Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hot Rod Assholes

Surviving the late 70’s with a knife and a subliminal tape.

The sound of screeching wheels from muscle cars racing down the street of my old Westminster neighborhood during the night was always unnerving. The teenagers behind the wheel were probably on dope my mom said looking outside from behind the drapes. My brother, George knew them and stepped outside. I was worried they would give him LSD to make him crazy like the hippies I saw on TV. It was like the time when George played his new Deep Purple tape and I started to cry, I was certain that hard rock was the soundtrack to the mayhem outside my home.

I was a terrified, perhaps a sensitive six-year old, but I knew for sure those older kids driving their souped-up sedans were predators itching to cause havoc. I wasn’t exactly sad when my dad announced we were moving to Aurora. I had my fingers crossed there wouldn’t be any cars racing down streets out in the suburbs.
Come on you fuckers

A stoner named Chris LaFever and his gang of troublemaking longhaired acid rockers dashed my utopian Aurora dreams. My friend Howie lived a block from him and we both felt the same terror. One time when he knew Chris was gone, we snuck over to his house to see the pot plants growing on the side of his house. My mom was right, these people were drug addicts.

If my friends and I were playing football or army on the street and heard the roaring of engines several blocks away, we knew trouble was coming and made sure we had plenty of time to run into someone’s open garage. When their cars tore around the corner we’d know it wasn’t someone with a Ronco’s Mr. Microphone coming by to say, "Hey Good Lookin'! We'll be back to pick you up later!" The best-case scenario was that they would whip out a fire extinguisher and you’d get sprayed. To get a better mental picture of these burnouts we had to contend with on a daily basis, Richard Linklater’s film Dazed and Confused paints an accurate picture.

One weekend Howie and I were walking back to his house and one of the freaks raced past us and came to screeching halt. His red break lights put the fear in us as he backed-up to where we were standing. The guy swung open his door, stepped out all agro yelling, “Which one of you assholes threw a snowball at my fucking car!” The crazy look in his eyes said he was ready to start wailing on both of us. We weren’t stupid. There was no remote way in hell we’d throw something at one of those guys. We pleaded with him; our lives depended on it. He got back into his Chevy huffing with anger and peeled off. It was our collective near death experience.

I walked home sick to my stomach with paranoia, looking over my shoulder, listening for that sound. As soon as I got home I went to my dad’s tackle box and found the pocketknife for gutting fish. I slipped it in my pants and vowed that I wouldn’t be afraid anymore. If any of those fuckers came after me, I’d stab him with all my rage and hatred.

A week later during lunch recess on the blacktop a group of us were playing dodge ball, one of the older sixth graders threw me down and he and his friend started to taunt me. I reached in my pocket for the knife and pulled it out. I stood up and chased them around the court yelling “I’m going to kill you” until my voice grew hoarse. Someone ran in to get our teacher Mr. Coffee, he came running out and locked his arms around me while I kicked and screamed and brought me inside. 

We all want to be southern rock.
After I calmed down the questions started: Where did I get the knife? Why did I have a knife? The answers all went back to the hotrods. The reality was I was tired of getting fucked with. Mr. Coffee asked me point blank, “Would you have stabbed any of the kids if you caught them?” I responded with a resounding, “Yes.” 

My parents took me to see a psychologist to talk about my anger. The counselor’s remedy was to send me home with cassette tape on how to relax. I sat in his office and he walked me through on how to listen to the tape; when to tense up and when to release.  All the exercises were done in a chair with the tape lasting about an hour. While other kids went home, had a snack and watched Tom and Jerry, my mom made sure I went to my room, sat in a chair and played the tape. It was my drug for several months.

In retrospect, I want to believe the behavior modification worked. I haven’t pulled a knife on anybody since, but I do admit to punching a couple of people in the face who deserved it. The anger still shows up once in awhile, but instead of reacting I take a proactive approach that includes a lot of walks, bike rides, hikes, playing music, making art, throwing back a couple of drinks. I do all the above because I don’t have the cassette anymore. I taped the Sex Pistols over it a long time ago.

Special thanks to Ana Medina and Monica Zarazua for editing

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Albert gives himself a mohawk before taking a piss.

