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A Child of new york

When I came to New York City in the mid 1990s, I was a bit intimidated.  In my earliest years growing up in New Jersey, the news about New York had been peppered with muggings and updates on the Son of Sam.  But I knew I wanted to write and that New York was the place to Be A Writer.  As soon as I graduated from college, I moved to Hoboken and commuted to the Big City each day, sometimes more than once in a 24-hour period, for temp jobs and interviews with publishing houses.  

The city was changing:  No one spoke of "muggings" anymore, and I started to figure out the neighborhoods and get more comfortable on the subways.  My first year there, every time I walked through Washington Square Park, someone would whisper  "Smoke, smoke" in my ear, and I was flattered that they considered me normal looking enough to want to sell drugs to.  Within a few years, the "smoke, smoke" guys disappeared, or at least had to stop asking.

I began picking up this free weekly newspaper called New York Press.   There was a columnist who had just graduated from college like me, Amy Sohn, and she wrote about her dating foibles, auditions, and sex life.  I was glued and had to read it every week.  Jonathan Ames, Jim Knipfel, and a host of other columnists also wrote intimately about their lives.  The editors had hit upon a recipe for personal essays that drew in many readers.  

Eventually I saw the occasional essay by a 15-year-old kid at Stuyvesant High, a smarty pants magnet school near the World Trade Center.  The kid's name was Ned.  He would write about being nerdy, not having a girlfriend, playing with Magic cards.  Thing was, he was able to do something that pretty much NO ONE could do at that age -- have the wisdom to put his fumblings in perspective and laugh about them.   Generally it takes years before you can look back and realize it ain't so bad.  Here was a kid mature enough to be able to actually understand the silliness of adolescence while he was going through it.  And boy, could he write.

Something else impressed me, though.  He'd spin tales of going to play Magic: The Gathering at some building in New York in the middle of the night.  One of his essays told about how he'd lied to his parents, said he was at a friend's house, but really went to a "gaming hall" in Manhattan until five in the morning.  He was from Brooklyn, and like a lot of kids in New York, he took trips on public transportation to get to and from school every day.  He did so in order to get to the best school in the area.  Day or night, he was at ease in the Big City.  To me, kids who grew up in New York rather than the suburbs seemed a whole different breed, full of street savvy and general fearlessness.  Some of them became tough and a few became spoiled, but not Ned -- he just knew the streets.

One more thing impressed me:  In his writing, he'd refer to people as his "friends" who were, say, the guy playing dominoes next to the bodega, or a homeless woman.  He spoke of them the same way he'd refer to friends in school.  He was part of the community of New York, not just the community of brainy privileged kids at Stuy High.  To Ned Vizzini, everyone was important and worthwhile.  Who thinks that way at fifteen?  It wasn't an affectation; it seemed to come natural to him.  Maybe his parents raised him right, or maybe the city raised him right, or maybe a combination of both.

At one point, I read an essay of his about how he went to New York Press's Christmas party.  He showed up toting his backpack and ended up in a conversation with Amy Sohn.  She asked him if he was still a virgin.  She told him, "Well, don't lose it too soon."

A week or two later, he wrote an essay in New York Press recapping the conversation.  He wrote something on the order of, "Yeah, that's a real problem.  Losing it too soon."

I read this as twentysomething wannabe writer, new to New York, and I laughed. 

The denouement of Ned's essay was that Amy offered (drunkenly, from what I remember) to "lend you my vulva" if he needed it.  Years later, when that essay got published as part of a book of his essays, the publisher changed it to something like "lend you my body."  

One day, I was on the subway and I saw a teenage boy standing against a pole and reading a book caled "Teen angst?  Naaah" by Ned Vizzini.  I thought, "Yay!  That kid actually got a book published."  It was a collection of his essays, and it had been released by a small publishing company.  Eventually it was re-released by Random House.

When I finally had an email account in the late 1990s, I was able to reconnect with old friends and even write to writers I had admired.  Maybe I saw another of Ned's essays, maybe I got hold of the book.  Whatever the reason, I emailed Ned and said I had enjoyed his writing for several years, and that I hoped he would keep it up.  I said I liked his columns, "especially the seminal Amy Sohn piece." 

He wrote back, saying, "Dear Caren, I am definitely saving this email, because no one has ever called that essay 'seminal.' "  He wrote a few other lines and invited me to lunch.  He concluded with, "I love meeting other writers.  Especially if they're hot.  Just kidding.  Well, yes."  

I assured him that no one who had met me had ever considered me hot, and that I was, er, older than him.  (What I actually said was that I was "closer to Amy Sohn's age.")  But we still went to lunch.  He warned me that he's always 20 minutes late, and he was.

We ate Mexican food at some place on 12th and Washington streets in the West Village.  I'm not sure exactly what we talked about, except that he explained to me why all the single nerdy guys I knew liked the song "El Scorcho" by Weezer.  It was these lines:

        I wish I could get my head out of the sand/
'Cause I think we'd make a good team
And you would keep my fingernails clean.

"If you're a guy, the only reason to ever keep your fingers nails clean is if you're in a relationship," he said.
Aha! I thought.  I had been wondering about that.

Ned had a brilliant mind but could talk about any ole down-to-earth topic, pop culture or male/female relations.  I heard him having a conversation at a party once with a New York Press music writer about foreign policy and nuclear weapons.  It was way over my head and I never could have joined in, but I listened and marveled at their brilliance.

