There is a stereotype about small-town girls who try to follow their dreams in the big city. It plays out like one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. After being drawn in to a lifestyle much too fast for them, the young women become disillusioned, desperate and eventually prostitutes before the city spits them back out into a meth lab upstate.
None of that happened to me when I moved from a small town in Ohio to New York City at age 21, but it wasn’t for lack of poor-decision making. I ordered long island iced teas because they sounded classy. I trusted perfect strangers because it seemed rude not to. I wore fishnet stockings to work. Big city sophistication was hard for me to nail because it was a concept I most closely associated with Mr. Monopoly. I felt awkward all the time and operated under the misguided notion that everyone around me knew something I didn’t. I miscalculated my environment to be much more foreign than it actually was. It was as if I were an alien pretending to be human.
My first job in the city was as a receptionist at a small, animation studio. The kind of animation they specialized in was called “motion graphics,” meaning they designed end tags for McDonalds and Subaru ads. Though the work was strictly commercial, many of the animators acted like rebellious artists and accepted nothing less than the rock star treatment from lowly assistants like myself. We literally called them “rock stars.” I now suspect my boss, Andrea, was doing so sarcastically. But at the time her tone was lost on me. As far as I was concerned, these guys were the Mick Jaggers of creating 3D plaque for toothpaste ads.
So, as you are probably gathering, this was a pretty fast paced, New York lifestyle. Who’d have thought me—a scrawny girl from the cornfields of Ohio—would get to work among genuine artists? Yet every task intimidated me. Tasks like picking out flower arrangements for the office. I quickly learned that picking up mums from the corner bodega was like putting a wet fart in a vase. I also had to order lunches for these rock stars—cool ethnic foods, far removed from my meat and potatoes upbringing. Everyone was so goddamn cool and worldly in my eyes. It was all I could do to keep up. Andrea, a fellow transplant with years of experience on me, often tried to calm my nerves and encouraged me to just be myself. But I was too intimidated to think clearly. Sometimes all she could do was smile and shake her head in my direction.
Then one day a partner in the company came to town from LA: a partner we wanted to impress. This involved multiple hip flower arrangements and sandwich platters—trendy sandwich platters with something called, “spicy ketchup.”
When the partner arrived, he was wearing a bright green silk shirt, cowboy boots and Ray-ban sunglasses. He was in his late 50s and though his shirt was pretty hideous in retrospect, I immediately took note that bright green silk shirts were the height of sophistication. Growing up, I had been taught not to speak unless spoken to when around my elders, so I failed to wrap my head around the idea that he and I were essentially coworkers.
Much to my relief, he loved the plate of chopped melons I’d put out. Maybe too much. He kept talking to me about the melons—to the point that I began to panic. Maybe it was the power dynamic between an old man in a bright green silk shirt and a young girl from Ohio, but the topic of melons seemed taboo and sexual. I began to sweat. The next thing I knew, he picked up a piece of melon and seemed to hold it out for me to try. Looking at the juicy melon between his fingers, I froze. What would a sexy and sophisticated New York career woman do?
I leaned in and took the melon from his hand with my mouth.
I stepped back knowing immediately that what I’d just done was weird. Really weird. “Quick,” I thought, “say something to make it better!”
“Mmmmmm….” I moaned, pretending to enjoy the sexy melon.
The room seemed to freeze. Every rock star was there—even the guy with a simple yet elegant approach to KFC ads. I couldn’t meet any of their eyes. There was an awkward beat during which my heart exploded and then the day mercifully moved on. As we moved into the conference room, Andrea put her hand on my shoulder. I turned sheepishly in her direction. She was shaking her head and smiling.
Perhaps if it weren’t for that mortifying moment, I would have made a graver mistake, like so many other small town girls attempting to follow their dreams. Maybe I would have ended up dancing on the bar at Coyote Ugly like in the classic film Coyote Ugly. But, luckily for me, I learned a lesson that day. Slow down, be yourself and use a fork.