When I’m alone I feel a slow-ticking wildness in my mind. It’s late at night and I am blinded with the city lights in my eyes.


When I was little, we took a trip to New York City and I just remember seeing people walking around, and thinking, “Everyone here looks sad.”

I never thought I’d live here, not even for a second, but listen, when you’re crying on a bus and the voice of Stevie Nicks pops in your head and tells you, “Move to New York City, everything happens for you there,” you go, “Uh, okay. Thanks, Stevie Nicks, who is still very much alive and therefore I guess is transmitting this message to me via the powers of her mind? . . . Okay, sure. Let’s move to New York City.” And that is absolutely what happened (well, give or take your belief that Stevie Nicks sent me brain messages on a bus).

Throughout my childhood and teen years, I read countless books and articles about how people “made it,” and almost all of them boiled down to “Well, my uncle was the voice of Pumbaa in The Lion King, so he was already superrich and successful and I crashed on his couch and then yay, fame.” (Which I’m sure isn’t the actual story of Ryan from The O.C., but in the issue of Entertainment Weekly I read, it definitely seemed like it.) I had none of that. I was surrounded by complicated, creative people but didn’t have a support system, let alone a series of rich uncles with eight-picture deals at Sony.

The closest I had was my aunt and uncle, who were gospel singers and had actual albums!!!! And this blew my fucking mind. I would stare at their cassettes for hours, dreaming of one day having my own album. I had no idea that they’d just recorded it in church and put it out themselves and gave them out to their friends. I didn’t care. It had a real cover and real liner notes and I wanted that in a way I can still feel in every part of my body when I think about it.

I kept looking everywhere for The Way, the one path that would get me to where I wanted to go, but every time I would ask someone for help, I’d get the old “Well, you can’t be an actor and a comedian and a writer and a singer and a director—pick one.” And I would sigh and say, “But what if I’m meant to do them all?” and they would look at me like I was annoying and I’d go back to my room and watch another eight movies and then lock myself in the bathroom and try to hit another five high notes and attempt to produce pronounced lengthy vocal runs without taking a breath in between, or work on the books I’d write, and would later ask authors who came to our elementary school, “How did you become a writer?” with wonder in my eyes and a sweet exhaustion in theirs that I recognize now. If I met little-kid me now, with her big anime eyes, desperately ready for her adulthood to start because her childhood was killing her, I’d look at her the same way.

When I got to my Brooklyn apartment—that I’d never seen before because it seemed decent enough on Craigslist, although it had zero photos at all, but it was cheapish and they didn’t mind that I was having to move in sight unseen (probably because of what was about to happen)—a bunch of hippies on bikes, with dirt on their knees and Manic Panic hair, stared at me as I pulled up in a truck filled with everything I held dear.

One of the hippies (all of whom smelled horrifically) led me into the room, which was instantly terrifying. There were homeless men staying in the “common area” and junkies (who were doing naked yoga) screaming angrily through the halls.

My room had a dirt floor and four walls streaked with urine.

I was given a shelf that looked like someone had been spending some time (and by this I mean maximum three minutes) at Michaels craft store, which would have been fine but you can’t put a decoupage vase in a jail cell and call it homey.

The guy who showed me the room said, “So, here’s your room! Yay! It’s yours and it’s fabulous!”

Guys. It’s one thing to describe my room as fabulous when I’m miles away from its view. It’s a completely different thing to call something that even prison inmates would describe as “gross” as fabulous when I’m watching bugs form a pile in the corner.

It smelled like stale air and had no windows; gnats swarmed around me as I brought in one bag after another.

I kept thinking about families on TV or in movies who would’ve seen this and screamed, “Hell no! My daughter is NOT staying in this shithole! Let’s go.” Instead, I told myself I would survive it, it would be fine.

I went back to my room and tried to put my things away; trying to see if this could work, like maybe I’d missed another fifty square feet. Maybe the bugs had gotten bored and left; maybe they were just passing through, or were Disney bugs who sang and could keep me company! Yeah! No.

