A girl named Tooth sits on a stoop, wistfully braiding her bangs. Twisting, twining, plaiting, tying. Then she undoes the rubber band fringe along her forehead and begins again. So it goes, this precise ritual of binding and unraveling staged on East 7th Street, where a beagle in a black crepe ruff vomits papyrus and a pair of Daffy’s jellybean underpants dangles higgledy-piggledy from Mister Fu Manchu’s fire escape. He is a German cabaret singer with a voice like a gravelly junkyard accordion, and I learned from him that when you find an eyelash on your pillowcase, by all means blow on it—pouf!—and make a wish, because it can be humbling and hard to exist here in the city.
There is evidence of struggle here and loneliness many times. But there is also redemption and mercy here, and lust on Coney Island. “The city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps . . . is always the city seen for the first time, in its wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world,” observed Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. ” ‘Anything can happen now,’ I thought, ‘Anything at all.’ ”
Always, for me, the premise of any local Back to School issue must be navigated by certain assumptions. For by dint of geography, if you have chosen to study at Brooklyn College, Baruch, CUNY, Columbia, Cooper Union, F.I.T., Fordham, Juilliard, NYU, the New School, Pace, Pratt, or Yeshiva, then more likely than not, you are unafraid, persevering, and curious; an ardent appreciator of idiosyncrasy and kaleidoscopes as authentic prisms for interpreting a worldview. Probably you are inclined to broaden your syllabus outside the orthodoxy of a classroom. Hopefully you intend to understand that velocity can be measured by watching a dropped Popsicle at Tompkins Square Park and why it is splendid to practice the tenets of functionalism by interning as a lipstick christener. All of the above, I regard as assumptions, rather than steadfast truths, because, fundamentally, going back to school is a subjective pursuit and because I was only clairvoyant for a brief period in the third grade as Neil Worley’s girlfriend.
Now, one morning, on Greene Street, I saw a man who looked as if he tended to clip his fingernails too short when they didn’t really need clipping in the first place. He was rumpled and pudgy and myopic, the type of virtuous priss to insist upon black nylon socks even during summer. Then I saw that this same man was pretending to barber his armpits, a banged-up can of shaving cream in his left hand and a rusty, feeble razor in the right. And I was reminded of how unforgiving and acutely uncensored a place New York City can be.
But it is also luminous and spooky and crumbling and gorgeous. Along Mulberry Street see the plastic Virgin Marys at Festa di San Gennaro. Lollygag whilst walking across the Brooklyn Bridge; steep in its myth and gospel, for it is Gothic and divine. Once upon a time, Carson McCullers said, “Comparing the Brooklyn that I know with Manhattan is like comparing a comfortable and complacent duenna to her more brilliant and neurotic sister.” I do not think this is true: Neither is weathered, neither is new. New York City is egg creams and stilettos, Talk of the Town and Joe Hug’s bodega. It is a glorious, tacky sanctuary where a lady with hair that is half-bouffant, half-birdcage wraps a pair of fishnets round her neck and orders scotch before noon. She must be fortified, she explains, tugging The Wapshot Chronicle from the abyss of her corduroy satchel. This is New York City.
In the pages that follow, our writers strive to illuminate what it means to be a student in New York City without the glossy varnish of having a rent-controlled apartment or a trust fund. Native son Andrew Aber inaugurates our Back to School honor roll with a tart insider’s take on scoring affordable housing in Next Big Thing neighborhoods. (Hint: $950 one-bedrooms and bravissimo Chinese restaurants like 86 Noodles sweeten the deal for a move to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.)
Carla “Par-tay” Spartos, the Voice‘s resident expert on bacchanalia and interior home design, reveals where to pick up accoutrements to transform an antiseptic dorm room into a genteel parlor of vice. The flushed and dewy Gwyneetha Paltrao profiles five rat fink species of New York men. And esteemed cad Johnny Maldoro educates straight men on the city’s most sexellent offerings and why Pommes Frites is an underrated prelude to coital bliss. Adrienne Day reports on where queer under-21 collegians can find “a gay ol’ time” amid vexing door politics, while a sleuthing Kathryn McGrath investigates the draconian policies sinking a post-Giuliani criminal justice system. The chronically resourceful Geoffrey Gray follows Focus Queens as they make money drinking for dollars. And thrifty epicure Douglas Wolk disregards ramen to teach you how to cook on the cheap with recipes that taste fancy and run just a few bucks a meal. Viva preserved lemon, indeed.
Now get back to school and beckon us in time for Pomp and Circumstance.