T HiS i s Y o U R S O NG
stOriES By: Desiree Oâ€™Clair, Sari Botton, Robert Burke Warren, Chris Butler, Dakota Lane, Stephanie St. John, Seth DAVIS Branitz...and others.
This publication is a companion piece to The Rock Project: A Celebration of Story & Song, a collaborative fundraiser between TMI Project and The Paul Green Rock Academy held on Sunday, May 3, 2015 in the John Quimby Theater at SUNY Ulster in Stone Ridge, NY. This is the first printing. Copyright Â© 2015 Starling Productions
INTRODUCTION Sari Botton
REFUGEE Shannon Rothenberger Flynn
I’VE SEEN ALL GOOD PEOPLE Joe Keenan
PAINT IT BLACK Ray Cocks
DESTINY IN EAST TEXAS Ilyse Simon
THE SONG OF COURAGE Hope Windle
CHANDY AND MORDREDD Stephanie St. John
PUBLISHED BY: STARLING PRODUCTIONS
TAINTED LOVE Tamara Natoli
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT Chris Butler
PERSTROIKA Jane Demuth
MY DEAD BOYFRIEND IS TOO BUSY TO TALK TO ME Desirée O’Clair
BELIEVE ME Ellis Johnson
IMAGINE Gerard Ryan
AMIE Charlotte Adamis
ME AND DONOVAN Dakota Lane
CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET VOCALIST, PART 2 Sari Botton
THE UNWITTING PUNK WHO SOFTENED MY HEART Seth Davis Branitz
LIVE TO TELL Robert Burke Warren
PUBLISHER: EVA TENUTO EDITOR: SARI BOTTON EDITOR FOR STAGE VERSIONS OF PIECES: EVA TENUTO DESIGNER: JULIE NOVAK
Introducing....... You hold in your hands something
special and unique: the very first print publication produced by TMI Project. For those of you not familiar with us, we are a non-profit organization that offers memoir and monologue-writing workshops, some of them to underserved populations through our Community Outreach Initiative, and others to the general public. What sets our workshops apart from others is that we get people candidly writing and telling stories from their lives—including the parts of the stories they usually leave out because they’re too painful or embarrassing. We find that’s where real identification, understanding and connection happen between storyteller and listener. It’s amazing what can happen when people realize they struggle with the same things other people do—when they see themselves in other people’s experiences, even people whose lives are very different from their own. All kinds of walls come down. The world becomes a kinder place. Thus our slogan, “Changing the World, One Story at a Time.” Our workshops usually culminate in true storytelling performances onstage, which have been described as “The Vagina Monologues” meets The Moth. This collection of essays marks the very first time we’re expanding from the stage to the page. It’s something we’ve been hoping to do for a long time, and it was finally brought to fruition sort of by accident. Here’s what happened: We planned a joint fundraising event with another awesome non-profit in our area, the Paul Green Rock Academy (PGRA)—a school of rock for teens. For it, we put out a call for personal essays, asking people to write true stories about the rock songs that changed their lives, were the soundtracks to life-changing events, or served as personal anthems at one time. Seven would be chosen; then the kids from the PGRA would learn those songs and play them at the fundraiser, after the writers performed their pieces as monologues onstage. Writing about the songs that have touched our lives is something participants are invited to do in just about every workshop we run. The music we listen to at key moments in our lives can stay with us forever, sometimes just through sensememory because that’s what was playing at the
time, but more often because the songs speak to our experiences. While you’re going through something big and can’t yet articulate it, a song can do it for you. From then on, anytime you hear that song, you think of that time in your life. In our workshops we use a few different writing prompts to get people writing about those songs, such as: “Write a true story about a song that is your personal anthem, or seemed to be at one time in your life.” Of all the hundred or more writing prompts in our ever-growing prompt bank, this one probably lies closest to my heart. It was inspired by the first TMI piece I ever wrote and performed, several years ago, when I first joined the organization. The piece was called “Confessions of a Closet Vocalist,” and was about cutting class in high school so I could go home and secretly sing what at the time felt like my personal anthem: “But the World Goes Round,” a world-weary Kander & Ebb ballad made famous by Liza Minelli. Sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you’re sad…but the world goes ‘round…sometimes your dreams get broken in pieces…one day it’s kicks then it’s kicks in the shins…but the planet spins and the world goes ‘round. Belting that song got me through some really hard times as a sad teenager in a broken family that was about to break some more. After I performed that monologue onstage, several people approached me to say that they could relate—not only to the idea of singing at the top of your lungs when no one is listening (or, as in my case, when you think no one is listening…I got busted one time by my dorky step-brother who unfortunately was cutting class that day, too), but also the idea of a personal anthem that helps you to make sense of, or escape, a hard time. That led to the writing prompts about key songs and personal anthems. Which led to one of our participants, Chris Butler (an accomplished musician best known as the songwriter for 80s post-punk band The Waitresses, who penned such hits as “I Know What Boys Like” and “Christmas Wrapping”) writing a piece about the personal significance of The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” (included here in this collection). Which in turn led, a few years ago, to Chris suggesting a TMI show that strictly featured pieces about songs that have touched our lives. In the ensuing years, we watched Paul Green
and his young charges grow into a major force, putting on incredible tribute performances all around the county, featuring the music of just about every artist and band in the rock cannon. It was only a matter of time before our worlds collided. Executive Director and co-founder Eva Tenuto, along with Marketing Director, co-founder, performer and emcee extraordinaire Julie Novak, saw to it that they did, and collaborated with the PRGA on putting together what could only be an incredible event.
Before Jr. High, where belting your heart out publicly became NOT COOL, Sari Botton could often be found serenading the neighborhood from her front stoop.
So, a few months before the event we put out the call for submissions. And then we ran into what we’d soon recognize as a happy problem: we received too many great ones. There were so many interesting stories, so much good writing. We couldn’t possibly have the PGRA learn 16 or more songs, and we didn’t have time for all those stories and songs to be performed onstage in the space of just one afternoon. How could we use some of those other stories? The answer is this collection, designed as a totally rad “zine” by Julie Novak, and featuring the best essays we received—including those that were edited for the stage and directed by Eva Tenuto, and performed by their authors at that joint TMI Project/PGRA fundraiser, held May 3rd, 2015 at SUNY Ulster in Stone Ridge, NY. We’re very excited about expanding into publishing, and hope this will be just the first of many TMI Project collections of writing. You might want to hang onto this one—it could be collectible some day. Buy some copies for your friends. Each purchase helps us to continue to offer our empowering workshops through our Community Outreach Initiative to domestic violence survivors, military veterans, at risk teens, incarcerated teens, teen moms, the LBGTQ community, adults working on their mental health, cancer survivors and other groups of people who don’t usually get to tell their stories or be heard. We hope you enjoy it, and that you’ll help us spread the word. Sari Botton TMI Project Editorial Director May 3, 2015
RE F uGEE
BY SHANNON ROTHENBERGER FLYNN
You don’t have to live like a refugee,
you don’t have to live like a refugee… “Yes, I do, Tom Petty,” I say to my sister’s poster on the wall, “Tom Petty with your buckteeth, girl hair and teensy bulge in your tight jeans.” The wall is short up here, I tell you, on this loft bed where we lie like luggage looking out a second story window on the corner of West Tenth and Waverly. Down the street the big tower clock of Jefferson Market Library chimes midnight and in the other direction a few hours later Julius oldman-gay-bar’s queens pour out at closing time shouting show tunes. My father, my father, my father likes Julius for the cheeseburgers, he says, but we know it’s for the chicken. The chicken who lean against the wall with one knee up in their running shorts and tube socks, their hair in Tom Petty-perfect pageboys. My poster of Patti Smith glowers at my sister’s poster of Petty: I look out the window, see a sweet young thing, humpin’ on the parking meter, leaning on the parking meter… Now, that’s a better song. This is the tiny apartment that our mother found when she left our dad last year. She stood all night on the sidewalk for it, to be the first. Baby, you’re not the first, a lotta other lovers’ been burned. I correct you, Tom Petty. I am the first, first born of three Brooklyn girls. I’m 17 and I am the oldest, just as our mother was the first of four Fargo Lutherans, and Our Father Who Art in Brooklyn is numero uno of five half-breed hooligans from a northern border town. It didn’t help us, all of this pre-knowledge, and instead of guiding the young’uns, we run, run, run. The Middle Sister, 15 years old, hangs out in the bars on Tenth Street, skipping school to shoot pool and bring boy hustlers home to our father. He likes them, even after she doesn’t anymore. There are screaming fights and stomping ballerina feet and slamming doors. She does all the screaming; my father just shakes his head and hisses, “Who do you think you are, Queen Bee?” We all know who’s Queen Bee because my father has all the boys and all the cigarettes and all the beer. In his darkroom, while he retouches, his little 6
brush going lick-lick-lick, he tells me he wanted to be a hustler himself, in California when he was a young dancer, but he missed his chances, didn’t he? Tell me why you lay there and revel in your abandon. Because, Tom Petty, they are runaways, Puerto Rican and Irish, with nunchucks and brass knuckles and white white sneakers, and they say they are eighteen, but we all know they just started shaving. As our father says, everyone just needs a place to shit, shower and shave, so they fill the air with pot smoke, disco music and prison slang they pick up at Rikers when they are routinely popped for tricking in the East 50s. They call our father “Daddy, Daddy” which makes us sick. So we can’t go to our father’s house. My sister and I lie on this wide foam mattress on the rainbow sheets, in our mom’s apartment and smoke loosies from the newsstand. I stare at the constellations of chewed gum my sister sticks to the ceiling in patterns only she can explain, a map of what it’s like to be her, this drop-out ballerina who’s so beautiful, every phone call is for her, and she talks all night on the phone, cranking dance music, keeping our 9-year-old Little Sister awake until she’s crying on the single bed below our loft bed, “Please, I have school in the morning.” I miss this because I work at the bar on the corner of 7th Avenue South, a cowboy bar that appeared because the movie Urban Cowboy was popular for a summer, so it won’t last, and it’s the wrong place for a punk rock graffiti girl to hostess tourists to tables near the stage while some Hell’s Angel spills Wild Turkey down my dress. But I do start to like Johnny Cash, and one night Keith Richards buys me cognac and sparks his black lizard eyes at me as I fall into the deep gullies on either side of his mouth. After sniffing lines of cocaine off credit cards with the waitresses, I come home late but early enough to take the Little Sister to school at PS 3. We get there just before the bell. Mom? Mom? Our mother isn’t around much. She has a boyfriend we hate, and the feeling is mutual,
...we climb the fence of Saint Luke’s gardens, a quart of beer in the waistband in the back of my jeans, and crouch low, scuttling past the priest’s house... so when he comes over there are snarky comments from us and roaring from him, as he stumbles stoned after us, a big man in a little house.
shoulder of the boy on top of me as the voices of passersby on the other side of the fence fade in and echo away.
Our parents arranged a queasy truce to try a little parental effectiveness with us girls who are always out drinking and not likely to graduate from Brooklyn Friends and Performing Arts. Our parents get together in the kitchen alcove, my father perched delicately on a high stool and my mother trembling with rage by the fridge. “You’re grounded!” they decide. While they’re still shakily congratulating themselves, out the bedroom window we go, the Middle Sister to Crisco Disco and me to climb the wall of an apartment building on Jane Street. I have a guy there, a shaggy surfer boy far from the shore, on the second floor, and the brickwork is conveniently placed with sneaker toeholds until he pulls me in the window.
One time we do it in a school bus parked on Greenwich Street and pass out on the hard faux leather seat. I lose a contact lens that gray dawn before climbing one-eyed out the bus window. But more often it’s my friend Em and me in a booth at Tiffany’s diner all night, living on French fries and coffee, pegging our pants and giving each other Bic lighter haircuts and softening our eyeliner pencils in the flame.
I’m trouble, his mom says, so I’m out again before they wake up. Or we climb the fence of Saint Luke’s gardens, a quart of beer in the waistband in the back of my jeans, and crouch low, scuttling past the priest’s house, ducking his blue TV light as we dive into the shrubs and find a spot of grass. Saint Luke’s is wild, overgrown with trees, and I lie there and see the stars over the
So, Tom Petty, I laugh in your horse-jawed face, duct tape my leather jacket together and lug my green backpack to Grand Central to catch a train to art school upstate. I’m hunching on the marble ledge of a closed ticket window when the dogooders come, two concerned citizens wanting to take me to a youth shelter. I’m not a runaway, I say, showing them my college ID. I’m a refugee. And I let my eyes rise to the big tower clock and I hear those bells going ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong. Shannon Rothenberger Flynn is a visual artist and nonfiction author; her most recent book is Native America Almanac (2016).
i’ve SEen all Good PEopLe In 1974, at 5 o’clock in the morning, there wasn’t
nearly as much traffic on the Garden State Parkway in NJ as there is today. The first casino in Atlantic City wouldn’t open until four years later, in 1978, and the exodus of city people to the shore area was still in its early stages. If you happened to have been on the road at that time, on a chilly weekend morning in September or October, you might have seen a 1971 bright yellow Chevy Vega heading south with three teenagers “locked and loaded” for the early whitetail deer bow hunting season. If the ugly color hadn’t grabbed your attention, perhaps the smoky oil spewing out of the exhaust might have, the symptoms of what the Vega’s owner and my neighborhood friend, Billy, called “a true engineering clusterfuck” because of a cast iron head and aluminum block—both metals heated and expanded differently, causing leaky head gaskets, prematurely worn cylinder walls, fouled spark plugs, and quarts of oil blown through the system. The Vega was rated one of the worst vehicles ever, but not as bad as TK’s Pinto (TK being one of the three teenagers). In 1974, in the NJ suburbs, you were on your own if you wanted a car. Your parents didn’t really care, and they certainly didn’t buy you a better car. Thus we drove very unsafe, crappy vehicles. We didn’t care either. The Vega got us there. Maybe at 5am it was too dark to see it, too early to hear it, chugging down the parkway. Blaring from it, you might have heard Jon Anderson’s distinctive voice soaring above a raucous, live rock and roll song. I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day so satisfied I’m on my way. I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day so satisfied I’m on my way. No other song, and certainly no other lyric, is so firmly planted in my brain. This was the year Yessongs would be played endlessly on the Vega’s 8-track player. A triple live album meant no repetition of songs to and 8
BY JOE KEENAN
from the Pine Barrens. We probably owned only three or four tapes anyway. I was 14. What were my parents thinking? Letting a 14-year-old out at 4:30 in the morning, in a shitty car, with two neighborhood teenagers, both 18, “armed and dangerous,” and of legal drinking age to boot. I was as scrawny as the Pine Barrens deer we sought, which meant that I was relegated, rather ordered, to ride in the hatch area, back seat folded down, prone and next to the bow hunting gear. The Vega had a $20 “aftermarket” 8-track player purchased at the Collingwood Auction, a flea market on Route 34 at the very northern edge of the Pine Barrens. It was outfitted with four speakers, two mounted to the side in the back and two cabinet speakers lying in the back, all “aftermarket” too. My head was firmly planted between the cabinet speakers for the 45-minute trip.
