Because the night: Punk, jokes and a little frightened girl

Note: this is one of those late Gen Xer’s lamentations of growing up in the pre-Internet days. I beg thee, dear reader, forgive the sanctimony and predictability in advance. I shan’t harp on the “back in my day” aspects.

In 1992, I was a 12-year old girl who lived in a tiny border town, stuck between Mexico and the U.S. We had two American (English-language) radio stations that reached my town. One was 60’s pop hits. The second was current hits. My mother played tapes over and over in our Dodge Caravan and Chevy Suburban. Gipsy Kings, Bette Middler, Whitney Houston, Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre, Mijaris.

My parents were extremely conservative. And we were far from rich. I shared a room the size of my current Bed-Stuy room with two sisters, younger than me by five and seven years, respectively. I had very little room for self-expression. Not just because of my family, but because of the cultures that crashed in dissonance in my town and the very Mexican idea that you did not stand out.

But at night, my mind was free to roam.

TV was my way into a world beyond the suffocating constraints imposed on my life. I soaked it up like it was my job. I Love Lucy taught me through my first stage of formation. But then there was Nick At Nite.

When I was little little, Nickelodeon played children’s programming until five p.m. and then the local cable company switched over to A&E. This was back when local TV still signed off at midnight with the Star Spangled Banner and a test pattern.

But in middle school, they switched to a full 24-hour feed (the wee hours of the night were filled with infomercials). I had terrible insomnia as a kid and no one seemed to notice or care. So I watched TV through the night. It was Mr. Ed and Darby Gillis and Patty Duke. But at midnight, it was the first seasons of SNL. That was the stuff that blew my mind.

If I wanted to watch late at night, I had to sit close to the TV with the volume low and something stuffed under the door to keep the blue light from betraying me to my mother, an insomniatic sentinel who roved the house throughout the night, and my father, who never slept the night through because his dreams were interrupted with memories of Vietnam. At night, the ghosts of the past were my constant companions. Only later did my sisters join me in watching.

What did 1970’s SNL feel like to a 90’s GenX cusper? It was a safe place I could escape to. Nirvana had already released Nevermind. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get all the kids who liked it. I didn’t understand rock at all. I was dissatisfied with life and angry at everyone and everything around me that reminded me of how bullshit life could be. But I couldn’t connect with those same messages of disaffection through music.

I distanced myself from the culture of cool around music I saw at school. In fifth grade, when all the girls discussed which New Kid On The Block was coolest, I ate my lunch at the end of one of the fold down tables in the Lincoln School cafetorium, just listening. I couldn’t connect with their interest. Their base pre-pubescent lust. At least not when it came to boys dancing on stage. Awkward, socially clueless child that I was, I probably told them they were dumb. I had…have…no chill. I left music to the vapid and carried on with my TV fandom alone.

So, at 12, I didn’t have the first clue about the music revolution going on around me because I was too pretentious to stop and give it a chance. Well, that’s partially true. I didn’t understand the messages sang in cryptic poetry and strummed in dissonant chords. But, even if I had, my nature was so contrarian that I would have rejected it out of hand anyway. The reason I had no chill was because I could barely name my feelings, let alone recognize them in others, empathize and feel any measure of compassion. I had no connection with my humanity.

But with SNL, I could find a connection. Humor was the only way I could access thoughts and…let’s say…some feelings.

My mother, who recognized my precocity and boredom early on, fed me on a diet of Mad Magazine and late nights watching the modern Saturday Night Live and Pee Wee Herman’s HBO special. She knew I soaked everything in and she took it as her mission to expose me to everything she could. Ballet, violin, flute, piano, choir, cheerleading, computer summer camp, Space Camp. I didn’t understand why my mother pushed so hard. But I did get the sense of urgency and the high stakes of failure. After my fourth grade standardized test scores slipped from the 99th National percentile to the 95th, she marched me around Lincoln to all my teachers and asked them what she could do to keep me from slipping down into abject failure. My teachers seemed stymied. Guess who also had no chill.

