Five Years in New York: To the Class of 2010 from the Class of 2005

by Liz Colville


To whom it may concern:

It has been exactly five years since I graduated from a prestigious-if interchangeable with many that are similarly-named-university in New England called Wesleyan and moved to the capital of the world. Though apartment living is but one aspect of life, I should warn you that this letter consists primarily of fond memories of slipshod landlords and asbestos-ridden antechambers. If this is not something that interests you, you will surely perish in New York and ought to make a U-turn on the George Washington Bridge as soon as you can. Over the course of the past 1,825 days on this island-Long Island, that is, and if you think you’re going to be living in Manhattan, there’s still time to make a U-turn now, unless of course your papa is a generous man and you intend for him to indefinitely ride on your lease and for you to ride on his insurance policy (and I should add right now that if you intend to move to New York, any borough, you might consider signing a sort of prenup-type agreement with said pa to ensure that five years into your business-class flight of a spiritual journey, he is still willing to be generous when the occasion calls for it. Those with generous mamas have essentially won the lottery and need not draw up any kind of written agreement).

It was a hazy, hot evening punctuated with fireworks when I arrived at my first abode, a sublet in a vinyl-sided row house in a vaguely gentrified subsection of the popular yuppie neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I have spent much of the past five years. I was greeted by a one-eyed Dachsund, who would spend the remainder of my stay-28 days-alternately using my mattress as a trampoline and a toilet. My roommate was arguably the best of the diverse bunch I’ve had over the years, even to this day, though I fear the adrenaline-fueled emotions of those first few weeks in New York gelled in my long-term memory as something more verdant and pacific than life truly was or is.

Why I took to Park Slope like a four-year-old to Disney World or a fourteen-year-old to a mall, I cannot say, but I verily skipped down 7th Avenue (that’s Brooklyn, lest you forget) that first evening as if I had just woken up from a dream to realize that capitalism and its attendants did not really exist and I could spend my days among the faded, stained hippie pillows of Tea Lounge typing alongside other aspiring novelists like one of Steve Buscemi’s brothers.

In actual fact, the next day I would be failing a test of my Excel skills at a temp agency as I tried to create a formula that came out something like “C4+!!#*(@E8=A1!!?!?!@#*($@#=F14?” instead of the desired “2.” I was given an average grade and herded into a corral with other livestock deemed capable of answering phones and typing names, addresses and integers into data-entry systems. In two days, I would have two whole days of temp work under my belt.

I would also receive a call at 2 a.m. from my Abercrombie model of a boss who wore a baseball cap, Rainbow sandals and a Bluetooth earpiece at all times, who was calling me to slurrily ask if I wanted a full-time job at his executive staffing agency, if only I was free to discuss it over drinks. Oh, the things that passed for flattering at 22.

In one week I would be standing in front of Bloomingdale’s, tearily describing the monotonous conditions of my new full-time job subbing for a pregnant woman in the customer service department of Ralph Lauren Home, a job that did admittedly have its material perks: a window of a wall through which to marvel at a naked man who plastered his body against his windowsill each morning in a kind of light-well salutation; my six-foot-one female coworker’s never-ending collection of four-inch heels and silk scarves; the alarm clock radio that eagerly surged toward five o’clock day after day for nine months as DJs consoled us through the work week with thrice-daily plays of Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together”; the bottomless bin of snack-size Oreos; the do-not-touch exclusivity of the furniture show room; the library of pretty fabric swatches; the promise of being given one of the company’s famed hurricane lamps at cost.

Before my predecessor went off to have her baby, she christened me Gizmo, after the Gremlin that has an aversion to natural light, since once the naked man left the window and the sun came up over his building, I shrank away from the light, mostly because it carried a reminder of the life happening outside SYSPRO, the computer program with which I spent the hours of nine to five. I only broke away for our department’s accountant, a wonderful Peruvian woman with perfect skin and everything else who confessed to owning 200 pairs of shoes. She spent 12 hours a day fixing the mistakes of her predecessor and thus deserved every last shoe.

The money was good, being both a usable currency and my own, and the spending of it was even better, because I had a knack for finding $400-a-month caves in which to sleep, leaving me ample money to buy overpriced lunches from Café Metro and work clothes from Forever 21. After my sublet ended I took over the room of an up-and-coming playwright in another dingy pocket of the same cushy neighborhood, across the street from a Chinese import-export facility. The playwright’s room did not have a door, or rather, at night you would simply lean a door-sized plank of wood against the doorframe.

The playwright had a unique, classy name that was part Shakespeare character, part French, and I hoped that some remnants of her creative spirit would remain in the room. She subscribed to a doctor’s office amount of magazines, and they kept coming for weeks after she’d gone. I wondered how these magazines fit into her prolific day-to-day life. The apartment had neon yellow kitchen walls. Outside in the garden were a functioning washer and dryer caressed by ivy, protected from the rain by an awning. Charming, but the house gradually became filled with small children connected in some fashion to the girlfriend of my roommate. Every day it seemed there was a new child. Perhaps there were thirteen at my last count.

