Advantages to being a teenager when I was a teenager and *not* now –
- I did not have access to “print-on-demand” technology
- I had to either draw or cut out images from clip art journals and literally paste them to my master page and hope the copy machine at the public library could “read” my photos
- My distribution was limited to the amount of postage I could afford with my after-school job
I’m counting these as advantages because no one seems to have copies of my first zines – Bulldog, Screaming Yellow Zonkers, or Francis Albert. No one gets to read the pain and anguish and vague depression of me at 15, 16, and 17. Full of hate and sadness. And I’m glad for it, because right now I can point you to about fifty blogs written by teens that I had actively read before fully realizing that they were written by teenagers. Everyone should have the opportunity to create and think out loud before being held to standards that they don’t know exist yet.
I’m still personally forming my thoughts about this but this is one of the advantages to not having access to virtual interconnectivity in the same way that the internet and specifically social media work. It’s a tremendous and wonderful gift for adults that still has its own scary or frustrating moments (friends of friends on Facebook piling on during public debate threads, stalkers and old skeevy flames pulling up to the bumper on ya, etc.). Even Tumblr, one of my favorite social media places (at its peak it is full of all meaning and also full of total meaninglessness, you know, like God or whatever), can be the ultimate betrayal as you’ll find that the Tumblr user that has been liking all your posts and giving you great “Ask” feedback also runs three Tumblrs that basically just repost gifs of non-consensual-looking hardcore heterosexual porn. Oh thanks “Fred159showboat”. Glad you re-Tumbled my screenshots from Hiroshima Mon Amour but I really don’t want to return the favor with Bambi and the Huntsman Do Spring Break.
When I was a teenager I definitely had interactions with adults who were not my parents, friends’ parents, teachers, or coaches. I was desperate to talk to people who were *not* my peers and also desperate to move along in my progress toward being an adult. I consistently did not know what I wanted to do after college (I later proved to be ambivalent about college in general) and would often just tell people that I wanted to “have my own apartment” when they asked me about career aspirations. I read a lot, worked in a bookstore, babysat for a plethora of “with it” middle-aged parents who would give me lists of movies to watch (“to further your film education”) that I would take to the local video rental store and check out for longer than they allowed me. I was the queen of late fees at our local library branch. I would get the books read in time, but sometimes I would just sit with them in my room and imagine myself accumulating more books just like them. Imagine myself with a room full of books. Imagine myself with my own personal access to all of the knowledge in the world. It was hard to give that back.
We had someone or a group of someones at my local library branch who loved rock and roll, the punk rock canon (as it were), and the briefest but most ballistic hint of metal. I knew this because the library had a huge vinyl record collection and a not-as-huge-but important cassette tape collection. I would “check out” three or four records at a time and then go buy blank cassettes at the drugstore and record the albums onto my tapes using my all-in-one Yorx stereo system with ultimately ok but not the greatest speakers (which didn’t matter as I preferred headphones and found listening alone to be the best meditation available to me).
This exercise was 90% for my own music education and 10% so I knew what the older dudes at the jazz, rock, and punk shows I was sneaking into were talking about. I hadn’t really at that point talked *to* any of them, and most of the crowds at that shows were the equivalent of the groups of people I encounter *now* at experimental jazz or “stoner rock” shows I go to. Lots of middle-aged and pushing it folks with that are interconnected by show-going. It would be honestly weird now and perhaps troubling if I were at a house show to see a free jazz ensemble and a random 15-year-old showed up alone, but that was me at 15, drawn to places that I could find from listings in the Chicago Reader and from taking copious notes when older people talked about music around me. Much of the time I had no idea what I was going to see or hear, but the names sounded familiar from the liner notes of another more familiar vinyl record or, as I got older, a review I didn’t understand but remembered from an issue of The Wire or (even later) Forced Exposure. If I didn’t know who a band was, I went to the library and looked them up on microfiche databases and wandered through the music collection until I connected with them.
Thank you random librarians and library workers for being my Tumblr, my Twitter in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Thank you Seth from Factsheet Five for keeping up the tradition of “you send me five bucks and I’ll stuff a priority mail envelope full of old zines and mail it to you”. Six to ten packages of three pounds each of zines from all over the country and I was up to my neck in an underground culture that none of the adults I actually knew would have known about.
