Thursday, July 7, 2011

Stuy Heads, Part Deux

It’s been too long, friends.
I’m ready to re-submerge you in the life of a confused, angst-ridden teenager finding his way in the world at the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, a world in which cutting-edge technology meant a Skypager, and NY was a bit more hardscrabble. Before that, however, I must confess that I’ve done a lot of thinking about this blog lately (and definitely too little actual blogging).
I realized that, while occasionally slipping into a grumpy old man critique of “why shit sucks nowadays,” I really hope to keep the negativity to a minimum, or as best I can. That is, knowing me, knowing you. There are plenty of online forums for that, including the fine blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (, or, certainly entertaining, if a bit unyielding! But I realized that mine, though dripping with nostalgia, should accentuate the positive. Thus, this post is running sans its original introduction, and other intermittent rants, which will resurface in a more hater-oriented forum soon.
It really is safer on the train these days. No matter how much any particular d-bag might strike me as a smug, date-rapin’ Alpha Beta, or a hipster might make my nerves bristle with his manchildish beard or Lord Fauntleroy getup, I don’t wish harm upon anyone, and hence do not long for a return to the good ole/bad old days. For many, the early 90’s daily commute to high school encompassed a limited range of feelings: from creeping unease to outright panic. One can still get into a heated discussion over whether the train or bus was worse. I think y’all who lived in a two-fare zone like me might straddle both sides of that argument.
If we agree that most bullies and knuckleheads are followers and not leaders, we might wonder if the majority of them are perhaps pacified, too, much like their erstwhile victims who used to be jumped and plucked clean by those villains and creeps. With both the wolf and the sheep now equipped with Digital Life Support Systems (DLSS), transfixed by their little rectangular screens, people hardly notice each other. The vast potential for violence that hovered over us like Joe Pesci’s proverbial vulture has seemingly flown the coop.
Have you ever dug out a box of stuff from storage, parents’ house, and found an old walkman? This plastic piece of shit got people killed years ago; hard to believe, I know. For about a month back in sophomore year at Stuy, I actually carried a ‘decoy’ walkman in the pocket of my Champion hooded sweatshirt, thinking I was slick. It was a broken Sony from the previous year. The idea was that, if a crew of kids came and asked me to run my pockets, I’d give up that one—long ago kaput—for taxers to vamp from me, and escape with my working walkman, and maybe that Fugazi tape. Somehow, the thought of losing the tape always made me sadder than the walkman’s loss, despite the (then) vast price difference.
Of course, this was the age when everything was so vital and important, it hurt your heart to think about it. It must have been spring of ’89, the tail end of freshman year, when I got my first good walkman, a Panasonic joint (with XBS!). While my parents vegged out to some Saturday night teevee, I was rewinding and replaying the “Battle of Evermore,” suddenly so crystal clear, like twinkling diamond sun rays through the fog of some dragon war over the battle plain I envisioned materializing before the living room couch. It was also the beginning of my father being convinced that music was my road to lazy ruin, but that’s another story.
The next year, it was Fugazi in the mornings, their off-kilter but decidedly “sunny” sound the perfect wake-me-up in my pre-coffee days. Or BDP’s Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip-Hop. Late nights, taking the train home, I remember a whole winter’s worth of The Icemen, Sheer Terror, Leeway, Sick of it All—one dark album after the next, bracing myself against the lurkers and hard glances from late night L passengers. It felt like so much of the music coming out that era was harsh and unforgiving, the soundtrack to an unfriendly time. Bundled up with a hoody, with a big winter coat over that, and a set of headphones under a knit cap might remain entirely invisible to the hungry eyes of kids making that one last prowl up and down the train cars before getting off at Sutter or Livonia avenues during the small hours on a weekend night.
If the long L train commute (and even the little time I spent in my own Brooklyn neighborhood) constituted an uncertain terrain demanding survival strategies and hyper-awareness, Stuy was a completely different world. Fraught with its own beef, its outdoor gatherings sometimes tense with the jockeying for influence that came naturally to us hormonal angst factories, it was nonetheless an oasis. More importantly, it was a place completely unlike my old junior high prison space.
I recently came across the statistic that Stuyvesant High School’s Asian student enrollment had hit and perhaps even surpassed 70 percent in the last few years. When we were stomping around the halls of the old building circa ’92, before Stuy flew the coop to its opulent modern digs down in TriBeCa, I had always heard it hovered at just over 50 percent. Mind you, back then, among Stuy kids, Asian meant Chinese or Korean, with the rare Japanese or Viet thrown in. Kids from the subcontinent were Indians or Pakistani. Please understand: it was a different time, and many of us, despite our supposedly Ivy-bound nerdiness, had barely touched upon identity studies.
I’d gone from a junior high where Asians were a smattering among black, Hispanic, and white kids, to one where we blancitos were a minority. In fact, Stuy was the reverse-Bizarro image of Gateway Intermediate School 364, in which black and Hispanic kids predominated, followed by whites at maybe 20-30 percent, and then Asians.
For me, Asians had been solitary loners, heads down, studious, like me. Two of my best friends from Elmhurst’s PS 13, before I moved to Brooklyn, had been as nerdy and spastic as me, a Chinese and Korean kid. Most of the first generation Asian immigrant kids were rarely cool, just like me. There were two Filipino twins, brothers, who I actually lumped in with the Spanish kids, but they were incidental.
