April 23, 2012 § 2 Comments
In New York – a sex columnist told us in February – you can be whoever the hell you want.
My first Saturday in the city, a friend met me on Sixth Avenue and 23rd. I had missed her – “you’re here!” She wrapped her arms around me: turquoise jewelry, upper bicep tattoos, warmth. I felt the rush of familiarity – the relief of seeing a person you know in a place you don’t.
We spent the afternoon looking for orchids, sipping iced coffee and running into people she knew on the street. A quick exchange got me invited to have dinner with her in someone’s Soho apartment on Monday night.
“I don’t know if you’re interested, but…”
In your first New York week, you’re always interested. A chance to belong, to mingle, to mix and to find your niche is an opportunity you’re desperately grasping for. When it lands, you snatch it, hoping to land another with it, and another, and finally, a corner bar, a friend’s apartment, a coffee shop or a happy hour that belongs to you.
It’s that feeling of belonging you’re looking for. It doesn’t matter how many other desperate seekers are there huddled around you – on that bar stool, clutching that particular drink or carrying on that particular conversation – the city is yours.
It happens in unlikely places – a Starbucks bathroom where you can breathe, an awning to stand under and check your iTrans app to get your bearings – a bar you didn’t know existed, an orchid man you recognize from two days before.
My friend had found such a place in the Rabbit Club, a dark, cement encased alley way down a tall staircase I laughed at, imagining myself half buzzed and falling down in stilettos some unsuspecting Friday night.
Just when I was envisioning myself being picked up by sympathetic strangers, she announced that it was closed until 6, and we moved on to find somewhere else to sit and enjoy the early evening until it opened.
We ended up at Sullivan Bistro, where the bathroom is dark, and covered in the names and photos of cities across the world, with a big “New York” glowing red and black like an apocalypse above them. We grabbed a table to the left of the bar, where the sun hit our feet, and a set of french doors opened to a patio with suited men speaking a language I didn’t recognize, drinking beer bottles wrapped in labels I’ve never seen.
I was deep in a people watching seance when she said something I had been feeling about the international development community, but hadn’t put my finger on.
“Negative energy” was the phrase she used. She was saying that she appreciated the insight that international experts were offering on the difference between good and bad aid, but that she was tired of the negative energy that came with it.
She’s the kind of friend that catches you as you begin to fall. And, I was – falling, that is. I was falling into the negativity, and she was giving me a hand back up to see that I started out working internationally because I wanted the experience for myself.
I wanted to be a woman who was well traveled. I wanted to be a woman who had formed opinions out of experience. What I had never planned on being was a woman who got there by criticizing others.
I told her I knew what she was saying. But what I meant was that I felt what she was saying. I had been feeling weighed down – carried away, even – by this tremendous current. It comes in all shapes and sizes – a witty tweet, a sarcastic snark of a comment, a blog that explains why Toms has a horrible aid model, or why #KONY2012 is a failure of a campaign when it comes to actually helping.
I know these corrections are necessary. It appears that at least once every two hours someone needs to remind the general public that Africa isn’t a country. And, sometimes I feel like I’m repeating Andrew Harding like some kind of mantra this Spring: ”the awareness of American college students is NOT a necessary condition for conflict resolution in Africa.”
But, regardless of the need for correction – I can’t help but feel that it’s the need for correction that’s begun to carry us away. As Kate Otto so eloquently put it over coffee this afternoon, “Too much negativity is not a way to really get much of anywhere.” She moved her hand up a figurative ladder and then plunged it back down on the table between us.
“No one gains long term success from being constantly critical.”
The Rabbit Club was open for business by drink 3, on Saturday, and in the dark, near a bar that felt familiar to her, with a 9×12 paper covered in German and Belgian brews, my friend told me about how New York can change a person, if she lets it.
“You know, you fight for everything here. And, bit by bit, you find yourself becoming harder. You’re so damn tired of being pushed. You’re so damn tired of being shoved. You’re so damn tired of someone taking your space, your area. That, finally, it’s like – ‘look! This is my damn spot. Don’t mess with my spot.’”
I nodded, halfway into a heff I’d ordered by pointing, because I couldn’t pronounce it.
“Bit by bit, it hardens you, if you let it,” she continued. “I keep coming back to that need to re-soften, to re-find your center, to take the edge off – have another beer so the way they push you on the subway ride doesn’t grate on you so much. Find a girlfriend to talk to where you can really talk, instead of just talking shop. Find a place you can let your hair down, and feel at home. Find a way not to just become another hard, jaded person who’s let it all get inside you and change who you are in ways you didn’t want it to.”
The phrase about becoming a jaded person caught me. I thought of the way Haiti feels the first time you get off the tarmac by yourself – the way you fight, especially at 18, for a place in place that doesn’t belong to you, the longing for a quiet moment – somewhere – where you belong, and feel that you’ve carved a niche for yourself: on the ground, on twitter, in the online community. I thought of the first time I’d been to an event in Nakasangola where volunteers and missionaries had been present – the way they looked at me from across the room but never came to speak to me. I thought of the way I cried myself to sleep at night on my first volunteer trip alone.
I thought of all the ways I’d failed that month, and how much I changed in the months following.