The point is that my output during this time was precocious, not well-formed, full of terror and ready for being absorbed into an adult culture that wouldn’t have necessarily looked out for me. I remember sneaking into a club in Chicago to see a band I thought highly of. I was sixteen, no fake ID, just walked in past a door guy who was distracted. Insanely I was one of only ten people there. The door guy wasn’t really a door guy because he was also the bar guy and perhaps the sound guy, which was standard for a weird show on a weeknight. By this time I had taken to going out to at least one or two shows a week but never really on the weekend. My friends from high school all had curfews and I think my parents thought I was at their houses but I just had a good memory for the public transportation schedule and at that point no fear about walking by myself.
I think most shows I would go to would be full of adults that would have been possibly a bit troubled to see a young teenager just by herself but when you’re at a BYOB free jazz show in an underground community center of sorts, who cares? I wouldn’t talk to anyone and usually had a book with me so I kind of mastered the art of looking like I was supposed to be there. There were occasional older men who were a little too chatty, but the other older men and women would be able to shut that down pretty quickly. It was obvious to most of them that I was young and therefore “it wasn’t right” for someone to try to pick me up. Perhaps I just managed to go exclusively to literary nerd and music nerd venues for these weeknight shows. This protective dynamic was non-existent for me in the neocon hippie crowds I experienced while trying my hand at following Grateful Dead shows. Many of my horror stories and cautionary sexual harassment tales come from Deadhead Nation.
It’s not an absolute of course, and there are nimrods and dildo men anywhere you choose to listen to music. There’s always going to be someone. At that show when I was 16, I managed to stand next to a someone who inexplicably grabbed my arm during a mundane music moment while the math rock band that I was trying to listen to droned on. I didn’t really even know he was there until he grabbed my arm, and then my butt and thigh. Then I looked at him and went to hit him with my other arm and he grabbed my small ball of fist as it came toward him. And he winked.
I pushed his other hand back and scurried toward the door, where the distracted door guy had no idea what had just transpired. It was dark, and somehow I had stayed silent throughout this endeavor. I didn’t want to make a sound, because I didn’t want to get kicked out of the bar. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there and I guess that someone guy had known that too. But now I needed help. The door guy must have thought I was sick or drunk, or maybe he just realized that an underage girl was in the bar. He insisted on getting me a cab, which I didn’t want to pay for, so he threw some money in with me as he tossed me in. I had the cab driver stop about three blocks away and then walked back to the train station that I was familiar with and took the train back home.
I remember thinking that I had done many many wrong things. And that I wore terrible shoes for the night and that I should have been more ready to fight or run. And then a few weeks later I went to another show at the same club and no one did anything to me. I watched another band, drank water, and headed home. I got into a conversation with a group of people who were probably ten years older than me. They were sitting outside of a bar called the Artful Dodger and they were all pretty loaded. One of them recognized me from the two of us being two out of maybe twenty people who had attended an NRG Ensemble concert at Lower Links earlier in the year. And from that moment on, I had show parents, a handful of people a decade or so older who would say hello and ask me if I was coming out to the next gig. Some of those friendships lasted decades.
All of this is to say – I’m glad to have had the opportunity to flounder, face fear, see new things, and get a musical education from well-meaning fans when I was young. I’m glad that there was a search to find my people and that it wasn’t as easy as pushing a button. I’m glad that I had to face some demons live and in person. I feel like having to deal with anonymous comment trolls and chat room friends that turned out to be married middle-aged predators would have been way too much for me to handle spiritually. Of course I didn’t get out unscathed. My story above is pretty tame compared to other assaults I endured as a child and a teenager. But nothing was documented on “Facebook Live”. None of these moments are available for me to relive again and again on a saved Insta-story from a friend of a friend who may mean well but have no idea that yeah, that wasn’t a fun show for me. I can’t really find any random photos or videos from that time that document my burgeoning fandom or mispronunciation of band names. Just yearbooks from my high school and family photos that show a good girl that occasionally is wearing a band t-shirt. I’m in my 40s now and still struggle sometimes with figuring out the right thing to say or defending my opinions. How would I have possibly dealt with the rejection of my self from millions of people all at once, all in the comments?