If I go back to the beginning, if I start all the way back…
maybe I can figure myself out.
I wasn’t always the *happening* chick you see on social media. I was a skinny unattractive nerd, a white outcast in an all-black neighborhood who got her ass kicked on the regular.
I grew up on Staten Island – The Land That Time Forgot. It’s the only borough the New York subway system doesn’t run through, and this isolation from civilization has turned it into a caricature of itself. The amount of hairspray used on Staten Island is solely responsible for the hole in the ozone.
It also houses the world’s largest dump. A metaphor if there ever was one.
I grew up in one of the worst housing projects in all of New York City – The Stapleton Projects. My mom was a widow with six kids, and we were poor as fuck.
Mom did the best she could raising the six of us, and that best included beating the snot out of us. I got my ass beat inside and outside the house, so I suppose my childhood wasn’t very safe. I wasn’t aware of it then. Who has time to process psychobabble when you’re scrambling around, dodging beatings?
I do know that my mother’s approval was sacred to me, and I never got it. Nor any attention, unless it was at the receiving end of her fist.
This was how I began to mistake abuse for love. This was how I learned that if I just tried hard enough, if I did better, was better, I could make abusive people love me.
You know how kids just LOVE hearing about their parents’ childhood?
Little Dude’s favorite anecdote of mine?
The time I was walking down the dark, dank staircase in my building. I was 7. I grabbed the railing, and felt something furry and warm. There, sticking up out of the banister at the foot of the stairs, was a dead cat’s bloody dismembered head. Still warm.
Stapleton was made famous as the birthplace of the Wu-Tang Clan. They went to school with me and NO I DO NOT KNOW THEM.
Wu-Tang was a gangsta rap group, back in the day when gangsta rap meant you had a prison tattoo and an unlicensed gun, not a trust fund and a beach house. I was a flat chested nerdy ginger growing up in a gangsta rap video.
Pippi Longstocking meets Ghostface Killah.
I grew up confused. I possessed a white-hot rage, but a desperate desire to love and be loved. I had a profound appreciation for the underdog, and a project girl’s survival instinct. If you fuck with me, or my kid, I will Take You Down. My Stapleton instincts have quelled some, but not entirely. You can take the girl outta the projects, BUT.
As I kid I was desperate to find an escape and an outlet. So I read. Constantly, because we were poor and books were available. And I wrote stories, to make sense of the world around me.
At 9, I tried to wrap my brain around “A Wrinkle In Time,” a masterpiece of Inter-dimensional time travel and quantum physics. This book twisted my mind up to where 39 years later, it has still not fully recovered.
I came from a family of overachieving geniuses. Five brothers, all brilliant, all musicians. My older brothers gave me an invaluable education in every genre of music.
In one of the true defining moments of my life, my older brother put a copy of Patti Smith’s debut single “Hey Joe,” into my 11-year-old hands.
Patti Smith. Skinny, brainy, gangly, unpopular.
In the 1970’s, Patti Smith put her poetry to punk music and was eventually crowned Godmother of Punk.
The B side of her first single is “Piss Factory,” an ode to New Jersey factory work, and the experience of getting her head shoved into the toilet by the other workers.
She became my idol. Patti Smith gave me hope that I could escape, and reinvent myself somewhere. Someday.
The only public transportation to get to Manhattan is via the Staten Island Ferry, which is like the Love Boat – only when you get off, you automatically have herpes. When I was growing up, the ferry was seedy and dilapidated. It sells beer and used to allow cigarette smoking, so at 2 am on a Saturday night, it was filled with homeless people and drunken degenerates.
The summer of 1982, I was going on 13 and about to enter high school. I fell in with a group of older kids and we starting taking that sordid ferry into Manhattan, the gritty, grimy, pre-gentrified graffiti-ridden city of the 80’s.
The Village was our playground. We bought loose joints and hung out with street musicians. We carried a boom box the size of a suitcase and blasted it as we roamed downtown.
We had a THEME SONG (don’t judge):
The following summer I enrolled in a New York City program that allowed poor slum kids to obtain their working papers at 13.
My first job – The Public Library.
The library owned every banned book – but did not circulate them. All illicit books were sequestered away in a super-duper top-secret file cabinet with a big-ass sign labeling it “Banned Books.” I cleverly unearthed these nuggets of literary rebellion.
And read every motherfucker in that file.
I discovered On the Road, an American classic of crazy adventure and freedom, and riddled with drugs, jazz, drugs, sex, and drugs.
I tore through Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.
Naked Lunch? This isn’t a novel; it’s a twisted series of disturbing, drug ridden, sexually explicit vignettes. Burroughs wrote it while living in Tangiers, in a one-room apartment above a male whorehouse, strung out on smack and male prostitutes.
This was the shit I was feeding my 13 year old brain.
Are things starting to come together?
I THOUGHT THEY MIGHT.
We finally moved when I was in high school. Were you hoping for the happy ending?
Not. So. Fast.
Back in those days, if you were “bright,” you got “skipped” so I was 2 years younger than most kids in my grade. Get the picture? No more scary gangsta projects.
Instead, we’re talking TRAINING BRA in the GYM LOCKER ROOM. I think my pal Ghostface Killah did less damage to my psyche.
So, to heal all those psychic hits on my ego? I read. I listened to music. I wrote.
And I planned my escape.
I eventually got out of the projects when I left for college. The very first summer, I decided I would stay in my college town instead of going home for the summer. What was there for me?
I never went home again.
If I go back to the beginning, if I start all the way back
maybe I can figure it out…
To be continued.
Have you ever tried to figure out how you came to be who you are?
Tell me about your childhood.
Talk to me. I’m listening.