Naïve in New York
This was me:
Wait, I just graduated from college? No more classes??? That was my last test? Does this mean I can’t do what other college kids are doing now? I want to be with them, eating filth, drinking filth, and living in filth—that’s my life. I can’t stop doing that. Every day, 99-cent hot dogs, 99-cent beers, and 99-cent toilet paper. The 99-cent store rules! I can’t leave. Oh man, what about the girls? So many girls! Some of them are actually attracted to me, even with my complete disregard of normal bathing and laundry habits. You know how a shirt is either clean or “college clean”? That’s me every day: college clean. Haven’t shaved since Easter, either. I am living the perfect life. I am within a short walk of every single friend of mine, not to mention every single bar, and on top of all that, I am financing this utopian lifestyle on my meager income from coaching basketball at the Y. I don’t want to get a real job. There are worse lives for sure, but none that I can think of that are better. Damn, I should have stretched this out for five years like everyone else. What the hell am I going to do now? I can’t be that guy who sticks around college for no reason. I mean, I can be, but I don’t want to be. I hate that guy. Barb the guidance counselor says to go get a real job. Yeah, thanks, Barb. My parents must have called her and fed her that line. A real job?? Doing what? It’s not like she does anything great.
Honestly, I didn’t know what my major was until my second to last semester of college. I finally settled on management of information systems. What the Fran Tarkenton is an “information system”? And why does it need managing? That’s what I’m majoring in??? Barb told me that if I changed my major, I wouldn’t be able to graduate in four years. So I’m stuck with it. Luckily, my older friend Clay majored in MIS too, and he coached me through my last two semesters in college. He explained that my major was about computers—databases, specifically—and that I’d make big money once I was done with school. I decided I could live with that. Like most business students, the prospect of a huge salary could motivate me through anything.
I finally graduated two semesters later and was thrown headfirst into full-fledged adulthood. Adulthood is bizarre! All of a sudden I was above couch surfing, started caring about the weather forecast, and was drinking microbrews. What the Fran Drescher was happening to me? I was turning into my dad! Or even his dad.
But that’s what real jobs do to you. You start earning something above minimum wage for once, and you start thinking like an adult. I had been so happy being a broke guy with an open schedule. Hell, everyone was broke and had an open schedule. Now that I had a job, I couldn’t plan anything with anyone. I had entered this whole new world of regular working hours and paychecks. It took considerable self-discipline and self-control for me to handle this awkward transition. Once again, my buddy Clay helped me through it. It took many beers (microbrewed beer), but I got over it.
My first real job after college was in Atlanta, building computers for a family friend. It didn’t pay a whole lot, but it had perks. No dress code, you say? Then college clean it is! Although I wasn’t making big bucks, the job allowed me to buy time to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. Believe me, living in my mom’s basement (which was the current state of affairs) was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
On my drive to work every day, I would strategize about where my life should go. Rock star? Fireman? Evil genius? I considered everything. My one obstacle was that I didn’t have anything to fall back on except a diploma in something I didn’t care about. I was lost. I felt that to be truly happy, I had to leave my comfort zone and my hometown behind. I always liked being a little uncomfortable; it meant that I was learning something. I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to move to New York, Australia, or somewhere in Europe. I knew Los Angeles had hot women, so it was always at the top of my list. I figured there had to be some attractive woman on the beach who needed her information system managed. If only she could find my résumé!
For my first five months at work, I saved as much money as I could out of each paycheck. In between building computers, I sent out résumés. I sent them to every computer-based job opening in New York, Los Angeles, and overseas. I wanted a change, a location change, but it wasn’t coming easy. Of the more than seven hundred fifty resumes sent, I got two viable replies.
The first response was from Dublin, Ireland, and they wanted to know if I knew some programming language that I had never heard of before. A response of “willing to learn” did not get me the job. But I didn’t stop searching. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure it was my lack of a professional résumé that garnered me only two decent replies. Using the word proficient on a résumé has a point of diminishing returns after its tenth appearance.
