Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New York City, 1988: Pilgrim girl vs. cockroaches

I moved to New York City a month after my college graduation. Late 1980s, I was 23. I finished my last college class in December and was in New York City by the next February. I remember nothing about the preparation for this adventure besides shopping for a new set of cooking pans at the Bon with my mom and putting $1,000 of savings into travelers' checks to bring with me.
I also forced myself to look at the Sunday New York Times at the Boise Public Library. I read the job and apartment listings because it seemed like I should. But classified ads about a place I didn't know, and jobs I couldn't imagine, were far too abstract.
I always thought my brother, Peter, was right when he said that for my generation, living in New York City for a time was a cultural imperative. He didn't go. He went to East Germany for a time instead, which says something about him and his freedom from cultural imperatives.
My college roommate Katharine, and a friend of hers from high school, found the apartment we lived in. A building on E. 22nd Street. This street was as abstract to me as the classifieds, mere shapes and lines in my Michelin guide. But my new address was near Gramercy Park. This was a place I loved, at least from the outside, since I'd never been inside New York's lone private park. I had admired it, urchin-like through the iron gates, though, during many past trips to the city.
Our apartment had a low-ceilinged, chilly basement room that I shared with Katharine. White walls, short, grey, industrial carpet, a scent of new drywall and aftershave that hinted a man had lived there last, and florescent light that I tried to never turn on.
If there's anything worse than the sight of one's face and body under florescent overhead light, I have never known it. 
This basement room would provide me with an indelible image that still rankles me 20 years later: florescents turned on in panic after a distinct sensation: insect feet on bare arm. Then spotting a brown, leaf-shaped water bug, lunking its way across the grey carpet.
I spent a month looking before I found my first job, development assistant at the Guggenheim Museum. Before that, I had a few bad, directionless interviews for editorial assistant positions — the kind of interviews where they say, "Do you have any questions for us?" and you say, "Uh, not really," because you really don't.
My job goal at that time was to find something entry-level, but dignified, not embarrassing to tell people about, and not entirely at odds with my interests, which were then, what they are now, art and writing. 
The museum job was dignified, even if it paid $15,000 a year. It saved me from that certain sense of "outlaw" — walking around in the middle of the day when everyone else has somewhere to be, counting up quarters to see if I really should spring for that cappuccino. And back then, before grunge music and Seattle-mania made it popular, coffee was cheap. Cappuccino was just an ethnic take on a cheap drink.  
I was so relieved to get the Guggenheim job that I can still remember the sensation, riding the subway back downtown in the chilly mid-morning after my last interview, knowing I would have a place to be.
For the final interview, I'd worn an outfit I considered very stylish, but which, in retrospect, resembled a pilgrim costume. It was a flowy, tentish black Laura Ashley dress with a big white collar and a longish necktie attachment. I wore black hose, low black heels, a jacket with padded shoulders and grey plastic buttons meant to look like granite. I wore my hair in a long braid and the candelabra earrings I favored at the time.
When my boss-to-be, a Park Avenue matron with a girlish nickname, gave me the job, she also gave me two big, soft-cover catalogues of paintings in the Guggenheim's permanent collection.
Whether meant as a prize, initiation or study guide, I couldn't believe my good fortune, getting such books for free. I carried them home on my lap. They've been in my bookshelf in every apartment and house I've lived in since.
I wish I could say I was thrilled at the idea of being among great art, and that I had a plan worked up in my head that would transform me from assistant, to curator. I did love the building. I loved walking in the employee entrance every morning. I loved the nondescript door that led from our offices right onto the spiraling ramp of paintings. I loved walking through the collection, alone on Mondays when the museum was closed.
But the truth is, my happiness about getting that job was grounded in relief, not in ambition.
I've felt versions of that particular sense of joyful, weightless relief throughout my life.
As a little kid it came from studying for tests and getting all the answers right, seeing that glorious red "A," sometimes accompanied by a "+," at the top of the page.
My private celebration back then was to sing Simon and Garfunkle's "The 59th Street Bridge Song," quietly to myself on my walk home. The line, "I've got no deeds to do, no promises to keep," was code for: I got an A on the test and now I don't have to worry.
As an adult, the sensation of joyful, weightless relief has mostly come from getting a job I wanted.
There's that magical period of time, before the new job actually starts, but you know it's there, secured. It feels like a suddenly clear conscience.

1 comment:

Scott C. said...

I read this, Anna. You are such a great writer. I could imagine it all very clearly. Your other posts are great, too.
Keep it up!