Penny Arcade is a petite lady, of voluptuous shape. When I meet up with her, I notice she is much shorter than my own 5’1 ¼” inches, that she must have been wearing heels when I first met her. Her face is wiped clean of makeup, so her eyes are much brighter and friendlier, with the hint of the finest lines at the corners. I notice now she has small dimples on the tops of her cheeks, so whenever she swears it’s like listening to a delightfully foul-mouthed doll. She is wearing a black lace and sequin dress, having just come from a funeral, with royal blue ballet flats covering her tiny feet (her light pink high heels are wrapped in newspaper in her silver snakeskin bag, since she stepped in gum while wearing them earlier).
She called me this morning to tell me our itinerary for the day. I was to meet her at 2pm in the lobby of a building near Madison Square Park. We would then talk for a bit, get on the train, and I would then accompany her to her physical therapy session and wait for her in the lobby, and we would talk some more. I was happy to go wherever I was led.
As we leave the lobby, she notices her bag keeps messing up the sequins on her dress and asks me to carry it. On the way to Madison Square Park, she begins talking about exactly what I asked to hear—her life. Even before we sit down on a bench, I am enthralled. She reaches into her snakeskin tote and finds a yellow pack of Natural American Spirits, striking a flame from a Duane Reade matchbook with eventual success.
As the cigarette burns, I listen again with rapt attention as she talks about what it means to be an East Village artist, that close-knit community of out-of-the-box thinkers and doers of performance art, sculpture, music, you name it based solely in the East Village. It means to be a part of a kind of community that doesn’t exist like it used to, she says. People get further and further away from each other with technology, even though technically it brings them ‘closer together.’ I smile. I’ve believed for a while that no amount of text messaging replaces the warmth of someone’s voice, though I have been known to bend toward technology on occasion, much to the disdain of my mother.
She talks about art not being equal to poverty, that who the hell are these kids who live off their parents and do nothing and move to Williamsburg because ‘that’s where the artists are?’ She is incensed. No! The artists are here! Doing their art! Living amongst artists does not make you an artist.
She talks about the exclusionary nature of modern homosexuality (Arcade describes herself as a bisexual faghag), about the Howl! Festival and Debbie Harry and Patti Smith and performance artists like Ethel Eichelberger and Karen Finley and how 22-year-old women do not want to sleep with the 60-year-old men who hit on them at art galleries. She says nobody is enthusiastic anymore, that everyone thinks they’re an expert and they don’t value the people who came before them. It’s a youth culture, she says, which is good for entrepreneurship but bad for knowing where you came from.
As we walk to the subway, she tells me how she liked John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous Theatre better than Andy Warhol’s factory crowd because the factory was too disorganized. On the train, she tells me how she went to Spain and performed with a communist puppet theatre. One night she brought home an American sailor and the leader of the group yelled at her the next morning, telling her she was a whore, that she smelled like a whore. “I don’t smell like a whore!” she said. “This is Kiehl’s! I’m wearing Kiehl’s! It smells like rain.”
Her eyes sparkle as she imparts story after story, idea after idea. Soon, she asks me about myself. I tell her freelance work is nice for me right now because I never really liked taking orders from anyone. I think this resonates with her and she squints with happiness. “I like you,” she says. “You’ve got guts.” I am floating. Penny Arcade thinks I have guts. There was never so fantastic a moment on the N train.
We walk toward Columbus Circle and into her physical therapist’s office. ‘I’ll be 30 minutes,’ she says with a smile. She leaves and I try to process everything. I want to remember all of the details, all of the stories she tells, all of the names she mentions. Quentin Crisp, a writer and dear friend who called her “Miss Arcade” and with whom she once went to a leather bar, among other things; Taylor Mead, a performer who, at 86 years old, still performs once a week at the Bowery Poetry Club; about being the ‘little sister of the avant-garde,’ because avant-garde is not a style, she tells me, her mouth moving around the word ‘style’ with disdain, it is an artistic movement.
While I am still processing, Penny comes back out, and we sit and chat some more but eventually our time comes to an end. “Do you have any more questions for now?” she asks, genuinely curious. No, I say, but I could listen to you talk all day. It’s the truth.
We walk outside and while Penny has another cigarette, I am happy that she wants to talk to me some more. She leans against the window of a Pax restaurant, her elbow in the photo of a giant wheat flatbread sandwich. She tells me about her book, ‘Bad Reputation,’ a collection of performances, essays, and interviews and its (non)review in The New Yorker. She tells me about the success of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!, her long-running performance in the 1990s (her name still stands on the cornerstone of Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street. The venue used to be the famed Village Gate nightclub, and Arcade's show was the last to be performed there, along with Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris). She tells me how people used to tell her she looked like famed Italian actress Giulietta Masina and wanted her to run off to Hollywood and join the circus (read: the industry), but she chose to stay here in New York and is always glad she did so.
I am too. I think the world needs people like Penny, who do whatever feels right for them despite what other people tell them is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. There’s grand happiness to be found following your bliss, not someone else’s. She wants to pass on what she knows to people like me, she says, because people did it for her, too. How else are you going to learn?, she says. I am honored that she has chosen me as a worthy vessel for her wisdom.
Penny’s cigarette burns out and I walk with her to her last destination for the day. We part ways with big smiles ‘I like our little relationship,’ she says. We give each other a great big hug and promise to get together upon her return. I wave and walk away, smiling. What is this life? Is it even real? I shake my head in disbelief. I still wonder if it really happened.