A Year in New York

IMG_1510Every day I have to convince myself not to quit my job and buy a one way ticket out of New York City.

In March we celebrated our year anniversary living here. Well not celebrated so much as acknowledged the hallmark of it’s passing with a sense of triumph that we’d managed to survive at all.

The year and change we’ve lived here has been the hardest of my life. I gave up friends, a well paying job that I liked, and the comfortable familiarity of the Pacific Northwest for an unknown future in a city I’d never even visited, where I had no job, no prospects, and where the only person I knew was the man I was moving with.

We spent the first month and a half in Queens with a man C was barely acquainted with, a film obsessed flight attendant with two needy cats named Truffaut and Dainty June. We paid $400 a month to sleep on his floor with no privacy, trying to appease his insatiable need for attention while maintaining our own sanity.

IMG_1100I spent the days in Queens running on the boardwalk or walking on the beach, applying for jobs, and quietly trying to suppress my growing sense of panic that I’d made a horrible mistake.

I’d been accustomed to living alone and suddenly C and I were living together, which was a lot to deal with in and of itself, but we were also living with someone else, a stranger who spent every waking moment telling non stop stories about all the celebrities he’s friends with, who stayed up till the wee hours with his giant TV blaring in the same room we were trying to sleep, who became offended if he felt that he was being ignored.

Tensions rose and we made a hasty exit, accepting a room in Brooklyn from a black, vegan lesbian with OCD. The fact that this seemed like a better situation speaks volumes about how unbearable life in Queens had been. In Brooklyn we had a room of our own with a door we could close, a bed, and a view of Manhattan.

IMG_1616Sure we had to sweep the bathroom, and scour it with bleach every time we took a shower and steered clear of the kitchen altogether. But at least we had a little privacy, and a little space. C had a job by then, but money was still a huge worry. We were paying $1,000 a month for a room, and I was still unemployed.

We’d applied for an apartment in Manhattan in Washington Heights, a mostly Dominican neighborhood, vibrant and loud, and most of all, affordable. But they wanted so many things, our W2s from the previous year, our last three pay-stubs, our drivers’ licenses, our social security cards, letters from our employers, credit reports, our most current bank statements, that we withdrew our application.

In Brooklyn I walked across the Manhattan Bridge every day and explored the city. The crowded bustle of Chinatown. The sweltering stench of rotting fish in carts, and piles of garbage on street corners. I’d walk past the boutiques in Soho, the funky little shops in the Village. I’d walk along the piers in Chelsea, or up to Columbus Circle and Central Park.

IMG_1545We endured our first un-airconditioned summer in Brooklyn, sweating in front of a fan in our rented room, too hot to do anything.

After sending hundreds, if not thousands, of resumes to every job posting I could find, I got called in to two interviews. One was a dream job at a publishing company where I’d be an editor’s assistant for a prestigious medical journal in Manhattan, the other was for a low paying, menial data entry job at a third rate non profit in Queens. Guess which one called me back and offered me a job?

I was so grateful to have an income, any income, that it almost didn’t matter that I was making less than I had in a decade (despite living in the most expensive city in the U.S.), while being micro-managed to a comical degree.

After spending the previous three years working from home with no dress code, and near complete autonomy, adjusting to cubicle life was hard.

I have to wear slacks and a button up shirt. On my breaks and lunch I have to sign out on my phone, sign out on my computer, go physically sign out at a manager’s desk, and tell my team lead where I’m going. I have to inform my supervisor if I go to the bathroom. I have to fill out logs with everything I do throughout the day.

The company is housed in a converted warehouse in an industrial part of Long Island City where, during my first week, workers were protesting with signs warning about asbestos. Every few weeks dogs come in to sniff the office for bed bugs. I sit in my cubicle, doing data entry a brain damaged monkey could easily do, wondering what decisions I’ve made in my life that have led me to this place.

The biggest benefit of being employed, is that we were finally able to sign a lease and get an apartment of our own. The neighborhoods we loved, the Village, Chelsea, the Upper West Side, were still beyond our reach. Out of desperation we ended up signing a lease at a place in Staten Island. All they wanted was first month’s rent, a deposit, and a credit check.

Staten Island was quiet, and we had much more space than we would have had in Brooklyn or Manhattan. C and I adjusted to living together. For the first time in months we could retire to separate rooms and have a little space and time to ourselves. I drive him crazy by singing in a falsetto and donning a poor, cockney accent, and he drives me crazy with his messiness, clutter, and unhealthy Golden Girls obsession.

