Why the West Side: Susie Essman

Susie Essman and Poppy at Pier I in Riverside Park.

By Eileen Katz

When she’s on screen, Susie Essman is a comic genius, beloved by millions of people. In her off hours, she’s just another Upper West Sider, eating at Gennaro’s, helping old ladies across the ice, or waiting for people buying melons at Fairway to move their butts out of the way.

Susie is back this season on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, which makes its return to HBO on Sunday night, October 1, at 10 p.m.

Thankfully for all of us, Susie and her dog Poppy found the time to share her Upper West Side story.

So Susie, why the West Side?

I have lived here since 1980…which means I’m really f&*king old. In 1980 I was living in the village and my cousin who was living on 73rd between Amsterdam and Columbus in a rent stabilized apartment, told me she was moving to LA and offered it to me. It was a 4th floor walk up, $300 a month and I illegally sublet that for 9 years. And it was tiny, but a cute little apartment. Of course, in those days, the neighborhood was completely different. You couldn’t walk on Amsterdam. It was dangerous. And where the subway is now on 72nd Street was Needle Park. Columbus was hip and happening with Ruell’s and Nanny Rose. But that was it. And then I got discovered and I moved to another illegal sublet on 78th between Broadway and Amsterdam, directly across from Stand Up NY on the ground floor for 14 years until my super died, who loved me and I would shmear him all the time but the new super ratted me out. One day the Marshals showed up, served me papers and I had to get out.

Seriously??! They couldn’t just ask you nicely? The owners had to call in the Marshals like you’re a hardened criminal?!

I know, right? But then they ended up being quite nice about it but jacked my rent up like 3 times. But it was a huge one-bedroom with an eat-in kitchen and it was right on the ground floor. My door opened right on to the street so when I was on at Stand Up NY they knew they could just give me a call when they gave the light for the comic that went on before me which meant I had two minutes and I could just walk out my door and go on stage. That apartment was like my green room! And it was great cause they were like my doormen.

Every night when I’d be done making the rounds and performing there, it would be my last stop and I knew all the bartenders and comedians. Everybody was always hanging out and then someone would always make sure I didn’t walk home alone. And then there was also Sal! From Pizza Town (at left), which used to be on the corner, but sadly no longer exists, which is part of the problem on the Upper West Side, as we all know. All these great Mom & Pop stores going out of business because of rents and everything else. But Sal would also look out for me and watch me at my door. It was so great. Really a little community in itself. So I was there for 14 years. Then they jacked up the rent too and I realized it was time to buy. Which I did on West 76th Street between West End & Riverside and that’s the apartment where I met my husband. I lived there for 3 or 4 years, but once I got married, I inherited these 4 great children so needed a bigger place. That’s when I moved up to 107th and Broadway, where I stayed for about another 4 years, and now at 70th and West End.

What would you say are the differences between down here in the 70’s and the upper part of the hood in the hundreds?

It’s a very different vibe. I like it up there because it felt like what it used to feel like down here….there’s little book stores, and you could look down the street and not see a Duane Reade. The funny thing is, even down here now though, it still feels very neighborhoody to me. I like to think of the city as a series of little villages. You know, people outside the city will say: “How do you live there?” I don’t leave my neighborhood half the time! I’m not hanging out in Times Square or anything. This has become home. I would never live anywhere else. I can’t even imagine.

And I’ve looked! For a quick second I considered the Upper East Side, but it didn’t feel like home. I thought about the Village. I love the Village but it adds too much time to my commute upstate. But this feels like home to me. When I’m walking around the West Side, there isn’t a day that I don’t run into someone I know. In all the apartments I’ve lived in I’ve known all my neighbors, all the people who work in the building, the merchants in the local places. It’s home. I will die here. I’ll end up in The Esplanade or something like that and be very happy. My mother’s friend, Rene, is there and is very happy so I could be too.

What are some of your favorite things about living up here?

I love the trees. You’re between two parks, and Riverside I prefer, because I love the Hudson and it just feels more neighborhoody to me. And Central Park , with all its beauty and it’s such a magnificent place, just feels more touristy to me. And I’ve always lived closer to Riverside. So it’s the trees that are a draw. I like the proximity. Wherever I want to go to on the island I can easily get to.

