I am writing this now with a troubled heart.
New York was a blast. The time I spent in the so-called “concrete jungle” was a big contrast to my life in the warm, tropical jungle of the Yucatan, but this polar juxtaposition was perhaps what enthralled me the most. Call me crazy, but I love the constant change of scene and scenery.
The five days Mom and I spent exploring the city were filled with art, culture, and FOOD. If there’s one thing the New Yorkers are excelling at- it’s food. For the first time, one of the most memorable aspects of my trip was the delicious meals we devoured and the unique atmosphere of the places we enjoyed them. Although it seemed we did bring the sunshine with us that week (everyone was in shorts and tee-shirts while I was bundled in scarves and coats) it was still bitterly cold at night, and restaurants and cafes were bustling hubs. After walking all day (people walk everywhere in New York) it was like coming home when the restaurant door closed behind us with a jingle and my nose began to thaw, enveloped in the rich aromas of warm food in lively, crowded joints.
Although walking is probably the second-best thing New Yorkers do, they also have a complex, frigid labrinynth underneath the city called the subway. From JFK airport Mom and I navigated to our hotel. Along the way, a squad of about seven guys all around six feet tall and eighteen hopped on, toting a boombox. They bantered for a couple minutes and then turned on a thumping baseline without words. One by one, the guys swung from the bars of the subway, doing acrobats, backflips, hip-hop, and tests of strength worthy of Cirque du Soleil- narrowly avoiding the placid faces crowding the exterior of their stage. Meanwhile, the subway rambled on.
We spent the first night in The Archer in Manhattan, a lovely boutique hotel with a rooftop bar and celebrity chef kitchen we didn’t have the time to try out. That night we walked to our reservation at Haru, a Japanese joint a block from Times Square, and savored probably the best sushi I’ve ever had (and I’ve had A LOT of sushi).
Coming from a city that also does not sleep (and not being too fond of sleep myself), New York’s clock felt right at home. We perused Times Square; those famous, flickering billboards illuminating the bustling scene like the sun over scurrying rats. The shops didn’t close until 1 am, so we spent the rest of the night getting lost among rack after rack of clothes. Mom and I started to get nauseous. All I could think about was Odysseus’ journey from Troy when he encountered the tribe of Lotus-eaters and the part of his crew who partook were overcome by forgetfulness and bliss and had to be dragged back to the ship in order to leave. Don’t get me wrong- everything was bigger, cheaper, and readily available- it was just a little overwhelming.
The next day we walked to breakfast at Sarabeth’s, a lovely nook across the street from south Central Park. Horse and buggies trotted by under a crisp, blue sky and huge trees with frosty barren branches. We dined leisurely in the bustling colonial-style den with the clinking of juice glasses and clatter of heavy silverware in the jam-jars before setting off for the Museum of Modern Art.
Mom and I spent hours exploring MoMa’s four floors: from an expansive exhibit on Degas to an odd room of arranged cardboard. My mind was bursting with fireworks and my fingers twitched with excitement at the prospect of the next four years (and the rest of my life) being filled with art. It was the perfect build-up to the reason for my trip: to tour Pratt Institute and decide if New York is the place I will go to university.
If there is one thing the movies had right about New York, it is the taxis. Mom and I lunched around 4 at a cafe in Rockefeller Center, a few city blocks from MoMa, and returned to The Archer to grab our luggage and visit the 9/11 Museum at 6. This was a lofty endeavor, but a necessary one: the taxis averaged around $25 a trip, and although they were generally prevalent in the city, they weren’t always easy to catch. So instead of backtracking with more taxi trips later in the day, we walked back to our hotel and caught a taxi from there to the museum with our luggage in tow.
