Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Requiem for a cool girl


When I was fourteen, my family moved to Taiwan. At the time, Taipei had a huge US military base which supported an entire suburb of families and a school. My father was a diplomat, though, so we lived in Taipei proper, far away from most other Americans, and each day I took a long bus ride to and from school. At first I sat alone dreaming out the window at this new place called home. But at some point during that first year, an older girl started sitting behind me and talking to me. I don't know why she chose me. I wasn't cool. I was a fourteen-year old nobody. But perhaps that's exactly why she talked to me. Being a nobody in the social hierarchy of school, I was unable to judge or harm her. I was safe.

Her name was Anya Phillips. She was Eurasian and had a slight tendency toward chubbiness. She was not remarkably beautiful or remarkably ugly, or really, remarkable in any way. She was two years ahead of me in school, and way ahead of me in all other ways. She smoked, did drugs, though that was no big deal in our school. Taipei was an R & R (Rest and Recreation) base for the GIs fighting in Vietnam, and they brought lots and lots of recreation with them. Heroin, acid, pot, hash, were consumed like candy at my school, and if that wasn't enough, you could walk in to any drug store and buy speed or downers without a prescription. Only the Jesus freaks or the new kids like me didn't do drugs of some sort. So Anya was just following along with the crowd, trying to be hip. Unsurprisingly, she never talked to me in school, and never called me at home. But on the bus - that demilitarized zone between the worlds that mattered to her - she talked to me about all kinds of things - gripes about her family, music, boys she thought were hot, things she thought were cool. She wanted desperately to be cool. She wasn't quite. Because in high school there were limits on what you could do for the sake of coolness; school dress codes that had to be adhered to, parents who held purse strings and had to be kept mollified.

When the next year started, she took her place behind me on the bus and her confessional monologues began again. That year, for me though, things began to change. My friends and I began to dabble with drugs. Anya was dealing by then, and about half way through the year, she offered to sell and I bought. A few weeks later I received my one and only phone call at home from Anya. She called to tell me she had been caught dealing by the MPs (military police). Then she said, "They said they wouldn't prosecute me if I told them who I sold to, so I gave them your name because you were less popular than the others." As I said, there was nothing more important to her than being cool, and even upset and frightened as I was at the time, I understood the emptiness and self loathing behind what she'd just said and done.

Things changed, of course, after that. My father was a diplomat so I had immunity. But I got scared straight and stopped doing drugs completely and forever. Anya was suspended from school and, when she came back, I stayed away from her. And so, she faded from my life, though not from my mind. I dined out on the pitiful story of her ratting me out for years: "Can you believe she actually said to me...!" And, more seriously, Anya gave me the story I told my teens when we had our talks about drugs; "I bought drugs and got caught and if I hadn't been lucky enough to have diplomatic immunity, I might not have been able to get into college, get a good job, adopt you." It packed a wallop, that little story. So, in a weird way, her bald, craven need for social approval and her lack of loyalty to anything but that need, changed my life for the better. You don't forget people who - for good or bad - change your life.

Well, today I was in a bookstore, leafing idly through a book on the New York punk scene, and there, in grainy black and white, was Anya. It was a night shot of her and a group of punk No Wavers - Lydia Lunch of Teen Age Jesus and the Jerks, and some others. "Girls," I yelled across the store to my daughters, "here's the woman who ratted me out for buying drugs because I wasn't popular enough!" They ran over and were fascinated. When I got home, I googled her. She had been big in the New York punk scene, hung out with Debbie Harry, helped found the Mudd Club, worked as an exotic dancer and an S & M dominatrix, and dealt and did heroin. She died in 1981 from cancer. On a computer chat group full of old and former punks, I found a thread about her. One of them wrote, "I went to the hospital [to visit her] once...but was unable to handle it and quickly ran out to get another bag [of heroin]." Just for the record, Anya, I would have stayed ....

So Anya, you finally made it to cool, babe. You were always cooler than me, but that was easy. In the end, though, you out-cooled everyone: all those boys who wouldn't date you in high school; who you wouldn't rat on to the MPs; who wouldn't give you the time of day even after that. While in life, there was always a sad eagerness for approval about you, but In death you've finally achieved elusiveness, that necessary ingredient for cool. In the pictures from that time, you are thin, smoking, dressed in black, and self-consciously, painfully chic and posed. Strangers see those pictures now and make comments like, "Coolest girl ever!" The beautiful sculptured shell you gave up so much for is all that's left of you now. But in my mind you're still a real and unremarkable girl, riding on the purgatory of that bus, that space between the Hell of home and the unreachable Heaven of popularity in school. You sit, forever, on a seat of cracked green vinyl. But now I'm the one that leans over the dull gray metal of the seat back to whisper in your ear something like a prayer. And this is what I it is. Anya, I truly hope that, somewhere there, in the brief, white-hot heart of New York heroin-chic, wearing your own dreamed-up leather-bondage fashions, doing Chinese white, thrashing to the loud music, you found the antidote you needed to fill your emptiness, to slake your endless aching thirst for love.

22 comments:

Neno said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Wow, what a story. Very cool.

sageweb said...

Amazing story how strange to find her picture in a bookstore.

jhnhth said...

Incredible story. Thank you so much for sharing your memories of Anya. She made a significant impact on the music, film and fashion of her day - but she's largely been relegated to the footnotes of history. It's good to hear a first-person account - warts and all - of a part of Anya's life before NY. Thanks for posting.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks all!

jhnhth - Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope it's clear that I don't hold any animus toward her. High school is such a difficult time, and especially for people like her whose ambitions are outside the mainstream. Having been judged plenty myself, I don't tend to judge others, which might be why she sought me out in the first place.

