As far as I felt, I was still a fucking nobody: commuting to my graduate classes six out of seven days a week, on a 45-minute subway ride from the Bronx.
Sure, as any not-too-lame looking chick, I tried to upgrade my style with an occasional ten-dollar purchase from the H&M on Broadway and 34th. And I had even managed to go out with a few finance guys from Wall Street and realized they were no more sophisticated than my 20-year-old ass. But despite my now impressive expertise of the Island’s neighborhoods and demographics, my favorite shops to browse and windows to shop (only the ones where I was least harassed by salesgirls) — I was hardly a New Yorker yet.
Shit! I didn’t even know any good places to eat! Despite the 50/50 scholarship, the pleasure of having a graduate degree — forty five grand later — was leaving my ass seriously broke. For one, I could never join my classmates to their lunch outings. And because of my immigrant pride, when shooting down their invites, I would give them reasons related to my studious nature (and not because I was eating beans out of a can, in an unheated basement apartment, every night). So, for the entire twelve hour day spent on the Island, in between classes, I would have to last on a pitiful, homemade sandwich made out of a single slice of pumpernickel bread and a veggie burger, glued together with a thin spread of margarine and then cut in half. The meal was so embarrassing, I would do my best to chomp it down alone, in the staircase of a school wing unlikely to be visited by my classmates; or, if I was getting the shakes — inside a bathroom stall.
And this was with my two shitty, part-time jobs accounted for!
And because my education was costing me an arm and a leg — and possibly my sanity and longevity, in the end — boy! did I look forward to the end of every semester. Most of my colleagues would leave for their wholesome looking families — in Connecticut or wherever else purebred Americans had their happy childhoods — and there, I imagined, they sat around on their white-fenced porches and threw tennis balls for their pedigree golden retrievers to fetch. For Christmas, they retold their tales of crazy, filthy, overcrowded Manhattan while clutching giant cups of hot cocoa and apple sider in front of electric fireplaces, and waiting for the contributions of cash. In the summer, they’d allow their parents to pay their airfare for the pleasure of their company in the Caribbean or the Riviera.
I, on the other hand, would remain stuck in the Bronx.
(Well. It was either that, or going to visit my obese stepfather and endure his interrogations about what I was planning to do with my art school education, for which he was NOT paying.)
So, for the last two years of grad school, I stuck around on the Island. And whatever happy lives my classmates were deservingly pursuing elsewhere, I still thought I had it the best: I was free and young, in New York Fuckin’ City! Unthought of, for my long removed Russian family!
In those days, it was between me and the Island. Just the two of us. Finally, I would have the time and discipline to follow the schedule of free admission nights to all Manhattan museums. With no shame, I would join the other tourists waiting for discounted Broadway tickets at the Ticketmaster booth in Times Square. In the summer, I would gladly camp out in Central Park over night, so that I could get a glimpse of some Hollywood star giving Shakespeare a shot at the Delacorte. I read — any bloody book I wanted! — at the Central Branch, then blacken my fingers with the latest issue of Village Voice, while nearly straddling one of the lions up front. And in between my still happening shitty jobs, I would work on my tan on the Sheep Meadow; then peel on my uniform (still reeking of the previous night’s baskets of fries) and return for my graveyard shift in the Bronx.
Yes, it was MY time: to be young and oblivious to the hedonistic comforts of life. I was in the midst of a giant adventure — that forty five grand could buy me — and outside of my curiosity, all the other pleasures of life could wait.
“Now, what are you planning to do with your art school education, hon?” one of my former undergrad professors asked me during an impromptu date.
Snide! Ever so snide, he had a talent for making you feel not up to par — ever! If he were to try that on me today, I would flaunt my post-therapy terminology on boundaries and self-esteem. But back then, I was eating lunches inside the bathroom stalls of my Theatre Arts Building and wearing a button name tag for work, at nighttime. So, I would endure the condescending interrogations over a cup of some bullshit organic soup he’d insist I ordered — and for which I would pray he would offer to pay later, as well.
“Well. I guess you could always teach,” he’d say while packing up to leave for his rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side. (Whom did he have to fuck in order to live there for the last two decades?)
He had a point though: New York didn’t need another girl with her romantic dreams of love and starlet success. New York — could do just fine without me.
But still: It was MY time! MY youth in the city! His — was long gone, and I supposed it was reason enough to despise me.
But how ever unrealistic were my pursuits — and how ever hard was the survival — I still had plenty of curiosity in me to give it all a fair try.