I used to design ads for an Irish-American newspaper located on Fifth Avenue, a block from the Empire State Building. That's where I met a tough Puerto Rican typesetter, Diana. I called her Diana Pequeña because she was little; besides, there was another Diana in the office and that Diana was always on the telephone so I called her Diana Teléphono. Diana Pequeña and I would often lunch together and joke about a lounge called Carmelita's, a second floor establishment above Disco Donut on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Third Avenue. For some reason, I thought Carmelita's was a massage parlor that doubled as a house of prostitution. Only years later did I find out it was a legitimate bar that frequently held parties for gay women.
Instead of calling me by my name, Diana referred to me as Nigger. She'd say, “Yo, Nigger what are you getting for lunch today?” And I'd answer, “Las partes de pollo de su madre”—my Spanish translation for “Yo momma's chicken parts.” With that answer, she'd stop her typing and wail with laughter. I know now that many social critics would consider Diana's use of the N-word downright wrong, but I looked at it as a compliment, a term of endearment—that's how she referred to her Puerto Rican buddies. So I thought, why shouldn't I, a white Jewish girl, be flattered by the title? My friend visiting from Germany didn't feel as honored; she answered the phone and Diana, who thought I was at the other end of the line, said, “Yo, Nigger, what's up?” and my friend responded, “I'm no nigger!”
In addition to the Irish newspaper, Diana worked another typesetting job on the weekends and was in the army reserves. Most of her earnings went into the hands of Pamela, her big black girlfriend whom she lived with in a crime-ridden section of the Bronx. On payday, Pamela would come up to the office to collect Diana's cash and as soon as she left, Diana would complain about Pamela's expensive tastes in clothing, jewelry, and perfume.
But boy could Pamela cook. Once they invited me for a dinner party and Pamela prepared fried chicken and biscuits and sweet potatoes and chitlins.
Also at the dinner party was Pete, another typesetter from the office. He was a forty-something alcoholic ex-Beat with rotting teeth who often made crude comments about women's body parts. Because he knew how to combine just the right amount of wit, adulation, and charm with his sleaze (he recited Blake and wrote poetry), we all tolerated him. “You've got a great ass,” he once said to me, “but you've got to keep your back pockets empty.” To make extra money, Pete would secretly let himself into the office late at night and use the equipment to set type for pornographic magazines. He'd make sure to retrieve his work before anyone would find it, but on occasion he'd forget and I'd find type about jism and knockers and whips and orgies and knew it had nothing to do with the luck of the Irish.
Pete's charisma and confidence helped him win over the heart of the newspaper's Ivy League educated editorial assistant, Lynn. Although neither one acknowledged their relationship, it was an unspoken known in the office. At the time, things appeared to be on the upswing for Pete—he stopped drinking, moved into a nice apartment and had his own newspaper column. But while Lynn was vacationing in Florida, he phoned me on a Saturday night and begged me to meet him. “I've got a bagful of cocaine. I don't know what to do with it!” he said. “I'm in your neighborhood and I'm high as a kite!”
“Pete, I'm sleeping,” I said. “Do you know what time it is?”
“But I've got a ton of coke! What should I do with it?”
I suggested he bring the bag to work with him on Monday.
Despite Diana's involvement with Pamela, Pete often burst into homophobic tirades, especially when a gay Irish group demanded to march in the St. Patrick's day parade: “What right do they have to want to march in my parade? They have their own fucking parade!” He'd conclude his rant with the obligatory question: “What do those perverts do in bed anyway?” Eventually he'd calm down and try to make amends by telling Diana how great her ads were looking, or mention to no one in particular how brilliant Oscar Wilde was.
The boss never caught wind of Pete's nighttime typesetting activities, or his occasional sleepovers in back of the Xerox machine (too drunk to go home), but his luck could only hold out for so long. A couple years after I left the paper, he left five frantic messages on my phone machine; he'd just been tested positive for the HIV virus. Because I'd volunteered as a buddy for people with AIDS, he thought I could help. “I'd been shooting heroin three times a week for the last twenty years,” he told me (a shock to most people who'd known him). “I knew exactly when I caught the virus the second I slipped the needle in my vein.”
For a while, Pete had gone to an HIV positive support group “made up of 90% fags” and he ate well—brown rice, steamed vegetables, bee pollen and seaweed shakes. But despair got to him; he resumed drinking mass quantities of Guinness and tequila. Too ashamed to present his shriveling body, he left his apartment only to go to the hospital.
