Rufus Wainwright, Amy Sedaris, & Richie Rich Lorne Michaels & James Franco Connie Chung & Andy Samberg Maggie Gyllenhaal & David Dinkins Jann Wenner & Naomi Campbell Dr. Ruth, Kristen Schaal, & Mary Boone Keith Hernandez & Cindy Sherman Lauren Hutton & Diane Von Furstenberg Michael Lucas & Danny Meyer Chuck Close & Ira Glass Nick Denton, Chloë Sevigny, & Jesus Luz David Chang, Michel Gondry, & Rachel Dratch
Rufus Wainwright, musician
My New York life didn’t really begin until 1999, but I first moved here in 1994, after I’d fallen in love with a heroin addict in Montreal. I was still smarting from that failed relationship and had to get out of the vicinity of my dark love. So I came to New York and worked three jobs: at Film Forum; at Lion’s Head, on Sheridan Square; as the houseboy for a Broadway producing family who lived on Park Avenue. I would also perform here and there, mostly at an old jazz club called Deanna’s, in the East Village, but I couldn’t make enough money or any friends. Nobody was interested in my point of view. I tried to perform at the Lower East Side club Sin-é, but they refused my tape three times. I’d go to the old Crowbar to see Misstress Formika, during the East Village Renaissance that I had absolutely nothing to do with.
So I moved back to Montreal and started doing a lot of shows there. I was signed to DreamWorks Records and made my first album while living in L.A. When I came back to New York in ’97, DreamWorks got me a gig at Fez, which was a bit of a nightmare. I opened for a folksinger named Jonatha Brooke, who is very nice but whose fans are assholes. I think they would purposely speak louder when I was onstage. One time, a bunch of people came in on Rollerblades and sat in front of me really drunk while I was trying to sing about dying opera divas.
I ended up hanging out a lot with this girl Lisa, a really party-hearty hard-core Sex and the City person. Lisa was in advertising, and her crowd wasn’t necessarily an artistic mélange. We’d go to the Wax bar in Soho, and I was their gay-artist mascot. But one night I saw Kiki & Herb do their Christmas show at P.S. 122. It was earth-shattering; it gave me a focal point of where I wanted to go.
I went back to L.A. to write my second album, Poses. L.A. was also where I learned how to drink and do drugs, how to scope out the dealer and get into the party, and how to drive drunk (which I don’t do anymore). So when I finally returned to New York, in the summer of 1999, I was like a heat-seeking missile to find out what was happening, where was the fun, where were the goods, and who I wanted to go home with. I had very long hair and wore Greek caftans and posed as a romantic, almost Pre-Raphaelite androgynous person. I moved into an $1,800 closet-size apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. I met this guy Walt Paper, who brought me into the remnants of that Club Kid world, which had just collapsed. We met the drag performer Lily of the Valley and a fashion designer named Zaldy, and the four of us became a quartet who were at every party and in every hot tub and on every beach.
We went to the Boiler Room and Beige and the Cock, where Miss Guy would D.J. this eclectic mix of rock and roll, Nirvana, and Dolly Parton. I drank a lot, starting around noon and going on till four. I was so blissfully ignorant of any kind of danger or defeat. I was so confident that I was brilliant and indestructible and could drink and sleep with people as much as I wanted. I no longer have that magic blankness. But when I think back on it, I’m proud of having cracked the code of living life to the fullest, and that it didn’t take me down—though it very nearly did in the end.
Amy Sedaris, comedienne
The first thing I saw when I came to New York was a man leaning up against a wall, shitting. Perfect! I was never scared in Chicago. Here your fear was sitting right in front of you. But I loved it. I started waitressing at Marion’s, and then got a job at Gourmet Garage. My brother David and I would go to Balducci’s and look at their prepared food and then go home and try to make that. We shopped at Western Beef all the time. Waitressing was always fun. I like to wait on people, I like to work around food, I like to make cash, and I like to hear people complain.
Richie Rich, designer
The first night I moved here, I met Madonna. She walked up to me at the opening of Club USA with a lollipop and a beer, and she was like, “Hmmm, you look cute.” And I was like, “You’re Madonna!” I’m like, This is New York. Wow.
Keith Hernandez, former Mets first-baseman
New York was the last place I wanted to be, down there with Cleveland, Oakland, and Detroit. I was a guy from San Francisco, and I had already made something of myself, winning the World Series with the Cardinals, so it’s not like I was some kid getting off at the bus station in midtown all full of wonder. And nobody wants to be traded mid-season.
But I joined the Mets in June 1983. At first I was put up in a hotel at La Guardia, which was a terrible existence. I eventually moved to Greenwich until I got divorced. Then Rusty Staub, a New York fixture, told me, “Look, man, if you’re going to be single, don’t live in Connecticut. It’s all in the city.”
