For a New Yorker, few things could be cooler than living in the Chelsea Hotel, residence of great artists, writers, and underground filmmakers. The place is adorned with great artwork, and the owner, a sentimentalist despite himself, used to let eccentric people live there without paying the rent. It was the home of Andy Warhol’s superstars, and residents included (at different times) Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendricks, Dylan Thomas, and Dee Dee Ramone. From the get go, Nicolaia Rips makes her status clear; she grew up in the Chelsea Hotel, but she wasn’t invited to any cool parties or treated like royalty. If you think this is about a kid who grows up in the Warhol crowd, think again, because she’s too late. Warhol was long dead by the time she was born, and the Chelsea residents she writes about are all old. She’s the daughter of eccentric weirdos and the kids at her school all have
rich celebrity parents. She’s a free-range kid who doesn’t fit in with the socially precocious and over-sophisticated children of the elite. She’s born into an artsy crowd that’s dying off.
While this may sound harsh, keep in mind that she was born around 1998, so by that time there weren’t a lot of less-affluent educated families in the area anymore. She makes a horrible impression on her first day of kindergarten because (a) she doesn’t know how to read yet, and (b) her parents haven’t hired a million tutors to teach her Chinese, opera singing, and how to play the harp. She’s basically a kid, that’s it, but her classmates have been taught to be little grownups with fancy manners. When she causes a disaster at a rich upstate pool party, I wanted to cheer.
Rips exposes the city elite’s self-delusion of talent. She has a dance teacher who’s obsessed with the avante-garde, and on the first day of class the child is ridiculed for wearing a tutu. The dance program is all “modern” dancing, while the teacher despises kids who want to learn ballet or tap. When I read this chapter, the first thing that entered my mind was Holden Caulfield. The teacher has the same mindset, ranting about “phonies” and overcome with grandiose views of herself, even though she’s only a dance teacher for six-year-olds. Holden would’ve thought she was a genius for turning up her nose at conventional arts, but his sister Pheobe would probably have seen right through her. As for her classmates, the parents are like something out of The Nanny Diaries, pushing their kids to do activities that aren’t age-appropriate.
A lot of the blame goes to the author’s own nutty parents. They don’t get her to school on time, and she nearly gets held back, though her father has plenty of time to play pranks on the local dry cleaners. She gets into LaGuardia High School, that is good, but she still doesn’t fit in. Most of the white kids in the city by 2012 came from rich families. There aren’t a lot of kids in the city who come from families that are educated by not wealthy. It seems as though her parents were steering her towards kids who came from rich families, rather than the ones that have decent social skills. Not all city kids are rich or sophisticated; as a private tutor I saw every kind of city kid, and not all of them push their children to excel.
Trying to Float is a great memoir, a cross between the manic Eloise and the cynical Holden Caulfield. Unlike most memoirs about crazy childhoods, it’s written by an 18 year old, so everything that happens here is still fresh in her mind. There were other children who lived in the Chelsea, like actress Gabby Hoffman, but she left around 1990. I was there twice in my life, once for a friend’s party in one of the rooms, and once while my apartment was being fumigated. Based on what I remember, I would like to have read a better description of the building, the famous art collection, the other things about the neighborhood. The problem is that when you’re a kid you don’t observe things the way an adult would, so it’s difficult to understand the mood.
Kids who grow up in Manhattan are often classed as spoiled and socially precocious, though the author doesn’t fit the stereotype. When compared to other similar writers, she could be part of what I call the “why is that kid here” school of memoir writing. Dalton Conley, author of Honky, was the only white kid in a Lower East Side housing project (obviously not sophisticated) and his memoir is all about social class structure. Then there’s The Basketball Diaries, where the working-class Jim Carrol attends Trinity School, plays basketball, and does heroin. As for MacCaulay Culkin, he hasn’t written a memoir, but his childhood on the Upper East Side involved dysfunctional parents and squalor. Let’s face it, growing up in Manhattan is great or horrible. Trying to Float pulls no punches and gives us both.
My research into the author tells me that her book began with complaints. Someone advised her to write them all down, and the long collection of gripes became her memoir. Currently she and her family live on the Upper East Side while the Chelsea Hotel is being renovated, and according to her, the neighborhood has nothing to do. I didn’t like it much myself when I lived there 17 years ago, and I don’t like it much now.
I wonder if people like her parents would’ve been better off in the Westbeth building, where most of the artists lived. There would’ve been a lot more kids there, and she wouldn’t have been such a misfit. Something tells me Rips will publish another memoir later on. I look forward to it.