Did New York City Save My Life?
Many of us grew up watching movies about small-town folks who movie to the Big City to make their dreams come true. They’re considered a little hokey now, but there’s still a lot of truth to them. I grew up in the small city of Augusta, Georgia. There are no trains, not even a station for Amtrak. Our travel bus station looks like an abandoned piece of an old high school. It’s a square building with plastic chairs in the center and out-of-date vending machines along the sides. There’s no AC, just fans. No intercom, you just have to pay attention when your bus number is called. There are no usable outlets for your phone, either. I visited home after Christmas last year. As I waited for the bus to take me back to New York, I sat in still silence next to my boyfriend. We stared forward, right out the large windows. Small Southern towns are permeated by stillness. It’s a place where you have to truly get used to the quiet, or it’ll drive you insane.
The city bus only goes to certain parts of town. When I was still living in Augusta, it was impossible to use it to get where I was going. While in college, the campus bus helped me get to different parts of Augusta University. But after hours when I wanted to go to bars or grocery shop, I had to be resourceful. I’ve been visually impaired my entire life. Getting rides for everything is something I had to get permanently used to. At 16, when everyone was learning how to drive, I was told by my eye doctor that my vision wouldn’t permit it. I could never drive, unless technology advanced. Special driving goggles. Driverless cars. Those were things just I had to wait for. I dealt with my disappointment by just not thinking about it. Why mourn for something I could never do in the first place? I moved on.
I applied to graduate schools in big cities. LA. Boston. Chicago. New York City. I looked up their transportation options and got excited. Buses that go through the whole city! Trains! Airports that were accessible to non-drivers! It all sounded magical to me. Up until that point so much of my life had been about resignation. I thought constantly about the things I could never do. I was in a town full of people who underestimated me. I was disabled. Blindness in one eye and low vision in the other. I was black in a town where the artistic community was overrun by white artists who only cared about other white artists. I was a victim- abused by family and my romantic partners. I was often angry. Sad. Frustrated. I was known for lashing out online about my frustration with my life and everyone in it. I overworked myself in jobs and in school. I was an Honors Student. I had scholarships, but they didn’t pay everything. I worked often when I wasn’t in class to have enough. I never got money from my parents. Ever. For anything. Not food, room, board, or books. I took care of myself entirely and I was exhausted, knowing that failure wasn’t an option because I could literally never go home again. It was unsafe. It wasn’t worth it.
I spent so much time struggling in my teens and running myself ragged in undergrad that it never occurred to me to value myself. I never thought I was capable of my artistic dreams. I figured that was what Fancy Grad School was for. I worked my ass off leaning on the idea that my life would begin once I completed graduate school in a big city. I gave myself a finish line, without really thinking that it was ever possible to accomplish anything of value before hitting it.
It never occurred to me to put my work online or pitch to media sites. I never thought to submit my screenplays or pilots to contests. I never submitted my short stories or poems to literary magazines. I never did any of those things, because I assumed I wasn’t worthy.
I never thought that there was any value in my voice. I wrote to deal with life, and even in my pursuit of screen or television writing, my aim was always to alleviate my own pain. At the time I couldn’t envision a life beyond suffering and struggle. I clutched at the hope that the brightness and prosperity of a large city would invigorate me. Perhaps it would turn me into a person who liked myself, without the need for validation from an institution or a respected professor. I put all my hopes on a city to heal me.
Movies can’t be blamed entirely for these notions, but they definitely contributed to my escapist mindset. The clean Southern air was stifling, but somehow in the polluted air of the Big City was going to help me breathe. The quiet was defining, so noise has to be the answer. My family crushed my spirit, so solitude had to be the solution.
And in a way, I was right. Once I made it to New York City, I rebuilt myself over and over again in tiny rooms with expensive rent. I found myself while guzzling water, waiting for my student loan money to appear in my account so I could buy groceries. I talked to myself in bar corners between sips of cheap beer and frantic lines in my notebook. I let myself get lost in the city for hours; riding train routes until the last stop, and then riding back the way I came.
I was still underestimated at school. Sometimes ignored, often times brushed off for my ideals relating to race and feminism. But it was different. In the end I was right- I had to get away to find myself. The longer I stayed in the city, the more I began to resent that truth about myself.
Why couldn’t I have realized my potential earlier? I had struggled before. What was it about these new struggles that brought me closer to where I needed to be mentally? Why couldn’t I have been some kind of inspirational teenage wunderkind? Why did I feel so behind the curve in my early 20s?
What if I had found a way to be happy sooner?
It’s obnoxious to be 25 and already lamenting about lost opportunity, I know. The only thing I can really say in my defense is: Life was so miserable for such a long time. Once I got to happy, I couldn’t help but scold myself for not getting their earlier. I wish I knew that there was a way for the pain to stop. But I know that for some people, the pain never stops.
I’m not happy all the time, but I’m happy enough.
I have ‘The Big City’ to thank for that.
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