New York is not a city for the indecisive or the broke. I discovered this when I first worked there in the early 80′s. I had moved back east with my boyfriend (who would eventually achieve ex-husband status) attending graduate school. I’d been accepted at Rutgers as a transfer student, but couldn’t get the financing together to cover my tuition, so off to Manhattan job hunting I went, in a hand-me-down and out-of-date skirt from my mother, a bow-neck blouse my grandmother had bought for me as a going away present, and a jacket that barely matched either. I was a bit shocked to learn that even with two years experience in the same field, the jobs I interviewed for paid little more than minimum wage, which would barely cover my monthly commuter pass on the train. So I responded to an ad from an employment “agency” which turned out to be one balding guy in a moldy office with a bottle of scotch in the desk drawer (he offered, I declined) and was soon employed at a direct reponse advertising agency. I worked there for two months (long story short, I was hired for one job but the deparment head decided she needed a personal assistant, so that’s what I did) then was referred by a co-worker for a job at a TV sales rep firm, where I found my niche, employment-wise.
The culture, that took some getting used to. Most of the other “girls” I worked with (yes, we were still called girls then) still lived with their families, and would until they married. This seemed to be the norm for NY women my age; I don’t know if it still is. At lunchtime I’d tag along and watch while they shopped. And shopped. Even on our meager salaries, they didn’t think twice about blowing most of their paycheck on a pair of $200 boots. I was brown bagging cream cheese sandwiches, and splurging on the occasional postcard at Fiorucci. On the train, I’d observe the women in their good suits and Louis Vuitton bags, which I had never seen nor heard of until then, and make notes for the future when I joined their ranks. (Even though I don’t like logos, I still have a nostalgic feeling when I see LV monogram bags, and always associate that brown and tan print with successful, sophisticated, professional women.)
I learned that if you were ordering coffee to go from a lunch counter that a) the person working behind the counter doesn’t want you to waste his/her time with saying hello, or asking how they are and b) that if you want black coffee, you had to order “coffee, black.” “Coffee, regular” meant coffee with milk and “coffee, light” meant with more milk. I learned that the Greek guys behind the lunch counter were always nice to young women and would sometimes give you a large salad when you’d ordered a small. I learned the difference between street harassment and a nice compliment from a stranger. I learned where to stand on the subway platform during rush hour to be able make it into the next train. I learned where you could buy a beer in a brown paper bag at Penn station for the Friday night ride home, and that there wasn’t a bathroom at the junction where you caught the “Dinky” into Princeton proper.
Almost twenty years passed between the time I first worked in NY, and when I started travelling there for work. And in that time, the city seemed to have transformed into something a lot cleaner, a bit friendlier, and less foreign. In the early 80′s, if someone bumped into you they’d growl or say “watch where you’re going!” Now, they say “excuse me.” But the biggest change isn’t the city itself, it’s being there with some financial resources behind me. The ability to afford a sit-down meal, a decent hotel room, (or in this case, be here on business and having most of my expenses covered) makes a huge difference in how I perceive this city. I loved it then, but felt like an outsider. I love it now, and feel like a welcome guest.