My friend Andy, a journalist at CNN, has invited me to his new Upper West Side apartment to celebrate the New Year. I’m expecting well-educated, sophisticated people with important jobs. Some will surely have been to Burning man, a few will be successful startup owners. I dress up accordingly. A black silk dress, red lips, my hair tied up in a bun, a few curls descending onto my neck. I put on some pounds over the holidays, so I’m wearing one of those skin-colored tightening Spanx under my dress. Nobody but you, dear reader, will ever know about them, because they are extremely unattractive, as they press my belly and butt so tightly that I feel like a sausage, or one of those refrigerated meatloaves, but don’t look like such from the outside. No no no… from the outside you’d never know. My black silk dress covers it all up nicely.
As I get ready in front of the mirror, I find myself rehearsing my introduction. “So, what do you do?” is always a question that pops up right away, after you shake hands with someone you haven’t met before. It’s New York. The city runs on “doers”. You are what you do. You must achieve. One must do, do do… da di da do dooo… If a life could only be as light and easy as the lyrics from the Police. But it’s not. NYC is expensive, and what you do defines you. So does where you live. “You are what you do.” “Focus on being, Nora.”, says my mom’s hippie friend. It’s called human being. Not human doing.” Easy for you to say, living in a commune in the middle of nowhere, gardening and organizing drum circles and fertility celebrations for a living. Here in NYC, what you do pays your rent, and without paying rent, I wouldn’t be able to live here. I would probably have to move back in with my mother. Then I’d had plenty of time to talk about drum circles, but it wouldn’t help my film making. Because I am… a film maker. I have made several short films, by working all sorts of tutoring jobs, babysitting and translating from both German and Italian, which are both my native languages.
When I give this array as an answer to what I do I sound like a chaotic mess who hasn’t gotten her life together, and who could never compete with the highly successful people that I am about to meet at Andy’s party. Thoughts on why what we do has to define our self-identity continue to occupy my mind, as I put on my coat and venture out into the cold, to take the bus to Andy’s party.
While I sit in the backseat of the bus and look outside the window, where the sidewalks are covered in icy black snow, I continue my train of thought. As a society we are far too concerned with what people do to pay the bills. Wouldn’t it be a better conversation starter, to hear what people love doing. Some are lucky enough to get paid for what they love, but others aren’t. Others are miserable doing what they do. And being reminded of their misery as a first thing, when meeting someone new, just isn’t fair. Some have never had the luxury or time to figure out their calling. Or maybe they are on their way to getting paid for what they love, but still need to struggle with some side jobs to get there. Others might feel important while saying what they do, because it shows how much money they make, showing off the luxurious apartments they live in, but might secretly hate their job and their lives. I just wonder why it always feels like such a competition. Is this just NYC? Or is it different elsewhere?
When I was a child my mother had this woman live with us. She was a spiritual nomad, no kidding, this is how she called herself. She was practicing non-attachment from money, and hadn’t touched a bill of or a credit card in 6 months. In what she called “A year long experiment, living simply”, she relied on people’s generosity. She was couch surfing her way through Italy, and, believe it or not, she always found a place to stay. People even paid for her food, as if she were some sort of Guru, with some kind of message. An answer to a better way of living. An escape from people’s monotonous and resigned lives. I remember my mother saying that it was good for my sister and I to know people that “live differently”, and that don’t follow societie’s demands. Stay true to their own way of being in the world.
I still had questions. Whenever I would see Diane, I changed her name for anonymity sake, do yoga in our garden under the fig tree, or sit on her little meditation cushion, which she carried everywhere she went, or even serve herself twice, when there wasn’t much food left in the pan for all of us, I did wonder why I had to study so hard, while she seemed fine with the little she had. Diane didn’t have to work at all for the life she was living, while leisurely traveling through Italy. When I asked my mother why I had to finish my exams to graduate high school, when the life Diane was living was also an acceptable option, it was hard for her to convince me to keep studying. “Well, Diane has probably graduated high school too, before deciding that living like a spiritual nomad was the best fit for her. What I want you to have, is a choice. You can always decide to one day live like her. But graduate first.”, she answered. I remember my mother being a little hesitant while talking, unsure whether she believed her answer herself. Maybe she had welcomed this stranger into our household, because she was secretly hoping to be a spiritual nomad herself, but had missed her chance by starting a family instead. Bottom line, my mother giving me the “choice” didn’t help. It only added to the general sense of confusion about the world and my place in it, that overwhelmed me back in the day. Her answer didn’t satisfy me at all. How did it make sense for Diane to study hard and graduate high school, if then all the degrees were useless, because she had decided to just wander around Italy on other people’s expense?
