The only time I ever considered suicide was when, unexpectedly, mom informed me and baby bro Carlos that we were moving from Harlem to Baltimore. It was the summer of ’78, and I had just turned 16.
We were transported by Greyhound bus to the sinister city where, I had read, a drunken Edgar Allan Poe died in the gutter and hophead Billie Holiday flopped.
It was a bleak town, where dusky-skinned kids scrubbed rowhouse marble steps on Saturday mornings, John Waters discovered a shit-eating transvestite named Divine, and the sharp smell of Old Bay seasoning from the crab house hovered over our newly rented Monroe Street rowhouse a few blocks away. Crows screeched across the twilight sky, and the ancient architecture looked like a noir film set
A month after relocating to this strange metropolis, things took an even harsher turn: It was time to register for school at Northwestern High School.
Besides a short stint at P.S. 186 in the first grade, I had always attended Catholic school, and this was my first real time attending public school. Instead of trying to fit in with the dudes in denim and Gucci girls, I sulked into my classrooms, slouched in the hard chairs, and aimlessly stared out of the window. Like a black Baudelaire in rumble jeans and a black sweater, I saw symbols of gloom everywhere. One chilly October morning, as brittle leaves flitted across the school’s vast campus, I shyly stumbled through a self-penned poem in Mrs. Sommer’s third period English class.
Unlike the black-cloaked nuns I had left behind in NYC, Mrs. Sommer was a beautiful blonde whose full figure was always clad in tasteful dresses that dangled just below her knees. Inside my stomach, imaginary snakes coiled the moment I began to recite.
“This poem is called ‘Numb,’” I stuttered. “It’s about I felt when I first moved to Baltimore.”
Influenced more by Bernie Taupin than William Blake, the creepy text (mostly lifted from “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”) was littered with stale symbolism of suicide, electric chairs, and blood-stained razor blades.
“Hey, New York!” someone yelled. “You need to have a Coke and smile, because that shit was depressing.” There were few snickers as I fixed my eyes on my shiny black wingtips (Catholic boy shoes) and ambled to my chair.
After class, as I silently wished the world would just end in a reverse Big Bang, Mrs. Sommer pressed an oversized paperback into my perspiring palm.
“I think you might enjoy this,” she said sweetly. Glancing at the cover, I saw it was a book of short fiction from some guy named Franz Kafka.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, darting out the door into the crowded corridor. Avoiding the stench of the mystery meat drifting from the lunchroom, I slipped into the book-lined sanctuary of the library and flipped through the yellowing pages of my gift.
Feeling a chill in my bones, I glanced at the heavy wooden door and noticed a beautiful, sad-faced girl who looked as though she had swum out of Klimt’s gloomy “Water Nymphs.” I stared as this strange girl, with a ghostly complexion and dark mascara smudged under green eyes, strolled into the room, and slouched into one of the wooden chairs at the next table.
We had never spoken, but I recognized her from Mrs. Sommer’s class. Her name was Lisa Williams, and she wore the same faded jeans, beat-up black PRO-Keds and ratty black sweater every day.
Unlike the other Northwestern black chicks with their permed hair styled in a ’do called a “mushroom,” Lisa wore a wild afro that was both straight and nappy.
Taking off her thick Buddy Holly frames, Lisa rubbed her emerald eyes before pulling a stack of textbooks, an oversized drawing pad, and a tattered copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions from an army knapsack.
I peeked at her small hands and nicotine stained fingers—Lisa had an arty sex appeal.
After a million years of awkward glances and re-reading the same page four times, I finally caught her eye. Smiling stiffly, I gazed down at the shit-colored carpet underfoot. Lisa sensed my shyness and mumbled, “I liked your poem this morning.”
“For real?” I asked. Under the table, my right leg shook nervously. “After I read it aloud, I thought it was stupid.”
“Not at all,” Lisa assured me. Her voice was soft but serious. “Out of all of the others that read, you were the only one who sounded like you had at least read a poem or two in your life.”
Moving closer, I noticed Lisa’s art pad was covered with multicolored stickers of groups and singers I had never heard of: Ian Dury, the Jam, Buzzcocks, the Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nick Lowe, the Clash, Madness. Looking at her Vonnegut paperback, I asked, “Do you write?”
“Not as good as Elvis Costello, but I try,” she said. Her breath smelled like Juicy Fruit and Marlboros. Pushing her drawing pad across the table, she said, “Take a look at these. I like to draw pictures with my poems. You know, kind of like children’s stories.”
Opening the book, I was struck by the melancholy that bled from the pages. Drawn in black pen, Lisa’s downhearted images were decadent reflections of ordinary lives. Lisa’s pad was filled with pictures of shadowy streets and cathedral peaks, shattered sidewalks and haunted rooms, nodding junkies and ruined lives.
