Moving to New York was something I talked about but never did—like quitting smoking or paying off my credit cards. I would visit New York three, four times a year, rage till dawn with my friends, and pledge myself to the city. But on the plane ride home, broke and hung over and a little sad about both, I would think about how hard it would be, how frightening it would be to look for work in New York. At 30 years old, I had passed the window of time in which I could comfortably crash on couches and eat Ramen Noodles. Somewhere after college, my definition of a financial crisis changed from “I can’t pay my rent” to “I can’t buy sushi twice a week.” Eight million people jostle and elbow each other to live in New York, and the way I figured—hell, they could have it.
At the time, I was living with my boyfriend in Dallas. We spent evenings smoking and drinking red wine on the porch, or wrapped around each other while watching a film. Every once in a while, I’d nudge the issue into conversation.
“If we lived in New York, we could be at a Broadway play right now.”
He’d consider this. “If we lived in New York, we’d still be watching a movie, but our rent would be double.”
He was probably right. New York is crowded, and expensive, and, in the summer, smells of Limburger cheese. But it had become that thing—the place not here—that bubbled to the surface when things got rough. My boyfriend and I fought with the regularity of major holidays, and I would leave with my bags and a fistful of wet Kleenex, and I would tell myself I was moving to New York. But after a few hours and a glass of wine, I would twitch to come home. I would tiptoe inside while he was asleep, and slip under the sheets, and he would turn toward me and sigh into my arms, grateful I’d returned. This is how it went until I stopped twitching, and he stopped sighing, and after three years, we discovered we were almost, but not quite. When our relationship ended, I cried all day. And then I woke up the next morning and realized I was finally moving to New York.
I liked the sound of it: I am moving to New York. It had weight. It made people snap to attention, and I pulled it out like a party trick. “Did you hear the one about how I’m moving to New York?” Talking about moving to New York was much better than actually doing so, because you only had to dwell in the fantasy of it all. The gentle snowdrifts in Central Park, the Manhattan Bridge strung up with lights, the Chrysler Building sparkling on the horizon. Yes, it is what the therapists would call a “geographic fix” to my break-up. But nobody else asked why a 30-year-old writer would move to New York; if anything, people seemed to wonder why they weren’t doing it themselves.
My friends Lisa and Craig agreed to put me up until I found a place of my own. I spent August afternoons in their Washington Heights apartment compulsively checking Hotmail, Craigslist, and MediaBistro. I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for—an editing position or a writing gig? A studio in Brooklyn or a closet in Manhattan? I just needed activity, distraction. It kept me at arm’s length from reality, and the reality was that I was an unemployed, heartbroken single girl in New York City who fell asleep on a couch every night while watching Taradise.
And yet, the month I spent at Lisa and Craig’s was the easiest, coziest time I had in New York. The two of them would come home from work, and we would order Chinese food, or Indian, or pizza, and they would listen to my hard-luck tales and laugh and assure me I was fine, just fine. It was New York with training wheels. But after a while, I could no longer hold off the guilt I felt at seeing the pile of boxes shoved into a corner of their living room. One night, Lisa and I drained the liquor cabinet until 4 a.m., giggling and crying and telling our sad tales. When Craig awoke the next morning at 7 for work, and rumbled around in the kitchen fixing a bowl of cereal, I was actually annoyed with him. How dare he eat breakfast in his own kitchen—didn’t he know I was hung over? At noon, when I finally woke up, I realized it was time to take off the training wheels and find a place of my own.
I am not what you would call a landlord’s dream tenant. I have four credit cards, all of them maxed out. Four years ago I blew my savings traveling around the country, and since then have had almost no evidence of a rental history. I saved more than $7,000 before moving to the city, more than I’d ever had at one time. But some alarming Craigslist postings said landlords might want to see my W4s. They might as well ask to see my first-grade report card. After months spent contemplating jobs on MediaBistro—hmm, maybe I could write for a cancer website—I had decided to stick to freelancing, which meant I didn’t even have a steady income. How did everyone else manage this? I met with a broker, who suggested I ask my father to be a guarantor. So I swallowed my pride and two Stella Artois, and asked my daddy to bail me out. Once again.
He agreed, of course, but I still had the small task of finding a place. I made the long trek to Park Slope in Brooklyn every other day to check out properties. I soon discovered “Park Slope” was a loose term for every dump in a five-mile radius of Prospect Park. The whole vocabulary of Craigslist is an exercise in euphemism: “charming” means “small”; “original details” means “old and crappy.” My friend Melissa, who has lived in New York for six years, accompanied me on my apartment search. As it turned out, I didn’t need a second opinion. The first place we saw smelled of piss and death; the prior tenant most likely did not move out so much as permanently check out. Doors hung off hinges. The bathtub was tarred with decades of grime. The floor had been clawed up by dogs, or someone trying to escape.
“What improvements are you planning to make?” asked Melissa; I had been struck dumb.
The landlord snapped at her. “All this,” he waved haphazardly around his head, “Better by next week. Better than new.”
Melissa stared at him. “Are you planning to carpet-bomb?”
A few days later, we walked to an open house in south Park Slope, only to find ourselves standing in front of a barbershop. I checked the address against the ad. “Hello,” I said, peeking my head inside and interrupting someone’s trim. “Do you know anything about an open house?”
