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.
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.
Sure 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.
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.
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.