My Favorite Kind of Madness

Illustration from Razorcake #59 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #59 by Brad Beshaw

There’s this moment: late July in the Zane Grey Ballroom. Flagstaff, Arizona. Every seat has a butt to warm it. Three of the four walls have shoulders leaning against them for support. Somewhere around seventy-five or eighty people have come out and squeezed into this room. It’s a Sunday night and most of them have to work the next morning. And what are they here to see? A poet. In 2010.

The poet is James Jay. This is the release of his book The Journeymen. He’s reading the first poem, “Time Trapped in Light.” It’s about another moment frozen in time: a picture of Jack Kerouac. He’s tuning a radio to the perfect frequency. But the poem itself is a picture of James Jay tuned into the picture of Jack Kerouac, and right now it’s me in the front row of the Zane Grey Ballroom tuned into a frequency powerful enough to hold me, James, and Jack. There’s something about this moment.

You could say it’s a moment of vindication. After all, I published The Journeymen. James sent the poems to me individually and we talked about them. He sent me the collection and I edited it and he revised—often with enough good sense to ignore my advice. I typeset the words inside and designed the cover outside. I slapped cash on the barrel to print a couple thousand copies and moved those copies into bookstores and distribution warehouses and storage spaces. I even brought several here to sell later. And I could look around the packed house of Flagstaff locals—drinking their beers and hanging on James’s every word and looking like anything but a crowd for a poetry reading—and say, “This is why I did it.” But it’s not why I did it. That’s not what this moment is about for me.

It’s something else.

 

In a weird way, poetry and punk rock have blended together in my mind. Both came to me when I was still an adolescent stuck in small town Florida, hoping like hell that there was a bigger world than what I’d seen in my life. Hoping like hell that there was some form of rebellion, some meaningful way to, if not change the world, at least change my life. So, like most of you, I stumbled across bands that expanded my world. Maybe like a few of you, maybe like none of you, I stumbled across poets who did the same thing. Specifically, a teacher loaned me an anthology of hers that had poems by Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. The poems exploded the walls that I once thought were built around me. They invited me into a world of intense experiences. They inspired me to seek out my own.

All these years later, I still spend a lot of my time (maybe most of my time) with books and music. I read poetry the same way I listen to my favorite records: focusing mostly on new stuff, always looking for the latest releases, always stoked to find a new favorite, but also going back to the ones that invited me into this new world to begin with. The Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, the Clash, the Ramones on the punk rock side; Corso, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the poetry side. Watching James Jay read in the Zane Grey Ballroom to me is tantamount to seeing the Riverboat Gamblers at Alex’s Bar. It means something.

 

But I also think about that time trapped in light, because there’s another aspect to this. Back in real time, the time when I write this column (which is a couple months before you read it), I’m still thinking about that frozen moment in Flagstaff, still trying to make sense of what’s significant about it. And I’m a little uneasy because, a couple of weeks ago, some college kids were playing around in a nearby park. They were dressed up as knights, doing battle with foam swords. Maybe you’ve seen these societies for creative anachronism reliving the middle ages at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Maybe, like me, a mean little man inside of you wants to make fun of them and the nice little man inside of you has to say, “Dude, they’re just having harmless fun. Let ‘em be.” For me, though, watching these kids play pretend made me think about the anachronisms I’m playing with. I wonder sometimes about poetry and punk rock in the twenty-first century. I wonder if they’re both part of a past that I pretend to live in even though their time has come and gone. I helped start this here punk rock magazine twenty years after punk was declared dead and two years after the smart money said that magazines were done and readers had moved electronic. Now this fucker is almost ten years old. On top of that, I just published a book of poetry in 2010 as it were 1956 and I were Lawrence Ferlinghetti trying to put the poetry renaissance into print. Then, I went to the reading in the Zane Grey Ballroom as if I were living in the Gallery Six scene of Dharma Bums. I wonder what’s next for me. Will I dress up in rusty armor and sally out onto the Spanish plains like Don Quixote, without even a trusty Sancho trailing behind on his mule? Will I get my own cloak and foam sword and join the kids in the park who at least acknowledge that they’re living in the past?

 

This issue of living in the past is a tricky one. The Japanese have a word that is sometimes translated as heart, sometimes as mind, and sometimes as soul. The word is kokoro. I don’t speak Japanese, but the nearest I can tell, kokoro doesn’t exactly mean heart, mind, or soul. It’s more like the aggregate memories and feelings about those memories that construct an individual’s identity. Think about that concept for a second. Think of how useful it would be to have a word like kokoro. In American English, we have over fifty ways of saying “shit,” over a dozen words each for various genitalia and bodily emissions, but we have no word to express the beautiful and painful memories that add up to make us who we are.

