It was a mild day and, when I arrived at Cherry Bomb’s place, everyone was in the backyard. Cherry Bomb, of course was there, as were Cat Eyes and Sour Puss. I can’t recall if Suzie Q was there or not. The boys were there, too, and they had with them someone I’d never seen before. At six-foot-four Lanky Joe was noticeably taller than the boys in my class, many of whom weren’t yet done growing, and he was more than a foot taller than I was. It didn’t escape my notice that he kept looking at me. I didn’t know him and didn’t know how to respond. I made some lame jokes, walked away, talked to someone else, came back.

Finally, it began to get darker and the group started to move down the driveway towards the front porch where there was light. Lanky Joe slipped his hand in mine and held it firmly holding me back while everyone else disappeared around the corner of the house. He sat down on the steps leading to the backdoor and pulled me onto his lap. I began to make another lame joke but was halted in mid-sentence by a passionate kiss. We got up and rejoined everyone before they quite realized that we had gone missing.

I saw him a few more times, always in the company of the others, and we engaged in furtive kisses when no one was looking. It wasn’t long before everyone realized that we were “together.”

A few weeks after that first meeting, Sheepdog came back to visit his friends and he was there when I arrived. So was Lanky Joe. We were too young for jealousy, I think. In the evening, we moved indoors and we were all sitting in Cherry Bomb’s living room. Lanky Joe and I were seated on the sofa. At some point, we were alone in the living room. I don’t remember why. I’ve mentioned before that Cherry Bomb kept her records and her record player in her bedroom and, if I had to guess, I would guess that they had gone to listen to a new record and we had stayed behind for some more furtive smooching.

Lanky Joe picked up a decorative pillow and hit me over the head with it. We were still kids in many ways and that didn’t strike me as anything but playful. I picked up the pillow on my side of the sofa and hit him back.

“Hey, don’t do that,” he said.

“What? You mean this,” I said, and bopped him lightly over the head a second time.

He pushed me onto the sofa so that I was in a prone position. Then he slapped me hard across the face. This wasn’t playful and it wasn’t a joke. It seemed to me that he was making a fist. My parents didn’t believe in corporeal punishment and no one had ever hit me before, not in earnest.

“Hey, what are you guys up to.” It was Sheepdog’s voice. It had the sound of forced casualness. I looked up and he was standing in the opening between the dining room and the living room.

Lanky Joe straightened himself. “Nothing much. What are you up to?”

“I just thought I might join you two,” Sheepdog said lowering himself into an easy chair.

Slowly, the others began to wander in. Chuck E was twitchy and had a lot of nervous energy even on a good day. “Everything okay here?” he asked, taking his hands in and out of his pockets as if he wasn’t quite sure what they were doing at the ends of his arms. The awkwardness was evident.

“Everything’s great.” Lanky Joe said flatly.

After a few minutes, Sheepdog noted that I lived on the other side of town and that it was getting late. He offered to walk me home. It wasn’t that late and I walked home alone all the time. I understood what it was, a request to talk.

When we were a few block’s from Cherry Bomb’s house he said to me, “You need to know I’m not jealous. You know that, right? I couldn’t believe it when I saw you were with him. Did Chuck E tell you about him?”

I shook my head no.

“Do you know why you never met him before? He just got out of reform school. He beat up his last girlfriend, badly. I don’t know what his problem is, but he has a problem with girls. I can’t believe Chuck E didn’t tell you this.”

I felt confused and mixed up and started to cry. I wanted to be alone and told Sheepdog I could get home on my own.

What had happened hadn’t registered in my mind yet. I couldn’t believe the tall, skinny, sweet boy who kissed me when no one was looking was the same boy who beat up a girl so badly that he was arrested and sent to prison. I didn’t believe it was true. I wanted to think it was all a misunderstanding.

I told my father and he became livid when I seemed ambivalent about ending it with Lanky Joe. He insisted that I call and end it and he sat in front of me to watch and listen and make sure I did. I got a long lecture from my mother about how I must not ever let any man hit me for any reason.

The main thing I remember about that day was the color gray, not cold, hard gray like steel, but soft, warm gray like a cloudy sky during a summer rain. I had walked over to a building we called the Grange. A large, gray, boxy building, it was, perhaps, a ten or fifteen minute walk from my home. Public concern about adolescents changes with the regularity of bad fashions and fad diets. That year, they were concerned about teenage idleness, about kids “hanging out” on the street. So the made a room for teenagers in the back of the Grange with pool tables and easy chairs with the intention of keeping us out of trouble no one was getting into anyway. At twelve, I technically wasn’t a teenager, but my older sister was and she said that no one checked anyone’s age. She encouraged me to stop by. The door to the room was at the back of the building and I was walking down the black top driveway that circled the building when it started to rain. It was a mild summer day and the rain felt good on my face. I paused momentarily with my back to the door, lifted my head towards the sky and enjoyed the feeling of the rain on my skin.

My reverie was interrupted by the door bursting open. “What the hell are you doing?” It was my sister. She grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me inside.

“I liked the feel of the rain.”

“People are going to think you’re a fucking freakazoid. Don’t do that again.”

I was always feeling like a freak. Still do. I looked around the room. There were older boys I didn’t know playing pool. I felt my face flush, but I didn’t know why. I wanted to stare at them, but I didn’t want them to know. I sunk into a chair and tried to fit in.

