome of embarrassing TGUURs everywhere.

This time, within an arm’s reach of Carrie Bradshaw and without the mystical powers of alcohol to guide me, I engaged in no such tomfoolery. It was just me and her on that island; my heart stopped.

Should I take a picture? I wondered.

Give her a hug?

Sob uncontrollably?

Before I could reconcile my conflicting thoughts (Act cool! Take a picture! Wave awkwardly!), she’d already crossed the street.

“Hello?” I heard Phil say[1].

“Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”

Not quite the cool indifference of a New Yorker, but some progress nonetheless.

FOOTNOTES back to post
[1] He later told me he thought I’d gotten mugged by how abruptly and how long I’d stopped talking.

(About the image: Christopher Street, West Village)

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.”

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