When new to the neighborhood

Everyone at my new restaurant job is amazed I have only been in town one week. Not that I would relocate from New York to Los Angeles, because at least half of the nice folks I’ve met have done this. Everyone is amazed that I found a job “so fast.” Within a week! How lucky! They say.

We moved into the bare three-room apartment on Saturday night. On Thursday, I went to an open interview at a restaurant and was offered the “opportunity to train” as a serving bartender. The following day, I secured a counter position at a noodle shop opening next month. In between, I’d peppered the town with resumes, gotten dressed up and smiled through open calls. I made E pull over en route to pick up freecycle furniture because I spied “help wanted” signs from the car window. I had, in short, been hustling. It’s what I do best.

Frankly there was no alternative. We’d blown all our savings driving the 3,500 miles through blizzards and nighttime deserts and plopping down the deposit on the three-room apartment. February has two to three fewer days than other months. March was looming, and I was well short of rent.

It surprises me when people think this happened quickly. Perhaps because the anxiety attacks of the first week stretched the minutes into hours and those six days felt like a whole month within themselves. Perhaps because I’d earned no money since November, and I’m very bad at not having an income. Perhaps I just wanted life to restart again, already. I tell everyone we moved here from Brooklyn but Brooklyn feels distant. We’d just had our first snowfall when we left. Now it’s 70 degrees in the afternoon and there are palm trees on my street. Who knows what’s normal now?

I joined a book club at the local hipster book store. I haven’t had time to pick up this month’s assigned book because I’m training for two jobs. Each day feels like a season, and not just because of the thirty-degree day-to-night temperature differential. I am hoping I will make some literary friends.

I’ve been in LA for nine days and I haven’t met a single novelist. I know this is not strange, but it feels it. Everyone I knew back east is a novelist. Or a poet. Or a stodgy non-fiction writer who is eminently concerned you know she did all her research. The people around me talk about films, about sound, about screenplays. I begin to contemplate screenplays. Again. But I haven’t written a word since we left Brooklyn. I haven’t submitted anything since the beginning of the year. So much for hustling.

I know cheese is tasty, but do you HAVE to put it in everything, for crying out sakes?

One thing  about driving across America in the wintertime is that you have to get up early, so that you can actually see America before the sun goes down around 5:00 p.m. This, for me, means coffee. As much as I’ve embraced my chemical dependence on caffeine, I’ve never been a black coffee drinker, or even much of a coffee connessieur. It is a warming, varyingly fragrant vehicle for my consciousness-sustaining drug.  I am one of those people Malcolm Gladwell pointed out who likes “weak, milky coffee.” Basically my ideal cuppa is a lukewarm mug of moderately coffee-flavored milk product.

But it is always a milk “product.” In the best cases, the product of soybeans, almonds, or other nuts soaked in water, pulverized, and squeezed out, resulting in a whitish, nutty-flavored liquid that works in coffee, cereal, and can even make terrific life-sustaining ice “cream.” Because, like the majority of the world’s population, I lost my ability to digest the sugars in milk (lactose) when I became an adult–around age 22. Which means I can have a nibble of cheese here, a splash of cream there, and maybe a taste or three of your creme brulee, but in general, me consuming more than a small amount dairy products leads to a digestive distress that I’d rather not expound upon in detail.

Before you cheese lovers start moaning about how you would die, you would just DIE if denied access to your processed dairy products (most of which widely available in supermarkets are, let’s be honest, pretty crappy), let me tell you: it’s ok. I’ve lived with this “intolerance” long enough to understand that there are worlds–whole culinary traditions–that don’t include dairy and are as if not more delicious than our cream- and butter-saturated American food standards. In fact, I use the word intolerance in quotes because it’s not quite accurate to paint it as a digestive anomaly. According to the NIH, only a minority of people, mostly ones of Northern European and parts of West African decent, retain the ability to digest animal milk into adulthood. Adult milk-drinking is a genetic anomaly. Us lactards are the normal ones. Huge chunks of Europe and Africa and most of Asia have produced people who can’t eat dairy. We are legion. And yet.

Why, oh why, oh why, oh why, do you insist on putting milk or cheese or cream in absolutely everything, America? I’ve been spoiled by years of big city living, I guess. Living in these large, coastal oases of almond- and soymilk availability has weakened my nerve against your blank stares when I say “no cheese, please,” or “is that made with any milk products?” It’s stopped occurring to me that I might be treated like some picky princess because the cream sauce you failed to mention in this plate of pasta will make me double over in abdominal pain all night long. I don’t expect the restaurants of Oklahoma or Arkansas to tailor the menus to me, I just wonder if it’s possible to design one, maybe two dishes on a menu that the MAJORITY OF HUMANITY will be able to eat?