I never understood why tough girls were called tough. The girls called tough often seemed to me to be the most vulnerable. T, whom I mentioned a while ago as being the daughter of one of my mother’s friends, had a neighbor about a year or two older than we were. It would be a dozen years or more before she would earn the title of Limbo Queen of Pleasant Green, but we’ll call her that anyway. If the waif look had been popularized a decade or so earlier, she would have been very fashionable. Girls wore boys’ jeans back in those days and the Limbo Queen’s fit her narrow hips. Her blue eyes always had a look of apprehension, like those of a small animal. Like a lot of the tough girls, she was nicer to me than the nice girls.

I can’t remember her story, but she lived with her aunt. Maybe I never knew her story. Her mother wasn’t around and why is one of those questions you just don’t ask.There was just a general impression that her home life wasn’t a happy one and she often came over to T’s place as an escape.

I remember one day, it must have been either the weekend or the summer because, although T lived in the same town, she lived at the other end and it was too far to walk after school and still be home in time for dinner. Or maybe my mother was visiting T’s mother and I got a ride with her. In any case, I recall being in T’s basement, with the checkerboard linoleum tile. Of that much I have a clear recollection. The Limbo Queen had brought over a small pile of records albums. I remember distinctly that one of them was by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. It was not much to my taste, but I was always intimidated by the confidence other people had in the superiority of their musical taste. Music, at that age, was never just music. It was burdened by a complicated set of social signals that I never felt that I quite understood. Simply liking the wrong song, or the wrong band, or not liking something, would have you tagged as a “fag” or a “queerbait” for the rest of the week, or maybe longer. Generally, when other people brought out music, I just faded into the background and didn’t express an opinion. I had a reputation as someone who was not at all interested in music. I also remember her describing to us what Quaaludes were.

Another day, we were in T’s dining room. That might sound odd, but there was something about the layout of the house that we often wound up there. T implored the Limbo Queen to run back over to her house and fetch her guitar. “The Limbo Queen plays really well.” T told while we waited. “She’s too modest.”

When the Limbo Queen returned, she pulled a chair away from the table and settled into it with her guitar. She seemed oddly reluctant. Finally, she took a deep breath, as if she was willing herself into another world and began. She sang the most moving version of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” The tough girl with the wounded eyes. The wise waif. She had lost all self-consciousness. Indeed, she seemed to already be far away. That was over thirty years ago and I can still see her and still hear her.

A few days later, I spoke to T on the phone. The Limbo Queen had run away from home.

More than a decade later, I saw the Limbo Queen again. No longer a waif, she had a womanly beauty. She wore a sheath dress and high heeled pumps. Her blond hair was done up in a French twist for T’s wedding. She had, I was told, become a bond trader.

In the intervening years, T had moved to Pittsburgh where she was living a bohemian life with her filmmaker boyfriend, now husband. The friends I didn’t recognize, her Pittsburgh friends, all fit a slacker-hipster profile, men with hats and interesting facial hair and women in thrift store dresses. She got married at home and group of her friends who were in a band played on a small platform that served as a stage. They mostly played their own music, but they did incorporate a few songs appropriate for the occasion.

Then the band broke into a Carribean rhythm and a stick was brought out. Limbo time! I probably hadn’t done this since I was a kid and I was quickly out and watching the Limbo competition from a prime seat. My dancer sister didn’t last much longer. Rapidly, the line of dancers was narrowed down to about three highly flexible people. The bar went lower. The Limbo Queen kicked off her pumps and hiked her dress up to the tops of her thighs. The bar went impossibly low. One person was out. The next was out. Only the Limbo Queen was left. She shimmied under the bar, bent backwards, her torso horizontal to the ground. She came up, her feet bare, her dress wrinkled, blond tendrils escaping her French twist, and her face beaming. There was still a wild child inside of the bond trader. Someone grabbed her wrist and held her arm above her head. One of the members of the band shouted, “The Limbo Queen of Pleasant Green!”

The stage name Picasso Kid gave himself was far better than any moniker I could bestow on him, however I’ll call him the Picasso Kid. His nose had very visibly been broken and bent to the side and one day I remarked to my boyfriend that he looked like a cubist painting. My boyfriend thought that was funny.

One of the professors at school called my boyfriend Stoneface because he was always so impassive, his face never registering any emotion. He graduated, I dropped out, and we moved to a crummy basement apartment in Brooklyn, back when Brooklyn wasn’t trendy. There wasn’t a whole lot in Brooklyn in those days, at least not for us. We lived in an ethnic neighborhood of an ethnicity to which neither of us could lay claim. Quite a feat when I think of the long, and meaningless, list I’ve got.

Stoneface and I were in Barnes and Nobles on Fifth Avenue. I was the bigger reader between the two of us, so it was probably I who had wanted to go there. The site of something on a shelf pulled him away from my side. I didn’t take note because generally, you don’t browse in a bookstore like a pair of conjoined twins. “Come over here. Look at this,” he called from another aisle. When I got to his side, he was holding open a squat, thick book. It was a history of punk music. He showed me a page where the Picasso Kid and the band he had back in the seventies were mentioned.

