Four-and-a-half months to two years of helplessness

April 5, 2014 by Joshua
in Awareness

Since December my life has had an out-of-control problem I thought I resolved twenty-five years ago. I have to describe a choice I made in Paris to explain it.

To put it in context, on the scale of things people suffer, it’s small. The point isn’t the scale of the problem, but having something affecting you that you think you should be able to control but you can’t. It makes you feel helpless. Helplessness is hard to handle. I find exploring and understanding emotions helps me handle them. Helplessness that you don’t learn to handle turns into resignation, futility, and complacency, emotions I don’t like feeling.

Anyway, back to 1990 Paris, the problem I solved there, and how it resurfaced. I took a year off from college in 1989, feeling like I redeemed the year I skipped in junior high. I put together all the money I could and with that $1,000 went to Paris with only one goal: to stay there until June at least. That meant I’d have to find where to live, how to earn money, and what to do before that money ran out.

Before the internet I had to go to the few physical bulletin boards around Paris where families posted that they wanted American students to live with them, usually for their kids to hear English spoken. I found one such family and lived with them for the year, walking their dog, helping around the house, and so on.

The relevance to the story was a few words on the card they posted about the location:

Five minutes from the center of everything.

The words were mostly accurate. The subway stop was a short walk from their place and the train ride took a few minutes to reach the Arc de Triumphe and not much more to Champs Elysees and Chatelet.

Paris on a budget means taking the subway always and never taxis (I eventually got a mountain bike and became known among my friends for riding it everywhere, but it took a while to get it). Unlike New York City’s subway, the Paris Metro stops at night. Every now and then you’d be having a great time at a party and suddenly see a clock read 12:30, rush to ask the host when the last metro went by the nearest station, and realize you missed the last metro.

Now you hit a dilemma: Do I try to keep partying for another five hours to catch tomorrow’s first metro? Do I try to sleep here? Can I walk home or to a nearby friend’s place? Or do I take the night bus?

Not all parties were worth sticking it out to next day’s first metro, not all distance were walkable, and I couldn’t afford taxis, so the alternative was the Noctambus—the Night Bus. Eight bus lines ran once an hour radially in and out from the city center to its periphery. You’d find the closest stop to your party, often far given that we poor students couldn’t afford city center rents, take it to the city center, switch to the line to your place, and get home about two hours later.

Let’s remember, you missed the last metro in the first place because you were having so much fun with friends you forgot about it. Now you found yourself with the dregs—you were a dreg!—on a slow-moving bus far from home, hoping your bladder would last.

Your night went from awesome to suck in the glance of a watch. Two hours of suck, helplessly and hopelessly looking out a bus window at the city of lights, with its lights out, often cold and rainy, drunk and lonely, pondering how awful you felt.

On one of those bus rides I told myself, “I will never live ‘five minutes from everything.’ I’ll accept roommates, small apartments, high rents, jobs to afford them, or whatever it takes to make it work, but I’m going to live where I want” People make high-level life choices and I decided that one for myself then.

I’ve made it work. Since then I’ve lived within walking distance of where I worked. For the rest of college I lived in dorms. At graduate school at Penn I walked, biked, or bladed to my office. Back at Columbia I again lived near campus, somehow living in Manhattan on around $27,000 per year. When I co-founded Submedia we opened our first office in Soho and I bought my place in the West Village, where I’ve lived for fourteen years. I’ve lived only in Shanghai for close to a year in that time and found great location for myself there, near Jing An Temple, though at this age I can afford taxis.

What does all this have to do with now? A couple years ago an architect friend suggested renovating my place and offered a great price by asking a contractor who did multi-million-dollar projects to do my small one at cost. Not liking moving, I held off. As more friends moved to nicer places and condemned my old fixtures I warmed to the idea. When my refrigerator broke and couldn’t fit out the kitchen door—did they install it during construction?—I decided to renovate. The eight months in Shanghai, co-op board approval, and waiting for the contractor’s other projects to finish took another two years.

Construction was slated to begin the first day after Thanksgiving. I’ll always remember the contractor and my architect friend visiting during November. The contractor said “I’ll bring in extra guys. I want to do this job fast so I can move to other projects. We’ll be done by Christmas.”

I’m writing these words April 1. The place is nearly done, though I’ve felt it was nearly done so many times I don’t know what to believe about finishing. I’ve switched contractors and sent a carefully worded email to my architect friend (the friendship pushed to the limit). And I’m sitting on a slow-moving train making a ride that can take forty-five minutes over an hour and making me late to meet a student.

In other words, for the first time in a quarter-century, circumstances are forcing me to violate a major life choice. Four months isn’t that long, but combined with moving my stuff into storage over a year ago and living in Shanghai, I’ve lived almost out of a suitcase for nearly two years.

Again, the issue at hand is that where I live has been out of my control and it’s important. I’ve been able to make great things happen in that time, but something deep has felt unsettled. In an otherwise calm life, sitting on long subway rides just to get to where I chose to live rattles me a lot.

I’ll have to come back to it later.

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