I never loved Taylor Schmidt. Despite what you may have heard.
Love is more pure than the crude alloy of lust, fascination and pity that formed my feelings for her. Baser metals, however shiny, do not gold make.
That said, I can understand, if never forgive, the confusion. I did have a hard-on for her something awful. Still do, and she’s eighteen years dead.
Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, you meet a woman who just does it for you. That was Taylor Schmidt. The chick oozed pheromones. She was sex. And not just for me. Everybody she ever met wanted to sleep with her. Everybody, not just every guy.
In time, this became a burden on her, same as if her preternatural sex appeal were some grotesque deformity—a pig nose, a hare lip, a port wine stain on her cheek. She complained about it all the time. Her plight suggested one of those Greek myths with the ironical endings: girl isn’t so hot, girl wishes for great beauty, girl becomes so alluring that it’s impossible for her to have a non-sexual relationship with anyone. Men want her body. Women either want her body, hate her as a rival, or both. She can’t win. She’s Queen Midas, and sex is her gold.
I’m mucking up my metallic metaphors, but you get the idea. Guys wanted to bone her, is the point, and more often than not, she indulged their desire. Surrendered to their lust. Passively, but recklessly and utterly (and sometimes, it’s been alleged, for money). Was she a nympho? Depends on your definition. What Freud would consider nymphomania and what some drunk guy at a bar would consider nymphomania are very different. Me, I think it’s a cop-out, tagging her that way. Nymphos are easy, aren’t they? And Taylor was not easy. In her all-too-brief life she’d bedded seventy-eight lovers—I know this because she kept a detailed list of her sexual partners; names of every ethnic configuration, in different shades of ink, with little misshapen hearts dotting the “i”s—but she wasn’t easy. She had standards. She turned men down all the time. She turned me down all the time. Well, almost all the time. She turned me down because she liked me. That’s what she told me, at least.
Taylor was my roommate. She became more later on, but that’s how it started.
She moved in on the Fourth of July, 1991. Historically, this was right after the dissolution of both the Warsaw Pact, at a meeting in Prague held largely as a formality, and my year-long relationship with Laura Horowitz, at a meeting in our apartment held largely as a formality.
“I’m in love with someone else,” my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend explained, before collecting whatever things she hadn’t already packed and high-tailing it to Brooklyn Heights with Someone Else, a defense attorney at Legal Aid named Chet.
The ramifications of the break-up went beyond my broken heart and wounded pride. See, Laura and I lived together, and thus were, in Tama Janowitz’s then-current phrase, slaves of New York. My pittance as an API photo librarian couldn’t cover my eight-bill rent. I either had to move, or else find someone to occupy the second bedroom; and whatever I did, I needed to act pronto. An acquaintance at work—this photo stringer named Jason Hanson who knew her from high school—sent Taylor to me. To me and my small but legit two-bedroom apartment on East 9th Street.
All the way from Warrensburg, Missouri, she appeared on my doorstep (or stoop, as it were) as if by magic, bearing two suitcases, an oversized knapsack, a month’s supply of antidepressants, and five crumpled hundred-dollar bills wadded up in the front pocket of her pink denim mini-skirt.
When I opened the door and let her in, I actually pinched myself. Jason hadn’t warned me. Her mascara was smeared, her hair was a mess, there were dark circles under her eyes, but all I could think of, watching Taylor cross and re-cross her tanned legs on my torn vinyl sofa, was how badly I wanted her, what an amazing stroke of good fortune her presence in my living room was, and how this whole Laura-moving-out thing might have a happy ending after all.
Certainly the stars seemed perfectly aligned. Think about it: if Laura hadn’t met Chet during the lone happy hour her workmates dragged her to… if I had moved out instead…if Taylor had opted for Less Than Zero Los Angeles rather than Bright Lights, Big City New York…But life is like that. A series of seemingly random twists and turns that winds up just so. How could I not have believed in fate? Some things, clearly, were meant to be.
“This is all the money I have,” she told me, producing the wad of bills and setting them on my footlocker-cum-coffee table. “If there’s any way I could, like, pay you in a few weeks, you know, after I get a job?”
“That’s fine,” I told her, although that would mean scrimping on my part. I figured my investment would pay off in the end. If neither of us had money, it stood to reason that we’d spend more time hanging out in the apartment, just the two of us. “Just, you know, pay me when you can.”
Taylor broke into a smile so radiant it affected me on a molecular level. “Thanks, Todd. Jason told me you were a nice guy. He wasn’t lying.”
