Category Archives: New York in the 80s

We prickly thistles: in praise of problematic people.

Thistle by Suzanne Forbes Jan 27 2016

I hadn’t done a large, detailed embroidery piece in a while, so I decided to do a botanical.

And then I got interested in weeds, and prickly plants. I chose a thistle specifically, because it’s the symbol of Scotland, where my amazing mom was born, because they are beautiful and because some are poisonous, some nutritious.

Plus, thistles are the favorite food of the world’s only adorable depressive, Eeyore.

The last year has made me think a lot about how we judge people’s “undesirable” qualities. One of my beloved ex-boyfriends was here visiting in September, and I was telling him about some horrible thing I used to do when I was using. “I’m glad I didn’t know you then. I don’t think we would have been friends.” “I wasn’t nice“, I said ruefully. “I can’t imagine that.”, he said.

I was glad he considered niceness such a natural part of my character now, since becoming nicer has been one of my primary goals for the last twenty-seven years. But what he said made me sad. It seemed like a disservice to the incredible people who were brave enough and injudicious enough to love me when I wasn’t nice. There were a lot of them, and they saved my life a thousand times.

My oldest and dearest friend Victoria has known me at depth and loved me since I was an enraged, bitter, foulmouthed, shoplifting eight-year-old. She has loved me through her 21st birthday, when I did so many drugs the paramedics had to revive me before I could go to her party, even though I promised I wouldn’t be high on her birthday.

She loved me enough to say to me, in her maid of honor dress, in the fairy-tale carriage on the way to the church, “You don’t have to go through with this, you know.”

Does someone like me deserve a friend that good? I was a terrible girlfriend to good boys; I hit at least three of my boyfriends that I can remember, and I think I cheated on every single one. Usually with their best friends. I lied endlessly to my mother, whose shelter and protection was the only thing that kept me alive in an absurdly high-risk lifestyle, and crept into her bedroom to steal from her purse at night. I disappointed my teachers, whose guidance was the central force in my development as an artist.

I gave the boy I should have married drugs that killed him, and I still miss him every day.

I broke the heart of another boy who wanted to marry me, and I still miss him every day, though he lives happily with his wife in Seattle, doing martial arts with his kids and restoring their Victorian. I betrayed the trust of doctors and therapists who tried to care for me. I stole food and booze every single day for years. I had sex with underage boys and girls and gave them drugs and alcohol. I hurt the people I loved the most on a daily basis, for years.

And the really fucked up thing is, it didn’t all stop when I got sober.

I didn’t stop cheating on my boyfriends til I was over a year sober; I haven’t hit anyone since I got sober, but at four years sober I grabbed my first husband and threw him up against the fridge. It took me years to stop stealing small bits of food. I ran up credit cards and had to spend years paying them off with Consumer Credit Counseling.

My own brother has a daughter I’ve never met, because he stopped speaking to me back in ’98.

I can’r really blame him. I was a terrifying, nightmare sister, and it takes a rare family member to truly accept that someone you have known from babyhood can change. I lied to my editor on Star Trek, who I worshipped, because my crippling depression meant I was constantly running behind on my deadlines. I had to file bankruptcy in the early aughts because of my IRS debt. I was a verbal abuser and a bully to both my first and second husbands; I used compulsive shopping to medicate the pain of the relationships til sometimes we barely had money for food.

And my flashing furious temper cost me the friendship of a man who was one of the little brothers I always wanted; no amends I made could fix the relationship, and it is the greatest loss of my adult life. That’s something I’ve learned, going around to stores in New York to pay them back for things I stole and finding the owner changed: sometimes you can’t make amends. Some things you can’t fix.

But you can try. I have three jobs in life, since January 27, 1989. Wake up in the morning and try to stay sober that day, try to be a goddam better person that day, and then maybe make some art if I can. It gets easier to do better. My role models help. The vast majority of my friends and partners have always been much better, gentler people than me; it’s aspirational selection. I love niceness. I have a good boy fetish, not a bad boy fetish.

