I moved to New York City on Halloween weekend 2000, my sights set on, well, nothing. I did not relocate to this town to make it big in journalism. I came here because I was offered a free bedroom in Astoria, Queens. My only other option was moving back home with my parents in Ohio and sharing a bunk bed with my little brother. He sometimes snores.
In the beginning, I kept my journalism degree hidden in a drawer. Instead of trying to earn a living slinging words, I instead temped for fashion companies including Prada and Gucci, for whom I stood statue still in a hallway and informed customers that the elevator was out of service. At the end of my second day as a Gucci statue, my supervisor asked me how I liked the job. “I feel like I’m wasting my college degree,” I said, honesty getting in the way of ass kissing. I was not called back for a third day.
In a movie, that would be the wake-up call to properly use my journalism training. In reality, I nabbed another temporary gig as an office assistant at American Baby magazine, where I mailed catalogs and mags to expectant families nationwide. To entertain myself, I took to using the letterhead and writing missives to my friends, congratulating them on their unexpected, but unexpectedly joyful pregnancies.
I lasted two months. That job was followed by a nine-month stint at a porn publishing firm. I did not diddle anyone on camera. Instead, I interviewed adult film stars, reviewed pornos and edited magazines called Hot Chocolate and Cuddles, as well as punched-up boring fantasy stories by crafting lines such as, “She drank enough sperm night to feed Luxembourg for a week” and “I like eating my mom’s pussy better than her homemade apple pie.” Naturally, my parents lied to their friends and relatives about my employment.
As days dragged, long and hairy, working as a porn editor wore me to a nub. To numb the reality of nonstop nudity, I took to drinking. Heavily. The job tore my innocence to shreds. Though I stared at balls all day long, I lacked a pair to quit.
Then the World Trade Center tumbled down. My office sat 10 blocks from the disaster. Every workday I smelled acrid air, saw the smoke cloud linger above the city like a coming thunderstorm. More than 3,000 people lost everything in one sad second. I still had my life. Why waste it?
Smut was a stopgap, a delay tactic before barreling into real journalism, not just fantasies about Oedipal-complex teens. Years, you understand, vanish with the ease of sugar swirled in hot tea. Youth is a priceless currency. And success achieved in your tender early 20s is worth double, triple, nay, quintuple that achieved in your third decade. Porn was a slippery slope, dropping its merchants into an inescapable Black Hole of Calcutta that, to my ears, sounded just like an Indian anal-sex escapade.
I had stayed entirely too long at the fair. So, two weeks after the towers said a forced sayonara, I walked into my boss’s office and quit.
“It’s not for me anymore,” I explained, as I gathered pens, pencils and papers, leaving XXX videos and magazines buried in my desk. Then I left the building and walked into Chinatown, into the ruined, hopeful city. I kept walking, faster and faster, until I got home, not even stopping to celebrate with a drink.
After taking a few weeks off and regaining my sanity, I decided to dive into journalism. To pay the bills, I worked as the world’s worst receptionist, pitifully answering phones at corporate firms up and down the isle of Manhattan.
When the phone boards would stop flashing, I’d send ideas to Time Out New York, the New York Observer, the New York Post and, above all, the New York Press. Oh, I so wanted to write for the Press, to share newsprint with Jim Knipfel and Jonathan Ames and all the literary heavyweights that populated the pages.
I pitched the Press for more than two years, collecting a river of rejections. Instead of being discouraged, I looked at each “no” as another opportunity to get an editor to say “yes.” Finally, Jeff Koyen said yes. He and Alex Zaitchik had just been installed as editors at the Press, and they were infusing the paper with new blood. I received one assignment, then another, even netting a cover story about the coming influenza apocalypse—well, an interview with my dad, an influenza specialist.
One afternoon, Jeff asked me if I’d like to write a weekly bar column. “Sure,” I replied, my heart beating like a hummingbird’s. My own column! For more than two years, I covered the city’s bar beat. I spent late nights stumbling to downtown-Manhattan dive bars in search of a story or, more likely, another shot, then awoke bright and early every Monday a.m. to recount my adventures. My editors allowed me to grow as a journalist, a storyteller. I cringe while casting eyes at those early, caffeine-crazed words, but within those discourses on drunkenness I was able to gain my writerly confidence. When you’re naked on the page, that’s all you got.
Jeff and Alex eventually departed the Press. I stayed, and when my liver waved the white flag I switching to the restaurant beat. Eventually, I tired of weekly gluttony, and I started writing the short-lived My So-Called Strife column, which focused less on food than my madcap escapades. (One of my favorite tales is about my former cokehead roommate and the world’s greatest cock block. It’s a riveting, wine-soaked read, as is my tale about almost dying at Burning Man.) The essay-driven format died within a year, and I was ready to toss in my New York Press towel. Before I could tender my resignation, my latest in a long line of editors, Jerry Portwood, offered me one more column: Gut Instinct.
By this time, I’d established my journalistic presence in New York. I’d written for every paper and magazine in town, and I proudly paid all my bills with my stories. Yet Gut Instinct, which was a first-person column that focused on my food and drink adventures, was my favorite weekly writing outlet. In the column, I was able to be brash, maudlin, gonzo, thoughtful—anything I wanted, as long as I wasn’t boring.
I loved awaking every Monday morning, pouring myself coal-hued coffee, planting my rump before my computer and clacking out my column. As a journalist, writerly freedom is rare. And I had free reign to prance through the kingdom of subjects and verbs, develop a cast of characters and tell the stories I wanted to tell.
Idylls never endure. For years I watched the paper grow thinner, wondering which issue would be its last. Finally, the media Grim Reaper came calling.
It was an expected closing, but one that still saddened me to marrow. I grew up in New York, lockstep with the Press. The paper’s shutter neatly seals up the last seven years of my life—well, the Mondays, at least. But lo and behold, this does not mean I’m planning on purchasing pants, sobering up and getting a full-time job.
This fall, Sterling Epicure will release my first book, Brewed Awakening, about the global craft beer revolution, and I’ll be toiling on my second tome. You can still find my stories in Imbibe, New York, Time Out New York, Food Republic and plenty of other outlets that, thankfully, keep me eating dollar dumplings. As for future columns, I’ll post news as it develops on my website. I always trust my Gut Instinct.