Nothing could top the magic I felt the day I arrived at New York’s Penn Station from Wilmington, a smallish town on North Carolina’s southeastern coast, to officially begin my New York life. I felt liberated and inspired, intoxicated by the notion that anything was possible now that I was going to be living in this magical city.
It was 1991 and my then boyfriend was getting his MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. I was living in Wilmington, earning my English degree at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. After we did the long-distance relationship thing for a while, the topic of me moving to New York came up. I was already packing mentally 30 seconds into the conversation. Back in the real world a few days later, I dropped all my classes at UNCW, began the process of transferring to Fordham College at Lincoln Center, and starting packing my belongings for real.
Luckily the boyfriend had scored a sweet little apartment on 119th and Amsterdam, in a building with a doorman and a nice restaurant on the top floor called The Terrace, through some impossible magic of Columbia student housing. With safe shelter out of the way, my first order of business was finding a job to fill the time and my bank account until I was to begin classes a few months later.
I started looking for waitressing work. For a girl with plenty of restaurant experience who had never had trouble finding a waitressing gig before, this turned out to be surprisingly difficult. I would comb through classified ads in The Village Voice spying ad after ad that said, “New York experience required.” I was baffled. I had no clue what the difference between waiting tables in a small southern beach community and Manhattan’s restaurant scene was.
After a few weeks of searching, I scored a job in a casual hamburger joint thick in the theater district just off Broadway on 45th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. I was both thrilled and terrified to be given this opportunity. Rows of tables lined up neatly along the length of the restaurant, next to the bar, in front of the kitchen, and around the corner and into the next room, as if every millimeter of empty space that couldn’t accommodate a customer was an affront to commerce. Tables were so close together you could reach out a take a sip of the beer your fellow restaurant patron was enjoying at the next table over as easily as eating a French fry off of your very own plate.
10 minutes into my first shift the need for “New York experience” started to sink in. Navigating the cramped spaces between tables to deliver food and drinks was dicey. I was forever worried that my butt was in the face of some unsuspecting restaurant patron trying to enjoy their burger and curly fries as I delivered a quesadilla to their neighbors at the next table over. The distance between my ability to do my job properly and invading my customers’ personal space was exceedingly slim.
Maybe this was different from waitressing in the comparatively spacious and slothlike environment of southeastern North Carolina’s beach scene.
And it wasn’t just the space issues. From restaurant patrons who arrived at 6:45 pm, waited 30 minutes for a table, then ordered a well-done steak, announcing, “we’re in a hurry, we’re trying to make an 8 o’clock show,” to the purse snatchings inside the restaurant, and from the occasional celebrity sitting in your section to orders for things like lime rickeys and egg creams, nearly everything I encountered in my first few weeks on the job called up the phrase, “Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
But I was in hog heaven, as we say in the South. I embraced every experience my new job and city had to offer, assenting to both conveniences and annoyances in equal measure, mentally placing them on my “Proof I’m a Real New Yorker” list. The vague suffocation I felt when I lived in the South began to dissipate.
I noticed New York’s peculiarities everywhere: the way the city would empty out in the summer, its residents fleeing the trapped heat and humidity to escape to the Hamptons and other beachy enclaves. The frequent celebrity sightings, whose frequency made them ordinary. The constant barrage of people asking for money. The ever present noise of sirens and car horns at all times of the day and night. Getting shat on by a pigeon as you made your way across 45th street just after crossing Broadway. (Yes, it happened to me.)
With every new first I felt my hayseed sheen begin to wear off – my first book party in a big fancy apartment on Central Park West, where clumps of minor literary celebs and starving writers from the Columbia MFA program stood around chatting about Lewis Lapham’s latest editorial in Harper’s Magazine, my first celebrity sighting (Paul Schaffer, David Letterman’s musical director) in front of Coliseum Books on 57th and Broadway, the first time I got yelled at by a homeless person I chose not to help that day, the first time I stopped being offended by the admonition of “Next!” and the absence of eye contact in line at the bank.
Like an onion, layer after layer of Southerness peeled away with each passing day.
The day I felt fully transformed into a New Yorker came one glorious spring afternoon as I was leaving the restaurant on my way to everyone’s favorite ubiquitous New York drugstore, Duane Reade. Walking across 45th Street, I spotted a crowd gathered in front of a youth hostel, where several people stood silently hovering around something on the ground, their hands clasped over their mouths, eyes wide. I didn’t want to linger, but I could tell from the shocked energy that hung in the air something bad had happened, and I was curious.
Turns out, a young man had jumped or fallen out of the window of a nearby building, landing on the sidewalk in front of the hostel.
What I remember most clearly all these years later is this young man’s enthusiastically curly red hair, springing from his scalp vibrant and alive, juxtaposed with his body, which clearly wasn’t.
After a few brief moments of this shared experience with my fellow New Yorkers, the crowd began to disperse, collectively making its way on with the rest of the afternoon. As I walked away, I made a mental note of what I needed to buy at the drugstore.