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From Milwaukee to New York

A small-town girl in the Big Apple

Sep. 30, 2009
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Armed with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s and too many downtrodden years as a Milwaukee child-welfare worker, my tense shoulders and sick stomach came to the conclusion that social work was not for me. A brief teaching gig in Madrid, Spain, amid it all became my “aha” moment. Perhaps you can have fun and be creative during some of your waking hours.

Madrid also tapped into a desire that had been bubbling under the surface for far too long. I yearned to live in a metropolis where I could get falafel at 4 in the morning, see an avant-garde film on a Wednesday afternoon and, in general, feel completely inspired by the energy around me. Hence, the decision to pack up after a lifetime in Wisconsin, ditch the social-work field and head to another big city (this time, stateside) to start all over.

I found myself in New York City as of Oct. 2, 2007. Although I desperately wanted to fling that social-worker hat far from my head,I still enjoyed working with kids.In my ambitious new attempt to explore creative outlets, I interned for free at a children’s television production company in downtown Manhattan. Assisting a well-known child psychologist, I helped test programming by coordinating research sessions of preschoolers. In addition, I paid the bills by baby-sitting and doling out triple espressos to jittery brokers at a Wall Street Starbucks while desperately trying to forget that I was a 31-year-old with a master’s degree.

Finding my role at the production company belittling, vastly uncreative and ridiculously stressful (at least in child welfare, it’s warranted!), I happily moved on after my three months were up. Since then, I’ve transitioned to writing, though the nanny gig remains. My skill set has changed from writing court reports and assessing child safety to navigating a 30-pound stroller up a brownstone and reacquainting myself with the proper use of apostrophes.

It’s a trade I’ll gladly accept due to the fantasticflexible schedule. However, free-lancing does go against the grain of practical, Midwestern living, especially when a job falls through and you are left wondering just how long you can sustain yourself on rice and egg concoctions.

Trying to maintain a social life on a meager wage in one of the most expensive cities in the world is a whole other ball of wax. One night, while picking up a sixer of High Life on my way to a friend’s house, I was most unprepared for the $9 asked of me at the counter. “Do you know where I’m from?” I almost screamed.“This is beer for the common man! Sacrilege!” Instead, I just huffed a little and bought a bottle of Italian wine. Sorry, Milwaukee.

And speaking of being poverty-stricken, finding an affordable, safe place to live that is also free of bedbugs and crazy roommates is a major feat in itself. After a harrowing search in three of the five boroughs, I managed to secure my current Brooklyn residence with a lovely, sane 30-something. An absolute steal, we pay a total of $1,500 for a large two-bedroom (albeit 40 minutes from Manhattan). As my Milwaukee friends buy adorable four-bedroom bungalows around the $125,000 mark, my financially stable Brooklyn buddies cannot afford the $500,000 for a two-bedroom in a three-story walk-up. What could you buy in Milwaukee for that price? You tell me. Or don’t. I’m trying hard not to remember.

And it’s not only real estate. The thought of someday raising a family here makes me queasy, knowing that some of the strollers I’m pushing cost more than my first car. Seriously.

Clearly, though, there are redeeming qualities that keep me here. Otherwise, I’d take my dwindling savings account and hop the first Midwest Airlines flight back to Milwaukee. So without further ado, I present to you:

Things I Have Learned as a Midwestern Transplant in New York City

1) In your 20s, you have free license to be a wayward soul. In your 30s, wanderlust = loser. Except in New York City.

It doesn’t matter if you are fresh out of school, a 30-something or a recent “retiree” who wants to trade his briefcase for a pottery wheel. In New York, you can do whatever you want, for as little or long as you want, without being deemed some crazy hippie. And I really, really like that.

2) Survival of the fittest!