At home, I sat for hours in the living room listening to Yessongs, head firmly planted between speakers... The album opens up with an excerpt from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, which was strange for a rock and roll album (apparently this became a signature opening for Yes concerts). The rest of the songs were like nothing I had ever heard before. Some songs had weird names. Some were “suites” and had several parts to them. But, at the time we didn’t care too much about the structure of the songs. We just knew that the songs—and the album—had a great ebb and flow, the songs starting out with calm, then Anderson’s beautiful singing, and then building, and building, to an explosion of rock and roll. And the lyrics, they too were strangely appealing and cryptic. We got to know this album so well, we could pinpoint and
anticipate audience feedback, like the guy who yells “louder” before one of the songs. At home, I sat for hours in the living room listening to Yessongs, head firmly planted between speakers like I had in the Yellow Vega; I had no headphones back then. I studied the sleeve artwork endlessly, trying to figure out the meanings behind this strange world created by Roger Dean. “I’ve Seen All Good People” was always the stand-up, air guitar song. Take a straight and stronger course to the corner of your life. Make the white queen run so fast she hasn’t got time to make you a wife. Now, 41 years later, the same friends—Billy, TK, Doug, and myself—we still get together for an annual road trip, although the hunting is replaced
by hiking (and wives, kids, homes, college tuition…). Yessongs is still a major part of the soundtrack to our time together. “I’ve Seen All Good People” snaps me back to a darkened Garden State Parkway, to the first cup of coffee I had with the “big guys” at a rundown diner on Route 70, the lonely two lane highway that stretches east to west from the shore to Philadelphia. It links me to long-time friends, all of them walking music encyclopedias who will argue endlessly about whether Duane Allman was better than Eric Clapton. It brings me back to a carefree time before helicopter parents. It reminds me that one needs to remember to let go, “so satisfied I’m on my way.” Joe Keenan is the owner and principal of a digital consulting practice based in Hudson, NY.
PAINT IT BLACK It’s New Year’s Eve, 1967. I’m home for
Christmas. I’m in my bedroom at my folks’ house, my last night home before I leave. I’m listening to the top 100 tunes of the year on the radio, counting down to number one to be played at midnight. I hear “Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones and all of a sudden I am aware of how alone I am. I am going to Vietnam tomorrow and there is a very real possibility of being killed before reaching 20. It is the loneliest night of my life.
I am going to Vietnam tomorrow and there is a very real possibility of being killed before reaching 20. It is the loneliest night of my life. When I go to Vietnam, I leave behind Leila. She writes me. I don’t write back. She writes again, this time a scathing letter telling me she’s giving up on me because I haven’t written her. I’m sorry to lose her, but it is a relief. I’m off to war, a rite of passage into manhood, and don’t want to be concerned with an idealized girl back home. I am in Vietnam for 18 months over two tours in various artillery units. While I’m there, I always try to seem cool while I live in a constant state of fear anxiety or panic. It’s late night at the Special Forces compound in Trung Lap, my first tour. Nights we often fire our high explosives randomly into the jungle darkness, supposedly to interrupt enemy activity, to harass them. Shooting snakes seems more likely. Earlier in the day I’d noticed the hand brake on my side of the cannon didn’t seem to hold when we shifted the gun. I made a mental note to tell 10
the chief, but then forgot it. The day passes as usual. The call for a fire mission comes ‘round midnight. I’m the assistant gunner and so will pull the lanyard. Everyone is walking away while I wait for the command to fire the last round. Nobody is watching when I fire. The brake doesn’t hold and the recoil rolls the gun up the back of my leg, throwing me flat on my face. I’m pinned, and the crew is walking away. I want to say something but don’t dare speak until I can minimize the fear in my voice. “Somebody wanna get this thing off me” I say. Sargent Anuska turns and sees me. He yells, “Get up, up there, you guys and move that bad thing!” I’m not hurt beyond a bruise and a scrape. A few jokes are made about a dust off to base camp and cold beers. It’s just another day. It’s now closer to the end of my second tour than I know. We’re in a relatively secure fire base somewhere in the Central Highlands. Good weed is plentiful and I have a case of beer under my cot in the commo section’s bunker. One night I shuffle over to the mess hall. The new guy, Schroeder, is there playing a guitar and making up songs about anyone who comes in. He makes up a song about me. It’s funny. I’m flattered and I laugh. Then he makes up a song about the captain who just walked in. I’m alarmed. You can’t make fun of officers. But for some reason it’s okay. I like Schroeder, he’s a funny, cool guy. He doesn’t seem like he belongs here. I’m sick of the Army. I’ve been in Nam longer than some of these guys have been in the service. I’m coming unglued. I’m offered an allocation for an R&R to Taipei, and I grab it. A week of prostitutes, drinking, clean beds, showers and exotic food does me good. In Qui Nhon, waiting to fly back to my unit, I hear we’d been hit. And that Schroeder was killed. I ask Schroeder’s corporal, “What happened?” He
looks at the ground and doesn’t answer. Schroeder was the third guy I made the mistake of liking who died the next day. I’m a jinx. Don’t get near me. It’s the end of my first tour. I’m waiting for the flight out of Than San Nhut airport, for the freedom bird that’s going to carry us back to the world. There’s no tomorrow in Vietnam, just today, right now. Sometime in a far off future is when you go back to the world and life is supposed to begin again. It’s not a day I ever thought would come, the day I would leave Vietnam for home. I’m not ready for this. I’d left from Tay Ninh base camp, after a contentious week. A sargent’s bullying had me screaming obscenities and threats of murder at him, resulting in my being busted to private yet again. Me and another guy go out to the grass airstrip to hop a flight to Saigon on a Caribou cargo plane. It’s dusk. We are standing at the dispatcher’s hut. “The last plane out is taking KIAs” he tells us, referring to bodies of those killed in action. “Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for the morning flight.” I look at the other guy. We shrug. I turn back to the dispatcher. “We’ll wait till morning,” I say. I just don’t want to fly with dead people. Something spooky about the whole thing. But maybe I should have. Every day we wait for this plane. Now it’s in Hawaii. What’s the problem? I’m left to wait around in dress khakis with no weapons. What am I supposed to do if something happens? There’s an air conditioned beer hall run by the Air Force, for sargents and corporals. Me and Harrop are at the door and the guy there wants ID to show we’ve got rank. Who needs this shit? From inside I hear a voice boom out “Sargent Cocks! Sargent Harrop! How are you?” The guy at the door turns round and says, “You know these guys Sarge?” We’re in, thanks to our old chief, Sargent Anuska. Cold beer, good talk, this is living large. “I heard you was dead, Cocks” somebody says to me. Of course I reply that I am. Ferraro and Johnson were both head-shot. Some other guys were killed in action. But it looked like most of us made the year. Finally, the plane comes, courtesy of Branniff Airlines. We’re in formation, roll is called. We look at each other and try to wrap up a conversation that has no ending… Somehow we agree: This is something everybody should go through, and nobody should go through. When I return home in 1969 the first question I’m usually asked is, “Were you at the front?” followed by, “Did you see any action?’ or, my favorite “Did you kill anybody?” All questions asked with a pained look of concern. I get tongue tied. “There is no front” I start to say, but I would
have to explain the entire Universe to make that simple point, and so I stop. Recently, I’ve discovered You tube. Now I sit in front of my screen and punch in “Paint it Black” and see videos of Huey helicopters, swooping down low, picking up squads of grunts for a “Magic Carpet Ride” over the trees and paddies. Images of jet fighters bombing and napalming the jungle greenery, images of yesterday almost a half century ago. A chill creeps over me as the feelings return, the danger, the excitement, the thrill, the power and abandon and terror of it all. I look inside myself and see my heart is black. Ray Cocks is a disgruntled refugee from the 60’s.
DeSTiNy in East TEXas Dear Destiny, Enclosed are some photos of our time together. The baby will always know where he comes from and all the people who love him. We pledge to fiercely love and protect him and show him how much you gave—selflessly . He will know that he is in your heart forever. Months earlier my cell phone rings between clients. “Hi Ilyse,” she says, breathlessly. I ask, “How are you doing?” “Well,” she says, “I just got back from my doctor and they say they want to induce me later today. Can you come?” What? I panic. This is three weeks too soon! I have a client in my waiting room! I can’t think. “Destiny, where are you now?” “I’m on the way to the phone store. I have to pay a bill or two before I go to the hospital. Can you come tonight?” She pleads. “Of course. I’ll be on the next flight. (I will?) Let me know what hospital and see if they can wait for me!!!” I laugh. Hang up. Call Husband. “Cameron! What do I do? Just tell me what to do. I can’t think.” My rock of a partner tells me to breathe and come home immediately. He will pick our daughter up from school, pack a bag and take me to the airport. We sic my mom on travel arraignments and book it to Newark. We anchor down for three weeks in East Texas, 1580 miles from home. Destiny’s sister and I hold one another as we watch her give birth. I stroke her hair, place wet cloths on her forehead and speak soothing words of encouragement through my tears. Tears of excitement and anxiety. This is my baby, I love him animalistically already…but this is HER baby too. Her baby completely for the next few weeks, even months really. Whose baby is this? That is a sticky point. Even the nurses walk into the room and don’t know who the mother is, or will be, or whom they need to address when asking something. I am older, have a larger vocabulary when it comes to medical terminology, and seem to be the calmer of the two mothers. She, Destiny, the birth mother, is quite hormonal post birth—certainly 12
BY ILYSE SIMON
more so than I. She comes across as confused, and gets overlooked.
Can anyone really hold back love? I loved THE BABY the second I saw his tiny head being born. I loved his birth mom the moment she chose us. “She’s the birth mother.” I insist, relinquishing my negligible status. I want people to give Destiny the respect she deserves as the birth mother, a wonderful mother, to MY child. So the nurse says to me, “Will the baby be circumcised?” I defer in silence and look at Destiny. I have no legal claim on this baby. Wouldn’t it be weird for me to barge in and direct everyone around, and ignore the birth mom and her rights and wishes? She hasn’t signed a single paper yet to relinquish custody…. it’s all wispy intent. Destiny looks back at me. “Ilyse, do y’all want to circumcise?” And we discuss it, like two moms caring for our utmost gift. Who gets to hold him? Who decides which shots to give and hundreds of other very important medical questions that always need to be answered right away for a preterm baby with breathing issues? “Are you waiting to really love him?” suggests my father, who’d resisted getting attached to his adopted son until his own pediatrician assured him everything would be okay. “I held myself back from loving Noah when we brought him home from Paraguay. Just until I knew he was healthy.” Can anyone really hold back love? I loved the baby the second I saw his tiny head being born. I loved his birth mom the moment she chose us. Her sister saw our adoption profile and knew we were the faces to raise Destiny’s baby. We skype in the weeks before the birth. Ever the therapist, I inquire about her well being and mental status.
