It was 12 hours before my flight when the first panic attack kicked into high gear. We'd been packing the whole day before. Strewn around the living room was everything that I held near and dear and two large suitcases. My mother and I were somehow able to cram every thing that I would need to move cross country inside of these monsters. And with every tick of the clock it was getting closer and closer to my departure.
As a graduation gift from college one of my aunts had given me a buddy pass for Southwest Airlines, meaning I could fly standby for free. Given that I had no money this was quite literally my ticket out of Arizona. For weeks I had woken up at least once a night hyperventilating at the knowledge that I was about to change my life forever. I don't know whether it was excitement or terror, but either way it was getting harder to breathe.
My cousin had a life long friend who had just moved into his step mothers rent controlled apartment in the Bronx. It was a two bedroom, and as a great kindness to both of us he had offered to let me use the second room rent free for the first month and $500 a month after that (for those of us that know what rent is like here this was a friggin steal). I'd met Leroy a few times in the past and this was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I let him know that I'd be there on September 17th, put my name on the stand by list, and immediately had a panic attack.
Growing up I had always been incredibly brave. I was always on stage, never afraid to speak my mind, and loved trying new things and meeting new people. I wore my heart on my sleeve and was incredibly open to everyone and everything. Somewhere along the way I lost a lot of that bravery. There were still moments where I was true to it, like when I studied abroad. But the execution of doing so was a thousand times more painful that it once was.
"I don't think I can do this... maybe I can go next month" I said to my parents on the way to the airport. I had said my goodbyes to everyone, given last hugs, and was on my way to a Newark bound flight. It wasn't too late to change my mind right? JK LOL guys, I'm backkkkk. I knew better though. It was as if there were a current inside of me pushing me forward whether I wanted to keep moving or not. We checked my two million pound suitcases and my mother got permission to come to the gate with me. I'd never flown standby before and was nervous enough as it was, so she came to wait with me and see me off.
As the final boarding was called I waited for them to call my name. All the while hugging my mother and crying, not knowing when I would see her again.
"Final call for flight 382 to Newark Airport"
This was it. Minutes passed and they still hadn't called my name. Nerves were starting to well up inside of me, something was wrong. We went to the counter and asked how much longer. The less than friendly gate attendant decided that now was the time to tell us that it was actually a full flight and they gave the one available seat to a flight attendant who happened to be in the airport.
"But everything I own is on that airplane... Is it too late to get my suitcases?"
"Mam your bags are going to Newark whether you're on that plane or not."
"Ok, well when's the next flight to Newark?"
"Tomorrow, same time."
The simple solution would have been to go back home and try again tomorrow, but there was no guarantee even then that I would be able to get on that flight. And whether I liked it or not every single possession of mine was now on it's way to New Jersey. (which is not a place that you want to leave your things unattended... Sorry NJ. NYC for life <3) After several more minutes of going back and forth with the desk attended she informed us that there was a flight with seats open headed to Philadelphia and from there I would be able to catch a train to Newark, and subsequently get to my new home in the Bronx. It was now or never, so we raced to the other side of the airport hoping it wasn't to late.
It turned out that there was a woman and her young daughter who were in the same dilemma. They were on their way to visit family in the city and had also been bumped off the flight and were taking the flight to Philly. This mother assured my own that we'd all go together and she'd keep an eye on me and make sure I didn't get lost. I'm actually a pretty directionally savvy person so I wasn't concerned about being able to find my way. I was however extremely grateful for the company.
One flight later and we landed in Philadelphia, the birth place of our nation, and we began to make our way to the trains. Now keep in mind that I moved to New York with $679 total and had no job leads so I was pinching pennies like no one you've ever met. My airline ticket may have been free, but the three trains it took me to get to Newark airport were not... There was a train from the airport to the actual train station, then we had to transfer to the New Jersey Transit, then to a shuttle that actually takes you to Newark Airport. It took nearly 12 hours of travel and about $50 (1/7 of all the money I had in the world) in train tickets before I was finally reunited with all of my possessions.
Given that it was now nearly midnight and I was alone with everything I owned in a foreign city my dad offered to pay for me to take a cab the final leg of the journey up to the Bronx. I parted ways with the woman and her daughter and called my very first Uber.
I was tired, disoriented, and didn't really know where I was. I notified Leroy that I was on my way, and leaned back in the Lincoln Continental ready to sit still for a while and hoped the drive would be quick. It didn't take long before I could begin to see the makings of the skyline. My heart rate began to accelerate, there it was! The Empire State Building (or as I like to call him, Empy), the One World Trade Center, The Chrysler Building. These monuments of architecture that had been occupying my thoughts and dreams for years were finally in front of me. All of the nerves from the days journey melted away as my heart swelled with joy and excitement. Against all odds I was here, I had been true to that brave girl I once was and had begun this new chapter.
Nearly one hour later we pulled up to the apartment building. I called Leroy to let him know I was downstairs and began collecting my luggage from the trunk. The driver left and I stood on the sidewalk, possessions in tow, waiting to be let into the building. By this point it was past midnight, the street was mostly empty aside from a group of men loitering next to the liquor store on the corner. Graffiti covered the streets. The buildings were on the more run down side. With no skyscrapers in view panic began to return to my heart. The all to familiar images of New York are usually followed by the streets of 5th Avenue, pans of Central Park, or beautifully decorated pre war apartments. This couldn't have been farther from.
Leroy and I hauled my things up to the apartment and he opened the door. I honestly don't know what I was really prepared for. You see he had also only recently moved in, under the impression that the previous tenants (his step mother and father) had emptied the apartment for his use. It turns out that she had a bit of a hoarding problem, and her definition of empty was equivalent to the amount of items one might find at the Louvre. Of the probably 1000 square feet of space inside, maybe 400 was actually accessible. From floor to ceiling in every single room chochkes and knick knacks were stacked as far as the eye could see. We squeezed into the entrance with my two large suitcases and shuffled into what would be my room.
The tour of the apartment included what we could access of the bathroom, kitchen, dining room, and living room. Only one of the bedrooms was accessible, and so Leroy had more than generously decided to stay on the couch during my occupation. We smiled uncomfortably at each other. Both a bit blind sided, but optimistic that we could make this work, at least in the short term. He had ordered us some Chinese food and cleared enough room at the table for two people to sit if they sat down slowly and moved as little as possible while eating as to not disturb the looming piles nearby.
During my time there I learned some incredibly valuable lessons.
1. I can quite successfully live in under 100 square feet of space.
2. If you are extremely careful you can balance a full box of pizza, a laptop, and a glass of wine on a queen sized air mattress.
3. Never walk through The Bronx at night by yourself, ever.
4. You can cook just about anything in the microwave (the stove was also occupied with things).
I lived in this apartment for two months. Had it not been for Leroy I don't know how I would have not only been able to make it to New York, but his kindness and generosity made those early days much less lonely than they could have been. It's been nearly 3 years since the day that I began this journey, and I wouldn't do any of it differently.