The period after I graduated college proved to be one of the most difficult times of my life. At school I studied exactly what I wanted to, with little regard for how my studies might lead to meaningful employment. Afterward, with no plan, I decided to move to New York City.
Studying the humanities at a small liberal arts college like mine predisposes students to move to big cities. These places are hubs of culture and opportunity, and for me, New York was the most logical choice. I’d been familiar with the city for a long time, and I knew it would be easy to find friends from school who were planning to move there.
People who were already in New York City told me to save up a healthy amount of money, so I made it my goal to be as thrifty as possible, and moved back home with my parents. My efforts to save were largely unsuccessful, however. In the month or so before I left, I felt a sense of impending liberation, so I burned through a lot of my savings by drinking and celebrating my upcoming departure.
The move itself turned out to be relatively painless. Finding an apartment was simple, especially because my soon-to-be roommate grew up in Manhattan and knew his way around. I chanced upon a rather pushy broker who pronounced my name “Danielle” and attempted to force a decision out of me by insisting that his apartments were in very high demand. But he did find us a newly renovated, inexpensive apartment in Brooklyn.
When I moved in, I was elated to be in the city. Everybody I met—and I met a lot of people because I was in such good spirits—seemed so interesting. I quickly realized that there was a kind of communal spirit amongst recent transplants, many of whom had also graduated recently.
After a few days of lounging about, I started looking for work. I wanted to write professionally, but I couldn’t afford to be picky. I spruced up my resume and made several dozen copies. All it took was one evening handing them out to restaurants and coffee shops to get calls back from several places.
I chose to train at a small French restaurant, which was ideal: tips would be high, the clientele seemed hip and attractive, and I could speak in French with the owner. But he proved to be impatient with me. I was fired once—he thought I was going to continue chewing on a piece of bread after I left the kitchen, even though I had all intentions of finishing it—but I convinced him to give me another chance. Then, after lighting a cigarette outside with the restaurant’s candle, I was fired for good—or, rather, I was informed that they had hired someone else when I came in a week later to work my next shift.
I rebounded quickly after, with offers to train at both a bar and a bakery. I was especially excited about the prospect of working at a bar; bartenders are like the gods of the city. They make a boatload in tips, and unlike servers, there isn’t the same pressure to be friendly and affable with customers. They are often assholes, aloof and superior-seeming. I can be one of those assholes, I said to myself.
Assured that I would be flush with cash in no time, I went out and drank hard with my roommate.
But the bar decided not to pick me up after my training period, even though my potential boss said he would. “How do they even make a decision? It doesn’t seem like they were paying attention,” I asked. He told me that the owners watched their employees with surveillance cameras. And then I remembered every time that I made myself a drink or looked at my cellphone.
The day after I trained at the bar I went in to the bakery and “shadowed,” which is another way of saying worked for free, packaging cookies. I was informed by e-mail the following day that they had decided to pass on me. We hired someone else who is more qualified, the message said.
At this point, I began to resent many of my fellow New York transplants. They had rich parents or good jobs (or both) and could afford to live in Williamsburg. It’s as if they were still in college, and New York is their campus.
When I go out, I bring along flasks of liquor so I don’t have to pay for drinks. (I can take more with me when it’s cold outside because I can put a bigger mickey in the pocket of my winter coat.) I take pulls of cheap gin in the bathroom every half hour. I feed myself with eggs, tuna sandwiches, and pasta (usually in that order). I drink instant coffee because we don’t have a coffee maker and I don’t want to buy one.
At first it was nice when people would buy me a drink or treat me to a slice of pizza because they knew I was unemployed. Now it’s depressing. But I’ve come to realize that I prefer it this way: as long as I have enough to get by, I would rather live in squalor, even if I have to temporarily sublet my room and sleep on the living room floor. This lifestyle feels like some sort of bohemian adventure, and it speaks to the romantic (if misguided) longing to give up the comforts that I previously thought I couldn’t live without. There’s something satisfying about just barely scraping by; it lends a certain authenticity to my new life as a New Yorker.