I was almost nineteen years old and it was May in Boston, Massachusetts and my first year of college was almost over and it had been a glorious year for so many reasons. One was the college library, which was big and old and stayed open until eleven at night. There were couches you could sleep on and nobody minded if you did so, and so I could study for a few hours and then read poems from twelve different volumes and then look at art as far back and as far forward as art went and then I could take a nap and wake up and repeat all this with or without variations. My controlling parents were over a thousand miles away and two months earlier, in March, I had taken acid and now understood that everything had a molecular structure for REAL.
At two in the morning, I had looked out the sixth floor window of the dorm and the rain was stunning and new and some of it collected in the form of a puddle next to a curb and the puddle was made of swirl and the curb was made of dense and they had a liquid and solid relationship as did everything in the world and furthermore, I could taste this all with my mind simply by saying in my mind, with my mind, Puddle, curb, I want to taste what you are made of—and they obliged and we had our trippy molecular enchantment, we did, and there was more beyond that and it all was so extraordinarily beautiful. The world is alive, I thought. The world is alive and the whole world is a miracle. And everything in the world has a skin, but the skin is like a snake's skin and acid causes it to shed so you can see and taste and experience what is underneath it all. How lucky I am to know this. And I didn't feel any need to do it again because that one time had a lot in it to take from and think about for many years.
My parents had warned me about such things early in September. They'd waited till we were at the airport. They'd said in a fearful gush, “We know you might want to try drinking or drugs but whatever you do, don't drink too much because when we were in school there were two girls who each dared the other to drink an entire bottle of vodka and they both did and they both died!” Then they’d added, “And whatever you do, don't do acid, because it is extremely dangerous and you could lose your mind FOREVER!”
I'd gotten on the plane soon after thinking of dead swollen girls and what it might mean to lose one's mind like a glove or a key or an earring
How delightful to see that contrary to what they'd told me, I'd actually found more of my mind from the experience. And as for drinking, more than one or two drinks never interested me. Girls down the hall who drank heavily would end up vomiting in their beds and crying about sleeping with boys they had no real feelings for and some contracted STDS or worse. I did smoke a lot of pot that year in Alicia's room. Her boyfriend was an RA and was quite adept at rolling joints and always had a great supply of confiscated pot.
So, “Yes, yes, yes,” is what I said when Dee, who lived down the hall, suggested that instead of going back home for the summer, we should sublet an apartment.
“What does sublet mean?” I’d asked.
Dee squirted cheeze whiz onto a mound of saltines and filled me in: She’d already found a place in Allston she told me, which was still part of Boston. There was a bulletin board in the student union and she'd taken the sign down because she just knew this was going to work out. And it didn't take much to convince me. I called my parents and they said if I wanted to do that they wouldn't be paying for it and Dee said her Dad had said the same thing so she’d asked her Mom then and her Mom said, “Dee you know I don't have any money.” And then Dee said, “Fuck it, I know we'll get waitressing jobs.” And so we did.
Dee got a job at a French restaurant called Veronique and I got one at a restaurant called Kangaroo, called so because they served a lot of sandwichesÂ in pita pockets. Dee promptly fell in love with a boy from France named Pierre who washed dishes. He'd been in the French Army and learned his English from listening to the Ramones. And this was fine and I was even happy for her until she started sleeping at his place all the time. It was alright when it was just once in a while but all our friends were in New Jersey or Rhode Island or New York or California until September and it was a little scary to be in the apartment by myself and then it got even worse because our electricity got turned off because the students that lived there before hadn't paid their electric bill and we didn't have a clue as to what to do. We couldn't call the landlords because we didn't even know who they were. We tried to call the guys we were subleasing from and they just said, “Oh sorry, we forgot to pay.”
So I took this mirror I had that had lights on the side because you were supposed to use it to put on makeup and I plugged it into the wall in the hallway and that's what I used at night for light. I soon realized that the fridge didn't refrigerate and the toaster didn't work, so I just ate at work if I was hungry, which wasn’t very often because I had just discovered coffee and it had turned me from a terrible waitress into a better than average one, but also stole my appetite and so at night when my appetite would return, sometimes I'd go and have either a slice of pizza or a falafel at the place right down the block and stay there for as long as possible in order to avoid being in the apartment alone.
