“Ciudad de Luces”: A Poem to NYC

new-york-at-night_rob-inh00d_on-flickrAs an assignment for my 9th grade Spanish class, I wrote a poem entitled “Ciudad de Luces” (City of Lights), all about NYC being the magical land where performers and artists’ dreams come true. I guess I was destined to live here from an early age. The city and its dream-making potential still enchant me, but I have come to know the reality of city life is a beast that you can’t possibly prepare for without facing it head-on. At the age of 26, here is my revised “Ciudad de Luces” (only not in Spanish this time around!)

Ciudad de Luces: Part II

Truly – the city that never sleeps

Five jobs, two that pay, no savings, no 401K

Work, work, work, create, work

And can’t forget happy hour!

It’s the city of dreams

Tiny apartments

Expensive tiny apartments with beggars on the corner – four of them on one block

The best pizza, bagels, and “Nuts for Nuts” you’ll find

Hour-long commutes to work at 6 in the morning and 4 mile walks each day (while carrying at least two bags)

More theater and dance than you know what to do with, graduate from your dream school, attend an activist meeting – or two

How can anyone survive here? Does the human body contain enough energy?

I have to sleep – no time for sleep!

Research, writing, rehearsing, working, promoting, brain-storming, walking, running, climbing the gosh darn subway stairs, dodging tourists, flipping off the cat-calls of Brooklyn streets, dining, drinking, crying, sighing

Dreaming-awake of being anyway but HERE

Sleep?

What’s your breaking point? Is there an end in sight?

I want a brownstone

I want a car. I’m sick of lugging around bags all day

You feel on the edge of life, like you’re really living – making it happen.

Invigoration, momentum motivation, inspiration

Anywhere else is boring

Worker bees

I’m not living – all I do is work

It doesn’t have to be this hard – I’m wasting time

I’m behind – no house, no kids, no spouse. What do I have?

No family

Can I afford to make it home for Christmas? Can I make it to that bachelorette party?

Does this make me selfish?

The City of Dreams; it uses you and spits you out

Call me a masochist

I’m addicted.

I may be economically poor, but I’ve never felt richer 🙂

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The first week I moved to the best city in the world ❤

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500 times I can’t afford this lifestyle.

IMG_7404I can't afford this lifestyle. IMG_7373 IMG_7374 IMG_7375 IMG_7382 IMG_7381 IMG_7380 IMG_7377 IMG_7376  IMG_7386 IMG_7387 IMG_7388 IMG_7389 IMG_7390 IMG_7391IMG_7408

Getting it into my system,

Sunday

Home Sweet Home

I live in a two-bedroom railroad apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I live with my girlfriend, one of my best friends from high school and her girlfriend, who is also a close friend of mine. We all moved into this place together a couple months ago. By New York standards our rent is relatively affordable (it’s only a little more than what my suggested monthly loan payment is!).  Of course, it’s cheap for a reason. My girlfriend moved to NY from the Suburbs in California, and when we first walked into our apartment I knew she must really love me to leave everything to come live in this dump with me. The previous tenants left a mess. I spent the first day in our new home sanitizing.  I washed pee and scraped gum off our hard wood floor. I found the old tenants used underwear shoved in corners of the apartment. I scrubbed EVERYTHING and to top it off I got my hair stuck in an old flytrap that was hanging from the kitchen sealing. But our future in our new home looked brighter with each layer of dirt I washed away. I know I’ll look back fondly on our first night in the apartment, when exhausted and sweaty we all ate a five dollar pizza and drank beer sitting on the freshly cleaned floor. I tend to over romanticize but I like to think that being poor in NY is different than being poor anywhere else… in NY it’s bohemian. (I recognize that my romanticism is probably slightly problematic, see Privilege Preface from a couple weeks ago).  At least telling myself it’s somehow romantic makes the struggle easier, it gives it a kind of character and beauty. It makes it easier to deal with our slummy landlord, and nothing working quite right, and the somewhat scary late night solo walks home, and the loud street. No really, this street is loud! My room faces the street and my girlfriend and I woke up one morning to a woman screaming at our neighbor (direct quote) “Open the door you crack head! If I ever see your face in the streets again I’m gonna slice it up”… ahh the Buschwick version of birds chirping.  Though that’s not exactly the best wake up call and the man next door yelling out the word “bitch” repeatedly at midnight can put a damper on the late night lady loving mood, we’ve made do.  We’ve explored more Pandora music stations.  We focus on each other’s voices and the rest becomes white noise.   