The night before he died, Diana and I tried to visit him in an overcrowded city hospital, but the receptionist said no visitors—he was in the intensive care unit. We decided to take a chance and walk past the guards like we knew what we were doing and we kept walking and found Pete, his cobalt blue eyes staring a hole in the hospital ceiling, his respirator chest rising and falling. “I'm gonna miss you,” I said, not sure if he heard me.
Four days later, Diana and I walked into an Irish Funeral home in the Bronx. “Nigger, this is fucked up,” she mumbled. Someone handed us a poem Pete wrote ten years prior, about death, transcending life. We looked at him lying in the coffin, finally at peace, but all I could see was Pete, lighting up another cigarette by the photostat machine, checking out my ass, telling me how I'm gonna be a knockout by time I'm thirty-two.
My Life as a Hippie Chick
It's my junior year of college and I live in a dormitory suite with a gaggle of Deadhead hippie chicks who smoke lots of pot, drink Jack Daniels and obsess about long-haired hippie boys. We are all visual artists: painters, illustrators, photographers, sculptors. With my hippie friends, I attend Grateful Dead concerts all over the Northeast. I like the music. I like the community. I take pride in associating with hippies and freaks, but I never feel like a real Deadhead, only an observer, an imposter. I don't feel comfortable wearing Indian skirts and gauzy tops. I feel like an idiot when I try to dance like the hippies with my arms flailing above my head.
Lisa, one of my suitemates, offers to drive us to see the Dead in Lewiston, Maine—an outdoor show. Five hippie-chicks pile into her piss-colored Datsun B-210 (she's the only suitemate who owns a car), and for the next six hours, we listen to Hot Tuna, David Grisman, and Joni Mitchell wailing about California and how she's on a lonely road, “traveling, traveling, traveling.”
For the first time in a long while, I don't feel like I'm on a lonely road; now I'm part of a community of cool women. I want to learn from these women; they laugh a lot, prance around the suite in the nude and have sex with lots of longhaired men. I want to loosen up and walk around naked and sleep with lots of men too. Yet, I'm scared (I'm not a virgin but might as well be). I change my clothes in the bathroom, or hastily in front of my closet, embarrassed of my flat chest, making sure not to expose my bare torso to my roommate, Caroline, who draws sketches of flying carrots and dinosaurs. One night, she drinks a half-bottle of Jim Beam and sleeps with one guy, then returns to the pub and sleeps with another. At the end of the night, she comes back to our room, two sets of sperm floating in her womb. She flicks the light-switch on and says, “You need to get laid.”
When we arrive at our destination in Maine, we walk through the gates of an outdoor stadium and find a free spot to claim. In every direction, boom boxes blare bootleg Dead tapes; wafts of marijuana smoke and fluorescent Frisbees soar above the crowd. Lisa spreads out an Indian print blanket and soon enough, hippie men wander over and offer us alcohol and pot. We're all wearing tie-dyed something and I'm wearing denim overalls and a green bandana on my head. A guy named Jeff from Greenwich, Connecticut lies down by Lisa's feet and stares up at her. He tells her she's beautiful. She giggles and offers him a swig of her Jack Daniels. He touches her walrus tooth necklace and asks if she needs any acid. Within the week, Jeff will visit our suite and sleep with Lisa. Six months later, Lisa will get bored with Acid Jeff, (who ingests just as much acid as he sells), and Jeff will start dating Jenny, another suitemate. They will stay together for the next six years, until Jeff dies of a heroin overdose in San Francisco.
Lisa buys five tabs of acid and hands one to me. “Be careful,” she says. “Stay close by.” I'm not sure why Lisa treats me like I'm a loose cannon. I've tripped a handful of times before and never had a problem. When I signed up for a woodworking class, I later found out that Lisa said, “I hope Lori doesn't cut off her fingers. She's sooooo spacey.” No matter what she thinks of me, I want to learn from her.
Three months before the Dead show we had hitched up and down the California Coast and as soon as we arrived in Santa Cruz, two hippie men, Monk and White Feather, asked if we wanted to join them for a free dinner at the local church. Afterwards, Monk, a tall, full-bearded hippie with a gravelly voice, lightly caressed Lisa's back and whispered into her ear. The next night, Lisa invited Monk back to her brother's dorm room, where we slept while Lisa's brother stayed with his girlfriend. Monk and Lisa set up sleeping bags on the floor. After shutting out the lights, I could hear them kissing, then the grunting and sighing of full-fledged sex. And I was stuck in that room, pretending to sleep, wondering how Lisa could be so unrestrained about her sexuality. Wasn't sex supposed to be something sacred, to be done in private?