Where I choose to live now, NYC, Diane would have had a hard time finding people who host and feed her, I am sure. In fact, Diane would have ended up homeless. Unless she had done a ted talk, or written a book about her experience, after having the enlightening idea while on an acid trip at Burningman.
In NYC, if one person in the conversation has some important CEO job and you are waiting tables and writing your book on the side, you are the one who feels inadequate. You are the one feeling less important. I am sure I wouldn’t bother spending too much time thinking about this topic, if the conversation saw me as the successful one, the one that has “made it”. If that was the case I would probably be too busy making my next film, giving interviews about it, furnishing my villa in Malibu. I wouldn’t sit here and write about the difficulty of defining myself.
However, I do believe that there is something important for me, for us as a society, to be explored and perhaps even learned here. This is not just about my own difficulty in answering this question. I am beginning to realise, this is about all of us. From a brief answer on what we do, the people listening will make their conclusions. A conclusion about how smart we are, how educated, how much we make, our drive and our contribution to society. Is this the same in every country? In every city? Or is New York an exception. Does a CEO at some important company contribute to society more than Diane?
I look outside. I am two stops away, says my google maps. The bus is driving through uptown Manhattan: Streets lined with gated trees, balconies and fire escapes ala Breakfast at Tiffanies. I can sense the vicinity of Central Park, just by looking outside. It’s the kind of NYC that you know from Woody Allen films: Manicured, clean-er, affluent. Very different from my neighbourhood, where I oftentimes can’t sleep at night because of the loud Puerto Rican music played by the neighbours, or because of the frequent gang fights. On my way home, instead of the calming presence of Central Park nearby, and friendly Doormen only letting you in if announced, I am assaulted by the smell of garbage and the sight of drunk hipsters dressed like Unicorns on their way to a nearby warehouse party.
The Bus stops. I turn on my navigator. I still have to walk another 20 minutes until I reach the party. Maybe, before calling myself a film maker, I should move elsewhere, and come back to NYC when I actually made it, to feel less inadequate. What does “made it” even mean? Made what? Money?
A few days ago, I bumped into my ex. Well not exactly an ex. More like an old fling: Broad shouldered, strong jaw, thick blond hair, a phenomenal salsa dancer and lover. When I first met him and asked him “What do you do?” he says “I work in finance”. There you go. A simple statement of a simple fact. He works in finance and his hobby is salsa dancing. That’s probably how he defines himself on his online dating profile as well. I imagine him sitting in his cubicle, scrolling through his facebook during lunch break, having an imaginary crush with a co-worker, telling his cubicle neighbor about his weekend in the Hamptons at the Coffee machine in the neon lit office lobby, while the brown hot liquid pours down his plastic cup with a buzzing sound. I met him in a bar. He asks me if he can buy me a drink. I have one too many, and we end up at his place. The flirt goes on for a few weeks, until he “ghosts” on me. I continue texting him, and he just doesn’t reply. Great. Fact is, I obsess over him for months. Almost a year, as a matter of fact, since no one has ever ghosted on me before. Destiny wanted me to bump into him, on the subway, the other day. Of course it had to be one of those days, that I decided, out of necessity, to go teach in spite of a terrible cold, so looking my worst, no make up, dirty hair, probably bad breathe. And… now comes the worst part, a backpack filled with toilet paper rolls for my arts and crafts class that I teach at a German preschool in the West Village. I sit on the subway chair, going over my most recent screenplay, as I sense someone hovering above me. I look up, and there he is. Nervous, I grab my screenplay, not wanting him to read it, and stuff it into my backpack, but in doing so the toilet paper rolls fall out. He looks at me, puzzled. I stutter, unsure what to say. “I… I… I collect these for work”, and there comes the question “What do you do with toilet paper rolls, Nora?.” Now he is looking at me from above. I turn all colours of the rainbow. “I…I teach preschool kids… Art Classes. In German.” I stutter. “These… These toilet paper rolls, they will be bumble bees. You see, we paint them black and yellow and then…” A pause. At this point we are both unsure what to say. I had posted wildly about all my film awards on social media, aware of the fact that he would read them and feel a painful twinge of regret. He had let go of a successful film maker, he hadn’t let go of someone carrying toilet paper rolls in her backpack to go teach Arts and Craft classes in a preschool. This was not supposed to be the situation that watches us bump into each other again, after a year of not seeing one other in person. “I thought you were a filmmaker?” he says, aware of his position of superiority. “I am” I reply, “But you know… It’s hard to make a living with that”, I reply, as I notice one more paper towel roll, at the end of the subway cart. I look at it, and it feels like the last piece of my dignity, now far removed from me, abandoned, rolling down the dirty subway floor. I teach a class of 10 pre-schoolers. That one paper roll was important. It was the tenth’s child bumblebee. But now that my ex is hovering above me asking me what I do, I feel awkward rushing over to pick it up from the ground. Now all my hard work making films feels diminished. As if it doesn’t matter, because my old fling has a real job. He knows who he is. He works in finance and talks to his co-worker about his weekends in the Hamptons on Mondays by the coffee machine. He enjoys his weekends a lot and he looks forward to them, while he works hard during the week. His life is so structured, I envy him. His hobby is salsa dancing. I want a hobby too. He is a defined person with a clear beginning and clear end. He probably separates his sport socks from the ones he wears to work. I should clean my drawers. They are a mess. Tons of socks whose twins mysteriously disappeared in the washing machine. I am just a mess with toilet paper rolls in her backpack, who claims to be a filmmaker, wearing spanks because she ate too much during the Holidays.
