|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||731 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
How I Became Cherry Vanilla
By Cherry Vanilla
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2010 Cherry Vanilla
All rights reserved.
The Bridge to Oz
AS THE warm pee ran down my legs and into my socks and brown leather oxfords, a trance-like state ensued, rendering me helpless to stop the flow of liquid emanating from my body. A momentary flash of guilt was quickly overcome by the hypnotic and liberating rush. Standing in the kitchen by the fridge, only steps away from the bathroom, I was powerless to move my feet at all — and what's more I had no desire to do so. There'd be a price to pay for my behavior, I knew. But as the pee made a puddle all around me, I was miles above my fear, excited by what were probably the first stirrings of intoxication and sensuality in me, and feeling, though unintentionally so, quite rebellious.
My mother was naturally alarmed. I was a chronic bed wetter and had suffered from kidney infections, but I had long since outgrown the practice of peeing in my pants. She was gentle and forgiving as she cleaned up both the mess on the floor and me, even though I could offer no explanation as to why it had happened. But when my father got home from work and heard about it, he became enraged, saying I was "disgusting" and scowling "shame on you." I cried myself to sleep that night and prayed that I would die, 'cause he said he was going to tell everyone what a "dirty girl" I was. But I know now that through those tears, an inner strength was born in me, an I'll show you determination to decide for myself what was shameful or not and to never again give a shit about what names either he or any other insensitive dumb-fuck like him would ever call me again. It's my earliest memory. I was five years old at the time.
* * *
I WAS born Kathleen Anne Dorritie on October 16, 1943, in New York City. World War II was on, and it must have been hard on my parents, who already had three other mouths to feed — Margaret, Johnny, and Mary. But my mother worked, and my father, in addition to his job with the Department of Sanitation, drove a truck part-time for Sam's Ninth Avenue Meat Market. So there was always plenty of food on the table, especially meat. And there was always the mungo — perfectly good items salvaged from the trash that the sanitation men would bring home and recycle. My parents were also the supers of the six-unit tenement building in which we lived, and we thereby paid a much reduced rent. (Ya gotta hand it to 'em; they worked every angle.)
My father's father came from a long line of New Yorkers and owned speakeasies in Hell's Kitchen. Some ancestors on his side were French, from New Orleans, name of Ritchie. My mother's sister, Lucinda, had once been crowned "The Belle of Harlem" and my Scottish grandfather bought both her and my mom two-hundred-dollar dresses (a fortune in the 1920s and '30s). But aside from that, there was never that much family history talk around our house. I knew my other grandparents had come from County Clare and Galway in Ireland, but that's about it. They were all dead by the time I was six.
Except for a few medical problems (eye, ear, and kidney) and the violent side of my father that erupted now and then, my early life in Woodside, Queens, didn't seem so bad. We prayed for lots of snow in the winter, 'cause it meant overtime hours for the sanitation men to plow the streets and more money in the kitty for Christmas presents and summer vacations. And we somehow managed to have the first-ever television set on all of Skillman Avenue — a Stromberg-Carlson "with a twelve-and-a-half-inch screen and forty-two tubes," as my father so incessantly pointed out to all who would listen. (It had probably come from my Aunt Rita, who was well over four hundred pounds and who always had a bunch of "hot" — which in those days meant stolen — items for sale.) When the baseball game was on, our living room was filled with cheering, jeering friends and neighbors — the beer, highballs, cold cuts, and dirty jokes flowing. And when the Friday Night Fights were on, my father turned into a fanatical, red-faced, leaping lunatic of an authority on boxing — throwing phantom punches and yelling things at the TV like "Hit 'im with the left!" and "C'mon, get up, ya bum!"
I knew that some people, like my Aunt Lizzy's family, the Donahues in Elmhurst, and my parents' friends, the Kents in St. Alban's (both of whom I often stayed with for weeklong visits without my mom and dad), lived life with more than one bathroom and doors on their bedrooms, but I figured there really wasn't much more to aspire to than what we had in Woodside at the time.
