Tuesday, May 31, 2011

If You Leave Me Now

Exiting at Eden Canyon Road, the Driver’s Education instructor had her pull over in a dirt patch. She put it in park and got out of the car. The instructor looked at me and said, “You’re up.” I was in the middle of three students in the back of a Ford Granada. The car was outfitted with an additional break on the floorboard of the passenger side, for the sake of safety. The instructor used it liberally. I pushed way my way out and sat in the driver’s seat.

This was the last stop in obtaining our driver’s license. Our course work was over. We had already been scared straight with Red Asphalt; simulators taught us to watch out for old bag ladies who were prone to leaping into traffic and manuals explained the correct speed limit when approaching train tracks that were 40 yards from an elementary school. It was a long process, but it was worth it – the end result was a driver’s license.

It was winter of 1980, a dreary Sunday that leant more to depression than religion, a time when businesses still closed for the Sabbath and streets were relatively empty, due to a slower pace of life.

I turned left and followed the frontage road back into town. Driving under the speed limit, the instructor told me to speed up. At Foothill, a road that claimed at least one student a year, I made a right, passing my high school. Decades later, often on Sundays, I found myself driving this stretch of road, looking up at the familiar burnt East Bay hills and squat oak trees.

Knowing the history of the road, and being an inexperienced driver, I hugged the shoulder, wincing anytime a car would pass. When the sound of the tires went from pavement to gravel, the instructor would gently grab the steering wheel with his left hand and steer the car back on the road. With a ten and two death grip on the steering wheel, this road scared the shit out of me.

We drove around town, up near the church, then back to Foothill on our way to Sunol, the adjacent town where the cowboy kids at our school lived. I always liked Sunol and knew the streets were relatively free of cars. This was good for a new driver. I’d had enough passing cars on a two-lane road.

Clipboard in hand and writing God knows what about my driving, the instructor told me to make a left onto a dead end street. I figured I would be tested on a three-point turn. Instead, he said to pull over. This was not uncommon. There lots of starts and stopping, and changing of the drivers. I figured my driving time was up.

I sat in the driver’s seat waiting for instructions. The instructor glanced longingly out the passenger side window at a country house that was parallel to the car. The A.M. radio played “If You Leave Me Now” by Chicago.

If you leave me now, you'll take away the biggest part of me
No baby please don't go
If you leave me now, you'll take away the very heart of me
No baby please don't go

Without taking his eyes of the house, he broke the silence by dramatically turning off the radio and saying: “I hate songs like this.” Not knowing what to say, all of us sat stone faced and silent.

Seeing the looks on our faces, he attempted to explain why were parked, looking at a farm house in Sunol: “My ex-wife lives there.”

Even at 15, I knew this wasn’t right. He was a stalker, a man in a pain over bad love. It was moments like this that I started to put together that my charmed life could easily turn to shit and that it could be me driving by the ex’s house.

He turned around and looked at a girl with glasses in the backseat: “You’re up, Four Eyes.” His attempt at humor diffused the situation. Four Eyes took over and I moved to the back.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friend of Skinhead or Not

Izzy and Trevor were an odd pair, a Texan and a Filipino German. Only in a work environment could they exist. What they lacked in common ground, they made up in fast food. Both loved Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Burger King, but KFC was their favorite.

At the corner of Ellis and Polk, KFC shares a space with Taco Bell. Next door is Brenda’s, a fancy Cajun place that TL hipsters and tourists from the Phoenix and other mid-to-low level hotels in the neighborhood frequent.

Izzy and Trevor, by my observations, dined at KFC every day. The 3 piece plated chicken was their favorite; however, if the Pot Pie was fresh, they would get that. Only if it was fresh.

Like a sales associate at Neiman Marcus calling to inform you that they just received new shoes from Marc Jacobs’ resort wear line, Izzy and Trevor built a similar relationship with the employees at KFC. Instead of shoes, they would call them when Pot Pies came out of the oven.

One day around lunch time, after morning duties, I heard Izzy’s phone ring. He answered and quickly left through the back door, yelling at Trevor: “Let’s go, Trevor. Fantasia called and said the Pot Pies just came out of the oven.” And off they went.

Izzy asked Fantasia out. Years of seeing her everyday bolstered his confidence. She agreed and he bought tickets to the Halloween cruise around the bay. Before the date arrived, he learned that Fantasia had a night job: hooker. Of course, he shared this with us. Since it had been a long, long time since he had a date, let alone sex, we counseled him to continue on with the date, as long as he didn’t pay for it at the end of the night.

Izzy didn’t take our advice and went stag to the cruise.

On this day, Trevor went to the KFC alone. While in line, a local crackhead entered from the street and started yelling at Trevor. As much as he wanted to tell her to fuck off, he ignored her, as this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. He was versed in the Tenderloin and knew engaging her would be pointless.

Sitting at a corner booth, a skinhead sporting the uniform - bomber jacket, Fred Perry and 18 eyelet Docs with white laces – stood up and yelled, “Get the fuck out of here, bitch.” The room froze, preparing for drama. The crackhead acquiesced and left quietly through the same doors she entered. The room breathed a sigh of relief and turned to the skinhead, who was still standing. The anger in his face had not subsided.

