My senior year at the New School, I was bartending at night and maintaining an almost perfect GPA, while spending thirty hours a week crouched over my desk in the corner of the student newspaper office, debating every little decision like it was life or death. I applied to Columbia’s journalism graduate program partly because it felt like the next logical step, and partly because I wanted to see if I could get in—if my hard work would translate beyond this specific tiny student publication. I told myself I’d only go if I got a significant scholarship, that just an acceptance would be all the validation I needed.
When I got the acceptance letter a few months later, with almost no scholarship, I understood for the first time how much I felt I had to prove. I’d been doing it subconsciously all through college: the drop-out who got the best grades, the erstwhile fuck-up whose color-coded planner made up for years of rootlessness. I never thought of it as compensating, I just thought of myself as someone who’d gotten her shit together after an untethered adolescence spent running around the East Village, getting drunk in Tompkins Square Park instead of learning algebra. But then I got accepted to Columbia, the stamp of institutional approval I didn’t realize I’d needed so badly, and I imagined the sweet vindication of becoming a high school drop-out with an Ivy League master’s degree.
I thought of the guidance counselor from my high school who’d told me I’d end up on the street if I didn’t “straighten up and fly right” (she really used those words), and imagined mailing her a photocopy of my master’s degree with “FUCK YOU, CUNT” written across it in Sharpie. I thought of my mother, so pleased and proud, so relieved I’d “turned out ok,” and how she should have taken my word for it when I said I knew what I was doing, that I didn’t need high school to get where I wanted to go in life. And I thought of my father, how if he were alive he would have done a silly little dance, how he would have told strangers at the grocery store that his daughter was going to Columbia. He would have come and sat with me on a bench on campus, tucked away in a quiet corner that looked like the Cloisters. We would have sat on that bench together while he said over and over to himself, to me, to the squirrels chittering by, “Wow! A Schactman in the Ivy League!” And then we would have explored the library together for hours, and every time I looked up I would have caught him beaming at me.
Scholarship or not, I had to go.
Journalism appealed to me as a way to have a respectable career and a more stable life than my parents ever did—their heroin addictions preventing them from ever leveraging their artist lifestyle into anything above the poverty line—but still move freely around the edges of society and challenge authority and follow my own interests wherever they led me. And I liked the idea of translating and synthesizing information into something anyone could understand; I wanted to collect stories like my father collected scraps of metal and wood for his sculptures, seeing the beauty in the small things that others might overlook. Or maybe I just wanted to collect a master’s degree as a gift for a dead man.
I still don’t really know what stability means, or if it’s a real thing that’s possible to attain. But I know that when you don’t have it, it feels like the promise of safety. Like redemption. But it can also feel impossible—the steps that feel necessary to reach it don’t come naturally if they’re not what you’re used to, like joining a dance class three weeks into their study of a new combination. When you don’t know how to do the things you’re expected to do, it can be so much easier to declare them bullshit and say you never wanted to be a part of it anyway. But how sweet to fall into step, to feel like maybe you know what you’re doing just enough to fake your way to that magic place called stability, where you’ll finally be able to let your guard down.
The first day of classes, I got off the subway at 116th Street almost an hour early. I didn’t want to show up late and let everyone know right off the bat that I was a screw-up in disguise, and I had no idea how long it would take to get there—the only times I’d ever gone that far uptown were to meet my ecstasy dealer in Spanish Harlem when I was fifteen, and that was never an appointment with a specific start time. I came up the subway stairs and stared at the big stone entryway, the long tree-lined brick path that cut straight through the campus, pastoral in the middle of Manhattan, and I turned and walked in the other direction. Heading down Broadway looking for coffee, I passed a Starbucks but kept going. I needed cheap, watery, slightly burnt deli coffee with too much milk and sugar. Something familiar to take with me into that foreign place.
Walking back, I held my coffee in both hands like I was warming them on a winter day even though it was August and balmy. I was still early, but decided I should find the journalism building anyway. The last thing I wanted was to get there early but then still be late to my first class because I got lost in the twists and turns of the campus. I exhaled as I walked through the entryway, down the brick path full of bubbly undergrads traveling in groups. I walked to the center, which opened up to the huge quad with the two giant libraries on either side and the iconic statue on the steps, and stood with my mouth slightly ajar like a tourist. I did get lost, walking back and forth on that path three times before I found Pulitzer Hall, but I still had fifteen minutes to spare.
I sat on the stone steps and drank my shitty coffee and tried to draw the surroundings into myself enough that I would become them; enough to convince myself this was the world I belonged to. I reminded myself that from the outside, nobody could tell how out of place I was. I wore a loose-fitting white linen button-down shirt that covered my tattoos and gray slacks with sensible flats. All the dye was grown out of my hair, and I’d replaced my playful pink glasses frames with nondescript tortoiseshell. I looked like just a regular nerd, and felt like I was pulling off an epic subterfuge.
Being at Columbia felt as rebellious as dropping out of high school; both going so completely against what was expected of me.
Conventional wisdom says that the most important part of graduate school is the social connections you make, and it was clear from the first day I walked into the orientation mixer at Columbia—in the big airy lecture hall with marble floors and delicately-carved wood window frames, my new classmates milling around in their tailored blazers, with their Twitter handles written on their name tags and charming smiles plastered on their faces—that everyone had had that wisdom drilled into them so hard that, ironically, it made it impossible to genuinely connect. It felt like we were all auditioning for each other at all times, putting on the best show to make the best impression just in case the kid sitting next to you became an important editor someday. It was exhausting, and it was a kind of interaction that I felt utterly unequipped for. It was a certain kind of always being “on,” a carefully crafted performance that I’d missed the training for. I suspected they taught it early in wealthy families.
