Read My First New York Online

Authors: New York Magazine

My First New York (9 page)


arrived: 1984

was sixteen 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 cheoreographed 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 light bulbs, 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.


arrived: 1986

t sixteen years old, I was summoned by Anna Wintour to work for American
on a Steven Meisel shoot, and I was put on the British Airways Concorde. As we were leaving the airport I told the driver, “I want to go on the Graffiti Train.” I had seen
The Warriors.
All I'd ever seen of New York was the movies.

Christy Turlington and I were roommates in a loft
on Centre Street, in the same building where the fashion photographer Arthur Elgort had his studio. I've always attributed my success to Christy, because of how supportive she was when people wouldn't book models of color for their shows.

My first summer in New York was tough. I didn't mind the heat, but everybody had left the city and I felt a bit lonely. I hadn't yet learned the seasons. I fell in love with Central Park, though. I'd go to a delicatessen and stock up for a picnic with friends. I'd visit the boat houses and watch people playing music and beating drums. Nell's had just opened on West Fourteenth Street. Prince used to go there a lot. But I liked it because it was cozy, and I always stayed with my friends.

I would go to see the House of Extravaganza, dance at clubs, or hang out on the West Side Highway, near where I used to shoot. One time I saw one of the voguers get knocked down on the highway, and I remember a private ambulance refused to take him. That was a little shocking; I didn't understand the idea of medical insurance, as opposed to the way emergency service worked in England. I remember calling home and saying, “Mom, guess what I saw today.” And she was like, “Get your medical insurance.”


arrived: 1988

had just turned eighteen, and I was getting ready to attend Juilliard. I came here with $300 and was living at the Narragansett, a residential hotel on Ninety-third and Broadway. Now, Ninety-third and Broadway in 1988 was a very interesting place to be. There were certain hours at the Narragansett that you just didn't ride the elevator, because you wanted to live. That
thing with the naked guy across the way? We had one of those right across from us who would watch us and masturbate. A lot of the people in that building were drug addicts, but they took care of the Juilliard students, too. They were like,
No, no, no, don't go to that bodega. No, no, no, I'll go get it.


arrived: 1988

was from Toronto and had this fantasy that the only time I would ever come to New York would be if I had an audition for
Saturday Night Live
. That was a very exclusive condition. But in fact, that is what happened: I was called to meet Lorne Michaels, the producer of
Saturday Night Live
. It was one of those magical moments—not just because I saw how beautiful and
vibrant the city was, but also because my superstitious belief that I should never come for another reason had paid off. I landed at LaGuardia, and the cabbie took the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, which I now know to be a strange choice. (Why not the Triborough?) I looked up at the city as we crossed the river, and it brought me to tears.

By the time I got to
, it was very family oriented. The cast was all married, and many of them with kids. It was a lot of “Do you want to go jogging with me in the park?” and “I'll meet you at the Imagine Circle!” But I quickly fell in love with Central Park, and the decorative elements of the Upper West Side brownstones, and, even though it's Helvetica, the fonts in the subway system.

Dana Carvey told me that everyone lived on the Upper West Side. One day I was walking down Amsterdam, and people saw me and waved. I had that horrible feeling of,
I don't remember these people.
So I came up and said, “Hey!” They were shocked that I said hello to them. They said, “You're the new dude on
Saturday Night Live
!” And I was like,
Oh my God—I'm a famous person now!


arrived: 1991

grew up in Connecticut and went to the city with my family for big holidays. But I started going on my own when I was a freshman in high school, skipping school and staying overnight on the weekends. We'd hang out in Washington Square Park with all the skater kids and punkers and pot dealers. The north
part of the park was the skater side (because there's a slope the kids would skate down to get speed), and the south side was more hip-hop. By the time I was a junior, I think my parents were a little nervous. Sometimes I'd lie and say I was at a friend's house in Greenwich. They would not have been happy if they knew that I was at a rave all night long and then sleeping in the park. But not like a homeless person—like a teenager. I was with a group of cute kids.

My sophomore year, I saw the Sugarcubes at Roseland. Björk was friends with all of the club kids, and at the end of the show they all came onstage. Now, this is before I knew what club kids were, and I was shocked by the sight of them all on the stage with her. They looked like complete freaks. I later became friends with some of them. A lot of them didn't like me, though—usually because the gay boys that they liked, liked me. It didn't help that I looked like a boy then, with my shaved head.

