“If You Can Make it There, You’ll Make it Anywhere”
I’ve felt it almost all my life, the pull of something greater and somewhere far away. Growing up I felt out of place in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia, and lamented the nearly five-hour drive to Florence, Alabama, every holiday season. When Christmas-time rolled around and my friends would invite me to holiday parties I would decline their invitation because I would be “out of town.” I cringed every time the inevitable follow-up question would ensue: “oh where?” Quickly I would utter, “Florence,” and then, to avoid the piqued look of interest when they would mistake this small town of Alabama for the art capital of Italy, I would blurt out “Alabama,” as if it were one mumbled, shameful and conjoined word:“Florencealabama.” I spent so much time wanting to leave the South, and so much time wishing I wasn’t from the South to begin with. This is why when I had the opportunity to intern in New York City the summer of my junior year in college, I jumped at the chance. It felt like the life raft I had been waiting on for all my life to pull me out of “y’all’s and grits” and right into the epicenter of fashion and culture, the ambiguous North I swore my whole my life would suit me better.
My mother flew up with me the weekend before my internship began to help me get settled in. The building was an all-women’s style dorm intended to provide affordable housing for people working in the city. We unloaded my belongings into the too-tight room and I felt expansive rather than cramped as I looked out my window at the towering buildings and busy streets. The weekend with my mom went by too quickly, however, and it wasn’t until we stood in that same little room hugging goodbye that I felt something acute and extremely unsettling: true loneliness. While I had felt pangs of loneliness before, those feelings felt puny and unwarranted in the face of this moment. I was truly alone. There was no one I knew within miles of me and the feeling was crippling, as if all the tall buildings that once enchanted and welcomed me had turned inward to collapse upon me and I alone was taxed with holding them up.
I’ll never forget my first day at the internship. I was lucky enough to live in a walkable distance to the office building and felt spared from the stress of figuring out the subway system immediately. As I walked the five blocks, I felt my pace forcibly quickened as people pushed past me, heads down and on a mission. I learned quickly to never stop at the stop sign at crosswalks on the smaller side streets unless you wanted to be trampled, which I practically was at the first one I came across. I punched in the code to the building and when I was buzzed in it felt like my whole body was buzzing. This was it: New York.
I tried to steady my racing heartbeat in the elevator with slow, even breaths. The doors parted and I took in the white open plan office before me. Sleek desks lined the windows and pops of orange on the chairs and in the decor added a welcome element of color. I was so busy staring at my surroundings I hadn’t realized I too was being stared at: the new girl. As I started to make my rounds introducing myself, I began to notice a common theme. We would shake hands and I would answer questions and then almost on cue they would furrow their brow and say: “Why is your accent not strong? Where’s the y’all?” It was a question I never really got more comfortable answering. Their disappointment in my lack of cowgirl boots and a slow Southern drawl was palpable. They had already defined me and pigeonholed me based on where I was from and couldn’t understand when I didn’t seem to match up to their expectations. It was the first time I felt this need to defend where I was from, but I held my tongue. I would prove myself through my work.
Eventually I began to settle (as much as one can settle in New York) into the routine of my internship and made friends with some girls in my apartment building, and things got better. My days were quick and full of work, walking and exploring all to the soundtrack of honks and sirens. I would wake up at 6:30 getting ready as quickly as possible and then I would head down to the dining hall in my building. The dining hall coffee didn’t even smell like coffee and often was cold or worse, lukewarm, so I would walk two blocks and stop in a small shop for a morning cup. It was always full and loud, but the two baristas moved so quickly they looked as though they were dancing behind the counter. People shouted their orders and they smoothly swung around one another flipping espresso and steaming milk. I felt for them because it seemed no matter how quickly they worked, someone always complained. I always got iced coffee because it seemed the easiest. I would end up at the office around 7:45 and then proceed to stay as long as everyone else did. Technically, I was off at 5:30 p.m., but I rarely left before 6:30 p.m. and sometimes even 8:00 p.m. It was like we were all trying to outwork each other, at least through appearances, and I felt early on that you didn’t want to be the first person out the door.
