Alexander Chee | Longreads | October 2018 | 10 minutes (2,448 words)
My first move to New York begins at the back of a Queer Nation meeting in San Francisco in 1991, with a man visiting from New York with his boyfriend who tried to pick me up. I turned him down as a way of flirting only with him. He seemed at a loss as to what to say next, and so I said, When can I get you alone?
We stood at the back of that meeting for some time, not quite willing to walk away. We hadn’t known each other long but the attraction we felt that would end up tearing up our lives and remaking them was already in charge. We exchanged addresses, deciding to be pen pals, then wrote each other letters for months. We met up again at a writers conference, then wrote more letters. He broke up with his boyfriend and got an apartment by himself. The answer to my original question then seemed to be, Seven months from now, in New York. And so I put my things in San Francisco up for sale and boarded a bus for New York that summer, with a copy of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess as reading material, and my best friend, who we’ll call S.
S and I dressed more or less alike for the trip, as we had for much of our friendship. If memory serves, we were both reading the same book. We made White Goddess jokes the whole way. We wore jean cutoffs, combat boots, and sleeveless hoodies, and sat in seats next to each other, emerging from the bus for smoke breaks. Our aesthetic then was modeled mostly on the comic Tank Girl and what we could remember of issues of The Face, and I had recently shaved my own head after a long night in Oakland that served as something of a private goodbye to San Francisco. S was coming with me a little in the way of a best man or a bridesmaid, as if I were getting married. I wasn’t used to getting what I wanted from love, and survived through intense friendships instead. We had been inseparable best friends since meeting, writing in coffee shops and stalking used bookstores for books by Joy Williams, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, Andrea Dworkin, Marilyn Hacker, and, yes, Joan Didion, and so while he joked he wanted to make sure of me, and I wanted him to — I didn’t trust myself — we were also, I think, preparing for being without each other on a daily basis.
The Graves book interested me because he is the author of the original Goodbye to All That, a memoir of his experiences during the First World War, a book perhaps as famous now for being the source for the title of the essay Joan Didion wrote about leaving New York. I had read the Didion essay, had imagined being her there, or being the friend the people owed at a party, or having been so impractical as to have my sheets blowing in the wind outside my window, and it was easy to imagine her past as my future, the essay a guide to being not just a writer but a doomed writer in New York, because I couldn’t imagine what it could be like on my own. The essay may have been her way of saying goodbye to the city, but I used it almost like a map, and in any case, she had since moved back to New York.
I put my things in San Francisco up for sale and boarded a bus for New York that summer, with a copy of Robert Graves’s ‘The White Goddess’ as reading material, and my best friend, who we’ll call S.
It didn’t make sense to me that Graves could be the author of that book and also be the author of this one, but I was young and had a narrower idea of intellectual production then. I was still in the process of meeting Graves, in any case. I was also something of a lapsed witch, trying to feel my way into the future and writing. New York to me was a place I remembered mostly from college, when I had gone there on weekends to test my looks on the men of the city. This book was my talisman for the ride, and as I passed through the country in the belly of the bus on my way to my love, I read about how all literature is only great if it focuses on stories of the Goddess — and the thoughts this provoked were good company for a cross-country trip.
As I’d made my way across the country, I felt like the last letter in the correspondence I’d had with my boyfriend, sending myself in person at last.
As I write this, I can see that most if not all of my closest friendships have at least a single book at their root. I don’t know how much I understood of The White Goddess after I arrived, but perhaps my first apartment was a blessing from her, delivered through my friend Eliza, who found it for us in Williamsburg. We had met over our shared love for The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson, and would quote a line from it to each other at times — What you risk is what you value — to dare each other to do things, like this cross-country move. I’d written letters with her also — I was a big correspondent then — and she’d read them to a friend of hers, who in turn had even used the discussion of the novel as information for a seduction. He’d come into the bookstore where I worked and asked me to help him find it. I’d even written the same line to my boyfriend. And so for a few months of my life, Eliza, and to some extent Jeanette through her, felt like like my lucky charm, with life and with men.
Our two-bedroom on Berry between South Fourth and South Fifth was almost under the Williamsburg Bridge, and we paid $400 a month — which we split. I don’t remember it much, as I lived there for maybe five months. It quickly became the place I got my mail, which the postal carrier delivered in a pile on the floor, as there were no mailboxes for anyone in the building. I had a futon mattress on the floor, and my clothes stacked in the closet, if a pile is also a stack. Throughout my 20s, I would stick postcards I liked to the wall, something I now think of as being like a premonition of the internet. The first thing I did upon arrival was clean off a layer of soot on the windowsill, but the next morning I discovered the layer of soot renewed, if lightly, and cleaned it again. It fell constantly, coming off the cars on the bridge like a soft black rain.
When I explored the neighborhood, I found the blocks almost like little countries all their own, a patchwork of tiny states with residents who’d been there for a long time, and the markets often told you where they came from: Italy, Poland, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico. I remember buying a container of prune juice, and, not knowing what it was for, drinking the whole bottle, talking about how delicious it was, then spending the afternoon on the toilet. I got a coffee at a Dominican deli that felt stronger than cocaine.
