By David Rakoff
My mother’s purse was stolen about an hour before my parents left me in New York to start my freshman year of college. She noticed it missing from the back of her café chair just as we were finishing up our lunch at an outdoor table at a long-disappeared Italian place at 111th and Broadway. The handbag had probably been gone for a while, but like cartoon characters who wander off cliffs but only fall once they realize they have done so, I felt the solid ground disappear from under my feet and my life in New York begin.
Truthfully, I found the theft thrilling, even as it sharpened whatever anxiety my folks must have been feeling. The robbery conferred a modicum of street cred with zero injury, and I needed all the help I could get. I was a sophisticated sissy, having grown up near the center of Toronto, a cosmopolitan city of 3 million people. But displaying cultural literacy and knowing the difference between shit and Shinola are two distinctly separate realms. Being able to quote entire scenes of The Philadelphia Story from memory or paint a good facsimile of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (large, on my dorm-room wall) won’t do you a bit of good in the real world. At 17, I knew nothing, and I looked it. A whelp of barely five and a half feet, I was markedly shorter and less developed than the boys I saw unloading boxes and suitcases. Compared to most of them, I was a tentatively pubescent cherub, encased in puppy fat with a face open to experience that seemed to beg: Please hurt me.
I looked at the purse-snatching as an early and painless inoculation from violence, no small matter in the city back when the prospect was still real enough. New York in 1982 was only beginning to shake off the traces of its ford to city: drop dead near bankruptcy. Infrastructure was still crumbling, the subways were still covered in graffiti. The term yuppie would not be commonplace for another few years (and it would be at least that amount of time before the city opened its first Banana Republic or Cajun restaurant to clothe and feed them). Coffee still meant a paper cupful from Chock Full O’Nuts. There was a remaining franchise at 116th Street and Broadway, probably unchanged since 1961, still boasting its undulating lunch counter in buttercream Formica, while one block down, a warning shot across the caffeinated bow of the neighborhood, was a doomed black-lacquer establishment with the almost parodically striving name Crêpes and Cappuccino. The owners had wrapped the sickly tree out front in bright-blue fairy lights, which illuminated the empty interior in a dejected glow. It lasted less than a year. The colossus towering over this particular moment shuddering between decadence and recovery was not Bartholdi’s Lady Liberty but the first of Calvin Klein’s bronzed gods, high above Times Square. Leaning back, eyes closed, in his blinding white underpants against a sinuous form in similarly white Aegean plaster, his gargantuan, sleeping, groinful beauty was simultaneously Olympian and intimate, awesome and comforting. Here was the city in briefs: uncaring, cruelly beautiful, and out of reach.
Not all of New York’s loveliness was stratospheric and unattainable, but at street level it was mixed in with the threat of harm, which was ever present, if in a somewhat exaggerated and highly prized form. We had been warned that the neighborhood around the university could turn dodgy in a matter of footsteps, but there was a certain pride in having dipped one’s toe into its scary waters. Morningside Park, for example: Not since the age of medieval maps—wherein the world simply ends, beyond which all is monster-filled roil—has a region been so terrifyingly uncharted and freighted with peril as Morningside Park in the early eighties. To venture in was to die, plain and simple. There were other terrifying rumors abounding, like the one about the boy in the hideous Gwathmey Siegel–designed dormitory who narrowly avoided the bullet that came through his window and lodged itself in the plaster above his head. The shot had come from—where else?—Morningside Park. Another boy, walking back to his room on upper Broadway one drizzling evening, had had his wallet demanded. He handed it over, and for his compliance had his teeth knocked out with the hard metal barrel of a gun. The boy-who-was-pistol-whipped-in-the-rain grabbed us with all the cheap poetry and tamped bathos of a Tom Waits song. It was doubly satisfying to me, since whenever he came up in conversation, I could say, “Tell me about it. I was robbed my first day here.”
Mere days into the school year, my floor counselor, an elder statesman in his senior year, knocked on my door and gave me a stapled Xerox of the Joan Didion essay “Goodbye to All That.” The flattery of being singled out for such a gift is what made me read it immediately, with little comprehension. “All I could do during those [first] three days was talk long-distance to the boy I already knew I would never marry in the spring. I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.” I was immune to the humor or irony in this passage. What I took away from it was the hope—as unlikely as sprouting wings, it seemed to me back then—that I might one day be as old as 20, or have logged eight years here, to acquire that youth-viewed-at-a-distance weariness, to be able to rattle off the names of the city’s lesser-known bridges.
It was what I took away from most every encounter: an almost obliterating desire to “pass” as a New Yorker, to authentically resemble one of the denizens of the movie Manhattan. More than the Deco penthouse aeries of characters in old musicals, more than the moral elasticity and heartless grit of backstage Broadway in All That Jazz, perhaps on par with the gin-swilling savagery of All About Eve, it was the city as embodied in Manhattan I ached for. The high-strung friends with terrible problems, the casual infidelities, the rarefied bohemianism—ERA fund-raisers in the garden at MoMA, gallery-hopping followed by filling one’s simple grocery list at Dean & DeLuca.
There was no one specific moment when the rigorous self-consciousness gave way to authenticity. It was more of a dim realization that the very act of playing the “Are we a New Yorker yet?” game means you aren’t one yet. But it eventually happens, dawning on you after the fact, tapping you on the shoulder after you’ve passed it. It comes from an accretion of shitty jobs, deeply felt friendships that last, deeply felt friendships that end, funerals, marriages, divorces, births, and betrayals, and you wake up one day to realize that you passed the eight-year mark decades prior; that you are older than all of the characters in Manhattan, with the possible exception of Bella Abzug; that you have been to a party in the garden at MoMA and watched the sun come up over Sutton Place and the 59th Street Bridge and decided that, in the end, you’d rather stay home; that only a rich moron would buy his groceries at Dean & DeLuca; and that, as fun and Margo Channing as it might seem to be drunk and witty and cutting, it’s probably better in the long run to be kind. These are all realizations endemic to aging anywhere, I am sure. It must happen in other cities, but I’ve really only ever been a grown-up here.
As for my mother’s pocketbook, it was found later that evening, emptied of valuables and abandoned in a building lobby in Morningside Heights. Some Good Samaritan had gone through her phone book and found the number of a New York friend, who eventually tracked me down in my dorm room. It made the city seem like a shtetl, a fact that after the better part of three decades I realize is more true than not.