I help her with her/our birth plan. “So how will it be for you to breastfeed a baby you are not planning to keep?” Did I really just ask that? No one else was asking it (for instance, the multiple social workers and therapists we had to employ). Someone has to ask that, right? “Oh,” she says, “I hadn’t thought about it like that. The doula just asked if I agreed that it was important for the baby to have skin-to-skin contact and nurse right away.” And the doula knows about this adoption plan? I ask myself. So I’m on a learning curve too and lord knows Margo, the social worker in the hospital, has never seen the likes of Destiny and me, sharing feedings, me watching her nurse my/HER baby. Nobody knows what is going on. I am ok, even encouraging Destiny to hold, love, snuggle, kiss, and breastfeed our child. And this requires much reassurance to my inner self and to every medical professional we meet. “Really, you don’t want to be doing that,” says Margo, who comes in daily and corners Destiny and me separately. To Destiny, Margo talks about separation and a time to cut ties… and with me Margo, warns of the dangers of mother/baby bonding. “The more contact she has with the baby,” she says, “the greater the chance she will not want to give him up. In all my 36 years of social work, Ilyse, I can honestly say I have never seen anyone do what you are doing. And so you know, I think you are making a bad mistake,” Margo chides. Destiny and I are thrown into whirlwinds separately and then have to realign ourselves. There are moments when I see Destiny as an enemy of sorts. I do not want to hate her, I remind myself. I love her. I love Destiny because she does want to do everything right by the baby. She reads up on natural birth and the importance of colostrum. She is giving me my/her baby. She won’t sign the release papers…or she says she will, but hasn’t yet. I get all confused and forget to love her, trust the universe, trust that if he is meant to be ours…he will be. Maybe it’s hard because we have been down this ‘trying to adopt’ path for like four freaking years. Hard because last January I bought a car seat, diapers, some formula, and we were all ready for
a different birth mom…who changed her mind. Or the birth mom who I called twice a week, every week, who was so eager to have us parent her baby….and then our lawyer found out she wasn’t even pregnant. But Destiny, she’s different. She’s the most polite person I know. The way she keeps asking me if I need anything, like a pillow for under my arm while holding the baby, or some food from town…. she’s uber-aware to be solicitous. Yet I feel the same way, and being older, much older than she, I think it’s my job to take care of her. She’s the one giving birth…but people keep sweeping that under the carpet. Trumpets blow. “DA DAA. Ilyse is the triumphant mom!” NOOO! I recoil. This woman just gave birth to this beautiful baby—why is everyone ignoring her? It intensifies the bond I feel with Destiny as a woman and mother. “I see you.” I tell her. “I witness your birth, you giving birth. I will not forget.” I admire Destiny. When I hear the reasons she chooses adoption I think, “Wow. Maybe I’m not qualified. May we can’t handle a second child when we are already challenged with our first.” Like am I stupid for not knowing what she recognizes for herself? The doctors ask if she wants her mom or sister to cut the cord. She scoffs at their suggestions. “Um,” she says ever politely, “I already know who I want to cut the cord. Ilyse.” I shimmy excitedly over, a tad embarrassed that I, a stranger, pulls rank over Mom and older sister. I feel like a VIP at this party. He is born and she holds him. People congratulate …me. “HELLO!” I want to scream. “Destiny’s the one who just went through labor! Not me.” I congratulate her. For the next few days, different family members come and bring me gifts for the baby. I bring a gift for Destiny. She is still, will always be, one of his mothers. We have grown close, as only family can. I love Destiny sort of like a daughter. I spend countless hours in the hospital reviewing genealogy with her great grandma. Hours in the waiting room with Destiny’s sisters gently prodding for family stories. My daughter plays games with Destiny’s 10-year-old son. “Mom,” she asks, “Is Timmy kinda continued on page 14 13
like my brother because I’m the baby’s brother and so is he?” “Yes sweetie. Kinda like that.” The more love the better. But now, we retreat back to New York, and leave this cocoon of idyllic shared parenthood and family-dom. The phone rings. “Ilyse, you can go home now. The papers have been signed.” My hands are shaking and I begin to cry. “Really?” I ask our adoption lawyer, “We can go home?” Again, I call my personal travel agent. “Mom, we can come home. Please find two plane tickets for tomorrow. Gotta Go.” Next, a much harder call. I have to call Destiny, our birth mom, and let her know we will be leaving.....and taking HER baby with us. I know this won’t be easy. She’s been mentally avoiding this moment for nine months and three weeks. “Destiny,” I say. “We just got a call from our lawyer. The paperwork went through today and we can go home...to New York. We need to get to Dallas tonight.” Silence. Small muffled sobs. Then the will to stifle them breaks apart. “Ilyse, let me call you back,” she says, adding. “I’m going to get to see him before you go, right?” We frantically pack and make flight plans and pace the floor till the return phone call. “Hi, Ilyse,” Destiny says. “My mom wants to know if y’all want to come over on your way out for family dinner? All my sisters and brother will be here and my grandma has some presents for y’all.” “Of Course,” I say. The family home where we sit and laugh and I take photos I will never be able to capture again. Important moments for my baby’s Life Book: Here is your other Mother. This is your Great Grandmother. Here your Grandma is holding you. These are your Aunts and Uncle. Here is your brother. These are the people who love you with their whole heart—like we do. Whole heart. Hebrew translation: Calev. Destiny gets her favorite plush blanket. The one she snuggled with when pregnant. Her mom gets scissors. Like rending one’s clothes for a Jewish funeral, to mark finality and the tear in the mourner’s heart, she cuts the blanket. “This half is for your Calev. And this half is for me. You will always be with me.” Jimmy Jo, Destiny’s brother, was a finalist on American Idol. They are a family of singers, hippies (for Texas), and alternative thinkers. “Sing ‘em a song Jimmy Jo. Sing a lullaby to Calev.” Jimmy Jo sheepishly gets his guitar. His 19-year14
old self doesn’t know any lullabies. I already know Jimmy Jo has an amazing voice because I’ve googled the whole family in the preceding weeks. He starts to strum. Grandma holds the baby and sits next to him. We watch in awe of his talent and then the awe turns to shock. The room stops breathing. We are all frozen together on a precipice. This young uncle does not know of what he sings…or does he? Oh, my love. My darling. I hunger for your touch A long, lonely time And time goes by so slowly And time can do so much Are you still mine? It’s “Unchained Melody,” by The Righteous Brothers. I start to cry, the shoulder shaking type of deep tears. My husband is sniffling. Destiny is unhinged as she crumples with her grief. The coexistence of my joy and her sorrow, so palpable and awkward. I hold her and we cry…mourn…and love together. Ilyse Simon juggles writing, mothering, and running a private nutrition practice in Kingston...but cannot juggle balls or knives.
TH e SONG of CoURAGE
BY HOPE WINDLE
Recently my sister asks me
My teeth are chattering; I’m scared. This is fun!?
I’m stumped and can’t think of mine.
a long, bright orange and white tow rope with a foam handle bar. But they’re not really for me. I know he is the one who wants to ski. He attaches the line to the back of the outboard motorboat. The tide is high, the water quiet. These are the conditions best to ski in. He throws me the life jacket and says, “Buckle up!” Even now, all these years later, I can remember having goose bumps. I don’t want to do this but I do. Super awkwardly I put on the skis in the water. He gives me the signal. I nod. I keep the “tips up.”.He guns the engine and the motor boat snarls into a large roar and I am pulled hard. I am up. I am standing. I am moving really fast behind the boat.
, “What’s your fight song? What’s the song you sing when you’re nervous, or trying to be courageous?” She says, “Some people pick the kind of song you’d hear at the football stadium that gets EVERYONE pumped up.” (Cue:)We will. We will ROCK YOU! Or, she notes, for an old timer like me, it might be (Cue excerpt from Chariots of Fire:) Daaaaa Daaaaaaaaaaaaa daaaaaaaaa. Or recent courage seekers might pick: (Cue Katy Perry’s Firework:) Baby, you’re a firework Come on, let your colors burst Make ‘em go, “Aah, aah, aah” You’re gonna leave ‘em all in awe, awe, awe Or, for the timeless: (Cue the anthem from Rocky:) And then it hits me! I remember it. I wish I didn’t remember it. I didn’t mean for this to be my song. I must have been impressionable, susceptible to ear-worms and pop culture. It is so embarrassing. It started one summer when I was about 12. I’m with my parents and we’re on Martha’s Vineyard at a weekend house party, where I am younger than the rest of the gaggle of kids. We’re on a “lagoon,” which seems to me like an odd word for what this. I mean, the water is flat, and there isn’t a Loch Ness monster in it. But there are older boys present—Jay and Gardiner. To a pre-teen girl, older boys are as terrifying as monsters. The older boys have water skis and life vests. One minute they’re throwing on the vests, the next they’re fighting for the driver spot on the motorboat, a Boston Whaler. I watch another girl, Julie, put on the life jacket. With the skis on, she jumps into the water. Someone says to her, “Tips up!” She gives the thumbs up signal. She is ready! The motor boat snarls into a large roar and they are off, the boat off like a shot, and Julie pulled slowly, then fast, on two spindly legs propped up on skis skimming the water. When we get home, my dad gives me a birthday present I didn’t ask for: water skis, a life vest, and
My teeth are chattering; I’m scared. This is fun!? We’re going really fast. I don’t know if it’s to keep my legs straight or to help me hold onto this fast tow rope, but I start to sing in my head, my song, my song of courage just bubbles up from my inner gut. “Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner that is what I’d really like to beeee, and if I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner, everyone would be in love with me. I am not sure if you can claim your inner fight song. I wish I could. But I feel like this is the moment when mine claims me. This song. This stupid song. It’s not even a song! It’s a commercial, a jingle for god sakes! But it bubbles up in me whenever I am in a dark alley or on top of a really tall mountain or about to do something scary, like telling a true, embarrassing or revealing story on stage. Somehow it works. Don’t believe me? Why don’t you give it a try? Here we go. Tips UP! (Cue Oscar Meyer Weiner theme song:) Oh I wish I were Oscar Mayer’s Weiner. That is what I’d truly like to be. ‘Cause if I were Oscar Mayer’s Weiner, Ev’ryone would be in love with me. Hope Windle is ready to walk or write or draw into the valley of pain with you, now that you know “her” song. During the day, she works at SUNY Ulster as an Instructional Designer.
chandy & mordReDd Do you know what a “mondegreen” is? I didn’t either until very recently. It’s a musical malapropism, a lyric you hear wrong and then keep singing along to incorrectly, again and again. It gets its name from a line in a Scottish ballad that goes “laid him on the green” but is frequently misheard as “Lady Mondegreen.” I recently learned that for going on 27 years, I’ve been hearing a mondegreen in the lyrics to a song that has meant so much to me—a song that has a bit of different meaning when you consider the actual lyrics. I first hear the song in the Fall of 1988, when I’m a freshman at Syracuse University. Music is good in 1988. There’s the Sugarcubes. REM. The Cure. The Smiths. And Morrissey, of course. I live in the VPA —visual and performing arts— students’ dorm. I’m a musical theatre major and my roommate, Chandy, is an art major. She’s a nice little girl from some small town in upstate New York: perky, sweet, laughs a lot. But after a month at SU, she starts wearing all black, caked on black eyeliner, white powder on her face, and she’s dating this dude, our next door neighbor, named Mordredd (with two D’s). He’s tall, with black combat boots and a big belt buckle he uses to try and hide his big beer belly. He looks 40 but somehow he’s a freshman. I had gone to an allgirls high school, boarding school. Now, suddenly, much to my Dad’s dismay, I live in a dorm that’s co-ed, and not by floor, but by door. Our nextdoor neighbors are Mordredd and Dave. As a couple, Chandy and Mordredd are quite dramatic. Fighting. Making up. Making out where everyone can see. Lots of drama. Most of the time, they shack up in his room leaving me alone but not poor, poor Dave. And what of Dave? Dave is quiet. And smart. He’s not an art major or a musical theatre major, but a writer; he’s in Newhouse, the communications school. He’s studying something more useful than the rest of us. He’s creative and funny but knows how to write a paper. Dave and I share a hatred for Mordredd and Chandy, because we are both victims of their self-absorbed romance. As the Autumn weeks year roll by, he and I start to share more than just mutual hatred. Since he wants to get out of his room badly most of the time, he hangs out in what’s called the “multifunction room.” This room is more than the dorm lounge; it’s a quiet study place that has a door. 16
BY STEPHANIE ST. JOHN
I start to hang out there with Dave to get away. We talk and laugh and make fun of our asshole roommates. I tell him about their worst fight: where I walk into our room and Chandy is sitting on the floor with the lights off and the curtains closed, scribbling on a giant notepad: Hate. Lies. Hate. Lies. Hate. Lies. Hate. Lies. And she’s blaring “Suedehead” by Morrissey. I ask her what’s the matter and she just keeps scribbling, not looking up, not noticing me or acknowledging me—just mesmerized by Morrissey and his Why do you come here – when you know it makes things hard for me – when you know – oh why do you come? She and Mordredd are like overgrown Goth toddlers, prone to full-on tantrums, always making messes, always seeking instant gratification. We laugh about the time Mordredd comes in from a big art test, or who the hell knows, and Chandy asks him, “How’d it go?” And he screams: “I FAILED” and stomps up the hall with his big clunky boots. Or the time that he comes running out of the bathroom yelling: “Chandy—bring toilet paper—LOADS!!!!!”
It’s a big school, it’s 1988— there are no cell phones, no check-ins on Facebook. They all think I was murdered. I’m starting to look forward to coming back to the dorm and its multipurpose room. I’m starting to rush out of the theatre to make the uptown bus at the end of the day. My dorm couldn’t be farther away from the theatre. I want to see Dave; I want to just be with him. The whole, long uptown bus I’ve got in my head: Why do you telephone? And why send me silly notes? Dave is the opposite of our roommates. He gets his work done. He’s no drama. His handwriting is small and neat. He can do impressions and make all kind of wacky sounds. He plays guitar. He’s got brown eyes that run deep. He’s got a really great, knowing smile. He’s cute, but there’s something mysterious about him; he’s dark in his quiet way. But he’s not my type at all. He wears corduroys and bad shirts. But when I leave my loud musical theatre day filled with the divas and belters and
tap dancers, I look forward to my quiet musings with Dave. And send me silly notes… He’ll leave funny notes on the dry erase message board on my door, notes that only we understand. Or he’ll write: “Meet me in the multifunction room.” Which is code for: They’re at it —I’m kicked out— come hang with me. Ok, I’m starting to LIKE like Dave. I can live with the corduroys. We meet. It’s quiet. We laugh. We start to sit close to each other sometimes, doing our work; him writing papers, me reading plays. His corduroy leg touching my dance-tights leg. But in my mind, he only sees me as a friend. See, I’ve just turned 18 and I’ve never had a real boyfriend. And because of my theatre life, I’m used to hanging around mostly with boys who are only interested in friendship. Any of the boys I’d ever been with at home all would have made a move by now. So in my mind, since Dave hasn’t made any moves, he’s not interested in that way. I’m assuming that he’s just being friendly. One night Chandy asks about Dave and me. Like are we “hooking up” or “doing it.” I say nooooo. She keeps asking me and I deny, deny, deny. Even though, according to her, everyone thinks there’s something happening. But I don’t think he feels that way. Secretly, though, now I wish, wish, wish he would, and I feel a glimmer of secret happiness that this is even on the table in people’s minds. (Why do you hang around...) But events start to turn. Mordredd starts seeing someone else, another girl in the art department who lives in a different dorm. Chandy now spends most of her time in our room moping. Drawing. Crying. Scribbling. And Dave is now able to be in his room. With no Mordredd and no Chandy. And no me. It was too late – too late – too late. And now I don’t get notes on my door. (And send me silly notes…) I’m starting to pine. I want to hang out with Dave, but I have no readymade excuse now that we have our rooms back. So, I start to act aloof. I don’t want him to know how I’m feeling. (I’m so very sickened – Oh, I am so sickened now.) I start to not be in such a rush to come back to the dorm after class. In fact, one weekend I end up spending the whole time laughing and watching “Good Times” reruns with my new musical theatre friend, Marsh. I even sleep over at his dorm. He’s gay and we’re just friends. When I come back on Sunday night, I see many scribbled notes on my board “Where are you? Are you alive? We are worried about you!” from different people in the hall. There is a rumor that something has happened to me. It’s a big school, it’s 1988—there are no cell phones, no check-ins on Facebook. They all think I was murdered. I’m actually shocked that anyone cares at all. I guess I’m not really aware of my effect on others–that I even have an effect, that I would even be missed.
