Sunday, January 22, 2006

New York stories

Industry Whore recently posted her Dear John letter to New York City. Fun Joel still proclaims his cross-country love for the Big Apple on the masthead of his blog. And Billy Mernit has his "Clouds in My Coffee" reminiscenses from Annie Hall-era NYC. I don't know if everyone in the scribosphere has a New York story, but here's mine, which does have some relation to how I have come to this point in my life.

June 1994. The Summer of O.J. I was two years removed from graduation at the small state university in my hometown. Although I had done well (finished my degree early, graduated cum laude) and could have gone to law school straight away, a last-semester immersion in the East Coast rave scene put the future on hold for a few years. Driving between Pittsburgh on Fridays and Washington, Baltimore, or NYC on Saturdays weekend after weekend was fun, to be sure. But life as a layabout can only last so long and eventually I was going to have to do something with myself.

Fresh out of college and still possessed of an idealism yet to be crushed by the world as it is, I decided to make my next degree a masters of social work. And thinking that I might be able to make a go of it as a d.j./musician, what better place to go than New York City? At the time, for clubbing, techno, and house music, it was the place to be. Venues such as Limelight, Sound Factory (later Twilo), and Shelter kept the party going from Friday night to Monday morning. Years before bottle service and oppressive door policies, you could actually spend under triple digits on a weekend, find yourself dancing next to Moby, Lady Miss Kier, or Chloe Sevigny, and it was still only about the incredible music we were all hearing for the first time.

So off my application to the Hunter College School of Social Work went and I began preparing to make the move. My "job" as a lackey for the Waldenbooks company did have one benefit, namely allowing me to transfer to the chain's store on the Upper East Side. Directly across Lexington Avenue from Hunter College in fact. And as further conclusive evidence that I was destined to find my way to the concrete jungle, one of my fellow lackeys at that store just happened to be looking for a roommate. Her apartment was situated on the edge between upper Central Park and Harlem and, although not an ideal neighborhood, seemed fine for the first place away from home in which I would ever live. Here my troubles began.

Unbeknownst to me, the community organization program at Hunter to which I applied only accepted eleven or so students per year. When a nor'easter blizzard prevented me from driving to New York for my interview with the admissions committee, I should have probably had second thoughts about just how fated I really was to be one of the eleven. When the thin envelope containing my rejection letter arrived about a month or two before I planned to leave, maybe I shouldn't have been as surprised as I was. I didn't really have a Plan B at that point but I hastily devised one.

After all, I had a job and an apartment waiting for me whenever I was ready. I figured why not just move up anyway, audit some classes at the school if I could to get a foot in the door, and reapply the next year. No problem. Well, except for the fact that the roommate and apartment I thought were waiting for me actually weren't. I can't remember exactly where the lines of communication got crossed but when I called up to see when it would be convenient to move in, my soon-to-be coworker was only wondering why I hadn't called earlier to let her know that I had actually wanted the room. Not being able to wait for me, she had already rented it out to someone else. Time for Plan C.

At least my retail lackey position was still intact, so it only remained for me to schlep my meager wordly possessions to Manhattan and somehow find a place to put them (and myself) once I got there. Why, they even had these roommate-finding services that would pair you up with people looking to share apartments. How hard could it be?

And so it was on Friday, June 17th that I loaded up the family truckster with my clothes, books, and a mattress and headed off for the Big Apple. I know that was the date because as I drove from Maryland, through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and reached downtown New York by late afternoon, the events surrounding the attempted arrest and slow-speed chase of The Juice unfolded on the radio. I think the whole thing was probably surreal enough to watch in and of itself. But somehow the experience of uprooting my entire life that same day as it all happened just added to the wierd quotient.

Friday afternoons, as it turns out, are also possibly the worst time to put your name in with a roomate-finding company with the hopes of having a place to live before, say, Monday. The rest of that weekend is a blur to me now but I think I might have driven all the way back home for one night, spent another night in a hotel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and then lived out of my car for another day until I was hooked up with a roommate. In retrospect, I probably should have stuck with living out of the car.