I have managed to spend five years with my third husband without ever belittling, shaming or abusing him. I have never even raised my voice or used hurtful language to him. I have managed to be kind and reliable to my friends consistently for years. I have learned to pay my bills (mostly) and show up on time for jobs (mostly). I just don’t go to the supermarket or the post office on the couple days a month when I can’t be trusted not to be a fucking rude bitch, because I’m tired of having to go back and apologize later.

I’ve come to believe you don’t have to be good to deserve to live; you just have to want to be better enough to try.

Dracula by Jon J. Muth

“Father- I’ve done…questionable things-” from Dracula by Jon J. Muth

Right now another young man who’s like a little brother to me is in trouble back in the Bay. He’s in the community stockade for his bad behaviour. I wish I could be there, to love him even if he’s done shitty things.

I wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t loved me even though I did questionable things. I don’t discard David Bowie because he slept with fifteen-year-old groupies or said reckless things about Hitler.

Arthur Chu, a writer I like a lot, recently said some good things about the imperfection of people.

He talks about how Janus-like our qualities are; how the worst things we do are sometimes part of the best of who we are.

My mom, whose wisdom I value more than anyone’s in the world, said something interesting to me about all the things that are fucked up about me.

She didn’t say it like that, of course, but she said those obsessive, difficult, compulsive, aggressive traits that have bought me so much trouble were also strengths that carried me through the terrible, exhausting move to Berlin and the crazy housing search.

I heard someone else refer to the unpleasant qualities of the alcoholic/addict personality as a survival tool kit for dysfunctional family living. The tools may not be very desirable or attractive in adult life, but it can be hard to shake the ones that continue to serve you. I try to remember that all I can do is keep growing.

And I remind myself, I was being the very best that I could be with the self I had at that moment.

I once had dinner at Chez Panisse with my second husband; I had nettle pasta and he had long-cooked beef ragout, the gristle softened into gelatin. Here in Berlin, I had nettle soup again, made of weeds gathered by the road in Friedrichshain. Weeds have their uses, and their beauty; tonight I have been clean and sober 27 years.

Ponies, ponies, PONIES!!

Our nearby shopping plaza has a Christmas village with a train, a carousel and PONY RIDES.Pony rides by Suzanne Forbes Dec 20 2015

It is so delightful. I sat on a bench next to the speakers playing Christmas music and drew; it was utterly wonderful.Pony rides by Suzanne Forbes Dec 20 2015

Some followers of my work may be surprised that I can draw a horse. A horse is an extremely difficult thing to draw; the famous British equine painter George Stubbs once said that if you can draw a horse, you can draw anything.

Actually, from age seven to age 13, I didn’t draw a single human. All I drew were horses.

I was one of those little girls who both loved horses and was lucky enough to be around them. We had a ramshackle country house in Maine with a barn where we spent every August, and I spent July at riding camp for several years. In Maine we rented a horse for the month, and I took care of it.

I wanted to be a champion rider, at first, maybe on the USET, and then I discovered that I really preferred to ride my pony bareback, with a hackamore, rambling in the woods and fields and beaches. I didn’t actually ever want to learn any kind of rigorous discipline besides drawing.

During this period, I figured my commercial art career would be as horse book illustrator.

I had a hero, Sam Savitt, who was an incredible illustrator, and his “Draw horses with Sam Savitt” poster hung next to my bed where I could study it constantly.drawhrs

Because my father wrote books and knew tons of people in publishing, I actually got to go to Mr. Savitt’s farm and meet him.

This was akin to the time I got to meet Jack Kirby at San Diego just a year before his death.

Studying Sam Savitt’s books was the beginning of my process of obsessive study and learning around drawing.
littlefellowRichRUdish

Rich Rudish, who did several books with wildly popular horse book author Marguerite Henry, was an idol of mine as well. He was a superb draughtsman with a particularly wonderful talent for the dished faces of Arabians.