like an explosive ball of pain. I am a fool. A fool for thinking that people might have been right– that there is something between us. There is nothing. Why do you come here—when you know it makes things hard for me. Distance settles in between our two rooms, no longer intertwined because of Chandy and Mordredd’s loud and immature combat love. I walk by to see if the door is open. It’s not. I hear music. Dave’s in there. But I can’t bring myself to knock. Do I hear Morrissey? I’m so sorry—I’m so sorry... One night Mordredd is back. He and Chandy are apparently trying to make up, at least for a night. It’s late and Dave is sleeping. So they sneak in thinking they’re being quiet, whispering while they squeeze themselves into the tiny twin dorm bed. Chandy says to Mordredd, “I think Stephanie likes Dave. In fact, I know she does–I saw it in her diary. And I think he likes her too–but he’ll never make a move. What do you think?” Dave hears this. He’s not sleeping. The next day, I come home to a note on my door: “Meet me in the multifunction room.” My heart skips a beat and the remnants of the ball of pain that has been simmering and smoldering black ash starts to turn to a golden, warm beating humming bird, a motor that propels me forward. He wants to see me. I open the door. He’s sitting on the university appointed couch that we have sat on so many times, made with that rough, burlap, governmentissue fabric. There he is, with his deep brown eyes. And his corduroys; he’s a textured dream made of substance and strong fabric. Why do you come here – when you know it makes things hard for me. I sit next to him. It’s snowing out. In November. Because it’s Syracuse, and it’s always snowing in Syracuse, and I’m about to fall in love. He makes his move. We stay together for the whole rest of the time we are in college — all four years. And “Suedehead” will always remind me of Dave. Even though I misheard the lyrics. I thought my man Morrissey was singing, “It was too late - too late.” But I just, as in just discovered that the lyrics are actually: “It was a good lay, good lay.” Meaning it’s about a one-night-stand and unrequited love. Oh. That changes things a bit. Had I known the right lyrics, I may not have used it on so many subliminal mixes I would make for potential suitors later on. Kids! Know your lyrics before you make mixes! Especially for potential suitors! Stephanie St. John is a singer, songwriter, writer, mother and guinea pig whisperer.
When I see Dave, he doesn’t even look at me, barely says hello. I feel a stabbing in my heart, 17
Tainted Love It’s the early 80s. I’ve just finished the
8 grade. My hair is styled like Princess Diana’s. I make mix tapes by listening to the radio and trying to hit “record” when my song comes on, but I’m always just a second too late so all my music is missing an intro. th
“Tainted Love” makes an appearance on many of those mix tapes. That one-hit wonder—the wellknown Soft Cell cover version of a track originally released by Gloria Jones and written by Ed Cobb of The Four Preps—evokes for me some of the best moments of my life…but also some of the worst. Many of each took place while I was a counselor at sleep-away camp and that song was in regular rotation on the radio. If you’ve never been to camp, allow me to describe it. The smells of sunscreen and mosquito repellent take me right back. Outdoor latrines are fond memories for me. Camp songs pop into my head at random times, and I will expect everyone around me to be able to finish the verse: “Be kind to your web footed friends, ‘cause a duck may be somebody’s mother.” Reveille at sunrise. Flag raising and saying the pledge, even in the rain. Bussing the tables in the mess hall for your cabin. Bonfires. Marshmallows. Bug juice. Sleeping bags, camp fires, sing alongs, star gazing. My camp was in New Paltz, walking distance from my house, but a world away. I started going when I was 10, and loved it so much, I went back every year thereafter, rising through the ranks, becoming a counselor-in-training, then a full fledged counselor. My first kiss, my first boyfriend for a day, some of my best and worst memories were created there. One night sitting close to a crush, slapping
BY TAMARA NATOLI
mosquitoes off each other. The next night sitting close to another crush, scaring each other with ghost stories. At camp, there was not a lot of privacy, but there was a lot of romance. I would date one boy for a day or two, and move on to the next. Mostly the boys would walk the girls back to their cabins, a quick smooch, and then run before the counselors caught you. Every time I hear “Tainted Love,” it snaps me back there as quickly as a whiff of bug repellent. It was my camp anthem, and the soundtrack to all those budding relationships. We would play it at the final dances in 1982, 1983, 1984—my counselor years. Great beat, deep voice, teen angst, power, drama. This song had it all.
Great beat, deep voice, teen angst, power, drama. This song had it all. What teen can’t relate to those lyrics? Sometimes I feel I’ve got to, run away, I’ve got to get away from the pain that you drive into the heart of me. Being a teen is a shit storm of emotions and hormones. You always want to get away. You think no one understands you. Don’t touch me please, I cannot stand the way you tease. Hmmm. What’s a teen girl supposed to make of that line? Am I a tease if I touch you but don’t have the intention of going all the way? The love we share seems to go nowhere… I am a virgin at this point, but is this song saying if love is going anywhere, it’s going to go all the way—and
if not, I’m a tease? I knew that a tease was not a nice thing to be. A “tease” is what they call you when you are just not interested. Or when you’re a virgin. And it’s never a compliment. I have heard the word “virgin” used as an insult too many times to count. As a teacher in high school, I hear, “She’s probably still a virgin” as a reason for a boy to keep his distance. If a girl is awkward or plain, other girls will say, derisively, “I’ll bet she’s a virgin.” And yet, my own daughter, currently in the 8th grade, the same age I was when “Tainted Love” was playing in the background all the time, was talking to me about slut-shaming the other day. Slut-shaming is just the other side of the teasing coin—the opposite of what might be called “virgin-shaming.” Why does sex—whether you have it or you don’t— have to be all bound up with shame? Where does love fit in, and how does it get tainted? And where is the line drawn from “not a virgin anymore” to “slut?” Who writes these rules, anyway? Touch me baby, tainted love. Umm, didn’t you just tell me not to touch you? I think I might be getting a mixed message here! One night when I was 16, I was in the cabin with the boy du jour, a fellow counselor who was 18, and his 11 to 13-year-old campers. I am kissing their counselor, and I can’t help overhear their conversation. “Susie’s a virgin,” “I’ll bet you Jessica’s not a virgin,” as if their pre-teen respect was awarded or withheld based on whether she had had sex before or not. I was the counselor to the girls their age, and could not sit by quietly and listen to this conversation about my girls. “Hey, they’re 12 years old,” I said. “What do you expect? And I’m 16 and I’m still a virgin!” This might have sounded far-fetched to them, because they knew that the boy I was currently kissing was not the first boy I had kissed at camp that summer. He also would not be the last. The first boy I had kissed that particular summer had his college orientation to go to and was not around. Out of site, out of mind. I was not “in a relationship,” we had not had “the talk.” I was getting to know people, playing the field. And I paid a price for it the next week. The other boy I had kissed returned to take over counseling responsibilities once again. This week I was the counselor for the youngest campers, the 8-yearolds. When my campers and I woke up one morning, there were cherries spray painted all over the outside of my cabin. It was humiliating. I felt just like Carrie when that pig’s blood pours over her head. Yet I had to carry on for my campers. At 8, they didn’t understand what “popping her cherry” was, anyway. But the other counselors sure did.
Speak up and defend virginity, and you will be punished—by the boy you were most recently making out with. And the other boy you made out with before. And the latter’s twin brother. I am punished for not sleeping with either of them, by having it made public that I have not slept with either of them. The camp administrators knew who did it; the boys didn’t deny it. And even though they were vandals, and destroyed camp property, the camp was so short on male counselors that they didn’t fire them. So the rest of that summer I had to just hold my head high. At least they moved me to a different cabin when the paint wouldn’t wash off. Tainted means something that’s made dangerous or dirty, especially by adding something harmful or undesirable. Camp was tainted for me after that year. I felt betrayed, violated. Abandoned by the adults who were supposed to be there keeping us safe. I wanted to run away then. I used to love going to camp, planned for weeks, always got a new bathing suit for it. But after that incident, I never went back. I lost my virginity within three months of that incident. The indignity I felt after having my cabin spray painted, after having to listen to nicknames about being a virgin during the rest of my camp stay, proved too much for my 16-year-old self. The high school sweetheart who was my first time also became my first husband and the father of my two girls. Of course, when you say first, you know there’s a second. That marriage didn’t last either. That one was tainted by addiction. My daughter, who is 13 now, recently watched Casablanca and could not fathom how Ilsa could have left Rick. A teenage girl can’t comprehend that it’s possible to love two people equally, just as it’s possible to love someone who isn’t right for you, or to love and have it still not work out. As a teen, do you really know what can taint love? What can make someone go from running to you, to running from? Once, many summers ago, I didn’t yet know either. I thought real love would survive anything once I found it, and that tainted love wasn’t true love at all. But now, with all kinds of love to look back on, I realize that—whether it’s owing to the quotidian rituals of running a household and arguing over something as ridiculous as whether the toilet paper roll should go over or under; or to something as significant as infidelity or addiction, with one partner never knowing what is truth and what is manipulation—every love gets at least a little tainted once in a while. Now a mom of two awesome daughters, Tamara Natoli is obviously not a virgin anymore. She enjoys puppy kisses, hiking, and friendship; but who doesn’t?
THE kids Are AlriGHt I have a lot at stake emotionally
when I take my 13-year-old son to see The Who at Madison Square Garden. It’s his first big-time rock concert, and it’s deeply important to me that it be The Who…or The Who’s Left, as even they’ve called themselves. My son and I are not exactly close these days – he’s got that self-protecting reserve that most sensitive kids with divorced parents have, plus he’s slamming into adolescence head-on…and frankly, he’s got his own life. That’s not exactly been easy for me to take. I don’t have much family left, I have no significant other at the time. He’s all I’ve got for an intimate relationship. And it’s been pointed out to me that I have serious intimacy issues, so it’s not going well. So, I think, let’s go see this band that I, his popsongwriter dad, have been yammering about since practically the day he was born. Maybe that would bring us closer? You know The Who’s song “The Kids Are Alright”? It starts with the most glorious “D” chord ever recorded: Brannnng! I don’t mind… Well, I did mind. Kids were not alright. I never wanted kids. To me, life seemed a terrible thing to do to a child. I swore I would never risk subjecting one to the daily message I grew up with, that “kids ruin your life.” Every bone in my body knew I was ill-equipped for parenthood, that I can’t “do” kid, and I made this No Kids policy clear in every relationship I had, including my marriage. But the universe didn’t give a fuck what the bones in my body knew. It’s 1999, and I am at a music conference on the Cote d’Azur – Southern France – my absolute favorite part of the world. Until it’s ruined forever when my then wife hands me a small, hastilywrapped package. “What’s this?” I ask her. Silence. I open the package and…a pair of socks for a pet? We have a cat with four legs the last time I looked. What…? And then, oh…they’re baby booties. So suddenly, at 50, I have a son. And for the next five years, I am the world’s most enraged,
BY CHRIS BUTLER
bitter, contemptible person anyone could ever possibly be. Because I lived this conflict every second of every day: I don’t want a kid/but I have a kid/I can’t have a kid/but I have a kid/repeat ad nauseum. I’m a loner. I write, I practice my musical instruments, I work on my arty projects. These are all solitary pursuits. Don’t intrude. Don’t demand any of my time. But I can’t abandon my son, shirk my responsibilities.
Grrrrrrr...it’s sooooooo hard not to bark at him to “Just watch the goddamn show, kid!” I can’t say a thing other than, “Want some more pop corn?” One day my five-year-old son turns to me and asks, “Daddy…why are you always so angry?” Because I have a home recording studio just like Pete Townshend’s, and I just got a publishing deal, and I need to write a pile of songs, and you… take…too…much…time. Because I am shit-scared that I’ll pass on the devastating psychological effects of my mother’s narcissism, her alcoholism, her cold disappointment in me and my brother…to you. “Daddy…why are you always so angry?” Because your mom is using you as an excuse not to get a paying job, and my recent big music biz payoff for the Spice Girls recording one of my songs? The one that was going to leave me setfor-life? It’s dwindled down to dregs level. “Daddy…why are you always so angry?” BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO TURN OUT LIKE MY THWARTED, BITTER, ANGRY, ABUSIVE, HARD LUCK, RIPPED-OFF, I HATE MY WIFE, I HATE MY KIDS FATHER!!!
Oh. I can’t be angry anymore. Underneath my rage, I know I love him. Somehow, I have to follow my mission to be an artist, and be a good father to my son. We have excellent seats. Mid-arena, right behind the soundboard. I have the whirlies, thoughts coming as fast as Keith Moon drum fills. I fight myself. Let him have the experience. Don’t color it. Resist the temptation to ask, “Whuddahya think?” Oh crap…he’s texting…texting right in the middle of “Can You See The Real Me?” His schoolmate Kara is in the nosebleed section and they are connecting. “Are you getting this?” I want to ask. “Do you feel it?” Grrrrrrr….it’s sooooooo hard not to bark at him to “Just watch the goddamn show, kid!” I can’t say a thing other than, ”Want some more pop corn?” I’ve gone from being vehemently anti-kid, to being the needy parent, craving connection with him. But he’s a teenager, and beginning to pull away. Not much opportunity for intimacy there. Already, I’m not “Daddy” anymore. I’m The Wallet With Legs. In the end, the concert isn’t a lifechanger for him. Not like my first rock concert in 1965, seeing The Who open for Herman’s Hermits. But he does like it. At the end of the night, unprompted, he says, softly, “Really, really cool.” I guess that’s as demonstrative as a 13-year-old is gonna get when exposed to his geezer Dad’s most significant influence. Chris Butler is too shy to blow his own horn... but he said he wouldn’t mind if we said something nice about him, the music he has composed and played, the bands he’s been in (Tin Huey, The Waitresses, Purple K’Nif, Half Cleveland), and the prose he’s written.