Trevor made the mistake of looking at him. The skinhead looked back, saluted and yelled, “Sieg Heil.” He calmly sat down and went back to eating with his skin chick girlfriend. With the skinhead out of the way, eyes now turned to Trevor, whose own eyes showed fear, knowing that the customers assumed he was associated with the skinhead.

Whether he knew it or not, the “Sieg Heil” was thrown his way. If it were a bullet, it would’ve hit him in the chest. Like a scene from a Woody Allen, Trevor looked around with a half-smile, silently attempting to convey to the predominately African American customer base that he was not with the skinhead. He appreciated that he got the crackhead to leave, but he didn’t agree with the his politics or supported his tactics. He knew this was futile, though.

Instead of following the crackhead out the door, he stayed in line, feeling the derision and stares encircling him. But he was hungry and this was his place. The Pot Pies were fresh. He’d earned his place in line and wasn’t moving – friend of skinhead or not.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Evolution of the Douchebag Tattoo

Chris’ mom claimed that anyone with 3 or more tattoos was a sexual deviant. By definition, Chris and her husband were sexual deviants. According to my observations, anyone with one tattoo is a douchebag. By definition, I’m a douchebag.

While wading in the extensive pool at the Grand Hyatt in Maui last week, I had lots of time to observe women and men in various stages of undress, with various tattoos. It was a moneyed bunch and tended to skew on the “older” side - 35 to 55 - so most tattoos were run of the mill tramp stamps for women and bicep tattoos for the fellas. A few hipster women and men – the new yuppies – were covered, branding them as members of the creative class, the ruling class. In this scenario, the tattoo becomes “work,” a digestible euphemism.

In my UV protection swim shirt, Target floppy hat and white sunglasses, it was clear that the first wave of douchebag tattoos for women – the tramp stamp – had not evolved. Generation of women were still adorning butterflies, angels and various winged entities on their lower back and as long as alcohol is served and tattoo shops stay open on the weekend until 2 am, the tramp stamp will survive.

However, I’m not comfortable commenting on tattoo trends among women because I tend to consider myself a women sympathizer, who knows at least 3 alternative spellings of the word women – womyn, wimmin and wymyn - and probably wrote a paper at the age of 21 that used the word herstory over the traditional history. I’m way more comfortable being a dick to men. You know, men on men. It’s easier and I very knowledgeable of the breed.

As I waded in the pool, I realized that my tattoo – a large carrot on the outer calf of my left leg - was the first douchebag spot of tattoos for men. I looked around and men in the general vicinity of my age, who showed a propensity for tattoos, sported some elongated symbol/object that stretched up their outer calf. It became clear - it was the tramp stamp equivalent of guys. This wasn’t a huge revelation because I was a trendsetter in the arena of douchebaggery. Remember, I was wearing a swim shirt.

Once I eliminated the older set and their calf tattoos, I looked at the younger guys, with their muscles, pretty girlfriends/old ladies and good looks. In envy and jealousy, I was harder on them, meticulously scouring their tanned bodies for a trend. I didn’t have to look long.

Like the late 80s/early 90s tattoo trend of tribal bands, barbwire, dragons, suns and graphic designs, the local and haole men of Hawaii adorned some sort of tribal tattoo pattern that ran from their shoulder to their forearm. Since we were in Hawaii, it was assumed that every one of these patterns had some sort of historical meaning. Meaning or not, they were everywhere, given the fact that these fellas preferred tank tops over elbow length polos.

Treading water in the deep end, I crowned the one arm tribal tattoo as the new douchebag tattoo. I was a bit sad that my carrot on the outer calf was no longer relevant, but I found solace that I was douchebag when douchebag was cool.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Commuter Habits

The relatives needed the minivan to go to Santa Cruz, so I was stuck with the clown car, the VW Jetta. Bought in 2003, it is the first car that I (we) ever owned.

The pride of ownership never took hold. It always needs a wash, a vacuum and is continually a few thousand miles behind an oil change. What it has going for it is a birthdate in the 2000s (not the late ‘80s or early 90s) and reliability. It’s my wife’s car, not mine. I only drive it when I’m forced to.

Paid off in 2008, it has heavy-ass doors and a trunk that requires all your weight to close. On the freeway, when I drive it, I find myself in the fast lane going as fast as I can, longing for driving gloves with holes in the knuckles. Because of this midlife crisis behavior, I prefer the low-and-slow of the minivan, taking corners in a leisurely manner, and pissing off Sammy Hager types in the slow lane. On this day, I didn’t have a choice. I was in the VW with the Old Lady, commuting to San Francisco.

The commute is mine, a time when I’m by myself, listening to sports talk (during baseball season), thinking about stories to write and drinking Diet Pepsi. I should be on BART, but like others who prefer traffic to a crowded train, sometimes driving vs. the train isn’t a decision, it’s about addiction, habit.

Keeping me in the daily commute is a nasty Diet Habit; for most it’s coffee and cigarettes. Boredom while commuting has led to this assertion. 10 years of incessantly looking into the cars of commuters leads to me to believe that this is true. Anything to break up the monotony.