Looking him up for this article I learned he created Rainbow Brite for Hallmark in 1986!

He sculpted the famous model of Henry’s Sham for Breyer. It is still one of the most beautiful Breyers ever made, I think. (I hope to build a stable for my dollhouse next year and house some of my Classic Breyers in it, so my action figures can go riding!)sham

 

I also liked Henry’s longtime collaborator, Wesley Dennis, though I felt his drawing skills weren’t as solid as Savitt’s. I dreamed of having a working relationship with an author like Henry. I didn’t want to write my own stories; I just wanted to draw the pictures.

Anna Klumpke portrait of Rosa BonheurA great role model was Rosa Bonheur, the most famous female painter of the nineteenth century, who dressed à la garçonne (in men’s clothing), and kept lions for pets. I felt her brio and power like a lifeline.

She was proof that women could make art that was as bold and fearless as men’s. I didn’t want to draw anything fragile or weak- I wanted my work to be a true draughtsman’s, absolutely grounded in anatomy and technical knowledge.

Here is her masterpiece, The Horse FairThe Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur

By seventeen my career plans had changed, and all I wanted in the world was to draw comics.

But you keep the skills learned as a child forever. I remember sitting on the hallway floor in the old Marvel offices with my friend Chris Claremont in ’86. We were talking with Bill Sienkiewicz, who was at the height of his stardom, and the subject of horses came up. MoonKnightpageBillSienkiewiczSo I taught Bill Sam Savitt’s technique for drawing the horse, there in the hallway at 387.

This Moon Knight page is from before he met me! Look at where the browband of the bridle is! Absolutely shocking 😉

Knowing how to draw a horse gave me the understanding to draw cats and dogs and goats and deer as well. And I do love to draw a goat. Especially baby goats.goat by Suzanne Forbes 2007

I don’t have cause to draw horses very often anymore, and that’s too bad.

Maybe I’ll find a portrait client here in Berlin who wants a picture with their horse, or their goat!

 

 

 

Drawing, and why I do it.

Original drawing by Suzanne Forbes Sept 2015I did this drawing of loved ones at the Piano Center in Berlin, in about 20 minutes.

Even for me, that’s extraordinarily fast, and it’s a terrific drawing. The wonder and joy of all the handwork I’ve been doing in these last few years of not painting or drawing very much is that it’s made me a better artist. It is my job in this life to become a better artist, of course, but I have paid terrible dues approaching that goal directly.

Making art was always an arena of terrifying risk, the place where my entire identity was on the line with every stroke. Failure meant total failure, to myself and my goals. I’m enormously grateful that now I am engaging with my craft in a way that’s more nourishing and less savagely self-critical. I still put the pencil to the paper with a sense that my value is at stake, that it is work in the sense of breaking rocks, but at least I have a parallel arena of play.

I have no false modesty about my draughtsmanship- there are only a couple thousand people left in the world who can draw like I can.

As storyboard artists continue to be replaced by animatics software and pre-vis studios, as hand animators continue to be replaced by 3d animation, as book cover artists are replaced by graphic designers, as comic artists continue to focus on style over technical skills, as the remaining fashion illustrators and courtroom artists, almost entirely replaced by cameras, die off, the number of deeply trained great draughtsmen who can perform reliably under any conditions will continue to diminish.

Drawing isn’t like beer and bread; it won’t be saved by a new wave of artisan DIY makers who decide to preserve the old ways.

You can learn to make great bread in a year-long apprenticeship; it takes a year to learn technical perspective alone. A year to learn anatomy, a year to learn foreshortening. Ten thousand hours, or as Chuck Jones said,

“Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”

I grieve for my craft, of course. I ache for the days when you could go to San Diego ( we didn’t call it “Comic Con” then- in 1986 comic artists said “Are you going to San Diego?” to each other) and Howard Chaykin wouldn’t shake with his left hand because he had to “protect the instrument”. The days before Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane. When there were still journeyman illustrators in ad offices on Madison Avenue, and the Lord & Taylor’s ads in the Times were still drawn by fashion illustrators.