So I rented a place for a year until Fred Wilpon, the Mets owner who was also a real-estate guy, offered to sell me a condo at 49th and Second. It had been decorated by some interior decorator in Chicago, and they put all my clothes and luggage in a pile ten feet high—no lie—in the middle of the living room. Ed Lynch, a starting pitcher, was crashing with me while his condo was being finished. I went out one day, and when I came back he had unpacked all my stuff. I got his dinners for a month after that.
We’d go downtown. Soho was this pocket of the city where you could just get out of a cab, wander around, and have a great night no matter what. And I really got into the restaurants. You know, you could do a ball game and then still have dinner after. At eleven! That doesn’t happen in the Midwest. Fanelli’s, Palladium, Chin Chin, Smith & Wollensky, Lutèce … And you’d be a fool to live here and not take advantage of the cultural stuff. So I would go to Broadway plays and even some operas. I met Plácido Domingo backstage once. The guy is a huge baseball fan, and he said “Sorry, I have a cold, I sang like a .230 hitter. Next time, I promise I’ll be a .300 singer for you.”
Back then, of course, the Mets were terrible, so I would be incognito. As we got better, I would go out and it would be all or nothing. Nobody would recognize me or they all would. And, man, for about six weeks after we won the ’86 World Series, I couldn’t pay for dinner anywhere in the city. People would, I kid you not, send over bottles and bottles of free Cristal. Ridiculous. It’s one thing to become a New Yorker; it’s so much weirder to become a New Yorker that all the other New Yorkers know.
Cindy Sherman, artist
It was the summer of 1977, and I was terrified of the city. The Son of Sam was going around murdering couples, the city blacked out for 24 hours, the transit strike stopped all the buses, and all of the sudden women who used to wear little pumps to work now started wearing sneakers. I don’t remember leaving the apartment much. I was just like, “Oh my God, here I am in the city!”
There were a ton of deserted old buildings in New York, and it was just a matter of finding one that someone would let you move into, and that you could turn into something habitable. The first place I lived in was a sublet from an artist friend on Gold and Fulton Streets. It was just one room with a toilet down the hall and a shower that hooked up to the sink in the room. My kitchen was just a fridge, two hot plates, and a toaster oven. I think we were all there illegally, because sometimes people would make really elaborate systems of hiding the bed and the kitchen.
By five o’clock the neighborhood would be deserted, but Robert Longo, Nancy Dwyer, Michael Zwack, Eric Bogosian, and I would go to clubs like the Mudd Club and Tier 3, where punk new-wave bands would play. The scene then was all about artists who were also musicians who were also filmmakers. Sometimes it was about finding a band that was just good to dance to. I remember being at the Mudd Club when the B-52’s played, and there were only ten of us in the audience, dancing right in front of the stage. Then we’d head to the 24-hour diner on Broadway and Canal Street called Dave’s and get egg creams.
The first New York job I got was at Macy’s, and I hated it so much I quit after one day. I wanted to work in the cosmetics department—I was interested in makeup—but their personnel screening placed me as the assistant-assistant-assistant buyer to the bathrobe department. It was just so horrible, in some windowless part of the building. After Macy’s I worked in the afternoons as a receptionist at a gallery called Artist Space on Franklin and Hudson for $80 a week. Nancy worked at Barnes & Noble. We all wanted to make art, but I don’t think any of us expected to live off our work. We mostly showed at alternative galleries where nobody bought anything, and we didn’t expect otherwise. If you did sell something, it was such a treat, such a shock that somebody would buy it.
When I was a teenager in Long Island, I’d come into the city once in a while with some girlfriends, and all we would do is go to Macy’s and try on clothes. And when I was in college I would dress up in public and be in character (like, say, a pregnant woman) at an opening or a party. I tried that in New York a couple of times at my receptionist job. Once I went to work as a nurse. And another time as a secretary from the fifties. I sort of fit in because I was sitting in front of the desk, and I’d be like, “What would you like? What do you need?” But it gave me the creeps to do it in New York, I think because I felt too vulnerable.
Larry Kramer, playwright
After college I was stationed at Governors Island. We could come into New York every night if we wanted to, and God, we did. The USO gave out free theater tickets, and someone had donated two sixth-row-center tickets to the Metropolitan Opera. There weren’t that many soldiers who wanted those tickets, so I went a lot to see Zinka Milanov and Antonietta Stella.
I also got a chance to explore the gay bars off Third Avenue in midtown. There was one bar in particular called The 316, on East 54th. I would walk around the block five times before I got up the nerve to go in. There would be guys of all ages just getting off of work. Everybody would stand around not talking to each other. There were all of these unwritten regulations about cruising you had to learn.
After the army I got a job as a messenger boy in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, where I made $39 a week. I was also interested in becoming an actor, and I took classes with Sydney Pollack, who told me, “Larry, you’re very good, but you’ll never get the girl.”
