Read My First New York Online

Authors: New York Magazine

My First New York (2 page)

Y
OGI
B
ERRA

baseball player
arrived: 1946

N
ew York? It was big.

C
HITA
R
IVERA

actress and singer
arrived: 1948

O
ne day George Balanchine sent a scout from the School of American Ballet to the Jones-Haywood School in Washington, D.C., where I was a fifteen-year-old studying dance. We didn't know we were auditioning, or who George Balanchine was. But I was picked and sent to New York to perform for him. I remember my foot got a blister, and he stopped my audition and
sent for a Band-Aid and a pair of scissors. He put my foot in his lap. If I had realized who he was, I would have dropped dead. But everyone just watched as he cut the thing away, put a Band-Aid on my blister, and we continued.

I guess I was excited to be chosen for a scholarship, but mostly I was surprised that my mother allowed me to go to New York. I was fifteen! Especially in those days, nobody let their child out of their sight. But she was brave and let me move in with my father's brother's family in the Bronx.

I went to Taft High School near the Grand Concourse and the ballet school in Midtown, so all I knew was Fifty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue, the subway, and the Bronx. I do remember looking up one day on the subway and seeing a man expose himself. That was a hell of an experience! I learned never to look up on the subway again.

At home we never went out to restaurants—who had the money?—but at the ground floor of the ballet school there was a Horn & Hardart, which was the first kind of fast food. They'd have glasses with lemon available for anyone who wanted to buy iced tea. Us dancers would come down, fill the glasses with water,
and sit down and drink “lemonade” we didn't pay for.

At nineteen I got my first job in
Call Me Madam
. By then I knew that ballet wasn't for me. The world of theater was different—more relaxed, not as frightening, more like a variety show. Broadway had great shows at the time—
The King and I
,
Guys and Dolls
—and the streets were full of stagehands and dancers. That was what helped me get to love New York and made me feel like I owed it something.

Every other night all of us gypsies would go to Sid and Al's on West Forty-sixth and Eighth Avenue, which was run by a very sweet couple who were known to help us out if anyone needed money for food or rent. We went to hang out and share stories and attempt to feel grown up. It was my first introduction to a bar—I probably drank gin and tonics because I hadn't yet learned to order Stingers. There was always a piano there, and dancers—you know, we will dance anywhere. One night I even danced on the bar—alone. It had taken me a while to summon the courage to do something like that, but everyone else started clapping and yelling. I don't remember what song I danced to or how I danced, just that I was good.

J
ONAS
M
EKAS

filmmaker
arrived: 1949

T
he ocean was very stormy. We had been on the boat, my brother Adolfas and I, for seven or eight days. It was crowded, almost two thousand of us on a United Nations refugee ship. When we finally pulled up to the pier at Twenty-third Street, it was evening, and all the lights in the city were blazing. So beautiful.

Adolfas and I had papers, and our papers said that
we were supposed to go to Chicago and work in a bakery. But we looked around and thought, We're in New York City! It would be stupid to go to Chicago. So we went to Brooklyn, to live in Williamsburg with some friends who had come before us.

We were born in the Lithuanian village of Seme-niškiai, where we had lived first under the Soviets, then the Germans. We had been sent to a Nazi labor camp in Elmshorn, then had escaped, hiding for two months on a farm near the Danish border. From there we were moved to the displacement camps in Wiesbaden and Kassel, and then finally the refugee boat. It was all just misery and displacement and suffering and loss. Now, suddenly, everything was bright and exciting and available. The streets of New York were open markets, like something out of Cairo. We bought three or four oranges on our first day. Here we are! We can buy fruit! It was like a miracle. Even simply to eat a real egg, and not the powdered eggs of the camps.

