I wasn’t one of those intuitively alternative teenagers. I required some edification. Typically I was in a Gumby, No Fear, or Stussy t-shirt and oversized Gap jeans. My hair was long and parted in the middle, but I wasn’t a skater. I went to a punk show at the YWCA once, but I was too self-conscious to speak to anybody. I was just your run-of-the-mill angsty gay overachiever in San Jose, California.
A few of those intuitively alternative types gave me some tips. One being the thrift stores Savers and Crossroad, across the street from each other on Bascom Avenue and San Carlos, conveniently walking distance from my house.
I’m not sure how I made the conceptual leap to understand that new things were lame, and that old clothes were cool. But that idea sunk in, and I started wearing other people’s junk and putting the nihilism I felt on the inside, right out there for others to see.
The most important part of my identity growing up as a teenager was music. At first I found out about bands by going to Streetlight Records, and choosing music by the best album art. That approach kind of worked, leading me to Sonic Youth and Wire. And as I amassed some knowledge, other young people in the know pointed me in specific directions, one being Music for the Masses by Depeche Mode.
I’m not sure if you’d call Depeche Mode goth music. But in high school I worked at a definitively goth coffee shop called Café Leviticus, in a former bank. It was gay-owned—my bosses wore black clothes with plunging necklines, rosary, and eyeliner. I’d call them “casual Goths.” I think they also might have been shooting up drugs in the former bank’s vault, but this I cannot confirm.
Thursday nights were “gay night” or “goth night,” or some sort of blurry hybrid in between. Basically it was the busiest night of the week, and all the college-age gay and bisexual kids who wore eyeliner would congregate out front and order café mochas. I wouldn’t have ever had the courage to go by myself, but working as a barista gave me a convenient excuse to soak in the scene.
At that time I had two “uniforms”—an undersized Malcolm X t-shirt to convey my radical politics, and this Depeche Mode t-shirt that would portray my casual goth sensibility. I would later grow up to be at ease in many an alternative gay coffee shops from coast to coast. But Café Leviticus and this t-shirt paved the way.
Matt Wolf is the Director of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. He is currently at work on the film TEENAGE about the invention of teenagers based on a book by Jon Savage. He recently made the film I REMEMBER about the artist and writer Joe Brainard.