When I was just finishing college in Columbus, Ohio in the early 90s, my life was contrasts. One evening I was covering a story on a forum between former statesmen Oscar Arias, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Henry Kissinger for my internship at a public radio station and the next day I was shoveling human-feces-based fertilizer for an apartment landscape. However, I could find no long-term career options, as I was finishing a degree in Philosophy with a minor in Cinema.
Coming back from one failed job interview, I heard The Call’s “I Still Believe” on the car radio, and I knew I must make a change for something better. I had wanted to work in movies or TV, but I knew enough about LA that I didn’t like. I thought New York City—a place I had visited when I was fourteen to perform, a soloist for my older sister’s high school choir—was smarter and might be a good place for non-conformists like me.
In the Summer, I made what I called a scouting trip to New York City. My sister gave me a ride to the the Columbus airport and told me I was going to get mugged. Waiting for the flight, I saw a woman waiting who appeared to be in her mid forties. She had a tough, yet sophisticated look, that I attributed to New Yorkers. “Excuse me. Do you live in New York?” I suddenly asked her. She told me she was a podiatrist in New York, coming back from a visit to a boyfriend in Columbus. I asked her if she liked New York. She said she had complaints, but that she wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. She gave me her business card and told me about the 92nd Street Y, that she said would be a good place for me to stay, which is where I did end up staying, instead of the Youth Hostel up on Amsterdam Avenue that I had been planning to go to.
The buildings on Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side reminded me of Sesame Street. I went to the corner, to a place called The Bagelry, and in one bite, I knew I had been lied to my whole life. No bagel I had ever tasted in Ohio compared to that.
I made a trip to the Guggenheim Museum, to see some of the world’s best art, but then I also happened to notice the visitors, some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen.
I walked to Central Park to the first time, and I was struck by its landscaped beauty, but also its energy, with all the people running around the reservoir. It made me feel like running. I hadn’t seen such energy from so many people where I lived.
I scoped out some job prospects through ads in the Village Voice, and ended up meeting a few people involved in low budget film production. I also took a walk to Washington Square Park—there was a group of young people sitting under some trees and one of the women was topless—I have to move here, I thought.
My last evening before I had to leave, I called my parents and my father said he was watching TV let me know that Pavarotti was currently singing in Central Park. I walked up the street to the park where I heard the music and saw the scene of people camped out on the Great Lawn on blankets with small picnics and wine bottles, which surprised me. I asked someone about it and he told me that people are allowed to drink wine in the park. Again, I thought, I had to move to New York, no matter how difficult it might seem.
When I returned to Ohio, I told people of my plans to move, but few people believed me. After all, many people I encountered in Columbus would say that they were going to move and get into big things.
The radio station manager, with whom I had become friendly, told me he knew I would never leave. A girlfriend of a friend I knew from the alternative people’s bars said if I moved to New York I’d either end up “on the street, dead or in a mental institution.”
I was more determined to move successfully, as I made my plan and I gathered a budget together by selling my car and scraping together some money from my various part-time work, such as delivering pizza, offering samples in the supermarkets and telemarketing for Time-Warner Cable.
The morning I left from the house where I grew up, in Toledo, was the saddest part. I had been through many arguments with my parents from my teens and twenties, and I was determined to live a life very different from theirs, but they were always there for me, even when I wanted them to go away, and so with all the fights we had gone through, saying goodbye was still hard.
Although my father had told me he was against my going and that it was foolish, he insisted on buying my airplane ticket. From the Detroit airport, an hour’s drive away, for the flight to New York City, they put us on a turboprop plane, that didn’t seem to be flying as high as jets. I could easily see Lake Erie on my left and Cleveland down below.
I flew into the city looking down over the Bronx projects before landing into LaGuardia, then taking a shuttle to Grand Central. I remember a woman staring at me with my giant suitcase. “Yes, I’m new here,” I thought and smile.
The cab driver I ended up with was an older gentleman, who sounded like he might have grown up in the Bronx or Brooklyn. When he saw my bag, he said “What do you have in there—a body?”
My bar friend back in Columbus knew someone who was looking for a room-mate, so I read out the directions I had written down. “First stop in Williamsburg,” I remember. We drove near the M train into Williamsburg. At that time, to a kid from the suburbs, it appeared seedy and a little scary. A woman in her early 30s crossed the street in front of our cab and I noticed a long scar near her neck. “Did someone give that to her?” I wondered.
The driver asked me, “Who told you about this place?”
“My friend,” I said.
“The next time you see your friend, kick him in the balls!”
If the cab driver also thought the area looked bad, that couldn’t be a good sign.
We left the area and I went to another place I was told about: Hotel Riverview. On my way to my room, people in hallways looked strung out.
When I left the hotel the next morning, a tall man in a suit with a Haitian accent helped me with my bags. “He’s being nice to someone!” his friend said surprised. It made me wonder whom he had killed.
That was over twenty years ago. Now I’ve built a stable life here with friends and family. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.