Read My First New York Online

Authors: New York Magazine

My First New York (4 page)


arrived: 1959

stood on the deck of the SS
, hoping that would make America come quicker. The boat had started in Haifa, but we picked it up in Naples from Lódz, our hometown in Poland. When we got to New York, ours was one of the only families with all their luggage. Everyone else was crying about what had been lost.

It is a marvelous thing to see the New York skyline from the point of view of the short, flat water. It was an early morning in late August, and the sunlight was everywhere. It's not anything that anyone can imagine—a vision out of Dante's

I was thirteen, and I had won a scholarship to play my accordion. I would play in Town Hall with other gifted musicians (sometimes with Itzhak Perlman, who had also won a scholarship that year). I would get about $500 for a concert, and that was enough for my family to pay for rent, food, and laundry for a month. My father found a job working in a print shop downtown, and my mother worked in a sweatshop, but my accordion helped us very much.

We lived in the Bronx. It felt like home because it was one-third Yiddish, one-third Polish, and one-third broken English. I took an aptitude test for school, and since I knew zero English, I must have gotten a zero on it. They put me in a class for dummies—mostly girls who were learning how to type and be good secretaries. Even now I can type very well. But then everyone realized that we needed to beat the Russians and undo Sputnik and all of this, so I got put in Bronx High School of Science and exposed to mathematics and
science. It was difficult. But in that situation you learn English overnight. I watched
The Twilight Zone
77 Sunset Strip
, and
What's My Line?
on a television some neighbors had donated to us. And Superman cartoons.

Even though this was the 1960s, and I was a teenager, you must remember that I was a Polish Jew and very nerdy. The most illegal thing I did was buy a
magazine and hide it under my mattress from my parents. I know you are supposed to hide
s when you are that age, but that was unimaginable. Day after day, I would be alone in MoMA and the Met, which for some reason were not that busy back then. I still have all these watercolors I did in the foyer of the Met with nobody in the foreground.

There was a great adventurous topography to New York—lots of things to do for free. A subway token cost only fifteen cents, so the adventure was accessible to everyone. Although I quickly learned that Manhattan was not really the city. It was a mecca for otherness: the rich, the tourists. We lived in true New York, in the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative near the Grand Concourse. True New Yorkers didn't have air conditioning; they sat on their stoop and talked with their neighbors and friends.


actress and singer
arrived: 1961

ye Bye Birdie
changed my mind. Until then I had wanted to be an ice-skater. But when I was fifteen, I went to New York with my parents, and Mama took me to a whole bunch of Broadway shows. I watched all those kids in
Bye Bye Birdie
looking so happy and having so much fun. So I asked my parents if I could take a summer in New York. They weren't so hot on
that. “We'll talk about it later,” they said. I asked them if they'd let me if I could get a job. “Well,” they said, “I guess we're not going to stop you.”

I did summer stock, winter stock, I moved scenery. I did any little thing. I just wanted to be part of theater, baby! I was instantly a gypsy, and I wore a gypsy robe, which was a rare thing for new people. I danced with all my beautiful dancer friends at the High School of Performing Arts, when it was still in Times Square. We'd spend all day dancing at Luigi's, and then talk all night at the Tripple Inn. We weren't old enough to drink, but we didn't need to. We'd have a Coke and just absorb the energy.

People wanted to go to clubs or parties; I just wanted to go to Sardi's. But I didn't have a dime. I lived in some bell-bottoms and a peacoat I bought from a place on Forty-second Street where the sailors went to get clothes—the real deal. I'd wake up, grab a Coke and a Hershey bar, and just get into it with this bright beautiful city. I would second-act it to the shows because I just couldn't afford them. But it was wonderful—you got to see all the best parts.

When I got my first apartment, on East Fifty-seventh Street, all I had in there was a rug, where I
slept, and a mirror, for rehearsing. As I started to get roles, I treated myself to a portable record player and bought up every Tony Bennett record I could find. One day I was sitting on the rug and someone buzzes up and the doorman says, “Mr. Tony Bennett is here to see you.” Couldn't be, I think—I tell him to quit joking. Ten seconds later it buzzes again, and this time it says, “Liza, it's Tony. I'm coming up.” He comes in and I offer him a Coke and we sit on the rug for twenty minutes. I was just thrilled to pieces. He tells me, “You sing ballads better than you think.” And I say that I can't sing, that I'm a dancer. But he got me thinking about it.