My boyfriend was in the East Village, in an apartment he shared with a friend off of Tompkins Square Park. Taxis wouldn’t go there, driving off as soon as they heard the address, and so I learned the state of surrender to the regular neglect that was the L train then, in some ways another premonition of the future.
On my first night, I lay awake fearing the cracking sounds I heard intermittently were gunshots, but at some point my boyfriend told me they were only the metal sheets on the bridge, laid over the holes in the roadway, snapping each time they were hit. Looking back, it seems to me that learning this was when I felt at last like I might learn how to be in this city.
New York City to me then was a paradise. From the queer punk loft squat in Williamsburg down the street from us, to the nightclubs open past dawn, to the drag queens dancing on bars in wigs lit by Christmas lights, to the Greek diners open 24 hours, to drinking the bodega coffee so sweet it made your teeth hurt. Most important to me were the old bookstores and magazine shops where I could linger for hours, read something I had never seen before and might never see again, and it would change me, and I was glad.
New York had felt like a misplaced destiny to me for years. A place I should be in but wasn’t. In college friends would ask me, “Did you go to Bronx Science or Stuyvesant?” and would then be surprised I was from Maine. At the time, this was yet another misidentification of me amid so many, and as such, easy to write off. One of my best friends then, who loved the way I danced, often said, “People don’t dance like that in Maine.” And she would laugh, arguing that this was proof I wasn’t really from there.
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But I was from there. I even felt a bit of pride saying so, even as I knew I had always prepared to be from somewhere else, and had even at times allowed people to think I was. From the first days I watched Solid Gold as a child and practiced the dance moves I saw there like it was a language to learn before traveling to Planet Disco, which of course meant New York, I had dreamed of being there. On the nights I spent at the club in Portland, Maine, where my house music DJ boyfriend would play for me while I danced on the speaker by the booth, it was all a rehearsal for the nights I went to the Palladium, or Area, or Danceteria, or Save the Robots. For reasons I no longer question, I didn’t want to look like a hick on the dance floor.
In New York, the world felt more like what I thought it should be. I met the mix of people from all over the world that made sense to me. San Francisco had been something like a queer finishing school and a war, and I’m still friends with the friends I made there. But I’ll never forget the way I felt on the night when a beautiful bald Black queen came into the East Village gay bar where I was working and introduced himself: “I’m Kevin Aviance, House of Aviance, and I’ve come to New York City to take over.” I was just a barback, but I accepted the greeting as it was intended: the announcement of the most beautiful invasion.
And take over was exactly what Kevin Aviance did.
This is why you came to live in New York, I told myself. To see legends. And it was mostly true. After a year, to my surprise, I moved away.
As I packed, I knew a lot had happened, and it felt like too much and not enough. One of the most consequential things that happened to me that year was that I had caught a case of Hepatitis A that was going around the city, as the expression went. I had not been feeling well, but when it felt as if my liver was going to come out through my rib cage and I turned yellow, I took myself to Woodhull Hospital, where the nurse checking me in said, “You’re a junkie,” without examining me, and I waited for hours for a bed and a doctor. I spent the weekend in a room with a smear of blood on the wall from some previous patient, never cleaned up and never explained. Afterward I first went back to the apartment, where I was unable to take care of myself, then back to my mother’s home in Maine for three weeks to recover. I had never had a health crisis like this, and it shook me to be so weak. I took beach walks with my mother, who had to hold my arm to steady me, and felt in each one of them a preview of old age and death, unwelcome and terrifying. I was haunted also by something my brother had said to me in the hospital. He was the first one there, coming up from his school in Philly, and was shocked to get there before my boyfriend. “He’s afraid of hospitals,” I said.
When I was strong enough to get in a car and drive back to New York, I had the feeling of returning to the scene of a mistake.
“He’s not strong enough for you,” he said.
It was a blunt judgement, delivered without really having met him.The kind perhaps only family can deliver. But it was what I feared was true, and time would prove him right. When I was strong enough to get in a car and drive back to New York, I had the feeling of returning to the scene of a mistake.
I set two goals for myself: to get a magazine job and to get into graduate school on a fellowship. I moved out of Williamsburg, away from the soot, and into a friend’s spare bedroom in an apartment in Fort Greene. He was a painter who at the time was making work with his own blood and sperm. He’d pick men up in the park and bring them by the kitchen, where I’d be writing on my typewriter, introducing them each time by name as if I would ever see them again, and each time I would nod and act as if I would see them again also, like in a Noh play about cruising for sex.
I was shocked when I accomplished my two goals: After two months, I was hired at Out magazine as an assistant editor. Three months after that, having used the stories I’d typed up in that kitchen to apply to MFA programs, I got in to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, with a fellowship. I was so ready to fail, it was almost a crisis to get what I wanted and then choose.
The feeling of a mistake receded and instead it felt as if somehow New York had made it all possible. As I drove away to Iowa, I knew I’d be back. This was just me stepping away to do something that had begun here. A feeling I would have for the rest of my life.
Alexander Chee is most recently the author of the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.
Editor: Sari Botton
Excerpted and adapted from “New York Three Times,” by Alexander Chee, originally published in Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on their Unshakable Love for New York, edited by Sari Botton.