My bed was soaked through from a sudden rainstorm on the drive and my feet were covered in the filth that permeated every corner of the space.

The artists’ collective was appropriately named WTF Real Estate. (I think this was their attempt to be, like, “man, we’re really turning New York City real estate on its head and doing our own thing.”) Had they thought it through, they would’ve added, “which, by the way, sucks.”

There was a zombie party that night, so I went, mainly to keep from crying. I got dressed up and ate a disgusting dinner with the hippies. I got my zombie makeup done at the party and talked to supremely boring hipsters and watched their ironic dance moves and half-ass attempts at being impressive.

The open loft space was full of more bugs than I’d ever seen inside or outside one space, climbing the walls, no windows, terrifying people from the ages of eighteen to fifty-five squished into the small rooms, each bolted shut with multiple locks. There was also a pile of free (expired) vegan foods salvaged from a dumpster-diving mission and crawling with at least AT LEAST 2,000 ants, so, you know, I had access to . . . that.

My room (I just laughed out loud when I called it a room—okay, okay, okay I’m good) was windowless, with a dirt floor that could hold a queen-size bed and nothing more, save for that lone “I’m having a nervous breakdown from living in this room, so I went to Michaels” shelf with flowers painted on it, left over from the last tenant who maybe died there, I assumed. And as soon as I’d absorbed that information, I was immediately told what I had not been told via email or on the phone, which was that I’d also have a roommate somehow in that tiny, terrifying storage shed full of remnants from a now-ghost who definitely did not haunt the room because I guarantee once she died, she was, like, “Fuuuuck this place.”

So I quickly dissociated and headed back into the poorly lit apartment like it was my unfortunately very familiar destiny, muttering to myself, “Just tell yourself it’s like Rent. Even though you hated that play, just tell yourself it’ll be like that.”

I attempted to hang out with the other kids who lived there because I was technically super young and cool and maybe I would’ve thought this was awesome if I hadn’t already lived in a bag full of shit for most of my life before this. I’m sure if I was like these kids, who mostly came from rich families and absolutely wanted to spend their early twenties fucking each other in a filthy artists’ space with no locks on the doors because even if something happened, so many of them were whole, they had families, they had money, they were fearless, had the privilege of being able to be fearless, I would’ve loved it. But because I had no safety net, nowhere to go if this didn’t work out, $200 in the bank, and a mission in life to fucking survive so I could live to see the day my dreams came true, I did not love it.

I ended up talking to a cute guy (who desperately wanted to be that dude from Interpol) on the roof who seemed like he was happy, so how bad could it be? *Whispers* very bad if you are not a rich kid who thinks this is cute. Literally, this whole house was the lyrical plot of Pulp’s “Common People,” which I listened to constantly during this time, singing along with the headphones that never left my ears: “Watching roaches climb the wall / If you called your dad he could stop it all.”

I’d been surrounded by happy, fail-proof rich kids my whole life. I’d dated them; I’d watched them drive BMWs to high school while I drove a car as old as I was, a car I’d also live in after graduation. And unknowingly, in all of that, I’d spent a lifetime preparing to move to a city fucking full of insanely rich kids who got $100,000 to give it a go and play at being adults. I’d listen to Pulp or whatever else was in my rotation at that time (Julie Doiron’s “Goodnight Nobody” and Cat Power’s The Covers Record were mainstays) while sitting in the corner, staring at these kids who loved being on their own for the first time in a playfully shitty situation they got to navigate like it was the Sims. But for me, it was my millionth time being on my own in some repulsively shitty situation I had to survive and couldn’t hit “game end” when I didn’t want to do it anymore.

I didn’t hate them, I don’t hate them. Because that’s the life you’re supposed to have at that age. Stupid and frantic, and fucking up and getting bailed out and trying again. I’ve just never known it and I wish I had.

