I’m sick and the phone rings. It’s 4 AM, and Eliot Fremont-Smith wants to edit my piece. I say, “Sure,” and find the pages. I’m on the couch in the living room because I don’t want to spread the flu. It’s 1980 and phones have those curly, umbilical cords. Eliot sounds drunk and happy. I don’t feel put out the way you don’t feel put out when you are in love. I’m in love with the thing we are doing, not the man. I review books weekly or almost that often for the Voice, and this time it’s The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. The book will go on to win the award for best fiction from the National Book Critics Circle, the organization founded by Eliot when he was the daily book critic for The New York Times. I find the writing stuffy and arch. He doesn’t care. He cares about improving my sentences, and we work until morning light comes through my windows. Later, does he field questions about my negative review from members of the NBCC? If so, I don’t hear.
I’m at the Voice because of him. In 1975 he published my first piece in the paper—about the women in D.H. Lawrence’s life. It ran as the lead story in the arts section, and after that I gathered more assignments. I was a car moving down an assembly line, adding a tire here and shock absorbers there, trying my hand at reporting, memoir, social commentary, and comedy—sometimes all mixed together.
I’m a feminist. Here’s how it happened. It’s 1965, and I enter a classroom at Barnard College. Kate Millett is my teacher, and light shoots off the bun at the back of her head. Whatever we’re supposed to read we don’t read. We read Beckett, Genet, and the Beats, Kate conjuring a geography of desire I want never to leave. A couple of years later I’m at a meeting of the National Organization for Women and Betty Friedan is beating up Ti-Grace Atkinson, then president, for visiting Valerie Solanas, who is in jail for shooting Andy Warhol. Ti-Grace sees Solanas, the author of SCUM Manifesto, as a feminist, albeit nuts. SCUM stands for Society for Cutting Up Men. I get that the title is a joke. Solanas means the world we live in is The Society for Cutting Up Women.
It’s 1977 and Rupert Murdoch has bought the Voice. Everyone gathers at the office on University Place and 11th Street. They fear Murdoch will steer the paper to the right and God knows what else, so the staff agrees to form a union within the publishing wing of District 65. Murdoch will turn out to be a more hands-off owner than others, among them Leonard Stern, New Times Media, and ultimately Peter Barbey, who promised to revive the wheezing thing and managed to pull the plug just a few weeks ago.
The union, with its affirmative action committee, helps diversify future hires, establishes percentage increases on pay rates over amounts writers can wrangle for themselves, and secures benefits, including health insurance that covers “spousal equivalents”—a vaguely vegan-sounding term for your live-in honey. Could you manage on a Voice salary? Kind of—if, like me, you had a rent-stabilized apartment and included in your idea of a take free screenings, theater tickets, and books. I will go on to become a shop steward for the freelance writers. Each time contract negotiations loom, we threaten to strike and ultimately do not strike. People from all departments wear strike T-shirts and walk picket lines that give off a circus air, as passersby cheer us and flash victory signs.
I had left New York to live in East Hampton for a few years. It was not the East Hampton of self-replicating billionaires, but rather the East Hampton of potato farmers and artists. For a while the man I lived with and I had a house down the road from De Kooning, who was declining mentally but was still about three-fifths there. You could rent a house in the winter for the price of a city apartment—then you’d scramble to a barn or a shack when summer people rolled back in. We left the city to get away from the noise. We had luckily found an our last apartment, on Bank Street, in the brownstone where John Cage and Merce Cunningham occupied the basement floor. Unluckily, right below us, the owner’s unhappy son played amplified guitar at three in the morning.
The thing I remember most sharply from that Voice meeting in 1977 is not the union but bringing my dog to the office. The man I live with and I have adopted a rescue pup with a black face and white body. He is small enough to carry in a canvas tote, and out he marches into the laps of everyone there. I feel part of something I have never felt part of before, not even in the women’s movement. Everyone has more cool and swagger than me. No one wants to be in love with a sure thing.