This is all we can afford and with all of us together it’s really not that bad; it’s actually kind of great. One of my apartment mates is what I call an extreme crafter (she has a power drill and a soldering iron on the way), so with her Martha Stewart meets carpenter dyke expertise our place looks better and better every day.  Some art on the walls helps with the look of the place and some lit candles help with the stuffy smell (we have almost no widows).  I’m aware of how cheesy this sounds, but the love the four of us have for each other makes our crappy apartment a home! The family dinners the four of us make and eat together and the stories and laughs we share make the noise, and trash, and inconvenience, and money stress all seem trivial. So yes, I could go to a friend’s “perfect” Manhattan apartment and feel jealous, or I can see how he’s not really having the full NY experience.  Fighting for the life you have can make living it all the sweeter.  And how lucky am I that I get to fight for it surrounded by three of the strongest and kindest people. Turning back to the Dickinson poem I sighted last week, I think if someone looked into the one window of our crappy Bushwick apartment, she would see much wealth. 

Your overly sentimental,

Saturday

Balancing Act

The concept of balance is one that permeates our lives. You balance your checkbook. You eat a balanced breakfast. The nation struggles to balance its budget. Media outlets try (and usually fail) to report “fair and balanced” news. Balance is so important to us that we spend the better part of the first year of our lives trying to master it. But the fact remains that, even as adults, we’ve got a terrible track record for keeping things in balance.

Too many things are out of proportion. Wealth distribution in the United States is astonishingly skewed. My generation is the most educated in U.S. history – but only 27% of us are working in a job related to our degrees  (and almost 40% of us work a job that doesn’t require a degree at all). In every single U.S. state it is possible to put in a full 40-hour work week on minimum wage and still not make monthly rent. People put hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of their lives into higher education to end up earning just enough at jobs that offer no security. Both personally and nationally, we put so much in, yet receive so little back.

And this is frustrating to all of us who feel the effects of an imbalanced economy, which is then in turn out of balance with both the successes and failures of our educational system. What adds to my aggravation is the fact that I am so passionate about changing things, about doing something to bring this all back to a steady and more sustainable pace…yet my “expertise,” so to speak, seem useless in the face of all that. I have two arts degrees, which I am thankful for and which I intend to use as much as I can in my work. But I also want to help bring about a change that we desperately need, despite the fact that I am not a scientist or an economist or an educator. Instead I’m just an artist (at least I’d like to think so). What can I possibly bring to the table that would really influence the kinds of changes we need to make?

Last year a professor at NYU told us about holding classes in the weeks after September 11, where students expressed that they felt ineffectual by choosing art as a career path, that they should have chosen instead to be doctors or policemen or something that could help people in a tangible way.  I think it’s a struggle that most people in the arts deal with. It isn’t that there’s not value to art – there most definitely is. But how can we balance our passion for art and the desire to bring about real, tangible changes in society?

The hope that I have is that artistic/creative thinking and educational changes do not have to be mutually exclusive. No, even better – my hope is that artistically minded people are exactly what our educational system  needs right now. The way we have been doing things for the past several generations is no longer working. We’ve got to think outside the box. We’ve got to try something new. Who better to contribute their voices to that cause than artists? Contrary to my fears, I’m not “just” an artist who can only contribute some kind of aesthetic expression of the struggle we’re all experiencing right now. I am also an educated artist, someone who has benefited from our current system and who can also see the flaws in it. And so much of my education at NYU has been about art in society, how the two coexist and influence each other and change each other. We joke that we hate answering the question, “What’s ‘performance studies’?” because the field is so interdisciplinary that it’s hard to nail down just what we’re doing. But that’s a great thing. My arts degrees didn’t just give me the tools I need to create and refine my own art. They’ve given me a new way of thinking, a new way of looking at the world and my place in it, both as a citizen and an artist. They’ve given me perspective and knowledge of both art and academia. Maybe those arts degrees have put me right where I need to be, at the crossroads of art, creativity, education, and activism. Maybe being an artist is the most powerful thing I can be right now. And maybe things aren’t as difficult to balance as I thought.