Most of what I know about the Picasso Kid comes second, and even third, hand. He and my boyfriend were friends and we had a few other common acquaintances, but he hated me. We’d all gone to the same college. It was a small liberal arts school and the vast majority of the people came straight out of high school.  Also, many of the students were rich. The Picasso Kid was a poor boy from the Bronx, and he was older than the rest of us. It was only by a few years, but the student body was so homogenous he stood out. One of his band mates, not the band from the seventies, but the one he was in at that time, in the early eighties, wanted to go to college and found out about a scholarship program for significantly disadvantaged New Yorkers. A semester later, the Picasso Kid followed.

He didn’t last very long, then again he didn’t exactly come for the education. A large part of his motivation was to get out of New York City, to remove himself from the environment he’d gotten used to, specifically, the Bowery. The Picasso Kid was a junkie and he was trying to quit. He had started back when he was fourteen and in a band that often played at CBGB’s way back when. After a semester, he’d fail, and return to the city. He and Stoneface would stay in touch.

Now, Stoneface and I were looking for an apartment. A few weeks earlier, on New Years Eve, we’d gone out in the East Village. The Picasso Kid passed by on the sidewalk. He came in and we had a few drinks. Strange night. It wasn’t exactly festive, but it wasn’t bad either. Later, Stoneface would tell me that he’d been talking about getting cleaned up again. Apparently, he’d hit a low point, or more like the lowest point in a series of low points. He had hocked his guitar. So, I would say to Stoneface, while we were looking, why don’t we let the Picasso Kid live with us for a time.

“You know, he hates you,” Stoneface said to me.

“He barely knows me,” I replied, although I’d gotten that feeling. “It doesn’t really matter. Ask him.”

Stoneface told me about a day a few years earlier, when we were all in school but he and I hadn’t yet met. He and the Picasso Kid were sitting in a couple of easy chairs outside the cafeteria. In fact Stoneface could often be found there, watching everybody impassively. I walked through the room. After I had passed by, the Picasso Kid turned to Stoneface and said, “That’s the kind of stuck-up girl who wouldn’t give guys like us the time of day.” Obviously, he had missed judged me since I was now dating one of them, but I was used to people misjudging me if they were judging by appearances. The Picasso Kid didn’t really hate me, he hated the person he thought I was because of the way I looked.

Stoneface grew up with his father in a housing project on the Lower East Side. For many years, his mother lived on East First. His parents met through the Catholic Worker located on the same block. Near by, at the corner of First and First, there was a bar, a low-key place where you could actually talk. We sat on one side of a table. The Picasso Kid faced us from the other. He was intently picking the label off of a beer bottle. Stoneface laid out our offer for him to live with us. He stopped picking at the label. “What does she think of it?” he asked, addressing Stoneface instead of me.

“It was her idea.”

The Picasso Kid pressed his lips together and resumed picking at the label. “I’ll think about it.”

Stoneface had insisted on one condition that I had to admit was reasonable. He told the Picasso Kid that he had to promise not to get high in the apartment. He had said, “I want to help you, but I don’t want to come home one day and find a dead guy in the apartment.” In the end, that condition would prove to be a barrier. He just couldn’t promise that. I’ve got to give him credit for honesty.

After having his glasses broken in a shelter, he took to sleeping on park benches when the weather allowed it. He seemed to be going from bad to worse and we didn’t hear from him for a time. Then, he contacted Stoneface and they met someplace in the Village. One day, when he’d been sleeping in Washington Square Park, he woke up to find a beautiful young woman gazing intently at him. She said to him, “I know inside you’re a beautiful person.” She took the Picasso Kid home and he got cleaned up. It sounds like a fairy tale. I never heard about him again, but I hope it lasted. I think the young woman was right.

After last week’s post, I’m sure you knew this was coming….

It was late afternoon, after school, and the boy who lived not quite next door was sitting at our dining room table talking to my mother.

“So my mother says,” he tells her, “‘They only bother you because they’re jealous of you.’

“‘Right,’ I say to her. Just what every kid wants, to get beaten up on the way home from school everyday. I mean, what on earth would they have to be jealous of?’

“‘They’re jealous because they wish they were as smart as you.’

“Really. How out of touch with a teenager’s reality can an adult be. Sure, I get good grades, but I have no real friends and not even the prospect of a girlfriend.”

At that point I was wondering how I could subtly drop the hint that I had a crush on him. He was cute in an awkward, smart kid, sort of way. I’m not sure what I said. I know I said something, but he didn’t seem to get the hint.

I can’t trace the rest of the conversation, but next thing I know, the boy next door and I were hatching a plan. There was a footpath that went through a tunnel that allowed kids in the neighborhood to get to school without crossing a street. Somehow, the idea of, let’s say, decorating the walls of the tunnel was raised. Weirdly, it didn’t exactly enter my mind that it was graffiti. In my mind, I was an artist, not a vandal.

A couple of nights later, the boy next door, my sister and I met late at night. I had my box of oil paints and some spray paint and a series of large stencils I had cut. The boy next door had some permanent markers. We set out. Using the stencils and the spray paint, I painted a big image of a prowling panther. I looked over my shoulder and on the opposite wall the boy next door was hard at work. He wouldn’t let me see, but my sister went over and held the flashlight for him. After my panther was completed, I took out my oils. I painted a unicorn in a swirl of colors.

