Along Comes Sue

 

 

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Sue came to William Paterson more conventionally in 1978, bearing under

the weight of a middle class background, she would have rather denied.

 

In an era of punk rebellion, and the pre-Ronald Reagan revolution, Sue

seemed determined to model herself in the mold of an older, pre-punk,

pre-hippie East Village image. She admired Abbie Hoffman and his

disappearance underground eight years earlier. She would later get to

meet him when he re-emerged, cooing over him, modeling herself after

him, determined to learn everything about how he had managed to slip out

from the wary eye of society despite the intense focus of media.

 

Sue, however, arrived at the end of an artist revival, the last strands

of her beloved Sixties unraveling around her. The administration had

purged the campus of more than 100 student radicals the years during her

first year, further feeding her feelings of persecution -- people who

clung to school with sub-average grades, who made up the heart and sole

of the radical movement.

 

A few others from that era would hold on until the mid-1980s, some

taking on jobs at school, others hunkering down in the office of the

Student Mobilization Committee until the administration, angered over

the SMC's funding of a Patco strike protest trip to Washington --

defunded the club and drove those radicals off the campus as well.

 

Yet for all Sue's pining over my generation's heroes, she displayed no

particular taste for political action. She had taken on the attire of

the East Village beatnik and its a-political attitude, protesting not

against the conservative take-over of the previously liberal college,

but against but against the whole social structure that had condemned

her to a past of relative privilege. She showed contempt for the mundane

world of blue collar laborers and white collar office workers, out of

which she had climbed to get to college. She often painted her past in

pain, as if needing to earn her place in the hipper circles she sought

across the Hudson.

 

When she talked about her parents at all, she remanufactured them into

monsters, sometimes claiming herself abused. Bill Madaras, editor of the

school newspaper when Sue arrived, developed one of the closer

relationships with her, and though she had sworn him to secrecy, he

related tales of rape he had heard from Sue -- Sue claiming on her

mother's boyfriends had raped her when she was three.

 

Yet for all Sue did to deny it, Middle Class life left its mark on her,

tattooing her as vividly as blood did Lady MacBeth. Even as she sought

to recreate herself, changing details of her upbringing, shaping petty

dramas between herself or her multiple step-fathers, she could not

escape the life fate had shaped for her.

 

As a resident of Nutley from 1990 to 1996, Sue largely lived the same

patterned life as her mother, including the multiple march of men to and

from her bedroom. She had even adapted to the white trash aspect of

Nutley's poor southeast corner where she rubbed shoulders with offices

workers, garage mechanics, sales clerks, fast food vendors, not spies,

Mafia dons, nor rock & roll stars.

 

No matter how much she derided suburbia, and lusted after the East

Village thrills she heard about from her friends, she could not shed the

paper trail that led back to her years in Totowa, Little Falls or Wayne,

where success was measured by car models, not cool, where a Mercedes

mattered a good deal more than a jazz riff or publishing credit in an

underground magazine. And a short drive through these neighborhoods,

passed large lawns and set back houses gave Sue a glimpse of what she

might expect her own future to be.

 

Totowa, Little Falls, even prestigious Wayne, lacked the class

distinctions of truly wealthy communities, serving as havens to a

successful working class who could no longer stomach the declining

safety of Paterson's shadowy streets. Italian families, buoyed up into a

higher income bracket by post World War Two veteran's benefits, set

themselves apart from the growing populations of blacks and Latinos,

building gaudy, tasteless houses and pretentious sense of superiority,

as they beefed up their police force and set guard against a further

spread of race. From the hill hanging over Paterson, they could look

down literally and figuratively upon those they had left behind,

pretending they had climbed out of the lower class, when they had simp

successful working class who could no longer stomach the declining

safety of

 

Indeed, until the mid 1980s -- long after Sue had graduated high school

and moved on to college, Passaic Valley Regional high school had no more

than a token black face pass through its glass doors, and even then,

that face was likely to have an Asian name, not one associated with

black America.

 

The illusion of bohemia often plagued such places, stirred up in the

romantic imagination of extremely frustrated kids -- white American kids

who heard the call of rock and roll, and painted pictures in their minds

of what it might mean to live by their wits. They absorbed black culture

and imitated it, then sought more thrills in the historic streets of

Greenwich Village, where cultural revolution churned on with new

variations, purple hair replacing purple haze, nose rings replacing

nehru. A visit to St. Mark's Place on the Lower East Side provided these

weekend warriors with images of a new society, one based upon violence

and sex, one of leather, chains and living on the edge.

