Excerpt: Drugs Are Nice

Editor's Note: The following excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Soft Skull Press.

[My boyfriend] Bill's here. Bill doesn't mind me being a total mess. Unlike [my best friend] Rachel, he's never known me any other way. I think he finds it exotic that he has to pull me from the tub at night and pat me dry, slip a nightgown over my head. If my mother drives up to visit and gives us a cucumber he knows to cut it for me, as I'm so suicidal, I can't be trusted. Apparently I'm homicidal too, as he makes me sip his coffee first if I pour him a cup. Though that might not sound very romantic, it is. There's something quite exclusive about a relationship where one fears being poisoned and the other fears that she's going to do the poisoning, and neither one calls the police or the hospital, and neither leaves. We have an underwater sort of love: we can't see or hear each other -- or anything else -- very clearly, but we wrap around one another like currents caressing seaweed.

We can feel ourselves changing in slow motion.

One of the changes is we've both run out of money. I could do a few nights of prostitution to cover all our bills for the month, but it's not like that with Bill. I was trying to reach Jean Louis [Costes] through other people's bodies, trying to hold on to him by not holding on. With Bill, I'm already burrowed all the way in. There's no need to find a new way home.

I apply at a temp agency, trying to break into secretarial work, but the lady there says I'm too "excitable" and she can't "in good standing" send me out on a job. During my typing test, she points out, I kept exclaiming and gesticulating. The only job left to me is waitressing at Friendly's. I take it. It's hard! I have nightmares every night about customers ordering things not on the menu like nuts and bolts that I have to rush out to find, and when I came back, I have six new tables. Even Friendly's doesn't work out for poor Bill, and he's stuck scrubbing toilets for my dad's company -- and my dad, who pays him in cash under the table, keeps short-changing him.

In the evenings, Bill and I work on our third eyes. I get a book of Zen koans from the library and Bill and I stare at each other and try to picture one hand clapping, or the stick not hitting the person. We paint every day and do automatic writing, where I set the timer on the stove for twenty minutes and we have to write every single thing that goes through our minds no matter what -- no thinking about it, no correcting a spelling mistake, just go!

Bill is a man of few, few words. One time I asked him to describe me, and he said "weak and strong." That was it. When pressed, he eventually, after a whole day of thinking on it, added: "messy hair and a cup of coffee." Bill gets maybe five or ten automatic writing words down and then there are simply no more. So he starts drawing chairs or chandeliers or electrical outlets and unplugged plugs. Those are the things he's obsessed with. Apparently he has few thoughts, except about chairs, chandeliers, and outlets.

And, once in a while, we do drugs.

For Jean Louis, art is war. For me, it's a spy mission. For Bill, it's like surgery. He plays his black and white, triangular guitar every day, but he has no ambition, no need to conquer or to sow the seeds of himself. Maybe one person might see something he's done someday, or listen -- one right person, but really it would be preferable to be left alone for more careful application of scalpel to gray matter.

I, however, want a lot of recognition and admiration and even the bad stuff -- I want to be called the worst at something as well as the best . . . just so long as I'm the most. I want power. I have Linda [my father's girlfriend] to prove wrong, and my other two parents, and [my best friend] Rachel.

Linda was right -- I can't find my way out of a paper bag. Because there is no way out! How you're supposed to live, to write, to love -- those rules are a trick, an invisible maze with no exits. How could there be a real way out of an unreal maze? No, the thing to do is to realize that other people's idea of success and normalcy are not real. Only then can you stand up and walk away free. I had that realization before in a performance context, but now I'm thinking about it in terms of family dynamics, in just -- everything!

I quit my job at Friendly's.

