But it wasn’t just career ambition that drove me. To paraphrase Alicia Bridges, I wanted to go where the people danced. I wanted some ack-shouwn. From reading Interview and Michael Musto, I was under the impression that Manhattan was a giant dance floor on which everyone from the skankiest drag queen to Nan Kempner danced their own special dance.
My Manhattan fantasies were stoked by a few firsthand experiences in the mid-eighties. Despite the fact that I’d grown up less than three hours away, I’d never been to New York until I drove here at 21 in my $200 blue ’72 Chevy Nova, which broke down just as I got through the Holland Tunnel. I coasted into a garage and walked around the West Village with an ex-girlfriend who was hoping to be “discovered” as a model. As night fell, we ended up sitting outside at the Riviera Cafe near Sheridan Square. I was dumbfounded by the rush of cars and people, and by the strange things—batteries!—that vendors sold on the streets at midnight. I remember secretly loving the fact that everything cost a fortune and that it could take 45 minutes to go less than a mile in a cab. It was my first clue that Manhattan was not for the faint of heart.
A year or so later, I came to New York with a well-to-do friend who took me to a swank restaurant in a hotel on the Upper East Side and then to the ballet to see Swan Lake. I nearly fainted from intolerable joy as I smoked a cigarette on a steamy August night by the fountain at Lincoln Center. We went back to some friend of a friend’s bachelor pad in an uptown high-rise. I remember whooshing up in a sleek, high-speed elevator to an apartment that was all black lacquer and red carpet. You know what I’m talking about: major stereo, sunken living room, expensive bong on the glass coffee table. I may as well have taken an elevator all the way to heaven. I stood at the window and stared at the sparkly skyline and the red river of taillights streaming down Park Avenue. I was so amped up from simply being in Manhattan that I did not sleep.
“I can’t believe you still live in Manhattan,’’ said a new Brooklyn cheerleader. Never before had it been suggested that this made me a moron.
Shooting for New York, I somehow landed in Atlantic City, a place that, despite its reputation as a dump with casinos, had for me a kind of glamorous decrepitude. It felt like a mini-Manhattan, laid out on a grid on an island, seething with intrigue 24 hours a day. Every morning I went to a newsstand to buy the New York Times solely for the classifieds—I threw the rest away. New York rents seemed laughably expensive, but I promised myself that I would not move until I could afford to live in Manhattan. Settling for Brooklyn or, worse, Hoboken seemed like living backstage, like training half your life to be an actor and then accepting a job as a stagehand hauling the scenery in and out. Miraculously, I got a decent magazine job by answering a classified ad. I found an apartment the same way: a big one-bedroom with an eat-in kitchen on 102nd and Broadway for $550 a month—no fee.
I can barely remember the days of packing and moving because I was in a zombie-like fever dream. When I arrived in New York on Valentine’s Day, 1988, I felt like the family pet that accidentally gets left behind but inexplicably finds its way across thousands of miles to turn up on the doorstep one day, exhausted, a little worse for wear, but so happy. I knew exactly one person who lived here, and the first thing she did was take me to some scary disco in midtown where I saw the performance artist Leigh Bowery walking around with lightbulbs attached to his head and a black woman onstage whose act was to lactate on the crowd.
Naturally, my most avid pursuit as a new New Yorker was going to parties and nightclubs to see how late I could stay out. Being able to stagger away from the wreckage and flop into bed once the sun was high was more than half the point. Manhattan is nothing if not an island of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs—with thoughtful little sleeping quarters just upstairs. It was like owning a time-share in a ski-in, ski-out condo. No need to schlep to the shuttle stop. Just step into your bindings and off you go!
I found myself standing around at parties next to people I’d only read about or seen on TV. One night at MK, Eric Goode’s luxe place in an old bank on Fifth Avenue, Fred Schneider from the B-52’s struck up a conversation. I’ve never forgotten his exit line: “You’ll have to excuse me while I head back into social orbit.” Another night, I wound up at Lorna Luft’s birthday party, thrown by her sister, Liza Minnelli, at some dusty old nitery called Le Club. At one point, Rex Reed began grilling me about how he might get his foot in the door at the magazine I was working for. I ran to the bathroom to use the pay phone to call my best friends back in Jersey. Rex Reed! The Gong Show!
This sort of thing was not happening in Brooklyn. But for one friend who grew up on the Upper East Side and moved to Brooklyn to spite her father, no one I knew ever went there, except occasionally to go to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Sensible people hightailed it right back to Manhattan and went to Indochine. (Category is . . . Sentences No One Ever Said in the Late Eighties for $500: “Hey, maybe after that Madonna benefit at BAM, we could go someplace fun in Boerum Hill!”) I know, I know. There were plenty of smart and wonderful people living in Brooklyn at the time, but the point is, I didn’t know them. And I didn’t care! Brooklyn to me was vast and unknowable. I was vaguely aware that the Odyssey, where Saturday Night Fever was filmed, still existed in some Italian neighborhood. And that there was a place called Coney Island that had a roller coaster. But I felt no need to actually go to these places.