On weekends I would explore with my new friends I met at the women’s dorm. Our hometowns were extremely varied. Together we made an unlikely group, one of each from Georgia, Texas, California and France. I related the most with Emily from Texas, the closest person to Georgia I met that summer. The four of us would go on long adventures exploring different food scenes, landmarks and my favorite of all: museums. The Met became a place of comfort and retreat. The distance didn’t matter; I would take the subway by myself simply to escape in endless rooms of art. It is funny how even in a city so large I found places to disappear. There was this coffee shop in Chelsea I would tuck myself into. I liked Chelsea because it was only a 20-minute walk from my building and as I got closer and closer, trees would begin to pop up on the sidewalk. My friends began to make fun of me for constantly pointing out a tree whenever we came across one. It was something I hadn’t even realized I was doing until it was pointed out. I continued to acknowledge each one in my head but I started to keep it to myself. The coffee shop in Chelsea was in a hotel lobby and I liked the warm welcome of the bell boys dressed in nice uniforms. They always smiled and held the door. The coffee shop was rarely full and it was nice not to feel rushed or guilty about ordering a time intensive pour-over. I would sit at the bar and sometimes chat with the barista but most often just watch as they slowly swirled warm water over ground coffee into a carafe. Pour-overs are just one of those things that, even in New York City, must be done slowly. The taxidermy on the walls along with the dark floral wallpaper and decorative, rustic typewriters reminded me of the quirkiness of my college town of Athens. When I was there sipping my coffee to pleasant hotel music and settled into an antique sofa with a book between my legs, I could have easily been below the Mason Dixon Line.
It is in New York that I truly learned what it was to be homesick. Going away to college I had missed my parents and family, but not like this. It was as if there was some comfort in just knowing they were a 3-hour drive away from me experiencing the same unreliable, frustrating and humid weather. In New York, however, it didn’t feel like they were just a plane ride away, but worlds away. It was a painful feeling of distance that I hadn’t foreseen and that sat heavy in my stomach the whole summer. Mostly it sat dormant as I refused to acknowledge it and busied myself with the rush of the city in summer. I was moving at such speeds that I couldn’t recognize my exhaustion until I laid in my twin bed at night and despite the continual noise would fall instantly asleep. Then the Fourth of July came. Two of my closest friends I had made boarded southbound planes, and it was then that the homesickness boiled over within me. I thought of my family driving to Florence without me. This would be the first year I wasn’t going to be there and it pained me so much to not only be missing it, but that I physically wasn’t able to go. I had no plane ticket, and I was expecting my college roommate that weekend for a visit.
In that moment of unquenchable craving for home, I realized something: I liked the South, perhaps even loved it. I missed it in a way that the foliage of Central Park couldn’t quench. I was so starved for greenery I would marvel at Central Park more and more the longer I stayed. When my mom came to visit a second time I convinced her to walk through it with me after a long afternoon spent at the Met. My eyes were wide at all the green, and she simply laughed at me and said “my garden is prettier than is.” She wasn’t wrong. I was just so starved for any resemblance of the azaleas that lined the streets back home and the variety of trees so numbered it would have been ridiculous for me to point out each one. New York quenched my love of exotic foods, art and culture, but it had little to offer the nature lover in me.
The day I flew home I was full from what the city had given me. I learned things that only come from new surroundings and the expansion and testing of one’s comfort zone. I rode to the airport in a cab barely aware of the honking around me; it had become like white noise. When I landed in Atlanta, I couldn't believe the relief in my chest. I found myself speed-walking through the airport until suddenly I realized there was no need: I could slow down. I met my friend as I stepped into the familiar humidity and we drove until we hit the nearly unavoidable Atlanta traffic. My friend was clearly stressed but I smiled: no one was honking and, even though we were in a city, we were surrounded by trees and flowers. It felt like home.
What I came to learn that summer of museum hopping, walking, honking and constant companionship (welcome or not) is an appreciation for the South that I’m not sure I would have developed otherwise. I am proud to know my neighbors and that my local coffee shop is a short drive away where I can have a friendly chat with my barista without being surrounded by the buzz of people demanding instant caffeine. I am happiest when surrounded by trees and can trade man-made facilities for sap and serenity. The South has certain charms and comforts not accounted for in the North that are not to be discredited. I am extremely thankful for that summer in the city and for what it has taught me: appreciation. I love New York and desire to return, but I am eternally grateful to it for ironically giving me pride and appreciation for my Southern roots.