I grew up in Scarsdale New York. A lovely, well regarded community with an excellent public school system, and a quick 40 minute train ride into the very heart of Gotham, Grand Central Station.
The homes in Scarsdale when I was a child were mostly neat and well-kept. Back in the early 80s, pre-McMansions and hideous cash-flash architecture, the town was mostly moderately-sized homes on moderately-sized plots of land.
There was one street in Scarsdale that was, in my humble opinion, lovelier than the rest. I had several friends who lived on it and as I rode my bicycle down the street I appreciated the overall sense of prosperity and safety. In the three houses I knew on this street there was no apparent drama. The parents were all still married, the families ate dinner together almost every night, and the lawns were mowed weekly. All three families had dogs, which in my young mind was the telltale sign of a functional home life.
But there was an anomaly on this street, a falling apart white colonial with long grass and weeds blocking the path to the broken down front door. Many communities have one. That House. Abandoned, or at least abandoned looking, maybe haunted some would say. The scene of a murder? A murder-suicide perhaps? The victims of which still wander ghost-like through its dark and silent rooms?
One day, I must have been a freshman in high school, I heard a rumor that someone had moved into That House. I couldn't believe it. The house was falling apart. Broken windows and shutters, overgrown spiky weeds and a small front yard choking on a hopeless bramble of what looked like poison ivy. I told my friend he must be mistaken but he challenged me to ride my bike over and take a peek. It’s weirder than you think, he promised. Look in the windows.
And so I did. That very afternoon. I rode by once, acting casual and like I wasn't snooping, but once assured by my own reconnaissance that no lights were on and no one was home, I brazenly stopped my bike right in front of the house and stared through the cracked and dusty windows. And that's when I saw what my friend was talking about. The house was set very close to the road and from my perch out front I could discern that every single bit of space in the two front rooms facing the street - the living and dining rooms I surmised - were crammed to bursting and piled all the way up to the ceiling with weightlifting equipment. This was the early 1980s and Pumping Iron, the amazing documentary about Arnold Schwarzenegger and the world of professional body building, was still being celebrated and discussed. There were dumbbells, free weights, bench, leg and back presses. Curl machines for glutes and biceps and triceps. Everything I had seen in Pumping Iron and more was jammed into two small rooms in the front of a seemingly abandoned suburban home. It was so out of place, so bizarre, so unlikely a juxtaposition that I was entranced. Where I should have been seeing a floral chintz 5-piece living room set and a wooden gate keeping the dogs out of the “good rooms”, all I could see was iron and weights and dumbbells and machinery. Huge clunky enormous machines crowded into these rooms from the sagging floor all the way up to the water-stained collapsing ceiling.
A few days later I was told that there was a new girl at school and that she was “cool”. The various crowds I was hanging with in those days were diverse. Sometimes I was with “the cool kids”, occasionally with what today would be called the goths, and often with my favorite group, the one that I found most exciting, the burnouts. It was the burnouts who alerted me to Suzy-The-New-Girl’s presence and to her emerging status as queen of the burnouts. In fact, in the few short weeks that she had been in Scarsdale she’d started dating the king of the burnouts - a cocky, silent, too-cool-for-school Jim Morrison lookalike. Certainly, in that crowd anyway, a very desirable catch. How in the world had she managed that in such a short time I wondered to myself. What voodoo and sorcery must she possess? And then I saw her walking toward me across the parking lot and immediately and viscerally I got it. There she was. All long flowing blond hair and longer still pink and purple silken Indian robes. Big blue eyes framed with long dark lashes. The hair, the face and the outfit created a vision of loveliness. If the intoxicating smell of honeysuckle on a warm summer's eve had a human form it would be her, Suzy-The-New-Girl. And the jewelry! She was wearing a twinkling, clinking collection of beads and bangles and necklaces. She had rings on every finger and then rings on several toes as well. She was wearing leather sandals which struck me as remarkable. She was a bona fide hippie, I could tell that much. She was a free spirit, a young Stevie Nicks lookalike smoking a clove cigarette and regarding me with an air of disaffected and incredibly hypnotic insouciance. She was the most gorgeous, sophisticated and exotic thing I had ever seen.