Even without the word kokoro, we still understand the concept. We understand that, when we talk about who we really are, that identity is just a sum of the things we’ve done and how we felt about them. This kokoro is stuck to us like a shadow. It determines how we’re going to act in every situation that requires us to act. It creates the context for how we’ll feel about that action. In this way, we live most of our lives trapped in memories.

 

Take this moment at James Jay’s reading. Part of the power of the moment resides in my kokoro. There’s the memory of a seventeen year-old me who was so taken by the Beats that he dreamed of one day fostering a Beat renaissance. There’s the memories me as an aspiring writer, kicking around Flagstaff, drinking beers with James Jay and talking about starting my own City-Lights-style press, or driving down to Phoenix with Todd Taylor, talking about how rad it would be to start our own ‘zine. There’s the fanatic in me who loves poetry too much to write my own, who loves punk rock too much to start my own band, but who still wants to publish it and write about it. There’s also the moment that goes with this memory when I can turn to that seventeen-year-old me and that aspiring writer me and that fanatic me—none of whom are really me anymore; all of whom still live inside of me—and say, “Look, man. Look what you’ve done, not to make this moment, but to nurture it to the point where you can now just sit back and enjoy it.”

Still, so much of the meaning of that moment in trapped in memories. And, still, I feel like there’s more to it.

 

I listen to the poem itself. That’s why everyone is really here: the poem. Sure, James Jay is a man about the town in Flagstaff. He’s well-liked. He seems to know everyone. He could probably draw a crowd for just about anything, if he really wanted. And sure he has a comfortable stage presence and stories and jokes to fill in the space between the poems. But it’s like a Dillinger Four show: sure Paddy’s antics between songs are funny. That doesn’t change the fact that you came for the music and your favorite part of the night is in hearing the actual songs. Likewise, for all the pleasing madness of this reading, the real pleasure is in the poem. And “Time Trapped in Light” captures something about this frozen moment. Because it’s the first poem in the book. It’s one of the first ones he reads. And in the poem is the sense of things to come. It’s as if James is looking at the picture of Kerouac, saying, “All right, Jack. I’m dialing in that frequency of beauty and pain and lunacy and transcendence. I’m gonna put words on a page and hope they give shape to the abstract notions that can’t be put into words. Maybe it’ll all be as meaningful to the next generation of readers as your poems were to me.” It’s this optimism, this looking forward, more than the connection to the past, that moves me.

Because, sure I live a lot in the past just like everyone else, but at the core my motivation isn’t to keep reliving the past. Instead, I want to be part of the construction of a future in which new records keep me from digging the old ones out of the stacks, in which new poems keep me from reading Howl for the fiftieth time. I want a future where punk rock and poetry are perpetually valid forms for new expressions, perpetually exploding walls and opening new worlds.

 

Author’s note: This is the twenty-first chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #59.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

Grrrl Can’t Help It

Illustration from Razorcake #57 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #57 by Brad Beshaw

Strangely enough, I remember buying my first Bikini Kill record. It was in Vinyl Fever in Tallahassee, Florida sometime in early ’92. My buddy Pete and I were flipping through records and Pete pulled out Bikini Kill. He said, “You’ll like this. It’s kinda like the Butthole Surfers.” I remember looking at the picture on the cover: the grrrls looking so geeky and tough, the trails of light following the bassist as she moved faster than the camera’s shutter. I checked the track listing and liked how the words looked like they’d been etched into cover with some kind of makeshift blade. So I chanced the six bucks and picked up the record.

Of course, there’s problems with this memory. First, I also remember that my record player was stolen when I was away for Christmas in ’91 and I didn’t buy a new one for a couple of years. This means I would’ve been flipping through CDs at the time, not records. Also, that Bikini Kill album came out in June of ’92 and I moved away from Tallahassee in May of ’92.

Clearly, my memory rejects the tyranny of chronological time and verifiable facts. It will reconstruct the past as it sees fit.

I also remember there being a kind of conventional wisdom around the guys in the Tallahassee music scene at the time. It went like this: wear a Bikini Kill T-shirt and punk rock girls will dig you. I never actually tested this wisdom. I rarely had enough money to buy T-shirts at shows and Bikini Kill didn’t come through Tallahassee when I lived there. I think my memory may have made up this conventional wisdom.

I bring this up because, lately, I’ve been trying to remember the riot grrrl movement firsthand. I should be able to remember it. I was alive then. I was in college. A few of my closest friends were in bands. I went out to shows at least two or three nights a week. A lot of the bands I saw had women in them. I knew some of those women. I knew most of the deejays at the university radio station. My next door neighbor was the station manager. Because we shared a porch, we spent a fair amount of time on that porch listening to new music. So I was in the know.

