Over the weekend I woke up early Saturday morning to see Grand Budapest Hotel in Lincoln Square despite not particularly being a Wes Anderson fan (though this may have something to do with having been more stoned than humanly advisable while attempting to watch Life Aquatic; I should probably give the guy more credit). And even though my guilty conscience said the movie should have been followed by a trip to the gym, I instead went shopping.
Century 21 was my first stop, to get a new pair of athletic shoes (see, I haven’t forgotten the gym altogether!) and scope out their handbags. It’s been almost a month now at my new job, and I’m slowly accumulating the sort of work wardrobe apropos of someone wishing to work her way up in the world. Last paycheck it was shoes (black flats, black stiletto pumps); this paycheck it was going to be a handbag: ideally, the perfect combination of style and statement. And I found it… marked down for $500 off, which brought it into the (upper) range of what I had been thinking I’d spend. Still, I can’t deny that there were some heart palpitations knowing that from then on I’d be carrying around a bag whose retail price was more than my monthly rent. Gulp.
From there, on to Bed Bath and Beyond, where I was hoping to get storage bins to help bring my room into some semblance of order. I have a lot of room, you see, but it’s in odd places that need bins or baskets or some other dividing devices to allow me to make things neat and organized. I’d been up at 2am Friday night (Saturday morning?) with my measuring tape, doing a nearly geological survey of my odd spaces, knowing exactly the dimensions of bins and baskets I’d need. But while I was in Bed Bath and Beyond I was overcome with a memory for which I wasn’t quite prepared, especially since I’ve been there several times over the past year without having been accosted by this particular recollection.
In October 2012, when I moved into my tiny room in Washington Heights (the one I lived in before taking up residence in my palatial-by-comparison current digs), I had as close to nothing as you can imagine. I’d drained my bank account to scrape up the $420 to get into the place ($150 broker’s fee, two weeks’ rent), and I’ve blocked out the memory so thoroughly I can’t even tell you where I was getting money from at that point. Probably my brother was loaning me rent money. Probably I had tiny freelance gigs helping me sputter along. It was before I snagged what would become my life-saving regular freelance gig that would at least provide me with rent money every week, and a little extra for, you know, food and my phone bill.
But in early October, I had close to nothing. The room I’d moved into was furnished with a very uncomfortable twin-sized bed that came with cheap, threadbare sheets: a fitted sheet, a flat sheet, and one old pillow that was as flat as a pancake. There was no comforter, no blanket, no throw pillows, no way to snuggle up to anything comfortable. If this were the real-life experiment with those monkeys who had the wire monkey mothers versus the rag-doll monkey mothers, I was stuck with the wire monkey mom, in bed form.
The first few nights sleeping there were miserable, not least because I’m the sort of person who needs several pillows just to feel comfortable, much less to fall asleep. I also like the feeling of fluffiness all around me: comforters, softness, whatever I can get. This was the exact opposite of that: more like prison, or a mental institution, or something. And the worst part about it: I had no money to change the situation. No money for pillows, no money for sheets, no money for a comforter. Not even close. At this point I was eating noodles in a cup for lunch and dinner and skipping breakfast, plus drinking a lot of water to try to trick my stomach into feeling full.
It was also very cold in my room. And those who know me know that being cold is, for me, one of the worst feelings in the world. I remember being a teenager living in a trailer with my mother; there were times she wouldn’t have the money to fill up the propane tank, and we’d have to go without heat for a few days or so. And while Texas in the winter doesn’t get cold by Northern standards, when you’ve been living there most of your childhood, it feels cold when it hits 40 degrees or so. We’d wrap up in blankets, and then suffer through cold showers in the morning, and I’d promise myself that when I was adult I’d never, ever again feel so damned cold.
But I did feel that cold again, during those early days in that tiny room. And I didn’t have money for a comforter or, really, even a blanket. I went down to 125th St. to see if someone in one of the shops there might have a blanket for $10 (all I could really afford), but no one did, and all that happened was I got jumped and beaten up by a black girl who took offense to me being white and accidentally brushing up against her arm when I was passing her on the sidewalk. (Yes, she mentioned my race. Otherwise I wouldn’t.)
I went to Chinatown, looking for the elusive $10 blanket.
I went to thrift stores on 23rd Street.
I went to four different Salvation Army stores, thankful all the while that I’d had, a couple of weeks earlier, enough money for an unlimited monthly MTA card, or else even this would be a problem.