The next morning, they went at it again, and all the while I had to focus on a huge poster of Jimmy Buffet and his beer-frothed mustache.
When the acid starts to take effect, I'm speeding and confident and when I see a guy from my high school, Nick, a couple blankets over, I say, “Hey, you went to my high school!”
He looks at me blankly. “You went to Kennedy?”
“Yeah! I'm Lori!” In high school I felt ugly and stupid and walked the halls with my head down. I talked to no one and counted down the days when I'd be able to get away from the nasty kids who taunted me, including Jenny Grossman, a girl Nick had gone out with. “Didn't you go out with Jenny Grossman?” I ask.
Nick rubs his head, scrunches up his clean-cut, boyish face. “Yeah, she ended up screwing me over. Left me for my best buddy.”
I never talked to Nick before, but now I want to hug him. “She used to say mean things to me all the time,” I say. “Once she made fun of me for wearing fake Frye boots.”
Nick cocks his head and looks at me as if I'm the most beautiful woman he's ever seen. “Why would she make fun of you?”
“Kids can be cruel,” I say. Deep ruby and greens drip from clouds shaped like a St. Bernard with a barrel under its neck.
“What a bitch!” he says.
Somehow I feel redeemed. I'm no longer that shy girl in high school whose only friend had been Sunshine, my five-pound white pocket poodle. When I was thirteen, I bought her with money saved from delivering newspapers. Two years later, the American Kennel Club wrote me a letter claiming she wasn't a real poodle; the breeder who sold her was corrupt. My mother suggested I return the dog and get my hundred and thirty five dollars back. No way was I going to get rid of my sham-poodle. Yet three weeks after the Maine Dead show, my mother phoned me at college. She had handed Sunshine over to her friend's son, a groomer-in-training. My pocket poodle ran away from him. To this day, Sunshine is still in my dreams. In the last one, I pulled the knob of a cigarette machine and she came flying out; said I shouldn't worry about her, that she's all right. Strange, I don't even smoke.
When the Grateful Dead take to the stage, the crowd roars and wails and bare-chested men skip and dance and flap their arms. Jerry Garcia's guitar-plucks move across my spine. I rush to my knapsack to get my camera. “Stay with us,” Lisa says. “Don't go too far.” I'm so high I can't talk. But I'm determined to get up front. I smile at Lisa and prance away, a huge telephoto lens bobbing around my neck. The crowd is focused on Bob Weir singing “Playing in the Band,” and when I wriggle my way through the crowd, they oblige. But then I come to a standstill and stare at the acne-ridden shoulders of a guy in front of me, mesmerized by oozing pimples, vibrating scars, bubbles and volcanoes ready to erupt. Eventually I'm disgusted by my fascination with a stranger's bubbly skin and inch forward. I get excited for all the amazing photos I'm going to take once I get up to the front. But when the band starts playing “Scarlet Begonias,” I stop in my tracks. I think of Michael the Anarchist, a guy I had flirted with for the past two years. He called me Scarlet Begonias. I miss him. Maybe I even love him. But now he's transferred to a school three hours away and who knows when I'll see him again. She had rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes / and I knew without asking she was into the blues / She wore scarlet begonias tucked into her curls / I knew right away she was not like other girls, other girls. I miss Michael's passion—the way he raged about Ronald Reagan's treatment of the Sandinistas, and his humor—when I told him about yet another teeth-falling-out dream, he said, “Maybe you need to see a dentist.” Every so often, he invited me to go to the Jersey Pine Barrens with him, a place he remembered fondly from when he was a young boy. And I said, “Yeah, that sounds nice,” figuring we'd never really go. And in the two years I'd known him, we never even kissed.
Even though I don't have lots of sex, I kiss lots of boys. Especially when I drink. I don't have a problem kissing and making out with boys. I feel powerful, desirable, especially when they groan and want more. But before they have a chance to say, “Hey, let's go to my room,” I tell them that I'm nauseous.
