My First New York

In a cover feature last spring, New York Magazine invited 30 notable New Yorkers to share their memories (mostly fond, some harrowing) of arriving to town. Next week, Ecco/HarperCollins will publish My First New York, a greatly expanded collection. Here, from the book, are a few new entries—the early adventures of three writers — plus an actress, an editor, and a famous former call girl — in the big city.

Nora Ephron, with notebook, covering Robert F. Kennedy's 1964 senate campaign for the New York Post. Photo: Arty Pomerantz

By Nora Ephron
Arrived 1962

I moved to New York City the day I graduated from Wellesley. I’d found a job a week earlier by going to an employment agency on West 42nd Street. I told the woman there that I wanted to be a journalist, and she said, “How would you like to work at Newsweek?” and I said fine. At the Newsweek interview, I said I hoped to become a writer, and the man who interviewed me assured me that women weren’t writers at Newsweek. It would never have crossed my mind to object or to say, “You’re going to turn out to be wrong about me.” It was a given in those days that if you were a woman and you wanted to do certain things, you were going to have to be the exception to the rule. I was hired as a mail girl, for $55 a week.

I’d found an apartment with a friend from college at 110 Sullivan Street. The real-estate broker assured us it was a coming neighborhood, on the verge of being red-hot. He was about 25 years off. Anyway, I packed up a rental car on graduation day and set off to New York. I got lost only once—I had no idea you weren’t supposed to take the George Washington Bridge to get to Manhattan, so I had to pay the toll in both directions. I got to my apartment and discovered that the Feast of Saint Anthony was taking place on our block. There was no way to park—they were frying zeppole in front of my apartment—and actually I was very excited about this. In some bizarre way, I thought that the street fair would be there for months and that it would be sort of great and I could have all the cotton candy I ever wanted. Of course it was gone the next week.

The apartment on Sullivan Street was completely dreary, and I’m proud to say that was the last time I made the mistake of living in an apartment without any charm. Three months later, I moved to West 44th Street between Ninth and Tenth with two other roommates. In those days, people broke leases and moved all the time, it was no big deal. Apartments were cheap and available. The West 44th Street apartment was a parlor floor-through in a lovely brownstone with two fireplaces. It made no sense at all for three people to be living in it, but we had a wonderful year together. It was very My Sister Eileen. Not that we had seen or read My Sister Eileen. Then one of my roommates got married and the other went back to Venezuela, so I moved to a fifth-floor walk-up in Chelsea.

My job at Newsweek couldn’t have been more prosaic, but luckily I was the Elliott girl—the mail girl who worked directly for the magazine’s editor, Osborn Elliott. This meant I got to work late on Friday nights as they closed the magazine, and I got to read all the first drafts the writers wrote and the corrected drafts coming back from the editors. It was actually interesting, and in the tradition of all such places, we thought that the entire world was on tenterhooks waiting for the next edition.

A few weeks after I moved to New York, I met Victor Navasky. He was editing a satiric magazine called Monocle, and although the magazine came out only rarely, it had a lot of parties. Through Victor, I met a huge number of people who became friends for life. Then, in December, the famous 114-day newspaper lockout began, and Victor got some money to put out parodies of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. I did a parody of Leonard Lyons’s gossip column, and the Post offered me a tryout for a reporting job. I was hired after a week, and I couldn’t believe it: I felt that I’d achieved my life’s ambition and I was only 21. Of course, once you get what you want, you eventually want something else, but all I wanted right then was to be a newspaper reporter and I was.

I’d known since I was 5, when my parents forced me to move to California, that I was going to live in New York eventually and that everything in between was just a horrible intermission. I’d spent those sixteen years imagining what New York was going to be like. I thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live in; a place where if you really wanted something, you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to be with. And I turned out to be right.

David Rakoff at Columbia's John Jay Hall. Photo: Courtesy of David Rakoff

By David Rakoff
Arrived: 1982

My mother’s purse was stolen about an hour before my parents left me in New York to start my freshman year of college. She noticed it missing from the back of her café chair just as we were finishing up our lunch at an outdoor table at a long-disappeared Italian place at 111th and Broadway. The handbag had probably been gone for a while, but like cartoon characters who wander off cliffs but only fall once they realize they have done so, I felt the solid ground disappear from under my feet and my life in New York begin.

