Lost Lustre

Untilthe age of four, Josh Karlen lived in New York’s pleasant, upper-middle-classGramercy Park neighborhood with his bohemian parents and baby brother. Then, in1968, his parents separated. His father repaired downtown to equally pleasantGreenwich Village; his mother decided, for unknowable reasons, to move with theboys into a new housing development that had been built among the drug- andgang-ridden slums on Avenue C. When asked (as she frequently was) what herrationale for this move was, she would say that the neighborhood was “gentrifying.”

Well yes, it dideventually gentrify—Alphabet City is now a hip, pricey area—but not during thefifteen years the Karlens lived there. Throughout his childhood and teenageyears, Karlen felt that his family existed “precariously, like isolatedcliff-dwellers above a barbaric plain.” They were only about a mile fromleafy Gramercy Park, but “calculated vertically, we had plunged throughthe Heavens to a street somewhere in Hell.”

This Hell motif is onethat recurs throughout Lost Lustre, Karlen’s rueful, introspective, and deeplyaffecting memoir about growing up in the New York of the 1970s and ’80s, a cityfar rougher than it is today. There were the terrifying streets of AlphabetCity, where young Josh was mugged and attacked so many times that for years hesuffered from what he later recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. Therewere the downtown bars and clubs, where teenagers were never asked for IDs: “hot,beer-reeking caverns, where deafening music ambushed you at the door. Thescenes were sometimes whirlwinds of chaos and fury, the bands screaming, thedancing crowds surging under spinning, colored lights or in deep-shadoweddarkness. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a couple of satyrs stroll by.”There was the “alternative” high school where students too difficultfor the authorities to handle were allowed to earn their diploma by working inoffices rather than going to class. Karlen, after years of disaffection, wasable to straighten out his life. Others were not so fortunate: his bestchildhood friend, lead guitarist of a downtown band called The Lustres, was todie from alcoholism at the age of twenty-eight.

Whereon earth were the parents, and what werethey thinking? Karlen wonders at it all, too. His recollections of the period,he writes, are colored “by anger—anger at the rogues’ gallery that allowedus such freedom, the bartenders who served us, the bouncers who didn’t checkour IDs….There was an atmosphere during the weekends those years, in my memory,of Hogarthian revelry.” There is some genuine nostalgia in these pages,for the glory days of New York’s downtown club scene, of CBGB and Danceteria,really did possess a bit of lustre; but the author’s predominant key is a minorone, imbued with sadness for his confused young self and the friends he lostalong the way. Nevertheless, Karlen’s intelligence and his fierce desire tounderstand the past make Lost Lustrean uplifting book, for all its melancholy.