One of the great things about being in the mailroom was that you were encouraged to read everybody’s mail. So I would stay late reading how much Elvis was making in Vegas, or who was going to get what part. But eventually enough was enough, and early one morning I marched into the office of my boss, Nat Lefkowitz. I said, “Mr. Lefkowitz, you don’t know me from Adam. My name is Larry Kramer and I went to Yale and I think I’m smart enough not to be in the mailroom.” You didn’t do things like that, but that is, in fact, what you do if you want to impress someone. They transferred me out of the mailroom. They made me a secretary, and I had to learn shorthand.
Lorne Michaels, executive producer, Saturday Night Live
I’d been living in California for the better part of five years, and what I remember most about the transition to 30 Rock is that I didn’t have the required clothes. You know, when I was writing for Laugh-In, we worked in a motel and wore Hawaiian shirts and pants that flared. I remember going to Saks Fifth Avenue and buying an oxblood-colored V-neck sweater, and then buying a green corduroy jacket on Madison Avenue. I could wear the jacket with jeans, which then was a relatively fresh style. I was 29 turning 30, and I felt invincible.
When I walked into the lobby of Rockefeller Center the first time, I thought, Well, this show is absolutely going to work. There’s something about walking into 30 Rock that puts audiences in a good mood. There was so much available space at the time it was like there were deer running through the hall. I met a lot of people, but the first and deepest friendship I made that summer was with Paul Simon. We would go to this restaurant called Chin-Ya in the Woodward Hotel, and I would bounce ideas off him as I started to put the show together in my mind.
James Franco, actor and student
I’d never really taken the subway before. I love it! The one thing is, I used to listen to a lot of audiobooks in my car in L.A., and now I don’t have that. I go to the Columbia library all the time—I’m enrolled in film school at Tisch and the creative writing program at Columbia. I could be stumbling out of, like, clubs, you know, but I’m not. Everybody used to come up to me in the library. Then I realized I was in the one room people are free to talk in. Now I go to the quiet room.
Lauren Hutton, actress
I came to New York for two things: to get to Africa and to find LSD. In those days it was legal. You could get it from this Swiss chemical company, and I met six guys who were very willing to give it to me. But I didn’t like any of them enough to take it, so it took me a few months. As for Africa, I was supposed to meet a friend in New York, and we were going to take a tramp steamer to Tangier. It was going to cost $140. Once I got there, my plan was to take a bus for ten cents to the outskirts of town and see elephants and rhinoceroses and giraffes. I was as ignorant as a telephone pole.
In any case, the friend didn’t show up. I don’t think I ever found out what happened to her. I waited for two hours at Idlewild and then took a bus to the Port Authority. I was going through the bus terminal, and I was 21 and these very strangely dressed young black guys were following me and saying these weird things. And I thought, Uh-oh. I didn’t realize they were pimps, but I knew it was bad. So I panicked and got into a cab. When the cabbie asked me where to go, I didn’t know. Then I remembered Tiffany’s. I’d heard of Tiffany’s. And I knew the corner of 57th and Fifth. So I said, “57th and Fifth! Tiffany’s!”
It was very early Sunday, and when I got out New York was deserted. No one anywhere. I had to figure out who I knew and get to a phone. I started bawling as I was walking down the street. Everything I’d ever owned—old college test papers, sneakers from high school—was in these two suitcases. And I couldn’t walk with them. I’d bring one bag about six feet up and then I’d go back and get the other bag and bring it six feet up. Humping these suitcases down Fifth Avenue. And then I got to a phone booth, this box of glass and metal, and I think I felt protected. I just sat there for a while and cried and tried to figure it out. And then I remembered another friend from New Orleans who was supposed to be in New York. She told me to come right over.
She had this wonderful boyfriend from Brooklyn who said, “Well, you’re going to have to get a job.” It made sense; I was going to Africa! There was an ad in the New York Times that said, “Wanted: High-fashion model for Christian Dior. Must have experience.” And he said, “This! You could do this!” And I said, “No, no. I’ve never been a model.” And he looked dead-straight at me and said, “Of. Course. You. Have.” So I was getting all kinds of lessons in New Yorkese and survival, the very morning I got in.
Diane Von Furstenberg, designer
I was 22 years old and had just gotten married to Prince Egon Von Furstenberg. I was pregnant and carrying a big suitcase of stencils I was hoping to sell in America. I decided that instead of flying, I wanted to come very slowly in order to think about my future. So I took a boat. I arrived in October, so it was New York at its best—that beautiful, blue crisp. Coming from Europe, I had expected the city would look modern, and actually, it didn’t. I was a young princess, so I lived on Park Avenue and had some small children and blah blah blah. But we were a young couple, and fairly good looking with a nice title, so we were invited everywhere. We would see Andy Warhol, Halston, Diana Vreeland, Giorgio Sant’Angelo, and, of course, lots of Europeans. It was a movable feast: Gino’s and Elaine’s and La Grenouille. And I threw many dinner parties. What I remember clearly is that you could go to the supermarket and for 50 dollars you could buy pasta, salad, and a big ham.
