I was in the passenger seat of a white van in far-flung Brooklyn in 1999 when I realized a place can contain a multitude of realities. A temp job installing corporate signage in bank branches had me driving around the outer boroughs for six weeks starting at six in the morning every day. While I compared my site list to the map I’d found in the door of the van, my signage partner, a thirty-year-old painter with permanent hangdog eyes, sped through other worlds: Hasidic enclaves, beach neighborhoods, middle-class Caribbean suburbias, and streets that looked more like Dickens’ London than the downtown Manhattan I thought of as New York. While we stood on ladders in ATM vestibules, the people who lived there talked to us. I listened.
The whole time, I wanted to quit. Work was keeping me from my true Work, I thought. I was really a writer. Not a reporter or a copywriter—a creative writer. An artist. Yet despite my intolerance for it, all this un-writerly work was what allowed me to understand that people and experiences other than mine exist. Empathy is perhaps the most valuable skill a writer can possess, and I found it at work. There, I was becoming myself, figuring out my values, where I stood in relation to the world, and what I wanted to say about it. My art wasn’t doing that for me; art was what boomeranged out of me when I processed real life.