I was on the hunt for a collection of essays and stories, when I stumbled upon this swift read. For better or for worse, Trying to Float was not what I was expecting.
New York’s Chelsea Hotel may no longer be home to its most famous denizens—Andy Warhol, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, to name a few—but the eccentric spirit of the Chelsea is alive and well. Meet the family Rips: father Michael, a lawyer turned writer with a penchant for fine tailoring; mother Sheila, a former model and renowned artist who matches her welding outfits with couture; and daughter Nicolaia, a precocious high school junior at work on a record of her peculiar seventeen years.
Nicolaia is a perpetual outsider who has struggled to find her place in public schools populated by cliquish girls and loudmouthed boys. But at the Chelsea, Nicolaia need not look far to find her tribe. There’s her neighbor Stormé, a tall woman who keeps a pink handgun strapped to her ankle; her babysitter, Paris, who may or may not have a second career as an escort; her friend Artie, former proprietor of New York’s most famous nightclubs. The kids at school might never understand her, but as Nicolaia endeavors to fit in she begins to understand that the Chelsea’s motley crew could hold the key to surviving the perils of a Manhattan childhood.
“The greatest thing about the lobby was that you were never alone. ”
The first essay set at the Chelsea Hotel –“known for its writers, artists, and musicians, but also for its drug addicts, alcoholics, and eccentrics.”- completely captivated my attention in just a handful of pages, which was what convinced me to forge ahead. However, I quickly came to realize that Trying to Float wasn’t quite what I’d signed up for. Nicolaia Rips chronicles more about her adolescence and the hardships of making friends in middle school, than growing up in said eccentric hotel. Which I didn’t mind that much at first, but it grew a bit tedious and repetitive towards the end. (But I can’t lie: I still love hearing middle school gossip.)
Plus, there were certain residents (Jade!!) and neighbors that I wanted to know more about, instead of reading about some random middle school boy farting into someone’s face (yeah, that happened…).
I just felt like these essays had so much potential, however, they didn’t live up to what I’d imagined. I felt like we only scratched the surface of intrigue, but didn’t fully dive in to explore.
Also, the author admitting at the end of the book that certain points on the pages of her chronicle were exaggerated made me question multiple times what was real and what was fake. Not going to lie, it felt a lot like this:
But in the end I was just grateful to have found a collection of essays to read after so long without one. And I didn’t mind the stream of consciousness narrative, which was a plus for me, along with the subtle humor thrown in for good measure.
Speaking of, here are some of my preferred pieces:
“As tenants passed through the lobby, Stanley would announce how much rent was due and that it had not been paid. It was humiliating. Most of those who owed rent would call the front desk to check if Stanley was in the lobby before exiting the hotel. On those occasions when Stanley left to get a coffee at the Aristocrat, a swarm of tenants would rush out of the hotel.”
Stanley, the landlord, was something else.
“It is said her name was not really Jade, but Stacey. That she arrived at the Chelsea Hotel in the middle of the night during a blizzard, a runaway from Florida. It is said she walked from Port Authority to the hotel wearing only a T-shirt, tattered shorts, and flip-flops. That Stanley Bard said she could stay for a few nights, which extended to months, then years. And that in those years she transformed herself from a little girl to a goddess—her home, from a dark, single room without a toilet, to a suite.”
As I mentioned before, Jade was so fascinating to get to know. Sadly, we only got to hear about her in one swift essay.
And then this little tale Nicolaia told to an anxious girl on their first day of middle school:
“I needed to say something. I settled on a story I had been told that very morning by Jerry, the manager of the front desk at the Chelsea.
“There were two old Jewish men who worked together in a clothing factory,” I began. “It was crowded and hot, and they stood on their feet all day long.”
Ignoring her bewildered look, I continued.
“One of the men was a cutter and the other a sewer. They were both from the old country and spoke with Yiddish accents. One day the sewer went missing.”
The girl stopped crying. I had her attention.
“Exactly two weeks later, the sewer returned to the factory.”
“Where did he go?” the girl asked.
“Well, that’s exactly what the cutter wanted to know. So he says to the sewer, ‘Where were you? You’ve been gone a long time.’ ”
I waited a few seconds, pretending to decide whether I should continue.
“What was his answer?” asked the girl.
“The sewer tells the cutter, ‘I was in Africa.’
“The cutter responds, ‘What did you do in Africa?’
“The sewer, while stitching a piece of cloth, says to the cutter, ‘I traveled all over, I saw many things, and at the end of my trip, I was eaten by a lion.’
“ ‘Wait a second,’ says the cutter. ‘If you were eaten by a lion, you wouldn’t be living.’
“The sewer looks around the factory and says, ‘You call this living?’”
Oh, boy… these kinds of stories always remind me of my family and our gossip and good times. And the more I think about this tale, the more I laugh. It was a good effort.
And there’s a lot more where that came from. Essays with similar humor, from playing tic-tac-toe with stoners and going to summer camps seemingly caring for animals, to being accused by a former friend of pregnancy at eleven-years-old… Trying to Float had a lot of middle school shenanigans that I slowly grew keen of observing from the side lines. I mean, there’s no doubt that middle school is one of the most baffling periods, or maybe that’s high school… Either way, school sucks for the most part and this book was a not-so-subtle reminder of that.
At the heart of it all, it was a very interesting subject matter of coming-of-age in an unexpected place, but there was still something about it that didn’t sit right with me. I can’t point my finger on one specific thing, but I know that I couldn’t shake of my unease for awhile.