It’s the menu construction that really gets to me. As a food service worker, not only does it hurt me in my soul to make alterations to dishes as they are listed, but it makes things less tasty. A chef (or at least someone with half a mind to do the cooking) has put these recipes together for maximum deliciousness. If I take something off, I’m messing with that. So sure, I can hold the cheese on the sandwich, but I’d rather somebody just concocted a sandwich that tasted awesome with no cheese to begin with. See?

For example: Vegan pizza. As a graduate student, extracurricular meetings often had “refreshments,” which meant pizza. I have as fond memories of pizza as the next kid. It’s a party food. But pizza is the perfect example of how we use cheese to make things taste good that would otherwise be pretty lame. How would you feel if someone enthusiastically offered you a plate of  bread with some dried out tomato paste crusted over it, and maybe a few flaccid green pepper or red onion strips that looked like they’d been left in your pocket while you did the laundry? And then were like… what? I got you something you can eat, ingrate!

Vegan pizza, when not made by specifically vegan or otherwise creative restaurants, is effing gross. This is the truth. I don’t know what you have to do–cover it with meat or oil or something, but stop trying to pass off some dried out monstrosity of a pie as pizza “alternative.” Because those of us who never eat cheese know better. It’s not making an alternative to just remove the most important ingredient. It’s creating a food ghetto.

But while I’m here in OKC, enjoying some delicious BBQ, I’ll take extra cremora, please. Fine. Whatevs.


Woke up early

Today I woke up nearly three hours before I normally would. Some person in a car marked “County Reassessment” was ringing the doorbell of the house where we are crashing in rural Virginia until we cart all our stuff out to LA at then end of the month. Neither of us had the wherewithal to get out of bed to see what was being reassessed.

My encounters with the diurnal world are usually embarrassing: for the past three years I’ve worked in a bar where my shifts began at around five p.m. and ended anywhere between midnight and four. I don’t know how other people enjoy getting home from work and immediately going to bed, but I’ve always found that soul-deadening, so would hit bedtime somewhere between three and five in the morning. Six to eight hours of shuteye means I’d get up around eleven or noon. Which seemed normal to me–I’d wind up decently rested and ready to leave for another shift when most people are clocking out and hitting happy hour. Excluding the general lack of employment benefits in the food service industry, this setup was ideal for me. Afternoons were free for writing and classes. Subway anxiety was offset by never having to deal with rush hour. I’ve always been a nocturnal person, some of my earliest memories include lying awake in my childhood bedroom, memorizing every pastel star on the papered ceiling for hours.

However, since leaving my own apartment in New York and embarking on a series of futon-crashing stints throughout the United States, one painful fact has become clear. If you are in your thirties and still sleeping until noon on a daily basis, people regard you with a mixture of contempt and pity. In Buffalo, my family is used to my sleep schedule, and anyway probably still think of me as an overgrown teenager (and will until I get married, but that’s a whole different enchilada). In West Virginia, my partner’s mother would gently prod us to get started “a little earlier, maybe around eleven or so.” In Los Angeles, our friends left for work at eight a.m., shouting an amused goodbye in the direction of our air mattress. We stayed with people who routinely stayed up past midnight and woke up before eight, something my sleep-spoiled brain has not been able to do voluntarily since I was about 25.* Sleeping until mid-morning–and doing it without embarrassment–has an inherent adolescent reek that I was no longer able to deny was coming from me during our travels.

Back in the Virginia house for a week now, before the big move, I was looking forward to a few precious, guiltless awake-nights and mornings dreaming my wacky melatonin dreams in the warmth of a sunbeam from the east-facing windows. But after the doorbell incident, I find myself fully functional at ten a.m. And dang, look at all these words I got down.

*I used to be a scoffer, e.g.: “Eight hours of sleep?? I can get by perfectly with five!” In retrospect I understand this meant I could get by as a semi-functional zombie on five hours’ sleep. I’m still childless, I’ll take my eight hours while I can.

Every Damn Year

I move every year. Sometimes for price reasons, for neighborhood reasons, sometimes to flee infestations, to flee singlehood, to flee relationships. Sometimes it is roommates doing these things and my end of the lease is collateral damage. Changing position within the city feels like the natural extension of the shifting social currents that have been pushing me through to adulthood over the past decade.