My e-mail address at the time was the first one I had out of school. That meant I got to pick it out myself! I thought that Yahoo! and AOL were way too conven- tional for a dynamic person like me, so I wanted an address that would help me stand out; something that would help me make big money in a big city! I also wanted something to help me meet some ladies. (That’s my motiva- tion with most things in life; it’s a wonder I’m not a production assistant on The View.) I also wanted something free. (Okay, that’s really my motivation in life.) So after some trolling around the ol’ Net, I registered something free, fun, and what I thought might impress the chicks: BigAl@models.com. I honestly thought my MIS degree and a “modeling related” e-mail address were key requirements to making it big. Yes, of course, the plan backfired. But not just because it was utterly lame. Another problem became apparent when I realized that everyone was reading my e-mail name (written “bigal”) as “BiGal” rather than “BigAl.” This was not exactly how I was trying to market myself to the world. I did get a whole lot of dudes contacting me, though. Dudes with plenty of offers, but not of the employment variety.
Twenty-one weeks into my get-out-of-my-mom’s- basement campaign came my second reply, from a start- up company in New York that apparently read BigAl the way it was intended. A phone interview went well. An in- person interview went even better. And the next thing I knew, I was getting offered a job in NYC! I realized that a location change would make me happy, and that it was what my life needed. On top of that, I was relieved (and a bit proud) that I hadn’t stopped sending out résumés until I achieved my goal. The real world would treat me okay as long as I followed my instincts and dreams—and didn’t falsely represent myself as a female bisexual model.
This new job didn’t have a high salary for Manhattan, and it wasn’t a job in managing information systems, exactly. I was in charge of a 1-800 hotline and answering questions about the company’s software. I figured I could do that short term, maybe get a real business e-mail address out of it, my first business card, and then pursue my life’s ambitions. That is, once I figured out what those ambitions were. I knew I’d eventually find my path to earning the big bucks after my move to the big city, and that it wouldn’t be from this job. But I felt that because I’d successfully
Extreme Cheapskate Strategy
Don’t pay for Internet access. With more and more free Wi-Fi in public parks and on university campuses, you can pretty much log on from anywhere. You could even hijack your next-door neighbor’s connection if necessary. If wireless isn’t your thing, you can log on for free at most libraries or go to NetZero for free Internet access. Yes, it’s dial-up, and you have a lot of ads, but free is free, and you can still check your e-mail, which is all you really use it for anyway.
changed my situation to be in New York, I couldn’t be far off.
That January I moved into an apartment in Manhattan. It was during a snowstorm, and I unloaded my stuff with the help of my new roommate, a work-friend of a friend of a friend. My share of the rent was surprisingly cheap for New York City—$400 a month—but that was my payoff for obsessively hunting for an apartment. After scouring multiple real-estate sites, roommate sites, and firing off mass e-mails to everyone I thought might have a lead, I found a place so cheap, it seemed to wow everyone. And that $400 even included utilities! I didn’t care what it looked like. I had agreed to it from my basement in Atlanta, sight unseen. I knew I would be happy just being in New York.
Upon arrival, I unloaded my stuff and finally got a tour of the place. The apartment wasn’t too bad. The wallpaper in the living room was yellowing, my room was painted pink, but, thankfully, the place had working faucets. Good enough for me! Anything was better than living back home and under my mother’s rules. I was really happy (and proud once again) that I had upgraded my lifestyle in such a short amount of time. I was making it, sort of.
A month later two friends from home moved to New York and get an apartment within a short subway ride of me. Just twenty blocks from me, they were paying triple in rent for a smaller place. I encouraged them to keep looking for better deals, but they took the first place they could find. It seemed crazy to spend that much on rent. I knew their incomes were going to be even less than mine, but being fresh out of college, they wanted to “live it up” a bit. I wanted to make the point to them that “living it up” did not usually mean paying a fortune for a bad apartment, but then again, my steady diet of plain pizza and ramen eliminated me in their eyes as an expert on living it up.
