On living in, and having loved, New York

I lived and worked in New York from 2007 to 2008. My girlfriend at the time had gotten a job in Manhattan as an Executive Assistant and I was working and losing my mind a bit in Burlington, Vermont. I responded to exactly one job posting on Craigslist. It was for an unpaid internship at a magazine I knew nothing about. I received a response in minutes. By coincidence, the contact was my editor at the USM student newspaper and I had the job. A friend in the city got me a job as a barista at a cafe in Brooklyn. I moved immediately.

The office of Trace Magazine was in NOHO—North of Houston Street—the artistic and cultural significance of which I wouldn’t fully grasp until a number of years later. This was the midst of the gentrification that transformed the neighborhoods into spots where the monthly rent for a one bedroom loft is about $1,000 more than what my wife and I pay in property tax for our house and five acres of land in Western Maine.

Earlier this summer, the Times wrote of the neighborhood’s so-called Cinderella Moment:

Brent Buell, a producer and director of films and theater and a novelist, rented one of the lofts reserved for artists in 1977. (A zoning law requires city certification for artists before they can move into certain lofts.) “Our friends were afraid to visit,” said Mr. Buell, whose wife, Janice Cline, teaches at the City University of New York. During the crack epidemic of the 1980s, he said, “you had to find a mounted policeman to part the crowds so you could get home. And next thing you know, you see people arriving in Rolls-Royces and Escalades.” The shift started in the late ’90s, he said, but has not erased the “neighborhood feeling” he values.

It wasn’t until I was watching Basquiat with our daughter earlier this year that I realized I recognized the neighborhoods as the ones I worked in—the artist died nearly 20 years prior in his studio a few doors down from the magazine I would come to work at. I have since acquired a number of issues of Interview Magazine from the mid-80s and it’s almost unbelievable to read about what that time and place was like.

I spent 7 or 8 hours a day writing blog posts, answering phones, and letting people into the building. Trace was essentially a global urban culture magazine and featured artists and personalities like Spike Lee, Zoe Kravitz, and Alicia Keys. I was a white kid from Cornish, Maine and had zero authority to be working for them, but felt fortunate to be adopted by that family for a while. They valued art and music and let me write about whatever I wanted to write about, which was punk and nostalgia for Pop Art, mainly. The founder, Claude Grunitzky, was enthusiastic about everything the magazine covered and encouraged us to be the same way.

All the while, it felt like the floor was falling out from under us. The economy was crashing. People were evoking memories of Black Monday. The days of print felt numbered. The vibe was ominous and so, as I handled many a conflict and confrontation in my mid-20s, I pretended like it didn’t exist.

Living in the city was never anything I imagined doing as a kid. To be honest, I don’t know how much I realized it existed. Like a lot of things I knew about as a kid, I wasn’t even sure it was a real place separate from what I had seen in movies and read in some books. I finally visited when I was 16 or 17—my girlfriend’s mother and stepfather went to see a Yankee’s game—Yankees versus the Sox. And I cheered for the Rex Sox because my family was from Boston and the guy behind me punched me in the back of the head and then, with a smirk, pretended it was an accident. Even then it felt out of reach. New York only became real to me after it was briefly taken to its knees a few years later.

I had been, however, convinced that San Francisco was a real place stuffed with weirdos and it was with the weirdos I wanted to be. It’s where the New York weirdos went when they retreated from the city in the 50s, the ones I’d read about who wrote poems and took drugs and listened to Jazz. I didn’t really take drugs, but I liked the idea of poetry and jazz and I thought that maybe I’d feel more at home with them if they were, in fact, still there. When I was 19 I bought a plane ticket and made plans to sell my car for $2,000. The day before I was supposed to go, the guy who was supposed to buy it pulled out of the deal and so I went out there without any money. I think I had $50 in cash.

Upon my arrival, I walked around the airport for an hour wondering what I was going to do. I passed Tom Waits, who was standing in line for a flight. I inconspicuously but probably very conspicuously made another lap to get look at him. He noticed. I did it again and he smiled like, “Yes, we both know who I am” and I smiled back and then got on a bus to the city. I rode for a while. Not yet aware of how this would ended up, I ended up at a Walgreens and, hungry, stared at a Snickers Bar. “Why wait? I thought, and I put it in my pocket and left. I’d need to make the little cash I’d had last. After leaving, though, I figured this wasn’t a particularly sustainable plan. I don’t have much outlaw in my blood. I headed back to the airport, ate the Snickers, and somehow convinced the woman at the gate to give me a ticket back home.

The trip lasted no more than half a day.

5 years later, the trip to New York lasted a year longer. While I worked in NOHO, I lived for part of the stay in Clinton Hill, and another part in Williamsburg. Between walking miles between blocks and subway stations every day, having almost no money, and being told by a co-worker to stop eating full fat yogurt because “it’s basically like having a cheese burger for breakfast,” I lost 10 pounds in my first week there.

Everyone back in Maine asked what living in the city was like, many I imagine assuming—as perhaps I had subconsciously—that it was like a Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese, or Spike Lee movie. I spend most of my time on the subway, I’d explain, traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

I am an unpaid Intern at a job I enjoy, a low-paid writer for an electronic music magazine I barely care about, and I serve coffee and booze at a cafe-by-day, pseudo dance club by night over by Pratt.

On some nights, DJs show up and the owners, this perpetually-on-the-rocks gay couple, fill the place with their friends and dance all night. We serve spiked cider. Nearly everybody exuded happiness. A few of the methed up dancers fill their sugar demands by buying 5 of our giant cookies at a time.

After 4PM we serve our selves bourbon-spiked cider and work half drunk.

A beautiful Haitian man who came here by way of Pennsylvania cuts my hair in his apartment upstairs from the cafe.

Jimmy Thompson, formerly Hans Orifice of the band GWAR, also lives upstairs and sort of dresses like the Fonz. He is an unbelievably nice guy. Once he was mugged by a gang of guys who stood on all sides of the taxi he was in—they beat out all of the windows, pulled him out of the cab, and took his money. He has since left the shock metal business and became a DJ.

I have become friendly with a book editor who has introduced me to the News Editor of Time.

The other morning, a woman ordered her coffee and apologized for her boyfriend, who was pacing and speaking tersely into his cell phone. “Max started GOOD Magazine. You know GOOD? They had a fundraiser last night and the bag of checks has gone missing.”

These are the things I saw.

In retrospect, I would see that I spent a lot of time nurturing an anemic, co-dependent relationship, and that most of the friends I made upon my arrival had, over the course of the year, become boring and despondent after forming relationships with heroin, which felt at that time like it was everywhere.

I would move in 2008 and make my way to Massachusetts to be closer to my father, who has spend the last decade and a half of his life convinced he was close to death. He had convinced me of the same. By that time he really was sick and would die a year later. I had spent every day after leaving Maine post-college feeling guilty for leaving him to die alone, which led to my inability to plant both feet wherever I ended up. I would eventually move back to Maine to take care of him before he died. While I love Maine, and have always seen myself in it long term, it was this—another codependent relationship—that led me out of the city earlier than I’d hoped.

Though every one of my memories there feels like half of an incomplete whole, I remain ambivalent about becoming nostalgic for that time. While brief, the time I did spend in the city, and the people I spent it with, informed every one of my sensibilities for the better and made me realize possibilities—particularly those artistic and professional—that were nonexistent to me before I learned of them. Perhaps things did not go to plan, did not carry though as I had hoped, but for what I ultimately had the luxury of becoming exposed to I am grateful.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.