I was hooked. That week I hung out with the burnouts all week just to be in her presence. I did the same the following week and then the week after that. It’s not that I had a crush on her, it was as though I was studying her, in amazement and awe. I was aware of wishing that while in her presence some of her indisputable style, maturity and coolness would rub off on me. I was 14 or 15 at the time, and Suzy had the world-weary, glamorous air of someone much, much older. I no longer wanted to be me. I wanted to be her. I wanted to be Suzy-The-New-Girl.
One Friday she mentioned, while floating angel-like into her boyfriend's waiting car, that we could all come over and hang out that evening. “But after 10” she said, “the house will be empty then.” Now there's glamour and then there's Glamour I thought. Most of the parties that I had attended that year consisted of stealing warm shitty beers from someone’s parents’ garage and then drinking them in the woods. Often in the rain. I was going to a party…at Suzy’s house….that didn't even start until 10 p.m! I had arrived.
My mother would never have let me go to a party at 10 p.m. so I lied and told her I was sleeping at my friend Lisa’s house. I was in fact staying at Lisa's but her parents were fine with the two of us going to Suzy’s so that was the plan. I rode my bike to Lisa’s after school and then at 9:30 we took off together for Suzy’s house.
I didn't know where Suzy lived but Lisa had been there twice already so she knew the house. “She lives in That House” she told me as we lazily walked our bikes up one of the steeper hills. “Which house?” I asked. “You know, That House. The creepy run-down house with all the weightlifting stuff in it.”
I felt such a surge of adrenaline go through me then that I can recall it to this day. It felt like cocaine. I was not only lying to my mother about where I was sleeping, I was going to my idol’s house and my idol’s house was That House. There was so much danger and fear and daring and independence flowing through me that I felt high. High on adrenaline. And I loved it.
We got to the house, threw our bikes into some tall weeds growing up the sides of the house and ran in. The house was pitch dark, the front door cracked and squeaky on its rusted hinges. But Lisa knew the way. She flicked her cigarette lighter (she was already an accomplished Marlboro Red smoker) and said “follow me”. We ran up a dark, narrow and precarious flight of stairs, the banister broken, missing in some places, and essentially useless. On the second floor we arrived at a rickety wooden ladder, leading up to a dark hole in the ceiling.
I was scared now but couldn't show it, so I followed Lisa up the audibly protesting ladder. I was more afraid of being left alone there in the dark, strange-smelling hallway than of what was waiting for us in that ominous attic.
We crawled up there, ending up on our knees as the ceiling was slanted and very low where the ladder left us off, and as my eyes became adjusted to the gloom I could see that we were certainly not alone. In my memory the scene expands to biblical proportions. There, laying about on pillows and tapestries and some dirty old rug remnants, were almost all of the core burnouts from my school as well as two or three kids that I recognized as the top men from the burnout crew one town over.
There were a couple of lamps with bare bulbs, covered (quite dangerously in this bare wood attic, I thought to myself even then) with gauzy, tie-dyed, flimsy floral scarfs. The light coming through them cast a red underwater dream-like glow. There were also several lit candles scattered about the room adding to my innate Smokey Bear paranoia. For this was not a modern day attic. This was an attic most likely built in the 1920s and untouched since then. An ancient attic shaped like a steep tent, the walls of the tent consisting of raw, splintery, nail-ridden wooden beams against which everyone was leaning.
In the very center of the room and in my memory on a raised dais (although can that be right?) sat Suzy. The queen. And in front of her, his gorgeous head resting on her skirted lap was her boyfriend, king of the burnouts. He looked weak, spent, blissed out. Like a shorn Sampson powerless in Delilah's lap. Suddenly I had a stunning revelation. They’ve had sex!!! Those two have had sex!!! I was so shocked, so stunned, so surprised that I couldn't even speak.
