In my other life, I was extremely punk.
Sometime in 2001, I first read the (excellent) book Please Kill Me: The Unauthorized Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. From the book, I learned that all the punk musicians and hangers-on changed their given names to punk names — Johnny Thunders, Richard Hell, etc. The book was all I could talk about for weeks, which was easy because all my friends had read it too. It captured my imagination like no other work of non-fiction had.
As much as I loved the book, or the parts of the book that weren’t about the things Iggy Pop did to groupies in bed, I actually didn’t even…like…punk…music? I mean, I understood it more as a lifestyle aesthetic and a necessary step on the way to post punk than anything I wanted to put in my Discman. But I definitely thought of myself as “punk rock,” because just the year before I had dropped out of college in Florida and packed all my stuff in my Honda Civic hatchback and moved to New York basically on a whim and without knowing anybody or, crucially, bringing any money with me (I think I brought about $250.) Not only did I not have parental support, I had full parental hostility. Prior to reading Please Kill Me, I thought of myself as having moved to New York “the Madonna way,” but after, I knew I was punk.
Another way I related to punk rock was definitely the squalor. After couch surfing for a few months with friends of friends of my hometown crew and sleeping in that hatchback for a number of nights that seems to grow with every passing year, I had secured the walk-through bedroom in a railroad apartment on Union Avenue in Williamsburg, in a small slumlord-owned building without a lock on the front door, a bathroom ceiling that collapsed on a regular schedule and usually no heat or hot water. My half of the rent was $400, which I cobbled together with a mix of odd jobs: temping, personally assisting the wife of my favorite author ever, and, in winter, most lucratively, working as the coat check girl at Fez. I got one of those Social Security letters a few weeks ago and it says I made just over $2000 on the books in 2002.
Not only did I have appropriate punk levels of squalor at home (my roommate and I tried to make the place homey — for example, I painted my bedroom blood red and scrawled “WRITE YOUR WAY OUT OF HERE” on the wall above my desk along with the words “FREEDOM” and “SECURITY” with “SECURITY” crossed out), but I was also in a Chinatown bus relationship with a guy in Boston I’d been off and on with since high school, and he lived in a big house in Allston with 6 or so roommates and whomever those roommates were fucking at the time. It was the kind of place that always smelled like awful Boston pizza and where some different random dude could be found sleeping on the couch every weekend morning. I think it was condemned after they moved out: that’s how punk rock it was!
It was also punk rock because this dude (with whom I was in a kind of farcical, never actually verbalized, wide-open relationship) was the lead singer in a band that played out a lot and was part of the early-aughts Boston music scene (think makeoutclub, if you’re old enough to remember makeoutclub). They weren’t a punk band at all — too much keyboard and emotion — but at least they came by the lifestyle honestly.
One day during one of my Boston weekends, I announced to the gang that I wanted to legally change my last name to “Rocketship.” It would be my punk name, I said. Everyone nodded: it was unanimously agreed upon. Why “Rocketship,” you ask? Because that’s what the little girl I babysat for in college called me, so of course.
In my “Lindsay Rocketship” fantasy, this name change would be my version of Ulysses lashing himself to the mast of the boat, lest the siren calls of security, like a job with health insurance (which I’d taken to calling contemptuously, a “straight job,”), or a checking account, lure me into the typical unhappy American consumer lifestyle. “Lindsay Rocketship” would be like a front-of-the-neck tattoo reading “I’m ridiculous!” that would help me avoid distractions in my quest to — what, exactly? I didn’t know. Technically I’d moved to New York “to start a ‘zine” (LOL) but I didn’t want to be a musician or a performer or create any kind of art (except possibly performance art — I had recently been talked out of opening a post-9/11 “Hugging Booth” in Times Square), I just wanted to be the very most ME I could possibly be, a goal I worked toward tirelessly on a terrible Diaryland blog that is password protected for all eternity.
I didn’t change my last name to “Rocketship,” because I looked up the process online and found out that it costs money. But I kept it as a little goal in the back of my head, sure. And really, the most important thing with goals like this is just to talk about them all the time.
I never did have to WRITE MY WAY OUT OF the apartment on Union Avenue, because in the early morning hours of January 1, 2004, my roommate called me at the hotel in Boston where I was sleeping on the floor after a massive rager to tell me that it had burned down. Not down as in “to the ground,” just that our specific apartment had had an unexplained fire and was unlivable. I got on the Fung Wah bus for what would turn out to be the last time and went back to survey the fire and water damage: I’d lost almost everything, except, thankfully, sentimental stuff like my precious diaries and poetry and photo albums and shit, and what I hadn’t lost I had no way of moving. The Red Cross gave me a $150 gift certificate to Sears and my parents offered me the same one-way ticket home they always had and no more, but my friends came through. One who lived nearby let me store my computer at her place and then lent me her unlimited metrocard so I could move everything I could in big black plastic bags to the apartment of another friend in Manhattan who let me stay with him for a month (the hatchback having long been given away to a younger brother, with its glove compartment stuffed full of parking tickets). Another friend found me a cheap sublet. With my newfound forced life-assessment, I quickly dumped the Boston dude for good, and within a couple of months, I took a “straight job” — at Viacom, no less! The least punk rock place ever (though points for it being at Comedy Central and not MTV.)
Over the thousand years since all that, I’ve had plenty of acquaintances and friends who changed their names — usually because their given names were too common to be practical as writers, or to give themselves a middle name that made them feel strong (the tattoo analogy isn’t so far off), or changed their last names to their middle names after a divorce in a kind of re-brand. And it’s cool. Because it’s never to the level of “Lindsay Rocketship.”
There’s a reason movies and TV have that cliché of a character reaching a spiritual crossroads by “burning it all to the ground,” I just did it literally. After losing my worldly possessions (except, of course, my “papers”), I was finally ready to sprinkle some security on my freedom. Lindsay Rocketship will never be, though I do think of her every time I find myself doing something like “forgetting” to pay my quarterly estimated taxes, going to a house party with more than 12 attendees, or deciding to forgo the dental insurance. We all live our punk truth in our own ways.
Lindsay Robertson is a freelance editor (which is very punk) and is on Twitter.
In My Other Life, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2016.