A day after I’d arrived in New York I found myself sitting on a bench at the edge of Collect Pond Park in Chinatown with my ex coworker Hong, marveling at how everyone was hollering. Chinese kids hollering on American swings, old Chinese women hollering around a mahjong set, their Chinese husbands hollering over their shoulders and their Chinese parents, grandparents to the hollering kids, hollering into cell phones to relatives no doubt, back on the mainland. It should have been called “Chinese Hollering Park.”
I was deciding whether this was a good or bad thing – trying to appreciate the city’s diversity and, I suppose, my ethnicity’s overwhelming presence in these parts when Hong said, more dreamily than I could have mustered, “This is what I love about New York.”
She sipped loudly on her bubble tea from Kung Fu Tea and munched thoughtfully on her dollar dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling (“5 for a dollar!”).
“I know all the cheapest places to eat,” she said proudly, “Most of them are in Chinatown.”
We are both from Southern California, she from LA and I from Orange county, and we’d met at the aerospace window company that bordered the two counties. Management had wisely hired us at the same time: I had zero web design and photo-shop skills, and could only talk about my ideas rather than execute them. Hong, on the other hand loved taking pictures and for fun, played with Photoshop and other mysterious creative software in her spare time. When management was out of town or simply too busy to pay us any mind, we passed the time browsing our favorite photo blogs and commenting on things like composition, filters and color, all of which Hong knew more about. Hong knew she loved photography just as I knew I loved writing, but she did not feel compelled, at least at her age, to be master and commander of her art. Where she would go, she wasn’t sure, but she would bring her camera, her skills and poke around. She was three years younger and ten times more optimistic.
Shortly after I’d left to The Company, she left too, buying a one way plane ticket to New York where she’d agreed to take an unpaid internship assisting a photographer.
I both admired and feared for her. She had never set foot in the city, only seen it in photographs and movies, but she had friends and friends of friends, and a boyfriend in medical school, thankfully, who was studying in Philadelphia. On the night she arrived the cab driver drove her past Columbus Circle, where she ogled Trump Tower, the Time Warner Center, CNN Headquarters, and though she didn’t know it at the time, the windows of Per Se, which she had read about but was unaware of its location. She asked the cabbie, “What is this place?” and he had replied incredulously, unsure whether she was joking, “It’s Columbus Circle! This place is famous!”
This place, the cabbie said. She leaned back into the seat and realized that this place was more than Columbus Circle. This place was New York City.
She crashed for a few weeks on someone’s couch until she finally found a studio apartment to share way past 100th street, way past where tourists (and some New Yorkers) even consider Manhattan, and perhaps because she was always fearless and trusting, developed the balls to take the subway from the village uptown at four in the morning, sometimes slightly drunk.
“I never feel unsafe,” she said, noting the horrified look on my face, “There are always other people on the subway.”
My point exactly.
The unpaid internship wasn’t sustainable, but on sheer personality alone she landed herself one, then two, then three part-time jobs in the notoriously cutthroat publishing industry. She made friends at each job and made time to see her boyfriend every other week, though on some nights she was too tired, after arriving at her apartment, to step out again. After two months she chopped her hair off, giving her delicate frame a sharp, urban edge. But her demeanor remained soft, her outlook rosy. Her default expression is a wide-eyed half smile, filled with hope – her greatest asset in the world’s hardest concrete jungle. But a jungle is a jungle and there were certain times when I, swathed in my parents’ dole in Southern California would receive a barrage of texts from her bemoaning her seemingly impoverished state.
“I can’t save any money!” she would say, then shortly thereafter in a separate text, composed in a separate mood, ask which denim jacket she should purchase: stone or classic wash?
It was the quintessential young, New York existence.
