Introduction: The novel is called I Promise Not To Behave, and is about three teenage punk-poet girls of the late '70s who try to become a female Beat Generation . . . and fail spectacularly. This excerpt—the first chapter—was previously published in Washington Square Review #38, in 2016.
I Promise Not To Behave
Chapter One (full)
It all came back to me as I was washing out the coffee cups after dinner. I hadn’t thought about us for a long, long time. Even learning what happened to Theolinda did not spark my interest in those days. But reading that article about your fund-raiser in the Reader as I was eating dinner tonight brought it all back, and then something about the evening light on a soap bubble floating up from the sink, in front of the big window, reminded me of the fluorescent orange duct tape on your black leather jacket, and Theolinda’s long lashes almost touching her eyebrows as we did poppers on the dance floor of O’Banions and kicked the shit out of “Pretty Vacant” the night we thought we’d become famous.
I’m writing this to you in September, almost thirty-six years ago to the day that I met Theolinda on my first day of college, you on the second. I never told you this, but I had actually cried as I was getting ready to leave the house that first day, knowing that my life would change the moment the #44 lurched away from 51st Street to begin its hour-long journey out of the South Side toward the Loop. The way I envisioned it, I’d get off the bus downtown and step into a rainbow realm where Fame and Fabulousness were awaiting me. Art school was going be much more than just college; it would be the gateway into the kind of life I had dreamed about for so long. On the other hand, I was deeply sad knowing so much would have to be left behind to fully affect the transformation I needed to make. So many aggravating yet beloved things and people would have to be jettisoned without remorse. But I’d read all the biographies and the autobiographies, and seen all the movies, so I knew what I had to do.
Of course, no rainbow greeted me as I got off the bus, just a bulk of darkening rainclouds and an old homeless guy from the Pacific Garden Mission sprawled on the sidewalk at the corner of Harrison and Dearborn, inquiring, “Hey, baby, wanna go?”
“No thanks,” I replied. “I went before I left the house.”
Overestimating my travel time, I’d gotten downtown way early, too early to go to class, so I got off the bus six blocks from school, figuring the walking distance would kill time. But when the Art Institute came into view I was still half an hour early. I thought about taking a quick spin through the first floor galleries, or calling Arnie on the pay phone to boost my confidence, but the thought of walking up all those steps made me tired, so I just headed on toward the school and got busy trying to look smart and artistic by writing in my journal in the student lounge, at a long folding table facing the big window — Lake Michigan as far as the eye could see on a grey September Tuesday. I’d paused and looked up at the exact moment Theolinda was sliding quarters into the cigarette machine. A pack of Marlboros dropped, and away she stomped — regally, as if she were dragging a velvet train trimmed in ermine behind her — stuffing the pack into her blue TWA flight bag. I wasn’t the only one looking at her, either; her long, cherry-red hair and Liza Minelli-in-Cabaret bangs were a shock to a city getting its first presentiment of punk. Even at art school she stood out: neon blue pointy-toed shoes, emerald-green Chinese brocade jacket, black pegged pants. She was too fat to have been wearing those pants. Still, she looked fabulous. I turned back to the journal — which, believe it or not, I’ve hauled around with me all these years — and wrote:
first day, and this girl walks into the lounge. seen her at o’banion’s w/ that guy who carries the easter basket like a purse w/ a tube of toothpaste and a copy of the watchtower in it. just know she’s a starry dynamo and we’re gonna change the dandruffy poetry world into a cool punk world — a world ruled by girls — forever.
Dumb. I know. But how did I know she was a poet? Well, didn’t you say that all poets are seers? I laughed out loud at my own prescience when, twenty-five minutes later, T made an equally regal entrance in Valor’s “Poets of the Beat Generation” class and sat down right next to me. Some hyper gay kid in a purple rabbit fur jacket and frosty blue Aziza eye shadow had been yammering excitedly at me from across the room about how the punk scene was really taking off, and all the “historic” shows he’d been to. I replied that, yeah, I’d been to all those shows, too (not a lie: Arnie knew everybody) because I was a staff writer for the Gabba Gabba Gazette (kind of a lie: at that point I'd only written one thing for them, that rant about being the lone teenage punk in boring, beef-tongued Back of the Yards, under my clever punk pseudonym, Nan C. Nihilist).
“Oh my God, are you Nan C. Nihilist?” he shrieked, clapping his hands. “I loved that piece! You're famous!"
I was happy that he thought I was famous, but pissed that he thought that based on one crappy essay that took five minutes to write and not from any "real" writing, although what "real" writing had I published, or even written, at that point? Mercifully, Valor walked in and started talking, and I turned to HRH (her redheaded highness) and said, "I hate when people think you're famous based on one stupid article."
"Oh, I don't think you're famous," she said, deadpan, not even looking at me, bringing a smoldering Marlboro to fuschia-colored lips. Instantly I hated her. But I’d had that intuition about her, and in those days I based all on my decisions on intuition, so I knew I’d have to somehow befriend her.
