Early “Manhattan Series” 1997-1999Posted: December 28, 2019
[Photograph of three of the early New York originals inside a business card wallet, 1997-1998]
When I first got to Manhattan in December, 1997 I started to obsessively draw “Hughcards” [hand-drawn cartoons on the back of business cards], just to give me something to do while sitting at the bar. Two decades later, I’m still at it.
An artist is quite a f**ked-up thing to be, and to be honest I’m not sure if I would recommend it to anybody. Still, in my collection there are a few drawings from my time living in late-1990’s New York that, looking back, make the whole thing seem worthwhile (For the first five minutes, at least).
The Shark Bar
When I first moved to New York in December 1997, I stayed at the YMCA on West 62nd.
My first drawing as a New York resident was on my first evening, sitting on a barstool at the Shark Bar: a hip, young place in SoHo.
Having only arrived in town a few hours before, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by New York, to say the least. Plus I had already drunk quite a lot. I think both show up in the drawing.
I’ve been back to the Shark Bar a couple of times since then, but it never had the same insane magic of that first evening. Great name for a bar, though. Especially in Manhattan.
Millionaire Or Artist
My father once referred to this one as, “Hugh’s Autobiography”. I never wanted to *just* be an artist, I never wanted to *just* make money. Years later, little has changed.
Spring ’98. I was at a bar, it was late, I was kinda tipsy.
Suddenly I realized that my life hadn’t changed much in the last decade since leaving college. Work, bars, cartoons, random conversations of a big-city nature, second-hand bookshops and art-house movies, the occasional bout of random sex to tide things over etc etc.
It wasn’t as interesting as it used to be. But I hadn’t moved on, really. And I had no idea where to go next.
Welcome to New York.
The best cartoons are the ones that give you these amazing moments of clarity as you draw them. That’s the best thing about cartooning, really. Everything else seems rather secondary in comparison.
I Choose This Life
I drew this card my first weekend in New York, at a restaurant bar in Tribeca called The Screening Room (it was attached to an art house cinema next door). I was very single and very alone around then, I hadn’t made any real friends yet, it was a very scary and lonely time for me. Still, I imagined what it must be like to fall in love, to have someone you would want to say these words to, and actually mean them. It would be a poignant contrast to my current situation, which is what exactly gave the cartoon its bite.
December 29th, 1997. Fanelli’s, on Prince and Mercer in SoHo, is one of the great bars in Manhattan. I had been in New York only a couple of days when I found myself there, drinking heavily.
I no longer drink much, however at the time I had this idea that seriously heavy drinking was essential in order to enjoy New York properly. I don’t think I was wrong, either.
Around midnight at the bar I bump into an old acquaintance of mine from Chicago, the film director Mark Mann. He had moved to New York about 3 months previously to do something with his then-embryonic film career. He is one of the funniest and most interesting people I know, but at the time I didn’t know that. We were quite suspicious of each other for the longest time before we admitted that we actually were friends.
I hadn’t told anybody I was moving to New York except on a need-to-know basis, so he was quite surprised to see me there, at the bar. A ghost from his former Chicago life- just suddenly popped out of nowhere.
Told him my story. Told him about being laid off in Chicago. Told him about this new job I got in New York. Told him I only knew I got the job officially 5 days before Christmas- only about a week previously. Asked him how he was liking New York.
“It’s great,” he said. “Everybody’s insane with loneliness, but that’s OK. After a while you realize that’s part of the edge.”
I was hit with a paradox. I wanted to be in New York, I wanted to be “part of the edge”, but I didn’t want to be “insane with loneliness”. Was one necessary in order to have the other? Was it a price worth paying? To this day, I still have no answer.
A couple of months later (July, ’98) I drew this, sitting on a barstool. Thinking back to that conversation with Mark, suddenly I had a realization: The simple truth about big cities is that people don’t go there to give. They go there to take, or at least, to get. If you feel like giving, good for you,somewhere an angel is smiling yada yada yada, just don’t expect other people to follow your example. And if you’re feeling lonely, at least now you now know why. This drawing is partly about that.
