Life at Sloane House YMCA

2006-04-18

Life at Sloane House - Coming to Dream Land

In the summer of 1988, as one of the first 2 exchangees of ICYE (International Christian Youth Exchange, an exchange program founded after World War II) from China, I was placed at Sloane House YMCA in New York City. It was a one-year program. ICYE sent 2 exchangees from the US to China and China sent 2 exchangees to America in the same year. I could hardly control my enthusiasm when I thought of coming to New York City. I pictured it thousands of times in my head while preparing for the trip: it was a beautiful, exotic and adventurous place where the whole world evolved around it, where everyone dreamed to come to.

United Airline's 747 was packed. The flight was long and exhausting. When the plane approaching San Francisco International Airport, I watched the landscape of this beautiful city. America, the land of Beautiful! The sky was clearer and air was fresher.

After a brief orientation at Cleveland, I boarded the flight heading to New York City. I arrived at JFK Airport at 3:00 in the afternoon on July 29th of 1988. ICYE headquarters staff picked me up at the airport and drove me straight to Sloane House YMCA. While in the car, my heart was beating hard, eyes wide open and my breathing was heavy. I was just too excited about everything in my sight: the airport, the people, the bridge, and the skyline. I was the luckiest person in the entire population in China! Statistically, I had a greater chance of winning lotto than living and working in Manhattan, given the size of the population, and you can’t be luckier than that.

Built in the early 30s by William Sloane, a wealthy man at the time I was told, Sloane House YMCA building’s neo-gothic look had its New York-style charm. It was located at the southeast corner of 34th Street and 9th Avenue. Tii Carol was the first person I met at Sloane House. She was a former ICYE exchangee to then West Germany just a few years before. She was now the manager of Hospitality Center at Sloane House YMCA. She was waiting for me in her office. At that moment, neither she nor I had imagined our friendship would last our life time. She became one of the most important people in my life. She greeted me and handed me a key for my room on the 7th floor. Holding my key in my hand tightly, as if it would slip away, I was excited to get upstairs. The elevator seemed took forever to get to the 7th floor. I opened my room. It was 7 by 10, a box-size room had one small bed and a tiny standing closet and a desk with a TV on it. It had one window facing Westside. I quickly unload my luggage and went to the lobby area where Tii was waiting for me. She took me to a TGIF at the northeast corner of 8th Ave and 34th Street for a welcome dinner at 5:00 in the afternoon. When we were seated, I didn’t know what to order. It seemed everything was too expensive and I didn’t want to offend Tii, so I ordered a burger. That was my first restaurant meal in the United States. It was also my first taste of the wealth of this country. I could not believe how much the dinner cost: $50 for 3 people! I said to myself afterwards I would never be able to afford nor would I want to spend this much for a meal as long as I was in America. $50 equals 190 Yuen! The exchange rate was $1 to 3.8 then, a 3-month salary for a “middle class” professional and I didn’t even remember what it tasted like 5 minutes later! For the next two days, I would go to McDonald’s at the corner of 10th Ave and 34th Street with the coupon Sloane House Y provided me. It was part of the agreement: Sloane House provided me with room and board and weekly stipends and I worked full time at the International Hospitality Center, a front desk function. The value of the coupon was $3.50. Since I had yet received my stipends and only had two dollars in my pocket when I arrived at the Sloane House, my order could not exceed the coupon value.

McDonald was my gateway of realizing the wealth gap between China and America. This had nothing to do with the quality of the food at McDonald’s nor had anything to do with the taste of the food on the menu. It was the little things that I was in awe of: you could just pick as many well-packaged little bags of sugar, salt, pepper and ketchup as you pleased for your meal! I got slapped on the head from my father for eating a spoonful of sugar when I was a kid, not because it was unhealthy for me to eat sugar like that, but because there was not enough to last the whole month if I ate it like that. Everything was rationed when I grew up. I could not help but thinking what my dad would think if he ever saw life in America. He worked all his life just to make sure there was enough food on the table everyday. Unfortunately he did not have the chance to come visit America. He passed away a few years ago.

MY first night in Manhattan was one of the most memorable nights in my life. It was a humid hot summer night. fortunately Club34 on the 2nd floor was air conditioned. So I came down quickly after left my luggage in the room. It was a movie night. I stayed till midnight to watch the movie. it was Clockwork Orange. The only thing I could comprehend was freakiness, weirdness, bizarre and violence. I was too excited to sleep that night, not because there were ambulance siren sounds all night. The following day was Sunday. I was up early and ready to go. My work would not start until next Monday. So I went to Greenwich Village on foot along 9th Avenue. It was the daytime so I did not see as many people I expected. Posters were all over the place. I was drawn to an album cover in a window display of a music store: The singer in the picture was half naked. I could not tell if it was a man or woman. It left me such a strong impression. Years later, when I gradually broadened my cultural senses, I realized it was a he and his name was Prince.

For the ensuing days, before I received my first stipend, food coupons were my only currency. I would either eat at the cafeteria on the first floor or at McDonald’s. Finally pay day came. It was Thursday. It was surreal when the accountant handed me the weekly paycheck - $80. I was overjoyed! I determined to save every penny I earned and bring them home to share with my family and friends. I was very proud of myself and I knew my family would be proud of me too.