PErEstroika Grade 9
began for me with the Cold War nuclear explosion that the rest of the world had somehow narrowly avoided. My parents separated in the fall of 1989, just after I’d entered high school, when my mother moved us out to a friend’s house for a few days until my father could find a new place to live. I remember my embarrassment at her driving us to school that week in her old beater of a car and dropping us off at the back entrance. I felt raw and painfully visible making my way to class through hallways that were still foreign to me, past upper classmen who towered over me. They looked like adults. I felt like a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a body that didn’t fit. That weekend, dad moved out of the house and we moved back in. The next time I saw him, his dated 70’s era moustache was gone; he told me that it was traditional in some cultures to remove all of one’s facial hair when in the midst of upheaval and personal change. For the next year, his presence in my life was reduced to weekend outings to Bear Mountain and movie theatres. In ways that were more difficult to talk about, I was in the midst of upheaval and personal change, too. I’d watched in uncomfortable silence in middle school as all of the other girls began to develop hips and breasts, knowing that my experience with adolescence was going to be different and there was nothing that I could do about it. Like a populist revolt, feelings I’d hoped I’d beaten down for good began to rise on the tide of hormones. One Sunday morning, I’d read an article in the New York Times Magazine about a special high school in Manhattan for gay and gender non-conforming kids; a school where they could feel safe to express themselves. Reading that article should have been a relief for me; instead, it was terrifying. It called up my earliest memories, my first inklings that the body and role I was in weren’t quite right, before I’d developed the defenses to deny these truths. I’d known from the very first that these feelings would not be okay. It felt dangerous simply knowing that such a school as the one in Manhattan existed and was an option for some kids; it definitely wasn’t for me. Even in the privacy of my own head, even under the looming threat of puberty that was about to careen my body light years in the wrong direction, I couldn’t acknowledge that I had always wanted to be a girl. I’d been raised a boy and had always walked that party line. A heavy iron curtain separated me from any possibility of finding safety on the other side of it. 22
BY JANE DEMUTH
Puberty sank its teeth into me fully in the fall of grade 9... One of its most unfortunate and visible effects was facial hair. Gender politics in my family were a clearly demarcated minefield with no demilitarized zone. Between my father’s drunken rage and my mother’s micro aggressions and subtle digs, every moment bore the threat of open conflict. What I observed of being a man was anger and control. What I observed of being a woman was impotence and manipulation. I remember the intense cycles of violence and apology of my parents’ fights. They’d been fighting even more frequently and more violently as my middle school career had worn on, and I’d taken to isolating myself as much as I could. I hid alone in my room with my Star Trek novels and my Apple ][e, or I rode my bike to my best friend’s house. Even with him, though, I didn’t talk much about what was going on at home. I just wanted escape. I felt clingy and desperate for emotional connection. Home was not a safe place to be growing up. It wasn’t a safe place to be female—the bruises and scar tissue on my mother’s body attested to that. And it certainly wasn’t a safe place to be me. And in the midst of all this, of course—puberty. Male puberty, puberty v1.0, the demo version that didn’t quite work and exposed all the incompatibilities between my software and my hardware. Puberty sank its teeth into me fully in the fall of grade 9, when my parents first separated. One of its most unfortunate and visible effects was facial hair. My earlier grade 8 experiments with pilfered orange-handled Bic personal shavers evolved into a regular biweekly ritual of locking the bathroom door and teaching myself through trial and error to lather up with Dial soap and remove the evidence that I was becoming a man. No single act had felt so thoroughly wrong in my entire life. I was becoming uncomfortable around other girls, too. The awkward edge of mounting attraction, longing, and identity cut so close to the bone for me that no, no, no, I couldn’t let myself go there. I couldn’t talk to girls anymore, couldn’t look at why I couldn’t talk to them, couldn’t even acknowledge that any of my feelings existed. Like an international political game, my personal
UN refused to recognize the sovereignty and legitimacy of the nations of I’m Not Okay, I Want To Be A Girl, and most of all, I Need To Feel Loved. Any other part of me caught communicating with these rogue states was automatically suspect and sanctioned. It was too dangerous. I might let slip some hidden, sacred, vulnerable part of myself. I never wanted to show emotion at all, so I developed a trick. I’d tell myself to “Freeze face” whenever I thought I might crack a smile. I did this in the halls at school constantly. My face was a permanent scowl. Eventually, my mother brought me to see her free therapist in the winter of that year, when I was at my angriest and most withdrawn at home, and was beginning to slip in school. I remember sitting in the therapist’s office, not saying anything, not even looking at her. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye back then. I felt very small, unkempt, scrubby. My clothes felt awful because they were cheap and I’d outgrown them, and there was no money to replace them. My body felt awful because testosterone was making it less and less me. In my mother’s free therapist’s office, I felt like a caged animal. I wanted to tell her – desperately wanted to tell her – the only version I knew of the deepest, truest, purest part of me, the version I could not deny – that I liked to wear my mother’s and sister’s clothes when they were not home, that this gave me an excitement, a happiness, a monstrous sense of rightness beyond the limits of anything else I’d ever known; certainly well beyond the hell I was living in. But it didn’t feel safe, so I didn’t say anything. I was afraid of what would happen next if I did. On the news, I’d watched a Chinese student stare down an entire column of tanks in Tienanmen Square without flinching. Unlike him, I didn’t know where to find my courage.
take care of me himself. What I knew then was that I was crying out for help and not getting it. And the violent, angry drunk, my father, was a safer choice for me than my needy mother. Counter to all expectations, the Cold War did eventually end. A year after she’d asked him to leave, my mother let my father move back in, once he’d quit drinking and entered recovery. His return felt like sunrise after twelve months of night. I had moments of delirious happiness the next spring; I remember walking across the school yard one afternoon,, so happy I was almost buzzing. The sky was clear blue, the sun was brilliant. I remember at some point after their reunion the entire family was in the car, and “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions came on the radio. “The wind of change blows straight into the face of time / Like a storm wind that will ring the freedom bell...” And it clicked. I could let go of my parents – both of them – at least, a little. For me, that was the moment when the Cold War ended. I still couldn’t admit what I most wanted; I still couldn’t let myself feel much of anything. It would be another twenty years before I accepted who I am, and began my transition. But I could finally release at least one thing; the persistent sense of being a Soviet bloc nation, lost in the shadow of warring superpowers. Unapologetically earnest and dated as it is, that song still makes me cry for the ragged child I was. I live in a softer, more nuanced world now, but back then the only context I could find to help me make sense of my life came through a German metal power ballad celebrating humility, reconciliation, and relief. Jane Demuth is a writer, stage performer, and music lover in New Paltz, New York; her second pass through puberty is going far more smoothly than her first did.
After wrestling for as long as she could with my silence and sullenness, the therapist asked if she could invite my mother back in to the room. The session ended for me then. No possibility of me coming clean, sharing my secret, the big thing I was holding behind my Berlin Wall. Brandenburg Gate remained shut. All that year, my mother made no effort to hide her own debilitating anxiety about how she would care for us on her own – how she would manage her money, whether it would be enough, whether we’d have to move in with friends of hers in another school district, and most of all, her despair at being alone. I remember feeling both responsible for and resentful of her. I was the Eastern bloc, wholly beholden to the volatility of Mother Russia. There was no anchor in my life; no stable element to hold on to; not even a definite place to call home or a parent to rely on. I begged my father, over and over, to let me live with him, but he said no. He told me his divorce lawyer said that a judge would never separate me from my brother and sister, and they wanted to stay with our mother. I don’t know if that was the real story, or if he just didn’t want to 23
MY DEAD BoYfRiend
BY DESIRÉE O’CLAIR
iS TOo BUsY
to TALK to Me A psychic comes up to me at a cocktail party a few weeks ago. “His name was John,” she says. “He died from cancer.” “That’s right,” I tell her. “He was my high school boyfriend. The first boy I ever loved.” And she’s all, “He is smoking. He is smoking, and smoking, and smoking! And he is so happy because he can smoke in Heaven!”
Over the years I think of John, usually in elevators and supermarkets when I hear an unexpected song we had shared. A few weeks before he died, John made a list that he titled: “100 Possible Options for My First Words in an Afterlife.” Number 15.“Is it okay if I smoke NOW?!” The psychic crinkles up her face a little, and says, “John says he is too busy to talk to you right now. Make an appointment to talk to him in about three months. He wants you to know he’s doing a lot of important work right now. He can do more now, where he is, than he could do when he was in his body.” My dead boyfriend is too busy to talk to me. That’s certainly John talking. Whenever we were chatting on Facebook, he’d suddenly say, “I’m too busy to talk with you right now.” Then he’d disappear. It’s August of 1980 when I fall in love with John Hamilton. The only thing hotter than the midday sun is the evening action in the back of his silver-grey hatchback Chevy Chevette. He’s a high school senior, and I’m a freshman, and we’re bad. Every afternoon, when it’s too hot to march, we have a three-hour break from band camp. John and I hop into that ‘vette and he drives us someplace shady, like Skeeter Alley or Colt Hard Lane or some other place in the little town of Paris, Kentucky. He opens the back of that car, puts the seat down, and turns up the tunes. We chain smoke Marlboros and suck down icy cold 24
Ale8s. The song American Pie comes on. The jester sang for the King and Queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean and a voice that came from you and me. “The jester is Bob Dylan. The King is Elvis Presley, and the Queen is Little Richard,” John tells me. John knows every musician being referenced in every line, because John is not just gorgeous, he’s a genius. Summer ends. Our romance flourishes in the fall, but wanes in winter when John moves on to other girls. John graduates in spring and goes off to college. Eventually he stops coming back to make out with me between girlfriends. I pine for him. He graduates from law school, meets some gorgeous blond that his family adores, marries her, and moves to Florida. I’m heartbroken. I yearn for him for years, mourning my first love. My friends tell me to get over it. They even stage an intervention. My friend Kathy drives me over to John’s parent’s house. John’s brother David is home, and they’re going to get me over it once and for all. We pile into little brother Billy’s room, because that’s where the VCR is. I sit on the bottom bunk with Kathy, and David and the guys climb on top. They pop the wedding video in and there they are – John and his beautiful blonde bride, walking down the aisle - big smiles on their faces. He’s so happy! How could he be so happy? It’s horrible! I’m devastated! Every time I cover my eyes or look away, Kathy yells, “She’s doing it again!” and one of the legs dangling down from the top bunk gives me a good swift kick in the head. “Open your eyes! See! He’s married! He’s happy!” And if I look away, WHAM! Right upside the head. Well, I show them. I move to New York and start my life. I find my own blonde, and marry him. Over the years I think of John, usually in elevators and supermarkets when I hear an unexpected song we had shared. On September 11, when the towers fall, I think of John, Where is he? Everything in my world is suddenly so dark and uncertain. I long to reach out to this person from my past, someone I had truly loved during a time when it was sunny and safe. I cry my way through the Concert For
We exchange many long emails, catching up on our families. We both have two children, a boy and a girl. When Facebook comes out, we find each other there, too, and go public with our friendship. That’s how I find out about the heart attack. John’s posts from the hospital are alarming, and the photos are grim. I become obsessed with checking his wall. Dozens of people I haven’t thought about in decades are there too, encouraging John. When I can’t sleep, I sit in front of the screen, looking at John’s wall, waiting for John to post. In the wee hours of the morning, people comment, offering their support. And there we were all in one place, a generation lost in space, with no time left to start again. John and I exchange many long and intimate messages during the time he’s in the hospital. I assure him that women will find the scar on his chest sexy, and that pacemakers are hot. I turn him on to arnica oil and Rescue Remedy, small comforts that might ease anxiety and pain. I can’t believe how openly he shares, both on his wall and in private. Much of what he writes is surprisingly long, given how weak he is, but I will always remember John’s shortest message, written just days after the heart attack. From his hospital bed he posts, “I’m scared.” Of course he’s scared. He’s terrified, and in his admission, he’s beautifully brave. Did you write the book of love, and do you have faith in God above? For weeks I find it hard to sleep. When I go to bed I dream about our American Pie, Paris, Kentucky, our small hometown, and a past that has been romanticized like a Southern gothic novel. Friends from John’s wall are in these dreams, filling up shoe boxes with cassette tapes, picking them off trees where they’re magically growing. Sometimes the tape gets hung up on twigs and miles of it are unwound in the briars and the bushes, shining in the moonlight, fluttering like tinsel on a Christmas tree, a big mess of memories waiting to be untangled.
reading John’s wall, I sneak upstairs and look at my own children as they sleep, stealing away into their messy rooms at midnight, letting my gaze linger on their gangly teenage legs, leaking out from the covers and pouring off the edges of their beds. I make a vow that the next morning, I will yell less. I will be more gentle with them. I become more gentle with my husband, too. Slipping out of bed quietly, often starting the morning coffee and delivering it to him while he remains in bed, a small penance for having disturbed his sleep. Since John’s heart attack, I cry and laugh more freely. I admit when I am afraid. Since John’s heart attack, I decide to be what I am, instead of waiting to become something. I meet with a Rabbi and begin my conversion to Judaism. I stop struggling through online college classes working toward a degree in something I don’t want to do and start taking a writing class. I am not yet able to fully embrace the changes and frailties that come with aging, but I am much more fully embracing my life. John Hamilton died on January 27, 2015. I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride, but something touched me deep inside, the day, the music, died. John left a twelve-page playlist of over 400 songs for his memorial service. In the church they played American Pie. My dead boyfriend may be too busy to talk to me, but he speaks to me through the words of our favorite songs. A half-Puerto Rican, new Jew from Kentucky, writer Desirée O’Clair lives in West Hurley with her loving and supportive husband Dennis, their two teenage children, and a black cat named Moses.
New York City and when Paul McCartney sings Yesterday all I can think of is how sad it will be to live the rest of my life without ever knowing John again, so after the concert, I go online and find him.
Other times we’re dancing in a circle and laying hands on a small bird on the ground we think is dead, coaxing it to sing. We take turns holding it, and holding each other. You both kicked off your shoes. Man, I dig those rhythm and blues. For many nights, I dream entirely in songs. Much to my husband’s dismay, I get into the habit of getting up several times a night to check Facebook, to see if John has posted. After 25
BY ELLIS JOHNSON
The most interesting family portrait I get zero laughs when I joke never taken is of the remaining six of us wearing latex gloves, emptying little dime bag contents that we should sell the drugs. into a pile on the kitchen table before we flush it down the toilet. Shit, I had to pay for college. Originally there were eight of us there in that room. Eight people. A man’s life boiled down to eight people. I guess that’s more than some.