Harold Evans, editor-at-large, The Week
Tina [Brown] and I couldn’t have gotten off the boat any more unaware of New York life. Our first apartment was a disaster: a sublet on Third Avenue for which we paid rent by putting dollar bills in a hat. We were instructed to speak to the doorman with assumed names. If I hadn’t been about to teach a college class on ethics, I might have questioned the ethics of it all. One day I opened a cupboard and out fell tons of pornography. I shouldn’t have been looking in the cupboard—it wasn’t my apartment. Tina then got us an apartment on Central Park South, which was another disaster. This one had cockroaches, and since we were close to the ground floor I hesitated to go anywhere near the window in my pajamas. Not long after we found a two-bedroom at 300 East 56th.
We soon realized that New Yorkers don’t muck up their kitchens by doing breakfast. We got in the habit of walking down Second Avenue and trying every restaurant on the left-hand side, which is very interesting because you go from the tolerable to the absolutely marvelous to the intolerable in the space of six blocks. Within a very short time, the New York vortex kicked in. When you’re on the outer edges you can swim quite happily in cool waters, but as you get closer and get to know more people, you get sucked into a level of activity which is calculated to drive you crazy. It was very exciting—and very eighties. People arrived in stretch limos. At the same time, I was astounded by the drug transactions I’d see on street corners, even in white-collar midtown. It was grim as hell, and all this alongside the intellectual excitement of media life and America being on top of the world. It was like going to dinner with some wonderful person and looking underneath the table and finding mice droppings.
Connie Chung, newscaster
I came to New York to work at NBC News. They put me up at the Helmsley Palace hotel, and I thought New York was incredible, fully based on the fact that I was staying at the Helmsley Palace hotel and ordering room service. NBC finally asked me, “When are you going to get an apartment?” So I finally did.
Padma Lakshmi, Top Chef host
I first came to New York on Halloween night. I was 4 years old and flew on Air India’s unaccompanied-minor program. I remember landing, and seeing all the big buildings, and being super-excited about this new adventure, and also, of course, being reunited with my mother. She was waiting there to pick me up.
There weren’t that many Indian groceries in Manhattan back then, so my mother would take me on little field trips: to Jackson Heights for Indian spices, to Chinatown for noodles and Asian vegetables, to Spanish Harlem to eat empanadas or find sugarcane and tamarind. She wanted to introduce my young palate to all types of flavors and cuisines and ingredients. She didn’t want me to be left out at school, and she wanted me to be able to eat everywhere.
My mother worked at Sloan-Kettering and we lived in subsidized housing on the Upper East Side. I remember roller-skating down from 81st Street and meeting her for lunch in the summers. We’d eat falafel from a pushcart on First Avenue. Looking back, I’m amazed how much we ate street food. My perfect meal would be a pretzel with mustard and then an Italian ice. I was a vegetarian for a lot of my childhood, so I would order a hot dog but tell him to leave the hot dog out—just the bun and the fixings, like sauerkraut and mustard and relish. Slowly I started eating hot dogs.
Agyness Deyn, model
The only people I knew when I arrived were the band the 5 O’Clock Heroes. They took me under their wing and got me a room with one of their mates. It was an office on West 10th Street. I don’t know what they did there; I would come in and they were all at computers, on the phone. I just would run in and sleep. I loved how fresh New York was. I felt like I was the star of my own film. One day, I came across Trash and Vaudeville and tried on some jeans. The guy at the checkout counter, Jimmy, looked like Iggy Pop, all rock and roll in his leather pants and long scraggy blond hair. He looked at me and went, “No, no, no,” and got me the smallest-size jeans in the store. “The tighter the better, darling.” After that, I would go into Trash and Vaudeville whenever I was at a loose end or feeling lonely. I’d sit there and chat with Jimmy, and he’d tell me old stories of New York.
Andy Samberg, comedian
I moved to New York with three friends from summer camp. Two of us were going to NYU, and the other two were in that self-loathing, debaucherous postcollege year of self-destruction. We crammed into what probably should have been a two-bedroom on Bleecker and Macdougal and sectioned things off into a four-bedroom by putting up a lot of curtains.
That was an absolute disaster. We were all really broke, and those dudes were out of control. There was no one in the house that did any cleaning, so by halfway through the year there were rats and mice everywhere. I grew up in the Bay Area, so I’m fairly “at one” with nature, but this was different. California nature is lovely. New York nature is disgusting. At first, I was really grossed out by it, but by summertime, I remember lying on my couch watching TV with a water gun, and every time a mouse would run out from behind the TV, I would just spray it. There was no “Let’s try and catch them”; it was just like, “Take a hike, buddy.”
The mice kind of became a part of the house. We weren’t feeding them or anything, but we definitely got less skittish around them. It’s interesting how much you can adapt to when you don’t have the means to fix it. We did get the sticky traps once. But when one got stuck, we were all too scared to get it and throw it out or kill it. Literally, we were four college-age dudes curled up on the couch listening to it scream for three days. We took turns going back and peeking at it and yelling, “Oh God, it’s there! It’s dying! It’s dying! What do we do?” But you can’t get it off; if you pull it, you rips the limbs off. The humane thing to do would have been to smash it with a hammer, but no one had the stomach to do that, so it was pretty awful.
