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October 27, 2015 | Nonfiction

2002: An Internet Odyssey

Fiona Helmsley

2002: An Internet Odyssey photo

I was a "late adopter" of the internet. I finished high school in 1994, in one of the last graduating classes to not use the internet in anyway in the classroom. The little exposure I had involved futzing around Courtney Love and Bikini Kill Angelfire fansites at my techy friend Dave’s house, while he hovered over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t break anything. In late 2000, when my mother bought me a WebTV she’d seen advertised in Parade, The New York Times Sunday supplement magazine, it was my first real independent exploration of the web. It was just me, my keyboard and screen, and my little orange bottle of 2 milligram Xanax.

I spent a considerable amount of my time online drooling on myself, arguing with the Courtney Love haters who camped out on her website, and searching for low- effort ways to get off the pills. None existed. The options were always the same: tapering from the Xanax slowly, or switching to a longer acting benzodiazepine, like Klonopin. My internet interests tag-teamed themselves one day, when Courtney logged into the site, and gave me advice on how to get off the pills herself: Go to the doctor, she wrote. And never, ever, mix them with opiates. Oh well! I thought to myself. Too late! My post to thank her looked like this: I l;ovvde ytttou soo fruckiolngf m;ucgh! Her post to me looked like this: Gtio tfo thE docxtoikr.

Procuring and ingesting Xanax had become my life, and I stopped going out with my friends in New York City. Before giving up on sociality, I had been seeing a filmmaker named Hans. It was no great love affair, but had gone on for over a year, and when I disappeared, he noticed. He sent a message to my WebTV email address: He'd joined an online journal community, he wrote. It was still in its infancy, and in order to sign up, you had to be invited by someone who already had an account. I didn’t really understand, but clicked on the link he’d sent. It took me to a website called livejournal.com and told me to create a journal name. After five seconds of deep intellectual contemplation, I came up with one that I thought was funny: crackpipe. I clicked over to Hans’s LiveJournal, and quickly scrolled through his posts to see if he had written anything about me. He had. I had been after a mutual friend of ours, a singer in a band named Frank, before going dark. It hadn’t really gone anywhere, because Frank’s friends all thought I was bad news, because I was on drugs. In Hans’s LiveJournal, he had written about seeing me at one of Frank’s band’s shows, where I’d been nodding out near the stage. He’d written I was “the new Nancy Spungen.”  As if! I thought to myself. I considered replying, but couldn’t figure out how.

I was able to glean from reading Hans’s LiveJournal that he had been seeing someone new, an artist and writer named Rachel whose name I recognized from posters I’d seen advertising her one- woman plays around the Lower East Side. She also had a LiveJournal. I wasn’t exactly jealous, my relationship with Hans no longer involved those kinds of feelings, but I was intrigued by the strange new access to people's lives that LiveJournal offered. Here was my ex-beau’s new girlfriend, and I could read all about her, and their relationship, from what they wrote about it. Or at least I could have read those things: My WebTV was cut off a few days after I set up my journal. I couldn’t pay the phone bill.

 

***

 

Fast forward, a year later:  New York City had become a giant milk carton, with photos of the missing, and the soon to be confirmed dead, everywhere. I will never forget walking through Grand Central Terminal, and seeing all those photos, all those faces, and knowing most of them were gone. The flyers were all over the city, but at Grand Central they were more organized. It was like walking through a Lost and Found for people.

One morning, in early October 2001, I was nodding out on a bench in Tompkins Square Park when a woman with a European accent spat on the ground next to my feet, and said it was because of people like me that New York City was being attacked. I came out of my stupor long enough to jump up from where I was sitting and kick her hard in the ass. By December, I had two fold-out posters of American flags from The Daily News blocking out the light that shined into my apartment through my bedroom windows. My dogs hid from me. By January, I’d lost my apartment.

When I arrived at my mother’s house in Connecticut, I was taking twenty 2 milligram bars of Xanax a day. It had been an insane amount of pills to stay on top of. The maximum dosage a corrupt for pay doctor (or “croaker”)  in New York City would write for me was for 2 milligrams of Xanax four times a day, so I’d started taking Klonopin, the longer-acting benzodiazepine of internet lore, too. I had four doctors in New York City: I would see each of them once a month, or more than once a month, the times I could afford to pay them to act convinced when I said I'd lost my pills, or had them stolen. There were also a few people I could buy from, in a jam, in and around the methadone clinic.

Yes, I was also on methadone. This is what made Courtney Love “too late,” with her advice about the mixing.