Optimistically,

Thursday

Employable Priorities

I bit the bullet and took another part time job. (That’s right—another. I already have two while freelancing on the side.) Despite my already busy schedule and a growing list of artistic to-dos, the impending holiday season and a slew of friends with weddings on their mind convinced me that my current freelance schedule might not cut it in the near future. And so, I am now a “Brand Ambassador” for a company that will remain nameless here. But suffice it to say, it’s a big one. You’ve heard of it.

To be honest, I was dreading the first training session. I’ve worked as part-time labor in a few fields, and I’m used to being treated as another body, a tool. My happiness level was of little concern to the bosses, as long as my body was present. I’m used to entering into jobs on the offense—immediately assuming that I needed to protect myself. A “stay strong” and “stand up for yourself” mantra is necessary to ensure that the lowly part-timer isn’t taken advantage of. I’ve always had to fight for fair hours, fair pay, and even a foundational level of respect.

But this job was immediately different. Everything about it was fun. We were given fancy food for breakfast and lunch, and when it came time to discuss our uniforms, the whole new team was taken to American Apparel and given a $350 budget to pick out whatever we wanted. We also were thrown presents: a phone, headphones, notebooks, a jacket, etc. To top it off, the last two hours of training were dedicated to a happy hour and bowling. I felt like my jaw was on the floor throughout the entire process.

This feeling of being valued, of being respected as part of a team was new to me. And here’s the kicker: This is by far the least-skilled position I’ve ever worked. Even hostessing was significantly harder a job that takes knowledge of the restaurant and an organizational prowess. This current job of high wages and perks is just plain easy.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I labor over a piece of academic writing—researching, writing, editing, and editing again. It takes hours of dedicated brainpower and inevitably causes more hours of anxious re-thinking. All this to hopefully publish in a journal that doesn’t even pay. But I rake in the dough standing around with a smile plastered to my face.

I’m grateful for this easy part-time job and its perks. And I think that all jobs, part-time or full, easy or hard, deserve fair wages and respect. But it does strike me that our values are a little off. Selling a product that objectively does nothing to better our world is a sought after job replete with perks galore, while highly skilled artistic and scholarly work that brings joy, knowledge, and awareness to the community around it is more often than not done for free. Where did we go wrong here?

Confused,

Wednesday

Living the Life of a Not-So-Starving Artist

On a recent visit to home, my dad walked in the house with a bag of produce from the farmers market, a few things from Home Depot and new clothes from the Goodwill. He’s genuinely proud of his thrift store treasure: brand new navy Dockers shorts and a baggy T-shirt. He shows them off to my mother who grimaces as though he’s brought a dead animal into the house:

“Jack, I don’t know why you do this. We have enough money to go to Macy’s or Target for God sakes.”

My father counters her with the logic I have taken to heart from him: why pay more when you don’t have to?

“Well, just make sure you let me wash them before you wear them. You don’t know where they’ve been…” she concedes.

I am very much my father’s daughter. Tennis, swimming, bike riding and gardening are some of our favorite things to do together.  My mom doesn’t like to get dirty, or sweaty, so we mostly talk about life over coffee. Dad and I don’t talk much, he’s taught me an almost Zen-like approach to being in the moment of whatever activity we’re doing. So this post is dedicated to my dad who taught me to live the good life on a budget and take pride in doing so.

This is also dovetailing on Monday’s post on Living a Life of Grace.

