Cover image for The Chelsea whistle
The Chelsea whistle
Tea, Michelle.
Personal Author:
First Seal Press edition.
Publication Information:
[Seattle] : Seal Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
331 pages ; 21 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3570.E15 Z468 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In this gritty, confessional memoir, Michelle Tea takes the reader back to the city of her childhood: Chelsea, Massachusetts--a place where time and hope are spent on things not getting any worse. Tea's girlhood is shaped by the rough fabric of the neighborhood and by its characters--the soft vulnerability of her sister Madeline and her quietly brutal Polish father; the doddering, sometimes violent nuns of Our Lady of Assumption; Marisol Lewis from the projects by the creek; and Johnna Latrotta, the tough-as-nails Italian dance-school teacher who offered a slim chance for escape to every young Chelsea girl in tulle and tap shoes. Told in Tea's trademark loose-tongued, lyrical style, this memoir both celebrates and annihilates one girl's tightrope walk out of a working-class slum and the lessons she carries with her. With wry humor and a hard-fought wisdom, Tea limns the extravagant peril of a dramatic adolescence with the private, catastrophic secret harbored within the walls of her family's home--a secret that threatens to destroy her family forever.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Tea's memoir of growing up poor and white on the East Coast in the 1970s and `80s begins with her playing at being dead with her cousin and sister. Death and a sort of stagnant life in death were pretty much what this aging, "graffitied" working-class suburb of Boston had to offer its inhabitants. Tea's formative years aren't unusual, given her class background or the time. Her parents are divorced, and soon after their separation, her father, whose upbringing has left him completely unprepared to relate to his wife and daughters, deserts the family. Tea's biography is her attempt to explore the truth of her childhood, including incest. What makes it remarkable is her flair for description and her ability to recall vividly the indignities of her childhood. Tea has written a powerful and useful narrative for other incest survivors. --June Pulliam

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Childhood is morbid," declares Tea, author of the Lambda Award-winning Valencia, in this gritty girlhood memoir. As a kid, she perfected the art of playing dead. In her teens, she was deep into Goth-black lipstick and lace, her hearse-driving boyfriend and other grim reaperesque fashions. In lush detail, she describes growing up on the other side of the tracks in the Boston suburb of Chelsea. Her alcoholic father abandoned the family, and her mother was overworked. Tea longed to possess cool clothes, experimented with drinking and drugs, had sex with boys and then with girls. Recounting these bits leads to an obsession with proving that her stepfather had bored holes in the house's bathroom and bedroom doors so he could spy on Tea and her sister when they were growing up. However, his confession isn't exactly gratifying; Tea wishes he had actually "grabbed" her, wishing for the "indisputable trespass of a hand," which would have made her the unarguable victim of sexual abuse. Tea finally walks out of her mother's house for good, proclaiming herself not a woman but "some new girl, an orphan." The writing is well-honed (e.g., Tea describes her father extracting lobster meat as "pulling fingers from a glove"), and the image of the "Chelsea whistle" is poignant ("the boys it meant to call were the boys I would need to be saved from"). However, the book's starts and stops, coupled with a disappointing ending make her account ultimately unsatisfying. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Sicko Childhood is morbid. That's a word I learned from my mother. You kids are morbid , she said, spying on me and my sister, small Madeline, playing with our cousin Allen, who everyone said was going to turn out gay from all the dolls his grandmother bought him. It was the era of "William Wants a Doll," a tune that didn't quite reach Chelsea, Massachusetts, a town five minutes from Boston that might as well have been five hours, five days. People in Chelsea went to neighboring towns like Revere, Everett, East Boston-similarly connected to the big city and all its culture but, like Chelsea, sealed off, retarded by the local yokels' fears of big cities and all the different people who dwell there. Not that you'd call the sort of stunted human that occupied my town a yokel . Yokels were trailer trash living in