I learned two important things when I was sixteen (two that I remember; sweet sixteen was a hazy year):
(1) Your mother, your father, and your friends can boot your ass out on the street; and
(2) If you meet a long-haired, Quaalude-toting ticket scalper at an Ozzy Osbourne concert, and move to New York City with him that very night with nothing but the clothes on your back, don’t expect happily ever after.
* * *
There is nothing surprising or momentous about Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania – save for the fact that it exists. If one were to drive down the two-block-long main street, and the town’s inhabitants happened to be present, an unsettling similarity in outward appearance would be evident – one suggesting that evolution had not quite run its full course here, or reached this area of the country … much the same as cable television. There exist as many honorable folk as there are deviants, as many bible-beaters as fornicators, but there is no mix in the blood. There are no services, no health care. Poverty is crippling but unquestioned. No idea exists that one can somehow rise above. Suffice to say our nearest neighbors threw their waste out the back window of their shack and had no indoor plumbing, lice circulated regularly at school, and my family – with its double-trailer and freshly laundered clothing – ranked among the more well-to-do in the area, despite the fact that we lived on the pinnacle of a hill once called Poverty Road.
Enduring your adolescence in a town like Hop Bottom inspires a good deal of creativity and fortitude. For unless you worked the family farm (as many of my classmates did) or saw an escape through academic pursuit (like my sister), you had your work cut out for you: it required vigilance and tenacity to secure the proper connections through which to procure drugs, alcohol, and a warm car or black-light-and-strawberry-incense-filled room in which to enjoy them.
Somehow, we managed.
I severed my ties with high school sometime during the tenth grade. I was fifteen. It was mutual.
By the ninth grade, I’d been selling acid and getting into shit storms of trouble both at school and home. In an attempt to save me, my guidance counselors – who knew my true potential – insisted I test for the gifted children’s program. I told them to shove their gifted-child bullshit up their asses; I didn’t want to be gifted. My sister was gifted, and look where it got her: a scholarship to one of the best preparatory academies on the east coast, fencing skills, fluency in Russian, a summer studying in the Soviet Union, placement at an Ivy League university…. What a snore. Not really – that was what I wanted to tell them, and what I did in effect convey by getting expelled the following year. I took the test begrudgingly and dabbled in the gifted program, taking two grades simultaneously – straight As, honor roll – all the while I was adrift in psychedelic nirvana or circling the earth in a cloud of pot smoke.
I ended up living with my father for a short time, enrolled in another school, but I skipped all my classes – except Spanish (my professor let me sit on the floor in the corner) and Home Ec (there was food) – smoking cigarettes in the john and riding around with my friend Coreen. Going to class was fruitless. I terrorized my teachers and refused to participate. I was nicknamed The Wreck. One of my fellow students made an attempt at terrorizing me, constantly pointing out that I was stoned and once even writing “Don’t let this happen to you: The Wreck” in large, uneven letters on the blackboard in front of me, for all the class to enjoy. I exited the class quickly when the bell sounded that day, waited for him outside the classroom, and punched him in the stomach as he turned the corner. Following that, he was no longer a nuisance.
I was confounded by the easy access to drugs and alcohol in this not-so-middle-of-nowhere suburb, and I dug in. Deep. Dad got me a job at the Bingo, running around shouting out the numbers to confirm the wins, delivering the ladies their cash. We got a few dollars from the house for working the floor plus tips from the winners. That’s where I met Jules. We’d hang in the ladies’ toilet while the game was going on and burst out the door in a billow of pot smoke when someone called “Bingo!”
Jules was the epitome of cool – a female Steven Tyler – and she took a liking to me, turning me on to every sedative imaginable. Downs were everything a girl dreamed of: they left you in a hazy fog (where nothing really mattered and simply standing up and walking to the bathroom was an adventure) and guaranteed blackout 99 percent of the time. Particularly if you mixed them with plenty of alcohol. That’s key. I worked my way up from Valium fives to Valium tens in no time. How many you could handle was a prideful thing, and I held pretty steady at seven Valium tens, but ten was my record. Those were some messy nights. Boozing at the same time was overkill, but we were friendly with the bouncers and owners of the local rock clubs, two of the bars in town where we didn’t have a problem getting served. We never had to pay the entry fee, but believe me when I tell you it wasn’t entirely free – admission to those places.
My stint at dad’s lasted a couple of months maybe, during which time I managed to nearly burn the house down (in a Quaalude-induced, cocoa-making misadventure) and fall so flatly on my face in the driveway coming home one night, I apparently was unable to get up. I remember waking up one day – in the ephemeral light of night turning into day, or vice versa, but having no idea which it was. While I called the operator to ask the time, pieces of the previous night came through in jigsaw-puzzle flashes: downs, booze, hitchhiking somewhere from somewhere, the driver having coke and some friends he thought I should meet, a ménage-a-trois with said friends (the Mick Jagger of a Rolling Stones cover band and his girlfriend), she and I showering together, no idea how I got home. I was three shades of green, in that cocaine hangover that makes all the world seem bleak, life utterly hopeless. I was embarrassed about asking the operator whether it was a.m. or p.m., and her dubious silence before curtly replying “p.m.” confirmed I should be. I’d never felt so … tenuous, so incapable of self-control, so direly in need of solace and protection. Protection from myself.
