News & Politics

How to Be a New Yorker: Excerpts from the Memoir of Les Rich


In my story in the Voice last week, inspired by Joan and Leslie Rich’s 1964 book, How to Be a New Yorker, I talked to longtime New Yorkers, former New Yorkers, new New Yorkers, and even a few people who’ve never lived in this town, about what they think it takes to be “a real New Yorker.” As expected, the article spurred plenty more discussion on the topic, ranging from emails (thanks, all who sent notes!) to comments on the piece online. Among the responses was this gem:

Foist. Ya gotta be born here. Odderwise, fuhgeddaboutit.
Too. If you dink williamsburg was just invented you’re way to young ta know anyding about new yawk.
Tree. If the woids “Giants” and “Dodgers” don’t get a rise, see #2.
For. If you don’t know that the Empire State Building is the tallest and most beautiful bilding in the woild, you don know notting.
Five. If ya tink the city is Manhattan only, get a map, you ain’t one a us.
Most of all, if ya come back from a trip and descend the helix to the Lincoln Tunnel and ya gets misty when ya see the skyline, you is a new yawka after all!
Forest Hills
(Brooklyn born, City bred)

Relevant to the discussion: Before he passed away in 2008, Les Rich wrote “Fragments” — a memoir of sorts, though it was never published. Steve Rich, his son, shared with us the section of his dad’s writing that pertained to his life in New York City in the ’50s and ’60s. Notable are the Mad-Men-esque differences between then and now — cold water flats! — but also the fact that, well, the more we change, the more some things remain essentially the same. Some excerpts follow.

On moving to New York City
In the summer of 1957, I moved to New York because there was really no alternative. There was nothing going on in Houston. If I was ever going to make a move, this was the time.

I packed up all my belongings including my cherished long-playing albums, in a couple of huge trunks, and set sail on the train. Sleeping in my seat, of course, not being able to afford a Pullman. The train went up to St. Louis, then changed two or three times until I pulled into Penn Station. The trunks followed two or three days later.

I had made arrangements to stay with my old friend John Quinlan at what was termed a cold-water flat. Not really cold water any more. The law now required that all apartments have hot water…but not heat. That came from turning on the gas oven and leaving the oven door open. This was in the East 70s, a Yorkville neighborhood at the time populated by Czechs. I stayed there several months before getting my own first apartment in New York, down in the Village.

On apartments in NYC
Apartments in New York are a funny and tragic story. The great trick was to find something where the rent could go up only if the apartment changed hands, because the building was prewar, or whatever, and therefore “rent frozen.” Later there was something called “rent-controlled,” where the rent could only go up a small percentage each year. Even “luxury” buildings such as the Buxley, where Joan, Steve, and I lived for seven years, were often rent-controlled. I think ours was, but I’m not sure.

On meeting Joan
When I returned to the American Salesman for the second time, after the hiatus in Houston, I became managing editor, and there met Joan.

During my absence, she had become the executive secretary of this little company on the 20th floor of that wedding cake building on Lexington and 40th Street. I noticed her car, which she left on the street in a no-parking zone every day with its (at that time) safe Colorado license plates.

I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.

When I wrote home about her, my mother knew that this was the girl I was going to marry.

We went to Florida for our two-week honeymoon, in Joan’s big old Buick on which by that time we had attached a rope to hold the passenger-side door shut. A tire went out on the bridge across the Potomac to Virginia. It took a little longer to get to Florida than we had planned.

On having their son, Steve
Because her obstetrician was going on vacation, Joan and several other women decided to have induced labor. They all wanted this doctor to deliver their babies. They would sit there and play cards and get up for their shots in turn, then peel off when the labor began.

They would bring the babies out in carriages for the fathers to inspect; that’s how it was done in those days. “Here’s one with a beautiful head,” the nurse said when my name was called, and I thought: “My God, what’s wrong with his head.”

Joan, who had expected a girl, at first said, “All this trouble for a boy?” About a half hour later, she wondered how she could ever have wanted anything but a boy, this boy.

On the book and “success” in New York City
The book flopped. Ken McCormick, the editor-in-chief at Doubleday, had hopes for it. But it got no “first serial,” meaning magazines that publish excerpts before publication, and no “second serial,” meaning the same thing after publication.

It was “remaindered” by that company that I think was called Marlboro, which took ads in the paper for books at a discount. We were, however, in the majestic New York Public Library, up the steps between the lions. When I went there for research once in a while I would see if our book was still there, and even check to see if anybody had checked it out lately.

Only a couple of weeks after we moved into 360 E. 65th Street, a whole crowd of people came to visit us at our apartment, the result of another of Joan’s magnificent publicity maneuvers. Something to do with a promoter who took people on tours of author’s homes. Our doorman thought we were hot stuff.

Related: How to Be a New Yorker



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