Maybe I could have continued the madness for a little bit longer if I hadn’t moved in with my mom, in the boonies, and knew how to drive a car, but I’d moved in with my mom, in the boonies, and didn’t know how to drive a car. As soon as I got to her house, she took me to the emergency room so I could be farmed out to a local doctor, and try to get my prescriptions transferred.

The doctor at the ER guffawed.
 

“This is insane!” he said. “Criminal! You are 25 years old! We are getting you off these pills!”

I had to check into detox. I got off the methadone. I mostly got off the pills. In 2002, detoxes were still hedgy about treating benzodiazepine dependency: it was a long-term detox, with a risk for seizures. I got down to 1 milligram of Klonopin, three times a day. I was blessed in that living with my mom offered me a slight grace period: I didn't have to find a job right away as long as I attended an outpatient drug treatment program. I started having these weird twinges of self-esteem. I wanted the people I’d known in New York City to remember that I existed, but I didn’t feel ready to actually face them yet. Was there a middle ground? There was. The internet. I messaged livejournal.com to retrieve my long-forgotten "crackpipe" password.

 

***

 

How Should a Person be, on the Internet?

In 2002, my answer to this question would have been a lot like Courtney Love, on the internet. A person should be smart, with a good vocabulary, a “machination” thrown in here or there, or a reference to Grand Guignol theatre, but these smarts did not necessarily have to be communicated by way of good grammar and spelling. (These stylistic licenses should be tolerated by the audience, because, in a sense, they were art, and non-conformist.) A person should be funny on the internet, in a quirky, self-effacing way, with lots of cracks lobbed at the self for being such a fuck-up. (I am enjoying even this downward dance, to quote Colum McCann, the little digs should imply.) A person should know a lot about fringy, outsider-type artists, especially those who have died by misadventure, and post lots of links and videos about them. A person should “live loud” on the internet: nothing about their personal life should be off limits. In their LiveJournal, a person should write about their sex life in cringe-inducing detail. And on March 2, 2002, a person should post a LiveJournal entry implying that while they were working as an escort New York City, they fucked Mick Jagger, who first twisted their underwear into a deep wedgie, flirtatiously, in the laundry room of a friend’s luxury apartment. A person should believe they are crafting their myth, on a server, for future generations to find. So help them God.

A person, when reintroducing themselves to people who they have not seen for a little while, because their life went down the tubes, epically, should definitely be hot on the internet. This should be accomplished by posting pictures of yourself, looking hot, to your LiveJournal.

There is not a more efficient, one-stop way of announcing to the world that you are back and on your A-game than posting a good photo of yourself online. Nowadays, this too easy: grab your phone, smile or scowl, depending upon your worldly perspective, and your smartphone settings can post it for you. In 2002, the word “selfie” had only a masturbation connotation. To take a picture of yourself, and post it on the ‘net, you needed a web cam.

My drug treatment program took up four hours of my day. I spent the rest of my time fucking around online, writing in my LiveJournal, or reading the LiveJournals of others. Both Hans and Rachel updated theirs frequently, and after reading more of Rachel’s, I discovered that she was smart, funny, an excellent writer, an amazing artist, and doing basically all of the things that I had moved to New York City to do, but never did, mostly because I was always running around, chasing drugs. All that I had squandered while living in New York City hit me with every one of her posts. I wanted to be a contender, too. I wrote in my LiveJournal about the books I was going to write. One would be entitled Cope Sickness. (Clever!) Another, The Klonopin Diaries. (Even more clever!) But these books, if I ever logged out of LiveJournal to get to work and start writing them, would take time. And focus. A good picture—being hot— was something I could do now, only I didn’t have a web cam. Having a good picture to post of myself on LiveJournal began to feel more and more imperative.

Since I was presenting myself on the site in a loud and brash way, I thought nothing of commenting on Hans’s journal to ask him about Rachel, even though she could see and read everything that I wrote.

“So, Rachel’s an artist,” I wrote. “But is she really ‘talented’?”

“Yes, I’m an artist,” Rachel responded. “But why did you put quotes around ‘talented’?”

“Because ‘talented’ was always Hans word for ‘hot,’” I wrote, feeling like I was schooling her on something.

“Yes,” Hans answered. “She’s one of the most ‘talented’ women I’ve ever met.”

But I already knew this. Rachel had pictures of herself on her LiveJournal page. She obviously had a web cam.