I also have a lot of the music, and I’ve had it for so long that I don’t remember buying it. If I didn’t buy that Bikini Kill record at Vinyl Fever in ’92, I must’ve got it somewhere in Atlanta a couple of years later. Pete lived there then, too. Maybe that conversation happened at Criminal Records in ‘94 instead. And, of course, there’s other stuff that I have around. I have a Kill Rock Stars comp that’s so old it has Courtney Love the band on it. (If you’re like just about everyone else, you probably didn’t know or forgot that before Courtney Love was the stage name of Courtney Harrison, it was a band featuring indie rockers who were not named Courtney and did not marry anyone in Nirvana.) I still have mix tapes so old they may fall apart the next time I try to play them, and they’re full of riot grrrl bands. I have CDs that are equally old and equally representative. I have more Sleater-Kinney albums than I want to admit to in the pages of Razorcake. And how many, exactly, is that? Three. I still listen to two of them regularly. Don’t judge me. At least one of the members of the band—I’m not sure if it was Sleater or Kinney—wanted to be my Joey Ramone.

So what do I remember firsthand about the riot grrrl movement? Only that I went to see L7 in the spring ’92. This I remember clearly because there’d been a girl in my Freshman English class who I’d had a crush on, but she had a boyfriend. Over the next few years, I’d see her on campus and she was fun to hang out with, but she still had that boyfriend. I ran into her again while I was walking over to see L7 and not only did she have no plans for the night, but she was up for walking over to the show with me. And did she still have that boyfriend? No, she did not.

L7 must have put on a hell of show because I remember it. I remember a packed house and everyone going nuts. I remember leaving the show sweaty and the girl I went to the show with leaving sweaty and a mist rose up from her when she stepped into the cold night air. I remember exactly the way she looked at that moment. But I don’t remember a grrrl revolution. I’m not even sure if we can lump L7 in with riot grrrl.

Regardless, I start here to make one simple point: I’m not the person to write the history of riot grrrl. Even though I was around at the time, I barely remember it, and what I do remember is highly questionable. I can’t even write about it without making lame jokes that suggest I don’t know that no one in Sleater-Kinney was named Sleater or Kinney. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the movement is insignificant. It’s not. It’s important. It opened the door for a lot of young women to create and foster an exciting and productive community. It invited more women onto the stage and into punk rock. It helped a lot of women take steps toward becoming empowered.

I’ve been thinking about it, though, because I’ve seen riot grrrl coming back. I haven’t seen it coming back in the cool way, with new grrrl bands and zines and music festivals. Instead, it’s returning in the form of retrospectives—articles written by people whose memory of the movement is even more questionable than mine. The articles all follow the same pattern: punk rock had no room for women; women started their own bands (but apparently only three of them); Olympia, Washington and Washington, DC became the epicenters of women who wrote “slut” on their arms and went to grrrl shows and traded zines; magazines like Sassy and People wrote articles about them; Kathleen Hanna declared a media blackout; the movement continued for another year, then the founders either became more sophisticated (read: less punk, more indie rock) or more legitimately famous (read: toured as Pearl Jam’s opening act).

These retrospectives bother me for a few reasons. First, because they’re all the same. And by all following the same pattern, they suggest that this is the objective history of a movement. Which it’s not. Though it seeks to be a definitive history, it ignores a lot. It ignores that a lot of punk rock women had taken the stage before riot grrrl. For a decade prior to it, women had been instrumental in creating the LA punk scene. Bands like The Bags, Alley Cats, The Brat, and X gave a real voice to women in punk long before Bratmobile did. All-female bands like The Runaways and The Go-Gos had even somewhat normalized the idea of women playing their own instruments before most grrrls had gotten out of elementary school. I don’t point this out to demean what riot grrrls did. I just want to point out that riot grrrl was an evolutionary stage for women in punk, not the completely original phenomena that these retrospectives paint it as.

Another problem with these retrospectives is the context in which they’re emerging. Of course there are problems when the mainstream media tackles anything that has to do with punk rock. That can go without saying. Instead, I want to look at a recent article in Bust Magazine. Because Bust is supposed to be an alternative to the mainstream media. They started out as a zine. Riot grrrl in no small way blazed the trail for them. And in their latest issue, they have a retrospective of riot grrrl. This comes in their music-themed issue. This particular issue has a movie star on the cover. This movie star has her own band. You’ve probably heard her music; it’s in a commercial for cotton. Beyond the movie star, Bust features four other women in music: Joan Jett, Kathleen Hanna, Jill Scott, and Wanda Jackson. Because, apparently, all the women in music either are movie stars or began their careers more than twenty years ago. Hardly a word is dedicated to women in new, current bands, though there is a fashion spread of indie rock women dressed in their favorite outfits.

This is where Bust has taken the trail that riot grrrl blazed for them.

