I’d felt myself drifting for years. My mom became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was 10-ish, and for most of my kid-dom, I truly believed as much as any kid can “believe” in anything. But the older I got and the more I read and learned, the more I began to doubt the foundation of the whole thing, Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible at all. I was starting to doubt the very idea that there’s any truth to life, a fairly common thought at age 17 but one that’s kind of scary when you’ve been raised in a religion that refers to itself, and only itself, as The Truth.
Thanksgiving looms, but the weather refuses to get cold. The temperatures dipped little by little from August heat to a mild October chill, then stayed there. I find this unsettling.
This school year has found many ways to be strange to me. NYU is in the midst of a housing crunch. Dorms near “campus” are needed for incoming freshmen and upperclassmen. That means sophomores like myself get the shaft. Most of my friends were placed at a brand new dorm on Broome Street, far away from classes but at the interesting nexus of Chinatown, Little Italy, and Soho. (At this time, Soho is still vaguely interesting. Hard to believe now, I know.)
I did not land in Broome Street. I landed in 26th Street. This dorm was originally intended for the exclusive use of NYU’s dental students. Out of necessity, it has been drafted into the plan for dealing with the overflow of non-dental students. This arrangement that pleases no one.
The dental dorm is a charmless Brutalist slab near First Avenue, a few short steps from Bellevue, New York’s biggest and oldest public hospital. This proximity makes for some lively nearby foot traffic, particularly in the wee hours on the weekends. And Bellevue is not my only interesting neighbor. One day I come home from classes, turn on the news, and see Ti-Hua Chang (the victim of all of NBC-4 News’ thankless tasks) reporting on an incident at a methadone clinic down the block on Second Avenue. I had no idea there was a methadone clinic nearby, because methadone clinics rarely put up shingles outside their front doors. Go one block north and you find the Straus Houses, the last projects on the east side between here and Harlem.
All my friends get cannolis and dim sum, and I get Manhattan’s last crummy neighborhood. It isn’t a dangerous neighborhood, just crummy. Unscrubbed, down in the mouth, just this side of hopeless. The architecture is so ugly that anyone who lives in it can’t help but feel they’d been dumped here. Everyone I see on the street looks unhappy to be where they are, be they medical student or methadone enthusiast. Even in this disturbingly warm November, it always seems gray here. At least I will only be here for one school year. Others don’t have the luxury of coming and going with the semesters.
My roommate had an odd look on his face. It was an unsettling mixture of trepidation and something close to embarrassment. I thought either someone was dead or I’d won a lottery I didn’t know I’d entered.
“You have a voice mail,” he told me, “from Kathleen Hanna.”
Kathleen Hanna had called me because I’d emailed her about doing an interview for the zine I had just started. I named it Jes Grew, after a “disease” in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, a novel about race and the influence and spread of black culture into the mainstream. Said novel was one of my many obsessions and a driving influence behind Record Ignite!, the band I’d formed a while ago. But that band was no more, and so this zine was where I thought I should channel my creative energy.
I’d emailed Kathleen at a generic info-type address on her website, so I didn’t have a huge expectation I’d actually hear from her. It felt like asking for a million dollars–this probably won’t work, but it’d be awesome if it did. When I’d formed my now defunct band, there were a select few groups in my pantheon of what I wanted it to be, and Bikini Kill was one of them. I admired their commitment to doing something that was genuinely dangerous, and was also sympathetic to their brand of feminism, though I realize now my understanding of exactly what feminism entailed was rudimentary at best. (Now that I have a daughter, I feel like I understand feminism better than I ever did before, but that’s another post entirely.)
In other words, getting a call from Kathleen Hanna was an enormous deal in my universe. My roommate left the room so I could listen to the voice mail, sensing that this was something he should allow me to enjoy by myself. Hearing a recording of her voice address me was enthralling and terrifying all at once. She sounds just like she did on that Mike Watt album!
I eventually reached her on the phone in person, which was even more terrifying, and we arranged to meet at a coffee shop in Soho for the interview. The day we met was a gorgeous late fall afternoon, just the faintest chill in the air, summer stubbornly hanging on. At this point in my life, my only interviewing experience came as part of a group affair when Jello Biafra came to speak at NYU. Me and another editor at the school’s humor magazine lobbed questions at him along with 20 other “reporters,” one of whom took a good 10 minutes to ask Jello if he would lend his time to something called the Million Marijuana March.
I did plenty of advance work to prepare for this interview, and yet was still frightened beyond comprehension before it began, afraid that I’d say or do something unspeakably wrong. That feeling faded quickly once I actually met Kathleen, because she was unbelievably warm and engaging, completely putting me at ease about talking to someone I considered a hero. (I imagine she had extensive experience doing this.)
