My cousin Jenny Christen (@approximately) arrived in New York just three weeks after me; she initially moved for an unpaid design internship to round out her fine arts degree, and nearly backed out, but bought a one-way ticket that would force her to uproot every security in Moorhead, Minnesota: the academic bubble, a new car, a cheap rental home, a boyfriend who loved her. When she landed at LaGuardia late on January 3, 2012, Jenny took her 38-lb. suitcase (“I remember that because I had gone to the airport the night before, nervous that it would be over the 50-lb. limit.”) and gave the cabbie her Brooklyn cross streets. Of all the Craigslist outreach she did to find an apartment in New York, this was the only listing for which she got a reply. All she had seen was one photo with a brief description of the 98-square-foot Prospect Heights room, but at $650/month, it was one of the few affordable options, too. “The photo showed some sunlight coming in,” Jenny says. “It looked so quaint, so I kept going back to it. I followed up over and over, badgering her, and when the woman picked me, she said I seem led like I really needed it.” Jenny grew fearful as the car crept south through each pitch-black neighborhood. She wondered where it would stop, when the driver would deliver her to her new home, her new life, and a lot of uncertainty. For a starry-eyed 23-year-old from Minot, North Dakota, it was terrifying to pass abandoned warehouses, police cars on every fifth corner, and to be dropped on a snowy stoop in what felt like the middle of nowhere. The woman from the emails was there, and let Jenny upstairs to pass off the keys. She left behind two towels and a tiny child’s bed. “My feet hung over the end,” says Jenny, who is all of 5’1″. The room was cold, so Jenny put on her coat, pulled a towel over herself like a blanket, and tried to fall asleep. “I was trying not to freak myself out,” she laughs. “I knew that if things were bad the next day, I could be skeptical, but because she left me a bed and towels, at least I had something for the first night. At least I could start with that.” And hopefully, come morning, a sliver of sunlight, as advertised.
In the morning, Jenny woke and mapped the nearest grocery store. She walked outside, passed row houses and brownstones—okay, Brooklyn, not so bad—and found charm on that gritty January day. A Jamaican man catcalled to her: “Hey, pretty lady, you wanna have some zebra babies?” Okay, Brooklyn, you’re luckily unlike Minnesota or North Dakota, and that was a funny reminder. At the store, she bought a loaf of Wonder Bread and a jar of peanut butter: “That’s what I ate for all three meals for the next week. I had quit my college-student job, and moved with hardly any savings. I had an unpaid internship and put half of my money toward my first month’s rent, so….” She came into Manhattan that night—I was couch surfing in Alphabet City—and we met near my offices in Flatiron for a Thai comfort dinner, to toast to our new life sans Wonder Bread. Jenny described her place, sounding tepid but optimistic, and recounted her night on the child’s bed wrapped in a towel for warmth. I’ve known this darling woman for her entire life, and after our road trip across Canada and down into San Francisco two summers prior—where we spent the season acclimating to life outside Dakota, where I saw her smile wider than I thought she was capable, before she went warily back home to finish college for another 18 months—I worried she might never allow herself that added meandering to New York, that leap of fear and faith and weightlessness. But here she was, with next to nothing in her name, freezing cold, completely broke, and terrified, slurping coconut soup and trying to stay calm but seeming, above all, freed. What a blessing to have my cousin here, sharing this transition. Even better, when I snagged my own Prospect Heights apartment two weeks later, it was, coincidentally, on the opposite corner of the same block (thus making her “Jenny from the block”). Both of our mothers breathed a sigh of relief when they got that news. Jenny helped me pick out shale gray paint for my bedroom walls, and together we blanketed the space in its new color, manifesting a prosperous, hard-earned life.
Jenny’s and my aunt Amy (@amycleonard) graduated from Minot State University in North Dakota in 1986, the year I was born. Armed with a business degree, she has worked in the sourcing side of retail, holding VP and SVP roles at Gap, J. Jill, Levi’s, JCPenney, and Banana Republic, traveling around the world to farms and production factories. To a lot of hard-working people, this probably seems par for the course—move to a big city, land a job with one global name, put in the labor, get promoted—but from my roost in Sioux Falls, and from Jenny’s in Minot, Amy was remarkable. She broke mold. I couldn’t believe she did all of that, given my small scope on things, given that she started as humbly as I. Not to mention, she married a charming photographer, has three brilliant, wisecracking children, two senile wiener dogs, and bought a four-story building in San Francisco’s Russian Hill (with a vacant loft for transient nieces and nephews). She got the worldly version of that small-town ideal. In Sioux Falls, there’s a big advertising campaign called “Stay Close, Go Far” that encourages high school and college students to invest themselves in local industry. Jenny saw this kind of “stay local” propaganda too, especially in Moorhead, MN, where she attended college: “Most people wouldn’t leave the Fargo-Moorhead area,” she says. “Everyone talked about Minneapolis as ‘the big city’ since it was close enough to home, and since there were big enough jobs and industries there. It seems good enough, and safe enough.” Close enough, big enough, good enough, safe enough. I understand that we’re all wired differently, but let’s paint a scene: Amy and Jenny and me, backdropped by the smoggy city skyline, pointing to it, beckoning them to join us. Our jaws are agape that hundreds of our classmates point to the blue-skied suburbs of Minnesota and Dakotas behind them, shrugging like “Why risk it?” Our response, as we turn our backs and walk toward the metropolis, eyes on the skyline, on the dynamics: “Risk what?”
