This story starts with a book. It is torn, weatherbeaten, highlighted and tabbed into oblivion, and it is the closest thing I have ever had to a Bible. The book is ‘Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk’, a book I have read and reread so many times that I see the story of punk unfolding in front of me every time; I know its plot twists and turns, and I know all of the characters by name.
I elevate this book to mythical proportions because during a time in my life when I understood nothing, when I felt like a joke missing a punchline, I still understood this book. It starts in New York, the home of punk, tracing the development of the genre along with its side-genres and subcultures. More than the history of punk, though, Please Kill Me reaffirmed my love for New York, for all of its acceptance of wild, abstract thought and not-so-misspent youth. It made me understand the beautiful messiness of creativity, how the muse worked, what a community meant, how people learned about themselves. This book gave me hope that one day I would never have to see another minivan, that I could meet insightful, intellectual, artistic people who would become my friends, that the life of creativity I wanted for myself was real.
As much as I relished every part of ‘Please Kill Me’, as far as I knew I would never come in contact with any of its colorful cast of characters—most were either far too famous (although I did meet David Johansen once), far too on the fringe or far too dead for me to ever really meet them. But New York is funny that way—it’s so big, but it’s still so, so small because so many of its communities overlap, especially in the arts—and you never really know who you’re going to meet or see where.
This story continues last Tuesday, when I had the distinct pleasure of attending Book Club Burlesque, a raunchy, bawdy, and so, so smart burlesque variety show at the Parkside Lounge on the Lower East Side. Each monthly Book Club Burlesque is inspired by a particular work of literature (past shows have been themed Lolita, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Handmaid’s Tale, etc.), and the show I attended was themed after Louis L’amour, the prolific Western writer. A slew of performers in and out of drag and back in again performed Western-inspired acts, like a naughty Native American trading her clothes for whisky, or a drag Dolly Parton (portrayed by the incredible, chiseled and glittery artiste Faux Pas) disrobing to forget her sad, country heart. There were also musicians and comedians on the bill. None, however, was as unreal a surprise as the last guest performer on the bill, one Miss Penny Arcade.
At the announcement of her name, I gripped the leg of CH, my guest that evening, in pure disbelief. A shriek-whisper shot from my mouth. “HOLY SHIT I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! PENNY ARCADE! THIS IS NOT REAL THIS IS NOT REAL.” I covered my eyes with my hands and slid them down my face. If I were standing I would have fallen over. I was sitting and I still almost fell over. The entire synopsis of Please Kill Me ran through my brain again. One of its memorable characters sat before me. My jaw dropped, and my mouth stayed open for probably the next ten minutes, my eyes sparkling in the room’s darkness. What the fuck is my life right now?
“Who is she?” CH whispered to me. I didn’t mind that he didn’t know because many don’t. To merely list the facts, Penny Arcade is an internationally renowned performance artist, famous for critiquing culture in a loud, opinionated and generally challenging way. She speaks openly about sexuality, art, cultural values, and what we need to do to fix each of them. She appeared in a film by Andy Warhol entitled Women in Revolt, is the author of her own one-woman plays, and has been a staple to New York’s downtown performance art scene (and the international performance art scene) for myriad years. One of the places she began her career with theatre director and playwright John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous Theatre, a gay-friendly experimental theatre group in 1970s New York. It is here that she becomes part of Please Kill Me, narrating her experiences in the growing art movement downtown and coming into contact with people like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.
You don’t forget a lady like Penny Arcade. You don’t forget a name like Penny Arcade.
She has bleach blonde hair with dark black layers underneath, thick black liner on her eyelids, darkened brows and pink lips. She is wearing a white dress and speaks in a throaty voice caressed by years of cigarettes. She reads a piece called Cowboy Mouth (not named for the Sam Shepard play, but rather for the Bob Dylan song “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”), about being post-menopausal and feeling aroused for the first time in a while. In it, she says, “If The Vagina Monologues were really feminist, they’d be called The Clitoris Monologues.” I am sold. As I sit, rapt with attention and my mouth still hanging open, I know I must go talk to her after the show. I must say thank you, it was such a pleasure to hear you read. I must say I never thought in my wildest dreams I would get to see you in person, much less see you perform.
Thankfully, though, I introduce myself and only say the first part. Penny is kind and says thank you and CH takes a picture of us. She asks about what I do, who I am. I answer coherently and we chat for a bit, but the only thing running through my mind is “PENNYARCADECARESABOUTSOMETHINGIHAVETOSAYOHMYGODOHMYGOD” I must sound flustered because she says with a smile, “You know, I’m just a person,” her big green eyes searching for recognition on my face. I smile, and my brain calms down a bit. But then she says, “Are you on Facebook? Do you have an email address?” and my brain talks in all caps again. “PENNYARCADEWANTSTOKEEPINTOUCHWITHME?????” I have more difficulty with the words this time, but I write down my info on the back of her piece like she asks. CH and I leave, and I bury my face in his shoulder, squealing with delight. “It’s like you’re starstruck,” he says. It’s true, I am. But at the same time, I don’t expect to hear from her ever again. I mean, I’m just some flustered person who talked to her after a show. What could possibly happen?
Well, she could friend me on Facebook and email me some articles she was featured in. I could nearly fall off my couch in excitement and then have the guts to ask if she would meet with me and tell me about her experiences and she would say yes of course and then I would cry tears of joy in my apartment.
Penny is incredibly welcoming, and willing to make space in her very busy schedule for me before she leaves to Europe for a month and change. It is now a week later and my brain is still tripping over itself as I get dressed to go meet her. What does one wear to hang out with a legend, anyway?