We talked for 2 hours, in large part about her new artistic direction, since her first solo album Julie Ruin had just come out and was quite a musical departure from Bikini Kill. But we also covered the gamut of politics and feminism and music, and I somehow managed to sound coherent on these subjects while cognizant of the fact that I was discussing them with Kathleen Fucking Hanna.
Before we parted, I gave Kathleen a bunch of 7 inches from the label my friends upstate had started, including my old band’s sole release (seen to your left). I can’t say why I did this. Perhaps because I felt I should offer some kind of token of appreciation for taking the time to talk to me, and I had nothing else to offer. I think my rationale was, We all love you, so here’s something you, in essence, helped make. She demonstrated far more thankfulness than she needed to, and left. I hadn’t the slightest idea, really, of what I’d just done.
One evergreen feature of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is to feature the cast of a Broadway musical performing a number from their show. The effect is often weird, since the actors, singers, and dancers are asked to complete a routine in an area a fraction the size of an actual Broadway stage. It’s like asking Michael Phelps to breaststroke across a bathtub. Not to long ago, I wrote about Starlight Express, which is an extreme but representative example of this phenomenon. Starlight Express was bonkers even at its full scale. Reduced to tiny TV dimensions, it was practically suicidal.
I’ve chosen this clip that features the original cast of Forever Plaid for a few reasons. For one thing, it is a rare case where it seems that no reduction in scale was necessary, nor did it endanger anyone’s life. It’s also pretty amusing. I was genuinely impressed by the insane showmanship on display here.
But mostly I chose this clip because it triggered an ancient memory. My freshman year at NYU, one of my roommates was a pleasant enough person with whom I had no problems with at all, except that he loved to belt out songs with wild, unbridled enthusiasm, particularly early in the morning while showering. It bugged me, but I dealt with, because when it comes to putting up with petty annoyances (as opposed to actually confronting their sources), I have Herculean strength. I will exhaust any and all contingencies before asking someone to knock off whatever they’re doing.
My roommate was painfully, blissfully oblivious to how loud he was, until one morning after I’d invited several girls to crash in our room. (Nought but crashing went on; it was, for all intents and purposes, a slumber party. I only mention this to emphasize how awkwardly chaste I still was at age 18.) I was used to my roommate’s performances and just buried my head under a pillow. The girls, however, thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. They all tried to shush each other but couldn’t help breaking out into chortles at his thoroughly earnest crooning.
He eventually emerged from the bathroom, wearing nothing but a towel, to find several girls (who’d escaped his notice before, apparently) sitting up in their sleeping bags, giggling. One told him she liked his voice. She said it sincerely, but he looked mortified. “You could hear me?” he asked, incredulous. I have no idea how he could not have known we could hear him. The whole dorm could.
From thereon out, his singing was far more subdued and infrequent, which was good for sleeping in but bad for my conscience. Annoying though it may have been, I felt awful for making him feel so self conscious about his shower singing. He also became a bit leery of me, suddenly thinking I was this super macho hetero dude because I was bringing over multiple girls to our room. Even I found this to be ridiculously funny, because the most exciting thing that happened that night was watching the “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Regardless of reality, he now saw me very differently, and we were never quite “cool” again.
Before this incident, however, Forever Plaid was in heavy rotation in my roommate’s repertoire. I’ve never seen the show or learned much about it; according to Wikipedia, it seems to be a proto-jukebox musical with an oddly dark premise. On the rare occasions where I hear/see it mentioned, I think of my freshman year roommate and how I accidentally crushed his fragile spirit with my irrepressible manliness.
I’m leaving work, headphones jammed into my ears and a large box under my arm. I’m in that vague, annoyed space of not paying attention to much of anything, of wishing I was home already, and feeling like every step I have to expend to get there is a personal insult. It’s a little after 6pm. The early evening is a little windier and chillier than I anticipated. I wish I’d worn a jacket.
A few blocks up on Hudson Street, I spot a woman in a red tank top, revealing a few tattoos on her upper back and arms. I haven’t seen her face yet, and still she looks vaguely familiar, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. She must feel me looking at her, trying to figure this out, so she turns her head, in that I’m-not-trying-look-behind-me-but-I’m-totally-turning-my-head-so-I-can-see-this-person-peripherally. That’s when I figure out that this person is Janeane Garofalo.
In the span of nanoseconds, this revelation brings to mind a few distinct memories from my misspent youth. The first is that, during my college years, I had the habit of running into random celebrities in the streets of Manhattan and somehow scaring them to death.