While they spent their weekends shopping and decorating their apartment, I took my weekends to explore my neighborhood. I quickly learned that Spanish was the only language spoken within a ten-block radius. I had taken Spanish in high school, so I figured it would come back to me eventually. However, all I could recall was “Yo bebo de vez en cuando la leche con mi abuela.” A phrase that is not helpful in any situation, really. No one, Spanish speaking or not, wants to hear that “I occasionally drink milk with my grandmother.” Regardless of the communication failure I had with my neighbors, I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe I accidentally ended up living in the coolest place in the world. Imagine being in one of the cultural pavilions of Epcot, but sans tourists in fluorescent ball caps, and you’ll have an idea of what life was like for me. It was a dream come true. This was 180 degrees from the Atlanta suburbs, and it was amazing. My friends also loved their place in the more upscale part of the city, and I admit it did look nice. But it seemed to be a waste of money. My neighborhood had culture, flair, and character. I didn’t see that where they lived. Their block seemed more manufactured and mainstream, or, basically, un–New York like.
I was happy to furnish my place with discarded furniture that I found on the sidewalk. It felt like my stuff had a story to tell, or an interesting life, and I was just putting it in my home to retire. New things didn’t excite me, especially if I had to pay for them. I was already feeling the financial crunch of New York, and I had to save money every chance I could get.
A few months flew by. I got acquainted with the city and started to feel at home in my surroundings. I smiled at all my neighbors in the elevators and on the sidewalks. The one neighbor who did speak English always thought that I was my roommate; he would continue conversations with me that he’d had with him, and I chose to just feign understanding him. I mean, we didn’t look anything alike, but we were the only white guys around, so I didn’t mind the slipup. But what I couldn’t understand is why no one would visit me.
I had made some new friends in my short time in New York and told people where I lived, but no one would come by despite numerous invites. I wanted to show them the awesome restaurant on the corner where no one spoke English, and how big my place was for the little rent I paid, and the cool view of Yankee Stadium from my bedroom window. Basically, I wanted to show off. And then one day, five months into my New York residency, one of my friends in the nice apartment finally told me why they wouldn’t come visit me. We were on the phone, and she huffed, “Alan, you want to know why we’re not coming to your place? Because you live in the projects!”
The projects?!?! You know the projects you see in the rap videos? That was me. I was there. I was living in those projects. My roommate assumed I knew this the whole time and never mentioned it to me. I was a resident of the projects in Spanish Harlem in New York City for five months. Jesus H. Lopez! And the best thing was that no one in the neighborhood had ever given me any beef. Either I was innocently hardcore, or the projects just weren’t that scary to me. I mean, I heard gunshots almost every other week, but I thought that was what living in New York was like, not what living in the projects was like. After checking to make sure that my underwear wasn’t soiled, I patted my naïve self on the back. I thought it was pretty freaking cool. I let the news settle in—and then looked around, grinned real big, and couldn’t wait to embrace more of these so-called projects. As far as I was concerned, this project was a success.
I had already found the 99-cent store there, but then I found a real cheap grocery store too. And that’s all I needed. I was actually able to continue my college lifestyle a bit. My new job had my favorite perk. That’s right, I was still college clean in New York. Plus, the projects made it hard to spend big since all the businesses there had a bargain angle to them. I was, in a way, forced to be thrifty. My friends back home were buying their first cars and new work wardrobes, and incurring other miscellaneous expenses, while I was content not being image conscious or spending money to match a new lifestyle. And it seemed to be what most people around me were doing too. I was hanging on to that college life, financially speaking, even with an honest-to-god salary. I loved my situation so much, I lived in the projects for another seven months. This wasn’t just an apartment to me, it was my home.
