Figuring out why I didn’t get a PhD, why I’m not a philosophy professor today instead of a copywriter, is an intricate problem. To tell the truth, I don’t even think I can give you a decent approximation of the reason. It’s much like when my dad was alive, if you’d asked him to tell you why he left my mom… But I know when I first started thinking my graduate school career may be coming to an end.
I’d been waiting nearly two weeks to hear back from my department. At this particular school, in this particular philosophy department, you had to reapply to be admitted to the PhD program at the end of your master’s degree. From the moment I’d been accepted, three years earlier, I’d always been under the impression this was merely a formality. The department didn’t even accept PhD applications from students who didn’t already hold an MA in philosophy specifically. In fact, I’d turned down an acceptance to Duquesne’s PhD program simply because I wanted this chance to return to New York City. There were memories I needed to explore further, and I hadn’t set foot in Brooklyn for six years then. As far as I could tell, everybody who demonstrated competence at the master’s level was admitted to continue on to the PhD. Truth be told, the school needed the money, and I had maintained an A average, passed all my exams and developed a thesis proposal the department was well equipped to handle. I assumed I’d be no exception.
At the time, I was dating this woman, Rachel. Her family had come from Pakistan via Delhi as a result of the Partition of India, and she’d been named by her grandmother while still a baby in India. At the time, her parents already knew they were coming to the United States, and they hadn’t given the two-year old girl a name yet because they wanted her to have an American one for their new home. The moniker of their favorite character from the American television show Friends was the perfect choice. Rachel was really good to me, but after everything I’d been through the year before, I was in no state to reciprocate.
My dissertation would be an examination of the evolution of conceptual subjectivity from Scholastic philosophy to Early Modernity. With my background in Chinese and Buddhist thought as a result of my first master’s, I was particularly interested in why and how European philosophy developed the notion of the individual subject inserted within our overtly subjective states. It didn’t seem inherently necessary to me, and I was of the opinion it had something to do with the development of medieval interpretations of the writings of Saint Augustine. After that dinner party at Luc’s last night, I was walking these two Belarusian friends who don’t know the neighborhood past my apartment and back down to the Columbia Heights Metro after a failed attempt to go dancing at this bar up on 11th Street.
We passed a building I always notice when I’m walking home late. It doesn’t have any bars on the first floor windows and the curtains are open revealing the occupant at her computer. “I don’t think I would be very comfortable letting people from the street see me in my apartment,” the Belarusian girl said. “Especially as an American. It seems Americans are very concerned with their privacy.”
“I don’t know if that’s necessarily what it is,” I told her. “I mean, it’s complex. Stereotypes are never quite what they seem, you know. Sure, there’s always a grain of truth. But there’s intricacies to the world’s cultures that can’t be painted in broad swaths. It seems to me what Americans are most concerned with, as a result of mapping our cultural narratives onto human desire, is individuality. As a result of that concern, we worry about our privacy.”
When I got the news about my PhD application, I was on my way to go work a campus event with a couple other people from my department. My initial application was rejected. The department chair invited me to reapply after being awarded the master’s that summer. I didn’t know what to do. The only thing that had kept me alive, sober and sane for the past year and a half had been my desire for that PhD. I’d even given up writing fiction and poetry at that point in time. My most recent novel had remained untouched for over two years.
“Shit, man, what are you gonna do?” a PhD candidate from my Hegel seminar was asking me outside the campus’ main lecture hall where we were handing out name tags for this conference on conflict resolution in contemporary Africa.
“I don’t know, man. But it’s always been my experience, if I can keep my shit straight, something really fucking cool will come up. It always has before.” I wasn’t even telling him the half of it.
“Probably true,” he said. “But did they offer you a chance to meet with anyone, to find out why you were rejected this go round?”
“Yeah, they did.”
“Do it, man. Meet with them. Find out why they want you to reapply, and do whatever they tell you to do. My guess is you’ll get in this summer.”
But I made up my mind pretty quick. Within a week, I was meeting Rachel outside a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood. We’d heard good things about this place, but it didn’t look like much more than a delivery spot. The sky was polluted gray as she walked up to me in her red jacket with a smile. I didn’t even offer a kiss before saying, “I’ve figured it out, Rachel. I know what I’m doing instead of a PhD.”
“Wow. That’s cool,” she said. “What?”
“I’m gonna teach English in China.” Rachel cocked her head to the side. Her eyes grew wider. I told her, “No. It’s simple. The director for my last graduate program, he’s got a ton of connections there. When I was finishing up that degree, he even asked me if I wanted to go teach over there. I’d have a job in a second.” I added, “Do you want to come with me?” Rachel was a teacher by training.
But Rachel shook her head. “Gabriel, I have no desire to go to China,” she said. Three days later, she broke it off with me.
The day after Rachel and I split up, discussing the break up at a neighborhood pizza joint with my AA sponsor, he said to me over his pepperoni slice, “Gabriel, you don’t tell a woman you’re dating that you’re moving to China. It makes you sound like you’re not so serious about the relationship.”
“I asked her to come with me, though,” I reminded him. With a simple shake of his head, he took another sip off his Pepsi.
