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.


  1. Hi,

    Man, great post. The first time I lived in this city was in early '91, at the Hotel 17, behind Stuyvesant Park. I used to have coffee in the park in the mornings if it wasn't too cold, and look out on the kids from the school (I didn't know anything about the school then) and the homeless guys getting up next to them, hacking into the morning cold, and thought about how worlds collided in New York. I used to wonder what the kids thought of the city around them. with all these different people, all this activity. And now I know. I wonder if you were one of those kids.

    That was a great year. I was pretty much out of the hardcore scene by that time - I'd gone from Vancouver to Montreal to London and ended up in NY by accident - but NY was a great place to hang out. Chaotic, brutal, open. Such fabulous energy. London and even Montreal had had their own thing going on, but the NY of that period was pure mainline energy and humanity. I've tried to recall it since but so little remains of that era it's hard to see now.

    Looking forward to your second post. I sent a longish message to your last post but it doesn't seem to be up. Did you get it?


  2. Hey, thanks so much! I did see your other comment for another entry, and actually wrote you at City of Strangers. But if there's another comment for another post that's missing, let me know, maybe Blogger dropped the ball.

  3. heh - keep 'em coming - you bringing back MEMORIES! Bx Sci alumni here, summer of 88 Washington square alumnus! I call it the age of wonder - a magical time that will probably never be replicated... from those cliques came forces that shook the world.

  4. Wow, just wow. This brings back so many memories! I went to high school around the same time as you, though it was South Shore, which you accurately described as a living hell. I'm sure I could have tested into one of the special schools but, honestly, my family didn't have the resources or wherewithal to consider it.

    So, if you would have otherwise gone to South Shore or Canarsie, I'm kind of curious about where you were living. I grew up in the projects practically across the street from South Shore, but the high school included students from Flatbush, Mill Basin, Bergen Beach, and other nearby neighborhoods. It was a volatile mix of mostly nouveau riche white kids and working-class black kids. I was in the honor program, which was almost exclusively white and wealthy. I was white and poor. Your assessment of the tensions of the time seems right on.

    One correction, though -- L'Amour was in Bay Ridge.

  5. VisuaLingual--thanks for the Bay Ridge fix. I hope it's just that I didn't really grow up in that part of Bklyn, and thus my shaky knowledge on neighborhood borders in those parts.

    I grew up in Starrett City from the time I was 11, and moved from Elmhurst, Queens before that. And the South Shore/Canarsie was more something I was told (or feared) rather than experienced. I admit I was the picture of the Shook Nerd at the ages of 13-14. Would love to hear more about your time there. Also, don't know if it's the same projects, but think my Dad's Polish friends, and their daughters, were in that same section, who we'd visit.

    Probably the smartest chick in my Junior High in Starrett, a quite nerdy white girl, actually was valedictorian at Canarsie. And Starrett was def. poor to very lower middle class, black, white, and Latin alike. But, yes, the sheer tensions were deep, no? The "money porn" life going down in the city these days just feels insane.

  6. I once wrote some thoughts on South Shore and Glenwood Projects. I'm sure you're thinking of the same place. In fact, we may know people in common - I'm Polish and knew most, if not all, of the Poles living there at the time.

    The daughters you mention -- are they, by chance, Dagmara and Marika? They're actresses now; I remember Daggie as a little girl, wanting to become an actress. How many people grow up to realize their childhood dreams?

    Two more "success stories" from the PJs are Ill Bill and Goretex [Billy and Ronnie back in the day]. In fact, South Shore, though it was a complete shithole [or maybe because of it] also spawned Biohazard and Life of Agony.

    I left for college in 92. It was right after the riots, and I couldn't wait to leave. I haven't lived in BK since 99 -- over the years, life has taken me to CA, MI, IN, MA and now Cincinnati, OH of all places. When I do go back to visit, I find myself muttering and shaking my head like a curmudgeon. It's hard to know if the city is changing beyond the ever-constant ebb and flow, if this current shift is somehow more fundamental than previous shifts. Maybe we're just getting old?

