Name: Caitlin Dwyer
Hometown: Northport, NY
Year: Class of 2017
Intended Plan of Study: Writing Seminars
“This is the train to…Penn Station. This station is…Penn Station,” the monotone automated voice blares over the loudspeaker. I groan, realizing I have to open my eyes, not because I’m awake, but because in less than a minute, I’m going to transform into a speed-walking, fast-talking, “move or I’ll move you” New Yorker. Whoever coined the phrase, “concrete jungle,” was truly brilliant. The commuter scene is comparably tame, but once you descend those foul-smelling yet surprisingly magical subway entrances, you might as well sign up for the Hunger Games. As the train comes to a halt, I hop out of my turquoise vinyl seat, sling my black tote over my shoulder, and take a deep breath. Ten hours from now, I’ll be searching for a seat on the train back to Huntington, Long Island. Slipping through the sea of suit jackets and oxford button-ups, I find myself facing a poster for Bloomberg Businessweek, advertising the fish market in Japan. Chuckling to myself, I remember SOHOP, where the tour guides pointed out the Bloomberg paths. Bloomberg went to Hopkins. I’m going to Hopkins. Maybe that’s why I’m spending the summer in New York City, interning at one of the largest publishing houses in the world. While my friends are lounging around, sleeping until noon, and corralling eight-year-olds at summer camp, I’m going to be working in an office building. Some days, I miss last year’s job teaching at a creative camp for children with special needs, but other times, I’m glad I chose to step out of my comfort zone.
As I climb the stairs connecting Penn Station to New York City, I inhale the aromas of stale peppermint gum, cigarettes, and garbage frying on the city sidewalks. Right away, I see that the area surrounding Penn is a contradiction, walked by wingtips and workboots, characterized by briefcases and bag ladies. My eardrums are ambushed by the piercing sounds of brakes being hit too soon, horns hollering, and the resounding voices of street peddlers “ten dollaring.”
When I was younger, I hated the city. I hated the noise, I hated the traffic, but most of all, I hated the smell. Now, those things don’t bother me as much. I find New York intoxicating, because no matter what you do or where you go, there’s a measure of uncertainty, an element of doubt. I remember this one time when my friends and I went into the city for a birthday. We planned to go to this cool taco place in Nolita (“It’s LITERALLY Mexico!” my friend Kevin exclaimed), see my friend’s older brother at work, and go to the Strand bookstore. No one bothered to check the weather beforehand—it was warm and sunny on Long Island—so when we emerged from Penn to find ourselves in a hailstorm, we were surprised to say the least. After four hours of battling the storm and sidling against buildings to keep dry, we finally crashed in a tiny coffeehouse near Gramercy Park. Looking at each other’s faces, drenched with cold sweat and raindrops, our eyes settled on my friend Lara, who was wringing out her hair. There was a sizable puddle beneath her ponytail.
“What?” she asked defensively as we all burst out laughing.
New York is the kind of place where you need to take everything one step at a time. You have to be able to adapt to missed subway trains, keep your cool in traffic, and brush off any “talkers” (those sketchy guys on the subway who compliment your purse and explain how “you’ll make a helluva wife one day”). The city is a college in itself, where life skills are exchanged by the passerby. But its most famous class is “Independence 101.” New York has bestowed upon me a new definition of self-sufficiency, one that extends itself to life at Hopkins: functioning in the real world, without parents. I feel like an adult each morning as I button my blouse, zipper my pencil skirt, and step into my trusty beige flats.
Despite my valuable quotidian lessons in street smarts, I can’t help but wonder what I would be doing now, if I were home. It’s the Monday after high school graduation, three weeks into my internship, and technically my first Monday as a “college student.” I’m pretty sure (based on last night’s Twitter feed) that the majority of my classmates are sleeping in. During the three weeks between the last day of high school and graduation weekend, I had been looking forward to graduation. Working toward graduation. But now I’m graduated, and I don’t feel any different, I realize as I swipe my MetroCard at the Herald Square subway station.
I still feel torn, I decide, as I pass through the turnstile. Torn between relishing the last moments of childhood and diving headfirst into adulthood.
On the last day of school, I had the following conversation with a fellow student:
“What are you doing over the summer?” he asked.
“I’m working,” I replied, finishing my signature in his yearbook.
“Where?” he absent mindedly asked as he signed mine.
That certainly caught his attention.
“Like an internship?”
“Why would you do that?” Not exactly the reaction I was anticipating.
“I’m really interested in publishing.”
“You’re a writer right? That might be cool, to get your new book published.” If only it was that easy…
“That would be really cool,” I agreed, “but, um, my job’s in educational publishing, not trade. You know, writing multiple choice questions and stuff.”
“You’re the only person I know who would start writing textbooks the day after you turn them in.”
“It’s just for experience. For the resume.”
“But you’re giving up your last real do-nothing summer. When do you start?”
“But what about prom, and graduation?”
Prom and graduation were a few weeks after school ended. I started commuting, and then took off a few days of work to finish high school. Prom was on a Thursday. I wore a teal chiffon one-shoulder dress, silver heels, and jewelry that combined motifs of crystals and pearls. I was going for a neo-Gatsby look. My town has a pre-prom celebration in the Village Park every year, where the kids pose for photos and wait for their limos and party buses. Even though I was with my friends, my family, and an entire community of familiar faces, I felt out of place posing for a prom portrait. I felt as if I no longer belonged at my high school. After spending days in the city on my own, living in the “Real World” between the hours of seven a.m. and eight p.m., prom no longer seemed like such a big deal. Prom is supposed to celebrate the end of high school, but for me, high school ended on the last day of classes.
“So where did you do your undergrad again?” one of the editorial assistants asks as we grab our morning cups of coffee. She takes Decaf, while I opt for Strong.
Caught off guard, I pause, and tell her, “Johns Hopkins.” My pencil skirt is suddenly constricting, and tiny beads of sweat form on the back of my neck. Feeling like a little girl playing dress-up, I wonder if everyone in the office (besides my supervisor) assumes I’m a graduate student. Deciding not to lie, I come clean, and she looks at me with disdain, though she tries to mask it with a practiced smile. To her, I’m no longer the go-to-girl for copy editing, multimedia searches, and question-writing.
I’m a little girl playing dress-up.