I have a handful of “first New York” memories. In one (the true first, I suppose), I’m in maybe ninth grade, sporting braces and what I must say was a pretty fly windbreaker, looking down from the World Trade Center. In another, I’m arriving at Fordham for freshman orientation, toting a carefully curated collection of posters and knickknacks into my dorm room.
But it’s really the last memory, the last first if you will, that I consider my real introduction to the city.
a dark a stormy night a nice May afternoon, shortly before college graduation, and my soon-to-be-roommate Lou and I had just driven to our new apartment in Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy, to be exact) from my mom’s house in Pennsylvania, bringing back both the contents of my bedroom and a selection of other items my mother was willing to part with (lamps, a toaster, her entire silverware set.) We parked the U-Haul in front of 904 Greene Ave.—a pleasant brownstone that for two years afforded me the ability to say I lived off of Malcolm X Boulevard—and set about unloading the truck so we could return it.
After piling all of my worldly possessions on the sidewalk, Lou and I realized that we were in a bit of a pickle. The U-Haul needed to be returned within the next half hour, and we both needed to be there (I can’t remember the logistics of this, but it was something about the truck being in his name, but me being the only one with a driver’s license.) So we did what any logical person would do: asked the kindly older gentleman sitting on the stoop next door to watch our stuff while we disappeared for the better part of a half hour.
I’d say that in hindsight I realized this decision—to leave my entire bedroom set on a curb in Bed-Stuy, guarded by a complete stranger—was a bad one, but the truth is it was perfect. When we came back, George (the neighbor, who we later learned was the area’s kindliest crack dealer) was still there, as was all our stuff. We thanked him, hauled our crap into the apartment, and ended the evening safe, sound and probably with bedbugs. New York, I have arrived.
I tell this story because it is, in a nutshell, the gist of My First New York. The book is a compilation of essays from famous people detailing their early memories of moving to the city. The stories move chronologically—from individuals who came here in the 1950s, all the way through 2009—so that through them you not only learn interesting factoids about famous people (for example, Danny DeVito and Michael Douglas were roommates!) but also get to watch the city transform, from bohemian and artistic to crime-ridden and terrifying, and back again. I hate to say this, because I hate the persistent idea that “before” was always better, but My First New York makes me wish that I could have lived here for the last 50 years, so that I might have personally witnessed some of the city’s seemingly endless reincarnations.
Rather than prattle on about the specific stories in this book, or all of the specific people whose stories are featured—among them Chuck Close, Tom Wolfe, Naomi Campbell, Nick Denton, Lorne Michaels and Rufus Wainwright—I want simply to say that whether or not you love New York, there is something awesome about the first time you see it. Although I sometimes envy friends who grew up here, I don’t know that I would want to give up the feeling of having come on my own, or the satisfaction of now living in a place that was a decade ago just a pipe dream. New York can be an expensive, exhausting, and infuriating place to call home—but this book captures why people do it anyway.
TITLE: My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City (As Remembered by Actors, Artists, Athletes, Chefs, Comedians, Filmmakers, Mayors, Models, Moguls, Porn Stars, Rockers, Writers, and Others
AUTHOR: Compiled by New York magazine
PAGES: 239 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: A Woody Allen movie
FIRST LINE: “This book started out as a magazine feature that, like the city it celebrated, soon grew a bit crowded for its size.”