The Bathroom Barber Shop
Almost ten years ago I met up with an old middle school friend, Al, at Chili’s across from the old Aurora Mall. We reconnected thanks to MySpace. Call it one of the perks of social networking. We were both curious on how each other turned out after falling out of touch. We were certain our peers didn’t have much hope for us. After battling all the bullshit dished out in the deadly cocktail of adolescence and  public schooling, we found our respective paths once we reached college, or as to say when we had a choice in what we wanted to learn. It was nice to spend a couple of hours rehashing our collective middle school experience.  
Using today’s educational jargon, they call it an intervention and the package includes: observations, evaluations, referrals, meetings, and so on to appease the legal system prior to composing an Individual Education Plan (IEP). This process is a kind and gentler way of saying your child belongs in special education.
When eighth grade was all said and done, I was a platinum member of the Frequent Visitors Program to the dean’s office and had racked up three suspensions before the end of the school year. This was in the days before the American educational system lost its sensibilities and instituted blanket zero tolerance policies; back then it was understood that doing stupid things was part of growing-up and not a threat to society. Not only was I permitted to continue my education, I was promoted to high school. My suspicions were that I finally wore out my welcome and dean and assistant principal wanted to pass the buck to the high school administrators across the esplanade.  
After my flipping-off the Spanish teacher incident, I was introduced to Mr. Carlos Cuarón. Only a selected few in the school knew who Carlos was. During our introductory meeting he mentioned the first time he noticed me at school; apparently, I had been rolling around on the floor in the hallway. He sensed that I was a likely candidate for his Behavior Disorder Class and saved a spot for me. This is where I met Al, who was sentenced there for a reason he never wanted to share. One look at him and you’d know he was up to no good in a nerdy mad-scientist sort of way.
During Christmas Al and I made a deal to exchange gifts. I gave him the Thomas Dolby The Golden Age of Wireless album and he gave me the newest Circle Jerks release: Golden Shower of Hits-their unforgettable album cover with a stack of gold albums shoved into a urinal with freshly sprinkled urine dripping off them). When we unwrapped the albums in class Carlos rolled his eyes at the Jerks cover and reminded us for the millionth time about a video of some crazy band he had seen on public TV called The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were practically naked wearing only long tube socks over their willies. I assured him that the Circle Jerks weren’t into tube socks, but maybe they were.
One afternoon during class, Al declared that he was going to give himself a mohawk the following morning at school. Noted. Most other kids would be all talk and no action, but that was hardly Al who believed in letting his actions do the speaking. It was a ballsy thing to say in school full of feathered, permed, and parted down the middle hairstyles. One weekend Al came along on a camping trip with my family and while walking around a lake having a political discussion about capitalism, he said if he had a dollar bill he’d burn it. I called his bluff and pulled out a bill from my pocket.  He produced a match and put his words into action in the great outdoors. He earned my respect from that day forward.
The following morning Al brought his clippers and word got around. When the bell rang for morning break, a group of us rushed and crammed inside the boys’ restroom. He plugged the clippers into a socket on the wall, hit the “on” switch and went for it. It was such a badass statement, everyone stood around him mouths open and in awe. You could read the “What the fuck are you doing” looks on our faces. No one in attendance would have dreamed of doing that during school. I imagined myself with his clippers, but all I could think about was coming home to my mom and dad’s reaction. Fuck that. I might have been punk rock, but I wasn’t that punk rock. Punk already wasn’t cool and mohawks were definitely taboo in our preppy saturated school. One of the jocks, Wayne McDonald, was definitely the most bummed out guy in the group. He let Al know this by punching him in the arm a couple of times while he was shaving the sides of his head. The hits were only a minor distraction to Al’s determination. When all was said and done, he mirrored a younger Robert Di Nero in Taxi Driver. Clumps of hair lay on the ground next to Al who stared into the mirror with a devious smile.
This particular bathroom was tucked away in a corner and served many functions, not only as a makeshift barbershop but also as a changing room. I would usually shove my punker pants (bleached and torn jeans with punk bands scribbled on them) and homemade band shirts into my book bag between my Trapper Keeper, and science textbook before leaving home. The routine went something like this; get dropped off by the bus in front of school, make a b-line for the toilet for a quick wardrobe change, and pop back out into the hallways to get in some face time with my peers before the first bell. It was a classic case of posing, a dorky ritual for a couple of us.
On the bus ride back home that afternoon I sat next to my friend Howie Ladson, one of the few blacks kids at our school. We talked about how crazy Al was and what our parents would do if we came home looking like that. Howie and I had been friends since elementary school; it was our minority status that brought us together. My induction into punk upped my outsider status that much more. Howie may have been black, but I was a fat brown punk rocker. 

