Portrait of the Writer as a Young Chelsea Girl
by Luanne Rice
When I first moved to New York City, I lived on Tenth Avenue just north of Fourteenth Street, over a speakeasy that used to be frequented by the Irish mob. My mentor, a writer at The New Yorker, had helped me find a room in an SRO. He’d told me that all writers had to live in New York, preferably in squalor, and since I had basically no money but many dreams, I was on board with that. Chelsea was the Wild West then—gunshots were a common way to be awakened at two in the morning. I got so I would dial “911” in my sleep.
My mentor suggested I live as stable a life as possible, writing all the time and not falling into the temptations of drink, parties, and a messy love life. Soon I married, and moved to an actual apartment in the same neighborhood. My then-husband was a young lawyer. We had no money, but big dreams. I published my first short stories and wrote my first novel in New York—Angels All Over Town.
Throughout this time, the Empire Diner was my café. I went there for coffee every morning, and until it closed last spring, continued to do so over the last twenty-plus years. Back then Paulina Porizkova and Elle Macpherson were roommates, and I would see them at the next table. There were lots of clubs in the neighborhood, and half the diner would be filled with people just waking up, half with people on their way home.
But the part of Chelsea I’ve always loved best has been the seminary block. West 20th St. between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. Built on land owned by Clement Clark Moore (author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,”) it seems very alive with ghosts. I’ve always felt them there, and I wrote about them in Silver Bells.
Back when I first lived here, West 20th St. was home to two of my favorite writers—Ann Beattie and Laurie Colwin. It was like a literary mecca for me—to walk down the street on the off-chance of seeing them. Which I often did…
In spite of his admonition to not become distracted by the literary life, my mentor used to take me to lunch at the Algonquin, where we would sit one banquette away from Mr. Shawn, and to the theater, and opening night parties, and literary soirees. Once I sat at a table with him, Norman Mailer, John Updike, William Styron, and George Plimpton. Then I came home to write and try not to feel daunted.
I’ve been a writer my whole life, and I still live in Chelsea. What a solitary time it was when I first lived here—my husband worked all the time, and I hardly ever saw him. I just wrote. My friends were artists, writers, and musicians. Eventually I did fall prey to all I'd been warned against, and certain things fell apart, and others seemed to come together. My husband and I divorced. Hearts were broken and broken again. I became a wild child, which was inconvenient because by then I was in my thirties. Chelsea saw me through.
Galleries took over, and the streets became not so gritty. New places opened. I found an apartment with two views: a sliver of the Hudson River to the west, and the historic district of Chelsea to the east. Directly across the street is an old warehouse that sports billboards advertising self-storage with messages such as the one I'm looking at right now: "Material Possessions Won't Make You Happy or Maybe They Will." Most days I have lunch or at least coffee at the Half King, a café owned by Sebastian Junger and Scott Anderson. There is a sidewalk terrace, back garden, and black leather couches under slanting ceilings. On Monday nights there is a wonderful reading series.
After a more recent divorce than the first one, I went into Dan’s Chelsea Guitars and bought an acoustic guitar. I began to take lessons from Mark Lonergan, a great guitarist who lives in the building next to the Hotel Chelsea. He’s taught me a lot, but I don’t practice enough. Even so, I write songs and have formed a band with two women from the neighborhood. They’re both really good: Dianne plays bass, and Ali plays keyboards. We’re all in the arts and do so much work from home, we call ourselves “House Arrest.”
Chelsea has been home for so long, it hurts to see the major changes occurring. Fancy new buildings going up. Where are all the young writers, musicians, artists, actors supposed to live if all the cheap apartments get torn down so “luxury high-rises” can go up in their place?
It confuses me, but I have faith in young writers. I found my own inspiring patch of squalor here in New York City, and I trust that they will, too. They’ll find their way to a Chelsea all their own.