The kids (I was easily the youngest person there, but have literally never felt like the youngest person in any room I’ve ever been in. Even when I was ten, I was easily forty in trauma years) were all making a huge pot of something in the kitchen and I was just so excited by the mere concept of someone making me dinner at all and hoping maybe it would be a community, a misfit family I’d never had. I ate my tiny bowl of “Honestly, what is this?” that was probably like 99 percent pubes and I felt happy. I met a punk-rock musician girl who was very tall and seemed very kind and I just told myself I belonged somewhere, finally, maybe, eventually, sort of. (Spoiler: After I moved out, I ran into this girl months later at a café. She told me she was raped in that house by her roommate and the manager calmly suggested she “talk it out” with him and refused to get her a new roommate. She eventually ended up living on the street for a while, and I wished so badly that I had enough money to take her with me.)

I went back to my room and shut the door and went to fall asleep on my 1,000 percent still soaking wet mattress. While trying to sleep on the mattress that was so fucking wet, dude, just soaked through, and the place had no windows or air or anything, like a tiny jail cell, so it wasn’t drying any time soon, I started crying while heroin dealers banged on my door with four broken locks, ear infection creeping into my left side, piss-stained walls, the smell in my hair for the next six days, no windows, no toilet paper, more bugs on the walls than paint, stacks of dumpstered food ravaged by worms and ants overtaking the tables, empty cigarette cartons now filled with used condoms, and cried myself to sleep.

I woke up the next morning with an ear infection from the mattress, and the only thing that dragged me out of that room was Liv. Liv was a friend I’d met online in the weirdest way possible: through a guy named Dan I’d briefly flirted with on the internet and never met in real life, who one day introduced us over the phone because he thought we’d get along. Fun spoiler: She and I are still friends now, and Dan sucks. We quickly bonded over our love of old movies and Amy Sedaris and vintage clothing and blue water and a lifetime of intense trauma leaving us both with an eternal need to write, make jokes, and steer clear of most people. If Liv hadn’t somehow magically broken through her agoraphobic barriers to come see me all the way from Baltimore, I would have stayed in there, in that room, crying crying crying and begging God to make it different.

Though I’d known her a while at this point, it was through the phone only, since we’d never been anywhere near the same city, and she struggled with severe agoraphobia, but this trip made it real. We went to a nearby gay bar and made penis buttons and wore paper sailor hats. We listened to bouncy Britney Spears songs and laughed at the irony of the carefree music that played around our conversation of uncertainty and the inevitability of the nightmare I’d have to walk back to.

Liv tried her best to get me to come back with her to her parents’ Baltimore home (which was just as unsafe if not more so, for both her and me) and just leave everything for now, but it all seemed like too much—the bolt in the night. To leave my stuff there that long, or weigh the odds they might notice that I was gone, or what could happen to every single thing I owned over the course of that day. I’d never had that thing of, like, “Leave stuff at your parents’ house,” because the second I left home, I gave away or threw away everything and I regret it all the time, but I know why I did it. I didn’t know if I was ever coming back or could come back, and I didn’t want to leave something and later need it and have no way to get it back, or have a way to get it back that was too painful to attempt. So I put on a brave face and walked Liv to the subway and we lied to each other that we’d be okay, because the truth was too sad, and neither of us could set the other free from their lives.

The next day, I tried to make the best of it and address all the things that made me nervous head-on with the apartment manager. He fed me some The Secret bullshit about empowering myself enough to not feel like this place was dirty and then asked me to cut some green chilis for the community dinner. I almost started singing, “I’m gonna sit at the welcome table / I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, Hallelujah!” a reference to Strangers with Candy no one there would’ve appreciated.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t just leave and find another apartment, know that it never crossed my mind once. A combination of being taught from birth to survive anything, I had become a creature who could deny all my physical and emotional needs existed. I don’t even feel them anymore; if I can get through it and not die, I have no other needs. A huge part of this, I think, came from my lack of a capital-letter Family, a lack of having backup. I’ve talked to friends who will say when they’ve been in shitty situations, they’ll call their parents. I truly don’t know anyone with family who doesn’t use them all the time like a fucking credit card with every dollar matched by cash back rewards. When I’ve been in dire circumstances, or had a roommate screw me over on a deposit I was owed or a job that just didn’t pay me because “Laws? what laws,” it was “You’re on your own, kid.” There was no “Oh, I’ll call this person for help or advice.” There was only a voice in my head saying, “Fucking figure it out on your own and stop whining. It’s not that bad.”

