Culture Clash

'86–'95: From Evangelicals to Trannies, the First Gulf War to Tupac Shakur

Over the decades, I've reluctantly come to disagree with Cage on many points, but if I thought the act of criticism was precluded by his philosophy, I'd have a crisis of conscience about continuing. As it is, I'll go on, wincing when I like things he objects to and vice versa, trying continually to discipline myself, to keep my ego out of my work, to encourage variety, to learn to like things I don't, and—in his words—to get myself out of whatever cage I find myself in.

Teenage Wasteland

Bergenfield's Dead End Kids
By Donna Gaines

July 14, 1987

Nicole Shea smokes cigarettes. At Bergenfield High, that's enough to qualify her as a "burnout." But she doesn't care—she hates school. All the teachers do is yell. What she loves is clothes. Her mother is divorced; she's seen her father twice. Her mom is her size, borrows her clothes. But she hates the way her mother washes them, so she does them herself, just so. She irons her jeans and her shirts are starched, immaculate white. Black hair with full bangs, sides brushed forward on her face. Her secret? A curling iron. Soft makeup except around the eyes, which she loads with electric blue mascara. She wants to be a nurse. Nicole was a close friend of the Burress sisters, Lisa and Cheryl, who, along with Tommy Rizzo and Tommy Olton, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a suicide pact last March. She was horrified that people actually made jokes, stood laughing outside the garage where the bodies were found.

Nicole remembers the next day outside the high school.

"Are you a burnout?"

"Are you going to commit suicide?"

The reporters and TV crews just wouldn't let up. Huddled together, crying, smoking, and trying to make sense of things, Nicole and her friends finally got eggs and threw them at the reporters. Tried to muzzle the camera with their hands. The school, they later told me, had refused to lower the American flag to half-mast—after all, their friends weren't heroes. School officials were unavailable for contact.

Troubled? Need a Direction—Advice or Just Someone to Listen? Call Bergenfield HELP-LINE 387-4083 Talk to Someone Who Cares 24 Hours a Day

Following the suicides, this sign appeared in nearly every store window in town. All sorts of mental health support systems were installed, energized, or trotted out. Since Bergenfield claims the largest Irish-American population in Bergen County, county officials had scheduled a St. Patrick's Day Parade there on Monday, March 15, four days after the suicides. On the advice of mental health professionals, the town decided to go ahead with the celebration. To boost morale and circumvent copycat suicides, to help the town get back to normal. Then there were the jokes about the suicides—"Did you hear about the car for sale in Bergenfield? A '77 brown Camaro with four on the floor. Garage kept." A street sheet circulated in nearby towns. Lyrics to the Beastie Boys song were retitled "You Got to Fight for Your Right to Park It":

If you live in Bergenfield and your name is Tom
Then breathing in fumes is really on
And if you have a sister that looks like you
Then killing yourself is just what to do.

The kid who wrote it got the shit beaten out of him.

On March 17, two days after the parade, two more teenagers attempted suicide. Also in a Chevrolet Camaro, also by carbon monoxide poisoning. Another suicide pact, exactly one week after the first. Two more burnouts huffing octane in 74, the same unused garage in a row of them, down the driveway near the laundry room of the garden apartment complex behind the Foster Village Shopping Center. The couple was rescued and the garage door was finally removed. Today the garage is a storage shed.

For a week or two after the suicides, there were rumors of rituals—séances, dead animals being burned, candles lit outside the garage. Someone painted "Teenage Wasteland" on the garage door. All these stories, along with the higher visibility of rock and roll kids, gave adults the impression that there were heavy metal-instigated cults in the town. A cassette of a heavy metal band was found next to the dead bodies in Tommy Olton's rust-colored 1977 Chevy Camaro. At an Iron Maiden show soon after the suicides, the band dedicated a song to Lisa and Cheryl, "Wasted Years." A lot of kids listen to Ozzy and M Cr For some solid citizens, this was enough to inspire visions of Satanism and black magic.

Hair-hopping: Lady Bunny, 1988
photo: Thomas McGovern/Redux

Hair Peace: Wigstock '88

By Barry Walters

September 20, 1988

Lypsinka, the Russian defectress and lip-sync artist, had finished her act. She entered the audience, a cross between a nightclub soiree and an ACT UP rally, to distribute announcements of her next performance. Just as this drag queen handed me her flyer, a sneaky old man in a wheelchair pulled up beside us, grabbed my crotch, and then wheeled away as unceremoniously as he arrived. This year's Wigstock held many surprises.

Then again, it always does. Held Labor Day in Tompkins Square Park, Wigstock is an annual marathon tribute to feminine artifice. Every year, drag queens and biological females alike take the bandshell to celebrate the virtues of teasing, curling, tweezing, dying, shaving, Nairing, eyelining, false eyelashing, and fine couturing in a natural outdoor setting. For the fourth Wigstock, more than 40 acts appeared over the course of seven hours. Excess, you see, is what drag is all about.

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