I’m going up north, I’m going up north this fall.
If my luck don’t change I won’t be back at all.
I’ve lived in New York (or right outside, in Hoboken) for twenty-one years now, which is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. It’s a fine city, and I had some good times, but for reasons you may have already deduced I will be leaving; in the fall, as the song says.
This is very sad for me, and I will miss you all. I’ll miss Midtown Comics, which made my fortune and found me a wife. I’ll miss my tea shops and the library system. I’ll miss not the crowds and not the nonstop rage but nevertheless the city.
The first week I was in New York I saw two people snorting coke on the stairs in the West 4th St. subway. “Well, I guess that’s the kind of thing you see in these parts all the time,” I thought, and I was wrong; it was a fluke. But I nevertheless heard and saw such dreadful things in my years here, and before I go I wanted to share some of my memories. If you’re only here to watch me make fun of memes, skip this entry.
Obviously the best times I had in New York that did not involve falling in love or reading books were just times spent hanging out with friends, gaming or making lists or wandering around. But that’s stuff you can do anywhere! This is a thoroughly arbitrary list, in rough chronological order, of my top ten only-in-New-York moments. (I’m focusing on art and culture so that no one gets the idea I actually do anything.)
1. For many years now I have worked in a comics warehouse, so it seems strange to look back and remember what a revelation my first visit to Koch’s warehouse in Brooklyn was. A friend of mine ordered a bunch of back issues online, and in lieu of paying shipping and handling he just went to pick them up, and I went along. Either this was before Koch was doing monthly sales or I just didn’t know about those for years after, but I was surprised to find that we got to wander around what seemed like a huge wonderland of comics. I picked up a bunch of Dirty Plotte back issues cheap (this post’s title is, of course, a shout out to these purchases), and the fellow there (Koch? does the man himself see supplicants?) gave me lots of Will Eisner-themed Kitchen Sink merch free just because I said I was a fan.
2. I was really confused in those days, and my memory is often blurry, but I remember trekking with a bunch of friends to a warehouse, possibly in Brooklyn, where people had cobbled together homemade flamethrowers and other incendiary devices. The whole place felt it like it was about to explode, literally explode in fiery death. I gave myself a 80% chance of surviving, and I did; the only disappointment was that when I left the rest of the world was not, or was but only metaphorically, a post-apocalyptic hellscape.
3. [Redacted. Forbidden lore.]
4. One time Evan “Milk and Cheese” Dorkin came to our science fiction club and just started ranting for hours about comic books. It was the single funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve been on safari. People would stagger out of the room laughing and sit out in the hallway, unable to go back in for fear of an overdose. Some of his off-the-cuff zings from that evening have “entered the lexicon” and still get referenced during D&D games. Dorkin got a speaking fee, which he deserved for his ~six hours of work, but he handed it right back and told us to donate it to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Pure class.
5. I was lucky enough to be a fan of Josh Ritter in the days when he played small acoustic shows in little clubs in SoHo. The shows were free—you just dropped something in the tip jar and carried an empty beer bottle around so the hosts would think you’d bought a drink—so I got to
go to a lot of them. At the time he only had one album’s worth of material, so I got to hear him try out and perfect, or reject, songs he would later release. The studio “Harrisburg” cannot match the blistering anguish of the early live performances, and concert favorite ca. 2001 “The Convention Song” has never ben recorded and is probably lost to time, and never will I hear it again.
The experience of following a performer’s live catalog so assiduously is perhaps the kind of thing (a groupie or a deadhead would tell me) you’re “supposed to” do with music you love, but I’ve never done it before or since. By the time his third album came out he had grown big enough to be an opening act for bigger bands, and it was getting more expensive to see him perform shorter sets. Soon he was off touring the world, and I’d be left with my CDs and the tour shirt someone dropped on the sidewalk outside after a show and my memories of the time I liked contemporary music.
6. I’ve seen art shows by artists I liked better (Blake, Burn-Jones, Mark Tansey) but I’ve never seen an art show as good as one small collection of Gil Elvgren pieces at a gallery I just wandered past while walking with friends. For the first time—it’s happened again and again since then, but this was the first time—I realized that conventional reproductions could not adequately mimic the experience of seeing art live (which is weird here because Elvgren’s is “just” pinup art, and it was certainly designed for reproduction). Blah blah brush strokes blah painterly and I know no one wants to hear me talk about art. But I tell you: If you’re a fan of Elvgren go see his work live and you will no joke see what you are missing.
7. Then there was this time when Eve “Jan Brady” Plumb spoke at an opening of her own art show (she’s an artist now), which featured film-noir-inspired paintings. Babs and I walked from that presentation right down the street, just in time to hear the Bushwick Book Club perform a series of amazing songs about Sherlock Holmes. By the time that was over it was late, so we hit a 24-hour diner for chicken and waffles. The whole evening went down in like a four-block radius, and even as it was happening I was aware of how unlikely this convenient convergence of delightful events was.
8. I once went to an academic lecture about Dolly Parton’s music. Partway through a drag Dolly impersonator broke in an gave an impromptu (obviously not actually impromptu) lip-synched concert. Then they handed out really good mix CDs of Dolly rarities, and everyone got treated to Southern food.
In the years since that night I got to see the real Dolly live in concert, and in may ways that was better. But it was not as New York.
9. Although I’m not really a theater person (I always complain about the cinematography), I’ve seen a bunch of pretty great and weird performances. The greatest of all, though, the single greatest play I’ve ever seen, was the two-nights-only performance of Yolo, Gilgamesh, a musical version of the ancient epic of anxiety. I saw it opening night and loved it so much I went back for the next, and final, performance. Whenever I begin to feel crushed by the meaninglessness of life, I remind myself that “Love Can Be Death-Defying Too.” Few works of art have been as persuasively life-affirming (perhaps Cruddy, Lizard Music, All the King’s Men, and Life among the Savages?) (obviously those are all books) as this one.
10. I love Kobayashi’s films so I’d always meant to watch The Human Condition, but sitting through a ten-hour long film about a man trying and failing to prevent atrocities just seemed like too much commitment, so I put it off. Then the Museum of the Moving Image had a special screening, split up over two days. An aged Tatsuya Nakadai, the main character from this fifty-year-old movie, came to speak and sat through the first third with us.
The movie started out good, but I was still considering leaving at the second intermission. By hour five or so, though, I was thoroughly hooked. The only way to watch this movie is to marathon it. The long slog lets the movie unwind gradually and novelistically but relentlessly, and the feeling of being trapped for hour after hour makes every moment of imprisonment you witness all the more harrowing. After two days of this I was ready to abandon all hope for the world (to be fair, I went in with a head start), but I knew I’d lived through one of the greatest film experiences of my lifetime.
And with that I was gone.