I go to the theater a lot and that’s so easy and I love walking and it’s so easy to walk everywhere from here. I can ride my bike, if my building would ever give me a spot. I love my food options. I lived here when this was the ONLY Fairway. When I got married and was selling my apartment, they asked: “Does the oven work?” and I was like: “I have no idea.” I lived here so many years as a single woman and when you live up here between Citarella, Fairway and Zabar’s, who’s cooking?! Why would I cook?

And people are always complaining there aren’t a lot of great restaurants here but I think there are. I like Bodrum, Mermaid Inn, Cibo e Vino, Gennaro’s and Fish Tag. Oh, and I get my color done at Franky D Salon on Amsterdam and 90th. I like Aveda color. And both Joy (Behar) and I like Pinky’s on 89th and Broadway. And another thing I really love about the Upper West Side is that as many times as I’ve moved, even if it’s just been a few blocks, it’s kind of like discovering a whole new mini village. You find a new dry cleaner, a new pizza place, a new drug store. Each time you move you’re discovering new things…a new homeless person, a different Chase branch. And the endlessness of discovery is what’s exciting to me. I’m sure other parts of the city are like that, but I just love that.

Share some of your favorites!

Oh, I love Café Luxembourg, Cesca, my kids like The Smith for the salads. Just constantly always new places. You can walk up Amsterdam and there’s always a new little place – always food to be found! The top of the line greatest ever? No. That’s the Lower East Side maybe or even Brooklyn now, but for what I like to eat which is fresh, delicious food? It’s great. And just every convenience I could need is here. You can probably say that about a lot of neighborhoods in the city, but more than that, it’s the people. To me, living here, not only do I run in to people I know, but I feel I’m with like-minded people. Like I would bet 90% of the Upper West Side voted for Hillary. As we sit here, looking at the towers named after “he who should not be named.” I really think the most important part about living in this neighborhood, for me, is the people. Kindred spirits and all that. I really feel that way and have since 1980 when nobody knew who I was.

What are your interactions with your fans like here?

People are generally really respectful and very nice…..but every now and then I get one of these assholes who shove a phone in my face asking me to: “Go tell my husband to f&*k himself!!!” and stuff like that which is like bizarre that this is what my life has become!

Well, it’s like people want personalized voice messages by Susie Greene!

Yeah. It’s insane that I’ve become beloved for telling people to go f*&k themselves! It’s fantastic! I’m not complaining, but it’s odd! Let’s put it this way, I never planned that. It’s not like when I was a little girl in Mount Vernon I would say to my Mother: “Mommy, when I grow up I’m going to tell people to go f&*k themselves and they’re going to pay me.” It’s amazing!

Clearly there’s so much that you love about living up here…can you share some of the things that maybe aren’t so great?

The most important thing is clearly the loss of the little Mom & Pop boutiques and restaurants. I miss that character. I don’t know if there’s a way to go back and I miss that a lot. Parking isn’t great either. I love everything else.

You mentioned Zabar’s before. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one thing from there what would it be?

Easily the whitefish salad. And the roast chicken from Citarella. It’s so good. Fairways are good, but Citarella’s just a little be better. And it’s nicer to shop in. At Fairway I always seem to get stuck behind an 80-year-old woman with one melon in her cart who won’t let you pass.

So in all the years you’ve spent up here, have you ever witnessed something or been a part of something that could only happen on the Upper West Side?

Oh my God. So many things. The homeless situation is a sad one citywide. But up here, to me at least, it used to be you had your own homeless people. You know, you had your guys in your part of the neighborhood and you knew them and they knew you and they were your people. I remember the green towel guy and the guy who used to sit in front of Zabar’s on Sunday morning selling sections of The New York Times: “I have the theater section for a quarter! Anyone want the theater section for a quarter?” And you knew these people and tried to help take care of these people. Like there’s Danny Koch who owns The Town Shop, still a family owned business where I buy all my brassieres, and people should ’cause they have things you can’t get anywhere else and they fit you beautifully. Anyway, in the ‘80’s there used to be this homeless guy who used to do these metal sculptures and Danny was one of his patrons. He helped him, bought things from him. So there was that sense of community and people wanting to help those less fortunate than themselves. It’s become a lot more bourgeoisie, but then so have I.