* * *
ON SATURDAYS, while my mother was at work, my dad would often take me to the Department of Sanitation's huge incinerator out by Flushing Bay. It had gigantic metal doors, and when they opened, it was like looking into hell, the heat from the flames burning your skin like a dozen summer suns. It was a fire so big that if you were to throw a couple of Mack trucks in there, it would swallow 'em whole. Then he'd take me to a landfill the department was making out there, a giant mountain of garbage with seagulls flying all around it. Other Saturdays, we would visit my dad's friend Mr. Gruber at his pigeon coop on the roof down the street, or else maybe the coop on the roof of the sanitation garage in Long Island City.
And on Sundays — even though he drove all week long as a chauffeur for the Department of Sanitation's borough superintendent of Queens — my dad loved taking long drives to places like Rockaway Beach, Coney Island, Graymoor (an upstate religious retreat), and even Washington, D.C. My mom would be at work or at home cooking, and my brother and sisters were usually busy with homework, so it was often just the two of us, my dad and me, who went for the rides. We didn't talk much on the road, so I got to listen to a lot of AM radio, at first in the pearl grey '47 Nash Ambassador, and later in the forest green '52 Buick Roadmaster. The music they played on shows like the Make Believe Ballroom was what my father liked best. But as the 1950s approached, I noticed a new sound seeping onto the airwaves, one that was way hotter than "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" by the Andrews Sisters or "Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)" by Burl Ives. Not that I didn't love some of that 1940s pop stuff: "Far Away Places" by Perry Como made me dream of the exotic travel I'd do when I was older, and "Powder Your Face with Sunshine," besides being a good philosophy to follow, was sung by Dean Martin, probably my first celebrity crush. Once I heard that newer, grittier sound, though, by artists like Fats Domino, Johnny Otis, Ruth Brown, Percy Mayfield, the Ravens, the Swallows, and Sonny Til and the Orioles, I was hooked on it and would search it out on the dial.
At first, this new sound was referred to as "race music," but it soon became known as rhythm and blues. And in Queens, whenever you went into a subway station, a public bathroom, or any place with an echo, there'd be groups of teenage boys there, singing the songs a cappella, making up their own harmonies and calling it doo-wop . This new music spoke directly to me somehow, and told me that something really big was coming, something maybe even bigger than the music itself.
* * *
LADY WAS our family dog, a purebred Dalmatian. She was so smart, we never even had to walk her. She would just jump out the back window, go down the cellar door, through the garden, over the cyclone fence, and into the huge vacant lot behind our row of flats to do her duty. All of Skillman Avenue used to walk their dogs back there, and there were always a few strays around as well. (And in those days, nobody picked up the poop.) When she was finished, Lady Clauheen (her full name) would run the whole course in reverse, coming right back up the cellar door, through the window, and into the kitchen. And she did it all as one smooth piece, beautiful choreography. She was so elegant, with a lightly spotted body and an almost all-white face. She was the first living thing I can remember loving. She made me know what love was. I hadn't particularly recognized that emotion yet with people, at least not the way I knew it with Lady.
One night my father came in very angry and everyone at home was acting really strange. Lady was cowering in the corner of the living room and shaking like a leaf. She seemed to sense that something bad was about to happen — and so did I. After a lot of whispered stuff about some big black mutt, then some loud angry curses and shoving around of chairs and such, my father made my brother help him grab a hold of Lady and carry her into the bathroom. She was yelping and howling, convulsing and fighting to get free. I thought her beautiful long legs were gonna break.
I didn't understand. Why were they hurting her so? What could she have done that was so bad? And what were they going to do to her in the bathroom? My father made my sisters take me to my parents' bedroom at the far end of our railroad flat, as if that would prevent me from hearing all of the horror. Nobody would tell me what was happening, but after a while I pretty much figured it out. No, he didn't kill the dog, but he did kill any puppies she may have had inside of her, or at least the sperm that might have turned into those puppies. Yes, my father performed a scalding–hot water rubber-hose abortion on Lady while my brother held her down in the tub.
