The Staten Island Railroad is actually pretty fucking awesome as it takes two things that I love, underground subways and above-ground regular (non-elevated) rail service and combines them for a subway price. Passing all the vegetation and backyards, many of which put those in my suburban childhood to shame (the neighbors’ yards, that is.) It’s pretty great to have the bland comforts and space of suburbia and still be in New York City. I myself am returning to hipster Brooklyn from my buddy Johnny’s new apartment in the Tottenville section.
The tanned skin, the men with large body masses, the smell of sausage on a grill. It all reminded me so much of where we were versus where we both are now. Everywhere I turned was a reminder of New Jersey and the cast of characters in the blue-collar Jersey Fresh. Having just returned from my old hometown of Hawthorne for my mother’s memorial service and then going to a place that looks like your childhood stomping grounds, it proved to be a surreal experience. Soon I’ll be off the Island, herded onto the Ferry with the other cattle and then sooner or later back in front of my apartment in Williamsburg, ready to settle in for the night. I’ll be home, no longer jealous of my friend in Staten Island and how much his neighborhood resembled where we spent most of our lives.
Family and I used to crack jokes about telling who rented and who owned by the façade of the house and the condition of the lawn. Even if you were renting, though, you could still put down seed. If the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence, tear down the fence.
How I Became a Zine Writer
I didn’t think I was hot shit when I was 16, but I did think I could save the world. I was punk rock, or so I thought. Crusty, dirty, black pants sewn skin tight, covered in patches and buttons of political bands until we got into hardcore and metal and their respective subgenres. I could never draw even though I always wanted to and still do. But I could write and still did once in a while. I loved the DIY ethic of punk, people running their own distros selling records and booking their own shows. I related to the radical politics in a big way and bought a ton of zines and political literature. Zines, I found out, were a subculture itself of do-it-yourself printing. The possibilities were endless.
I soon figured out I could be doing one of my own. I set out and interviewed the lead singer of a band I was friendly with, wrote essays and lists, and drew the cover (or something to that effect…I actually threw them all away later.) Suffice to say, everyone was in agreement that it was pretty terrible. The singer hated the interview and the cover was actually too embarrassingly bad. I started to do a second one but never finished it.
After I stopped going to shows and my clothing tastes turned to less band t-shirts and more vintage, I started college. My records were traded for a bong. Zines and punk in general became an afterthought, although I would always say when pressed “Yeah, I guess I’m a little punk rock still.”
I wrote off and on through school. I started a novel 3 times, each one unsuccessful. I took creative writing courses and actually learned some things I still remember and use now. I even was invited to exhibit in a department-wide senior show outside of my major and chose part of a project I would of course abandon. After school I didn’t finish anything at all until 3 years later.
For some reason I started to take a serious interest in radical politics again and in being proactive after I moved to another neighborhood in Brooklyn and my mother fell seriously ill. I knew I had to get myself out of the house and get to work. It would certainly be more productive and exciting than an endless string of bars and parties. I saw people selling zines and bought a bagful at an anarchist book fair. I met people from distros and the punk-art space ABC No Rio’s Zine Library. On a whim I decided to become a librarian at ABC and help out a little with a feminist distro. The fuse was lit.
Before this I had rolled the idea around of writing a chapbook of stories but only finished one story. Of course as the saying goes, you’ll never plow a field by rolling it over in your mind. For me the hardest part was sitting and actually writing. I had never believed anything I wrote was good enough to show more than one or two people, if anyone at all.
At the same time, my mother’s mysterious symptoms and pains in her stomach grew worse. Hospital visits to New Jersey became weekly. I was left with a lot of time involving simply sitting; on busses, trains, waiting areas, bedsides while my mother slept. She had a history of cancer, three times before. This time I knew she wouldn’t be so lucky. When doctors finally diagnose her with stomach cancer, I wasn’t surprised, much like I wasn’t surprised when they discussed “Do Not Resuscitate” orders. At first, I started slipping into a dangerous pattern of being either shut-in or out partying my ass off, drinking and smoking more until I grew interested in more productive endeavors.
When Mom got really sick and became too doped up to speak coherently, I started writing seriously and got the idea of a short story series in a zine format. I was practically surrounded by them. The first was a story I wrote in college for a creative writing class. I rewrote it, changing the ending entirely (to later avail) and felt confident about it. I decided to name the series “The Silk City Series,” with each story taking place in the post-industrial city of Paterson, New Jersey. My mother and multiple generations of family grew up and lived there. I gave it out to friends at first, begging for feedback. Surprisingly, it was good and well-received. The worse my mother’s condition grew, the more time I spent en route between New Jersey and New York City and the more I wrote, edited, copied and stapled. I knew I had to keep going.
The formatting grew better and easier on the eyes. The feedback kept coming and I started sending them to be reviewed, distroed or at least traded. The stories were all different and I learned what and who I loved to write about. I developed the urge to sit still for hours and write. To do for the purpose of doing.
When I started the task of cleaning out my mother’s apartment while she was dying and after, early into the job I uncovered a box of family bric-a-brac. It was so mundane but so interesting at the same time. I felt it needed its own zine and it fit perfectly, so I catalogued several items and turned them into a supplement to the series. She died soon after I released it. I had started to grieve early, knowing this would be the last time she’d be in the hospital.
People talk about working through grief, but I really worked through it and still am. Time is said to heal all wounds and it’s true. I heal a little more every time I put something new on a photocopier.