Special thanks to Ana Medina and Monica Zarazua for editing

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How Black Flag got me into trouble.

Two Eighth Grade Black Flag Tales.  

Punk Rock, mohawks, dyed hair, and crazy music will hardly raise an eyebrow in today’s world; you won’t get sent to the office or have your parents called. In fact, the principal might be all buddy-buddy and say something like “nice hair dude.” The landscape for us punks back in 1982 was quite different; people crossed the street when you walked their way. The reality is most people didn’t know how to deal with punk.  They were cowards and afraid of something different. Choosing to be punk in the early 80’s was essentially agreeing to be fucked with; to get your ass kicked by jocks and rednecks, to be called a slut and whore if you were a female. If you didn’t fit in before you were punk, you definitely weren’t after you became one. Your family thought you were crazy and wanted to lock you up or send you to a shrink.  The friends you grew up with didn’t really want to associate with you anymore. You modified your clothes and made your own band t-shirts with markers. You went to watch bands in the sketchy part of town near the slaughterhouses or around the corner from the Jesus Saves Center, which was across the street from the gay biker bar. If you saw another punk on the street they were your friend-no questions asked. Most of the world was against you, especially cops and authority figures. That’s the way it was.
Back in the mid-90’s, I posted the following eighth grade memories on a Black Flag fan website. Most people’s reflections had to do with seeing the band, mine didn’t. When you read the second story, maybe you’ll find it ironic that I grew up to become a middle school teacher. Chew on that thought for awhile.
Story number one:  My first memory of Uncle Joe and Aunt Flora was during the mid-70’s when they drove out from Los Angeles to Denver with their kids crammed in the backseat. I mostly remember the night they left, everyone piling into the car and the long goodbyes and the promise from my dad of going to visit them in California. When they drove off, more than anything, I wanted to be in that car; for a six year-old, it wasn’t fair they got to go back to Disneyland and the beach. I imagined California to be a utopia lined with palm trees, a giant landscape of infinite dreams and possibilities.
My dad kept his promise.  In the summer of ‘77 we packed-up our Thunderbird motorhome and made our way to the Golden State. The first leg of our southern California tour was hanging out with la familia in Logan Heights (Barrio Logan), San Diego followed by a short stay with my dad's military buddy at a posh community of the Huntington Beach yacht club. Los Angeles couldn’t come soon enough; we were at the edge of the Magic Kingdom. When we finally arrived it was all I hoped for; from Mickey Mouse to the obviously fake Jaws attacking our tram at Universal Studios to swimming in the Pacific Ocean. The best part of the trip was staying with Uncle Joe and Aunt Flora and meeting my cousin, Veronica aka Pumpkin. In my mind she was the coolest because she had a skateboard and taught me how to roll down the sidewalks in Huntington Park. Her mom went and bought me a board so we didn’t have to take turns. Inside the walls of my uncle and aunt's house was a weeklong party. The drinks kept pouring and my mom and aunt danced celebrating life and the recent  Pacific Bell phone bill. It was silly and simple fun, good times at its best.   