I'd tried to befriend a few of the other waitresses at work, but they didn't like me much because their waitressing jobs were their actual jobs and for me the job would most likely end after the summer. I might work there one or two days a week, but that would never be an option for them. When they said the word college, it was drawn out and infused with Boston and bitterness.
“Oh that's right, Barrie, we won't see you much in September because you'll be back at college.”
So once the electricity was out, my days followed a pattern. At five, after getting just a few hours sleep, I'd take the train about an hour to Revere Beach, an ugly dirty beach but still the Atlantic Ocean and therefore deemed worthy of daily visitation. I'd walk around the beach for a bit and then get to work at about seven. There would be lots of coffee orders to go and then a bit of a slow down and then three hours of crazy lunch crowds and then a slowing down again, and I'd count out my tips and leave at four spend some time in the apartment until it got dark, plug in the mirror and wonder why I'd brought such a thing to college considering I almost never wore makeup or why someone had bought this thing for me for my Bat-Mitzvah and how strange Bat-Mitzvahs were and how empty and forced mine had felt and how if I ever had kids one day we'd invent our own religion and it wouldn't have Bat-Mitzvahs as part of it and how horrible the Bat-Mitzvah tutor had smelled (like old shoes and dead mouse), and how my fantasy of adult life was not being a woman who wore lots of make-up but something more like a grown-up Pippi Longstocking and Maude from Harold and Maude, some hybrid of those two, and I’d wonder if that were possible and I’d go get a slice or falafel, then go back upstairs and hope that maybe Dee would come in and I'd worry about everything until I'd finally fall asleep for a few hours and repeat and then I met a friend.
If this was a fairy tale it would go something like this—Once upon a time there was a fairly strange young woman who thought she would have a great summer in her first apartment but she didn't. Then one day while eating a falafel sandwich she met a nice coke dealer who played her lots of records she'd never heard and she learned some subtle things about humans that she hadn’t known before and much like her acid experience, it altered her irrevocably.
What is perhaps noteworthy is that I didn't even know how formative this summer was until many years later when I was about thirty and my friend Steven and I were having this long talk about what being a human being really entailed. And he asked me who taught me how to be a human being?
“What do you mean?” I’d asked.
And he told me that when he lived in Champagne Urbana he'd met this lesbian couple who were several years older than him and they'd hang out and one day they’d said, "You know Steven we want to remain friends with you because you have a lot of potential but you have these pockets of narcissism that you got from growing up in this fucked up way and from your dad dying and now see you have to join the human race,” and they told him he needed to learn to ask questions of them, because I guess he wasn't doing that before and he told me it took some time to learn how to be, but he trusted them and in a way, he was re-parented by them, but it was better because they were friends and he learned how to be conscious of what he was doing and that he had some affect on people and they on him and he learned to take responsibility for that in the ways that he could and it wasn't about learning to be nice per say, it was about learning how to be with people. He learned that what he thought was automatic was actually comprised of choices that he could look at and pick from and that that was the way one could change.
And it was a short time after that when I remembered the coke dealers that summer. There were three of them, but only one of them and I really spent any time together: Bill. And Bill and I didn't have any kind of sexual relationship; it was clear that that wasn't part of anything about it.
I was sitting outside the building and Bill came up to me and asked me if I wanted to buy some coke and I told him that no I did not, but thanked him for the offer and I’d meant it. And then I ended up telling him about my electricity problem and it turned out he lived in the building next door and he knew the super of his building was friends with the landlord of my building and he thought he could figure out how to get the electricity in my name to get it turned on and then he invited me over. Being curious and lonely, I did go over there and he let me do a line which was slightly enlivening but not in a completely interesting way which was a relief to him because I think he wanted to hang out with me for reasons he couldn't quite understand, but not if I was going to be snorting away his cocaine and so I began going there quite frequently just to socialize and the other two dealers would mostly nod at me and act paranoid and occasionally laugh at things I said or what I wore—mostly thrift shop dresses. And they were twenty-six which may has well have been fifty to me and then one day I went there and Bill had just purchased these gigantic speakers and the other guys weren't there.Â
“Check it out Barrie,” he said. “Wicked right? Wicked.”