What bugged me most about the retrospective, though, is not that they demonized white male punk rockers (because I like being demonized). It’s not that they portrayed riot grrrl as the first all-girl bands while also running interviews with Joan Jett and Cherie Currie—who were in an all-girl band fifteen years before riot grrrl—in the same issue. It’s not that they’re so clearly clueless about contemporary music. What bugs me is this: in 2005, Jennifer Whiteford came out with the novel Grrrl, which, though it’s fiction, is a more real, honest, and reliable history of the riot grrrl movement than any other that I’ve read. Part of what makes it so great is that Whiteford writes it from a personal standpoint. It shows what it was like for one particular person in one particular place at one particular time while amazing things were happening and she was a part of them. She creates no hierarchies. She does not pretend to be definitive. Instead, she writes a narrative that builds on the empowerment of riot grrrl. It’s a narrative that is empowering itself. And though it takes place in the past, it looks forward to new possibilities for women in the twenty-first century. In short, she does the opposite of what Bust and all of these other retrospectives do.

I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t bug me that Bust did not review Grrrl, even though the publisher sent them two review copies and two personalized cover letters (I know this because I’m the publisher and I did it), even though the book is exactly the kind of thing Bust readers are looking for. But what really bugs me is how this example demonstrates the way we construct our shared pasts and the history of resistance movements. The people who have the definitive voices are largely ignorant while the real, honest voices are largely ignored.

 

Author’s note: This is the twentieth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #57.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

A Punk’s History of Howard Zinn

 

Illustration from Razorcake #55 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #55 by Brad Beshaw

Celebrity deaths elicit some strange reactions. I sometimes get wrapped up in mourning the loss and forget that I didn’t know the person. I was hit pretty hard by the deaths of Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone, even though I’d never met them and had no intention of meeting them. I have to remember that the things I love about those guys still exist very much in the present. I can listen to them sing any time I want to. And, let’s face it, the grand productive days were over for those two. As decent as their final releases were, neither of them was going to produce another Give ‘Em Enough Rope or End of the Century.

Maybe the fact that three of the original Ramones are dead and all of the original Eagles are still alive is proof that, if a god does exist, he’s a bit of a dick. Nonetheless, the point remains that celebrity deaths need to be taken with a grain of salt. But I’m struggling over this most recent one.

On January 27, 2010, we lost Howard Zinn. Among other things, Zinn is the author of A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, which is probably the most comprehensive history of Americans who fought against racism, sexism, imperialism, and classism; of Native Americans who refused to be annihilated, of African Americans who refused to be dehumanized, of women who refused to be the second sex, of citizens who fought against wars rather than in them, and of workers who fought against exploitation. I remember my first time reading A People’s History. It was about a dozen years ago. I was living in a small town in Florida, working as a construction supervisor. The eight-hundred page tome rode shotgun with me as I drove my truck from jobsite to jobsite. I read snatches of it during breaks, eating lunch, waiting for subcontractors to show up, or sitting in my thrift-store recliner in my one-bedroom apartment. It was a time in my life when I felt particularly powerless. Although most of the construction workers viewed me as a boss, I had no real authority. I made less money than most of the skilled workers (many of whom were less skilled than me), and it was becoming more and more clear to me that I was just fuel in a generator that powered the banking and insurance industries—the ones who really make the money in construction. I’d spent a decade trying to get out of these kinds of jobs. I’d gotten two college degrees (a bachelor’s and a master’s). I’d published my first novel. And I still found myself in a low rent apartment in a white trash neighborhood, living a life that most of America feels comfortable calling white trash. Amid this atmosphere, A People’s History was empowering.

Zinn, like all historians, tells history from his point of view. His values are reflected in whom he chooses as historically significant and what events he chooses to focus on. Unlike most histories that I was familiar with, though, Zinn focused on people like me. He was less concerned with presidents, generals, and leaders of business (unless he was knocking them off their pedestals). Instead, he acknowledged that real change comes from the bottom up. While Abraham Lincoln may have signed the bill that freed the slaves, he didn’t do it out of a deep-seeded belief in social justice. He did it as a response to an overwhelming resistance movement that fought against slavery, be it through the dozens of violent slave uprisings throughout the South, the Quaker network of safe houses for escaped slaves, the challenges to the Fugitive Slave Act, or the narratives of writers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. In most cases, politicians don’t act. They react. And their reactions are often based the uprisings and resistance movements of ordinary people.

Think for a few seconds about how significant this perspective is. In the American educational system, we’re taught to look for heroes. Christopher Columbus discovers America. George Washington wins the American Revolution. Abraham Lincoln frees the slaves. General MacArthur leads the Good War and defeats fascism. Martin Luther King gives a few speeches and ends racism. This type of mythology pervades our national consciousness. It is manifested in our movies, where the action movie genre is dedicated to promoting the myth that a single man (with the right amount of firepower and a few inhuman stunts) can simplify any complex concept and solve it himself, while we get to sit idly by, eating popcorn and drinking soda. And we believe it. Sometimes, we even elect one of those action heroes as governor. Or we elect Obama president and expect him to give us jobs and money, take on the health care industry, and end two wars by himself. And when Schwarzenegger proves to be exactly the idiot he sounds like, and Obama demonstrates that the president of the United States can’t solve all our problems, we blame the men themselves without questioning the underlying myth that enabled us to place these unrealistic expectations on them.