When I was a teenager it was still a completely reasonable, practical life choice to become a commercial illustrator.

I would never have committed over a decade of training to something frivolous, like “fine art”; I fully intended to be self-sufficient by my own means and a working artist. The only reason I know anything about “fine art” today is that when I went to treatment in 1989, the best halfway house was in St. Paul, Minnesota, and after I got out they said I’d relapse if I went back to New York. I’d seen enough of my peers relapse that way to believe them, so I stayed in the Twin Cities, where the only art college happened to be a conceptual PostModern Fine Art emo wonderland.

If I hadn’t gone to MCAD, I would never have learned to paint; I would never have seen installations by Janine Antoni and Karen Finley, never heard Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Ann Hamilton speak ; never been exposed to performance artists like Ron Athey and the others who were supported by Walker Art Center performance curator John Killacky (later executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts).

I’m not sorry my tradesmans’ view of making art was disrupted by conceptual art- it was a priceless experience.

Even though I wandered the halls of the school muttering, “Why can’t Johnny draw?” sometimes, and it was tremendously hurtful to have my skills disregarded. In the Parsons Illustration Program I’d been a hotshot, a teacher’s pet, the example held up in class, until my nodding and vomiting disabled me. At MCAD traditional drawing was already completely devalued, utterly passé, and a boy I foolishly loved once sneered at my senior thesis paintings, “Why don’t you just get a camera?”.

But I was lucky in my work, at first. An illustration teacher who admired my skills suggested I look into courtroom illustration, since Minnesota was then one of the three remaining states that didn’t allow cameras in the courtroom. There were four major tv stations in town, and four courtroom illustrators; by a morbid coincidence, one of the four artists died just a few weeks before I contacted the stations. By the end of my senior year I was working regularly for the CBS affiliate, making ridiculous money for the time. CNN bought my drawings and people who knew me saw my name around the world. I worked with journalists and loved knowing them; they are a special breed. I told people what I did and they said, “Oh! How interesting!” and I could say, “Yes. It really, really is. ”

If I hadn’t had my heart set on drawing comics, I might have been ok.

But all I had wanted from 1983 on was to draw superhero comics. The story of how I broke in, after years of struggle; how I drew one of the first DC comic issues ever to be pencilled, inked and edited by only women, how I was then (and perhaps still) one of less than a dozen women ever to be a fulltime penciller on a monthly book by the Big Two, how the industry collapsed around me in ’95 and I left comics- that’s a story for another time. The point is, I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t build my skills out of a selfish desire to do something I loved and enjoyed- I built them to do work I was good at and expected to be well paid for, even though doing it had an enormous emotional cost. And then those skills became obsolete in my lifetime.

So it goes. Now there is just the puzzle of the next fifty years.

Andy Warhol painted by Alice Neel

Andy Warhol painted by Alice Neel when she was 70.

Because portraitists do their best work late in life- as anyone who has ever been in a gallery of Millais’ assured later-life portraits or seen the incredible Hockney portrait show at LACMA knows.

I have no idea if I can build a portraiture practise here in Berlin that will support me financially; I only know I stand a better chance here than I did in Oakland, and that at least if I can’t, I’ll still have medical care and housing.

I am a repository of everyone who taught me, everything I studied, all the work I put in to be the craftsman I am, and I just can’t let it go to waste.

The first boy I ever dated is being played by the movie star who’s playing Lex Luthor.

giphyI read Salon. And I love, love Andrew O’Hehir.

Especially now that he’s writing more editorial a lot of the time, I make it a point to read the movie stuff he does do.

