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Monday, July 6, 1998
By Paul Ford
How I came to New York I
How I Came to New York I
Diary readers often ask me how, and why, I came to New York. I was in Alfred living with Rhonda. At Alfred, I knew some of the faculty well--I ate with them, drank with them, and amused them. They helped me move from apartment to apartment, and counseled me to attend graduate school. I was a fixture. People thought I had lived there six or seven years, one of those forever students scared to leave.
I'd graduated one year early, because I was itchy, then stayed an extra year to help coordinate a conference on technology and literature called "Text21." To make money, I found freelance work in web design, through a friend of my father. I worked for a man from Los Angeles and a woman from New Jersey, all over the phone. Rhonda became a widow to my nascent career, and was often angry with me. I realized that my plans for graduate school would never work because I was ignorant, impatient, and disliked college. I needed a new strategy.
In early July, 1996, I wrote a successful proposal to create the New York Council for the Humanities web site. With the prior freelance work, it looked a good way to start a career in New Media, and in late July, a friend from middle school rang up. He said "let's go live in New York." He wanted to be on stage, as a musician or actor. New York, a place I had visited twice, suddenly appeared on radar.
I had a good lead at Disney Online in L.A., but I did not want to lose track of Rhonda. So, after some weeks of pondering my future in graphic design and HTML development, and abandoning all hopes of graduate school, I called my friend and said, "okay."
Over the phone, the graphic designer from New Jersey counseled me on where to live; I took notes in an email message and sent it to myself. It read in part:
East village. Not too bad--heroin.
West village expensive. Up E side also. Brooklyn?
In August, one of my closest friends, the village postman, was arrested along with his wife for possession of 2.5 pounds of marijuana and 80 tabs of acid.
A week later another close friend, an English professor, slept with a recent graduate, then left his wife and daughter and moved with the young woman to Rochester. I knew the young woman; she'd been a half-friend for a while. He stopped speaking to me, or anyone.
The head of the News Bureau, who usually gave me writing work, quit. My other boss, the dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, also quit.
In September, 1996, my jobs and lease ran out, and it was time to leave.
All night, Rhonda and I cleaned the apartment on Main Street and packed my father's rented van. We cried and held each other on the naked loft mattress.
In the morning I guiltily showed the landlord the hole in the bathroom floor. He nodded, uninterested. Rhonda had another two years at the school. I walked to her dorm room. Bartlett Hall, fourth floor.
I held her and we breathed together, then we made love, quick and sad. I kissed her and walked downstairs, to find my father parked and patient.
We drove to Philadelphia. I felt confident and dumb.
I lived in his Dad's one-room apartment for a month, kept awake by the Philly heat and Dad's snoring. I missed sex and familiar territory; my throat clogged with city air. Dad was annoyed by my intrusion, my lack of career prospects, my late nights. "You can't freelance without experience." He showed me ads--they needed editorial assistants at TV Guide, paste-up guys for classified newspapers, people who could use MSWord. I toiled late on the Council site and hoped my freelance checks would arrive soon.
My friend from middle school and I drove to New York. It rained, and no one in Manhattan would show us an apartment. Finally, we found a realtor in Brooklyn who disdainfully dragged us from building to building.
The best place we saw was 800 a month and a share. The woman we would share with did not speak English, and looked unhappy to see us. My friend and I would have to split a bed.
"Not bad," said my soon-to-be roommate. "It would be a start."
"Jersey City," I said. "is cheaper, I think."
So we went to Jersey City, and stumbled onto a place on Van Wagenen Ave. We were stepping out of a novel, my roommate with his guitar and myself with my computer. Our landlord had a poster of a fist on his door, scrawled over with Arabic. The neighborhood sold goat meat, and there was laundry in the building. Large living area, two bedrooms, kitchen with microwave and dishwasher.
We moved in with a ratty couch and cartons of books. My roommate began going to auditions and found temp work. After a week, I went to MacTemps, took their HTML test ("That's the fastest anyone ever finished!") and they started me on web sites for a corporate report company on Long Island. I bought my own health insurance, and felt lonely and bored. Manhattan beckoned, strange and vertical, a island-ship with too many smokestacks.
I went to two interviews at web shops. One was with a massive web shop called A-----.Com on Broadway. I did not impress them. I felt fat in my sweater, misplaced. I am not cool. Cool people spend more time choosing shirts than friends. I mumbled and wished the interview over. So did the skinny, well-dressed woman interviewing me. I didn't feel like I wanted to work there, finding the company pretentious and oversized, but I felt disappointed in the bad interview at the same time.
Then they refused to not hire me, and asked me to keep calling in. This is typical--companies like a stable of second and third picks to call if work pours in. Around then, someone rang me from "CyberDestroyer, Inc." They'd found my resume online. The company was in Jersey, in an industrial park. I took the train out, and they took me to lunch. My future manager looked at me over a steak and said, "Goddamn, Paul, I love guns. What about you?" I nodded, scared.
They pitched me 35K a year and benefits, but the guy who wanted to hire me quit the next week. He called me, and said "Never work at that fucking hole."
Full time employment was coming slowly. I was still working and making good money, $24/hr from MacTemps. No one spoke English in Jersey, my girlfriend was happy with classes beginning and unconcerned with me, and I slept on a mattress on the floor. One day, slicing up graphics in a Photoshop file, I checked my email. A woman had written into a W3 discussion list to ask about Cascading Style Sheets; there was a URL at the bottom of the page. I clicked on it, and the browser took me to a clunky little promotional site for a small web shop. I pasted my resume into a form on the page.
They called the next day, and the interview was friendly. I was a good fit, a little bit of a freak, and I said, "I want to work here because you develop database-driven web sites." I meant it--database driven sites drive the industry, much more than design-oriented sites do. Your credit card, web-based ordering through online catalogs happens in a database. Technology development is much less ephemeral than graphic design, and I wanted stability.
They hired me at a low salary, and I began. I worked hard, learned the boring methods of an eight-hour day, and then--
Work. In between the days of work, I discovered the cliches and secrets of Manhattan; made and lost several friendships; helped my roommate move out; moved into a one-room in Brooklyn; watched the company sold; received raises; ended my relationship with Rhonda; and stopped working on 85th St as we moved down to 5th Avenue, with a new logo on the business cards. I started an online diary now several hundred days old. But that tide of daily labor sweeps the memory along. In its sweep my life is powerless. The managers have even less control, and that's how I came to New York City.