At Stuy, Asians were preppies, lettermen, many of them popular and active in sports, clubs, and all areas of “school life,” an alien concept for me to begin with. At the orientation session before we officially started 9th grade, a gospel choir of all Asian girls singing a song whose chorus I remember vividly in its cadence (“Who shall separate me from the love of God?”) made me wonder whether Stuy was too overtly religious for me.
Until Stuy, I’d rarely encountered Asian kids that I’d considered hard or aggressive in any way. (Disclaimer: I am trying to give you a sense of my 14-to-18-year-old self, and nothing more.) To be fair, my dose of reality in this regard occurred a couple of years into my Stuy career. I was probably chattering like a nutjob on the staircase with my best friend, BS, on the way to get an ice cream sangwich at the cafeteria snackbar, aka “Snakbar & Jeff,” per Groening’s Life is Hell comic.
That’s when a guy, probably a senior and thus shockingly older to us sophomores, a big-headed, barrel-chested kid in glasses and a trenchcoat, dressed pretty formally altogether, yelled at me, “Shut the fuck up, you’re giving me a headache!” There was something in his disgust, his petulance, and even his blocky physique, that reminded me of my old friend Roger from Elmhurst, and perhaps I even dismissed him offhand as a result. I murmured a non-committal whatever retort, as me and BS left the human artery of the staircase and spilled out onto the 2nd floor near Snakbar.
But the big kid followed me to the Snakbar line. “You fucking say something?” he accused me. I cannot remember what I might have stammered back, but it was only then I realized that he had about 2 inches and at least 25 pounds on me. I think his aggression amplified him to being a good foot taller in my own mind. A few more spittle-laced curses later, having received no challenge, he walked away, turning around to drill me with his coldest ice grill a couple of times on the way back to the staircase.
This was early in the day. Later, I’d reported the incident to OA, our charismatic player pal who seemed to have friends in almost every Stuy clique. I think he was the one who said to really lay low and be careful, because my good friend from the staircase was mad down with the GG’s—the Gangster G’s. Or it was AB, who also seemed to have the lowdown on these social cross-currents, often invisible to me.
For those unfamiliar with them—and that might be a good number of you, even if you attended high school in New York in that era—the GG’s were among the most feared. These were the Asian gangsters. Whether this fear was justifiable or not, ultimately, was a coin toss. Not because they were to be trifled with at all (they weren’t), but mainly because much of their turf didn’t cross over into the white world, or at least not often. Unless fucked with, the GG’s generally kept to themselves. No other kids, black, white, latin, or other, were dumb enough to step to them. There were certain heads among them who were known to be able to procure guns. There were tales of affiliations with the famous Asian gangs of the time, whether Chinese (the Flying Dragons, the Ghost Shadows), or Korean (Korean Power), and even Born to Kill (BTK), a mainly Viet crew. One classmate, by all accounts one of the nicest guys ever, was an innocent bystander killed at a West Village pool hall our senior year during a Chinatown-based feuds.
Aside from JR, though, and my own run-in with the cursing staircase goon, I only heard bits and pieces. We reveled in the schadenfreude when we heard our most hated nemesis, HBC, had raised the ire of one of the GG’s in particular. The story was that this guy, a much bigger fellow, held his head in the toilet and flushed a few times to teach him a lesson. Or was that the guido metalhead guy who did that to HBC, and I’m confusing the story? Anyway . . .
Even most of the GG’s probably made good grades. The regular Asian kids, like the unfortunate schoolmate mentioned earlier, lived in worlds peripheral and concentric to those of the GG’s. The vast majority of them were non-GG’s, regular high school kids, if perhaps more driven by their parents’ hopes and dreams, Stuy’s built-in expectations, and their own aspirations. In that, they were like the majority of the school body. Many of them were preppy, Gap-clad normals. A good chunk, however, did have a tendency to rock Depeche Mode, Cure, and New Order tees. Though they didn’t strike me as super into music, they loved those bands. One crew of pretty cute Asian goth, industrial, and new wave girls did chill in our circles. DM, the preppyish Irish Brooklyn kid who got me into Gorilla Biscuits, was the blonde-as-the-sun white kid who rolled with about six of them, because he dated YH, who I was cool with. His shock of blonde hair set against that sea of black gear on the benches at Stuy park remains a vivid memory to me—I think a picture of it is even in the 1992 yearbook.
To an outsider, it may have been pretty hard to tell, even with the distinct personal style of the GG’s themselves. Even as many of their friends might have been embracing a more whitebread preppy style, many of the GG’s had the balloony Cavariccis, like guidos of the late 80’s wore. If they rocked normal jeans, these were tapered and cuffed tight at the ankle. Their haircuts, visibly influenced by the new wave style, were exaggerated, gelled gravity-defying creations. I didn’t know the term cyberpunk back then, but I guess there was a little of that in the mix, too.
One of the most fascinating cats I ever met was R (whose last name and hence second initial now escape me). He had gone to junior high with my best friend, not far away on the east side, a few blocks from Stuy. He was a white kid who had fallen in with and been accepted by the GG’s. I never was completely clear on whether he actually had some actual Chinese links in his family history—I seem to recall that he actually did know how to speak the language somehow. This would at least explain his unusual acceptance into a very exclusive clique.
A guy I knew even better, AM, a smart-alecky Russian kid from Kew Gardens who was a tight member of our crew earlier in sophomore year, eventually started hanging in the GG circles. He seemed to take to their secretive world better than most, though I’m convinced that it was his personal Russian guido style, and a love of chain-smoking, that really helped him bond with those cats. I would joke with him that it was his criminal genes that really clinched it. As a Pole, I had to call him on it, ya know?
