Text and all photos by Larry Baumhor
Dedicated to Gillian McCain
I was on assignment. Gillian McCain asked me, “Do you want to do a feature?” I wasn’t sure what a feature was but it sounded important. And it pumped me up. This was my fifth year photographing the Mermaid Parade. I met Gillian fifteen years ago at the Garage Antique Flea Market where I sold her vintage photos. We’ve stayed in touch since the flea market closed there years ago. She co-authored Please Kill Me, an oral history about punk rock two decades ago. The book became an international phenomenon, a best seller. Gillian and her writing partner, Legs McNeil put out a 20th anniversary edition this past year with new material. Another big hit.
I began sending Gillian sources for her PleaseKillMe.com website. Gillian wrote a couple of poignant in-depth articles for my book that I’m working on, Antiques, Fashion and Madness: The Garage Antique Flea Market. I loved the pieces she wrote and felt deeply touched and obligated to her.
There’s only one problem. I think I’m under Gillian’s spell. She’s too damn charming, too damn brilliant and too damn beautiful.
As far as Legs, I don’t know him from a hole in the wall. And who is named “Legs?” It’s gotta be a nickname! I Googled him, just to make sure I wasn’t involved with a gangster. It turns out he is a big deal! He was involved in the punk scene since its inception back in the 70s. He was a co-founder of Punk Magazine, back in the day. And he knew every group and every producer. He could probably pick up the phone and call anybody. A who’s who of the punk scene. And interviews, he got ’em by the truck load. I’m talkin’ Blondie, Patti Smith and Iggy Pop. I didn’t know who Iggy Pop was. It sounded like a prize you got out of a crackerjack box. Legs is the “Godfather of Punk” so in that sense he is a gangster. “It’s Legs, I need an interview.” “OK Legs whenever you want.” Can you imagine if the phone was tapped? He’d end up in Sing Sing because of his name.
I never told Gillian this, but I hate punk music. The loud screeching music is good if you wanted to fuck up your neighbor. The hair styles look like electrocutions. Safety pins, I thought were used for diapers, the clothes are bizarre and torn. And jumping into a mosh pit was like playing Russian roulette.
As for the Mermaid Parade, I wanted to arrive early to track down Debbie Harry and Chris Stein from Blondie, Queen Mermaid and King Neptune of this year’s event. I had a recording device and I developed an odd fantasy that I not only was going to take their photos but interview them one-on-one. Once Gillian asked me to do a feature it became a bizarre quest for me. I was on a mission and I was going to deliver even if it killed me.
I wore my tie-dye elastic waist blue hippie pants that were at least twenty-five-years-old. These pants have been torn so many times over the past three years that with no exaggeration, I spent over two hundred dollars having them sewed. The seamstress sewed deeper stronger pockets. She placed a large patch on my ass because the holes became too wide. She sewed from the inside and outside but it was impossible to cover all the holes. But I refused to get rid of these pants. I wore them through my selling at the Antique Garage and nothing was more comfortable. And they didn’t make these pants anymore. I could not find another pair that was even similar. I retired them to only photography shoots. It’s in my will with whom my friend Harris is executor to save the pants.
I live in Philly. I was up at 4 a.m. I couldn’t sleep. I was nervous, filled with anticipation and excitement. Chasing Debbie Harry and Chris Stein became so big in my head that I fantasized about doing a photo shoot with the Beatles in the 60s. You don’t think I know I’m nuts! I wanted to arrive at the parade at 9 a.m., four hours before it started. I’ll track them down, don’t worry about it, I said to myself. But I was worried. That’s what I do as part of my profession. Worry!
I loaded up my pants in the morning. Now this may seem trivial, but you’ll see why it’s important. Recorder. In the pants. Extra battery for the recorder. In the pants. Extra battery for the camera with a memory card in a small plastic container. In the pants. All of my personal cards, medical cards, phone numbers, thickly wrapped in a rubber-band. In the pants. About 60 photography business cards. In the pants. Two sets of keys. In the pants. Money, including some change. In the pants. Almost forgot my anti diarrhea medicine. In the pants.