Seeing things in a unique way seems to be the one thing I can actually do. Bill tells me his music changed when one of our conversations made him realize that not only does a song not have to follow traditional patterns -- a song doesn't have to be a song at all. It can be anything! Perception is nine-tenths of reality. And I'm rich in perception! I'm rich in not needing to be acceptable or consistent. I can believe anything anyone says to me, while simultaneously holding the opposite belief, too. That's what made Rachel accuse me of being a persona-hound, and my father call me wishy-washy, and Linda call me a parrot, and my mother call me a creepy spy. What my family says is my most horrible trait has turned out to be my one talent.

I don't think it would be exaggerating too much to say I had stab holes all over my body from being told that this thing inside me wasn't special . . . was ugly. I was alive twenty years swinging along in a dream before the wounds all started bleeding at once, and that's when I crawled into the cave of Rochester and lay there dying. Well, that era is over! I'll while away the time in privacy, looking into Bill's eyes trying to decipher koans, no more!

Latency is seductive. That's why everyone doesn't just get out of the maze -- simply because we're already in there, and so are all our friends. But I've never needed to stay anywhere. I'm going to crawl out of not only other people's ideas, but my own too. And get up out of the underground, which is really the only home I've ever known. The people I went to high school with and the people I worked with at Friendly's -- the people I never believed would understand me, the ones who don't look lonely -- I want them to read about me in People magazine in the check-out aisle, and I want it to save their souls with freedom.

All my life I tried to hide this thing in me and even tried to destroy it. But now I see that it's special. In fact, it's so special! And it's real. I am going to save people, and we'll all rise up out of our caves and be an army!

As an emerging general, I'm not a great roommate: hunched over piles of paper twelve or fourteen hours a day, grim-faced, interrupting myself only once every hour or so to yell to Bill: "Listen to this totally funny thing I wrote!" My legs form a "W" on the floor, and I literally eat nothing but bread balls and water and Monterey Jack cheese and raisins. I quit sugar cold turkey upon reading the totally scary Sugar Blues.

Having recently been close to crazy, I want to escape that when I write -- into the real, funny world. I make very small things my subjects: supermodel Linda Evangelista's new yellow bowlcut, or our cat Cheetah, or this purple backpack that I really love -- so many pockets! -- even though it's hideous to behold. While I've left hallucinating behind, I do drag a few remnants of crazy visions/logic into the above-world, braiding the wispy ideas like tinsel into my new, plain style.

I take on big things in the same small, plain way: my lust for damage, why I became a prostitute, my attraction to necrophiliacs. If I feel like throwing something away because it leaves me exposed and ridiculous, if it makes me feel like throwing up, that's my editorial guide to keep it. I write about people I meet -- the roofers and the veterans at Tiny's Pub and the lonely and beautiful drag queens I hung out with in Hollywood (before I got fired from that movie), and people I read about -- like Rasputin. I am a chronicler, similar to Andy Warhol -- except the people entering my factory are more lost than pretty then again, this is 1989, not 1979.

And unlike the laconic Warhol, the personality I eavesdrop and report on more than any other is my own. Ignoring the advice of every how-to-be-a-journalist book, I sing the song of me! I abuse exclamation points. I repeat myself, or sometimes I reverse my opinion entirely within the same article. I tell jokes right in the middle of confessions. I try to not write like a "good writer," but like I'm telling something I can't wait to tell to one person who already knows everything about me and still likes me. I write as if I still have Rachel, and I'm writing to her.

When I interview people, I never ask them about their areas of expertise. I wouldn't ask a musician about chords or influences. I ask what I want to know: how many times do they masturbate a day, how do they want to die, what do they think of my cat's new disturbing habit, do they think I'm cute, and do they feel uncomfortable right now? I don't care about being comprehensive or fact-checking.

My interview style is a more personal version of my former stage show (and of my old sexual modus operandi): put someone in a messed-up situation, don't throw 'em a life preserver and see what they do. That, I feel, will make my subject's core reveal itself, rather than let them choose what of themselves to present. And I'm accepting of any core at all, however brutish or ridiculous or banal. I want the truth -- most of all when someone else doesn't want me to have it, and even more most of all when that person (and I) don't even know what the truth is until the moment it leaps, against my poor subject's will, out of his or her mouth. Sometimes the truth is just this very small thing, something you already knew. Like a rock star finding out he really believes in monogamy. I want the truth hiding behind the Truth.