La la la, oh I see they’re making a David Foster Wallace movie…

…huh, it’s based on the interviews David Lipsky did…Jesse Eisenberg is playing David Lipsky?!?!note-pass-bald-407x480

But I haven’t even processed him playing Lex Luthor yet!

Or that Lex Luthor has hair!

*meme humor by The Mary Sue Senior Editor Glen Tickle

Wait, David Lipsky comes off as a total tool in the movie? HA HA HA HA omigod that’s hilarious.

In the Fall of 1980 I was thirteen, about to start high school at Stuyvesant. Of the ten kids in my small private school who’d taken the Stuyvesant test, most my close friends, two of us had gotten in. Me and my friend Oliver. Earlier that summer, at a birthday party at the Village apartment Olly shared with his charismatic mother Bonnie, I’d pulled a bottle of champagne out of the bathtub and tumbled on Bonnie’s bed with one of Olly’s friends.

That summer I had stripped the baby fat that protected me from my father on a three month crash diet of iceberg lettuce and sugar-free yogurt, forty pounds in three months. I felt my rage could protect me now, so I’d let my hair, which I’d cut because my father loved it long, grow again. I was blonde and blue-eyed, 33-23-36, and wearing purple painter’s pants from Reminiscence. When that boy kissed me the power came up in my veins like the speed I got onto later that year. I knew all I wanted was boys, to have them and take them, hurt them and enslave them.

The week before school started my best friend’s father said I should meet the son of a friend of his, who was a sophomore at Stuy. I asked Victoria, who has been my friend for forty years now but only five back then, if he was cute. She said yeah, actually he was fairly cute.

So I talked to David Lipsky on the phone, which was next to my brother’s bunk bed. The white paper under the rotary dial of our phone was covered with ballpoint ink, from my doodling while I talked. It was still hot; summer dies like a snake by mid-September in New York, or did then, but it hadn’t broken yet.

I agreed to meet this boy the first day of school, on the steps.

Maybe Victoria’s father, Mel, thought we’d be friends. I don’t think so. Mel had an invasive voyeuristic fascination with the sexual development of children, much like my own father. When you look at pictures of me and Vicky at eleven and twelve (I was always younger than everyone else) it’s shocking; my moon face and her gaunt one. Anorexia was so new that she wasn’t diagnosed until nearly too late.

I met David on the steps in front of Stuyvesant before the first bell, so I wasn’t alone my first day. Not that I was worried; it was thousands of kids to less than 100 at Elizabeth Irwin and Little Red Schoolhouse, where I’d spent the last five years, but I was fearless and ferocious at thirteen. And Olly was a brother to me, a blond Han Solo; knowing he was somewhere in the building made me feel safe.

David was pretty cute. Not amazing, but I liked his dark curly hair, and he was tall enough, wearing those thin cord jeans that boys wore then. We talked a bit, and then I went off to class. I remember almost nothing about the school part of Stuyvesant, even now. I didn’t want to go there; I wanted to go to Music and Art, and I certainly could have gotten in. My father insisted on the math and science school, because it was the most famous. Narcissistic cathection plus lots of weed, ugh.

Later that week David called our apartment in Chelsea and asked me on a date. I did not like my father asking about it, but we did share a laugh about the hilariously outdated concept of “going on a date”. I suspected it might be my first and last date; I didn’t think dating was compatible with the vision I had of stooping like a falcon. But I was thrilled. My adventures as a seductress were beginning. I wore my painters’ pants and a white men’s shirt for my first date.

In the kitchen before leaving I dusted cinnamon behind my ears because I’d read in Glamour magazine that it turned men on.

nancy_allen_Dressed_to_killIt left a faint rusty rime on my collar. My father was leering, gleeful, as he watched me leave.

I met David uptown, probably at the Uptown Loews; I know it was a theater with multiple screens.

We argued about what movie to see. He wanted to see a DePalma thriller with Nancy Allen, Dressed to Kill.