We started calling him “Big Daddy Egg,” an amalgamation of rapper Big Daddy Kane and the slur for someone white on the outside and yellow on the inside. I remain convinced that we were the first to coin this unfortunate term, as the phenomenon was so utterly rare, I would imagine. However, Asians mocking their brethren and sistren who “acted white” had a more common term for an Asian who was yellow on the outside and white on the inside: “twinkie”. Ultimately, AM went into a world I imagined back then to be far more criminally illicit than mine would ever be.
Even my crew, though, relatively innocent in the general scheme of things, took advantage where it could. Back in the day, the big thing for Stuyvesant and Bronx Science kids, plus a lot of private school kids, to do for thrills was ye olde credit card scam. For us, it was the ultimate victimless crime. Some kid seemed to have a new card every week, stolen from the mail or otherwise creatively procured. They would order J. Crew or other catalog gear to someone else’s apartment building or house, and wait for the delivery people on the staircase, or in the lobby, and sign for boxes of clothes that they’d either keep or sell. Or they would take advantage of lax salespeople and go on shopping sprees downtown.
Perhaps our shadiest friend, even if he embellished his depth in the criminal underworld a little too eagerly and implausibly, was RM, the metalhead and aspiring Marine from Flushing, Queens. He was jovial and goofy, but with a definite hint of menace. RM was the biggest of us, and the hardest—the hardest-looking, for sure, when he was decked out in his Desert Storm camos.
He also procured the only stolen card I remembered seeing in person. Hilariously, it was originally intended for a “Mr. K. Wong.” Our inner circle had no Asian males in it, and thus the point man for purchasing random items all over the East Village was our friend OA, who was Puerto Rican/Ecuadorian, and apparently passed for Chinese when it came to fooling merchants into selling us goods. The good times were soon to end, however, as this card was later lost by MC, not Asian-looking in the least, who had foolishly attempted to purchase a pair of Doc Marten boots (for a girl!) and, because it was more than $100 for the purchase, was asked for ID. He just walked right out of the store before the proprietor got the cops on the line. I lamented for months that all I got out of the whole deal was one tape from friggin’ Tower Records: the cassette version of Black Sheep’s “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”
RM had a different car every week, it seemed, lined up just in the nick of time for somebody’s hot date, or to take us to a hardcore show out on Long Island, Staten Island, or elsewhere.  Each story of how he’d gotten hold of the newest whip—dubbed affectionately the “hooptie,” or “crackmobile—seemed more implausible than the last. A couple of the cars were pretty tip-top, SUVs even, and this was the era where they were just coming out. There were always whispered tales of how he was trying to scam one or other car from the owners. Some of the stories involved BS, his own crazy metalhead friend from the Flushing. This was before crap like Avenged Sevenfold came out, back when metalheads were scummy working-class delinquents whose parents sometimes despised and feared them, even if they were straight-A students. BS had a half-joke crew called Blockhead Posse (BHP) who mostly got high and drunk around the way, but were rumored to do wild shit steal CB’s and car radios out of parked cop cars late at night.
Queens seemed its own criminal universe which rarely touched upon my own life in the Village, though I’d troop it out to see my girlfriend in Rego Park on the regular. Still, when you took the 7 out to Main Street, or went anywhere in the QB, the tales of these crews gave you the local color, a snapshot of secret worlds. All the adults saw was juvenile delinquency. Flushing and Bayside knucklehead crews like Big Bad Guidos (BBG) or Bel Mar Boys, or white hoody graf troublemakers like TMR (The Master Race, actually a mixed-race crew from Bayside and nearby), KAC (Killin’ and Chillin’), KVC (Kids Vicking Cars) were like baseball trading cards to us, or like characters from pro wrestling.
While suburban kids around the U.S. were wowed by the gangsta waves emanating via MTV from L.A. (with NY still pumping out the harder, smarter shit), we saw lots of bullshit firsthand, whatever boro we were in. Some of the kids we knew were active or semi-active in graf. If you looked halfway like you might be into it, or even not, you could be guaranteed to have someone inquire of you, “Yo, you write?” Which was a loaded question, as admitting that you did prompted further inquiries of crew affiliation. It was 20 Questions, with the end result either a pound of affirmation or possibly throwing down.
Random violence was so common it was almost ambient white noise. Stand at the corner in front of K-Mart at Astor Place, across from the Starbucks, and look down towards Broadway. Picture a balmy summer evening and all you see are dozens of kids running south down Broadway, followed within seconds by a posse outnumbering them at least two to one. For some reasons, smoke bombs are in the mix (maybe it was just before July 4th?), and the sound of forty (ounce) bottles shattering after being flung across streets punctuates the entire fracas.
Or imagine you’re down the block from Bleecker Bob’s deeper in the Village, and some car with a sunroof, probably an Acura, suddenly blows the light at Sullivan and West 3rd. You realize that the driver is risking a head-on collision because what looks like an army of Ducky Boys, kids no older than their teens, is swarming over his vehicle, hitting his windows and kicking his doors, some even holding onto the trunk for dear life. The car jumps the curb and is brought to a dead halt by a fire hydrant, and the kids, probably twenty or more, are pulling the guy out of the vehicle through the sunroof, like some sinister rescue squad victimizing hapless motorists stuck in a raging flood.