 

But Village life was an illusion, too, painted by generations of misfits

who had fled there in protest of a so-called unjust society, and for the

last two decades the place had lost its edge, sinking into the same fit

of commercialism that had helped destroy the 1960s. And kids like Sue

shopped the heavy metal shops of St. Marks with the same blind vigor as

their parents did Willowbrook Mall, returning home with costume jewelry

shaped like skulls rather than star clusters. Most of these kids got

over the kick after college, settling down to a life not so different

from their parents, finding a home and spouse, rather than trolling dark

Manhattan streets. But some like Sue simply refused, seeing that life --

the old and boring workaholic life of mom and pop -- as an unfeeling

trap where they would zone out. Life like that was nothing more than a

big sleep, a day in and day out drag, going to work, coming home from

work, stopping off for a video on the way. One day you're sixteen and

the next your sixty, wondering where all the years in-between went. Sue

wanted to feel every moment, even if every moment hurt. She wanted to

taste the danger, and dance on The Edge, even if she didn't completely

know what danger was or where exactly the edge began before she fell

off.

 

Images of her childhood, of course, haunted Sue. Even as an adult, she

couldn't escape her mother's petty jealousies, how Martha often acted

more like a sister than a mother, dying her hair blonde, curling it,

perpetually playing the innocent flirt through five husbands and

countless prospects. Martha Young was a self-centered neurotic who spend

more time with her therapist than she ever did with Sue, refusing to

accept responsibility for Sue's pain, even after Sue disappeared.

 

"She often spoke to friends about her poor relationship with her mother

and often spent nights at a time sleeping on a student center couch

before her mother had thrown her out of the house after an argument --

often over Walsh's current stepfather," wrote Joel center couch before

her mother

 

Sue often had to witness her mother's temper tantrums, as if she was the

adult, and her mother, Martha, a small child stamping her feet until she

got her own way. This was a humiliating experience for Sue, and an

embarrassment that made her prefer the insane world of sex shows and

skin magazines to the supposed normality of middle America.

 

Her father, Floyd, played little part in Sue's life until after she left

school when he re-entered her life.

 

"Merchant, an admitted alcoholic in recovery, divorced Walsh's mother

when her daughter was only two," Joel wrote. ""Because of the father's

drinking problems during the period and difficult relations between the

parents, Merchant had little contact with his daughter while she was

growing up."

 

After the initial hoopla of Sue's disappearance died down the Bergen

Record sought Floyd out, trying to find someone sympathetic in Sue's

life, and from their initial story, the first honest portrait of her

parents emerged. It wasn't until many of her former school mates read

these articles that they even knew Floyd was still alive.

 

"She told me that her father was dead," School mate Dorothy Ryan told

Joel. "She also said that her mom was married four or five times and

that she had a lot of problems getting along with her various step

fathers. It was odd that she was so quick to tell people about her

personal problems."

 

Sue's tales about her mother had a much more painful edge, and

throughout school, Sue alluded to abuse of various sorts. She told one

friend she'd never adequately handled her mother's divorce of Floyd. Sue

often painted thumb-nail sketches of the string of step-fathers that

followed Floyd, hinting of molestation and temper tantrums. She once

said one of these fathers kept a crocodile in the garage. Only later,

when we compared notes did we noticed the subtle discrepancies between

each tale, as if Sue gave each of us a version she believed we would

most readily accept.

 

For someone who saw herself as "cool," a past as the child of a middle

class family seemed remarkably inconvenient. Sue desired a much more

dramatic past to make up for her more or less drab present. Although she

grew up in Totowa and Wayne, two extremely ordinary towns, and she

attended very ordinary schools with every ordinary teachers, she built

herself a past that added color and action to her life. Thus her father,

Floyd Merchant, now a retired engineer, became a sailor in her mind, a

member of the merchant marine -- and so she claimed -- a hopeless drunk

that abandoned her and her family and fled to Oregon when she was young.

Her half brother fell through the cracks of this myth.

 

"She really built up the drama," Dorothy said "One day she tells us her

father has suddenly come back and that she is afraid to meet him. Then,

after she screwed herself up to go see him, she came back later and told

us she can't see him any more. She said it was just too much for hemeet

him. Then,

 

When Sue mentioned her parents to me during those years, she spoke in

tones so dour, I regretted asking. Her expression took that distant look

she perpetually called "fugue," her mouth cutting a strange, subtly

angry line across her lower face.

 

"I don't want to talk about them," she said, pushing a piece of poetry

across the table at me, in a rude gesture that forced me to glance down

rather than at her.

 

Her poetry was sometimes brutal, and something too personal for me to

even criticize, a few hard notches up from the stuff she submitted to

the magazine. Each line was full of outrage, each poem, an indictment of

her upbringing, or an attack on all powerful men, starting with her

father. She seemed to wave her fist at God and government, defying both.

This wasn't the feminist talk she gave people, shocking them with tales

of slicing open men's penises. None of that was real, painted too

thickly with her sense of theater. Her real anger percolated at another,

less conscious level, as deceptive as a safety razor. You read these

poems and bled, then realize that the bleeding never stops from so sharp

a cut. I've read poets who make me cry like that, sneaking up from the

inside of my head, but no one else ever made me bleed like that, not

even my ex-wife. At the time, I thought I'd never met anyone so wounded,

nor found anyone seeking so much vengeance on people for the crimes

people committed against her. Only later, as people -- like Madaras --

began to divulge her secrets, did I realize that she was lying.

 

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A blast from the Past

 

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