I think about my encounter with my ex, and feel a rush of anger overwhelm me. “It’s not fair. I think.” I am a film maker. I worked hard to make my films that went on winning awards. I am working on a new one right now. Daily. For hours and hours. Why would I not proudly claim my right to say I am one. Instead of feeling ashamed of my patchwork of day jobs? If only it weren’t for my fear of sounding pretentious. How many” wanna be filmmakers” or “content creators” are out there these days, claiming to be what they are not? And do I have a right to call myself a film maker even if I don’t make money doing it yet?
I have arrived at Andy’s apartment. A red brick house with a balcony overflowing with ivy. I ring the bell.
Andy, always tan from traveling the world reporting, welcomes me with a big hug, and shows me his new apartment: Antique furniture, wooden floors, expensive cheese, books about cousines from all over the world, crackers and a vast array of dips are elegantly arranged on the marble table in the center of the living room. Around it hover his friends. All good looking and successful. I take off my coat, my scarf falls onto the ground, while picking it up I feel my Spanx pressing against my belly. Whatever fancy cheeses and sausages are on that kitchen island, tonight I am not eating. The weight situation has gotten out of control. Instead of eating I will just continue with my experiment, observe what people say they do, wonder who they really are, and how they define themselves and why. This is becoming interesting. Now I no longer care what I will say, when they ask me what I do. Now I just want to study them all, as if this was a social experiment.
Andy tells me about how stressed he is to travel the world all year long. He just got back from reporting about the prison system in Norway. “They give them kale smoothies! Can you believe it?” he exclaims, then he goes on and on about his artsy ex, with whom he broke up because she didn’t know who Snowden was. “I mean I know we all live in a bubble. I love the bubble too. I live in it all day, but then… You gotta leave it and see the world that is out there!”, he goes on, pausing every now and then to let new guests in, or serve himself more wine. “I am just done with artsy girls. They seem more interesting than the more structured, conservative ones, but then… You gotta know who Snoden is! You know what I mean?” A tall skinny woman with an aristocratic nose, wearing ethnic jewelry and a vintage dress comes closer. I had already noticed her from afar. Wondering who she is and admiring her style. Andy turns around, ecstatic to see her. They hug, frozen smiles “Oh my God! I missed you so much!” etc etc… “Nora, you are gonna love Amanda! She is a creative, just like you”. Amanda, as if the cold just froze her facial features into a permanent smile “Really? What do you do?”
“I make films!”, I say, realizing that the answer pretty much slipped my mind without thinking about it too much, while observing her and Andy engage in their excessive and blatantly fake hug. “Fantastic!” she exclaims. “I am a CEO at CNN”, but my husband and I…” She points at a chubby bold man wearing socks with tiny dear printed on them dipping a baby carrot into a plate of hummus “My husband and I run an art gallery in Soho”.
“Oh wonderful”, I reply, “What kind of Art?” “You know, contemporary. But I have been meaning to retire to the English countryside, to write a book… “ She nurses her wine. “What kind of films do you make?”, “Oh, just short films. At the moment am working on raising money for my first feature film”. “Strategy number 1”, I think. “Dive right into what you are doing at the moment. Skip the small talk. Don’t focus on the what, but get the listener engaged in your how”. They don’t care how you pay your rent, if you get them excited about the content of your next screenplay. That will get an interesting conversation going. Not a competition on who is more accomplished. “How exciting! What is it about?” Amanda is interested. “Yes! Now I can tell her about my story. Now we can finally talk about who we really are!” I continue telling her what my film is about, and as we speak I learn that what she does for work, doesn’t interest her at all. She hates her job. She wants to write. In the English Countryside, because that is where her sick mother lives, and she is not sure how long she will live for. She has no time to do what she loves because NYC is so expensive. Later on, after four glasses of wine and a few cocktails, when she mentions her husband with whom she owns the art gallery, she whispers that they are getting a divorce.