Even younger kids had a little too much bluster for their own good if they were rolling wolfpack-style. I remember one instance where a sea of 13 year olds from some nearby junior high came pillaging like a pipsqueak Viking horde. The story is so clear in my mind that I sometimes forget that I probably wasn’t even there. But the GG’s themselves stood up for Stuy’s honor. Several dozen kids rolled up on some hapless younger Stuy students during lunch hour, and many accounts have a much smaller crew of GG’s of all ages tossing kids into the fountain, over park benches, until the invaders were routed, running for their lives.
You got used to these all-too-common disturbances, for good or ill, and life continued apace. The whiteposse kids styled their fashionable gear on their own little part of 15th street, or in the park. The same went for the freaks, burnouts, and guitar nerds. It was like Clueless, but tougher. I remember RJ, one of several trenchcoated types, some hippies, others more beatnikish, who frequented the halls, making me listen to the first few bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” many months before Nirvana cracked open Mallternative America forever. JJ, who to me looked a little too much like Jane’s Addictions Perry Farrell, courted the little hippie chicks with his acoustic guitar. So many more tribes, cliques, and groups congregated, though perhaps better to revisit them in a future post.
I would pump Slayer, Gorilla Biscuits, Subhumans, Public Enemy, Ministry, Nice & Smooth, etc, and an endless procession of demo tapes by mostly unknown local hardcore bands on a shitty boombox I otherwise kept in my locker. My best friend BS lit his combat boots on fire with lighter fluid, and some toddler regarded my 14-hole Doc Martens curiously, chuckled, and told her mom, “Mommy, he looks like a clown.” From the first hint of spring during a temperate March, you could feel summer aching within and without, and Stuy Park was the place.
Even as a working stiff now, when the summer starts easing in, I can’t help but have that Pavlovian good feeling take over, as if my body is just tingling with the anticipation of long, endless summer days of nothing much. The flipside of that? Even these days, when I take my phone out, or am changing a song on an iPod, or checking my wallet, I do all the motions quickly and tuck that shit safely away. You never know when the tide will turn, and the razor-sharp instincts of NY kids might dull a bit, but never fully disappear, and might be required again. Old habits die hard.

*Props to J-Moss for coining "Digital Life Support System" (DLSS)
** Props to Streetlurk, for the Steal

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Stuy Heads, 1992, Part I

In the runup to spring and lovely, glorious summer, Stuy Park was the place. Drawn to the fountain there like migratory desert beasts to a watering hole oasis, we spent the heady lunch hours there, and occasional cut classes. Much like the high school lunchroom, the park had its benches arranged by clique. As for the lunchroom, with the opportunity to go out for lunch out in the 15th street and 1st Ave area, it was shunned by anyone at least fronting on being cool, and even by various uncool kids as well.
We supposedly attended the best public high school in the country—though certain heads might dispute that, it certainly gassed our heads up. So we were nerds, and while we did not shy from the rep, it was coupled with an unspoken feeling that Stuy kids had something to prove, toughness-wise. In the good old/bad old late 80’s and early 90’s, whether you had back (“maaad back, yo!”)—ie, whether you had people willing to back you up in a scuffle, even just theoretically—was just as important as the clothes you wore or what subculture you hung your hat with.
Even within Stuy, there were complex, interlocking structures that really surpassed coolness as it’s understood in the classic sense. As with any school, they closely paralleled money and looks, but not always. My only preparation for 9th grade, such as it was, was years of watching 80’s movies about high school. While few Stuy students looked as old as the preppy skier villain douche from Better Off Dead (“Roy Stalin”!), everyone seemed improbably sophisticated. I felt self-conscious in my brand-spanking new, green Bugle Boy sweater, and could never figure out how to cuff my pants the right way.
I never wanted for anything growing up, but never wore anything with a brand name, or that didn’t look horribly dorked out, until about the age of 15. Hence, I had a sharp learning curve in high school before figuring out a personal style on an often limited budget. But I felt the class thing a little more acutely on a daily basis, when presented with choices of where the hell to eat, if at all (a grumbling stomach soon become bearable if you knew a new hardcore or metal tape from Tower or Bleecker Bob’s was the prize for your self-imposed privation).
Even among the going-out-to-lunch crowd, all dining experiences were not created equal. The main deli, KMP, was around the corner on 1st Ave. KMP stood for Korean Marketplace, but our man AB had dubbed it Killers, Muggers, and Priests, the moniker inspired, I’d like to think, by the naming conventions of industrial bands of the time.
Pretty much everyone frequented KMP because of its convenience and location, and the 5 bucks daily lunch money I had went far enough there. The friendly boisterous Mexican line cooks at the grill in the back crafted funny-ass names for the greasy creations we often just thought up on the spot. A “Sick Sandwich” was cream cheese on a bagel with bacon, right? (Somebody please confirm!)
I think I hit Ambrosia Diner, one of the popular spots for the Stuy “upper-crust,” maybe once or twice, tops. The thought of paying a dollar or two extra for similar food (and a tip, no less!) was so far out of my experience, so indulgent, I literally felt shifty and uncomfortable just sitting at a place like that, at least during school hours. I can’t imagine what kids from the Upper West or Upper East sides, or Brooklyn Heights, got for allowances, if they had them.
