There never were any hipsters in Elizabeth. Elizabeth is like the hell of hipsters. All the Brownstones were torn down and replaced by McDonalds. The DeCalvacante family had its headquarters there. The bars are old school, and too truly old school to be retro. Worst of all, the people are sincere and earnest and work a lot and are likely to have opinions they didn’t get by reading a little Chomsky, a little Said, and a lot of the Nation. It isn’t a university town unless you count Union County College and Kean, and these schools were colleges back when I am beginning this memoir.
Elizabeth is the kind of place the Beats hated, though Allen Ginsberg is technically buried there–a couple blocks from where I lived on Monroe Avenue, forever rotting under the Budweiser sign (which is now owned by a foreign company that fucked over and locked out half its workers, but that ought to make Bud the new Pabst since hipsters, following on a tip as early as Baudelaire, hate workers and think of them as squares). This memoir is going to be about a subject hipsters hate. They claim hipsters don’t exist, but they are everywhere now in America: everything marketed as retro or roots or primal or new is hipster.
Hipsters hate working people. They won’t admit that. This is what they say:
1. Working class people vote against their own interests
2. Working class people are racists.
3. Working class people are post. They’re retrograde.
4. Working class people are racists.
5. Working class people are racists.
6. Working class people are racists.
They say it so much, most of America believes it. I don’t remember any of the working folks I knew moving to the suburbs so that they wouldn’t have to live near people of color or poor white trash, but hey, if they say it’s true, it must be because they write all the books.
Hipsters will also claim hipsters no longer exist, but I’m not using anything but the older definition of hipster: apolitical or political in the negative as per wanting to destroy what they call the “military industrial complex” (meanwhile benefiting from it, and hating the poor whites and people of color forced into scuttage for them) entitled, somewhat contemptuous of the mass man (hence hipsters hating hipsters) white, from a middle class suburban background, effecting boredom, shopping for identity (but never looking as if he or she is), ironic, pop culture savvy, and aware of what they wear, say, do, or where they should go at all times. Artistic people are hipsters. Any white yuppie from the suburbs who has an advanced degree and has purchased at least one Tom Waits or Charlie Mingus record is a hipster.
I am a hipster–a fat, failed, inwardly conflicted hipster, poor at irony, suspicious of semiotics, yet condemned to them. I am also very working class. I believe there is great art. I believe in Unions. I believe that pop culture and high culture are different. I look like a cab driver gone to seed. My knowledge has exiled me from Elizabeth forever. My appearance and working class roots and soul have made me a shitty hipster, unable to really believe that knowing the best Bulgarian punk bands is enough. I don’t like low key. I like the way Yoga makes figures look, but all the spiritual crap that attends it scares me.
Everyone is trying to be chill. This makes me think that their flip side is constant ongoing terror and anger. When you are a true semiotic white person you can never stop being one. It’s exhausting. Being effective at what you are is so fucking tiring and exhausting. Failing to keep either the professional or bohemian groovy professional standard means loss of status and, sometimes your job since many of the jobs consist largely of being semiotically adept at being white.
I was not always a hipster (a bad one). I was once an earnest working class white boy from Elizabeth, New Jersey who had heard some classical music on the radio, read some poetry in school and really liked it. I was too shy and too weird looking and too smart to get laid in Elizabeth. I had red hair and never tanned. Having red hair and never tanning in Elizabeth means you are not going to get laid a lot. It probably means that in other places too. I knew redheads who got laid a lot, but they were like Danny Bonaducci and sold weed. I did not sell weed. I had a talent for bullshitting. I thought maybe I could get laid if I went to poetry readings. This is my story:
New Brunswick: My first encounter with the hat that is so corny it is cool aesthetic
It’s 1984, my first time ever on the New Brunswick poetry scene. I am supposed to read with my friend Sofran McBride for a guy named Eliot Katz. Eliot is a very different kind of hipster. I have not met hipsters yet, so I don’t know this. The closest I have come are the tired-eyed, heavy-lidded folks in Doonesbury. This is the look of whites I have never met–educated, artistic white people. Of course he’s the sincere, kind hipster, with a lopsided smile, and I find out he is is very politically active, gets drunk a lot, and is always getting laid by a girl who thinks he’s sweet but with whom he will eventually break up. He is tall and lanky, and I have never encountered anything like him in Elizabeth. I see my friend Sofran flirt with him. I think of the Carly Simon song “You’re so Vain,” except Eliot isn’t vain: he’s just a very sincere, politically radical Jewish kid who would have really been a hit in the the students protest movement of the 60s. I like him. I don’t know why I like him. Maybe its because he is drunk, openly so, and hugging everyone. Maybe it’s because he seems to know things I don’t. Something tells me that, for all of his peacefulness, he would lose it in a bar fight and bite someone’s ear off. I don’t mind peacefulness that does not extinguish ferocity. I think Eliot could be fierce. I think truly peaceful people can’t be dwindling passive aggressives. My intuition of his ferocity leads me to believe his peace shtick is legit.
Bob Rixon is there, a friend of Sofran. He looks like the bookworm on Batman, but he has a razor for a mouth, and has honed the arbitrary down to a science: trick of hipster power dynamics. One week you are nice to someone because they are green.The next week, you snub them. Why? Because they are green. This is true power. Rixon is a part time DJ for WFMU, a famous underground radio station out of Upsala. He has the power to decide Petula Clark is cool. The next week, you will see other hipsters wearing Petula Clark t-shirts and see through boots. A few years after this reading, he will be part of the revival of lounge music. Everything hippies literally spat on my parents for liking will be cool again. Here, the working stiff in me wins. It pisses me off. Anyway, Rix has a beautiful weirdly proper, religious fine artist and pianist companion called Christine Dollenbach. They have been going out for years. They are the kind of people who Harvey Pekar would invite to his parties. For the time being, Rixon thinks I’m a wonderful poet. This will change later when green is green.