I truly like some of the guys I kiss. One in particular, Rick, a tall, skinny, punky boy who wore a thick leather jacket and had beautiful dark eyes, was a great kisser. During a three-week span, we got together and kissed, the first time in back of a White Plains taxi while the Talking Heads' “Burning Down the House” blasted on the radio. The last time we kissed, he asked me to come back to his room. When I told him I was nauseous, he stormed off. A month later, I saw him in the campus pub wearing eye shadow, walking hand in hand with a guy who makes hats. I'm sorry for cold showers and blue balls, but I really did feel queasy.
Finally I get close to the stage. The crowd sways together, colors vibrate, my body disappears. Bob Weir's Adam's apple points upwards while he croons and Phil Lesh's mouth contorts in all directions, moving with his bass beat. I am mesmerized by the music, the glare from the sun hitting Garcia's guitar, the blue specks of sky raining upon the crowd. I lift my camera up to my eye and attempt to focus. I'm not sure why it's so hard. A blond California-looking boy wearing a black leather strand around his neck and a salmon colored T-shirt, gazes at me, looks at my camera, and says, “Wanna get on my shoulders?”
I can't speak, but I stare at him and nod my head up and down.
He leans down and I climb aboard. He carefully stands up and holds my ankles with his hands. Now I'm above the throngs and we're all part of one heartbeat, together, and again I attempt to focus my camera and click away. I think, here I am, on a cute guy's shoulders at a Dead show, right up front! I don't worry about finding my friends after the show because now I'm at the pulse of the moment. I take one picture after the next, capturing the music within my enormous telephoto lens. But after a while my film runs out. Reloading film is the hardest thing to do, like struggling to speak an alien language in a dream. Okay, I tell myself, just put the notches in the film sprockets and take it slow, and I feel like I have huge fingers and am trying to tie shoelaces and eventually I get it right and take some more pictures. And I make eye contact with Jerry Garcia and even though he's wearing sunglasses, he smiles and I'm sure his smile is just for me.
Thirteen years later, I feel a deep loss when Jerry Garcia dies of heart attack. I'm in Woodstock at an art colony, where I've bonded with three other women from New York City—two visual artists and a playwright. The four of us take walks and cook and share our work with each other. Every night we eat dinner together and learn about each others' lives. One woman is engaged, one is married, one is divorced. Mostly we talk about men. As far as they know, I'm single. I don't mention that I've been with women, that I currently have a girlfriend from Mexico City, now living in New York, a scientist who studies brain plasticity and memory retention. Late at night, I make phone calls to Maria, my girlfriend. Just before I left for the colony, a mutual acquaintance caught her in a passionate embrace with another woman. Along with Maria's drinking and the little white lies I've caught her in since we had gotten involved two years prior, our relationship is problematic. But I'm not ready to give her up just yet.
The married woman at the art colony teases me about how we're like a married couple. Sometimes she calls me her “wife.” I laugh. We have a little argument and she calls it a lover's spat. All the while, there's a painter boy who flirts with me and my new friends encourage me to go for it. I say I'm not interested. The playwright says that it's hard to make it in New York because unlike in Angels in America, she doesn't have men “fucking each other up the ass” in her plays. My “husband,” the married woman, calls me Jenny; she says I look just like Jennifer Beals, a personal friend of hers. A decade after my Woodstock residency, Jennifer Beals will play a high-powered career lesbian in a popular TV soap opera, the L-Word.
Three days after the Maine Dead show, the girls of my suite—we dub it Suitemeat—organize the first of several shower parties. They invite longhaired hippie men and get drunk and naked and laugh and squeeze into a suite shower stall. Usually a lot of sex ensues. When they arrange these parties, I make sure to crash at a friend's apartment.
For a whole week, I stay at my friend's apartment when a burly fisherman visits Caroline, my roommate. She pushes the beds together and in the mornings, when I come back to change my clothes, the room smells like musty, sweaty sex.
One night, after a boyfriend broke up with her, Caroline drinks so much that when she comes back to our room, she threatens suicide. After she flicks the light on and wakes me, she says, “Don't worry, I won't be bothering you again. Tomorrow you won't have a roommate.”
But before she can kill herself, she falls asleep. In the morning, she laughs about her suicidal threat. I shave stripes into my hairy legs—vertical stripes on one leg, horizontal on the other. I play bongo drums and then compose a Suitemeat theme song, the chorus which is:
you woke up next to me,
and I wondered if I had VD,
and you know it's probably true,
‘cause everybody knows about you,
they say you're really skeevy,
but now I'm skeevy too.