And I really do hope she found joy and pride in what she was doing, that world she was helping to build. It seems like most of them knew they were onto something big, and I hope, before she died, she did too.

She had a little brother. I remember him quite vividly. His name, I think, was Bart. Cute, quiet kid with freckles. She never sat with him and mostly didn't acknowledge him, except to bark an occasional order at him. Even then the dominatrix!

I've asked some other people we went to high school with to add anything they remember. We'll see what comes of that.

YELLOWDOG GRANNY said...

what a sad sad story...
you really tell a moving story..

Kathleen said...

Oh yes, the soft, vulnerable underbelly of cool. How perfectly you captured the tragedy, juxtaposed against your own life, which as it turns out, is something so much fuller than mere cool.

Thank you a story well told and not to be forgotten.

Claire M. Johnson said...

Such a touching and moving piece, my dear. A few years ago I started doing some research into spoken word stuff around that time, and was surprised to hear that it wasn't all about the music and that S.F. had a very big spoken word movement. But then I bet you knew that being the poetry person. Lydia Lunch and Exene were quite big, but then the L.A. punk scene was a lot different than that New York punk scene More poetry and it seems less drugs. Although, naturally, people were using but it didn't seem as fatal and the N.Y. scene.

jason said...

so beautifully written.

mrpeenee said...

What I think is so striking is the photo. These tough little, smack-shootin', downtowners all look so sweet and innocent. Like they're waiting for somebody's mom to come pick them up after the movie. They're just babies.

a thousand shades of twilight said...

Jeez, who'd want to be cool, eh?
Another beautifully written and fascinating entry, Elizabeth! She sounds like a character, albeit a somewhat frustrated and frustrating one..
It would be interesting to know what would have happened to her if she'd grown old and sedentary like the rest of us..

Elizabeth said...

Granny- the more I'm learning about her, the sadder it gets.

Kathleen - Thanks. But at that age it seemed so important to most of us. She never really got to grow out of that painful needy phase.

Claire - The punks that I knew in SF were more into the visual art aspect of it, but they were pretty clean too. Though I would only have known the clean ones, being such a good girl myself. Nihilism and violence have never spoken much to me. So boring (me, I meant, but they are too, really).

Jason - Means a lot coming from you! I thought of you yesterday. I was at a local amusement park and there were so many people like the ones you always describe - aging leathery bleached blonds with acid washed jeans .... You would have had a descriptive field day.

Peenee - That is SO perfect!!!!!!!! That's all I can see now when I look at the pic. Babies, playing dress up, waiting for the mom to come take them home to the suburbs.

1000 shades - Thanks dear. Yes, she was basically needy, self-absorbed, and desperate for approval. But that's pretty much high school, isn't it? I've found out more about her since posting this. One of her friends in NYC - who also went to my high school (and was married to Lou Reed for a while!) - is married now, has kids, and has cut herself off from that past....

Hua said...

Elizabeth, thank you very much for telling the story about Anya. Just to add a follow-up to her story, Anya's baby brother, Bart, was later known as Kris Phillips, or Fei xiang. After Anya's death, Kris went on and became a huge star in Taiwan and mainland China. He also ventured into musical scene and was in the original cast of "Miss Saigon" in NYC (1991). Here is a link to an old NY Times article about him:

"A 6-Foot-3, Blue-Eyed Taiwanese-American Is China's Top Rocker"

http://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/24/arts/a-6-foot-3-blue-eyed-taiwanese-american-is-china-s-top-rocker.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2

Kris dedicated one of his albums to Anya. In a way, Anya's legacy lives on through her brother's music career.

Elizabeth said...

Hua - Thanks so much for the information! I had no idea that quiet little Bart turned into such a dazzling outgoing grown up! He used to be a sweet quiet little boy, but even back then I remember noticing his beautiful eyes.

Anonymous said...

yes, his beautiful blue eyes have attracted millions of Chinese girls ever since 1980. People describes him as " The man who has female fans from baby to 80-year-old". He is still quiet and sweet at age 50 this year. But his voice, look and gentleman-like manner has attracted millions. Do you know Anya and Bart have different fathers? Did Anya ever mention to you what happened to her biological father?

Jeff said...

Just seeing this piece for the first time and struck by the juxtaposition of ice water cool and your loving kindness. Beautifully done.

Elizabeth said...

Annonymous - He was a nice kid, and it doesn't surprise me at all that he's a nice adult. I did know that they had different fathers, but I don't know anything about her bio dad. Her mother was married to Bart's father by the time I knew her.

Jeff - Thanks. I do have the advantage of being lucky enough to grow up into a true adult who has learned to see the suffering beneath the cruelties of others. Maybe she would have gotten there too someday.... (BTW, "Ice-water cool" is a great phrase!)

Anonymous said...

And everybody in China thought Anya's little brother has a perfect family.

Every family has its untold stories behind its doors.

A very sad story. Well written.

yvette said...

Hello!
I often come and appreciate reading you, and ofteb moved. Here I am full of hope to see Bart in a way has been saved by music. What did not work for his sister worked for him.

Edward Irons said...

Thanks for this story on Anya, Elizabeth. I also knew her in the year before she left Taiwan.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth
I was at TAS with you. I knew her well. I'm in Pittsburgh a lot. I'd like to talk about her.
athena56@me.com

That One Lady said...

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/glamour-girl-anya-phillips-brought-beauty-new-york-s-1970s-n695466