I learned about this book from Breaking the Spine, the book blog kind enough to choose me for the Waiting on Wednesday meme last week. My First New York grew out of a column in New York Magazine. What a cool idea.
My first New York? The summer of 1983 and I’m 27. I still have a little bit of a Southern accent from my four years in North Carolina — maybe that’s the thing that seems to draw all the guys to me. The phone doesn’t stop ringing. I meet my husband the first week. He takes me everywhere: Kiev, the now-defunct Piano Bar on Broadway, Shakespeare in the Park, the row of Indian restaurants on East Sixth Street. And … for our first date, he picks me up in a car. And old brown Ford Pinto, but a car nonetheless.
Needless to say, it’s not too different from Ivy’s first New York in my novel, “Cars from a Marriage.”
I should probably explain that the New York City I had moved to, the New York of my psyche the year I met Ellis, was more a stage set than a real place. It was the Manhattan of Woody Allen movies, “Odd Couple” reruns, Marilyn Monroe standing on the air vent, and Marlo Thomas as “That Girl,” smiling perkily from behind the counter in her midtown candy shop. Before I moved to Manhattan, I’d only been there once, a weekend excursion of the high school art club. We’d descended the magnificent spiral of the Guggenheim Museum, seen “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” and eaten what seemed like an extremely exotic meal at Benihana. That was it, the sum of my experience in Gotham. A decade later, I was as starry-eyed as a shortstop buttoning his pinstripe jersey in the Bronx for the first time. Boxy yellow taxis zoomed down Broadway as if for my personal amusement.
Like all adopted New Yorkers, I came for nothing less than complete transformation….
It was late March. I stayed, my first month or so, in the cramped den of a rent-controlled post-war apartment on the West Side, which belonged to a divorced voice teacher in her late 50’s named Betty, the mother of my best friend from college, Tess. Betty would “adore” the company, Tess insisted.
But even though Betty occasionally made a pot of Orange Pekoe and invited me to sit in one of her stiff wingback chairs and talk about my day, I felt a sort of coolness, like she didn’t want me getting too comfortable. Literally. Betty kept her apartment at 65 degrees, and I wasn’t allowed in the living room during voice lessons. I had to wait for the short intervals between students to sprint to the dark galley kitchen where I kept my own box of Lemon Zinger and a small supply of yogurt. Betty’s 12-year-old cat, Simon, had tuna breath and a problem with flatulence, and slept in the same room I did. He arched his back whenever I walked in, reminding me I was the interloper – a gesture that brought to mind some of the crustier matriarchs of the Virginia aristocracy.
I adapted. I wore a sweatshirt over my pajamas, and brought Simon a succession of cheap squeaky mouse toys to try to win his affection. I splurged on treats for Betty too, regularly stopping at Zabar’s for chocolate croissants and nice-sized hunks of Gruyere. Although I’d shipped my old Royal typewriter to the apartment, the first time I typed a sentence, I realized that in such tight quarters each keystroke sounded like a gunshot. A paragraph would have sounded like the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. I didn’t dare use it unless Betty was out.
But who cared? I was in New York. The first weekend, I rode all the way to Coney Island, wandered the narrow cobblestone alleys near Wall Street and rode the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center. You could pick up the Sunday Times on Saturday night and make a cheap dinner out of a gigantic slice of Original Ray’s Pizza. I learned quickly that all the Ray’s were the “original” and disdained by real New Yorkers, but I still loved the thick gooey almost raw-in-the-middle slices.
My heart thrummed when I looked through all the entertainment listings in the Village Voice. If I didn’t find a job before my $700 ran out – although I was sure I would – I wanted to make sure I’d experienced everything it was possible to experience. At least everything that was free or cheap. And so my third week, seeing a “new talent night” with a modest $5 cover at a downtown comedy club, I left Betty to watch “Knots Landing” and hopped the subway to see live comedy for the first time in my life.
I still feel a certain frisson of excitement when I go into the city on June nights. The light that time of year always takes me back to my first New York, the first summer with Warren, exploring the city and meeting my soulmate.
And I even have an artifact from that period, my very first gift from Warren, the cobalt blue glass vase that he gave me when I got my first job.