 

***

 

Hans and Rachel had been working on a low-budget movie together that Rachel had written. This bothered me. It bothered me, because for a brief, shining moment, I had wanted to do something with film. It was one of the reasons I’d moved to New York, one of the reasons I’d gotten involved with Hans, but he was always dismissive of my ideas. What was different about Rachel?* Why had he taken her ideas seriously, but not mine? Though they were able to work together creatively, their relationship was by no means smooth. Hans was an inveterate cheat, and a few days before the premiere of their movie, an angry Rachel posted in her LiveJournal that Hans had ditched her at a bar, to go and canoodle with the daughter of a notorious underground film star.

“Ugh,” a friend of hers named Newport Craig commented underneath her post.

“Fucking asshole,” Rachel wrote. “I wish I could twist it in a way that would make people more interested in seeing our movie, but when you’re as OLD as Hans is, the only ‘stars’ that want to fuck you are the three-degrees- removed, nobody- cares- kind.”

Whenever she posted about their problems, I’d think about the douchey things Hans had done or said to me and how I always just sucked it up. Once he’d left me waiting for him outside an after-hours bar at 6 o’clock in the morning. The bartender had told me he’d left with another girl, but I had refused to believe her, since he’d told me to wait. “You’re a fucking asshole!” I said, finally getting him on the phone later that afternoon.  He didn’t try to deny that he’d left with the girl. He hadn’t tried to justify himself in any way at all. Instead, what he’d said to me was, “Don’t you ever talk to me like that again.” At the time, I’d still been in awe of him, and what I thought was his talent. I didn’t want our relationship to end. So I didn’t talk to him that way again—ever. Eventually, though, I wouldn’t care enough about our relationship to talk to him that way and expel the emotion anyway.

But I loved that Rachel did. What had started off as curiosity, then envy of her talents, had morphed into sincere admiration.

The movie that Rachel and Hans had made together was released, and was a success. They posted pictures from its opening night on LiveJournal. His association with her made him more palatable to people as an artist, cuddlier, if that was possible: His persona as a filmmaker had always been based on a certain kind of 80s New York City nihilism. But he must have had reservations, and felt that his rep was something he needed to uphold. A few days after the premiere, Rachel and Hans had another fight, and Rachel posted in her journal, “He wouldn’t put his name on the film until after we did a screening. Up until the last minute, when he saw how much people liked it. Fucking asshole.”

 

***

 

I was not the only person on LiveJournal without a web cam: A lot of people didn’t have them, and this was often reflected by their choice of user photos. Not having an actual picture of themselves to use, people used pictures from the web of things they felt represented them. My user photos were of Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss and Father Dougal Maguire from the popular ‘90s RTE show, Father Ted. Father Ted was a comedy sitcom about three Irish- Catholic priests exiled by their parish to the fictional Craggy Island for being fuckups. The title character, Father Ted Crilly, had a criminal heart, and harbored fantasies of being a gambler, and a rock star. Father Jack Hackett used crude language, and was an alcoholic and a womanizer. Father Dougal McGuire was the wide-eyed naïf, a Baby Huey type, who recited Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” at bedtime because he couldn’t remember his prayers. By switching between his photo and Heidi’s, I basically communicated to everyone on the site that I was a sexually charged idiot. And then my posting style backed it up.

Newport Craig’s user photo was of a pencil sketch drawing of a pensive looking man sitting on a tree branch that had originally run as a cartoon in the New Yorker. I don’t know. Maybe it was because it was a pencil sketch. Maybe it was because it was a pencil sketch from the New Yorker. Maybe it was the “Newport” in his user name. I imagined, taken as a whole, this meant in real life he was preppy, and therefore, probably, cute.

Newport Craig was someone who posted a lot in Rachel’s LiveJournal and in the LiveJournals of other New York artists. After a few months of reading her posts, my feelings about Rachel had morphed still further. I projected onto her. In my head, I saw her as a kind of New York City folk hero. Not only did she stand up to the big meanie Hans whenever he did her douchey, she stood up for New York City, by continuing to speak out against Rudy Giuliani in her writing, in defiance of his post- 9/11 pose as “America’s Mayor.”

When I saw Newport Craig’s posts in Rachel’s journal, and Rachel’s posts in his, I interpreted them as a kind of “vouch.” If Rachel knew Craig, and liked him, he needed no other character witness. So when he posted in his LiveJournal that for his 40th birthday he wanted nothing more than to be photographed naked, surrounded by a group of equally-naked females, I thought to myself, this sounds like an opportunity.

Does this mean you have a web cam? I messaged him. And when he responded Yes, I do, I told him I’d come to his apartment on his birthday, and let him photograph me naked, if he’d email me copies of the pictures. I wanted to post them in my journal.