Two weeks after the Maine Dead show, I wait for twenty hours with a group of friends for Grateful Dead tickets outside of Radio City Music Hall. I sleep on a coat, on the sidewalk, along with thousands looping around the block. NBC news anchor Chuck Scarborough walks by and waves. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I laugh. Are we nuts to be doing this? Perhaps. But it's nice to be part of a group. We're in this together.
During winter break of junior year, Lisa, Jenny and I travel to Key West in Lisa's Datsun. At Boyd's Campground, we set up our tent and within minutes, have a fan club of desperate men hovering around us. They wait for our return when we leave for the day. One works the graveyard shift at the diner across the street, Dusty's Surf and Turf, and when his shift ends at seven a.m., he wakes us up. “Girls, stole ya some steaks to fry up,” he says. “Some top-of-the-line rib-eye meat.” Bleary-eyed, we crawl out of our tent, set up the Coleman stove and crack eggs. Our new friend attempts to describe the three of us: “Jenny the brunette is genuine; Lisa the blonde is alluring; and Lori,” he says, looking my way, “you got auburn hair and you're a challenge.” While eating breakfast, a dirty old fisherman stops by and asks if we're stewardesses.
We like the attention, mostly, and never think we're in danger, except when a Cuban man carrying a hatchet tries to talk to me on my way to the bathroom. I don't understand what he is saying but smile and feign agreement on all matters.
Each evening, after gathering by the piers and watching the sun go down, we go to Sloppy Joe's, and hell, one night the three of us get pretty sloppy and find guys to kiss and buy us drinks. Hours later, Jenny and I have had enough and want to leave. But Lisa isn't ready to end the night. Since she has the car, she drags us back to a shack owned by J.D., a drunken boat captain with laryngitis. Jenny and I sleep in his living room on a pullout couch with J.D.'s mutt, Shithead. In the morning, I notice a framed photo of the fisherman, his arms around a heavily made-up woman with tattoos and long bleach-blonde hair. After leaving, Lisa says, “I gave him a satisfying time, and with that in mind, I'm satisfied.”
The next day Lisa and I write in our journals. Where will we be in five years? Lisa writes: Living high on a ridge top with a longhaired man who owns an old Ford pick-up truck with a dog in the back. He's wearing overalls with no shirt on underneath, a blue bandana around his neck. We're carpenter partners and do lots of drawings on the side. I'll be very happy. Won't compromise.
Reality: Five years later, Lisa makes sculptures using neon lights and runs a vintage clothing shop in Santa Cruz with her boyfriend, Harry, a verbally abusive coke addict who, fifteen years later, will be dead of AIDS.
Me: I'll live in a small home with enough land to get away from neighbors. Married to a Kenny Loggins type musician and jam a lot. Have a jeep and travel. Perform on occasion in bars.
Reality: I live in a Lower East Side tenement flat and I'm trying to break up with Michael the Anarchist. I perform occasionally in bars. I'm secretly dating Debby, a jazz singer and comedienne. I've traveled to Russia and China and many parts of Europe. I don't know if I'm really a lesbian.
During our junior year, the gay and lesbian organization throws the best parties and on gay and lesbian night at the campus pub, the Suitemeat girls dance to the Talking Heads, Blondie, The B52's and Devo. We dance together, twirl each other around and pretend we are lesbians. Sometimes Lisa and I walk across campus holding hands, giggling. “We're fake lesbians,” I say. I love seeing the uncomfortable expressions on people's faces when we walk by. Yet, five years later, when I'm with Debby, even after I officially break up with Michael, I refuse to hold her hand in public. “We'll get killed,” I say. “Gay-bashed.”
When I come out to Caroline, seven years after the Maine Dead show, she says, “I always knew you were a lesbian. In college, we all used to sit around the suite and talk about how you'd make a great dyke.”
But now I'm sitting on the shoulders of a California boy at a Grateful Dead show in Lewiston, Maine. I look around at the crowd and feel connected with everyone, even the boy with the pimply back, even with Jerry Garcia. What I don't know at the time is that every single picture I take of the concert will come out blurry, only streaks of color and spots from the sun's glare. But it won't matter. Still atop a kind set of shoulders, I turn around and lock eyes with another hippie chick above the crowd, and at that moment all the ships lost in the Bermuda Triangle sail between us. Cats purr and wars rage, a Mexican chambermaid tucks in a fresh sheet, dragonflies mate in mid-air. I smile back and, for an imperfect moment, amongst strangers, I feel like I belong.