Because the relatives were using my vehicle and I’m using the wife’s vehicle, she’s with me the whole week, copiloting the commute. I’m not happy about it. She’s pushy with the radio, preferring pop stations and she’s chatty. I remind her that I’m the Captain of the ship - ruler of the radio and purveyor of conversation.

After dropping her off at work, I run a few errands, ridding myself of $600 dollars in cash to shady work vendors who refuse to bill. Shady is always a cash transaction.

Once I finish outside business, I return to work and park in the alley, dropping off some crap before moving the car to a paid lot. One the space is available, next to a junkie on the sidewalk, hiding in a recessed doorway.

While putting a quarter in the meter, I hear what appears to be a question. I turn and look at the young woman in the doorway. She’s sitting down with her left pant leg rolled up to her knee and her shoe off. Her exposed leg is swollen, bruised and littered with open sores. A needle in her right hand hovers over her foot.

“Excuse me,” I reply, looking confused.

She repeats the same indiscernible question, accenting the last word.

“Excuse me,” I say again.

She lifts the needle from her foot and focuses on articulation.

“You don’t have a problem with what I’m doing, do ya?”

I chuckle, not expecting this.

I looked at her in disbelief and reply, “Of course I have a problem with what you’re doing - anybody would, but I’m used to it.”

“Oh, ok,” She replied, going back to sweeping her leg for signs of flowing blood.

As I crossed the street, I decided to give her some advice.

“Hey,” I screamed, looking back. She met my eyes like a scared raccoon, still trying to be polite, selling me on her plight.

“Why don’t you just jam it into your thigh,” my right hand pantomiming jamming a needle into my thigh.

While walking away, she muttered something. I assume she was educating me on the difference between a muscle high and vein high.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

White Dope on Punk: Epilogue. Get With The Military Of Ideas

I’m walking down College Avenue with my sister, her new girlfriend Anita, my wife Alex and our little boy. We had just finished eating at Shen Hua and the ladies wanted to enhance their post dinner stroll with a little coffee.

As we crossed Ashby and headed toward the coffee house, I spy a young woman approaching us with a clipboard and stack of political flyers. We successfully avoid eye-contact, so she turns her attention to a couple walking in the opposite direction—though not before shouting at us, “Get with the Military...the Military of Ideas!” Nice.

I’m intrigued, so while the ladies stood in line for lattes, the boy and I strolled over to her literature-strewn table and check out what she was pushing.

As I walked over I realized that she wasn’t alone, there were three more just like her on adjacent corners of the intersection. All of them were extremely aggressive, following people up and down the street belligerently and verbally accosting them. It was obvious the locals were not happy about their presence, but the Berkeley liberals were too passive-aggressive to confront them. They’d rather call the police on them for a “quality of life” issue than for being assholes.

A banner on their table identified them as the LaRouche Youth Movement, supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, the old conspiracy theorist who was prone to running for President. I knew nothing of his real politics and solely judged him by the actions of his “good street soldiers.” I approached with caution.

“Military of Ideas” was sitting at the table, taking a break from the action. Feeling feisty, I put the stroller in park, pulled down the canopy to block the boy’s view—just in case things got nasty—and smiled, hoping to elicit another catchy slogan. Thinking she had a live one, she blurted out in a pissy voice, “What are you doing to stop the war?” Prepared for a question like this, I responded in an affected voice, “Well, what are you doing to stop the war?” I could have easily said, “I know you are but what am I?” “Voting for LaRouche!” she sassed back. Without missing a beat, I responded, “Voting is stupid.” My old anarchist days were resurfacing and I was ready for a fight. Circle the “A” motherfuckers, I’m back!

This response usually elicits looks of astonishment and bewilderment. “You don’t vote?” she asked, more perplexed than angry. “No, do you?” acting like I was the one that should be astonished that she does vote. Her astonishment bubbled to anger and she unleashed a diatribe of hate. Not wanting to subject the boy to this, I grab the stroller and turned away. But not before getting in one last jab: “Voting is for pussies. Go back to Pleasanton!” I reverted to the taunt of my youth: still a classic!

Returning to the café, I found my sister and wife out front enjoying the late October evening, oblivious to the verbal sass match that had just ensued. We wanted to continue our leisurely stroll, but of course to get back to the car, we had to once again cross Ashby, where two new LaRouche youth waited for us in front of Wells Fargo. Feeling a little paranoid that Military of Ideas had tipped them off that an enemy of the voting revolution was heading their way, I gave Alex the stroller and lagged behind, running through my witty come-backs and clenching my fists, just in case.

As we approached, they launched into their spiel. I tried to ignore them, but they were being too rude and aggressive.

I turned around and demanded, “Are you RCP [Revolutionary Communist Party]? With your catchy slogans and fancy paper, somebody must be funding you.”

A little perplexed by the RCP comment, and definitely appalled that I would question who was paying for their literature, he continued talking about the war, ignoring my question, or possibly not understanding it.
I continued, “What are you peddling and what do you want from me?”

He said he was voting for Lyndon LaRouche and also asked me what I was doing about the war. At that moment I hated these kids, and I wanted a little piece of this guy. But I had learned some restraint over the years, and it wasn’t worth getting angry.

As I reluctantly walked away, he said, “Your silence is culpable for the war!”