Nice—what a designation to live up to! How apt that in July of 1991, Bryan Adams’s “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” became the biggest-selling single since “We Are the World”—it was pretty much my theme song. For the next six weeks, I was basically her pro bono personal assistant. I went above and beyond. I foraged the East Village for discarded furniture for her room. I took her clothes shopping at A&S (pronounced “anus”) Plaza. I cooked dinner for us almost every night, and when we did go out, I paid. I went through the Times Employment section every morning with a pink highlighter, while she was still asleep, curled up on her futon beneath the collage of Absolut Vodka ads. I let her use my television, my tape deck, my phone. I told her which bars were cool (Phoebe’s, Peggy Sue’s, Pyramid Club, and, if you felt like braving the broken-needle gauntlet at four a.m. to get to Avenue D, Save the Robot). And what did I get for my efforts? Other than the pleasure of her company—and the corollarial pleasure of being seen in her company—not a damn thing. My cat started sleeping with her, but did I? No sir. I never even made a move on her. Not once. The only way to win over a woman that hot is to pretend you’re immune to her charms and let her come to you. Or so I reasoned. I never was good with the ladies.
The funny thing is, Taylor, she wasn’t even that hot, per se. She was Missouri hot, maybe, but not New York hot. She had flaws. Lots of them. The most conspicuous being the bump in her already-prominent nose that evoked Streisand, or a pre-rhinoplastic Jennifer Grey. Her legs were too short, her skin too oily. Contrary to popular reports, she wasn’t even blonde; her hair was dishwater brown, and she wore it long, with uneven bangs. Plus she dressed like she was Molly Ringwald and it was still 1985—all padded shoulders and bright lipstick and oversized earrings and pink. Everything was pink.
If you came across her picture in the freshman facebook—that was the one they ran in the papers, usually—you’d probably flip right past the page without even noticing her. But then, what can you tell from a snapshot? You might as well be looking at a painting of Lucrezia Borgia, or a marble bust of the Empress Livia. Babes of the first rank, both of them, but you’d never know from extant depictions. With Taylor, same thing. To appreciate Taylor—to really dig her—you had to grok her in person. In the flesh. You had to observe the bead of sweat on her upper lip, the stubblebumps under her arms. You had to smell her, you had to taste her. She was a flavor all to herself. That’s one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write this; I didn’t think I could convey the essence of that woman with mere words. I didn’t think anyone could.
Hold up—that reads too sentimental, too love-lorn. So let me reiterate: I did not love Taylor Schmidt. Not romantically. I did love her as a friend, I suppose. Certainly there were things about her that I loved. Her name, for one thing. Nowadays, half the girls in the country are named for some lesser president—I saw a little girl in Tompkins Square Park last week whose name was Carter—but back in ’91, it was unheard of. Remember Darryl Hannah, in Splash? She wanted to be called Madison, and Tom Hanks said that’s a name for a street, not a woman, and everyone in the cinema cracked up. Splash came out in 1984. Eighteen years later, Madison would be the second most popular name for baby girls in the United States. (Taylor would check in at #18).
But in 1968, when Taylor Schmidt was born, the twenty most popular girls names were, in order: Lisa, Michelle, Kimberly, Jennifer, Mary, Melissa, Angela, Tammy, Karen, Susan, Laura, Kelly, Amy, Christine, Patricia, Julie, Elizabeth, Tina, Cynthia and Pamela. Traditional names, mostly. A chick named Taylor? She was on the vanguard. Her name added to her mystique.
And the way she pronounced it! Not TAY-lore, like a hick would say it. TAIL-ur. Like Prince Charles was calling her, or Laurence Olivier. Rolled right off the tongue, that name. And it suited her. A name like that should fit, right?
Another thing I loved about her: the way she’d look at you with Miranda-like awe, steel-blue eyes open and yearning, as if whatever you were saying was the most interesting thing she’d ever heard. Like she was having a spiritual experience. Like she’d found religion in your words, your eyes, your smile. She was like that in bed, too. She made me feel like John Holmes, James Bond, and Casanova, all rolled into one. The boudoir was Taylor’s métier. She did things with me and to me that no one else has ever done, will ever do…
But this is not a long-form letter to Penthouse Forum. My purpose here is not to brag, or worse, to reminisce. Higher aims have led me to the typewriter, I assure you. Lust is a private thing, but what happened to Taylor…people need to know about it. People need to know, people deserve, the truth. And I’m in a position—I’m the only one in the position—to provide that truth.
See, like Taylor, I was a client of the Quid Pro Quo Employment Agency. I, too, met with Asher Krug and with Lydia Murtomaki, and I know what went on in those stern oak-paneled offices. This is critical to understanding what transpired. Absolutely critical. And while I can’t claim to be her best friend—there were others who knew her better than I did: Kim Winter, her best friend from college; her mother, Darla Jenkins; even Jason Hanson—I was her roommate, and as such, her confidante. Taylor loved to gab, to confess her sins, so to speak, and I was fortunate enough to be her sounding board. That she mostly thought of me as priestly, a eunuch in the harem, helped loosen her tongue—that and the cheap chardonnay she drank copiously most nights.
Most importantly, Taylor was, like her idol Anaïs Nin, a dedicated diarist, and I had access to her diary. True, she didn’t know I had access—mea culpa, I’m a snoop—but my Hardy Boys activities, albeit shameful, furnished me with glimpses into a Taylor Schmidt that no one else knew. Not Kim Winter, not Jason Hanson, not her wretched mother. No one.
