One of the bigger projects I am working on is a memoir of my six years living in South Central. I imagine this as the prologue to that book:
I stepped out the doors into a tunnel of scaffold-covered sidewalk. The air was grey and dirty. The traffic was like water in my ears as I swam upstream against people who all felt bigger than me.
I hit sunlight and open pavement at the end of the block. My eyelids crushed together as I shuffled to the first park bench I could find. I wished for the scaffolding to hide me. It felt like the barest block I had yet seen in New York City.
I sat down and took a breath. The deepest breath I had taken in days. No, it was the deepest breath in months since I had begun my application process to film school. Four years of work and eight years of dreams come down to a set of GRE scores, a video tape, an essay, an application, and an interview.
As the exhale passed over my lips and my shoulders fell from my ears, I was left to face the wall of impassable failure, of inadequacy, of rejection, that had just been handed to me. I knew without them telling me. I knew without the tell-tale letter in my mailbox. I was not going to NYU.
The night before, I had treated myself to dinner at Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Grill. I read about it six years earlier when he opened it. I had clipped the article and put it in my New York scrapbook. I had seen every movie DeNiro ever did and every movie Scorsese ever directed. I knew the artwork on the walls was DeNiro’s father’s. I knew his offices were just upstairs. I splurged on raspberry cheesecake for dessert and was certain everyone was staring at me, eating there alone. I wondered how much they left for tips in New York City.
The day before, I had walked the streets. I walked by all the places I had seen and read about, the buildings I had seen in the movies. I walked Wall Street and Broadway, Fulton and Canal. I walked to Washington Square and back, smiling at the purple NYU banners billowing off the buildings I passed. I wondered which one I would live in and how small my room would be.
No need to wonder anymore. I had arrived so early for my interview. I wore the good luck pendant my roommate gave me. I packed two outfits so I could decide at the last moment which to wear. I tried so hard to look like I belonged amongst the Gothic-chic women who graced the sidewalks here, with their dark sunglasses and their fuck-you swagger. How badly I wanted to be them.
But it was an inquisition, not an interview. It was me facing three tables full of artists who knew better than me and we both knew it in a moment – the moment I stepped inside that room. I was twenty-one years old and had been almost nowhere and worse yet, I was trying to tell stories that were not mine. I had a dream, but I had no life. What did I have to say to these people, artistically or not?
And I quickly knew it was nothing. I had nothing for them, despite the unending and condescending nature of their questions.
So as the exhale passed my lips and I sank into the park bench, I absorbed my failure. My dream of eight years was done. The four years of college I had busted my ass to make up for my public school pedigree was for naught. I was not going to NYU.
At home, on my desk, I had stacked the other eight rejection letters. I only applied to the top ten graduate schools. Anything else seemed pointless. NYU was the only one that called me. The number one school in the country had called me, while eight lesser schools said no.
The only school left was USC. For me, the only thing left was damage control. The only thing left was other-than-NYU.
I had to go home to my professors and classmates. I had to tell them I had not made it. I would tell them of the Inquisition, but I would leave out crying on the park bench.
It would be weeks before a letter from USC arrived. It was not particularly thick or particularly thin. I stared at it for a long time before I opened it. I tried not to think about what would be other than other-than-NYU.
I opened it carefully along the seam, in the hopes it was an acceptance letter. I read it. And then I read it again. I called three times to make sure I was really in.
I had never been to California before. I had never been west of Wisconsin.
I would go to USC, I told myself. I would move to California, but just for three years. I would go there and then come home to New York City. That was the plan.