I grow up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which in the 1970s feels like living in Confederate Disneyland.
Tourists flock to the area to look at empty battlefields where tens of thousands died in misery. There are Civil War reenactments; grown men dress up in uniforms and pretend to kill each other all over again. On Memorial Day, tiny Confederate flags decorate the graves in the Confederate Cemetery.
The war is still alive. Miss Edmo Lee, the great-niece of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, comes by our house occasionally. Her brother Harry drives her. They go slowly around the circular drive. My brother and I stare at them through the window. We live in their childhood home, built in 1880.
On Miss Edmo’s 100th birthday in 1978, I bring her a bunch of fall crocus from the yard. Someone takes our photo.
That’s how close the Civil War is. Her father fought in it.
I am born in 1965, one hundred years after its alleged end. A hundred years is forever to a ten-year-old. Now that I am fifty-five, I know exactly how little time it is.
In high school, the Confederacy has a public relations department, in the guise of some classmates. Between classes, boys will yell, “The South Will Rise Again!”
Dream on, idiots, I think.
I have one goal, and that’s to move to New York. I despise the Civil War. I cannot wait to get out of this place. I watch The Odd Couple every night on my little black and white Zenith TV, in Miss Edmo’s old room.
I know it’s possible to leave, because my mother did. She breaks the Confederate nostalgia train in our family.
She spends ten years in New York, from 1952–1962, studying ballet. She returns to Virginia to raise a family. I have a photo of her, pregnant with me. She is marching in a Civil Rights demonstration, in downtown Fredericksburg. The photo hangs in a local museum.
After I see the photo the first time, I ask my mother how she freed her mind of her upbringing.
“I don’t know,” she replies, “except that I remember when I was twelve I decided to start pronouncing the ing at the end of words.”
She chooses explaining over s’plainin’. Noted.
When we are little, our bedtime stories are tales of her time in Manhattan. We don’t get Snow White and Cinderella. We get stories of her friends: Norman the boxer, and her favorite ballet teacher Ben Harkarvy. We hear about her best friend Mary, and Mary’s husband, Conrad; both U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. They met in an American internment camp during World War II.
Conrad is an actor, and plays Mao in The Chairman. We watch it, thrilled to have the connection.
One of our favorite stories is about Moondog, the blind musician who records music with sounds of New York City traffic in the background.
The city has an absolutely magnetic appeal to me. It’s not just the people; even the businesses are fascinating.
Once, our family dog Miss Marple briefly mistakes my doll Polly for a chew toy. The damage is not fatal. A few fingers get mangled, which my mother snips with a nail clipper. It is a neat amputation. The only other damage is some missing hair. Polly now resembles a Madame Alexander doll with male pattern baldness.
“I think there’s a doll hospital in New York,” my mother says.
Of course there is. I imagine this mysterious city where all the interesting people live, big enough to have a hospital for dolls. A beautiful wig arrives for Polly, fitting her head perfectly.
In 1973, she takes us to Manhattan for four days, and its magic is revealed in almost impossible detail.
We are racing up Sixth Avenue, with her friend Norman at the wheel; we have just had hot chocolate with whipped cream in the Village. Norman’s driving us back to the hotel at approximately 100 miles per hour. My brother and I are thrilled.
My mother is busy imploring Norman to slow down, but she suddenly interrupts herself.
“Look, children! It’s Moondog!”
And there he is, right out our window. He is walking in his Army blanket and Viking helmet, as promised. He stops at the corner, eyes staring straight ahead. I suppose an equivalent experience, if we were the kind of children raised on standard fairy tales, would be to witness seven dwarves marching up Sixth Avenue with Snow White. I feel my mouth drop open.
This is where I belong, I decide. These people are like me.
In our old house with our artist mother and her civil rights activism, we are outsiders. We are the weirdos. We are the fringe.
New York is filled with fringe.
My prophecy comes true. I move to New York City at eighteen, and collect my own cast of characters.
I think I am leaving racism behind in Virginia. Racism has a place; that place is the South. It is inconceivable to me that it could exist in New York. A city full of outcasts cannot possibly be racist.