I whipped around and quickly walked back, staring directly into his eyes. “What the fuck did you say?”

He instantly shrank back, but threw out a defiant, “Well, what are you doing against the war?”

My restraint went out the window. I said, “How dare you assume? You don’t know me. Fuck you, I’ve worked the last 12 years in non-profit, feeding people with HIV. And you? You’re just a privileged white boy with a trust fund attending Berkeley. Trust me, I know you’re driving back home in your mom’s diesel Mercedes to the Berkeley Hills, after being rude and annoying the fuck out of everybody on this street. Why don’t you peddle this shit at 98th and International, you fuckin’ douche bag?”

I was lost in myself. It was like looking at me 20 years earlier. He was like a mirror image of me back in the day: dogmatic, righteous and running far away from his homogenous upbringing. I pushed every button I could think of; called him every term he thought he was farthest from. It was so easy to attack him because I had been him.

Finally, he broke down and said, “What are you gonna do, hit me?”

Still very worked up, I said, “No, but I’m gonna throw you into traffic, you fucking idiot.”

A woman getting money at an ATM five feet from us chimed in, “Fuck you, get out of here!” referring to the LaRouche kid. She looked at me and said, “Fuck you, too.” I softly laughed. Her candor defused the situation.

I left and returned to my family. My wife looked scared and annoyed. As with all interactions that may or may not lead to violence, I felt like shit afterwards. I didn’t feel vindicated, I felt...stupid.

My sister looked at me, laughing, “Little brother, you looked like you were going to beat the shit out of that kid."

“No, I was just going to throw him into traffic,” I mumbled.

Lisa was about to respond, but I stopped her. I knew she was going to make the correlation between me as a young man and this kid.

“Fuck off, Lisa. I know what you’re thinking,” Lisa and I laughed. Alex and Anita exchanged a glance, understandably questioning their involvement with our family.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

White Dope On Punk: Chapter 19. You Guys Think You’re Led Zeppelin

I awoke to Mel screaming: “Where are we gonna stay? You guys are such fuckin’ losers!” Tom and George were fully passed out on the floor of the van and I was quickly on my way to joining them. With little control of my body and speech, I probably said the most inappropriate thing at the time, given that 1) we had no place to sleep, 2) didn’t know where we were, 3) it was 4am in Chicago, 4) we had a show the next night in Madison, and 5) three-quarters of the band was wasted and relying on Mel to deal with the situation.

“Mel, why are you being so selfish?” I wasn't making any sense. She was taking care of us—driving, looking for a place to stay—and I called her selfish. I just wanted her to stop yelling. This comment only made it worse. Mel took her right hand off the steering wheel and used to it to take a few good whacks at my back. I was lying down next to George and Tom and covered for the blows. “Fuck you, Foot! Fuck you guys, you think you’re Led Zeppelin.” That was the last thing I heard. I eagerly joined Tom and George in their black dreams.

Three hours earlier we were having a good time in a bar that we would never go to in our hometown. Lights from the ceiling spun in circles, unfamiliar music blasted from the speakers and weird looking people danced. We didn’t care. Our new friends, who we met at the show we played, took us there and, despite the loud music and straight crowd, we bellied up to the bar and treated it like our own. Crème de Menthe was on special, so we bought that. Lots of it.

A little before 2 am, desperate to get as many drinks in us as possible, we all ordered shots, thinking this was the end of the night. At 2am we asked a local what time the bars closed in Chicago and he said 4 am. So, we continued drinking, pouring drinks on our heads and making plans with our new friends (“You’ve gotta come visit us in San Francisco.”).

At 4 am the lights flashed twice and like good soldiers we moved to the door. Mel continued talking to our new friends at the bar. We found the van on the street, near the club, and piled into the back. The next thing I remember was Mel yelling at me.

I awoke the next morning next to George. Tom and Mel were gone and the van wasn’t moving. I peeked between the buckets seats and saw the van was parked facing a two-story 60s-style motel. I moved closer to the front, looking out the side windows. It looked like we were out of the city and just off the freeway. Mel must have driven toward Madison, pulling off the freeway at the first motel.

It was hot and I needed water, but I was in no condition to move. Leaving the van or drinking water would warrant vomiting.

I went back to sleep.

We were halfway to Madison by the time George and I stirred. George awoke with his usually growl: “Fuuuuuuck!” We called him the bear because of this and his lumbering ways.

Slowly remembering the night before and how I called Mel selfish, I exhibited caution before raising my head.

Like George, I expressed the same sentiment: “Fuuuuuck!” It was a morning to swear off alcohol for at least a day, or at least consider the idea. My hair was clumped together like dried sap from too many shots of crème de menthe being poured on my head. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It had been a rough night, one that with time is either looked back upon as a really good time or the start of bad times. It came back in blocks of bright color and in fast motion, the only clear thought being my asshole behavior with Mel at the end of the night.

I feigned illness in an attempt to get pity. I knew what I had said to Mel, but there was a good chance I had said something mean to Tom and/or George, too. Not knowing the proper greeting for this situation, I fell back on a tried and true opening:

“Hey.” I spoke softly, testing the water. It seemed like the best approach.

