Cooper Chronicles: I.6

(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.)

i realized quite abruptly on friday that i’ve now been a resident of new york for an entire month.  i was looking at the receipt for some groceries i had bought, and the printed date nearly jumped out and bit me on the nose: september 25, 1998.  a month ago i was moving in, nervous, excited, scared to death.  now i walk the streets — and ignore the pedestrian signals — just like another native.  only there’s a difference between me and, say, Joe the Average Guy Who Lives in East Village — i may look as indifferent as he is, but it’s actually barely controlled enthusiasm.  i feel like i could never look enough at the crazy, wonderful, strange things this city has to offer.  i still escape whenever i can and go for long walks, by myself or accompanied by another wide-eyed kid from out of town.  i can’t stop looking at the people, the storefronts, the buildings … my friend matt says that if you look up at the skyscrapers when you pass them, it means you’re either a tourist or an architecture student.  i guess i’m a little of both.

i know all the regular panhandlers now.  there’s the Pringles guy — he has a very old empty can of sour cream ‘n’ onion Pringles that he constantly shakes, rattling the change inside.  his extraordinarily quick wit could make him at least mildly famous.  he’s the active type: stands on the corner in the midst of the crowd and talks loudly to anyone who catches his eye and anyone who doesn’t.  

although i can admire him from afar, i’m actually terrified of him.  last week i was hurrying along, eyes downcast, my braids bouncing against the textbook i clutched to my chest — just as i thought he was going to let me off, he exploded with “hi!  nice pigtails!  don’t forget your homework!”  i suppressed my laughter until i reached the lobby of the dorm and then frightened the guard by bursting into giggles as soon as i opened the door.  

then there’s the british guy who sits in a slightly different place each day.  he has curiously striped hair: it looks like his natural color is dark brown, but someone did a very careful job of dyeing bleached-blond stripes all the way through it.  “spare a bit o’ change, mum?”  he asks unfailingly.  i actually feel bad for him — he reminds me of a punk version of Bob Cratchit.  there’s the couple that sits in front of the McDonalds with a sign: “when you go home, we’re still here.”  she is constantly removing something (i don’t care to know what) from his hair, with his head in her lap.  there was the guy who approached matt and i late one night as we were coming home from the jazz club: “one joke for you and your pretty wife,” he kept saying.  “one joke.”  it turned out he wanted a dollar for his services.  such a deal.

my monthly budget has gone well so far: i ended up with 60 extra dollars at the end of the month.  so i celebrated in true emily fashion: by blowing it all, and some of october’s money, on a long-coveted pair of birkenstock sandals.  i’ve never been in love before, but i think i know what it feels like now — these shoes are absolutely amazing.  the Payless sandals went into the garbage, and i can now walk blisterless for hours. 

often i like to cross over into West Village and stroll up 5th avenue, counting the number of Gap stores and listening to the various foreign languages that surround me.  my roommates and i have taken to addressing each other in British accents after i saw one couple in the store having an animated discussion over whether or not they needed Cheez Whiz.  “i told you, love, i got some already,” the girl kept repeating loudly, a la Eliza Doolittle.

lest you think i’m having too much fun enjoying the theater of everyday life in new york, i’ll tell you that school has been much harder than anything i’ve ever done before.  i only have a few hours of class a day, which is great — but that means more homework and lots of studio time.  we have a huge critique on tuesday, for which we are all working feverishly.  it’s not at all unusual to walk into the studio at midnight and see 10 or 12 freshmen still working, reluctantly trying to wrap up before the guard chases them all home.  there are a lot more expectations here than in high school, and we’re expected to meet and exceed them.  we’re cooper kids.  we should know how to do this stuff — and if we don’t, well, we’d better teach ourselves.  it sounds tough, but it’s really fun to be able to rise to a challenge like that. 

it’s that way in the other schools too, but less so: sara and i showed up for the first meeting of “jello” (a literary / cultural group, named after one of peter cooper’s less-glamorous inventions), and jaws dropped as the members realized they had an *architect* joining their club.  (popular opinion is that architecture students leave the studio an average of once a month and scoff at extracurriculars.)

yesterday morning i walked out the door and almost ran into a table of austrian-crystal bracelets.  a street festival had sprung up overnight, and six or seven blocks of third avenue was solid booths of clothing, art treasures and ethnic food.  there was lots of supercheap brand-name stuff (“i bet it’s stolen,” raquel said) and a platform where someone was making speeches about very serious political issues and being completely ignored.  kadar, sara, raquel and i wandered around for hours and spent lots of forbidden money on winter clothes.  (i’m such a sucker for those big, thick sweaters!)

street festivals abound here.  there’s one every weekend, sometimes more.  last sunday’s “college-kid dinner” was at a really nice italian restaurant that was smack in the middle of the “festival de san genarro,” a weeklong party that covers all of little italy and is renowned for its no-ID alcohol policy.  the restaurant was beautiful, elegant and full of drunken people, all singing and clapping behind us.  nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.  Father Christopher had us all cracking up with funny stories and caricatures of people he knows, and the other students (two NYU guys and one from Queens College) and i had a blast, laughing and eating really, really good italian food.  they all promised to make it a regular occurrence, and i can’t wait for the next one.