It Had Something to Do with Axl Rose

It’s the first day of spring, and I’m still trying to quit smoking… since the first day of last spring. I don’t know why I can’t give this up, but I know why I started. It had something to do with Axl Rose.

I’m sitting on my girlfriend’s couch, drinking a cup of coffee from out a French press. She’s played by Beyoncé in the movie version of my life. I’m certain of this because a coworker recently showed me a picture of the pop star on Instagram the other day. Muted morning light shines through multi-colored drapes. A shadow of the windowsill’s lone plant is cast on hardwood flooring. Cora’s younger than me by 12 years. But neither of us minds. We already discussed that. She just started letting me call her my girlfriend last Saturday.

It’s her French press with the red top brewed this coffee. She brought it to me in a wide-lipped, purple mug, hand-thrown somewhere in Baltimore. I used to own a purple car, but I haven’t owned a car in over four years. In fact, the last car I drove I didn’t even own. I’d already sold it to my stepdad a few years before upon my return from Santa Fe. Cora and I woke up early today to the sound of Cat Stevens coming off her iPhone. It was earlier than I would have liked it to be. And I realized maybe if I opened my own blinds in my basement apartment, let the sun stream across me on days I was alone, it may not always be so hard to get up. But we both have to go to work. That’s something I didn’t always do.

For some reason, there’s a Beastie Boys tune worming through my mind, something off of Check Your Head. I remember discovering that record in the midst of a store’s fully stocked shelves somewhere off the 5 freeway in San Clemente, California. The same store where I first discovered Rage Against The Machine. This song goes, “Now Ad-rock and MCA, let’s rock this joint in the old school way…” which I say quietly to myself.

Cora laughs. I love her light sound. I don’t know what that means, and I don’t know if it’s the words or my phrasing brought her humor on. The caffeine must have already hit our brains. When I said it, I wasn’t sure whether or not she would know the line. But even if she doesn’t, I’m certain she knows Ad-rock and MCA. A 12-year gap isn’t that big a cultural difference. Or so I’ve learned since my mid-thirties – despite technological advances.

“You know, the Beastie Boys weren’t great rappers,” I say, “By any stretch of the imagination. But they had amazing production…”

Cora agrees, nodding through the cloud above her cup. Her curls spill over bare shoulders. Her mouth is pursed, blowing the steam from her lips.

Recalling collegiate discussions on the merits of the Dust Brothers’ work with The Beastie Boys on Paul’s Boutique, I remember I didn’t like that album when it first came out. I’d loved License to Ill, but in fifth grade, the video for Hey Ladies was beyond my tastes. I’d just discovered heavy metal. By the time I got to high school, though, it was a whole different story. “And a great sense of aesthetics,” I go on.

I first discovered I wasn’t a hipster in the fall of 2001. I was 25 years old, the same age Cora is now, and the Twin Towers had just gone down a couple months before. The scent from their immolation still lingered in my nostrils, and the sight of their smoke still burned my retinas. There I was, two months after 9/11, a poet in my girlfriend’s painting studio, somewhere near the campus of Pratt University in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I had on a pair of dark blue jeans, flared out at the calves to cover the buckles on my motorcycle boots. My shaggy hair hung over my ears and in front of my eyes. I wore a black tee shirt emblazoned with an orange AK-47. The tee shirt said – Defend Brooklyn. It was one size too small for me. The only size the traveling, California street artists had left when I bought it from them on the main-drag of my own Brooklyn neighborhood. “It’s cool. Kinda heroin chic,” they’d said to me as I slipped it over my emaciated torso.

Annie, my then girlfriend, had on a ripped up, sleeveless tee shirt with glitter encrusted paint smears streaking her legs and dotting her Chuck Taylor’s falling apart at the seams. She’d just invited me over to see her artwork for the very first time.

We’d met at a bar. The buzz saw slice of late-70s punk rock blared from out the heavily-stickered juke box. I’d been shooting pool and just lost another game. I was sitting at a table in the corner, drinking my Bass Ale, when a tall girl with bleached blonde hair slammed a pitcher of beer down on the table, slid into place across from me and said, “I want to talk to you about politics and philosophy.”

“Okay,” I said. “Anything specific?”

“Marx and Nietzsche,” she answered.