I arrived at Penn Station and next thing I know, I’m on the D train headed for Coney Island. I’m getting charged up. I decided to eat my chocolate croissant with orange juice that I bought at Penn Station. The woman at the store put it in a bag with handles and handed it to me. And then it happened, right there on the D train. A mermaid goddess sat next to me! She was breathtaking. She was probably in her thirties and I had turned 53 ten years ago. You think that’s a problem? Did I mention I’m fat? I didn’t know what to say to her. You see, I have a problem with women on a personal level – not as friends, acquaintances or in business. I became petrified. I’m scared of these women. You have to say something. Don’t freeze up now. “Are you going to the parade?” Dummy, she’s dressed in a costume.
“Yes, I also volunteer,”
“What type of work do you do?” Good question.
“I’m an artist. I design my own line of clothes and jewelry. I’m trying to get a show.”
And then I went on a tirade about how I know other artists from the Garage Antique Flea Market and that maybe I could hook her up. During this time, she’s eating a muffin. I give her my photo card. Ask her for her phone number now, don’t be a baby. Fuck those cards. She’ll never call like all the other women you gave cards to. Ask her out for coffee, ask her if you could see her designs. Don’t walk away. There’s a connection.
“I have a trash bag. You could put your trash in my bag.”
“OK, thank you.” She reached over and our eyes met as she placed her muffin bottom in my bag. Oh my God she looked into my eyes. She used my trash bag.
“Although it’s only about 6 blocks to the parade, I’m taking a cab. My legs aren’t that good. I’ll pay for it. Would you like to join me?”
“OK, but I’m late for work.”
When the train stopped at Stillwell Ave, the goddess quickly walked off the train. I’m walking and running trying to keep up, but it was to no avail.
The goddess disappeared and my pants fell down. Nothing showing but underwear.
No one seemed to look or care. I was part of the parade, the tortured clown. I got in the cab and tell the driver I’m going to 21st Street. I arrived at 21st Street and Surf Ave. and the goddess was there at her volunteer post.
“Are you Wonder Woman? How did you beat the cab?”
She smiled and I bought her a bottle of water, never to see her again.
I registered and received a press pass only to take photos on the outside of the parade route. Only photographers with press passes, who worked for newspapers or magazines were allowed on the parade route.
There was an alley off of 21st that cut through 22nd St. In this alley, I would shoot photos in a makeshift studio, two sides and a wall. No direct sun could enter. The background wall was beige. The photos and the skin tones were naturally magnificent. But the studio was fucked up with big rocks, dirt, garbage, huge electrical devices and other shit, and it stunk from urine. I tried to get sanitation and management to clean it, but they just fed me bullshit. I did the best I could to clean it myself.
Now it was time to chase down the stars, Queen Mermaid and King Neptune, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. But where were they? If I don’t get any interviews, I’ve got to get photos. I’ll throw myself into the ocean. I must and I will find Debbie and Chris. I asked everybody where they were. They either gave me bullshit answers, or they didn’t know.
10:00 a.m. “I work for Please Kill Me. I have to find Debbie and Chris. They know Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil. This is for a worldwide definitive website and book about punk rock.”
“They are at the 10th Street bar.”
10:15 a.m. “Do you know where Debbie and Chris, the king and queen of the parade are?”
“They’ll be in a Winnebago at about 12:30 at the corner of 21st and Surf Ave where the parade starts.”
10:30 a.m. “They are in the building on the right, just down the street.”
11:00 a.m. I have to speak to the manager of this parade. I’m looking for the king and queen. I work for Please Kill Me. Debbie and Chris know the proprietors, Gillian and Legs. I’m on assignment to do a feature on them.”
