Once Upon a Time in the East Village

Clarissa felt as if she had gone from starving on a diet of bread and water to gorging on a bountiful smorgasbord. In Oblong, where she grew up, any glimmerings of culture were hard to discern. Her one friend in school, a faun-like boy nicknamed Else, would lend her punk and thrasher records, which she could keep for only one afternoon. There was no way she could play them except for the one hour a day when the house was empty: her twin sisters at after-school programs, her dad at work at the lumber yard and her mother off scouting for drugs. She couldn’t even stash a CD around the house since any kind of privacy was verboten. Dad’s rules.

New York City let you tear away all the camouflage you had to wear if you were queer in small town America. Here, not only didn’t you have to conceal yourself, but part of the city (the East Village) was given over to a nonstop freak parade.

And there was so much going on. Some of the networks she had gotten into in just a few months were the Pink Ladies Tent City Support Group, which gathered food for the park’s homeless encampment; Save That Squat, a phone tree to alert everyone if the police were trying to evict a house or roust out people living in an empty lot; Intensity House, a get-together place for gay teens; and Glitter-rama, a retro rock palace where she worked as a bouncer.

Meanwhile, like a mother spider, her Russian girlfriend Vatushka kept disgorging treasures, marvelous authors Clarissa had never heard about, telling stories set in exotic worlds: “The Bronze Horseman,” Envy, A Sportsman’s Sketches, “Requiem” (Pushkin, Olesha, Turgenev, Akhmatova).

On top of that, she could listen to any music she wanted. Well, she could if they had electricity, which they usually didn’t. Still, in these glorious months, when the electricity was up, she could not only listen to the lovely, vibe-filled sounds in their own apartment, sometime cutting a dance around the heater in her knee-length down coat; but she could tenement surf, going up and down the stairs to hear what other people were listening to. She didn’t even have to invade their privacy since nobody had doors in those days.

Vasti said Clarissa had incredible “first step guts” in that she would walk up to just anybody at a party or on the street, but then seemed to stall once she crossed the initial threshold. She became shy, like a deer frozen in a car’s headlights, afraid to press home her advantage and, say, ask for a girl’s phone number. (Not that Vatushka was encouraging infidelity by chiding Clarissa for this, but V wouldn’t mind an occasional threesome.)

But Clarissa was working on this character flaw. At a fundraiser for Steve Cannon’s Gathering of the Tribes gallery, a new arts space in the neighborhood, she’d met Seashell, who was the lead guitarist of her favorite band. Finally, she’d gained enough confidence to pop the question: Could she show Seashell some of her songs? Seashell told her to bring her lyrics down to the Tompkins Square park where the group would be setting up to play in the band shell.

Clarissa dug herself out from under the many layers of blankets, uncased herself from the arm Vasti had thrown over her – her girlfriend had DJed last night till dawn and would likely sleep till 4 pm – took off her parka and dressed quickly in the frigid room.

On a Saturday at 10am Loisaida’s pavements were not filled with the people dragging kids to school or racing off to work as they were on weekdays. It was almost the exact opposite. People were coming home from all night raves. If she had gotten up a bit earlier, she would have seen a whole flock coming down from the Palladium, which closed at 8am. She nodded familiarly at a pair of ultra-thin, black-dressed, heavily mascara-ed ladies, twins who propped each other up as if they were a pair of wilted flowers. They were Debbie and Deborah. She’d seen them often enough at concerts or at the Glitter-rama. They ignored her nod of recognition as if they didn’t know her from … Eve.

Once she hit Tompkins Square Park, the atmosphere vivified. Groups were entering or leaving Tent City, punks and crusties warmed themselves at trash barrel fires, racially mixed parents pushed baby strollers or walked tykes to the playground, panhandlers fanned out to the park entrances, and grouches led grouchy dogs to the fence-enclosed canine run.

Clarissa beelined to the stage where Seashell and the group should be unloading equipment or at least sitting around waiting for equipment for their noon concert.

Tompkins Square Park was labyrinthine. Its pathways, lined with benches, curved in magnificent, unfathomable ways as if the park’s design was laid out to follow the ribs of a prehistoric mammoth whose remains had been found scattered over this vast space. Walking down one of the winding paths, you never knew what friend was nestled around the next bend or, for that matter, how close the lawmen were.

When she found herself at the band shell, she was surprised to see that everybody was there, even lead singer Weasel Girl, who was notoriously lax in punctuality. Looking up at Seashell on the stage, with her leathers, her buzz-cut hair dyed bitch red, and her small, muscular body, Clarissa said, amazed, “Everyone is here on time.”

Seashell walked over and spread her arms wide, looking out as if she were talking to a vast audience. “Here we are, ladies and gentlemen, the one and only, legendary Piss Tones.”

–Jim Feast