How to Survive in New York on Mickey D’s Coupons

New America Media, Feature, Published: January 15, 2009

NEW YORK — I first met Vance way downtown in New York City, standing outside of a club called The Box. At the time, The Box was a big deal in “those” circles—Madonna was on the guest list that night—and we stood on the sidewalk out front with a group of friends who cared about that kind of thing.

They hounded the clipboard guy and offered up more and more money with the hope of getting in.

Vance and I found each other in this group of mutual friends because we both thought the whole scene was a little absurd. After a few minutes of mocking the horde of desperate souls, our friend approached us with what he thought was bad news. “They’re at full capacity, mates, but they can let in two girls and two guys….”

We interrupted him to say we were headed to Max Fish over on the Lower East Side, where we could have $2 beers and piss in the sink with the rest of the dirt bags. Falling out of our stools at the end of the night, Vance suggested dinner and pulled McDonalds coupons from his pocket, as if he were revealing handfuls of filet mignon.

We stumbled to the McDonalds on 3rd Street and got four cheeseburgers for $2, eating them while we waited for the train back to Harlem.

Some time ago, it was intimidating and humiliating to be broke in New York City. Every bar, club and restaurant on the island was full of finance guys dropping thousands of dollars a night on bottle service and mountains of cocaine. Freakishly gorgeous teenage girls from the Ukraine filled booths, barely clothed, looking miserable on the best night of their lives. After September, that scene dried up and it didn’t seem so bad to be broke anymore. Vance was allowed to be Vance again, free of ridicule.

He was the kind of person I was expecting, hoping, to meet when I moved to New York last year: artists, poets, dreamers, actors, musicians, drunks, thinkers. Secretly, I knew New York had been stripped of these types years ago in favor of the silly people in front of The Box: hangers-on, D-listers, aimless rich kids. And meeting Vance was like a confirmation that the silly romantic idea I clung to still existed.

Vance’s parents met at the Palladium on 14th Street back in the 80s. The Palladium, incidentally, is now a dormitory for NYU. He made his way through New York public schools, did some acting, drawing, painting, got money for art school, dropped out and started writing plays. Now he lives in the kitchen of a ground floor apartment in Harlem with his roommate, a dishonorably discharged marine. He has no job and no steady income, other than what he gets from odd acting jobs and some medical studies he volunteers for.

It turned out that Vance and I live just blocks from each other in Harlem, so we started getting together every so often. One night, I came over to play spades and drink beer at his apartment. Vance’s room was a mattress spread out near the kitchen, with books strewn about and a laptop on the floor. The walls were covered with examples of some of his art: sly photographs of a pretty girl hiding her face, some charcoal sketches.

His roommate joined us in the cards and there were two girls at the apartment too, who took the train all the way from Brooklyn to do their laundry there because the machines are cheaper. We watched an illegally downloaded version of Tropic Thunder and played cards on a cardboard box. Eventually, the beers were gone and so were the girls and we called it a night. Vance invited me back, saying he’d cook dinner next time.

After a week or so, I sent him a text message to see if he was around for dinner and some cards. He called me back right away, explaining that he couldn’t really text because his cell phone plan only had a certain amount of texts per month and he preferred to save them for “emergencies.” Then he said he was making chicken parmesan and invited me over asking that I buy a 99-cent two liter of iced tea on my way.

His roommate was out so it was just us and we played gin rummy and talked while he monitored the food. I was having some anxiety about where I was in my life, so I confided in him as a friend. I talked about being young, but not that young, accomplished, but not that accomplished, and so broke that I lived on my roommate’s leftover Chinese food.

He managed to calm me down. He told me that the whole economic meltdown was good for people like us, because it reminds us that all of that materialism and flash is temporary and fleeting. He said he hasn’t even noticed that anything’s changed because he’s always lived like this. Seeing people lose everything and jumping out of windows just reminds him of why he’s here: to make art, to have adventures.

We ate all of our chicken parmesan, which was good, and finished the 99-cent two liter of iced tea. I can’t remember who won gin, but I went on my way around four in the morning. Before I left, I asked him what he was up to the next day. He just smiled, shrugged and said, “Whatever.”

The last time I spoke to him, he called me just before Christmas, asking for a favor. He needed a bus ticket to go see his family in Baltimore. He explained that he didn’t have the money just then, but he’d have it soon. Also, he needed to book the ticket online and didn’t have a credit card. I bought him the ticket and said good night. He thanked me and said, “Merry Christmas, man.”