It’s a dialogue between my mom, my brother, my aunt, my grandparents, a stranger, my dad, and me. An intervention that ends with the stranger taking my dad off to rehab. I’m driving away from that room, going fast around curves, windows open to let the air rip the pain from me, its roar drown out my cries, its motion carry the moisture from my face. I’m clinging to my mother. It’s like being eight years old again, asking her for reassurance because my body is doing something I don’t understand. Back then, she explains to me after I wake from a Xanax-induced sleep that I’ve had a “panic attack.” It had been just a routine drive; she was picking up my brother and me from my dad’s house. During the three-mile trip between the two destinations, I became convinced something was wrong. It took her at least an hour to convince me to leave the parked car after we arrived home. That’s when she broke a small dose of Xanax in half and gave it to me. What the fuck does an eight-year-old have to panic about? Only now I’m not eight, I’m twenty years old. I don’t remember what happened exactly. It’s a bright summer day. There are flashes of the meeting, highlighted bits of my mom’s and my letters. The details are vague. I remember my brother’s crying when he delivered his. I have no idea what he talked about, just watched him cry in a way that I didn’t physically understand. I’d never seen him cry before and haven’t since. I’ve never seen or heard anyone cry like that. His tears were non-existent, but I felt the weight of them falling. They fell like a shower head emptying its last after the water has been turned off, with the pace of a clock’s second-hand echoing in an empty room. His sniffles punctuated the silence like bombs. My father was glassy-eyed throughout, but laughed when appropriate, and somberly nodded in agreement. Drugs may have dulled him, but he is still an extremely bright and sensitive man. Fourth months prior, he came to me. He said he 26
needed a place to stay for only a few months. That worked for me; my lease was up in a few months. And, bonus, he said he would pay the entire rent for one of them. I’d been shouldering it since my best friend lost her job and seemed unable to find a new one. I should have kicked her out but our friendship was a perfect storm of fear and chivalry: my fear of being alone meeting my never-ending white knight syndrome. I just couldn’t stand her leaving. She was the hand holding my balloon string, my only tether to sanity. My workload, in addition to art school, sent my anxiety into the stratosphere. Thirty-five hours a week working at the restaurant, fifteen credits each semester, six hours of homework expected outside of each class, and in-depth class discussions. Yeah, fucking right. Two months of pasta dinners and vitamins for breakfast, cat pissing wars, Mario Kart Wii, and absolutely no social life to speak of. Despite coming home to two relatively useless “adults,” those months were oddly comforting. I clung to these dysfunctional relationships. I fed them, cleaned them, cared for them when they were sick or sad, picked up the pieces of two broken people and clumsily smashed them together. Taking care of them made me feel validated, since I wasn’t taking care of myself. But under pressure, every string will fray and break. I deliver my letter to my father from approximately my mom’s armpit. No one receives eye contact of any kind. I’ve never been a lookyou-in-the-eyes kind of person. Eye contact is dangerous. I always figured as soon as anyone saw my eyes they’d know everything about me. My family is no exception. It’s too terrifying, especially in here. Surprisingly, the only anger that exists in the room is my own towards the stranger running this intervention. You see, anger is an emotion I can get behind; it’s much less vulnerable when you back everyone into a corner by being unreasonable. Stranger has been pussyfooted about bringing my younger sister into the proceedings. I offered to drive the four hour round trip to bring her here but was denied. I guess she was only ten at the time, but she was,
To this day I am grateful for my mom’s presence in that room. My parents divorced when I was eight. My mom came to the intervention to support her kids. She was there for my dad, too, even though his two brothers couldn’t be bothered to show up. She was there throughout, and stayed after he packed for rehab in Florida. There wasn’t much to pack. He was leaving the needles behind for us to find. I get zero laughs when I joke that we should sell the drugs. Shit, I had to pay for college. Wouldn’t have been more than a couple hundred bucks anyway. There’s a reason they call it dirt. So we put on gloves, emptied the bags, and flushed it all down the toilet. With the drugs and their addict gone, we’d had enough of looking at and speaking to each other for the day. I got into my Nissan and started the 2.5 hour ride back to my new apartment. I had started a new lease there one month before the old one—the one on the place where my dad and my best friend were—was up. I told my best friend to pack up and move out. She moved in with her parents. I immediately moved into my new apartment and left my dad to rot. I didn’t know where he was going, but it wasn’t with
me. Turns out swapping self-care for the care of others isn’t sustainable. On the way home, I stopped at my best friend’s parents’ house. She was out but her mom was home. She heard me come in and caught a glimpse of my wide open face. We sat down at the kitchen table and she listened to me choke out apologies for letting her daughter, my roommate, live with a heroin addict. It was a bright day, perfect driving weather. It should have been a weightless summer, full of hope. A crack of thunder issued from the speakers of the car when it started. Fort Minor’s “Believe Me” came on. Back then, I thought you were just like me, somebody who could see all the pain I see… I wished that you were something that you’re not, and now this guilt is really all that I got… Whatever happens to you, we’ll see, but its not gonna happen to me. Too perfect to ignore, I realized that whatever happened now, I had tried everything. My mom told me later how she walked with my dad to the car. The stranger was poised in the driver’s seat to escort him to the beginning of his path to rehabilitation: my dad turned and said to my mom, referring to me, “I never knew she cared so much.” I still don’t look him in the eyes. Ellis Johnson is a daily survivor of mundane tasks and disappointments and has completed no remarkable achievements for a woman of her age.
Courtesy Ellis Johnson
and is, surely my dad’s favorite. That being said, I’m unsure if sacrificing her heart would have saved his. With the way things seem now, his guilt outweighs any reason, and we could never have protected her from this, even if we protected her from this room.
imagi ne From a very young age, I’m taught
violence by my very Catholic family. My father was born in 1897. He’s very old-fashioned, lace curtain Irish. We live in ugly, dark, dirty brick buildings, the Edenwald projects in the Bronx and in the windows hang lace curtains. All a pretense. Outside there are black people rioting in the streets. My father is very strict—very controlling. One time when we’re saying the rosary - we say it every night in my house—my sister starts giggling. My father picks her up by the hair and starts slapping her across the face. When I see him beating my sisters—blinding rage emerges inside me. But I can’t do anything. He does it to all of us. I have been beaten by my father numerous times.
My mother says, “Gerard, you are the man of the house now. Go get a job.” I’m only 12 years old. I pee in the bed until I am 12 years old. One time he sits on the edge of the bed with me in the morning asking, “Why did you pee in your bed?” I say, “I don’t know,” and he slaps me across the face with the back of his hand. He keeps asking me and I can’t come up with an answer so he keeps slapping me. I’m not going to cry. I endure. Being stoic is a good thing. Anyhow, if you cry you are sissy, so I just force myself not to. Instead the rage just builds up. My fear of him turns into rage. If I get into a fight, the rage comes out and it feels oh so good. I enjoy beating the shit out of some kid. Until I don’t. My older sister says to me a few years back, “Every parent has a least favorite child. You were Dad’s.” Growing up, I wish my father would die. October 10th, 1966, at the age of 12, I go to bed and I pray to God that my father will die. The next day, my sisters and I come home from school and he is lying in his bed with pain in his chest. When my mom comes home, they get him to the hospital. He dies later that night. I am free. Our house is like a nightmare. The screaming and crying of my mother and my brothers and sisters. I feel it too. I didn’t know I loved him. But I am also so relieved. No more abuse. I feel like my prayers have been answered. I am free. 28
BY GERARD RYAN
Things settle down after the funeral. My mother is left with four small children. My brother Martin is married at the time. He is supposed to go to Vietnam—Special Forces, Green Berets, trained to go behind enemy lines and torture and kill. But they keep him stateside. My brother Joe is in the Police Academy and becomes a New York City cop. Both of them trained to kill, and my mother is so proud of them. She’s a churchgoing woman and lives in a fantasy land. At home, now, it’s just my mother and my three sisters and me. My mother says, “Gerard, you are the man of the house now. Go get a job.” I’m only 12 years old. But I try working. I get a job at the butcher shop cleaning up. It’s bloody and disgusting. I don’t last. The following year is the summer of 67, the summer of love. I start to grow my hair long. I have gotten drunk twice at my brothers’ weddings and I love it. I have my first LSD trip. I am free. I say to my mom, “I’m going to look for a job,” but instead I sneak on the subway and go hang out at the Eastchester projects, where there are more white kids. I get ounces of pot from my brother Martin and break it up into nickel and dime bags and sell them to the kids there. That’s a job, right? There’s an Italian neighborhood next to the projects where my first girlfriend, Joanne Costelano lives. She is hot. God, do we have fun making out and touching each other. I get to feel her up. That’s what we call it. I’m too scared to go all the way. Actually, I don’t know what all the way is. I love Joanne. But the fucking kids in her neighborhood, pretending to be my friends and turning on me—three little motherfuckers, Anthony Astarita, Thomas Trimonti, and Alex Grasso, gang up on me. I focus on one of them, beating the shit out of him while the others beat on me. I don’t feel a thing but pleasure. I’m safer with my black friends. They’re trustworthy. In my neighborhood, the poor, rough black neighborhood, I can walk through it, as scary as it is, and I’m safe because I’m with my friends, my brothers. I’m called a “nigger lover.” Out on the street, away from my home, I think I am free but really I feel homeless—so lost, so empty. In 68 I’m accepted into Art and Design High School in Manhattan, a school for artistic teenagers. My dad used to say all artists are “faggots.” My mother won’t let me go. “If you are going to be an artist you will be a bum,” she says. She makes me go to St. Helena’s High School, an all boy’s school. It feels like a prison camp.
Music becomes a big part of my life. The Beatles offer a ray of light in my dark world. During my s trips, I am released from a life of violence and hate. I become part of the universe, and the universe is in my head. Some people might think I’ve lost my mind, but I don’t give a shit. Joanne and I take the subway to 72nd Street, then walk to Central Park. We hang out at the Bethesda fountain and go to the Schaefer Music Festival. We make out in the field in Central Park. It’s the first time I find out what a clitoris is. What a great discovery! I travel to places no man has ever been before, and the Beatles escort me there. John Lennon comes out with Imagine. How could I not be touched? Country Joe and the Fish come out with, Going up to the country - that’s where I want to go. And that is where I want to go. Away from the city, the filth and the ugliness. My mother wants me to be a soldier but I’m so tired of all the violence and war. I want to go to the country and be an artist. I want to imagine a world at peace where everyone lives as one. I want to cry instead of rage. I want to live, I want to love. Gerard Ryan moved up to the country in 1970. He has become a successful furniture designer, craftsman and sculptor, practicing his art in Boiceville, NY.
AMIE The summer of what I have come to think
of as my summer with Amie, I was 17. Caught between junior and senior years, I was gloriously, if only temporarily, emancipated. This story begins with a group of girls. We have come together, some by chance, others by design, to spend our summer in the (then) seedy town of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Back in 1978, it is still the kind of place where the local bar keeps a jar on the counter filled with dirty water and hard-boiled eggs. Anybody can reach in and take one. It’s totally unlike the other end of the island, the genteel end, where the rest of my family is spending their summer, where I spent many of my younger summers, friendless and miserable.
