The Boy from Virginia Finds a Place (The Concrete Chronicles)

September 2012

            At the start of the month, my sub-letter had returned and I was still without a new place to live. Being the person I am, I hate overstaying my welcome anywhere and I had the unfortunate feeling that I would be overstaying for a few more weeks. Luckily for me, the sub-letter was a gem of a woman, and she and her roommates (who had made my acquaintance before she did) became the first “sort-of” family I’d made in the city. Having been in New York longer than myself, they seemed to uderstand my plight and excused my housing delay. Excusals aside, I still needed to find a place  and ASAP.

            Finding a decent place to lay one’s head comfortably in New York City is among the more difficult life-tasks I’ve ever taken on. Period. Not only is it tedious, strenuous, and merciless…I’m sure it’s a rites of passage for aspiring New Yorkers that truly separates the boys from the men. (To feel my pain, click here)  With no potential roommates and no decent leads on the horizon, I was back to being a boy. So where to start on this second go-round?

            I’d put up a status blast on Facebook saying that I was looking for housing and/or roommates and for people to contact me. I received two private message replies from people I knew, but we’d wanted different things; some people wanted Brooklyn, some wanted Washington Heights, but more importantly, our pockets also wanted different rent amounts to pay. I was still craving Harlem, but I felt I wouldn’t be able to afford the area considering the epidemic of gentrification it’d gone through.

My bro, Ray.

My bro, Ray.

Then I’d received a surprise message from a young man from my past. He was an actor I’d been in contact with for four years but our only interaction was at his movie debut back in Philadelphia in the summer of 2008. Somehow, I’d remained on his radar and he’d made the selfless attempt to reach out and assist me in my search for a place to live. I conceded that this might be the only true helpful gesture I’d receive, so I made plans to have him help me.

It’s not that I couldn’t find a place in New York. It’s just that I couldn’t accept the very first one that became available. Shopping around for the right place to call home was a good idea. I’d turned down a small place in Washington Heights at the end of August because it was the first place I’d actually seen and I didn’t want to just say yes. I also turned it down because the renter was all too eager to pressure me into being his roommate. When he explained that his former roommate had just…left one day and didn’t tell him he was leaving; though I felt sympathetic, I also felt there was also a reason behind that guy’s sudden departure. Red flags told me to consider other options.

It was funny however that I’d ended up in Washington Heights, yet again, to link up with my friend. He’d told me that he had success with a room rental company. They would charge a small finder’s fee, but I’d be able to hopefully find a place in two weeks or less. Catch was, I’d be living like a boarder in a room in someone else’s house and the renter’s might’ve only spoken Spanish, but there was a possibility I would luck out and ended up somewhere comfortable. It worked for him.

The agency (if I should even be allowed to bestow such a  legitimate name upon them), was one of those “hidden-in-plain-sight” type of places that looked like it could double as a tax office/ immigration office/ job centre, (etc.), but when we got there, the woman who was responsible for housing placements wasn’t there. No one could seem to contact her either, but I was assured that she knew what she was doing and was good at her job. I thanked my friend for his help and we planned to meet up again if I made any further progress.

The next day, I decided to go at the search alone…silly me.

After ending up at another room rental agency, and sitting for about two hours after they took $150 from me as a finder’s fee (when they hadn’t even found a room for me yet), I was supplied with an address on the back of a small business card. I headed to the location and ended up…in. a. fucking housing. project. Lies and deceit? Not this time.

 The room I’d been sent to was on the ninth floor of a building with an elevator that decided it would take the Lord’s day of..on a Thursday. I skipped steps up those nine flights, occasionally passing elderly people who were wondering why I was taking the stairs and then I ended up outside of the apartment that was written on the business card. Even before I stepped in, my Tommy senses were tingling. The door opened and I was greeted by a man in a wheelchair. A man who looks as if he hadn’t bathed, who was in a wheelchair. There was also a woman present (His mother? His nurse?) who seemed to care less that I was there. There was a bed that looked as if it were stolen from a hospital, cold dull-looking tile floor, a box fan in the window, and a television was playing…Who gives a fuck what it was playing because in my mind, I felt as if I were in a hospital ward. The man in the wheelchair did his best to sell me his apartment, and while my heart felt like it was being sliced and diced by that box fan in the window, I tried to maintain my dignity (which had spun on its heels, sucked it’s teeth and headed back down the stairs). Thank God I’m an actor because I was able to remain diplomatic, take a deep breath and say things like, “Hmm…well…I..have…some other places to see, but I’ll get back to you. (insert forced smile) I’ve seen all I need to see here.”

