Photo by Juliana Ng
It’s 1979 and the grown-ups are out of control. They are getting divorced and either going to law school or Studio 54. They are in therapy; they are smoking pot, taking lovers, coming out and finding themselves. My parents are married, but my mother buys Donna Summer’s Bad Girls and uses my Stagelight blue roses nail polish. She becomes interested in architecture and reads strange tabloids from SoHo, with stories of Brazilian faith healers and nightlife where the women are virtually topless but, according to the captions, have important jobs not in the sex trade.
We live in the Village, off Christopher Street. The greeting card store has cards with jokes I’m not sure I totally understand and there is a bakery with X-rated cakes. I want Carvel. My mother is experimenting with baklava.
The city is filled with perverts, junkies, pushers, muggers and arsonists but, at the same time, we roam freely. My best friend’s mother has left her conservative husband behind in the suburbs and her boyfriend is bisexual. They live in a loft on the boundary between the West Village and the meatpacking district. It had been the office for a gay magazine and they kept the original bathroom, complete with urinals and a toilet cubicle sporting graffiti with drawings of penises. Their father recalls my friend and her younger sister to the suburbs the next year. The city, clearly, is no place for children to grow up. I missed her.
I am friends with a man who works in a store on Christopher Street called The Soap Opera. He has salt and pepper hair. He goes to drag balls in Alphabet City, which is where he lives. It seems then like a faraway land. He loves the glamor and the illusion. I see how the store itself is like a stage set, with a brocade curtain covering a squalid and miniscule bathroom, a tiny kitchenette, a painted-over window, the shop cat’s box and food. It is the opposite of the boudoir atmosphere of the shop, though its products are destined to sit on the tiled windowsills of so many tenement bathrooms just like it. He sells lip balm that comes in a little tin with a sliding lid and Victorian lettering. They become popular at school and I take orders from friends to buy them, always getting the new flavors as soon as they are in stock.
I had all of this in mind when I wrote Lunch in Brooklyn, a novel of a pre-coming of age in the late 70s, commuting to school, feeling in it and not of it, at the age of extreme social conformity in an era of hedonism. I set the book in my friend’s loft because it expressed that better than our townhouse flat. I loved being on the roof. From the roof, it’s all beautiful and it all makes sense.
The Gift of Tongues
I go up to the roof after dinner, after the dishes are done. I tell them I come here to think, which is true, although it’s not the whole truth. My mother thinks it’s important to give me private space. From the roof, which is five stories up, you can see down to the river, although, because of the old West Side Highway, you can’t really see much. This is the edge of Greenwich Village. On one street is a row of little townhouses with planters of ivy spilling down from the window boxes. Around the corner, on Hudson Street, men are carrying in the antiques they had displayed outside their store. They have a cat called Sheba who sleeps in the window.
Across Hudson is the meatpacking district. The street widens for the trucks and the loading docks, where sides of beef are connected to pulleys, and the spaces between the cobblestones shine with blood in the morning. In the evening, when the meat-packers are gone, men dressed as disco queens and Catholic schoolgirls appear. They stand on the corners and stroll down the side streets, swinging their purses by the straps, dragging their satin jackets along the pavement.
From the roof, the loading dock looks more like an abandoned railway station. It feels quiet up here, despite the fact that you can still hear the rattle of trucks and the rush of traffic. An airplane tears slowly across the sky. Down in Corporal Seravalli Playground, the boys play basketball. From here they are graceful and you forget the way they show you their tongues, French kissing the air. Hey baby, come sit on my face.
The sky is a dark, streaky, polluted turquoise. I sit on a wooden crate, like a raft in the curling, blistering, tarpaper sea. My mother used to want to have roof parties until she learned how much it would cost to deck it over. My father has carefully explained to me how the upstairs neighbors will sue us if I walk on the tarpaper and damage the roof and they get a leak.
“They’ve heard you moving around up there,” my father has told me.
“Fred,” my mother says, “Kate is very responsible.”
I started smoking in sixth grade with my friend Stephanie. She lives in New Jersey now. I miss her a lot. Stephanie was my best friend more than Monica was. She used to come over all the time. My mom was happy for me to be “entertaining.” She bought us frozen yogurt bars and didn’t tell us when we had to have lights out. We shaved our legs and practiced with makeup. We read the instruction book that came in Tampax so we would be prepared. We pored over my mother’s Erica Jong books for the sex scenes. Some days, anything made us laugh, especially the recipes for game in The Joy of Cooking:
“Place rabbit on serving dish and pour sauce over it. Serve with: noodles, 213.”
“Use young animals only.”
“After scraping away blood clots…”
“You guys are so sick,” Monica would yell at us when we phoned, laughing so hard at first we were just gasping, making her think it was a prank call.
“Singe and clean the insides well: Pigs’ ears,” Stephanie joined in.
“Lucky indeed is the cook with the gift of tongues!” I retorted.
“The testicles of young lambs are a great delicacy. To prepare, first cut into the loose outer skin for entire length of the swelled surface.”
Seventh grade was not as good without her. I had tried to cheer myself up with the notion that I would go back to school a woman of the world and all the cute, new boys would fall in love with me. I was tan and blonde and knew what an erogenous zone was. But there were only the same old boys and it was harder to stay a changed person in your mind when you realized you were still plain old, flat Kate.
This fall, starting eighth grade, I have vowed not to be disappointed. Everyone is ruling the middle school, but if you ask me, it’s a hell of a domain. Sixth graders are practically lower schoolers; seventh graders are either your friends or you ignore them. But at least we no longer have to worry that the eighth graders are having all the fun.
I drop my cigarette into the can with all the others and slosh the liquid around to be sure it’s out. It’s almost dark now. A boy runs through the park. The basketball he is carrying under his arm slips and he swoops down to retrieve it while still running. It is an amazing moment of total coordination. Harry Finch has this grace, flicking his hair over his shoulder, tapping his pencil on the desk in time with whatever music is playing loud in his head. The boys are bigger this year. Maybe, at long last, this will be the year that I find someone. Lucky indeed.