“Sir, I don’t know who you are. I don’t know anything about Please Kill Me. But I do know Debbie and Chris are heavily surrounded by security. And I know that you don’t have a special pass to get through security.”
If you could only ask Debbie and Chris? They know about Please Kill Me. They know Gillian and Legs. I’m begging you, my job depends on it. Just ask them one question. “Do you know Gillian and Legs?” They will let me in. I work for Please Kill Me. With all due respect, you don’t know who I am and the significance of this interview and photos.”
“You expect to interview them too? I don’t know you or your friends. I never heard of Please Kill Me. You better leave now.”
“I paid $40.00 to get this press pass. Believe me, I’ve been friendly with Gillian for 15 years! You have to please understand what I’m going through. I can’t let her down. With all due respect, you don’t understand Please Kill Me.”
He spells N-O and then says, “no.”
11:30 a.m. “Do you know where Debbie and Chris are?”
12:00 a.m. “I’m looking for King and Queen, Debbie and Chris?”
I saw one of the security guards who I spoke earlier takes his index finger and twirls it around the side of his head, indicating that I am nuts.
“I’m sorry you can’t get access to them.”
“I’m from Please Kill Me.”
“I heard about where you’re from and I can’t help you.”
As I’m walking on 21st Street stopping everybody about where Debbie and Chris are, a distinguished looking gentleman with straight grey hair dressed in black with a camera around his shoulder walks straight at me. I take his photo.
Later when I arrived home and looked at the photos I realized this was Chris Stein. Here I was acting a little crazy looking for the King and he walked right into me. With no security, not that many people nearby and I don’t even know who he is. There is no doubt I could have stopped him and interviewed him and perhaps he would have taken me to Debbie. I know this because later in the parade, when I see him, I will say “I work for Gillian and Legs for Please Kill me. And he’ll reply, “Send my regards,”
Finally, somebody and no less the king knows about Please Kill Me. Sometimes you only get one opportunity. You don’t have to ask everybody where the king and queen are. The king was right in front of me! We were almost touching. It would help, Larry Baumhor, to know the celebrities you’re trying to photograph.
I feel bad. I have tears in my eyes. The only thing I can say is Gillian, I’m deeply sorry for fucking this up. In a sense, I let you down. I know I could have gotten the interview and maybe more.
12:15 p.m. I’m walking down 21st Street and I begin to speak with a guy who has a V.I.P. pass. “Hi, my name is Larry. I work for Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil for their book and website Please Kill Me.”
“I’m Kim, (at least that’s what I thought he said), I know Gillian and her husband, The Hound.” Kim informed me that he was one of the original people who started the Mermaid Parade thirty some years ago.
Bingo! I hit gold. “Oh yeah, The Hound has a radio show that’s really cool.” Please don’t ask me about the show, because I don’t know, I thought. It must be cool to have a nickname. Cool people have nicknames. But The Hound? A dog? I’ve got to ask Gillian how “The Hound” became “The Hound.” I’d like a nickname. My mother used to call me “putz” as a kid when I did stupid things. Believe it or not, it was actually a term of endearment. I later wrote a short story book, “Who’s The Putz on Facebook.” Another failure.
“Do you know where Debbie and Chris are? I would like to take some photos for Please Kill Me.”
“They’re in the building next to me.”
“Could you please get me in so I could take a few photos?”
“Let me see your pass?” asked Kim. “I’m sorry you have the wrong pass. I can’t get you in.”
“They know who I am. You know Gillian and Legs. This is an important feature.”
“Can’t do it.”
“Do you mind if I talk to security next door?”
I go to security. I’m not going to bore you with the same obsessive questions. The answer was no. I was beginning to realize that nobody knew Please Kill Me and nobody gave a fuck about Gillian, Legs, The Hound or me.
I walked back to Kim and frustratingly said, “No I can’t get in. Kim, we never met before, but I’m very neurotic. Please forgive my presumption and question. For The Hound’s sake, can you guarantee me just one photo of Debbie and Chris by the end of the parade.”
