I arrive in a hard and bright New York. It is still the city of my dreamscape, but by now, the late 1980s, the worm has turned and there is no cheap quarter for runt bohemians like me. Even the East Village, still riddled with drugs and crime, is absurdly expensive. I have six hundred dollars I’ve saved from my after-school jobs, which isn’t much by Manhattan standards, but I am undeterred. My friend Deb, who plays guitar in a much-maligned band called False Prophets, leaves for a two-month European tour and sublets her apartment to me and our mutual friend, Atom, a loveable teenage communist with an abundance of energy and a severe case of acne. The False Prophets’ roadie, Jane, a strapping peroxide blonde from Wisconsin, drives out to New Jersey in the band’s van and helps me move my boxes and a big piece of foam to use as a mattress into the two-room apartment on East Tenth street. Atom and I squabble about who gets which room. Neither is worth fighting over one is the size of a closet and receives no light, and the other is a kitchen with a bathtub in it and a creaky, precarious loft bed over the stove and reeking refrigerator. After a bribe of Chinese food, Atom takes the kitchen.
For the first few weeks, I walk around the city feeling like I’ve just been shot out of a cannon: Whoa, okay, well, that was intense. Now what? To orient myself, I mark Tompkins Square Park as ground zero. If I were looking for someone, chances are I could find him or her roaming Saint Marks Place, sitting on one of the benches just inside the entrance to the park splitting a forty-ouncer or a Foster’s lager with twelve other kids, on the payphone at Saint Marks and A making calls with a stolen calling-card number, or down in the squats on Ninth between B and C.
Right away, various family members begin making their way up the treacherously crooked and narrow staircase in the building on East Tenth: sisters unloading coolers full of food into the fridge; Atom, P.C. down to his diet, wrinkles his nose at the hotdogs (he eats a couple buns with mustard, though). Dad proffering cardboard boxes of old plastic dishes and flatware the tines of the forks slightly bent. I’m on the phone home all the time my parents are worried in the way that only parents can be. Am I eating enough? Am I working yet? Do I need towels? Sheets? They want their arty kid to conquer New York, not vice versa. But I tell them everything’s okay. And in my newness as a city-dweller, I believe that it’s true. Such is the arrogance and optimism of eighteen.
I take a job as a salesgirl in a SoHo boutique. The owner, Helga, a high-strung forty-five-year-old German woman with an orange crew cut, lets her vast array of animals half a dozen dogs, fifteen cats roam the store. At night, she loads the dogs into her minivan to take home, but the sales help has to chase down the cats so they can be locked into cages in the basement. When we’re not cat-wrangling, we “style” the clients fussy, soft-bellied housewives from Fort Lee and Bedford who are eager to be fawned over and dressed up in something that might recapture a husband’s eye.
I instantly befriend the boutique’s window dresser, Rachel, an ebullient, curvy orthodontist’s daughter from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who came to New York to make it as a sculptor. She sucks in her cheeks and tosses her curly, shoe-polish-black hair around as she mocks the other salespeople a tedious brood of aspiring actors and fashion designers imperiously swanning about the store in their giant shoulder pads. She’d motion me into the stockroom where we’d stuff as many shoulder pads as we could under our bra straps I think our record was eight apiece, four on each side to see if anyone would get the joke.
“Great shirts, ladies,” Helga would say in her Teutonic lisp, swishing past in one of her ghastly tropical-colored leather pantsuits.
Rachel and I develop a passionate, crush-like friendship. We go to moody, smoke-and-incense-filled nightclubs where I sit on the couch with her head in my lap and her arms looped around my neck. Rachel looks up at me wondrously, her eyes a lambent, sky-high blue, sighing, “You’re like a womb to me, Lily!” At twenty-five, Rachel seems sophisticated and almost magical. She has a curious magnetism that draws all manner of hard cases junkie poets, performance artists sold on their own transgressive postures, snide British industrial musicians, me who recognize something in her guileless receptivity that inspires them to drop their defenses and pour their hearts out. In return for their confidences, Rachel treats her friends as if they each possess some amazing quality of which she couldn’t possibly tire.
I am not making enough money at the boutique for luxuries like cabs, so I walk everywhere. Each day I make the round-trip on foot from Tenth Street and Avenue A to the corner of Spring and Greene Streets, watching the rubbishy funk of the Lower East Side melt into the continental charm of SoHo. After work, I collapse on my foam mattress like an amphibious creature panting on a rock, exhausted by running from land to water and back. I’m actually relieved when Helga fires me.
In late November, Rachel and I spend a night out at the Limelight. As I dance in my red fifties prom dress with the shredded crinoline skirt and black pillbox hat, she watches me with a mixture of appraisal and awe. “You would be such a good stripper!”
“No way,” I say, and spin away from her. She’s said this to me before. She and her roommate Carrie used to work at a peep show in Michigan when they were in art school together, so I guess she feels she’s an authority on the subject. But what’s it to me? I couldn’t possibly do that.
Then, closer to Christmas when we’re on the dance floor at Save the Robots at five in the morning, Rachel tells me again that I’d be a good stripper. I don’t say anything.
By now, I’ve been in New York for six months. I have already moved three times, been through five roommates, and taken on and lost one irritating job. I have combed the city for waitressing work, which proves unfruitful, I’m too young to work in a bar, another retail job won’t pay me enough to survive, and when I fill out an application at the Art Students League to work as a life drawing model, nobody calls me. I am out of money and almost out of options.
I put on a black felt cowboy hat to hide my hair, which has grown past my shoulders, the blonde striped with black and purple. I don’t know what to wear, so I dress in what I think might be someone’s version of sexy low black suede boots that buckle on the side, purple stockings topped in black lace, black bra, panties and garter belt, a long black sweater and knit skirt over that, a black suede jacket trimmed in fringe. I look like an extra from Bonanza fed through a punk rock shredder.
“Wow, great outfit!” Rachel bubbles when she comes into my apartment, her cold, red nose poking over the top of her black-and-white keffiyeh. I hustle her through the door and onto the street before I can chicken out. We crunch along the snow-covered sidewalk, then head down the wet cement steps to the subway, where we catch the R train to Times Square station. As the train rattles along the tracks, Rachel rubs my sweaty hand between hers. I’m so anxious I have to keep wiggling my toes to make sure they’re still there.
Forty-second Street teems with holiday shoppers loaded down with shiny bags full of gifts, commuters swinging their briefcases as they beeline toward the Port Authority, men in leather jackets and knit caps selling watches out of cardboard boxes and milk crates. I pray I don’t run into anybody I know. Rachel holds onto my arm as we wind through the crowds, dodging blowing newspaper and patches of blackened slush. I concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, taking gulps of the raw, cold air.
On the south side of Forty-second, halfway between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, stands Peepland, the façade ornamented with a giant glittering eyeball peering through a key hole. Without hesitation, Rachel swings open the blacked-out glass door. Keeping my gaze fixed on her back, not daring to look around, I follow right behind.
My nostrils prickle at the harsh whiff of industrial cleanser. It’s so quiet. I hear muffled movie sounds, moaning and bad sex music coming from the video booths that line the large room like so many broom closets, and a faint backdrop of disco music, but the men drift wordlessly by. Nobody makes eye contact, nobody makes a sound.
Finally, a rotund black man in a change-maker’s apron comes over to us. His upper lip is covered in blister-like beads of sweat. “Can I help you?”
“We’re here to see about jobs?” Rachel says. The upward tone of her voice is the first indication of her nervousness.
“Come with me.”