Just about eleven years and seven months ago my mom, my dad, all my belongings and I were sitting in gridlock for an hour on the George Washington Bridge. We were on our way to my freshman orientation at Columbia University and I had no idea what the next decade had in store for me. My head was full of ideas about what New York would be like and who I would become in this big, shiny, new context. I wanted to be fancy. I wanted to be special. I still remember sifting through my huge wardrobe that I had spent all my summer-job-money on (performing in shows at Six Flags!) and picking out only the coolest most high-end clothing so that I’d fit in and impress my peers in NYC: Bebe, Nordstrom, Abercrombie, Arden B. I thought I was hot shit with the outfits to prove it.
At first it was hard. Real hard. All of a sudden I realized how little I knew and how little I had, in comparison to my new sea of peers. I still remember seeing a classmate with a Chanel purse for the first time and when I learned that a “banker” was someone other than the lady on the other side of the tube at the drive through ATM. I remember when someone told me doing cocaine was “so high school” and another that their family name was printed on all the household products I’d been using since childhood. Who were these blessed, gilded creatures? How could I ever keep up? I’ll admit it. I was SUPER jealous. Envious. Covetous. Grasping. All of those bad non-yogic things. For a period of time - precisely my first two years of college - I thought I’d never last. I seriously contemplated transferring to a school in Maryland or Tennessee or anywhere where I wasn’t such a small freaking fish. Not even a fish. I was chum. Seaweed. A grain of sand.
I can’t speak for everyone, but the great majority of us transplants come to NYC because we have something to prove - conscious or unconscious - to ourselves and others. Since I didn’t throw in the towel, I realized I just had to do the opposite. Sure, my parents paid my tuition (blessed!) but if I wanted to keep up with the “fast crowd” (and I did) I had to hustle. I always had a job, an internship, a full course load and an even fuller social calendar. I was ashamed by my Express brand jeans so I bought Sevens and Citizens of Humanity. I was determined to reclaim my status at the top of the social totem pole and pretty soon I wasn’t keeping up with any crowd- I was leading it. Even before I started working in nightlife I became something of a “cruise director” for my circle of friends. I managed to score a job as a personal assistant to a very, very wealthy (and slightly terrifying) woman who gave me hand-me-down Chanel and paid me in enough cash that I could afford to brunch at Pastis and dance with the Olsen twins at Bungalow 8. I had a sick sense of pride in myself for appearing rich enough to fit in while inside I still felt worthless. Not good enough. Never enough.
Once I graduated, I had probably about as glamourous seeming (seeming being the operative word and operative being an understatement) job you could possibly get. Waiting in line to get in a club? Ppshh! That’s for pedestrians. That’s for loser transplant kids from Maryland with crappy clothes and boring jobs. I not only party with celebrities, they’re also my clients. And it wasn’t all partying and celebrities- I worked my ass off! For the first five years of my career I still dressed up as a Disney princess to entertain at wealthy Manhattan kids’ birthday parties every Sunday morning and babysat for more wealthy kids every Saturday night. Even before I had money of my own, I was surrounded by money. People with it and people who spent it. Expensive parties. Expensive apartment. Expensive bottles of champagne. Money. Money. Money.
And then slowly, as I got closer to my original “goal,” my mindset started to shift. I stopped buying expensive clothing with labels that my peers would recognize. I stopped taking cabs. I stopped eating out. I started to hear my mom’s voice in my head when I’d go online shopping: “Abercrombie jeans for $70?? That’s RIDICULOUS and a waste of money. There are just fine jeans for $30 at Marshall’s.” I started to talk to my Dad about working, and money, and saving. All these values they had tried to impart to me as a status obsessed teenager started to surface. I began to pride myself on my frugality and often ran parties for clients like Beyonce and Marc Jacobs wearing outfits from Target- and feeling pretty damn good about it too. Those Louboutins I “splurged” on (which were at a SAMPLE sale so like half price but still obscenely expensive)? I sold em on Ebay and made a profit! Ha! Once I was throwing a party for Marchesa and someone asked me if the $49.99 dress I was wearing was from their current line? I wanted to laugh in their face and tell them, “no, actually I’m a Maxxinista and anyone who spends $3,000 on a dress to wear to WORK is an idiot,” but I just laughed and said thanks but no. I wasn't particularly into fashion...so did I ever really ever want these things for their tangible value (beautiful fabrics & leather, high design value, quality cut and fit) or was I just trying to be someone I'm not to fit in?