As the semester went on, Valor always seemed to defer to her during class discussions, and in our other class together, “Aesthetics for the Twenty-First Century,” Ray Harbour made her come up to the front of the room so he could deconstruct everything she was wearing. He said something about her “perfect blend of high and low culture,” the “high” being her expertly applied make-up and hair color, the “low” being her black and white striped polyester thrift shop top. I had no idea then what “low” culture was, even though I was soaking in it, to deploy a low culture idiom. When he asked T what perfume she was wearing, and she said, “Oh, that’s my lotion,” and he looked at the class, cranked his thumb in her direction, and said, “See? Even that means something” I was totally pissed. Why wasn’t I up there? I was actually wearing perfume.
Around the beginning of October she walked straight up to me as I was waiting for an elevator after Valor’s class and announced, “Saw you at O’Banion’s on Saturday, talking to Carmel Early,” and then breezed passed me, right into the elevator. She knew that I knew that that simple phrase, rife with meaning, conferred special status: “You, heretofore disregarded person, were at a cool club hanging out with the ultra cool editor of the Gabba Gabba Gazette . . . I can associate with you now.” Wasn’t it just like her to not come up to me at the club because she lurking somewhere in the dark, spying on me at the bar with Carmel and Arnie? I followed her into the elevator, stood next to her without looking at her, and tried to think of something cool to say. She already knew I was cool — she’d admitted it — so all I needed to do was push it a little further by deploying some insider knowledge.
“Did you see the new issue? That article on the Diodes sucked.”
“Really. I could’ve written it in my sleep. Why were they even in there? They’re not famous. Carmel goin’ out with one of them, or what?”
“Of course. The drummer. And he’s not even cute.” She now knew I was actual friends with Carmel.
“The drummer? Who the hell goes out with the drummer? Ugh, I have no respect for her now.”
“Maybe it’s the bass player then.”
Still not looking at each other, we walked together out of the building into the periwinkle dusk settling over Grant Park.
“You know,” I said, “if I were Carmel, I’d maybe try to publish articles on actual famous bands.”
“And,” T said, “how about a moratorium on articles about the demise of La Mere. What, like it’s the only club?”
“Yeah. You know what Patti Smith said at the Park West last April, right? ‘So it burned down — just build a new one.’”
“You were at that show, too?” She was acting fake-surprised, goading me into a response to see just how far inside I was. It was okay; I was way inside.
“Yeah, I was on the guest list. My boyfriend’s in RaveUp! — ever hear of ‘em?”
She shot me a dirty look — finally: eye contact! — as we crossed Michigan Avenue against the light, pointedly ignoring the barrage of car horns by taking our time. Then she shot me another look and admitted, “Well played.”
Now that we were actually having a conversation I felt comfortable asking her where we were headed.
“The best dive bar in the whole goddamn world,” she answered.
Of course, we ended up at the Step-Hi. T opened the door as the El careened by over Wabash.
“Hey, keep tha’ goddamn light outta here,” barked a voice from somewhere in the unfathomable darkness. The only illumination emanated weakly from the big Budweiser lamp hanging right in the middle of the place, the whole team of Clydesdales half-lit inside a piss-colored Plexiglas globe. The air smelled like whiskey and old baldness.
“I’m hoping to see the ghost of Jack Kerouac in here one day,” T said as she leaned across the Seeburg jukebox and punched in “Cleo’s Mood” by Jr. Walker & the All-Stars. We ordered screwdrivers and talked about poetry and punk and boys and clothes for what seemed like hours, getting very drunk, and continuing to play “Cleo’s Mood” over and over until Texas Bob, the bartender, demanded we play something different. I told her Arnie’s and my favorite joke:
“How many punks does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“Three. One to screw it in and two to be on the guest list.”
She laughed in her maniacal way, and the regal thing was gone — it was just a façade anyway, as we came to know — replaced by a sweet, open-to-anything vulnerability that drew me to her. By semester’s end we were drinking at the Step-Hi after class and dancing at O’Banion’s every weekend. The first song we ever danced to? "Lust for Life."
“This should be our anthem!” she screamed into my ear, her hair flying into my mouth.
That thing about changing the dandruffy poetry scene didn’t happen, of course. T literally died trying. Big Skin’s wildly successful European tour was her crowning achievement as well as her downfall: in her beginning was her end. So why am I telling this story now, so many years after, and to you, who know it so well?
That article about you in the Reader released the flood of memories. And when that image of you and T on the dance floor came back to me tonight, all the lineaments of our lives rearranged themselves instantaneously in my imagination, unspooling like a movie, and I knew I had to write this story so that you — and T and Arnie, too — could be young in the world again. And so that you could heal. And because it was you who promised (via Ezra Pound) that what I loved well would remain, and would not be taken from me. And because you said that “despite everything, some things still stand, and can’t be ruined, and there’s always a moment outside of time when all the hurts and resentments go away and you’re left looking at the physical proof that something beautiful and important really did exist.” Plus, who but me could ever accurately tell the story of how three working class punk-poet girls tried — and failed, spectacularly! — to become a female Beat Generation? Right: no one. There were so many misunderstandings between us. Maybe that's the real tragedy. Even after all this time, I doubt you know who I really was then. I know you have no idea who I am now. So I’m setting the record straight. No — I’m setting it crooked. Because that’s the truth. And the beauty.
Sharon Mesmer is a poet and prose writer dividing time between Brooklyn, NY and rural PA, and trying to find the magic in this shadow-of-a-garbage-fire year.
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