Escape From New York: An Unpublished Essay by Cookie Mueller
No one could make a scene and live to write about it like Cookie Mueller. An actress for John Waters and a muse for the likes of Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, and Peter Hujar, Mueller was a brilliant, Beat-style storyteller in her own right. This spring, Semiotext(e) will release a complete volume of the late artist’s stories, along with selections of her journalism and other texts in Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. In honor of her hard-hitting downtown New York days, we bring you her essay, “Manhattan: the First Nine Years, the Dog Years.” Never previously published, it was found on a floppy disk by her son, Max, and presumably written around 1985, as Mueller moved to New York in 1976. She got the city down just right.
I have lived in New York City for about nine years now. Since one year here is equivalent to seven anywhere else, that makes 63 years for me. With this kind of time passing, one begins to wax cool. It takes a lot to impress a New Yorker. The word cool was invented here, the etymological roots lie somewhere south of 14th Street or north of 116th. When I first moved here I used to bitch about everything. “There are easier places to live,” I used to tell myself in the mornings as I brought the toothbrush to my teeth and there was a cockroach hugging the brush, licking the toothpaste. Now I find myself admiring these roaches for their bold New York attitude. They’re so smart they’ve been around for 300 million years, seven times that in New York of course. There’s even a modern hybrid, a totally new breed, the albinos. Through evolution they’ve adapted themselves to white porcelain bathroom living. That’s admirable. “God love ’em,” I say and smile. They seem like pets to me now, or like wild elk drinking at the edge of a watering hole. I hated it when the pigeons used to wake me up, screaming and flapping on the window sills amid all their caked-up guano droppings. Now I have discovered that 80 percent of all city pigeons are gay. Male pair bonding seems to make more sense for them here. I read it in some very reputable science journal. Now I respect them for this instinctive genius for population control. I used to hate all the flies here, but I’ve learned that fat people benefit because they get exercise chasing them off their hamburgers. Because of flies too, illiterates find something to do with newspapers and magazines. I used to hate the fact that there weren’t any fish in the fountains and lakes in Central Park, but then I found that they’ve all been fried up and eaten by hungry people and that’s good because it’s really proletarian. I’ve been hungry and I have a fishing rod, so I get this. Squirrels are good eating too, except they’re so cute alive and look like rats when they’re skinned. I used to hate people with money here, but they’re the ones who buy art from poor creative people and anyway on an average day there’s always two or three people jumping out of Park Avenue windows or wielding the Wilkinson Sword blades on their blue-blooded wrists. So I certainly can’t dislike them now. Toward the other extreme I used to look with impatience on the uneducated poor here. But then after I had to go on welfare and after waiting in lines for five days to get 15 dollars’ worth of food stamps that were supposed to last a week for a family of two, I decided that the welfare system was the thing to be impatient with. I know now that ghettos are full of people with rich lives. I know for a fact that the wild people on the street corners who are talking to themselves aren’t crazy and lost, they just don’t get enough carbohydrates to sustain the weight of profound ideas rushing into their cerebral cortices.
Even time is physically different here. It’s faster. All clocks are aggressive and they warn you that every hour is zero hour. I have found that all this is quaint and romantic, it is the stuff of which poignant movies about Manhattan are made. “It’s real life here in New York,” the film directors visiting from L.A. say. “Well … if you can live in New York you can live anywhere,” I answer. There is no other response. They wouldn’t be so glib about New York City if they only knew that just
getting out of bed here is like one of those hurdles on the way to wisdom that all the Buddhists talk about.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
Lately, a couple of my girlfriends have committed suicide. One jumped off a building and the other one took pills. As I remember, in conversations with them not long before they decided to do this, they told me they were depressed because:
they were reaching 40
their careers were at a standstill and
they were lonely.
All valid reasons.
There have been times when I’ve been so depressed about these same things that I couldn’t be emotionally positive enough to get up from bed at 5 in the afternoon to take a piss even when my bladder was bursting.
So I understood.
I have tried to commit suicide but the famous Dorothy Parker quatrain rattles in my head.
Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live.
You might as well. You’re going to die soon enough anyway and I guarantee when it happens you won’t be ready. In retrospect, I know what I should have said to them. I should have told them about my personal cure for deepest depression, which never fails. “Girls,” I would tell them, “Girls, don’t be such pussies! Get the hell out of here! Take a break from the city! New York is only a small part of the world. Being 40 ain’t so bad in the rest of the world. Nobody on the Adriatic in Yugoslavia will see your hairline crows’-feet wrinkles. In Lesbos, Greece or Fez, Morocco, nobody cares about careers and if heterosexual loneliness is the problem, get your butt on an airplane. There are millions of hetero men walking around in all parts of the world that would fall to their knees in front of you and lick your toe jam. And they’re great looking, some of them have money, even. Not all men in the world are assholes or married or attached or anal or too career-oriented or gay or balding like they are in New York.” It wasn’t as if these girls couldn’t get together the plane fare to somewhere. And it wasn’t as if these girls had inextinguishable burning desires for power and New York city fame that they would be throwing away if they left. But it was true that each of them was sad because they didn’t have a partner. “Look,” I should have told them, “if you’re going to kill yourself anyway, why not go to some country where you can hook up with some fisherman on some coast in Turkey or Italy or Spain or Brazil and be anonymous? Why not start a new career as a fishwife? Fishermen always need wives. Or why not go into some European urban area and hook up with a restaurant owner? You could be the lover and bartender. Or go into the rural areas in southern hemispheres and meet a sandal maker. Think of the fine footwear you’d have.” I mean, hon, if you’re going to kill yourself anyway what difference does it make if you don’t get a mention in New York magazine and what difference does it make if a Women’s Wear Daily photographer finds you sheep-herding in Sardinia wearing a peasant blouse? The next time you find yourself climbing out on a ledge, give me a call. I can recommend a travel agent.
Excerpted from Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller, edited by Hedi El Kholti, Chris Kraus, and Amy Scholder. Reprinted with permission from Semiotext(e), distributed by The MIT Press.
Special Thanks: Stephanie LaCava