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The book of our lives is undeniably made of numerous chapters. Some blur together in a peaceful monotony without a clear transition from one chapter to the next, and other chapters have very finite, sometimes harsh, beginnings and ends. Sometimes you see a new chapter coming and you either rush through the remaining pages to get there or savor each sentence not wanting the current phase of the story to end. But, whether you try to rush through it or pause after every few words hesitantly wondering about what may come next, new chapters are just a part of the story.
Without slogging through the minutia of details, suffice to say my little family has been transitioning from one chapter to the next in recent weeks and months. It’s been completely horrible, it’s been wonderfully great, it’s been scary, it’s been joyful, it’s been…life. No, no one is pregnant, sick, divorced, dead, or dying (that we know of anyway). The next chapter does involve some travel, so I hope to share more about it before too long, but I’ll save the details until we are a bit further into that chapter as we haven’t yet lived this next portion of our story nearly enough to tell it.
However, as we look at the very few remaining pages of this chapter, it reminds me oh so much of life a little over a decade ago when I took a flight from Houston to Atlanta to New York City, and that’s the story I want to share today.
I was about 22 or 23 years old working for the state as a child abuse investigator when I had one case that just did me in. I didn’t have kids at the time, so it was much easier to not absorb what I was seeing and hearing as deeply as I undoubtably would now, but there were still children, families, and situations that you just couldn’t shake. That you shouldn’t be able to shake. I’ll again just skim the surface of details here, but the root of the issue was there was a child in a situation that I knew was absolutely horrific that I couldn’t ‘save’. For a mix of complicated reasons, I had to leave her in what I knew was a situation no kid should have to live in, at least for a while longer. She did eventually get out, but there was a moment one long afternoon when I realized I could no longer be the cog that I was in a larger system that was epically failing this little girl. I didn’t want to abandon the system and girls like her, but I had to play a different role.
So, I closed out of my case files on my computer and fired up an application to attend NYU to pursue a Master’s in Social Work. I lived in East Texas and at the time had only visited New York City once before for two nights. I don’t know what possessed me to apply to go to very expensive graduate school in Manhattan when I don’t even know if I was making $30,000 a year at the time. How in the bagesus did I think I was ever going to be able to pay that off as a social worker? Well, over a decade later I haven’t paid it off (hey Nicki Minaj, are you listening?!), but that’s mostly tangental to the story, and certainly wasn’t a priority for me at the time.
I applied on a whim and then went on with life. I don’t think I applied anywhere else even though I could have easily gone back to the University of Texas at Austin where I got my undergraduate degree…I even had some scholarship money left there to use. WHAT WAS I THINKING?!
A while later a thickish envelope came from New York City and an idealistic 23 year old living in Bryan, Texas had somehow been accepted into the graduate social work program at New York University. I found out I was accepted just a couple months before the January start date, so I scrambled to get everything in order, put in notice at my job, and I remember the final day working in my state position was spent delivering donated Christmas gifts late into a rainy evening to kiddos who were spending the holidays in foster homes. I fully intended to come back to those kids when my time in NYC was up, and hopefully do better by them than I had been able to do in my previous role.
But first, I had to move to a humongous city I had only visited once before and settle into an apartment I had never seen with a stranger that I had never before met. WHAT WAS I THINKING?!
As I mentioned, my move to New York City consisted of a one-way ticket from Houston to Atlanta to LaGuardia. I had a couple of big bags in tow that contained everything I was moving with me from jeans to shoes to sheets. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me or anyone else to have someone help me move up there, but I don’t remember even considering that option. It was probably way too cost prohibitive for us at the time as this was before my dive into the world of miles and points. On moving day it was just me and my stuff boarding the flight and heading to a big city that I was almost completely unfamiliar with.
There was some weather that day, and I remember almost hoping to get stuck in Atlanta overnight because that would slow down the turn of the final page of that chapter before I had to start a very challenging new one in an unfamiliar setting. If I was stuck in Atlanta at least I could hunker down in an airport or hotel room and not be expected to do anything more than exist for a few more hours. When I landed in New York City I would have to set up a whole new life, and that was a little terrifying, even to my naively brave 23 year old self.
Turns out weather didn’t cause me to get stuck in Atlanta that afternoon, but it did play a starring role in my first day as a temporary New Yorker. When I landed in LaGuardia and headed outside to the long taxi line I was doing so in my early 2000’s chic Texas leather coat. That was fine for a cool 50 degree day in Texas, but woefully outmatched by a snowy January day in New York City.
My move to New York was in the pre-iPhone, pre-Uber, pre-smartphone, pre-social media days. My transition would have been dramatically different if those were in play, but they weren’t. I couldn’t Facetime, live stream, or post about my troubles and get instant feedback and encouragement. I had to just live my life by myself. Eventually it was my turn at the airport to get into the cab, and I gave the non-native English speaking cab driver the housing address I had received from the school…4 Washington Square Village.
I could tell him it was in the Washington Square area and that it was a part of NYU, but that was about it. I didn’t really know I needed to be able to tell him more than that. He was able to get close, but as I later learned, Washington Square Village isn’t exactly a street. Had I given him info like the intersection of Bleeker and Mercer, we would have been in business, but I didn’t know that yet. Since this was pre-iPhone, I couldn’t just track where we were via a moving blue ball on a screen. I had to just look out the windows at a city I knew nothing about and desperately search for proof we were in the right spot.
