Only time can write a song that's really really real.
thought digest, 11.14.2022
There was an Internet culture story I wanted to write about.
I saw it on Twitter today and thought, “That would be great for my newsletter.” But I can’t remember what it was now.
So, instead, here’s a memory of what being 20 was like for me.
When I was 20, I started shoplifting prolifically.
I told my therapist—a WASP who I suspect was more interested in encouraging the performance of mental illness than he was in helping me—that collecting things gave me purpose.
I was proud of what I stole: Dozens of neon spiral notebooks from Urban Outfitters. A Jansport backpack, also neon. Red lipstick and black eyeliner from Duane Reade. An elegant white watch from American Apparel that reminded me of the circus. Vintage porno mags. Any and every book I saw on a rack outside of a bookstore. Lots of books that weren’t on racks: Larry Clark’s Tulsa, Nan Goldin’s Emotions and Relations, something by Richard Kern, One Day in My Life by Bobby Sands—this becomes a plot point much later.
BUTT’s calendar of men’s asses which I held onto until very recently.
VHS tapes — no VCR to this day.
CDs, a few vinyls.
And then I started stealing anything and everything that reminded me of Wendy O. Williams. She was aspirational in my mind and completely abstracted from whoever she really was. A symbol of another time and place.
I stole anything I thought was gritty or grimy or sleazy.
I stole LED strip lights. A red lightbulb. I stole hair bleach, never used. I stole boxed wine, a handle of whiskey, and fishnet knee highs. I stole a fake leather dress. I still have it, and I almost wore it today. I have this memory of 7” black pleather Pleasers—you know, stripper heels?—but I don’t think I stole those. I think I bought those much later, and they just got mixed in with this memory. I stole stuff from warehouse shows. I stole Christmas ornaments. Towels from Bronx motels, another momentary obsession. Pall Mall cigarettes from a guy who messaged me on Facebook two weeks ago after a decade of silence. I never figured out how to smoke them.
I had some nebulous fantasy of being a bleach-blonde punk, kicking around a version of New York that couldn’t have existed since the mid-90s. That maybe had never existed. Whatever I was imagining was a composite of fragments from Tumblr: out-of-context gifs from Paris Is Burning and magazine cut-outs of a young Chloe Sevigny or Courtney Love.
Mood boards tagged leather dyke, stone femme, no wave, sleaze, punk, grunge. Occasionally you’d get someone like Jackie O or Natalie Portman or a still from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in the mix. Just a confluence of images that felt like they fit together but didn’t always.
Like the fantasy that one day you’ll visit a doctor who tells you that if you just fix this one thing, everything else will fall into place— I imagined that if I went through all this— if I stole enough stuff—if I built a better world with all this stuff, my life would be a little better.
I’d go somewhere else. I’d time travel.
This was a recurring delusion in my early 20s. I thought I could go back to 1983, 1977, 1961, 1996, whatever, as long as I set the scene well enough.
I don’t think it was totally delusional. Mostly delusional, but not totally. When you spend most of your time alone, this kind of fantasy is remarkably easy to lean into. Suspend your disbelief here and there—there’s a band playing, it’s not Spotify, it’s not iTunes—the same way you suspend your disbelief when you watch a performance on a stage— you do sort of feel like you’re wherever you’ve dreamt up in your head.
Eventually, you start seeing through other people. People who might disturb the scene—or you’re able to fit them into your dream—you see them and wherever you are through your mind’s eye.
If you spend enough time alone, you can go on like this for a long time.
And so I went on like this for a long, long time.