Truthfully, I found the theft thrilling, even as it sharpened whatever anxiety my folks must have been feeling. The robbery conferred a modicum of street cred with zero injury, and I needed all the help I could get. I was a sophisticated sissy, having grown up near the center of Toronto, a cosmopolitan city of 3 million people. But displaying cultural literacy and knowing the difference between shit and Shinola are two distinctly separate realms. Being able to quote entire scenes of The Philadelphia Story from memory or paint a good facsimile of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (large, on my dorm-room wall) won’t do you a bit of good in the real world. At 17, I knew nothing, and I looked it. A whelp of barely five and a half feet, I was markedly shorter and less developed than the boys I saw unloading boxes and suitcases. Compared to most of them, I was a tentatively pubescent cherub, encased in puppy fat with a face open to experience that seemed to beg: Please hurt me.

I looked at the purse-snatching as an early and painless inoculation from violence, no small matter in the city back when the prospect was still real enough. New York in 1982 was only beginning to shake off the traces of its ford to city: drop dead near bankruptcy. Infrastructure was still crumbling, the subways were still covered in graffiti. The term yuppie would not be commonplace for another few years (and it would be at least that amount of time before the city opened its first Banana Republic or Cajun restaurant to clothe and feed them). Coffee still meant a paper cupful from Chock Full O’Nuts. There was a remaining franchise at 116th Street and Broadway, probably unchanged since 1961, still boasting its undulating lunch counter in buttercream Formica, while one block down, a warning shot across the caffeinated bow of the neighborhood, was a doomed black-lacquer establishment with the almost parodically striving name Crêpes and Cappuccino. The owners had wrapped the sickly tree out front in bright-blue fairy lights, which illuminated the empty interior in a dejected glow. It lasted less than a year. The colossus towering over this particular moment shuddering between decadence and recovery was not Bartholdi’s Lady Liberty but the first of Calvin Klein’s bronzed gods, high above Times Square. Leaning back, eyes closed, in his blinding white underpants against a sinuous form in similarly white Aegean plaster, his gargantuan, sleeping, groinful beauty was simultaneously Olympian and intimate, awesome and comforting. Here was the city in briefs: uncaring, cruelly beautiful, and out of reach.

Not all of New York’s loveliness was stratospheric and unattainable, but at street level it was mixed in with the threat of harm, which was ever present, if in a somewhat exaggerated and highly prized form. We had been warned that the neighborhood around the university could turn dodgy in a matter of footsteps, but there was a certain pride in having dipped one’s toe into its scary waters. Morningside Park, for example: Not since the age of medieval maps—wherein the world simply ends, beyond which all is monster-filled roil—has a region been so terrifyingly uncharted and freighted with peril as Morningside Park in the early eighties. To venture in was to die, plain and simple. There were other terrifying rumors abounding, like the one about the boy in the hideous Gwathmey Siegel–designed dormitory who narrowly avoided the bullet that came through his window and lodged itself in the plaster above his head. The shot had come from—where else?—Morningside Park. Another boy, walking back to his room on upper Broadway one drizzling evening, had had his wallet demanded. He handed it over, and for his compliance had his teeth knocked out with the hard metal barrel of a gun. The boy-who-was-pistol-whipped-in-the-rain grabbed us with all the cheap poetry and tamped bathos of a Tom Waits song. It was doubly satisfying to me, since whenever he came up in conversation, I could say, “Tell me about it. I was robbed my first day here.”

Mere days into the school year, my floor counselor, an elder statesman in his senior year, knocked on my door and gave me a stapled Xerox of the Joan Didion essay “Goodbye to All That.” The flattery of being singled out for such a gift is what made me read it immediately, with little comprehension. “All I could do during those [first] three days was talk long-distance to the boy I already knew I would never marry in the spring. I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.” I was immune to the humor or irony in this passage. What I took away from it was the hope—as unlikely as sprouting wings, it seemed to me back then—that I might one day be as old as 20, or have logged eight years here, to acquire that youth-viewed-at-a-distance weariness, to be able to rattle off the names of the city’s lesser-known bridges.

It was what I took away from most every encounter: an almost obliterating desire to “pass” as a New Yorker, to authentically resemble one of the denizens of the movie Manhattan. More than the Deco penthouse aeries of characters in old musicals, more than the moral elasticity and heartless grit of backstage Broadway in All That Jazz, perhaps on par with the gin-swilling savagery of All About Eve, it was the city as embodied in Manhattan I ached for. The high-strung friends with terrible problems, the casual infidelities, the rarefied bohemianism—ERA fund-raisers in the garden at MoMA, gallery-hopping followed by filling one’s simple grocery list at Dean & DeLuca.