This, in a way, was my introduction to the birds and the bees, and it very well may have scarred me for life. I hated all men in that moment. And the sounds wouldn't stop. All I could do back in the bedroom was curl up in a fetal position and sob from the deepest part of my six-year-old soul. I never wanted to feel so helpless again. I tried so hard to make myself disappear, to escape from the pain. If only I could get out of there, I thought, go live in the woods on my own, everything would be all right. But there was no way. I simply had to find a place inside my mind where I could hide at moments like these.
Lady was never the same after that night. She stayed under the bed constantly and became very nervous. And when my parents started keeping her down in the cellar, she went for my sister Margaret (at least that's what Margaret said) and seemed to go insane. They had her put down after that, though they told everyone that what Lady really died from was "a broken heart over never having had any puppies."
Without knowing if the Lady trauma was the cause, I soon developed a condition that would plague me for the rest of my life — a shameful, secret thing I did, which was diagnosed decades later as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
* * *
THERE WAS a place we went to every summer. It was a kind of camp for employees of the Department of Sanitation and their families. When the old Second Avenue El was taken down in Manhattan at the end of the '30s, the Department of Sanitation bought up all of the trains and, in 1941, turned the individual cars into modern compact houses with built-in beds, kitchens, and bathrooms. They added big front porches onto them; placed them here and there around the mountains and lakes of a multi-acre property in Holmes, New York, they'd named Sanita Hills; and rented them out very inexpensively to the sanitation workers for their family vacations.
For some reason, my parents, who were always so cautious and strict with me back in Queens, let me roam around Sanita on my own, even when I was as young as six or seven. There were lakes with swim-cribs, lifeguards, floats, and boats — and all for free. And the trails and meadows were all marked with signposts, so you couldn't get too lost. I loved being alone in nature, just me and the earth and the sky. I found a secret little spot by a pond that I returned to over and over, where I just sat silently, entranced by the willow trees, the water lilies, the frogs, and the birds. I was too young to know that what I was actually doing there was meditating. I just knew that all of the time I sat there, I felt good and I wanted for nothing — except, maybe, for a slice of the divine, warm peach pie from the bakery nearby. And so, it was nature that comprised my first real fantasy world, whether the actual time I spent in it in the summers or the memories of it I could call to mind the rest of the year when faced with one of those "God, please get me out of here" moments.
If that didn't work, I would escape any painful situations via the OCD route, manically picking at any cut, scratch, bite, or blemish on my body, alternating constantly between letting a scab form and picking it off, keeping the wounds open and bloody for weeks, sometimes months, on end. I guess I was just substituting one kind of pain for another, and punishing myself for whatever wasn't right with my life. But all I knew was that I was learning how to slip into a kind of trance at will, honing my zoning-out skills in whatever ways possible, to the point where I almost could disappear.
* * *
MY SISTER Mary and her girlfriend Roseanne used to put on little variety shows underneath our front stoop. The audience was made up of the neighborhood kids who paid ten cents, sat on the cellar steps, and got one free glass of Kool-Aid each. Mary and Roseanne were the producers and a few young starstruck kids like me and my next-door neighbor Joannie Jackolovsky were the performers. We each knew one routine and we did it for every single show.
Joannie was always the ballerina. She had long blond braids and a whole wardrobe of pink crepe-paper ballet costumes that Mary and Roseanne had made her. The 78 of "Dance Ballerina Dance" by Vaughn Monroe would come on, and Joannie would invariably chicken out and freeze. Mary and Roseanne would be there, pushing her out from the cellar, and the kids would all laugh like the Little Rascals. Then, after a quick jolt of courage, which prompted a pirouette or two, Joannie would burst into tears and crouch in the corner. The kids loved it. Some of 'em threw their Kool-Aid at her, which kind of melted her crepe-paper costumes. And I guess that's why she had so many of 'em.
