Once upon a time on the Bowery
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
I’m normally a terrible liar. More spit collects at the sides of my mouth than usual. I have trouble making eye contact and I laugh just a little too loudly and if I do manage a straight-faced fib, I end up coming clean within 24 hours as an innate reflex to years of Jewish guilt. But somehow I’ve managed to keep this lie going for four years. I suppose it helps that I lie about it selectively, to certain people, for the sake of appearances. I only told Kate the truth because I thought I might die.
I always think I’m going to die during takeoff. I order a coffee because it’s my lifeblood and the bitterness of the cheap airline fare makes my lips pucker. And this is how it’s going to end. It’s a half-hearted fear. I know almost certainly I will survive, but reels of all the hackneyed plane-crash movies run through my head. So I catalog my sins to entertain myself: the impression I’ll leave when I die. The good deeds are never as fun as the naughty bits. And because I’m with Kate, the sins that come to mind first are the sexual ones. They will search my room when I die and my mother will find my bondage tape. She won’t realize that the bondage tape was never opened, and I only bought it because after four inquisitive trips to Miko’s Exotic Wear I was sick of the leather-clad salesgirls laughing at me when I stared at the wall of vibrators, mouth agape. I’ll be embarrassed, but it won’t really matter because I’ll be dead.
My lips are parched and my mouth tastes of coffee and stale air, and I have to confess to Kate. The bondage tape is a matter of interpretation, but lying is just wrong. My heightened pulse and massive sweating will only be appeased by the truth. I smile at Kate next to me. She’s already asleep, and the blanket is wrapped around her head, hobo style. I wonder if she’s still breathing.
“Kate. Kate. KATE!!!”
“What the fuck, I’m trying to sleep.”
“I have to tell you something.”
“Does it have to be right this second? Can’t it wait till we get to Phoenix?”
“All right, if you’re gonna be a petulant child about it, go ‘head.”
“Ummm, remember when I told you I lost my virginity to John at his senior prom?”
“Well, that was a lie. I didn’t lose my virginity until the artist, freshman year.”
We’re all sprawled around the big brown room in the white clapboard house. It’s the end of June, and 30 sets of stubbled pale legs stick out from every angle, jockeying for space. Girls are curled up against tables and behind cushions on the floor. But she is occupying her own love seat, her legs folded underneath her. That’s the first time I see Kate. We’re 17. Her square tortoiseshell glasses perch on the tip of her nose, bovine brown eyes staring intently down at the sets of dreadlocks and pierced noses beneath her.
They force us to play one of those getting-to-know-you drills — tell us something about you that’s unique. Everything, nothing, but we’re all going to say things like we have a pet mouse named Baryshnikov, or a penchant for Belle and Sebastian. I say that when I raise my eyebrows, one goes higher than the other. Then they make me demonstrate — my expression going from surprise to sedate and back again. Kate is next. She says that she only eats meat, then scowls at all the granola-crunching vegetarians who gasp at her with narrowed eyes.
I laugh out loud. I have been at Bennington for about three hours at this point. My father has driven me up from Westchester to this arts program, because I am a writer, a very important writer. I write poems that have sentences about “charred mammal flesh” and use the word “arrive” to mean orgasm. My suburban high school teachers squeal at my use of imagery and symbolism — it’s just so avant-garde! They marvel at my ability to find time for writing during my busy cheerleading schedule. I write about my heels banging staccato against city streets at night, though I’m only allowed in New York City before dusk.
Wearing carefully chosen khakis I walk down the hill with my dad, sweat already pouring down the small of my back. The hills surround Bennington, green and rising so slowly. He stays with me through registration with a woman who has as many piercings as she has orifices. Dad deposits me in the shuttered white cottage that is my “dorm” and books it out. So, I’m sitting amid the multiply tattooed and tie-dyed and wondering just what I have gotten my Abercrombie-clad ass into.
That night I cry myself to sleep. My roommate is already passed out in a crumpled mountain on her mattress, the bed not even properly made. She seems nice enough, my roommate, but I blush when she fingers her nose ring obsessively and laments the raves she’s missing back home. She keeps a stash of E in her top drawer and that night I harbor dreams of DEA agents breaking down our door at dawn.
I finally get the courage to talk to Kate. I knock lightly on her door.
Lizzie, Kate’s roommate, is sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a mirror. Her gargantuan breasts flop over the towel wrapped lightly around her waist. Brown orbs are coming at me from all angles; her breasts multiplied and refracted by the mirror and the windows surround the room.