The 9/11 Museum was not what I expected- in a great way. It was built on the remains of the old towers, and the spacious underground plaza was walled in by the foundations of the Twin Towers. An entire room was dedicated to the faces of the victims, including large tables with touch-screens that allow you to click on any photo and read their bio. Debris, photographs, videos, and a staggering amount of posters, cards, and banners that the city received in support filled the rooms. Informative plaques on the walls debunked myths, answered questions, and even gave a detailed history on the terrorists and what happened to them after the event. The museum was a definite must-see.
That night we ventured to the Village and ate- again. Although we are vegan, Mom and I usually don’t eat at vegan restaurants because they typically use lots of substitutes. However, Avant Garden was comprised of quality, artisanal appetizer-like dishes that were made to taste like the food they actually are. The menu was small, but carefully and tastefully crafted, just like the restaurant itself. We ate at the low and wide marble counter-topped bar and chatted with the chefs as they prepared the food in front of us with painstaking precision under the eye of the sous chef (they used tweezers to place every shred of basil). The service was excellent, the atmosphere was chic yet relaxed, and the plates were done-up to the nines.
The connection is a long story, but an old family friend of ours, Julie, journeyed down from Connecticut to visit with us. Her daughter, Laura, is a freshman at Pratt Institute and had generously agreed to show me around the school. On our third day in New York, Julie arrived and we walked from our hotel in Brooklyn, The Condor, for a primary tour of Pratt around 12.
Built in 1887, Pratt is the only school in New York with a campus, and is truly a world unto itself. There is a large public park in the middle which the regal brick buildings of the school are centered around, making up the vast 25-acre campus. Julie showed us the library, which had wrought-iron spiral staircases and frosted glass floors and ceilings so it appeared that the bookshelves went endlessly up and down. The floors of the Fine Art building are a mosaic of tiny tiles with elegant seals and flourishes distinguished in color. Overall, the campus was beautiful, serene, artistic, inspired, and scholarly- if a place can be such a thing.
We lunched at a popular cafe across the street, filled with students and a few NYPD officers taking a break. I have always loved the idea of going into cafes and sitting for hours, people watching, talking about forbidden subjects like religion and politics, writing dissertations on Fitzgerald, drinking black coffee, and reading foreign books without pictures. In New York is where this happens. The cafe was quaint, cheap, lively, and the menu was filled with greasy foods: college kid utopia.
At 1:30, Mom, Julie, and I walked back to the Fine Arts building to meet with Nat, Assistant Director of Fine Arts. He looked late-thirties, tall and built, with a beard and sweater. He is from Oregon. We talked for a while in his office before he gave us a tour of the Fine Arts building and a current student exhibition in one of the rooms. Nat dropped us off at a sophomore oil painting class shortly after, where the students were working on a painting from real-life of a nude model. We walked around, spoke with the friendly professor, and assessed the class. Out of the class of thirteen, only three looked like my level of painting, and I was impressed by none. I kept in mind that Pratt is a very open-minded school, so not all of the students there were painting majors, as students from different majors are allowed to take elective classes in the different concentrations.
Later that day, we returned to the school to meet up with Laura so she could show us her dorm. The building was built by an alum and current prison architect, so you can imagine how cell-like the narrow hallways seemed. Laura’s building had suite-style rooms, and I was pleasantly surprised by their size. What was more, the common area had an old upright piano I wistfully played a tune on. After we had seen enough, the four of us headed to a restaurant about ten blocks from the school at Laura’s suggestion, and hip Italian place called Nom Gonni. Like every night, we stayed long after our plates were licked clean and talked; about Laura and I, Julie whispered to Mom, “To hear them talk!” Sometimes I have to say it aloud to fully comprehend the things I do. We were in the middle of Brooklyn, the “up-and-coming Manhattan”, eating at a cool restaurant, and talking art, culture, music, and education. Two days later I would be flying home to Cancun to spend three days until my next flight out to LAX. I am living the life I always dreamed of, and to talk art made me not only giddy with the prospect of spending the rest of my days doing it- I ached for a pencil in hand that instant. After dinner, we walked back to The Condor and chatted with Laura and Julie into the night.
