Twenty years ago today, I moved to New York City—as it turns out, for good.
The anniversary almost passed by without my noticing. Then something jogged the memory yesterday. When I mentioned the fact to The Wife, she looked at me as if I had told her I had just taken off the training wheels from my Schwinn. It was one of those deadpan, utterly unimpressed, New Yorker stares that seem to say "And...?" The Wife's not a native New Yorker; she was born and bred in southern Florida. But to know her is to imagine she's never felt anything but the five boroughs concrete under her feet.
I suppose it shouldn't matter to me. But twenty years is twenty years. I've never lived longer in any place. And the myriad ways in which the City has changed during that time leads me to deduce that a certain amount of experience has come along with the passage of those two decades.
I arrived by train from Chicago on Aug. 28, 1988. In those days, Amtrak still ran trains into Grand Central, allowing me a more dramatic and romantic arrival into the City. In retrospect, I thank God that the bowels of Penn Station wasn't the New York sight that greeted me. Koch was still Mayor. The subway was $1 and you paid with a token. A slice of pizza was uniformly $1.25 throughout the City; irrationally, I still feel this is the only fair price for a slice. For many years after the costs began to rise, I would stubbornly favor a tumbledown pizzeria on 32nd Street near Penn Station simply because they still charged $1.25 a slice. It wasn't good pizza, but it was $1.25.
I remember being awed by the Korean delis, which—it is difficult to believe now, we're so used to them—were a newish phenomenon then. The array of fresh, gleaming, polished fruit displayed outside; the dozens of chafing dishes full of various hot dishes, all at amazingly low prices per pound! And you could buy these delicacies at any time of night! The delis seemed magical to me, something not to be found in any other place on earth. Now I find them intermittently convenient and, as far as hot food is concerned, violently repulsive.
I was mystified the first few times I ordered food from a hot dog cart. The hot dog was simple enough. (Hot sausages were much more satisfying, I soon learned.) But the soda—every time I asked for a soda they handed it to me with a straw. What the hell? Back when I came from, you gave straws to little kids. Adults drank straight from the can. Did I look like a kid? Only later did I learn that some New Yorkers are, to a certain extent, germaphobic, and don't necessarily want their lips touching the nasty metal edge of that can. Odd. I still throw the straw away.
I first lived in Harlem, at the corner of 135th Street and Broadway. For reasons I know not, I never found it scary, even during the late hours when I often returned home. I found the neighborhood took care of its own and if they knew you lived there, you were safe. A bought an old Art Deco wardrobe on the street in the Village for $60 and it was delivered to the apartment that night; it was my only piece of furniture. I then purchase a JVC 13" television at Crazy Eddie's. I didn't have cable, so I got about three channels. (I actually owned the TV until it finally gave out in 2005. I still have the wardrobe.)
The apartment was a shotgun affair with crumbling air of faded grandeur. The kitchen belonged to the cockroaches. Cockroaches were new. No cockroaches in the Midwest. Again, this did not freak me out; it was just a fact of life. I shouted out my approaching entrance each time before entering the kitchen, just to give them time to scatter. ("Here I come!" usually worked.) They left for a while, and I went about cooking my meal (boiling everything as I did).
At times, when they got too cocky and numerous, I resolved to temporarily annihilate them. On these occasions, I would not proclaim my arrival. I entered on tiptoe, Raid in hand. I'd swing open a large wooden cupboard door, and let fly. They would fall like rain. I'll never forget the clickity-clackity sound of dead cockroaches steadily hitting the vinyl. This went on cupboard door after cupboard door. When they started racing for cover on the ceiling, I'd aim high. After there were a sufficient amount of corpses on the floor, I'd cease fire and sweep them up with broom and dustpan. The kitchen would be a cockroach-free zone for roughly two weeks after such attacks. I imagine that they only briefly switched position to some other poor sucker's kitchen.
My roommates were a handsome, leonine young Australian carpenter who was living and working in the City illegally, and his African-American girlfriend, who made slick onyx furniture for Trump types. We started out as friends, but that didn't last long. He turned out to be the most atrocious alcoholic and I rarely saw him sober. He remained charming and catnip to the ladies, but he was was no head of a household (his name was on the lease). He once regaled me joyously with a story of how he had been rolled on the 1 train at 3 AM and robbed of $300. When I moved in, I gave him three months worth of my share of the rent. He spent it all on drink, and them criticized me for having given him so much money at one go.
The girlfriend didn't drink. She smoked grass. For some reason, I thought it would be fun one night to accompany her as she went out at 11 PM to make her connection. We walked to a bombed-out block of 133rd Street, where she stepped down to the shadowy basement door of a brownstone, handed money through a hole and received a small baggie in return. At the time, the experience was exhilarating. I was utterly green.
I remember being stunned that the U.S. Open was within a quick subway ride from Manhattan. I remember going to Times Square and my surprise that most of the buildings in the area were only three or four-stories tall. I was taken to candlelit basement restaurant on Charles Street in the Village called Carmella's Village Garden, and it became set in my mind as the epitome of the romantic Village bistro. It closed about ten years ago. I can taste the Frutti di Mare pasta still.
By my bedside, I had copies of Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," Tama Janowitz's "Slaves of New York" and issues of Spy magazine. I would peruse them each night before retiring. I used them as a sort of social template to guide myself through the mores and attitudes of New Yorkers. As research, a bit silly, perhaps. But I could have done worse.
I found my first year living in New York incredibly hard and very lonely. It's as if the City tests you. After that, I felt more and more at home.
I knew many transplants back then. But in those first few years, they left one by one. Someone later told me that the five-year point is a dividing line. Those for whom the City is not the burg of their dreams leave before five years pass. The ones who are still here after half a decade tend to stay. I stayed five. I stayed ten. Here I am. Here I stay. For better or worse. It seems.