Cooper Chronicles: I.2

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

if i could choose one word to describe my emotions in the past week, i think it would be “amazed.”  amazed at how quickly it all took place; amazed at how easily i fell into dorm life; amazed at how nice everyone here is; and, most of all, completely amazed at the amazingness of this amazing city.

i’m sitting in my roommate sara’s room. out the window i can see the tip of the chrysler building and the brooklyn bridge.  all around me, there are huge skyscrapers; some with mod-looking glass pyramids affixed to the tops, some with graceful sloping points, and one apartment right across the street with outdoor terraces full of greenery that makes me envious.  peering down from the bed, i can see the lower levels of the city; nail salons, ice cream stores, and a cheese shop that sara and i discovered a few days ago — sells fresh bread, cheese and olives at prices that are affordable even for impoverished college students.  yellow cabs are everywhere, of course, and people bustling around like ants — it makes me think of the “pick-a-little-talk-a-little” song from “the music man.”  To say that new york city never sleeps is an understatement; never *blinks* is more like it.  on thursday night sara and i went across the street to one of the four starbucks in a three-block radius of the school.  it was pretty late, about 11; i wasn’t sure it was safe to leave.  but then we walked out onto the street and it seemed as if everyone was just waking up.  there were groups of businessmen sitting at the outdoor cafe a few stores down; well-dressed couples looking like they were on the way to the theatre; and, of course, the usual plethora of homeless guys rattling paper cups and singing to themselves in other languages.  we had to laugh.

well, this week’s story really begins on monday afternoon, when we left the house about three hours later than we had wanted.  i had been running around all morning; throwing last-minute additions into the slowly growing pile in the living room, bidding fond farewells to several friends, and trying to straighten my bank account out before i left.  we drove to new jersey, had dinner and did some dorm-room shopping at ikea, and arrived at the hotel about 9.  there was still time to swim (although i believe i re-contracted a form of bacterial infection common to users of not-very-clean hot tubs) and stay up late talking, not really believing anything was going to happen the next day.  we had been talking about college for so long that i felt like someone else was going, not me.  *i* would return home and live at 106 north rolling road and go back to chapelgate with all my friends.

nonetheless, we were roused at the criminal hour of 5:30 to eat our free breakfast and dawdle some more before leaving the hotel.  we drove into the city; i remembered the lincoln tunnel, the noisy honking and (i was surprised!) many of the street names and landmarks along the way.  we arrived at the dorm, where a highly efficient operation was underway; the “orientation staff,” as their shirts read, piled our stuff onto rolling baggage carts, and carted it up to the 14th floor, all so quickly that there was no time for a major traffic jam outside.  directly after our car, my roommate raquel pulled up; although i had met her parents during the summer, she had been in europe for three months and we had never actually talked in person.  she looked about as uptight and nervous as i felt.

when we got to the room, i was a bit disappointed; the one that we visited, i was sure, had had a nicer kitchen and cleaner bathroom. we also discovered right away that the “bunkbeds” were actually two bottom beds, and wouldn’t stack; and since our room was the smaller of the two double bedrooms, this was a problem.  so we shyly entered the adjoining room and asked sara (whom we had known for no more than five minutes) if she would mind switching beds with us.  she and her mom were very gracious, especially considering the bed was made and had piles of things on top of it … this catastrophe out of the way, we set to work making these four white walls and stark furniture look like home.

when packing the car, we had purposely left out bulky items like paper towels and laundry detergent, since there was an extremely classy k-mart across the street that we could take advantage of.  moving in reminded us of a zillion other little things that we had forgotten to pack, so we added those to an ever-growing list.  i think we actually made three trips before we had everything.  i think that k-mart did quite a brisk business this week; everyone i’ve met so far has said they’ve been there a few times.  as one mother put it (rather loudly, in her lovely brooklyn accent) on the elevator that afternoon: “Oh my God, K-mart is just the best place for school shopping.”

once we were moved in, we went to the various orientation activities — a president’s address and college-kid panel (i confess i was dozing the entire time) for the parents and students, distribution of college id cards and anti-drug brochures, and an all-student meeting in which we were warned about spending too many nights in the studio right before deadlines. “a lot of times you just *have* to do it,” they said, “but it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.  the dean can get pretty mad, especially if a whole lot of you are there all night.”  we sat in stunned silence; one kid, speaking for the rest of us, raised his hand and said, rather dazedly, “so, like … how long before we start having to spend the night in the studio?”  

