Main | Monday, December 13, 2004

"Aunt" Susan

UPDATE: Go away, perverts. There is NOTHING about incest in this story.

My mother's sister, Susan, was eight years younger than my mom.

She was everything my mother wasn't.

My mom was married and pregnant and living in a trailer in North Carolina within months of high school graduation.

Susan was a hippie. She was THE hippie.

She wore tie-dyed clothes, and fresh flowers in her waist-length jet-black hair. She called the cops 'pigs' and the government 'The Man.' She taught me how to string beads for necklaces, which my father would immediately throw in the garbage. She taught me the words to Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone.'

Once, she let me hang out while she and her friends sat around and set dry cleaning bags on fire. I was a kid, thinking 'Cool...FIRE!'....and it was many years before I realized that they were all tripping on acid, watching the plastic curl and smoke.

While my mom seemed smart and prim and restrained, Susan (and we were NEVER allowed to call her 'Aunt') was foul-mouthed and wild and entirely fascinating.

Shortly after she finished high school, she married for the first time. Bad Billy was his name, I don't think I ever heard his last name. He had wild eyes, a bushy beard and he never wore shoes. He left Susan to go live in a commune.

In 1969, a bunch of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay, in protest of how the government was treating them. By then, Susan was an art student at NYU, spending all of her time throwing pots and weaving giant macrame 'hangings'.

That year at Christmas dinner, Susan announced that henceforth she would be known as 'Sioux', in solidarity with her oppressed red brothers.

My grandfather shouted: 'Jesus H. Christ!' and stomped out to a bar.

Sioux's present to my mother that year was a huge glazed urn, with her new name scratched into the bottom.

Sioux married a couple more times, hippie-style free love arrangements. Both husbands evaporated to Canada after being drafted for the Vietnam war. I don't think I ever met either of them.

Sioux then began a pattern that would define the rest of her life. Through one of her husbands, she landed an apartment at the top of Stuyvesant Town, on the Lower East Side.

Rent control had already been in effect on the apartment, for decades. She got the place for dirt. Sioux illegally subdivided the sprawling two bedroom into four small bedrooms, and took in tenants...turning a healthy profit. Most of her tenants were art students or musicians.

In the mid-70s, Sioux immersed herself in the burgeoning punk scene. She began to wear only black clothing, something she did for the rest of her life. She hung out at CBGB's with the Talking Heads and Blondie. She fucked half of the New York Dolls and ALL of the Ramones. She got arrested at CBGB's, in the can, for giving a joint to a least, that's how she told it.

She became the quintessential New Yorker, the black clothes, the smoking, the cursing. Anybody who lived above 23rd Street was a 'fucking idiot'. My mother was clearly depriving her children of the real world by raising them outside of New York. It was 'abuse' she told my mother once, that we had to ride a school bus.

Sioux became Susan once again, sometime around 1977, due to some bitch in a band having the same name. Siouxsie Sioux. Of 'and the Banshees'.

My family had moved to Florida by then. Susan was visiting us, during spring break. She was still going to NYU...a professional student.

Susan sat on the floor in my bedroom, flipping through my albums.

Star Wars soundtrack..'Ugh'.

Stevie Wonder....'Hmm'.

Sister Sledge...'Spew'. Yes, she really SAID 'spew'.

Then she came to Village People.

Now, the first Village People album didn't look like any of the subsequent albums. Yes, it had the same giant art deco 'Village People' logo at the top, but the photograph of the 'band members' was a steamy, black and white photograph of young men, models assembled purely for the album cover. No Indian, no leatherman, no cop. Just a half-dozen young men wearing punk-ish clothes in an alley.

Susan looked at the cover. 'This looks like it has possibilities'.

For a moment, I thought she was going to ask me to play it for her. Part of me wanted her to, because I f*cking LOVED that album. But I also knew that she was expecting the music to live up to the artwork.

She flipped the album over and read the song titles out loud.

'Fire Island'....'Key West'...'San Francisco'....she stopped there.

Susan slowly put the album back on the stack, and looked at me.

I was only 18 years old and had never come out, not to a family member anyway. I steeled myself for what I knew was coming next.

'Are there any good titty bars around here?'

I nearly fell off my bed.


'I wanna find some dive bar and watch chicks dance and maybe score some blow...any place like that in Orlando?'

I turned bright red.

'Well, there's a place called 'The Bottom Drawer'...I've never been there...but from the outside it'

Later, I heard Susan call information and get the address.

Back in New York, Susan continued to careen through the local music scene, dating musicians, writers, bartenders. She finally finished NYU, with an art degree, nearly 15 years after she started.

From then on Susan's daytime life was a long series of temping jobs with various media companies. Viacom. Time-Warner. NBC. Chrismas gifts were always a huge box of assorted swag, stolen from her employers. One year, it was all things Beavis & Butthead.

In 1995, Susan was diagnosed with pervasive esophageal cancer. She'd smoked heavily for nearly 30 years by then, so no one was really suprised.

Even after chemotherapy, radiation, surgery...Susan showed no improvement. My mother and my sister spent every weekend shuttling up from Orlando, to St. Vincent's Hospital to visit her.

At the end, Susan was confined to an oxygen tent. She'd withered away, skeletal is the only word to use. Her hair gone, tubes in both arms, not even the energy to chew food....she STILL found the energy to use that famously foul mouth.

Her final coherent words to my mother: 'Fat fucking lot of help YOU'VE been!'.

My mother fled the room, never getting the will to return.

The next day, as my sister walked in, Susan pulled her mask off and rasped: 'Those shoes with THAT skirt? You MUST be joking!'

After Susan died, we went to her Stuyvesant Town apartment to go through her things. The vulture grapevine had already been alerted to her death, there were two dozen notes on her door, inquiring about the disposition of the apartment.

By then, she'd stopped taking tenants, and the place was a rabbit's nest of paintings, albums, full ashtrays and piles and piles of art books. The spare bedrooms were littered with boxes and boxes of junk. Shoes. Winter coats. Hundreds of copies of the Village Voice.

I found a huge pile of spiral notebooks. I picked one out and sat at the kitchen table and began flipping through it. It was filled with drawings, abstract doodling, non-sensical words, and lists. Lots of lists. Lists of bands. Lists of artists. Lists of people I'd never heard of.

Then I came across a page that was different.

In huge bold strokes, the sentences moved directly from the top of the left page and over onto the top of the right.


My mother walked over.

'Anything interesting?'

Quickly, I flipped the page.

'Um, not so far. Just some drawings.'

My mom leaned in to see. I had landed on another page of lists.

In pink magic marker:

1) my lesbianism.
2) my emerald green eyes.
3) that I don't have Dorothy's nose.

I looked up at Dorothy.

'Mom, didn't Susan have dark brown eyes?'

My mom sighed.

'Yes, dear. She did.'

(originally posted 5-18-04)

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