Every morning I’d tuck my fragile Sony Discman into my handbag, pop the headphones over my ears and press “play” as I crossed the overpass that spanned Amsterdam Avenue on my way to the 116th Street Station to catch the 1/9 subway to Columbus Circle.
Counting your money until your soul turns green
Counting the cost of your desire to be seen
I was approaching my senior year of college, studying art history, and interning at one of New York’s celebrated auction houses. The internship was unpaid, so what money I had I’d earned by temping for a few weeks before I left for “The City.” My parents covered my flight from Seattle and the comparatively cheap cost of renting a room for two months in one of the high-rise dorms on the Columbia campus. I had a credit card for emergencies and every so often my mother would mail me $20 so I could catch a movie or buy a book to read.
I went above and beyond at my internship as often as I could, volunteering to do research at the library or stay late to help write proposals to prospective consignors of priceless art collections. My reward was the occasional petty cash voucher or TransitChek for subway fare. My association with the auction house also granted me free access to most of the major museums in New York, so I took full advantage of that perk on the weekends.
I learned how auction houses operated and went on field trips to view some of the most exquisite — and otherwise inaccessible — private art collections in the greater tri-state area. I also did plenty of random chores reserved for interns (shredding, anyone?) but those occasional research forays and opportunities to flex my writing muscles sustained me.
The song that accompanied me the most during my subway commute was George Michael’s “Star People ’97.” Its beat matched the hustle of weekday mornings in New York and infused my stride with a kind of confidence I’d never felt before. The lyrics kept me grounded through the days of exposure to unimaginable, unattainable wealth and privilege.
I do not count myself among you
I may be living in a dream
It’s just there seems so many of you
Can’t help but hope there’s a difference between…
You and me
I was grateful for the experience, but I flew home to Seattle at the end of the summer certain I would never want to work in an auction house. The commodification of art had left me cold, and I wanted no part of it. George Michael had been my voice of reason, my source of balance all summer long. I’ll never hear “Star People ’97” without remembering the impossible humidity (and distinctive odor) of New York subway stations in July, the acrid chill of the air-conditioned subway cars, or how good it felt to get to know myself just a little bit better.
Never forget your secret’s safe with me
Just look at all the wonderful people
Trying to forget they had to pay for what you see
(Song recommendation by Jeanne Sharp)