PRINT MEDIA IN THE 1990s -- Ned's piece in New York Press about playing Magic: The Gathering.  I saved it all these years because I loved the lead.  Note that it's published directly across from the "Whatever's Clever" personal ads.  What more could you want in a free weekly?

He started hosting the Barbes reading series in Brooklyn and invited me to read, along with many other people.  That was around the time I began co-hosting Tuesday Night Trivia in the Village, so there was some nerd overlap with other events in the city (literary readings, gatherings thrown by the now-defunct Black Table) and I'd see the same groups of people around.  When Ned was there, he treated everyone like they were worth knowing.

He sent me the Be More Chill manuscript to see if I had any thoughts.  I was a newspaper copyeditor by then and honored to give some sort of critique.  Mostly I loved this novel about a geeky student who took a pill to make him cool.  It's not easy to write for young adults, actually; he was able to capture the intimate, sophisticated yet economical style that many cannot.

While he started working on his second novel, he apparently felt good enough that he figured he didn't need to keep taking his depression medication.  He ran into trouble revising his novel and kept rewriting.  With all the pressures he felt, he became suicidal and called a hotline.  They offered to send an ambulance, but he told them he'd walk to the hospital rather than wake his parents. http://www.nym.org/For-Patients-and-Visitors/Patient-Stories/Ned-Vizzini.aspx

Once out of the hospital, he feverishly wrote a novel based on the experience, It's Kind of a Funny Story, in less than two weeks.  In 2010 it was adapted into a movie -- an incredible adaptation, not a goofy teen film, but instead a thoughtful work of art.  When I watched it, I thought to myself that if anyone ever made a movie of anything I'd done, I hoped it'd be half that good. 

I became one of hundreds of cheerleaders who watched enthusiastically from the sidelines when Ned moved to LA and became more and more successful.  He was collaborating with Chris Columbus -- far out!  

I very rarely emailed him, because A) I wasn't a close friend and didn't want to bother him when he was having great success, and  B)  His character in Funny Story was vexed by not being able to keep up with all of his email, something I guessed was true of Ned too.  The important emails were the ones from a whole generation of kids who loved his writing, the young readers he was so good at reaching.

I heard (probably read on Facebook) that he got married.  I was happy for him.  I never met his wife, but  she must be very kind, and also quite smart to have kept up with someone like him.  (I found her blog - it's creative and sharp.)

Just last week, I was thinking about posting on Facebook that I should get some "humiliation sheets," like Jeremy in Be More Chill, for all the times I messed up sociallyI actually think of Ned's books often.  He wasn't just a YA writer; his novels straddled that line between YA and adult fiction.

Then, on Thursday evening, I got an email from a friend titled "Sad News."  On Facebook, two reliable friends of Ned had already posted about his passing.  I posted a few lines.  Other friends asked me if it was a hoax because it wasn't in the news yet.  Based on who told me, I knew it was true.  (I later found out that it had happened at 11 a.m. that morning.)

Besides feeling sad for his wife and son and for his family in Brooklyn, I also felt frustrated -- frustrated that another brilliant writer had succumbed to depression despite having battled it publicly.  Theoretically, if you know someone has this problem, you think you can fight it.  Often you can.  (There certainly are thousands of artists who somehow survived their individual battles -- look at your bookshelf for proof.)  But not everyone was able to survive.  With David Foster Wallace and even back to Sylvia Plath, it was no secret that they were sick, yet despite how much they had -- literary success, a marriage -- they couldn't use the muscle of their incredible minds to tamp down irrational ideations.

There is a silver lining.  For the last few days, people have been posting tributes on Ned's Facebook page.  Right now, they're only visible to people who friended him in the past (about 3,000 people).  I hope eventually, everyone can see them.  Each one of these comments shows that Ned's attempts to spread awareness about mental illness has gotten through.  There is a whole generation of kids posting about how his books helped them survive and get help, and even adults who read his books 10 years ago and were influenced in their careers or lives.   

On Saturday, a girl wrote:

    I know you will not ever read this. But. I just wanted to say thank you for writing it's kind of a funny story.  It really did save me. And I'm just sorry there wasn't a book out there that could save you too.

Ned's fellow writer and friend Marty Beckerman wrote on Facebook over the weekend, referring to the last page of Funny Story, 

"All the hope he gave readers with It's Kind Of A Funny Story, all the lives he saved, nothing changes that. The page still says, "Live. Live. Live. Live. Live." 

Ned accomplished more in his 32 years than many people do in a lifetime.  He was a New York kid who had book smarts, street smarts, and dollops of compassion.  He grew up there, stayed to attend City College despite test scores that could have buoyed him into a hoity-toity Ivy, and he passed away there.  He seemed relatively at ease in this fabled city that so many of us are intimidated and impressed by.  I only wish he could have stuck around for another fifty or sixty years, because whatever he would have done with that time, it was bound to shake the earth.

 If you don't have someone you can trust to reach out to, do this: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/  1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Some tributes:
Jessica Wakeman, the Frisky.
Timothy Gager, blog post 
Ken Baumann, For Ned
There's a great piece on the web called "It's like Dashboard Confessional set to Music" and I can't seem to find it now, but I will!