wild rural areas deep in the jungles of America, a television myth. These low-ballers were "townies." And they were proud of it. As if being born into this grimy pocket of New England were a cosmic lottery hit. East Boston-Eastie-had a tunnel that shot you into Boston, and in Chelsea we had the big green bridge that looped the edge of town, a dead warehouse district. You had to pay a guy in a little booth fifty cents to pass into Boston. That made sense. The city was holding us hostage. What didn't make sense was having to toss the guy quarters on your way back, too. A toll to get into Chelsea? Its cracked pavement and trashy curbs, plastic playgrounds stained with spray paint and mean kids on every corner, wanting to kick your ass-that was Chelsea, and they made you give them two quarters to get into it. Like being bullied out of your lunch money. They'll nickel and dime ya to death , my parents would often lament, and I'd think of this phrase as the twin coins were tossed into the giant basket on the Tobin Bridge, tumbling into the hole that would lift the bar and allow our car entrance to Chelsea. Outside of our misanthropic city, in Boston, children were free to be you and me, and William was serenaded for his dolly desires, but it never reached us. It was like a cable station we just didn't get. We got other things. We got to play dead. I was teaching my cousin Allen that it wasn't like sleeping-you didn't just lie there and relax, limp, tiny bird-bone rib cage fluttering up and down on kid's breath. Playing dead was hard and took practice-you kept your eyes open and you didn't blink, and your eyeballs got drier and drier until it seemed you'd go nuts if you couldn't snap them shut, and everything blurred and the ball of your eye seemed to twist in its socket. And you held your body still, no breath coming and going like kids on a hot day dashing to and from the backyard while a mother is trying to clean or pay bills or just have one damn second of peace , just to think , and she says, You're in or you're out . That's like your breath when you're playing dead-it's in or out. And you are still, no blinks from the dry, dry eyes, no relieving gasps from the body, just lie there and suffer beneath the eyes of your marveling friends who coo and gasp at how good you are at being dead. Inside, you are close to combustion, and the seconds that tick you toward it are delicious, an accomplishment. Advanced dead children could challenge themselves by attempting a faux death in various crumpled heaps, the way people really die, all folded and snapping at odd angles. But to start you just lay there, like a princess in a book, thumb skin pricked, apple flesh sitting poisonous in your belly. Ma opened the bedroom door and observed her eldest in just such a position, my favorite because it seemed so beautiful. I could have been a model holding a difficult pose for an artist, if it weren't for the frozen grossness of my blankly staring eyeballs. Madeline and Allen gazed down at me, impressed. Don't play like that , my mother said, with a catch in her voice like her kids were a couple of Sickos. God forbid , she said, waving her hand like somebody had farted. Embarrassed, I scrambled from the floor, my eyes stinging as moist lids snapped over them, a little sprinkle of thankful tears and I hauled huge gusts of air into my lungs. It was a strange, inverted sort of athleticism. My body was cramped and proud. If you were a kid in Chelsea, there were so many things that could kill you. Men bearing candy, cars plowing you down on the busier streets, and on the more desolate ones wild trains and packs of boys on dirt bikes. A van full of naked clowns, naked from the waist down so that at first glance you thought the circus had come to town-you'd see only their loopy costumes, the floppy collars and greasy smiles, and then they'd yank you into their van just like nothing, like a sack of potatoes, an extra-heavy book bag. Kids are light as air and once the clown had seized you with his bulbous, gloved hand, you were doomed, cause they had their wieners out and were ready to stab you with them, to kill you forever. There were Mickey Mouse candies that were really LSD, planted on the sidewalk by evil druggies. The sinister slits of electrical outlets, which I could never imagine being able to fit my finger into, but if I did would leave me charred and smoking, my hair a stiff brush like a cartoon fool. Childhood was an endless backyard obstacle course filled with everything deadly that stood between you and adulthood, at which point no one would try to kidnap you, and you could relax and be alive. Razors in apples on Halloween night, sweet harmless