Within 1 week of meeting this person you realize that not only have you found your soulmate, but you’ve found your soulmate who likes to have sex 4 times a day in the bed, on the dining table, on the kitchen floor, in the changing rooms at Bloomingdales etc.
Within 2 weeks you’re already talking about moving in together.
Within 3 weeks you’re talking about having babies together.
Within 4 weeks you realize this person is a complete psychopath.
Within 5 weeks this person also thinks you’re a complete psychopath.
Within 6 weeks you’re sitting at a restaurant with an old friend who is giving you the “How come you only call me when you’re single” speech.
I Knew My Pain
Sometimes life throws you a devastating curve ball. And you’re never ready for it. Ever.
I remember being young and stupid. How utterly sweet and simple life seemed back then, but I also knew in the back of my mind that these days weren’t going to last forever. Ouch. Hopefully, in a decade or two I’ll be looking back to this time now with equal affection. I think that’s all you can do, really.
Early 30s is a great time to be alive- you’re still young, but you have experience. A powerful combo.
The downside is all that weird rockstar shit you believe about yourself is well past its sell-by date, and if you haven’t outgrown it by then, it starts to fuck up your life.
New York is tough enough if you’re a man. God knows how the women manage to do it.
The piece is not particularly clever nor especially beautiful to look at. But something gently disturbing resides just beneath the surface. Hmmm… sort of like apartment brokers.
There are many advantages of getting older… more money and respect from the world at large being the main one. However, with all this newly found cash & kudos comes the idea that maybe the world isn’t such a nice place, after all. That maybe all that unhappiness you see on the faces of your fellow commuters is there for a reason. And no matter how much you try or how hard you work, none of that will ever change.
Still, I suppose it’s better to know that said brutality exists, rather than burning all those calories pretending it doesn’t. I just wish I’d wised up a decade earlier than I did.
Wolf vs Sheep
No, I don’t have an answer to which option is better. Both exact a heavy toll, eventually.
I’ve always been a big Dorothy Parker fan. Urbane wit at its finest. Would I trade my life for hers in order to be that talented and famous? No way. Like all intoxicants, talent can be a poison. Reading her biography, it seems she learned that more than most.
It’s 2 am and I’m in this crazy Midtown Irish bar. I have no idea why I’m there. I shouldn’t be there. I should be somewhere else. Asleep, comfortable, happy, sharing my bed with a sensible girl from a good family, Brooks Brothers’ pajamas, insufferably middle class. But no.
Everybody in that bar is crazy. I tell myself I’m the only sane one but I think I’m kidding myself.
Being an artist/creative is like wearing funky clothing. Every year gets a little bit harder. After a while it just looks stupid. Eventually the stupidity reaches critical mass and the late-night tailspin begins. At a midtown Irish bar at 2am, while I’m drawing this picture, these things no longer seem to matter.
I like this card because it’s the kind of thing poor old Dorothy would have written.
Bourgeoisie Bastard (The Sex & Cash Theory)
The creative person basically has two kinds of jobs: One is the sexy, creative kind. Second is the kind that pays the bills. Sometimes the assignment covers both bases, but not often.
A good example is Phil, a NY photographer friend of mine. He does really wild stuff for the indie magazines- it pays nothing, but it allows him to build his portfolio. Then he’ll go off and shoot some catalogues for a while. Nothing too exciting, but it pays the bills.
Another example is somebody like Martin Amis. He writes “serious” novels, but he has to supplement his income by writing the occasional newspaper article for the London papers (novel royalties are bloody pathetic- even bestsellers like Amis aren’t immune).
Or actors. One year Travolta will be in an ultra-hip flick like Pulp Fiction (“Sex”), the next he’ll be in some dumb spy thriller (“Cash”). It’s balancing the need to make a good living while still maintaining one’s credibility. My M.O. in New York was the Hughcards (“Sex”), coupled with writing advertising (“Cash”).
I’m thinking about the young writer who has to wait tables to pay the bills, in spite of her writing appearing in all the cool literary magazines…. who dreams of one day of not having her life divided so harshly.
