Authors: New York Magazine
oming to America in the late 1970s after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union was equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in pure Technicolor. I remember myself, as an intensely curious child, pressing my nose to the window of the taxiing jetliner, watching the first hints of America passing by. The sweep of what used to be JFK's Pan
Am terminal with its “flying saucer” roof that told us we had left one century and landed in another; the purposeful, swift, but oddly humane stride of the first Americans brushing past us at immigration; the odd expanse of the springtime sky that didn't press down on Queens, as the Russian sky had trampled my stretch of Leningrad, but flowed past in waves, allotting a bit of itself to each red-bricked or aluminum-sided house, and to each of the lucky families that dwelled within.
The science fiction aspect, the intensity of arrival, did not leave me for the next hours, weeks, months. I felt like the convert to a new religion: everything was revelation. I will never forget the ride from the airport, my first highway overpass, the way the car (a private car, no less, bigger than three Soviet Ladas) leaned into the curve hundreds of feet above the greenery of Queens. Here we were floating through air as surely as the passengers of the airplane that had delivered us. And buckled into the back seat, with my parents also leaning into the airborne curve, I felt the same emotions I would experience when choking upon my first cheesy American pizza slice years laterâelation, visceral excitement, but also fear. How would I ever measure up to the gentle, smiling giants strolling this
land who launched their cars like cosmonauts into the infinite American sky and who lived like lords in their little castles on forty-by-one-hundred-foot lots in Kew Gardens, Queens? How would I ever learn to speak English the way they did, in a way so informal and direct, but with the words circling the air like homing pigeons, the ease of their landing in one's ear, the instinctive way in which they knew how to find home?
But we found home too. The two unlikely words that I would learn in my new English:
. Our first place was modest by local standards, but it fronted a beautiful patch of trees and grass, where the squirrels soon became my new friends. I shared with these squirrels many American peanuts, those salty, double-barreled sources of endless nutrition, and together we shed our native furs to welcome summer in New York, our bodies sweaty, happy, strumming with possibility. The Americans my family met were kinder than we had expected, kinder than any human beings we had known, and they furnished us with little gifts they thought Russians would like, for example cigarettes (though my parents didn't smoke) and little toy cars (as far as I was concerned,
they made all other gifts redundant). I remember lying on the grass, my loyal squirrels chirping in the trees above me, as I zipped a Hot Wheels Chevrolet Impala off a glossy pack of Marlboros. Those memories
my New World, because even to a child who knows little, some parts of the planet are instinctively, intrinsically, more welcoming than others. And in the garden apartment above, I see my mother watching me from the window, the woman who had abandoned her own dying mother in Leningrad to bring me to America.
he 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 mo
ment of community and realizing that this horrible tragedy had brought that many human beings together. I wasn't as much scared by the violent act as attracted to the beauty of its aftermath.
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 a 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 Seventy-ninth and First. I remember cooking out of a hibachi grill on the fire escape, and waking up 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 Eighty-sixth 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 pÃ¢tÃ©s I could find, which was a big deal for a twenty-two-year-old back then. One day I saw two guys wheeling an espresso maker down the street. They were opening a twenty-eight-seat joint called Trastevere, which would soon get three stars from the
. 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 among my friends 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 thenânot 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 of assistant manager on the spot. Two hundred and fifty dollars a week. And it turned out I loved it.
came to New York for love. Doesn't everybody? I never planned to live here. I came on Valentine's Day for a little affair with a man who asked me to visit him in his apartment at the Chelsea Hotel. It was all fabulously romanticâuntil, of course, he fell in love with someone else. But I fell in love with New York. And I kept the apartment.
Oh wait, noâI first came for the opening of Studio 54. But the romance story is the story we tell ourselves. I had been in London having every kind of fun in the rock scene there. I was very close with Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page and the New Romantic crowd. But London was starting to be overâthere was so much that was inspiring that it got exhaustingâand I was feeling like somewhat of a creature of habit. Whereas in New York there was nothing. You could put a flower in your hair and people thought it was fashion. You could make the nothing into whatever you wanted; New York was like a bare platform begging for set dressings.
I opened a little shop on Thompson Street, back when nobody was in SoHo. I made a New London in New York. I went to street fashion and the schools, not the established designers. I found Marc Jacobs at Parsons doing this wonderful knitwear, and I scooped up all this fun, GaudÃ-esque jewelry by people like Robert Lee Morris. Donna Karan would come into my shopâfor inspiration, probably, but who knows?
There was a culture mob and a few underground
clubs at the time, but it was very blah. Guys would take off their shirts and dance-dance-dance, but it was not about having “The Look.” So I started wearing my Stephen Jones and just showing off.
In 1986, Savage opened as a secretary's after-hours club on West Twenty-third Street. But it really became something when I started hosting the party on Tuesdays, and I have to say, that's when it all started. You couldn't just show up and say “I'm here,” like it was Studio 54. You had to have something happeningâsome drama. People started wearing head-to-toe looks. It was feathers and sequins and platform shoes and leggings and glitter. There was a guy named Stewart who made all my wigs, including my favorite big-haired purple-and-black wig, which I called Babe.
But it wasn't just Savage, of course. Arthur Weinstein had a club called the Continental on Twenty-fifth Street that was a little nothing apartment that, one night a week, he turned into something special. People would go to the Jefferson on Fourteenth Street, or the Palladium, Danceteria, Area, MK, Club 57âand then Disco Donuts afterwards. You started seeing people doing lots of shots. It was part of the pace: Slippery
Nipples, B-52s, Mudslides, JÃ¤germeisterâall washed down with Rolling Rock and Absolut.
The clubs became gardens for wonderful, special, fantastic, genius orphans of the mainstream. It was a kid culture: enthusiastic and unguarded, where things like the drag taboo became as acceptableâas required, reallyâas champagne. And it was so necessary and urgent. That's the thing. The city had been in financial ruin, cocaine and freebasing were ruining everyone's lives, and AIDS was destroying all the fun people. I remember going to see Klaus Nomi in the hospital and we had to wear masks because nobody knew what AIDS was. I remember the cops in the East Village wouldn't say “Don't do drugs,” because they knew they had lost that battle; they would say, “Don't do these certain drugs with these certain pictures on the packaging.” But this was when we needed to have fun the most.
I came to learn that New York is very appreciative. Yes, I know it is ultimately a city of PRâthat they tell you what you want to hear and make you think you need what you do not really need. I know there's always a million-dollar deal in the works on Monday that has fallen through by Friday. But there is always
the next Monday. London was all jigsaw jungles and roundabouts and confusion. New York's geography is direct and enabling; it helps people meet and get things done. It's very hard to get lost. And in fact, it's very easy to find yourself.
runk and sober, high and low, off and on, up and down, lost and found, New York has been my city for fifteen years now. It's a vast mystery to me, like it is to most New Yorkers, how this ugly lovely town became
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 naive young Dubliner. I was seventeen 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 the Avenue of the Americas 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, in the early 1990s, 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 placeâeven 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 Eighty-second 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 streetâa quiet street at the best of times, if anything can be quiet in New Yorkâthe cars were buried under drifts. The telegraph wires sagged. The
underside of the tree branches appeared like brush-strokes 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 movingâas 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
, 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.