Living in Staten Island means a commute for me of two hours each way to work and back. All the commuting leaves little time or energy for much of anything else. C has an ever changing schedule, and usually comes in late at night after I’m already asleep, while I leave in the morning while he’s still sleeping. We joke that we see one another less now that we live together than we did back when we lived in different cities.

Life now consists of the ferry ride to Manhattan, the subway ride to Queens, a day spent in a cubicle, and coming back again.

On our days off, despite our poverty, we manage to go on shopping sprees in Soho and on Fifth Avenue. We get Japanese hot dogs, and sit in the park watching couples row boats on the lake.

Last October there was a hurricane. My mom was panic stricken and literally begged me to go inland somewhere away from the storm. But there was really nowhere to go and no way for me to get anywhere even if I’d wanted to. Luckily our part of the island was on higher ground than some less fortunate areas. Aside from some overturned trees, our street was unscathed.

We sat inside, listening to the wind howl. There was very little rain. It didn’t seem so bad. The storm was nearly over when the power went out. It stayed off for a week, and we had to heat up water on the stove to bathe with, and get dressed by candlelight. While the ferry was down it took five hours to get to work on a series of buses from Staten Island to Brooklyn, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and from Manhattan to Queens. Twice I lucked out and friendly neighbors drove me to the city. It was only by looking at posts friends made on Facebook that I was able to see the full extent of the damage.

In the winter there was a snowstorm. For the first time in my life I experienced temperatures in the single digits. I walked to the ferry as the snow blew sideways, stinging my face.

In Queens, pollution turned the white snow black within a couple of days. I got the flu, the sickest I’ve been in years and could barely leave my bed. There’s nothing worse when you’re feeling nauseous than to be trapped on a boat, and then a closed in, claustrophobic subway, respectively. I stood outside at the front of the ship, the freezing wind feeling almost pleasant against my fevered skin, thankful that, even though I was risking frostbite, I could at least breathe.

IMG_1877In spring the snow melted. Our street was lined with cherry blossoms. We went to botanical gardens. We shed our heavy winter coats for sweaters and light jackets.

I did volunteer work in an effort to meet people in the city, first at a home for people with AIDS, and later at a library. At the shelter we played Trivial Pursuit, and I kept telling myself, “Let the AIDS patient win, let the AIDS patient win,” but my competitive nature got the best of me. At the library, I shelved books, and the other, bookish volunteers kept to their respective aisles, and no one spoke.

Later I joined a writer’s group that met at a tea shop in Midtown near Central Park. It was fun, and productive, and I met some interesting people. But after a few weeks of going, my work schedule changed and I was no longer able to attend. I joined a gay, boardgame group, because such specific groups exist here, and it was fun. But when the games end, everyone disperses.

The people I work with are nice enough, but mostly have little in common with me. NYC has been a very lonely, isolated place. I sit squashed between strangers on the ferry and on the subway and no one speaks to me.

Now it’s summer again. I’m sitting on my day off in a coffee shop in the West Village. Because it’s so humid here, I’m bathed in sweat after being outside for a few minutes.

There are fewer tourists here than in Lower Manhattan where ghouls swarm around the World Trade Center Memorial with zoom lenses, and I shout at people to move out of the way when they block the sidewalk going to the ferry terminal. Shouting at strangers is not something I’d ever done prior to living here, but the stress and the crowds make me constantly angry.

Living a year here, despite the struggle, feels like an accomplishment in and of itself. The old saying, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” really does ring true. Not that we’ve made it exactly.

We live in an apartment in Staten Island with no furniture. We make ridiculous commutes to low paying jobs we hate. We didn’t exactly take Manhattan like the Muppets. But for now we wear our survival like a badge of honor. It’s enough that we’re here.

For now I can look at the amazed faces of tourists as I walk around Time Square and remember what it was like to experience the city for the first time. But now, instead of being overwhelmed by the enormity of it, I feel like I’ve been accepted as a part of it. A small piece in a vast puzzle of languages, ideas, diversity and culture that is distinctly American, distinctly New York.

For now I can say that I’m a New Yorker, and look back on the past year of struggle entirely without regret.

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Brooklyn

IMG_1504“I hate Brooklyn,” Carlos says as soon as we cross the Manhattan bridge. I nod my head in agreement. Before moving to New York I had this idea of what Brooklyn was going to be like, all Brownstones and little cafes and coffee shops, swarthy, Italian men with pizza places, and children of color playing hopscotch on the sidewalk.

