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West Side Story
By Claudia Lonow

There are times when two completely different parts of one's life come together in unexpected ways, causing chaos and destruction. This happened to me in junior high, when the show business world I'd grown up in collided with my membership in a gang.

I spent ages three to eleven in an artsy-fartsy Greenwich Village cocoon. My parents were struggling actors who struggled more often than they acted. Their friends were a ragtag bunch of misfits whose ill-advised efforts at artistic immortality were comically futile, and, the fact that they didn't know that only made them sadder…yet funnier, too. For instance, my mother's best friend and fellow Improv troupe member constantly changed her name, going from Eva to Kay to Tanya to Joyce, in the hopes that just the right moniker would stand out and lead to her big break. These changes would be announced as if they were important decisions that would alter her destiny. Her destiny of nameless obscurity, it turned out.

My stepfather's best friend was Paul Crossgroven. Although Paul looked like a young Carol O'Connor, he never achieved the slightest amount of success. And the most striking thing I can say about him, besides the fact that his son tried to molest me, is he had once tasted his own shit. Or so my mother claimed, one windy day as we walked down Houston Street. I asked her why he did that, and she replied that he'd been overcome by curiosity. Not knowing what to make of such overwhelming inquisitiveness, I hugged myself in my uncomfortable snowsuit and thought, "How dark and glamorous."

I loved my showbiz childhood, surrounded by out-of-work thespians practicing their improv skits in my living room, asking me to call out suggestions of professions and locations. "Two plumbers on the Autobahn!" I'd shout out, as I cooked up a can of macaroni and cheese for my supper. My parents' life was a whirl of singing lessons, diction practice, method acting, primal scream exercises, and braless girls who didn't shave their armpits crying over their latest boyfriend problems in our teeny weeny kitchen.

But that all changed when I turned twelve and had to go to junior high school. See, the junior high in our district, IS 70, was not in Greenwich Village. It was, instead, in a bad neighborhood on 17th street in between 8th and 9th Avenues. I knew it was bad because in the winter the tenants of the decrepit brownstones across the street from the school put their milk on their fire escapes to keep it cold because they couldn't afford refrigerators. I don't know what they did in the summer. Drink their milk faster perhaps? The point is, the liberal, middle class Jewesses I'd grown up with and I were suddenly surrounded by black girls who, for whatever reason, hated us, and voiced their collective desire to kick our asses quite frequently.

I first realized these girls detested me, and had the skills to let me know it, after an altercation I got into with a black girl who was named Linda Dykke. I don't know if Linda was a dyke, but she did have quite the unflattering hairstyle and a not-great complexion. This isn't to say that all African-American lesbians have bad hair and skin, but Linda did and it wasn't my fault.

One day, I was in P.E., which I had already dubbed the bane of my existence…even though I hadn't existed that long and had so many more existential banes ahead of me. The Physical Education program at I.S. 70 was so effective at bringing about the greatest possible humiliation to a girl going through puberty, it's hard to believe it wasn't designed for that purpose. The ill-fitting uniforms, the unflattering fluorescent lighting of the gymnasium, the full-length funhouse-like mirrors in the locker rooms. Not to mention the expectation that we, a bunch of twelve-year-old girls who didn't know each other, would take off our clothes and shower together when pubic hair, breasts and blood could shoot out of us, Carrie-like, at any time.

It was during P.E. that I happened to walk by Linda Dykke. Previous to the incident, I'd been under the impression that Linda Dykke and I were friends, if your definition of friend is that she never threatened to beat me up, or even call me "Honky" except for once and that was only in play. In any case as I walked past her, I said, "Hi Linda," and waved. Linda immediately got upset. "You put your hand too close to my face," she said. I don't remember what I said next because she did one of those black girl high school pushing you things. "You put yo' hand too close to my face, bitch." Needless to say, things went downhill from there.

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