“Nah,” said the man holding the clippers. “You need a haircut?”
I was running out of patience—and time. Soon it would be October, and I feared I’d have to wait another month for the November crop of rentals. A friend emailed me one afternoon. “You know, you should check out this sublet in Williamsburg. It’s only six months, but it’s gorgeous. And it’s blah and blah and blah, blah, blah.”
I wrote back immediately: “I’ll take it.”
Moving day: I’d rather not talk about it, except to say it was the most expensive 24 hours of my life.
The first night in my apartment, my friend Stephanie came over with three bottles of wine and two packs of cigarettes. We ordered sushi and she went from room to room, talking about transforming the space, like the host of one of those decorating shows. “And here, you can get a pendant lamp, and maybe a bookcase for this room, and have you thought about wall art? I’m becoming my mother, aren’t I? I can stop this.”
I didn’t want her to stop; I wanted to indulge in the life she was sketching out for me. After all, the apartment I moved into was rife with possibility—big and open and, had it ever made its way to Craigslist, “urban chic.” I wanted her to keep talking so I didn’t have to think about how I was broke. Already. I was embarrassed, even ashamed, at how quickly I had hit rock bottom.
A few days later the landlord informed me, via a note slipped under the door, that I was subject to a 10 percent subletter’s fee, pushing my rent from Too Expensive to Damn Near Unaffordable. Oh, didn’t I know that? It’s standard in New York. Summoning my Texan politesse, I knocked on her door and asked if she could make an exception. I never would have moved into an apartment that cost this much, I explained. I’ve just hemorrhaged thousands of dollars, I explained. As I said this, my voice shook and tears quivered in my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said, frustrated by my emotional display, “it’s been a hard month.”
She nodded kindly and said she understood. But I still had to pay the 10 percent. Sorry, kiddo, this is New York.
So far, I have yet to regret my decision to move here. But there are times I wished it could have worked out some other way. I loved my apartment, but I couldn’t afford to furnish it. Pillows lay on the ground in lieu of couches and chairs. My bed became my desk. I felt like one of those war-era aristocrats living in a mansion gutted of everything but a solitary chair on which to sip some tea. In the afternoon, I would take walks in the neighborhood and gawk at all the trash. So much trash! On the streets, spilling from the Dumpsters, banked against fences and curbs. Torn-up chairs vomiting stuffing, abandoned on the corner. It made me angry, and then it made me wonder if I should take one home. At least I’d have something to sit on.
It hasn’t always been so bleak. Every time I’d go out with friends, I’d revel in the luxury of New York living. But sometimes I’d come home after a long subway ride, exhausted and somewhat lonely, and stand in the kitchen of my apartment, wondering what I should do next. Time started to feel like something I had to burn away, and I began to question why I’d moved here in the first place. Did I have some greater purpose? When would I feel successful? I used to think just having a place of my own would fill me with pride, but instead, I suffered anxiety attacks about money and constantly worried I wasn’t writing enough. I must have emailed everyone I knew that month, and when they wrote back, they often said the same thing: “Remember—you’re living the dream.” I would laugh, and uncap another beer I really did not need.
After a few months, things got easier. In the middle of November I brought up my cat from Dallas, and we settled into a comfortable routine. He wakes me every morning—one soft paw to the cheek—and when I’m bored, I can chase him around the house with aerosol spray cans or make up songs about him. I met a guy in a bar and saw him several times a week. He was cute and not terribly smart, and that was fine with me. I would walk home from his place, noticing the bridges and the Chrysler Building, the crisp autumn breeze and the sky burning with blue. I would stop for a bagel and marvel at how something so simple could be so delicious. The guy turned out to be a total scoundrel, by the way, but I didn’t care. And that was the best part: It didn’t matter one bit.
I’ve become friendly with people in the neighborhood—the Puerto Rican women working the Laundromat, the old Polish men on their stoops. “You look nice tonight,” one of them said to me one night as I walked past. And it didn’t feel skeezy; it felt kinda sweet.
One evening I ducked into the corner store for Parliaments, only to discover I had nothing but change.
“Do you take credit cards?” I asked.
Of course they didn’t. Bodegas in Williamsburg never take credit cards. Because if they did, how could they rip me off with their ATMs?
“Take it,” the clerk said, handing me the cigarettes. He was a middle-aged Dominican man, forever unsmiling.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “I’ll pay you back.”
“Take it,” he said. “Now leave.”
With that, he had a customer for life. I duck in every morning for a soda and cat food, and I give him a big wave and a smile. Sometimes, he even smiles back.
I still don’t have as much money or work as I want, but I manage to get by. One day, I’ll buy furniture. I may even pay off my credit cards, or quit smoking. But for now, it’s enough that I can order sushi once in a while, and they will deliver it right to my door. It’s enough that I can rage until dawn with my friends, and pledge myself to the city, and I don’t have to board a plane the next day and wonder if I might—one day!—actually have the courage to mean it. At night, when I lie in bed, I can see the Williamsburg Bridge from my window. And it looms, elegant and enormous, every morning when I wake. Sometimes I close my eyes and open them again, just to see if it’s still there. And it is. And so am I.