New York Story

David Goodwillie's memoir of a roundabout path to the literary life captures the contradictions of New York in the carefree nineties

After graduating from Kenyon in 1994 and briefly trying to make it as a professional baseball player, David Goodwillie hit New York with vague literary ambitions, an appetite for pleasure, a knack for stumbling into eccentric jobs, and a self-consciously ironic stance--but also with an appealing, persistent innocence and the need to find something meaningful in life. He recounts the ensuing adventures and misadventures in an engaging, often funny memoir, Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, published this year by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Goodwillie tells us what it's like to work as a private investigator and as a sports-memorabilia expert at an auction house. He takes us into Chinatown sweatshops and palatial hotel suites. He offers us glimpses of the club scene, the fashion world, the dot-com boom, and the wrong side of a paddy wagon. Drink, drugs, sex, privilege, and struggle all figure in Goodwillie's often careless life. But care keeps edging its way in, as Goodwillie circles back to memories of childhood and reflections on his parents' broken marriage. And on friendship. And on the allure of literature. And, above all, on a deeply felt, seemingly fated connection to the city.

New York itself, that urban field of dreams, emerges as a strong character in this memoir. Here's a taste of Goodwillie writing about the city in winter. -- Dan Laskin

The blizzard builds
for three days. By Monday morning the wind is a gale and the snow--being measured in feet now, not inches--is falling like rain, sweeping sideways down the narrow corridors of the city. When it finally ends around noon, records have been set and New York is a modernist's view of urban beauty, all white on white, deep and paralyzing. The streets are deserted, businesses are closed, and there's no sign of the citizenry. . . .

The sun comes out in the early afternoon, and soon people are taking their first tentative steps outside. From the fire escape we watch the city slowly waking from its coma. A young couple with cross-country skis makes first tracks up Sixth Avenue. Boys in snowsuits shuffle toward the Park, dragging Rosebud sleds behind them.

. . . soon we're outside, too, making our way down Fifth Avenue. A gusty breeze is blowing snow back up into the air, and as it comes down for the second time, it catches the light and everything glistens. We're walking with no real destination, the way people have always done on luminous days in New York, and it's moments like this when we realize our relationship with this metropolis is personal. New Yorkers become vested, and the payoff comes in sporadic moments of ecstasy--or beauty. And today it is beautiful, all of it: the Christmas windows at Saks, framed now in powder white; the sleepy lions posing as if for a portrait outside the public library; even the grungy garment district lurking behind Lord & Taylor, usually dirty and dark, looks this afternoon like a present wrapped with care.

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