By the end of the first semester, I knew I’d made a mistake. I’d been seduced by prestige, enrolled just because they’d accepted me, without stopping to think about what kind of writer I wanted to be and whether this program would help me get there. According to Columbia, it seemed, journalism was a specific set of procedures that could be memorized and endlessly replicated. There was no sense that there’s art to be found anywhere in the profession; the program was all logistics, no poetics. There were two classes I enjoyed: History of Journalism, because there was a focus on the big foundational ideas and what journalism is in the context of society that got me excited about how words can shape the world; and Magazine Writing, because it was the only class where we actually discussed the craft of writing. The rest felt like it might as well be trade school. I felt like this training was bleeding me dry of any passion I may have had for the work.
I considered cutting my losses and quitting before I was charged for the second semester’s tuition, but I figured that if I was going to be $40,000 deeper in debt for nothing, I might as well be $80,000 deeper with something to show for it. Plus, I told myself: Drop out once and you’re forging your own path; drop out twice and you’re just a fuck-up who can’t finish what she starts.I couldn’t take it anymore and blurted out, “Sorry but you’re at least fifteen years late to that story.”
My disillusionment was solidified during the second semester when my class took a bus tour of the Bronx. It was meant to offer insight into a part of the cultural and socio-economic landscape of the city that’s rarely put front and center, to open the eyes of students who thought only of Greenwich Village and Wall Street when they thought of New York City. It felt like a poverty safari. And over there on your left you’ll see the urban poor. Be careful now, keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times. It made it crystal clear that even if I wore the right clothes and referenced the right texts to blend in with these rich kids, I would never be one of them. I didn’t need a bus tour to know what dilapidated public housing looked like; I didn’t need a very patient community center volunteer to explain what subsidies low-income New Yorkers rely on. I remembered my mother walking ten blocks out of her way with heavy bags of groceries, embarrassed to use food stamps at the store closest to our apartment, and crying at the counter in one bureaucratic office after another, clutching stacks of paperwork, begging for help, while I sat wide-eyed next to her.
In a local reporting class, someone whose assigned beat was Williamsburg pitched a story about how all the artists were being forced out of the neighborhood by gentrification. I couldn’t take it anymore and blurted out, “Sorry but you’re at least fifteen years late to that story.” I hadn’t meant it to come out so harsh, but pitching a story about the gentrification of Williamsburg years after Williamsburg had become synonymous with hipsters and with the very idea of gentrification itself was just too perfect an encapsulation of how out of touch the whole program felt. Like we were going through the motions of journalism but not connected to the real world in any way; not connecting with people or uncovering anything new or exciting, or literally any of the things I was there to do. I didn’t look up to see the surprised faces of my classmates, but the teacher thanked me for the local perspective and asked if I could elaborate. I regretted saying anything.
By the time I walked across the stage and collected the $80,000 piece of paper I’d hoped would knock the poor-kid chip off of my shoulder, impress my dead father, and prove I was stable and “ok,” I was completely uninterested in the news business—and in social climbing and class jumping and blending in and proving anything to anyone.
The jobs people were excited about right out of school were hyper-local news—city councils and street fairs and zoning disputes—or niche markets like writing for real estate or law trade publications. I understood, then, why someone might choose to be a starving artist.
Despite a complete lack of interest, I applied for a few of these jobs; because I was supposed to, because otherwise what was the point of all that work and debt. I was offered a job as a city reporter with DNAinfo—a good job, with a decent salary and full benefits. It was everything I’d been working toward. It was more money than my mother had ever made. It was (relative) stability. But everything in my body recoiled from it. I felt like I had before I dropped out of high school, like I couldn’t possibly force myself to do this. I didn’t want to take the job and let them waste time training me only to quit after a few months, so I declined as politely as I could.
When I finished grad school and realized I didn’t want any of the jobs it had trained me for, my old bosses from Sophie’s were getting ready to open a new bar on Sixth Street. The owner, Richie, asked if I could handle night shifts on my own—I’d previously only worked busy nights when there were two bartenders on. “Sometimes we get some weirdos, you know,” he said.
“I grew up in this neighborhood, remember?” I told him. “I may be small but I can handle weirdos.” I put up my fists like I was ready to box him. He laughed and gave me three nights a week, and I gratefully became part of the opening crew of Josie’s, my home for the next five years.
After trying to fit myself into the Ivy League world like too-tight shoes, it was such a relief to put on cut-off jean shorts and a cropped Siouxsie and the Banshees t-shirt and stay up all night with locals, drinking whiskey and playing pool and blasting the Buzzcocks on the jukebox. I bleached my hair Courtney Love blonde and wore red lipstick every night. I stopped holding in all the bitchy comments that came into my mind—when you’re behind a bar, bitchiness comes off as sass, and customers love it—and I felt free.
All the brassy loud toughness I’d cultivated as a teenager and then tried to shove down in college and grad school found a productive outlet in breaking up fights and projecting my voice to yell “no drinks on the pool table!” and “one at a time in the bathroom!” twenty times a night, loud enough to be heard over the music and the din. At first I felt guilty rejecting fake IDs, considering how often I’d used one myself just a few years earlier, but I quickly developed a protective love for the bar, and took pride in maintaining order there. And my old alcohol tolerance found a use, too; allowing me to do shots with customers all night long so they all felt special, and still be able to settle out the register properly at the end of the night.
I’d been trying for so long to strive for something else, something beyond what was familiar to me. I’d tried to convince myself that I wanted to be a yuppie, that if only I could summer in the Hamptons and afford a matching living-room set, everything would be ok. But letting the strain of that reach go slack was the relief of coming home. Here, I finally felt like a more adult version of myself, not like I was wearing a costume of what I thought an adult should look like.
From Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger. Used with the permission of Santa Fe Writer’s Project. Copyright © 2021 by Lilly Dancyger.