Why It’s Worth It

When I first moved to New York to start college, every few weeks my mother would recieve a phone call from me, over the course of which I professed my devotion to the city and swore that I would never leave. The calls would be placed from some awe-inspiring vantage point, like the rooftop terrace of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (overlooking Central Park) or Battery Park (overlooking the harbor). Surveying the enormity of the city choked me up, as I fell prey to the romanticized notion of being one small peice in New York’s giant assemblage of parts.

My mother still gets these naive calls–most recently from the lighthouse on Roosevelt Island, overlooking the skyline of the East Side–but just as frequently she finds voice messages chronicaling the realities of living in a sprawling metropolis. Some are barely recognizable as messages, mere phrases punctuated by panting, recorded as I dash from trains held up by track fires. Others bemoan umbrellas, blown inside-out by forceful winds funneled between buildings. I’m sure she deletes the tirades about the cost of cereal after hearing only the first few indignant words.

Last week, during a particularly tedious workday, I put down the down the doodle-covered post-it I had been contemplating and asked myself a question reminiscent of Dilbert’s workplace-existentialism: “Is this worth it?” Did I make the right choice, compromising on a job to stay in the city I love, with the man I love? As this economy has crippled the prospects of my peers, regardless of city, I accept my job for what it is. But how to justify staying in New York, paying through the nose for just about everything?

I made a list, a list of my most classically “New York” experiences. In my (going-on) five years spent living in Manhattan, I have eaten countless numbers of the world’s best bagels and more than a few pastrami on rye at Katz’s Deli. My intestines will never recover from the street fair food, the gyros and fried dough and pickles that I eat every summer.

I have worked out at a branch of almost every gym chain in the city, including Chelsea Piers. From Columbia, I have biked to Brooklyn, to the Cloisters and Battery Park, and once, up Sixth Avenue in rush hour traffic. I paid a lot of money to participate in the 2008 Five Boro Bike Tour. When running used to feel pleasant, I ran races in Central Park, Riverside Park, and even through Washington Heights. Last summer, I spent twenty minutes kayaking on the Hudson River. Taking advantage of opportunities to cheer on others, I have seen both the Yankees and Mets lose. I have also seen them both win. I only saw the city’s lacrosse team lose, however. At the 39th Annual New York City Marathon, I passed off an energy drink to a friend in the middle of downtown Brooklyn.

Before they were famous, I boogied to Vampire Weekend in the basement of Barnard’s old student center. I dressed like a slut and shook my ass for Ghostface Killah, Del the Funkee Homosapien, and Blackalicious, who performed at Columbia for Bacchanal. Dressed more conservatively, I stood with a audio recorder in Columbia’s Low Library and covered Orhan Pamuk’s press conference when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I have seen writers speak about writing: Toni Morrison interviewing Fran Lebovitz in a concert hall, Nathan Englander at the New York Public Library, and Sarah Vowell at the Brooklyn Public Library. With a free ticket, I got in to the New Yorker festival to watch a writer interview the actor Stanley Tucci. I saw the actor Joshua Jackson on 123rd St. and St. Nicholas, filming a scene for his show, “Fringe,” but did not catch a glimpse of Tina Fey when I stumbled upon 30 Rock filming at Barney Greengrass.

I once rode the train all the way to Coney Island, Brooklyn, for a hot dog and a ride on the Cyclone. More recently, I rode the train all the way to Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, for the Dragonboat Races. I did not have to take the train very far to see a media preview of Meryl Streep as Uma Thurman’s therapist in the movie Prime.

I danced the Charleston at Midsummer Night’s Swing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, jumped up and down on the springy floor at Webster Hall to the tunes of Old Crow Medicine Show, and swayed back and forth listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the River to River Festival. I ate brie in the park and listened to the sounds of the Pretenders drift in on a breeze from the faraway stage. I was Norah Jones’ guinea pig at (le) Poisson Rouge, as she practiced performing her new album. I stood for 4 hours in the rain to see Mos Def on Governor’s Island (only $35!). I had great seats to the Moth at the Nuyorican, The Marriage of Figarro at the Met Live in HD festival, and the revival of A Chorus Line (student rush, front row center). And I even had my portrait drawn on the subway for $5 dollars and three Starburst candies.

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Doesn't really look like me, huh?

Sitting in an office all day, I now tell myself, simply forces me not to take New York for granted.

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The Hidden Costs of Being a Grown Up

Being a responsible, frugal woman, I always assumed that with smart planning and ironclad willpower, I could stretch my small entry-level salary to cover all of my wants and needs.