And something else about the Upper West Side, more so than I think other neighborhoods, is a visual feast. People watching up here is a true visual feast. I love that there are so many old people up here in this neighborhood. Every winter, for the many years I’ve lived up here, I can remember lifting old ladies off the ice and walking them home and I made so many friends that way. I remember this one old lady who I must’ve lifted a hundred times who used to wear this purple swing coat and I never knew her name, but she become the purple swing coat lady to me. Like when you live in a neighborhood it’s not just the homeless people that become yours, when you’re in a neighborhood you develop visual code names for them “Oh there’s Bermuda shorts guy” on 76th Street and they become the cast of your neighborhood. They’re a part of your daily fabric.

When they declare “Susie Essman Day” on the Upper West Side how would you like them to celebrate?

I would like it to be on the street and I would like everybody to have a bagel with cream cheese and lox, gluten free if necessary, and a nice glass of wine and just all celebrate how lucky we are all to live in this amazing neighborhood.

And when they name a street after you, which one would it be?

I would be torn between 76th Street and 78th Street. Seventy-sixth has a special place in my heart because that’s where I met my husband and it’s a beautiful block. But 78th was a very important part of my work life. My career life. Fourteen years – from 1989 to 2003 and that was the huge crux of stand up, of my “Curb” life. I remember being in that apartment very very distinctly getting that call from Larry. He called and was like (in Susie’s perfect imitation of Larry David’s voice): “Susie I’ve got a job for you I want you to do.” And I was like “Well, what?” and he said: “Well it’s a part in this new series I’m doing.” And I asked him to send me the script and he says: “Well, there is no script but don’t worry about it you’ll be great”. So I said well what’s the part? And he said: “You’ll just make it up as you go along” So I say okay, what’s the money? “There is no money.” Luckily, I still said yes.

Susie Essman and Larry David in a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

What made you say yes?

Well, it was Larry, and I’ve know him since 1985 and I knew he was brilliant and I had nothing to lose. And I knew nothing about it until I got out there! I never knew if I was going to be back season to season…if there was going to be another season, but here we are 6 years later and it worked out! Who knew! But for me, one of the best seasons was season 8. The show is in LA, but that season we shot 5 episodes in New York. And my TV house was on like 87th and Central Park West. And the view from the apartment was of the park and it’s like the park become a character in the show. In my TV house in LA, there’s a boxwood shrub out my window or something. Totally nondescript. But in New York, the city just became a character. We shot a lot on the West Side and that was just terrific. And the crowds were terrific. Larry just couldn’t’ get over how amazing the crowds were, and the people and energy. So much different from LA.

So I have to ask: How would Susie Greene sum up the West Side?

I hate to say it, but the West Side is not really a Susie Greene kind of a place because everybody’s in black. You know, she’s a little more flamboyant. And now that Loehmann’s closed, which was a very sad day for all of us, there’s really not much for her here. You know, when I was creating Susie, I had this idea about how I wanted her to dress. She has this sense of herself. Susie Green really believes she has the greatest taste in the whole world. She never second-guesses herself. She just thinks that she’s got it and whatever her opinion is, is right! She’s reactive. She says what’s on the top of her head knowing it’s the perfect thing. She’s not like me who analyzes everything.

Susie Essman as Susie Greene, rocking that colorful style. Image via HBO.

So I had this idea of how she would dress to reflect this and I said to the wardrobe person in LA, who I think was from somewhere in the mid-west, that Susie Green would shop at the back room of Loehmann’s and she says: “What’s that?” I was like What?!? Fortunately there was still a Loehmann’s across the street from The Beverly Center and we took a field trip and she was wowed! And so many times when I’m visiting friends in Miami, they just have so much Susie Green-wear there it’s an amazing place to pick up a colorful piece or two. Or the Russian women in Brighton Beach. They might be able to contribute a few items too!

Thank you and good luck on the new season of Curb. We’ll all be watching!

Curb Your Enthusiasm airs on Sunday nights, starting October 1. See some trailers for Season 9 below.

Pizza Town image via Yelp.

COLUMNS | 22 comments | permalink
    1. Spence Halperin says:

      Pretty, pretty, pretty terrific interview.

