When I moved to Chicago for college, I had my first sight of the certain pristine calm that seemed to lay just behind the windows of high-end retail stores on Michigan Avenue. It is the same calm that I now see behind the windows of Madison Avenue shops on the Upper East Side, where I live in New York—though my own rented room is several blocks east of such places and has about it a cluttered, distraught feeling to it, which is about as far from pristine calm as one can get. Living in Chicago, I would walk past such stores on my way to class or to the dentist or just to pass the time on a Sunday afternoon. Everything about them was sparse in a way that made a person like me, who grew up understanding a different sentiment of the word “sparse,” see such intentional sparseness as a luxury. Everything was clean and the shops were quiet. If silence is indeed golden, then these places were plated in it and they sparkled.
When I left rural Wisconsin for Chicago, I was not looking to find beautiful things—at least not material ones. I was looking for happiness. I was looking to get away from certain things that had happened to me and I was hoping to avoid what I saw as the unhappy fate of my female relatives. In pictures I had seen of the university I would attend, right along Lake Michigan, were cobbled stoned paths and concrete walls and in the beauty of it all I thought there would be happiness. I thought that a place that looked practically foreign from where I was from would have everything I had never experienced at home—and by everything, all I really meant was happiness. The trouble is that I had little to no idea of what happiness really meant or what it looked like.
Where I am from, rural Wisconsin, is not beautiful the way Chicago along the lake is beautiful with fine brownstones just a block from waves that regularly reflect a smog-pink sunset. Where I am from is not beautiful the way the mannequins and fine goods in the shop windows on Michigan or Madison Avenue are beautiful. Where I am from is rundown and frazzled. Where I am from has always felt inherently dirty to me. People in line at the gas station look unkempt even in the mornings when they may well be fresh from the shower. Children always seem to be catching colds and coughing in the check-out lines at Wal-Mart and men always smell of sweat and cheap aftershave –what my father called his “smell’ums.” And most of the year, the evening air is ripe with the smell of sun baked cow manure.
At first, in Chicago, I would walk past those pristine shop windows the way I walked through the art museums I had visited in London—like a tourist content to gaze for a moment into someone else’s life, interested in the idea of how someone else lived but with no desire to change places. But I was not a tourist. I lived there. I lived right among those shops and brownstones in Chicago, just as I now do in New York. I was living my real life in a world that felt like a museum at best—a delusion, at worst.
My life didn’t feel like mine. But it was also all I had. I was receiving a good education on loan from the federal government. And soon I had been befriended by a classmate who looked like she had walked right out of one of those store windows and had just happened to a take a seat in the empty desk next to me in our creative writing class. The first thing she taught me was how to drink wine. Then, after a bottle of Pinot Noir, she leaned towards me and took the strand of imitation pearls my mother had lent me between her fingers and said, “I know they’re fake because I can see the scratch. If I wasn’t your friend I wouldn’t be nice about it.” I looked down. As a very young girl, I had always admired the necklace when it has hung in my mother’s jewelry box. My friend proudly showed me her jewelry collection, displaying real pearls and pretty little things in Tiffany’s blue boxes. Holding up one piece she noted that it had been given to her by a much older business man whom she had dated while she had been in boarding school. She said he used to take her to dinner and order extra strong vodka tonics so she could share them with him when the waiter wasn’t looking.
She taught me how to act like the mannequins in the store windows. She gave me a pair of her grandmother’s pearl earrings. She taught me how to talk to older men in bars—because they’ll always pay. And I found new, clothes –classic sweaters and fine leather purses that I purchased on sale at local boutiques that the just beginning economic recession was forcing out of business. My boyfriend gave me a necklace from Tiffany’s. One Christmas, while I was home from college, I asked my mother for the box of vintage jewelry we had inherited from long dead relatives which we had never had any use for and had instead used to decorate our Christmas tree. I wore our 1920’s costume jewelry Christmas ornaments on my ears when I returned to Chicago.
