Want to know what you’re “made of” — the sort of thing invoked by military men and Horatio Alger myth mongers alike — then move to New York City with no job, no permanent place to live, and $52 in your bank account. Spend three months wavering between misplaced optimism and deep fatalism, the swinging between extremes the only thing that makes you feel as though movement is being made. Remember saying to struggling friends that even treading water is doing something. Feel like an idiot approximately 49% of the time for possessing a modicum of hope and a droplet more than that of faith. Sleep on futons and research homeless shelters. Stand on line for food stamps in a Brooklyn processing center filled with unruly children whose parents you don’t judge for their need — you’re in the same boat, more or less — but nonetheless find irritating their children begging for second dirty-water hot dogs.
Today is my 100th day since moving to New York City in that fashion. Day 96 saw me start a new job. Day 101 will have me looking at an ever-elusive affordable Manhattan apartment share which, if I move in, will be a 15-minute door-to-door commute from the office. On Day 98, I went kayaking on the Hudson at sunset, crossing yet another item off of my NYC bucket list. Things are coming together in a way that I couldn’t have foreseen on Day 36 or Day 81.
The experience of the past 100 days reminds me a little bit of being diagnosed with a brain tumor and having surgery. Not in the sense that I have almost died and could easily have been permanently disabled by my experience so far in New York City (though I suppose I could have). But in the sense that I feel a little shell-shocked. Despite my brain surgery being seven years ago (on Sept. 30), I still can’t coherently think about it. It was such a whirlwind, such a traumatic experience, that I haven’t yet processed it.
I was diagnosed in August, the same day B had surgery on his foot — I found out about the tumor while he was still in recovery. When I told my graduate program about the need to have surgery, I was told I could take two weeks off of teaching and school. Any more time than that, I’d have to drop out of the program. The program, of course, was where I had my health insurance. So I went back to teaching and school about nine days after I was released from the ICU. The normal minimum suggested recovery time for the surgery I had? Three months. (I’d say in some ways, I’m still recovering from not having given myself that time, but that’s a different story.)
Then, and now, when people hear how quickly I went back to work — and when I share stories of having focal seizures while driving my car on the way to work — people are amazed at how I was able to do that. They want me to give them some sort of secret, some little message I can transmit of how I accomplished something so nearly improbable. I don’t have any answer for them, other than “it was what had to be done.”
That’s how I feel about the past 100 days. I had help, to be sure, not-insignificant help from readers of this blog who contributed to my “I want to eat” fund. (Just as I had help when recovering from brain surgery, though in all honesty I didn’t have very much of it, or at least not of the kind that made me feel I wasn’t going through it fundamentally alone.) But — and I learned this during my recovery from surgery — if you live alone (or might as well live alone) there isn’t really anyone who can see the day-to-day struggles. You can express what you’re going through, and people do what they can, but in the end we’re all just (as a friend of mine in recovery likes to say) bozos on the bus. We are born alone and die alone, and in between we deal with experiences alone — no matter how much external help we receive.
So when people ask me how I was able to move to New York City without a job or a permanent place to live, with basically very little money in the bank, my answer is the same: “it was what had to be done.” And looking back — with very little perspective of time — I can intellectually see that it’s probably pretty amazing, but right now it just feels like it was all borne out of necessity. Whether someone wants to say it took courage or chutzpah or balls or whatever… really, it’s just what had to be done.
It’s difficult for me to accept that what I did was unusual and probably very risky. Honestly, I felt as though I had no other options. I went to the only city I could think of that would have more jobs for me than there were in Chicago — or at least I went to the only city other than Chicago (or Boston) I could imagine myself living in. This was the end of the line for me. Toward the end of August, when I wasn’t sure whether I’d have a job (read: money) any time soon, I had resigned myself to having to live in a shelter if it came down to it. I told people that even if that’s what happened, I was confident it would be part of my NYC story, not the end of it.
In any case, here I am, at 100 days. NYC feels like home now. When I was in Chicago for Labor Day weekend, everything moved so slowly I was uncomfortable. It felt like going back to an old familiar place to slow down a bit (true), but in no way did I think I’d made a mistake by leaving. I’m familiar enough with the city that almost everyone I know expresses surprise at how quickly I’ve adjusted. I keep telling them the truth: I’ve been coming here frequently for eight years knowing that one day I’d move and wanted to hit the ground running. To be sure, there are many things I have yet to learn and discover, but I’d venture to say I’m doing a darn good job, considering.
Tonight I’m meeting a former Chicago colleague (who moved to NYC two weeks ago) for dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, after which I’ll go home to Harlem for what may be one of my last nights sleeping on a futon/giving shots to diabetic cats in exchange for nearly nonexistent rent. I’m still shell-shocked from the past few months, but who wouldn’t be? I hope it takes me less time to get perspective on this than it has regarding my brain surgery, but even if it doesn’t? There are worse things than being too-humble about a life-altering experience. Whenever I am able to see those things clearly — or even if I never can — I’ll be sleeping well tonight. There may be a myth that it takes someone seven years before they’re “really” a New Yorker, but I don’t care. I’ve found my place; I knew it on Day One.