The next day I got two of the biggest shocks of my life.
Julie, an early riser, was up long before Mom and I. Today was the day of the invitational tour, and I was filled with ecstasy. We began the short walk to Pratt around 9:20. The Condor was situated in the Hasidic Jewish quarter, and a group of four young Jewish children walked alongside us for a couple blocks. Suddenly, at a red light with cars whooshing by, a girl with them no older than two walked out into the street. Sure that one of the kids with her would grab her, I was paralyzed when no one did anything as I watched her narrowly miss the first car honking by. Julie screamed and ran into the street, grabbing her and pulling her out of the path of the oncoming traffic literally inches from her face. She set the little girl back down with her siblings, instructing them to hold her. Not one said a word or even flinched. At the green light, they crossed the street as if nothing had happened.
When we reached Pratt, Julie left us to meet up with Laura. The continental breakfast was being served in the gym, where large round tables and radiant parents mingled. I surveyed the accepted students; everyone was unabashedly doing the same. The ratio seemed to be about 65% female to 45% male, and my heart slowly began to sink. In a room of accepted seniors a year older than me, I did not see even one face that looked a day older than myself, let alone like it had already graduated high school. Many looked and acted as if puberty was still giving them a hard time. I learned early in life not to judge a book by its cover when I read Tree Girl though, so I took my observations with a grain of salt.
A couple of suits got up and gave dry speeches, and I began to focus on other things until a woman named Rhonda from the career department got up and cracked a joke. The stuffy tension in the room dispersed as she gave a heartfelt, witty sentiment about being an artist. Unlike the previous or following speeches, she spoke freely- without index cards. “There is nothing without creativity, and what better position in life to be than the creatives?” After the introductions were over, Mom and I went over to speak with Rhonda for a minute. “Don’t worry- there are people like me here, it’s not all suits!” she said after we praised her speech and poked fun at the men. Artists are the coolest people, I thought.
From the gym, we split off into our majors. First to leave the building were the architecture majors, which comprised most of the males and about 1/3 of the total company. Next was Fine Arts: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, and jewelry. We were led into an auditorium, where the head of the program gave a presentation. After they held a Q & A with two current fine arts seniors and a fine arts alum currently pursuing his MFA in painting at Yale. Finally we split once more into two groups for the tour of our major’s building. We saw the upper levels of senior studios to the lowest levels housing the iron printmaking machines that weigh as much as an elephant. The facilities were spacious, well-supplied, and had a creative charm to them amidst the historical architecture.
During the tour, I couldn’t help but exchange looks with Mom. We are so close and know each other so well that we can talk through even the slightest of glances. “They’re serving a continental lunch, let’s leave and get some sushi,” she suggested. I have the coolest mom in the world. We stopped to ask the woman who was leading the tour, a faculty member of the Fine Arts program, at what time the tours would resume. “We’ll go see the dorms in an hour and half,” she responded. “What major were you accepted into?” She pursued a conversation with us despite the fact that the rest of her charges had moved on. I told her how I felt: the level of work didn’t seem to be what I thought it would be and the hesitations I was feeling. “What other options do you have?” she continued. I replied that I was also looking at CCA, and she nodded knowingly. “Honestly, San Francisco just doesn’t have the up-and-coming art scene that Brooklyn does. The only place I’d say is comparable would be LA, but the reason I say LA is because people from Brooklyn had the idea to bring the cutting-edge of New York over there. From someone who knows both coasts, it all happens here.”
Mom and I pondered her words as we walked to a sushi joint around the corner. I sat down and breathed in deeply. “What do I do, Mom? I don’t want to sound conceited or like I think I’m better than anyone or “oh-so-talented”, but this is not what I was expecting! For the last three years, I looked to college as a place where I would finally be around sophisticated artists who listen to jazz in underground cafes and wear black turtlenecks. I wasn’t impressed by any of the art we saw, and even the seniors we saw looked younger than me. I am so disappointed…” I couldn’t even find the concentration in me to look at the menu. We talked for a few more minutes and then ordered. “Before we start talking again, let’s just pray,” I sighed. “Ok. I will,” Mom said. We held hands and prayed across the table, asking God to just lead me. We continued to talk in depth about everything as I got over my immediate distress and the facts began to sink in.