And then I rushed down the stairs of the projects and rushed to work, all while my brain was being mangled to death by confusion and the feeling of being swindled.

I went to work my shift and I couldn’t even function. All I could think was, ‘I was sent to project building. I. was sent. To a PROJECT. To live…(OK, yes they are livable spaces, but I’d had my healthy dose of underprivileged living as a child. I didn’t need a reprise…back to my thoughts)  And I can’t get my $150 back. I’m a fool. I’m alone in New York. And I’m a burden to these wonderful women I’m staying with.’ My insides were debating whether or not they wanted remain inside of me, and it seemed my tears were doing the same. As I swallowed everything back, I couldn’t help but think the worst.

‘I’ve lost favor with God. This is punishment for what happened between my sister and me. I’m no longer one of his chosen people.’ Had I ever really been chosen to begin with? I mean, here I was crashing on a couch; my luggage (though neatly stacked) littering a living room that wasn’t my own, and my growing despair puddling the carpet. I wasn’t completely down and out, but I was definitely around the corner from it. Or was I?

Though I was discouraged by the small amount of people who stepped up to help me in my situation, I had to give a hand to all of the co-workers on my job. The ladies all offered their assistance to me in some way, whether it was offering to bring in a lunch, or to provide money, or to even shelter me for a bit. And my actor friend also came with me to try and get my money back from the people who’d taken it. He went with me to view more rooms, and other (much better) options I’d found from Craigslist. People -not the ones I expected- were subtly showing me that I mattered and that I deserved to be in New York, just as much as anyone else. I was immediately humbled. My heart hadn’t planned on being in NYC, but people wanted me to succeed here.IMG_1237

That subtle encouragement was more help than I’d given to the burn victim who’d lost his nose who begged me for money on the train. It was more help than I offered the family who was kicked out of their hotel room whilst visiting the city for a holiday. It was more help than I could give myself, because I’d even forgotten how to do that effectively. The job I did was so rooted in helping others, that I didn’t know how to pamper myself. Instead, I worried myself. I stressed myself. I had started to hate myself for being -what I considered- incompetent and inefficient. What was my purpose?

What was worse…I was beginning to crave the city where I faced the most challenges, and yet felt the most loved: London. Would I ever return? Had I given the Big Apple enough of a chance? I felt like it was biting me instead of the other way around, and I could tell I was becoming bitter to the taste.

To pull myself out of the funk that was beginning to waft through my brain, I decided to join one of my current roommates at an event called Sundae Sermon. There’s nothing like an outdoor picnic full of Harlemites, House music, and high spirits to completely turn your mood around. In the span of 5 hours, I’d felt free and as if I were being introduced to the pulse of the city. Sundae Sermon is where I met two wonderful people who would become my “friends of the moment” (you encounter many of those temporary types in New York). And it was under their wings that I got completely shit-faced drunk (as you do, when you feel free).

That Sunday was only a temporary relief to what needed to occur. I still needed to find a place and I was determined that I was NOT going to remain a lodger on a couch for another month. So it was back to Craigslist. I’d abandoned the agency, and my chances of getting my money back so whatever methods I used this time would have to work. Or else.

I’d courted the idea of moving to Brooklyn. I’d even gone all the way out there from the Bronx to view a place. The renter of the apartment was older than me, but well put together. The room was spacious and the entire place would’ve only been the two of us. So far so good. There was a pool on the roof of the building. Great! I don’t swim, but great, nonetheless. The commute was lengthy, but I was excusing that for the pool I’d never use. Hmm…I could see myself here….

