Growing up in Canada in the suburbs of Toronto my vision of New York City was a mashup of 1930/40s art deco musicals and 1970s crime dramas. A mixture of architecture, music, dance, and impeccable taste crossed with a bankrupt city filled with long hair, dirt, crime, citizens too scared to venture in the subway and bustling with a downtown art scene punk energy.
I never thought I'd live in the States…
At an early age I knew I wanted to be an animator. In those days this wasn't a very wise career choice but when I was in grade 6 a new animated holiday special premiered on TV that was produced in Toronto. I also discovered that the college in my hometown had an animation program. My dream job went from something that was in another country and unobtainable to something that was local and a possibility. On that day I decided I was going to enroll in that animation school.
When I graduated in 1987 job prospects still didn't look good. The animation explosion hadn't happened yet but at the time my college had a informal connection to another school on Long Island. This school had an early (and famous) computer graphics lab and the man running it thought himself a film maker and was attempting to make the first computer animated feature film. He offered scholarships to a handful of graduates to come down to New York, go to the school and get a degree, but also to work at the lab part time on the film. I jumped at the chance.
On Feb 1, 1988 a friend and I got into her car and drove from Toronto to New York. We came down via the New York State Thruway, through the Bronx and onto the Cross Bronx Expressway towards the Throngs-Neck Bridge. The visions of the empty derelict apartment buildings lining the Cross Bronx reminded me of scenes from the movie Koyanisqatsii. The highway buried in it's Robert Moses trench, the short off-ramps, the high speeds and the closeness of the cars added to the tightness in my chest.
We made it out to Long Island and joined the crew of animators; some whom had been in place for the previous 6 months. I settled into my new living situation and after a month I decided it was time to spend a day in Manhattan. I was surprised that the previous arrivals from Canada hadn't spent any time in the city - and didn't even seem interested! So on a Saturday I grabbed an early morning LIRR train into Manhattan. I had no plans for the day; I just walked around marveling at everything, covering as much ground as I could. I fell in love with the city. Manhattan at that time was still rather rough; Penn Station a homeless encampment, Times Square rough and tumble, the avenues south of Penn empty of commerce and not lined with the big box stores that are there now. But my early childhood vision of New York as a cross between art deco musicals and 1970s crime dramas was true. It was just like how I imagined it.
From that day forward every weekend I took the train into Manhattan wandering around the city from the early morning into the evening. I'd pick an area on the map and walk back and forth on the streets just to see what was there.
Come January 1991 my job at the lab became full-time and I moved from Long Island into my own apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. I loved it. Finally I was a New Yorker but sadly it wasn't to last for much longer. The film we were working on was a fiasco and the lab was on shaky ground. One week our payroll was an IOU so I knew it was over and quit the job. (6 months later the lab shut down completely.) My short term work visa required I return to Canada so I spent my last three legal months enjoying the city, going to concerts, museums, and volunteering in Central Park. I still consider it the best summer of my life.
In September of 1991 I returned to Toronto but my time in New York wasn't over. Through friends that I made I returned to freelance for the summer of 1993 and then again for winter/spring of 1994/95. Both times I hoped the jobs would turn permanent but sadly no. Then through friends I met at the last job I learned about a great opportunity in California. So in the spring of 1995 I moved to San Francisco. My whole time in California I was a broken record saying "New York this… New York that…" The work was good but it just wasn't New York. After 3 years I quit with the full intention to return to New York but before I could leave I was persuaded to apply at another company in the bay area. I complied just to figure out if it was the previous job or SF that was the cause of my dissatisfaction. I landed the job and ended up staying in SF for another 9 years! My dream of becoming a New Yorker was deferred once again.
During these years I kept my connections to New York active. Since film work is cyclical twice during slow periods I was able to take a leave of absence and fly to NYC for a freelance job. Each time I returned I knew New York was where I really wanted to live. When the spring slow period was more severe than normal I was laid off from my California job after 12 years in San Francisco. Before my manager finished his sentence I was wondering how fast it would take me to pack up and move across the continent. Two weeks later I got a call regarding a job in Manhattan. Two months after that I was moving into my Brooklyn apartment.
It's been three years since that day - and I have no intention on leaving. Today even marks the second anniversary of me becoming an american citizen. But I'm really a New Yorker.