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The West Side Spirit

Goodbye to New York
And to a Secret Payroll, Too

By Tracy L. Ziemer
July 7, 2005

Manhattan sometimes feels like a trendy nightclub – alluring yet tough to get into. But once you get past the velvet rope, it doesn't mean you can afford the drinks or will enjoy hobnobbing with model types wearing Prada shoes and Seven jeans. And soon you realize your clothes don't fit right and it's too loud and you just want to go home.

That has been my New York experience and why I'm leaving after seven years to return to the Midwest.

I have many reasons for finally moving: To be closer to family, to save money. Also, the New York I fell in love with isn't quite the same city. There are too many luxury apartments, too many chain stores, too many yuppies on Avenue B.

But one of the biggest reasons for leaving is because it was in New York that one of life's greatest mysteries for me unraveled: The parental payroll.

I never knew this system of sustenance existed when growing up in a working-class community in Wisconsin. I, incredibly, thought everyone took out loans for college and paid for things like rent and plane tickets and clothes and moving vans.

I had no idea that some parents not only paid for their kids' educations, but even picked up their $2,500 monthly rental tabs, gave them tens of thousands of dollars for down payments, or bought million-dollar loft apartments outright.

I realize that when committing to a city of $11 movies, $12 martinis, and 250-square foot apartments demanding four-figure rents, financial prosperity will be a tough thing. That is, if you're saddled with pesky expenses like $500 monthly student loan payments, like me.

My life in Manhattan has involved a lot of creative bookkeeping and $2 falafel. And for awhile, that was OK. In exchange for enjoying the tremendous cultural riches and diversity New York offers, I've flirted with scurvy from eating boiled lentils twice a day until a freelance check finally came in. I've held no fewer than five jobs at once. And I've lived with a 68-year-old man because the rent was right and the Hudson River view amazing.

There's something not only interesting but even tantalizing about this kind of life. What better way to spend your 20s than "roughing it" in one of the world's most energizing cities with like-minded people who also want to write for the New Yorker and wear pointy shoes to cocktail parties?

Of course, this gets a bit more difficult in your 30s. I was 32 when I realized how tired I was from working a full-time job at a lackluster magazine and freelancing an additional 25 hours a week. I was fatigued from having nine roommates in five years. Mostly, I was weary from taking the subway home from wherever I was at whatever hour of night because cabs were too expensive.

And yet many of my New York friends and colleagues didn't seem to be quite as tired, I noticed. They still had energy after work to go to crowded and dimly lit bars for happy hours with gelled-hair bankers and top-shelf gin. They talked about fabulous parties and shows they'd gone to and their Hamptons summer shares. They'd think nothing of dropping $240 on a pair of jeans at Barney's.

I remember sharing this startling social secret with my mother, who'd grown up on a farm in northern Wisconsin with nine siblings. She's a no-nonsense woman who believes if you want to make more money and a raise isn't imminent, you should take on another job.

"Mom, did you know my roommate's parents pay her credit card bills for her?"

"Well, don't look to me and your father for that. That's just crazy."

My parents made it very clear that there'd be no free rides in their house. We could either go to college, which we'd have to pay for, and live at home for free, or we could continue to live at home but pay rent. This plan was very soberly outlined to us at age 17, and the choice was ours when we hit that financial fork in the road. Such is life for the daughter of a Teamster, not a Time Inc. bigwig.

I later came to New York to get my Master's degree. But I hadn't known that while my grad school friends and I all toiled at low-paying jobs after school and soaked up Manhattan life on $28,000 a year, they weren't also using plastic to pay for groceries just to keep up with student loans. I took a second job at Barnes & Noble just to make ends meet and bitterly noted that after studying literature and journalism, I was selling it for 7 bucks an hour.

I continued with thankless journalism jobs but soon needed two hands to count the number of friends who quit jobs they didn't like with nothing else lined up because their parents would "help out." Some friends went years without working a steady job, instead writing screenplays or figuring out a life plan. I admired them and truly wished them well – everyone should be able to pursue his or her dream. But when, I wondered, could I?

After years of writing rent checks with commas on them and living among friends who haven't felt the same financial pressures, I've slowly begun to resent New York. At one time I'd believed that corny song and its famous adage that making it here meant you could make it anywhere. What I hadn't known, however, was that no matter where you went to school or how strategic your career steps were, a playing field littered with peers whose lifestyles were subsidized by their parents wasn't level at all.

I learned, regrettably, that living in New York can be a lonely and frustrating experience, like being a broke, lost castaway on an island of privilege.

There are few other places in the world where your income and education level will always be topped, where your contributions can feel completely inconsequential, where you can love your friends and resent their luxuries so much, where working hard sometimes just isn't enough to get ahead.

And so I must bid adieu to this colorful, chaotic city. It feels too crowded, I've run out of money, and the bouncer is looking my way indicating it's time to go home.

Copyright 2005 Manhattan Media

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