But the goal was always to move to Harlem. I couldn’t sell myself so short…or so long-distance.

Just when my focus became clearer, I came across two listings for places to live in Harlem. Both about 10 odd blocks from one another. One option was a two bedroom that I’d share with a Turkish man. I loved the place…but you had to walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom. …Interesting setup… but a small price to pay. I thought I marketed myself and my intentions well. But I was informed that he’d get back to me.

The other place was right in the middle of everything. I was three blocks away from Sylvia’s -overrated- Soul Food restaurant (I mean, it’s good, but it’s not down south cooking), There was a grocery store across the street from the apartment, I was four blocks from 125th street (one of the most iconic streets in Harlem) and to top it off, I was in a decent building with a doorman. Granted, it wasn’t a real doorman like you see on films about people who live downtown, but it’d suffice. IMG_1407

Only thing…I’d have to share this place with four other people. But after having interviewed with all of them, they seemed nice and one of the guys was originally from England. To me this was an omen. Even if I could just live around this man to hear an English accent, I’d be fine. I equated his accent to feeling like I was home. Like the Turkish man, they told me they’d be in touch soon. They were and they informed me that I was their second choice. If the person who they’d chosen decided not to take the room, it would be mine. But I’d have to wait three days to see if I got the place.

The other Harlem apartment I was interested in had a second round of interviews to which I went and encountered two other guys who also wanted the place. It was as if we were on a TV show competing to be the Turkish man’s Next Top Roommate. I didn’t mind this process, but I just thought to myself that the next time I went apartment hunting it would be with people I knew, and people I could trust.

Two days later I’d gotten notice that the first person decided to pass on the apartment, and that I could go ahead and move into the Center of Harlem if I was still interested. It was the final week of September and I was happy that I wouldn’t be entering October on anyone’s couch. I passed on living with one other person to live with four because the rent was most definitely in my range and my room had an actual closet. That is a true luxury. (You have no idea the multitude of places in New York have no closets at ALL…which is NOT okay)

After receiving that news, I also found out that I’d booked a small part on a new show for NBC. Revolution, it was called. Though I knew nothing about it, I was happy as hell to be able to do some actual work on a major primetime television production. But everything in my new New York life was complicated, of course…

I booked the job as a local hire. What did that mean? That meant I was hired because people thought I still lived in Virginia. Where were they filming this show? In North Carolina, a good 5 states south of where I now lived. An obstacle? Yes.  I knew I was going to get my ass to that set if it killed me, but I had less than 24 hours to plan a journey back down south. This would mean trying to find someone to cover my shift at work and also trying to find a cost-effective method of getting to North Carolina.

It was a Tuesday, I’d need to film Thursday, and somehow, be back in New York on Friday for my shift. No one wanted to over for me, and I didn’t want to get written up on my job. But I decided that I’d somehow make filming work…and I’d also make work work…and I’d do this by going into the money I’d saved up for my deposit and first month’s rent on my new place. My rationale: I’d get it back once I was paid from the show.

Wednesday morning came. I was packed and ready to go to the Port Authority Bus Station when I got off work at 4:45. I managed to catch a $64 bus (very last minute) to Richmond Virginia, then transfer to an $80 bus to Wilmington North Carolina; a journey that lasted a total of eighteen hours. Because NO buses would be headed back to New York at the time I needed one, I had to book an early morning ($188) flight to New Jersey, where I’d eventually catch a shuttle back to Manhattan. I was beginning to worry about my money big time.

 Once off the bus, I walked to my lovely hotel, which had been negotiated by my Virginia talent agency, and I promptly fell asleep. Once I’d awakened and after a lovely self-date at Buffalo Wild Wings, I made my way back to the hotel and caught a van to set. It would be a late night shoot. Working on any film set is exciting, but seeing your first on-set explosion has to be the best thing you’ll ever see (unless you catch fire). I never tire of seeing how many people it takes to put on a production and this was no different. I’d had my hair and make-up done and gotten in my costume and sat. IMG_1376

I sat.

And I sat.