I am famous for moving. One of the books I’m trying to get rid of is signed by the author with a cheerful note commenting that the two times said author met me, I’d been in the middle of moving. I’ve published essays about it. So it feels logical that, in my mother’s words, I’d be “pretty good at it by now.”

Not to brag, but I am. I am a crack shot at moving from one New York City apartment to another. I can do it in a week or less from start to finish, no problemo. But this time is different. This time, we are moving, as in two of us, together. And this time, we are leaving New York. Not only are we leaving New York, but we are headed to the one place my 2003 self would never have dreamt of winding up. We are going to Los Angeles.

Usually in the fall, a new batch of essays will come out by people who came to, or left, or came to and then left, New York. This is likely true of all major cultural centers, I guess. It must be. Has anyone read a great essay about deciding to leave Chicago, lately? I’d love to see it.  This year I believe there was a whole book of such essays. I listened to the women who contributed talk about their pieces on the radio, with varying compassion and annoyance. They were wistful, regretful, gung-ho, optimistic, fatalistic, but everyone including Leonard Lopate had a piece to speak on why this giant cluster-eff of an island chain is the best/worst place in the world. This made me feel unoriginal.

Mostly what I think, trying to imagine my 22-year-old self scoffing at now-self for actually contemplating leaving is how irrelevant the reasons for preferring one place to another all seem. You drive, or you don’t. You tan, or you don’t. You talk fast, or slow, or too much, or not very much, and it doesn’t matter. None of this makes you any more you than anything else. There’s something of interest just about everywhere on the globe. The loveliest thing about adulthood, for me, is sensing that the person who you are, essentially, the I dunno WHAT that makes you one person, as opposed to another, is there regardless of surroundings. I’m stuck in this brain no matter what external concerns are making it hamster-wheel with anxiety on any given day. So bring on the change. I’m pretty good at it, by now.

Have a nice life

If you stay in one place long enough, people around you will leave. This means going-away parties. A going-away party might take place at the person’s apartment, where they will try to offload furniture, clothing, and toiletries not necessary enough to make the move to San Francisco or Portland or North Dakota or back home to Cincinnati. The going-away party might be in a bar, or a friend’s apartment, where everyone will spend ten minutes talking to the departer and the rest of the time with people who, like themselves, are perfectly happy not to be moving to South Dakota, TYVM.

These parties have a wake-like quality. The departer is saying goodbye to one kind of life for another, and you, her friends, are saying goodbye to her physical presence in your lives. The departer is vanquished from the circle of hanging-out possibilities, downgraded to facebook-novelty status.

Except that despite living within five miles of this person for years, you only manage to see them once every couple of months, anyway. Most non-work friendships by this point in your life involve liking their recent accomplishments on social media and texting them photos of things that remind you of the social life you shared when you were younger and left your house more.

But now I am the departer. The deserter. I had the first of several ceremonial going-away festivities at my home recently. Seventeen people RSVPd. Seven showed up. Which was ideal, and completely expected as I live in an inconvenient neighborhood. They were my closest and most long-standing friends here, the ones willing to come to an inconvenient neighborhood on a weeknight.

But one of them actually told me to “have a nice life.” Which then made me retreat to the bedroom and cry a little. I actually have said that to people at past going-away parties, but I never realized what it might be like to hear it.

Don’t say that to people. It’s weird and oddly morbid and contradicts everything we know about modern life IE you don’t ever really lose anyone, per se, you just stop inviting them to your local events. This is what I prefer to think.

Goodbye to all this.

One of the things I know from moving all the time is that in the week before a move, you stay up all night. Having spent most of the daylight hours procrastinating by reading through your old bank statements and being mesmerized by the Blue Planet DVDs you put in for background noise, nighttime is the right time for packing. You also stay up all night with that roving anxiety that is your physical self reacting to imminent change. That too.

One of the obsessive insomniac motifs keeping me company this week is how I am about to experience a dramatic loss of street cred. Explanation:

Item 1: I am moving from New York to Los Angeles shortly.

Item 2: I have lived in New York for ten years.

Item 3: I have never been to Los Angeles.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, Item 2 makes Item 3 a little less scary.  Hardened urbanite that I feel like, learning to navigate someplace new feels more like a fun challenge than a daunting obstruction. In fact, on vacations to twisty places like Paris and San Francisco, I have shocked myself and those around me with an aptitude for reading maps and finding things and asking for help when needed. I am prepared for things to be foreign.  I’m pretty jazzed about it, honestly. But.