“Hey Foot,” Mel pleasantly replied, smoking and driving. By the tone of her voice, I knew everything was ok. Tom was in the passenger seat, sucking on licorice root. He had heard that licorice root was good for the throat, so he had a never-ending supply and was always chewing on it like a cigar. It was customary for Tom not to speak after a tough night of drinking and playing. His voice was hoarse and he wanted to save what was left of it. He had a harmonica for situations like these, when a question warranted some kind of response: one toot on the harmonica meant yes and two toots meant no.

“Hey Tom,” I said, desperately wanting to rehash the night before, even though I knew doing so would bring up the end of the night. “How are you doing?” Tom grabbed his harmonica and tooted once. I took it as a positive affirmation that he was doing well. But I knew he was as hung-over as I was and that he was probably extremely worried about his voice for the Madison show.

Halfway up interstate 94, we stopped at Wendy’s for lunch. I was still lying on the dirty floor of the van and, no matter how much I wanted to join them, the thought of food repulsed me. All my energy was focused on not throwing up. Despite the allure of a baked potato with sour cream and chives, I knew just the sight of it would send me running to the bathroom or an empty bag.

“Foot, you coming?” Tom questioned, while Mel and George looked on. I waved them off, knowing that they’d understand my absence.

Hanging from the lock of the side door of the van was a plastic bag that we used for garbage. I moved closer to it, knowing that it was just a matter of seconds before I threw up. As my eyes passed over the lip of the bag, I saw what was in it: discarded cigarettes, mixed with scraps of food in a broth of dregs from an orange soda can. It smelled and looked disgusting. I threw up immediately, gagging, half in the bag and the rest on my arm. I threw open the door and chucked the bag, relieving what was left in my stomach on the blacktop.

I kept the side door open. It was hot, the heat exacerbating my misery. I wasn’t the type to throw up and be immediately normal afterwards. The parking lot glistened from the high temperatures and the freeway hummed in a low key. With my head bent down, I waited for them to return and anticipated throwing up again. It never came.

“I’m never drinking Peppermint Schnapps again. What the fuck is that shit anyway?” I said as Mel, Tom and George approached the van, sated from Wendy’s. They brought me back some fries. I shook my head.

“Come on, Foot, you've got to eat something,” Mel said, playing the role of caretaker to her three man-children.

“No, thanks. I just threw up,” pointing to the bag lying on the ground, the throw-up leaking onto the concrete. They were all empathetic, having been there before.

Ten hours later were on stage in a cafe-like bar in Madison. I was still feeling ill, having eaten very little. Tom’s voice was shot. All the licorice root and not talking in the van couldn’t erase the abuse incurred from the night before. Four songs into the set he turned to us and said he couldn’t sing. It was obvious. He was constantly pulling away from the microphone and his voice was so weak that it was barely audible. The look on his face said it all: fear. Not knowing what to do, I asked for a pitcher of beer and took over the singing duties. My singing career opened with an instrumental: "Sparks" by The Who.

Mel quit the band in Minneapolis, the next stop. Tom’s voice was better, and our health was back in full form, but Mel was in a funk. The tour was badly booked. Instead of booking it herself—which she usually did—she entrusted two unknowns. The result was a spotty tour of lots of driving back and forth and way too much time in between shows to get in trouble. The tour had the feeling that it would be our last. We seemed to enjoy drinking before and after the show much more than the actual playing, which was almost a chore. Because of this and our general rock star behavior, Mel flew home and left the three of us to fend for ourselves.

We cancelled the rest of tour except for an acoustic show at a record store in Minneapolis. Except for Vancouver, where we played at least a dozen times a year—so much so that people thought we were local—Minneapolis was our home away from home. We loved Husker Du, The Replacements and Soul Asylum and wanted our third record to come out on the Minneapolis label Twin Tone. Since we cancelled our show at the 7th Street Entry, the Soul Asylum guys set up an in-store acoustic show at a local record store. We borrowed acoustic guitars, drank cheap vodka and did our best to tighten up our normally sloppy transitions. Acoustic guitars are not as relenting as loud, noisy electric guitars.

We asked the Soul Asylum guys to bring Paul Westerberg, the singer from the Replacements; they showed with Chris Mars, the drummer. That night we went to a party at Grant Hart’s apartment, the drummer from Husker Du. He had a cat that would fall over and play dead when you raised your hand and acted like you were shooting him. With all the drunks at the party, that poor cat played dead all night.

The next morning, Ellen, our friend and one-time booking agent, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Greg, you guys better get up, it’s snowing out.” I rose quickly and looked out the window. The first snow of the season blanketed the ground and was vying for more space to fill. It was time to go, quickly. Being two Californians and one Louisianan, we were afraid of snow. We thanked Ellen and told her to put in a good word for us at Twin Tone, then we hurried out the door, groggy and hung-over, and got in the van and drove south to I-80.

The road out of town was littered with cars and trucks slowly sliding off the road. I was driving, Tom in the passenger seat and George perched between us. In silence, we putted down the interstate as slow as we could get away with. Locals sped by and mouthed, “Fuckin' Californians.” Our plates gave us away.

