‘If you want to come and visit me in New York’, she said, ‘you better do it quick’. That was all I needed to hear. I spent the rest of summer 1996 painting the walls of my step brothers flat. I needed to raise enough cash to get myself to New York before said friend moved back to the UK. Too many years spent watching Desperately Seeking Susan & Ghostbusters. Not enough time spent seeing it in three dimensions.
That’s the thing about New York. You know it before you ‘know it’. Can I express how weird and simultaneously thrilling it was to sit in a real diner early that autumn and watch a proper NYPD cop park himself next to the counter and order a doughnut? This actually happened. It’s probably happening right now. New York is full of beautiful clichés and they’re clichés because you’ve experienced them a hundred times before, even if only on a TV screen.
It helped that I was staying in Little Italy. Whilst its bones were much the same then as they are now, the surface was different. There were no boutiques or fancy coffee shops adorning the cobbled streets of this local neighborhood. Just acres of tall silent buildings, dark jagged stair wells hanging from every vertical bricked surface. When I arrived on Prince and Elizabeth Street for the first time, jangled and dazed from the flight and phoned my host with a quarter (a quarter?? I really felt like I was hallucinating by this point, squeezing a ‘quarter’ into a real American phone box!), I fully expected to be extorted by a member of the mob, so ominous was the still, calm filmic perfection of Elizabeth Street back in the mid 1990’s.
I spent that week walking the streets of New York, observing Coney Island characters at the beach and hanging out at Buffa’s. Buffa’s was a diner and the diner is the quintessential American experience. The waitress was frosty on the first day, thawed on the second and our best friend by the end of the week. In fact, we had our pictures taken and made it onto the ‘customer of the week’ wall display. Buffa’s was a little bit dark and a little bit dingy. The tea came in paper cups and we loved it.
Scroll forward 17 years. It’s September 2013. Much has happened. I’m meandering down Prince Street, eyes cast towards the modern boutiques when inexplicably I am drawn to a blackboard sign which reads ‘Buffas’. Buffas? Buffa’s shut down centuries ago. There is no Buffas amongst the sleek hipster-esque sheen of modern day Prince Street. In its place is ‘Delicatessen’, a stylish, Shoreditch House-style hostelry.
I push open the door. ‘Is this what used to be Buffa’s? I ask the host. ‘Mr Buffa is right there’ she answers and he and I simultaneously time travel. It’s not like either of us recognizes each other per se. It’s more that we remind each other of something. To me, Mr Buffa is an emblem of my youth, the fresh hungry side of myself that was prepared to spend the summer tip-toeing on a ladder to get to where I wanted to go, across the Atlantic. To him, I am a flashback to an era that to all intents and purposes has gone. I’m talking about an un-gentrified piece of New York in a time when a diner was just a diner. ‘I had to get investors’, he almost apologizes. ‘I’m seventy. The area was changing’. An explanation that is not required of course. Needs must. I understand that. And what exists here now is undoubtedly beautiful with its timber clad walls and international clientele.
‘Come and meet the old crowd’ he says, seating me at the end of the polished wood counter with my fellow refugees from the past. These guys have lived in the area for years. They were all Buffa’s devotees and they don’t let a small change of interior decoration detract from the daily business of breakfast.
Before I know it, I’m drinking tea (earl grey and out of a china cup now) and whiling away time with Allan whose wife bought property in Prince Street back in the days when no one wanted to move into the area ‘I’m a rich man by accident’, Joe Black ‘everyone who lived here was Italian when I grew up asides from Bobby the Jew’, Jumbo and Mr Buffa who conducts a forensic investigation into the concept of AirB&B ‘I can’t believe you are not having a lock put on your bedroom door. How do you know they are not going to steal your stuff?’ (I have rented a room around the corner via AirB&B. Despite his concerns, my room-mates turn out to be neither thieves nor body snatchers). Much like my first visit to this city all those years ago, this trip co-incides with the San Gennaro Festival and later my new friends take me on a time travelling tour of the event. If I didn’t have to return to London, I would breakfast with these guys every single morning without fail.