There was no one specific moment when the rigorous self-consciousness gave way to authenticity. It was more of a dim realization that the very act of playing the “Are we a New Yorker yet?” game means you aren’t one yet. But it eventually happens, dawning on you after the fact, tapping you on the shoulder after you’ve passed it. It comes from an accretion of shitty jobs, deeply felt friendships that last, deeply felt friendships that end, funerals, marriages, divorces, births, and betrayals, and you wake up one day to realize that you passed the eight-year mark decades prior; that you are older than all of the characters in Manhattan, with the possible exception of Bella Abzug; that you have been to a party in the garden at MoMA and watched the sun come up over Sutton Place and the 59th Street Bridge and decided that, in the end, you’d rather stay home; that only a rich moron would buy his groceries at Dean & DeLuca; and that, as fun and Margo Channing as it might seem to be drunk and witty and cutting, it’s probably better in the long run to be kind. These are all realizations endemic to aging anywhere, I am sure. It must happen in other cities, but I’ve really only ever been a grown-up here.

As for my mother’s pocketbook, it was found later that evening, emptied of valuables and abandoned in a building lobby in Morningside Heights. Some Good Samaritan had gone through her phone book and found the number of a New York friend, who eventually tracked me down in my dorm room. It made the city seem like a shtetl, a fact that after the better part of three decades I realize is more true than not.

Colum McCann soon after moving to his apartment on East 35th Street. Photo: Peter Rigaud

By Colum McCann
Arrived: 1984

Drunk and sober, high and low, off and on, up and down, lost and found, New York has been my city for sixteen years now. It’s a vast mystery to me, like it is to most New Yorkers, how this ugly lovely town became my lovely ugly town, this gorgeous rubbish heap of a place, this city of the timeless Now, with little of the style of Paris, little of the beauty of Rome, little of the history of London, and not even much of the dear dirty dereliction of my hometown, Dublin.

New York is a fiction of sorts, a construct, a story, into which you can walk at any moment and at any angle and end up blindsided, turned upside down, changed.

There are dozens of moments I can recall from the early days, when I first got to the city as a naïve young Dubliner, in 1982. I was 17 years old and visiting for the summer. I ran the midtown streets as a gopher for Universal Press Syndicate. I rushed for sandwiches, answered phones, delivered parcels. My ears popped in the Time-Life elevators. On a July afternoon, I lay down in the middle of Sixth Avenue and looked up at the skyscrapers. I laughed as people stepped over and around me. Later, I sat in the back of the Lion’s Head pub and dreamed myself into writing days. I bluffed my way into Limelight. On the D train, I nursed a cocaine itch back to Brighton Beach, where I rented a cockroached room. It was all a fantastic fever dream: Even now, the moments collide into each other and my memory is decorated by a series of mirrors flashing light into chambers of sound and color, graffiti and roar. I left it after a few months, back to Dublin, enchanted and dazzled.

But I truly fell in love with the city many years later, on my second stint, when I wasn’t quite sure if I was meant to be here at all, and it was a quiet moment that did it for me, one of those little glancing shoulder-rubs that New York can deal out at any time of the day, in any season, in any weather, in any place—even on the fiercely unfashionable Upper East Side.

It had snowed in the city. Two feet of it over the course of the night. It was the sort of snow that made the city temporarily magical, before all the horn-blowing and slush puddles and piles of dog crap crowning the melt. A very thin little path had been cleared on 82nd Street between Lexington and Third, just wide enough for two able-bodied people to squeeze through. The snow was piled high on either side. A small canyon, really, in the middle of the footpath. On the street—a quiet street at the best of times, if anything can be quiet in New York—the cars were buried under drifts. The telegraph wires sagged. The underside of the tree branches appeared like brushstrokes on the air. Nothing moved. The brownstones looked small against so much white. In the distance sounded a siren, but that was all, making the silence more complete.

I saw her from a distance halfway down the block. She was already bent into the day. She wore a headscarf. Her coat was old enough to have once been fashionable. She was pushing along a silver frame. Her walk was crude, slow, laborious. With her frame, she took the whole width of the alley. There was no space to pass her.

There is always a part of New York that must keep moving—as if breath itself depends on being frantic, hectic, overwhelmed. I thought to myself that I should just clamber over the snowbank and walk down the other side of the street. But I waited and watched. Snow still fell on the shoveled walkway. Her silver frame slipped and slid. She looked up, caught my eye, gazed down again. There was the quality of the immigrant about her: something dutiful, sad, brave, a certain saudade, a longing for another place.

As she got closer, I noticed her gloves were beautifully stenciled with little jewels. Her headscarf was pulled tight around her lined face. She shoved the silver frame over a small ridge of ice, walked the final few feet, and stopped in front of me.

The silence of strangers.

But then she leaned forward and said in a whisper: “Shall we dance?”