FALSE!

Even responsible, frugal women need a budget line for unforseen (and in my opinion, often unjust) expenses. Whether an oversight on your part, or someone else’s scam, it costs you money. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes so many littles it ends up being a heck of a whole lot.

In this past month alone, I have had the post office lose two packages. In addition to ten dollars in shipping, I now owe someone $40 for a set of DVDs I did not even enjoy borrowing. My father no longer will enjoy $15 worth of expensive African coffee with his birthday breakfast Sunday morning. I then had to pay $30 to stop payment on a $260 check included in the package. All this hot on the heels of $30 in fees I incurred last week from writing checks from a closed account.

I don’t mean to whine. These things happen, and while I feel like a chump for sending a second package before learning my lesson, I know I have enough money to cover these unexpected expenses. At least I’m not a shlemiel, or worse, a shlemazel.

Yiddish lore differentiates between the shlemiel and the shlemazel by explaining that the  shlemiel is one who always spills his soup, and the soup always lands on the shlemazel. I have friends who are the epitomal shlemazal; women who graduate summa cum laude but who cannot seem to advance in their careers because somehow they bounce from disorganized boss to  harrassing supervisor to megalomaniacal employer. The misfortune of their boss, partner, or family plays out to become the shlemazel’s own misfortune.

As this month’s misteps demonstrate, I sometimes slosh my soup over the sides of the bowl. But don’t we all? Thankfully, I carry few scars from soup of the unfortunate shlemiel, and I like to think I hold it together enough to not scar others.

Nonetheless, between “bills” and “savings” in November’s budget, I am adding a $50 line in case I am once again  “Shlemazled.”

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Spaz

Last week, in a fit of workplace paranoia, I searched all over the neighborhood for an envelope full of checks that I “lost” in transit between hospitals. This week, I realized I paid my bills on checks from an old bank account I closed months ago. Since beginning this job, I have overlooked birthdays, lost track of friends’ schedules, and even forgotten to congratulate my sister on a stellar performance in her biggest regatta of the year.

Not usually so scatterbrained, I must assuage my concern about these premature “senior moments” and remind myself that, well, transitions are difficult. My best friend, also only two months into her first job,  has already  e-blasted two press releases with incorrect dates.  The two of us, who used to meticulously edit papers, even emails, that went to our professors, now find ourselves making careless errors that (irritatingly) were not careless. After spending two hours drafting an email, it references a mistakenly unattached attachment. Replies go out to the correct party, but without reply-all, the carbon copies are never delivered. As each “doh!” moment comes to light, our frustration grows.

I fear I will never succeed if I cannot even manage to keep the t’s crossed and i’s dotted in basic interoffice communications. If I cannot be trusted to pass along a simple message, will anyone hire me to do anything more  substantial?

A small soothing laugh came from the woman who manages billing for my apartment building. I called in a frenzy, explaining that the bank was going to reject my rent check, and apologizing for being “a total idiot.” After she explained how to go about resolving the issue, I asked her if any other tenant had ever made such a silly mistake. Her reply: “All the time. Hell, I’ve done it myself.”

I remind myself that, unlike my colleagues who have known each other for years and who have been doing their jobs even longer, I scramble to remember names and titles, departments and roles, organizational politics and those who can always be counted on in a pinch. Transitioning into a new job stretches you thin, and sometimes the glue just doesn’t stick–sending a small detail sailing in the whirlwind of the daily grind. In the meantime, my desk is littered with bright blue post-it notes, offering just a little extra adhesive to hold it all together.

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The Sunday Times

In July, wooed by a free travel mug and 50% off, I subscribed to the New York Times Sunday delivery. At a time when I felt the recession had yanked my sophisticated post-college fantasy out from under me, it seemed like a grown-up thing to do.

 The first four weeks were a disaster, and as far as I am concerned, the paper never showed up. Although the vendor assured me, assured me, that the paper would be delivered directly to my apartment door, it has only ever been deposited there once. After repeated calls to the Times’ customer service hotline–which, in all fairness, is staffed by competant and friendly representatives who eagerly refunded my money each time–the paper materialized one Sunday, but without the good parts. No arts section, no book review, no magazine. Just column after column of political futility. One last call, complete with threats to cancel my subscription before they really got any money out of me, yielded the only delivery placed on my doorstep…on a Saturday. Lo and behold, half of the Sunday Times is delivered on Saturday, including the happy sections and my personal favorite, the real estate listings (a girl can dream, no?).