After the extremely unhelpful cult speech ended, a strange but very helpful-seeming man who lived there approached me and told me he could “help you figure out food stamps if you want” and advised me to “put three locks on your door. These people are fucking insane.”

I’d been through worse, though, so I was fine, I was cool. And I was gonna make this place fucking homey.

I went to grab a communal fan from the living room to put in my windowless room that was so hot it choked you the second you walked in, and soon after, the homeless guy who crashed in the living room snapped the lock off my door and took it back, claiming it was his. He came and went through the front door to the facility, which was never locked and couldn’t even lock if it willed itself to.

Terrified, I spoke to the building manager, who responded with “You know, staying here is all about perspective. If you think this place is terrifying and unsafe, then it is.”

Realizing that was literally batshit crazy pants logic, I quickly found a local hostel just down the street, and made arrangements to move everything I owned, by myself, in the middle of the night to get to safety.

But just because I had a plan does not mean I was out of that shithole yet—oh hell no. That would’ve been too easy. Fortunately, I hadn’t yet given the apartment manager my rent money, since when I asked when it was due, they said, “It’s chill, whatever,” and I quickly realized nothing about this housing situation was chill and if anything was “whatever,” it was their general view on safety and cleanliness. As I waited outside for my taxi to help me carry my stuff down the street, I was harassed by a heroin dealer who yelled at me until I told him my name, and when he asked, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” I told him I didn’t have enough space in my room for all my stuff, so I was taking everything else to a friend’s house to make space for my floor cot and my surprise roommate in my Bushwick jail cell. A super cute guy in his twenties intuitively knew what I was doing and said, “Hey, let me help you,” and I said, “Thank you so much. This is terrifying and I’m worried of what they’ll do to me if they know I’m leaving, but I can’t stay here.” He said, “I get it, man. These people are crazy,” and helped me load everything into the cab, and I briefly married him in my mind. I remember seeing some of the other guys in the rearview mirror of the cab, quickly realizing I would not be back and yelling things at my cab as I left, but fuck it, I was gone, I’d made it out, as I thankfully always had.

When I got to the hostel in the middle of the night in the dead, sweltering heat, with all my stuff in tow, I was told the elevator wasn’t working and that I would be staying on the fourth floor, which meant that at three a.m. in 98-degree weather, in a building with no air conditioning, I would be moving everything I owned up about four flights of stairs by myself. I told my story about the apartment full of drug dealers to the clerk, who, apparently employing the transitive property, asked me if I “was a junkie.” The sweet doorman went beyond the call of duty and helped me get my things to my room. I tiptoed each bag into the room and lined them up against the wall as British, French, and Irish girls slept soundly in their bunk beds. I couldn’t bring myself to scale one in hopes of finding an empty top bunk. I felt I’d made enough noise as it was.

I slipped out to the fire escape and called everyone who came to mind, which was no one. But in an effort to be like Normal People, I called my sister. My sister, like my mom, had been someone I would occasionally call like a reflex because I wanted to be normal, and they would answer, perhaps because they also wanted to be normal. For years, I thought if I just called and ignored all of the things unsaid between us, all of the unspoken pain buried in our conversations where we spoke to each other like former coworkers who hadn’t seen each other in years but occasionally caught up, only to talk about the weather, I could pretend I wasn’t alone. My mom and my sister were in my phone, which meant I was normal and had a family. But I knew it was a lie.

The best way I can explain this is that, for a long time, some of my relatives were like chewing gum. When you’re starving and what you really need on a cellular level is something hearty, something that lasts, something nourishing, something with vitamins, something with minerals, something that will stick to your stomach so the hunger won’t return almost immediately but the only thing available is gum, you’ll buy gum because it’ll mimic the sensation of chewing and eating. But you’re not really absorbing or digesting. You will not get full. There are no vitamins. There are no nutrients. And it will never, ever be food. It’s better than having nothing at all, but eventually you’ll realize you haven’t eaten in ages and you’re starving. And you’ll want a full fucking meal.