Ironically, later that day and after a trip to the beach, I discover that I’ve either been extremely careless or somebody has relieved me of my iphone on the subway - with a days worth of new Coney Island characters recorded on it. This time on a digital phone camera that wasn’t even invented in 1996. I spend three hours with the NYPD, stressing all the while about finding a landline (who knew that those street pay phones have now disappeared. A fact you won’t have any use for until someone steals your mobile) with which to communicate to my service provider that they need to block my handset.
Dazed and blinking, I eventually emerge from the subway cop shop at 10pm and stand in the middle of East Houston Street, beer clutched in a paper bag (another cliché but its true. You can’t consume alcohol on the street so the bag does serve a purpose) as I wait to cross the intersection and drop back down into the dark familiar cosiness of Little Italy. The traffic is crawling.
‘Are you ok?’ a male voice asks from a huge SUV. I peer into the car expecting to see a man on the make. Surprise registers on my face. Across from him is seated a woman. He isn’t trying to pick me up. He really does want to know if I’m ok. ‘I’m ok’, I say. And ‘thank you’. I must look perplexed. ‘We care about you’ he says shrugging his shoulders as if by way of explanation. And I think he does. New York is full of stories waiting to be told.
Now I need to find a way with which to segue into this week’s story which, as you have probably guessed, has nothing to do with my introduction. Except perhaps that the passage of time is an interesting tool with which to reflect upon our journeys, to observe the ways in which we have changed between one significant life event and the next. Going to New York for the first time is not like losing one’s virginity but it was no less significant for me in terms of impact. In fact, here you go. Here is a book I found at the wonderful McNally Jackson Book Store on Prince Street: ‘My First New York’.
How about that? People, albeit famous ones, writing about their first encounters with the Big Apple. It’s an intriguing read. Mission accomplished. My work is done. I’ve nothing more to say except this. Everybody’s New York has a different heart. You can’t change its location once it’s set. Mine is in Little Italy.
Here is 'Zoe', today's story teller.
‘When I think of my virginity, I always come back to thinking about Dan, my first love. For me, it’s not so much the losing of the virginity that meant anything, it was the fact that I didn’t get to do it with the one I wanted it to be with.
Our relationship started on my 16th birthday, in a freezing tent, in a field with very drunken fumbling and admissions of mutual like. Sex had already become this big thing between us because we were both virgins and were anxious not to be. However, it was during this time that I learned that I wasn’t much bothered with my virgin status. I would stay a virgin unless I could lose it with him. Looking back, our relationship was the love-hate sort. Shrouded in teenage drama, it ended 6 weeks afterwards much to my heartbreak and disappointment, which mostly centred on the fact I didn’t get to fuck him.
Dan and I remained on and off until the following July. When we got together the second time, it was under the admission by him, that he had lost his virginity to someone else, someone he couldn’t remember. This hurt like hell and took some time to forgive even though we weren’t together when he did it. I think a little of my belief and faith in him chipped away after this admission. I think the power balance had also shifted. Suddenly, I felt pathetic. I was still a virgin, while he had just gone elsewhere and got rid of it. We stayed together this time for 2 and a half months and we still didn’t do it.
We did everything else, though I was inexperienced and scared out of my wits. I never felt pressured; I was just young and really infatuated with him. When he rang to break up, and I later found out he’d cheated on me with my best friend (the self-loathing and pain that followed this, has still not wholly been resolved now, 8 years later). One of the first things I felt, and said, as I begged him to reconsider (oh the shame!) was that I wouldn’t get to lose my virginity to him. This disappointment was one of the hardest to get over. We stayed in contact on and off for years but it was always marked by his rejection of my virginity and the fact he still made me crazy aroused that made it difficult to continue this contact. I still feel I’ll see him again and that our sexual future will be realised at some point but until then, I feel this disappointing not-loss of my virginity with him has shaped my romantic life.
I did lose my virginity to someone else but it was totally unremarkable because in my head I was gutted it wasn’t Dan. It was a guy I barely liked but stayed in a relationship with, trying to change, for 4 and a half years. It was also maddening how he was so impressed with himself that he was the only one I had slept with. I felt at a total disadvantage sexually which didn’t bode well for our relationship. Since our break up, sex has happened with mostly total strangers on one-night stands, which though I’m not ashamed of, I think it lost it’s value somewhere along the way. In order to get this value back, I’m now holding out for something better than drink-fuelled animal lust, though sometimes that can be fantastic.’