A figure appeared along the path. My sister turned off the flashlight and we blended into some nearby bushes.

“Hey, guys. Are you there?” My mother’s voice was unmistakable. “It was getting cold, so I brought you all some sweaters.”

Finally, I was able to see the boy’s work. He had drawn on the wall a large comic strip. It satirized some popular t.v. shows, then veered off into some sort of barely comprehensible delirium. “That boy next door has quite the imagination,” my mother would say later.

A year or two later, when they repainted the tunnel, they would carefully paint around my unicorn.

The other day, Greta Christina, over on her blog, asked for atheists’ “coming out” stories. “Coming out” is, I assume, terminology borrowed from the old Gay Liberation movement and refers to coming out of the closet. Of course, this presumes that there was a closet in the first place. Although my parents never discussed their lack of belief, I was vaguely aware that they didn’t follow a religion. My mother likes to laugh about the time when I was three or four and I asked her if we were “Hanukkah or Christmas.” If we had lived in a village, my grandfather, grumpy and cantankerous, would probably have been the village atheist.

However, Greta Christina says she’s looking for not only the dramatic coming-out-to-the-folks story, but stories about coming out to fellow students and others. I do have one of those.

I was the new kid in school. In my previous school I was being bullied and it had turned physical. Bullying was not the cause it is today. Not only did the school administrators do nothing about it, but during a conference with my parents the principal looked at me and directly asked what I was doing to bring it on. To this day, I don’t know. I think the girl was looking for a convenient target and I happened to fit the bill. In any case, this reaction on the part of the school alarmed my parents. Now that I’m an adult, I think they made the right decision. They pulled me out of school. As it happened, both my parents worked in public schools in different towns. My father worked in a large city with a big bureaucracy, but my mother worked in a small town. She talked to the relevant people and a day or two later I found myself listening to the song “Tell Me Why You Don’t Like Mondays” as we drove to the high school. She dropped me off before heading to the middle school where she worked and I sat on the lawn in front of the school for about an hour or so every morning waiting for school to start.

There were some demographic differences between the town where my former school was located and the new one. There was a distinct class difference. In terms of money, the difference was not huge, but the parents in my first town mostly had college degrees while in the second town most of the parents had learned trades. It was a prosperous blue-collar town of union members with steady jobs. In retrospect, it was a world that seems almost anachronistic today. Where the students in the first town were ethnically and religiously diverse, the new town was split almost evenly between people of Irish descent and those of Italian descent. They had one thing in common, however, the town was solidly, although not exclusively, Catholic. However, it was Catholic enough that, the first week there, someone helpfully pointed out to me in the lunch room the one Jewish student and attempted to identify the handful of Protestants. There was no hostility in this that I could detect. The Jewish girl was head of the cheerleading squad and one of the most popular girls by far. My guide seemed to think it was something of a novelty. Coming from a town that was about a third Jewish, this seemed frankly weird, but I don’t recall that I said anything.

Around this time, I had a minor injury which kept me out of gym class for an extended time. The gym teacher thought it was silly for me to sit on the sidelines watching the other kids several times a week, so it was arranged that I would go to the library where I would help the librarian shelve books. I’ve always been a bit of a loner, and this was generally a pleasant time for me. I would try to make myself useful, but there wasn’t always much to do. After putting away the cart full of books, I would take a novel and sit at one of the big library tables. One day, while I was reading, if my memory serves me well, Jane Eyre, several senior boys walked in. Although it was a small school, as a freshman I had never talked to any of them, but I recognized them because they were tall, handsome, buff and popular. They sat down at my table and started chatting with the confidence that popular students have that their presence is welcome, smiling as if we’d been friends for ages. They asked my name and what I was reading. They pretended to be fascinated by the romantic problems of Jane and Mr. Rochester with a seriousness that could only mean that they were flirting. They asked where I had gone to school before. They asked if I was Irish or Italian.

This shook me up a bit because I had been brought up to believe that there were certain questions that should never be asked and they were about occupation, ethnicity and religion. I can’t say I was offended, but I was taken aback, but the boys continued to be friendly and flirtatious as I answered, “Neither,” and gave a list of eight if they really wanted to know. They didn’t seem to care.

Then they asked, “What is your religion.” I said I was an atheist.

One of them said, “What’s that?” Another asked if I worshiped Satan with less apparent interest than he had shown in the plot of Jane Eyre.

I said, “No, that would be Satanists.”

So what did I worship, he wanted to know. Nothing, was my answer.

“Do you have a nickname?”

No, I regretted to tell them, I did not.

“You should have a nickname,” they all agreed with confidence. They mulled it over a bit. I was wearing a dark purple pullover. One of them decided that I looked like an eggplant. This seemed to tickle their collective funny bone and it was quickly decided that my nickname would be “Eggplant.”

The bell rang and the boys got up to go. One of them punched me on the shoulder and said, “See you around, Eggplant.”

This story could be entitled “How I got the world’s stupidest nickname.” Unless, of course, there’s someone called Artichoke.