In addition to my weekend serving job, I now sell wine at a neighborhood store 10 minutes from my house. Overwhelmed by the feeling like I have no money and all my time is spent working, I needed to reevaluate how I was spending the little money that I have. Instead of living the life of a starving artist, I am finding ways to live a fulfilled and healthy life on a budget. In my precious time not spent working, these are some things I am committed to:

First:

I eat. Meals. I shop at the farmers market for produce and meats.  Yeah, I actually cook at home: last week I made beef stew from scratch for my roommates and myself. I rarely buy snacks or meals from stores. If I’m buying food prepared by someone else, it’s a rare treat, like a doughnut from Dough (that’s worth it) or exploring a neighborhood restaurant once a week. I invested in a very nice pot to make large meals that I can eat throughout the week. One of my roommates is a vegetarian so I’m learning to cook a lot more with vegetables. I’m trying to treat eating as the communal activity it was meant to be, so I make a point to cook in large batches and share with my roommates. We’ve also implemented the house rule to recycle and compost.

 

Second:

I exercise. I’ve taken time everyday to work out: whether it be running, yoga, or an exercise youtube video. A quick ode to my dad, he could compete in triathlons if he wanted to. He quit smoking 10 years ago and since then the man goes on 20 miles bike rides, works out at the gym everyday and eats like he’s training for a marathon. I follow his example of treating my body like a temple. 

 

Third:

I have scoured NYC’s thrift shops. Buffalo Xchange is by far my favorite. There is also an awesome Goodwill store in the upper west side. I’m currently hunting for a new winter coat. I’ve furnished my apartment with scores from Housing Works and the Salvation Army. I’m using glass jars instead of plastic Tupperware containers. One thing I have yet to try is canning summer fruits before the cold takes over.

 

Living a good life does not mean sacrificing much, but reevaluating what is worth your time and money. A few years ago, a friend discovered The Hedonism Handbook by Michael Flocker. I am a self-proclaimed hedonist and I aim to treat my body like a temple. I pursue my passions -the arts- and grow my mind and my understanding of the world around me, in turn expressing it through theater. I do not think of my lifestyle as cutting corners, but rather deeply appreciating what I can do with what I have. I was never spoiled as a kid, and I thank both of my parents for raising me with a sense that that I even as a small being I have the responsibility to give back to the world. My J. Crew may not be handed to me by a bitter doorman, and instead picked out from the racks of Goodwill store for a third of the price. The point being I still look great in what I’m wearing, it doesn’t matter how much it cost. 

Namaste,

Tuesday 

My New Temp. Job: Juror

Today is a very special day. It’s my first day of jury duty! I know the romanticism of it may be fleeting in about three hours, but for now I’m eager to see how this process works. A white-haired man with a baseball cap and aviators is already mumbling to himself “It’s bullshit.” I can understand that approach. We all have other places to be and most people consider this civic duty to be more of an annoyance than anything else.

In my case, I am missing a breakfast/lunch shift at the restaurant where I can make $150 for the day plus I had to turn down a catering gig that would have been at least $120. But here I am trading my $250-$300 day for the measly $40 per day during in a temporary position as a juror. With this pay, I am making $5.70/hour for an 8-hour workday with an unpaid lunch. I’m pretty surprised with this daily rate considering the minimum wage in NY State is $7.25. What’s worse is that if your employer doesn’t pay for your jury service then you have to wait 4 to 6 weeks for a check from the government. For many of us, our service will be only 1-3 days, but it could last for 2 weeks or more depending on the length of the trial. I am curious if there is leeway for loan repayments during the month spent as a juror. Remember, I’m voicing my concern as child-less single-person, I can only imagine the financial strain for a family of 5 or even 3. It seems like an absurdly low rate for such an important job.

The administrator instructs us to fill out our standardized forms that ask for the juror’s occupation: “Everyone here has an occupation. This means whether you’re a doctor, lawyer, house-wife, house-husband, retired. Everyone here has an occupation.” If I wasn’t recently employed by a restaurant I wonder what they would consider my occupation to be. Blogger? Recent graduate? Aspiring Broadway dramaturg? Theater critic? Considering I’m not paid for yet for any of these occupations would they still be relevant to this questionnaire? Perhaps, it’s just one way to determine where I fit into society. It’s interesting that they included house-wife and house-husband since those “occupations” aren’t necessarily remunerated. I assume they want a good mix of skills and qualities on each jury, although I still found their insistence on everyone having an occupation a tough one to swallow.

