Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Just Kids

I am reading Patti Smith's award winning book, Just Kids. Borrowed from a friend, it has made my "immediately buy" list. Everyone who knows me well knows she's a hero of mine: we inhabited the same environment, read the same books, had the same heroes, grew up believing ourselves to be artists. Whatever that meant. Granted she was a few years older than I, but when she talks of places like the Electric Circus, now defunct, I remember my first visit to that place. When she talks of living in the Chelsea Hotel, I am jealous. It's where my first husband and I aspired to live but never quite made it. She talks of poetry readings, off off off Broadway plays, the unknown bands playing the downstairs of the Village Gate and I remember bitching about the cold as I loaded in amps and guitars out of a beat up van in the alley behind that place. But for his band to play there was the big time. My god, one of our idols might be in the audience.

We held intermittent jobs, had a friend who was a printer who would work just long enough to collect unemployment so he could travel, then return and do it again. Made sense to us. We were regularly evicted from our apartments for being in arrears on the rent. No credit checks back then. Just grab your paltry belongings and move to another. We lived in huge houses with ten other people, until the Health Department told us we were in violation of some bizarre law stating that no more than three unrelated people could inhabit a 7 bedroom house. We all had dogs. We all had drawings or chord charts taped to our walls, and books on the occult or Eastern religions near our copious candles in second hand holders. We had tons of books, all also bought second hand, all passed around, all discussed at length. We dreamed not so much of fame, but of achievement, accomplishing something in whatever art was our forte that had never been done before while holding true to the grand romanticism of Rimbaud and Beaudelaire and Van Gogh. Patti followed Rimbaud's footsteps to his hometown, saw omens in things that happened on his birthday. I get her.

One scene of her pocketing two steaks, one in each pocket, made me laugh. I remembered my first husband putting a London Broil down his jeans and the rest of us saying he could have found a better place to put it as we all chowed down on it. Patti had a job at the point that she grabbed those steaks, just as we had jobs when the London Broil became dinner. As I recall I was working at an employment agency, one of those private ones long before the word head-hunter entered our lexicon, he was delivering auto parts. Where did our money go? We'd dutifully put a little in the community coffee mug designated for rent and utilities. Yeah, yeah, we bought some recreational drugs, but the rest went for art supplies and guitar strings and a payment on the wah wah pedal down at the Main Street music store. The owner was kind and understood it would take us forever to pay it off.

We were young. Eighteen to twenty. We were just kids. We believed in the purity of art in and of itself and in terms of our lives. Uh huh. I know. Incredibly naive, incredibly selfish in its way, incredibly irresponsible by most standards, and incredibly beautiful. But I'm a long way from that place now. Many decades past it. I have owned cars, houses, raised a child, worried about college funds, come up with stories for the light company when times were tough. Other than the child, I wasn't wild about any of it. In fact, my moving to New Orleans was an attempt at divestment, a return to a more art-focused than stuff-focused life. My bones are too old for constant moving now, and I don't do the cold as well as I used to, so a place with a bed in it has become a necessity. No more can I sleep on someone's floor with my jacket for a pillow and a samaritan's blanket not long enough to cover my toes.

Last night a second line for John Flee, as he was known, passed my house. I knew it was scheduled and I heard it coming. Bundled up in my robe I went out to the front gate catching it just as it turned off Architect Alley. People, lots of them, turned the corner onto Port. Guys on two story bikes Flee had probably helped weld together at Plan B towered above the mourners and the motley collection of musicians playing. It certainly wasn't a standard second line with an organized brass band giving them a beat. It was a "hey, doesn't Tommy Socks play tuba?" kind of music. It was lovely. And very very sad. John Flee was shot in his home and the thieves, from reports I've read, only took a couple of computers. Friends in the second line group stopped by the gate and we hugged. Two young women asked if they could hug us, offered us whiskey, cried on my shoulder. I told them to dance their little feet off for him. They said they would.

Among that group marching somberly in front of my house were eight kids who had no idea that this would be one of the last things they'd ever do. Eight kids, squatters, gutter punks, nuisances, non-contributors to society, died in a fire in a warehouse last night trying to keep warm, their bones still young enough to sleep on a hard floor. Most probably still clinging to the sorrow of the loss of their friend and many of them still believing in the romantic freedom of an unencumbered life, offering whiskey generously to two old people who had a roof over their heads.

In my day, there were certainly plenty of folks who thought we were nuisances too. They definitely reminded us of our lack of responsibility. They told us we were dirty, un-American, un-patriotic. They told us we needed a back up plan "in case we didn't make it as artists." They told us there were rules of society that we needed to follow. We didn't understand why. We were making our own. I never expected that my generation would wind up spouting some of the same vitriol that was hurled at us. I, naively it would seem, expected that our generation would somehow be more tolerant, more understanding, would remember the couch surfing and the purloined dinners. I expected that we'd understand when we looked at the young ones among us that they were just going through the same paces we did at their age. Yeah, yeah, the issues and manifestations would be different: Iraq instead of Vietnam, two story bikes instead of mocassins and beads, guerilla art installations instead of portfolios, Fringe Fest instead of off off off Broadway, pitbulls instead of labradors. And while we were certainly not all saints, hardly, neither are they. To lump them all in the vagrant category does them a disservice: some of them deliver your food to you on bikes, some of them run community bookstores, many of them helped gut houses after the storm. They are not all good. Nor are they all bad. They are not all artists trying to live the life of pure art, nor are they all aggressive junkie panhandlers.

And no matter what, we need to remember, those of us with some of the alleged wisdom that comes with age, that compassion is ageless and timeless. There will always be kids who do not choose to throw themselves headlong into what grownups think is the societal norm.

That young woman with the whiskey may turn out to be the Patti Smith of her generation. That kid on the two story bike might toss it away and decide that Bernie Madoff had the right idea. We don't know and neither do they. Yet.

Because they are very simply, just kids. Nine of them dead in a week. Perhaps those two among them.

It breaks my heart.
EDIT 1/29/11
Some wonderful photos of the Second Line Memorial to these people can be found HERE.