18 years ago today I arrived in New York City with the bed, the cat, and the computer. I had $1700 to my name and knew no one. Over 90 years earlier my great grandfather arrived in New York City from Italy, speaking no English, with $14 in his pocket and an education in horticulture. (He didn’t stay in the city.)
How did I get here? I shaved my head. To the skin. Completely bald.
In April 2000 I celebrated a major life milestone by inviting all my women friends over to the first apartment I’d ever had to myself. We had pizza and someone brought a cake. Then Amy took out the clippers. I’d been to Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskills four years earlier and seeing all the monastics, men and women, without hair had made an impression. I thought that probably felt really amazing. (And walking in a light summer rain with no hair is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives.)
As I sat there one after another of my friends stood up and took the clippers. Soon I was surrounded by women I loved who passed the clippers around buzzing off my shoulder-length red-rinsed hair. Then it was time to do the deed. (Here’s a tip. Don’t use disposable razors for this. Mach 3’s are ok but the best is to find a barber with a straight razor and cocoa butter.) When Amy finished my head felt oddly light and quite cold. There was silence around the room. Then Jean said one word. Stunning.
Now keep in mind that my head was covered with little nicks from those cheap razors, but I felt stunning. Not beautiful or striking or strong or even necessarily transformed. I felt stunning. See, I grew up knowing I was ugly. I was always sure of judging eyes on me, finding fault. Now that was actually happening. Everywhere I went in the not-large Midwestern city where I lived there were quickly averted eyes. Little kids stared. The crazy old guy who ranted about Communists in the grocery store scolded me for attention-seeking. And over the course of a couple weeks something dawned on me.
I realized that the only thing standing in the way of me doing whatever I wanted to do was….me. Fearful, untrusting, anxious me. And what I wanted to do was live in New York City.
In May 2000 I started the process of applying to Columbia University, getting transcripts and letters of recommendation. I also started composing my admissions essay with the help of my mentor and literary guardian angel. In August of 2000 I came to the city to take the general admissions test. I was attending Case Western Reserve University at the time and hoping to bring most of my credits with me. In September 2000 I found out that I’d scored in the top 99% of one section of the test, in the top 98% in another and only made the 55th percentile in the third. I was sure the dream was over. I’d kept my hair buzzed off in a crew cut, had a great apartment with a view of Lake Erie in the winter when the trees were bare, and there are worse things than earning a BA in writing from Case Western.
Later in October I got my letter of acceptance from Columbia University. I suppose the sensible thing would have been to wait until the end of the academic year to make that kind of move. Not me; I’m not sensible (see above). On December 23, 2000, a bunch of the guys from Y-Haven where I worked showed up to help load my rented van. My buddy, George, who grew up in Montclair and couldn’t afford to go home for Christmas asked if he could drive my van out to New York (no, I never have gotten around to getting a driver’s license). I had gotten rid of 4/5’s of everything I owned and we still packed that van full.
It took George and I seven hours to drive from Cleveland to the George Washington Bridge and another three hours to get across the bridge and find a place to park the van in Washington Heights where a friend offered a place to stay until I found something more permanent. We’d had a crew to help load the van but now it was just George and me, humping my stuff up four flights of stairs. A fair amount of that stuff didn’t make it and wound up on the sidewalk for someone else to take.
New York City is the only place I’ve ever felt completely at home. Just as E.B. White observed in his piece “Here is New York”, here I have experienced the gift of privacy. No one cares much about what I’m doing. The people in the very small town in Ohio I fled when I was 18 cared very much about what I was doing. On more than one occasion here I have found myself crying in public. I love that no one even glances at me. People here mind their business although one time on a crowded subway I saw a woman pass a crumpled tissue to a crying woman without looking at her.
18 years ago, to lift a lyric from the Pet Shop Boys, I never dreamt I would get to be the creature that I meant to be. Am I that creature yet? Mostly, yes. And from time to time I go to Rickie over in her little salon on Claremont. She takes the straight razor and cocoa butter to my head and for a few days I again walk out into the world with no cover, no protection, no place to hide and pretend I’m anything other than what I am in that moment. I am home.