Of course all of these things exist. The street we live on in Clinton Hill is lined with beautiful old brownstones and decaying mansions from another, more prosperous era. Mixed in with these are the less desirable brick, New York Housing Authority complexes like the one we live in. Hipsters with ridiculous glasses shop for organic produce at Mr. Coco, our corner market, or get overpriced, gourmet coffee from an obnoxious place called The Coffee Lab. Equally ridiculous are the young, black guys who walk with their pants hanging down to their knees, holding them up with one hand so they don’t fall down completely. People shout entire conversations to one another from across the street.

The only thing that the hipsters and their ghetto neighbors have in common is their propensity for being thoroughly annoying. There are other, nicer neighborhoods in Brooklyn like Brooklyn Heights with it’s views of Manhattan, and claim to fame for being the location of Michael Winners’s film, The Sentinel. The gentrified Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, home to writers Paul Auster, Martin Amis, and Tony Kushner are a yuppie paradise.  I understand the charm of Brooklyn. You’re removed from the hectic pace of the city. You can push your spoiled toddlers in their strollers from the Farmer’s Market, to the park and stop at Trader Joe’s on the way home.

For us, Brooklyn is like the city at large, filthy, crowded and overpriced. It’s as expensive as living in Manhattan, without the benefit of, you know, living in Manhattan.

Yesterday we looked at an apartment in Staten Island. The neighborhood was quiet and green. There was a park nearby. The apartment itself was huge. For $1,100 it seemed like a steal, especially since we’re paying $1,000 a month for a just a room in Brooklyn. It was a five minute walk to the ferry, and the ferry ride was 25 minutes, not much longer than the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Living on Staten Island wasn’t something I’d even considered prior to moving, but now it seems like an affordable, if not ideal alternative.

“At least it’s not Brooklyn.” Carlos said as we left the big, white building, built in 1929 before apartments were cookie cutters.  I nodded in agreement, lost in my own thoughts.

It doesn’t matter how much we like, or can tolerate, the apartment in Staten Island, or in Washington Heights, or Harlem, the places we can afford. Until I get a job, we cannot sign a lease, and aside from a couple of temporary assignments, I have no prospects. After applying for jobs non stop for the past 3 and a half months, I’m feeling more than a little demoralized. We’ll be forced to continue to sublet, or go further and further away for a place where Carlos’s income alone would be sufficient for a lease.

“Don’t let it defeat you.” Carlos says. I smile at him and kiss his cheek. But I feel defeated. I didn’t think finding a job would be so hard, considering that I’m not in the least bit picky about what I do at this point. Sitting in our sublet room in the dingy apartment in Brooklyn that we share with a strange and secretive lesbian, I can’t help but think of what I gave up to be in New York City, a job I liked that paid well and allowed me to work from home, an apartment of my own, a comfortable bed, belongings, friends. Part of me wants to just give up, go back to Seattle or Austin and beg for my old job back and live in a city where, for what I’d pay for a closet in Manhattan, I could have a luxury apartment with all the amenities.

For now I have him, and a room. From our window we can see Manhattan rising above the river and the trees, close enough to walk to with just a bridge separating us from it. It might as well be on the moon though, the distance that divides the rich from the poor, us from our dreams, Manhattan from Brooklyn.

 

Rain and Trains/Jews/Father’s Day/Drinks

IMG_1184The night before the interview he cut my hair. I sat in front of the open window as he gave me a buzz. He gently turned my head from side to side, and I watched the tiny blond hairs fall into my lap. Outside the rain obscured our view of Manhattan.

We’d just had our first fight. It wasn’t exactly a fight. I’d done something thoughtless that upset him. He assured me repeatedly that he wasn’t mad at me, while I repeatedly apologized. Because we rent a room in someone else’s apartment, there were no other rooms for us to retreat to. So he cut my hair, and then we watched a movie.

The next day I had an interview in Plainview, NY. The commute from Brooklyn was two and a half hours, two subway lines, a train, a bus, and a very long walk. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but they were the only company (aside from some staffing agencies) to call me in for an interview. After my subway transfer, I caught the Long Island Rail Road to a town called Hicksville, NY. I sat on the empty train and watched the rain over the green, New York countryside. At the train station I caught a bus to the office.