We also ignore our personal responsibility.

So for me, reading A People’s History a dozen years ago hammered home the point that I had to take responsibility for my own actions. I couldn’t just sit around my low rent apartment and complain about the system and its injustices. Or I could. It just didn’t do anyone any good. What I needed to do, instead, was get off my ass and fight for what I believed in. And I had to do it as a lifestyle change—something I could do every day.

I looked at how Zinn fought for what he believed in and noticed that he stuck with his strengths. He worked for social justice as a historian, as a speaker, as a writer, and as a teacher. And I thought to myself, what are my strengths? Well, both of my degrees were in writing, so I needed to stick with that. And I was an excellent student and researcher. I was comfortable talking in front of a crowd, and I could articulate my ideas verbally. In short, though history isn’t my discipline, many of my strengths were similar to Zinn’s. So I could use him as a role-model.

I picked the issues that were important to me to fight for. I wanted (and still want) a free media, and I couldn’t just kill Rupert Murdoch like some action film hero would (and even if I could, I’d have to remember that his real power comes from his legions of followers, not from Murdoch himself). But I could co-found this here punk rock magazine. I could write hundreds of essays and stories for dozens of independent magazines. I could write books that dealt with American classism and get them published on indie presses. And so I did. My writing may not have the impact that Zinn’s has, but I’m doing about as well as he was doing at my age. If I stay on his schedule, I have twenty-one more years to come up with my equivalent of A People’s History. I have forty-eight more years to become the cultural force that he is today.

The second issue I chose to fight was this creation of the Superman myth that enables us to deify men like Washington, Lincoln, and Obama while ignoring our own personal responsibility. Because the second really significant thing I got out of A People’s History was that, historically speaking, people like me have mattered. I do matter. I don’t need a hero to free me or a politician to give me hope. I can take care of these things myself.

One thing traditional histories do is make people like you and me feel insignificant. In all likelihood, second graders of the future are not going to be learning about us. Punk rock probably won’t even be a footnote in texts in fifty years. But we can ask, whose traditions guide these traditional histories? How can we change them? How can we write a history that defies the myth of super humans and empowers those second graders?

So, along these lines, I’ve spent the last six years at a state university, developing my own personal pedagogy of social justice, one that explores the literature of writers who resisted the powers that were. About twenty-percent of my students will go on to be K-12 teachers here in California. Hopefully, by learning to question some of these myths that continue to be perpetuated in our public school system, my students will decide to stop perpetuating them.

 

Of course, here I am at the end of my column, one which started out seemingly eulogizing Howard Zinn, and I’ve hardly talked about the guy at all. I haven’t talked about his amazing career, his wonderful books, or so many things that made him great. I haven’t even talked about the time I spent with him—because I actually did meet him and spend time with him. He was nice enough to stay in touch with me for a little bit after that. He even blurbed one of my books for me. He was a great human being. But, first of all, I’ve already written quite a bit about Zinn in Razorcake (see, for instance, the interview Todd and I did with him in issue #6, my story about that interview in issue #31, plus the multiple reviews I did of his work in other issues). And, second of all, it would be contradictory to write a eulogy that puts Zinn on a pedestal while I compliment him for teaching me that no one belongs on a pedestal. So, instead, I just want to take this moment to thank him, a couple of months too late, for teaching me that I have the power to change my own life.

Thanks, Howard. I miss you already.

Author’s note: This is the nineteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #55.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

With My Little Ukulele in My Hand

Illustration from Razorcake #53 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #53 by Brad Beshaw

 

On South Street in Honolulu sits an unassuming, two-story building, not much bigger than Razorcake HQ. Nothing about it really stands out except for a small sign on the front with the familiar k on top of a k. It’s easy to drive by without noticing, heading either for the beach or downtown. I almost missed it, whipping into the parking lot only at the last second. Inside, they were making a little magic in the form of a Kamaka ukulele.

Now, I can almost hear you, Razorcake reader, groaning. Perhaps it’s because I assume you poop while you read this. Groaning helps. Perhaps I’m right in guessing that you’re about to turn the page, grumbling, “Ukulele’s are not punk rock,” and “Geez, I really need to give myself a courtesy flush.” And, damn it, you’re right on both counts.

