Two years ago, I moved to New York. The date on which I relocated probably had more to do with an arbitrary airline sale than with actually having a job lined up. The post-college pressure was on, but it was difficult to solidify something from afar. Somehow, once I physically planted myself in a sublet in Brooklyn, it all clicked. Soon, I had a job.
Though I went to college in the northeast, living year-round in New York City presented certain amusing novelties to me. For one, I grew up in a place where street names and neighborhoods were called things like Mira Mesa, Chula Vista, and Camino Del Rio Norte, and I thought nothing of it. In New York, I slowly grew accustomed to Schermerhorn, Kosciuszko, and Van Siclen. If I join a queue here, people ask me if I am “on line” rather than “in line,” regardless of whether I might be surfing the internet. Similarly, my native San Diego has predominantly warm, dry weather with ocean breezes. Summer there is a season people love, not dread. Here in New York, the summer heat makes one’s skin melt.
The day I interviewed at my current job, I was suffering from a typical case of humidity shock. Although I liked the type of civil rights work that my current firm boasted, when I arrived to interview, I distinctly remember something purely visceral that made me initially want to stay: air conditioning. It was an oppressive day and I did not, and still do not, own an air conditioner. After slugging through the city in my unforgiving “business attire,” all I wanted was the crisp air of a brightly-lit mini-mart. Once I walked into my firm’s reception area and felt its chilling air, I thought, as irrationally as I possibly could: I want to work HERE.
During my interview, my then-boss explained that he thought the job would be too boring for me. I took his comment as some sort of antagonizing interview tactic. I dissuaded him. I told him I love filing things and making labels. I told him I’m naturally organized and that it’s fun to make lists. I have a twisted fascination with order, and that’s what paralegals are for. He hired me.
Since then, I have had what I call cubicle epiphanies—things one realizes only through hours spent confined in a gray enclosure. Oh yes, I do some of my best thinking as my eyes relax on a string of old e-mails or I pause to ponder the metropolis of tea boxes I’ve stacked in a corner. I realized, through the advice of my parents, that it’s O.K. to slow down and enjoy my 20-something life in New York—that in fact, I would be incredibly regretful if I didn’t. Instead of planning my next move, I started to invest in what I did have: I repainted my shared apartment with roommates, joined the local library, registered to vote, assembled a cadre of all-female doctors, and even got a New York State driver’s license (I would have kept my California license, but due to a Peter Pan hairdo phase in high school, my picture really did look like a twelve-year-old boy). I also confirmed, through the work I was doing at my law firm, that I wanted to go to law school. But having peered into the reality of life as a lawyer, and especially as a young associate, I knew that I did not want that without first exploring other goals of mine, such as the Peace Corps.
During that time, I also made an implicit investment in my workplace. I realized I was among some pretty bright people (lawyers and the numerous people who support lawyers included). I asked to be included in different aspects of litigation whenever possible. I lingered in attorneys’ offices, asking what I am sure were highly ignorant and bothersome questions about the law. Sure, I spent a lot of time making copies and performing needle-in-the haystack document searches, but part of that is a paying of dues. The work was not exactly beneath me, because I was learning about anti-discrimination law from some of the best. Some trials we had were incredibly exciting and I was fortunate to be any small part of them. To add to it, I decided to embrace the office lifestyle: I had morning mugs, office friends, and the obligatory collection of dress shoes under the desk. I wore the same three pair of work pants every day for two years and spiced things up with the help of H&M and intermittent splurges at Banana. I found out that water cooler camaraderie is for real. The series The Office came to have profound comical meaning for me in a way it never would have if I hadn’t worked as a paralegal. In addition, I am grateful that I have gained certain insights about law firms not by being a lawyer, but from being in a support staff position. There is a men-in-the-trenches rapport among support staff, and a reliable gossip network like you wouldn’t believe.
In a strange way, by working at a law firm, I found a place where I could potentially belong. Law is different from the world of academia and school to which I had been obligated for most of my young life. Litigation involves intellect, but does not require utter brilliance; one’s effectiveness comes from one’s convincing use of words, not one’s high-minded exploration of theory (although the latter certainly cannot hurt). I learned about negotiation, argumentation, and the power of intuition simply from overhearing attorneys bicker over speakerphone. I learned about writing by having my own writing corrected on the spot. Legal questions piqued my interest, and I found company among people who were direct and even hot-headed, but at bottom, inherently social and warm.
I had just come from college, a place that is so intellectually invigorating that one can’t help but feel mildly incompetent. During my senior year as an undergraduate, I was perpetually anxious about my barely-completed thesis, a project that offered me no shortage of self-doubt and heart palpitations. The drama of my thesis-writing was largely due to my perfectionist approach to the act. I loved writing, but I produced slowly and suffered severe writer’s block. Some nights, it was so bad I thought I had a learning disability not yet discovered. My paranoia overtook me: I was not accomplished, I was some sort of fraud. I hallucinated that my thesis would be tossed in an un-stapled heap to the back corner of some professor’s office, its decay to be acknowledged only by a summer custodian’s broom. I now look back and know these things aren’t true. But through college, I lamented my meticulousness and my continuous struggle to separate myself from it.
For much of my life, people have told me to “not be such a perfectionist.” This is useless advice for someone who is instinctively thorough. It is akin to, as they say, telling someone who suffers from depression to “just cheer up.” Believe me, I never wanted to be the person who pulled all-nighters every time an essay was due. I never figured out how some people wrote better when they had a beer, or were able to wrap up assignments quickly so they could enjoy a weekend away. I punished myself for being a slow reader and writer, even though I knew even some of my professors shared these characteristics.
In a way I would have never expected, being a paralegal validated my natural tendency toward fastidiousness. Unlike the lonesome distress I went through in college, holed up at 5 a.m. agonizing over syntax that no one would likely notice, it is gratifying at work to notice a typo and to have someone say, “Wow, thank you SO much for finding that!” In my job, it’s an asset, not an implement of self-torture, to be careful and methodical. While I do not have an immaculate room and my inbox/outbox is really just a place to accumulate papers I can’t quite discard, it’s good to know that certain aspects of my personality are just part of who I am, and I cannot necessarily change them.
I have also realized that my time in New York is part of a continuum—I have lived here, and anticipate one day returning here. I might be perpetually en route to different adventures, but just as I have left other places in my life, my journeys to and from New York do not mean I am leaving anything forever. I knew one day I would leave my cubicle. I didn’t know whether I would leave for another job in New York, or if, like now, I would take a job on another continent. And I’ve realized that whether it’s because of cubicle life (likely), or east-coast life in general (also likely), I find myself constantly sending out a mental love letter to San Diego. It’s hard for some people to believe, but deep down I am still a burrito-eating, In-N-Out loving, gas-guzzling, speed-driving, beach-going, kite-flying, tan-getting, strip-mall shopping Californian with a true “like,” “totally,” “um'” generational dialect that gives it all away.
Stay tuned for more dispatches from my life en route.