Wide eyed, it was like we were trying to will the van to stay on the road. By the amount of cars on the side of the road, the norm was to slowly spin out and land in a ditch, stuck.

The farther south we traveled the better it got. The snow turned to rain and we ramped it up to 65 mph, free of the looming snowbound ditches. For the trip home, we had packed six cases of Pfeiffer beer, the new Soul Asylum EP and very little warm clothing. We certainly weren't prepared for snow.

As we turned west on I-80, a straight shot to Bay Bridge of San Francisco, we made some rules about drinking. We never talked about what we doing with the six cases of beer in the back, but one might assume we were bringing the unknown Minneapolis beer back home to share with our friends. This wasn’t the case.

The first rule was that we would only drink after we had stopped driving. When it became evident that we didn’t plan to stop at night, we quickly amended the rule. We agreed that that the non-drivers could drink after 5pm. As we passed into Nebraska this was changed to anyone could drink anytime, except the driver. This was quickly broken. The final rule was that the driver could drink but they had to be cool, whatever that meant. The rolling bar was officially open 24 hours. We only stopped to get gas and go to the bathroom (an empty gallon plastic milk container handled #1; #2 needed a real bathroom).

Crossing the Sierras outside of Reno, it started to snow again. At the peak near Truckee, in a heavy snowfall, we quickly amended the final rule: You couldn’t drink and drive, if it was snowing. It was a good rule and we planned on adhering to it. Still, careening down the west side of the Sierras, I opened a beer and passed it to Tom, who was driving. So be it. George was in the front seat, discreetly taking swigs off his beer. I was perched between the two, intently staring out the window, once again hoping that my intense concentration would will us from ending up in a ditch. We had broken every drinking rule. The snow turned to rain and we relaxed, celebrating with more beer and peeing into our well-used gallon milk container.

Descending the span section of the Bay Bridge, we coasted into San Francisco with the morning commute—drunk, dirty and bewildered from the trip.

They dropped me off at my flat on McAllister Street and they returned to where they were staying on Haight Street. At 5 pm Tom called and said to meet them at the Chatterbox. You would think we had seen enough of each other; however, we were determined to waste no time finding a new bass player. And for the past two months, 5 o’clock was the time we usually cracked our first beer at sound check. A little business while filling our bellies with alcohol sounded like a good time.

With friends and roommates in tow, to celebrate our homecoming, we headed out to the Chatterbox. We made a list of potential bass players and characteristics they would need to possess. Way down the list was musicianship. Loud and proud at number one was the ability to handle their alcohol. Freshly off a cross country drinking binge, we were cocky about our ability handle our booze and in our deluded, alcohol soaked brains, we really thought being an alcoholic was a good quality for a bass player.

We found a bass player in a very long haired guy that hung around the Chatterbox. We overlooked his 5-string bass (not good) and his questionable earrings (two studs with his initials in his left ear and a dangly music note in his right). We played one show with him and then begged Mel to come back.

She returned, but it was over: Rough Trade, our record label, dropped us for poor sales and for stealing hundreds of our own records. (Before leaving on tour, we stopped by their retail store to say hello. Tom asked if he could use the bathroom in the back warehouse. While he was back there he grabbed as many cases of our records that he could carry. I distracted the clerk and we left quickly.) Also, someone had stolen the front two bucket seats of our band van. Instead of replacing them, we seriously considered bolting wood dining room chairs in their place. Things weren't going well; and, with idle time on his hands, Tom rekindled his heroin habit and George soon joined him in the throes of addiction. In the basement of the Chatterbox, I quit the band. And that was it.

As I walked out of the Chatterbox, I knew this stage of my life was over. This was my personality. When I left Pleasanton; when I left anarchy and now leaving Short Dogs, I closed the door and left, never to return - leaving friendships and aspirations with those who stayed. It was a breakup, a death, getting fired; it wasn’t a conscious thing, just a dysfunctional way of dealing with loss.

I had only known punk, anarchy, rock, clubs, warehouses, shitty apartments, shitty cars and lots of burritos. For most, it was no life, but for me, and the circle of friends who followed the same path, we created a bubble that insulated us from the real world. It allowed us to pursue our rock/punk/political dreams without scrutiny, reflection and live in state of suspended adolescence. The future was abstract and we lived, like most young people, in the moment, believing we were the only thing in town and we would always be.

At 25 years old I felt the pang of adult life knocking. This played a part in me quitting the band. The dalliances of the past 9 years had robbed me of my self-esteem and bestowed upon me an identity I was uncomfortable with. Every 3 years it uprooted me and left me to start over. However, it had given a head start into a drinking problem, which would grow and mature for many years to come.

As I walked down Valencia Street, I craved stability, a healthy relationship and a steady job, but I wasn’t willing to work for it. Too much of my suburban upbringing, where I watched my dad get up every morning and go to work, pay bills and enjoy the fruits of his labor, kept me from fully embracing this lifestyle. It’s almost impossible to run away from your past and I was learning this, but I wasn’t willing to embrace it either.

In the back of mind, while I dabbled in anarchy, punk and rock, I secretly equated money and a respectable job with success. Messenger jobs, fledgling bands and a foray into driving a cab robbed me of my self-esteem. I came to realize I wasn’t a lifer like some of my friends who had passion for music or politics and saw this as a way of life, something that gave them identity and defined them. I admired them for this. But who was I? Where was my passion?