She took off one glove and reached her hand out, and with the silver frame between us, we met on the pavement. Then she let go of my hand. I bent to one knee and bowed slightly to her. She grinned and put her glove back on, said nothing more, took a hold of her silver frame, and moved on, a little quicker now, along the corridor of snow and around the corner.

I knew nothing of her, nothing at all, and yet she had made the day unforgettable.

She was my New York.

Still is.

By Parker Posey
Arrived: 1984

I was 16 the first time I came to New York City. I had two close girlfriends who had grown up in Manhattan that I met at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Tanya and Sasha. We had taken the acting program there, and I visited them the following spring. My parents and I arrived from a small town in the Deep South into the city, and in the cab, as I sensed their fear of the unknown, I could sense my attraction to it. I looked into all the cars passing us, amazed that it could all exist without people crashing into each other—What instinct! I thought. Where does it come from? It all seemed choreographed to me, and unbelievable. I thought: this is a place to truly put your trust in God, to test accidental nature, to live like an existentialist!

Tanya and Sasha and I sang and danced through the streets, jumping on park benches, swinging on lamp posts, doing silly dances, and no one judged us or seemed to even notice. People and their lives would walk by, and I loved the fleetingness of it all, loved that they dressed like they didn’t care. Some people looked as though they’d been in the same clothes all week, and I thought, Yeah, who cares! I loved asking for directions and talking to strangers I would never see again. I almost got run over by a bike messenger, something I had never seen in my life. It felt like a miracle I wasn’t dead.

Sasha’s mom, a painter, lived in a loft in Soho, which seemed to me like a huge attic but without the furniture. A bed was somewhere behind huge paintings that leaned against each other like giant books in the middle of the living room—which was the whole apartment, the whole house! Exposed brick and wooden floors, exposed lightbulbs, a homemade bathroom with a tub on a platform of mosaic tiles, and her mother’s jewelry all around—earrings from Afghanistan and other exotic things that looked like travel to faraway places. I thought about her neighbors just on the other side of the wall, and I got a glass and pressed the bottom to my ear and tried to hear them. Endless entertainment. I couldn’t wait to live like this.

We climbed the fire escape to smoke cigarettes and take pictures of ourselves in the sunset looking serious. And we played Ping-Pong and pool somewhere in the West Village and drank beer and ate burgers at the Corner Bistro. Sasha liked the Clash and I liked the Jam, and the Beastie Boys were just beginning. A cute guy offered to buy the jeans I was wearing for a hundred dollars, and I almost took him up on it, but then I thought, What would I wear? He said they were for his girlfriend. Now I think he was hitting on me.

By Ashley Dupré
Arrived: 2004

New York was always my end goal, eyes on the prize. I was living in New Jersey with my grandfather and commuting into the city to work doubles: eleven to five waiting tables at the Hotel Gansevoort during the day, then bottle-hosting at a club called Pangaea from ten until five in the morning. I got to be friends with a doorman there who would let me crash at his place on 46th Street—right there in Times Square, near Little Brazil Street. But it was rough. I was sleeping whenever I could, barely. I hit a low point when I wrecked my Jetta going over the bridge back to Jersey. I was sober, but I had passed out at the wheel, exhausted. That was when I knew something needed to change.

One day I was at that guy’s place on 46th, and the landlord told me there’s an opening in 3a. My eyes just lit up, like in cartoons. I remember going to see the $2,100 one-bedroom, with its white walls and big windows, and my brain started working immediately on how to get this. A few days later, I shared a cab with an aspiring model—a total stranger—and within fifteen minutes we had decided to live together in this apartment. It was one of those things that happen that make you feel like the city is working for you.

It always feels like that when you’re young. I was 18, and it was the party scene: Marquee, Suede, Butter, and we’d always end up at Bungalow 8—that was our spot to regroup. Everything felt amazing. I remember thinking, Seriously, I’m getting paid for bottle hosting? I was this naïve little girl, really. Because, honestly? You can all hang out and be buddy-buddy and whatever, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to make it work for yourself. When that model left the apartment, reality sank in, and I was always worrying about paying rent. My girlfriends and I could go out on a date any night of the week and get a free meal—there was always that option. But most of the time I was sitting at home eating peanut butter and apples. What else was I going to do, eat the roaches? Grab a mouse and fry it up?

I’d go to the stores on that stretch of Fifth—Chanel, YSL, Cartier, Gucci, Louis Vuitton—and I’d look and touch, but I wouldn’t try anything on. Can you imagine how depressing? To try them on in the mirror and then have to put them back? I never did that unless I could afford it. I protected myself like that.

