I moved into a basement apartment on 88th and York 10 years ago, on a hot, hot afternoon. I drove a U-Haul full of hand-me-down furniture (too much of it) and my brother followed in his car. I met the broker outside my apartment, he gave me the keys and I let myself in. I had signed the lease just two weeks earlier after several weeks of a soul-crushing roommate search that involved a long list of dumps and potentially crazy roommates. I had thought I found a great apartment in Hells Kitchen. It was a share - two big bedrooms and two (!!) bathrooms. She seemed normal enough, until she said, "Well, I'm not looking for a BEST friend, just someone to hang with." Ahem. Walking out the door onto 54th street, I was still considering the share. But then a neighbor heard me leave and followed me out to the sidewalk. "Were you looking at the apartment?" I nodded. She went on, "Well, I promised her old roommate I'd tell anyone looking that she's a liar and crazy." I said thank you and started to leave. "Don't you want to know why?" she shouted as I walked away. No, no I didn't. That was enough. I began to look for a one bedroom or studio after that.
And so, what with my mind fuzzy from all the apartments I had seen, the actual place I picked had somehow, in my imagination, grown in size during the two week hiatus. The 500 square feet I remembered was much more like 300. Maybe even 250. I stood at the doorway, realizing this, when my brother, breathless from carrying the first piece furniture, asked, "Is all this stuff gonna fit?" For a minute I panicked. Would it? "Well, it all fit in the truck. And the apartment's bigger than the truck. So, um, yeah, it'll fit." We unloaded the truck, stacking boxes to the ceiling and cramming furniture against closet doors until finally everything was inside. Then we hopscotched across the boxes (there was no floorspace to walk on) and headed out to see a show at Blue Note. Michael left town the next day, sweetly worried that his big sister may well be devoured by all of her possessions. But eventually, with the help of bed risers and plastic storage bins, everything found its place. I stayed there for almost three years, until shortly after 9/11, which was around the time the landlord seemed to get terribly, horribly lazy about pest control.
I'm still in tiny apartments (only now I actually really do have 500 square feet! And light!) and I still rely on those storage bins. And sometimes the best reason not to buy new clothes is still the fact that I have nowhere to put them. But in other less tangible, quantifiable ways, I've graduated from my freshman year in New York. A lot of people say you're not an official New Yorker until you hit double digits. And though I'm not sure I really identify as a New Yorker, I am pretty excited to hit this milestone.
A bit about me: My dad worked for the government while I was growing up and we moved every three years, almost like clockwork. I was born very near New York in a town called Denville, New Jersey. I don't remember it at all; we moved to Northfield, New Jersey (ironically on the south end of the state) when I was about three or four. We lived there until just after my seventh birthday, when we moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I remember, very well, being at a restaurant with my parents when they told me about the upcoming move. There we were : my mom and my dad and I sitting at the table, and my little brother, aged four, under the table doing whatever kids do when they're painfully bored at a grown-up restaurant (he was probably building a fort with abandoned napkins and flatware). They told me we were moving to Malaysia and it was far away. I thought it sounded cool, mostly because I was told it would be hot all year and I could go swimming at Christmas. It's safe to say I took it in stride.
Malaysia was amazing, especially in the (ahem) early '80's. Fine, 1981. We lived in a house that seemingly functioned as a terrarium - it was as if the walls of our house were just a touch permeable. We could keep nothing out. We lived with plants, frogs, geckos and snakes. On occasion, we experienced a few rats and enough species of insects that we could have charged admission to wild-eyed entomologists. We even had a monitor lizard take up residence in our powder room. For a tomboyish girl, it was pretty awesome. I remember drinking warm Coke out of plastic baggies - they didn't have bottles or cans then. Towards the end of our tour, our very first McDonald's opened, which was amazing for an 11 year old who could get a bit homesick for the states. They didn't serve hamburgers though -- for fear the Muslim population would make the reasonable assumption that pork was involved. Instead, they were labeled beefburgers. Which, when you think of it, makes much more sense. And no strawberry shakes, instead we had durian shakes.
In 1985, we moved to the DC area and instead of dealing with creepy-crawlies, I was dealing with cliques and malls and the Importance of Wearing the Right Jeans. I remember telling classmates about what it was like in Malaysia and they would quickly volley back looks of disdain. Honestly, I probably (okay, definitely) talked too much, but we were also all ten years old, and any ten year old has enough problems, what with the onset of adolescence, than to feel inadvertently challenged by some new kid who moved here from a country they hadn't even heard of.
In 1988, we moved to Turkey. We lived in Ankara for three years. Recently I had a reunion with classmates from Turkey. It was great to catch up with them and to find out what women and men they've become, but most interesting was that when our conversations drifted into what it's like to have moved around so much, they echo back some of my own sentiments about the experience.
Turkey, incidentally, is a wonderful country. I loved living there. I was thirteen when we arrived and sixteen when we left. Being in a city that has many taxis, I was afforded a pretty independent lifestyle for a teenage girl. The people are incredible, the ancient architecture and art is amazing and the food's pretty delicious. Go. It has changed a lot over the years, and it's a complicated country, caught between the Middle East and the West, but I can't wait to return.
After Turkey we went back to northern Virginia where I spent my junior and senior years at high school. Then three years in college (I was a nerd), and then three years in grad school. And then New York. And then ten years.
So you see, it's really, really weird to have spent ten years in a place. I've never done it before. It's strange to think I could be a New Yorker, 'cause I'm much more comfortable being the New Kid. I suppose since New York has such a transient undercurrent of people, you feel like you're in a new place every three years anyway.
Of course, that said, I've developed some wonderful friendships here, too. And somehow I've managed to feed my appetite for plants and nature while still living in a city where my garden is limited to the fire escape at my apartment window.
Here's a few things that I have to show for myself after all this time:
- I've spent about $153,000 in rent*.
- I've lived in five apartments.
- By training for three marathons, I figure I've run about 1000 miles of NYC asphalt.
- I've been to countless cringey off broadway plays/dance revues/concerts/art openings.
- (I've been to good ones, too.)
- I've actually auditioned for a broadway play (honest: as a lark)
- I have, however, sung on a broadway stage, in front of an audience.
- I've survived an apartment fire!
- I can have a half-hour discussion with someone about the best way to take the subway from Greenwich Village to the Upper East Side.
- On that note, I know which car to ride in so that I can make the speediest exit above ground for far too many subway stations.
- I've been on, who knows, maybe 100 first dates.
- I've been on, well probably, 25 second dates!
- I've ridden the Cyclone at least 10 times.
- I've seen a slew of famous people and casually ignored almost all of them. (Apologies to Daniel Sunjata; what can I say, it was 1AM on a weekend night!)
- I've inventoried about 400 species of plants in 14 Manhattan parks.
- I've never lost that fiery annoyance for tourists who stop short IN THE MIDDLE of the sidewalk to take a picture.
- I do however, offer them directions if they're lost.
*Never, please never, quote this figure back to me.