Monday, March 1, 2021

“Cool” and Now

There was a Saturday in February when I tried to remember everything I thought was cool 10 years ago. I walked the East Village, weaving my way in and out of stores bearing everything from boldly colored scarves to Thai hand salve to photography books I’ll never be able to afford. I gripped my leather jacket tighter around me because, after nearly 11 years in this town I still haven’t learned how to attire myself properly on cold days. My thoughts quickly turned to avoiding the patches of ice I’ve slipped on in the past only to fall in the exact same place every time, leaving myself with scars directly under my kneecaps. I remember some of them now, though. I remember flavored vodka sodas at Beauty Bar (agh), lengua tacos from the truck on 14th and 8th at 3am, the house band at the Village Underground. Ladyfag’s Vandam party on Sundays at Greenhouse in Soho. A now defunct Australian restaurant on the Upper West Side called The Sunburnt Calf where we’d sit in giant parties of 6, 8, 10 or more for birthdays or out-of-town-visits or maybe just a Saturday night. Pay-what-you-wish nights at the International Center of Photography. Free lectures at NYU. CHERYL parties somewhere in what were then the wilds of Brooklyn.

Few of these things still exist and my own realms of possibility have also expanded beyond them, but I remember the feeling of chasing cool across New York City. It was a feeling I duplicated recently as I searched for Kim Hastreiter’s The New Now in different locations throughout the East Village. Hastreiter, who in 1984 co-founded Paper, iconic magazine of a very specific New York kind of cool, had undertaken a new project in the pandemic, a DIY newsletter offered for free at specific businesses throughout three three of the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx). I saw this newsletter popping up all across my Instagram feed, populating the grids of the capital-C chic and cool of New York and I had to have it. It would be not just a historic artifact of New York publishing, but it would be like being in on a small(ish) secret, insiderdom. Something that, as much as I love the life I’ve lived and carved out for myself in New York, is not something I’d ever say I had.

I think often of a Lou Reed quote I once saw at The Andy Warhol Museum when I was living in Pittsburgh: “If you weren’t a journalist, you’d never be invited to anything cool.” For a long time, I fully believed this was true. In many ways, I still do. I have forever thought of myself as a raging nerd, though my obsessions with and passions for cultural arbiters outside “the mainstream” have occasionally earned me opposite designations from others. Over a decade has gone by and I’m still chasing “cool,” a sentiment which I fully realize is anything but. I continually checked Hastreiter’s list of stockists on her Instagram, seeing which stores were nearby and open and supposed to have The New Now. Hastreiter refers to these as “likeminded businesses,” so the list also became a guide of sorts to the life Hastreiter leads, she who in the last 35+ years has become an arbiter of a very New York sensibility.

I perused Dashwood Books, at which I arrived by descending a staircase on the chic, cobblestoned Bond Street, a place I had never been. I marveled at its art books, its collaboration tote bag with photographer Ari Marcopoulous, its smartly designed zines, and in the back, Permanent Paper, another pandemic project, by stylist Masayo Kishi. The large-sized, elegantly designed biannual print magazine is filled with photos by Arthur Elgort, Luis Sanchis, Martyn Thompson, and more that could all be unfolded from the magazine's delicate pages and hung as art work on their own. I had been teased by the images for weeks online and immediately surrendered my credit card after turning its pages. But Dashwood didn’t have the newsletter I originally sought, so I moved on to another bookstore.

Karma Bookstore on East 3rd Street looks almost like an art gallery, unusual to anyone used to braving the stacks. A man with long dark hair in a long camel coat, fancy sweatpants and sneakers assists a customer. I wonder again about what “cool” is. Maybe it’s better to be cool without the quotes around it, to be a more subjective, mutable version of it, than to aspire to a life inside quotation marks. The thing I’ve liked about being a journalist is that I get to be in several worlds but not of them. I’ve never had to commit to a lifestyle because my life is constantly changing, perhaps not unlike New York itself. But I’m still excited about finding the newsletter, and Karma has what I’m looking for on more than one front: both the newsletter and Chantal Regnault’s photography book Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York, 1989-92, which I need as research for my book. These are things I think are cool, no quotation marks. I think that’s how I prefer it.

It also dawned on me, certainly later than it should have, that I was on a scavenger hunt. But in the process I’m tasting bites of New York I hadn’t known before and supporting local businesses. It’s a relief to know that even after a decade there’s still more to learn, that even amidst its constant, and at this point uncertain, changes, New York is not dead. I don’t even know that it’s sleeping. It’s maybe just on a longer coffee break, smoking a cigarette outside, burning down to filter after filter after deep, extended inhales, waiting until it’s safe to come back inside.