The last few pages were self-portraits (a burning cigarette ever present) that seemed to be a celebration of her depression. Alongside each disconcerting drawing, Lisa had scribbled surreal poems that made Rimbaud read like a sober optimist.
Her loopy handwriting was more girly than I had expected. Outside of occasional visits to the Guggenheim Museum and the Met, I had never been close to original art as good as Lisa’s.
“These are so cool,” I gushed.
Lisa stared blankly as though disgusted by the enthusiasm. “For a writer I thought you’d have something smarter to say,” she snapped.
“Who said anything about me being a writer?”
“Of course you’re a writer.”
“I never thought of myself as that.”
“Start thinking,” she snapped.
Lisa closed her eyes as though meditating. The school bell blared, signaling the beginning of the next period. Lisa seemed to be lost in the stars, her mind wandering through the cosmos, tripping on moonbeams.
Opening her eyes a minute later, she seemed to be emerging from a dream.
“You all right?”
“I’m fine,” she answered. Lisa had what my brother referred to as a “white girl voice.”
Reaching in her pocket, she pulled out a plastic pill bottle; opening the childproof top, she put a couple of pills in her hand. “Do you want one?”
“What are they?” I asked. I had toked a few joints in New York, but when it came to drugs, all I knew was what I saw in the French Connection or Super Fly.
“Quaaludes,” she answered.
“Naw, I’m all right.”
“Suit yourself,” Lisa said, swallowing the pills dry. Picking-up her chunky glasses from the table, she began putting her books back into the army knapsack. “I’ve been working with some people—writers and artists, you know—trying to put together a new literary magazine.”
Snatching a black pen out of her bag, Lisa wrote her name and phone number on a sheet of notebook paper and pushed it across the table. “It’s just a bunch of us young punks throwing words instead of Molotov cocktails. We’re going to start a revolutionary renaissance with this ’zine.”
“What’s it called?”
“Benzedrine. It’s the drug William Burroughs was on when he killed his wife.” I nodded, pretending to understand what she was talking about. “We’re having a meeting this Saturday, and if you wanna come by, I’ll introduce you.”
“I would like that,” I said, suppressing the urge to grin, in fear that Lisa would realize her mistake in trusting a philistine and revoke the invitation.
“You into punk?” Lisa asked, eyeballing me suspiciously. “Other than me and couple others, there’s not many blacks on the scene.”
“I saw a special on the Sex Pistols once, but . . .”
“No excuses,” Lisa said. “After Saturday, you’ll either love it or hate it. There is no in-between.”
“Sounds good,” I mumbled.
“I live over on St. Paul, if you wanna come and pick me up, we can go together. Bring some of your poems or stories or whatever.”
“I’ll be there.” Watching Lisa amble out of the door, I realized I had just met my first real friend in this miserable city.
IT RAINED ALL DAY Saturday. By dusk, a dreary drizzle fell from an inky sky. Above the ancient rooftops, a full moon glowed bright. I splashed through murky puddles and slid on the mushy leaves that swathed the wet sidewalk.
Baltimore was in the process of constructing its first subway system (blasting beneath the streets, creating mazes of tunnels), it was common to see hefty rats scampering under parked cars or dashing down broken-glass alleyways.
From the corner of my eye, I peeped a few wandering rodents as I rang the bell. Swinging open the whitewashed wooden door, Lisa shocked me with her just-dyed match-tip red hair.
“God, you look like a duck,” she said, as I stared at her hair. Dressed in her uniform of thick-framed specs, faded jeans, beat-up black PRO-Keds and a black sweater, Lisa was as nerdy and beautiful as I had remembered.
“More like a drowned puppy,” I mumbled, following her into the dim vestibule. I took off my wet parka and carried it in my arms until we reached the flat.
The apartment’s warmth was a stark contrast to the chill outside. Glancing at my grizzled reflection in a mirror, I smiled. Although I was only 15 with a little fuzz on my face, I looked a few years older. Wearing wrinkled jeans, a heavy black button-down shirt and heavy work boots, I could pass for a construction worker.
Lisa’s bedroom was a shrine to everything punk. On the black walls were glossy posters of tarnished men clad in tattered leather jackets. Superimposed over a Brit flag was a picture of Queen Elizabeth’s pinched face, a safety pin stabbed through her lip.
“It’s kind of messed-up, but the ’zine meeting was cancelled. It’s cool.”
“What we gonna do then?”
“No plans. We can just hang, maybe go over to the Marble Bar.”
“It’s a punk spot down the block; you’ll love it.”
“So you say,” I groaned
In the corner of her room, in front of the dusty window, Lisa’s drawing table was covered with blotches of black ink and a large sheet of poster paper; the drawing was a work-in-progress poster for a new band. The floor was cluttered with worn album covers of bands that meant nothing to me; there were countless cassette boxes and homemade tapes and a volume of Joan Miró paintings.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Lisa asked, handing me a paper towel to dry my face.
“What you got?”
“I think my grandfather might’ve left some Southern Comfort in the kitchen.”