An heiress I interview wasn't angry when she discovered that her mother was not out performing pro bono midwifery on Mexicans all night like she claimed. Instead, the mother was arguing and arm-wrestling with men in bars. The heiress figured out her mother meant midwifery in the symbolic sense: giving birth to ideas. The little truth there is that even drunken, neglectful losers can have honor; there's an alternate universe full of honor. I interview a physicist who spent a few months as a streetperson and he says that bums in the gutter, who everyone holds up as the ultimate archetype of failure, in fact are fine -- are probably happier than employed persons and, he says, are doing more good. Those stumbling drunks who mumble incoherently -- the physicist says that, if you actually listen, often they're speaking deep, religious philosophy. How many non-bums speak on that every day? (I think back to my time as a young girl talking with bums, looking for some magnificent wisdom and finding instead only chatter. The trouble must have been I'd approach the more coherent, sober-looking ones.)

Just as [my band] Suckdog was all pre- and post-song material, I want what I publish to be the stuff other magazines cut out -- what happens before and after the articles. I ask Rachel to be my record reviewer. She's so belittling -- calling one poor singing duo "a terrier harassing a bull dyke" -- that I fire her. I record our conversation where I tell her why I won't use what she wrote, and she defends cruelty, and I type that up instead of record reviews.

A month later, I gather up the results: my borderline sick essays, and the cute and gossipy ones, my interviews with non-celebrities, a short story of Bill's that stutters and then simply trails off with several portraits of light bulbs instead of an ending, comics by people who can't draw, and letters from freaks. I do it all on the typewriter and with scissors and glue. I have no money for a computer, and besides, I'm suspicious of them, as if spell-check and a built-in thesaurus might be part of a plot to computerize the human brain.

I hand-write last minute observations throughout the margins, like: "Isn't Carol Anne, receptionist at Dutch East Record Distribution, a bitch? She displays what Gorbachev referred to in his kidnappers as 'an unbelievable lack of politeness.' If I am ever in the same room with her, I swear I'll wring her neck. Or she'll wring mine -- I don't care. Somebody's neck is going to be wrung." I stuff it all in a folder and bring it to my mother's government copier at the navy yard after hours, make thirty copies, and in the last month of the last year of the '80s, Rollerderby is born.

I send a copy to Rachel in Philadelphia and ask what she thinks. "It's funny," she says. "I like it. But it's just not . . . polished enough. It's never gonna go anywhere this way."

"Well, that's what you said about Suckdog, too," I say. "And all my boyfriends through the years!"

"Well," she retorts, "isn't it true? Another thing that bothers me -- and this, too, bothered me about Suckdog and all your boyfriends -- is that it's like you're collecting weird-o's for it."

"I am!" I admit. "But doesn't everyone deserve to be collected by someone?"

Rollerderby will later be credited with being the first "personal zine." (It wasn't -- Pagan Kennedy started one in Allston, Massachusetts before me, though I won't find that out till the mid '90s.) It came from a disturbed person trying to hold on to anything mundane she could find. I pieced together scraps of what I thought were reality, until eventually the ragged map turned into real terrain.

I'm cured! I have friends and interests and money again (against all odds, record companies love advertising with Rollerderby). Rollerderby even wins me Rachel back. In fact, she goes so far as to transfer from Penn State to the University of New Hampshire! It's true she strongly disapproves of the majority of Rollerderby's subject matter, and of my new contributor friends, and of my continued refusal to go to college, and my antisocial clothes and hair. But she always likes me best when I'm on top -- even when she doesn't like the thing that I'm on top of. We pick up our friendship as if we never put it down for two years, and I am as I was back then -- before France, before plastic flowers up my butt and feathers raining down, before everyone went crazy. As if nothing has changed since we were kids.

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