The facts were that the experience I had at Pratt was not too far removed from what most of my life has been.
I was shocked because I had spent the last three years dreaming of art school and how I would ever be able to get in. I spent five months of 2015 locked in my room with my speaker blasting, brainstorming, drawing, researching, and painting and only came out to heat water for tea, run to crossfit, and go out with friends late at night. I stayed up and drew, unable to sleep, as I stressed over all the ideas I hadn’t gotten down on paper. I asked myself if I was good enough, and what I would think about the rest of my life if I wasn’t. I was plans to apply to the same jobs I would have applied for after college anyway if I didn’t get in to RISD, CCA, or Pratt.
Pratt is offering me $26,000 in Merit Scholarship, the highest amount they award, to attend. This only made me even more unsure of the skill level of students I would encounter if I do go there. I wanted to be intimidated when I walked onto campus and saw the faculty and students and toured the school. Instead I was upset. I didn’t work this hard or this long to attend a school where students are still unsure of their major, who they are, and how hard they want to work.
We returned to the school after lunch late for the tour group, so admissions sent us of to see the dorms with two current seniors leading the way. We were all glad for the private tour; the large groups struggling to get through the tight spaces of the dorms seemed an impersonal and uncomfortable experience. With the two senior girls, Mom and I were able to chat about the school and learn more about the communal versus suite-style dorms, what the girls thought of the school, and their perspectives on their four years they spent at Pratt.
Finally Mom and I concluded our tour. I dejectedly dropped onto a sculpture-bench in the center of the park and hung my head. “Well, what now?” I asked. Through our following conversation filled more with thoughts than words, I looked around at the school. Girls were laying in the grass in tees and shorts, basking in the rays of sunlight (I was shivering in a coat). A few tour groups still fluttered about the edges of the park, and students carrying artwork in large folders meandered from building to building. “The architecture is beautiful,” I offered, mostly in a trance.
Julie and Laura met up with us at our bench a few minutes later, and we all decided that we would go into SoHo, the perfect meeting point between Laura’s friend Gianna, my cousin Zach, and Merv, Zach’s friend we adopted into our family (like most of Zach’s posse). Laura traversed the subway system with finesse and know-how. I was more than impressed by the way she whipped us from station to station without even a glance at a map, a hesitation in her step, or a doubt in her mind.
Stepping out of the dank subway station into SoHo was like stepping from Hades’ desolate underworld into a Rolling Stones concert. The crowd was moving a mile a minute, and it was CROWDED. I loved it.
For people with FOMO (fear of missing out), New York is the place to be.
No matter where you walk, there is always something going on; it feels like you are at the center of “the-coolest-place-to-be” by the way the world moves around you. Julie, Mom, Laura, and I caught up with Gianna, a fashion major, at Starbucks. Mom and I ordered hot teas, bundled up, and the group pressed on in search of Zach and Merv.
We spotted the old pair on one of the designer-store street corners through the throngs and embraced. All I could think was that if there was one person aside from my parents who would understood how I felt at that moment- it was Zach. Although I don’t show it, I have always looked up to Zach as someone whose approval was crucial to have. The seven of us shopped around for a bit before Julie and the girls had to say goodbye so they could get Julie to her train back to Connecticut.