Here are some people I got to work with and learn from over the course of 25 years: Richard Goldstein, Ellen Willis, Karen Durbin, M. Mark, Stacey D’Erasmo, Ross Wetzsteon, Vince Aletti, Erika Munk, Alisa Solomon, Robert Massa, Hilton Als, Andy Hsiao, Paul Berman, Alex Cockburn, Lisa Kennedy, James Wolcott, Sylvia Plachy, Alan Stamaty, James Hamilton, Carrie Rickey, J. Hoberman. Many more.
In 1999 I butted heads with Don Forst, then editor-in-chief, for speaking on the record to a reporter for New York Press. I spoke against cuts in editorial sections and pay for some writers and editors, and I was surprised the next day to find myself fired. New York Press intentionally looked for dirt on the Voice, and I didn’t think about that. I thought I was speaking out against abuses at my paper. I didn’t know Russ Smith, the founder of New York Press, was a political conservative. I should have known, but I was a moron about that. Under Forst and his deputy Doug Simmons, the air at the Voice had taken on the tang of a sweaty jock strap, and it was time for me to go in any case. Soon the heads of most of the people I had known at the paper would one by one roll, including in time the head of Simmons, which I liked to imagine sliding into a mound of dust, the expression of an unchained pit bull frozen on his face. The day I was fired, I felt shot in a part of my body I could not identify, and I floated out, not feeling pain, as people who are actually shot say. I will always be a Voice writer, whether or not the Voice exists.
Here are some pieces I got to file. In 1982, I wrote a long essay about Kafka, showing how, although he felt like a bug everywhere else in his life, he could still treat women like shit. In 1991, during the hearings for Clarence Thomas, I speculated on why more women believed him than Anita Hill. The same year I wrote a defense of Pee-Wee Herman, who was arrested for masturbating in a porno theater (omg!), ruminating on the hysteria stirred by the proximity of even the mention of sex to children. In 1986, I spent a month at the Carter Hotel, reporting on a homeless woman and her four children who had lived for several years in an 8-by-10 foot room. It was the cover story of an issue on homelessness, and because of the piece the woman and her kids were moved to an apartment in the Bronx. Later that year I wrote a 10,000 word piece about visiting Freud’s house and being a Jew in Vienna, when, on vacation, I crossed paths with the presidential campaign of former Nazi Kurt Waldheim, who eventually won.
I remember the smell of fresh ink on stacks of papers at the office and the thrill of lifting one from a red box on the street and seeing my work there. No one changes a word without consulting you. No one urges you to write like them. We’re depicted by others as a Bosch scene of manic devils roasting each other’s body parts, and it’s kind of true. More keenly I remember late nights with Richard Goldstein, talking about every variant of sex. Is Beauty and the Beast, in which gorgeous Linda Hamilton hooks up with Ron Perlman, who has the face and mane of a lion(!), the first depiction of interspecies sex on TV? Check, yes. I remember receiving a book in the mail containing hundreds of pictures of vaginas and turning the pages, staggered by the array, while leaning against the wall of mail cubbies. I remember Guy Trebay’s expanding collection of snow globes. Some contain autopsy remains dusted with glitter. (Not true.) One day I pass his cubicle with a spiky hair cut and dangly, dart-shaped earrings, and he says, “Laurie Stone, the oldest living punk.”
I remember the first time I laid eyes on Alex Cockburn, some time in the mid-’70s, in the skinny elevator on University Place. He’s carrying a briefcase and wearing a cashmere overcoat. There’s a Peter O’Toole thing happening around his mouth, and I glance at my shoes instead of staring. Years later, when I can look at him without seeming to dissolve (although I am still dissolving), I sit in his office after we’ve had a few drinks and watch him compose a column due in three hours. While he continues chatting with me, out come sentences filled with lyricism, acid, erudition, and gossip about maybe Afghanistan, a country he loathes and once accused of producing “some of the worst arts and crafts ever to penetrate the Occidental world.” Perhaps he’s reminiscing about his father, Claud, who famously wrote in the Irish Times, where he was a columnist, “Wherever there is a stink in international affairs, you will find that Henry Kissinger has recently visited.”