One evening, that belief is shattered by a bass player I’m seeing. He’s telling me a story, and he uses the N-word.
I tell him I don’t want to see him again. He doesn’t understand. I inform him I moved to New York so I never have to hear that word again.
At the time, I think racism is all or nothing. People are racist or not, like states. I removed myself from Virginia and removed myself from his company.
That solves the problem for me. It doesn’t occur to me that extricating myself from racism isn’t a solution to racism.
It’s an isolated instance, I think; and it is. I am rarely around anyone who is overtly racist in New York. That is a huge relief.
“It was he who looked across Lexington Ave. and saw the sign for the New York doll hospital.”
It was moving to think of Sylvain looking at that sign. He and I were both struck by a hospital for dolls in our adopted city.
I can’t claim to have known Sylvain well, but our paths crossed in the eighties, and we have a lot of mutual friends. I am in deep nostalgia, thinking of that time and our shared people. His New York Dolls bandmate David Johansen and I lived in the same neighborhood for years, and we’d speak to each other.
I never recovered from the initial shock of seeing David push a grocery cart in our local Gristede’s. The normalcy of it was astonishing, but I suppose the Gods of downtown rock and roll must eat like the rest of us.
The gift of living in New York City in the eighties and nineties is the biggest gift of my lifetime. I met the most authentic friends in the world.
I remember seeing some of these friends the first time, and feeling as if instead of meeting, we were recognizing each other. This is long before the expression my tribe was in use. What we felt was a shared, unspoken point of view; which is each point of view to his own.
A common theme amongst us is how safe we feel in the city; much safer than we did in our hometowns. Small towns can be dangerous for the fringe. When I am in Manhattan, my blood pressure drops. I relax.
I don’t live in the city proper anymore, although I stayed in New York. Eventually I got married and moved just north to Yonkers, about a half hour’s commute. I felt a bit of a failure for leaving, but could not afford to stay.
We have Rudolph Giuliani to thank for driving out the fringe, and inviting in the money. He started talking about quality of life, and went to war on nightlife. I remember feeling incredulous. Why on earth would someone wish for a suburb in the city?
Artists are resilient people. My friends that remain in the city are tough as nails. I bought a piece of art from one a few years ago. I drove down to the East Village. I haven’t seen her in years, and compliment her; she’s as slender as she was in her twenties.
“Don’t be impressed,” she said. “I can’t afford to eat.”
She may not be able to afford food, but I do not know anyone with more integrity. Please note the lack of any self-pity. She still lives life on her own terms; a brilliant woman Giuliani is unable to shoo away.
I find myself wondering about kids like us today. Are there misfits anymore? There have to be, although so much of what constituted the fringe back then is now mainstream.
If you told me suburban families would watch a show called RuPaul’s Drag Race, I’d reply never. And yet it is so.
I am old enough to remember when people were dying of AIDS, and their partners were stopped from seeing them in the hospital. The inhumanity of those days cannot be overstated. I am thrilled my LGBTQ friends do not have that particular problem anymore.
We can’t call ourselves completely tolerant, though. Not the way we consistently fail at racial justice. I only started thinking about white privilege and the miasma of institutionalized racism in the past few years. America is like me; removed from the situation unless it’s directly affecting us.
There, of course, is the rub. If people like me aren’t working on solutions to racism, who is? Not the racists, that’s for sure. I realize my error way too late.
If there is a society, there are people who reject it. I find myself asking constantly who they might be.
I get the answer the first week of January. Because along with the news of Sylvain, and nostalgia about doll hospitals, there is of course the other news.
The riddle is easier to solve than I thought.
Who is that fringe that lives outside this more tolerant society, rejecting its inclusion of all? It’s not benevolent punks and performance artists.
The answer comes as I scour the photos of insurgents who storm the Capitol. I look for the faces of the boys I knew in school who yelled, “The South Will Rise Again!” I am almost certain they were there, perhaps accompanied by their sons.
The joke is on me, although it’s far from funny. I’ve lived long enough for everything to come full circle.
The fringe today carries the Confederate flag.