Years later, I would feel validated when JW, our boy who occasionally traveled in the upper-crusty social orbits, told me of his experience at Ambrosia. Something about a long convo about how one of the diners hated how the tomato slipped out of her BLT, while another girl lamented a male suitor’s penchant for using too much hair gel, at least to the point where the hair would crunch. I smirked at how banal and vapid the upper-crust scene must be, smugly punk rock in my scorn. I’d found a crew of kids who liked all sorts of stuff, but the common threads of hip hop, metal, and especially hardcore began to tie us together, and set us apart slightly from the student body at large.
The resulting group of friends was a United Nations of bullshit artists from all ethnicities, hailing from a plethora of NYC neighborhoods. That was one of the best things about Stuy. As a school you had to test into, its students came from all the boros, and a few kids even faked the funk with parents’ addresses just to be able to stay matriculated, if they’d relocated to the suburbs, for example. On any given weekend, when you hit that party age, you could be trekking out to far-ass corners of Flushing or Jamaica, Queens. I remember one hour and a half train ride out to L’amour’s, “The Rock Capital of Brooklyn,” in Bay Ridge, where we’d see metal and hardcore shows. Some Stuy kids from Staten Island had to get up at 5am to make it to their 8 o’clock classes. I’d take the Ferry once in a blue to see friends out there. Our one friend RM, our beloved metalhead guido with a 4.0 gradepoint average eventually bound for the Marines, somehow had a new car borrowed or otherwise procured, whether honestly or not, would drive us around a lot. But mostly it was trains.
Whether up to no good after school with or trying to put the make on a girl, you could end up anywhere. If armed with a half-fare bus and train pass, back in the days of the two-fare zone, you either tried to be slick pretending you had the full-fare, or doctored that shit on some arts ‘n’ crafts tip. Some jobs demonstrated a level of skill that could’ve gotten you out of Nazi-occupied France.
My earlier sojourns, among the first times I’d deviated from going straight home on the L, had been merely to go pick up a tape at J&R Music World down near City Hall. I remember how J&R and Forbidden Planet seemed my entire world for a semester. But a newer group of friends brought more adventurous excursions.
I remember one of the very first times we hit Washington Square Park. Some older chicks sitting near us—they must’ve been NYU, come to think of it, and freshmen or sophomores at that—were so amused at how wide-eyed I was when the usual rogues’ gallery of guitarists started a rollicking Creedence medley. They saw the “Wow, check out this magical place” wonder on my grill.
Don’t think I ever knew the proper term, but the seating in the park then (unlike the benches they installed in the recent renovation) seemed to grow naturally from the contours of the park. For lack of a better name, we called them nipples.
And just like high school, the “real world” of Washington Square was as delightfully clique-ish: The hippies, whether aging or fresh-faced NYU kids; the occasional crew of hoods; the punks and General Tso’s Skins, named after the very budget Chinese spot near Bleecker Bob’s; the black metalheads; the cracked-out, older regulars of all stripes; the skaters. Most importantly, it was a meeting ground for all the hardcore, metal, punk, goth, and other alternative types (even our own little guitar hippies) from high schools all over NY, and some of them integrated into these other groups. When not mingling, the cliques kept to their own nipples.
It felt like Stuyvesant and the other specialized high schools, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science, were the main feeders, plus LaGuardia, which seemed to have the hottest ladies, by my reckoning. Some heads I met in that park, whether randomly, but most likely through others, I still hang with. But kids came from everywhere, and while there were jaded ole cynics around then who certainly thought “the Village” was over years before we popped up, it felt like we had discovered uncharted territory. Plus, there was safety in numbers, and gathering in big groups, a natural tendency of teens everywhere, was your best bet.
I had my first kiss with my teenage love in that park. I can almost remember all the smells of that moment (think JS had the best hair products) and for some reason Social Distortion’s cover of “Ring of Fire” figures heavily in the memory. “Alternative” rock, of which Social D was a part, I guess, was just breaking big, with Nirvana just around the corner. Before the Mallternative Nation exploded across the US in the wake of that “grunge” revolution, dressing like a freak was not the innocuous thing it is these days. If you were part of any scene then, it was an open invitation to have some fool ask you if you worshipped the Devil. Sometimes it was the cause of beef. But it brought together the freaks and geeks. There were some tough customers mixed in with their more peaceful friends, and the state of siege that existed between the mainstream and the fans of hard music made us stick together.
 While I had a girlfriend (that very same teenage love), I was a raging battlefield of hormones, and we could spend hours watching girls go by. The boys tried their best to look hard, or at least not herby, whether it was skinhead style or hardcore/hoody/skaterish. The  ladies were just utterly adorable. Black, brown, or fiery red lipstick, hairdos of all kinds, fishnets, stockings, combat boots, and Manic Panic. T-shirts ranged from Jane’s Addiction to the Casualties or Cock Sparrer, Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Revolting Cocks, and dozens of hardcore bands. Heady spring and summer evenings, covetous crushes and beautiful petty jealousies, and somehow the danger of the early 90’s, nights of random violence, made it somehow more electrifying.
Stuy had some hard rocks, for sure, and they spanned a few different subcultures, ethnicities, and knucklehead sub-groups. Our names for them (and when I say “our,” I speak of our circle of friends) were as arbitrary as anything. I remember some were stupidly obvious—BSL stood for Black Students League, which in reality had nothing to do with the actual club, though some of the harder black kids were involved in that after-school activity. You’ll recall it was the era of afrocentricty and positive self-affirmation, the Golden age of Hip-Hop, Africa medallions and the whole nine.