I went to El Mundo on Broadway and 160th, when it was still there.
I got tired of looking, and finally decided to try Bed Bath and Beyond. By this time it was almost 8pm on a Saturday, and I’d started looking around lunchtime. I hadn’t eaten, so first I stopped in at a Starbucks and spent $2 I didn’t really have on some sort of pastry, just to try to feel normal for a brief while. Sometimes the things we can’t afford are the ones we spend money on anyhow, just to feel like we belong for a moment or two. If you’ve never been dirt poor, you wouldn’t understand. But it’s true.
At Bed Bath and Beyond I wandered around the store until my insides ached, the feeling you get when you are afraid that what you’re looking for doesn’t exist and won’t ever be found. Everything was too bright and too shiny and too expensive, and I grew resentful at the other shoppers, piling their carts high with hundreds of dollars of merchandise when I was looking for an increasingly elusive $10-or-under blanket. I still feel that way, more often than I should: angry and upset that there’s an entire universe of people who don’t have to count pennies or live paycheck to paycheck or make hard choices between eating healthy food and taking medication. It’s not their fault, I know. But it’s not mine, either. It’s all circumstantial, mostly, and that’s even acknowledging that my circumstances are lucky given my life story. Mostly I know that where I am today is a miracle—really, if you knew where I came from and what I’ve lived through, being alive should and usually is its own damn reward—but there’s always that niggling feeling that other people should know how lucky they have it, too, because it’s a far sight luckier than I can ever imagine.
But that’s neither here nor there. Back to the blanket.
I finally found the blanket. And blanket is being generous. It’s a throw, more accurately, the sort of plush thing you might have on the sofa to cuddle up with while watching a movie or a football game. It’s soft and it’s grey and shiny, and when I brought it home it certainly took the chill out of my bones enough to make me feel like I was only slightly downtrodden rather than a complete street urchin. And, bonus!, it was actually only $9.
As I was wandering the store Saturday trying to find my carefully measured storage bins and remembered that day of looking for my blanket, I wasn’t sad or nostalgic or even upset. Nope. Rather, I was overcome with a deep sense of pride.
Sixteen months ago, I was wandering all over Manhattan looking for a blanket I could buy for $10 or less to try to keep myself warm in a tiny room with an uncomfortable mattress with threadbare sheets and barely enough room to turn around, much less spread my wings. Twenty-one months ago, I arrived in New York City with nothing more than an idea—an idea!—that I could make a life for myself here. I had no job, no steady place to live, and a pittance of money in the bank. Even sillier: I had no plan other than a deep belief that things just had to work out. They just had to.
I was telling someone today that my father had never really been proud of me—or at least had never told anyone so—until I moved to New York. Most parents would see their kids moving to New York with no plan, no money, no job, and no place to live and start freaking out. My dad, though, saw something in me that I didn’t: that I’d be able to follow through, that I had an idea of what I wanted to accomplish and that I wouldn’t let go until I’d done so. Which is why when my brother asked me, pretty soon after I bought that blanket for $9 (and probably when I called him asking for help with my rent), when I’d admit that New York just wasn’t working for me, I said, “That isn’t even an option. There is no Plan B. This is the end of the line.”
Sixteen months later, I have a job in the book publishing industry, which is what I set out to do less than a year ago,. It’s no small accomplishment, which is why I’m not feeling guilty about the new shoes and the handbag and the bins to organize my room. Life’s not perfect—I’ll be struggling financially for a long time to come—but (oh my god!) this is such a far cry from the position I was in when I came to New York or when I was buying that blanket or a million little other moments in between that it feels like a thousand miracles wrapped up into one. It doesn’t much matter that my best friend lied to me and summarily broke my heart, or that I’m muddling through learning how to date again, or that there’s a steep learning curve at the new job, or that I’m juggling the gym/meetings/dating/sleep, or that I’m once again realizing that life as a growth process doesn’t really end but just comes in fits and starts.
What it comes down to is that I want to be—and have been, since moving to New York—led by my dreams rather than pushed by my problems. And my dreams are far from over; they’ve only just begun. I can’t wait to see what the next year brings, because what’s happened so far has already been beyond my wildest expectations.
Also: I still sleep with that blanket every night, even though I’ve long since found warmer and more comfortable solutions to my bedtime problems. Call it a security blanket or a strange predilection or whatever you like; I call it not forgetting where I came from and remembering how much farther I want to go.