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.