New Yorkers by Craig Taylor

IN CONVERSATION WITH

CRAIG TAYLOR


Craig Taylor is the bestselling author of Londoners, Return to Akenfield, and One Million Tiny Plays About Britain. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, and McSweeney's. He lives in beautiful British Columbia, Canada.

I had the chance to ask Craig some questions about his latest book, New Yorkers, how his life has been affected by the pandemic, and what advice he has for those visiting the city for the first time. 

A full review of the book follows after the interview. 


Could you tell me a little about one of the most intriguing characters from the New Yorkers book?

One of my favourite individuals in the book is Elliott Carter. He appears under the heading ‘recycler’. He’s been walking the streets of Manhattan for years. He picks up cans to recycle. But he’s not only a recycle. He’s a wise chronicler of New York. He’s got stories. He’s seen the sharper edges of the city. He knows how to survive in the toughest conditions. He’s become a dear friend. 

What’s an ideal day in New York look like for you?

Walking the streets with an interviewee. Listening to stories of the city. Maybe eating a plate of baked clams at Donovan’s in Woodside for dinner. 

How has your life been affected by the pandemic?

I had to leave NYC on March 21, 2020 in order to get back to Canada before the border closed. I got to hear from a distance, stories of the pandemic in New York. I spoke to doctors, nurses, patients, coroners, bodega employees, and felt, from this distance, the terror of April, May and June in the city. 

What was the most challenging roadblock when it came to writing New Yorkers?

These sorts of books take time. There’s lots of legwork involved, plenty of phone calls, plenty of false starts. There’s no way to hurry up and write a book like New Yorkers. You have to spend time with people, hang out, return to them again and again. Time in the key. 

What’s the best piece of advice you could give to a first timer in New York? 

Push out into the boroughs. Ride the 7 train. Take in the wonders of Queens. Eat a plate of baked clams. 

By Luca Bravo, Unsplash

REVIEW

Ten years in the making, New Yorkers is a compulsively readable portrait of New York that is as lively and vibrant as the city itself. Acclaimed writer and editor Craig Taylor ventured into nearly every corner of the city, getting some of its best talkers — rich and poor, old and young, native and immigrant--to share indelible tales about New York in our time.


Craig Taylor’s New Yorkers was a reminder of every reason I love New York City. I remember my first time in the city like it was yesterday. It was July 2011, and Continental Airlines flight 95 hit the tarmac at Newark Airport at 1:45pm.

The plan was to spend the summer here, interning for a fashion company. My first solo trip, and I was spending it in the city I had always dreamt of. The one I had watched for years in TV shows and movies, and read about in every travel guide, magazine, and book that I owned. 

I felt my time had come, and as my plane hit the ground I was so filled with excitement I thought I might throw up. I still feel that same excitement every time I arrive in the concrete jungle. It’s impossible to replicate that feeling anywhere else in the world. 

I’ll never forget what it felt like to come above ground after being in the Port Authority tunnel riding by bus from the airport, catching my first glimpse of the Manhattan Skyline, or the first time I exited the Port Authority Bus Terminal and felt every one of my senses become completely overwhelmed all at once. I could say that it was magic, but that would be an understatement. There really is no word to describe that feeling. 

New York is my place. When I arrived, it felt like home. I wanted it, I was hungry for it.

I felt I really resonated with Antwon Shavers’ story from Craig’s book, who says, “Every time I wake up in the morning, I always say to myself, “Wow, I’m actually here in New York,”

Oliver Niblett / Unsplash

One of the first people we meet is Joy Kang, a doctor who grew up in Queens, but doesn’t see herself as a true New Yorker. She found out about a ‘Am I a New Yorker?’ quiz with a “little online survey” which she did with her friend. 

I’m almost sure it’s this BuzzFeed survey, which I also took while reading, according to which I’m 54% New Yorker, meaning: 

You're in the sweet spot between an expert New Yorker who's already seen everything and someone who still gets to explore awesome new sights with friends. The world is your oyster.

In a section called ‘Building Stories’, we meet Steve Rosenthal, the former owner of Magic Shop, a recording studio on Crosby Street. It took him about six months to build the studio, and at the beginning it was hard to get people in there. It took almost two years, but like a true New Yorker he persevered and things turned around for Rosenthal. One day, by surprise, David Bowie showed up at the Magic Shop, and that’s where he recorded The Next Day


Courtesy of the Magic Shop's Facebook

The reader later meets Ben Gardner, a member of personal staff for an ultra-high net worth family. I resonated with Ben’s story, having worked in his exact position previously. “The wealthy in New York - what they’re buying is time, and so they don’t care. The money isn’t an issue.” Ben goes on to say, “The super-rich don’t go out to dinner because it’s convenient. They go out to dinner because they have to. Convenient is having your chef whip you up something at home. It’s a different world.

I once had to have a multi-million dollar painting fork-lifted out of a loft window in Soho. I had a few hundred dollars stuffed into the pocket of my jeans, just in case I needed to pay anyone to keep their mouth shut while I illegally blocked off the street. The painting was later crated and shipped to Europe - just another duty on my to-do list, of course. Only in New York. 

One of my favourite parts of the book was meeting Scott Wiener, a pizza guide. “I just always liked pizza,” he says. The self-proclaimed planet’s biggest pizza nerd and owner of Scott’s Pizza Tours, shares a wealth of knowledge with Craig in the book, and I’ve made a note to take one of his tours on my next trip.

Scott after his COVID vaccine / courtesy of his Instagram

In a chapter titled Pandemic City, we meet a nurse called Siobhan Clifford. She says “The tidal wave of destruction brought by the COVID virus was fast and furious. The staff I work with had no idea what was going to be expected of us until we received an email asking about our nursing strength. I’ve been a nurse for over thirty years and have worked in many different departments. I did not feel prepared to work in an ICU, but I wanted to help in the best way I could.” 

This chapter manages to capture the incredible horrors of the pandemic with such power as the cases continued to rise in New York City and around the world. As I was reading it, I felt my own anxieties rising within. It was a reminder of how much we owe the front line workers for their services rendered during these traumatic times. It’s easy to forget now, looking back, that at the beginning of the pandemic the hospitals were struggling severely to get a hold of personal protective equipment, so the medical staff truly were putting themselves at risk daily. And, at this point, we also didn’t know the full extent of what the virus was capable of.

Edwin Hooper / Unsplash

At times throughout this book, my heart dropped into my stomach. One point in particular was the story of Gladys DeJesus, a retired 911 dispatcher who was working when the planes hit the towers. She explains when the first call came in, and her immense sadness and ongoing PTSD can be sensed through her words. 

Towards the end of New Yorkers, we encounter Edmée Reit, who discusses her passion for the arts “I can’t really imagine living in another American city. I have sixty-eight tickets for concerts and ballet between now and May. In February, they’re having a great bunch of things over at Carnegie Hall,” she continues, “Look what we have. Look what we have every night. I mean aren’t you stunned by what there is available?” 

New Yorkers includes people from every walk of life. One of the most multicultural cities in the world, with over 200 languages spoken, and 40 percent of the NYC population born outside of the United States, this book manages to capture the cultural diversity that lives and breathes there. The individual stories might not be revolutionary. But together, they are remarkable. 

New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time is available at Indigo and on Kobo. Check Penguin Random House CA for a list of additional retailers. The book is also available in audiobook format (which I highly recommend) wherever audiobooks are sold. 

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