7 Books About Being Young and Messy in New York
From crying on the subway to Montauk summers, Greg Mania recommends books about coming of age in the city
My memoir is not unique. But only in the sense that my story unfolds with New York City as the backdrop, where so many other stories have unfolded and will continue to unfold long after I’m gone. That’s the beauty of this multilayered city: it unravels you, and no one’s unraveling is alike. Yes, there are common denominators: exorbitantly priced breakfast sandwiches, not batting an eyelash when Jessica Lange is dining one table over, crying on the subway—but all of these elements leave a different imprint on a person.
I was lucky enough to experience NYC nightlife in the early 2010s, the tail-end of an era that I was fortunate enough—with the help of a fake ID—to experience. Don Hill’s was still around. You could catch a show at Trash Bar. You could grab a nightcap at St. Jerome, where my nightlife friends-turned-family spent many-a-night. I go-go danced at Nurse Bettie, a burlesque joint a few blocks over on Norfolk Street, for a few months during the spring of 2013. I’ve bumped into Debbie Harry at a party. I’ve spilled a drink on Lady Gaga (sorry, girl!). I could still wander into Trash & Vaudeville and get a hug from Jimmy Webb.
After graduating from Hofstra—which is only forty minutes east of Manhattan—I made the move to NYC a year later, in 2014. Nightlife faded into the background while I worked on my master’s at The New School, interned at various online and print magazines, and tried to carve a space for myself as a writer.
Below are seven books that helped me carve that space.
Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse by Alida Nugent
My first apartment was in East Harlem. I’d take long walks to the Barnes & Noble on 86th Street and sit my broke ass down to read whole books from the humor section. Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse was one of those books. Like Nugent, I, too, was a 20-something college graduate navigating adulthood with the same finesse I would possess at pole vault. Did the employees at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble start to recognize me and cast looks of pity in my direction? Yes. But it was worth it, because this book made a confusing time in my life a little less lonely.
Intimacy Idiot by Isaac Oliver
My pursuit of love and intimacy in NYC was, more times than not, misguided at best. Crying in a subway stairwell at four in the morning with a sad hashbrown in my hand at worst. I am approaching three years of being in a loving and healthy relationship somehow (witchcraft), but before I met my current partner, every relationship (which, by the way, is a generous term) I was in crashed and burned. No one gets it more than Oliver, who is able to articulate the ups and downs of emotional turbulence in a city notorious for its dating woes with heart and humor. I slept with this book by my side in between each terrible dude I boned.
The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead
If you could describe a book as a love song to the city that never sleeps/charges no less than $14.99 for a salad bowl the size of your fist, The Colossus of New York is that book. Few are able to capture the frenetic nature of this multifarious city with lyrical mediation and keen observation, forming an impenetrable bond between city natives and longtime dwellers. Every sentence from Whitehead’s fingertips is a full sensory experience. Swoon!
M Train by Patti Smith
Just Kids is the Gideon Bible of coming-of-age in NYC memoirs, but M Train, to me, is a beautiful testament to the ordinary, a place we always return to. In Smith’s case, it’s that one tiny corner table in the West Village where she penned most of this book. Even though this book is woven with collections of her travel abroad, it is, at the end of the day, an ode to a first love.
Out East by John Glynn
This is a question for any writer: do you ever read a sentence that is so good that you want to throw all of your possessions into the sea and start anew somewhere far away? Because that is every third sentence in this book. JOHN GLYNN HOW DARE YOU. Glynn has this uncanny ability to capture that feeling of your heart and mind being trapped in a viscous dipping sauce, unable to strike a balance, while everyone around you seems to have their shit together. It celebrates the complexities of queerness beyond crossing the threshold from private into public, all to the tune of one Montauk summer. This book is my jam.
Face It by Debbie Harry
I mean, is anyone more New York than Deborah THEE Harry? My love for Debbie Harry contains multitudes beyond being a Blondie superfan. Like yours truly, she also grew up in New Jersey, and she tells a lot of stories about getting in her car and driving to the city at night to hang out with her friends in the Lower East Side, which is literally what my life looked like after I graduated from Hofstra and moved back in with my parents for a year. Face It also captures the Golden Age of New York City, when you could stroll into a bar and bump into a Ramone, see bands like Television perform on a random weeknight, and/or share a cigarette with a Warhol superstar. Also, this book is extra special to me because if you had told 18-year-old Greg that he would one day interview Debbie Harry, he would have hurled a box of Clairol frosted tips at you.
Do You Mind If I Cancel? by Gary Janetti
My heart will always beat for a fellow Hofstra alum. Yes, he’s the writer and producer of some of the most iconic television comedies of our time, but Janetti’s catalog of his twenties in New York—from trying to find a job before the internet to working at a hotel with an ornery bellman to a tale of soap opera addiction, all wrapped in a bow made from the finest observational humor—is a puzzle piece of universal fit. Also, please note that Lisa Rinna’s blurb for this book is just, “Gary.” Engrave that on my tombstone, please.