For Jenny and me, Amy was the torchbearer for this idea that maybe our frustrations with the way people accept a fate of…homogeneity, of guilt for leaving their families to start a selfish life, of staying local and letting their opinions go unchallenged and curiosities go starved, of using religion as a crutch for interpreting the nuances of the world, of not experiencing contrast before committing to something like love or vocation or location…maybe those frustrations could be escaped. I think Jenny and I both felt like we didn’t deserve the life Amy gave us when she opened that loft to us. She could have rented it for a few thousand dollars a month; there’s this California-king bed nestled on the landing, ceiling-high windows (the ceiling is two stories high) overlooking the entire San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz, all right off a private backyard nook. When we put our bags down in that room and were told that the city was ours to discover and explore, and that we could bring boys home and have parties and treat this loft like it was privately our own, so get out there and have some fucking fun and make mistakes and be grateful but don’t be so polite about it…it was easy to feel like we weren’t worthy of all that had suddenly been handed to us on our respective occasions. Amy worked at our self-esteem to show us that we were deserving, and that the expectations we had for ourselves could be reset to this new open-minded, aspirational world. Here was a taste, for however long we needed our hands held. And then, like our parents, she expected us to cut ties and work for it ourselves. Because we were still Midwesterners, and always would be.
After a few months in her Prospect Heights apartment, Jenny graduated to the next-biggest room, when one of her three roommates moved out. It allowed her to upgrade to a full-size bed, get a tiny desk, and rediscover the perks of closet storage. A small victory, but one made possible by other successes: having consistent graphic design work, feeling anchored in Brooklyn, loving her roommates who felt like sisters. The small graduation was really an affirmation, a confident settling. We still had to earn our New York stripes, but I got to see my anxious cousin blossom; that nervous girl I greeted in January just a half year before…she was gone. Jenny attributes her peace of mind to the initial paring down she did to first get herself here: “I learned to live with less. Learned to feel lighter. I had so many things I saved, and it was a way of stashing things I didn’t have any feelings for. And so I trimmed the fat. There was nowhere to hide those accumulated things; it was all about owning less, about only having things with purpose, things that you love because you have to consider their worth, and how they fit into the small sanctuary that you are so proud to call your own.” What I love about this mentality is that, while she refers directly to the lack of storage space and frivolous belongings, it also applies to the more conservative lifestyle one must lead to feel calmed: You cannot hide your insecurities behind expensive clothes, overpriced dinners, or monogrammed handbags; anyone who finds interest or intrigue in those things interprets status (or perceived status) as success. Really, you are only successful if you are proud of yourself, if you have to earn something, and if you have to defend it every single day—even if it’s intangible. Most people would look at my or Jenny’s life and find us unremarkable, average. But to each other: potential, actively being realized.
Jenny shares an anecdote about her brown-stoned Prospect Heights street: “A few months ago I was walking by my apartment and there were a bunch of skateboarders. As they passed me, one turned to his buddy and said ‘This is a really nice street.’ They skated away, and his comment made me turn around and really admire it all. I noticed the colors of the trees and the homes, the serenity. It made me realize how far I’ve come in the four years I’ve been here. I was so proud of this place, and of myself. Then my boyfriend told me that the skateboarder’s comment was probably in regards to the actual pavement, since it is quite literally a nice street. It’s very smooth. But, I can appreciate that too….It’s like when you’re in love with someone and it’s been a while since you last felt intensely passionate, then one thing happens that affirms that love, like “THIS is why I’m doing it. THIS is why I love you.” She says this having now graduated to the largest room in the apartment, resultant of anchoring herself, of outlasting her roommates, of taking command of her home and picking her new sisterly housemates, of preserving the sanctuary she has built. And, with the bigger room comes the chance to gather even more thoughtful pieces: a beautiful antique dresser, an armchair, numerous plants, a few rugs, plus a headboard that we found on the curb, which, within two hours, she had repainted and installed to the back of her bed frame, after first sawing off the one it replaced, and entirely by herself. Little 5’1″ Jenny, determined as ever. Remarkable, if you ask me.