Of course, this is a terrible story because, as we know, a good story contains drama and conflict. In a way, it’s packed with assumptions about ethnicity, identity, class and religion, but in the end it’s all rather anti-climatic, and that’s a good thing in real life if not in stories. Yet I think it’s a good story to tell because there is no need for these things to create conflict. We live in a pluralistic world that’s becoming more pluralistic by the day. I think the boring stories need to be told, too, because they’re part of a bigger picture.

Last night, my mother, my sister and I watched a documentary entitled A Band Called Death. It’s about three brothers who had a band back in the mid-seventies that went, essentially, nowhere, but has since been rediscovered. Music is such a chancy business that it’s always hard to lay a finger on why a band may have not made it, however, it’s hard to deny the difficulty black rock musicians have had. A person can’t say for sure that the fact that the brothers were African-American was the reason they didn’t succeed, but it must be considered as a possible factor.

A small detail in the movie brought me back to my young adulthood. Several prominent musicians are interviewed. One of those was Vernon Reid, whose band, Living Color, I went to go see several times back in the mid to late eighties. Luscious was a big Vernon Reid fan, as was the man with whom I was living at the time. Thanks to those two, I was aware of Reid before Living Color had released their first album. I remember my boyfriend running out to buy soon after it was released. A week or so later, I went over to see Luscious and she said, “Guess what I have….” and slapped it down on the turntable. Vernon Reid, if my memory serves me correctly, was one of the founders of an organization called The Black Rock Coalition. Luscious took me to several shows that had been sponsored by them, at least a couple of which occurred at CBGB’s.

Somehow, all this free association led me back to the evening I met Luscious.

The cafe was one of Stone’s favorites. A bit dark, a couple of steps down, with brick walls, small black tables and bent wood chairs, I’d been there at least a couple of times before. So when Stone told me that he wanted to meet there I knew where it was. It was a pain to get to, a twenty-minute subway ride and a walk across town. Trying to get closer by mass transit took even longer. So here I am, over twenty years later making the same excuse I did that night for being late. I confess, I’m almost always late, not fashionably late, but embarrassingly late.

Stone and his friend were already seated and had beers in front of them when I arrived. The food was modestly priced. It was a good place for a light bite and some drinks, or maybe just the drinks if you actually wanted to talk. The place was almost always busy and there was the buzz of conversation in the air, but it was cafe loud, not bar loud. I sat down and Stone caught the eye of the waitress and mimed that he wanted a third beer like the two that were already on the table. He’d asked me to come specifically to meet his friend from the radio station, but I hadn’t yet gotten a chance to pay attention to her when the waitress arrived.

“I love watching this woman pour beer,” Stone said as the woman approached, beer in one hand, glass in the other.

She was a little taller than average and a little curvier than average. She arrived at the table and put her weight on her right leg, her right hip jutting towards the table. The contrapposto of her stance emphasized her waist and brought her right breast toward her hip. With the crook in her elbow, which almost rested on her hip, her torso was an aesthetically appealing series of curves. She set the glass down on the table with firm clunk. She turned the bottle over as if she was following the curve of her body, with her thumb over her palm, the opposite of the way most people pour. Stone watched the performance with an intensity that just fell short of the point at which it might be embarrassing. My eye darted towards the friend. Luscious seemed equally transfixed by this hip thrusting, breast heaving, beer pouring performance.

Finally, I got a chance to turn my attention to Luscious herself. During the preceding week or two, I’d been told over and over, “You gotta meet her. You gotta meet her.” So here she was. Cool. Dark. Thin. Angular. If you took a caricature of a rock star and crossed it with a caricature of a fashion model that a rock star might date, you’d get Luscious.

Twenty-five years later, I can no longer recall the content of the conversation, but something I said triggered a warm response in the cool bitch. I think it had something to do with rock-and-roll. Soon, she was animated, squeezing my hand for emphasis, drumming on the table to make a point.

We’d met at an odd hour. That was because Stone worked nights. While Luscious and I were ordering more beer, Stone was slowing down and sobering up. Finally, he had to go. He threw down a wad of bills saying, “I think this should cover it.” Meanwhile, Luscious was still squeezing my hand talking animatedly. I don’t pretend to know anything about music, but I’ll listen eagerly.

We drank more and we drank more. Back then, when I went out at night, I’d keep a twenty in my shoe just in case it got too late and I needed cab fare home. Perhaps it was the only time I did this, but I took the twenty out of my shoe and drank it. Luscious and I stayed and talked and talked until the cafe closed and it was time to go home.

Now, cab fare gone, I had to trudge back across town to the subway. We were on a side street, a quiet side street, about as deserted as a city can be at about one or two in the morning. Luscious was wearing what I would eventually learn was nearly a uniform for her, jeans and a black tank top. Me, well, I can’t remember what was above the waist, but below the waist I was wearing a black and white striped cotton/spandex mini-skirt. I wore a lot of cotton/spandex in those days, and that black and white striped skirt was one of my favorites. Cotton spandex was a blessing for a gal like me. As long as you had a tight body, you could look simultaneously hot and cool on a tight budget.

Silently, a group of boys slid up behind us. I glanced over my shoulder briefly and continued walking forward. Suddenly, I felt a pinch on my ass. I swung around. “Hey!”

“What did he do?” Luscious shouted.

“He pinched my ass.”

With the suddenness of a striking snake, her leg extended with her big, god knows what size, foot at the end. The boy grabbed his groin. His friends turned and ran, the culprit hobbling behind.