  7. VisuaLingual, I had to write you back right away. Dagmara, Marika are exactly who I'm talking about! That's pretty crazy, since I remember also when their little sister was born, and just saw them for the joint baptism of their babies in Greenpoint, where the youngest sister now lives. I remember a slew of other Polish kids we'd vacation with in Pennsylvania--Agnieszka, Patrycja.

    Anyway, it's testament to how just a comment on this can bring back a flood of memories. I graduated in '92 as well, and while we branched out in later years, were hardcore kids through and true for a good long while. And I was really intrigued when I'd finally heard ill Bill, Necro, et al were from nearby. Did you go to hardcore/metal shows, too?

    Definitely getting old(er), but I think there's a unanimous feeling that the latest changes are just a microcosm of a larger decline in the US--I know people have complained in each successive generation that "things just aren't the same," but have they ever experienced the same draining of everything unpredictable, exciting, and chaotic from the fiber of the city? Sometimes I feel like a less-staunch version of Bill the Butcher from Gangs of NY, except it's not the Irish I'm wanting to run out of town, but the hordes of the absolutely clueless.

    Anyway, it's pretty amazing, this small world of the natives. Really nice to get your comments. I'm honestly thinking of one day making my way elsewhere in the U.S. I guess I'd be a newbie wherever else (I did live in LA for almost 3 years a little while back), but I'd hope to approach my new home with some respect, perspective, and street smarts. Hope Cincinnati's treating you well!

  8. Whoa. I knew Patrycja and was good friends with Agnieszka. I never vacationed with those people, but maybe you and I somehow met in the last millennium. This world is so small.

    I've been gathering some of my memories into a post that I'll put up this week. It's crazy how reading this has brought back so many memories.

  9. VL,

    Very much looking forward to it...And by vacation, I meant the old "let's get rid of the kids by packing them off to one family friend's house in Pennsylvania". Me, Agnes, and some random other kids hung out for two weeks one summer, listening to Aerosmith and Enya (?). Cheaper than camp--though one year I DID go to Harcerze, also in PA.

  10. The world keeps getting smaller -- this morning, I met a couple of Brooklynites here in downtown Cincinnati. They're on a Midwest road trip and asked me for some suggestions on what to do here. They were familiar, or had already done, everything I could think of, and it turned out that they based this leg of their journey on a guide to "cool things" to do here that I had written for a big design site. So bizarre...

    Anyway, I spent way too much time last weekend trying to remember details of my adolescence. I even watched part of Decline of Western Civ. again. I discovered that there's a book about L'Amour that's supposedly coming out this year.

    In any case, give me a few days to polish off what I've written and get it online. In the mean time, you might find the two posts I linked to above to be of some interest.

  11. VisualLingual,
    Unless I'm losing my mind--which is entirely possible, as I'm on my 2nd week of quitting smoking--where exactly are the two posts you linked to? I realized I'd read the Camden article a while back, as I read Hedges' stuff pretty much weekly, so intrigued by what else you're linking to.

  12. VL,

    Thanks for the links, once again! When I have some more free time very soon, going to read alot of your backlog too. It's in a similar vein, but addressing different elements utilizing your own expertise. Love it. You really crystallized thoughts I had about South Shore as a piece of architecture, since I'd always check it out when I transferred to go to Kings Plaza, or going to see the Polish around your way. It somewhat ties into the question of comfort re: urban stench. By which, I mean that part of me naturally recoiled against South Shore as a building, but found something comforting in it--perhaps I associated it with the grim "Bloki" of the hometown (Bydgoszcz, not the most aesthetically pleasing city. I can't believe there were 6,000+ students in that school at any time.

  13. South Shore had fewer students when I was there, maybe 4,000 or so. Still, the school was monstrous -- a quarter mile from the gymnasium to the science classroom that had to be traversed within 3 minutes.

    Bloki is right. I'm from Gdynia, BTW, which is another ugly city.

  14. VL, haven't even checked it out yet, and can't wait. I remember dragging my cousin, her fresh off the boat at 17, and me the same age, to see Leeway and ten other bands at L'Amours and her absolute astonishment at the goings-on. Gonna check this out as soon as I can.