Crossing the Border

It’s Not You, Philly, It’s Me

It's not me, it's you. Illustration by Mike Jackson, alrightmike.com

I’m currently in my longest-standing relationship. We’ve been together for over three years. He challenges me in my creative career and my general outlook on life and success. However, I’m in a perpetual state of internal conflict. I find myself trying to curate life to meet his improbable standards.

We’re polyamorous, but I’m committed to him. I’m in love, but I am still not certain that it’s mutual. His partners have a sense of entitlement– not only do we feel like we should be able to be creative in any way we want, but we also think we should profit from it. We’re very adept at pretending to know things that we don’t. We think we’re good without much practice, and we claim to be experts just by calling ourselves so. He lends his partners a sort of undeserved elitist mentality. I represent the millennial generation: young, urban dwelling, wanna-be creative from a small white bread town, pretending to know what I’m doing. The secret is finding a way to make yourself irreplaceable, but the fact is that 99% of us are not. It’s not just about working hard; it’s about doing something different, standing out in a huge crowd of people all vying for the same attention.

But, bottom line, this relationship works for me. I like the challenge and I feel like I’m up for it, even when I’m not.

I had a previous relationship that was conventionally great but for some reason it just didn’t feel right. The attraction diminished, the sex got bland, and every conversation got boring and repetitive after a while. We had so many good times, late nights and laughs, but that faded and I knew I needed something more.

Philadelphia, it’s me, not you. That isn’t a line. I’ll always be impossible to satisfy.

When I first graduated from college, I worked briefly as a bartender in Philly. It was around the art museum and Fairmount park, a nicer area of a city that could benefit from a little revival overall. I had some funny regulars and my friends would come in and I’d over pour all their drinks. It was a reckless and carefree time. I shared a loft-like apartment in North Philadelphia with two other aspiring artists, and many other creative people surfed on our couch. The neighborhood was undesirable for most, but we loved it. It was the first time we really felt like adultswhich we weren’t. There was something liberating about walking to the corner bar and asking for a six pack through metal bars, slipping our collected worn dollar bills through the crack, and waiting outside of a closed door wondering if the anonymous arm would reach back out with our cheap beer. Sure we had sketchy neighbors, but they were our sketchy neighbors. It was gratifying to be rebelliously independent. Even more so because our parents were horrified by our living conditions, reiterating the fact that we were not adults, but just pretending to be. I broke up with Philadelphia for a few months to travel, but when I got back it was waiting for me and I felt compelled to start pursuing my career in a creative field on a more serious level. At the end of the day, I wanted to be drinking a beer at the bar, not standing behind it.

I excitedly took a job at a screen printing shop a little outside the main city in the spring of that year. I was so bright eyed when I came for the interview that the manager hired me on the spot. He didn’t understand why I wanted the job so much, and put me in my place when I called the warehouse a “studio.” Being that printmaking was one of my concentrations in college, I naively felt like I was on the right track. Ultimately I worked in a warehouse mixing inks, doing inventory, burning screens, and helping out on the presses. It was long hours and very little pay with no AC in the summer and no heat in the winter. The work was physically and mentally draining, but it was work that I liked. It was male dominated, and about 80% of the workers had fled here from Cambodia during the war. I couldn’t really relate to how hard their lives must have been. I grew up in an indistinguishable rural town in New Jersey where nothing ever happened. I’d smoke weed with the guys in their van after work, and have heard some pretty violent stories (which I’m afraid to repeat), but I never felt like I was in danger. We’d make fun of the boss just like any other colleagues. I still think about them sometimes and wonder how they are doing. It must be hard to move up in the world with “crip” tattooed on your neck, but that guy was my favorite; he was always respectful.

Eventually there was an opening to be an apparel designer in the office attached to the warehouse. I initially felt proud of the promotion, but I didn’t have to think much so I got bored early on. I remember staring at the clock a lot, convinced that it was broken. I was only there for about 6 months before I was offered a job in publishing in NYC (which I have since left for similar reasons). Philadelphia and I were in a failing relationship and it was mostly liberating for me to leave, but it was still hard to get in my car and drive away blindly from the place where I had my first taste of freedom. I miss Philly sometimes, it was genuine.

New York, being that it is so romanticized, felt like the right step for me as someone who is endlessly looking for the next best thing. I fell in love with him almost immediately, but I’ve worked tirelessly to gain a minuscule level of acceptance and success here as a creative professional. My story is all too common. The other morning I woke up hungover next to one of NYC’s other partners; this happens to me more than I’d care to admit. There was a picture in his room of him smiling a few years back. “I used to be so much more hopeful” he mumbled in a melancholy tone.

NYC can be manipulative, but it helps knowing I’m far from alone. I work as a designer in social media marketing now, a trendy profession that didn’t even exist a few years ago. I’m not particularly fulfilled, but I have to remain hopeful that it’s putting me on a good trajectory for whatever comes next. I’d like to be able to support myself by giving back someday, contributing to something that actually matters, likely not in NYC.

One thing I have definitely learned is that whether NYC is better than anywhere else is purely subjective, and the definition of success is so variable. It’s imperative that you keep your head up. The most conventionally “successful” people here jump off of the tallest buildings. NYC can certainly give you life, but he can also take away everything if you let him.

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