My first purchase was a loaf of bread. I wanted to taste what it was like to eat a piece of bread with my own money. It was also the cheapest thing in the store. The very next day when I came back from work, I found there were bite marks on my bread. I did not think much of it, other than thinking it was a bit strange. It did not occur to me, or put it this way, I did not want to think that it was a mouse that had eaten my bread, until I saw one running out of my room the following day. I was shocked and in disbelief. There were mice in the building! There are mice in America? Mice only exist in places that are dirty and poor places. Slums I lived in back home didn’t even have mice. Nobody had said a word about mice in America before I came. It never crossed my mind that there were mice in America, the dream land. Only later I realized New York City was the world capital of mice and rats. Many times, while I was on duty during the night, tourists, especially girls from European countries, would frantically call front desk about sighting a mouse in their room. The girls at the Hospitality Center would not do this part of the job. But it didn’t bother me one bit. Digging mouse holes and catching mice in the farm field was part of my childhood fun with my buddies.

Sloane House was the center of universe. Some of the world famouse land marks were just a few blocks away: world largest deparment store - Macy's was at 7th Avenue, Penn Station was at 33rd and 7th Avenue, world famouse arena - Madision Square Garden was at 33rd and 8th Avenue, world biggest post office - James A Farley Post Office was next to it, world largest convention center - Javis Center was at its west and most of all, Empire State Building was 5 minutes away. Many travelers liked the idea that they could just walked to Sloane House, even though telling them how to get here was a pain - many spoke little English.

It was a big building even by Manhattan standard: it had 14 floors and 1,500 rooms. Entering the building, there was a large lobby area. Two offices were on the right side of the it. One was a student center and the other was Tii’s office. On the left side of the lobby area, it was Hospitality Center and cashier section. Behind Hospitality Center, it was the reservation office and management office. Sloane House provided lodgings for a wide variety of people: Floor 11, 14 and 15 were part of International Youth Hostel program that provided lodgings for world young backpack travelers. Rooms on these floors had a bunk bed. Floor 8, 9 10 were for students from Parsons and SVA (School of Visual Arts); the 4th floor was for long-term residents and for students who were not part of the schools that had contract with Sloane House YMCA. Some of those long term residents had lived here for more than 20 years. Sloane house also accepted people with government vouchers and the rest were for other students from nearby colleges like the New School and walk-in visitors. The floors for students from Parsons and SVA were watched by security guards Sloane House provided and administered by the floor RAs. These floors were somewhat insulated from the other elements in the building. Sloane House YMCA did not house people with New York City IDs however, except for voucher holders. Who were those voucher holders? They were government sponsored drug-free program recipients or prosecution witnesses. There was also some young, want-to be actors living at Sloane House. Once they got their feet off the ground, they moved out of the Y and moved on.

Two days into work, before I even got a chance to see much of the city, I dove in right away and quickly became an expert on New York City’s hot spots and subway system. I had to be. Each day there were hundreds of tourists asking about where the Hard Rock Café was, which dance clubs they should go, how to get to Chinatown. I was telling people to take certain train lines from A to B before I even took the subway. Many appreciated that I told them about the Staten Island ferry boat tour. It was the best way money could buy to tour New York City, a round trip at just 25 cents.

Part of the responsibilities of Hospitality Center was answering the phones. The phone rang off the hook during summer time. Nobody wanted to answer the phone. The main reason was Hospitality Center did not take reservations and it was difficult to explain this to people over the phone, especially if they were Youth Hostel travelers. IT was frustrating on both ends. At first I was very intimidated by answering the phone. I could not understand what people saying and if I did understand them, I didn’t know what to tell them. I simply knew little of anything. But soon I overcame the difficulty.

My major was English. One of my goals coming to America was to learn English: learning English in a land that speaks the language. I wanted to speak English as fluent as an American. Very quickly, however, my hope was crushed. New York City was the worst place to learn how to speak English. Shakespeare and Canterbury Tale style of English I learned from college were useless when I arrived at Sloane House. Ronny, the front desk manager spoke Barbadians English, Maurice, the security guard spoke Jamaican English, Roy spoke Brooklyn English and the rest of the international staff spoke English with their accents (including the Irish). I was the only one that had the classic English training and spoke “proper” English (excluding the Irish). I was very disappointed and worried that I would not be able to learn a thing when I went back home. People had high expectations for guys coming back from America, if they ever went back. You were considered the luckiest of few and you supposed to know everything about America and the language at least. I mentioned this to the shop owner on the first floor. He was an old Italian man. He laughed: “If you truly want to learn English, get out of New York City. Nobody speaks English here. It’s a shame.” I started to learn how to speak New York English. Maurice and Roy were very enthusiasm about teaching me. I learned to say “I’m chilling”, in stead of “I’m fine. Thank you” when people greeted me with “How’re things?”

Thank goodness for TV sitcoms like “Three’s Company” and “Cheers”. It took me a while to understand half of its humors in Cheers though.

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At 10:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nihao!
I don´t know, if your blogg is still active, because last comments are from 2006.
I have been at the Sloane House in 1983 staying 2 weeks. We didn´t had mice, but everything else was just like you said. I also remember well the sirenes of police cars and abulances all through the night, the hot and humid air and the high price restaurants. But, as I´m from Germany, America was the big world for me and New York the dream of my childhood. Now I´m in the middle of the 50s and things changed. Have seen more of the world, been working in Daqing for six month and Beijing is my new favourite city. But still I like New York. Been there again in 2012 with my daughter and again took a room in a YMCA, this time at the Vanderbilt. A lot changed, the city wasn´t so dangerous this time, even cleaner. The red light district on 8th Avenue doesn´t exist anymore. But with these things, also some of it´s flair is gone. I had a look at the Sloane House, which seems empty and sad. I could feel tears coming up in my eyes to see this.
Hope, you´re still watching your blog, I like it
Oliver

 

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