A Storyby Debra Jo Immergut
London was scruffier then, but the whole world was scruffier then, am I right? This was 1981, after all, and yes, you would actually see boys dressed like Adam Ant striding along the Kings Road, eyeliner, epaulets, brass buttons, ruffled cuffs, dirty soft boots that bunched around the ankle, and you would actually think they looked very, very appealing indeed. This happened, it is documented, but also I witnessed it firsthand and so did my best friend, Penny.
So we’d just been popped fresh out of an American suburb like something extruded, curvy teenage girls molded by fine public schools, fad diets and pop-top pudding cups, corrective orthodontia, summer camps that trained us in synchronized swimming and riflery. But we have said goodbye to all that this summer, the thin canyon of time between high school and college, over which we are determined to leap, wild and fearless. And so Penny and I convince our parents to sign us up for a “precollege course” in London, a program with extremely lax standards and a desultory curriculum, overseen by young American adjunct professors who are also determined to make the most of their summer in this city that is grimy and awash in exuberant newfangled music and alcohol and hashish rolled up with tobacco and smoked in giant spliffs.
We are not even eighteen but of course this is Europe, where such things are of no import, we are all welcome, are we not, in these pubs, which, after all, are family drinking places, though Penny and I, we favor a few grimy tourist bars around Covent Garden that are decidedly not family pubs, in fact they could be construed as international meat markets, and this is what we find so interesting that we go back night after night. This was so many years before fear. American girls didn’t think much about downsides when chatting over many pungent, pulpy screwdrivers with drifting young men from Tripoli or Napoli, or friendly thirty-something couples from Tel Aviv who would like to invite you back to their hotel near Victoria Station to smoke the crazy shit they’d just picked up in Amsterdam and watch British MTV on the cable, which of course was vastly superior to the US version, and of course you did not have any cable in your stinky little dorm room.
And remember that you’d go two or three weeks without calling home. It was expensive, required an international calling card linked to your parents’ AT&T account, and there was only one pay phone in the dorm anyhow and the sad girl from Denver across the hall always monopolized it. And our parents were just a year or two from separating anyhow, Penny’s parents and mine both, we didn’t know that then, of course, but Penny sensed that they weren’t really completely focused on her well-being when she discovered, upon arriving at the dorm, that they’d never actually registered her for the course. No matter, said the administrator, a frazzled man who during the regular school year served as the dorm’s custodian, just take a cot, he said, and I’ll let the college know to bill your mum and dad.
I suspected mine were on the brink because my father mostly slept on the sofa in the basement TV room and had accumulated three DUIs the previous winter. We were hardly devastated by the impending domestic catastrophes though, Penny and I, after all, we’d both been accepted at out-of-state universities and so our younger siblings would just have to stay behind to take the shrapnel. This summer was the start, we had already vacated the premises, and at times it felt that if our parents were to stop opening the mail they would forget we existed, as the only trace we left for them were phone-card calls and tuition bills.
Afternoons, Penny and I took to lounging in Green Park, soothing our hangovers with bottled fizzy water, watching lonely young mothers feeding the ducks with their stumbling toddlers, and we’d peruse the NME, the shockingly cool music publication printed in smeary ink on soft paper. It was there, in its pages, that we spotted an announcement. Iggy Pop. Rainbow Theatre. Finsbury Park. Eleventh July. Eleventh July, repeated Penny. We found ourselves charmed by the way they switched the dates around. The opening band would be Téléphone, a French punk outfit with a hit on the radio, a hit in French, so impossibly exotic, but here they played French punk on the radio, which was vastly superior to our Top 40 stations at home.
On one of the high streets—Penny and I loved this term; when we smoked those hashish spliffs we bought from some Dutch boys we met in the crowd watching the guards change at Buckingham Palace, we’d say, Let’s take a stroll on the high street, shall we?—you’d find just the right clothing for an Iggy Pop concert. I bought a pink denim jacket and black denim miniskirt with a bit of gold thread shot through. Penny liked tight white jeans printed with fat pink roses and a T-shirt printed with a giant female face, an eye on each breast, and Penny did have large ones. We both wore white pointy-toed flat-heeled boots we’d bought at great expense on the Kings Road; they attracted all the smudge of the dirty old city and therefore required a buffing with dampened toilet paper at every visit to a ladies’ room. In our dorm room on the evening of Eleventh July, she yanked the T-shirt on, turned around to me, cupped a bulging eye in each hand, and said, Don’t you do anything fishy tonight. I’ll be watching you.