Read My First New York Online

Authors: New York Magazine

My First New York (3 page)


arrived: 1955

hadn't yet turned twenty-one. I got notice that I had received a scholarship to the Art Students League of New York, so I took the red-eye Lockheed Electra propeller plane from Minneapolis. I had called the Sloane House YMCA on Thirty-fourth Street, and they said that if you make your own bed it's $1.79 a night. I checked in, then walked up to the ASL on
Fifty-seventh Street, and there was the secretary—her name was Rosina Florio, she later became the executive director—and I jumped on her desk and said, “Hooray! I made it. I'm in New York now!” She got a hell of a kick out of that.

I left the YMCA when I heard that someone had gotten killed there two nights before. I went first to a rooming house on West Fifty-seventh Street ($8.50 a week), and then to another one on Columbus Circle run by an old lady who had a dog standing on the bed in every room. I took the one with the smallest dog.

I was a lower-middle-class kid from Minnesota who knew what every car looked like. Then I got to New York and I never stepped in a car. I never took the subway either, and didn't have money for a cab, so I walked and wore out my feet. Existence was so inexpensive. You could go to the Metropolitan Museum for free, and the Staten Island Ferry was a nickel for an ocean voyage.

After a year, a friend from ASL told me about a job working for the Stearns family (of Bear Stearns fame) at their mansion in Irvington, twenty-five miles north of the city. The job was being a chauffeur, bartender, and occasional babysitter. I lived on the top floor, and
all I really had to do was wear a button-down shirt and Bermuda shorts. I spent a year with them, living a high lifestyle. They'd throw many parties, where I'd meet people like George Reeves, Romare Bearden, and John Chamberlain, who I became friends with. Roland Stearns was Jewish, but he'd say things like, “Good morning, old sport.” He inherited $16 million on his thirtieth birthday, and for the party I carved his head on a big chunk of ice.

I knew that wasn't my place, so I drove back to New York in their 1956 Lincoln convertible. I decided to find work painting billboard pictures. I had already been in the painters' union in Minneapolis, so I walked into the International Sign, Pictorial, and Display Union Local 230 on Twenty-eighth Street and requested to transfer. It took a while, but finally I got a job painting a Hebrew National salami sign on the Flatbush Extension.

I had painted pictures in Minneapolis, but I didn't know how to do lettering. I was fired in a month, at which point I started practicing on rooftops. My next job was with an ad firm in Brooklyn, which sent me to Stauch's Bath in Coney Island. I worked with my assistant Red from Red Hook twenty feet above these big
fat ladies who came out naked to get a suntan. “Red,” I said, “we better say something or we'll be arrested for being peeping Toms.” So I shouted, “Good morning, goyls!” One woman said to her friend, “Don't worry Sadie, they don't look anyway.” And then Red threw his cig down on the tarp and it caught fire and the ladies ran off the roof, screaming and naked.

I didn't have any hobbies except artwork. I was just striving to do something, because I knew I had some talent and I was pretty good and I was still trying to get better. I did meet a southern girl named Peggy Smith, a party reporter who'd invite me to all sorts of social things. She'd say, “Would you like to meet W. C. Handy, who wrote ‘St. Louis Blues'?” And I'd go with her to a party in Yonkers where a blind W. C. Handy was sitting in his wheelchair listening to Nat King Cole sing. Another time she brought me to a fancy apartment on the Upper West Side for the artist Jack Younger-man. I met a lot of young artists there, all standing up against a wall: Bob Rauschenberg, who became one of my best friends; Jasper Johns, who used to be very acerbic; Agnes Martin; Lenore Tawney, a tapestry artist; and Ray Johnson, who later killed himself.

Bob and I used to do some window displays for Bon-
wit Teller and Tiffany. But mostly I stuck to billboards. After General Outdoor Advertising, I graduated to Artkraft Strauss, which had all the billboarding in Times Square—the Palace billboard, Castro Convertible. I painted huge things, like the sign for the Astor and Victoria Theatres, 395 feet wide and fifty-eight feet high, and over one hundred different two-story-high Shenley whiskey bottles. I got so sick of painting those that after a while I wrote on the label “Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow.”

I eventually got sick, sick, sick of it all. The color and form were fun, but I wanted to do a new kind of artwork. At that time, the height of art in New York was Abstract Expressionism. Teachers would say to students, “Throw some paint on the canvas, make a mark, and then you have the obligation to make something out of it.” After Pollock, I thought about how you can introduce imagery to get to nihilism again, and I came up with the idea of painting things so large that you couldn't recognize what they were. I had been painting billboards so close up, the imagery was in the back of my head instead of in front of me, and the billboards were really just pure color. That was the idea.

A few years after I arrived, I lived in an apartment
where Lincoln Center is now. It had a kitchen table, no chairs, no stove. On Thanksgiving Day, I was painting a Merry Christmas sign on top of a big billboard in Times Square, and I thought, son of a bitch, I'm tired of having turkey at the Automat alone for Thanksgiving. So I went and bought a big, frozen turkey. Then I called three girls I knew from the south and said, “You got a stove?” They said, “Yeah, we got a stove, but we don't have a pan!”

I called Wing Dong, a Chinese artist. I said, “Wing, I got three girls, a frozen turkey, and a stove, but I got no pan.” He had a pan and offered to cook, and I insisted he stay for dinner. The franc was really low then, so you could get an exquisite bottle of French wine for ninety-nine cents. The boyfriends of two of the girls brought the wine, and we all had a big turkey dinner on the floor of their one-room apartment.


arrived: 1956

n the Texas of my youth, New York might as well have been Neptune. It was the stuff of children's stories. But it was the capital of the world, and I was damn sure not going to miss that.

