These Books Made Me Fall In Love With New York City — Before I Even Lived Here
The lobby of the suburban Cleveland JCC smelled like chlorine and Lemon Pledge and sun. It was early in the morning, and as I waited to be called into my interview for a camp counselor position, where I would ultimately spend the summer wrangling fourth-graders into playing improv games, I rifled through my messenger bag and gingerly pulled out a book.
I was 14, and I held my tattered copy of Catcher in the Rye like a shield, warding off any attempts at contentment. "I'm getting out of here," it said. "I'm going to eat up this big world, and I'm never, ever going to be satisfied."
Growing up in Ohio, New York was an Emerald City. It was a place where you didn't get Sears' catalogues advertising floor-length denim skirts and plaid shirts with bumblebee appliques on them. You probably didn't even get Sears' catalogues in New York. Who needed catalogues when you had vintage stores filled with, like, leather jackets and tulle skirts and studded jeans and, gosh, I don't know, velvet pants? In New York, there were bookstores on every corner, it seemed, where you could buy worn paperbacks for a dollar out of cardboard boxes, and dimly lit bars marked by small neon signs, strewn with deep thinkers scribbling in notebooks. Sure, there was trash, everywhere, and crime and pain and the ever-present smell of dried piss, but New York was a beacon of vibrancy for me.
"In New York, there were bookstores on every corner, it seemed, where you could buy worn paperbacks for a dollar out of cardboard boxes, and dimly lit bars marked by small neon signs, strewn with deep thinkers scribbling in notebooks."
Earlier this month, the internet rang in the 20th anniversary of Sex and the City's first episode. It seems that these past several weeks have been one long love letter to NYC, signed, sincerely, the SATC generation, an endless stream of anecdotes about falling in love with New York through the now-iconic series. I can relate to the teenage obsession of Being A New Yorker, but while I've seen just a handful of Sex and the City episodes, what I consumed, compulsively, were books about New York City, books about being lost and suffering for your art in New York City, books about figuring your shit out (or not), books about being in love in New York City and losing it in New York City. My New York City was dirty and tough and tumbled down and alive. I was going to be a "starving artist," in a loft, covered in paint. I was going to be an actress. I was going to be a writer, anything torturously creative. And while I dreamed about my future, I read.
Though it certainly wasn't the first book I read that was set in New York, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was the novel that established my love of the genre, "Trying To Figure Things Out In New York City While Smoking A Lot of Cigarettes and Drinking Too Much Whiskey."
Catcher in the Rye is hardly an idiosyncratic teen favorite. I remember the subway. I remember Central Park, and the museums, and the getting lost. I wasn't particularly interested in 16-year-old Holden Caulfield's haunted stream of consciousness, at least not on its own. But the way the city gobbled Holden up, the way a native New Yorker juggled alienation and memory walking through his own hometown — that was what was missing from my own suburban existence.
Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of becoming Patti Smith, essentially, came out my freshman year of college. Still in Ohio, buried under an English major's curriculum of Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway, I read Just Kids three times in a row under the covers of my dorm room and dreamed about the bare apartment Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe transformed into an oasis and about the diners where Patti drank black coffee.
Seven years later, I was working as a bookseller in Chicago, spending hours shelving books and wondering whether it was worth applying for graduate school or whether this was it, this was my life, permanently. I didn't want to move to New York. It had fallen off my list of goals years ago.
"I read Just Kids three times in a row under the covers of my dorm room and dreamed about the bare apartment Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe transformed into an oasis and about the diners where Patti drank black coffee."
An unmarked, advanced copy of a novel called Tuesday Nights in 1980 floated across the checkout desk, and it was like stumbling across an ex's Instagram account you never knew they had. I opened it, read a few pages, put it down. Came back a few hours later, read a little more, put it down. Couldn't stop thinking about the characters, wayward creatives creating creative shit in a pre-gentrified, 1980 NYC art scene, and read the rest of the book over a 36-hour period.
When I finished, my face swollen from crying, I looked out my window in Chicago and I remembered how several years ago, I'd visited a friend in New York and had ridden the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and as the train moved above ground and over the bridge, I thought, "I'm going to be here some day."
"...it was like stumbling across an ex's Instagram account you never knew they had."
It was my first overwhelming week in New York, my first overwhelming week in grad school, and there it was, a bookstore right across the street from campus. I walked in, my eyes settling almost immediately on Olivia Laing's Lonely City, a collection of essays about being alone in New York, using work from artists like Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol as lenses to decode the isolation.
I was alone, too, and I was in New York, finally, and I hated it. At first, at least. It was loud and expensive and too hot (until it was too cold). I hated it, until I didn't.
The city I had dreamed about on long summer afternoons alone in my bedroom, listening to the cicadas hum, isn't where I'm at. Maybe it was never here to begin with. But I'm writing this essay on my fire escape in Harlem, and when I look to my left I can see the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan glittering on the horizon. I got a book from the library yesterday, Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles, and I'm going to read it not for the exoticism, but to search for, somewhere in those pages, familiarity. Because I'm here, too.