Ukuleles are not punk. I know that one of the guys from the Jennifers has an act called the Punk Rock Ukulele. I know there are hundreds of videos on YouTube of lonely girls playing uke versions of Green Day songs. And, yeah, Gugug’s uke covers of Ramones songs are pretty rad. But they’re not punk rock. I’m okay with that. I’m hoping we can relax and admit that there are some things like Stax Records, surfing, socialized medicine, and indie novels from Featherproof Books that are ideologically awesome and don’t have to be punk to be appreciated. And I’m sliding Kamaka ukuleles into that mix.

 

The ukulele is a funny instrument. I have a friend who refers to them as the pugs of the music world, because she can’t help smiling every time she sees one. It’s indelibly linked in our imagination with Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips, or, if we’re luckier, Benny Hill singing “Everyone Wants My Fanny.” It’s an instrument for men who are so comfortable with their penis size that they can drive an MG convertible and skinny dip in a cold pool and listen to April March. The uke is supposed to be funny. That’s part of the point.

Another part of the point, though, is that it’s an instrument of resistance. The instrument itself was born from the cavaquinho, a small guitar brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants. Through that little guitar, we can see the blessing and curse of colonialism. The cavaquinho was adapted into a ukulele by Hawaiian musicians in the late nineteenth century, and it quickly became entrenched in Hawaiian culture. Now everyone knows what a ukulele is while even I have to go back to the dictionary to make sure I’m spelling cavaquinho right. So that’s the blessing. The curse lies in the fact that the cavaquinho is the instrument of the Portuguese immigrants who came to Hawaii as overseers for the Dole plantations and the Big Five sugar plantations. Dole and the Big Five pressured President William McKinley to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy and annex the region as a territory. The Portuguese overseers kept the plantation labor force in check through it all. They oversaw not only the horrible exploitation of immigrant labor, but actual slavery on those plantations. Dole and the Big Five used “indentured servants” until Hawaii became a state in 1959. So colonialism was a mixed bag for the Hawaiians. American corporate interests got the islands and the money and were able to reinstall the plantation system that had been outlawed on the mainland. The Hawaiians got the ukulele. It’s a pretty lousy trade for the Hawaiians, sure. But let’s not sell it too short. They did get the ukulele out of the deal. That’s a hell of a lot better than what the Iraqis are getting from Halliburton.

And I think there’s something to be said about this kind of cultural appropriation of the ukulele. Cultural appropriation in general can be a positive thing. Sometimes we forget that in the punk community. We’ve seen too many great things of ours appropriated in bad ways. It’s heartbreaking to see manufactured pop stars being marketed as “punk” or wearing shirts that say “I ♥ Punk.” It’s even more of a bummer to see the trend when, about a decade ago, not selling out to major labels became such a powerful ideal of the punk community that major labels started to just put out classic rock bands in Hot Topic clothes and bill them as punk (see: Good Charlotte). But we’ve done our own share of appropriating, too. We took the idea of fanzines from movie buffs and Star Trek geeks. We took the idea of DIY publishing from resistance groups that run the gamut from Ben Franklin to ‘60s hippies. Just about every pop punk song is an appropriation of the Ramones’ appropriation of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and Bobby Fuller. I love The Clash, but I cringe to think of what they would’ve been if Joe Strummer hadn’t been stealing from Lee “Scratch” Perry. And, hell, even I know how to play several dozen punk songs on the uke. Come by my place with a six-pack of beer. I’ll play them for you until you run away screaming.

The point being, appropriation in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. When people exploit independent culture so they can make money, that sucks. But when the people who are not in power appropriate things from the people in power and change those things into something unique and organic, it’s not only okay. It’s a way of challenging those who are in power.

Which is exactly what the ukulele has done. It’s said, “Fuck the cavaquinho, man. I’m gonna do something all my own.” And the uke, like Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, has done an amazing job of making bad songs sound good. Check out Iz Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow.” Listen to the uke in that song. So fucking cool.

 

My brother-in-law Rien got me into the ukulele. It was about six years ago. I was hanging around another brother-in-law’s place in suburban Sacramento, bored out of my gourd, when Rien broke out his Kamaka and started strumming. I noticed that all the songs he played had only three chords. Hell, I thought. I can play a three-chord song. They’re the soundtrack to my life. Rien told me that, if I could play guitar, I could play uke. And I can play guitar. So I picked up my other brother-in-laws uke, Rien taught me the F, Bb, and C7 chords, and we spent the afternoon playing the thirty-seven Hawaiian songs that use no more than those three chords.

A few weeks later, I bought a cheap ukulele of my own. I practiced those chords, learned a few others, and adapted a few punk songs for the uke. They just didn’t sound as good as when I’d played on Rien’s Kamaka, though.

 

A couple of summers ago, I found myself stranded in Indiana, PA (for reasons why, see my column in the last issue). About a month after my birthday, I got a package from my mom. It was a ten-dollar, pink ukulele with flowers and the logo of a Cocoa Beach tourist shop on it. I was a little confused. As luck had it, my mom called right around the time I opened the package and started scratching my head. I said, “I got your package.”

