Note: this is an edited version of a sappy talk I gave at the Columbia University bookstore last week.
I know I’m probably supposed to read something from the book, but this is the very first stop on my book tour, the first book tour I’ve ever been on, and to be honest, I’m already a little sick of the book. (My publicist is back there somewhere cringing.)
Instead, I’d like to read you something I wrote on the plane yesterday and last night at the Red Flame diner on West 44th Street. It’s a short story about New York. (I know everybody has a New York story, but just bear with me.)
Almost exactly 9 years ago I was a sophomore in college at this place called Miami University in Ohio. Miami, as in the American Indian tribe — “we were a university before Florida was a state!” (My life is full of weird naming justifications — I’m a guy named Austin from Ohio who lives in Austin, so I have to constantly say the same, “Austin was a family name before *Texas* was a state!”)
Anyways, I’d heard through some sort of campus communication that the Fine Arts School ran this special “Leadership in The Arts” program during spring break where you could apply to go on this fully-paid week-long trip to New York City and meet Miami alumni who were working in the arts. (The program was run by Pamela Fox, now the president of Mary Baldwin College.)
New York City. Nothing could be more exciting to me. See, I grew up in the middle of a cornfield in southern Ohio, and when I was young all I wanted to do was get the hell out of Ohio and go somewhere where something was happening.
New York, for me, was all that was Happening.
That’s where Allen Ginsberg lived! That’s where Taxi Driver was filmed! That’s where the Velvet Underground and The Ramones wrote all their great music!
To me, getting to visit New York for a week was better than Disneyland: It was like going to the motherland. The big city!
It sounds corny and cliched, but it’s really true.
I wasn’t a student in the fine arts department, but I’d taken a few drawing courses and the program was open to all majors, so I threw my name in the hat with an essay. Well, what do you know, my application for the trip was accepted, and spring break of 2003, I got on a plane with a bunch of my classmates and we flew into LaGuardia.
We were here for a week — every day we met a different alumnus, sometimes several. The itinerary, looking back on it, was insane: Yo-Yo Ma with the Philharmonic, walking the Brooklyn Bridge, dinner in Chinatown, jazz at the Blue Note, Grand Central, the Frick, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle at the Guggenheim, The Producers on Broadway, La Traviata at the Met, a tour of the Ailvin Ailey School, my first soul food at Silvia’s in Harlem, Picasso at the MOMA…
At some point, we ended up in Jerry Seinfeld’s building on the upper west side, drinking tea and eating cucumber sandwiches at Ted and Betsy Rogers‘ place. Ted was the very generous alumni who I believe arranged most of the trip — so generous, in fact, that when I mentioned I was studying the classics, he took me upstairs and showed me his incredible library lined with books, overlooking Central Park.
And yes, at some point I made my way to Columbia, and I thought it was the perfect campus, and I bought a t-shirt in the bookstore and told myself I would go to grad school here. (I never made it to grad school, but that’s another story…)
Does this sound a little Cinderella to you? A little too perfect? Because it kind of was…
You see, I loved art, but I never thought an artist was something I could be. I didn’t know any artists, I didnt grow up around any artists. I had it in my head that artists didn’t come from little places like Circleville, Ohio, and they certainly didn’t go to *my* college.
That spring break trip changed all that. Suddenly I met people who’d been me, people who were far away from home, who were leading the kind of life that I wanted. Now, most of these alumni we met were relatively unknown, but damn it, they were artists! They lived in New York City!
I’m telling you all this because when I got back from that trip, I knew what I wanted to be: I wanted to be an artist. Before, there was no chance of that happening. It was unfathomable to me. Now, it seemed like it was at least an option.
So I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to live some kind of creative life, but I had no idea how to do it.
And that’s where this little book comes in. Quite simply, it’s a list of 10 things I wish I knew right after that New York trip. I wrote it so that I could stick it in a time capsule and send it back to the 19-year-old me, the 19-year-old me who knew it was possible to become what he wanted to be, but wasn’t quite sure how.
Anyways, I really really like this town. We’re all lucky to be here.
Thanks for having me.