When we met a second time, it was at Totto Ramen in Midtown, where we wrote our names on a clipboard hanging on the restaurant door and waited forty minutes to be seated. Hong had come from a day’s work – or not work, as most of her supervisors were gone, and had taken the chance to look for more jobs. I had spent the afternoon browsing the Strand, where I bought three books – two by Adam Gopnik and one Balthazar Cookbook – I had carried them with me all over town and though happy with my acquisitions, wanted to set them down. Young professional, mostly Asian men and women in various version of work wear stood around us, talking excitedly about this or that. How many of them were New Yorkers? How many of them were visitors like me?
We sat on a stoop even though there were signs posted every where asking us Totto Ramen patrons not to sit on the neighbor’s stoop and discussed progress. She has lived in the city a little over a year now, held part time positions at a variety of small publications and as a sales associate at Uniqlo and was now working as assistant photo editor at Flex Magazine, a niche publication for a very particular (read: peculiar) consumer, one obsessed with health and extreme fitness: giant biceps, triceps, quadriceps – all ceps and muscles in general. Hong, who had honed her love for photography studying publications like Real Simple and wedding blogs, now found herself editing the glistening oiled pecs of world famous body-builders. She knew them not only by name but size and shape and gleaming, contest ready smiles.
“I saw Flex in the supermarket when I was really young,” she said, “I was so freaked out. I thought it was like porn… I put it back and never wanted to see anything like it again. And now I’m working there, friends with some of them.”
Did she want to stay at Flex?
“Oh no. It’s good experience for sure, but I’m still looking.”
In the meantime she does what Chinese generals called, “Riding a horse to find a (better) horse,” and continues applying to jobs that will hopefully keep moving her up the ladder. She does not worry, as I did and often pointlessly, about “putting in the time” at a particular job just so the resume doesn’t scream, “Flaky, flaky.” Rather, she concentrates on the gut feeling most artists or more accurately, artistic spirits live by: is this making me happy? Should I stay or should I go? It’s not about the money she says, and knowing that not only does she pay $500 a month to share a studio apartment with two other people but also that she is perfectly content to do so, I know it is not about the money. She’s exercising, in a sense, her freedom to choose and choose and choose until she gets chosen back and the match is something to her liking. She’s not sure, even if what she wants is something the city can offer her.
“I’m an LA girl at heart,” she says, “I love this city, certain aspects of it, but there’s something…”
“Schizophrenic about it?” I offer.
The hostess finally calls our name and we are seated impossibly close to a table also of two, Asian girls around our age who chatter about work and projects then become oddly silent when their steaming bowls of noodles arrive. It takes me a minute to realize they’re saying Grace.
Hong and I do no such thing. We have other gods, some still unknown to us. We talk about Chinatown and Harlem, SOHO and the upper east side; basically, all the different cuts of meat New York offers, even though when you bite down, it’s all New York.
“It drives me nuts sometimes,” Hong says, “LA is just as diverse, but I think better blended. But here the divisions are so stark. And then you get used to it, and you’re like, ‘hm.’ I guess it is what it is.”
In the meantime, she keeps showing up, smiling in her quirky renditions of interview chic, getting her photograph taken and printed on a plastic visitor’s swipe card in tall, glass buildings with marble floors and heavy security.
“I keep all of them, and paste them in here,” she said, showing me a black moleskin with ticket stubs, receipts, notes and several of these temporary ID badges, “Here’s Seventeen, CNN, and ESPN.” And her small, smiling black and white face was there, fuzzy underneath the titles of publications and media houses she had interviewed for but didn’t make.
“One day I’ll look back and say, ‘Dude! Look at all these interviews I went on!”
“Yeah, everyone goes through it,” I said.
“I know,” there was no trace of dejection or self pity on her face, “the cool thing was I got to see the inside of all these great buildings! It’s just weird, checking into some place like CNN and ESPN. I walk by those places now and think, “Dude, I was in there!'”
