Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel

Can’t say when the last time I read a book written by a seventeen-year old, but this memoir by a high school student was touching and well-written despite Nicolaia Rips' youth. Growing up in New York’s famed Chelsea Hotel gives one a head start, at least when it comes to knowing interesting characters.

The Chelsea’s fame reached its ascendency in the 60s and 70s with noteworthy residents:  Leonard Cohen, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Patsy Smith, who wrote her own memoir about it, Just Kids.

First Nicolaia describes how she came into being. Her mom was a globe-trotting artist, and her dad had zero interest in raising a child, but somehow the artist got pregnant, and the couple began a new way of life. Though not immediately.

While pregnant, her Mom traveled through Europe and along the Silk Road in Asia. Her dad, a non-practicing lawyer and writer, stayed in New York and added a psychiatrist’s office to his daily rounds of coffee shops. He also denied that he was the father, accusing a gay friend for parenting the child. However, once Nicolaia was born, he came around and warmly embraced being a dad, but still the family remained footloose, decamping for several years in Italy, and then roaming North Africa and India, before returning to NYC and the Chelsea Hotel.

They were greeted warmly by all. Children were a rarity in the place, and many of the residents became uncles and aunts to Nicolaia especially Crafty Number One and Two, painters who shared a close bond. Rip’s buddies also included musicians, a night club owner, gay couples, an escort, and a woman who wore a small pink pistol strapped to her ankle.

Most of this book occurs during Rips’ years as a public school elementary student. Her mom and dad never understood that children prefer to blend in, not stand out from the crowd. So her clothes, her parents’ odd habits, comings and goings, and lifestyle set Rips apart from her peers. But at least on nights and weekends, her eccentricities and those of her parents were accepted and even welcomed by the motley Chelsea crowd.

Halloween there was not to be missed. Nicolaia describes the costumes, the decorations, and the pitch of excitement that seemed to thrum for nearly a month.

As you read about Nicolaia being snubbed by the kids at school, you feel sorry for this kind, smart girl who can’t fit in. When she takes the entrance exam for LaGuardia High School for Music and the Performing Arts you root for her, knowing that she will eventually find wonderful friends among artistic types from around the five boroughs.

A compelling read for both young people navigating the awkward social world of school and for parents observing growing up from the other side.