“Oh God. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize …”
“Realize what? Don’t worry about it. Nakedness is no big thing.”
So I sit on the edge of their beds, which they had already put together, and try not to look at Lizzie’s omnipresent tits. I have never been so close to another girl’s breasts before. In the locker room before field hockey we always went through great gymnastic feats so that we could take our bras off underneath our shirts. The girls who dropped trow without a care were always snickered about behind their backs. Even though I hadn’t seen them, I was sure girls from Irvington didn’t have breasts like Lizzie’s.
I watch Kate and Lizzie as we chat. Kate stretches languid across the two beds and Lizzie fiddles with her hair. I almost expect them to pick lint off each other’s shoulders, or eyelashes off each other’s cheeks — some terribly intimate gesture that only I would be privy to. But Kate mentions a boy she is seeing back home, so I assume the beds pushed together is only for convenience, or for some ambiguous cuddling.
“Do you have a boyfriend, or a girlfriend?” Lizzie asks.
“No. I mean, I used to, a boyfriend that is, but umm, he’s going to college in the fall and I’m away this summer, so it’s over. Do you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend or whatever?
“She doesn’t, but Lizzie had an orgy in a field on her first day at boarding school.”
A pillow flies with brute force across the room and bounces off the top of Kate’s head.
“Kaaaaaaaate! Don’t tell her that. It’ll freak her out. We did just meet her.”
“Oh, um, no worries, I’m not freaked out or anything, that’s kind of cool, I guess.”
I take my open jaw and try to twist it into a knowing smile.
We only have three hours of class a day, so the rest of our time is spent finding free air conditioning and talking about our sex lives or lack thereof. Sure, I’d made out with many a boy. I’d made out with one the first day of Bennington. I’d even rounded third base with one or two. How could I begin to compete with Lizzie “orgy in a field” Parker? She had done every drug in the book and participated in sex acts I had never even heard of. Kate is more on my level, but she still scoffs at virginity like it’s old hat.
Kate and I walk through the aisles at the Price Chopper. For her film class, she’s shooting the water that turns on to spray the vegetables every five minutes. “It’s about cycles.” She tells me. “Like the moon, it grows and shrinks. Like your period. Circles. Pretty deep, huh?” I nod my head and giggle to myself. She had filmed me spinning around the main quad the day before. Circles. I’d even let her film my naked chest. Circles.
“You need to open up more about your sex life. You’re so silent about it. Tell me about your first time.”
I stammer and try to pay attention to the eggplants and sprouts. I can’t tell Kate about my first time because it hadn’t happened yet. Instead I say the first thing that comes to mind.
I tell her that I had sex with my prom date John. Although in truth, I turned him down on his basement floor while we were watching “ESPN Sports Center.” I didn’t want my first time to be witnessed by Charles Barkley. And it wasn’t just that. There are rules. In Westchester, you should be dating a boy for at least six months, and then maybe, maybe, you can give it up. Otherwise, you are a slut and should be branded as such for the rest of your high school career and, clearly, the rest of your life.
But then Kate asks for details. She always asks for details.
“Ummm, I only have two words to describe my first time: flailing elbows.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Just think about it.”
As I watch her perplexed face trying to figure out the placement of our appendages, I realize I have her fooled.
That fall, when Kate and I decide to go to the same university, instead of being pleased, my first instinct is, oh goddamnit. Now I’m going to have to keep this lie going forever.
Then I meet the artist, and I don’t have to lie about being a virgin anymore. He has sparse, manicured facial hair and takes me on my first real date — one that includes him driving me to dinner and a movie and paying for it — instead of just making out in some boy’s basement and then going to Burger King, like I did in high school. He’s older, a sophomore, and he goes to art school, two things that give him immediate hipster credibility (even though at art school he’s an industrial design major and takes classes called Kitchen Appliances). We go to see “A Clockwork Orange” on our first date, which probably should tip me off to his sadistic leanings. But I am blinded by his car (the fact that he has one) and his confidence and his tattoos that he designs himself.
And then there is the meteor cruise. Every November, the earth enters clouds of particles that seem to shoot out from the constellation Leo, and there is a cruise around Narragansett Bay at 1 a.m. to watch the dust soar. It’s lame and cheesy and of course, it makes me feel all fuzzy inside. Even before the celestial pyrotechnics, I know I will sleep with the artist. It’s just time. I build it up in my head enough so that all my prick teasing in high school is justified. This is meaningful — this is love. The meteor cruise just makes it a good story and gives me an excuse to hold him even closer because night is so cold on the ocean.
