At first, I crashed at the little-used apartment of my godparents, in the East 70’s, where it was easy to pretend I had fast-forwarded over the hard first part of life in New York. I worked my way through the Pellegrino and Sancerre that stocked the fridge, until I was told in polite but unmistakable terms that it was time for me to find somewhere else to freeload. I took a bus crosstown through the park and landed in the living room of Em and Jo, dear hometown friends who told me I could occupy their sofa bed for as long as I needed to, the assumption on both sides being that I was closing in on a job and would soon be able to afford an apartment of my own (ha!).
When I wasn’t interviewing or checking my email at an internet café somewhere, I was getting in touch with anyone at all in the city who would hang out with me during the chilly days; the city has a way of shaming the idle and plus, there was so much to see. A guy I knew who was creatively employed had time during those long weeks to show me the New York sights I should know, like the lobby of the Chrysler building, and Grand Central Oyster bar, which had recently suffered a fire that sent tiles from its vaulted interior raining down like so many fall leaves; the ceiling still had a wounded, blistered look, but waiters bustled about and lunchgoers bent over their chowder as though nothing had happened. It was there that I learned to love raw oysters on the half shell. I checked out every museum I could and followed up nervously, a little desperately, after interviews—most of which yielded something along the lines of “we don’t currently have any paid positions, but if you would be willing to accept an unpaid internship…” I laughed at the thought of living unsalaried in New York City for any length of time, even though I knew I was lucky to be enjoying that life, if guiltily, for an interval.
In the evenings, and the early mornings before work, I looked forward to time with my roommates, because we laughed together non-stop and had known each other as children. In the mornings over coffee we watched Pat Kiernan on New York 1, and when everyone was home from work we drank cheap wine and rehashed the weekend’s escapades. Around that time the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal broke on the living room’s boxy TV, and we howled in disbelief when the grinning, big-haired shot of Monica flashed across the screen, looking like a high school graduation picture of someone we might have known peripherally not too long ago; she was our age. With each new sordid layer exposed we sat more riveted: the stained dress, the outrageous duplicity of Linda Tripp. “What the fuck?” was about all we could say to any of it*.
At night, after everyone had retired to their rooms, I would drift off to the otherworldly sound of steam pipes clanking and groaning, something powerful and mysterious asserting itself within the walls of the prewar building. Finally, by the next month, my quest for a job panned out and I’d started looking at apartments: dusty, unbelievably expensive little boxes. I ended up taking one in the west 80’s, near my friends: a tiny basement studio I couldn’t afford, but which had a quasi-kitchen with a black and white linoleum floor that was evocative of something, and a Magic Chef stove—potential for me to experiment and create feasts, even if I had nowhere to serve them. As for the job, they wanted me right away. It wasn’t the position in food media I'd sought—it was with a group of shelter magazines—but my rationale was that at least by getting in the kitchen I would be close to food. The title was Administrative Assistant, with the potential for writing opportunities and upward mobility; this much turned out to be true, quickly, even if I never did muster the requisite enthusiasm for faucets and furniture. I worked for Hearst, in a building on West 55th St. whose front door led straight across the street to the original Soup Nazi, lunch lines and all. During that time I ate mostly bagels and lentils and pasta, and occasionally soup.
Those New York beginnings weren’t edgy or cool or opulent as the mythical ones you always hear about; I was no Patti Smith. Late 90’s NYC had already lost its frisson of danger for the most part, the East Village a playground for post-college kids like me. The soundtrack to “Rent” already sounded contrived and outdated. But as with all the best beginnings, mine were built on kindnesses and connections, and the everyday incandescence of a new, big city. When you’ve lived somewhere else, you think you know yourself as an extension of that town, until you move and that layer is ripped away, leaving you open to everything the new place hurls your way. I felt at once exposed and cocooned. And then at some point during that year, without even noticing, I’d grown a shell—thin and fragile at first—that marked me as a New Yorker.
Over the next couple of years, the friends who had made my first days in New York so colorful and warm flew away like butterflies. New York, for them, had been a post-college palate cleanser—something I truly expected it to be for me, too—and other places beckoned them with more permanence. I’d met someone fortuitously at a party (do people even meet this way any more?), and that someone turned out to be my husband, with whom I began a new, big chapter whose roots sank deep into the city’s pavement. His friends became my friends, and eventually many of us ended up in Brooklyn, where we have added a growing family of friends to the bunch, including many children—a whole other wonderful and still bewildering thing.
There were endings among the beginnings. The building where I’d worked my first real job was torn down to make way for a taller, more efficient one, and I don't even recognize that part of town anymore on the rare occasion when I go there. The boy who’d taken me to the Oyster Bar died suddenly, I heard, a few years after I’d lost touch with him. Then there was 9/11. The attacks shattered the city while we were living downtown, within viewing distance of the blazing towers and close enough that our apartment filled with acrid smoke when we fled, leaving a window open. For a time it felt like the world was ending and our neighborhood's fences fluttered with hopeful, awful "missing" pictures until they faded or fell or were taken down, but in spite of the feeling of unbelievable fear and sadness, resilience eventually won out.
As for my old CD collection, those that weren’t sold at a stoop sale are buried in a drawer somewhere, and my children will never know what it’s like to pop in a disc, because any time they want music they just tell a speaker what to play.
Would I live anywhere else? Could I? Of course. Everywhere I visit, it seems, is a reminder that things could be easier, slower, and for better or worse, less full and noisy. I think we’ll stay put for a while.
Serves 1 (multiply for company)
- 4 oz. dried spaghetti noodles
- Salt (for the water)
- 1/2 c. finely grated pecorino Romano cheese
- Freshly ground pepper (about 1/2 tsp., or to taste)
- Fill a big pot of salted water (should taste like the sea) and put it on to boil. Once it's boiling, add pasta and monitor closely. Have a skillet at the ready alongside the pot.
- Once pasta is almost done, put the skillet over medium heat and ladle about half a ladle full of pasta water to start, then mix in cheese and pepper vigorously with the back of a spoon until cheese is fully dissolved and the mixture is creamy and thick; you may need to play around with the amount of water. Turn down low. As soon as the pasta has reached the al dente stage (only way to know is to keep trying it—should resist slightly between your teeth), scoop it out with tongs and transfer to the skillet, where it will cook for another minute or two. Stir constantly until noodles are coated with the creamy sauce; drizzle in a little more pasta water at a time if it seems to dry.
- Serve immediately, sprinkling with additional grated cheese and pepper.
I wish I'd had this Roman classic in my back pocket all those years ago—it's frugal, simple, quick, and comes together almost magically.
*I have come to admire the advocacy work Monica has done against cyber-bullying and regret to remember her for that moment in time.