In 1983 my parents flew out to LA to visit Aunt Flora who was in the hospital; I was left alone with my older brother George. It didn’t click how sick she was. I was more or less a self-centered 14-year old boy who locked himself in his room and listened to his albums. I was excited they were going to the city where punk and hardcore ruled and I desperately wanted them to bring me back something cool. I asked if they would buy me Black Flag’s Damaged LP and a t-shirt from the band. My mom said she would try her best. One of my cousins did find the record and my mom had to carefully removed the ANTI PARENT STICKER from the cover. As for the t-shirt, they settled on stopping at an iron-on letter place in the mall. Visualize a green shirt with yellow iron-on letters spelling out Black Flag with the bars going in the wrong direction. You could have imagined the look on my face when they pulled it out of their suitcase. Everything about it was wrong. I laugh about it now. In a sense they made a mockery of the band. Here’s a powerful five-piece playing night after night annihilating their audiences, living on the edge of reality and then the kryptonite comes out of mom and dad’s suitcase. That afternoon they took down one of the most powerful bands and didn’t even know it.
One of the growing pains in life is the lack of foresight in truly appreciating the moment, especially in the self-involved world of adolescence. I accepted the shirt politely. But I couldn’t and didn’t wear it because of how I thought I would be perceived by fellow punks. The truth is, no matter what group you try to fit-in with, your presentation is a form of visual coding (semiotics), and as much as punk professes individualism, there are still rules. In present day, the design and color combination has a biting irony to it. I now fully appreciate the efforts that went into making the shirt while my aunt laid in the hospital dying. I would kill to have those moments back, but mostly what I wish for is for my mom, aunt, and uncle to keep rambling about the phone bill while dancing the night away.  
Story number two: I received a small packet in the mail from Black Flag. They sent a poster, stickers, fliers, tour dates and a personalized note. I was stoked. I brought the goodies to show my fellow punker friend Rob in Spanish class. Henry Rollins had stuck an extra MY RULES (the middle finger) sticker in the package and I passed it along to Rob. The bell rung and class was starting with all the contents still spilled out on my desk. Ms. Hendrex walked down our row attempting to get class going and firmly asked me to put the stuff away or she would take it. I told her nonchalantly, "You take it away and I'll kill you." She paused for a second and more or less dismissed my response, perhaps she would deal with it later. She continued walking to the front of the class. When her back was turned, I stood up from my seat and flipped her off. She turned back around and my finger was still in the air (I was slow and stupid). She violently yelled for me to get out of her room. I was sent to the office. She came down after class to where I was sitting and crying (you don’t know my dad!) She was also crying and angry. She told me that she never wanted to see me again and asked my advisor to remove me from her class. He did. I was suspended for 3 days and grounded for weeks.

When I returned back to school, I went to go see her on several occasions to say I was sorry. She never did accept my apologies. Two years later in 10th grade she transferred to my high school. One afternoon I was walking through the hall with my notebook that had a MY RULES sticker on it. We passed each other and it was an awkward moment since we recognized one another. We didn't say anything, but I had a gut feeling she saw that sticker.

Special thanks to Ana Medina and Monica Zarazua for editing

Friday, February 7, 2014

Punker meets Preppy (The six-step program)

Punker Meets Preppy (a failed middle school romance)

It was as if film director Martha Coolidge had stolen my seventh-grade-punker-meets-preppy saga and crafted it into the cheesy classic, Valley Girl starring a budding Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman. Gag me with a spoon! I had a thing for preppy girls at the start of middle school.  Maybe it was their clean, wholesome appearance. When I first heard about “preps”, I didn’t quite get it. Heather Sutton was considered one. She was a popular, eighth-grader who tagged along side the Perkins twins (also preppies, but nice; therefore desirable to most adolescent males). I figured that Perkins twins already had their share of suitors.  Besides, Heather seemed more interesting; maybe it was the blonde hair. The grand plan was to profess my love to her before the end of the school year. Although I didn’t have a title for this strategy at the time, in retrospect I faithfully title it, Operation Dumbass.
Phase 1/Mistake 1: Buy Izod shirt to fit in
Our school had several themed days to celebrate Spirit Week including Preppy Day, Punker Day, Twin Day, etc. In preparation for Preppy Day I asked my mom to drive me to the store, to find an Izod shirt. The only husky size they had was in a light tan color. Mom hesitated when she saw the price tag. But I begged for it, and after some coaxing, the Izod was mine. However, it needed my special touch, so I borrowed a seam ripper from Home Economics class and removed the alligator only to reattach it with a safety pin. I said my first hello to Heather in a slightly modified Izod on Preppy Day.