She closed the moleskin and I asked for the check. We had both polished off our savory bowls of Totto Spicy Ramen and there were twenty more people vying to get into the small hole-in-the-wall and take a seat at our table, a small $13 reward after a long days’ work. We emerged from the restaurant, less full than we thought – forty minutes is ample time to work up an appetite – but rather than take the subway, we walked up to Columbus Circle.
I told Hong of my experience there earlier in the week, during a prix fixe lunch at Jean-Georges where I saw John Lithgow and Queen Rania of Jordan, who at one point looked up and smiled at me, mostly out of politeness because I was staring at her.
“It was way too expensive and stuffy, though the food was good,” I said, “BUT for the celebrity sightings alone, it was worth it.”
We walked to the front of the Time Warner shopping center, looking for a bench to sit upon. It was 9 PM and most of the shops were about to close, though the Whole Foods in the basement was still bustling. I had bought a slice of coconut cake from Balthazar and wanted a quiet place to eat it.
“Let’s go inside,” I said to Hong, “We can sit in the armpit of wealth.”
We rode the escalator up four levels where I pointed out the entrance of Per Se. We gasped at the $300 per person tasting menu before timidly stepping into the restaurant, which was much larger and darker than I’d anticipated. A tired looking hostess heard the door slide open and started to come our way, but we nodded politely and stepped back out. Another time. Riding the escalator back down to more affordable fare, we heard a drunken banker stumbling onto the escalator behind us, slurring his words, asking his banker friends to get him “just one more fucking drink please,” and “what weren’t any of these fucking bastards drinking with him.” I wondered if he did this every night.
On the third floor there are tall tables for Bouchon Bakery, and we felt slightly wicked, stealing Bouchon’s seating to eat our Balthazar Bakery cake, but no one cared to check if our pastry belonged. In more than one way, it did.
We chose a table off to the side, set near a glowing poster advertising Shiseido Skincare and, with plastic forks dug into the world’s best Coconut Chiffon Cake. It was a literal, tiny slice of luxury, affordable to assistant photo editors and unemployed bloggers. We talked about the future, mused about where we would be in a year or two or ten.
“We should make a video,” Hong said, “us talking to our future selves.” And I agreed. I pulled out my iphone, already on its last ten percent of battery. She filmed me first. Maybe because it’s late and I’ve been walking all day and eating too much sugar makes me emotional, but I feel like crying halfway through, though I don’t think Hong can tell. Good god, I tell myself, five, ten years from now I want to look back and know that I was happy when I filmed this. I was traveling, eating well, living well, and writing too, most of the time. I think I closed the video with something vague like, “It gets better and better.” Then I filmed her, and even though the light was not flattering on anyone, she glowed with hope. I hope I did too. The videos are now on my hard drive and I’ve set a reminder in a year, to send Hong’s to her. The contents are not to be spilled here, but if you’ve ever been in your twenties, you get the gist.
A young busboy came by and said that the mall was closing. Even luxury had a bedtime. We scooped up the last of the Balthazar cake crumbs, gathered our canvas totes and took the escalator down, then down again, our steps getting heavier and heavier against the gleaming marble floors, our young heads shining under the glaring lights of the Time Warner Mall. Cartier, Cole Haan, Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods bid us goodnight with their golden, unblinking lights.
Hong rode the local subway with me, elongating her already long commute by fifteen minutes. We were tired but happy to be going into another, more raw cut of the city uptown, both literally and in life. Her giant canvas Bon Iver tote sat on her lap and from a soft corner, I could see the black moleskin peeking out. In the opposite window I saw her peaceful reflection, not unlike the grainy black and white photos she snapped for the badges she had pasted inside, reminders of jobs just out of reach, but only just and only just for now. I was reminded of the rejection letters I’ve received from various publications large and small, most of them based on the roads beneath which I now traveled. The badges, the letters, were not so certain in their polite refusal (“Thank you, but no”) as their representing the need for Hong, for me, for all of us twenty-somethings trying to make it in one city or another, to keep keeping on.