“Yes, I will get you one photo,” responded Kim
“God bless you. Thank you so much.”
As it got closer to 1:00 p.m. Kim walked away towards Surf Ave. Why would Kim walk away when he said he walks next to Debbie and Chris in the parade? He’s trying to trick me, I thought, maybe the king and queen are coming out on Surf Ave and not here at 21st Street. Maybe they are not even in that building!
I walked towards Surf Ave and away from where I was informed Debbie and Chris were. I get to Surf Ave and 21st St, minutes from the start of the parade. Security sat in a military jeep. “Do you know where Debbie and Chris are?”
“They are in the bus behind us.”
I walk to the bus and ask the same question. “No, they are not here. They are down by the boardwalk.”
I then begin to walk back down 21st Street. I took a few steps into the crowd, bumping smack dab into Debbie Harry and Chris Stein.
“Hi Gillian,” I said to Debbie.
What a fuckin idiot I am. You can’t even talk, you moron. You called Debbie, Gillian?
And then I started mumbling about working for Gillian and Legs at Please Kill Me. Debbie was stone-cold deadpan. She did not move a muscle on her face.
The parade started with Debbie and Chris in an old, three-wheel bamboo-like push cart. It looked like from the 1920s! Kind of pathetic. I thought they would be on a big float! Instead, they were being pushed by a small, muscular man surrounded by security who were equally big and strong. I began taking photos… over, between and under other photographers. There was a lot of pushing going on between security staff and photographers. I was snapping photos that I knew would be out of focus because people were banging into my arm. I began yelling Debbie’s name. When she looked over, I yelled that I worked for Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil for Please Kill Me. She nodded yes to me and raised her hand. She knew them and acknowledged me. I felt like a hero. I began singing the song with changed lyrics:
“I’m holding out because I’m hero ’til the end of the night
I gotta be strong
I gotta be fast
I gotta be fresh from the fight
I’m a hero”
A security guard threw me against the metal bar barricades and I fell backwards. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he yelled. Down goes Baumhor!
“Debbie and Chris know me. I work for Please Kill Me.”
“Stay on the side,” he demanded. And then a fan on the side started harassing me. “You moron. Get the fuck out of here, you moron.”
“I’m from Please Kill Me and I’m a press photographer.”
I got back into the mix, fighting for position and arguing with the security guards who said I shouldn’t be here. I would step to the side and get out of the way only to push my way back into the crowd. I was getting pounded and verbally attacked.
I had to get the pictures. I promised Gillian. What’s the worst that could happen? They could throw me in jail. Please kill Me would get me out.
Another hard push from security. Down goes Baumhor! And now it’s raining cats and dogs. I’m drenched, the camera is wet. But I had to get the pictures. I kept bobbing and weaving like a boxer until I was in front of Debbie. She looked me in the eyes, kind of eerie. But I kept bouncing back in and getting pushed away. Sometimes I had photographers on my back or I was on their back.
Debbie probably thinks I’m a groupie or a psycho. She’ll probably report me to Please Kill Me.
I hadn’t come this far not to fight it out. The crowds on both sides were screaming and chanting for their Queen. It was bedlam. And I was caught in the middle, like a little worm popping in and out of the ground. No one is taking me down, I said. This is what it is like to be a celebrity.
Finally the parade moves past the subway station across from Nathan’s and I said, “Thank you Debbie. I’ll send my regards to Legs and Gillian.” Debbie didn’t say a word.
I was flying, like the seagulls overhead. I didn’t know or care where I was. I was pumped with adrenalin. I had to ask security to let me out of the barricades. And in walks this mermaid. Security stops him and says, “Who are you and where are you going?” The mermaid pulls out his badge and says “I’m a police officer.” That made me think…”Who am I and what am I doing with my life?” I’m a step above a child. I’m a teenage gawker, not quite a groupie. If you see me photographing at an event just call me “Putz.” It’s Ok. I need a nickname.