I regret that I can’t write more than I’ve presented here. That I can’t spend the rest of my life studying hers, the way monastic scholars of old dedicated themselves to Christ. Would that I had the resources to author an unabridged biography—to interview acquaintances from elementary school, to spend time with Darla, to learn more about her late alcoholic father, to track down my seventy-seven fellow Taylor alumni. None of this, alas, is germane to my purpose. We’ll touch on her backstory—we’ll have to—but what concerns us here are the last days of her too-short life: the interval between the day she left her mother’s rented prefab house in Warrensburg, Missouri, for the greener pastures of New York City, to the day she returned to that same hovel, in a black plastic box, four months later.
Taylor Schmidt, dead at twenty-three.
Hers is a big story, with far-reaching ramifications, and it’s critical to cast it in the proper historical context. Everything that went down went down in New York City in the summer and fall of 1991.
Seems like only yesterday, 1991, like not that long ago, but it’s 2009 already. Babies born in 1991 have already gotten drunk, smoked pot, lost their virginity. To put it in perspective: Emma Watson, the fetching nymphet who plays Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise, was born in 1990; Jamie-Lynn Spears—already a mommy herself—in ’91; Frances Bean Cobain, Kurt’s Love child, in ‘92.
Admittedly, the Nineties are not a decade that inspires much in the way of nostalgia. But there will come a day when the significance of the first year of that apocalyptic decade will become readily apparent. The great pitch and moment of that annus mirabilis cannot be understated. As my friend Maddox once remarked, 1991 was my generation’s 1969. In those twelve fleeting months, everything fell into place: culturally, politically, socially—the whole ball of wax.
You had Operation Desert Storm, the banner headline. A Gulf War that we thought, in our prelapsarian naïveté, didn’t have the ratings to spawn a sequel.
You had Jack Kevorkian. You had Rodney King.
Jeffrey Dahmer was sentenced, Clarence Thomas confirmed, Terry Anderson released.
Robert Maxwell, the British media magnate who owned the Daily Mirror and the New York Daily News, drowned after falling from his yacht off the coast of Grand Canary Island—or so the coroner’s report stated. His own daughter suspected foul play, to say nothing of the conspiracy theorists.
Oh, and the Soviet Union—the Big Bear, our Orwellian enemy for a half a century—broke up. Just broke up, went its separate ways, like it was a fucking rock band. Like it was Mötley Crüe or Journey. And on Christmas, no less, capitalism’s holiest of holy days.
In 1991, my generation—the MTV Generation, the slackers, shin jin rui, Generation X—reached a creative zenith. You had the Richard Linklater film Slacker and the Douglas Coupland novel Generation X, both landmark works, released in January and May, respectively. Bret Easton Ellis published American Psycho. Seinfeld debuted. In September, the grunge movement arrived with Nirvana’s Nevermind. (Here we are now! Entertain us!). Three years later, Kurt Cobain would off himself—our Altamont. (Oh well, whatever, nevermind).
The aforementioned works best exemplified the “X” zeitgeist, the so-called slacker subculture, one that Baby Boom pundits misread as indifference but was really a disinclination to participate. A generation of Bartelbies the Scrivener: we preferred not to. Coupland’s anti-heroes deliberately wasting their educations tending bar in Palm Springs. From Slacker: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” The cheerleaders from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video: black-clad, zoned-out, going through the motions—cheering, but not really cheering; cheering ironically. Irony, more than anything, was our hallmark. The sarcastic singing of the Sixties anthem “Everybody Get Together” on Nevermind—the intro to track #7—sums up the collective feeling at the time: We are laughing derisively at your hypocritical idealism, you Baby Boom fucks. Is it any wonder Prozac was so popular? I was on Prozac, and so was everyone I knew, Taylor included.
At the root of all our discontent was money. Understand, we were the poorest generation in memory, with little hope of financial salvation. Poverty was so inevitable, it became chic—hence the flannel shirts and dungarees and workboots. As William Strauss and Neil Howe noted in their magnificent study Generations, my cohorts and I were on course to become the most impoverished group of babies since the shat-upon Lost Generation of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. To be fair, Generations was published in 1991—that is, before the Internet exploded, and my too-smart-for-their-own-good compeers took advantage of our parents’ Luddite tendencies, thus leveling the playing field somewhat. At the time, though, who could have foreseen such a radical uptick in fortune?
The point is, 1991 was an especially bad year for money. It was a bad year to be unemployed, and a really bad year to be a wet-behind-the-ears college graduate with a sparse résumé and student loans to repay (student loans, I might add, that wouldn’t be tax deductible until the Clinton Administration). How bad was it? George Bush père enjoyed a record-high approval rating in May of 1991, at the end of the Gulf War. Eighteen months later, he lost his bid for re-election. The reason for his Cubs-in-‘69 choke, as famously explained by James Carville? “It’s the economy, stupid.”
In short, the summer of 1991 was the worst moment in a generation to be in the position Taylor Schmidt was in.
And that’s where our story begins.