Well, over time the “harshly” bit might go away, but not the “divided”. As soon as you accept this, for some reason your career starts moving ahead faster. I don’t know why this happens.
It’s the people who refuse to cleave their lives this way- who just want to start Day One by quitting their current crappy job and moving straight on over to best-selling author. Well, they never make it.
Anyway, it’s called “The Sex & Cash Theory”. Keep it under your pillow.
I have no words. Literally.
One weekend, I caught a train up to Darien, CT. to visit with some cousins who live up there. I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to bring my magazine, and had nothing to read. So I took out a blank business card and started doodling, right there and then.
Realizing that I had stumbled on to an art form that allowed me to be creative just about anywhere- even on a commuter train- felt extremely liberating. It’s a feeling I never forgot, it’s a philosophy I hope never to lose.
Walking down Park Avenue one evening after work, realizing that I was new in town, realizing JUST how few people I actually knew in New York, realizing that I had left pretty much all of my family and social network behind to come here, suddenly seemed pretty terrifying.
No matter how bad things get, no matter how bad a week you’re having, even if you just lost your job, your apartment, your girlfriend, your whatever…
“Hey, at least I’m in New York.”
At least I was being honest.
Manhattan, 1998. One evening after a gruesome day at the office, I went into a coffee shop on 6th Ave to write. Got a coffee, found a table, opened my laptop and looked around. I’m not kidding; there were nine other people in the cafe with open laptops, writing away, just like me. Nine! I counted (N.B. This was well before the era of wi-fi and ubiquitous computing, laptops were a lot rarer back then- trust me, nine was A LOT).
They were probably writing the same tedious crap I was: “It’s a novel about some guy who moves to New York to break into the high-brow literary scene and score with lots of chicks yada yada yada…”
One of the reasons I stick to cartooning is because my traditional prose writing is so godforsakenly awful.
Writing about New York is a bit like writing about sex- it’s already been done to death. And done. And done. And done again. It’s a form of literary necrophilia. Unless you have something completely unique and visionary to say about New York (I have yet to meet somebody in the flesh who does), any kind of Manhattan-fuelled artistic ambition runs the risk of turning you in to a “ligger”.
“Ligger” is Scottish slang for the worst kind of hipster. Somebody who’s a hanger-on, a wannabe, a social parasite. Somebody who goes to art openings to drink the free wine, but never buys a painting. Somebody who sees art as not something you make, but something you milk socially. Somebody who confuses knowing all the right names with actually being one. Somebody who is always seen at all the right parties, but is never remembered. Somebody who actually hasn’t done the actual work.
[Technically, a ligger is that little red and white plastic ball that you attach on the end of a fishing line: like hipsters, it’s just kinda there, bobbing up and down, not doing much.]
Living in New York is only possible if you treat it like a religion. Liggers are really good at this, for some reason. Hence their vast numbers; hence why a big part of your average day in New York is spent separating the liggers from the real people.
This cartoon is all about the liggers, turning up and handing out their business cards like polished machines, right on cue.
So you’re going out a lot. Pretty soon you’re going out too much. Parties. Bars. More parties. More bars.
So you decide to cut back a bit, y’know, start living like a normal person.
So you trade in those wild & crazy times for delivered Chinese food, Harvard Business Review and Seinfeld reruns. You’re just going to try it for a couple of weeks, and see how it feels. After all, this is a “new you” we’re talking about. A better you. A saner you. A wiser, more sensible and compelling you.
But you know in your heart of hearts that you didn’t move from suburban Cleveland, Denver, Pittsburgh etc to a $3000-a-month Manhattan apartment just to watch Seinfeld.
In New York, you always think that if you try harder, work longer hours, make more money, spend more time at the gym, put more effort into networking, read more books, go to bed earlier, drink less booze, avoid negative people, be less shallow about the whole sex thing, be more supportive to your close friends, eat more vegetables and stop smoking so many damn cigarettes, you will eventually be able pull off that great Miracle Of Miracles i.e. you’ll finally, finally, finally be able to live in Manhattan while simultaneously leading a healthy, productive, emotionally-balanced life.
Yeah, good luck with that.