The bus stopped over a mile from the building, so I walked in the rain. When the sidewalk ended, I walked in wet grass. A truck sped past me and splattered me with mud.

In the interview a small, rotund woman with a thick, Long Island accent asked me about the trip. “The last person we hired from the city quit because the commute was too much.” She said.

“It was fine.” I assured her, smiling too broadly, inwardly wondering if I really would be willing to travel that far every day for a job I knew I wouldn’t like.

On Friday I had a temporary assignment as a receptionist for a staffing agency. After working from home for the past two and a half years, it was very strange to put on nice clothes and go into an office. I walked through the Financial District in the early morning past a group of kids protesting at a corner church. They were curled up in sleeping bags on the sidewalk with signs about taxing religious institutions with anonymous masks and New Kids on the Block blankets. Down the street from them, a real homeless person was rummaging through a garbage bin for the remains of someone’s discarded water bottle.

For most of my work day I sat in front of a phone that didn’t ring. I doodled nine squares on a notepad, and with each passing hour I marked out a square. When people did call, it was mostly other job seekers wanting to talk to a recruiter. I marveled at how unprofessional they all sounded and wondered if they were going to get a job before I do.

***

“They could kill us, and no one would say anything.” Carlos said as we walked through Williamsburg. We’d walked across the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In Williamsburg we found ourselves surrounded by orthodox Jews in long, black coats with their glasses, ringlets, and large, round, furry hats. We walked for blocks and blocks without seeing any other people who weren’t thus bedecked. Even the parking signs were written in Hebrew. It felt as if we’d suddenly entered another country.

The surreal feeling didn’t end until some kids riding bikes past us said, “These people are crazy!”

***

On Father’s Day I dutifully called my dad for the second of our bi-annual conversations that occur on his birthday and on Father’s day. I didn’t want to call, but figured calling would be easier on me than dealing with the drama that would ensue from not calling.

My dad was at work near Laredo, TX, servicing construction equipment. He’s been working 90 hours a week in places like Louisiana and Laredo, despite the fact that they own their home, have no debt, and have enough in the bank to retire. Obviously I did not inherit his work ethic.

Like all of our conversations, this one was awkward, and I suspect, painful for both of us.

“Have you found a woman in New York, yet?” He asked.

“No.” I said, exasperated that he was at this again.

“Well, we want some grandkids.” He said.

“Don’t hold your breath.” I told him.

His consistent refusal to acknowledge that I’m gay is something that once upset me greatly, but is now merely another annoyance. I feel nothing for him, really. If my mother wasn’t alive, I probably wouldn’t bother continuing to talk to him at all.

We spoke briefly before he had to get back to work. He asked if I’d gotten mugged yet, and if I was ready to move again. I wished him happy Father’s day, and was relieved to have gotten out of the way so that Carlos and I could enjoy the rest of our day.

***

“See, we don’t need money.” Carlos said when we were walking home. “We just need friends with money.”

We’d spent the day with some friends of his who were visiting from San Francisco. They were a generation and a class removed from us, well dressed gay men who cattily referred to one another as “she,” who go to Patty Lupone concerts, and take vacations in Cambodia.  We spent the day going from bar to cafe to bar to bar to bar to restaurant. I don’t often drink alcohol, in fact, it had been more than a year since I’d had an alcoholic beverage, but they were buying, and a gin and tonic or four seemed in order.

I mostly sat by Ali who has his own fragrance and maintains apartments in San Francisco and New York. We all laughed and joked with one another. An event called Folsom East was going on, and I found myself in the midst of a throng of scantily clad, overweight, hirsute men in leather thongs. In a bar called The Eagle, we sat in a back corner watching a strange man dance on a platform with a bulky, black sweater, a red neck kerchief, a hiked up pink miniskirt, and black stockings. Beside him a large black man was getting head from a small white man, as people casually walked by with drinks.

On the rooftop bar of a hotel in Chelsea, we took in the view of the Empire State building. I asked some lesbians if they were from Scotland, and they were incensed and insisted they were from England.

Before going to a charity event, the guys bought us gluten free pizza at a semi-fancy Italian place in Hell’s Kitchen. Slightly inebriated we took the subway back to Brooklyn. Our knees touched. Carlos made faces at me while I giggled. We walked back up to our room and took our clothes off, lying in front of a fan on a warm night, in front of an open window with all of Manhattan spread out before us.