Simultaneously, my own income started to rise. I cut out the side jobs but kept saving. Pretty soon I had a nice lump of money in my bank account and a steady stream of money coming in on a weekly basis. Ironic right? Once I no longer wanted to spend like an idiot I finally had the resources to do so. I realized I had “made it” when buying an international plane ticket or paying $5,000 in cash for Lasik surgery didn’t make me flinch. Now by Manhattan standards I wasn’t rich, but I never felt like I couldn’t buy something when I needed it. It felt good. The college-me would have been VERY proud of myself at this point. Now what?
“Now what” is a huge question. Next in line for me in terms of financial success would be perhaps moving into a nicer apartment or buying an apartment or getting a share in a place in the Hamptons or something along those lines. Isn’t that what people who do what I do and earn what I earn do? Isn’t that what I had been busting my ass all these years for? To be successful or in other words to have money and then to buy things with said money. But what I had learned through my years as a saver - working and scrimping and saving to “make it” and prove myself and succeed in some narrow definition of the term - was that buying things didn’t actually make me happy. Sure, I liked not eating $1 bags of frozen broccoli for dinner like I did when I first graduated and was living in Harlem (oh, and I REALLY liked not living in Harlem) but beyond that... did I really want to keep working and striving and amassing more money? Could that really be what I do for the next 30...40...50 years until retirement? I knew it could not.
I know for some people with expensive taste, making money is a means to an end and I don’t condemn that at all. If you love cashmere or caviar or fast cars or big TVs or gambling or Blue Label or Gucci bags you gotta make money to have those things. A lot of money. Me? I like my dog. I like doing yoga and wearing yoga clothes. I like to cook my own food and drink boxed wine. No seriously, I actually do. I like being in warm weather. I like waking up early and going to bed early and going for walks and reading books and laughing with friends. Expensive spas, hotels, Cristal, and private planes? I’ve actually had the amazing and unbelievable privilege of experiencing all of those things many times for many years. Who wouldn’t want those things, all the time, forever, if they could have them right? Had I chosen to stay in my initially chosen line of work- I could have. What I learned about these luxuries though is that they’re great, but they’re not for me. I wouldn’t spend my own money on them even if I could. So why shouldn’t my life, and what I do with my life, reflect what I actually want (puppies and more puppies and only wearing flip flops every day forever!!!!!) rather than someone else’s definition of “success” and what I SHOULD want to own?
I’m not saying that everyone that lives in NYC is desperately materialistic or status conscious. I’m just saying that those in NYC who ARE that way do it the best and with the most style. This was a problem in my own character that needed to be worked through. Some part of me needed to prove to myself that I could do it too and for a little while, I did. Now that I’ve done it, I don’t need to prove nothin’ to nobody including myself. If I hadn’t gotten my fill of Manhattan “Sex and the City” fantasy life, I bet I might always wonder...I might always be tempted to keep up with the Joneses, or whoever was rockin’ the fly gear and pushin’ the pimp ride wherever else it was I chose to live. I might be an old lady with a Louis purse under my arm, a big old Lexus SUV and an even bigger feeling of inadequacy.
If there’s one lesson that my dozen years in NYC taught me it’s that things don’t make me happy. Even really beautiful, fancy, exclusive, expensive amazing things. I no longer covet the celebrity lifestyle or the socialite wardrobe. I don’t need an impressive address or an intimidating handbag or a flashy car or even a purebred dog. Some people are born knowing that. Or listen to their parents who tell them not to be covetous and materialistic and status conscious.
Me, I had to learn it for myself and I’m so happy that I now know that for sure.