I am 50. I teach painting at an art college in Brooklyn. I have a good life, full of many small meaningful rewards, but I just let another Spring Break slip through my fingers and I’m somewhat miserable about it. I was ruminating over the Ghost of Spring Breaks Past, and I realized that what I had once always thought of as my worst Spring Break ever, was in fact, my best Spring Break.
I was 20 during the ‘85/86 school year. I went to the University of Florida in Gainesville. I was in a garage band—about to be kicked out. We had just played a gig with Charlie Pickett as guest star, doing a rip-roaring cover of Bye Bye Johnny as an encore. This was at a mutli-floored club called The Vatican. Some holidays were nearish. I was hanging out at The Vatican, probably drinking Rolling Rock, when I was tapped—chosen by Liz X for misadventure.
Liz X was a credentialed D.C. Punk. She had an Edie Sedgwick look going on—very exotic for Florida, where hot weather and fashion seldom mix well. Liz had short hair, big hoop earrings, she wore a lot of black, and the air around all of us smelled of cloves—I’m sure my small town alternative/gay scene was not so different from your small town alternative/gay scene. Liz talked a lot about the Jesus and Mary Chain—they were brand new then, more rumor than reality really, and somebody Liz knew had carved “FEEDBACK” on their bedroom door in homage. I liked Liz. She was trouble, and she wore womanly lingerie.
We hung out for a few days—after classes? We went to the movies—After Hours? She was staying with relatives and had a younger cousin who really admired her. He was A Flock of Seagulls kid, about 15, going through a “John, I’m Only Dancing” phase. A Flock of Seagulls and his companion, Soft Cell, followed us around. They were fun, and we were all going to the same places to do nothing anyway. Then it was over, and Liz X went back to D.C. We said something optimistic about getting together over Spring Break. I think we corresponded by mail, maybe there was a long distance call or two; if I even had service at the time?
Spring Break is a bore, especially in Florida, where it’s an industry of institutionalized partying. I can’t be bothered to write about all that fall off the hotel balcony stupidity. For my Florida crew, it was much more interesting to head northward, Atlanta or beyond. We craved advanced underground culture and less isolation. It was a party night in Gainesville every night anyway, so who needed Spring Break to drink? I wore shorts and flip-flops to my Latin American Politics class through the entire winter—warm weather was not a scarcity. Crescent Beach was an hour away.
My caravan headed to D.C. for Spring Break. There was some confusion about my itinerary between Liz X and myself. I think she maybe thought I was spending the entire week with her, but I wanted to spend time with my bosom friends too and share the excitement of D.C. with them. It was all somewhat vague, maybe too casual, too Floridian, but there were only pay phones and small scraps of paper to set schedules with back then. I left some messages about delays on Liz’s answering machine. There was some fallout from this. Liz and her pals played back the messages in anger and had taken to calling me, Donald. Donald was the name of the entitled asshole boyfriend from the old TV show That Girl!
I was still with my friends our first or second night in D.C. I don’t remember everything exactly, we were sleeping on random floors in outer belt Maryland. We went to see Robyn Hitchcock at the 9:30 Club. Hitchcock was at the height of popularity then, and acts like his never dropped down into FL. The clubs were just too far apart to make it worthwhile. I don’t remember if I really saw the concert or not anymore. I think I did. What was much clearer to me was the sense of menace I felt just waiting outside in line for an hour or so. There was a general edge to DC at the time that was nothing like Gainesville of course. I was glad to be with a group of friends. D.C. remains the only city I’ve ever been to where street walking whores were brazen enough to pound on the glass of car windows at stoplights—at like 5:00 in the afternoon, even with kids in the car. I think DC had been branded “Murder Capital” about this time too. Also, it was entirely dead at night, empty, except for youthful miscreants of every possible tribe. There was an undercurrent of potential violence everywhere we went. There was great tension between tribes.
At some point after that concert, Liz and I got together. I remember driving with her through PG (Prince George’s) County and she was telling me all these horror stories about a new drug, a pre-crack scourge, called “Love Boat.” She warned me about how I could be murdered by agents with diplomatic immunity and there would be no cause for trial. Only people from Maryland knew how to drive, and if there was any slow-down in traffic, somebody from Virginia was to blame. Because she was pumping me full of fears, my escapade with Liz was quickly beginning to feel like an abduction. There was some backstory drama too that I had previously been unaware of.