The first time I went to New York—for two and a half days, when I was twenty-five—I hitchhiked from
Houston to Atlanta, where I then caught a Greydog (that is to say, a Greyhound bus) to New York. I stayed at the YMCA in Times Square, which was a good bit tattier and sleazier than I had anticipated. I was slack-jawed and wide-eyed. And a little bit scared, to be truthful about it. I was not a country boy; I had considered myself a big-city boy from Houston. I realized in Times Square what a rube I was.

But, boy, I wanted so much to go into one of those Times Square places with the bright lights. I saw a nice jazz joint that I now think was Birdland. I stood outside looking for a menu or something to tell me if they would charge for entering, because, frankly, it looked too expensive for me. I eventually just decided to open the door and take a step in. Smoke clung to the ceiling like draperies. A short man with a snap-brim hat and a cigar came up to me and said, “Check your hat and coat, sir.” I was not prepared for that. So I stared at him for some time in silence and then mumbled, “Will it cost me anything?” He said, “No. I'm a fucking Chinese coolie.” I got out of there, taking a bus to Philadelphia and hitchhiking the rest of the way back to Texas.

Although I visited New York many times since then—and took the train up from D.C. when I hosted the Sunday-night CBS news broadcast at eleven—my family and I didn't return to the city for good until 1979. We found a three-bedroom apartment on Seventy-second Street between Park and Madison. I remember my wife, Jean, said, “It's only $92,000.” I blew a gasket. Let me get this straight: No lawn? No yard? And it's still $92,000? Well, Jean is by far the smartest of all the Rathers, and she explained to me that it was actually a good price. After we signed the papers, she said she wanted to renovate the kitchen for $50,000, and that we had to pay maintenance fees around $600 a month, which was like paying rent to live in a place you had supposedly bought. We argued a bit, but she prevailed in her great wisdom.

She was also smart enough to figure out that New York is never a megalopolis of however many millions; it's always just your neighborhood—the shoe repair guy, the carpenter, the grocer, the post office—like any small town in Texas, really. And everyone was so friendly; a neighbor welcomed us with
an upside-down chocolate cake, which really impressed Jean because it is very difficult to make. She was a fan of tennis, and learned something in tennis that we took to heart for life in the city broadly. She told me, “When you play tennis in New York, you've gotta get your first serve in.”

Like any immigrants, we had this Ellis Island mentality where we said we weren't going to give up our heritage and stop being Texans. Jean would tell the kids we were like Indians, and we had to go where the buffalo were; there's a hell of a lot of buffalo in New York. But it's odd, because New Yorkers and Texans get along so well. They have those same outsize personalities, that determination and passion, that “don't mess with me” quality. And they have the same law my maternal grandmother would tell me from the time I was a little boy: “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Self-reliance, confidence. I really believe those lyrics, “If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere.”

In Texas, we have something we call “the Cortez moment,” which refers to when the great Spanish explorer and conquistador of Mexico came and set up camp and then burned his boats. The phrase “burn
the boats” means there's nothing but forward, onward, no turning back or running home scared. It's a motto for New York as much as for Texas. When you move here, if you're any good at all, you burn the boats.


arrived: 1957

fter 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. We had to wear our uniforms, but that was really fun.

I also got a chance to explore the gay bars off Third Avenue in Midtown. They all had men at the door who could tell if straight people were coming and wouldn't let them in. There was one bar in particular called the 316, on East Fifty-fourth. 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 work. Everybody would stand around not talking to each other. There were unwritten regulations about cruising you had to learn. You didn't just go up and talk to somebody; you had to stare until they stared back.

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. We were expected to survey the scene of whatever our interests were, so I went to see theater. I was also interested in becoming an actor myself, 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 every
body'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.


director and choreographer
arrived: 1957

y graduation present from high school was a trip to New York, all the way from Texas. I was seventeen 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!

The shows on Broadway that season were incredible. Rosalind Russell in
Auntie Mame
, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in
My Fair Lady
. But the energy of the city was overwhelming. I went to the little coffee shop next door for breakfast, where everybody was swinging their nickels down on the counter and talking fast. I heard the person next to me say, “Coffee and corn.” I wondered what that was. Corn on the cob for breakfast? But I didn't know what to order, so I said “Coffee and corn” too, and they brought me a corn muffin. Then I went to the Automat, which I thought was the coolest thing in the world because it looked like a food show—all this food behind glass. At the cafeteria they said, “Whaddya have, soup-er-juice?”

I panicked. “Uh, juice.”

When they said “Orange-er-tomato?” it was so fast and so frightening that I just left my tray and went away.

I knew on that visit that I
to be in New York, that this is where I belonged, but I don't think I would
have ever gotten up the nerve to come if it weren't for my friend Phillip Oesterman. He was a director who worked some in Houston and had a little apartment in New York. One day he pulled into my driveway and said, “Listen, I've been thinking. Here in Houston, if you dance and are talented and unusual, they call you a sissy or a weirdo. In New York, they call you a star. Let's go!”

I drove across the country with Phillip and slept on the couch of his West Side apartment. We arrived on Saint Patrick's Day. I remember there was a green stripe painted down the middle of Fifth Avenue, which I thought was a lucky omen. The trade papers listed an audition that very day for a touring company of
Irma La Douce
, and I went to sing “You've Gotta Have Heart.” I remember the guys before me had such huge voices, I thought to myself, Tommy Tune, pack up your tap shoes and go back to Texas. But I got the job.

I think the light in the city was more golden back then. I loved Forty-second Street, and I didn't know it was a place where people accosted other people. I'd get hit on and not even realize it. One day I was walk
ing through Greenwich Village, and this lady said, “Are you lost?” I told her I was looking for a grilled cheese sandwich, and she said, “Come up to my apartment, and I'll make you a grilled cheese sandwich.” And she did.

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