I was always Leilani, the hula girl. I wore a flower-printed towel as a sarong, with my fanciest panties underneath and a toilet-tissue carnation tucked behind one ear, while strumming a plastic ukulele and singing along with either "Sweet Leilani" or "Johnny Brings Leilani Home." About halfway through the number, I used to get rid of the ukulele and start to wiggle (I thought I was doing the hula). Mary, Roseanne, and the kids would go bananas, cheering me on, making me gyrate wildly. And eventually, the towel would work its way loose and fall to the ground. Once everyone got a good look at me dancing topless in my panties, I would clutch my breasts, act embarrassed, and run off into the cellar. But even at age six or seven, I kind of knew what I was doing.
Joannie and I were always doing secret, sick little things, like pooping together behind the hedges in the backyard instead of in the toilet. And for most things we never were caught. But on Valentine's day in 1951, we really got into trouble for the cards we sent some neighborhood ladies who always sat on the front stoops chatting when the weather was nice. Sam's Candy Store on Skillman Avenue used to sell "penny Valentines," though they actually cost around a nickel. They were printed on a single sheet of paper, and each one had a theme expressed in a rhyme, along with a garish illustration. We knew they were naughty but didn't realize just how vicious they actually were. And not having money for lots of them, we only bought one of each of our favorites — "The World's Biggest Cheapskate," "The World's Biggest Gossip," and "The World's Biggest Pig." We used tracing paper and crayons to make multiple copies of them and anonymously left them in the women's mailboxes.
There probably wouldn't have been such a huge hullabaloo about them had we not nailed the women with exactly the right theme for each, according to the way we'd heard our parents talk about them. Mrs. Sayles, who lived on the top floor of our building, made the biggest stink of all, and she knew right away who had sent them. Joannie and I owned up to doing it and had to apologize to each and every woman in person. Our parents scolded us, but they couldn't help but laugh at what we'd done — saying things that they themselves only wished they had the balls to say to those women. Mrs. Sayles was indeed known as "the neighborhood gossip" and here's what her Valentine said.
You always put folks in a hole
With talk that's vile and cheap
I'd like to see you in a hole
A big one six feet deep
We knew what we'd done wasn't nice — naturally, we didn't really want Mrs. Sayles to die — and I, for one, learned a few lessons by getting caught. I realized the importance of owning up to one's mistakes (of course, making the copies instead of sending the originals was our first mistake) and that the things adults say behind each other's backs are often different than the things said to their faces. Mostly, though, I learned a lot about the power of words, especially poetry. And I believe this may have been the beginning of my lifelong love affair with the form.
Excerpted from Lick Me by Cherry Vanilla. Copyright © 2010 Cherry Vanilla. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Rufus Wainwright,
1. The Bridge to Oz,
2. Rock and Roll,
3. On Becoming a Mad Woman,
4. Out There,
7. Charlotte Russe,
8. Party Favor,
9. Pop Tart,
10. Groupie (Superstar),
12. Princess Charlotte Russe,
14. Lilies and Lilacs,
16. The Bard of the Hard,
17. The Punk,
18. Bad Girl,
What People are Saying About This
A swinging romp with one swinging gal! This juicy page-turner will have rock gossip tongues wagging their tales!--(Kate Pierson, the B-52’s)
You lucky bitch! Your New York was definitely not my New York! --(Rufus Wainwright, musician and composer)
Pop art and glamour . . . an exciting and multiflavored story of the journey of a true icon! Cherry is rock and roll royalty.--(Countess Luann de Lesseps, The Real Housewives of New York City)
Much like hanging out with Cherry: a refreshing dose of honesty and humor. Considering this book is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Cherry has an amazing ability to remember it all.--(Tim Burton, artist and filmmaker)
With matter-of-fact nonchalance the delightful Ms Vanilla tells an unrepentant tale of a joyously madcap life among rock royalty and the artistic elite.--(Pamela Des Barres, author, I’m With the Band)