I am sorry for her mother and her divorce, of course, but I can’t help but feeling relieved by the pressure I had put myself in, before getting to the party. I walk out to the window, in need of a break from socializing. For a moment, I relax. I hear myself breathing. I turn around and look at the people at the party. I am sure there are more interesting characters to explore. I am sure not all of them are trying hard, while being miserable at what they do, I am sure some are perfectly happy. I am not done with my research, and I don’t want to come to a conclusion quite yet, I just want a moment of quiet. I look outside. I see the snow slowly descending from the sky. I observe their smiles, their mannerisms. I see people with important jobs, but behind that, I see people trying hard to be something they were told was extremely important. I see people weighed down by gigantic expectations about their position and place in the world, their contribution to society, and their overall appearance. I look at Amanda, wonder about her desire to write a book. If she will ever find time for it, and her sick mother in the English Countryside, while her daughter is here at Andy’s party in NYC, working as a CEO at CNN. I look at her soon to be ex husband, sit on the couch talking to another woman. I wonder who got him those ugly socks. I wonder how interesting it would be for someone like Diane to be here right now and interact with all these people. I thank my mother for introducing me to someone like her. I realized that the best way to dive right into what people really love doing, who they really are, is skipping the small talk, looking them straight in the eye. Perhaps observing the gaze in their eyes hardening, when they are confronted with having to present themselves as successful accomplished human beings that function well in the competitive city that is New York, and then that spark taking over, when they actually talk about what moves them. What makes them laugh and what they spend time thinking about. Notice the difference between the two, and navigate the conversation accordingly.
I am introduced to a few more people at the party. At some point Andy offers me some mdma, but I refuse. A few hours go by, and eventually I notice that most people at the party have taken some kind of drug except for me “Come Nora sit on the couch with us. Doesn’t the fur feel amazing!” I hear Andy exclaim, while sprawled over the couch with an idiotic grin, his hands caressing the fur blanket. “Everything is so beautiful. You are so beautiful, Nora.” A 20something year old, wearing tight leather pants sits down on his lap and snorts some cocaine from a small silver tray on the desk in front of them. The party of successful people I was so afraid of has turned into a scene from Boogie Nights. Now I am an outsider for a different reason. I am the only one who hasn’t taken some sort of drug. I hear the bell ring. “It’s my boyfriend!” I have never been happier to see him. I run down the hallway and open to door. He is just getting back from managing the restaurant he works at. It’s 30 minutes to midnight. He is Italian. A trained journalist, but he came to NYC when the economic crisis struck hard in Italy, and there were no jobs there. He started out as a bus boy in the restaurant he now manages. I am proud of him. But it’s not so much what he does for a living that makes me proud, but it’s his empathy. His tendency to always put others first. His humility. When I first met him, and we talked about the pressure of having to be “someone” in New York he mentions his favorite quote: “I say what I think, and I do what I say I will.”
This might be why we are still together.
We leave Andy’s party. Sober. As at this point we no longer have anything in common with the people there. The cheese and meat platter look like a slaughtered battlefield. Empty glasses of wine scattered across the apartment on all surfaces, the floor, tables, cabins and mantles and masses of half naked bodies crawling on the floor, hugging, making out, caressing the “fur” because it feels “so amazing” and everything is “so beautiful”. Suddenly I have a strong desire to pee. “I should have gone at Andy’s party”, I say. “Really?” My boyfriend sighs, frustrated, as we walk down the sidewalk. “Yes, you could have! Indeed. Now where are we gonna find a bathroom?”. I look around. There is no Bar in sight, where I could go release myself. I see a truck parked near the side walk, and run up behind it, crouching down, rolling up my dress. “Are you serious? You will freeze your butt off. Wait, are you wearing Spanx?”
I can’t help but laugh. “Yeah… You know. To fit into that black dress, I needed them.” I finish peeing. “It’s midnight” I hear him say. As I am trying to squeeze myself out of the tight underwear in the cold, I run up to give him a kiss, holding the Spanks in my hands “Happy New Years baby.”We walk home. As we pass a garbage bin, I throw my Spanks in it “They are just too tight. I won’t wear them again”, I say. And we continue walking, hand in hand, in silence, as the snow descends slowly.