A Room of One’s Own

Before she rented us the room, Satyama asked us our astrological signs. Uncertainly I answered, “Cancer?” While Carlos confidently said, “Sagittarius.”  Apparently this answer was satisfactory because she smiled and nodded, and said “I’m an Aries, so we’ll get along fine.” Carlos and I smiled too, eager to appease her.   Having unsuccessfully attempted to rent two apartments in Manhattan, we were desperate enough to agree with nearly anything, including paying $1,000 a month to rent a room in the cheaper, but slightly less desirable borough of Brooklyn.

“This is a meat-free kitchen,” she said to us as she gave us a brief tour of the apartment. I try to imagine what my mother back in Iola, Texas would think about me renting a room from an older, African American, lesbian vegetarian, but find it impossible to do so. New York in general is far beyond her ability to comprehend. It’s all I can do not to trip over my own jaw 99% of the time.

We agree to her terms, though not without some reservations on my part. It makes me uneasy that we didn’t sign anything, so that if anything goes wrong, we have no recourse, and she has our $2,000, first and last month’s rent. It makes me uneasy that she seems very particular about the cleanliness of the bathroom and kitchen to the point where I don’t feel comfortable venturing into either. Carlos doesn’t seem to share my concern, so I put on a brave front, for his sake.

Carlos believes in staying positive and optimistic, because what you put out into the universe is what you get back from it. While I like this thought, and try my best to think in terms of the affirmative, my pessimistic (nihilistic) nature can’t help formulating a Plan B.  A “What will we do if she kicks us out and doesn’t give our money back?” A “What happens if I can’t get a job before the three months we’ve agreed to sublet the room is up?”  I try not to think about it, but in the back of my mind, I’m somewhat comforted to know that I have enough funds on my emergency credit card for a ticket back to Texas, if need be.

For now, we have two more months, at least, with a roof over our heads. The room itself is big, and bright, and comes furnished with a a small bed, that, though springy, is better than the floor I’ve become accustomed to sleeping on. There is a window that lets in a cool breeze, and harbors a view of the Manhattan skyline that is enviable. We have a door that shuts, and for the first time in over a month we have something I’d taken for granted in Seattle, privacy. We’re only a couple of subway stops away from Manhattan, and centrally located so that we’re close to everything. A few blocks away there is a park and a farmer’s market.

The building itself is a tall, brick one in a historic district full of beautiful, old buildings.  The streets are tree-lined and full of families with strollers. The building has a security guard on staff at all times, so I feel safe. The building itself is very quiet, but the same can’t be said for the street below. In the place we left, out in Queens, all we could hear, most of the time, was the sound of the ocean, of water and waves, occasionally broken by the shrill screeching of the woman next door. Now we hear sirens, people yelling, dogs barking. City sounds.

“We’re going to have to get used to it.” Carlos says, and I agree.

We’ve only been there a couple of days, and things are working out as well as can be expected. It’s a three bedroom apartment, but the other tenant, a gay man in his late twenties, has been absent since we’ve been there, and our host, is scarcely seen. She said when we rented the place that she’s very private, and even her friends rarely visit her. She mostly stays in her rooms which are closed off, with only the faint smell of incense indicating a richer life beyond the curtained walls.

For the most part we stay out until it’s time to unwind and go to bed.

“We didn’t come to New York to stay inside!” Carlos says. Instead we explore the neighborhood. Last night we walked across the Manhattan bridge (that has a better view than it’s more famous Brooklyn cousin) and walked down to Hell’s Kitchen where we had dinner at a trendy eatery called Vynl. The restaurant had four bathrooms, each dedicated to a famous musician, Elvis, Dolly Parten, Cher, and for reasons unknown, Nelly. Rather than use the bathroom in our apartment, I utilized the “Dolly” bathroom and took a picture of the Dolly mosaic inside as “9 to 5” played overhead. When the check came I checked my own anxiety that we’re just hemorrhaging money.

Today Carlos is at work, and, because I didn’t feel comfortable in the room without him, I came along too. I walk through Battery Park where women push babies on strollers, and shirtless men throw a football back and forth, and joggers heave, red faced and breathless on the path as they pass me. I get an unnecessary ice cream and pretend, for the moment, that I’m only on vacation, that tomorrow I’ll go back to work, to a real life. Maybe Carlos is right, and if I keep thinking that tomorrow I’m going to get  a job, and that the two of us will get an apartment of our own in the city, then maybe it will become true.

For now I’m content to enjoy the unaccustomed sunshine, an unnecessary ice cream, and a room of our own.