“I’ve got better aim than I thought,” Luscious said.

The day was dragging. The opening of the exhibition at the Acwacca Gallery had been timed to coincide with an open studios tour in this former industrial area of Newark, New Jersey. Most of the buildings had been built for small industries, which still occupied about half of them. The other half had, during the past decade or so, been turned into artist studios and galleries. Our official opening, the one with the munchies and cheap wine, had occurred earlier in the week. Now we were just participating in the open studio weekend, which amounted to sitting along side our work and talking to the occasional person who wandered inside.

The gallery space was large and there were six of us in the show, which was the culmination of a workshop sponsored by the gallery that had run for several months. Many of the paintings that I had done during the workshop were ultimately unsatisfying failures. The woman who had been conducting the workshop finally pointed to a slide of one of my older paintings. She let it be known in no uncertain terms that that painting was the reason I had been accepted into the workshop and she was disappointed that I hadn’t done more like that. In my own defense I said that I was trying to push myself to go beyond what I had done in the past. She politely, or perhaps not so politely, pointed out that I was pushing in the wrong direction. With only a week or two left in the workshop there wasn’t much left to do but kick out a couple of paintings in the style of the one the facilitator had liked. Although I was unsatisfied with not having made more progress during the workshop itself, I was relieved to get a couple of paintings done in time so I could actually be in the show.

An artist who was taking a break from his own open studio wandered in. While we were hanging out chatting his daughter came looking for him. He invited me to go back with him to look at his work. It was only a block away in the basement of another former industrial building. The building seemed to have been turned into several live/work spaces for about four artists and their families who shared the edifice. While I was looking at his work, one of his building mates stopped by. I then went on to his space to view his work. I wish I could remember some of the details of their work so that I could describe it. All I can remember is that I was having a very good time and it was with a bit of regret that I had to excuse myself. I had entirely lost track of how much time had passed, but I knew that the director of the Acwacca Gallery would be irritated if I was gone too long.

The moment I reentered the Acwacca Gallery, my sister accosted me. “We’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I was just next door like I told everyone.”

“Well, I went over to get you and you weren’t there.”

“Oh. I’d gone upstairs to look at his neighbor’s work. I wasn’t gone that long. Why all the fuss?”

It turns out that someone had been waiting around to meet me. A tall, handsome man with an unusually toned physique visible beneath his dark blue knit polo shirt was standing near my paintings. The gallery director was visibly excited. “This is Cory Booker,” she exclaimed. “He’s going to be our first black president!” she predicted, incorrectly as it would turn out. I’m afraid Mr. Booker was born a decade too late. A football player at Stanford, a Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law, he seemed to be the sort of person of whom much has been expected since the day he was born.

Apparently, he had been taken by one of my paintings and was hoping to get a chance to speak to me. It was flattering that he had waited. Of course, he is a politician. A young woman who appeared to be some sort of supporter or assistant spoke up allowing Cory a modicum of modesty. “We’re more concerned about the upcoming election for mayor. I hope you’re all going to be voting for Cory!” Booker’s previous run for mayor became famously nasty. Three of the other six artists in the show were women and they soon joined the group surrounding Booker. With the assistant, the gallery director, my sister and the four artists, he was surrounded by a gaggle of gals. He turned the conversation back to the paintings.

As he and his companion exited the building, we all hung in the doorway like a bunch of starstruck teeny-boppers waving enthusiastically. “Sure, we’ll vote for you Cory!” one of us sang out.

After he was out of view we returned the main room of the gallery. “What party does he belong to?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does anyone know his positions on anything?”

“Gosh, no. I feel really silly now. He was just so charming.”

“Heck. I don’t even live in Newark.”

We had a pretty good laugh at ourselves.

(I remembered this episode after reading about how Cory Booker won the Democratic nomination for Senate.)

The test had elaborate drawings of wheels, cogs, levers, as if it had emerged from the fevered dreams of basement tinkerer. If one pulled a lever up, would the wheel rotate clockwise or counter-clockwise? There were dozens of questions like this. I finished the test and looked up and glanced about the room. Everyone else still had their head down, shoulders stooped as if this was a heavy burden. The occasional sigh and groan arose from a student. At the end of the test, I asked the teacher if there was any way to get books of puzzles like this because I enjoyed them so much. She looked at me for a moment as if I might be pulling her leg. After convincing herself of my sincerity, she said, “I don’t think so.” She looked at me a little bit strangely. “Why?”

“Because it was fun,” I said matter-of-factly.

She looked at me as if I’d lost my mind and suddenly I felt like a total freak. It was one thing to be enjoying taking a test when everyone else seemed to be agonizing. It was altogether another thing to let people know. No longer a nerdy kid, I had friends, I behaved in a socially appropriate manner, boys seemed to like me, but it came at a price. That price was constantly being misunderstood and underestimated.

The test had been one of about half a dozen that were administered during the course of that week. These weren’t class tests. Although it came in a booklet with a sheet containing dots to be filled in so it could be graded electronically, it was not the usual battery of achievement tests that we took almost every other year. It was a test to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses in preparation for career counseling. Consequently, in addition to the usual tests for reading comprehension and mathematical ability, there were also tests for clerical ability and mechanical ability, which is the one we had just finished.