I wanted to see anything but horror; I had had a very bad experience with Hitchcock Night at riding camp a couple years earlier. I capitulated, with the caveat that we would leave if I got uncomfortable. At some point I did, and then I pulled the first of an infinite number of dick moves I’ve pulled on guys.

I informed him that we were going next door to watch Lady and the Tramp.

Maybe it was during the spaghetti scene that his arm crept around me; I snickered into my cinnamon-scented collar, because I had never, ever expected to have this experience. Afterwards we walked across the park, I think, to his Upper East Side neighborhood. He wanted to hang around Woody Allen’s building and see if Woody came out. I didn’t; I hated Woody Allen every bit as much then as I do now.

He lived around the corner, probably with a divorced mother who Mel had the hots for, and we wound up in his bedroom, on his single bed. Which was the point of the whole endeavor, for me. I told him about the cinnamon; I felt it would make me seem both innocent and charmingly vulnerable. Bonnie’s bedroom had been dark and air-conditioned; David’s room was brightly lit.

He said, “What do you want to do now? I could do my Woody Allen imitations. Or we could make out.”

I looked him in the eye and took my shirt off. I remember our legs tangling, the first time I realized how long boys’ legs are, the feel of it; I knew it was what I wanted. I was both startled and disappointed by the explosion. I felt exactly like Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings, (which Victoria and I had seen that summer) when Matt Dillon passes out. I had had plans for that penis. There was awkward cleanup, and now my shirt smelled like cinnamon and come.

I went back downtown; I saw him the following week at school, but it was obvious neither of us could sustain interest. Two weeks later I found the boys with the drugs.

In the 90s Victoria told me David was working as a journalist, and I laughed; that seemed just right, like Olly actually becoming an actor, like he’d always said he would. I was going to be an artist; Olly was going to be an actor; neither of us should have had to go to Stuyvesant just because it was the most famous free school in New York.

In the oughts in Berkeley, living with my second husband,  I read Infinite Jest, cherished it, and put it on the bookshelf. It reminded me of The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, which I’d read when I was fifteen. I read the short stories too, but they didn’t do too much for me. I read (probably on Salon!) that David had interviewed David Foster Wallace, had spent four days on a road trip with him. I wondered if he had offered to do his Woody Allen imitation.

When I moved in with my third husband in the teens we both brought forty boxes of books. The three duplicates were Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon, and The Phantom Tollbooth.

I haven’t seen David Lipsky in thirty-odd years, and that’s fine with me. Would he remember me? Of course. I was dazzling at thirteen.

Is my life a disappointment, compared to the other kids who stood on those Stuyvesant steps in 1980? I don’t think anyone could possibly say, because my life is really only getting underway, and there’s actually nothing but second acts in American lives.

The New York-Berlin Express, Vol 1

One of my patrons mentioned she’d love to see drawings of the marathon culture in Berlin. I had no idea that there was marathon culture here until recently…

A couple weeks ago I was taking a taxi because I had to rush to get to an interview at a startup.

My cab driver was a friendly guy in his 70s. Like many people do, he asked where I was from- to my great surprise, older Berliners often don’t see much difference between an English accent and an American accent.

I explained that I was from San Francisco recently but that I grew up in NY.

He told me that he had been to New York, once, in 1991. To run the New York marathon! In under four hours.

I was very impressed and asked a lot of questions.

He described the difficulty of the conditions compared to Berlin: almost the entire Berlin Marathon run is flat, while the NY course has several significant hills.

He had obviously studied the route extensively before his run, and still remembered the names of the neighborhoods and the streets he had run down clearly. Then he told me about the hotel he stayed in.

262px-Calvary-baptist-churchHe stayed at the Hotel Salisbury, which is the only hotel in America wholly owned by a church.

It’s owned by the Calvary Baptist Church, which occupies the first five floors, with a sanctuary and a practising choir. “Then the hotel is just stuck on top of him! like brot in a sandwich!”, my cabdriver said delightedly.