The location of the apartment was actually great. Near Stuyvesant Town in the East Village, it was right in the middle of things. The unit and its tenant, however, were another matter. His friends called him "Ozzy." One, because he came from Australia. Two, because he really did look and act like Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy purportedly worked for that company that used to have information kiosks in music stores where you could look up information on albums, artists, genres, etc. The fact that those kiosks actually seemed to work gives lie to Ozzy ever actually working for their maker. Mostly he seemed to either be drunk or leaving the flat to go get drunk.

And oh what a flat it was. Two bedrooms, of which I would get one. A kitchen that didn't appear to have ever been cleaned, and certainly at least not since Ozzy lived there. Roaches in the bathroom added a nice touch. All of this, he paid $750(!) a month for. For the privilege of sharing in this Shangri-la, I would pay him $500. Being a novice at the whole game, I naturally blanched. Maybe it was the fact that I couldn't even get long distance phone service at the place because he owed NYNEX so much money that made me hesitate. But a look at the mattress in the back of the station wagon, the thought of another night spent out in the middle of a June heat wave, and knowing I had to start working as soon as possible had me plunking down cash on the barrelhead in fairly short order.

Sure, maybe it had been a little bit rocky in the execution. But was I not finally here, really doing it? Really living a New York life? I unloaded the truckster, got cleaned up, and caught the Lexington Avenue Local up to the Sixties for my first day on the job. Imagine my surprise when the manager regretfully informed me that home office had decided not to renew the location's lease and would be shuttering it at the end of July. Again, recollections 12 years out are hazy, but I think it may have been at this point that I started to consider whether this was in fact the path I was supposed to be on. When I showed up on Saturday morning to be informed by the owner of the liquor shop next door that the store had been robbed at gunpoint after I left the night before (the police theorized that the robber had been hiding in the back room waiting for me to leave, with two female cashiers closing up), I had my answer.

I could have transferred to another location in the city, possibly, if there was an opening for me. But I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and started to formulate an exit strategy. If I was going to take on the student loans that it would cost me for an MSW, why not spend that money on the law school degree that I had spent undergrad preparing for instead? In between the midday rushes, I would peruse the guidebooks to law schools and figured that, since the only two in Maryland (of which I was still a citizen and thus entitled to in-state tuition) were in Baltimore, that's where I was headed next. At night, I would try and stay away from Chez Ozzy as much as possible, wandering the streets of the Village and immersing myself in a New York that would soon cease to exist as I knew and remembered it.

I finished my month on Lexington Avenue, abandoned any expectation of ever getting my security deposit back from Ozzy (I didn't), reloaded all my crap into the truckster again, and headed back to Maryland to become a lawyer. New York had fairly kicked my ass, but the truth is I wasn't ready for it yet. I bore no grudges, although I wouldn't return for several years. By then, Rudy and The Mouse were well into their campaign to "clean up" New York. Giuliani's Social Club Task Force would soon wield Prohibition-era cabaret laws to shut down all the major dance clubs in the city in the name of "quality of life." The effect, sadly, was just the opposite.

Quality of life in Manhattan now exists for those that can afford to live there. Non-lawyers/investment bankers got pushed across the Brooklyn Bridge and beyond. The balance between commerce and artistic creation that made New York, well, New York was already a distant memory by the time dawn broke on September 11, 2001. A suit was filed this summer to overturn the city's cabaret laws and make dancing legal again. That would be a good start. And, just as it did in the 80's when it arose from the ashes of near-bankruptcy in the 70s, New York seems to have a way of reinventing itself just when you least expect it. I may not be on the East Coast to see it, but I do hope that it happens someday. For now, though, that's my New York story.

All of which is to say, as I prepare to make an even bigger move, I would like to think that this time I am ready. Not just because I've learned to seize opportunities like available apartments when they present themselves, or because I will be leaving with enough marketable skills to avoid any further Australian roommate entaglements. But mostly because this time I know exactly why it is that I'm going, that I have a reasonably good idea what it takes to do it, and I'm willing to do whatever is necessary for me to achieve that goal. Hopefully, that will be my L.A. story but we shall see.


  • Great post!!!

    When are you moving to LA?

    I wish you luck. I too plan on being on moving to LA. My target date is by the end of August, latest.


    By Blogger Al, at 12:06 PM  

  • Two months it looks like, first of April or so.

    By Blogger Chris, at 1:41 PM  

  • Pretty soon.

    Again, good luck.


    By Blogger Al, at 7:38 PM  

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