A few weeks later, we were each called individually down to the guidance counselor’s office. We still didn’t have much of a choice in terms of our education, but as I understood it, choices would be coming. That’s what all of this was about. It was about careers and our educational program in preparation for those careers.

The guidance counselor was a genial older man, a good bit older than my parents and most of the teachers.

Sometimes, when you poke around on individual blogs and the comments sections of news sites, you can come across statements in which people want everyone to note their dramatic lack of sympathy for people who have had x, y or z education and training only to find that they are unemployed. “Well,” such a statement typically reads in response to someone’s child dying for lack of medical treatment, “what did they expect majoring in liberal arts!” What this statement ignores, besides basic human sympathy, is that good advice when one is thirteen may not hold true twenty years later.

One of my closest friends in college majored in physics. As she was finishing her doctorate, the Soviet Union collapsed. There was an influx of scientists from the former Soviet Union and the defense department stopped hiring. She had gone into the field for a love of physics, not for job security, still she was unprepared for the lack of jobs when she graduated. She worked in a dress shop and in a call center until the attacks on 9/11 got the defense department hiring again. Yes, some of those call center workers might have a Ph.D. in physics. “Well! What did they expect majoring in a theoretical field!”

I can console myself with the fact that she once told me that as a teenager she like to do mathematical proofs for fun. After all, there are freaks and there are freaks. What little girls do when no one is looking.

That we actually expect an individual with the ordinary perceptions of a mortal to give guidance is really quite a charade.

So I sat down in the student chair that was next to the guidance counselor’s desk on which sat a folder containing my school records. I never once had a reprimand or a detention, nor would I ever, and the folder was notable only for its thinness. The heavy weight paper containing the results of the skills tests sat on top. On the top of the paper was a graph shaped like a deep V with extended serifs. I saw the results of the mechanical score said 99. I asked the guidance counselor which question I had gotten wrong. He was slightly surprised by my question. I clarified that I was quite sure that I had gotten all the questions on the mechanical section correct. How was it that I didn’t have a 100. He explained to me what a percentile was and I was mollified. He explained that that still didn’t mean that I had gotten everything right, but deep down inside I knew I had. The bottom of the V was the score for clerical ability. As someone who couldn’t spell and couldn’t type, this was no surprise to me. I still can’t type or spell. If it weren’t for spell check, you would peg me as an illiterate.

“Have you given any thought to what you would like to do as a career?” he began by way of introduction.

I nodded. “I would like to be an engineer.”

He pressed his lips together as someone who has heard an incorrect response but wants to be sensitive in the way he corrects it. “I was under the impression that you were something of an artist.” I believe I had seen this man very briefly once about a year earlier. That he would have any impression of me at all came as something of a surprise. Indeed, a few years earlier I might have said “engineer or artist,” however as I was getting older artist was beginning to hold less and less appeal. Certainly, I would not have chosen at that young age an educational path that would deemphasize math and science.

“Art is a much nicer field for women.” There really wasn’t anything subtle about this conversation.

“But it’s very risky. A lot of artists can’t support themselves.” I countered.

“That won’t be a problem for you. You’re very pretty. You will probably get married.”

Years later, I would repeat this conversation to my mother. It’s stayed in my mind because it surprised me at the time. This was the late seventies. Second wave feminism had been well underway for over a decade. My mother worked. Most of my friends’ mothers worked. It would only be much later that I would find out that it wasn’t only feminism, but a changing economy, that would end the short-lived era of lower middle class women staying at home.

My mother said, “But he liked you.” That was exactly what was so insidious about it. He did like me, and not in a creepy, ignoring professional boundaries sort of way. I have met female artists with professional husbands. They have real careers. Their work is exhibited and reviewed. But at the lower level art pays so badly that even with a decent career they would never be able to pay their rent and put food on the table if they were unmarried. It’s not a common situation anymore, but the guidance counselor was older. I understand the life he saw for me. It didn’t occur to him to wonder whether or not I wanted that life for myself. Yes, I was smart and pretty, but it wasn’t in my character to use those characteristics to seek out a young man with good prospects. There have been days in my life when I’ve wondered if that wouldn’t have been the smart thing to do. But I don’t think it could have happened except by accident. As a career plan, it was frankly stupid. Yet this short, superficial conversation would come to symbolize the many ways I was pressured towards interests considered suitable for women. Most of the time, it would be more subtle and hard to be certain why I felt pressure. At least the guidance counselor told me in so many words that engineering wasn’t “nice” for women and art was.

Now, boys, you may have suspected that women have a secret language, a sort of code made up of nudges, raised eyebrows, pursed lips and eye rolls, that they employ when they go out in groups in the evening. If you have ever suspected this you would be half right, half because in my experience only a portion of women actually understand this language. However, in my life I’ve been fortunate to know two women highly fluent in this language.

The day was overcast and the sky was a uniform gray as evening approached. We exited the subway and headed east, as did everyone who emerged from the station with us. Behind us was the downtown business district. Even today, the business district is a ghost town on weekends and evenings. Back in the late eighties it was even more deserted, if that can be believed. We, like the few other figures on the street, were headed to the old seaport, which had been renovated a few years earlier and now housed some restaurants and bars. A shopping mall had been built onto a pier. My friend, Luscious, and I were headed there to hear David Johansen in his Buster Poindexter phase. We got there early with the intention of getting a bite to eat accompanied by a sufficient quantity of beer to render ourselves comfortable.

