The producers of The Moth Radio Hour have invited me to come to New York from Kentucky to tell a story at one of their Mainstage events at a Manhattan club, and I am feeling pretty naked myself. The emcee is about to call my name, and then I’ll be standing onstage before an audience filled with people who look as if they just came from the party scene in a Woody Allen movie.
I wonder whether the words will be there when I open my mouth. I worry that I’ll come off as a small-town pretender who can’t, as the song says, make it there.
I remind myself that this is what I wanted: to get up close and (very) personal with my partner in a tumultuous 30-year long-distance relationship: New York City.
As you might expect, I feel like I’ve been doing most of the work in my LDR with NYC, though that’s not how we began. In the summer of 1982, my parents and I backed out of our driveway in Lexington, Kentucky and embarked on a 700-mile road trip for my first big-city visit.
God, it was magnificent.
At 11 years old, I’d already read about and seen the place so much on TV that going there felt like visiting Metropolis or Gotham City. When we joined the crowd hurrying through Grand Central Station, my mother says I declared, “It’s like Grand Central Station in here.”We visited the Empire State Building. Times Square. We ate in a deli! But the highlight was visiting the offices of DC Comics, the company that produced the Superman and Batman comic books I’d read since I could read.
The people in DC’s cluttered offices seemed delighted to get a visit from a wide-eyed kid from the heartland who thought they made magic. They treated me like an honored guest, giving me a tour and dozens of free comics and artwork samples. Those parting gifts filled my dad’s arms as we left, and I remember run-skipping down the sidewalk, fists in the air, shouting, “I love New York!”
I determined that the stereotypes of the brusque, disdainful New Yorker were as fictional as the hillbilly myths I knew bore little relationship to life in Kentucky. I imagined I’d go back to the city — soon. Then, years passed and I didn’t. Plans fell through, other destinations beckoned. Even so, I felt as if my relationship with the city continued, because wherever I lived — Kentucky, Texas, Japan — New York came with me, bringing with it a cast of characters living funny and dramatic urban lives. George and Weezie, Carrie and Big, Spider-Man and Mary Jane.
I tried to reject the implication that New York was the most important place on earth and if my story were important, I’d have to go through there. I failed — partly because I’m a writer and New York is where the major publishing houses have their headquarters (though the implosion of the publishing industry is changing this). Over the years, I’ve written a couple of book manuscripts and pitched them to various agents and editors in the 212 area code.
One New York agent responded to my query and we set an appointment to talk. When I reached him, he said, “I’m on another call. Call me back in a couple of minutes. OK?” I agreed, waiting 10 minutes to make sure he had time to finish.
“I do not have time,” he said, “to sit here and wait eight minutes for you to call. I said call me in twominutes, that means call me in two minutes.”
Well, kiss my grits.
As more rejections followed, I felt like New York had forsaken me, and I wanted to strike back, but how? The best I could manage was a snarky grad-school essay about New York’s cultural ubiquity. Its title: “Stop Spreading the News.”
Take that, Big Apple!
I eventually stopped courting New York because I’d started to feel as if I was stalking a city that just wasn’t that into me. I got married, had kids, settled in Louisville. That’s where I met some of the folks behind The Moth. I perhaps mentioned to them that I tell stories and, oh, look, here are a few samples. This past June, they asked me to perform.
My grudge against New York? Fuggetaboudit.
Still, at my first rehearsal in The Moth’s Broadway offices (also cluttered), I tried not to sound apologetic or defensive when saying I was from Kentucky. Usually this information elicits a neutral or positive reaction, but I’ve had some people respond with condescension (“This must be quite a change for you”) or straight-up rudeness (“Oh, sorry to hear that”).The folks at The Moth, however, were kind beyond kindness. In fact, Moth assistant producer Caleigh Waldman said to me afterward, “I’m from Lexington, too.” She grew up on a 1,600-acre horse farm and now rents an 800-square-foot Manhattan apartment that she shares with two roommates. New York, she said, “is not that different from other places. You get what you give. If you approach people with kindness, you get kindness in return.”
Between rehearsals, I went exploring. Central Park is more lush than I imagined, Ground Zero more haunting. The Brooklyn Bridge is made of wood (who knew?) and though you can’t buy it, you can walk across it, and I did.
I visited an old friend, Laura (Ruth) Marks, a theater artist whose career began by playing roles like a screeching teenager in a 1989 Henry Clay High School production of The Crucible, that was, as I recall, hilarious. Today, she’s a professional playwright whom The New Yorker called “a real talent to watch.” Her husband is a Broadway actor, and they’re raising two daughters in a Bed-Stuy brownstone.
“I don’t think there’s one monolithic New York,” she said. “It feels more like thousands of mini New Yorks, and if you look hard enough you can still see Woody Allen’s New York or Biggie Smalls’ New York or Edith Wharton’s New York.”
Laura’s right, of course, and the same rule applies elsewhere. In Lexington, the horse breeder who lives on Iron Works Pike lives in a different version of the city than the teenager from an apartment on Seventh Street. Your Kentucky, or your New York, or your America is not the same as mine, but they’re both real, and both ours.
That iconic “8 million stories” line comes from The Naked City, a 1948 film noir later adapted into a TV series that focused not on the show’s recurring characters but on the guest stars. That’s how I feel at The Moth as the emcee calls my name and all the New Yorks I’ve known, past and present, real and imagined, come together.
I’ve worn a Kentucky Wildcat-blue shirt as a kind of talisman, and I get up and tell this audience of about 260 New Yorkers a family story, one that comes from one of my unsold manuscripts. When I’m done, they clap, they smile, some shake my hand, a few give me hugs.
Since that night, part of me really wants to go back to New York. Part of me never does. My two visits have been so fantastic, I figure sooner or later, reality will catch up to us, but who knows? I do feel like our relationship has evolved, almost like we’re creating our own narrative, New York and me:
Boy meets city.
It’s a love story.