When I moved to NY, I had tons of free time. I didn’t write as much as I slept but I created some memorable characters. Meet Chelsea. A flawed, quirky, self-conscious writer navigating the streets of NYC…
October 3 2007
My boss was standing over me. Our eyes hadn’t met. It was like she had hazel green lasers that bore a hole into the top of my head. It was only eleven thirty-seven and I was asleep at work. When I finally found the nerve to let my lids glance in her direction, I wanted to shout, “What’d I do this time?” But I knew she would come up with some over the top excuse about professionalism or pride in my job or she would’ve even thrown in the ever so popular “Do you know how much I pay you?” So, I tucked in my lips, tasted the chocolate gloss for a few seconds and conjured up a smile that told her I was really enjoying my late morning nap before the sound of her size seven and a half shoes tapping the hardwood floor woke me.
Her lips parted to speak. ” You know, if you permed that Brillo, it wouldn’t get matted on the side when you decided to nap… at work. You do know that’s where you are, right?”
Before I could even swallow to answer, she’s modeling the back of a new Ed Hardy jacket, sashaying her five foot four-inch frame away from me. “Hey JoAnn the next time you decide to hire an imbecile, don’t!” That series of words, drove me over the edge. I grabbed my picnic basket turned purse and started packing my stuff. Well, whatever I could grab quickly enough. Cell. Pen. Paper. Super-skinny laptop. Lip gloss. Spare undies. Flats. Aleve. Bottle of Voss I borrowed from the fridge. String cheese. Apple Sauce. Keys? Per usual, I couldn’t find my keys. So, I dumped out the contents of my life onto the floor and rifled through gum wrappers, club flyers, dollar bills that should’ve been in my wallet, the card that would elect the first Black President, passport, and whatever else was living at the bottom of that mess. My senses felt her standing over me.
“You ever thought about cleaning, that, that, thing out?” She was clearly amused by the fact that I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I didn’t answer. The way my shoulders shrugged up and down told her: a) I didn’t care, and 2) “don’t you see me looking for something?” As with every day of the past six months and two days, she wanted to argue with me about the day’s lunch. ” I did tell you that I like plantains, right? And white rice, right?” My eyes rolled. I nodded. “So?” Her over arched brows almost formed question marks on her butterscotch skin. Hilarity lived within my heart at that very moment. Not because I always knew what she wanted and refused to deliver, but because she either didn’t own a mirror or had no friends bold enough to tell her that brows skinnier that Paris Hilton were so OUT! I was tempted to reach down into my mound of mess, grab a brown liner and fill in her anorexic eyebrows. I didn’t. That gave me one more piece of joy that I would revel in the next day if I didn’t get fired.
“Plantains and white rice tomorrow.”
Again, before I could debate,which I wouldn’t,I was looking at the elaborate skull and roses adorned on her back as she clicked her heels in the opposite direction. My inner diva wanted to say, ” I’m not the Cuban chick you fired six months ago and I can’t afford to gain my pre-flu weight by even smelling plantains and I refuse to sweat it out on the elliptical every day, so tomorrow, you’ll have salad and you’ll like it!”
Instead, I scribbled aimlessly in the last page of a hard cover journal Momma gave me before I left Miami. I pulled my laptop from underneath the monument of nothingness I’d created, a crumpled photo of my family was wedged into the side. I carefully smoothed out Momma’s gap-toothed smile and could hear her Southern accent tell me how a gap is a sign of beauty in Ghana. “You let me get braces in eighth grade, Momma,” I whispered with to the caramel hued woman smiling in the picture. I looked at big sister’s matching complexion and long golden hair cascading down her shoulders and I can almost hear her
laughing at my footed pajamas. Momma in the middle of her three girls. Baby sister and big sister on either side of Momma and me laying across their laps, spreading dark, bittersweet chocolate over a spectrum of honey coated light brown. Pajamas on Christmas, our ritual. All our faces looked alike in this one. Different, with traces of one another. I smiled. Almost too hard. Kinda scared Boss Lady was gonna come out of nowhere and catch me smiling like I knew the secrets of the universe and ask me what’s so funny.
She was far away. I heard her belting into the phone at the mother she spoke to on first name basis about – what else – my incompetence. This time, her ranting about my lack of professionalism, or thrift store attire didn’t faze me one bit. It reminded me of my identity and what I had left: home. Sunny, tropical, exotic, Miami.
