Fifteen years ago today I took the biggest plunge of my life: I left my tiny rural hometown of McMinnville, Oregon for college in New York City -- sight unseen.
Looking back, what interests me the most is that I made a very bold decision without having all the facts, without really having any idea what I was getting myself into. And it turned out to be the best thing for me.
Normally I'm someone who likes to deliberate a lot before embracing change. I'm cautious by nature, and I'm a creature of habit. Moving somewhere I've never even visited, let alone going from McMinnville to Manhattan, does not usually seem a very prudent way of doing things.
Yet if I had visited New York before potentially enrolling at NYU, I probably would have changed my mind and gone with the safe option: the University of Oregon. When I first arrived in New York City with my mom in the late afternoon of August 25, 1990, it made for a horrible culture shock.
Even before we had gone from our gate at LaGuardia Airport to baggage claim, I was unnerved by the crass pushiness of people around me, as a middle-aged woman with a thick New York accent walking a few feet behind us scolded us for not walking fast enough: "Yuh godda keep moovin', people!" Then, as we stepped outside to hail a cab, the smell of urine and carbon monoxide felt like punch in the face. Everything in the city seemed to be decaying, and the late-August heat and humidity were mercilessly stifling. (To be fair, the city got a lot nicer over the five years I was there; I arrived as a difficult era was ending and a prosperous one was beginning.)
Had I visited New York during my senior year of high school, it's the small and none-too-positive details that I would have come home thinking about. As it happened, not visiting New York before matriculating, I was able to subsist wholly on my romantic notion of the city in its picture-postcard glory, complete with Sinatra's "New York New York" on the soundtrack. This impression was of course ridiculously narrow and naive, yet it actually turned out in the long run to be as valid a decision making factor as my initial horror at the city's rough edges, probably more.
Yes, New York could be a real shit-hole sometimes. I remember my mom's only point of reference when we first arrived that afternoon was her trip to Ecuador several years prior to visit my Aunt serving in the Peace Corps. To her New York, for all its sophistication, seemed like a Third World country more than anywhere she had visited in America.
But ultimately New York is a great city. The people, the art and culture, the architecture: all of it influenced me greatly. Because of my time there, today I think I'm more intellectual, more cultured and more open minded than I would have ever become staying in Oregon.
So even 15 years later, I'm still trying to sort this all out. What is the logic of taking a plunge without all the relevant information? Contrary to everything my instincts tell me, sometimes being foolhardy makes for a surprising brand of wisdom.