Memories: New York Means Freedom
After dropping my sister off at Bennington College for the summer, my parents now prepared to free themselves of the responsibilities of their younger daughter for a few weeks in the summer. My parents had been unfailingly indulgent throughout my childhood, and now that my sister and I were finally of an age that they could have, once again, time to themselves, they divested themselves of our presence in a comparably indulgent way. I was still a year too young for many of the summer programs run by colleges. I could not have accompanied my sister to Bennington even if I had wanted. However, with one daughter away for the summer it seemed to them to make the most sense to send the other daughter away as well, although it could be argued that I was not nearly old enough or mature enough for that. My sister and I were the sole children in our family and we were only about a year and a half apart, and one grade apart in school. Often, we were treated like twins. We shared many things and what we couldn’t share my mother often bought in pairs, so we were often dressed alike, or nearly alike. I tagged along after my sister, to the park, to dance classes, to horseback riding lessons. Much of my life, I was pushed by circumstances to behave as if I was a year or two older than I was. I was not aware of any pressure. In fact, I enjoyed the inevitable compliments about my maturity. As luck would have it, I just barely qualified for a program at a Well Known Art School only a few miles away in New York City.
New York, New York. I’d grown up in its orbit, reading its newspapers, watching its television stations. As kids, our parents took us into “the city” for its cultural institutions and events, museums, concerts, Broadway plays, dance performances, but it was always in and out, for a day, for an evening. At most we might stay long enough to get a bite to eat. Now I was going to spend an entire summer (well, a month or so) in the city off my parents’ leash.
The dormitory was located on Union Square West on the corner of 15th Street, if my memory serves me correctly. The front of the building fronted the park, where the students were told to never go. For younger people today, the level of danger that existed in large cities at that time is something they really don’t understand since they never experienced it. Teenagers were just as inclined then to ignore adults’ warnings if those warnings seemed exaggerated. Yet we avoided the park. I walked in there exactly one time that summer with a group of several other girls. Back then, it was frequently described as an open air drug mart. From what I saw on my one visit, that was a fairly accurate description. In any case, it was so bleak and unkempt, there was no real reason to go in there anyway.
The dorm rooms were arranged in suites, five or six rooms around a common area with a shared bathroom and a kitchenette. Two of the rooms were single rooms and both housed older students. The other rooms were doubles. It was one of the old, formerly commercial, buildings that ringed the square and the ceilings were high. The beds were bunk beds and high enough to stand underneath. I had nightmares about rolling out almost every night and I felt nervous climbing up and down the ladder to the bed every day and every night, especially down, since I tend to wake up groggy and light-headed and am not myself until I’ve moved around a bit. I don’t think I changed the sheets once while I was there.
The window was huge and the sill was wide. When I arrived, my roommate, a large blond girl, was sitting on the sill. She invited me to join her on the window ledge which was wide enough to seat the two of us. “Look down there,” she said. This was far from the tallest building I’d ever been in, but it was the tallest in which I had spent any length of time. I looked downward at the little cars and dots that were people and had a distinct sense of vertigo. It just felt too easy to fall. I made some excuse and walked away from the window.
I wandered back into the large central room of the suite. There was a young woman with straight black hair which stood on end in an unusual way which looked messy but had to have been intentional. “How old are you?” she asked. “Thirteen,” I replied. “I didn’t think they let people your age into this program,” she said and walked back into her room. She would turn out to be sixteen. As someone who was always the youngest in a group, I was used to the petty bigotry teenagers had about age. I would find that there were few people willing to talk to me. I’m not sure that I’m a loner by nature so much as someone who learned to be a loner.
I would soon learn that they made a really strange design decision with the dormitories. The main door to the suite required a key, but individual room inside had none, nor did the wardrobes have locks. The door to the suite was open. A student staying in another suite poked her head in the room. She was petite and perky with long red hair and would turn out to be one of the youngest students in the program along with me. Furthermore, she was in my class. She had one great advantage I did not possess, she was outgoing, and I happily tagged along after her.
Alice, as I’ll call her, wanted some partners in crime to head on up to the boys’ floor. My roommate declined, as did the girl with the spiky black hair. The dormitories were single sex only by suites and most of those tended to grouped on floors. The result was that while you didn’t share bathrooms and didn’t have to be worried about being caught undressed, there was no real division and boys and girls they were on one another’s floors with regularity.
As a summer program, people of any age had signed up, you just had to be past middle school. Although we all shared the dormitory, it quickly became clear that it was going to sort itself out by age. The self-segregation by age is something that has always seemed odd to me. Still, it is a fact. People do it, and in a situation like this, it became very obvious, college age, younger high school students, older high school students and adults. We all occupied the same space but barely talked to one another.