Kate and I talked about the organic learning process a person goes through while traveling – your first trip, in long skirts and thick tank tops, the way even the shitty catsup feels exotic – until you realize it’s just that: shitty catsup. Laughing with her, I thought about my journey over the past four years – the bad aid mistakes I’ve made, the volunteer positions I was proud of that I equate with the mistakes of those organizations, now. I thought about the way that they have made me who I am, and driven me to do what I do.
Like any field, international development rides on experience, the mistake by mistake process of building on ones own journey grabbing the bull by the horns and figuring out where you belong in a place where you didn’t belong before.
On Saturday night – my second night in New York – I made myself a promise. I’d work to find the positive in the development community.
Beyond that, I’d assume that everyone around me was just as tired of being pushed and shoved as a girl on the subway that’s been fighting her way through a city that doesn’t know her from Adam.
I’d try and keep an awareness of the tendency to let myself become anther jaded individual.
I’d work to re-soften, when it came to my work.
More than that, I’d work to be gracious.
A woman getting on the PATH yesterday swiped her card wrong four times. I went around her, bored with her mistake, rushing to catch my train to 9th – one train, at least, that feels familiar to me.
Holding the metal bar above my head on the way into the city, I remembered my first subway ride – how many times I’d swiped my card wrong in Washington DC on my way to the first day of an internship where I was first introduced to global water issues in Kenya, and felt my love of writing and international work intersect.
I thought about how I never would have continued on this path if someone had been breathing down my neck for the next 8 months, telling me that my first pieces on clean water weren’t savvy enough.
When Kate and I wrapped up our conversation this afternoon she pointed out that the truly effective people – the ones touching the most around them, are the people who don’t have time for negativity.
They’re too busy doing their own work – and, with it – finding the lessons in their own mistakes.
November 6, 2010 § 2 Comments
There is a small independent gas station on the corner of Rosecrans and Valley View, where I stop every Monday and Friday to get gas on number five. Usually I have just enough in my budget to get $10 or $15 my miata (which, by the way, I’m selling — any takers!?).
There is a small, jovial Iranian man who helps me every time.
“Yes ma’am, it is so good to see you. And you are on number five, of course, and do you want fifteen dollars?”
“Yes, how are you?”
“Oh, of course I am good. And I hope that you are good.”
“Yes, I am.”
“And of course you are going to work.”
Every Monday and Friday, he tells me how much he hates charging me 35 cents to use debit. “Oh, how it kills me,” he moans. “I hate to charge you this fee, over and over again.”
I complain when it rains on Fridays, and he says, “Ma’am, it is going to rain. I am so sorry that it upsets you though.” Always en emphasis on you, as if there were a particular crime in stratus cloud cover because it was me, in particular, who disliked the rain on Friday nights.
I promise myself, every year, that I’ll settle down somewhere. I tell myself that I’ll get a good group of friends, and that I’ll find three favorite restaurants to choose from. I’ll find a coffee shop where the barista knows my order. I’ll work on being a regular somewhere where other regulars smile when I walk in. I’ll learn the city well enough that I can drive most anywhere without getting lost.
It was my Iranian friend that made me realize I’ve made East LA my home, this semester. And it was that realization that helped me see that I’ve done every single thing in the above list in about 5 cities over the past three years. In Binghamton, NY, the barista at the Starbucks across from my community college knew I’d ask for a tall breve latte with an extra shot, and would tap his foot and make me laugh if I ever tried to figure out something different. My drink changed to a double mocha in Washington, DC but I had a favorite green coffee shop across from the UPI office where I always went to get it. In Long Beach, I kept my drink, but my shop changed to Aroma Di Roma, where Jasmine Hunter and I used to go on Tuesday nights. In Auburn, I loved dinner at the Ale House in Old Town. In Long Beach, I loved Taco Surf, and the staff still recognizes me when I walk in. I danced the last songs on the jukebox away with two other regulars a couple weeks ago.
In La Mirada, I’ve been on too tight of a budget to go out to coffee that often, but I found Three Avocados, and my friends have been buying their coffee from me to help provide clean water for people in Uganda. My friends and I love Taco Tuesdays on Valley View and Orangethorpe.
This month, my huge group of fabulous girlfriends and I are celebrating my one year of singleness anniversary (yes, I am that obsessed with celebrations).
All that to say, I think that I have learned to, as Confucius says, “go with all my heart” into every new place that I venture into. I find friends, I find favorite haunts. And, just last week, I took a short cut home and didn’t get lost.
I thought through all this hullabaloo, last week. The coming and going – the constant packing and unpacking. I asked myself if it was too much.
I asked myself if I was lonely, or lacking, if I had, somehow, missed out.
I asked myself if I would do anything different.
It was then that I realized I wouldn’t change anything about the past three years. And, out of that realization, I gave myself the okay to go again.
It took about three days to make a decision.
Turns out, I’m moving back to Washington, D.C. in January.
You didn’t really think I was going to stay in one place for an entire year, did you?
Upstate, NY 2007
Port au Prince, Haiti 2007
Santa Clarita, CA 2007
East LA 2008
Port au Prince, Haiti 2008
Jinja, Uganda 2008
New York City (Times Square), 2008/2009
Washington, D.C. 2009
Alexandria, VA, 2009
Upstate, NY 2009
Berkeley, CA 2009
Auburn, CA 2010
Wobulenzi, Uganda 2010
East LA 2010
Anyone have favorite restaurants/coffee shops/good friends in the district?