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In Spite of the Fact That You Have a Large Metal Plate in Your Head, or, Just Because You’re a Distracted, Flaky, Obsessive-Compulsive Nitwit with Attention Deficit Disorder Who Can’t Even Type, Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Write a Book

In spite of the fact that I never sat down to write it, my book, New York Notebook, was published last year by Chronicle Books. Hyperillustrated, overdesigned and just plain nutty looking, it is ostensibly a combination journal and guidebook to New York City, but I think it’s the design crowd that’s been buying it. They send me fan mail. I get a lot of letters from frustrated graphic designers telling me that they’re frustrated. I patiently explain that they, too, can enjoy the liberty and originality that my lifestyle and my work express. All they have to give up is money, security, marriage, children, respect, acceptance and health insurance.

Now that it’s going into a second printing(!), I thought I should share my thoughts on how this piece of highly personal insanity came to be a real book. Illustrators and designers often ask me this question. I know what they really mean is, “How the hell did you get away with that?”

The answer is quite simple. I had no idea I was writing a book. And if I had known, I would have freaked out. Because I can’t write a book. Here’s how it happened:

First of all, I was born in Manhattan. If it’s too late to arrange this for yourself, try to arrange it for any offspring you might be planning, or not planning. Just move to New York and procreate like mad. Because New York City’s an ideal place to raise children. This will almost guarantee them a type A personality, a boatload of raised expectations and more baggage than Luggage Belt Three, JFK Airport International Arrivals, at Christmas time.

As a proud, yet restless native New Yorker, my issue was this: When you’re already in New York, where can you go?

I went to Europe and made a lot of friends.

Friends who would, in years to come, make liberal use of my guest room.

In 1984, my grandmother died. I came into some money and bought a SoHo loft with it when this cost about as much as a studio apartment in Pikeville, Kentucky. Because I’ve lived on and off in Europe (Paris, Milan and, just for fun, Gothenburg, Sweden) and I’m the only badly-paid illustrator chick with a guest room in Lower Manhattan, this makes me quite popular with the thrifty international set.

Which brings me to this: These charming and cultured foreigners, these attractive, seemingly worldly hipsters knew nothing about New York. Nothing. They didn’t know where to get their hair cut, or how to find snow frog jelly, or how to pronounce “Houston” or anything! And who did they turn to in their quest for knowledge? That’s right. Moi. Io. Jag.

I know these things, and many more. Now, it just so happened that in a totally unconscious, flagrantly random and quite possibly neurotic way, I have been keeping a list since I got my first Mac, in 1989. A behemoth of a list. It used to be in Quark. No fields, mind you. Just a really, really long list. Now it’s in Word, but that doesn’t help, because I don’t know how to use either Quark or Word. It is, however, unbelievably long, and contains some rather vital information, to wit:

Here is a random chunk of the list:

Secret Places with No Signs.
Where Hervé Villechaize had his suits made.
That bizarre place that serves only omelettes.
The Haitian cab driver cold remedy.
Gus Librizzi is a good name for a barber.
At Dim Sum a GoGo order the chicken and chives and the mini GoGo burgers!
World Gym is open all night so you can feel guilty 24 hours a day. You could be there right now!
Write a new NYC etiquette book, because when did they decide that clipping one’s nails on the subway was an acceptable thing to do? Here’s the new rule: when you leave a public place, all of your DNA should leave with you.
That “true mirror” window on 1st street where you see your self non-reversed—how other people see you.

It goes on.

OK, much of this info is not pertinent. It is impertinent. However, with some obvious exceptions, many of these entries had to do with New York. That is why I began to copy and paste those items into another “NYC LIST” document and print it out for the clueless foreign houseguest crowd. I kept adding to it and updating it. And just for fun I started to draw all over it.

And design around it. I copied it for my friends.

When it weighed about as much as Honoré de Balzac’s complete Comédie Humaine, I actually made one phone call, to a publisher specializing in New York City books. To accomplish this humiliating task, I hired a NYU intern with a handgun, who pointed it at my right temple while I dialed. It was the only way. They expressed interest, but wanted to arrange my frisky pages into helpful, useful categories. Organized? Yes. Practical? Undoubtedly. Marketable? For sure.

Of course I didn’t like that idea. Compromise? Never. Instead, I did what any dedicated professional would: I cried. And then I put it under my bed. For five years. I didn’t try to get it published again. Why? Because I can’t stand making phone calls. Because I hate being a supplicant. Because I’m terrified. Of what? As my father always says, “Nothing that 25 years of intensive psychoanalysis couldn’t cure!”

Because I have a large metal plate in my head.

Flash forward five years. Chronicle Books in San Francisco called me to do a project which has something to do with astrology and is inevitably killed, Rosenworld’s motto being “The Little House That Kill Fees Built.” The art director I worked with was very nice on the phone. Now flash forward another eight months. She came to the Book Fair in New York and called me to say hello. I invited her over to the colorful kingdom that is rosenworld.com. I said, “By the way, I have this 250-page dust bunny under my bed. Wanna see it?” Well, she dug it the most. She took it back with her to San Francisco and, unbelievably, they decided to publish it.

I proceeded to remake the book completely. Of course many of my list items were illustrated, with collages, with drawings. But my unique backwards “process,” if you could call it that, involved a ransacking and culling of the postcards, rogue unpublished illustrations, printed ephemera and cocktail napkin doodles that I have been collecting for a lifetime, and finding a New York-centric excuse to use these bits and pieces. No matter how unapplicable they seemed. I had a postcard of Nebraska’s legendary Warrior Rabbit (with antlers) which I felt was indispensable. That’s why the shop “Untitled,” which carries the best postcards, is in the book. The images often came first.

I added text as well, such as “Biased, Unfair Rundown of New York Neighborhoods,” and an address book in the back, where people can list their contacts by description, such as “soft touches,” “femmes fatales,” “sawbones,” “offspring,” “air merchants” and “it’s all relatives.”

I was rewriting it while I was illustrating it while I was designing it while I was doing production work on it. As the months wore on, I had to try to keep up with changes in New York. I have a section on mysterious signage. There’s a two-story building on 23rd street. Bottom floor: Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. Second floor: The Ayurvedic Health Center. But now the health nuts have moved out. Change is good, but not for my book! Thank God the PIZZA PLUS PLUS, and the Home for “Funerals” is still there. It’s the quotation marks that make it all worthwhile.

I am very proud of New York Notebook, but if I’d known there was a goal, I would never have begun the journey. Maybe it’s A.D.D. (my former therapist certainly thought so, so I “moved on” of course), but I’ve never been able to focus. Why should I? I want to encourage chaos, distraction and the joy of one tangent leading to another and another. I want all the unfocused, Ritalin-addled goofballs out there to join me in my delirium of distraction. It’s all tangents. That’s the way we like it. And you never know. Really, you don’t. ca


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