these culminated in a “barbeque” in the peter cooper park, the one green spot on the “campus”.  it consists of a triangular fence enclosing a huge statue of the founder and a well-kept, but always locked, garden.  then we visited a neighboring Orthodox church — unassuming on the outside, but inside it’s a mini-cathedral; beautifully handpainted icons everywhere.  i’ll probably visit there on sunday. 

then, finally, we said our goodbyes.  they were rather anticlimactic, actually; nothing like my friend pete’s (incidentally, he’s egyptian and Coptic — my first Orthodox friend in new york).  i’ll tell you his description of the scene, but it won’t be half as funny without his comical queens accent and hand gestures. 

pete was standing on the corner with his parents.  “goodbye mom, goodbye dad,” he said.  “see you soon.”

“GIMME A HUNDRED BUCKS!”  he heard, right next to his ear.  he was being assaulted by an extremely strange beggar.  “sorry,” he said.  “i don’t have a hundred bucks.” 

“gimme a hundred bucks!” the guy said, with less force this time.  pete chuckles.  “i’m telling you, i don’t have anything like that.”  his mom, he says, was screaming in arabic, telling him to tuck his cross inside his shirt and maybe the guy wouldn’t hurt them.

“well, at least gimme a nickel!”  the guy was back to screaming again.  “i’m tellin’ you, i’m crazy like that!”  pete gave him a quarter and he went on to someone else.

ah, the congenial spirit of new york.  (don’t worry, they haven’t hit me up for that much yet.)

anyway, i guess i wasn’t too upset because i knew i would see my family soon, and talk to them even sooner.  like it or not, though, everything would be different from now on.

the next morning we left for a summer camp in port jarvis (in the very bottom part of the state — about two hours from the city.)  it was a great experience — a 36-hour orientation, basically.  no cheesy get-to-know-you games, just all of us in a delightfully stress-free setting, free to get acquainted at our own pace.  the ride up was entertaining, to say the least; the bus driver, a typical New Yawkah, shouted questions about directions to us in the back. 

“hey!  anybody know where eighth street is?”  when he received no answer, he tried again, a bit louder:

“HEY!!  i SAID, anybody know where eighth street is?  come on, people?  you speak english?”

we just sat there, a little overwhelmed, murmuring polite “i-don’t-know’s” and exchanging nervous smiles.

“oh, f—- you all,” he muttered.  “don’t even know where you live.  don’t even speak english.”  ahh — friendship.

i met tons of people; i haven’t seen one yet with an attitude.  everyone is nice, funny, accepting — and there’s this wonderful, collaborative spirit among us all.  we all made it in; now we have to stick together if we’re going to make it out.  there was a ropes course, a zip-glider, swimming, a huge primitive toy called “the blob” that, when inflated, made it possible for one person to jump on the back and send the person sitting on the front flying through the air, and lots of shade and greenery.  we savored it, tried to store it up for future use when we would be craving the sight of a tree.

we arrived back at the dorms on thursday; that night, raquel, sara and i went around to all the doors on our floor and a few of the other floors and introduced ourselves to all the people we hadn’t met.  we went grocery shopping and had a dinner that i think will be quite common over the next few years — salad, fresh bread and hummus.

i’ve made a lot of friends here, and i feel comfortable around people whether i know them or not.  we’ve done a lot of exploring — went to chinatown, which is only about a 20-minute walk, visited the museum of modern art (one of many that we have free admission to with our cooper ids — woo-hoo!), braved the subway and went to a pizza place with slices the size of small children.  the great thing about it, though, is that i can explore all i want — and then, when i’m done exploring, i can come home and curl up with a book and a cup of tea and close the blinds, and it feels almost like i’m back in catonsville.

this is all so exciting.  i’m in a completely different world from the one i left behind.  i’ll get used to it soon, i think.  in fact, i think i’m pretty much used to it now.  except for the real work hasn’t started yet.

saturday night a group of us went to a jazz club called small’s — appropriately named, because it was hard work squeezing all of us into the tiny underground space.  10 dollars’ cover charge got us free juice, crackers and a long night of wonderful live jazz music.  the next morning, i went to the Orthodox church i mentioned earlier.  it was great — lots of old russian ladies pinching my cheek and introducing me to the choir director and the other college kids.  wow — i’m a college kid.  it gives me such a thrill to say that.