Josh Perkins
20 September 2018

The final chapter of my Carrie Bradshaw fantasy, written on the plane that took me home.
“It is easy to see the beginning of things and harder to see the ends.”

– Goodbye To All That, Joan Didion, 1967

I remember very clearly where New York began for me: on the corner of Riverside Drive and 116th street.

It was a tall rounded building that overlooked a park and beyond that the Hudson River, and further beyond that, the very edge of Hoboken.

It sat squarely in a neighborhood of Manhattan called Morningside Heights.

Morningside is known among other things for being between places, too far uptown to be considered the Upper West Side, too far downtown to be considered Harlem. It’s a subdued neighborhood, by New York standards, a grid composed of some five blocks between Riverside Park and the very northwest corner of Central Park, mostly inhabited by an idiosyncratic mix of students, families and the city’s older, native residents.

Riverside Drive was and still is an enclave of old wealth and it’s tree-lined streets have the serene quietness of it.

That was where my Aunt lived and where I spent my first summer in New York.

My Aunt was, to be frank, a lot like the other women who live on Riverside Drive. She had a doorman in her building, who she greeted kindly if sometimes curtly, upon entering the marble-floored lobby. Her apartment was decorated with an ornate European-inspired maximalism. Tapestries and gold-leaved busts littered the place, which was worth (as I was told and have no way of verifying) over a million dollars. A price tag that seemed exorbitant, given the size of the place and the washer-dryer combo jammed into the galley kitchen.

She had a shih-tzu, a terribly ill-tempered and unintelligent black and white heap of hair, that didn’t tolerate me or anyone who wasn’t my aunt. The shih-tzu and the miniature poodle are, along with wealthy white women, the most prominent residents on Riverside Drive.

She had a kid, my cousin, just one though as per defacto New York regulation. And the kid had a nanny, a Central-American woman whose name I have forgotten. We would walk, the nanny, my much younger cousin in a stroller and I, along the uneven cobblestone paths of the park, to small playgrounds lined by low black metal fences and wooden benches. The other nannies would sit and watch their temporary wards play and they would talk in their respective native languages, presumably gossiping about their ritzy-Riverside-Drive employers.

However, my aunt had some eccentricities that made her unlike many Riverside Drive women. She had a Masters degree from Columbia that she wasn’t actively using, made and sold jewelry from MetroCards and every day, almost without fail, fed the pigeons in the park. To my untrained eye, she was the height of metropolitan glamour. I wanted to be like her and above all else, I wanted to go back.

And years later I did. I moved back to Morningside, a couple of blocks down and a couple of blocks inward. Still Morningside, sure, but a world away from my Aunt’s former life.

The basement apartment that I spent over three months in was not occupied by a housewife, her kid and her shih-tzu. Grime and cockroaches and strange people who I wouldn’t talk to unless I absolutely needed to and even then hardly ever, took their places.

Within five minutes of Riverside and 116th, are large, brick, low-income housing projects, where my cousin’s nanny probably lived. That was one thing I came to realize about New York, that the widest of income disparities become shortened to the length of two blocks. It is in that way, the most American of American cities.

That duality is something I grew to know well. I flew to New York with one suitcase, a carry-on and a backpack. I nearly emptied my savings to pay for my rent upfront. I had scholarship money from the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, a little something they had given me for completing a degree the summer before, and not much else save for two unpaid internships.

I was, at the time, ok with my temporary unemployment. I was desperate to make it work. I was so full of giddy enthusiasm and conviction that it didn’t matter I wasn’t making money. I was paying my dues at the altar that is New York City. The dues that every middle-class, college student who dreams of writing for a New York publication must pay.

I was the image of a struggling artist and my art? Clickbaity internet articles about men’s grooming and skincare, the internship that justified my move. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted but it was a byline for my portfolio nonetheless.

I learned quickly that “faking it ‘till you make it” is not just a catchy phrase, in New York, it’s an intrinsic way of life, a mode of being, an identity.

I was pretending to be someone else, putting on the costume of an “insider.” A term that no one in New York can agree on and yet they still use it constantly. I became so good at it, l even felt like an insider. At times and short moments, I could convince myself of it, I could become the person I wanted as if I hadn’t grown up in a small (ish) and lazy southern California beach town where the pinnacle of cool was wearing Vans and ditching first period to surf.