“You need female vocalists,” one of us says. I’m pretty sure this is Lynn doing the talking. She’s the one with balls. My roommate is a girl I know from back home in New York. Slutty, beautiful Hannah. We rent a room the size of a closet. Just enough space for two, single beds. This does not deter Hannah from having frequent overnight guests. Lynn and Lisanne live around the corner, in a boarding house on Pequot packed to the gills with young people. There is Lisanne’s sister, Bettina, too. Jenny and Nina also live in the boarding house on Pequot. And who could forget Andrea? Crazy, funny Andrea from Colorado. A complete stranger who is quickly and easily absorbed into our clan, Andrea comes to the island with her boyfriend. There are other guys, too, like Fred, who will become Lynn’s boyfriend. But to me, the guys were all peripheral, which is why I don’t remember them when I think of this summer. What I’m telling here is a girl story. And the way I see it, for the first time in my life, I am at the epicenter. From this heady perspective, it looks like the world belongs to me. Amie, what you want to do? What I, what we, want to do, is everything! And everything is available to us, in unrestricted quantity, if not quality. Booze, pot, guys. Seven 30
BY CHARLOTTE ADAMIS
days a week, nearly 24-hours a day. Who needs sleep? There are nights I go straight from a party to work for my 5 a.m. shift at the Black Dog Bakery in Vineyard Haven. When my shift ends, I hitch to one of the beaches and fall asleep for a few hours until that night’s festivities begin. That’s probably why this next part of this story gets pretty fuzzy. On this night, we are dancing barefoot on the streets. There is a band playing. The Condor Brothers. Mandolin, fiddle, guitar. The band members are all guys, and this offends us. “You need female vocalists,” one of us says. I’m pretty sure this is Lynn doing the talking. She’s the one with balls. “You need us,” Lynn says. The band agrees. We are going to sing with them. For one night. And only for one song. I don’t know why we chose Pure Prairie Leauge’s “Amie.” Probably because when we listened to that song, we reached some sort of heightened emotional state, the way only young people can, infusing it with deep and personal meaning. The window behind the band is open, and the smell of the ocean, only a block away, washes in, barely masking the stench that rises off the beersoaked floor. It’s finally our turn. We line up in front of the guys. I’m in the middle, Lynn is to my left—and Jenny is to the right. The Condor Brothers have begun to play that incredible guitar intro, and Lynn is first up at the mic. I can see why you think you belong to me... That summer, I have no belongings and I belong to no one. I’ve got a sort-of-boyfriend, Frank, a really nice boy—a boy who will go off to his freshman year at Hampshire College that fall and drop dead on the track. But that summer, on the island, he is this boy who is afraid to sleep with me because he thinks I’m still a virgin. And I was. When we met. But while I am still seeing Frank, I meet this guy, Ralph, at a party. Ralph is 26 and he is the lead guitar player for The Smooth Sailing Band. Try not to puke when I tell you the line he feeds me. This, I swear, is verbatim: “You have wild eyes,” he says. “I’d like to take you on an adventure.” The sad truth is, for that, I would have left the party with Ralph right then and there. But Hannah, who is drunk, has drawn a circle of guys around her—and she is slowly taking off her wraparound skirt. They are closing in on her. Instead of
leaving with Ralph, I take Hannah home to safety. But the very next night, I go out with Ralph. I wish I could tell you that my first time was memorable. But my memory fails me. Maybe, in this instance, it’s probably for the best. It’s time for the chorus. This is my absolute favorite part to sing. I love how our three voices harmonize, Amie, what you gonna do? I think, I could stay with you, for a while, maybe longer if I do... Predictably, Ralph and I are a 60-second item. But before we split, I get it into my head to bring him up island to meet my mother. What am I thinking? The man wears an ivory and gold phallic symbol on a gold chain around his hairy neck. As soon as he leaves, my mother asks me, “Do you have birth control?” The next morning, she takes me to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital to get fitted for a diaphragm. A night or two later, Ralph and I are on a date and it’s pretty obvious, even to me, that he’s hitting on the waitress. It’s like losing my virginity has made me instantly worldly wise. Furious, I dump him. After this, at a party at the Pequot house, I discover he’s slept with practically every underage girl on Martha’s Vineyard, including Lisanne and Nina. Now it’s my turn to solo. Don’t you think the time is right for us to find... I bet you are wondering if Frank ever found out the truth. I’ve tried to lose this memory—but I can’t. That poor, nice boy was crushed, and I hate myself for being such a cad. The night we decide to get even with Ralph, we are like a chorus, a chorus of sirens. We squeeze
into Lynn’s car and set off in search of water balloons. But it’s late, and the only store open is the pharmacy. There are no balloons. “How about condoms?” one of us suggests. We buy a pack of condoms, laughing so hard we can hardly walk straight. After we fill them up with water, we pull up in front of the Seaview Hotel where Ralph’s band is playing. While Lynn keeps the car running, the rest of us hop out, rush up the steps to the hotel porch and fire away through the open window. Not knowing if we even hit our mark, we race back to the car and speed away, hysterical. Triumphant. The next morning, I’m at work at the bakery when a very angry Ralph shows up. “You could have electrocuted me,” he says. (Ralph played electric guitar.) “Good,” I tell him. Maybe we should have killed him. That fall, Nina, a senior in high school, will go out with him. They have a fight and he lets her out of his car on the New Jersey Turnpike. After that, we all lose track. I will safely assume Ralph has met the fate of all sleazebags. He’s either old or dead now. Now it’s Jenny’s turn. She’s got the third and final verse: Now it’s come to what you want, you’ve had your way. And all the things you thought before just faded into gray... And, so it has. But there is still one last chorus. Our girl voices soar through the window, past the island, and out over the long expanse of time that still lies ahead. Charlotte Adamis has been a school librarian for the past 13 years.
Me AnD donoVaN I move to Woodstock in 1967, when I’m seven. A whole lot happens right off the bat. My father runs off with our 17-year-old babysitter, and my mother’s 24-year-old boyfriend moves in, along with a slew of shifty friends. They buy a case of jasmine incense, paraphernalia and a few sheets of acid. The acid tabs have bugs bunny on them, and people are licking them, so I figure they are temporary tattoos, and just as I reach for my own innocent looking little tab—a guy named Hashishananda slaps my hand and tells me I’m rude. “Lady,” he says, “Ya gotta pay for that stuff. It doesn’t grow on trees.” The record player is going all day with Dylan, The Band and The Stones. They’re all right, but then Donovan’s song Wear Your Love Like Heaven comes out. I melt. Each time that song plays my life becomes kind. I can hear it in my mind when I flee the house to search for tiny frogs in the meadow. I dance to it when no one is looking, twirling round and round, feeling the colors and sweetness of the song in my heart, even though I don’t understand the meaning. Meanwhile, my home has become a sort of marijuana-soaked flophouse. On a typical day I go to the bathroom and find a fully dressed guy in the tub snoring, or a naked man outside in the snow drinking the dregs of a bottle of soy sauce from our garbage. Occasionally a woman will lock herself in the bathroom and announce she is going to kill herself. School should be a respite from the shenanigans at home, except for the bullies. My clothes are torn and hair so matted that the teacher claws at it with a comb when we stand in line for lunch. This makes for some thrilling banter over the mac and cheese. My stomach turns to knots and I sit like a stiff soldier, hunched against the spitballs, and at the same time pretending to myself that I only speak Chinese, affecting a puzzled and affable look when they call me freak, weirdo and hippy. I may be a freak and weirdo, but one thing is for sure: I hate hippies. On weekends there are big batches of green brownies, which I can’t eat. There are midnight 32
BY DAKOTA LANE
games of hide-and-go-seek when I’m trying to sleep. The adults sit around the table at lunchtime on acid, passing tropical fruit lifesavers mouth to mouth. I’m not amused. I decide I will marry Donovan.
I may be a freak and weirdo, but one thing is for sure: I hate hippies. I pack up my gear to go. So far I have: a stuffed terrier named max, a box of lucky charms cereal, some purple beads my father gave me as a parting gift, and a book called My Side of the Mountain about a another kid who runs away and lives off the land by himself. I’m very practical and I know I will find Donovan’s address. A nice librarian helps me look him up in Who’s Who. True, he lives on another continent, and true I still love my mother too much to leave her, but I know true love will find its way. Four decades later. Donovan’s older—but hell, he always looked old to me. I’m older, but that’s good, since I was only seven before. Besides, in my vintage suede and sheepskin coat with newly blonde hair, silver eyes and coy yet manic attitude, I’m looking good. He’s in town for the Woodstock Film Festival and I’m press, filming him with my video camera. He tells a strange tale about David Lynch and a guitar. In his whimsical Donovan voice that still makes my heart pound, he tells this story. Afterwards, he heads straight for me. “Do I know you?” he asks, in his twee and drifty Donovan voice. “Yes,” I say, “You do.” I’m not lying because somehow, even from another continent, he knew me enough to send me a song that, for a few moments, gave me back my childhood. Dakota Lane has written for the NY TIMES and is the author of five award-winning novels.
Confessions of A closet vocalist, part 2
BY SARI BOTTON
Who in their right mind moves out
of a cheap, beautiful, two-bedroom, prewar apartment with a sunken living room on West 88th Street, half a block from Central Park? Me, that’s who. The most obvious reason? It’s awkward to be a single person living with a couple. It’s 1992 and I’m a newly divorced 27-year-old. I’ve been rooming with my friend Donna and her boyfriend, Moshe. I never quite know where to put myself when they’re at home together. I tend to hide in my room. The least obvious reason? With their unorthodox freelance work schedules, at any given time, either Donna is home, or Moshe is, which makes it impossible for me to do my favorite thing in all the world: sing my heart out in private.
I must sing that song three times a day. No, four. It’s like an addiction. I literally get high from it. I’ve sung all my life, from the time I was a little kid. I couldn’t have been too bad; I’d always land big singing parts in the musicals at school and at camp, and I’d get cast as a kid in local adult semiprofessional productions. A talent agent would send me out on calls, but when I’d get called back, my parents would pull the plug because they didn’t think being a child performer was good for me, and they were probably right. They did let me record an advertising jingle once. Singing secretly is something I’ve been doing since I was a teen, when it came to my attention that it wasn’t considered cool to publicly belt show tunes, or old standards, or really any songs that hinted at the difficult emotions you’d rather hide. Adolescence is a rough ride through some pretty hairy emotional terrain, even for kids living under the happiest of circumstances. Throw in divorced parents, a rageaholic step-father who’s on the verge of getting the boot himself, a move to a new town and high school in the middle of 34
11th grade, and a cad for a first boyfriend—those are just the highlights—and now you’re really singing the blues. Well, the blues might have been actually acceptable. Rogers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb, Billie Holiday, Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand, not so much. As if I weren’t already self-conscious enough about my taste in music, at the end of the summer of ’79, a boy at camp a couple of years older takes it upon himself to bring me up to speed with the other kids. His name is David, and he is going out with my older step-sister. He and I have a special, almost sibling-like connection, and so he takes me under his wing, as a sort of dork rehabilitation project. It all starts one day in rehearsals for the camp production of The Sound of Music, in which I’m playing the Baroness von Schreiger. He slips me a note that says, “You’re a ‘key’ girl. Let’s be friends.” In camp parlance, “key” means cool. But when he hears that lately I fell asleep at night listening to the “Streisand Superman” record, that I’ve grown up in a house filled with Opera and classical music and pop standards but no pop, as in popular music—that I’m only vaguely aware that there was ever a band called The Beatles—he feels compelled to intervene. “Oh my God!” he exclaims in his Long Island accent. “Barbra Streis-dand??” No matter how many times I correct him, he insists on pronouncing it this way. He gets to work making me mix tapes of classic rock songs. “Our House” by Crosby Stills & Nash, “Baba O’Reilly” by The Who, “Sara” by Dylan. He copies several Beatles records, and the first two Springsteen records, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, onto cassettes for me. My stepsister smiles through gritted teeth when she learns he’s gotten me a ticket to join them at what becomes my first concert—Jackson Browne at Tanglewood—and then gets me a concert tee shirt there. Every time I see David he presents me with something new, as if he’s handing down some sacred text to a disciple. This is never more evident than when his younger brother goes away on a
week-long school trip, and David loans me the brother’s copy of Quadrophenia. After lecturing me about how to handle the vinyl without scratching it (so his brother won’t know), he moves onto how to take it in, how to study it, really.
The melody and arrangement are so upbeat, a great counterpoint to the dirge-y “Blue,” about her then-boyfriend James Taylor shooting heroin. It brightens my mood every time. I feel unfettered and alive.
“You need to listen to it at least three times,” he insists. “And read the lyrics!” He’s heard somewhere that familiarity with music fosters enjoyment, and David is intent on getting me to like his music so I can be less of a nerd.
One afternoon, I’m putting on one of my private concerts just for me, singing along with Joni, when there’s a loud knock on the door. I quickly turn off the CD player and pull myself together.
On one level, David’s indoctrination takes. I come to like just about all the music he introduces me to. Some of it I even love. But it’s not the full-on brain transplant he seems to be after. It doesn’t come anywhere near reversing my life-long affection for all the uncool music. It just makes me more secretive about listening to it, and singing it. This duality follows me into adulthood. Before my first husband and I split, I can often be found knocking on a neighbor’s door (she’s another theater geek I went to camp with) so we can sing “We Make a Beautiful Pair,” a duet from Shenandoah with gorgeous harmonies, while no one else is around. And then I leave my marriage and my hometown for New York City, and move onto a musician boyfriend, whom I follow to the clubs where he plays. At his gigs I meet music editors and it’s not long before I’m covering different aspects of the rock and rap music scenes for Billboard, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and MTV News. But whenever possible, I escape to where ever I can find privacy, and belt the uncool stuff—Liza, Billie, Barbra, and now Joni. Six months after saying goodbye to my husband, I say goodbye to Donna and Moshe, and find myself a run-down railroad apartment in a walkup on East 13th Street. The place is all mine. And it’s not long before I am singing at the top of my lungs, mostly during the day, when I’m home writing and assume my neighbors are off at work in midtown. Other people take coffee breaks and cigarette breaks. I take singing breaks. In my new life, where I flit around the East Village with the rakish, alcoholic musician and a string of other Peter Pan types, the intense yearning of the early Joni Mitchell records seems to fit. So many of the songs feel as if they were written just for me and the ridiculous, impossible relationships I keep going toward. “A Case of You” feels like the Al-Anonic National Anthem, and make no mistake, I identify as an Al-Anonic. But for some reason, the song in heaviest rotation is “Free Man in Paris,” a song written from the point-of-view of music mogul David Geffen, about his wanting to escape the music business. I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody was calling me up for favors, and no one’s future to decide… I must sing that song three times a day. No, four. It’s like an addiction. I literally get high from it.
“Hello?” I say. “It’s Richard—your neighbor from upstairs.” “Oh, I say,” and open the door. I don’t know Richard too well yet. In the years ahead, we’ll become friendly, but now, he’s just a guy who gives me strange looks in the hallway.” “Um, do you think we can move the Joni Mitchell Hour to a time when I’m not home?” I redden with embarrassment. It turns out he works the graveyard shift, as a proofreader at a law firm. He’s been home, trying to sleep, during the days while I’ve been warbling away. After that I sing softly at home. And then I find some Jazz open mics around town, where I get to sing with live three-or five-piece combos, or sometimes with just a piano player. I don’t tell any of my friends or family about it, so in a way I’m still in the closet. But at least I don’t have to whisper. All these years later, I am still working on emerging from the closet as a vocalist. With a dad who’s a singer, and a difficult relationship between us, it’s complicated for me on so many levels. But every time people hear me sing, they tell me how much they like it and say things like, “I never knew you could sing like that!” For my second husband I fortunately chose someone who likes my singing, and likes to sing with me, and record the songs I sometimes write. On the first long car ride we took together a dozen years ago, we sang all of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and “Court and Spark” together. We both knew all the words. And now we have a little act we call “Loveypie” where we play ukulele and sing standards and country songs, and whatever songs we’re in love with at any given time. We’ve even played in public a little. Still, the most comfortable audience for me is… me. These days, in the car. So if you drive by and see me swaying and lost in song, and you hear strains of “Free Man in Paris” escaping from the stereo, try not to let on that you’ve caught me. Just let me keep feeling unfettered and alive. Sari Botton, TMI Project’s Editorial Director, is a writer, editor, ghostwriter and closet vocalist working on coming out. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.”
The unwitting Punk who softened my Heart
BY SETH DAVIS BRANITZ
It’s a hot summer’s day in 1978. I’m
in the kitchen of our Queens apartment in the projects and working hard to be a badass while making an egg salad on rye. I’m....pretty cool. I’m wearing torn jeans, a sleeveless t-shirt, a leather motorcycle jacket my dad bought me on the Lower East Side, and a narrow-eyed scowl that I think makes me look tortured, which I am.
