There are moments when you want to give up. There are times when you will give up—temporarily: hiding out in your bedroom and bingeing on Netflix and Amazon Prime and briefly wondering whether blogging about watching the entire Criterion Collection (384 films) in one go is a worthy enterprise; the guys at the local deli will recognize your voice on the phone when you call every day and you won’t even have to tell them your order because the just know. And you won’t get out of bed except to pee or answer the door for the guy from the deli. Because, boy, this city wears you down to the bone.
Then a friend or just someone who saw a Facebook post they could relate to invites you to coffee—this city is random that way—and you walk outside and pause. Turn your head to the left and in the distance you see the Empire State Building. To the right, a line of people waiting for fried fish from a hole in the wall, beyond them others scrambling down the steps to the subway, catching trains to places near and far. Underneath it all is a hum, the speed of this city, the energy that only certain people can understand. You didn’t come here for happiness, though that would be nice. You came here because the moment your foot set down in NYC, you recognized the place you’d been searching for your entire life, you realized that everyone who’d been telling you to slow down, talk softer, calm down (everyone from your parents on up) hadn’t been wrong, per se, they just didn’t know you were in the wrong place.
Almost four years ago, my brother asked me if I had a Plan B. I didn’t. don’t. This was and is on purpose. People with an exit plan know that if things don’t work out they can always do something else. Doing anything other than living in NYC has never been an option—save for an emergency situation in which a family member needed my presence somewhere else. If you don’t have a backup plan, you have no choice but to scratch and scramble and fight tooth and nail to get what you want. And also to do what it takes, even if what it takes is scary and outside your comfort zone.
On my bad days—and lately there have been more than I’d ever hope my children see in there lifetime much less in the span in which I’ve experienced them—I find this lack of a back-up plan incredibly stupid, an idea just a tad less ridiculous than moving here without any money or a job or a permanent place to live. It makes me feel like a fool for being optimistic, for having faith in what increasingly seems to be a cruel and unforgiving world (if you can’t tell, today is one of the bad days), for believing that I could do something different and actually succeed.
But on my good days—of which there are enough to make this thing, whatever it is, I’m doing worthwhile—I feel as though I’m the luckiest person in the world to have been brave enough to do something other people only think about—without a plan, without a safety net, without knowing if it would work out—on a mere leap of faith. And that I’m able to live on a daily basis without a fear of the future (even on “bad days” I’m not afraid, just angry that things aren’t working out like I want them to and depressed at my lack of success) is a gift in itself. Because somehow it always works out just enough to keep me going another day.
In that same conversation, my brother said, “You never know when you’ll meet the person who will change your life.” I strongly believe this.
You may have been assertive or loud where you came from, but that won’t hold water in NYC. You’ll need to learn to be louder and more assertive, aggressive even. You’ll learn to know what you want and how to tell people in quick, clipped syllables. From cabbies and deli counter staff to manicurists and the Russian lady who does your Brazilian wax, no one has time for your indecision. You’ll take these habits home with you—to the Midwest or the South—proud of being able to stand tall and sleek with confidence, and your friends and relatives will all say, “you’re so New York now.” You take it as a compliment even though you’re not certain it’s meant as one.
But the habits you learned back home never really leave you, either. You might always be the best tipper (20%+) when you take a cab and cringe when your boyfriend (a native) insists that $1 is enough, even on a $40 ride. Or you’ll say “Ma’am” and “Sir” to your elders. You’ll seek out the best soul food restaurants, going through half a dozen until you find one that makes okra like your father did. You’ll lament the lack of decent packzi to a Polish lady you meet in the waiting room at the neurologist’s office and she’ll tell you where to go to find the ones like they make back in Chicago, where she, too, used to live. Slowly your New York-ness blends with whatever you were before you came. You settle into the city. You still avoid Times Square like the plague and roll your eyes at subway car performers, but you smile when you recognize the nervous jitters of people you can tell aren’t quite tourists but haven’t yet found their sea legs. You were one of them once, back when you thought you’d never remember which subway lines ran express and which were local, which made connections on the upper level and which on the lower. But then, like most things, one day you wake up and you just know, as you’re rushing to make the D before the doors close because otherwise you’ll be stuck on the B, making local stops.
There are also lines you say you won’t cross. You draw them with thick, permanent marker, as if to show you’re serious. But when necessity strikes, lines have a habit of being blurred, and then moved. Permanent marker can be removed in lots of ways, anyhow. Or the piece of paper that you drew those lines on can be ripped out of your journal. You start a new chapter. The subjects grow more serious. Shit starts to get real, as they say.
You don’t find any of this troubling, even if it’s not the way you’d prefer the story be told. But when you made that leap of faith, when you had no Plan B, when you made those choices, didn’t you give up at least a little bit of creative control over the plot line here? Since you suppose so, things aren’t that bad, sometimes even quite a bit of fun. But to meet that person who changes your life, so that the story goes back to what you’d imagined? Well, that would be something now, wouldn’t it?
I hope that one day I’ll look back on these years of struggle and see them as a time in which I was able to get in touch with the core of what really mattered to me in the absence of any predictable income, just as I was able to take the years of time being single after Jack died to learn about who I was as a person in the absence of a man. Some people might call it character-building but I detest that term. I’ve had enough character-building to last ten lifetimes, thankyouverymuch. Let’s just call it a learning experience. An intense learning experience, but one nonetheless. I have to look at it that way, because otherwise the lines that are crossed and the days I can’t get out of bed because I’m paralyzed with deep and unabiding depression will mean nothing. And that can’t be the case. I cannot have walked 1,529 days into this jungle for it to have been a pointless enterprise.