This is the question I still ask today? Sadly, the cruel joke of life is that there’s no expiration date and gauge on identity and bad decisions. There’s not an age where you magically get it or you just don’t care. I needed to find middle ground, taking the passion of punk, optimism of anarchy and the creativity of music and find somewhere in between that I could call my own. It would take a few extra pounds, a lot less hair, age and many years until I landed in something that resembled this.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Like Cavemen by Tom Pitts

(Tom Pitts changes direction this month with a little fiction. Great stuff, as always.)

“It’s a high tech world, so we gotta be like cavemen. You understand?” asked Tony. “That means no phones. No cell phones. No pay phones. No phones period—ever. That means those goddamn pay-as-you-go phones too. They got ways to track everything nowadays–—and it’s always changin’. It’s hard to be invisible. You gotta be on top of things. You wanna fly below the radar? You gotta know what the fuck radar is. Am I right?"

“Absolutely, Tony.”

“Are you listening?”

“Yes, Tony, absolutely,” said Tim.

“Are you? ‘Cause it looks to me like you’re watchin’ that bitch’s ass bounce up the street. Should I stop? Do I need to stop so you can go to the fuckin’ bathroom a minute, so you can concentrate?” Tony’s face was starting to turn red. There were tiny beads of sweat on his fat nose.

“No … no, Tony.”

Tony stood there breathing hard. They waited. All Tim could hear was Tony breathing, wheezing. Slowly his breathing returned to normal and the red color faded from his face.

“I mean, we’re not kids here. This ain’t penny ante shit, you know. We handle the hard work and we are fuckin’ good at what we do, you understand?” Tony always felt the need to clarify what he was saying. Only thing was, it what hard to tell just what he was saying. He implied, he gestured, he omitted. Tony was old school and believed that there was always someone listening. In his time he had seen the methods and laws change so much that now his paranoia was starting to seem grounded.

The two of them were walking down Mission Street. They turned onto Russia Street and began trudging up the hill. Tony liked the neighborhood, it was his neighborhood. Tony’s lungs began to whistle and he waved for Tim to stop. Tony reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a half crushed pack of Marlboro reds. They were both silent as Tony stood trying to light his cigarette in the wind.

“You think you know technology?” he continued.

Tim didn’t say anything.

“You don’t know shit. It changes by the goddamned day. By the minute. These assholes are using shit we don’t even know is invented yet. Tapping phones without wiretaps. Who needs a fucking warrant when they’re pulling shit out of the air?”

Tim wondered if this was true. He tried to remember something his lawyer had told him, but couldn’t. He must have taken his eyes off Tony for just a second.

“Hello, you listening to me? Maybe you’re wearing a fuckin’ wire and you just wanna play this back later? Listen to me then?”

“Awe, come on Tony.”

“Stop makin’ me waste my breath, kid. You think I’m nuts? You think I’m paranoid? These cocksuckers read lips. They teach ‘em all how in Quantico. I’m serious.”

Tony spat on the ground to underscore how serious he was.

“Some guys around here like to use technology. Get them before they get you, kinda thing. We ain’t those guys. We are the guys who ain’t fucking worried, because there ain’t shit down anywhere, so there ain’t shit to worry about.”

First day on the new job was always tough. It went on like this for twenty minutes. Tim started to wonder if maybe Tony was crazy. Everybody that Tim dealt with was a little nuts, but maybe Tony was a little extra. The advice went on and on.

“Your money, it goes under the mattress. No banks, no bank accounts, nothing. Safety deposit boxes? Fuck no. Listen to what I’m telling you kid and maybe you’ll last more than a few weeks.”

Tim sat there stone-faced, trying as hard as he could to wear the mask of attention. The aroma of the sausage Tony had eaten for lunch made an appearance, mixing with Tony’s sweaty cologne. Tim was glad that they were out in the open air.

“You got credit cards? Stop using ‘em. Keep one, use it for alibis, shit like that. Personal use will fuck you up. Give ‘em a fuckin’ road map to your life, why don’t cha.”

Tim was getting tired of Tony’s tirade. It was tough focusing on Tony’s face. When Tim looked at him, his head seemed impossibly huge, too big for his body. The head seemed to pulsate. Tony’s voice drifted off, replaced by a loud hum. Tim wondered if he was going to faint.

“If you need to reach me, don’t fuckin’ call—ever. Do it in person. Take a cab. Don’t call for one, then they got a record, just fuckin’ flag one. Okay? … okay?”

The silence snapped Tim out of it long enough to manage a response. Then there was a pause and Tim thought he was done. Then Tony fired up again. “And get out at least two bocks away, not on the fuckin’ corner. You got it? Good. You got a car? Yeah? Get rid of it. Sell it.” Tony paused for a moment, like he’d lost his train of thought. He flicked his cigarette on the sidewalk and continued.

“Remember what I said about credit cards, no nothing. I don’t care if they’re not yours, if you know they’re good, whatever, I don’t care. Do not fuckin’ use ‘em. You gotta be invisible, a caveman. You can’t just be low key; you gotta be the fuckin’ Unabomber.”