Walking along the cobblestones of the half-dozen historically preserved blocks with their touristically inoffensive establishments Luscious said to me, “I’m remembering why we never come down here.” Finally, at the last block, we shrugged and walked inside a place that served overpriced burgers. A table full of guys waved us over, bought us a couple of beers and offered to share their bar food. After about a half an hour or so, the guys were getting a bit too comfortable, smiling more broadly and asking more questions. Luscious nudged my heel with her toe; it was time to go.

We emerged once again into the light. We hadn’t had nearly enough beer, but now it was too late to find another place, if there even was one nearby. We headed over to the open area of the pier. A stage was set up at the far end. We were early and a loose group was milling about.

I guess it was a good performance. Luscious had never seen David Johansen perform. I had, back when he was performing under his own name. If I had to name a handful of moments that have shaped my taste in music, seeing Johansen perform when I was fourteen or fifteen would be one of them. My expectations that night nearly a decade later were far too high. After the show, I was antsy in the way one is when one is pleased but not fully satisfied. When Luscious said to me, “Let’s see if we can find a bar,” I nodded my assent.

Seeing as we had already walked by, and passed, most of the places along the street, she suggested we wander into the shopping mall built on the pier. We were barely five feet inside the door when we were hailed by a man with a lilt to his voice. Did we know, perhaps, if there was a pub or something of that nature nearby? We informed the man and his friends that we did not know but we ourselves were in search of just that. Another good-naturedly informed us that yet another one of their number was getting married the next day and they were looking to celebrate. Would we care to join them?

I hesitated. My stereotypes of male behavior included some very, very bad behavior on the eves of weddings. Luscious, with her unerring ability to sense free beer, locked her arm in mine, forcing me a few steps forward. “Shall we look for a place together then?” she said genially. Without my six-foot tall back-up, I would have never gone forward.

Soon we spied a restaurant that had a bar. One of the men expressed pleasure that the place appeared to serve Guinness. Still unsure, I muttered under my breath quietly so that only Luscious could hear, “I thought you hated Guinness.”

“But I like free.” She whispered in my ear.

The men, it turned out, were four Irishmen and an American of Irish parents who was a relative of the bridegroom. The men bought beers all around. And more. And more. Enough that I began to decline. Luscious patted me on the head, “Little person,” she teased as she continued to accept more drinks. We were I quite thoroughly sloshed when the bridegroom asked with the sincerity of the truly drunk, “Should I get married tomorrow?”

Luscious, as only I knew, was a true romantic deep down. “Are you in love?” She asked with a breezy expectation of hearing an affirmative response.

“She’s a nice girl.”

“Then you shouldn’t get married,” Luscious said decisively.

“But he has to,” the American one insisted.

Luscious and I had had enough girl-to-girl conversations about love, men and marriage that I knew that, to her, marrying without love was on par with matricide. “Clearly,” she said, her typical imperiousness enhanced by inebriation, “he doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea of getting married or he wouldn’t have brought it up! Why on earth would he have to get married if he doesn’t want to.”

“Because he needs to stay in the U.S.” the American man said, continuing their exchange. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the quietest one, who had stopped drinking along with me, glaring at the American.

“Why would he need to stay in the U.S.?” Luscious challenged.

“Because he’s in the IRA and can’t go back because he’s wanted there.”

The quiet one clapped a hand on the American’s shoulder. He looked me in the eye and smiled, “He’s such a joker.”

I forced a laugh and, for the second time that night, I felt a toe kick my heel. “Well, I think I’ve had far too much to drink,” I said on cue.

“Yes,” the quiet one said, “I think we’ve all had too much.”

“I could have another,” the American said.

“Well, we really should leave you all to celebrate alone,” Luscious said linking her arm in mine again and pulling me onto my feet. “I really need to get her home.” We left quickly. I can’t recall that we even took the time to say thank you.

When we got out on the street, Luscious and I agreed that it wasn’t the claim that was scary, it was the denial. We found a cab easily, which was a nice change of pace, especially considering how utterly smashed we both were. We sunk into the seat. “I hate Guinness,” she said. Considering how much beer she had poured down her gullet that night, I don’t think the brand mattered. She rolled down the window. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she said softly.

The cab swerved over to the curb and came to a screeching halt. “Not in my cab! Out! Out!”

We stumbled out of the cab near City Hall. Luscious didn’t get sick. In all the time I knew her, I never saw her get sick, although I’ve never seen anyone else drink quite the way she could. “Walk with me a little,” she said leaning on me. This was something of a roll reversal for us.

“Will you always be my friend?” She pleaded, stroking my hair like I was a pet. “I need you.”

We sat down on a bench and she hugged me and stroked me and held my hand. “You’re so important to me. I feel like you’re a part of me in a way. Even when you’re not around I find myself thinking of you. Something happens and I think to myself, what would the Kid say about this.”

She continued to squeeze my hand and get sloppy and sentimental. I let her talk until she was worn out, then got us another cab. From that night on, our friendship was altered. As long as she was sober, she would act as if we were just friends, but after enough liquor, she would begin to get oddly affectionate.