brownies handed out in baggies by an old lady who looked like a grandma, but you never know. They don't have horns on their heads , my mother would say. She was talking about Sickos. They looked just like everyone, you couldn't ever, ever know. The skanky man in Bellingham Square, the one who always sat around near the post office in his stained wool coat, sloshing a bottle that smelled like you were maybe supposed to clean the house with it, not drink it, whom everyone knew as Johnny Cornflakes and who talked to himself and got kicked off the bus for falling down, his pants torn and hands scuffed to scabs-you might think this guy was one of them, a Sicko. But really he just needed some help because he was crazy, not Sicko crazy but alcoholic crazy, sad crazy. Now, look over there on the other side of the street, at the older guy, cute, Italian, very dark hair set into swirls with sweet-smelling gel. He's got this real nice car, candy-apple red, red like the tin of a Coke can, and it's so clean it shines, so clean you can smell the color of the tree that dangles from the rearview mirror. It's summertime and he's lying across the front seat of his car, his head is tucked beneath the steering wheel because he's fixing something-there are tools on the sidewalk. His legs are splayed onto the sidewalk, and if you skate your gaze up his tanned calves, up his thighs, you will spot the most odious, purpley ugh , purple penis , jutting grotesquely from the edge of his nylon running shorts. This man, who looks so normal, looks even attractive in much the way a man on a soap opera does, is actually a Sicko. If you stopped and made a scene, he would leap from his car, gasp and apologize, feigning terrific embarrassment, but you'd know he was full of lies. Because (as my mother wisely said) he has no horns on his head, this awful man will be able to get away with being a Sicko for his entire life, yanking his dick out from his clothing every day and blushing red so that you feel bad for embarrassing him . And meanwhile, poor old Johnny Cornflakes gets yelled at by mean gangs of kids and kicked off buses, and mothers grab their children when he totters by, even though, I promise you, the man's dick will stay tucked there in his grody underwear and no kid will ever be forced to behold its horror. That's a little something about Sickos. Also, you could get leukemia if you were a kid. You could be a thin bald girl on a telethon, smiling bravely from a hospital bed with teeth that take up all the space on your small, wasting face. Doctors would administer medicines and poisons, killing a bunch of your body in hopes of killing the thing killing you, and celebrities would visit you with a camera crew and take you to Disney World, and maybe you'd get better and go on to college and discover a cure so no other kid would ever have to suffer like you and you would be a hero. Maybe you would simply die and your family would be eternally puzzled by life's cruel lack of meaning. If you thought about it, there seemed to be no end to things that could kill kids. So we would play these great and sexy games about being dead. And I'm telling you, they were sexy, maybe just 'cause sex was a similar threat that loomed in our future, one tucked in the pockets of the Sickos. Like death, we would encounter sex firsthand, eventually, though hopefully not until we were very grown up. So we swirled both of them together and choreographed them into dramatic play scenarios involving Kiss. I mean the band Kiss, giants on stacked heels, leathery contraptions stretched across their bodies, sci-fi grease paint masking their faces. I didn't even know Kiss, not their music. I had only seen them once, on a telethon for sick and dying children, and it had confused me to see them take the stage between clips of the holy, scrawny children quickly on their way to being dead. Kiss was evil, they spit blood-that was one thing I knew about them. The head one did, the pointy guy who was the most evil. His makeup looked like slick black claws stretched menacingly across his cheeks. In our room, me and Madeline would wade through a sea of blood at a Kiss concert, imagining that guy at the top of our bunk beds, leering down at us and spitting. We would swim through the invisible red and finally drown, twisting and collapsing onto our dusty wooden floor, and envision the evil bad man, his strangely long tongue pushed from his lips, drooling a slick river of blood. It was sexy. It was gross and wrong and if Mom caught us she'd think we were Sickos, our games disturbingly morbid. There were lots of dirty jokes that were pretty morbid. The one about the guy shaving his face while looking out