Because everyone’s doing their own thing, New Yorkers seem to tune one another out, unless their needs are being compromised. To survive in this concrete jungle, one must adopt the approach of the quintessential New Yorker. Loud? Blunt? In your face? Yes, these stereotypes are true—but I understand why. In a city of 8 million, it is survival of the fittest like I’ve never seen. You must elbow your way (oftentimes literally) to get what you want, even if that’s simply getting your point across. As a former automobile driver who rarely had the gumption to flash the bird, I now stop in crosswalks, careen my neck and let negligent cabbies lip-read every filthy word coming out of my mouth. What can I say? If you aren’t persistent in being heard, you and the gazelles are going down.

3) We are as exotic to them as they are to us.

Don’t worry: I haven’t lost my sweet Midwestern-ness completely. At parties, the prerequisite questions about cheese, beer and what the hell Favre is thinking are typically followed by how darn nice everyone is from Wisconsin—whether they know someone there or not. I often feel like a relic on display. “Check this out: I found a real-deal Wisconsinite and, sure thing, she is nice!” Then I strike a pose for the cameras.

4) Not everyone knows what “gesundheit” means.

I am extremely proud of my Wisconsin heritage and almost shed a tear upon discovering that few of my newfound friends have ever tasted cheese curd (fresh or fried). It’s not so much the German-centric town I’m used to. But despite initially feeling a little displaced, I adore the diversity of the city. In my neighborhood, I live among an interesting mix of Italian and Greek families along with Russians, Latinos, Asians and Indians.I love wandering into my neighborhood bodegas and having absolutely no idea what kind of food I am looking at because A) I’ve never seen it before and B) It’s Greek to me. Literally. Greek script only.

Although the ’hood is diverse, the majority of my neighbors are old-school Italians who have lived here all their lives. I constantly feel like I’m in an episode of “The Sopranos,” with lots of gold chains and hand gestures. Apparently, I’m not the only one imagining it: A friend who lives in the area told me about a supposed hit that went down last year. Butaside from allusions to mobsters,there is a very funny (and real) Italian stereotype that I am getting used to. The old men consistently refer to “girls” like me as “honey,” “sweetie,” “dear” and, my personal favorite, “sweet face.” Instead of being annoying, it actually feels quite sweet and fatherly.There is a general aura of protection in this neighborhood that is hard to find in a borough of 2.5 million people.

5) Everything you need to know about human behavior can be gained riding public transportation.

Even though I’m constantly trying to figure out which stereotypes are true and which aren’t, I can never begin to predict behavior on the subway. Who is going to give money to the mariachi band/break dancer/didgeridoo soloist who is cramming a set in between stops? Who understands that it’s highly inconsiderate to talk so damn loud in a contained area? Who will assist the girl who just puked on the floor? (Um, apparently not me.) Who will be kind enough to wake me before I miss my stop…again? Who will jump on the tracks to save someone who stumbled off the platform? (True story.) Who’s going to help deliver a baby on the R train? (Another true story. Thank god my squeamish self wasn’t on the R that night!)

6) Broadway can be overrated, but standing on the Brooklyn Bridge is absolutely overwhelming—whether you’re a star or not.

All sorts of famous people roam the streets. I work and play in the same Brooklyn neighborhoods that are home to Maggie Gyllenhaal, Paul Giamatti, Keri Russell and many other celebrities. And, yes, it sucks to go to a karaoke bar and find your drunken rendition of “99 Red Balloons” quickly upstaged by an actual Broadway singer. But don’t be fooled: They’re not all a pretentious, fashion-obsessed lot. Many “glamorous” New Yorkers go to the same parks as everyone else and likely find the same enjoyment in standing on the Brooklyn Bridge and finding a view that will knock the breath out of you.

7) Surprise! I can be neurotic anywhere!

I know that leaving social work was the right decision, considering that I cry far less and don’t want to vomit on a regular basis. However, I still sometimes vacillate about my move to New York. I ache for the solid foundation of friends and family who really know me. Yet, the amazing writers, artists and actors of the city inspire me to move ahead with my own adventures. Would I really be heading to Berlin with a playwright and her 1-year-old at this moment had I not taken the risk to move to the Big Apple? What a fun ride it’s been and, all in all, I’m pretty damn content. But…

8) I sure do miss Alterra.


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