So of course I studied what she presented to me with fervor. I was afraid of failure. But you can’t study humor like fractions. There is context. To be in on the joke, you have to know a lot of other things. So I had to learn the other things before I could get the joke and report back to my mother with satisfactory understanding. If I didn’t understand it, she would explain in exasperation. It set the expectation: know everything and, if you don’t, pretend like you do until you can look up the answer in the nearest library.

There was no rock library to check music facts. But comedy answers unlocked themselves in concerted study. I could learn the context and then be on the “in” of something instead of the “out.” Finally, for once.

What I am describing is a somewhat well-trodden path of disregarded and rejected nerds. If we couldn’t join the cool club, we were all determined to create our own, with its own set of secret passwords and shibboleths and gauntlets. If you wanted in, you had to be funny. Our jokes were based on all the stuff we were learning at school during the day and at home on weekends, when the more popular kids were out socializing with one another and did…well, whatever it was that they did. I’ll never know.

What SNL on Nick at Nite did was reflect the current culture through the twisted perspectives of Harvard Lampoon alumni and greasy stand up comics. The “current culture” being the late 70’s. And because it wasn’t the culture of my contemporaries, I didn’t have any vested interests in being contrarian just to preempt the rejection of the cool. I could watch it, absorb it, analyze it, learn from it, and then carry all that forward into the next episode. Arms unfurled from the stump of potential I had into branches and twigs and leaves. I kept filling in the holes with more and more context, slowly becoming a human beyond what Nogales would have afforded me in its remoteness.

But when the sketches were based on music, I was lost. Seeing Paul Simon dressed as a chicken, I could understand because he was the guy from the “Call Me Al” video featuring Chevy Chase. But sketches like this:

made no sense. Of course I knew who Ricky Nelson was. I’d watched Ozzy and Harriet. And he’d died tragically in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1985. I remember learning the news as my mother got ready to go out to a party. I knew who Dolly Parton was because I’d seen 9 to 5 a million times. But the rest of that world depicted in that sketch meant nothing. Especially Gilda Radner as a drunken mess with…dare I utter it…armpit hair!

It scared me, and not in a good way. If nerds were making fun of whoever this character is, there had to be some reason. And I couldn’t look up that answer in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. All I knew was that satire made fun of the bad and she had to be bad.

When I heard Patti Smith years later for the first time, I knew who Gilda had been parodying. I stapled those facts together, crumpled them into a wad, and filed the solved facts under “Person I shouldn’t care about.”

My snobbery, legendary and uncontainable, sorted almost everything into three bins: Bin One: stupid and unworthy of investigation; Bin Two: brilliant and worthy of obsession; Bin Three: scary and therefore unknowable and therefore stupid and unworthy of investigation. In that last way, I guess I was very much of Nogales. What they do not know, they fear; and what they fear, they do not like.

Until I was in my 20’s, I still thought “Because The Night” was a 10,000 Maniacs original. Covers had become an obsession of mine. Someone’s interpretation of something someone else had done. It came from a minor rebellion against my mother, who claimed to be the monolithic oracle when it came to music trivia. She would not abide by any undermining. So when I knew something she didn’t, I relished in it. I started dating D at 17 and he would flood me with new musical knowledge she didn’t know. She resented his influence in my life. So if I knew an alternative version of truth to the original she knew and clung onto, it gave me space to finally wonder what else out there existed that she didn’t or couldn’t know.

Obviously, when punk came a calling, I was teed up for joining the movement. And a lot of the stuff that had been sorted into Bin Three started finding its way into Bin Two. These wads of paper hadn’t disappeared. They’d nagged at me over the years and decades until answers came. Humor had worked as an innocuous device to tab pages of my broken life, like a pastel yellow post-it, just waiting for when I wasn’t too scared to go back to Bin Three and heal the girl on those tabs. Apologies for the complicated and mixed metaphor. But what I’m saying is the humor let young Vene feel safe until grown Vene was capable of dealing with the scary stuff for her.