the window naked. He lives upstairs from a pickle factory, and when he accidentally drops his razor, it slices off his dick, which falls neatly into a pickle jar below and is mistakenly eaten by a lady. What were dicks? Something shaped like a pickle, ladies put them in their mouths. It's called a blowjob. Some girls in the neighborhood knew the names for everything. Sixty-nine, fucking. It was hard to get your head around some of them. Fucking was easier. Guys had the pickle and we had a hole and they went together. Me and Madeline would play fucking. There was a dirty joke called Johnny Deeper and it involved a teacher fucking her student named Johnny Deeper, and I would be the teacher and I would make my sister be Johnny. I would always make Madeline be the guy, Danny to my Sandy when I stretched the collar of my shirt down over my shoulders and stole Mom's clogs with the big heels. She would be Ponch and I would be the hitchhiker in distress on the California highway. She was Bo or Luke Duke while I was Daisy, stretched out on my bed like it was the General Lee. She would lie on top of me and we would kiss. Madeline rarely wanted to do this, I would have to nag her into it the way I'd bully her into being Carrie when we played Little House on the Prairie so I could be Half-Pint, or coerce her into playing any other game that was okay to play, and not sick or morbid. It just seemed like the normal type of bullying I would engage in because sometimes you really had to push Madeline into doing something fun. Like the time at my grandmother's house, which was across the street from the cemetery and so close to the airport that planes shook the shingles as they crashed through the sky outside. It was summer and the house was so hot that vegetable cuttings and slop from dinner plates got dumped into old milk containers and shoved in the freezer so they didn't rot into a stink cloud on the back porch, where the trash was kept. The slop was called "swill," the back porch was the "piazza," the living room was the "parlor" and on hot days it was blocked off by a sheet tacked to the doorjamb, to keep the cool air-conditioned air in my grandparents' bedroom only. The AC was an old hulk that got heaved into the window each summer, humming out tinny air that tasted like hotels, that chilled us. In the cool room, me and Madeline dove under the blankets on my grandparents' bed, and it was a spaceship, and we were on Battlestar Galactica . I made Madeline be Dirk, the guy with the cigar, and we kissed. The sheet flapped open and you could feel my grandmother move into the room like a weather front. Get out from there, you'll suffocate , she said, edgy. Oh, Leave 'em alone, they're not gonna suffocate! Papa bellowed from the parlor. He sat out there in his humid chair, his sore feet up on the round footstool. Papa had the gout. I imagined it as an old gnome that lived in his toe, a swollen, oniony thing he'd soak in water doused with Epsom salt, which was not the salt you ate on your food. Papa watched black-and-white television. The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello. Old dead guys who were shrill, not funny, back from a time when there wasn't any color. It depressed me to watch my grandparents' TV. They just wouldn't get cable because then my grandfather would watch dirty movies with boobs in them. So he watched these other boobs whacking each other with frying pans and sticking out black shoes to trip a black pant leg, smoking his filterless cigarettes that hazed up the room, the ssssvt, sssvt, sssvt sound of loose tobacco being spit from his lips. Papa said, Leave 'em alone , and Nana did, lifting the faded sheet reluctantly and walking back into the parlor to sit on the sofa and watch TV. But the Battlestar Galactica was gone, it was just a bed, wide and lumpy, no man with a sinister cigar, only me, and I was the sinister one, the Sicko, playing bad games. I pulled the sheet from our heads and breathed the cold, conditioned air. Back at our house I lay in the dark, in my bed, and my bones were filled with how awful I was. An awfulness that sucked out all the marrow, like those sick and dying children on the telethon. Only they were good. I would go to hell. For kissing Madeline, for making her be a man. I lay with my awfulness, as still as I could, and pretended to be paralyzed. It would probably happen, God would find a way to hurt me for this. Not that God was trying to hurt paralyzed children or children kidnapped by evil clowns or any of those fates already mentioned. Continue... Excerpted from The Chelsea Whistle by Michelle Tea Copyright © 2002 by Michelle Tea Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.