I took a glance at the candid family photo taken by automatic capture and placed it inside the picnic basket next to my blue wallet. I had so much work to do, but no energy to do it. I opened my laptop and realized I had left it on during my nap. Clicked on the Photobooth icon, looked into the camera, and rolled my eyes. My hair did not look like a Brillo pad. She just didn’t understand Natural hair. After talking a glance at my matted ‘fro, I smiled at the jet black mix of curls naps and beauty . I gently tugged at the right side of my head and laughed to myself, but not too loud. Still in skinny jeans and a long sleeve tank, I slipped on my “Super Uglies” and did a pose to the sun. Without a second thought, I stepped over Mt. Picnic Basket, opened the sliding door and shut out the contents of that room.
On the balcony of the high-rise that faced the most beautiful place in New York City, I remembered why I decided to take this gig. Her mom slash agent brought me up here almost seven months ago for a meeting that changed my mind about New York. I could see a little bit of everything from here. But what drew me in was Central Park; It was the only thing with “real life” in the city. I’d been saying that for the past six months when I traded in slow-moving tropical days, a five-minute commute to the beach and family laughs for a Metro-Card, demanding boss and a heap of rude people in a rush.
If I looked back to a year from today, I had been living a pretty normal life. I had just gone into my third year of teaching, made a decent salary when you added in the tutoring I did on the side , I had a beach at my disposal, almost 340 days of sunshine, conch salad, soul food and easy going people. I had a routine: home, school, church, insert fun activity on weekends and holidays. Too many paid vacations and hurricane days off. What more could a thriving twenty something African American woman have asked for? (Okay a man would’ve been nice, but who’s complaining?)
After summer budget cuts shifted the Dade County Public Schools from thriving to “last hired first fired” I found myself minus a job and living off my ever dwindling savings. With options of returning to school full time or miraculously becoming an instant trophy wife I received the call that eventually brought me here.
“Hey girl, you wanna go to the NY for the summer?” Jamie’s overly excited soprano sang through the phone.
I pondered squandering the rest of my hard earned cash on shoes, handbags and vintage duds and quickly rejected. “No. Two words. No. Job.”
“Well, that’s what I was calling you about,” she hesitated. I knew something was up.
“Listen, I watch CNN. Those kids will not kill me. Ain’t no way I’m going all the way up to New York to lose my life. The kids in Miami are rude enough. I can see it now: Young, beautiful teacher loses her life in classroom. Uh, no! And I’d probably have to wear a bulletproof vest and you know I don’t have shoes to match that ,” I joked with my longtime friend and play sister Jamie.
We had known one another through her then boyfriend and my best friend. It was later explained that I wouldn’t be teaching at all, but living with a sixteen year old actor named Racquel.
Her parents were friends of Jamie’s mother and this would be an opportunity of a lifetime. To sweeten up the deal, I’d be living on the upper west side of Manhattan rent-free with a nice salary.
“Girl, there are some tall men in New York!” Jamie oozed, gnawing at my penchant for all things above six feet three inches. What J left out was that I was lucky number seven. The six previous assistants – as Racquel called them – were either fired or had quit due to extreme working conditions. I had no idea that this golden opportunity involved so much work and soul searching.
Racquel McDougal critiqued me on a daily basis about my clothes, hair, relationship status, life goals and political preferences. I was over ten years her senior, you’d sometimes think it was reverse. Now, I didn’t know the city too well, I would’ve rather walked ten blocks than step into the unknown world of underground transportation and haling a cab seemed harder than the 1450 I’d gotten on the SAT (back when 1600 was the max score), but I wasn’t that bad.
My boss was a sixteen year old theatre arts student whose starring role was to make my life as miserable as she could without making me leave. There was a catch. Her parents had met with her prior to my arrival in New York. Via conference call, she had verbally agreed that if I left for any reason or was fired that she had to return to Florida. What Racquel liked most about living in New York wasn’t the disposable income she was provided with, nor was it the exposure to major theater companies. Rocky, as her friends called her, coveted freedom. Her parents were hard working corporate attorneys in South Florida. Being the first husband-wife, Black owned law firm in Miami had meant not only hard work, but sacrificing time with their only daughter. They didn’t need any added stress, so, for Racquel, this was her last chance. We had to make it work. For me, it was a couple years off from the workforce to figure things out; become more virtuous and explore new talents, but with all the pressure of keeping up with Rocky, I was closer to reaching for a bottle of Xanax than reaching any goals I had set.