Williamsburg in that time was a very poor immigrant community, with many saloons and Lithuanians. (This was when people in Williamsburg were truly poor and not just doing a pretend performance
of poverty.) People mostly wanted to survive—to have a job and to live like everyone else. But I did not want to live like everyone else. On the second day, Adolfas and I woke up and looked at the
New York Times
and found two well-known films—
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
and
The Fall of the House of Usher
—playing at a theater on Twenty-ninth Street between Sixth Avenue and Seventh Avenue. We became gluttons, absorbing everything: concerts, films, readings, conversations. I was especially interested in books. In the displacement camps, I would sell cigarettes for books. And I remember walking on Fourth Avenue south of Fourteenth Street, near where the Strand is now, and seeing nothing but bookstores. I remember the smell of it.

I was never choosy about jobs—I would take anything. One of my first was cleaning old parts of ship machinery, a very oily and dirty job. I remember very clearly working at a bed factory in Queens, where work would end at five o'clock and I would have only thirty minutes to rush to the 5:30 screenings at MoMA. People would look at this shabby, smelly person in his displacement jacket, but nobody ever bothered me. Maybe the only job that I would not take is a police
man, because in those days in New York it was fashionable to yell at police officers, “Stop being such a Nazi pig!” I would think, What do you know of Nazis?

I was very lucky to move to this city at that time. My friends Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Robert Frank, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus: we were all starting. We were all new. It was very special, after so many years in Europe that seemed only to be about the ends of things, to be in a time of beginnings. We would drink and eat at the Cedar Tavern or the White Horse Tavern. And when all the places in the Village would close at night, there was a twenty-four-hour night cafeteria for the taxi drivers at Twenty-ninth Street and Park Avenue South.

Two weeks after I arrived, I borrowed $300 to buy a Bolex 16mm camera. I took photos of everything, and made a fifteen-minute film about my thoughts upon arriving here. New York really saved my sanity. I had come here so despondent with civilization, and the city got me to believe in passion again. The Metropolitan Opera House was at Thirty-ninth Street and Broadway. When they destroyed that theater, I had spent so much time there that I had to take a piece of
it. I still have it. It's a chunk of hard plaster from the interior decoration. People think, Oh, he is experimental and avant-garde, always looking for the new things. Not always. This city makes even the experimenters sentimental.

L
IZ
S
MITH

gossip columnist
arrived: 1949

N
ew York had gone dark for the war—they had thought it was going to be bombed—but by the time I arrived everybody was relieved and the city was electric with things.
South Pacific
and
Kiss Me, Kate
were opening. The theater was just booming. Of course, everything was new to me.

I had just gotten out of the University of Texas,
having gone back to school after getting married and divorced. I arrived on a train, and at Penn Station a wandering vagrant tried to get into the phone booth with me. I was pretty staggered and thought, what the hell? What a great beginning is this?

It was absolutely idiotic that Scotty, my friend from Texas, and her boyfriend, Floyd, were not there to meet me. Instead, I made my way to the hotel, and I remember noticing how dark and unwelcoming the streets were and wondering if I had made a mistake. The next night, though, Floyd brought his car in from Jersey, and we all drove up into Times Square. That was one of the most thrilling things that had ever happened to me.

I had been a terrible wife and the first in my family to get a divorce, but I arrived in New York and nobody even noticed. Scotty and I rented an apartment on Eighty-first and Central Park West. We realized immediately that we couldn't afford it, so we looked in the newspapers for a roommate. We didn't like the one we found—she was just some nebbishy kid, I don't remember her name, poor thing—and three months later we were making enough money to throw her out.

I went to work as a typist for the National Orchestra
Association. I only had about $50, but you could ride the subway for a dime and buy a ticket for a Broadway show for $2.50. I saw Carol Channing in
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
one of the first months I was here. Still, I was bent on survival and went everywhere applying for better jobs. I showed them what a fabulous writer I was and what I'd done at the University of Texas, and they couldn't care less. I couldn't even get arrested.

Three months into this insane effort I saw in an item that Zachary Scott, a Hollywood actor from Texas whom I'd profiled in my college paper, was in New York. I found him in the phone book, and he said, “Liz! How great that you're here.” He said to go to
Modern Screen
magazine at 11:00 am and tell the editor he sent me. That guy hired me cold.