She laughed. “Don’t you just hate it? I saw that in the store, and I just knew you’d hate it!”

Because that’s my mom. She’ll wait until a month after my birthday before sending me a present so that she’ll have extra time to find something I really hate. She’s hilarious.

She’s also a model for mothers of punk rockers everywhere. She knows that, if you want to make a punk happy, get him something he can really hate. Because here’s the worst thing about the whole episode: I tuned up the fishing line strings on the little pink flowered uke and was jamming along to the Replacements “If Only You Were Lonely” within minutes of getting off the phone with her.

The thing about the pink ukulele was that it sounded worse than my cheap one by the exact same degree that my cheap one sounded worse than Rien’s Kamaka. So I became obsessed with Kamaka. I looked into the company and found that they have been a family business for almost a hundred years (93 to be exact). That, during World War II, they hired deaf luthiers to make their ukuleles. The deaf craftsman knew they got the sound right when they could feel it. And this is a cool thing about Kamakas: when you play them, you can feel the song on your chest. It’s unlike any other uke I’ve played.

As far as I know, there’s still at least one deaf luthier making ukes at Kamaka.

I also learned that Kamakas sound so good because the front plate—where that rich sound comes from—is made from solid Koa wood from the Big Island, and that the ukes are so popular and the shop so small that you can’t buy one from their store. You have to order one and they’ll make it for you.

I went to the headquarters in Honolulu. They let me play all their ukes. I played their $1400 deluxe soprano, which is funny because it looks like so much like a toy. And what does it sound like? It sounds like fourteen hundred dollars. Fucking amazing.

I have my own Kamaka, though not the deluxe. One that I found after searching and searching, waiting for one in my price range, and finally stumbling across it in a Claremont music store. It’s from the sixties and it had to be reconditioned by the shop, but, unlike most things from the sixties (Sonics and MC5 notwithstanding), it sounds great.

The last time my wife’s side of the family got together, we broke out the ukes. I started playing a ‘20s tune, “5 foot 2,” which my grandfather used to play for me on his tenor guitar when I was little. My four-year-old nephew, like a true prodigy, told me to play it faster. I played as fast as I could. He and his three-year-old sister made their own circle pit in my living room. I love how things come around.

So now you may be thinking to yourself, all right, Sean, I took your advice on the courtesy flush but I’m still sitting here, 1800 words later, My legs are falling asleep on the toilet seat, and I’m waiting for you to get to the point. Well, maybe there isn’t one, really. Maybe I just wanted to spend a few minutes on the beautiful and absurd. Maybe that’s enough for today.

Author’s note: This is the eighteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #53.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

Pop Culture Pap

Illustration from Razorcake #51 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #51 by Brad Beshaw

I walked across the campus at UCLA a half hour before the hullabaloo was scheduled to begin. A middle-aged woman in Birkenstocks walked toward me, accompanied by a dog that looked like a fat greyhound. A squirrel darted through the planter to my left. The dog bounded off after the squirrel. The woman hadn’t had a tight enough hold on the leash. It slipped out of her hand. The squirrel made for a tree—his only hope. The dog took three steps, swooped the squirrel up in her mouth, and bam. Two shakes of her head and the squirrel’s neck was broke. He hung there limply in the dog’s mouth. The woman screamed, “No! Macy! Put it down!” But it was too late for the squirrel. Macy knew this. She took off running down the hallways of what looked to be a Biology building. The woman ran after her dog.

It all seemed futile to me. She could give that dog all the yuppie names she wanted and scream at her all she wanted, but Macy had thousands of years of genetic memory telling her to eat that squirrel. Yuppie names and scolding in a language the dog doesn’t speak are no match for that. I wanted to tell the woman, “Relax. Let the dog have her little squirrel. It’s just the way the world works.” Instead, I minded my own business. I thought to myself, this has to be a metaphor for something.

 

A half hour later, the hullabaloo ensued. Crowds filtered in, writers performed readings, panels of other writers talked about their books, publishers hawked their wares. The LA Times Festival of Books was underway. I set up a chair adjacent to the table of Gorsky Press books and let the festival wash over me.

I was working half of the Gorsky Press/Manic D Press booth. Jennifer from Manic D had asked me if I would split a booth with her. From about ten seconds after I said I’d do it, I regretted my decision. I hate working at book festivals. I hate the retail aspect of it. I hate having to give a sales pitch for a book that I’m selling for five bucks. I mean, come on, five bucks? What else can you get for five bucks? A burrito. Someone poured his heart and soul and years of his life into this book, I spent several months working with the author, editing, typesetting, designing the cover, and creating the actual artifact. And you can get it for the cost of a burrito. Don’t ask me to give a sales pitch.