So every Saturday morning, I scrape out of bed at 7 am, when my body inevitably wakes me up for work. I stumble into my bathrobe before taking myself and my wildwoman hair down the short flight of stairs to the vestibule between my buildings heavy doors. As I am ususlly too asleep to have remembered my keys, I hold the second door open with my foot and lunge towards the first, behind which the delinquent paperboy has slipped the rolled-up paper. I then go back to sleep, and do not look at the paper again until the next morning, when I pick up the Sunday sections on the way to ballet.

The paper takes me an entire week to read, with specific sections getting tucked in my bag each day. On Sundays, all I can hope to get through is the front page and week-in-review. I force myself to read all the international coverage, minus any news from Pakistan. Pakistan frustrates me. Monday takes me through the Metropolitan section–where I particularly adore the feature detailing the things-to-do at a different subway stop each week–and the business section. I force myself to read all the articles that don’t require an MBA to understand. I have a quixotic desire to one day manage my own investments, saving a bundle in brokerage fees.

Tuesday brings me to the Style section. Generation B! Modern Love! THE NUPTIALS! Even if the first two columns have a This American Life, the-daily-struggles-with-my-autistic-son, hipster new age tendency, I crave the formulaic declarations of love that are such a stark contrast to the nuptial’s formulaic declarations of priviledge:

 Alana Cohen and Gabriel Levine were married Thursday by Rabbi Tzvi Eliezer in Bethesda, MD. Both are in their third year of  residency at Mass Gen, and both hold Masters degrees in Sustainable Development, which they earned after completing 2 years of service in Ghana with the Peace Corps. The couple met as undergrads at Princeton, where they graduated magna cum laude. Their fathers are doctors in private practice and their mothers are partners in prestigious DC law firms.

The WASP version reads much the same, just swap the rabbi for an episcopal priest and the medical degrees for VP positions in finance.

Despite my distate for the  forutne and/or fame one must possess to be featured, I read every single profile. I prefer the ones with pictures and cute stories about how the couple met, but the abbreviated, less costly announcements seem slightly more democratic. So, at the very least, I skim them. I know now that I will never marry in a gazebo, nor in a puffy dress, but, for a bargain price I too can commandeer any sentimental relation and  have them ordained a Universal Life Minister.

The Style section takes all of Tuesday, and Wednesday I cruise through the remainder of the paper. Real Estate first, where I read about the pros and cons of renting after owning and drool over the luxurious Park Avenue penthouses and cozy West Village studios “with character.” I read the arts section with less diligence than the rest of the paper; I regularly skip features about theater and hipster bands from Brooklyn. I run my eyes over the travel section, taking in the pictures but not wanting to read about exotic locales I cannot afford to even think about visiting.

And the rest of the week is the magazine. My commute with the Sunday Times: train to work, train to gym, bus ride home. Crinkle, crinkle, fold, flip. It’s the most adult accessory I own.

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Pashmina

It’s been a slow Monday, the kind of workday where you fail to convince yourself that those pangs you feel stem from idleness, not hunger. I was just nibbling on some Honey Nut Cheerios, thrown into my bag as an afterthought this morning, and glanced out the window for the first time today.  And I noticed that the leaves have begun to change.

For most of the morning, the window functioned less as a portal to the outside world and more as a channel by which the crisp autumn air outside moved into my office, creating a powerful draft and chilling my workspace. The administrator downstairs generously loaned me an ancient space heater, but it is only powerful enough to keep my feet and calves warm (which, don’t get me wrong, goes a long way). So until this Thursday, when the heat is turned on in buildings across New York City, I avoid the window.

But now, noticing the beginnings of what I hope to be a beautiful fall in New York City, I regret sitting indoors all day. Between starting new school-years and the Jewish holidays, I have such a strong association between this season and clean slates. I never make New Years resolutions in January, but rather, in September. This year I chose to adopt a new fashion aesthetic, which perhaps seems frivolous for a resolution, but I must finally have an opinion about clothing that does not wick away sweat. Running shorts, apparently, have no place in even the most “business casual” office (casual a misnomer? I think so).

So bold scarves it is, inspired by two close friends who always seem to dress up even the most informal peices with bold colored fabrics draped in interesting ways. My boyfriend chose one for me, a pattern of burnt orange and leafy green, that I initially found to evoke University of Miami colors, but now I realize I am fond of because it reminds me of these changing leaves outside my window. So while I have no school to start, no books to buy or pledges to myself about diligence, I nonetheless have a new scarf and a new season.