Liz was the roommate/friend of Mark Robinson, who was well known locally but not so famous then. He had just released his cover of The Byrds “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” as the Unrest, on a self-produced 45—I think he played every instrument on the record. Apparently, he was in love with Liz. He had been harboring some kind of slow, smoldering passion, and he was beside himself with grief over the excitement that Liz was exhibiting via her infatuation with Donald. Donald was clearly an asshole, how could she be excited about my arrival? Robinson had his own record label, I’m certain that it made no sense to him why none of this was working out in his favor. There were places Liz and I had to avoid, in order to avoid Mark, and encountering his wrath.
So all of this happened 31 years ago, and a lot of it in my mind is quite dreamy and nonsensical now, something like the Kafka short story A Country Doctor, where people randomly appear and disappear non-sequentially. The next thing I remember is we were at somebody’s apartment–her name was Moira. The living room was empty save for a vintage claw-footed couch and an old fashioned metal birdcage (the Tweety Bird kind, but painted over entirely in black) and there was a dead bird lying on its back, feet curled in the air, in the middle of the cage’s bottom. Moira knew about me, but hated me and mocked me because I was Donald, and I had jerked Liz X around by misrepresenting my Spring Break plans. All these girls in Liz’s crew “hung out at Dischord House” (I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that phrase), were heavily made-up, and were the de facto property of Dag Nasty. That’s all they ever talked about, the band Dag Nasty. At some point, I think the drummer Colin Sears showed up, and he was threatening to kick my ass, or so I imagined, on behalf of the bereft Mark Robinson, and for making Liz X wait an extra day or two. He stood in the corner of the dead bird apartment, glowering at me, with scary bleached blonde hair, all rising vertically, and knee-high jackboots. Like I said, this part is dreamy, but I really was starting to feel uncomfortable like the proverbial Out-of-Towner. I was lost in a sea of DC Punk hostility, inhospitality. It was like Tom Sawyer meets the Addams Family.
I was lost, completely dependent on Liz. I had no idea where I was half the time. One night we went to D.C. Space, and some other well-known local clubs that doubled as diners during the day. Everybody was talking about Trouble Funk and Go-go Music. Next thing I knew I was hanging out with the band No Trend, unwelcome in their living room. None of these guys were going to kick my ass, they were not intimidating like the formidable Colin Sears, but they were not outwardly engaging either—I was like some strange specimen Liz X had brought back from Florida. There was a lot of music talk, mostly scene talk, and much fawning. One of the No Trend guys was named Bucky. Bucky was special because he suffered from the medieval malady known as Stigmata—he bled from the palms like Christ. Bucky suffered from the Saints’ disease. Somebody played their (No Trend) single “Teenage Love” and I did think that was something special.
The next morning I went with Liz to the University of Maryland. She had a radio show on WMUC, college free-form radio. She invited me to speak into the microphone. I declined. She said I was the first person she ever had at the station who would not speak on air. I was really beginning to irritate her. I picked out some Damned songs, Melody Lee and Therapy from the album library to play on air. Liz said something snide like today was her “greatest hits” show. There was also a 45 by the Indian rocker Ashwin Batish lying about and I insisted that she play that on air as well. Later, in the car, Liz chastised me for not fully knowing the first two PiL records inside and out—that was inconceivable. She ridiculed my whole limited worldview of music. I was a disappointment. I lacked her worldly sophistication. I was still mostly listening to Elvis Costello at the time. What the fuck did I know? I was Donald.
Liz then gave me a crash course on everything D.C. Punk from its origins up until that Spring 1985 moment. I was with her for 72 straight hours. I don’t remember sleeping. I remember a lot of lecturing and county-to-county driving about. I hadn’t had a change of clothes. I hadn’t had a shower. I don’t remember us ever having a meal. She dumped me on the Mall when she was finished with me. My plans with my Florida caravan were to “meet behind the Capitol at 5:00 p.m. on Friday”. I was so happy to see my friends, so relieved. I was still kind of jumpy, still nervously on the lookout for Colin Sears. We had dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant that night. It was exotic, we ate with our fingers. My friend Phil ate some serious kind of hot pepper and was unable to speak for ten minutes. We all went home to Florida completely exhausted. My friends told me they had been worried about me.
I hated D.C. I thought it was an evil place. I thought of my time with Liz X as something akin to time spent as a captive in North Korea, a Manchurian Candidate, but with European lingerie. I felt like Liz had counterfeited my Spring Break. But that wasn’t me, that was Donald thinking. I look back now and I think that was the small adventure of a lifetime. I was so lucky, so privileged to drop into that world, at that level, at that time. Liz X gave me a real education, and some of the fortitude I would later need to move to NYC in 1988. Out of all the beer swilling dumbasses in Florida, Liz X tapped me for the Grand Tour–D.C., 1985. I was special. I was special without stigmata. It was the greatest Spring Break ever.