He drove me and my bags around and around in the falling snow in the fading sunlight of the winter’s day. The meter kept rising, and I certainly didn’t have money to spare for a never ending journey. Eventually it became clear he just wanted me to get out, as the address I wanted wasn’t one he was going to find on a street sign. He had done his best, and he was ready to move on. I was scared, lost, and totally overwhelmed, but eventually agreed to pay him and get out of the cab with my bags. I knew I had to be close.
So my bags and I got out of the cab and into the freezing weather in search of an address that even a New York City cab driver couldn’t find. WHAT WAS I THINKING?
I walked up a street, down a street, around a corner, turned back around and really had no clue where to go. I tried calling the number I had, but there was no answer. I don’t remember if I saw other people on the street or not, but it was snowing, so I doubt traffic was heavy, and I was probably too terrified to ask questions of fast paced New Yorkers anyway.
Along with the two bags I was hauling, I also had a purse that contained not only my wallet and other standard purse essentials, but a stuffed animal that had served as my pillow on the plane and would again until I could buy a pillow in my new city. After walking in the falling snow and freezing temperatures for enough circular blocks, I must have gone over one too many bumps in the sidewalk and this beloved stuffed animal fell out of my purse and into a dirty, slushy, half frozen puddle on the street. This was the definite low point of the beginning of this chapter.
I was lost, I was scared, it was rapidly getting dark, I was freezing, and now Fluffy was covered in cold Manhattan sludge. I was ready to get back in a cab, head straight for the airport, and take the next flight home. I had clearly made a serious error in judgement in thinking I was capable of taking this large of a leap.
A ‘miracle’ then showed itself at the last minute, as miracle’s often do, and I saw a small sign set back off the sidewalk that said Washington Square Village. I don’t think it said 4 Washington Square Village, but it was close enough. I went in and eventually found my way to a tall, ugly, boxy building that would be my new home. When I went to sign the paperwork to get the keys to my apartment my whole body was shaking so hard from the cold, and probably the whole experience, that I could barely use a pen to sign anything. Months later when I moved out and saw my “move in” signature, it was indeed as shakey and barely legible as I remembered it being that day.
I eventually got through the administrative tasks and headed up the elevator alone to my apartment that was devoid of the promised roommate…which was both a blessing and a curse. The apartment didn’t provide another human companion, but it did welcome me with a layer of literal grime on the walls and a bit of a stale smell in the air. Aside from the dirt and grime, it was totally empty and bare other than a standard issue desk, small dresser, and dorm quality twin bed. There was actually two everything in that one room studio apartment, one for me, and one on the other side of the room for the roommate who would ultimately never come. I lost it. I cried big tears into the belly of the damp and filthy stuffed animal. I had made it out of the cold, but I was still certain that I had made an overwhelming colossal mistake in coming to a city where I knew nothing and no one. WHAT WAS I THINKING?
After my own quarter-life crisis breakdown reached a lull, I called my mom on my non-smart cell phone with my limited monthly minutes and she told me I needed to go eat supper. I was petrified of going back out into the cold and getting lost again. I didn’t want to spend much money, I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know who to ask for directions, but I was hungry and I didn’t have anything else to do since my internet wasn’t even hooked up yet. Lacking a better alternative, I did what mom said and went downstairs and asked my new best and only friend, the doorman, for directions.
My rule for the evening was that I wasn’t going further away from the building than I could see. I wanted to be 100% certain I could see my new ‘home’ from wherever I was so I could find it again. It was now dark and snowing and I wasn’t about to get lost again that night. I ended up at some horrible Mexican food joint no more than a block away from my apartment. It was cheesy and overpriced and horrible, but at least for those 45 minutes I wasn’t by myself in an empty and grimey apartment.
I’m sure there were more tears that night and in the following days and likely weeks, but I eventually made it to the sort-of-nearby Bed, Bath, and Beyond for pillows and grime cleaner. I made friends beyond just the kind doorman. I learned the streets, the cross streets, and the subway system. I ditched the purse and got a bag. My family came to visit and I never again felt as alone in the city as I did that first night. In the couple of years I was there I had grand experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to replicate in East Texas, and I became a lot tougher than I was when I first boarded the plane that cold January morning.
While it got much, much better after a while, and I did indeed eventually go back to social work and the world of child welfare, starting that chapter of my life alone in a new city was intensely scary and unpleasant. It was a necessary step to get to the good parts, but man do I wish I could go back and give that 23 year old me a hug and a hand with the sludge covered stuffed animal. As we tentatively slide into a new chapter now, I can’t help but remember how it felt all those years ago. While the details and the characters may be different these days, some of the feelings are eerily familiar.
At 36 and with a family of my own, I am less adventure seeking than I clearly was at 23, but I am thankful none the less for the adventures that life thrusts upon us, and for the small (and sometimes large) miracles that come when you need them. I don’t know what I was thinking in leaving the life I knew as a 23 year old and starting a brand new one in a city where I knew no one and nothing, but maybe that is because life isn’t always about thinking, sometimes it is about doing.
If you ever move to New York City on a cold and snowy January afternoon, be sure you at least come prepared with a true winter coat.
Know before you go.
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