(Editor’s note: Although I mention categories of people in this post, please do not read any judgement into it).
I don’t often talk about my year in New York, the one I spent right out of the year in Taiwan, which was right out of college.
I arrived there ready for adventure, having lived a year abroad, and landed at my friend’s apartment who was subletting it from a relative. It was huge and cheap for New York, located downtown on Grand Street outside of Chinatown. The problem was that it was completely furnished (overcrowded) with outdated furniture and there was nowhere to put things because they had left so much junk there. It was like paying to live in a storage facility (which anyone in their right mind will do in NYC if the deal is right).
My friend escaped as much as she could to her boyfriend’s so I didn’t last long there by myself. I found a room to rent for $350/month on 57th and 10th in a sort of a youth hostel. It was called the Henry Hudson Hotel at the time, but it has since changed hands and is now probably a luxury building.
For a long time, I wasn’t assigned a roommate at the hostel and I started to get accustomed to my independence. But then a timid Ethiopian girl showed up as my first roommate. We got along really well and she introduced me to her food and her culture, told me stories about her crush at the university. Eventually she started to get tangled up with an older man who was a friend of the family and supposed to be looking out for her. He wanted to take her as his second wife, and she was alone and far from home. I don’t think she saw much choice and I believe she ended up marrying him.
My first job was at the Gap in Union Square. At the time it was the largest Gap in the world. I wasn’t making enough to live on, but I had money saved from my year in Taiwan so I wasn’t really worried.
I was naïve. I latched on to one guy that trained with me at the Gap, and unwillingly ended up in a sort of love triangle where I liked him when he didn’t like me, and then he got angry when he found out I was getting more serious with this French guy I had met. Back at the Henry Hudson, I met another guy in whom I was not at all interested, but when he invited me out I accepted. At dinner, I mentioned my boyfriend in the conversation and he got a strange look on his face and asked me why I had gone out with him if I already had a boyfriend. The truth is, I didn’t really know the answer to that. I thought that now that I was an adult I was supposed to be able to handle several relationships with men at the same time (and to this day I’m not even sure what that means). So I responded, “I came because you asked me to.”
Before long, I left the Gap and started temping at Times Warner near Bryant Park. I got that job through a college friend who was also working there. At the office Christmas party, which was small and held in the conference room, I started drinking vodka straight and made a fool out of myself before staggering home alone on the streets of NYC. I don’t know how I made it home but that same gentleman who had invited me out, noticed the door to my room was open, and he found me curled around the toilet.
I didn’t temp long at TW after that.
I started hostessing at one restaurant, while working as a cashier at another. The one restaurant was on the Upper West Side and was nearly always empty. I had to stand out in the cold and hand fliers on the street. Once the owner scolded me for eating bread while working, even though there were no customers. We were not allowed to eat while working even if it was dinner time. I later ran into her at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, which made for somewhat awkward conversation.
The other place was a French bistro on the East side and everyone that worked there was a model or a career waiter from France (or a career waiter-actor from NY). I was quite stubby in comparison.
The bartender was a beautiful French model and she was in a relationship with an obese, rich doctor who was addicted to prescription drugs. She had a sharp tongue and it was only when I finally started snubbing her that she started to be nice to me. The owner’s son, who was a deadbeat even with all the money, was distracted when he came in to bar-tend one day. I asked him what he was thinking about and as it turns out, he had had his very first menage-à-trois the night before and he graciously made me privy to all the details.
We ate well and saw all sorts of interesting characters. There were the wannabe’s (the guy who met Robert Redford once and promised he could get me an introduction), and there were the people who were there to get what they needed. One model from the South tossed her hair as she said she’d sit on some rich guy’s lap for ten minutes and get $200 if it meant she could pay her way through veterinary school.
People stole from the cash register and it was blamed on me (that, or I really couldn’t count). So I eventually quit, most likely a day before I would have been fired. All of the busboys were illegal and when a Sri Lankan busboy wanted to see me safely home, the waiters all told me to watch out for him because he just wanted to use me for a green card. I don’t think they were right because he was kind and respectful and they were so jaded. But I was female, and who knew how desperate illegal aliens can be so I cut off contact with him when I left.
By now I had gotten another roommate at the hotel and I generously gave her my calling card number and lent her money. Need I finish that story? I also lived in my boyfriend’s apartment while he was gone for the summer to oversee the renters they had from France – renters who neglected to pay me because I said they could get to it when they wanted to and they saw a weak spot.
Then they trashed the apartment.
I started working for a famous bridal gown designer who, at the time, had her loft and her warehouse on 39th street behind Port Authority. This is before Giuliani cleaned up Times Sqaure. Across from the office there was a brothel, and the madams and their clients did not always bother to take their business indoors.
That street was filled with homeless people, and drug addicts whom you might see walking in front of you with a needle sticking out of their back pocket.
Inside the office did not provide much respite. There were two gay men, in accounting and in sales (they both died from AIDS within a couple of years). The accountant was polite, but the sales person was acerbic. He hated me. I think I just represented everything he hated – innocence, blind enthusiasm, young love, a desire to have a family. Perhaps it was hard to see one life with possibilities when he was just coming to the end of his. He lost no occasion to tear me down.
There was also a woman with whom I became friends and we spent some time together outside of work. A couple years later I would be rushing to her apartment across town late at night to try to talk her out of committing suicide – to try and pull her out of her dark chasm just as I was crawling out of mine. Last I heard from her, she was doing well.
I discovered a love for coffee there. It’s too bad, that.
I would be sent to get coffee and muffins or cakes from Cupcake Bakery, and I started looking forward to that little sugar-caffeine lift to get me through the day.
I sometimes babysat for the daughter of the designer, who was fond of me. But the loft was so unfriendly and austere, and I hated to leave there late at night. There was an office supply company in the building where we got our supplies – an old jewish couple who fought over absolutely everything. The tension was palpable every time we went in the room, and we could hear them screaming at each other from our office. One day we came in to find an ambulance at the door of the service entrance. The husband had gotten sick of his wife’s ranting and threw a stapler at her head, causing her to go into convulsions. A few weeks later they were back at their dingy office, stacked high with boxes of office supplies, with a cautious peace established between them.
There was also an actor’s studio one floor up where Tatum O’Neil was coming to reclaim her art (and her life).
When I was hit by a car on a Thursday, I went back to work on a Monday. They were surprised to see me so soon, but I was in post-traumatic stress mode and it didn’t occur to me to take time off. I had trouble concentrating on simple tasks, so after a couple of months I gave my notice. They were going to let me go anyway because I wasn’t performing up to par, but they knew that I had decided to return to Taiwan for another year and were willing to put up with me until then, had I so desired.
I had already fought with my boyfriend at the time, who didn’t know how to love me, and we had also established a cautious peace – a trial period. We would stick it out while physically separated for the year in Taiwan and then together through the year in Paris while he was doing his military service.
But I could have saved my breath. I was tenaciously trying to make it work, like a lone plant growing out of a rock, conscious that I had nowhere else to put my roots.
I can see it all clearly now. I was so lost, so dark; I was immune to all feeling as I walked down 39th street, barely perceiving the homeless around me.
How little I realized then that my life was not so very different from theirs.