On Labor Day 2003 I unloaded a Chevy Cavalier’s worth of my books, clothing, and doodads into a heavily-infested apartment share in Queens occupied by two people I found on the Internet. I had never ridden the subway before or visited a bodega. Since then, I have offloaded many Cavaliers’-worth of possessions (I figure my current amassment would fit into a Ford Explorer, maybe a Tahoe) through a succession of apartments that led my trail of discovery around seven or eight neighborhoods. Packing up now, it’s still all books and clothing and doodads. However: I have accrued something much more interesting.

I have done all these things. I have held leases in three boroughs, slept over in four, and vomited in all five, plus Jersey. I have hung around long enough to regale the young people with tales of extinct subway lines and to jaw with old timers about what I was doing during the blackout/blizzard(s)/transit strike/earthquake/hurricane(s). I can remember the night when I aged out of the Lower East Side and the long day when I walked Manhattan tip to toe. What joy, last summer, riding on the Franklin Avenue shuttle train, to realize I’d ridden every line the MTA had to offer: A to Z and 1 to 9–yes, 9!. I’ve eaten at Sri Pra Prai, Gramercy Tavern, three Momofukus, four Shake Shacks, the best taco truck in Queens, and the local bars on the blocks of twelve different addresses.

I’ve dropped a week’s pay on a single meal and not been sorry. I’ve survived for months alternating cans of beans and tuna with free beers from the old dudes at the local dive for sustenance. I’ve gotten over the idea that either of these things made me a better person: they did not. I’ve watched Broadway shows from the stagehands’ balcony and once held a paper check for $25 million in my hand (it was not made out to me, I was just a messenger. Like Joan of Arc.). I’ve been to parties in abandoned buildings where you do things like put on surgeons’ gowns so performance artists can spray you with foodstuffs while circus performers dangle from the rafters. I have ridden the G train from Brooklyn to Queens at two am alone; crossed myself against the threat of violent street crimes while the person closest to me destroyed my financial solvency. I’ve gained said solvency back, one paycheck at a time. I’ve fallen in love in the spring and the fall and endured six summers with no AC. I have worked on the East side and the West side and found a professional home in a place I never would have predicted.

This seems like something, right?

I’ll take care of the scoffing preemptively: I realize that doing the things everyone else does in one of the most populous places on earth does not make you special. It makes you the opposite of special. I mean, for crying out sakes, everyone’s eaten at Momofuku and disgraced him/herself at their local bar on karaoke night.

I used to ride my bike past this graffiti on Kent Avenue a few times a week that very charmingly reminded everyone that NEW YORK DOESN’T NEED YOU. It’s true, she doesn’t. But still.

It’s a jargon, an insider’s recognition of shared good things. These are the things we talk about to remind one another why we are paying this mind-crappingly-insane rent. These accrued experiences are supposed to stand in for stuff, which we don’t have room for in our apartments and likely couldn’t afford, anyway. This is how we make our home here. It makes this overcrowded archipelago my home, whether I like it or not.

So why leave home?

There is a longer answer. One that involves bad neighborhood mojo and Vitamin D supplements, job prospects, creative stagnation, agoraphobia, and feeling unable, any longer, to ignore so many fellow humans each day of my steadily plodding existence.

The short version is that I fell in love one winter, and the reasons to leave outnumbered those for staying.

Hence: off to this foreign place of cars and vanity closets and sunlight and who knows what else? I’ve never been there, not even on vacation. I’ve only been on two vacations in a decade. Do you know how much rent I’ve paid? Who can afford to travel?

So it is exciting. And sad. Not because I don’t want to go. I want to bust out of here so fast people will check for their wallets after I’m gone.

The sadness causing me to grind down and slowly poison myself with the plastic in my night guard is my grief for the above list.* Because I’m not self-involved enough to believe anyone elsewhere will care about the place where I ate fried duck’s blood in Flushing. No one will care if I hiked 120 blocks after the hurricane to avoid talking to my neighbors. They will not care, in this new place, and they won’t likely suffer my nostalgia. No doubt my imaginary new acquaintances in LA have heard it before. Is there anything more obnoxious than a homesick New Yorker?

So I worry. I worry because it’s more than a change of residence. I have to find new things to love and feel proud of–new experiences to stand in for the stuff I still can’t afford.  Going from naturalized to FOB at my age. Oy.

Actually, I can’t wait to give our friends out there new excuses to relive the parts of their city that they feel nostalgic about. What should I do first?

*And, actually, the people I’m leaving here. But I can’t think about that now. laaalalalala.