Because of my work, I was invited to events: Buzzfeed’s Queer Prom, Coach, John Paul Mitchell, Men’s Fashion Week. It seemed like every fashion brand and their uncle threw an event that summer.

I wasn’t paid to go and write about who was there and what kind of skincare routine they had, nor was I obliged to. I went because they were often catered and I wanted free meals, occasionally needing them, and if nothing else they all had alcohol so I could numb the reality of my dwindling bank account. The writing was second priority.

Besides, faking it in New York is easy. Either that or I am good at it. I would take the L Train to Williamsburg and shop the women’s section of thrifts stores and pass it off as some sort of fashion statement. I got away with a lot because I am tall and not unattractive and because when you’re young, you’re not expected to dress nicely (by which I mean obviously expensive), you’re expected to be cool and different. Cheap used clothes from Brooklyn passed as such. Publicists often assumed I was an “influencer.” They might have thrown me out if they knew how many Instagram followers I really had.

But I never fully shook the feeling that I was an imposter, some sort of intruder, and that one day I would be found, thrown out and laughed at along the way.

What I didn’t want people to know is that instead of taking an Uber Black from the afterparty to a flat in Chelsea that was paid for by my rich parents, I was waiting 20 minutes on an overheated subway platform for a late-night train to return to a bunk bed that creaked as if on the verge of collapse every time I crawled into it.

I can’t totally say I wasn’t compensated. These kinds of brand events gave away a lot of free stuff and I do mean that in a literal sense. It was all shameless influencer marketing, but I partook. As a beauty writer, I was sent products in the mail, sometimes without asking. Expensive products too. One day I returned from a PR office in SoHo with over 500 dollars worth of makeup and hair care and a fancy reusable water bottle. I know the exact value because I immediately and for no good reason calculated the retail prices of everything.

My friends deemed me the bougiest poor person in New York. I was using a hundred dollar makeup brush in a dinghy fluorescent bathroom with a busted mirror that perpetually hung open. Cockroaches sometimes crawled out from behind that mirror, a sight I grew so accustomed to, it no longer shocked or bothered me.

I’d say the description fit.

I wasn’t paid and I would sometimes skip eating lunch but at least I had my $80 serum.

On the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art, at which I am a member, I ended a phone conversation with my mom.

I am a member, to be clear, not because I could afford it or because my parents donated some undisclosed and tax-deductible amount to MoMA, but because it was gifted to me at an event.

We were refinancing tuition for my last semester of college, discussing taking out a loan, stressing over the fact that I didn’t receive the same kind of financial aid as previous years. From there, I walked with a worried expression to the member’s only coat check and picked up my bag and my umbrella and headed back out into the summer rain.

To live as I did in New York requires an ability exist in duality. At one moment you are at a rooftop bar with models and editors and beautiful, carefree, rich people and the next you are jumping the turnstiles in the subway because your MetroCard ran out of time.

I became particularly adept at sneaking into places and not just the subway. The Met is easiest, other museums take some brash confidence and a brief moment when the security guard isn’t paying attention, and no one at concerts checks for VIP credentials.

Despite everything, I fell in rapturous and consuming love with the city. It was a one-sided relationship to be sure. The city takes everything you can muster and once it has, you beg for more. You get on your knees and kowtow because you’ve never felt that kind of energy, never woken up to those kinds of possibilities, never explored with the true sense that every block might take you somewhere entirely new and different.

It was a love affair to rival and surpass all the men who have come and gone from my life.  

At the beginning of summer, I bought some Joan Didion because I am cliche and because for obvious reasons I am drawn to a journalist, native to California, who went to Berkeley, and who famously moved to New York City to write.

I took her with me from my apartment to Central Park and thought of a time that I would also say goodbye to “all that.” To the cockroaches and the subway and the museums and the unpaid work and the fashion shows and the lights and the free alcohol.

That time came much faster for me than for her. I am writing this, in part, on a plane that will first stop in Saint Louis, then Dallas and make its final descent into Oakland. From there I will take a car to Berkeley.

It will feel, I assume like I left something behind in New York. What that is, I don’t fully know.

On my last day, I went back to Riverside Park. In a pair of jeans and dirty converse, I walked the same cobblestone paths I walked as a kid. On the corner of 116th and Riverside Drive, I looked up at where New York began for me: a building, with a doorman and a marble lobby and I’m sure many, many shih-tzu’s.

But it is not where New York ended. I still have to go back for what I left behind.