Things I notice: everyone wears the sort of hunter’s cap with the ear flops we would never be caught dead wearing in Elizabeth. Everyone wears really ratty red sneakers or fluebocks or something like that–old keds, etc, vintage clothes. Everyone has probably smoked prior to coming to the bar. The bar smells of urine uncleaned, and cigarette smoke. The walls are plastered with ads and band posters. In Elizabeth, only the worst dives smell this bad, but this is a dive like Moulin Rouge I decide: it’s supposed to smell bad and look like a cave. No self-respecting Elizabeth barkeep would let his bar smell like piss. That’s the earnest factor. Of course, the bar is full of students, and former students, and is populated by a neighborhood crowd only during the day. It is famous for underground bands, and it’s bartenders are big, heavy set, yukon jack guys who also probably play bass. I don’t know this world yet. You would think it would be less threatening to me than the cocktail, white jacket dress up world of 1950s art scenes, but I’ve seen those in movies. I have not seen this in movies. These guys are like me only not at all. They are different kind of white guy. I realize they are really bad imitations of black guys: they don’t smile much. they keep it cool. All except Eliot who is running the reading and is allowed to be floopy, and friendly. My friend Sofran owns these guys ever since she told off Gregory Corso when he read at this bar:
Corso: I like you. I want you to have my baby. You have a space between your front teeth. Do you know what that means in Chaucer?
Sofran: Not exactly Gregory, but I know what it means to me: it means the gap is big enough to fit your pencil dick in.
Corso loved her after that, and so does the bar. I have to read with her which is not easy because she is the star of this dive. The back room for the reading is packed. Sofran has championed me but I am not dressed right: I wear slacks and a new beige sweater. I look like a fucking Andy Williams Christmas special. In working class neighborhoods you wear nice clothes to show respect to an event–you wear the kind of clothes your aunts buy you for Easter. The room is full of the kind of guys and gals who hate the suburbs but benefited from the water, and the steady dental care, and health food, and who all look hot. They are dressed punk and new age, or proto-grunge. New Brunswick had a grunge scene years before Seattle. They just don’t know it. Elizabeth had it years before them. We just thought it was dressing country: oversized jeans, flannels, heavy belts, boots. Anyway, I note a few other things:
Poems work here off semiotic signing, mention Tom Waits or Mandela, or the Talking Heads or something like that in a poem and people will know you are one of their breed and will think the poem is better than it is. Insert blow job and Reagan, or have Reagan giving a blow job to Allen Ginsberg, while Tom Waits is playing for the tortured and the misunderstood, and people will think you are a fucking genius. The humor is Lenny Bruce style: more about identifying and signifying than being funny. It assumes a certain audience knowingness. Romanticism is OK as long as it is film noir style. Sofran’s poems are genuinely good, but they also hit some of the semiotic indicators dead on the nose. The crowd goes nuts. Half the guys in the club want to fuck her. I don’t. I like her a lot as a person, but I know I can fall out of favor at any moment because green was cool and now green is not. She wears wildly flowing peasant dresses, and dyes her long hair gypsy red. She cares about clothes. They all care about clothes. They are all the true children of Screaming Mimis. I am still getting my clothes from my aunts at easter. I am 26. Things have to change. I wear a leather with ripped jeans, flannels, and beat up boots most of the time–the rough trade look, but I didn’t for some reason tonight.
I read “Ode To Elizabeth,” which is in praise of exactly the values this crowd questions. Lukewarm response. I read a poem about Amelia Earhart hanging out at a Dunkin Donuts, a poem I lost years ago. That goes over better. My next poem is a mock epic about a man walking across the green Atlantic. They love this. Eliot gives a shout out of approval. I survive. Eliot bear hugs me. Sofran kissed me on my cheek. Green is still cool. Rixon does not insult me. At 26 I work the night shift in a factory. I have called in sick. I live in an apartment over a record store in Garwood temporarily because we lost our house after my mother died. I have been going to readings at the Baron Art Center for the last two years, but nothing like this. Here, all the women are young and good looking, and after I read they come over to talk to me but I am too shy. I mumble. I walk away. Embarrassed I drink four Jack and Cokes. Later, at Sofran’s townhouse in North Brunswick, I drink six more Jack and Cokes, then two cranberry and vodkas, then a couple shots of sambuca. I am not driving. In retrospect, I got wasted back then in self defense. I spent years since the death of my parents just going to work in the factory and holing up in my room with a book.
My artist friends from Elizabeth got me out into this world, and now I have noticed some things about it: everyone works little jobs with open hours. Rixon works for Pearl Paint. Eliot works for a printing shop. Sofran works as a waitress/hostess. Her’s is a real job. Everyone else seems to have these funky jobs that could never pay the rent in Elizabeth. I do not know about trust funds. I do not know about how artistic bohemian white kids never eat or spend money except on weed, concert tickets, and rent. They live with roommates–never family. This is amazing. This is nothing like the world I come from. Most amazing and frightening to me of all is that, in New Brunswick, in the heart of urban New Jersey, at 11 at night, there is not a single native New Brunswick person in sight, and everyone, every one, every funky last one with the floppy ear flap hats is white.