Floyd, Scotty, and I would go out to bars in the Village. One night we were at a place called Seven Oaks, and a very nice man came over and bought us drinks. Scotty and I went to the ladies room and she said, “You know, Liz-O, I think that guy is as queer as a $5 bill.” And I said, “Scotty, $5 is not queer.” But then I realized she was right: we were in a gay bar and didn't know it!

Gay men in those days wore suits and little nar
row ties—they were very elegant. When my brother, Bobby, came to the city, he worked as a waiter at a gay restaurant, which he liked a lot. He was beautiful, like a movie star, and he enjoyed having to fend them off every night. I was more narrow-minded. I had never seen any gay people before, and it was fascinating.

The most dreary thing in New York was to go to a female gay bar. They were just awful. But they were safe, since they were run by the Mafia and the Mafia was very rigid about good behavior. A guy I knew used to take me there because he thought it was funny.

I couldn't stand having a hangover, but Bobby didn't know what one was. We lived for a time in one big room with two beds. We didn't have any money, so we'd go to the Automat and eat crackers and catsup. I remember walking around the city with $3 in my pocket and lucking into things—going into bars and nursing a drink and seeing some great nightclub act perform. That was one of the happiest times of my life, before I knew Bobby was an alcoholic.

After Scotty and Floyd got married and moved on, my roommate was a wonderful Jewish girl named Shirley Herz. I hate to say that all my friends were Jewish, but they were. I absorbed all their culture, and by
the end of the year I spoke a little Yiddish. When my father came to visit me, his racism just astonished me. We went to the Women's Exchange, a very elegant, Episcopalian place where women brought their embroidery, and he said, “This looks like the first civilized place with white people that we've seen in New York.” I was outraged. He thought I was a Communist. I didn't even know what a Communist was.

I was a kid through my first marriage and college, and I was a kid when I first got here. I wore bobby sox and little filmy blouses you could see the brassiere through. I was much like
Mad Men
's Peggy Olson, who I think is so awful. (I dislike remembering how callow and stupid I was.) But once Mike Wallace hired me at CBS radio, I just grew up. I began to have enormous respect for hard work, and I made a study of famous, important people. I learned how to dress, how to act, how to eat properly. I had my first artichoke in New York.

About twelve years after I arrived, my mother and father came to visit again. I had killed myself taking them around to theaters and restaurants, but they couldn't wait to get back home. They had no concept of my real life, and couldn't imagine anybody want
ing to live in a small apartment and go to work every day. Then one night I took them to the Metropolitan Opera to see Leontyne Price in
Aida
. My parents were blown away. Even my father thought it was great; he didn't object to a black woman playing an Egyptian. I remember that night well because it was so glamorous, and it was the only thing I ever did that impressed them.

P
AUL
T
AYLOR

dancer and choreographer
arrived: 1952

I
came to Juilliard very eager to be a dancer. I'm naturally shy, but I was not intimidated. I took a choreography course with Louis Horst, and studied with Martha Graham, who later invited me to perform in her company. She was always very grand in public, and she would sometimes say things in class that would
shock the girls. She thought being a virgin wasn't that great.

I was terrific looking! Though I didn't really know it at the time. My body was changing from a swimmer's body—loose and long muscles—to a dancer's body. I got thicker soles on my feet. I had a lot of encouragement at Juilliard, and got the sense that I was the Next Great One. Or at least, that's what I intended to be. I didn't know if it would happen, but I felt I was ordained.

But after I left Juilliard, then it got rough. Living was hard. I found a crummy place in Hell's Kitchen—it was really smelly, and for heat in the winter you just turned on the gas oven and opened the door. I went hungry a lot, but there were Automats and Chock Full o'Nuts, and you could get a sandwich and coffee for about twenty cents. The arts community in New York was much smaller then, and we all knew each other. Painters, writers, composers—we'd all get together quite often in somebody's old loft, or the Cedar Tavern down in the Village, to talk and trade ideas. Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns both designed costumes and set pieces for me. I helped them do window displays at Tiffany, and would listen as they
talked about being anti–Abstract Expressionism and wanting to change the whole scene. One night at the Cedar Tavern Jackson Pollock was very drunk, and he started shouting “I am nature!” I remember thinking that was great and true.

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