It’s not like I was bedazzled by New York, but I do remember one time when I was eating at DB, I looked up to see Steven Spielberg, his wife, and Michelle Pfeiffer. I had grown up on Grease 2. Michelle Pfeiffer’s life was something I had admired and always wanted for myself. She was so gorgeous. I just stared.

By Graydon Carter
Arrived: 1978

When you first approach New York City by car from the north, the signs directing you to the actual island of Manhattan are small and easy to miss. I was 29 and driving down from Ottawa, and I did almost exactly what Sherman McCoy did. I took a wrong turn and wound up in the Bronx. I stopped at a McDonald’s and got directions and somehow managed to get safely into the city.

I had seen an ad in the New York Times for the Prince George Hotel on 28th Street. It was slightly raffish—I mean, there were police in the lobby most nights—but you could see the place once had great bones. My room had a bed, a dresser, and an old television set with rabbit ears. And no phone. It had a student rate of $22 a night. The trouble was, I couldn’t go to work in a suit and tie and still get the student rate, so I had to dress like a student in the morning, go downstairs to settle the bill for the previous night in cash, and take my suit with me to work.

I had landed a job as a writer in the business section at Time magazine, which in those days was considered one of the plum places in journalism. On my first day, I got in Monday morning at 8 a.m. sharp. Unfortunately, nobody told me that the writers and editors, having put in late hours on Thursday and Friday, didn’t show up Mondays until noon. So I had about four hours to cool my heels. I bought some papers and went down to the wonderful old coffee shop in the bowels of the Time-Life Building, which had a long, snakey counter and waitresses with those little Dutch hats and white aprons. I hit it off with one of the luncheonette waitresses, who was older, and clearly took pity on me, and always tried to get me a stool in her working area.

When I returned, I was taken around the writers’ offices and was introduced to, among others, Walter Isaacson and Jim Kelly. Libby Waite, who was the secretary for assistant managing editor Ed Jamieson, thought Jim, who had started a week earlier, and I should get to know each other. And so the next week we went off to the East River Savings Bank in Rockefeller Center, where we opened bank accounts, and then across the street to have lunch at Charley O’s. Libby had a good eye. Jim and I have been friends since and were best men at each other’s wedding.

Writers in those days typed on huge Underwood upright typewriters with five sheets of carbon paper separating the canary-yellow copy paper. When stories were done, we separated each of the copies and sent them by pneumatic tube to the editors who needed to see them. The work was put into the system, and in a few hours, a formal manuscript came back with the disheartening stamp “writer’s version.”

As writers, we were encouraged not to do any actual reporting—that was done by correspondents. While they were out in all corners of the globe reporting and filing early in the week, we slipped off for lunches at Chez Napoléon or Tout Va Bien, two gloriously quaint French restaurants in the West Fifties that are still in business. It would be the rare lunch when two of us wouldn’t polish off at least a bottle of wine. Everybody smoked: in offices, in hallways, in elevators. Everywhere.

In the evening, when I was waiting for my story to come back from the editor or fact-checking, I’d use the long-distance phone line to call home, then go down to the morgue and sift through the files. Time maintained clipping files on everything and everybody. Presidents and ex-presidents got their own individual rooms. Every newspaper or magazine story had been carefully cut out, stamped, and clipped together. I remember finding the business card for Fred Waldo Demara Jr., “the Great Impostor,” in his file. And I came across a 1935 letter Condé Nast had written to Henry Luce informing him that he was folding Vanity Fair into Vogue.

Talent was thick on the ground at Time in those days, and I never felt very confident. I wasn’t particularly good or useful, and I was terrified of losing my job, because if I got canned, I’d lose my work visa and I’d have to leave the country. I didn’t want to crawl back to Canada in defeat. I tried very hard to blend in—with mixed results. One day I was wearing a blazer with a crest from my parents’ yacht club that had a little letter C on it. Somebody in a meeting asked if I worked at the Copa at night. I went home and took a razor blade and sliced the crest off.

I didn’t have a ton of friends, so on weekends I got the AIA Guide to Architecture and would just walk the streets to see what the city looked like up close. I discovered that it’s not this huge mass of stone and commerce you imagine from afar; it’s an exquisite mosaic of neighborhoods and people and families and schools. Because it was the area north of the Prince George, I had, and still have, a great appreciation for Murray Hill. I think it’s the most unchanged part of New York. It’s never really been discovered in the Dumbo or Williamsburg sense, but it has never been forgotten either. And in those days it was filled with stewardesses.

See Also:
Rufus Wainwright, James Franco, and other notables sharing their first New York memories.

My First New York