It didn’t take long to find a suite in which a large number of the high school aged students had gathered. The noise coming from the suite told us which one was it. Introductions mostly involved asking where people were from since we came from around the country. Alice came from far enough away that I would never see her again after the summer. The internet, of course, didn’t exist yet and long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive. It was still, primarily, a face-to-face world. Of course, this meant that I was exposed for the first time to people not from New Jersey.
A young man with an accent that marked him as being from the south declared his eagerness to try one of those bagels he’d heard of.
“I wonder what they look like.”
“They’re round with a hole in them,” I responded.
“Are you sure. I had an idea they were triangular,” he said.
“So, they’re just doughnuts,” someone else said.
“No, not at all like doughnuts,” I answered.
“You seem to know a lot about bagels. Are you from New York?”
“No,” I said. “I’m from New Jersey.”
“Do they have bagels in New Jersey?”
Yes, children, this was the level of ignorance we had back in the pre-internet days. You couldn’t just search on the internet for “bagel” if you wanted to know what one looked like.
“So, you’re from New Jersey,” an older high school boy began. “Do you like Bruce Springsteen?”
Uh oh, I thought. Why did I have to go and attract attention to myself by loudly proclaiming I was from New Jersey. Back home, I’d been suffering from social ostracism. Music was not something to be simply enjoyed, but a means by which teenagers signaled allegiances. This was something I hated and I usually avoided discussion about music to avoid the inevitable social fallout. Worse yet, this was a mixed gender crowd. Boys were usually more aggressive when arguing about musical tastes. Asking me a straightforward, point blank question about music in a group of other high school students I’d only just met and who were all older, including some terrifyingly adorable older boys, and were now staring at me waiting for an answer, I was a heartbeat away from wetting myself.
Worse yet, the question was about Bruce Springsteen. Retrospective histories never convey the actual reception he received as I experienced it at the time. He was, in many ways, an anomaly. A musical genre of one. Sure, there were a small group of other bands who got their start along the Jersey Shore and played along a corridor that ran from New York to Philly, but they were a really small group of people that had little connection to the other musical trends of the time, and no connection whatsoever to larger cultural trends.
I couldn’t figure out what was the socially acceptable response, so I decided I might as well tell the truth. “Yes,” I said.
“Have you ever seen him perform live?”
No, as it happens, I’d see him perform live for the first time later that summer.
“Wait here,” the boy said. “Who’s Bruce Springsteen,” a couple of Southerners whispered while he was gone. Minutes later he returned with a boom box and a pile of cassette tapes. He set it on the table. The cassettes were obviously homemade cassettes, the paper inserts covered in a minuscule scrawl. “Bootlegs,” he said proudly. “My friend recorded this one in Philly a couple of years ago.”
There were some unique characteristics of Bruce fandom at this time. Springsteen became known, not through his studio recordings and radio airplay, but through his live shows. His energy at a show was legendary and they frequently lasted four hours. He once said that he would lose five pounds during a good show. His popularity was intensely regional, centered on Philadelphia, although New York was within its orbit, as was the entire state of New Jersey. His fans were passionate, but there were entire social sectors that more or less just ignored him. He didn’t usually engender hatred in those who were not interested in his music because he was not a pop star in the traditional sense. He seemed to have no connection to other areas of show business. The last thing you would ever think of would be a Bruce Springsteen branded line of cologne – or anything else for that matter, not even a leather jacket. More than anything, however, his fans ignored his studio albums. They traded live bootlegs with a seriousness I’ve never seen in any other group of fans, although Grateful Dead fans might come close. At the time, I suspected he was far more popular than his record sales would indicate. And his popularity spread word of mouth. I knew of him because of my sister. My sister might qualify as Bruce Springsteen’s biggest fan.
It was a strange evening. I hoped it would repeat, but soon the large mass of students would separate into smaller groups. The older students would complain about the noise and there wasn’t another large gathering like that again, at least not that I saw.
Between getting settled and going through the ritual paperwork of registering for classes, it was a short school week. The weekend came and I was eager to get out and see New York City. About half a dozen of us, including Alice and Bruce Springsteen Boy headed to Times Square to take in a movie. We waited online for tickets. When I got up to the box office I took a five dollar bill out of my pocket. As I was bringing it forward towards the semi-circular opening in the ticket booth’s glass window, a man came out of no where, grabbed the bill from my hand and ran away. “He took my money,” I said in stunned disbelief. The woman at the box office just rolled her eyes. “That will be five dollars,” she said impatiently. The people around me grumbled. They all saw what happened. They didn’t care. I was taking too long. I pulled another bill out of my jeans pocket. This time, I kept it balled up in my fist until my fist was right at the box office window and pushed it through so that it was barely exposed until it was slipped into the slot. It was a way of behaving with money that I continue to do until this day. When people describe New York City in the seventies as out of control, it was not only the serious crimes that gave that sensation. A thirteen year old girl could be robbed in a crowd in broad daylight and no one in the crowd would even blink. It was routine. Expected.
