By Danielle Moehrke
"I have a NY apartment that smells like freshly baked bread for no apparent reason and a cool job that starts tomorrow and a sunny eastern-facing window and $1.75 empanadas right around the corner."
These were the half-truths I told myself on July 29, 2013, my first day in New York City.
I did have a new NYC apartment that smelled like freshly baked bread. But mostly it smelled like car exhaust, cigarette smoke or mangú, depending on the day and how wide the windows were open.
I did have a cool job with an awesome nonprofit that seduced me from my Midwestern home and planted me in Manhattan to teach high school algebra and geometry. But this job had thrown me, a white 22-year-old only-English-speaker, into an unfamiliar working-class neighborhood of Spanish-speaking Dominican families.
I did have a sunny eastern-facing window that brought me lots of natural light. But, it heated my non-air-conditioned room oppressively in the mornings, only looked out over the 207th Street Little Caesars and that liquor store with the bulletproof glass, and sat above that terrible, terrible bar that blared bachata into the wee hours of Monday mornings.
I did have $1.75 empanadas right around the corner. But these are all I could reasonably afford on my AmeriCorps stipend until I received my food stamps. These empanadas were the first food item I had managed to successfully ingest into my churning stomach on my first day in that city.
What I didn’t have was any clue what to do after I took this picture.
“I told myself I just needed to eat better/start running again/put myself out there/keep myself busy/get away from the city periodically. … But still I felt like I had gunpowder coursing through my veins.”
My dad had just hopped the next plane back to Chicago. My new roommates and new mattress hadn’t arrived yet. We had no real furniture, except my unassembled dresser from Target. I laid down on my bed-shaped pile of bedding on the floor and tried to kick the dizziness I felt from the heat or the anxiety or the sudden crippling loneliness or just my body fighting to expel the last of the mono virus that had so kindly graced my final quarter at Northwestern.
In my job application frenzy in the middle of senior year, I had applied to a teaching fellowship with a young educational nonprofit called Blue Engine. Moving to New York was never on my radar until I was given an interview and wooed by the organization’s mission, passion, and emphasis on personal and professional growth. I told myself that Chicago is the easy option. It was time to move a little further from home. I knew a few acquaintances moving there, so I would be fine. It’s New York — the place to be for twenty-somethings looking for adventure.
In my first couple months of adulthood, New York hit me hard and fast: the mice, the unknown fudge-colored sludge dripping from my bathroom light fixture, the endless unsuccessful trips to the food stamps office, the crowded isolation, the train delays at 3 a.m., the stress of working with high schoolers who would sometimes say things in Spanish they knew I didn’t understand. I went home each afternoon to spend even more hours grading and tracking student performance. I ached for community, for family, for Lake Michigan and for that feeling that I was doing a good job at something, at anything.
I felt myself slipping away as the panic attacks intensified, gripping me almost daily in school, in the grocery store, on the train, in my apartment. I told myself I just needed to eat better/start running again/put myself out there/keep myself busy/get away from the city periodically. So I ran up and down hills. I cooked healthy food and ate leftovers for lunch. I escaped to my friend’s family home in the Connecticut suburbs to breathe fresh fall air and drink coffee on their wooded front porch. But still I felt like I had gunpowder coursing through my veins.
“I grabbed my suitcase, inhaled the smell of freshly baked bread and walked out of my apartment with a one-way plane ticket. Chicago was not the easy option — it was where I actually wanted to be.”
I became a crier. I found many places for this new hobby: my bedroom, the 1 train, the A train, the R train, the bathroom in the teacher’s lounge, the Fordham Metro-North station, the Chappaqua Metro-North station, any sidewalk, and that Starbucks by Union Square. Everywhere else I smiled and I taught. When my mom came to visit and I felt dizzy and weak as we walked around Central Park, I told her that I had a long week and just needed some rest. At the end of October, I imploded in a panic attack that left me in my bed for days, feeling short of breath. I called my mom and let my internal world spill out through shakes and sobs.
“I knew something was wrong when I visited,” she told me. “I was hoping that you wouldn’t have this anxiety the way that Grandma and I have it. You know it runs in our family… the Mueller family curse. This is completely understandable. This is not your fault. You need to focus on getting better. Take some days off, go to the doctor, ask for a short-term Xanax prescription and if they can refer you to anyone. You’ll be okay. Always remember that you can come home at any time.”
I spent an hour on the phone with my mom, called my boss to ask for the next day off, scheduled a doctor’s appointment, got some pills and stopped pretending I could handle this alone. Over the next days, weeks and months I started to regain footing, to hit a new equilibrium and enjoy New York, a little. I stayed.
My apartment didn’t ever quite feel like home, but I did enjoy moments in NYC: people watching while eating a shameful amount of Belgian french fries on a bench at 2 a.m., drinking beer on a rooftop in the East Village, quietly walking through Inwood Hill Park in the snow, sharing large picnics in Central Park, and eating lots and lots of bagels. I learned how to teach math, but more importantly how to motivate students to be agents in their own learning. I learned how to be “Danielle” and not just “Ms. Moehrke.” I got bed bugs and only cried about it twice. I learned how to deal with emotion constructively, and I spent a lot of time reflecting on the power of place and my own conception of home.
My fellowship ended smoothly. I woke up in my NYC apartment as the sun came through my eastern-facing window. I grabbed my suitcase, inhaled the smell of freshly baked bread and walked out of my apartment with a one-way plane ticket.
Chicago was not the easy option — it was where I actually wanted to be. That was the full truth I happily told myself on June 27, 2014, my last day in New York City.
Danielle Moehrke works at an educational nonprofit and spends a lot of her time riding public transportation with middle schoolers. She happily lives in Chicago.