The fact that my mother had sent me to live with my father was a joke. If she couldn’t handle me, he certainly couldn’t. Our three-hour, biweekly visits hadn’t been exactly bond-building. (They consisted of: a two o’clock (on the nose) pickup, a thirty-minute drive to Burger King or MacDonald’s, eating at said Burger King or MacDonald’s, driving to my dad’s and waiting for him while he showered and got ready to go to the racetrack, and the thirty-minute drive back home. Small talk in the car.) It was a predictable disaster – a colossal failure of a social experiment – and he kept telling me he wanted me out. But for a short time, I got to live in my specially painted bedroom. It was still pristine after eight empty years, my purple room. The whole house was like that – as though it had been freeze-dried, from the moment we left my dad. And now I was back, but I was not his little girl – the one who rushed into his arms and cried with him that day at the top of the stairs when we said goodbye. I was broken. I was lost. And there was nothing anyone could do to fix me.
So on I went to play house with some friends – a brother and sister living in their family home: dad dead, mom in a nursing home. I’d been working in dress factories since I quit school and chipped in for the bills. We were a blue-collar crew that lived to party, and we had some wild ones: parties like drug orgies, where you’re so fucked up you’re falling down the stairs, or lying on the couch wired – willing to give your left eye if only you could get to sleep – as daylight begins to shed a critical eye on the wreckage and two hangers-on troll the cast-off beer bottles in hopes of squeezing out one last drink. Disgusting even to me.
* * *
Pounding on the bedroom door – the police are downstairs and want to talk to me. One look out the window tells me why: my car smashed to pieces; one look in the mirror sets into me the oh-no-oh-no-oh-no-what-have-I-done terror of the frightened little girl I cannot afford to be. A monster returns my gaze – its face crusted with dried brown blood, lip split wide. I frantically search my memory for what might have happened but come up completely dry. No need to dress, still in my clothes from last night, I walk downstairs to talk to the cops.
Moonlighting as a cocktail waitress when you are (1) underage, (2) allowed to drink as many cocktails as you can handle, and (3) working Valiums into the mix can prove rather unwieldy. I kept a gin and tonic going on my tray the duration of my shift. An hour or two in, I’d forget who ordered the drinks by the time the bartender made them and had some difficulty finding their proper owners. Slightly problematic.
The elderly couple whose car I demolished hadn’t decided whether to press charges. My penance was apologizing to them. It didn’t go swimmingly. As I stood there on their living room rug, they looked at me with utter disdain – much as I would now look at some crazy, drugged-out teenager who cannot have been thinking. I had the feeling I was botching it – that they expected me to say or do something that was beyond my ability to know or understand. They wanted feel to feel guilty. I did. I was sorry. But more than anything I wanted to escape from their scrutiny and judgment, their tight-assed way of staring at me, and have them tell me they weren’t pressing charges so I could go home and crawl into a hole.
The cops let Coreen drive me to the hospital beforehand, so I could get my face stitched up: Had I hit my head? Um … obviously. Was I taking any drugs or medications? Negative. Some sutures, x‑rays and other tests, and I came out with a band-aid across my upper lip looking ridiculous, and quite a bit like Adolf Hitler. The gang showed their sympathy that night at the crash bash we threw by wearing Hitler band-aids in solidarity.
* * *
The Ozzy Osbourne concert was our last hurrah – after I’d been asked to move on – their fault as much as mine. Or should I say his? Ray, the brother, about 10 years older than Coreen and me, hadn’t wasted time capitalizing on the advantages of a fucked-up wild child living under his roof. It was technically consensual, always rough, and never my idea. And after a while it put a snag in the living arrangements – so as a family, they wanted to see how it went without me. Nothing personal.
I met the scalper in the parking lot before we went into the concert. During it, he screamed into my ear that I should come back to New York with him. To live. New York City? I couldn’t believe my ears!: my first big chance to get the hell out of Pennsylvania. And talk about timing.
It turned out the ticket scalper had two roommates. The four of us lived in a ratty, walk-up studio apartment with creative sleeping arrangements on a street no one ever heard of. The Lower East Side in the early eighties was pretty sketchy, but I was always chaperoned by Mike and the stone-cold fog of a Quaalude buzz. I remember wandering the streets, marveling at the tall wrought-iron fences bordering the postage-stamp parks they somehow crammed onto medians and into corners of the concrete mass of city. I remember that Mike’s roommates were nice guys, and their names were Barry and Radio John. I remember feeling skanky because I had only one set of clothes. I remember finding a pair of women’s jeans on a shelf one day when Mike was out working a concert and wondering who they belonged to. What their history was. And I remember thinking that this guy was so cool, so perfect for me, with his long black hair and his Quaalude supply and concert tickets. This was the life. Such freedom. Who knew what would happen next?
Then Mike came back from some failed drug or ticket business and told me he got a gig as a roadie and he guessed I’d have to go home. It sounded like blatant bullshit – like he hadn’t even tried to use his imagination – but I didn’t question it. I just took the Greyhound back to PA.
One of my first nights in the big city, the band Journey played on the radio in a pizza joint we ate at: “Just a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world. She took the midnight train goin’ anywhere….” Even though I was in a partial coma – the drive, the hope, the thrill of that song surged through me like a million volts of electricity. It was my song, my story: a small-town girl, a lonely world. I took the midnight train – or a car ride anyway. Strangers. Waiting. Up and down the god-damned boulevards, for Christ fucking sake.
For a smile, we shared the night. But it did not go on, and on, and on, and on.