He went on to imagine a situation where a fellow might go on a business trip, with his secretary very nice, and have to make his peace with God over his indiscretion on the spot!

To a secular Berliner, the idea of a hotel in a church was just such a good joke he had been enjoying it for 25 years.

Despite living the first 22 years of my life in New York, I had never heard of this hotel, and I’m so incredibly glad I did. I looked up its history and found it absolutely fascinating.

It was built as a 16-story “skyscraper church” in 1931, and has two Steinway Grand pianos, and its own radio station, with over 200 hotel rooms.

Nowadays it has a charming blog, where you can meet Bell Captain Al, who has served at the hotel for 32 years, and Dixie the bedbug-sniffing dog! The blog has some really good tips on things to do in the city, including an excellent list of vegetarian and vegan restaurants!*

New York mag‘s site notes that visitors arriving back at the hotel after 1am must show id at the front desk- so no unregistered guests can join your revels.

It’s across the street from Carnegie Hall, and next to the Russian Tea Room.  The hotel is also very close to The Art Students League, the classical atelier where I first started studying drawing at 10 (I used to take the subway there myself, can you imagine) and returned when I dropped out of Stuyvesant with my parents’ consent at 16.

“Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practise!”

9andahalfIt’s near Coliseum Books, a large midtown bookstore. Paperbacks I shoplifted from there as a teenager include all the James Bond novels, one at a time, one per day, and the original 9½ Weeks, which is actually quite a disturbing little book.

As I was typing this and thinking about 57th st., someone walked by outside our ground-floor Berlin apartment playing the harmonica. Playing the harmonica intro to “Piano Man”, in fact. “Was that– ” my husband said. “Yep.”

During most of the 80s, my mom worked for Billy Joel. More precisely, she worked for his manager, Frank, whose trial and FBI investigation she was later deposed for.

Billy, however, was a sweetheart of a boss, who kept a bottle of high-end bourbon in the supply closet for the cleaning lady (“She needs to take a break too!”). And their office was just a block from Coliseum Books and the League; I must have passed the Salisbury Hotel a hundred times.

One time I’d stopped by my mom’s work after class. I was in her office, drinking Grand Marnier out of the bottle at her desk, and Billy stuck his head in looking for her. He saw me and gave me a big smile and a thumbs up.

In the 80s, nobody cared if a sixteen-year-old was day drinking in your corporate HQ.billyandchristie

Although the trip wasn’t in my mom’s wheelhouse I remember a lot of the details of Billy’s historic trip to Russia in 1987, including the food supplies- Christie was terrified of baby Alexa being exposed to irradiated milk, as it was not long after Chernobyl.

“The tour was controversial at the time because Joel was really the first American rock ‘n roll act to play in Russia after the Berlin Wall went up. It is largely credited as bringing rock ‘n roll to the young people of the communist country.

It was also seen as an enormous goodwill gesture. Joel lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on the trip, but he thought it was an important thing to do. Joel says that his whole point was to “make friends.” “Have them know what kind of people we are, make some people happy with my music and get something that can be continued more and more, maybe it’ll grow,” says the singer.”

If you’ve never seen any footage of Billy in Russia, it’s worth seeing. The goodwill shown to him had a huge impact on my ability to understand the humanity of the people behind the Wall of Communism. In the 80s, when a crack of thunder would wake me and I’d think for a disoriented minute that it was the first bomb, it was impossible to imagine an end to the Cold War.

I never imagined I’d be typing this just a kilometer from the Berlin Wall Memorial, and my cab driver never imagined he’d travel to New York in 1991. Or that he’d finish in under four hours!


*Sadly, the veggie restaurant I loved best, Arnold’s Turtle in the West VIllage, is long gone, as is Dojo on St. Mark’s where the veggie burger was so good. But macrobiotic Souen where friends of mine worked is still around, and so is Angelica, where hairy, scary hippies used to bully us Stuyvesant students to eat every single bite of our food because, the planet.