I outline a plan for my loss of virginity. I allow the artist to go one base further each week, so that within a month I will be rid of the dreaded V-card. At this point, I know it’s true: If you don’t have sex, it means you aren’t normal. It means you’re frigid and childish and inexperienced. You don’t have any fun stories to tell. I blame those stupid “American Pie” kids for making me think it. And Kate and Lizzie. And everything else. I must be an ugly, heinous freak to still be a virgin and a college student.
I am honest, though — with the artist. We’re lying in bed, having a terribly important conversation, naked, that I no longer remember when I blurt it out.
“I’m a virgin, you know.”
He sits straight upright in bed, looking down at me.
“Nope, I’m completely serious. Why?”
“I don’t know, I guess you just seemed confident … with stuff.”
“Well, I mean, it’s not like I haven’t done other stuff, you know, I’m not like, religious or something.”
“Yeah … I mean, no, right, of course not.”
There is a dead, pregnant silence. Then he whispers in my ear.
“How would you like to do something that you’ve never done before?”
I make him promise. I make him promise that he’ll take my virginity seriously and that he really does care about me and that he won’t just ditch me after I let him do it. You exact these kinds of promises knowing deep down they’ll be broken. I mean, unless we had ended up getting married and had ten thousand babies, it would have ended, there would have been betrayals totted up along the way and blame placed and unhappiness. And it all meant ten times more to me because he was the one.
Then I break my ankle, and the artist does not call me while I’m in the hospital. He’s busy, he says. He is too busy with the blender designing that fuels his soul. For four days I sail on my morphine drip, and it’s OK. Then I come home from the hospital, and it’s not OK.
The artist dumps me a few weeks later.
“There’s too much going on in my life right now. I can’t be bothered with a girlfriend. I need to focus on my art.”
So I pretend to understand his existential crisis and worship at the altar of the true artist. I stop going to classes and hobble around the icy streets of Providence, walking past every restaurant we’d gone to and sighing.
Kate can’t understand why I am so upset. “You were only dating for like, four months. I didn’t think it was that big a deal.” And I still can’t tell her the truth. I feel too foolish and naive and like I’d made a huge mistake. It was too much to explain.
Instead, Kate just thinks I’m completely insane. She jokes that I am going to get a tattoo of a fridge as a nod to his industrial designing and cry every time I see it. At first, she’s caring. She takes my broken ankle and my broken heart and tries to soothe me with strokes of my hair and hugs and food. But then she tires of me. I’m just too much work.
“Just be your own fucking person. I’m always my own person. I’d never let some guy do this to me,” Kate screams.
I continue to sleep with the artist, believing that it will help me to get over him, give me a sense of closure. Instead, it gives me a pregnancy scare and a series of yeast infections.
Kate won’t listen to me talk about the artist anymore. But I don’t care. We pull apart, but again, I don’t care. I need to convince myself that I’m not a slut, that I didn’t just have sex to have sex, that being with the artist is true.
And then there’s the real truth: that he is an asshole, and though Kate is self-absorbed and a bitch 50 percent of the time, she loves me and he doesn’t.
At the beginning of sophomore year, I crawl back to Kate. I get into a better relationship with a non-artist non-asshole. I start mooning Kate and our other friends just to get a laugh, I tell the truth about masturbating and use words like “cooter” without blushing because I’m not embarrassed anymore. It’s just my body; it’s just us.
Over the next two years, I could have told Kate at any time. She and I talk exclusively of sex and bowel movements and anyway, most of my friends at college know the truth. It never seemed right to just blurt out: so, I took the biggest poop this morning, and by the way, remember that “I lost my virginity in high school” story? Well, the thing about that is…
So we’re cruising over even grids with neatly formed crop circles and I’m heady from exhaust fumes and tired from travel and if I’m going to die like this, stinking of coffee with pasty Midwesterners, at least I’ll die with a clean conscience.
- – - – - – - – - –
Next week: I date the slowest person on earth
Jessica Grose has written for the Village Voice and the Providence Phoenix. She lives in New York and attends college in Rhode Island.More Jessica Grose.
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.
This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”
No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.
Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.
This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.
Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.
“The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.
Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.
Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.
Dictators, Bowery 1976
Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.
Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!
Bowery view, 1977
The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.
Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.
Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.
Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”
Legs McNeil, 1977
Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.
Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.
Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.
Tommy Ramone, 1977
Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.
Bowery 4am, 1977
End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.