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 (http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com), or DieHipster.com, 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