And thus began a kind of bliss in music education. It seemed I had some serious gaps in my musical knowledge and Bill was thrilled to fill them in. Boys had played me music before, but this was something wildly different, not the music, but the presentation. With boys in high school it'd seemed like music introductions were about one of two unsaid things: either a lecture, i.e. I will now introduce you to what is cool musically or, I would now like you to acknowledge how cool I am via these records. They’d play air guitar and practically take full credit for the music on the turntable, as if drumming with ballpoint pens was akin to superstardom.
With Bill, he'd play me something and he'd gather up what it was I liked about it and then say something like. “Oh, oh, Barrie if you like that, I gotta play you this.” And then he would and I would feel so grateful. He was like iPod genius or Pandora or Spotify radio before there was such a thing. And it was just so lovely and rare to be considered like that, to be taken in, and approved of and expanded upon and either because of the coke he was on or patience or generosity, when I wanted to hear a certain song again and again and again, he would always say, “Sure Barrie, sure you're right, it's great, let's play it again. He took his enjoyment from my enjoyment and I took my enjoyment from his and both of us from the music and this seemed a good way to go through my days and somehow we did get the lights turned on in my apartment, but it didn't matter because I would go to Bill's for songs almost every night after that. I felt the way I suppose every one wants to feel wherever they are which is far too rare and that is, the feeling of being completely at home.
Dee came back a few times and was disgusted with me.
“Those guys are creeps,” she said. “Watch out.”
“You’re a creep,” I said. “You got this apartment with me. You asked me to do it and you've spent maybe two nights here and it’s already August.”
“That's because you’re a lesbian,” she said.
“What? “I said. “I'm not a lesbian. And what does that have to do with anything?”
“If you’re not a lesbian,” she said, “Why did you say you thought it was amazing when Deanna and Marie were making out in the dorm?”
“Because it was. Because it was brave,” I said. “How does that make me gay?”
“I don't know,” she said.
“Maybe I'm bisexual,” I said. “That doesn't mean I want to make out with you.”
“Why?” she said. “What's wrong with me?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“See,” she said. “That proves it.”
Dee and I continued to stay out of each other’s way after that.
I wish I could tell you that Bill's apartment was where I first heard Coltrane's, A Love Supreme or Patti Smith's Easter or John Cage's compositions for prepared piano but all that came a few years later. The truth is I only remember two songs from that summer. They were two of the songs I wanted played over and over: Empty Pages by Traffic and Elton John’s Benny and the Jets. In both songs what I enjoyed most was when the music would rise up in a surprising piano-y way and sort of explode in me.
The lyrics weren't as important as the melody but now I see how one helped the other like the relationship of a puddle to a curb while tripping.
Another discovery I made has to do with the understanding that things don't always match up and that people are a rich struggle, that someone can be a coke dealer and by almost every societal standard a complete loser, but this was the person who saw me in the least distorted way and gave me something to go on in the field of discerning friends and mentors and the textures of sound and the company I found most pleasurable.
The last thing I remember about Bill is showing him the oil portrait that Alfred the super made of me and that I still have. Alfred was a portrait painter and Bill had one made to give to his father for his birthday and the other dealers followed suit and soon there were three odd cokeâdealer portraits on the mantle, which looked a little like the portraits of former college presidents in the library.
“You should get one Barrie,” Bill said. “I'll pay for it for your birthday.”
And he did.
On two consecutive Saturdays in which I wasn’t working, Alfred painted me. He told me that a woman was never as beautiful as she was at nineteen and that I should be thankful he was capturing me for all eternity. That worried me because I did not feel remotely beautiful and if he was right, I didn’t have much time to figure it all out. He also asked about my use of cocaine and told me how wrong it was to do it. When I told him I didn't do it, but had only tried it, he didn't believe me. It turned out he was a Christian and he gave me a pile of rectangular cards which read, “God bless you” in rainbow calligraphy and informed me that if I should ever eat in a restaurant I should give one of these cards in lieu of a tip because God's blessing was worth more than money.
“Alfred,” I’d said, “I'm a waitress. Without tips, I make about two dollars an hour.”
We argued about it briefly until he told me he was getting ready to paint my mouth so I shouldn't talk.
When the painting was complete and Bill asked to see it, I brought it over. We set it up on the mantle next to the other ones.
“Weird,” he said. “It doesn’t really look that much like you.”