NYC Smelled Like This in 1986, According to Writer Amanda Stern
Amanda Stern is the lifelong New Yorker you desperately want to befriend, so she can take you to all the secret cool spots that only lifelong New Yorkers know about (or at least tell you about where they used to be in gorgeous, vivid detail). Her brand new memoir (yay Amanda!), Little Panic, tells the story of a childhood fraught with anxiety, set against the backdrop of, you guessed it, New York City. Amanda’s Haystack Story is an olfactory trip through a version of downtown that no longer exists, but you might still be able to catch the occasional whiff, if the wind is blowing just right.
What’s the star of your Haystack Story?
Eau De Toilette Derby cologne by Guerlain
Do you still have it?
Tell us about it.
The physical bottle is rectangular and glass, with a gold cap and a simple black and gold label on the front. The cologne itself is amber and it smells like your absolute coolest, best male, gay friend from high school.
Why is it so perfect?
This cologne smells like every aspiration you’ve ever had for yourself. The benign envy and stunned awe you feel at other people’s effortless beauty, and your hidden hope that one day people will envy you—perhaps not for your beauty, but for some ineffable “way” you carry yourself. The masculine scent is cut with a slightly soft powder and a vague hint of leather. Imagine an early summer in NYC. It’s 1986 and you’re sixteen years old. Your nights are spent dancing at The World, The Saint, or Palladium where you smoke, do drugs, and dance with all the gay boys because the straight boys scare you. At 4am, you stumble home smelling like cigarettes and bad music. After you’ve crashed and woken up at 1pm, ready to shower, you catch a breeze that carries the smell of last night. It’s the smell of nostalgia that prescient teens access when they sense their fun is about to end forever, and yet, it’s also a forecast of the future, a knowing that things are too good to be true.
And you’ll be right, because too soon, the body of eighteen-year-old Jennifer Levin will be found by a cyclist in Central Park, murdered by Robert Chambers, a 20-year-old private school boy, dubbed “The Preppy Killer.” The life you knew last night no longer exists. Club life is over for the under-aged, and whatever natural fear you felt has heightened to an untenable degree. Not only that, everywhere you go, you’re carded, and therefore turned away, sent out to the very same streets The Preppy Killer roams. The club nights were safer than the nights feel now, but even when you try to go back you’re turned away. The best of your nights have folded up and are out of your reach. The only way to bring any of it back is through scent, one you can bring with you wherever you go, for the rest of your days, hoping no one will ever kill it.
How does it make you feel?
Nostalgic, sad, old, young, lucky, impossibly alive and aware it all ends.
If it could talk what would it say?
Stop depressing me and come dance!
When did you get it?
My best male friend in high school and college was Stephen Hara. He was beautiful, artistic, hilarious and could do anything well—especially dance. He had the best clothes I’d ever seen—all beat up and coated in paint splatters. Every time I went to his house I’d make him go through his closet and give me anything he didn’t want anymore. Whenever I wore his jeans or his perfectly beat up tank tops, I’d feel like I’d attained a level of existence no mortal except Stephen had the honor of knowing. Then, I’d take it all off and return to my frizzy, funny looking self. Stephen was the first person my age who had a scent. He wore Derby by Guerlain and the smell activated a rightness in me, a sense of home and belonging. It smelled like the freedom of teenagers in summer, the sweeping expanse of your unknown future and the hope you had for yourself and the world.
In 1999, Stephen died of AIDS and bereft, the only thing I could think to do was to go online and order Derby Cologne, so I could smell Stephen, always, whenever I wanted. When I got online, I was horrified to see that they didn’t make it anymore. I scoured eBay for days, and then weeks, and finally, FINALLY, I found three bottles for $300 total—an absolute fortune—but I bought them and now, when something really special is happening, or I need good luck, or want to be with Stephen, I spray a little in the air and step through it, into the past, and bring him back with me.
Who did you have a crush on back then?
What did your Friday nights look like?
Stephen and I would hang out in my bedroom, smoking cigarettes, mooning over James Dean, and then boys who were actually alive. Maybe we’d go to DoJo’s for something to eat and then we’d head to Pyramid to dance for a couple hours before heading over to The Saint where our friend Mark worked the door. We’d dance some more and maybe go to The World or to a café and drink coffee and ogle the waiters. Then, I’d head back home to my bedroom at my mom’s house, and he’d head to his house and we’d sleep until 1pm and start again.
If someone gave you $20 to spend, what would you have bought?
Painter’s pants from Canal Jeans or Art Supplies from Pearl Paint.
What show did you rush home to watch?
What was your favorite snack?
Quite honestly? My favorite snack was cocaine.
Who were you then, and who are you now?
Same sense of humor, different sense of self.
Illustration by Marisa Balmori