RIP Jimmy Webb, 1957-2020

Jimmy Webb, denizen of St. Mark’s Place, punk guru, and rockstar couturier died last month. He was 62. An upstate runaway and downtown club kid since the ‘70s, Jimmy had gotten hooked on drugs, lived on the street, cleaned himself up, and eventually gotten a sales job at the punk Mecca, Trash and Vaudeville, on St. Mark’s Place. Within a year he became its highest paid employee, and ultimately, the store’s buyer and manager. In 2017 he opened his own shop on the Lower East Side, Give Me More, a phrase borrowed from a large tattoo on Jimmy’s back.

If you had ever visited either store, you would never forget the man: whippet thin, layers of jangling jewelry, with a hide turned leathery from years of hard living. Atop his head was a trademark pouf of bleached blond hair, as if he had just stuck his finger in an electric socket. I have known many shopkeepers in my life, but none as genuinely enthusiastic as Jimmy.

I heard a lot about Jimmy and his shop before I ever visited. I was still in 8th grade, a chubby nerd with skater-boy ambitions who wore baggy cargo pants and listened to a lot of Nirvana, but I knew about Trash and Vaudeville from some much cooler 9th graders who I was hanging around with. They wore all black with spiked dog collars, smoked weed after school, and spat on the street. One of them had gotten kicked out of Brooklyn Friends (a private Quaker school), for walking into class wearing an M60 bullet belt. They were bad, and they shopped at Trash and Vaudeville.

The August between 8th and 9th grade, I found myself downtown on a camp field trip. Every summer, I went to a Jewish camp in Western Massachusetts, and for some reason, they decided to bring my unit to New York City for an overnight field trip–despite the fact that many of us were from Long Island, Westchester, or in my case, Brooklyn. They let us loose for two hours on Broadway in Noho, with the caveat that we were not to leave the avenue. As a native son of the city, I had other plans, and convinced my suburban friends that we should go to St. Marks for some adventure.

The street was a cornucopia of moral turpitude. Bongs lined up on the sidewalk, sex shops, tattoo parlors and piercing shops that didn’t require ID. And of course, Trash and Vaudeville, the two story clothing shop I’d been dying to visit, but had been too chicken to check out on my own.

With my friends, I was feeling much braver. We crossed the street toward that iconic pink awning and metal staircase, when who do I find in front of it, but the bad the kids from my neighborhood.

“What the fuck are you wearing?” a boy with a lip ring asked me. He pulled on a cigarette and blew the smoke out of his nostrils.

I should mention here that my camp friends and I were dressed in identical T-shirts (camp policy) with huge Stars of David printed on the front, along with the name of the summer camp. I tried to explain the situation, the rules, but quickly realized I was only making it worse. There was no way I was going in there now–so I dragged my friends back across the street to another punk den, Search and Destroy, where one of them ran out screaming because of some latex fetishwear that was on display.

I only made it to Jimmy and Trash and Vaudeville the next year. The store was filled with endless racks of punk regalia: torn up T-shirts with disturbing graphics, corsets and fishnets, and Doc Martens in every style (before they were made in China). Music that was mostly fuzz and screaming blared from the stereo system. In the year 2005, punk might have been long dead in New York, but nobody had told Jimmy.

I was there to buy a pair of pants, something with a little edge, and Jimmy was the man to find it. In the time between my aborted first visit and this one, I had finally hit puberty, grown a few inches and lost the baby fat. He could tell I was nervous, and patiently listened as I mentioned a few points of reference, some bands I liked, some movies. The solution was simple, a pair of black Tripp jeans that looked more like stockings than pants.

In the dressing room, I struggled to slide into them; they were so tight I felt like I was vacuum packing my legs. When I emerged from the dressing room, Jimmy’s eyes lit up. I stared at my reflection in the mirror, knowing it was my own, but having difficulty believing it. I shifted back and forth, liking what I saw.

“I don’t think they could be any tighter,” Jimmy said, with a tone of admiration. For Jimmy, clinginess was next to godliness. I changed back into my old pants, which now seemed impossibly large, and he rang me up. I had found my place, and Jimmy had shown me the way.

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