I’m in a New York State of Mind

I’ve never lived in or even ever really wanted to visit New York City, but My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City made me wonder if I was missing something. Edited by David Haskell and Adam Moss of New York Magazine, this book features a variety of musings supplied by actors, artists, athletes, chefs, writers, and even a porn star. Each reflects back on his or her first moments in New York City.

Beginning with David Dinkins, former NYC mayor who came to NYC in 1933, and ending with aspiring actress Jenny Joslin, who arrived in NYC in 2009, the book includes the famous, the not so famous, and even the somewhat infamous. Yogi Berra’s “essay” simply states “New York? It was big”; other essays, including those by Liz Smith, Dan Rather, and Nora Ephron, span several pages.

The book was created to celebrate all the quirkiness, beauty, creativity, eccentricity, and artistry that is New York City, but particularly in early 2010 when the world is in such turmoil, My First New York often strikes a contemplative and sentimental tone that will make many, myself included, wish we could travel back in time to when, as Liz Smith relates, “you could ride the subway for a dime and buy a ticket for a Broadway show for $2.50.”

However, it’s not just the cost of living that makes me a little melancholy; it’s also statements such as this one from dancer and choreographer Paul Taylor:

The arts community was much smaller then, and we all knew each other. Painters, writers, composers—we’d all get together quite often in somebody’s old loft, or the Cedar Tavern down in the Village, to talk and trade ideas. Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns both designed costumes and set pieces for me. I helped them do window displays at Tiffany, and would listen as they talked about being anti-Abstract Expressionism and wanting to change the whole scene. One night at the Cedar Tavern Jackson Pollock was very drunk, and he started shouting “I am nature!” I remember thinking that was great and true.

Many of these essays portray a New York filled with energetic young people who worked together, didn’t mind being broke if they were pursuing a lifestyle they loved or a cause they believed in, and believed in working hard to get what they wanted. It makes me wish I had been there.

Of course, the book doesn’t present a sugar-coated version of NYC. Artist Cindy Sherman’s essay opens “It was the summer of 1977, and I was terrified of the city. Son of Sam was going around murdering couples, the city blacked out for twenty-four hours, the transit strike stopped all the buses, and all of a sudden women who used to wear little pumps to work now started wearing sneakers.” David Rakoff’s essay starts with a story of how his mother’s purse was stolen on their first trip to NYC. Still, most essays contain a spirit of optimism; even Rakoff confesses “Truthfully, I found the theft thrilling, even as it sharpened whatever anxiety my folks must have been feeling. The robbery conferred a modicum of street cred with zero injury, and I needed all the help I could get.”

I’ll admit—I didn’t find some of the more recent entries as compelling as some of the earlier ones. Former escort Ashley Dupré, who arrived in New York in 2004, talks about seeing Michelle Pfeiffer at a restaurant and remembers: “I had grown up on Grease 2. Michelle Pfeiffer’s life was something I had admired and always wanted for myself. She was so gorgeous. I just stared.” For some reason, a Michelle Pfeiffer sighting (and please know that I have enjoyed many Michelle Pfeiffer films although Grease 2 was not one of them) just doesn’t seem to compare with some of the legends (Leonard Cohen, Andrew Warhol, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg) mentioned in earlier essays.

Parts of Nate Silver’s essay made me wonder why people move to New York at all. After talking about the outrageous cost of living and the impossible traffic, Silver, a political analyst who arrived in NYC in 2009, turns to the truly important issues and relates “The first time I went to Yankee Stadium, a guy ordered a hot dog and Merlot. Then he sent the Merlot back. You’re just not allowed to order a glass of Merlot at a baseball game! And if you do, you’re sure as hell not allowed to send it back.”

However, like so many of the entries, Silver closes his essay with a much more uplifting and optimistic thought: “Here you’re always trying to reach for something—maybe you don’t even know what, exactly.” Perhaps this is what so many, even in 2009 or 2010, find so intriguing about New York City — always having a dream even if you aren’t quite certain what it is. In a world as cynical as the one we live in today, there is something compelling and even refreshing about a city that not only lets people dream but seems to demand it.

RATING 7 / 10