“Didn’t they get the Unabomber?” Tim immediately regretted deviating from his agreeable responses.

“Hey, fuck you. There was a rat. His own fuckin’ brother ratted him out, and that was the only way they got him. Someone should have a talk with his brother just on fuckin’ principle.” Tony looked out of breath. He’d forgotten where he was in his training speech. These little fuckers always had something to say, thought they knew better. Tony hated bringing on new guys to this job.

“You lead a different life now. Fuck how you were doing things before. Fuck your life. You thought you knew what you were doing. You didn’t know shit, not for us, not for how we do shit. We do shit different for a reason. We have fucking discipline, understand? We been doing this shit for fucking centuries—centuries. The reason we’re still doing it is ‘cause we’re doing it the same way for centuries. We are fucking cavemen my friend.”

Tim wasn’t chosen because he was smart; he was chosen because he knew how to do the work. The heavy work. Tim could take apart a body. Not everybody had the stomach for that kind of thing. Those who could, didn’t have the discipline. Tim had the ability to compartmentalize. He didn’t have the dreams. He didn’t have any dreams. He didn’t need the blow; some guys needed to numb their brains afterword.

It was the money that Tim loved, but there was only so much you could spend your money on. He didn’t even know why he wanted more. He didn’t care. It just felt like he was beating someone, something. The whores were good. The whiskey was good. The food was good. But it didn’t matter, none of it. He didn’t mind shitty whiskey, and, honestly, he kinda liked ugly whores too. To him, it was the work. The kind of thing he knew that no one else would do. The kind of thing Tony couldn’t do.

“There is absolutely not one single set of balls in this town,” Tony continued, “You cannot count on one fucking douche bag in this entire city. I guarantee you; they are all lay-down-sally motherfuckers. Do not treat friends like friends, even if you’ve seen ‘em hanging down at the club, or if they seem close to me, don’t matter, they ain’t shit.”

Tim knew his life expectancy was limited. That there was no way a lifestyle like his could be maintained. Call it karma, call it the law of averages, call it Murphy’s Law, he knew that sooner or later he wouldn’t be the one calling the shots.

The wind had begun to pick up. They zig-zagged along the residential streets of the Excelsior district, pausing only when Tony was out of breath. They stood together on the sidewalk, far away from the earshot of passers by, the wind cutting right through Tim’s clothes. The wind never stopped in this city, it just got colder, thought Tim. He was a long way from the central valley, where he grew up. Not long enough, thought Tim. He knew that the abuses he’d faced as a child gave him the special skill set he needed in this business, so he didn’t dwell. It was a dark blessing, an evil inheritance.

“First thing you gotta do is see the guy downtown, the guy next to ‘you know who.’ He’ll give you the details. You know who I’m talking ‘bout, the little guy. He’ll let you know about this kid. He’s the first one you’re gonna do, that fucking kid. Don’t even get me started on that piece of shit.”

Tim knew that God worked in mysterious ways. That’s why God had taken his conscience, his fear. Tony was different. Tony knew fear. He feared prison, he feared death, he feared losing his power. Tim had seen guys that sounded a lot tougher than Tony break down and weep, weep like children.

Tim knew it was all relative. He could die in prison; he could die on the street. He could sit in prison; he could sit on the beach. Happy, sad, rich, poor, it made no difference to him, really. The experience of life was just that, only an experience. He moved through it, he was not attached to it. Life held no sentimental value. To him, if you had just fucked a thousand dollar whore on silk sheets or just jerked off in a prison bunk, it made no difference. You just rolled over and went to sleep. You still had to piss, shit, eat, yawn, and wait to die.

“The long and the short of it is this, kid, we gotta be like cavemen. The only time I wanna ever hear your voice or see your face is when you’re standing in front of me, okay?”

“Okay, Tony. No problem.”

“And don’t ever use my name. I’m one motherfucker who is not offended by being called ‘hey you.’” Tony smiled for the first time. Tim figured that meant he was wrapping up.

“After this, you go see that guy we talked about and he’ll let you know how to find that asshole. Just follow the rules and you’ll be swimming in cash before the end of the summer.”

“No problem, I’m on the way.” Tim was relieved the conversation was ending. He was looking forward to getting back to work, to doing what he did best. He turned his back on Tony and walked straight down hill toward Mission Street.

As Tim followed instructions and flagged a taxi, Tony was catching his breath on the doorway of his club. Tony waved to Sammy, his closest confidant. In typical fashion, he said nothing, only pointing toward the street so Sammy would follow him outside to talk. When they were far enough away from the club Tony turned and said,

“Look, after this new kid deals with that asshole downtown, and after we know he’s done a good job, I want you to put two in his fucking head and leave him in the street. He’s got a shitty attitude.” The instructions hung there. Sammy was surprised, but not too surprised. He knew Tony, and how Tony operated. He knew better than to say anything.

“Oh, and I don’t wanna hear anything more about it; you know me, I don’t like to get my hands dirty,” with that, Tony began to laugh. The laugh quickly became a cough, the cough became a choke. It was the first laugh Tony had enjoyed in a week. He could barely suck in a breath.

Tom Pitts 4\4\2011