Thursday, March 7, 2013

Just Kids

Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1969. Photo from HERE.
I've recently been reading the memoir "Just Kids" written by Patti Smith, '70s punk singer/songwriter. In 1967 she went to New York City, moved in with her friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, and they lived the life of poor artists. They moved from squats to house-sits and finally to the Chelsea Hotel, where they mingled with artists and musicians, and began to find success, she as a poet, playwright and singer, and he as a photographer.

She writes of sleeping in the streets, scavenging garbage for furniture or clothes, and going days with no food to eat but vending machine peanutbutter crackers. Her memoir brings back my own time in that city, walking those same streets, working in Lower East Side theatres. I was never as hungry as Smith, but I do remember walking blocks to save a 50 cent subway token, and there were times I couldn't make the rent on time.

Sheridan Square, 1970
In this past Sunday's New York Times, the front page of the Sunday Style section featured a young man named Gavin. Like Patti Smith, he came to New York City, made a friend, and started hanging out at clubs. They mingled with rock stars and infamous celebrities. This has been very beneficial for Gavin, now 26, who works for an online magazine photographing the famous. You can see his work HERE.

In the interview, we hear of his adventures. Invitations from fashion designers, travel to international arts events. A famous singer scored concert tickets, and he hung out with a starlet, in a rap star's trailer at Coachella. House parties with a Greek billionaire's son, producers parties at the Golden Globes, and after-parties with famous actresses.

He has been hired as a "creative consultant" for retailers and fashion shows. He plans a book of his photography, a one-man show, and a launch of his fashion line.

St. Marks Place, East Village. Photo from Wikimedia Commons
My son was in college in New York in 2006 when Gavin arrived; in fact, his friend Kate went to the same art school Gavin did. He lived in the East Village, not far from St. Marks Place, where Patti Smith slept on the street in 1969.

In 1978, I worked near the Chelsea Hotel, but I didn't hang out in its famous Quixote Room where I would have been be more likely to run into Sid and Nancy than Patti Smith and Janis. I drank at a cheap Irish bar down the street. I rehearsed an off-off-Broadway place in a crumbling loft next door to CBGBs, where Patti Smith's band played. I lived in the West Village near the club that, in 2006, would give Gavin and his friend their entry into celebrity society.

CBGB - photo Larry C. Morris, New York Times
Beneath the fold on the front page of the same Sunday Style section, there's another story profiling young people embarking on creative careers. Internships are the new entry-level job - where young people toil, often unpaid, for the privilege of building resume credit.

Despite the lack of pay, these are demanding jobs. Especially in "rock-star" industries like fashion, music, film and television, unpaid interns often work more than 60 hours a week, nights and weekends, and risk dismissal for such sins as late arrivals or failure to answer emails in a "timely fashion." Employers try to get as much out of workers as they can, and young people desperate to break in are easily exploited.

Today, while job-hunting, I see a lot of ads for internships. One big entertainment corporation here in Los Angeles posts an internship vacancy for almost every department, from talent buyer to ticket sales. 

Conventional wisdom tells us that if you get an education, you'll be able to get a good job. But the overworked college graduates on 24 hour call for fashion houses, rock promoters, or cable TV companies don't seem to have gained much from theirs. Some interns profiled in the article move from one unpaid internship to the next. Others move from internship to minimum wage positions that are equally stressful and unlasting. Some give up and move back home with their parents.

CBGB's site today - a fashion boutique
Gavin doesn't seem to have needed his education to party his way into a glamorous career. It's all about connecting people, he explains. He may well meet his goal of making a million dollars by his 30th year.

If you read the New York Times online, it doesn't strike you as starkly as it does when you see these two articles in print, on the same page. But juxtaposing Gavin's story with those of other kids' struggle just emphasizes how, in so many ways, life seems unfair.  Our society values celebrity more than hard work.

When Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe lived in New York, they were college drop-outs, abandoned by their families, with troubled pasts, struggling with gender and sexual identity. Almost feral, they worked in used bookstores, dressed windows, bartered artwork and even hustled for enough to pay their rent and feed themselves. Despite these liabilities, after many years, they gained the success they deserved - was it talent? Drive? Being in the right scene at the right time?

Patti Smith, 1976, from Wikimedia Commons
Five years later in the very same streets, pursuing my theatrical career, I scrambled for work - jumping from show to show, working for small change cash, for minimum wage, for drinks and food, sometimes for free. Like today's interns, I worked long hours, never let a phone go unanswered, never turned a work call down. It took years, and I had to adapt and learn new skills, but eventually I made a decent living.

Thirty years later, a men's fashion boutique occupies the Bowery storefront where CBGB once rocked. You can buy punk-rocker engineer boots, in hand-treated Italian calf-skin with antiqued hardware, for only $1098.00. Those now-overpriced streets of downtown Manhattan teem with students, attending NYU or Parsons or the New School. Some will use connections, family wealth, luck, or their own talents to gain financial success.

Some will be unpaid interns, and those who survive will eventually thrive.

But there are other kids for whom even an unpaid internship is beyond their reach. No college, no family support. Here in Los Angeles I have a 26 year old co-worker who seeks work as a parking attendant or custodian. He only has a GED.

I'm sure that Gavin worked hard for his success. I wouldn't want to imply he doesn't deserve it. But as he jets off to Art Basel, I hope he thinks of the unpaid overworked college grad who likely worked through lunch to enhance his experience there.  And when he passes through the VIP gate, I hope he notices the attendant who waves the limo to the curb. These people are his peers, his brothers and sisters. And what he should do with his first million is to help create better opportunities for them.


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Life is unfair. But I think you nailed it with this observation:
"Our society values celebrity more than hard work."
Add that to the high cost of a college education (and the debt that so many are saddled with upon leaving college) and I'm amazed that any young people can make it today without support from their families.
Those who don't have families to support them...

Anonymous said...

Loved "Just kids"! It was so poetic. Great post

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

A couple of good friends of mine lived in the Chelsea Hotel for most of the 90s, and so I walked over to visit them all the time.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

You can buy punk-rocker engineer boots, in hand-treated Italian calf-skin with antiqued hardware, for only $1098.00.

Good grief, why even bother?

A friend of mine, a working class kid from The Bronx, lucked into a position as a personal trainer for the designer Marc Jacobs shortly after Perry Ellis canned him for creating a "grunge" fashion line before "grunge" hit big. As Jacobs became extremely successful, he remembered how my friend backed him in the not-so-good old days and retained his services. My friend certainly isn't rich, but he earns a handsome living because he's received so many referrals from his now-celebrity clients.

Hard work and talent are essential, but luck also plays a role.