It was amusing how some of the smartest kids also seemed they had the most to prove. Having escaped the living hell of being the one of the only whiteboys at Canarsie or South Shore High Schools in the late 80’s, and not a tough one by any means, I think back and wonder whether some of the kids from the home neighbs of the BSL kids gamed on them for going to Stuyvesant. At the time, being a black nerd was probably not the easiest thing, which sucked since the NY of the late 80’s and early 90’s was maaad racist, perhaps even moreso than now. A more extensive exploration by this by yours truly is upcoming, maybe even in part 2 of this Stuy Heads post.
Once in a blue I’ll run into a Stuy alum who attended before or after me, and while I may have not a single thing in common with him or her, I feel an instant bond. On a couple occasions I’ve been down near Stuy’s new location (in September ’92, they moved into a new building on the West Side Highway down in TriBeCa), when I’ve crossed paths with some Stuy kids lurking over on Chambers. I feel the same feeling from afar. Like when I see a 12-year-old kid with a Nirvana patch. I’ve been putting off actually visiting Stuy again, as I have a couple of teachers who I really feel helped me really develop the love for words that’s been a blessing all my life (Mr. Gern and Ms. Kocela, are you still there?), and I’d like to see them again.
RM and BS would give me fake beatdowns after Gern’s English class on the 2nd floor whenever I’d show up in the “same shirt” as Mr. Gern (really, they were pretty similar, but not the same shirt, a greenish plaid number that I kept in pretty regular rotation). But I remember how much reading Grendel in his class made me realize they are always two sides to a story, and the general atmosphere of polite urbanity that Mr. Gern espoused--the sober and enthused dedication to literature of all stripes--was a wonderful respite from the drama-filled maelstrom of a typical high school day.
Then we come to the “whiteposse” kids. When we spoke of these particular specimens, we had to be somewhat specific in our context. There were the whiteposse kids who went to hardcore shows. If they were from the city proper, they tended to be guido-ish or hoody, though different in their gear than regular white hoods or guidos, if that makes sense. If they were from the suburbs, or points distant, they looked more skaterish and just generally “youth crew”—bigass hoody sweatshirts, vans, band t-shirts, X’s on their person if they were straight-edge. Lots of those floppy knit hats, baseball caps, headbands, and other sporty gear.
Then there were the Stuy whiteposse kids, a wholly different breed, though similar in dress in some ways. The huge trend by 1990, 1991, were baggy jeans. If you (or your folks) had the moolah, you rocked the Girbauds. Basically, the whiteposse uniform looked (and often incorporated) the “Gap Look,” only several sizes bigger than was properly form-fitting. The easiest point of reference would probably be the more upscale style of the Native Tongues family of hip-hoppers, mainly A Tribe Called Quest and their contemporaries. Hip-hop had graduated, or at least diversified, to turtlenecks and nice sweaters, the long-ago precursor to Kayne West’s quasi-preppy steez.
Columbia ski jackets were huge, the Bugaboo style zipped up tight to the chin, as were Starter jackets, NY or Raiders seemed to predominate, but Georgetown was big, too, because the Hoyas were ascendant at the time. Fitted baseball caps were popular, as were Jansport bags, and both were perfect targets for big posses of kids taxing these items on after-school runs all over the city. The holy trinity of the homeboy was Polo, Tommy, and Nautica, and few of those who aspired to whatever coolness really was at Stuy would be caught dead wearing “Chaps Ralph Lauren.”
The kids from the regular high schools would often descend on schools like Stuy or Science, LaGuardia, or anywhere where they felt the students could be easily intimidated. I remember certain heads would have the little tassles that were attached to the zipper, but would have like 10 or 15 on there for the bags they supposedly taxed from kids. Everyone seemed to have boxcutters, and when the rollerblading craze expanded from the white devil into the culture at large, you’d see large groups of hard-looking 16-year-olds weaving in and out of foot and street traffic on some desperado kick, daring anyone to fuck with them.
This was happening around the same time that rushing stores was popular. It was a mildly tweaked version of what had the media had, in its obsession with moral panics, dubbed the “wilding phenomenon,” (Google the Central Park Jogger and see how both the victim and the alleged perpetrators in the most famous “wilding” incident, the one that coined the phrase, were both victims of the palpable tensions of that time). Basically, a posse of kids, sometimes as big as 20 or 30 or more, would run into department stores and steal all the big-ticket items in sight.
Expensive winter coats were the most prized, though some had a predisposition for particular brands. A Brooklyn-based crew of fashion-conscious hoods named the Lo-Lifes (after the “Lo” in “Polo”) were obsessed with Ralph Lauren’s flagship brand. Even when Macy’s and other companies got wise and started chaining the expensive stuff to the clothes racks, you might hear about some kid rolling out with two entire racks, while their friends would be running interception on security, only to try and saw off the metal the swag later.
(For an exploration of the culture of taxing shit, please reference Thirstin’ Howl the 3rd, the Brooklyn rapper who espoused the “Lo Lifes” culture)

It was an interesting time, and of course for me the memory is colored by the manic angst of being between 15 and 18 years old, discovering love, life, everything heavy and important. My capacity for great joy (and great sadness) has not diminished any, as far as I can tell, and I’m happier and more secure in myself than ever before. But you know how even the light was different then, the feeling in the air at 3pm that last day of school before the summer, the sense of expectation for almost everything wonder-filled and magical in a way that a 30-, 40-, or 70-year old can’t possibly identify with.