Michael Lucas, porn star
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
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.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, actress
I grew up in L.A. and moved back here to go to college at Columbia, where I lived in the dorm for the first two years. I had a boyfriend who lived on Ludlow Street, and I couldn’t believe a place as alive and wild as that existed. I wanted to drop out of school and hang out there. I remember there was this guy who would take PCP. And when he did, everyone on the block would stop what they were doing and lock the doors and hide from him as he smashed car windows. My boyfriend had a teeny, tiny apartment that he shared with another guy. They had built bunk beds. And I would sleep over. The roommate would still be there, but we figured it out, like you do when you’re that age. We would use the Pink Pony like it was our kitchen and living room. I felt it was such a great way to live. I don’t know how I’d manage that now.
Mike Myers, comedian
I was from Toronto and had this fantasy that the only time I would ever come to New York is if I had an audition for Saturday Night Live. They were very exclusive conditions. But in fact, that is what happened. I landed at La Guardia and the cabbie took the 59th Street Bridge. I looked up at the city as we crossed the river, and it brought me to tears.
David Dinkins, former mayor
I was born and raised during my early years in Trenton. But when my parents separated, when I was 6, I moved to Harlem with my mother. Governor Roosevelt had just become President Roosevelt. We had the Great Depression, of course, but the Harlem Renaissance still had some life in it. Seventh Avenue was a boulevard in those days, and every Easter, everyone would march up and down it in their finery. I remember when Joe Louis was winning fights and people would open their windows and share the radios they had. I didn’t see more joy and pride until, well, until those same streets and fire escapes were filled with cheers this last Election Night.
We moved a lot. The joke was that we moved when the rent was due. My mother and grandmother both worked as domestics, each making a dollar a day. But I made some money, too. I’d go to 125th and Eighth, where all the pushcarts were selling groceries. I bought shopping bags, three for a nickel, and I sold them at two cents apiece. I would save up and buy my mother something nice from the five-and-dime store.
I wasn’t always such a good little boy. I had a skater scooter—a soapbox and a two-by-four with roller skates on the bottom. Most kids decorated their skater scooters with bottle caps from soda bottles. But if you were really cool you had reflectors. Thing was, you couldn’t just buy a reflector; you had to liberate them from cars. So I was out there liberating with my friends, and a police officer caught me because I was the littlest in the group. And he brought me home and told my mother and grandmother that their good little boy had done this. It was a total shock to them. Now, heretofore, all they had to do was give me a look of disappointment and I’d be crying in 30 seconds. But now we were living in this city and things were changing. They stripped me bare, stood me up in the bathtub, and hit me good with some leather straps. I never did anything bad again.
Chuck Close, artist
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
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.
Jann Wenner, editor and publisher, Rolling Stone
When Rolling Stone decided to move our headquarters from San Francisco, we settled on 745 Fifth Avenue, at the corner of the Plaza, with a wraparound terrace overlooking Central Park. We were the first new thing to move into New York in years. Everyone was fleeing. Corporate headquarters were moving to Connecticut and Westchester. So we had a big party at the MoMA sculpture garden, and Mayor Beame gave us the key to the city. President Ford came by because Jack Ford was working for us. Jackie Onassis couldn’t have been more gracious in terms of having dinner parties for me and my wife, introducing us to people like Mike Nichols and Pete Hamill. The city was smaller then, and we all felt part of this generational renewal of spirit. Saturday Night Live was just getting started, and we all hung out together, operating almost in tandem. Norman Mailer had moved back to New York. We had Andy Warhol do a big portrait of Bella Abzug for the cover of our “Welcome to New York” issue, and a few months later got Tom Wolfe starting to imagine Bonfire of the Vanities. It was an era of parties, and a great time for drugs and alcohol. Elaine’s was thriving. We felt more than welcomed. New York loves ambitious people—eats them up.
Wynton Marsalis, musician
I lived in Harlem. There was a transit strike, so it was a long walk to Juilliard. I would walk alone. I didn’t really know anybody, and I was very young. I was trying to figure out what I was doing, and how to make enough money to do what I was doing.
Naomi Campbell, model
At 16 years old, I was summoned by Anna Wintour to work for American Vogue and was put on the British Airways Concorde. As we were leaving the airport I told the driver, “I want to go on the Graffiti Train.” I had seen The Warriors. All I’d ever seen of New York was the movies.
Christy Turlington and I were roommates in a loft on Centre Street. I remember the boat houses, the dances, watching the House of Extravaganza in clubs or on the West Side Highway, near where I used to shoot. And I especially loved the people beating drums in Central Park.
