Photo: Jimmy Hasse

Nicolaia Rips spent her formative years in what might be described as a “sea of infamy” by those less than enchanted with the bohemian lifestyle. Though the title of her memoir—Trying To Float—comes from a specific childhood incident in which she almost drowned a baby, it also perfectly sums up her perspective. Published at the age of 17, Rips’ memoir, subtitled Coming Of Age In The Chelsea Hotel, chronicles her so-far short time on this planet, most of which was spent trying to stay afloat as a kid perpetually misunderstood by her peers. It’s no surprise that Rips is drawn to the arts, given both her childhood home in New York City—which has historically been a residence for people as eccentric as they are creative—and her parents—Sheila Berger, a former model, artist, and world traveler, and Michael Rips, a lawyer turned author. Or that she was often mercilessly picked on by her peers, a group that for the most part consisted of what one expects adolescents navigating the choppy waters of popularity to be: self-involved, petty, and cruel.

And so it was in a historic landmark that’s housed the likes of Patti Smith, Gaby Hoffmann, Iggy Pop, Charles Bukowski, and more, that Rips felt most at home. There, free from any sort of crippling judgment, was a community of misfits, much like herself, ready to soothe the emotional scars Rips accrued from bullies. This includes Stormé DeLarverie, who has long been rumored as the person who spurred the crowd to action during the Stonewall uprising in 1969, and who comforted Rips after an especially trying day at school. She even went as far as to offer her services as a hitman, though Rips cautioned her that elementary schools probably wouldn’t allow guns (to which DeLarverie responded, “Well then, young lady, Stormé will just shove her boot right up their little asses”).

It’s Rips’ vignettes like the ones of DeLarverie that showcase her talent as a writer, one of childlike observation, which for obvious reasons often eludes more seasoned writers. There’s no pretense; instead, the description is what you would expect from a child’s diary, and that’s exactly where it comes from. Taken from the pages of old diary entries and compiled with the guidance of her father, Rips paints an accurate portrayal, saying of her newfound protector, “From that day on I went to bed knowing that I had a sexually ambiguous and incredibly violent 80-year-old woman watching over me.” She concludes this chapter with just as much candor and the realization that with DeLarverie there was no need to be afraid of a “couple of prepubescent girls.”

Trying To Float is not a groundbreaking memoir, but it is a fascinating one. Rips’ ability to write simply, paired with her dry wit, propels the reader through her coming-of-age. It’s an impressive debut considering Rips chronicles 17 years of her life when she’s only lived as many.

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