A Place for Us

Twenty years later, punks, drunks, and wayward youth still call St. Marks home

I just grabbed Joey Ramone's ass. It's the night of "Blitzkrieg Bash," and when he passed me on the way to the stage, I went "grabba grabba hey, grabba hey" to his left cheek. Now I'm hiding behind this jukebox hoping he doesn't tell the meaty bouncer to beat my stupid ass up. I'm at Coney Island High, a club that's the center of St. Marks Place nightlife. Actually, Coney is the center of life here because there ainât no life except nightlife on St. Marks Place.

You've probably seen the kids hanging out in front of Mondo Kim's, or Trash and Vaudeville. Crusty punks with blue Mohawks, junk punks in torn suits, and always some dude with a dog sparing for change. They look like throwbacks to '77.

What you got here is a scene. A fucked-up, drugged-up, kinked-up, we'll-love-you-no-matter-what scene. Leather-and-spike kids from Cali, from England, and from asswart Texas are drawn here like magnets. Some come to squat. Some to escape. Others just to get jacked up on drugs and booze. They're welcomed by pierced scenesters with a forty and a place to sleep. On this strip, between Second and Third avenues, no one gives a fuck why you came, they're just happy you're here. As local squat punks The Casualties put it, life on St. Marks is a "Fuckin' Way of Life."

Coney is a three-floor black building in the middle of the block. Unless you smoke cloves and look like the Cure's Robert Smith, you best stay away from the basement--that's where the goths mope. The supercools shake it either upstairs or on the main floor where the DJ spins devil's music--punk rock, rockabilly, and anything else with a raunchy guitar and a bawdy backbeat. Sometimes they have theme nights, like "Mod Night" or "Disco Night," that attract a lot of uptights in white jeans and collared shirts. It's always weird to see squares groove to Chic's "Le Freak" alongside punkers. Hell, it's just weird to hear "Le Freak" in a place like Coney because the people who go to Coney are the people who go...

Buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...this girl with blue spiky hair, black lipstick, and lots of tattoos just shoved her vibrator in my crotch. "I carry my vibrator everywhere I go," she says, with a smile.

"I carry my right hand," I reply.

She gives me one of those you-ruined-our-moment looks, the kind your partner gives when you fart during sex. I head for a drink.

James, the drummer from L.E.S. Stitches, is behind the bar. A couple days ago, Mickey Leigh from Stop, Birdland, and the Tangerine Puppets was bartending. Last week it was some guy from D Generation. And the week before, it was a cat from the Radicts. Seems like I've bought Jack and Coke from a quarter of my record collection.

James has got the mafia-punk look down. He slithers around in a black suit with a toothpick dangling from his lips. He even wears a pinkie ring. When he hands me my drink, I take it to one of the candlelit tables near two men and a woman who are talking about how they need a bass player for their band. "Wow, this is great," I think. "I don't play bass, but what if I said I did?"

So I feed them some bullshit about my bass-playing experience, and they invite me back to their pad to hear their music. When we get there, a guy on quaaludes is drooling in the corner.

I excuse myself and go to use their bathroom, or rather, their floor (I was so drunk I missed the toilet). When I come out, they're sniffing cocaine on a T.S.O.L. CD case. Then the woman spills the coke on the floor. One of the guys tells her to clean it up because he doesn't want the dog snorting it. So she gets on all fours and sniffs the coke out of the rug. I decide to leave.

A couple of days later I go to CBGB to see D Generation play. The inside of CB's is a channel of smoke, sweat, and saliva--everyone is drunk, and spitting when they talk.

Plus you had to wade through the hair. The place was like a forest. There was spiked hair, dreaded hair, and greased-up hair. Everyone--even people from the old school, like Debbie Harry, Jayne County, and Bob Gruen--had dusted themselves off and come down for the spectacle. I also spotted a half-dozen people who had once told me D Generation sucked waiting for the show.

All around me, the crowd was bouncing around in two-inch platform creepers in white, blue, red, black, black with a red stripe, black with a blue stripe....One guy had on leopard-skin creepers, black leather pants, and a Stooges T-shirt, and his girl was dressed in a short skirt and a faded English Dogs shirt. They were surrounded by a hundred people wearing the same outfit, give or take a spiked dog collar.

By the time I got there, I had already missed all the opening bands except the Toilet Boys, who had this beautiful singer with big round eyes and a petite little frame. She had just finished "Another Day," a duet she sang with the six-foot-five guitar player. I was marveling at this bottle-blond goddess until I looked down and realized she was packing something in that G-string.

