We were five or six when my childhood friend Jo and I decided we’d like to be shopkeepers. After school our mothers would take turns bringing us home to play til late afternoon, and we’d scour our houses for items to “sell”: baby clothes, plastic dolls with missing limbs, yellowed greeting cards, items pilfered from our parents’ desks: paper clips and notepads, heavy metal staplers.
We’d assemble our wares, name our prices, negotiate with each other over the value of things broken and old. Then whoever was the shopper would “buy” something (usually with pennies or pastel-colored Monopoly bills) and take it “home” (usually to the other side of the room).
This never got old. We restocked, renegotiated, repurchased, and rejoiced until one of our mothers arrived and it was time to leave. Then we’d go home and eat dinner with our families, take baths and go to bed feeling rich with our things.
The first year I lived in New York, I experimented with a number of different careers: I nannied. I wrote synopses for short travel films. I farmed. I made mood boards and sorted buttons at a fashion studio.
Eventually, by way of many twists and turns — and a very gradual replacement of babysitting hours with freelance work — I became a writer. I’d majored in writing in college. It made sense, I thought, that I was crafting some sort of career from it.
Years later, I sometimes wonder whether I could have chosen something a little more stable — or whether I’ll ever reach a point in my work that feels stable at all.
It’s a challenge: I love writing — and I choose to do it because it enriches my life in ways that I feel are important — but writers have a notoriously difficult time making a living. I was raised to believe that money doesn’t matter but I live in a city that requires a lot of it.
As I approach thirty I’ve wondered: at what point does money become important, and at what point do you make changes to your plans because of it? What does it means to me, personally, to be successful, and in what context does the word “rich” matter?
The other day, a friend referred to the city as “rich” because so many of the people she feels closest to live here. Growing up, my parents always told my brother and me that though we weren’t affluent in a financial sense, we were rich in the ways that were most meaningful.
I like that. And I like this, from John Waters, also: “My idea of rich is that you can buy every book you ever want without looking at the price and you’re never around assholes. That’s the two things to really fight for in life.”
When Lily, Jamie, and I moved into our Williamsburg apartment last summer, we lived without furniture for three months. The space was in exactly the location we wanted, with exactly the number of bedrooms we needed. It was full of windows and white light; its rooftop, though littered with trash, faced the river and the city skyline.
It was perfect — but much, much more expensive than we’d planned for — so we went without a couch, or chairs, or a real dining table all summer and fall. (Part of winter, too.)
We sat on pillows on the floor instead. Somehow, the thrill of living with best friends — the fact that we could have breakfast together every day and go home together at night — made it okay.
A year later, we have the basics at least, and our apartment has become — like all New York apartments —a physical representation of the time we’ve spent in this city, with photographs, samples of our friends’ artwork, books we’ve picked up from stoop sales, kitchenware we’ve inherited from our families.
Things look different but in most ways they feel the same.
Our space is full now, but of course, it always was.