It was also an exciting time to be in NY, though we didn’t know it then, really. Homegrown sounds, the danger, the existence of real, actual old-school things that are disappearing, whether quickly or slowly now: real diners, cheap eats, real butcher shops and delis, bakeries. For the few years of the mid-90’s after high school, when I attended SUNY Stony Brook out on L.I., I met tons of amazing people from outside NY who had moved here, mostly in the hardcore scene, but it was different when everyone you met wasn’t from elsewhere.
I don’t disparage anyone else’s upbringing, as people have no control over that, but I do believe that people should respect what came before them, and approach this wonderful and now-troubled city with some perspective. The things they enjoy, even if some of these are pale imitations of the “New York Experience” of years past, were made possible by the history and character that came before them. If you know what I speak of, and have similar memories, share them with me here, or on the Facebooks, wherever. It’s something precious to be from here, and it’s something I can’t quite explain to others who just won’t know, just like I have no clue how it is to grow up in the mountains, hunting and living off the land, or living seaside and growing up around boats.
As with this messed-up, gorgeous place, Stuy Heads is To Be Continued… More to come on Asian gangsters, Cavaricci jeans, guitar nerds, subway tokens, and more. Peace.

***This two-part Stuy post is dedicated to the memory of Debra Schmitt, a former Stuyvesant teacher who had moved on to teach English at Tierra Linda High School in the Bay Area, and whose body was found recently washed up in a stream. Her death was ruled an apparent suicide. I never personally had Miss Schmitt, but I’m sure some of you reading cherish some memories of her. In an era where many people blame teachers for the sorry state of modern society, and thieves ruining millions of people’s lives are absolved of all blame, remember the true heroes and upstanding citizens that busted their asses everyday, and made an impact on you: your teachers.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

You Still Here?

I’ve been thinking about authenticity lately. In this desert of the real at the beginnng of 2011, a guidebook can be handy. I’d recommend Sharon Zukin’s semi-recent academic reflection on gentrification, authenticity, and community in New York City, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Zukin, a Brooklyn College professor, was born and raised in Philadelphia, and came to New York for college, graduating Columbia in 1972.
Arguably, Zukin has seen New York at its most “authentic,” (some would say at its most “shitty”) if you approach it from the curmudgeonly view that the city has lost its soul in the past decade. But she explores the forces surrounding gentrification and urban “renewal” through the prism of a few different neighborhoods and sections (Williamsburg, Harlem, the East Village, and Union Square, is as far as I’ve read).
Anyway, it truly made me step back and reexamine what I’ve written on this (too rarely updated) Internets soapbox. I take nothing back, but hope that I can explore the whole thing a bit more deeply, this living and breathing mass of contradictions that is the Five Boros. One of the main pillars of Zukin’s analysis is the eventual disappointment of seeking out authenticity. The dire need to find it and claim it, to meld it to one’s identity, somehow inevitably leads to diluting that authenticity, driving out the elements that have signified New York to multiple generations: immigrants, working-class attitude, originality, fierce creative energy, and that amorphous term (scorned by me): “grittiness.”
The media-dubbed “cool hunters,” who bust the market research to sell to corporations eager to cash in, seem to work in the same fashion as the moneyed forces guiding, like a silent hand, this unstoppable wave of gentrification. Drawing (and essentially bribing) young people to try products they want to test on them, they saturate the market until the kids latch on to something else. In this case, however, it’s the kids coming to New York who need affordable housing but aren’t necessarily rich by any means who are the vanguard in the process. They seek the grit for many different reasons. In many cases, they’re the eventual victims as well, pushed out of neighborhoods due to exploding rents along with the much more longtime residents. A shitty-looking but beloved Puerto Rican dive bar converts easily into a fair-trade, indie café with shows on the weekends, which converts nicely into a Starbucks, or a Crumbs location.
It’s easy to latch on to those you perceive as different from you as an enemy “Other.” The hipster-bashing thing, as much as it amuses me and is rooted in some deep truths, feels like a distraction. So does the bashing of stroller mommies. I’ve noticed walking/texting as the common disease that NY’ers of all stripes seem to have contracted, a frustrating habit that I know is inherently a national problem, but can’t seem to unbundle from my return here in particular. I wrote not too long ago that when I see people grinning at their phones as they plow heedlessly through crowds of people that I imagine that everyone doing so is holding up little mirrors.
But anyone who can’t tie together the stratification of this country into a solid core of the very wealthy—surrounded by a massive, deprived underclass, and a quickly diminishing middle class—to see its very real reflection in what is going on in New York, needs to wipe the cupcake frosting off their Dwayne Wayne flip-up specs.
Manhattan is well on its way to become a gated community, over-regulated and policed, everything razed except the projects and maybe Stuy Town, to make a huge corporate, police state-administered shopping mall and business center. The outer boros will have an upper-middle class clustered as close to the city as is possible, with the outer rings getting progressively poorer. When we’re well past our peak oil comeuppance, the city centers will be the place to be. It’s not entirely a mistake that the elite are feathering their nests here, and distancing themselves from the growing extremism and increasing desperation of Small Town America and the outer-ring suburbs.
Will the pampered denizens of the new inner-city, seeking the authenticity they can’t find in the glass box canyons, corporate office parks, the gated Manhattan , then turn to the outer rings to find a new frontier in which to experience the real, the unscripted, the grimy, and unpredictable?
