Walking Through Clear Water

I’ll read pretty much any book about the early days of punk in NYC, no matter how crappy it is. Recently I found an entertainingly crappy one called Punk Avenue by Phil Marcade, who maybe you haven’t heard of—I hadn’t—but who was there for everything that went down in that scene, like a punk rock Forrest Gump, him and his throwback rockabilly band the Senders.

I call the book crappy not because it isn’t beautifully written (though it isn’t, especially) but because some of the words and attitudes he expresses—about a woman who is “disgusting” because of her addiction and all the many “big” Black and Puerto Rican people he sees in New York (in his book, they’re all big)—occasionally made me barf. The stories he told were so juicy, though, I read every word. When it comes to books like these I don’t care whether the writing is elegant. For instance, I fucking treasure Touching From a Distance, the book Deborah Curtis wrote about her husband Ian, in part because it was written by someone who is not a writer and with such touching honesty, so naked it hurts.

Anyway, I was reading Marcade’s book and came across a description of a party he went to in the Lower East Side in 1981. It was a birthday party for himself, thrown by his friend Bruce at Bruce’s apartment. By this time most of the people Marcade knew were using or already addicted to heroin, including Bruce, who O.D.’d during the party and was revived by Coookie Mueller, the Queen of the Underground, in his bathtub. She injected him with salt water while a line of irritated people waiting for the bathroom pounded on the door, including one mouthy lady in drag.

This sounds familiar, I thought. It sounds just like a story that Cookie wrote herself and published in her wonderful book of essays, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. (That title: I feel it like an arrow to my heart. Sometimes I just repeat it to myself to get that feeling again and again. It’s stunning.) I went and found the book on my big bookcase, the one where all the important books are kept, and found that the names in her story are different and so is the year. She describes reviving a guy named Tom at someone named Sam’s apartment while a “drag queen film star” banged on the door. It took place in the LES, but in 1979. I guess the stories are about two different events, but who can say how much of these recollections is unintentional fiction? If you lived through all that, would you remember every name and date?

Either way the stories are pretty lurid, and I guess my interest in them isn’t very wholesome. But I can’t seem to quit my fascination with punk in its original form: Those first punks who were hippies or bohemians first, or maybe just crazy artists or people who partied too hard, who made a culture out of the larger culture’s leavings, literally dragging the older generation’s trash back home to their squats and apartments to turn it into art, clothing, a whole new life.

And beyond all that, Cookie Mueller is a person whose writing I have really loved. She tells the craziest stories, and her writing is elegant. I’ve enjoyed nursing an obsession with her over the years, and after reading Phil Marcade’s book, I decided it was high time to bring that obsession back to life.

As it happened, it’s more or less impossible to find her other books. They’re not at the library, and since they’re out of print copies are going for several hundred dollars—more than I want to pay. I did, however, get my hands on something just as exciting: A book about Cookie that was published just 5 years ago, written by someone who spent more than a decade getting to know those closest to her. The result is this big amazing brick of a book called Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller. The author, Chloé Griffin, presents Cookie’s biography using stitched-together direct quotes from dozens of people who remember her, from her youth in Baltimore to her coming of age in John Waters’ movies to her adulthood in Provincetown and San Francisco and NYC. Direct quotes is the method Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain used for Please Kill Me, the best punk book ever written, and it can look impenetrable on the page, but when it’s done right it feels like listening to a conversation around the kitchen table and passing a bottle of wine around.

In the essay Griffin wrote as an introduction, she tells us how she was drawn to Cookie Mueller after seeing her in Waters’ films, how she felt called to get close to her and write about her in some way, though Cookie had already died by this time and Griffin didn’t have any real idea what sort of tribute she wanted to make. She just followed her instinct and found Cookie’s ex-lover, Sharon Niesp, calling her on the phone at the Provincetown pizza place where Sharon had worked as a cook for many years. Within a day she was on a bus to Provincetown to meet Sharon and Cookie’s only child, Max, who was in his late 20s at that time. It was the beginning of a relationship that twinkles in my mind: The image of Griffin sleeping under piles of blankets in a sunny back room in Niesp’s 19th-century house, or of Chloé and Sharon and Max sitting at the bar and talking or running on the beach. The people closest to Cookie let her, and consequently us, into their lives, and it feels magical there.

I love reading about Cookie’s wackier, artier antics, and it’s neat to hear artists who worked with her talk about just how smart she was. I love her sense of style, which was flamboyant, sexy, and totally her own. She found beautiful old things at the thrift store and made a lot of her own clothing—John Waters says she briefly started her own clothing line, but it was too much work because she did everything herself by hand. There’s something very inspiring to me about a person who knows exactly how they want to look and finds a way, any way they can manage, to make it happen. It’s sort of a metaphor for her whole life, this self-made artist-person extraordinaire.

“There was not a hint of fashion about her—it was complete style,” the filmmaker Amos Poe says about Cookie. The highest praise.

The book is highly visual, too—on almost every page there are family photos, snapshots, film stills, flyers, drawings, and photos of Cookie in drag and in costume as different characters. There’s even a devastating Mapplethorpe portrait of her. As I read there were moments that a character from a wonderful novel swam into my mind, Paul Polydoris from Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl—something about Cookie’s riotous, broke, queer life that is always exploding with color, sex, and love (and of course the fabulous clothes). The writer Raymond Foye described Cookie as being like a Warhol superstar, cut from the same cloth as Edie Sedgwick and Candy Darling. She wanted to experience lots of things and she wanted to be famous. As the one-and-only Gary Indiana, Cookie’s good friend, puts it: “Cookie wanted to be somebody. But Cookie was somebody. She was like a comet going across the sky once in 100 years.”

The quieter bits of the story are just as moving. John Waters and other friends recount small sad moments of Cookie trying to connect with her parents, who might not always have been that kind to her. But as her peers explain it, it was a Baby Boomer thing, feeling that disconnected from the older generation. The culture changed so much in the 60s, they were from two different worlds.

This isn’t a sad book—not until the terrible end, when Cookie gets sick and dies. But it’s saturated with that loss, and it made me cry more than once. What is it about the images of her as a maybe-wayward but loving young mother that nudges me right in the solar plexus? I can see the young mom in my mind’s eye, a kind of playmate for her own little kid, taking him by the hand as they wandered off down the road.

Chloé Griffin has done something really special with her book. I might go so far as to call it important. There’s just so much there. Not everybody has a life as interesting as Cookie Mueller did—not even close—but I find myself wishing that everybody could have a book like this made about them, something both loving and exhaustive. I think everyone’s book would be packed with reminiscences, grudges, secrets, snapshots. We all have stories; it’s too bad we don’t all get a chance to tell them.

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