For as long as anyone can remember, New York City has called like a siren to freedom-seekers hoping for a chance to make their own way in the world. For centuries, scrappy capitalists like the Dutch fur traders, Alexander Hamilton, and Mario Batali have migrated to the economic epicenter of Manhattan, their presence challenged only by equally seduced hordes of writers, musicians, and Bohemians such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Lennon, and Taylor Swift. The conception of the city as the place to go to "become somebody" is one that has not and likely will not change; it is the singular element of the island's identity that remains constant, as its skyline grows higher and its social fabric evolves. This dynamic is as significant today as it was hundreds of years ago. For just as Prohibition-thwarting bootleggers sprinkled downtown with exclusive charm by building mysterious, raucous speakeasies, and European immigration waves bestowed upon the boroughs the highest authority regarding pizza and bagels, this summer, a new group of dreamers and schemers has made its mark on the urban landscape. They have kept the city's economic institutions alive by the relentless flow of their vigorous labor, all while making their very best effort to drink its saloons and rooftop lounges dry. Please allow me to introduce: the New York City summer interns.
They attend respected universities approved by that sagacious gatekeeper, Forbes, and hail from a long list of suburbs that span across the country. In June, they established temporary residence by the hundreds in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, Turtle Bay, Murray Hill, and the East Village - while still more purchased monthly passes for the LIRR, NJ Transit, and Metro-North. Soon after, they anxiously began orientation programs at banks, media groups, start-ups, designer brands, and non-profits; they received their office IDs and their MetroCards, and they were told, "The City is your playground." And then they got to work.
These fresh-faced, slightly nervous, over-caffeinated young talents endured the usual trials of any laboring individual - foul-mouthed clients, dirty patrons, snarky coworkers, absentee bosses - but their temporary status and their lack of experience made them vulnerable to particular kinds of abuse: namely, the exploitation of their labor. Few industries make this reality so apparent as do the worlds of finance and of creativity. For those who interned at media groups, galleries, and start-ups (or any other place where the suit is obsolete), exploitation generally manifested itself in the bank account death-sentence that is "For College Credit Only." Optimists over-exerted themselves for companies whose futures are as rickety as the makeshift desks that they perched at. To even the staunchest Republicans, ObamaCare began to seem like the greatest idea ever. However, the anxieties and frustrations that erupted from trying to be okay with working from nine to five for free under the guise of the "Starving Artist" were generally trumped by the woes of the other group: the Bulls and the Bears.
Most days, it seems like just about everyone is working in investment banking or sales and trading. Athletes, writers, performers, and free thinkers alike cast aside their passions to pick up the noble - and unfortunately rare - torch of job security. Starting as early as four in the morning, summer analysts flooded Midtown and Wall Street, hurrying along in professional get-up ill-suited for the city heat. They bore slightly pinched looks, which can be attributed either to the need for breakfast or the refusal to commute in sneakers. For these types of interns, the days stretched ahead in lengths of ten, twelve, fifteen hours - not including lunch. They were at the complete mercy of the markets and the bosses, and although they were paid more than most, clever loopholes like prorated salaries and unpaid overtime allowed banks to exploit the widespread desperation for a job upon graduation as economically as the jeans-sporting, "Don't Call Me Your Boss" boss at the non-profit, sustainable travel app. Even worse, many of these competitive firms promoted an office culture that made their interns feel invisible and disposable, not respected; they sowed fear and deference, rather than curiosity and energy. In short, it appears to most rising seniors that they face a career ultimatum: choose the soul-crushing misery of the initial years in finance, or else suffer the terrifying uncertainty - rather like "The Waiting Place" Dr. Seuss warns of in Oh the Places You'll Go - of literally anything else.
To cope with the hours, the emails, and the mind numbing dread of having to live in their parents' basements until they're thirty, the summer interns turned with enthusiasm to the vibrant nightlife that Manhattan has to offer. After work, this freshly minted batch of legal drinkers flocked en masse to the city's rooftop lounges and sports bars, backpacks and tote bags in tow. They practically threw their IDs at bouncers in their eagerness and pounded cocktails to blow off some steam. They jumped at the opportunity to flex their "YoPro" muscles, bickering over who had it the toughest in the office and testing out versions of their elevator pitches on unwitting friends. Impassioned by the heat and the frenzy of the crowds, some may have even indulged their remaining adolescent hormones and finished the night with a sweaty make out or - more likely - a flurry of incomprehensible, tipsy Snapchats. Twenty-five year olds who are comfortably settled into their first (or fourth) job may sneer, but to the young summer intern, it was all part of the allure of the city.
As someone who is proud to have called Manhattan "home" since birth, but who also currently belongs to the summer intern demographic, I was forced by the sudden, sweeping arrival of my peers to renegotiate my relationship with the city. The Manhattan of the summer interns was only slightly less of a "bubble" than is the college campus, and it was easy to get tunnel vision. I know from twenty-one years of experience that the city is so much more than a smoggy, sweaty, summer-smothering inferno, it's more than Wall Street, and it's more than its top five most Instagrammable restaurants. And yet, my time did seem to condense into a consciousness marked only by the pendulum that swings between the workweek and the weekend. Few people have captured this rhythm as well as Mark Sebastian in his repetitive chorus for the Lovin' Spoonful's hit "Summer in the City." The song's depiction of struggling to 'make it' in Greenwich Village in the heat of July is as accurate today as it was then in 1966. This summer's college interns were hardly the first and certainly not the last to feel discouraged, drenched in sweat, on the streets of Manhattan. It is only through being absorbed within the tiny intern world that have I been able to fully understand this greater, so often clichéd truth: perseverance in the face of obstacles is what the city is all about. That, if nothing else, is something that every intern can be proud to have taken part in.