I read Luc Sante's
Low Life
and discovered the Lower East Side. Tompkins Square Park we never went to—it was gnarly. I remember going to Avenue A and being really scared. I was young and from Connecticut:
it just felt like a situation I didn't want to put myself in. But Washington Square Park was very safe. Some of the kids thought I was just a freaky girl who stared a lot. And it's true, I was staring at everybody. I was just fascinated by these kids.


arrived: 1993

he first thing I saw when I came to New York was a man leaning up against a wall, shitting. Perfect! My brother David had taken me to Chinatown to see a chicken dance, and it was immediately clear that New York was just much more stimulating than Chicago. I was never scared in Chicago. Here your fear was sitting right in front of you. But I loved it. David
and I lived with our friend Paul Dinello in a gigantic loft on Chambers Street. It was a strange area, with no grocery stores or anything around. The loft was $1,500, fifteen hundred square feet, and really cold. I remember brewing tea and throwing the tea bags into our spare room, just to watch them freeze.

I started waitressing at Marion's, and then got a job at Gourmet Garage. After work David and I would go to Balducci's and look at their prepared food and then go home and try to make what we saw. We shopped at Western Beef all the time. Waitressing was always fun. I like to wait on people, I like to work around food, I like to make cash, and I like to hear people complain.


arrived: 1994

y New York life didn't really begin until 1999, but I first moved here in 1994, after I'd fallen in love with a heroin addict in Montreal. I was still smarting from that failed relationship and had to get out of the vicinity of my dark love. So I came to New York and worked three jobs: at Film Forum; at the Lion's Head, on Sheridan Square; and as the houseboy for a Broadway
producing family who lived on Park Avenue. I would also perform here and there, mostly at an old jazz club called Deanna's in the East Village, but I couldn't make enough money or any friends. Nobody was interested in my point of view. I tried to perform at the Lower East Side club Sin-é, but they refused my tape three times. I'd go to the old Crowbar to see Misstress Formika, during the East Village Renaissance that I had absolutely nothing to do with.

So I moved back to Montreal and started doing a lot of shows there. I was signed to DreamWorks Records and made my first album while living in L.A. When I came back to New York in '97, DreamWorks got me a gig at Fez, which was a bit of a nightmare. I opened for a folksinger named Jonatha Brooke, who is very nice but whose fans are assholes. I think they would purposely speak louder when I was onstage. One time, a bunch of people came in on Rollerblades and sat in front of me really drunk while I was trying to sing about dying opera divas.

I ended up hanging out a lot with this girl Lisa, a really party-hearty hard-core
Sex and the City
person. Lisa was in advertising, and her crowd wasn't necessarily an artistic mélange. We'd go to the Wax Bar in
SoHo, and I was their gay-artist mascot. But one night I saw Kiki & Herb do their Christmas show at P.S. 122. It was earth-shattering; it gave me a focal point of where I wanted to go.

I went back to L.A. to write my second album,
. L.A. was also where I learned how to drink and do drugs, how to scope out the dealer and get into the party, and how to drive drunk (which I don't do anymore). So when I finally returned to New York, in the summer of 1999, I was like a heat-seeking missile to find out what was happening, where was the fun, where were the goods, and who I wanted to go home with. I had very long hair and wore Greek caftans and posed as a romantic, almost Pre-Raphaelite androgynous person. I moved into a closet-size $1,800 apartment in the Chelsea Hotel because my friend Lorca Cohen told me her father Leonard used to live there, and that I should too. I met this guy Walt Paper, who brought me into the remnants of that club-kid world, which had just collapsed. We met the drag performer Lily of the Valley and a fashion designer named Zaldy, and the four of us became a quartet who were at every party and in every hot tub and on every beach.

We went to the Boiler Room and Beige and the
Cock, where Miss Guy would DJ this eclectic mix of rock and roll, Nirvana, and Dolly Parton. I drank a lot, starting around noon and going on till four in the morning. I was so blissfully ignorant of any kind of danger or defeat. I was so confident that I was brilliant and indestructible and could drink and sleep with people as much as I wanted. I no longer have that magic blankness. But when I think back on it, I'm proud of having cracked the code of living life to the fullest, and that it didn't take me down—though it very nearly did in the end.


arrived: 1995

grew up in L.A. and moved back here to go to college at Columbia, where I lived in the dorm for the first two years. I had a boyfriend who lived on Ludlow Street, and I couldn't believe a place as alive and wild as that existed. I wanted to drop out of school and hang out there. I remember there was this guy who would take PCP. And when he did, everyone on
the block would stop what they were doing and lock the doors and hide from him as he smashed car windows. My boyfriend had a teeny-tiny apartment that he shared with another guy. They had built bunk beds. And I would sleep over. The roommate would still be there, but we figured it out, like you do when you're that age. We would use the Pink Pony like it was our kitchen and living room. I felt it was such a great way to live. I don't know how I'd manage that now.

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