It’s 1981, and I’m on assignment for Mademoiselle to cover a Right-to-Life convention in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I open my press packet to find a piece by Nat Hentoff, beloved jazz and First Amendment maven, who is also vocally opposed to abortion in the Old Testament style of Norman Mailer. He is dead meat to me and other feminists, and although he may be the only contented pawn of the right at the paper, he is not the only hand-wringing male at the feminist apocalypse.
It’s 1986, and Cindy Carr writes a front-page profile of Karen Finley, extolling body art and a performance that involves Finley shoving yams up her ass. In the next issue Pete Hamill writes that he and the staff’s other “enraged political writers” wonder how anyone can ever again take Voice reporting seriously. He writes, “Carr has given us a brilliant parody of (1) bohemian pretentiousness (2) the emptiness of performance art (3) a certain strain of feminism (4) the Village Voice itself.” Then as now, I enjoy the wit of Hamill’s barbs while noting how well they illustrate Finley’s contention: that the erotic imagination and anxieties about sex, far from being irrelevant to public policy, actually drive it, most strikingly in the cases of AIDS and abortion.
I cover theater for the paper among other beats. During the 1980s, as New York City real estate values rocket, theaters are bought up and closed. More and more I attend solo performances in bars and clubs where your feet stick to the floor. If the haircuts and lighting are good, the performers are mostly former dancers and cannot write. If they can write, they maybe can’t act or move around on a stage. I know it takes comedians around seven years to create twenty minutes of good standup, and I hatch the idea of approaching comedy as theater.
In 1986 I propose a column to Karen Durbin, who is Arts editor. Usually when I enter her office, she sings all the songs from the last Lou Reed concert she’s attended and follows them with a jagged memory of her midwestern childhood newly surfaced in therapy. For the only time in recorded history, she responds to a question with a single word: “OK.” And for five or so years, my column “Laughing in the Dark” alternates with Cindy’s column “On Edge”—a series of delirious love letters to Downtown culture and the avant-garde. The deep pleasure of writing my column and most of the pieces I produce at the Voice is watching art and politics rise off the streets and become a single entity. Also discovering the originality and outrageousness of brilliant women, people of color, and queers.
How did I make my way to the place I most wanted to be? It’s 1971, and the man I am married to and I decide to split in the tell-all style of the times that leaves you stunned and vaguely horny for the other person because you can miss them. Each month I hand a check for $200 to a friendly antiques dealer who owns the brownstone on Charles Street where I find a small place, plus water bugs and mice. I am working on a dissertation about Charlotte Brontë. I do not want to write a dissertation about Charlotte Brontë. I am earning just enough for food and rent by teaching two courses at Hunter College, and the rest of the time I walk. I walk past the famous bookstore on 8th Street, the men with beaky noses and floppy berets, thumbing Kerouac and Ginsberg on the lookout for girls. I walk past the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. I walk along the river, beside beach grass and the hulking ruins of piers, and the smells of the tides remind me of Long Beach, where I grew up.
I’m in a consciousness-raising group and a women’s writing group, and I read the Voice. I read Howard Smith and Jonas Mekas and Joel Oppenheimer. I read Jill Johnston and I want to write like her. I want whatever captures my attention to become a subject and to layer notes on relationships with descriptions of things outside me that are so detailed they do the work of analysis. Johnston is funny and seductive. She doesn’t care if you like her and of course she does.
One night I meet a writer I slightly know at the Lion’s Head Inn. He’s twice my age with a handsome face and a world-weary lean to his body. He wants to have sex with me. I want to know how to get into life. He looks at me for a moment and says, “What do you want?” I can barely choke out the words, “To write.” I have already turned him down, but he’s generous and I never forget what he tells me. He says, “Get on with it, then. There’s not any time. There’s never any time. Do not think you have time.” I sit up, feeling doubt tighten in my chest. I say, “OK.” Something in me is turning a few degrees, like a lock. The doubt does not go away, but in time I learn to ignore it.