It was an overcast day and unseasonably cold for the summer. Still, one of our number was eager to see Central Park. The others concurred and after the movie we headed north. The park was not like the park today. There weren’t nearly as many people in it. It was unkempt and dingy, a sad ghost of its former self. We climbed up on top of one of the many rocks that had been hauled to this place a century ago to make the landscape. The were few people around and no one was interested in a group of high school students sitting on a rock. One of the other students reached into a large satchel she’d been carrying and took a bottle out of her bag. Southern Comfort. I pretended to not be shocked. I’d never had alcohol before, nor had I been around when other students drank it. I was aware of being the youngest of the group and I didn’t want to stand out. After all, my apparent youth and vulnerability had already been on display by the fact that of all the other people standing on line to buy movie tickets I was the one chosen to be the robber’s victim. Predators choose the young, the old, the sick. That was all past now and I wasn’t especially nervous sitting there on that rock, but I think I was not as relaxed as the others either.
The bottle got passed around and I was intensely curious. I took a swig. It was sweet and cloying, like candy. It didn’t taste bad, but I can’t really say I liked it much either. I felt nothing. The next time it came around I just passed it on to the next person. No one seemed to notice that I didn’t drink. That would become my behavior throughout high school. I never drew attention to the fact that I didn’t drink or smoke pot, I just passed it on to the next person. I wouldn’t drink again until I got to college. In recent years, I’ve spoken to people I knew in high school and referenced how “straight” I was. Few people except my closest friends remember me that way. One even swore up and down I drank and took drugs. I think because I was perceived as “artsy” people assumed I was doing things I wasn’t.
Many of the high school age students were taking the same course of study, an introductory course, but not the girl with the spiky black hair. Whereas most of us were interested in “art” without much differentiation among media, she was very committed to photography and seemed to be advanced along those lines already having learned to develop her own film and make her own prints. After a few days, I noticed that she was alone a lot. The other older high school students and aspiring photographers seemed to avoid her. I heard noise coming from her room and the door was open. I walked over and stood in the doorway.
“Come in. Sit down,” she said.
“I thought I was too young for you to talk to.”
She smiled and laughed. “Beggars can’t be chosers.” I might have been insulted, but that was pretty much the same situation for me in much of my life, so I sat down.
“What are you listening to.” It was definitely something I hadn’t heard before. What was coming out of the box was barely more than static. More bootlegs, I assumed. Still, I didn’t know how much to attribute to the poor quality of the cassette or to the music itself.
“Siouxie and the Banshees.”
“I never heard of them.”
The girl with the black hair smiled, “I’d be surprised if you had. I copied this off of a cassette a friend had copied off of someone from England. Can you even hear it? The quality’s terrible. Still, this is all I have of them. I’ve got to find a better recording somewhere.” She hit eject. She took out another cassette. From the writing on the insert I could see it was another homemade tape. “The quality on this one isn’t great, but it’s much better. At least you can hear the music. They’re called the Psychedelic Furs.”
“Are they also from England?”
“I’m not sure, but I think so,” she said.
When the cassette ended she asked, “Do you think I’m weird for liking this?”
That, my friend, is great suspense!
You really are a great story teller.
There’s no real denouement, I’m afraid. It’s all episodic. This happened, then that happened. It was an interesting summer and it laid down a lot of things that would come up later, but there’s no real plot. I guess that’s the reality of life as opposed to fiction.
As I mentioned before, I’ve been writing my memories down because I’ve been trying to figure out why I believe the things I do. It’s sort of the opposite of assuming your opinions are objectively right. I hold the opinions I do partly because of the things I’ve been taught, but also because of the things I experienced first hand. I think my attitude towards crime is a good example. If I had no first hand experience of it, I think I’d have a typical liberal view of it. And if I stayed in suburbia, which would have been entirely possible without even thinking that I was insulating myself, I probably would have never been robbed. Later in my life, I was mugged a couple of times. So, while I want to be very broad-minded when it comes to crime, I sometimes think the left goes to far and refuses to see reality. Crime happens and it’s generally the weak that get targeted.
The other thing that comes up here, and why I’ve included the girl with black hair, has to to with nudity. Part of the class I was taking was life drawing. Also, I would eventually pose for a photography project for that girl.
Eventually, of course, I’d move to New York.
It is interesting, though, how much I remember. I think I could draw you a floor plan of the suite.
You do have very good memory. I honestly don’t remember as much as you do. Life for me I think was almost routine.
I love your stories and how you tell them.