This was way too cool for me. This group, this gang, their cigarettes, their beer, the bong that was being passed around, their sex…Suzy had created this hippie-heaven lair that had a level of sophistication I had never experienced. I spent the night there. We smoked clove cigarettes and listened to records, sometimes several times over. At one point Lisa and I went for a walk to get some air (there were no operable windows in the attic) and then we went back in. There were about eight of us left now and it was getting late - probably around 2 a.m. Some people were sleeping, just spread out on the floor or resting against a wall while others were chatting, smoking cigarettes and weed, still listening to music. I felt out of place, considerably less cool than everyone there, very hungry and thirsty, and really tired. I wanted to leave but Lisa was intent on staying…there was “no way” we could sneak back into her house without waking her parents. Eventually I must have fallen asleep for when I awoke there was a faint gray light coming in from the one window, high up on one of the two side walls of Suzy’s room. I was stiff and uncomfortable and so thirsty I felt like my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. Everyone else was asleep, all looking (except for Suzy of course, who looked radiant and ethereal even in sleep) like so many refugees waiting out a storm.
I needed some water so I decided to try to find the kitchen. I felt my way down the ladder and then the death-defying stairs and finally got to the first floor. That same blue-gray pre-dawn light was coming in through the windows now and I could see the outlines of all the weight lifting gear smushed into the front rooms and crowding into the hallway. Machines so jammed together and piled on top of each other all the way to the ceiling that it would have been impossible for anyone to even walk into the rooms where they had been piled, much less work out on the machines.
I flipped a light switch in what I assumed was the kitchen and what I saw has stayed with me to this day. The room was like no kitchen I had ever seen. A bare bulb hung from the ceiling and there were cockroaches covering every single surface, including the ceiling. The room possessed a blackish, shiny, vibrating sheen and seemed to be moving, churning and undulating with the movements of all the roaches. My turning on the lights and shrieking “oh my God” caused the thousands of cockroaches to startle and scurry away, disappearing slowly into all the nooks and crannies and holes of the dilapidated kitchen, like a bathtub being drained of water. I was suddenly extremely nauseous. There was nothing in this kitchen. Not that I could see anyway. The cupboards were open, the drawers as well. There was just cracked linoleum on the floor, empty shelves and cupboards, the bare weak bulb hanging from a cord, and hordes upon hordes of squirming, scrambling cockroaches.
I turned the light off and ran. I ran out of the house, straight to my bicycle and in the very early light of dawn I rode home. Rode home as fast as I possibly could. During those years we kept a house key in the barbecue on the back porch. Once home, I availed myself of that key, let myself into my house, drank half a quart of cold orange juice and crept upstairs and into my room.
I lay there, heart pounding, delighted by my excellent adventure but even more delighted to be home and in my own bed. As a teenager I had this idea that MY house was That House. The house that other children would dare their friends to walk up to and touch on dark and windy nights. The haunted house. The scary house. The dysfunctional house. But having spent the night at Suzy’s all my self pity about my situation went flying out the window. There was dysfunction and then there was Dysfunction. And that is what I had witnessed at Suzy’s house. I was, probably for the first time in my selfish adolescence, proud of my house. Proud of my mother and the sacrifices she had made to keep us in that house. And incredibly grateful to have a room and a bed of my own. I was profoundly grateful to have any bed at all. Did Suzy even have a bed in that house? I wondered. Does she even have parents? Or siblings? What do they eat? Or drink? Where do they sit? For I had seen no furniture at all. Not even a chair. Just those endless gigantic monstrous machines taking up any space there was. I was happy to be home in a house with windows that opened and a door to my room and a refrigerator that held water and orange juice and milk and fruit. With an old-school mother who wanted to know where I was and with whom. With a strict curfew and occasional groundings and rules and manners and codes of conduct to be followed, however unfair and outdated they seemed at the time. As I fell asleep I felt safe and warm. I don’t want to be Suzy-The-New-Girl, I thought. With her glamour and her sophistication and her sandals and her sex. For the moment I was fine being plain old me. Because from what I had seen (once allowed into the inner sanctum of Suzy’s world) being Suzy-The-New-Girl didn't seem like such an enviable life after all.