What made New York the realest in the first place? I’m not nostalgic for crime, but does anyone else find the transformation of Manhattan Island into a giant Upper East Side troubling? Admittedly, I enjoy the Upper East when I go lurk up there. Close to museums, stately architecture, and where else do you see old ladies in leopard print still smoking with cigarette holders talking in raspy voices to their cherished, well-groomed poodles? But what makes that area great is that it’s bordered by Harlem to the north, Murray Hill to the south. (In the good/bad old days, Murray Hill wasn’t such an exclusive address).
The wide-eyed group of Upper East Side friends trooping down to the Village and being blown away by something new and different was always one of the great New York experiences. The city is greatest when people of all classes are flung together, when many different types of people live in close proximity, smashing into each other, the volatile electrons around the nucleus of New York’s soul.
The sickenss now is the growing sameness of experience eveywhere around us. To slightly tweak Bud Fox’s speech to Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (not my favorite flick, but whatevs): How many luxury stores can Bleecker Street in the West Ville handle? How many gourmet cupcakes can you stomach? How many new eateries with sterile, shining interiors, so inhospitable to sit and eat in, can you frequent? How much is enough?
The word “douchebags” has gained traction in the American vernacular lately. It is a shorthand for a certain type of male, and in the language of NYC nightlife, an apt description for a certain kind of bar scene. People always got drunk, and the unfortunate term “bridge and tunneL” can be thought of as a distant cousin to it. It just seems people are ever more childish, vapid, and actually seemed to have been cloned en masse from characters they see on TV. They seem as exciting as a Powerpoint presentation on retirement planning, and it might be weeks of hanging out with such creatures before you hear an original thought. I’ve eavesdropped on them.
What is it about the douchebag that irks, reviles, like Kryptonite to the rest of us just looking for a decent night out? The stockbroker villain of American Psycho, the cookie cutter date rapist, the guy unironically rocking the pink sweater tied around his shoulders, sighted at Mars Bar a few months ago—it’s an umbrella term, for sure. One hopes that someone relocating here spun from the average cloth of middle America would let something of NY filter into his fabric, allow for some change or adjustment. But the frightening thing is that, while once the city bent others to its sensibility, the opposite seems to be happening right now. NY has lost its super powers.
There are still plenty of folk moving here, at whatever age, and whether from the Midwest, Iran, France, Mexico, Korea, Senegal, or countless other nations, richer or poorer, who have aspirations, and perhaps a romantic view of NY that has nothing to do with the money porn of luxury loft living. They imagine the mom and pop stores, the sense of community, the stoop life, the 9 million possibilities, themselves a drop in the bucket, but filled with boundless energy and outsized ambition. Whether running from something, or simply reimagining themselves here, they have always seemed to make the soil here more fertile. A Greek Diner, a Korean nail salon, a Dominican cabstand, an Arab deli, an Irish bar, an aging hippie bookstore, an Italian pizzeria—it feels like these things were invented here.
What happens when the phrase “Only in New York” is sapped of all meaning? It feels like every day that the Times ejaculates another puff lifestyle trend piece about how the new hot shit is luxury buidlings with every possible amenity imaginable, whole buildings filled with young people eager to live among those just like them. If we agree that the city is morphing into a fairytale cocoon, how will it differ in any real way from the downtowns of Akron, Ohio, or San Clemente, California, or, God forbid, Albany?
If you live in a building with a café, Internet access, free laundry service, a gym, and 150 neighbors in your age group, it’s not a NY apartment; it’s a dorm. How many amazing, creative things were spawned, how many chance occurences because some kid ventured out of the soft confines of their NYU, Columbia, or Fordham dorm room and went exploring? Ok, so some of them did so and ended up cokeheads or slaves to the H, or remain locked up in some basement dungeon somewhwer. But I hope you smell what I’m cooking here. Or the wisdom imparted by older, saltier neighbors on one’s floor in a tenement walkup. We miss out when chain stores metastasize, when the bland uniformity of money forces out the greasy spoon, the old-school donut shop, or the local shoe repair spot. Duane Reade and John Varvatos ain’t letting you pay on Tuesday for a hamburger today, na mean?
The essence of NY was equal parts unpredictability, randomness, creativity, street epiphanies, crazy stories about those real “New York characters,” and so much more. These will always be here, but they are being slowly devoured by money. And is there anything more boring, really, than hearing people talk about money? (At least put it to a beat, a la GZA’s “Gold”).

People will continue to come here, but maybe there’s some way, by sheer force of collective will, to restore the selectively permeable membrane that filtered out the folk that would’ve never come here. For now, they continue to obliviously craft a Californized, suburbanized funzone. That membrane used to be the danger, the crime rate, all tied to New York’s rep. We’re like the comfy old southpaw, still some brain cells left, challenged to one last streetfight. Do we still have the stones? 
I’ve asked many questions, many of them rhetorical. All of them are about a perceived problem, at least from the collective perspective of many of the New Yorkers who have given me feedback on this blog—most, but not all of them natives of the city. However, there are many who aren’t complaining about the new New York, not by a longshot. The nearest and dearest of the 2,200+ people killed in 1990 here, for example.
To paraphrase Zukin, there were probably some aging, decrepit Five Points bruisers holding out for dear life at the turn of the century from 19th to 20th, lamenting the loss of their beloved, longtime mutton shack, grumbling about those newfangled donut shops that seemed to be sprouting up everywhere. Or those Eye-talians popping up everywhere out of the blue, so much more foreign than newly-recognized-as-white Irish.
There’s something about this place, you admit to yourself, despite the urge to pack up and hightail it out of here, even if the reasons for you may be vastly different than those who’d had enough, say, in 1979.  After all, you’re still here.