“I still think of New York City as a powerhouse of a place in which human energy, imagination, and spirit are nourished.”
—Philip Glass, Words Without Music
Since I was 19-years-old and visited for the first time — a whole week! paid for! — NYC has been one of my favorite places in the world. (How could it not be?) One day I hope to have a whole week there again, but recently I’ve made quick, two-day trips: fly in one the morning, stay over, fly out the next night.
Never a resident, always a vampire. Flying in, sucking up the energy, then flying back out. But these quick trips kick up the bloodsucking a notch. (Last time was a visit to my publisher and photo shoot, this time a last-minute corporate offsite gig.)
“There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.”
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
On these quick trips, I like to let wherever I’m staying dictate where I go. This time I was staying near Wall Street, so I walked six miles, down to Battery Park for the sunset, then up the esplanade, then east to McNally Jackson to book shop, and finally back down through Chinatown while eating a heavenly strawberry ice cream cone that cost me $6 but tasted like $60.
My gig was on the lower east side, so I got to walk over to Katz’s and Russ & Daughters for the first time and load up on bagels and deli for the plane home. (My bags are stuffed and they smell heavenly.)
There’s still a little bit of funk around there, so I got to take a stroll before and after. Vampiring it up until next time. Now it’s time to board the plane for home.
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.
From the sketchbook of Adrian Tomine:
I went out to dinner with my wife at a sushi place in Brooklyn. Right as we were seated at our table, the couple at the adjacent table begins the following exchange:
WOMAN: So, did you read that book I gave you?
MAN: Which one?
WOMAN: The comic. Summer Blonde.
MAN: Oh, yeah. I hated it.
My wife and I locked eyes, like we couldn’t believe this was really happening. We sat there in silence, fakely looking through our menus while the guy proceeded to just eviscerate me in way that was not only cruel but also quite insightful and intelligent. The woman started to get kind of defensive, and she said, “Well, I don’t know. I thought the stories had kind of a nice poetic touch to them.” And that just set the guy off even further. He starts ranting, “No, no…you see? You’re falling for his bullshit! It’s not poetic! It’s like…he’s trying to seem poetic without really saying anything at all!”
I was absolutely paralyzed, and my wife couldn’t take it anymore. She asked the waitress to move us to another seat. They moved us to the sushi bar, but even from there, we could still hear snippets of the guy’s tirade. In particular, I remember hearing him say, “Oh, you must be joking. That was absolutely the worst story in the whole book!” When the couple finished their dinner and got up to leave, my wife started rising from her seat, apparently to give the guy “a piece of her mind.” I had to beg and plead and eventually physically restrain her from saying anything to him. The timing and coincidence of it all seems too implausible to believe, but I swear it’s true, and as far as I know, not some kind of elaborate prank.
Hysterical. Here’s another interview with The Believer.