 I ate at craft services. And then sat some more.

At 4am, (after arriving on set at 7pm the night prior), I geared up to yell my one line in multiple ways. But because I needed to be back in New York by 5 the next day, the crew rushed through my performance (or either I hit my mark and got it right the first time, who knew?) and I was hurried back to my hotel to prepare for my flight.

I’d arrived back in New York at around noon on Friday. I was proud of myself for accomplishing a hell of a lot in a small amount of time. I’d also had the help of my mother through what could’ve been a messy process, but overall, things kinda of worked out. I was back at work, though I felt a bit underappreciated because I’d gone through hell and high water, (and money I shouldn’t have touched) to return to a job that was paying me a fraction of what I made in 10 hours. Regardless, I’d ended my month with less woes than when I started it. Soon enough I’d be off a couch, and in my own room in Harlem. With no worries and no stress.

 

Yeah, fucking, right…

The Boy from Virginia Tastes the Concrete Jungle

July 15th, 2012

When I stepped off the Greyhound Bus from Norfolk, Virginia at 7am that Sunday morning and stepped foot into New York’s Port Authority Bus Station, my small overhead wheelie suitcase in tow, I’d only set two goals for myself: 1) Find the location of the room I’d rented for the next two days and 2) find a job. Oh, and find a place to charge my phone. So, three goals total. And I had four days to accomplish them all. It had been four years since I was last in New York City, and despite prior recollection, it wasn’t to attend grad school auditions (which had happened earlier in the same year), but instead for a movie premiere of a relatively well-known television show-turned film. When I last came to New York, I’d become one with midtown and scraped the surface of Harlem. Manhattan was my island (in my mind). But, as this particular trip to New York was a much needed exodus, I didn’t care where I stayed, as long as it resulted in me eventually being able to live there on a more permanent basis. So, I took out my iPhone, typed in the address I was given, and used my lovely Embark NYC app (best app for subway transportation) to figure out how to get to where I was going. After purchasing my Metro Card I weaved my way through the underground maze to find the “7” train that would take me to the dreaded “G” train. You see, the place I was about to venture was a borough that’d only existed in hip-hop lyrics and my youngest uncle’s anecdotes: Brooklyn, new home of the hipsters I thought I left in Shoreditch, London.

            Half an hour later, I was rushing out of the Myrtle-Willoughby station to make sure I could meet this random woman who’d allowed me to rent her room for the next two days. She’d had to go to work but she’d wanted to drop off her key to me and allow the previous tenant to move out (I’d later find out that subletting and room- renting is the norm for most New Yorkers strapped for cash). This meant that I’d only be dropping off my stuff and then heading immediately back over the bridge into Manhattan. I left the apartment with a folder of resumes in my hand and my cell phone and charger (still hadn’t managed to accomplish that goal), and decided to head back to Manhattan.

            My plan was to see if I could get a job with the former company I’d worked with over in London. I knew that they had 4 branches in New York and I was going to dedicate the full day to visiting every single store. I was also going to visit each branch because while overseas, I’d met the manager of one of the shops and I wasn’t sure which one she managed. So my journey would serve a twofold purpose. If none of them were hiring, I was equipped with a sexy resume to take elsewhere. Considering the summer heat and the early hours, I decided to go furthest from my location and ride all the way up to the Upper West Side.

            I’d gotten to the Upper West Side Branch a bit too early for my own liking. The shop manager hadn’t yet arrived. But I was in luck.

            “She’ll be here in about thirty minutes,” The perky manager on duty assured me.

            “Great, well then I’ll come back,” I replied just as perky. Hell, perkiness was a requirement for the company, and I knew how to serve it with all its sweetness. “I just want to make sure I meet the manager in person.” I flashed my best Crest smile, and took my shine out of the door with me.