I’ll circle back around to the beginning of this post where I said I was eager to experience the process. I still am. I can see how and why many are desperate to get out of it, but I do believe it’s a unique system of governance. I would hope that if my family, friends, or myself were ever brought to trial that others would treat the temp job as juror with respect and importance. Still waiting for my name to be called. I just hope my civic duty doesn’t break the bank…

Silent starting now (by law),

Monday

To the power that we share,

Sunday.

To the power that we share,

On the matter of dreaming

and what is the untouchable matter of it

when young you are so told to dream

and forth you grow and dream to ever dream once more

Growing up I was always encouraged to dream and dream big. There was nothing that I wouldn’t be able to do. And I was sure of it. I still am, although, under new terms.

“Sunday, go and do what you love. Dad will be working hard for you so you don’t ever have to worry.”

“But please don’t become an Egyptologist, we don’t want you to die in the middle of a bomb attack.”

“O.k. I want to study__________.”

She never expected her father to take care of her forever, but she assumed he would until she had figured it out herself. That’s as easy as life could get, and this had been granted to her. Under this assumption, she chose to pursue a career in the arts. But first, she had to explore. Two years of different workshops and classes later, she had determined theater was the ultimate winner.

But at this time, above the opportunities that she’s had to see and learn and expand her mind, she considers art to be something pertaining to an elite. This was in part what got her fascinated in the arts to begin with. Not for nothing she had a certificate in Image Consulting, had recently dropped out of fashion school, and was more allured to the lifestyle so advertised of those artists who are highly celebrated by society than to art itself. For her, art was about creating beautiful things; things called art, worthy of elegant museums, worthy of high sums of capital, worthy of admiration, worthy of being exclusively owned, unworthy of many and worthy of a few. She had always been obsessed with the concept of exclusivity, not theoretically, but practically. She deeply enjoyed knowing that she had access to things most people didn’t. It made her feel better than… more powerful than…

Of course this is just one layer of what it was.

She did become fond of art as a means to express the mysteries and losses of the heart, the anxieties of the soul, and perspectives of the world. She disapproved of the divides between the traditional art mediums. Arts should create together, activate more potentials. There was theater, seemingly welcoming of collaborations between arts.

But having assumed daddy would work hard ( and she was right, daddy never stopped working hard) she failed to consider that in this world hard work not always pays off. Maybe she didn’t know, she always thought people got what they worked for. But do they? Everything changed.

I actually get to live the life of “the starving artist.” Whom I guess is not so anonymous as “the” but who is actually “me,” “I” starving artist. Never the less, in the most surprising, staggering, breathtaking and outrageous way, after of course having endlessly cried and kicked and screamed and still struggling through this, I find this phase of my life to be— the most challenging, yes, but also—the most exciting and rewarding yet. What art meant altogether to me before finding myself where I am now, is nothing in comparison to what art signifies today in my life. Suddenly art is a creative rage, a necessary passion, necessarily ugly at times; art is made to change the world, to transform lives, to elevate minds. Art is useless if it can only be seen and adored and applauded. Art must be performative or not be at all, art must improve the world or better die. Having said this, I believe every trade and occupation there is should be like art. Art is the only power that I have.

Slowly I have opened my eyes to the world, not only my own, the world at large— which is far uglier and more unfair than I could have ever imagined, but which is also more sublime and full of more potential than the world I thought I knew before: more magical and more capable. Art is the only power that I have.

I would not trade the place that my mind has encountered, my humanity, my unresolved endless unimaginable possibilities, or anything part of who I am today in exchange for some financial stability. I guess I am paying a high price for something that is actually invaluable, incalculable, immeasurable: arriving at being truly myself and seeing the world for what it truly is. Of course it “pricks like thorn,” it fills me up with anxiety and fears, it is heartbreaking at all levels; the helplessness of feeling trapped inside an empty hole fighting to kill old bourgeois habits, habits old enough and strong enough to die hard, habits that are useless and worthless. Art is the only power that I have, and art is where I choose to put my hopes on.

Growing up I was always encouraged to dream and dream big. There was nothing that I wouldn’t be able to do. And I was sure of it. I still am, although, under new terms.

On the matter of dreaming

and what is the untouchable matter of it

when young you are so told to dream

and forth you grow and dream to ever dream once more

To the power that we share,

Sunday.