As soon as I started to cry, my phone died.

I spread out across the fire escape, hand behind my head, breathed in the cool air, and remembered this was better, any way you sliced it. I used the phone disconnecting to regulate my breathing. I was outside a room with forty sleeping transient girls, just like me, each with their own stories. I lay on the fire escape and stared at the moon, finally allowing myself to cry, and wishing I had someone else to talk to. But I had the moon, and that was fine too.

   Over the next two months or so, I lived off single-serve boxes of Walgreens dried fruit because it cost about one dollar and worked well enough and no cooking was required.

The hostel was populated mostly by European kids on holiday, and there was a small group of kids I’d see around who seemed to be having the most fun possible. I’d watch them and imagine I was friends with them, which was plenty for me. Just enough socialization without ever having to become actively involved outside my own mind.

One morning, the blond girl in the group came up to me while I was on my laptop in the common area and asked me if she could use my credit card and reimburse me with cash. “They don’t let you do a deposit with cash and I don’t have a credit card here, bloody idiots,” she said. I didn’t think twice and gave it to her—who knows why, optimism maybe. She said thanks a million and left.

Later that day in the dining room, she shouted over the tables, “Guys, there’s that girl who gave me her credit card number even though I’m a total stranger from another country,” in a way that both playfully mocked and applauded me. I shyly motioned Hi and the guy in the group, whom I later learned was named Noah, said, “Why would you do that? That’s insane. You’re really trusting.” And immediately I started to imagine that this Irish white girl in her twenties was actually a Middle Eastern prince who had stolen millions from young American punk-rock women because uh, maybe she was? Holy shit. Noah followed up, “Nah, you’re lucky. Naimh’s cool. I’m Noah. This is Rachel. She’s from Greece on holiday. Naimh is from Ireland on holiday. And I’m here from Scotland on holiday. Where are you from?”

Externally, I remained calm and a little reserved, but internally, I was beaming. I was in. I had friends, even for the next five minutes. “Well, I just moved here, but I rented a room in a crack den full of creepy homeless men and heroin dealers who threatened me when I didn’t tell them my name, so I moved all my stuff up here in the middle of the night and now I’m trying to find an apartment that’s more populated by people than by roaches and expired vegan snacks.”

Externally, they beamed. And from then on, we were inseparable. We went to cafés together, walked ten miles and ordered large vegan pizzas we’d eat individually, went to parties and art gallery openings and museums. I got to see the city as they saw it: as a playground full of endless possibilities, instead of as I saw it, yet another city where I knew no one and nothing, save that I was meant to be here and start my life somehow.

One day, while in a coffee shop in Bushwick, I told Noah about my dream to write for The Onion because I loved it and I knew they were based in New York. I knew on some weird level (Stevie Nicks, is that you again???) that I was meant to work there—I just had to figure out how. I had happened upon an ad on Craigslist for Onion interns and showed it to him. I had applied, but he told me to follow up in person, why not—and he offered to go with me. I will always be grateful to him for that.

We went over to their Broadway offices in Manhattan and I talked to the doorman. I told him I didn’t have an appointment but I was trying to get an internship there and I was sure they got a million applications but I really wanted this and I just needed to try in person. He smiled and told me he had a good feeling about me, and in that moment I felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman—without the sex work—and went upstairs.

Not long after, I got the internship, surrounded by fellow interns who lived in $6,000-a-month Park Avenue apartments and had credit cards loaded with $10,000 a month for “expenses,” while I’d live off a $3 miso soup from Dean & DeLuca. One of the interns once turned to me when we were eating lunch there together and said, “That’s three dollars? Wow, I didn’t even know they had anything that cheap here,” and I laughed because she sounded like a rich person in a cartoon. But who cares, because several months after that, I got the writing fellowship and a string of “Congrats, kid. This was the best writing packet we saw, hands down” emails from my now coworkers that came with it. And the knowledge that I was right all along, that I was right to believe I was a comedy writer and I could do this, I was ready, confirmed.

