Slouch­ing To­ward Did­ion Land

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I can’t wait to read “The Last Love Song,” Tracy Daugh­erty’s up­com­ing Joan Did­ion bi­og­ra­phy, or to see the film Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­ers are plan­ning to make of Did­ion’s iconic “Good­bye to All That.” I was in col­lege when I first de­voured that es­say about the Epis­co­palian au­thor’s early years in New York. I can en­vi­sion the film’s first frame, set in the 1950s, with Did­ion ar­riv­ing at the age of 20 on a DC-7, wear­ing her “dress that seemed very smart in Sacra­mento.”

I wanted to be just like her — the Jewish ver­sion of Joan.

A quar­ter cen­tury af­ter she landed, I also met Man­hat­tan at 20 in the sum­mer­time, wear­ing the wrong clothes — blue flared Levi’s and a flow­ery pas­tel blouse — though I’d come by car. My Michigan par­ents were ter­ri­fied by the idea of their only daugh­ter mov­ing back to the city they’d es­caped, to get a master’s in literature at NYU. So my U of M class­mate Gary, a cute men­sch my folks liked, of­fered to drive. His es­cort­ing me 10 hours to the mod­ern Go­mor­rah in his sil­ver Cut­lass made my es­cape kosher. I was petrified when he dropped me and my duf­fel bags at the curb of the Green­wich Vil­lage dorm that early 1980s Mon­day in July, say­ing, “Call if you get weird.”

I prayed my new room­mate Lisa would be my guide/sis­ter/sav­ior. But in­stead of Lisa, a shirt­less, hairy guy opened the door. “I’m Zero,” mum­bled Lisa’s pain­ter boyfriend, ex­plain­ing she was at her nearby copy shop job. My eyes sank when I saw one mat­tress on the floor of the cramped 200-square-foot hovel.

When Lisa showed up, I was awed by the slim, chic ac­tress in black leather pants. In her sec­ond year of grad school, she seemed like a New Yorker al­ready. Un­pack­ing, I con­fessed I was an as­pir­ing au­thor. Dis­mayed by Zero’s clothes in the draw­ers, I added, “I paid for a dou­ble, with just one room­mate.” Af­ter ex­plor­ing down­town, I re­turned that night. There was another sin­gle mat­tress on the floor, for me. But Zero re­mained. In bed with her. Four feet away.

Thus, in my de­but hours in the city that never slept, nei­ther could I. At 5 a.m. there was rustling. I thought: They wouldn’t. They were. I was mor­ti­fied. If I flung my arm, we’d be a mé­nage à trois. I wanted to run to a ho­tel. But I had lit­tle cash and no bank ac­count yet. Turn­ing to the wall, pil­low over my head, I cried, afraid

this hor­ri­ble omen would wreck my fan­tasy trans­for­ma­tion into an edgy ur­ban­ite.

With a cler­i­cal job in­ter­view sched­uled for 9 o’clock, I grabbed Mom’s mauve Donna Karan hand-me-down suit, show­ered in the com­mu­nal bath­room, ar­riv­ing over­dressed to the dorm cafe­te­ria at 6 a.m. I scrawled Lisa and Zero’s tack­i­ness down in my trusty spi­ral notebook where, like Did­ion, I recorded ev­ery­thing. Mean­while I landed the $22,000 a year sec­re­tary gig.

Like Did­ion, I was sure magic might strike any sec­ond. Re­fus­ing to hear Lisa and Zero moan nightly, I found a cheap one-bed­room share, crash­ing on a fu­ton in the then wildly dan­ger­ous East Vil­lage. (“It’s the Lower East Side,” Dad screamed. “The real­tors are ly­ing!”) My tem­po­rary fix lasted seven years. It took a lot longer to get a real mat­tress, a part­ner to share it with, and to make Man­hat­tan mine.

My eighth year east, I sunk into de­spair at 28, re­call­ing Did­ion’s de­pres­sion at that age. Dumped by the Dy­lan bi­og­ra­pher I’d moved in with, I sub­let part of a Flower Dis­trict loft. Awak­ened by noise at 3 a.m., I turned on the light to dis­cover a rat eat­ing the Saran Wrap off pop­corn on the counter. Hor­ri­fied, I called Gary, now an L.A. film­maker. He stayed on the phone un­til dawn, jok­ing he’d ex­tend his “weird­ness of­fer.” I hoped Gary would sweep me off to san­ity and sun­shine, the way Did­ion chron­i­cled her res­cue by John Gre­gory Dunne.

That didn’t hap­pen. So I took notes on my ro­man­tic re­jec­tions (which would even­tu­ally form my first book) while jug­gling babysit­ting, proof­read­ing, tran­scrip­tion. “You’re free­lance ev­ery­thing,” my mother com­plained.

At 35, I wed­ded my own bril­liant older screen­writer (who — weirdly — shared Gary’s last name). We flirted with bi­coastal liv­ing in Did­ion’s L.A. play­ground, but bor­rowed the down pay­ment for a two bed­room, two bath in Green­wich Vil­lage.

Around my 20-year New York an­niver­sary, at a din­ner party, a play­wright pal in­tro­duced her Great Neck guest. “Three kids in the burbs,” the play­wright whis­pered. “Lisa’s hus­band made a mint selling his copy place.” She men­tioned its un­usual name.

“My first NYU room­mate worked there,” I re­called. “Red­headed ac­tress.”

The host­ess’s Lisa was my first room­mate in Gotham. I planned to con­front Lisa on her rudeness years be­fore, about to spill my sor­did mem­ory to this 40-ish pas­tel-clad mommy I wouldn’t have rec­og­nized.

“Gosh, you’re the Sue I keep hear­ing about? I love your work,” Lisa said. She eye­balled my tight black Le­vis, black cash­mere sweater, black cow­boy boots. “You look great. You’re still down­town? Man, I miss the Vil­lage. I gave up act­ing. But you re­ally made it.”

Had I? For the first time I thought: Wow. Maybe this was mak­ing it.

Star­ing at Lisa now, I told her, “Small world. So nice to see you again,” de­cid­ing to be classy (and sav­ing the tacky story of Zero to spill later).

I re­called Lisa and Zero shak­ing my re­solve on the eve of my new life. Yet I never gave up hop­ing the city would re­turn my af­fec­tion. Nei­ther did Did­ion, who — in a mag­i­cal mo­ment at a re­cent award cer­e­mony — touched my hand when I com­pli­mented her latest memoir. She’d ac­tu­ally re­turned to Man­hat­tan in her 50s, be­tray­ing her fa­mous claim that New York was just for the youth­ful. I found it to be the op­po­site: a crazy lu­mi­nous king­dom, con­quered only with per­se­ver­ance. Dis­mayed my stu­dents don’t know her work, I as­sign her es­say, con­stantly quot­ing her warn­ing that “a writer’s al­ways selling some­one out.”

Awak­ened by noise at 3 a.m., I turned on the light to dis­cover a rat eat­ing the Saran Wrap off pop­corn on the counter.

ANYA ULINICH

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