            While I prepped to give my little “This is why you should hire me” spiel to the manager, I killed time by walking up Broadway and into a Barnes and Nobles. Anytime I’m in a bookshop, I just imagine I own it for a little bit. Then I sigh when I realize I’ll never own all of these books, and I resign myself to flipping through the pages of interesting books and reading the book jackets while making mental lists of future literary material. After thumbing through my tenth book, I realized I’d wasted enough time and that it was about to be “showtime.” So I briskly walked back down Broadway, blazer blowing in the wind (which always makes me feel important and business-sexy). With each block, the anticipation grew, as well as a bit of anxiety. I hate interviewing for jobs, but I understand protocol, and I wondering how to sell myself as I entered the shop.

            “She’s still not here.” I was informed. Darn. I was too eager. I hoped that wouldn’t work against me. I decided to browse the shop and become familiar with the items I’d left behind. Yes, I knew these products like I knew my way around the stage, but now I was on American turf and I’m sure rules would be different.

A woman walked into the shop. I recognized her right away. It was the manager I’d met in London. When I reminded her who I was, she brightened as much as I did! I explained that I was desperately looking for a job. She said that she was hiring and wondered if I could do a trial shift the very next day. I came to New York with no set plans, so I immediately said yes and breathed a sigh of relief. I’d been looking for that woman specifically, and what were the odds that the universe would lead me directly into her shop first thing? Serendipitous, or Divine plan? Whatever it was, I was thankful.

Evening on the town. Streetcar Named Desire

Evening on the town. Streetcar Named Desire

I’d spent the latter part of that evening catching up with an old friend from college who was wonderful enough to purchase a ticket for me to see Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire with Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood.The show was stellar, and to this day, I feel I’ve not seen a more specific Blanche onstage. Reviews aside, I also bumped into one of my favorite professors from undergrad who was my mentor and one of the reasons I decided to go to school abroad. The Universe was giving me a lot of people. And New York was catching me in its net after my fall from grace in Virginia.

           

July 16th, 2012

The next day, I woke up, fully prepared to attend my trial shift at my potential new job. (I was also excited because I’d be able to reconnect with someone whose career I was secretly obsessed with, buuuut more on that later.) No one told me that the weather was on full Hades and that black and white clothing was not going to bring my body Arctic peace that day. So, to escape the heat, I decided to go another place I’d never been before, the Upper East Side.

What I learned on that part of town was…that I couldn’t afford it. That and the fact that I felt like I didn’t belong there with the clothes (and perspiration) I was wearing. So after a very brief walk around, I decided to take the plunge and walk through Central Park. I spent ample time there, only because my interview was at 2pm and it was only 12:30. Personally I didn’t understand the hoopla about the park.

Central Park 1 Central Park 2 Central Park 3 Central park 4

Sure it was expansive and full of wonder, but I was only temporarily awed by it all. Then I remembered that I was comparing this park to Hyde Park in London and that’s when I realized I needed to start booking it through the haze to my trial shift. I passed by young black men break dancing in the park for passersby, gaggles of tourists in similar states of wonderment, and many statues that were clearly holding down the fort when people weren’t around.

 After eating an overpriced tuna sandwich at a place called Viand, I’d made it to my trial shift about fifteen minutes prior to my needing to be there. (Had to give a good impression, right?) Soon, I donned the infamous black apron that had been a part of my wardrobe for two and a half years in London, and went out on the floor to show my old job that I still had their skills. An hour and a half later, and having made a cumulative sale of over $350, I. Was. Hired. Goal one: accomplished! Logistics and paperwork would be handled later, but I was definitely on the team which meant I could go back home, and pack up my life and move to the concrete jungle.

One of the most inspiring people I know.

One of the most inspiring people I know.

I beamed with pride in myself as I hurried to meet my fellow actor friend,who’s been inspiring me since I met him. Though he and I weren’t the closest of friends four years ago when I first met him, we’d always been privy to one anothers journey’s. I believe that, in and of itself, was enough to connect us. We’d met over coffee and I’d apologized for being late. He’d congratulated me on the job and then it was down to business. I needed to tell him why I was actually in New York. After responding incredulously to what I’d told him, and confirming that a move was definitely the right decision (“Dude, yeah, you needed to get out of that situation. For your own health”), the issue of housing arose. Where would I stay? Had I looked into finding an apartment? Just as I was about to answer those questions, I saw something like clarity wash over his face.