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Mo Money, Mo Problems

I was never one to take for granted the flexibility of the college lifestyle. I loved being able to go to class, work out, shower, eat a nutritious lunch prepared for me by the dining hall, and then go back to class or to the library. Being able to schedule socializing into the middle of the day–coffee after class, breaks from the library–made it easy to maintain a web of friendships.

Cash flow, however, often limited socializing in college. All that time, so little money. After weeks of Dining Hall dates, trading meal plan points for coffees, and endless strolls through the park, one begins to hanker for a $12 movie, a $50 seat at the opera, $100 to be seen at a lounge downtown with an organic specialty cocktail. While afflicted with a particularly acute case of burnout this past spring, I whined endlessly about how my only salary requirement for my future job was to give me enough expendable income to go to the movies without having to angst over ten dollars.

Five weeks into my working life, I find myself with neither flexibility nor expendable income. Yes, I have a modicum of financial security; my income easily covers my rent, living expenses, and food. Eventually, I will have healthcare coverage, and a pre-tax retirement savings  account. So barring an emergency, my frugal existance will continue uninterrupted. But, where is my happy-hour fund? My Friday night movie fund? My one (semi) expensive meal a week?

And money aside, when do I have time? Now that socializing between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM is limited to email exchanges, seeing people overlaps with spin class, which already pushes dinner till 10 PM, which is an hour before my bedtime if I want to get a good nights sleep.

At least homework no longer competes for my time.

My mother warned me this would happen–dashing my dreams of expendable income and leisure up against the rocks of responsibility. The more  life transitions I move through, the clearer it becomes that the grass really never is greener on the other side. It can be as green, or much less green, but there forever remains a little gray cloud tempering that ideal emerald.  So tonight I will skip my Total Body Workout class to have one beer (domestic, whatever’s cheapest) with a good friend who is in town, and then hop over to a birthday dinner for another close friend (so at least dinner will be early) before taking the bus home and putting myself straight to bed, so tomorrow I can rinse and repeat.

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Ralph Lauren’s Old Synagogue

I never heard of an unpaid internship until I arrived at Barnard. Where I grew up, people bagged groceries for their summer job and learned about character building and a solid work ethic. Summers were for socking money away for your first car, or financing your substance abuse. Many of the first years I met my first weeks at Barnard, however, had spent their vacations from their prestigious prep schools completing impressive, resume-padding internships. Many volunteered on various campaigns, or worked on Capitol Hill, or went abroad to learn about the plight of the developing world.

In the meantime, I scooped ice cream at Coldstone Creamery and sang inane songs for tips. I did not know I was wasting valuable time, that I should have been learning how to write professional emails or memorizing vital details about policy issues that matter. So I came late to the notion of working for free, in exchange for the betterment of my future.

Since then, I’ve worked for free quite a bit, for better or for worse. I did acquire many useful skills along the way, but until I interned on the Queens Library Healthlink Project, I mostly learned what I did not want to do for the rest of my life. The Healthlink Project was different though. As part of a 5 year  study trying to reduce the rate of late stage cancer detection in Queens, my fellow interns and I collected data about cancer screening behaviors. In the twenty different neighborhoods targeted by the project, we approached individuals on the street and asked them to complete a brief  Street Intercept Survey, where they spoke with us about their perceptions of their neighborhoods, their confidence in the healthcare system, their adherence to cancer screenings, and their experiences with cancer and cancer support services.

I loved talking to people all day. I loved hearing about their lives and their experiences, and saw firsthand how not only financial barriers but also language and cultural barriers created disparities in access to healthcare. The experience cemented my commitment to a career in public service. All throughout my job search, I remarked to my close friends how badly I wanted to work full-time for the Healthlink Project, despite knowing that no such opportunities existed.

The beauty of working for free, the big payoff of interning, is that sometimes it puts you in the right place at the right time, in the right room with the right people. So at a meeting convened to introduce the interns to the principal investigators, a faculty member approached me after hearing that I graduated from Barnard. A Columbia alum herself, she inquired what my plans were following the internship, and not expecting anything but sympathy, I unloaded my frustrated story about finding work.

Five minutes later, she had my resume in hand and was directing me to apply with Human Resources for her open administrator position. So here I am, in my fifth week as the Administrator for the Junior Faculty of the Division of Epidemiology and Population Health. The division has just moved into a newly-renovated building on the campus of Montefiore Hospital, the teaching hospital for Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  So yes, after 17 years of schooling, and 18 months of unpaid internships, I have made it to the big leagues: I spend my day at a desk on the second floor of Ralph Lauren’s old synagogue.

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