Phase 2/Mistake 2: Find out where Heather sits during lunch and passively stalk her.  She sat on a bench outside the commons area next to the lunchroom where I would walk past her at least once a day. We often made eye contact followed by a wave. Things were on the up and up. 
Phase 3/Mistake 3: Get punched out in front of Heather. At the time, I thought Tim Stevenson was a big stupid hick. We had a falling out in the library, so I confronted him during lunch across from where Heather was sitting. I figured it was the prime location to get into a brawl with Tim so I could show off my imagined mighty fighting abilities to the girl of my dreams. With one solid punch to my shit-talking mouth, I laid on the ground while the assistant principal came to my rescue. Tim and I were both in trouble. While we sat in the office, he showed me his bloody knuckle and complained that my tooth jacked up his finger. The following day, Heather asked if I was OK. She talked to me!

Phase 4/Mistake 4: Give Heather a Valentines Day gift.
My best friend Jimmy and I went to Spencer’s in Buckingham Square Mall to find a sentiment to express what I was too cowardly to say in person. For a mere second, that awful voice of reason reared its ugly self and put nonsensical questions into my head: Why did I need to buy Heather something?... “We weren’t dating: we didn’t really even talk!” It seemed rather presumptuous to buy her something romantic. 

After Jimmy quashed reason by appealing to my sensibilities of teenage boy desires, I ended up forking over my allowance to purchase a giant, heart-shaped box filled with Red Hots candies adorned with, I got the red hots for you in fancy gold cursive letters across the lid. Jimmy was certain that Red Hots would be my golden ticket to romance. 

Valentine’s Day came and went, and Jimmy wanted to know how my gift had been received. I tried to avoid the conversation and told him that Heather liked it, hoping that would be the end of it.
“She liked it. That’s all? What did she say?” His questioning was relentless. Most of all, he wanted to know if we were making out.  It was the daily topic of interrogation. Thankfully time eventually passed, and the Red Hots topic was temporarily shelved. 
The ugly truth was revealed several months later when Jimmy spent the night. It just happened that my cousin Linda was visiting and was staying over as well. In a matter of an hour, Jimmy quickly developed a crush on her to the point that he offered to play strip poker in the basement with her. She agreed and made sure that I played along. Can you imagine? 
What did you do this weekend? 
"Nothing really, just played strip poker with my cousin and best friend."
Thankfully Linda called the game when his shirt was about to come off. After the very short awkward game, Jimmy went upstairs to use the bathroom. Not a minute later, I heard him call my name while racing back down shaking something in his hand. "Fuck!" I was busted big time; I knew what was about to go down. Linda gave me the what-the-hell-is-going-on look. Jimmy stood at the top of the stairs, shaking the heart-shaped box of Red Hots shouting, “YOU’RE A FUCKING LAIR! YOU NEVER GAVE IT TO HER AND YOU’VE BEEN EATING THEM!”
True, I had been hiding the Red Hots for over three months and naturally didn’t want the candy to go to waste… I really wanted to give it to Heather but muster up the nerve. Let’s face it: When Valentine’s Day is over, that’s it. There is no giving a half-eaten box of candy in May to the girl of your dreams. Jimmy caught Linda up on my Heather saga while the three of us sat on the couch passing around the box finishing off the candies. With red fingers and lips we flipped the channels between HBO and MTV.

Phase 5/Mistake 5: Blackmail best friend.  In a desperate last attempt to win Heather’s affection, I begged Jimmy to call her for me. I know, I know… it don’t need to be said. It was our last week of school. At first he went through the motions of rightfully calling me a pussy-wimp-loser finalized by a resounding: FUCK NO, I’M NOT CALLING HER FOR YOU! He didn’t leave me a choice but to go nuclear and pull out the cousin card. Without shame, I used Linda as my bargaining chip, maybe even as a hostage to negotiate. Times were desperate, school was almost over, and Heather would be heading into ninth grade across the street, so everything was fair game.  It was my Hail Mary pass. And with my question to Jimmy: Do you want to see Linda again?, we struck a deal over the phone. I looked up Heather’s number in the school directory, gave it to him, and hung up. He called me back five minutes later to deliver my official kiss of death.
I saw Heather the following day during PE and asked if my friend had called her. We talked for a few minutes; it was sort of like an exit interview when you lose your job. She known all year that I liked her, but she already had a boyfriend?! I handed her my yearbook to sign. She wrote: I LOVE YOU over an entire page with her name scribbled going off the edge. I looked at the page all day and maybe the entire summer. With my book bag hanging on my shoulder crammed with all the shit from my locker, I boarded the school bus and waved farewell to her. It was the last time I saw Heather.