Zach, Merv, Mom and I explored the shops down SoHo (a did a little walking-in-circles thanks to the bickering the guys do- they are truly the definition of “old married couple”). Around 7 we found our way to a Jewish-infusion restaurant in a lovely corner of SoHo, across the street from a park. It was bursting at its seams with diners, and the lit-up, promisingly warm interior beckoned to me. Laura and Gianna rejoined us, and we ordered spicy beet dip with pita, roasted cauliflower, fried salmon over a bed of sautéed kale and potatoes, vegetable curry…
…And spent an incredible night elbows-on-the-table laughing and chatting. We stayed for hours, but the restaurant’s bustling tables never ceased to be empty. Finally, Zach found a bar that was in close proximity. The six of us walked a couple blocks (and probably a couple more than we needed to- Zach and Merv walked in circles) until we reached the place: an big, old barn trapped between the close-knit building of the city. Inside, by the light of the candles, we could see high beams traversing the ceiling and long bench-seating adjacent to the bar. Although Zach and I made it through, a lady stopped us as Laura and Gianna tried to enter. Culture-shock: they card you at bars in the U.S. We recouped and made the short walk to check out Washington Square park before everyone parted ways for the night.
The next morning, Mom and I woke and made the journey back to JFK to fly home. I am so blessed to have been able to take the trip and not only spend time with my best friend, but tour Pratt and visit New York for the first time with someone who understands, loves, and supports me.
I arrived home in prayer, and reached out to my cousin Maddy, who had a similar experience when she went to the school she dreamed to get into for theatre, Emerson, and was sorely disappointed by the caliber of work. I read our correspondence to my parents and my dad commented that it is sad that in this day and age correspondence isn’t recorded like how it once was when people could save letters and documents and cherish them as part of their history for generations to come. So here I decided to record a short part of the conversation so when I look back on this long post in years to come, I can remember the thoughts and ideas surrounding a life-altering decision. Maddy responded:
“Maia! So great to hear from you!! And likewise, I’m so proud and impressed by who you are becoming!
“So, I have a lot of thoughts about this, but I definitely understand where you are coming from, and you’re not wrong if you feel that way. If it’s not a love connection to your school right away, it might not be the best place for you. However, three years after choosing a school, and seeing friends on much different paths than me, my perspective is a little different now.
“I was in Boston and NYC last week, visiting friends who are still in school and it was really interesting to see what my life would’ve been like if I stayed. The great thing about being in school is for really the only time in adult life, you have enough structure to really figure yourself out and to only focus on your art in a place with people your age that are doing the same thing. And you have access to mentors who have the power to change your life. Being in school isn’t for everyone, but maybe consider what it would be like to be the big fish in a small pond I guess. After my visit, the one thing I regret is I could have gotten a much better education if I found a program I loved. But, it doesn’t make much sense to spend so much money and time if you don’t think it’s going to be worth it. You’re already so self-motivated, maybe you don’t need the kind of structure college gives you, because you don’t seem to have a problem getting things moving and learning by yourself.
“I’m really happy you went to visit, and your first impression of the school is super important, but before saying no to college completely, I would explore other options. Because what I’ve seen with friends, is that if you find the right school, you can absolutely flourish. But if you feel confident to build the life you want, and can get the same skills college can teach you elsewhere, save your money and explore the world without. It’s a harder path, but it teaches you to be much more self reliable, and you get to try out the “real world” much sooner. Do what your gut is telling you girl. Hope this helps, if you need anything else, I’m totally here for you!”
As I am writing this, it is Tuesday, April 19 at 10:14 am. I fly out to LAX for six days tomorrow morning at 8:55, and I have to make my college decision by May 1, Kira’s birthday. My birthday is the day after. Sometime in July we will probably leave Playa del Carmen and head to San Francisco for Outside Lands music festival, but the rest of our plans depend on whether I choose Pratt, CCA, or neither. I pray that God will guide me, bring peace to my soul, and help me make a decision that I will never regard as a “what if…”. And so, with a turbulent mind, I leave you with one ultimate mantra I will be repeating in the days to come that I truly preach in every one of my posts and try to live by: just let go and give it to God. He will lead me.