Coming of Age in Washington Square, 1958
Though born and bred in Greenwich Village, I was startled when, at 13, I returned from summer camp to find a childhood friend, herself 14, in eye shadow and long earrings, smoking Turkish cigarettes in Washington Square Park. The meaning of this getup was not lost on me, and I noted it in my diary: “August 11, 1958 . . . R.S. has become a bohemian.” Little did I know that, once ninth grade was under way, I myself would never set my hair again.
I was about to make the first cultural choice of my life. In a sense, it was no choice at all. Art was honored, freedom mentioned, space shoes and exposed beams prominent in the Village homes that I knew well. Yet for most of the P.S. 41 graduates who were my friends in 1958, freedom meant the right to pursue “typical” teen life, as copied from its paradigm, the Philadelphia version, via TV. Kids from “progressive” schools like Little Red were exceptions but not alternative models, for, as I understood it, these unfortunates suffered from psychological problems, were slow learners, and had speech impediments. Older weirdos who dressed like artists were a source of amused pride, but you couldn’t take them seriously; they were so self-conscious.
So when I saw my friend’s freckled face in its boho disguise, I never supposed that she had found herself. No, she had found something that I held far more precious then: boys. In the smoky August night, R.S. was surrounded. There were college types slumming downtown who threw famous parties, read “Christ in Concrete,” and would ask even a child like myself for cigarettes. There were boys with burning eyes, shaggy hair, and rumpled khakis, who possessed the brooding intensity that I expected only from hoods, but also the rationality and even the decency of squares. Hoods had bodies, squares had minds; these new boys had both. If squares would take no risks, hoods took dumb ones—they turned over cars and stomped on old men. These new boys looked like they would take risks, but more interesting ones than crime, and so abstract that your parents wouldn’t necessarily notice. More important, they stared at me.
I took to their milieu with unsuspected brilliance. In the parties and perpetual at-homes where these boys and men could be seen, those very traits that had always kept me wallfloral—flatchestedness, sloppiness, insecurity—were not only acceptable but had positive sexual value. The very sexism of the crowd worked in my favor. “Typical” boys needed encouragement; here, boys came on so strong that all a shy girl had to do was repartee, and if she just sat unhappily in a corner, somebody would find this interesting. In a pinch, unhappiness was always viable, though craziness was better. Both justified our friendly hedonism—people with our problems couldn’t help but cut loose, and besides, we deserved any pleasure that we could find. It all seemed slightly dangerous but—marked as the scene was by faces that I remembered from childhood, even my sister’s—it was also peculiarly familiar, like a dream where you think you’ve been there before.
At the beginning, this group was open and varied. The age went as high as 30 and as low as me. There were girls in bobby sox from Queens and blacks (men only) from Morningside Heights, as well an occasional full-scale beatnik, complete with goatee, catchy slang, bad teeth, and no illusions. What I considered the core group—composed of locals who went to public high schools for “the gifted”—was willing to call itself bohemian but not beat, though we were clearly influenced by the concept, then Sunday magazine material. A standard conversation-opener might be: “Do you like rock’n’roll?” A good answer was: “I used to.”
Clothes were less doctrinaire but showed a definite bohemian drift. For girls, the essential feature was no lipstick. Black stockings, dark eye makeup, and long earrings were optional. For boys, the crucial element was long hair—then just slightly shorter than the average airline agent’s today. Beard, when possible, was optional and tended to be goatee. Black and olive were color basics. Mourning and peasantry were key concepts. Somewhere between the two was the look to which I aspired: elf, a unisex concept involving vests, hoods, and humorous shoes. This was the first I’d heard that one might dress with wit.
In those days it took imagination to find suitable gear. We knew what we wanted, but it wouldn’t be on the rack for years. Tank tops were unavailable’ we cut the necks and sleeves from jerseys. Peasant blouses cost at least $15—this when you could get sweaters at Lanes for $3. You had to send to a mail-order house for Cossack boots. Unpegged white and black jeans you found by luck alone. But it was all worth the trouble. When you hung out in the “circle”—the fountains at the navel of Washington Square, where most of us had waded as children—somebody always took your picture.
