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Waking Up to New York

Michael Lucas, porn star
Arrived: 1997
I met a Wall Street guy when I was living in Munich who invited me to move to New York. He was a very difficult person, but he was the only person I knew in the city. We lived on 39th Street between Eighth and Ninth, which was depressing. Every day there were these terrible tourists, and every evening it would be even worse, with tranny hustlers and hookers.

I had arrived at JFK with a backpack and a little suitcase and $150. I immediately started escorting for $300 an hour and working at the Gaiety Theater. Porn was not my dream; I wanted to be the next Tom Cruise. But I was realistic and practical, and saw my competition in Hollywood, and decided that the opportunity for me was in porn. But it was also depressing, mostly because I was working with straight, rude, gay-for-pay performers. People didn’t want me as their escort because I was not buff enough, or because I had long hair and a thick Russian accent. I said MUD-un-nuh instead of Mah-DAWN-ah.

After three months, I rented the living room of a D.J. from the Gaiety and saved $17,000 to pay six months up-front on my own one-bedroom on Barrow Street. The neighborhood felt like a nice suburb of London, and that is when I started to fall in love with New York—even though I just had a mattress on the floor and a rotary phone to call my family in Russia. I wore poor-person clothes like Abercrombie & Fitch, which was very sad, very beige. (Eventually, when I started to get some money, I bought Valentino, because I did not know any better.) I got bad haircuts and shopped in bad supermarkets. I learned to cook from marked-down cookbooks I bought at a Barnes & Noble, but I preferred the Burger King. I remember looking in the mirror once in 1997 and not seeing even one ab.

Danny Meyer, restaurateur, Union Square Café
Arrived: 1980
The first night I moved to New York was the night that John Lennon was shot. I had gotten burned out working for a political campaign in Chicago, and had decided to try New York for a year to get it out of my system. So I slept on the floor of some college friends’ apartment, and that weekend I went to Central Park for the Lennon vigil. It was an amazing feeling: a moment of community and realizing that this horrible tragedy had brought that many human beings together. It wasn’t the violent act that scared me as much as it was the beauty of its aftermath that attracted me.

I ended up taking a $16,000-a-year job selling electronic tags designed to stop shoplifters, and soon after that I became the top salesman in the company. I drove this powder-blue Volkswagen Rabbit to every corner of New York. I had the Duane Reade and Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse accounts. I owned the fur district. I got to know every Sephardic Jewish family who owned mom-and-pop drugstores in Brooklyn and Queens.

I lived in a walk-up railroad apartment on 79th and First. I remember cooking out of a hibachi grill on the fire escape, and waking up one morning to the smell of the doughnuts from the shop below us. I ate the best rotisserie chicken in the world from a deli called Eddie’s, and bought link sausages and sauerkraut from Germantown on 86th Street. A block and a half away were David’s Cookies, and I had never had chocolate-chip cookies like that in my life.

I had started taking cooking classes partly as a way to meet girls, but when I got to my first class I found that everyone was in their fifties. I entertained all the time, hosting lovely brunches where I would go out and source the best cheeses and pâtés I could find, which was a big deal for a 22-year-old back then. One day I saw two guys wheeling an espresso maker down the street. They were opening a 28-seat joint called Trastevere, which would soon get three stars from the Times. I got to know the restaurant business through them, and I subscribed to Seymour Britchky and Andy Birsch’s restaurant newsletters. I became the go-to person for anyone who wanted to know where to eat.

When the company wanted me to move to London, I quit and took the Kaplan LSAT course. On the eve of taking the test, I went out to Elio’s on Second Avenue with my aunt and uncle. I’m saying I don’t want to be a lawyer, and my uncle responds, “All I’ve ever heard you talk about since you were a kid is food and restaurants. Why don’t you just go into the restaurant business?” No one talked about going into the restaurant business back then—not unless you were from Greece or Italy or Czechoslovakia. So I took the LSATs anyway, but my next call was to my college buddy, asking if he would take a restaurant-management class with me. Three classes in, my buddy dropped out. But he felt so bad, he arranged an interview for me with Eugene Fracchia, the owner of Pesca, who looked me up and down and gave me the job on the spot. Two hundred and fifty dollars a week. And it turned out I loved it.