Aaaand then came the news that it paid, like, two hundred dollars a month for full-time work, which was a third of what I’d been told by people that it paid. I guess they cut the pay drastically because . . . fuck it. Having just come off a four-month, nearly full-time internship that paid absolutely nothing, having this full-time position pay next to nothing felt like a punishment in the most delightful form, but a punishment nonetheless. I know now that these industry practices are put in place with the assumption that everyone in the arts comes from a wealthy family who will bankroll them for The Opportunity, thereby shutting out people who have families but don’t have money, or people who don’t have anyone at all, and however you feel about that concept, it ultimately results in a loss of art from some of the people I want to hear from most.

We don’t give the people who don’t have the right connections and supreme wealth the map to where the opportunities are, and then when they forge a path there themselves, against immense odds, we charge them a fee for admission we know they can’t afford. And then we reward incredibly fortunate, connected, and bankrolled creators without acknowledging there was almost no way they would ever fail. Again, I don’t begrudge anyone who comes from a super-supportive family, or a super-wealthy family, or a super-wealthy AND supportive family, but it is so important to remember that having a support system, having a safe, loving family who encourages you and guides you and financially supports you, giving you a safe place to fall—these are luxuries. They should be something we’re all entitled to and we all get, but they are not. And even if you have a safe, loving family but no money, you still have guidance and support and a fallback plan of some kind just because they exist. But if you don’t have a safe, loving, supportive family guiding you through life AND you don’t have money, you’re twice as alone.

And if you are one of those people, you will take jobs because you need the money, even if it puts you years off your career path because you don’t know any better and if you don’t survive, you die. You won’t ask for more money when they offer you a starting salary because no one told you to do that. Who would’ve told you? Your parents? Not a thing. You will have jobs straight up not pay you at all for days, sometimes weeks of work, and you will have no one to call who will say, “That’s illegal. Here’s what to do,” or even “No, I’ll call them.” You won’t have that cool thing where your parents protect you from people taking advantage of you: “She’s with us. She has people. Try this shit somewhere else, but not with our girl.” The dream.

You will have exorbitant medical bills come in for services they never ultimately performed, and you will spend nearly a year’s salary to pay them off immediately because you are scared, because no one is there to tell you that if it’s more than your salary, you often don’t have to pay. You will spend years patting walls down for a secret doorknob to where you want to be in your career, while people who have one or both of the aforementioned luxuries will see the door clearly and may even have someone point it out to them and hold it open for them.

I hear friends and colleagues say it all the time, how nothing they’ve done would be possible if it weren’t for their family, and a knot forms in my stomach and sometimes it’s so sharp I check for physical bleeding. This is not petty envy, not about who is right and who is wrong; it is simply a cigarette-burn-to-the-arm reminder of what I could’ve had and didn’t. And it kind of blows my mind and breaks my heart to think about who I would’ve been, what I could’ve done, how much better I could’ve lived, how much more protected I would have been if I’d had that too.

I guess I just had this idea in my mind that the arts were filled with people like me—little kids with dreams and less-than-ideal families who went off on their own with thirty dollars in their pocket and the determination to succeed. And they are not. It will always confuse me that we don’t talk about the difference that makes in our world, the vastness of which I can’t even imagine.

I talked to one of the editors there about how I couldn’t financially afford it and he told me he thought I should still take it, and if I did, he’d buy me a huge bag of rice and a bulk container of hummus and some beans to live off of. I took the job, but man, I really should’ve followed up on that food offer too, whether it was serious or not, because in retrospect, that would’ve helped.

The first time my name was in The Onion’s print newspaper, which they had at the time, and it had my first headlines and stories in it, I had no one to show—almost. I did have the guy at the Korean deli named Mark who was always the friendliest person in the world. We’d talk every day while I bought vegetables. He was so proud of me and said, “That’s so great, Lane!” while I paid with change because I was still hilariously broke, but I felt rich as shit because I was getting paid to write comedy. Sure, it was in nickels, but comedy nickels, which I think are actually less valuable than regular nickels, but still.


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