Bin Three would get filled with many more things over the years. I didn’t mature and it didn’t help to have aligned myself with a partner who also distained what he didn’t know. It felt normal though. It felt safe in that bubble. Like I said, in that way I was very Nogales.

I wasn’t able to return to Gilda Radner and Patti Smith until I was in my late 30’s. Gilda had scared me good. I met Patti, as she was, talking in a documentary about Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine on HBO. When I learned that “Because The Night” was he singing a Springsteen song, I turned Bin Three over and found the scraps of paper with Patti’s and Springsteen’s names on them. I returned to the ages of 12 and 17 (when I first heard the Dead Kennedy’s “Terminal Preppie” and decided to hate Springsteen). I filled information in the margins of those calendar dates, and, just like that I was a little more whole.

It is the last calendar day of 2020. I am 41. I live in Brooklyn in a precarious time. The economy hasn’t bounced back yet. If you read the daily rags, you’d think the city has fallen into disrepair and casual vagrancy. If you listen to some, NYC is through. The danger is real for everyday people and for artists. If you listen to the romantics come nostalgics, we are on the verge of cultural Renaissance. The grit and decay that led The Velvet Underground and punk and hip hop and all of that led to the authentic 80’s forms that came next is the same grit they welcome today.

If I were 21 instead of 41, I might be more adept to take on this uncomfortable growth spurt. Pluckier. But 21-year old me was too closed-minded to go through something like that. She judged and eschewed and refused to participate lest she fail and feel shame. Her mother had taught her nothing could be worse than that. After her one rebellion of going to Princeton for a summer and returning home a quitter the summer she turned 21, she told herself not to dream of NYC again. And for a very long time, she listened.

But since then, I’ve failed big and felt shame a-plenty. Forty-one year old me can handle this. At least I think I can. But I don’t have the benefits of youth on my side. At least when it comes to being the pretty girl I once was that could get doors opened. I have to deal with what remains now.

But I have an advantage. It comes from being autistic. There’s this “Intense World Theory” that’s finally gelling. It’s stuff I’ve been saying to no one in particular for going on years. Autistics are fundamentally different on a systemic and cellular level. We have flexibility in ways others don’t.

I deal with the downsides of autism pretty well now. The upside is a hyperplastic brain that keeps learning and creating connections.

So yeah, I’m chronologically older than most people setting out on the journey of self-discovery and creative pursuits. But I’m more agile than the average bear. I don’t think I’ve plateaued.

There are still tabbed pages in my life that match up to the remaining scraps in Bin Three. I deal with them as I can. And as I address them, I am sturdier going forward. 2020 gave me time to see how much more together I am than I ever have been. It allowed me to see that I don’t shake apart. I am more solid than I knew.

So what of 2021? Well, it still sort of depends on tonight, December 31, 2020. It’s the harbinger for my upcoming year. I will spend it alone (most likely). It’s easy to make predictions about the year. It’s going to get rough as people resign themselves to the grim that was this year. They will sink into the funk. That sort of thing is catching. But if I put in the hard work and keep watching, watching, watching, just maybe I’ll be deft enough to find out what part of me will be ready to catch flight against that current. And maybe I’ll soar. Or maybe, only in retrospect, will I see any sort of legacy aided by my contribution. Maybe I’ll never see it. I just have to trust that I’m going to figure it out.

But I don’t want safety or certainty. I lived in that world for much too long and missed out on too many things and people like Patti Smith. Financial security would be helpful. At least some relief from worrying about money so I can think creatively and make moves if I need to. The eternal prayer of creatives everywhere.

I’m looking forward, this time with empathy and compassion. And always, always, always, please God, please, with a healthy dose of humor.

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