These things did not make me happy. In Chicago, I was happiest leaving my apartment to walk alone along the lake, from where I could view the downtown skyline from a distance.
I spent the summer before I moved to New York, at home in rural Wisconsin. For three months I never took my jewelry out of the suitcase I had packed it away in and I never wore the clothes my friend had taught me to wear. I wore a single pair of sandals and a couple loose fitting dresses and shirts because that was what was appropriate for a place where the sidewalk was cracked and sometimes just gravel and dirt. I walked barefoot on the hot cement at night with my mother, being careful not to step on the glass of broken beer bottles. I stayed cool by forgoing a bra and sitting under a ceiling fan while drinking a can of Pepsi, my hair still wet and uncombed from the shower. Of course, I was bored. I could never have stayed there. But the souvenirs I had collected from my tour of someone else’s life (My life? My friend’s life? The mannequin’s life?) just didn’t call to me in quite the same way by the time I unpacked them when I reached New York.
One thing I have noticed about Chicago in comparison to New York, is that Chicago feels possible. In fact, for me it made dreams—anything, really—feel attainable. Chicago is an aspirational, hardworking American’s city. It is beautiful by the lake and as glimpsed through Michigan Avenue store windows. But it is also real. I never felt uncomfortable riding the “L,” jammed between a homeless person and someone carrying a Prada purse. Both kinds of people exist in Chicago, but so does the social median—the middle class. And no one, regardless of their class status, seems to be telling themselves fictitious tales about how they are great and how their whole life is going to be great because they are in the greatest city on earth. Such tales are, of course, the staple of every New Yorker’s diet. I may be guilty of romanticizing Chicago when I say that people there seem more apt to believe in the quality of their lives, not the mythical quality of where they live, but romanticizing New York is a far greater crime.
People who move to New York, myself included once upon a time, seem to believe that just by being here, something wonderful will happen to them—they will get their dream job, fame, fortune, prestige, a certain kind of membership card that guarantees them admittance through the doors of all pristine, calm beautiful establishments. That is not the case. When I moved here, I was told repeatedly, “New York is all about who you know.” I knew no one. I moved here with two suitcases and an address of a place where I would be sharing a room with two other graduate students. And for the most part I met people like me, people who knew no one. Or else I met people who did know someone, but who were so far out of touch with the reality that those of us not from New York—or any East Coast city that is just a commuter train away—know too well to be any help.
True, a lot of great things have happened to me in New York. I’ve fallen in love once or twice. I’ve made a good friend or two. I’ve gotten my MFA. I’ve also worked several mediocre jobs—each posing as something more aspirational. I’ve felt let down by the city as I fell on my face, stumbling over myself as I tried to keep up, to make it, to---To be happy? And I do credit those horrible jobs as teaching me the price of things I deem worth having. And the thing is that I don’t think what I get out of New York it worth it.
I am not the mannequin from those fine store windows. My life is not pristine. In New York, I am tired and frazzled and largely unhappy. Sometimes I feel more like those sweaty, dirty people in the gas station line of my hometown, than I do like the people around me in New York. And often, I forget that what I set out from that small town in search of was not something else that would make me feel ugly and wrong and hopeless. I was looking for happiness. And I don’t think it’s here.
I hate New York. I hate working all day in an office cubicle from which I can’t even glimpse the outdoors. And I hate that when I run outside to grab lunch everything is haphazard and dirty—except for the finely pressed suits of the men who stand in line beside me to buy overpriced salads. I hate how people say New York has great bars and restaurants to offer, as if that’s a reason to live somewhere. The truth is, the only reason I like going out is that I don’t like being in my tiny rented room. And I don’t like feeling bored on a Sunday and therefore feeling compelled to drag myself to The Metropolitan museum for yet another time because it’s there, so I figure I should. I don’t like the fact that I am going into my seventh year of feeling like a tourist in a life that doesn’t feel like mine but is still all I have. I don’t want my life to be fake pearls. But I also want it to be completely okay to wear fake pearls.