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Waking Up to New York

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Chuck Close, artist
Arrived: 1967
I paid $150 a month for a raw loft on Greene Street, and all my friends who were already living here laughed, thinking it was outrageous to pay that much. The loft had no heat. I painted for an entire year with gloves on and just my trigger finger sticking out to the button on the airbrush. Literally, the coffee would freeze in its mug; the toilet would freeze overnight. We slept under a pile of blankets.

Soho was rats and rags and garbage trucks: There were occasional wars between one Mafia-owned waste-management company and another, during which one would burn the other’s trucks. There might have been twenty artists—or people of any kind—living between Houston and Canal; you could have shot a cannon down Greene Street and never hit anybody. But we all lived within a few blocks of each other: Brice Marden, Richard Serra, Nancy Graves, Phil Glass. We were in someone’s loft every night, either listening to a composer like Steve Reich or watching dancers like Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown. A lot of us helped Richard make his lead prop pieces, because he needed muscle and brawn to roll the lead and stack it up. Phil was his only paid assistant, and the rest of us were this interesting group of writers, filmmakers, even Spalding Gray. After work we’d go over to this cafeteria in what is now the Odeon, and we’d sit around and dream up ideas on the back of napkins.

We’d go to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Andy Warhol’s nightclub extravaganza that he ran on St. Marks Place. But the main thing was the watering holes, chief among them Mickey Ruskin’s Max’s Kansas City. Andy and his entourage would be in the back room with Rauschenberg and his entourage, and we younger artists like Robert Smithson and Dorothea Rockburne and Mel Bochner would tend to be in booths up front. There would be huge fights. Usually someone would come in and say, “I just saw so-and-so’s show and it’s great,” and then everyone would put him on the spot to explain why it was great, and they’d become more and more aggressive, and sometimes they would freak out, throw a drink, and walk out. There was music upstairs—Janis Joplin would be leaning up against the jukebox with a bottle of Southern Comfort, singing along with Edith Piaf with tears streaming down her cheeks. Mickey would trade artists’ work for a tab, so there was a big John Chamberlain sculpture in the front—a huge galvanized piece that was the coat rack for the whole place. Along one wall was a really beautiful Donald Judd, and in the corner in the back room was a red Dan Flavin that put a particularly eerie hue on top of all the pale Warhol Superstars.

Ira Glass, radio host, This American Life
Arrived: 1984
I first moved here when the woman I was with decided to go to NYU law school. We lived in married-student housing, though we weren’t married, and they were really just dorms. We were assigned a freshman dorm, and I was 25 and had never felt older in my life. We split up after a few months.

We had moved from Washington, and I was trying to learn to write radio stories. I wasn’t a terribly fast study, so I did other things, like working as a temp secretary. I remember walking by the Dallas Barbecue on the northeast side of Washington Square Park. I would look at people eating in the restaurant and think to myself, someday I’ll be able to afford to eat in a place like that.

After the NYU dorms, I lived in a series of cheap apartments, the worst of which was at Rivington and Allen. That was a truly dangerous neighborhood. I would get out of the subway on Houston Street at night, and there’d be drug dealers and prostitutes and crack vials on the streets, and I always had to make the decision, should I run? And I thought, well, that’s just going to look so uncool. But often I would run.

I rented an illegal sublet that cost me $145 a month; if anyone questioned what I was doing there, I was under strict instructions to say I was visiting somebody. My roommate had come to New York to do art but then had gotten into a dispute with the landlord, and literally, the dispute with the landlord took up every ounce of brainpower that she had. She was suing him for stuff that got damaged when the roof had caved in, and she was forever going on and on about the proceedings and how unfair he was and how he did one lousy thing to her or another. She became unable to do anything but think about this apartment. She was like a character out of a Tom Wolfe novel—her life had made her crazy—and that just seemed to sum up so exactly something about this city.


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