My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City captures the experience of coming to New York for the first time that, whether traumatic or ecstatic, is always life-changing. The book compiles fifty short essays by well-known and lesser known actors, writers, artists and other notable New York figures of the last century. These may be extraordinary people, but their experiences and emotions are recognizable as our own.
This collection of essays, which is an extended edition of a series about coming to New York that ran in New York magazine in 2009, was released on March 23, 2010. Some of the personages featured in the book include Amy Sedaris, whose essay elicited riotous laughter from me; Chloe Sevigny, who was even edgier as a youth than she is today; and Yogi Berra, who was terse. New York is a city that is fully alive, and the people in this book represent the full spectrum of life.
The historicity of living in New York at pretty much any time since the 1940s makes life seem more significant when played out in that city. There is a magic in the idea of all the groups of thinkers and artists who have congregated in this one place at different times. However, reading some of the stories in this book, such as Chuck Close’s remembrances of artists philosophizing at the Cedar Tavern, can be bittersweet because one wishes one could have been present at the beginning of these cultural movements.
The dichotomy of amazement and anxiety that is often a part of the immigrant experience is presented here, from Gary Shteyngart, who in a beautifully poignant essay describes coming to NYC from the Soviet Union as “stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in pure Technicolor,” to André Aciman, who admits, “I am not ready to be here.”
Some of the memories of early experiences in NY seem absurd, like the artist James Rosenquist being fired from his billboard painting job. But these anecdotes simply speak to the absurdity of life itself. It comes as no surprise that a porn star would be one of the most sympathetic and relatable persons in the book. The paradoxes of life in New York simply reflect the paradoxes of life in general.
I am tempted to call the struggles that many of these authors went through when they first arrived in NYC “inspiring,” but really they are “reassuring.” Too many college humanities graduates, myself included, should relate to Larry Kramer walking into his boss’s office and declaring, “I went to Yale and I think I am smart enough not to be in the mailroom.” Hell, Tom Wolfe writes that he almost took a job as a copyboy after he graduated with a Ph.D. from Yale, until he pictured a future filled with calls of “Hey, Doc, go get me some coffee.” It is comforting to read the uncertainty of those who have since become great; it makes you think that you too can one day find fulfillment, even in the most demanding city in the world.
It is interesting how distinctly the lifestyles and attitudes of New Yorkers change with each generation, which is made all the more notable by the chronological ordering of these essays. The first batch fall into the New York of romantic lore, with the characters coming to the big city with nothing, getting by on free water and sugar packets, until, presumably through hard work, they make the big time. Those who migrate to the city in the nineties are of a dramatically different breed, attracted to the drug scene of hard partying and nightly flings that self-combusted at the end of the decade. In stark contrast, those who arrived after September 11 experienced a city fraught with fear, and their experiences of the city bear little resemblance to the bright lights of a bygone era.
But what all of these authors have in common, which makes this book so charming, is that they are willing to take action and embrace the happenstance of the city, and I love how they stumble into situations that are often humorous. I enjoy the mental image of Ira Glass opting to run skittishly all the way down his street filled with drug dealers and prostitutes, despite how uncool he looked. Or Danny DeVito chatting with the guy who is trying to mug him for so long that he finally gives up on robbing him. Even the raunchy, dirty sides of New York have their charm, and Chita Rivera’s encounter with a flasher in the subway would suggest urban blight in any other town, but in NY, it seems right, almost necessary. There is that sense that, no matter what may come, one has already won, just by having the guts to leap into this urban jungle.
No matter the topic or theme, each essay is moving because it offers a glimpse into an individual’s life, in all its beauty or tragedy. I am impressed with the utter honesty of many of the authors; the urge to feel like a part of humanity through experiential revelation has always drawn me to personal essays. My one criticism of the book is that it leaves me wishing for longer, more in-depth essays, but the reader still gets great vignettes of a mercurial city and humanity’s attempt to succeed in it. Reading My First New York will make you believe in the millions of dreams that make up this vibrant city, and just maybe inspire you to imagine a dream of your own.