“Where’s your grandfather now?”
The murmur of television voices could be heard whispering from across the hall; the blue glow of a black and white set glimmered under the door. “Poppa James rarely leaves his bedroom, except to go to the bathroom or the kitchen. He’s not in the best of health, but that never stopped him from sipping a drink.”
“Southern Comfort,” I repeated, studying the rough pencil illustration. “That sounds good…Southern Comfort.”
“Have a seat,” Lisa said, pushing a pile of dirty clothes across the black-sheeted bed. “I’ll be right back.”
Returning with two cheap wine glasses and a half full bottle of the sticky brown liquid, Lisa caught me still looking at her latest masterwork. “That’s for a new group playing the Marble in a few weeks. They call themselves Situationist Stereo; the singer is this femme punk named Violet Rose, who writes for Benzedrine. Truth be told, the band sucks, but doing the poster is good practice. Who knows, I could be the next Jamie Reid or somebody.”
“You’re always talking about people I never heard of before,” I confessed.
“He’s the king of punk art, that’s all” Lisa huffed, pouring the Southern Comfort and handing me the glass. With her free hand, she pointed to the defaced face of English royalty taped to the wall. “He works with the Sex Pistols a lot. That one image has been on a bunch of T-shirts and stuff.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling hapless. I took a quick gulp of Southern Comfort (which tasted like a combination of maple syrup and cough medicine) and immediately a surge of heat swooshed through my body.
Walking over to a beat-up stereo on the floor, Lisa began spinning records that served as a soundtrack to the soliloquy of her oh-so-shattered life.
Dropping the diamond-head needle on the 12-inch single of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Hong Kong Garden,” she told a tale of her cocoa-hued white hippie mother being jailed for selling loose joints. “Now I live with my strange grandfather.”
As The Jam sang “In the City,” Lisa told me about her cat Liz Taylor, who had run away the previous year. “I had had her since I was a small girl.” Spinning the Velvet Underground’s narcotic nod “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Lisa explained how her light-skinned black daddy, a notorious jailbird, had fled from the fuzz and his family on a crimson-hued Harley when she was 10.
“He had green eyes too,” she sighed, refilling our glasses.
“You say that like he’s dead or something.”
“To me, he’s been dead a long time,” Lisa answered. Over the sorrowful whine of Patti Smith’s “Pissing in a River,” she said, “The only things that keep me from crumbling are my punk and my pictures.”
Pulling out old drawing pads that recorded her artistic progress from the age of 10 to yesterday, she screamed, “EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD SUCKS.”
Playing “Lost in a Supermarket,” Lisa loudly explained how this particular Clash song had kept her from slashing her wrists or overdosing on Valium. “I think it’s so romantic that you come from New York,” she said.
IT WAS AFTER 10 P.M. when we left for the Marble Bar. The rain had finally stopped. Staggering along the cobblestone street, the midnight frost was beginning to sober me.
“You’re going to love the Marble,” Lisa said, sounding like a tour guide. She wore an oversized blue men’s lumberjack coat that might have once belonged to her grandfather.
Lisa held my arm as we passed the stately Peabody Conservatory. From one of the practice rooms, a nocturnal student played a complex classical composition. Under the dim streetlights, Lisa’s bright red hair had a strange radiance that reminded me of flames. “What’s so special about this place anyway?” I asked. “I never even heard of it.”
“It’s a dive, but still one of the few places that where I don’t feel like a freak,” she answered.
Taking a short cut through a trash-strewn alleyway, a ragged pack of wild dogs slowly crept behind us. Their leader, a scruffy German Shepherd, growled. Taking off her glasses, Lisa turned around and stared directly into the mutt’s eyes.
“Are we bothering you?” she asked the dog. Not used to being confronted, the confused canines turned around and walked away.
Nervously, I asked, “How did you do that?”
“I’m a witch,” Lisa replied. To this day, I believe her.
Minutes later, we stood in front of the beat-down Congress Hotel on West Franklin Street; the Marble Bar was in the basement. A few leather-jacketed, spiked hair, black-boot-wearing white boys milled in front, smoking joints and talking loudly.
At the top of the stairs, Lisa took a crumpled pack of cigarettes from her coat pocket. “Can I have one?” I asked, wanting to look as punk as possible. Lisa handed me the bent Marlboro and lit it with a silver Zippo.
Taking a few quick puffs from my first cigarette, I followed Lisa’s scorching red hair as she descended the narrow stairs. The walls were covered in graffiti. The stench of smoke and spilled beer drifted through the air. The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” blared from the massive speakers.
Taking me by the hand, Lisa gently led me into that strange land. Although ours were the only black faces in the club, I was not afraid. As Iggy Pop’s razor-blade voice wailed into the dankness of the Marble Bar, for the first time in my life, I belonged.
Michael A. Gonzales blogs at blackadelicpop.blogspot.com