I moved out after a month, upgrading to a basement room with no window and a six-foot-high ceiling. The room had its own closet! Going inside this closet and closing the door felt like being inside the core of the earth, only mildewy and cool instead of a fiery ball of metal. As soon as my alarm went off in the morning, a light would switch on, thanks to a little plug-in timer I’d bought that looked like a thermostat. Otherwise I could have stayed in there for an entire season, as a bear. Once awake, I would ascend the narrow stairway to the kitchen like a mummy out of a tomb.

My first few months in New York I spent my nights in a Starbucks, working on a ghastly and eventually 400-page document that I’ll simply refer to as juvenilia. Unfortunately life-that is, exterior life-began calling to me like a phone ringing in the night. It got louder, more insistent, more grating as the pleasant coma of the creative interior life gave way to a more sociable wakefulness. One can either answer the phone of life or throw it across the room, unless it is an iPhone (in which case, why on earth do you have an iPhone, young recent graduate?). As the pressures of professional life increased, everything else in New York became far more interesting than job listings, including the smell of Chelsea on a hot summer day. I joined an artsy group on Craigslist, whose members conveniently wanted to spend as much time together as possible, going on weekend retreats to the Catskills, each other’s birthday parties, barbecues, starting literary journals, staying up all night and dining at Fairway for breakfast.

And when this group could not provide me with dates (ever), I created an online dating profile that I perfected day after day into an ever-smaller and ever-more esoteric core sample of myself, applying the same dedication formerly given to the 400-page manuscript. Life became less like a course of study and more like a video game.

The two men from the Internet that I actually met in real life conveniently both fit under my six-foot ceiling, but they were awful creatures who used dating sites the way moms use FreshDirect. My confidence and bank account hovered around the same double-digit number. If only I could have told myself that everything I was doing would pay off, but it all looked very bleak in winter, winter being something New York City ought to be spared. I had begun the previous summer reading two books a week. My reward for finishing a book was a book. I wrote thousands of words a week.

As my first year in New York clicked over to my second, I wrote less and read less. But slowly my temp career was being replaced with a writing career, and I might add that it was largely because I accepted unpaid positions that accrued in professional value over time. There would always be a place for unpaid gigs, I realized. That place would get smaller and smaller over the years, but it would never-and should never-disappear. A paid job has infinite horrors to taunt you with: bad bosses, bossy coworkers, long hours, dull assignments, ancient computers, Excel, meetings, paperwork, errands, frigid air conditioning, expensive lunch habits and endless, boring wardrobe needs. But doing what you love for no money is simply doing what you love for no money.

Around the time that I started selling running shoes to middle-aged walkers with bunions and planter fasciitis to support a burgeoning career in music criticism, I moved from the Being John Malkovich set piece of a basement room to a two-room sanctuary with a fireplace and a fire escape, an illustrator roommate who played piano accompaniment for his burlesque dancer girlfriend (she being the fine print of this sweet abode), and a landlady who cried and hugged me for ten minutes when I moved out-way out, to a suffocatingly small, overpriced townhouse in Kensington, because I was fed up with the burlesque duo’s raging fights, make-up sex, tempestuous threesomes, terrifying Medusa-like wigs drying in the shower and walls decorated with my roommate’s tacky, exaggerated illustrations of naked girls. His artistic muse was his girlfriend, but over the course of my year and a half there, he appeared to fall in love with her more attractive dance partner, one of several guests invited into the fraught domain of their bedroom. One night while listening to two or three of them having sex, I turned on the TV to see the girlfriend strutting her stuff on some kind of competitive half-hour program on Fuse. Enough was enough.

But it could have been worse, and soon it was. I moved to a veritable dollhouse with two other women, all of us seemingly exceeding the height requirement to enter the building. We bonded over flying cockroaches, men, movies and interior decoration. We repeatedly consoled ourselves with, “But we do have a beautiful bathtub.” Irreconcilable differences over my cat soon did us in. My next destination was a luxurious rent-controlled apartment in the prime section of my old haunt. Upon meeting my much older roommate, she asked me my astrological sign and gave me a Tarot reading, and over the course of the next few months, recommended health supplement upon self-help book upon general divorcée-mom wisdom.

Once she came home to find me bashfully watching “America’s Next Top Model” on her tiny television, only to reveal over the course of the final half-hour of the episode that she knew the names of many of the proto-models and the plot twists of the season thus far. We got along better than any of the girls in the show’s seven-year history. Why we couldn’t live in peace is a question better posed to our cats, who hated each other.

The last move I made was, first and foremost, to accommodate a cat. She sauntered around the place like she’d lived in it for years. Being the more neurotic of the two species, I was full of trepidation, because this move meant graduating to a cohabitating class of New Yorker-just one class away from the madly humping rabbits who fill the general area where I’ve spent the past five years miraculously child-free-and a bit sooner than I would have elected to cohabit, had I not been in possession of a cat.

But cats must know something we don’t. I still live here. The move led to a couple of other difficult but worthwhile decisions. After five years, it was all very delightfully grown-up, an adjective I never thought I’d be able to use on myself as long as I lived in New York. But sometimes the hardest tree to climb bears the juiciest fruit.

Liz Colville welcomes, and cautions, you.

Photo, of New York in 1967, by John Atherton, from Flickr.