I just went back to New York for the first time in four years… I say ‘back’ because I used to live here in what now feels like a lifetime ago. My travels have taken me all over the place, but it was the city of New York that taught me how to use my wings. Here I learned lessons about life, about people, and about myself that I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else. I think of New York as a crucible, where I went in one way and emerged changed for the better… like a concentrated and more resourceful version of myself.
I grew up (mostly) in a small town in the South. I went to university in a small town in the South. As soon as I finished my senior exams, I packed up my things and moved straight to New York. I didn’t even bother to attend my graduation; I instructed the school to send the diploma to my parents since they had paid for it. I had had ENOUGH of small towns.
I rented a room at a women’s hotel, the Martha Washington (which no longer exists). I checked in with two enormous suitcases; one full of clothes and shoes, and the other full of boxes of Stoned Wheat Thins crackers and makeup. I figured I could live on crackers for a while if my money ran out before I got a job, so they were an odd but healthy security blanket. I soon learned that the nearest deli made an egg salad sandwich with what any sane person would consider four sandwiches worth of egg salad. I’d put the leftovers into the small fridge in my hotel room and eat my Stoned Wheat Thins with egg salad perched on top for the next few days. I’d only been here a week and I’d moved straight from bare crackers to egg salad hors d’oeuvres. How hard could New York be?
I paid my weekly rent at the Martha Washington while I pounded the pavement looking for work on Wall Street. This isn’t easy at the best of times, but during the recession of early 1991, armed with a degree in Philosophy from a school in the South that few in New York had heard of, it was especially tricky. I remember having a great interview with the man who was in charge of hiring Investment Banking trainees at Paine Webber (now UBS). With refreshing honesty, told me that he’d love to hire me for one of their 13 spots, but when he had a stack of resumes on his desk from bright young men out of schools he knew, what would he tell his boss if he hired me, a young lady from a school he didn’t know very well, if I couldn’t cut it? I thanked him for being so transparent with me. At least I knew where I stood.
Eventually I did find a good job. I was even able to rent my very own apartment before I made it through my entire stash of Stoned Wheat Thins! The best part of the job was that I met one of my lifelong best friends there (Hi Michele B!). She was a born and bred street-smart New York Italian fireball; she knew EVERYONE and everything. Every bartender. Every doorman. Every club promoter. Every good place to buy discount shoes. Every good Italian restaurant downtown near our office. We’d stand by our office fax machine on Fridays when invitations to various clubs would be sent to her. We’d go through them all, decide which ones looked the best, and race out on our lunch hour, giddy with excitement to buy something new to wear that night. Who would be there? Who would we meet? What would happen? That night might change our whole life!
In New York, I felt like my life went from black and white to colour. It is a place where you can truly become anything you want. Everyone else is so busy trying to become what they want that the herd energy just sweeps you along with it. Even visitors feel this energy in the street. Eight months after I got my job, I got another job, my DREAM job in finance. I was hired by a hedge fund in their crazy, heady, early days before they became regulated. My boss trusted me and gave me more responsibility than any 23 year old should ever have. I worked around the clock, literally. I traded currencies and bonds that were active in all time zones, so I always had to be awake or on call. Even if I was asleep, I had brokers waking me up at least hourly. I took catnaps under the office ping pong table if the markets were quiet. Like lots of people in high finance, I had a crazy boss. Properly crazy. He routinely threw phones at me and lost his temper with people all day every day. Brokers would often refuse to cover our account (which is unheard of… a broker turning down commission?!) because he was so difficult and unreasonable to deal with. He made people cry. He ruined peoples’ days. I think my unspoken role was to be the human buffer between his insanity and the business world he had to exist in. Every day there were massive disputes to straighten out over the prices of the instruments we traded. It was an insane environment with huge sums of money, clever people, big highs, and very dark lows. Anytime I went out to dinner with my friends, they wanted to know the work story du jour, and my exhausting boss provided them in spades.
Everyone around me had fascinating stories too, which I lapped up. I was friendly with a lady who rented out her 5th Avenue apartment for a few weeks every year, which earned her enough money to live on for the rest of the year. Her coffee table was an enormous taxidermied tortoise! I dated an ex-addict for a long time, so learned a lot about addiction. I dated someone much much older than I was (a hazzan) who taught me everything I needed to know about economics. I dated someone younger who bought me a turtle and silk pyjamas. Then I gave back the turtle and bought myself a blue and gold macaw parrot, who I’d take out to lunch with me. I named him Gramley, after a Federal Reserve Board governor I was friendly with in my job. Gramley and I had a great time finding outdoor cafes with wrought iron chairs suitable for him to perch on during a meal. I became friends with a lady named Elaine, a muse of Francesco Scavullo, and I’d go to fashion week with her, sitting in the front row seat of her accessory designer friend who was in rehab. Every day was an adventure with an unexpected twist. I couldn’t imagine ever being anywhere else. I fell as tightly into the fabric of New York as a stone wedged in the pavement. I’m very grateful for everything the city taught me, especially for the tough lessons that I didn’t want to learn.
When I went back to New York this trip, my past seemed to bloom again. I felt exactly like the same 20-something year old girl who belonged to New York, before marriage, before motherhood, and before I became this person approaching 50. Every nook and cranny of New York seems to hold a memory for me. I remembered a time I walked down Broadway the morning after a blizzard and took photos of the Flatiron building without a soul in sight. I walked past the apartment I almost rented on Sullivan Street which had a shower in the kitchen. I passed where the Elephant and Castle cafe used to be, and remembered fondly that they served hangover-killing cappuccinos in enormous soup bowls. I saw that my favourite vegetarian restaurant on Astor Place is now a Starbucks. I took my husband to El Parador, a very out of the way Mexican restaurant that has been going for 50 years (the menu has barely changed since I started going 25 years ago). I used to go so often that they even greeted my parents when they visited town. I went to look at Sniffen Court on 36th Street, the most charming mews in Manhattan. It was located right between my first apartment and the nearest grocery store. My bad pun I liked to repeat to my friends EVERY time we walked past was that if I were an allergist, I’d open my practice in Sniffen Court (geddit?!). I wheeled out my old joke for my husband who just rolled his eyes (He’s French… they think Jerry Lewis is funny, what do they know about humour?). So many places were exactly the same, so it felt as if nothing had changed. So many places were different, and that made me nostalgic for my New York, the old New York, the one with fewer Starbucks and Zaras. The one with more grit and graffiti, and less polish.
My uncle recently reminded me of the famous philosopher Heraclitus’ quote, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ That’s certainly something I felt this trip. New York is not the same. And I’m not the same young New Yorker that I once was, but for a long stretches of time, she was right beside me as I walked through the city. Her devotion to New York, her attachment to its energy, and her love for the somewhat magical way the light hits the sidewalk at night and makes it sparkle.
(One thing that has mercifully remained the same is the amazing shoe sale at Bergdorf Goodman, where I managed to score these Laurence Dacade sandals for 50% off. I had nothing with the same 1960’s vibe in my suitcase, so I wore my staple silver sequin skirt and the white M&S shirt from previous posts).
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