When I got back to my apartment from that meeting with my sponsor, my roommate sat me down in the leather chair that, a mere couple weeks before, she and I discovered had grown into a hive for the roaches infesting that place. They were everywhere. You couldn’t put food on the counter because they’d swarm it. You couldn’t even keep food in the freezer. They were there, too. They crawled across me as I slept, waking me with wispy legs brushing over my flesh. And the two cats did nothing about it. One of them always shat in the shower. Within a week, I knew exactly where the disinfectant was. I was scrubbing the tub with it every day. There wasn’t a knob on my bedroom door. The first night I moved in, I shut the door before realizing there was no way to open it. Because of the bars on the room’s solitary window, I wasn’t able to get out until the building’s super came up the following morning to help. The Virginia driver’s license I still have today is missing a chunk from where I tried breaking out of that room that night. I never should have taken the place. I’d found it on Craig’s List, and when I spoke with Lucretia, the woman who held the lease, over the phone from Richmond, I discovered she was sober, too. I didn’t believe in anything spiritual about this world at the time, but I did believe if there was something to this plane, that apartment was where I was meant to be.
In fact, I hadn’t even wanted to move back to Williamsburg, then. Lucretia had convinced me. I wanted to be on the other side of Brooklyn, in Cobble Hill or someplace like that, but there I was.
“Gabriel, we’ve gotta move out,” Lucretia said on that day my sponsor chastised me for my last conversation with Rachel. Lucretia was about ten years older than me, had come up in the East Village theater scene during the nineties and currently ran a one-woman, multi-media performance art piece dealing with domestic violence. Most of the time, she was on tour. I had the apartment to myself. But during her last performance in town, at a little space on the outskirts of Chelsea, Rachel and I had decided to go. It was a cathartic experience.
“Okay, when?” I asked, assuming I could worry about all this after returning from that same Christmas break where I would eventually wind up in a verbal disagreement with the television set that convinced me to apply to law school.
“December 1,” she said.
“But that’s in two weeks…”
“Yeah, well, it’s a long story, but suffice it to say, I lost the legal battle on my squatter’s rights here. The apartment’s being returned to its owner.”
I went out to an AA meeting that night because I had no earthly idea how else to handle the present. I was sharing, “And I just don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna do. In the past week, my scholastic career ended, my girlfriend broke up with me, and now, I just found out I got two weeks to find a new apartment. It’s hard, but not as hard as it’s been. So I know if I just stay sober and do what I have to do to keep sane, everything will be all right… eventually.”
Smoking a cigarette beneath streetlights after the meeting, I was trying not to think too much about what was happening. But that’s when Carl Wilson, completely bald and towering over me at well above six feet, approached in his absolutely fabulous manner. Carl’s father, I later discovered, had played professional basketball. I wish my dad was still alive so I could know whether or not he’d ever heard of him. While Carl, I eventually found out, was an ex-rave kid turned painter of abstract figures who performed solo in an avant-garde drag show under the name Baroness Babylon. Today, he’s married to his then boyfriend. With a flourish, Carl introduced himself and said, “You know, if you need a place, I just discovered one of my roommates is moving out of my loft at the end of this month. I need somebody to fill the space quick. Do you want to come over this weekend and take a look at it?”
I had absolutely no faith, but still, I managed to say, “Yeah. I’d be happy to. How much is it?”
“$750 a month.”
“That’s an amazing deal,” I said. “Where are you?”
“Corner of Broadway and Union in Williamsburg. You do know where that is, right?”
“Yeah. It’s just a few blocks from where I’m at now.”
“Fabulous. Do you have a job?”
“No, but I’ve taken out student loans that’ll cover at least the next six months.”
“Okay. If you can commit to at least six months, that’ll work. Now, how much clean time do you have again?”
“Just over a year.”
“That’s fine,” he said.
“Wow, how fortuitous is that?” Luc says to me as I’m recounting this story to him on the balcony at work today since it’s in the forefront of my mind.
“I know. It’s crazy. Stuff like that isn’t supposed to happen in real life.”
“Yeah. How was the place?”
“It was great. My room there was bigger than my entire apartment here in DC, and I paid $250 less a month. Only problem was it was a ‘railroad’ apartment. So I had to walk through somebody’s bedroom to get to mine…
“At least nobody had to walk through your bedroom to get to theirs.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve lived in those kinds of places, too. Everybody who came through Carl’s loft was pretty cool, though. Except for this one kid, Kyle. I mean, there was nothing really wrong with him. I actually kind of liked the kid. He had this Billy Idol-style bleached hair, and he was, like, 23 at the oldest. When Carl first introduced me to him, Carl said Kyle was a DJ, but when he shook my hand, Kyle said he was, ‘Really more of a New York personality.’ Kyle lived in the room I had to walk through for maybe three months at the most, but he woke me up nearly every night, high on coke, singing Donna Summer. I found out later, he was on disability from the military. And he refused to put the screen up for his bed. So there was nothing to block my view of him and whatever boy he’d brought home with him the night before in bed together on my way to the shower each morning. Kyle ditched out on us midway through April without even paying the rent. Carl was furious, but the man knew how to hustle. He pulled some extra shifts at work, sold some paintings. We made do.”
“I’ve been in those kinds of situations. I had to do the exact same thing. What happened with your PhD application, though? Did you ever wind up meeting with anybody from your department about that?”
“I did. She told me, when my application came up for review, not a single professor in our entire department knew who I was. That pissed me off. So she said I needed to find somebody to support my dissertation proposal. There was really no reason I shouldn’t be able to get back in with that support, she told me. I found a professor to support the proposal. In fact, I’m still reading some of the books he recommended for my research. But I’d already made up my mind. I never reapplied.”