    2. John says:

      Heavenly. Surely, the best of the celeb interviews to date (not that there was anything lacking in the others). She really, really, REALLY gets the UWS — its history, people, culture, green wonders, its changing face, its sad losses and exciting novelties. And what a mensch, she is. We’re proud and lucky to be your neighbors, Susie!

    3. Joey Oliver says:

      That was fantastic. Unfortunately, my dream of having Susie record my voicemail has been dashed.

    4. Marie Feingold says:

      Yay Susie, Yay Joy!!! Unfortunately I don’t have HBO so I can’t watch CYE, but love both these gals (and how they support each other) and Larry David too. Have lived on the UWS since 1976, so I beat ya!

    5. ScooterStan says:

      Re: “….it still feels very neighborhoody to me. I like to think of the city as a series of little villages.”

      Thanks, Ms. Essman, but you’re NOT the first to notice the truth about our city.

      In his wonderful “Here Is New York” the great essayist E.B. White noted the same exact sentiment, and that was in the mid-1940’s.

      White’s book is a must-read for anyone who, as he did, loves this incredible city.

    6. Sheryl Fox says:

      Loved this interview. We just moved back to San Francisco after 5 1/2 years living at 70th & Amsredam. I am missing my little village so much! Can’t wait to visit!

    7. OriginalMark says:

      I once met Susie Essman during breakfast at Fairway. I generally avoid saying hello to celebs because I figure I would hate that if I were famous.
      But I had to greet her because she is so funny and talented. She couldn’t have been nicer!
      Thanks Susie for making me laugh – we need more people like you!!

    8. Curbfan says:

      These interviews get better and better! Love that Susie is part of the ‘hood!

    9. Nancy King says:

      I was going from Albany to LA and Susie was on the plane. A crew member agreed to deliver a note I wrote on a cocktail napkin five rows up to her. She got up, turned around, and waved to me. Thrilling! Can’t wait for Curb tonight! It’s worth a subscription to HBO just for that one series.

    10. manhattan mark says:

      Susie, your interview is the complete concept of living on the UWS. How to make friends from strangers, helping neighbors
      when they need help, shopping locally at MOM & POP stores.
      With the addition of a few more paragraphs you could write
      the official UWS handbook…a bestseller for sure! I share your experiences of living in the 70’s and the 100’s between WEA and RSD. Also 50 years in the entertainment business
      specializing in comedy. May your career continue to blossom

    11. Miriam says:

      Fantastic interview! Just one thing, tho’. On the Upper West Side I grew up and live in not everybody wears black. And it’s one of the things I, personally, love about it.

    12. GuiermoFred says:

      F’ing fantastic!!!

    13. David says:

      Great interview, WSR!!

    14. Steven says:

      Love Susie & knew she was an UWS-er. I photographed the Curb premiere this past week which was down at the SVA Theater on 23rd street. She was the 1st one of the cast to arrive & could not have been nicer. She posed by herself, then with her husband. As the premiere ended on the cast shot, I specially asked her & Jeff Garlin to pose together which they were nice enough to do. Thanks Susie, you’re always a class act!

    15. David says:

      The guy who used to sell sections of the Sunday NY Times outside Zabar’s is now a real stereotypical homeless street person wearing old dirty clothes and is no longer that friendly homeless entrepreneur we remember.

    16. Scott says:

      The season premier is pretty awful. For some odd reason the chemistry between Lewis and Larry is gone. They’re not funny anymore.

      • lynn says:

        Richard Lewis isn’t funny anymore. Watching him on talk shows promoting the series has been embarrassing. 🙁

        • UWSHebrew says:

          he was never funny. however his dramatic performance in the movie “Drunks” is fantastic.

    17. tom amico says:

      Loved her even before I casted her in an Aflac spot (with the less than gracious, egomanical Chevy Chase). I still
      live on W77 bdwy and always loved bumping into her when she er lived between me! Glad your still here even though way downtown, who was also gracious enough to leave a message on my sisters’ answering machine, “You’re brother’s a 4-eyed fuck”. I had lasik surgery since then so go fuck yourself. Much love and success. See you at Westside Mkt before it closes in Nov!

    18. Sean says:

      She’s too shrill for my taste.