“Oh!” he said, He fumbled for his phone and began to search his contacts as he spoke to me. “I know someone who’s looking for a roommate and you’d be perfect for each other.” I felt like he was about to find me a boo, not a roommate. “Lemme see if the room is still available.”

He made a call. The phone rang. He dialogued. The room was not available.

“You know, it’s ok…I can go on Craiglist or Air BnB or something,” I conceded.

“No no no. Give me a second.” He swiped through his contacts once again. Made a call. He talked me up. Then he handed me the phone. The young woman was looking for someone to sublet her place for a month while she was on tour and it was so affordable that I couldn’t help but say yes. It was in the Bronx (not too deep in the Bronx). It would be available in two weeks. It was near the 2 train (the exact train I’d need to get to work). All in all, it was perfect.  I had a place to stay (temporarily). Just like that. I thought to myself, this meeting was destiny. He read my mind.

“Isn’t that God?” He asked. Part of me wanted to ask ‘where?’ until I realized he was referring to my situation. “I mean, look at it. You came all the way to New York – with nothing, mind you- and on your second day in the city you walk away with a job AND a place to stay?”

He was right, but he made me sound like some sort of chosen miracle person. So I tried to talk down the situation, “A place to stay for a month…not a home…”

“Still, it’s a place to stay!” he said. Could the wonder in his tone have been legitimate? Was it possible that a person I was in awe of felt the same about me?

“Who are you? I mean, how many people can say that’s happened to them?”

He kept piling on the special, so I felt obliged to tell him, “I guess I’m blessed.” And then I bowed my head and blushed, like a kid who’d been told that he made Student of the Month. I blushed because I’m not good with being praised for things that I have no control over. And while I tried my best to laugh it all off, I could tell that my friend could see something in me that I couldn’t. He’d identified a light in me that I wasn’t acknowledging and one in which I refused to acknowledge. I hoped, as I sat in his presence that his light would rub off on me as I was still feeling guilty about my home situation, and still numb to what had happened to my cousin months earlier.

After we parted ways, I ended my night with another college friend who lived in Brooklyn. She got me drunk on corner store wine and I ended up drunk, nauseated, and eventually asleep on a bench at Clinton-Washington station (and it was only midnight). Once I realized that I’d been asleep and possible prey for the kitten sized rats that roamed the city nightly, I quickly sobered up enough to figure which direction to go on the train, and then I walked back to my rented room. Day 2 in New York had been an unexpected success.

I’d spent the next two days connecting with friends, since I had nothing else to do, and exploring the city that would soon become my home. While those last two days were basically a blur of buildings, subway travel and oppressive heat, standout moments included reconnecting with a friend who was still reaping the rewards of her Tony nomination, and watching Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday at Bryant park with another friend from college.

IMG_0875Cinema in Bryant Park

My big sis.

My big sis.

(When people come back into your life, it’s definitely for a reason and this friend of mine would prove instrumental in ways I’d never imagined in months to come.) I remember having lunch with two of my former colleagues from undergrad (one a distant cousin who also inspired me in more ways than one by just being an amazing individual). We’d eaten at the bar where there were pictures of The How I met Your Mother Cast, and I told them both the real reason I was in the city to which they left judgment behind and comforted me with friendly words and comfort food.  I also remember getting lost on the subway returning to Brooklyn to stay with another friend as I couldn’t navigate the “J” or the “M.” When I made it to my destination, I vowed to never ever use those lines again.

 

July 18, 2012

On my final day, the levees on the sky seemed to break and there was a terrible thunderstorm which drove me into the movie theater to watch Moonrise Kingdom. That was the last activity I participated in that Thursday before I returned to Port Authority, dragging my small wheelie overhead suitcase, and hopping back on the Greyhound Bus to face my recent past…and pack/prepare for the future.

In four days, I’d accomplished more than I’d planned. And after such a warm, humid, balmy welcome to the city, I felt like, once I made the actual move, I’d accomplish a wealth of things I’d never experienced before…

IMG_0876