Albert Hammond Jr., musician
Getting a job at Kim’s Video was harder than joining a band. It was ridiculous: You had to know someone. But I had just moved from L.A., trying to get away from my friends who were slow and didn’t want to do anything but get fucked up. I finally met this guy name Aurelio from the band Calla, and one day he called and said, “Hey, there’s a position for you, do you want it?” I was like, “I’ve dropped off tons of résumés, now I can just get the job?”
It was only a month after living here that I met Julian Casablancas. His father had a modeling agency called Elite, and I walked in one day after recognizing his name on the door. We quickly moved into an apartment on 18th Street. We each had a bathroom, which was the reason why we got it (he’s a mess, I’m neat). When I met Julian, I told him I played guitar. He said, “That’s funny, we’re looking for a guitar player.” So I tried out, but what I didn’t know is that he had already decided I would be in the band.
We were really ambitious. It’s all Julian and I spoke about every night. We set a goal of playing shows within a year. At first, we didn’t go out anywhere cool—just Rudy’s, which was near the studio and had free hot dogs and $5 pitchers. But slowly we’d go to bars like Don Hill’s and Bar 13 to promote, handing out flyers with stuff from weird seventies soft-porn movies like Emmanuelle. They started to recognize us—“Oh, there’s the guys from the Strokes hanging out”—and as a group the five of us were a pretty striking image. We were really cocky. Not in a bad way, we just believed in ourselves and so we were always balls to the wall.
Tommy Tune, director and choreographer
I was 17 years old and got on the elevator at the Algonquin and there was the famous actress Anna May Wong. I went into my room starstruck. Then I lifted the window shade to look out and there was a brick wall. It was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen. In Texas, you have sky. Here, a brick wall!
Audra McDonald, actress
I had just turned 18, and I was getting ready to attend Juilliard. I came here with $300 and was living at the Narragansett, a residential hotel on 93rd and Broadway. Now, 93rd and Broadway in 1988 was a very interesting place to be. There were certain hours at the Narragansett that you just didn’t ride the elevator, because you wanted to live. That whole Friends thing with the naked guy across the way? We had one of those right across from us who would watch us and masturbate. A lot of the people in that building were drug addicts, but they took care of the Juilliard students, too. They were like, No, no, no, don’t go to that bodega. No, no, no, I’ll go get it.
Nick Denton, publisher, Gawker Media
I once made a spreadsheet comparing San Francisco, London, Budapest, and New York. I assigned different weighted scores based on different criteria: old friends, business opportunities, Hungarians, Jews, nature (that one had a fairly low weight). I was living in San Francisco, but I’ve always liked the idea of that city more than the reality of it. So I would play with the spreadsheet, and when I didn’t get the result I wanted, I adjusted the rankings. One factor that tipped things in New York’s favor was that New York had way hotter guys.
I finally decided to come here after 9/11. The foreign press was full of love letters to New York. Writers like Martin Amis were waking up and thinking, “Oh my God, we almost lost it!” I know it sounds sentimental, but no one would ever write a love letter to San Francisco. I drove across the country with Christian Bailey, who would later became famous for getting all that money from the Pentagon. He had arranged for a two-bedroom apartment in the Soho Court building, a standard building for junior analysts at Goldman Sachs. It was a wonderful summer. I wasn’t really working. We launched Gizmodo in August, and Gawker in December. Most days I would go to Cafe Gitane and sit outside eating waffles with fruit.
I remember going to a party with a bunch of Broadway and film gays, and the one-liner one-upmanship felt like a scene from Will & Grace, which at the time was my lame yardstick for what passed for New York salon conversation. My HTML skills had improved in San Francisco, but I’d lost my edge. I thought I was being really witty, but at one point on a ski trip to Tahoe, it became clear that everyone thought I was just an asshole.
Chloë Sevigny, actress
I grew up in Connecticut and went to the city with my family for big holidays. But I started going on my own when I was a freshman in high school, skipping school and staying overnight on the weekends. We’d hang out in Washington Square Park with all the skater kids and punkers and pot dealers. The north part of the park was the skater side (because there’s a slope the kids would skate down to get speed), and the south side was more hip-hop. By the time I was a junior, I think my parents were a little nervous. Sometimes I’d lie and say I was at a friend’s house in Greenwich. They would not have been happy if they knew that I was at a rave all night long and then sleeping in the park. But not like a homeless person—like a teenager.
Aziz Ansari, comedian
My first New York home was at the NYU dorm on 14th between Third and Fourth. It was right beside Amore’s pizza, which I first thought was delicious, authentic New York pizza but soon realized was in fact greasy, nasty, shitty pizza.
My dorm, like all NYU dorms, was full of potheads. Most of my initial friends were content taking bong hits and playing Snood all night instead of actually exploring the city.The kids I knew who did go out told me the places to go were hot clubs like Twilo and Exit. Apparently, all I needed to do was grab a shiny shirt and puffy pants, take some E, and twirl glow sticks to terrible trance music and I’d have a good time. I decided to take a pass on that scene.