As my friends made it pretty clear to me, living in the projects isn’t for everyone. Obviously, no break in rent is worth not feeling comfortable in your neighborhood. That said, that doesn’t mean you have to live in a super-fancy condo to feel safe. Living with a couple of roommates is a great way to be able to afford an apartment in a “nicer” neighborhood; you maybe sacrifice some privacy, but you often get more space for your money and a larger selection of places where you can afford to live. (Three-bedrooms generally do not cost three times as much as one-bedrooms.) If you use public transportation, don’t live in a place that’s a desolate street or a long walk away from the train or bus. And if you feel uncomfortable going home late at night, by all means, take a cab and just budget for occasions like these.
I’ve found that the key to staying safe—both in and out of the projects—is being smart, confident, and alert. Don’t walk with your head down and with headphones on in an unknown part of town. If you look like a victim, you are more likely to be targeted as a victim. However, things happen for no reason at all, so it’s best to be alert and safe. Maybe living in the projects to save money isn’t for you, but instead consider living in the uncool part of town. Or one with a farther drive. Or one known to have a lot of senior citizens (always bargain friendly).
Anyway, it’s all about sacrifices for the greater good. This was my first lesson in New York finance: The more you give up, the more you gain. Choose wisely. It’s far better to start out in the projects than it is to end up there.
Alan Corey 101
Follow what makes you happy. If you have that feeling that you belong somewhere else, doing something else, being with someone else, you should follow that instinct. It is best to live life on your own terms. If it doesn’t help you become a millionaire, it will at least make you a happier person. You are the catalyst for that change, and it’s rarely easy to do. Major changes, like graduating from school, getting your first job, or moving to a new city, require being able to adapt easily. If you don’t like it, make another
Alan’s Strategies for Apartment Hunting
1.Inform everyone that you are looking for a place. That great deal might come from a friend of a coworker’s pet-sitter’s therapist.
2.Look a few months in advance. If you are looking for a great deal in a week, it’s not going to happen. It’s even less likely to happen when you are looking for a place within twenty-four hours.
3.Be willing to make sacrifices. The longer the commute, the more unsavory the neighborhood, or the lack of close restaurants usually means it’ll have a much cheaper rent. You don’t need to have the coolest place in the world right out of college. Postpone it until you have a million dollars.
4.Bargain with the landlord. Many landlords are willing to trade $50 a month for you to take care of all the extra stuff around the property (putting out trash, sweeping, mowing the yard, letting in repairmen, and so on). It doesn’t hurt to request a two-year lease instead of a one-year lease in exchange for lower rent. The allure of a long-term and reliable tenant is worth it to most landlords. It should go without saying, but generally any nonshithead vibe you give your landlord is for the best. So always try to be nice!
5.Be willing to live with roommates. It could improve your people skills in a “how am I not going to kill him” sort of way and also could save you a bundle in cash.
6.Rent a furnished apartment, or just don’t buy new things for your rented apartment. That beautiful new $700 couch might not fit in your next apartment. Stick with used or discarded furnishings until you buy a place of your own.
7.Don’t hire a broker. Good deals can be found if you do the legwork yourself. And don’t even look at Internet listings that carry a broker’s fee, however tempting they may be.
change. Any change can come with enough determination and persistence. Just don’t give up.
If a change is not possible, then your environment should not determine your happiness. Your outlook does. I didn’t know I was living in what many might call an unsavory part of town. Even after I found out, I still enjoyed the unique characteristics, the interesting people, and the adventures and stories that came with it. I was in New York to grow, learn, and explore, and that’s all that mattered to me. The rest was just gravy. I was willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of myself and my finances. I know that life does not take a predictable path. The best lives are lived by those who can adapt to any path.
Checking account: $9,000 (after the move)
Total net worth: $9,000
Excerpted from A Million Bucks by 30 by Alan Corey. Copyright © 2007 by Alan Corey. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.