In the runup to spring and lovely, glorious summer,
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 Stuy Park 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
, got for allowances, if they had them. Brooklyn Heights
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 , where we’d see metal and hardcore shows. Some Stuy kids from Bay Ridge 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
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
. 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. Washington Square Park
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
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. US
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.
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.