 

***

 

I don't know if showing up at a stranger's house to be photographed naked so I would finally have “hot” pictures to post online is the crowning horror of my 2002 LiveJournal year. There are too many other contenders to choose from. The implied-Mick Jagger laundry room sex post is one. There’s a “Virtues of Anal Sex” post that is so graphic that there is almost a scratch and sniff element to it.  (Newport Craig commented on the post, too, to tell me he “liked my style.") In 2003, my online role model, Courtney Love, would let a stranger (who the media would describe as “a homeless man”) suck her nipple outside of a Wendy's Restaurant. Maybe it was the Girl's Gone Wild vibe in the air, combined with our punk rock backgrounds, combined with our drug use (though I was on a lot less drugs than I had been, the year before) that made these things seem like good ideas to us at the time. It’s all so shameless, but the bad kind of shameless: the empathetic, guilt- transference kind. The kind of shameless where you, the audience, if you are a good person, end up feeling so bad for the person who can't be shamed that you take on their shame for them. And when that person is actually you, thirteen years ago… This is what it feels like when I read my LiveJournal now. I feel so bad for this person. And this person is me.

 

***


Around this time, my posts on LiveJournal became too much for Hans. Though he was an artist in the “no boundaries” vein, I think what I wrote in my journal embarrassed him because people on the site knew about our past association. We'd been arguing online, about stupid stuff, and one day I snapped back at him (maybe to make up for the times during our relationship when I didn’t?) and called him out by his real name, not the name he used on the site and as a filmmaker. "You are the biggest asshole I've ever met,” he wrote. “Wow,” I responded. “The biggest? At 70 years old,” I wrote, making fun of his age, like Rachel did when they fought, “You must have met a lot of assholes!” Then he unfriended me on the site, and banned me from posting in his journal.

This meant he would probably not get to see my “hot” photos, when I posted them.

 

***

 

I still do this sometimes, want attention so badly when I’m online, that I’m tempted to rip my clothes off, and post a picture. But now this feeling is tempered by the knowledge that whatever attention I get is not going to be the attention I want. The people who I want to respond, whose attentions I might actually enjoy directed towards my naked body, won’t. It will always be the people whose attentions I don’t want who will have something to say. But I’ve had to learn this the hard way, like everything. And I still have to remind myself. Attention is a drug, and sometimes I still want to abuse it.

 

***

 

Newport Craig and I messaged a bit about logistics: where he lived, and what subway stop was closest to his house. He was still trying to line up other ladies to get naked, because for his birthday, his dream was to be surrounded by a bevy of naked ladies, as if to imply by the sheer number of bodies that the interest in him was not some fluke. Though I had envisioned Newport as being cute, I didn’t have any plans to engage in anything sexual with him. I wanted the pictures. I could have given a shit about it being his birthday. I wasn’t a friend jumping out of a cake for him. I didn’t know the guy at all. Another thing that annoys me about this now is that it never occurred to me to ask him for money. Though I didn’t have sex with Mick Jagger while working as an escort, I’d been a sex worker. I knew better.

 

***

 

I called Craig from a payphone near his brownstone as soon as I exited the subway, and he gave me directions to his house. He lived in a nice area, and obviously enjoyed a degree of financial security. When he met me at the door of his building, I was surprised by his appearance. Your mind makes leaps in the online realm, based on the information that’s available to you, and I guess I’d assumed, because of his user picture, and because he commented so much in the LiveJournals of New York City artists, he’d be, more… something? Leading up to “the big day,” he’d started referring to the pictures we’d be taking as “making art,” in the same way a salesperson might try to upsell a shady product by giving it by a more glamorous sounding name. I’m sure up until the moment I appeared at his door, he was afraid I’d change my mind. He looked like an uncle, not a specific relative, any uncle, like one of the numerous, interchangeable, faceless guys who I’d see making themselves a coffee with non-dairy creamer at A.A and N.A meetings. He wasn’t bad looking, just totally non-descript. He was obviously nervous. I wasn’t. I was all business (albeit bad business). There was another woman there, an ex-girlfriend of his, he said, who’d agreed to be in the photos as a favor to him. If that was true, it was kind of a weird favor, so I imagine that she must have still had feelings for him, which is a testament to his character: It means to someone, he was lovable. He was wearing a robe, like Hugh Hefner, or maybe it was purely functional because he’d soon be removing his clothes. He said he wanted to take the photos in front of the fireplace, like we were making a Christmas card. Then Rachel arrived. I hadn’t known for sure she was going to be there, though Newport had said in a message that she might be. He would later write about this day in his LiveJournal in detail, calling me Fox #1, Rachel, Fox #2, and the ex-girlfriend, Fox #3. In his minute by minute account of the 20 minutes that this took, he would describe me as a “ravishing blonde, clad in East Village attire.” Ironically, the end part of his description of me is what initially struck me about Rachel. She was wearing a long, 70s Partridge Family style dress that looked like it came from a thrift store. She and I didn’t really talk much. What could I say? How’s Hans? Does he still think I’m the biggest asshole he ever met? I’ve always been better at fan-girling from afar, because for me, so much of it is about the projection. No one can live up to my hype. It seemed like everything happened quickly. I’d also made plans to meet up with the person who was my last real contact in New York before I’d lost my apartment, an older guy who I always got high with. I’d decided since I was going to be in the city, I was going to get really fucking high. As we were milling around waiting for Newport to set up the camera, I heard Rachel say to him, “Hans cannot find out about this. If you post the pictures in your journal, you cannot post any with my face or any identifying details.” I was surprised that Rachel would ever feel the need to hide anything from anyone.