I inhaled the crisp autumn air that felt like Miami in December, thought about the day’s events and started going down my mental to-do list. My thoughts of scouring the city’s high end shoe stores and low price consignment shops had been interrupted by Rocky’s banging on the glass door. Her skinny arms were flailing wildly as she pointed to her watch. It was time for rehearsals but I didn’t budge. I showed her the back of my white long sleeve tank, Hane’s men’s size small. She banged louder this time and I turned back around to see her breathing onto the soundproof glass. I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. A smirk crept its way onto my face and I slowly slid the door open. In my most nurturing of voices, I spoke. “Racquel, is everything all right?”
She placed her tiny fingers on nonexistent hips and lifted the brown arches that were her eyebrows. Her overly glossed lips parted but I couldn’t make out the words. At that point, I ignored her because I’d already known that my mind couldn’t handle the abuse that would follow. At two forty the car arrived. Rocky did all the talking to the middle aged Spanish man who would drop us off at the Broadway Theatre. She had done her parents proud and landed a lead role in Thirteen. I could hear her telling her aunts, cousins, friends and neighbors from back home how she got the role that “was meant for a White girl!” In the world of theatre it was quite the accomplishment, but I’d never tell her. The show was to open in two months and I had to accompany her to every single practice – even on weekends. Not only had she consumed my personal life, but she was taking away from my spiritual life, too. I couldn’t wait for this show to start. I could live without a boyfriend – hell, I’d been doing that for about two years – but me and my God, we had to have some time on His day. But, I signed on the dotted line and accepted this gig, so I had to pay for it in more ways than one.
“Sam, you don’t have to pick us up today. She’s going to get a cab and I’m riding with friends after rehearsals are over,” she informed both Sam and myself. There was something different about that day. While happy to have some time to myself, I didn’t know where she was going with this one. I exited the cab, her bags on my arms and planned the rest of my day.
“Uh, Chelsea, I’ll call you when I’m on my way home. I’m riding with Chris and Joey,” she mentioned as we walked into the theatre. Since she was a minor, I had to sign the release form allowing her to stay and rehearse past six o’clock. I’d usually stay and read a book or write, but she had given me the day off and I was taking full advantage of it. After signing the form and placing her bags in her locker, I was on my way. For the first time in six months I felt free. The fall breeze welcomed me to a side of the city I hadn’t had a chance to explore due to my duties as full time guardian to Racquel. Oddly enough, after a couple hours walking the shops on Fashion Ave and eating lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant on 46th and 10th, I was ready to go home and relax. I hailed a cab successfully and gave him our address. The cabbie was a scruffy, friendly man from Nigeria who played a cd with songs from his upcoming album. That’s what I loved – and sometimes hated – about New York: everyone had a hustle. In most instances it would’ve been a nuisance to hear three monotonous chords of an acoustic guitar repetitively in a stale cab, but I was on my way to the pent house to enjoy all the amenities alone. When he got close to the building I pulled out a couple twenties and passed them to him.
“Could I have two of you cds, please?” His eyes lit up with excitement.
“Oh, miss, you have made my day! ” He said some words in his native Yoruba tongue and passed me the cds.
“Keep the change, sir.” My mood brought on generosity as I stepped out in front of our high rise.
As the elevator opened into the spacious three bedroom apartment, relief draped my body. I couldn’t take off my leopard print Ugg boots fast enough. Rifling through my bag of goodies from the day, I found the incense that I’d picked up from a quaint home store on 38th street. After lighting the incense and peeling off my shirt and jeans I plugged my mp4 player into the surround sound jack and let India.Arie take me on a journey that I never wanted to end.
At eight o’clock I awoke from a short nap and flipped through too many channels to count. With nothing interesting on the tube, I became restless. I padded my way toward the eat-in kitchen and poured water into the kettle to make tea. Five minutes later, with tea in hand, I closed out the world and my room became home again. Yawning in between sips, I put the ornately decorated cup on my night stand and drifted into a deep sleep. I dreamt of Miami at night: cool and calm.
In my dream I heard Maroon 5 and Rihanna singing and jumped up. It was not a dream. It was my cell ringing nonstop. Immediately, my thoughts went to Rocky. I looked over at the stainless steel alarm clock. The long hand was on the one. The short hand was on the twelve. “There was no way I slept until twelve oh five a.m.!” I yelled to an empty room. The landline in Rocky’s room rang and my heart almost stopped. I bumped my big toe on the corner of the couch on my way to her room. Out of breath, I snatched the receiver from the cradle.
To be continued…