One thing I was really excited about was live music. Most musicians usually don’t have a South Carolina leg on their tour. I used to be really into scratch D.J.-ing, but I’d never seen any of those guys live. After a few weeks in New York, I saw Cut Chemist, D.J. Shadow, D.J. Qbert, and Mix Master Mike pretty easily. I also went to Kim’s on St. Marks and Fat Beats to browse records between classes.
Most nights, I ended up going to bars on a strip of Third Avenue below 14th Street. Bar None, Nevada Smiths: Finally, the experience of shitty college bars, right in New York City! Every year, I would wise up and go one more avenue east to avoid the mess. And every year, one kid in the group would always say we should go another avenue even farther east, because that’s where the good bars are.
Jesus Luz, model
I feel like life here in New York, it’s more intense. A day here is like many days in Rio. The city pushes you to grow up fast, but it’s not scary; it just encourages you to live your life. You can meet every kind of person here. I first came to the city in August 2005 because my aunt won a poetry contest. On that trip, I went to see the Statue of Liberty, and it felt like seeing the statue of Christ in Rio. Even though only one of them is religious.
Dr. Ruth, sex therapist
I traveled fourth-class on a ship from France. I was on my way to visit my one surviving uncle in San Francisco before moving to Israel. But as I passed the Statue of Liberty I thought, I’m in heaven. I decided to take a furnished room in Washington Heights; I knew I wanted to be here for a little while. I got a scholarship at the New School to get a master’s in sociology. I was very poor, so I spent most of my time at the student lounge, where the tea and coffee were free and there was always good conversation. Washington Heights was full of mostly old people at the time—a little enclave of German Jewish people who had come before or after the war. I felt at home right away, and I never left. I still live in the same apartment.
Kristen Schaal, comedienne
I arrived in the last recession, and New York was pretty miserable. Nobody would hire me. I was running through my savings, hoping to be an actress and in the meantime lying that I had been a very good waitress at some made-up restaurant. At one point I could walk through pretty much every neighborhood in Manhattan and point out five restaurants that had turned me away. My fake résumé finally got me a job at the Planet Hollywood they were opening in Times Square.
I was so broke I’d have a slice of pizza for lunch, and I would drink 40s for dinner to fill me up. My roommate and I experimented with all different kinds of 40s. There was this terrible one called Green Lightning that was almost hallucinogenic. I still keep one unopened can of Crazy Horse on a shelf in my apartment, just to represent that time. I said, I’m going to drink this Crazy Horse when I’m 60 on the French Riviera, topless, and crack it open with the ocean running up my thigh!
One night I wandered by myself into a show called Eating It at Luna Lounge. The show was filled with all kinds of comedy acts by people like Jon Benjamin, Jon Glaser, Eugene Mirman, and Demetri Martin. I stood in the back and didn’t talk to anybody. I did that again and again. I watched as people took their clothes off and played the guitar, or called their father and asked him, phone on the mike, why he was never there for them. I wasn’t getting any auditions as an actress, so I started to think about comedy. Walking into Luna Lounge that night was the first time I realized I needed to stay in New York even though it was demanding that I leave.
I remember that the first exhibition I was part of was by Chuck Close, and that he sat in my office during the opening listening to the World Series. That was at Klaus Kertess’s gallery, the Bykert gallery. Lynda Benglis, who was my teacher at Hunter College, said, “Oh, if you need a job, my boyfriend owns a gallery.” Because I thought I was gonna come here and work at a museum, but I did that, and it really seemed so lifeless.
Klaus closed the gallery after ten years because it was getting to be too successful! He said it was too much of a business. It’s so different now. In the early days I remember Brice Marden had seven one-person shows and never sold a painting. Even when I showed Julian Schnabel, it took me two years to sell the first painting.
Julian was the first artist to leave my gallery, and I was heartbroken. It was like the spring of 1984, and I was sitting in my office, crying. In his explanation at the time—you know, it’s like anything, probably things change with the telling every time. But in those days, what he said was that he wanted to be separated. He said, “How many artists do you have in the Carnegie International?” And it was basically the whole gallery. And he said, “Well, if I go to Pace, I’m the only artist from that gallery in the Carnegie.” He wanted a kind of separateness from me, but also from his generation. He wanted to be seen as an individual. We’re still good friends; I think he’s a fantastic filmmaker. I also have a different perception of this, because I think that life is about shared experiences, and if you have an experience with an artist, you never lose that. It’s like if you’re married and you have a child with somebody, you’re never, ever really separated. And the child is the art. So anyway, I was sitting in my office crying, and Jean-Michel Basquiat comes in. And he was so sweet! He was so upset I was sitting there crying. He put his arms around me and he said, “Mary, don’t worry. I’m gonna be much more famous than Julian.” And then he walked out, and he came back in with a huge watermelon, which he plunked on my desk, and we ate.