Then we all took our clothes off and I saw that Rachel and I were groomed in the exact same way that women who have shared boyfriends sometimes are. When Newport wrote about the actual picture-taking in his journal, he wrote that I jutted my leg out around his arm (he was kneeling on the floor in front of the three of us), the implication being that I had wanted him to touch me.

Gross.

 

***

 

If you’ve made it this far, it might be for this moment, the great denouement: What happened when I posted the pictures on LiveJournal. What was the pay off? Was it all that I imagined it would be, and more?

Newport had taken all the pictures with a timer because he was in the photos, so the four of us were jammed together in what he’d predetermined to be an appropriate amount of space for the shots. The three of us stood behind him, with him in front of us, on his knees. Because Rachel had said she didn’t want to be identifiable in any of the photos, Craig edited them in some kind of primitive Photoshop that covered the tattoos on her stomach and arms with pictures of his cat. Since I was standing next to Rachel, I had the tail of the cat that he’d superimposed across her stomach curling out and onto my stomach. For Rachel’s benefit, he’d also cropped off all our heads. Since he was kneeling, his face and chest were visible, with essentially, three women’s headless bodies with cats jutting across two of them. When I asked him to send me the unedited shots, he said he couldn’t do that because of the risk to Rachel’s “anonymity” should I post them. He said he would re-crop them, then send them to me. I told him to keep the ones with Rachel in them and just send me the pictures he’d taken of me, alone. Once again, what he sent was a close up of my upper body. I’d been decapitated again. Finally he sent me one shot that was useable, but it was not at all what I’d imagined— it had been another shot of the three of us, but he’d cropped it so it was just of me. It was of the upper part of my body, my chest, but at least I had a head. My hair was blonde at the time, like Craig wrote in his journal post, but I didn’t look “ravishing.” I’d worn a hat for some reason that day, and had my hair in Swiss Miss-style wrap around braids. In the photo my hands were in the area of my waist and I was looking off to the side. I looked like a Rubenesque Norwegian.

Still I posted it. I really think I thought I had a shot at breaking the internet.

But no one posted a thing in response.

A guy named Larry commented a little while later to an older post of mine, about the death of Dee Dee Ramone.

“Did you see my new picture?” I asked.

“Yes,” he responded. “How could I miss it? It’s sure to cause you a world of grief, crackpipe,” he wrote. “I hope you enjoy it!”

 

***

 

I had about 50 “friends” on LiveJournal. In real life, I knew about ten of them, all peripherally, through Hans. Nobody I knew living in Connecticut, or had grown up with, was on the site, nor did I invite any of them onto it. Most of my LiveJournal friends were friends of other LiveJournals I followed—  journals that I thought were interesting and wanted to read, and in return, must have felt the same way about my journal: that it was interesting. The crackpipe journal still exists. I hardly ever use it and have since made great swaths of it private. I can’t believe some of things that I wrote. I want to say it was drugs, but I put it out there, I craved the attention. I view it now as my internet adolescence, and it makes me so grateful that I had my actual flesh and blood adolescence in a pre-internet world. There is a scene in the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, about the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a self-styled animal conservationist who went and lived amongst the bears in Alaska, and was eventually killed, and eaten by the bears there. After listening to the audio recording Treadwell's video camera made of his death, Herzog tells Treadwell's friend that she shouldn’t listen it. "You must never listen to this, ever," he says. I feel like that whenever I attempt to read through my LiveJournal. You must never do that ever again.

 

*now the difference is abundantly clear to me: he was both a dick, and I was on drugs.

image: Carabella Sands


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