The park was our clubhouse, until new rules closing night access forced us to stand on the sidewalk outside Rienzi’s, asking everyone who went by, “Any parties?” Then we would travel in groups, sometimes to Brooklyn or uptown, sometimes on false leads. The parties were not much less open than the park, though you got fewer winos indoors. There was little turning on, and that went on conspiratorially in bathrooms. You drank wine or beer, jammed, danced interpretively to jazz, or listened to classical music, talked, made out in closets, tried to cut your wrists.
After one party climaxed in three suicidal incidents, I wrote in my diary, “Oh God lousy lousy lousy.” (I had quickly grasped that commas, like pincurls, must be thrown to the wind.) “Youth. Happiness. Remember when we were in our teens and had no worries. Oh God. Nobody can get away from it, nobody can be safe from it—everybody is tired and miserable. Even us.” I deemed these fitting sentiments. But the truth was, these suicide attempts confused me, for in my heart I doubted their sincerity. If you really wanted to die, I reasoned, you wouldn’t do it at a party; some people would do anything for attention. I was too competitive to realize that kids who went to such lengths probably needed attention, but I judged myself just as harshly. I knew how mean I was, and felt so guilty that I overlooked the real truth: I was sincerely upset but I had no idea how to say so except in bitter histrionics. I was behaving like those faddish, but truly unhappy wrist-slashers, to whom it seemed less embarrassing to want death than help.
As the winter deepened, I found other reasons for guilt. I began to wonder if my ready admission of faults, such as innocence (for I had remained a virgin and never even smoked a cigarette during all this time), was just a ploy. I felt deceptive because my strange, loose gear implied a contempt for appearances, when I was only too well aware how flattering these outfits were to mine. I knew my “spontaneity” was calculated.
Bohemias, like all utopias, promote such contradictions, but it was partly to this one’s credit that I even knew what the contradictions were. In “typical” scenes, hypocrisy was taken for granted. Uptown, in all-girls high school, I understood that ideas were one thing, life another. In the park, we tried to live our ideas. Of course, if your ideas weren’t bohemian, you might not be a hypocrite, but you were worse, a square. This was the ‘50s. The path of nonconformity was straight and narrow, too.
With spring and summer, the dope at the fringes of our group moved closer in, and this made matters even worse. If my father found out, he would be mad. After all, pot was habit-forming. Also, it seemed to make people stupid. A girl who modeled her verse on Stephen Crane’s was not likely to applaud when two otherwise brainy boys emerged from the bathroom giggling, as I acidly noted in my faithful diary, “Listen to the flute going toot-toot-toot and the birdies on the street going tweet-tweet-tweet.” The boys turned on; the girls were or claimed to be disgusted. Before long, one girl would try pot and, indeed, go on the junk. The boy she went with that summer would O.D. a few years later.
I was so ignorant about drugs that I didn’t even know that the worst wasn’t yet at hand, but I suspect that my professed shock was a front for more humiliating issues. A sexy, sharp, emotional Italian girl was suddenly the start of our set, and no wonder, for she would grow up to be Maria Muldaur. Pairing off was finally getting serious, and everybody wanted to pair off with her. I felt betrayed. For it to sit once more on the romantic sidelines that I had trained myself to hum Bach fugues instead of “Come God With Me”? The reversed value structure that had brought me out now turned against me. I began to understand that The Real Thing was ethnic and that, being Protestant and, as I imagined, stable, I would never qualify. I couldn’t cry in front of people. I just wrote in my diary. As the last straw, folksinging Polyannas from all over the boroughs were usurping the bohemian symbols of braids, ponchos, and sandals, blurring even what distinctiveness I still maintained. The only way that I could stand out was to refuse to learn guitar and spurn politics.
In August 1959, my parents, who were starting to have misgivings, finally got me out of the city for two weeks. Used to changing my life over summers, I made a clean break, and when I got home, I stopped hanging out in the park. On the suggestion of my college brother, I had already begun to read “great” books, such as Look Homeward, Angel. Though “h” disappeared briefly from my spelling of “oh,” commas returned profligately, even in series of two, and one year exactly after the suicide party, I was writing in my diary, “Is this what adolescence is? Is it standing in front of the mirror and talking to yourself with a British accent?” I combed my hair. I decided that bohemianism was the easy way out as, in a sense, it is. Though incurably bohemianesque, I judged my experience that past year for its pretentiousness, contradictions, and casualties. Not for years would I acknowledge the pleasure it had given me, the fun, the ideas, the hope.
Village Voice, June 14, 1976