I had known Tony, of course. My childhood had been very special, but I didn't know that until I moved to New York. Growing up, they were just the neighbors' kids; it didn't matter that they were Bogey's kids. Candy Bergen, Mia Farrow, Natalie Wood—they were my girls. I babysat little Ronnie Howard, went on dates with little Christopher Walken. People are always coming to New York from forgotten, faraway places, and that's me too. Hollywood is a small, regimented town: my parents would wake up at six and be home by six. But in New York, everyone is so passion
ate all the time. I loved all that hurrying. I still love it. You always want more, and you want it now—bigger, brighter, better, more friends, more passion, more love, just more! It's how teenagers think. And I still think that way about the city, so I get to be a teenager my whole life. How's that! Not bad, baby.


writer and filmmaker
arrived: 1962

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 Forty-second Street. I told the woman there that I wanted to be a journalist, and she said, “How would you like to work at
?” and I said fine. At the
interview I said I hoped to become a writer, and the man who inter
viewed me assured me that women weren't writers at
. 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 twenty-five 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
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 Forty-fourth 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 Forty-fourth 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
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
, 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
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 twenty-one. 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 five, 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.


arrived: 1962

'd been on campuses for ten straight years, and it was just awful. When I was at Yale I used to go down to Chapel Street at 10:00 pm, when the
New York Daily News
came in. I was gradually getting hooked on newspapers, so after my last year of grad school I went to New York and applied to the
Daily News
. They offered me a job as a copyboy that paid $40 a week, which
even then was miserable. I considered taking it until I heard someone laughing. When I asked what was so funny, he told me they had never had a PhD copyboy before. And I could see what the next few years would be like: “Hey, Doc, go get me some coffee.”

So I sent my résumé out to fifty newspapers and spent six years working for the
Springfield Union
and the
Washington Post
. It wasn't until 1962 that I got a job worth having in New York: working for the
Herald Tribune
. There was a party for me the night before I left D.C., and I stayed out much too late. In fact, I caught the last bus of the night. I arrived in New York City at four in the morning feeling very romantic. I raised my fist—“I'm going to conquer you yet!”—the way Eugène de Rastignac does in Balzac's
Le Père Goriot
. I was all alone, so I had breakfast at an Automat across the street from my hotel. All the food was yellow: the eggs, the coffee, even the meat.

I then headed off to the
, just off Times Square, feeling more romantic the closer I got to the paper. Suddenly I heard this voice. “T.K.!” Those were my first two initials—Thomas Kennerly. It was an old girlfriend, and she said, “How would you like to come to a party tonight?” The party was on Central Park
West, at an apartment that belonged to the poet Robert Lowell, who had arranged a summer apartment trade with people from Brazil. There were these Brazilians, and the party was nice, maybe only twenty of us there. All of a sudden the host said, “Gilberto, can't you play something for us?” and the musicians started playing “The Girl from Ipanema.”

This destroyed my whole fantasy, which was to come to New York alone, ready to take on the city. I wanted to be a romantic figure, but Christ, it was over that first day: meeting an old friend, going to an incredibly cosmopolitan party. Over the next few months, I discovered how unromantic the things I had once found romantic were. Being on packed subways became a real nuisance. I would be walking down the street and a gust of wind would blow a grimy newspaper around my leg. I remember seeing so many stars of movies and music walking down the street. That was exciting, until it dawned on me that these people have to live

But it was a much safer city back then, before the late 1960s. I took the subway everywhere and never thought twice about it being dangerous, whether I was going to the Bronx or the Rockaways. I was on the
2:00 pm to 10:00 pm shift, which I liked very much. The disappointing thing about newspapers at the time was that so many reporters lived in the suburbs, so there was this mad race to Grand Central Terminal at 11:00 pm. But I'd get off work and be ready to do something. There was a place on Seventh Avenue where you could get dinner at three in the morning. It was called something like Mamma Margherita—a real Italian name with wonderful waitresses who treated you like they were your mothers.

I do remember taking a taxi one night at two in the morning, when I'd been here a matter of months. I was heading to my place on Gramercy Park with $1.01 in my pocket, all in change with only one quarter. I knew I wouldn't make it to Gramercy in a cab, so I told myself I'd let the meter go up to eighty-five cents, at which point I'd have enough for a tip and could walk the rest of the way. So it go up to eighty-five cents, but I wasn't quick enough to tell the cabbie to stop. It went up to ninety cents. I thought, well, that's so bad I might as well go to a dollar. When I got out I handed him all the change and walked west on Fortieth in the direction I knew the cabbie couldn't go. The next thing I knew, I heard this car going at
high speed up the block the wrong direction. It was the cab driver, of course. He stopped beside me and said, “Hey sport, you gave me a penny too much!” At which point he threw all the change at me. I remember looking around in the dark until I saw the quarter. I picked it up and walked home.

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