After the show, I went to Coney with Brendan, a 29-year-old English bloke with Billy Idol spiky hair. Brendan's a bricklayer who moved here from England. He is always at Coney either buying people beers or asking them to buy him one. He wears this olive-colored blazer he designed himself--it has buckles on each arm, and bunches up in a buckle at the waist.

We slump over the bar with a couple of brews. "It's a little community down here, and it's fuckin' great," he says, swilling his beer. "When I came here and started hanging out on St. Marks Place, the people were so inviting. It really reminded me of the way things were back home in England. I saw the Damned on October 27, 1979. And this is exactly the way things were."

This guy is real punk rock in that don't-wanna-grow-up kind of way. He says he's been married three times with five kids, but can't give up the rock 'n' roll life.

"The first marriage failed because we were too young. I was 20. It was a lot of pressure for me. I had two children, bought a house, and about six months later England went into a bad recession," he says, dragging on a smoke. "The second marriage failed because of America. She hated New York. Our daughter was due to start school, and when my wife saw the schools had security guards and bars on the windows, she freaked. So she went back to England, and I decided to stay here.

"And the third one," he laughs, "the third one didn't like me rocking out. She couldn't accept me playing in bands."

It was 4 a.m. by the time we left. Brendan teased me because I was going to bed while he had to get ready for work.

Two weeks later, I went back to Coney. The girl I'd had the vibrator encounter with was sitting to my left. Some guy was giving her oral sex. After a while I felt guilty about watching, so I left the bar to give them privacy. Down the corner I saw the guys from L.E.S. Stitches, and we all went back to their bass player Damien's house.

Damien shares a one-bedroom across the street from Coney with another kid named Damien. L.E.S. Stitches's Damien occupies the living room/kitchen area, and the other Damien has the bedroom. When you walk in and turn right, you're facing Damien's bed. Over the bed is a Sid Vicious "Drugs Kill" poster. To the left are three shelves with a couple of pairs of creepers, a leather jacket, and a pair of combat boots. The walls are decorated with L.E.S. Stitches flyers, punk rock posters, and photos of the band.

"My whole life is on this block--my band, my job, and my apartment. It's a way of life on this fuckin' street, man. If I go to the next street it's a different world," Damien says.

James, the drummer/bartender, nods in agreement. Still, he says, sometimes things get to be too much. "It's been hard; I haven't had a place to live for six months."

One of the guitar players, Todd, is sitting on a chair next to the bed strumming an accoustic. "I moved down here with my band from New Hampshire, and for a while we were doing really good," he says. "But the same thing that happens to other bands happened to us...Somebody gets fucked up on drugs and alcohol. Which was me. And it pretty much destroyed the band. I'd drink like six nights a week, take Sundays off, and start it all over again. It goes in circles--you start a band, break up a band and get sober, start up another band, and you get fucked up again."

"A lot of this struggle is self-inflicted," says James. "Things get hard, and you start looking to alcohol and drugs. You blow all your cash, and then you're screwed."

Only one of these guys says he has his shit together. Mick, the singer. What he means is that on St Marks he's tapped into the punk rock fountain of youth. Sitting on the edge of Damien's bed, wearing a wife-beater, tight, faded jeans, and two-tone creepers he says, "I work three days a week. I have a beautiful girlfriend, who I would not have had if I stayed in a small town. I have enough money to pay my rent, and enough to go out whenever I want. I'm still living the life of a teenager, and I'm 27 years old."

What a downer. I had expected booze, broads, and raunchy sex. Instead I got introspection. I didn't need this shit--what I needed was a drink. So I left.

Back at Coney's I notice this woman with short and choppy Betty Page bangs drinking a beer. Her name is Sage. I tell her about the L.E.S. Stitches soul-searching I had just experienced.

"I don't think it's the scene that makes people destructive or nihilistic," she says, thoughtfully. "I think it's the people who make the scene. To be cool here I think you have to be tragic. It's like self-mutilation and self-abuse have become the main forms of expression." Sage is from California. She's a writer who was drawn to St. Marks for inspiration. She says this here is "the real deal." Besides, Sage didn't fit in anywhere else. "We didn't come here because we're punks, we came here because we're fucked up and want to find a place where we belong. I'm a queer, fag punk, and I'm a girl. And it's okay. I can fuck. I can get drunk. I can sing onstage. I can blow some girl in the bathroom, and it's all good. Nobody bats an eyelash.

"I came to New York specifically for St. Marks Place. I dreamed about this place."

It's last call, and I tell Sage I'm going home. I get up and the room is spinning. Once I get my balance, I head toward the door. Sage yells something and I turn my head weakly.

"Down here," she laughs, "they come in like a lion, baby, and they go out like a lamb."

I stumble through the doorway, and the door shuts behind me. Slaaaaaaammmmm.

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