There’s a lot of hell at home. My dad’s breakdowns—always in the hospital or in a bathrobe. My mom’s meltdowns—never allowing us to talk to the neighbors about US, our business, our secrets. And now, it’s no longer just my brother causing trouble. I too have joined the ranks of being a disappointment to my family. My parents are afraid of me running away, dropping out and dying in a gutter. But they’re too consumed with their own demons and my brother’s delinquency to do anything about it. I am determined to be as counter-culture as possible, and I OBSESS on music. My older brother thinks he knows everything and says shit like, “If there was no Motown, there would be no disco. No country, no rock and roll. No jazz, no punk.” But....what does he know. As I make my egg salad sandwich, I listen to my mom’s little grey transistor radio, held together with rubber bands. After it delivers its usual program of sappy, insincere DJs and static, I hear this thin, crunchy guitar lick and a tight, infectious kick drum and snare come though that pokes me in the gut, and I can’t help myself. I’m drawn in and have to listen. The song cannons into a roaring, super tight four-piece joyride and the most ballsy tenor I’ve ever heard. It’s getting late have you seen my mates Ma tell me when the boys get here It’s seven o’clock and I want to rock Want to get a belly full of beer
This guy growls without shame about all the disillusions of an angry young man. Sings the unique challenges of a lower-class stoner looking for trouble because he knows trouble’s gonna find him, and he opts for the upper hand.
Elton John...He’s the guy who breaks hearts and wets pants with his fearless melodies and flowery exhibitionism. Who the hell IS this guy? Well, it’s Elton John of course, who, in the 70’s, only girls seem to be listening to. He’s outrageously flamboyant, and cocky and banging on the piano like no one I’ve seen before, smoothly crooning one moment, growling like a puma in the next. The real madman across the water. He’s the guy who breaks hearts and wets pants with his fearless melodies and flowery exhibitionism. He’s an androgynously-clad, gaptoothed, prematurely balding glam GOD who rocks more ferociously than any he-man with a Marshall stack and a couple a distortion pedals. This song appears in sharp contrast to everything I know, everything I try hard to be.
working class. A snapshot of the moment where adrenaline meets god meets I don’t give a shit. I wonder, “Why is rock radio not playing this guy?” And then I remember what I’ve heard about Elton John and about Rod Stewart...the rumors about their sexuality.....and I wonder, is THAT why they’re not playing this amazing music? I believe so. But this song, this song! Rather than being rounded up for rebellion as so many songs seem to do, this song tells me that I’m just going through....a thing. Maybe being different and being poor doesn’t make me bad. This is not a war cry. It’s a thumbs-up and a wink. I can’t deny it. I’m blown away. I start candidly enjoying the likes of other, less abrasive artists. Carol King Joni Mitchell Cat Stevens Gordon Lightfoot I even like Barbara Streisand for God sakes! It turns out, they suffer too!!!.
I’M into bands like The Clash, Buzzcocks and New York Dolls. I like music that’s exciting, unpopular and weird—like me. But, if I’m being honest, while I love listening to The Ramones and The Runaways, I miss my Beach Boys. I have to look tough so I get my harmony fix....from distorted guitars. It’s just not cool for guys my age to like artists with a mainly female audience. I DO like The Bay City Rollers, John Denver and Air Supply, but don’t talk about them to most of my friends
You don’t have to be dirty and loud to be relatable.
The divides are rampant. I just want to be myself and I am prejudiced against music about which I know....nothing really.
I write my way through my brother’s suicide, the death of both of my parents and my own depression, addiction and healing. I sing my way through the birth of my two sons. I’ve written hundreds of songs and although you probably haven’t heard any of them, I’ve made four records.
But when Elton Johnsings: Don’t give us none of your aggravation We had it with your discipline Saturday night’s alright for fighting Get a little action in Get about as oiled as a diesel train Gonna set this dance alight `Cause Saturday night’s the night I like Saturday night’s alright alright alright! the directness is exhilarating and freeing for a big boy or a little man or whatever it is I am. This isn’t a vague cinematic identification with abstract walruses, bragging about being mellow OR yellow nor a dude flexing his sex about rocking you all night long. It’s a courageous peek at the coping mechanism of a juvenile product of the
The tortured determination of my isolation dissolves, juuuust a teeny bit, into a curiosity, which leads to a relating, which leads to tolerance, which leads to freedom. Instead of employing my music to harden my heart, music becomes my prayer, my savior, my muse. And.....I begin to write. And write and write. It changes my life forever.
Now, like my big brother used to, I say things like I know what I’m talking about. If there were no Grandmaster Flash? There’d be no Macklemore. No Arthea Franklin? No Amy Winehouse. No Joan Jett? No Green Day. I can say, however, with a measure of authority: With no Elton John? There’d be no Seth Davis. Queens native Seth Davis Branitz sings songs he wrote, tells stories he’s lived and offers apologies for questionable behavior.
LIVE to TEll
BY ROBERT BURKE WARREN
This is one of my earliest memories: I get zero laughs when I joke It’s 1970. I’m five years old and belting these lyrics for my mom and her friends—Sodomy! Fellatio! that we should sell the drugs. Cunnilingus! Pederasty! Father! Why do these words sound so nasty? Masturbation, can be Shit, I had to pay for college. fun, join the holy orgy Kama Sutra, everyone! I’m singing along to my mom’s LP soundtrack to Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. I have no idea what any of those words mean, but my mom and her friends laugh, so I sing it again. Our house always rings with rock and roll, and profanity, often both at the same time. “Fuck Tricky Dick!” my mom screams into the telephone. “How could McGovern LOSE? None of my friends voted for goddamn Tricky Dick! Sonofabitch!” My mother’s laxity extends way beyond cursing. Not long after our estranged father dies driving drunk, my older brother and I fall in love with the novelty hit “The Streak,” which capitalizes on the early-70s fad of running naked in public. “Mommy,” my brother says one hot summer night. “Robert and I wanna go streaking.” “Why not?” Mom says. “Have fun!” Thus, my brother and I, aged eight and nine, run beneath the streetlights of our suburban Atlanta neighborhood completely nude. We flash surprised drivers at stop signs. When we arrive home sweaty, mosquito-bitten, and scratched from hiding in the bushes, the only thing mom asks is, “Did y’all have a good time?” Our mom is cool and always looks the other way. For this, my brother and I feel fortunate. Adolescence, however, changes everything. The 80s dawn, hormones surge, and I fall in with punky outcasts. I begin to experience the world through their withering gazes, seeing Mom’s laissez faire parenting through a sharper, more critical lens. Her style, I decide, is more uncaring than trusting, more neglectful than laid-back. Resentment grows. I ache to express it. But I’m timid, afraid to lose love. My friends, meanwhile, are bold. They relish upsetting their folks, especially with music, blasting Killing Joke and The Cure as their parents cringe. I want to do this, but no bands irritate my hip mom except, for some reason, ABBA. She even likes MTV, particularly Van Halen videos. She watches over my shoulder, admiring David Lee Roth’s physique. “My God,” she says. “Look at those lats and abs!”
My brother, who’s landed among his own crew of ne’er-do-wells, shares my growing resentment towards Mom, but he has no problem expressing it. “You’re the worst fucking mother, ever!” he screams. Despite my own grievances, I stand up for Mom. “If our dad was here,” I say, “you’d be sorry!” “Well, he’s not, faggot,” my brother says as he beats the shit out of me while our mother cowers. “Our dad’s dead.” To everyone’s relief, my brother leaves home and school at sixteen and moves into a stoner apartment. My mom spends more time with her boyfriend, often kicking me out of the house so they can be alone. At the same time, my dear friend, Danny, is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and I can’t sleep thinking about it. This is the first time serious illness affects a peer. After having claimed my dad ten years previously, the shadow of death is back. I start spending weekends with my sixteen-yearold girlfriend, Jane, and her single mom, Starr, who’s fighting breast cancer. Danny, thin and wraith-like, often hangs out at the house. Starr puts Jane on the pill and lets us sleep together. She feeds us as we watch MTV and carry on like newlyweds. I don’t think my mother cares about any of this, and for a while, she doesn’t. Things change when, back at my own home, I rise from fitful sleep to Mom shouting, “I don’t want this!” into the phone. Her boyfriend has left her for a younger woman. She trudges around the house, crying, speechless, refusing to be comforted. She demands that I stop staying at Jane’s. I quietly refuse, and Mom doesn’t put up much of a fight. My unsupervised weekends continue; Jane and I watch cable, fuck to our favorite Prince album, Dirty Mind and eat Lean Cuisine. We also spend a lot of time with our twenty-four-year-old acting teacher, Alan. Jane and I attend a performing arts high school and spend a lot of time in Alan’s apartment, sitting at his feet as he schools us in culture and encourages our individuality.
“Hey Robert,” he says one day, handing me a slim paperback. “You know this guy?”
Prince stares down the camera in bikini briefs and a raincoat.
The book is The Basketball Diaries, by Jim Carroll. I haven’t heard of it. The black and white cover photo offers an impossibly cool-looking dude, a vulnerable demigod from New York City, a place I’ve never been.
I go out to practice with my band, and, because it’s a school night, I come home instead of going to Jane’s. Mom’s sitting across from the living room couch, smoking silently. Upon entering my room, I notice something different about The Basketball Diaries.
“He’s so sexy,” Jane says. I have to agree. “You can have that,” Alan says. “It’s amazing. You’ll love it. And he’s a punk rock guy, too. He’s got this fucking great song called ‘People Who Died.’” Alan takes out the LP Catholic Boy, by the Jim Carroll Band, and plays the song, a companion piece to The Basketball Diaries. “People Who Died” is a litany of the untimely, often gruesome deaths of Carroll’s friends. The tune, an assaultive, bristling poem, set to churning, distorted guitars and pummeling drums, feels like the ravings of a boy-man returned from a harrowing but edifying misadventure. He’s spitting in death’s face, griefstricken but not beaten, mournful yet celebratory of the fallen. Before the song is over, Jane and Alan and I are singing the chorus again and again and again. Those are people who died, died. Those are people who died, died. Those are people who died, died. Those are people who died, died. They were all my friends, and they died. “People Who Died” gives Jane and me a kind of armor in which we feel prepared to face down death, encroaching now in the bodies of our cancer-stricken friend, Danny, and in Jane’s mom. “Fuck you, death,” I think. “I’ve felt you in the impotent ghost of my father, hanging above the wreckage of my home, hovering over Starr’s meds, and now you dare come for our seventeenyear-old friend, Danny? Fuck you.” “Take the LP, too, listen to the whole thing,” Alan says as I leave, pressing Catholic Boy into my hands. I devour The Basketball Diaries and Catholic Boy. I have to know everything about the guy who’d written that amazing song. His work doesn’t inspire me to seek out drugs, it inspires me to be like this sensitive badass wandering unsupervised and unafraid in a dangerous urban maze far away from here, fashioning it all into words and music. Manhattan beckons to a newly awakened aspect of my insides. Alan’s planning a bus trip to Broadway later in the year for our acting class, and now I’m even more excited about it. I finish The Basketball Diaries and lay it atop the Catholic Boy album, on which Jim Carroll, sporting tight jeans revealing his man bulge, stands between his smiling parents. Beside it lay U2’s 1980 debut Boy, which features a boy naked from the waist up, and Dirty Mind, on which
In bright purple Flair pen, my mother has written across the cover: THIS IS TRASH. IT HAS NO REDEEMING LITERARY VALUE. My throat goes dry. I march on unsteady legs into the living room. “How dare you!” I hear myself say. “Well,” she says. “It’s true. It’s crap, it’s smut. And those album covers. They’re PORN. That one with the kid is child porn. I hate having those things in the house.” “You wrote on my book,” my voice trembles. I stand over her. “I can’t believe it.” “Stop being so dramatic,” she tries to sound nonchalant as she recoils. She’s afraid of me, for the first time ever. By now, I’m six feet tall, a foot taller than she. I attack the couch, throwing cushions across the room, my adrenaline pumping. It’s my first fullon adolescent rage. I get down in her face and scream, “STAY! AWAY! FROM MY SHIT! NEVER, EVER, TOUCH MY SHIT!” I stalk back to my room like a silverback, panting, grab my ruined book and the Catholic Boy LP, and head to the front door, wrestling with rising, secret guilt. “Everything’s changed now,” Mom says in a small, distant voice, homing in telepathically on my remorse. “I never thought you’d… but everything’s changed now. And if you think I’m signing that form so you can go to New York, think again.” I stomp out to my VW Bug, speed to Jane’s house, and put the album on her mother’s turntable. Jane listens to my story, and without asking what I need, she puts Catholic Boy on Starr’s turntable, setting the needle on the last song on Side A. Her mom, Starr’s recent test results aren’t good. Our friend Danny’s radiation and chemo has rendered him sterile, but he is, for now, in remission. Within a few years, though, they both will be gone. Jim Carroll’s transgressive anthem powers through the gloom, cloaking us in energy, harnessing our rage. Our hero, arrogant artist Jim, reminds us, with electrified clarity, that we are lucky list-makers, touched by death, yes, but still ecstatically alive, brutally young, and not yet on anybody’s list of people who died. Jane cranks the volume and takes me in her arms. Robert Burke Warren is a writer-performer-musician who gives guitar lessons on his front porch. His first novel, Perfectly Broken, will be published in February, 2016.
T HiS i s Y o U R S O NG
Proceeds from this publication are used to fund non-profit TMI Projectâ€™s Community Outreach Initiative, which brings empowering memoir and storytelling workshops to at-risk teens, the incarcerated, domestic violence survivors, the LBGTQ community, people in recovery, military veterans and other populations where people donâ€™t often get to tell their stories or be heard. Visit tmiproject.org to order additional copies; to learn about our workshops, performances and publications; and to make tax-deductible donations.
This was a publication I created in 2015 as part of TMI Project's collaboration with the Paul Green Rock Academy. We wanted to create a comp...
Published on Mar 15, 2019
This was a publication I created in 2015 as part of TMI Project's collaboration with the Paul Green Rock Academy. We wanted to create a comp...