Laurel Jay Carpenter
(installation artist/office temp)
Income $35,000 (1999)
Health Insurance none
She dreams of a simpler life, “a university town, a little herb garden out back, a broken car to get to my teaching job, a stone studio with a slate roof—well, the studio’s the wishful part. But I want out of New York,” says artist Laurel Jay Carpenter, 31. “I’ve been here nine years. I’m ground down, sick of the subways, the horrible temp jobs. I’ve exhausted all the possibilities. It doesn’t feel wondrous anymore.
“I can get off a subway anywhere in the city and spin around and point to a building I’ve temped in or had my heart broken in. I’ve temped a thousand places and had my heart broken in almost as many. I’ve been in all those financial institutions, makeshift warehouses, real estate offices, crazy places with women in fur coats who are yapping. A thousand one-hit gigs. Tribeca, I had a temp job. Murray Hill, I had my heart broken. West Village, a temp job. East Village, heart broken. Chelsea, temp job.”
How much loss can a person take?!
“Chinatown, I didn’t have either.” Phew!
“My first job here was great, PR and marketing director for P.S. 122. But then the temp jobs. Last year I decided to have just one job. I made the most money I ever made, at a horrible huge law firm—$26 an hour, 30 hours a week—but I was so stressed out, I couldn’t do my art work. I went to MacDowell, the art colony in New Hampshire [where she got the stone-studio-with-a-slate-roof idea]. When I came back, the law firm wanted me working more hours.” She sat down in the apartment she shares with two roommates in a “crazy, crumbling” building that dancers used to live in, in nonresidential downtown Brooklyn, and said, “That’s enough.”
“It sucks here to be poor. I feel I never have enough money to even go away for a weekend, go to Fire Island with the boys. You have to spend like $60 on transportation. You come with some fabulous food item. Then there’s wine. You all go to tea. You think you’re going to the beach for the weekend, and it comes to $150. Since they’re letting you stay there and they’re so generous, you want to be generous, though they’re the ones who have all the money and can afford to be generous. Everyone is doing glamorous things that I don’t have the money to do.”
But if she doesn’t go away, she gets frustrated and drops $60 on Urban Decay eye shad- ows that are all full of sparkles, which probably make her feel richer, as if she owns diamonds.
“It’s just so hard to keep a balance in New York, so many temptations. Yet when I have money, I feel I should spend it on my art work. I never have enough just to go to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned.
“Money is a whole issue in my family. My dad was self-employed, worked in computers. In a portion of the ’80s he was doing really well. We lived in a rich town in Hingham, Massachusetts, but then it was up and down. He had to take this job in Saudi Arabia. By then, I’d just graduated college [Tufts].”
Carpenter is currently teaching a class at Parsons and temping again. Her plan is to move upstate or, more likely, apply to an MFA degree program “at Yale, Rhode Island School of Design, one of the biggies in a small, wonderful place.
“Being in New York taught me that I am an artist. But I’ve learned that I don’t have to be here to be an artist. I’ve met people from other parts of the world who are doing work happily. I’m realizing that New York is the center of New York, not the world.”