#140, Upper West Side, NYC
Today, Goth kids are a dime-a-dozen. You can find them in all the usual places in cities scattered about the world: in New York City, hanging out by the giant black cube at Astor Place; in Dublin, in the plaza under the giant concrete pagoda of the Central Bank; in New Jersey, at the skull-suspender racks at Hot Topic near the mall food courts. When I was in high school, there was hardly such a thing as a Goth. If we existed, we weren't capitalized, for the love of God, and we weren't placed inside ironic quotation marks. There were freaks and burn-outs and metal heads, but there were no goths. There was no "we," no stores selling studded belts save the Alley in Chicago where pilgrimages to buy Manic Panic hair dye were a twice-a-year occasion, no collectiveness to the enterprise whatsoever. I had to grope my way to Joy Division records via New Order records via my brothers' record collection. I liked gargoyles and Notre Dame Cathedral, but I didn't have any cool statuettes of them lying about my room. So when I went away to college and into the dorms, this was a very big deal.
I'm talking about my first plaster Corinthian column.
I'll try to describe this to you: my very first hunk of pre-fab faux antiquity architecture. I loved my plaster column. Some looked at it and saw only a lamp stand, others saw only a Byzantine ashtray holder. I, on the other hand, saw structure, order, coolness. It was a miniature relic of a cathedral -- and it was right under my black-and-white poster of Ian Curtis! This wasn't cliche to me. This was Lewis and Clark. This was uncharted territory. I bought my column for a pretty penny after an agonizing selection process at the Alley on Clark and Belmont. I drove it back to my dorm room in my parent's red minivan, borrowed especially for the errand. I think I might have smoked a cigarette listening to the Dead Kennedys as I drove the column home, holding the Marlboro Light very far out the window so's not to contaminate the new car smell.
It's easy to forget now what a thrill it was, what a defining moment of identity this purchase was for me. I think of a passage in Denis Johnson's short story, "The Other Man," which appears in the excellent collection, Jesus' Son, that describes what such a purchase can look like from the outside:
He was a sad case. His jacket was lightweight and yellow. He might have been wearing it for the first time. It was the kind of jacket a foreigner would wear in a store while saying to himself, "I am buying an American jacket."
I was textbook young goth, buying a decorative architectural plaster column, thinking to myself, "I am buying a Gothic column. I am going to have a little cathedral in my room. I will light incense and pretend that I am in church, only without all the dogma and the standing up." But I don't roll my eyes when I think of it now. It's too easy. Besides, in the short story, it's the foreigner in the yellow jacket, the character with the "essential loserness," who has the last laugh. Not all things are what they appear on the outside. And who knows? Maybe it was that plaster Corinthian column that helped lay the foundation for all the architectural oohing and ahhing that was to come. Maybe I have that to blame. Or to thank.