David Chang, restauranteur
I was in Japan teaching English for three months, right out of college. But I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I just came to New York because that’s where my friends were. I had no plans. I stayed with my sister, who was at Columbia getting her what-the-fuck degree. I worked in a variety of desk jobs, and I got so drunk at one of them that I fell asleep under the lunch table. Food was the only thing I really wanted to do, so I finally said, “Fuck it: I’m going to start cooking.” I enrolled in cooking school. Everyone thought I was a lunatic, especially my dad, who had worked as a dishwasher in New York and had hated it.
It was a crazy time to be in school, because a lot of students had cashed out of the dot-com boom and were already millionaires. I got my first restaurant job doing hot apps at Mercer Kitchen after school, and I’d take restaurant reservations at Craft on my days off to make cash. I thought that the staff Tom Colicchio had assembled was one of the best in New York history, so answering phones was not beneath me. I did that for a month and a half, until they let me work in the kitchen for free. I wound up cutting vegetables and cleaning mushrooms. Around that time, Wylie Dufresne had opened 71 Clinton, and it was like an atomic bomb had been detonated on New York City. People still don’t even realize how much it revolutionized New York City. And the Lower East Side would never have turned out that way. I remember being totally caught off guard that he had opened a restaurant there, and in love with the whole idea: a classically trained chef who had worked with Jean-Georges in Europe was opening up a restaurant on Clinton Street. It was so contrarian!
David Rosenblatt, former CEO, DoubleClick
After I finished business school, I got a one-bedroom third-floor walk-up on Thompson Street. I got a job at DoubleClick, whose offices were on 26th and Madison. Netscape had recently gone public, and that really heralded the beginning of the boom. We were growing so fast that after just a few months, we had to set up desks in our elevator lobby. The company was growing to 2,000 people, and the average age was 27; a third of us were paper millionaires. We had an office basketball court, a sales conference in Paris, all that. It was intoxicating. Everyone felt like we were building history and facilitating a brand-new world that would change how everyone lives. And in all this giddiness, everything made sense. It made sense that you could break the rules and succeed, made sense that we’d all get rich quick. We knew everyone in Manhattan who had an e-mail address. Unlike San Francisco, where everyone was an Internet person, we would socialize with people who were totally separate from our world. It made us feel that much more like we were radicals, this chosen race, these new prophets. There was a huge billboard near Madison Square Park that said, “DoubleClick Welcomes You to Silicon Alley.” We were this unavoidable presence.
Michel Gondry, director
I moved here a few months after 9/11, as the city was waking up from its trauma. I stayed for two months at the Gramercy Hotel but didn’t like that area very much. You don’t have the feeling that the pressure goes down at night. I moved seven times in the next five years, looking for places where it gets absolutely quiet at night. My next two apartments were on the Golden Coast: those blocks between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and 9th and 10th Streets. The owner of one of them was a sick, crazy person. If I had a guest coming, she wanted to charge me for using more water. She sacked us because my son was a little too noisy for her taste, and I had sweet thoughts of cold revenge for her. I wanted to pour a pot of red paint on the mat at the entrance—something really sticky that takes days to dry—so people would walk through it and spread the red paint everywhere. I didn’t do it because I knew I would be caught immediately, but it made me feel good when I tried to fall asleep at night.
Now I’ve bought a house in Brooklyn. The trucks are pretty loud, but I’ve gotten used to them. And I like the idea that it is still a bit industry. I don’t like so much all the new condominiums that they are constructing. I sort of laugh inside when I realize that they are all screwed and they can’t find people to live in their buildings.
One problem with the neighborhood is that all the hipsters are very selective on their coffee. They all clutter in this tiny, trendy coffee shop, and then the other shops go out of business. So I think on one hand, the hipster should be a little bit more tolerant of his coffee, because he’s missing out on great places, and great mixture of culture. On the other hand, maybe some of the diners should buy an espresso machine.
Rachel Dratch, comedian
The very first night I showed up to work, it was SNL’s 25th-anniversary show. I got there thinking I’d just sit in the audience for this one, but they were like, “Oh, where have you been, we need you in hair and makeup!”
I had never touched my eyebrows until I got to New York. I don’t want to make it seem like I was Chaka from Land of the Lost, but I arrived with unmanicured eyebrows. And a dorky haircut. They had this dress for me, and the hair guy gave me this crazy, amazing funky hairdo—and as I’m in hair and makeup, there’s every celebrity that’s been on the show. Lily Tomlin, Dan Aykroyd, Elvis Costello … and I was sitting there quietly, thinking, “Oh my God!” After a few weeks, I moved into my apartment on 95th and Columbus. Something had gotten screwed up with the movers from L.A., so for six weeks I would be on the show and going to parties at Siberia, and I’d get home and all I had was an AeroBed and an alarm clock. It felt badass.
As told to Molly Bennet, Rebecca Bengal, Fiona Byrne, Katie Charles, Brian Thomas Gallagher, Darrell Hartman, Helin Jung, Nina Mandell, Rebecca Milzoff, Richard Morgan, Tim Murphy, Emma Pearse, Meg Prossnitz, Diana Scholl, Joshua David Stein, Ross Urken, and Jada Yuan.