Wake Up. The Century Has Moved On.

From the Talkhouse Reader, Eszter Balint on New York City, circa 1983-87, an adapted excerpt from her one-person show I Hate Memory!.

Things were changing. Fast. Many things.

I was losing my way to fun, or it was losing me. A creeping loneliness was taking its place.

The tyranny of cool was a merciless system, but one I understood. Now a couple of new tyrants arrived in town. Money and fame. One moment we were howling at Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The next, we all secretly wanted in.

You needed more wealth and fans to be part of the club. And to be let into the actual clubs. Our gathering places were replaced by newer, more luxurious ones, with more expensive coat-checks. Some people’s stars really shot up around this time. The notion of “success” spreading beyond our peer group was now possible, and something to be openly desired. My own star rose too, for a brief, glorious, disorienting moment. But I soon felt like a crooked puzzle piece trying to fit into the wrong jigsaw.

I would soon begin auditioning for roles in film. There’s an alien concept – auditions. And for my role in real life, as a grownup in this new era. I mostly felt like I didn’t pass the audition. For either. Even when I did.

As the currency changed, our bonds frayed. Old lovers and friends might barely greet each other at parties. Kindness was no virtue in this age of Ronald Reagan, Less than Zero, Michael Milken, “yuppies” and the newly minted, glorious art world of Downtown Incorporated. Neo Geo was going to be hot! You better not miss any gallery openings. You didn’t love the art? No matter.

It took great fortune, or at least tremendous drive, to keep up with the changing rules and ensure you weren’t exiled from your old tribe.

True, there were new alternate-minded communities and gathering places popping up, thriving even, with overlapping members. But they were not mine; by 18, I felt too old to join a new club. And too insecure. Would I belong? These places also seemed to me more insular, which made me feel less at home. The art world that was my home as a teen had barely definable rules. Well, except for a few: you had to be cool, you had to have a brain, you had to make or do something, and of course, the most important rule of all: you had to defy conformity. Otherwise, its boundaries were fuzzy. It wasn’t a gay scene or a straight scene, a drag scene, a disco scene, a performance art scene, a no-wave scene, a hip-hop scene or a film scene. It was all of those things. I loved that and felt most at ease in this revolving-door universe. My parents had escaped an authoritarian bureaucratic regime with provincial rules and chronic intrusions into one’s private life. Becoming a citizen of this ragtag nation of nonconformists, with New York City as our playground, was the best salve. And this quality of messy openness is still what I value most about New York, on a good day.

Poverty was no longer sustainable. Or cool. Yet poverty remained for many of us. This new reality hit my own home life directly when we had to move. It was nothing short of a New York miracle that my extended family of theater-makers had a three-story building to live and work in on West 23rd Street, for nine years. But our lenient landlord, with his family mob ties, finally had it with these “theater gypsy types” who kept a goat on their roof and never paid the rent on time. Enough!

So we lost our building.

We also lost our love for each other. Our theater group splintered into two estranged factions. I continued performing under my father’s leadership, and there were still great creative highs. (And yeah … some other highs too. We loved our drugs.) But the split left so much rancor. All the pain and confusion of an ugly divorce.

I was losing most of my real and invented family.

By this time, I’d been hearing more stories than I could keep track of about people falling ill, members of our downtown community dying. The black shadow of Aids had spread fast over our city, consuming it. I put on a numbing veil to cope and checked out. I was too young. It was too much death.

And then there was this moment that sort of blew up the world I thought I knew.

He was an artist. A quiet, slender, young Black man who danced his way through the clubs I used to frequent. I didn’t know him well, but well enough to consider him one of our own, a citizen of our downtown nation. It was in our communal living room that a friend broke the news. He was lying in a coma at Bellevue, after the cops beat him violently the previous night in a subway station on the L line. For what? For drawing on the wall with a marker.

I listened as static drowned out the words. I was confused. The more I heard, the less I understood and the sicker I felt. I didn’t recognize this world anymore. And I felt so stupid. Our city cops? They would do this, simply because of the color of his skin?

I had been asleep. It was a rude jolt, waking me from a lovely, messy, made-up dream.

Michael Stewart was his name. He never made it. All the officers present at his beating were acquitted by an all-white jury.

This was its own earthquake, of course, far graver than the wind shifts in my neighborhood. But it was more evidence, the most shocking perhaps, that our downtown New York utopia had been an illusion.

Time to wake up, baby, to this new world. The real one. Which was unrecognizable to me.

I still wanted to keep up with it, to belong to it. I just didn’t know how.

That’s when I started singing.

Featured image showing Iggy Pop talking with Jean-Michel Basquiat is used with the permission of the photographer, Julia Gorton.

Eszter Balint is a singer-songwriter actor and violinist. She has released four albums, and has contributed vocals and/or violin to works by Michael Gira and Swans, John Lurie. Marc Ribot, and Tammy Faye Starlight. Eszter grew up as a child member of the avant-garde theater company Squat Theatre. She has appeared in starring and featured roles in films by Jim Jarmusch, Woody Allen, Steve Buscemi, Louis CK, and alongside David Bowie. She is currently developing a theatrical show, I Hate Memory!, featuring songs co-written by Stew (of Stew & The Negro Problem and the Tony Award winning show Passing Strange. (Photo by Eric Schneider.)