Back then, Annie’s most recent paintings were composed of cellular shapes undulating across dark canvasses. She said the lights polka-dotting her cells were inspired by the cityscapes of her most recent cross-country flight back home to San Francisco. After spending her childhood in a Buddhist commune outside the city proper, she grew up in the Haight-Ashbury District. Her mom had made millions by marketing the dot-com boom. I was reminded of brain synapses. We were smoking pot from out her one-hitter and taking pulls off the gin in my flask as I rolled cigarettes tight with dark, French tobacco. She and I lived in a pair of conjoined neighborhoods, little-known at that time outside New York, just north of there called Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

“You know what the hipster kids back in Williamsburg don’t realize,” I said to Annie.

She shook her head, No. She smoked so much pot, she never really got stoned.

“Is the history of that word. You see, Norman Mailer, all the way back in the 1950s wrote an essay about it. He said hipsters were basically educated kids who moved into the city to drop out of society… by embracing drugs and poverty. It’s not a fashion statement, you see. It’s not a way to gentrify New York by turning all of Brooklyn into the suburbs… a place where all these college kids can feel safe and at home. Just like they never left their dorm rooms. It’s a philosophy, a rejection of all the middle-class values we grew up with. See, you and me, Annie, we’re hipsters in the sense Norman Mailer was talking about. Not the way people use that word today…”

As I tell this story to Cora right now over our cups of morning coffee, she laughs. “You do see the irony in that, don’t you?”

I nod and smile. Cora and I met in the darkness outside an AA meeting. Wearing all black – black dress, black motorcycle boots, black leather jacket – she had long, curly hair streaked blonde, high cheekbones and a rich complexion. But I was dating somebody else at the time. I never would have approached her. Instead, she approached me. Through the thin, cotton shirt I was wearing, she could apparently see the outline of ϕ tattooed on my left deltoid.

“Do you actually have phi tattooed on you?” was the first thing she ever said to me.

I was standing alone, chewing a piece of nicotine gum. I was in awe this beautiful woman who I’d admired from afar since the very first time I’d ever seen her had chosen to approach me. There’d already been many a night I was so embarrassed she might have noticed me staring at her throughout the meeting. Maybe she had noticed. Maybe I hadn’t needed to be embarrassed. “Yes,” I responded shyly. “I do have a tattoo of phi.”

“Is it for the golden ratio?” she went on.

“Yes. In fact, it is,” I said. “I’m surprised you got the reference. Most people don’t.”

“I majored in math in college,” she told me. I smiled awkwardly and nodded. We proceeded to go out for dinner with a small group of folks from the meeting. Cora sat down next to me, and I promptly ignored her for the rest of the night. Like I said, I was dating somebody else at the time. I was terrified of how attracted to Cora I actually was. Our connection has been palpably electric ever since.

Cora grew up outside Baltimore. She went to an artists’ high school there in the city that, once upon a time, rewrote my entire life’s trajectory. It was the same high school Tupac had attended when I’d been in elementary school. He’d majored in theater, though. Cora had studied visual arts. “It’s funny, though,” she’s going on right now, “When I was in high school, me and my friends, we all wanted to be hipsters. They were the Wham City kids we thought were so cool…” She’ll be starting law school at Georgetown this fall, but she’s been talking about wanting to do some new paintings again recently.

“I know. That’s the crazy thing. Back in the day, being a hipster meant you could never say you were a hipster. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because we all showed up in Brooklyn thinking we were so special. We read these books. We listened to that music. We liked this artist. We watched those movies. And then, suddenly, we were all in the same place surrounded by people who were just like us. And that meant we weren’t so special anymore. All while the rest of the city kept saying we were just a bunch of hipsters, like Williamsburg was some sort of new wave fashion show. So we rejected the title and tried to show everybody how different we each were. It probably has something to do with how my generation grew up. The music we listened to, the movies we watched, the courses we took in college…”

After leaving Cora’s, as I was walking to the Metro, that’s when this idea first hit me. But I didn’t start writing it until tonight, on a new pad of paper I bought to jot down notes for the meeting about this film I’m to help write. It didn’t come to me fully formed. It was just the title striking my brain like it was thrown straight from Zeus’ clenched fist – Confessions of a Reluctant Hipster.

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