Thus, I started the day grumpy.

To make matters worse, the Gorsky/Manic D booth was right next to the LA Times Stage. This is where all the “celebrity” authors (or is it celebrity “authors,” because you know Cloris Leachman didn’t sit down at a laptop and type seventy thousand words of an autobiography) read from their works and answered questions from the audience. Whether I wanted to or not—and believe me, it was a not—I had to hear Winnie Cooper talk about math, Marsha Brady talk about her cocaine addiction (she bragged about blowing a quarter million dollars on coke, then scolded someone in the audience—probably some little girl—by braying, “Don’t you ever do drugs. Drugs are bad!”), and a few different celebrities whom I’d never heard of whine about being recognized everywhere they went. Bob Barker was there. I’m not sure what he talked about, but I couldn’t help feeling like he was trying to sell me a washing machine.

 

There’s something hauntingly painful about giving a sales pitch to a customer who’s clearly not interested in the book that you poured sweat and blood and thousands of dollars in, and giving that sales pitch not because you want to, but because he asked. And you know he only asked because he’s killing time until the Dancing with the Stars host takes over the stage. And you can hardly hear yourself grumble to yourself because Tori Spelling is squawking through the P.A. behind you.

Our booth number was 666. Before the festival, a friend asked me if that was a coincidence. I didn’t understand how it could be. I’m not satanic. After a seven-hour assault from the LA Times Stage, I knew what he meant. It was a coincidence because I was in hell.

 

Beyond the celebrities and customers, there were my fellow publishers to contend with. Not so much Jennifer from Manic D, but the publishers who stopped in to chat. The trendy fear this year is digital book readers. Publishers are convinced that everything will be going paperless within ten years. Books will be a thing of the past, surrendered in favor of the Kindle or the Sony Reader. And, as much as I like to indulge on unfounded panic, I just couldn’t commiserate with my fellow publishers.

On the one hand, I could see the benefits of these digital readers. Because everything published before 1923 in the US is part of the public domain in the US. No one holds the copyright on it. So, if I wanted to publish Moby Dick tomorrow, I could. And since the Herman Melville’s estate isn’t going to get a dime, it doesn’t make sense for Barnes & Noble or Penguin to charge as much as they do for their copies of that novel. You can get a free copy of it online at Project Gutenberg. So, if these digital readers became popular, anyone who wanted to read a pre-1923 book could download it for free. I think that would be a good thing. But you can already read most of those books for free online. And I still buy the books. Because Moby Dick is hard enough to read without having to read it off a glowing, flickering screen.

And that’s the problem with these book readers. The manufacturers swear that the screens don’t glow or flicker. But I’ve seem these readers. They glow and flicker.

Besides, if more people went to the digital book readers, I could sell a whole lot more Gorsky books without having to print, store, or mail them. And, sure, more people would be illegally downloading these books, but I could live with that. At least more people would be reading our authors.

On the other hand, I have trouble believing that these readers will take over. For one thing, I’ve never seen anyone using one of these digital readers in the world at large. I see a lot of people reading books down by the beach or on airplanes or in diners or on campuses, but I have not seen one single person reading a digital reader outside of the store that sells that reader. And I’ve been looking. For years, I’ve been looking.

When we started Gorsky Press more than a decade ago, people told me then that, within five years, everything would be paperless. Ten years later, people are telling me that, within five years, everything will be paperless. Will I hear the same thing in ten more years? I don’t know. I do remember buying an LP back in 1984 and the clerk telling me that cassettes would make LPs a thing of the past. Twenty-five years later, the LP is more popular than it’s been in a decade.

This goes to show that the future, like the present, isn’t binary. Sure, people probably will start buying more of those readers. Maybe they will get more popular. But for the rest of my lifetime, at least, people will still buy books for the same reason people still buy records. We want the artifact. We want the ceremony of lifting the record onto the turntable, hearing the crack and pop of anticipation, and listening to that warm fuzz of analog. Likewise, when we read a book, we want to be able to pause with our thoughts, gaze at the cover, flip back through the pages. We want to dog-ear pages and underline beautiful sentences. We want to smell the musty pages of a book that we’ve read twenty years ago, and reread that book and let the smell and the browning pages connect us to our earlier selves. I can’t see myself giving that up for a glowing screen. I can’t see readers like me giving that up for the next fifty or sixty years, at least.

Of course, I didn’t tell my fellow publishers this. Nothing bugs people like mixing your reason in with their panic.

 

So that was the LA Times Festival of Books. Vacuous celebrities, whiny publishers in a retail purgatory, and me grumbling. But there was this beautiful moment, too.

With only a couple of hours left in the book fest, with another celebrity chattering away on the stage behind me, I left the Gorsky/Manic D booth, made my way across campus, and watched a reading sponsored by an organization called “Dime Stories.” Aspiring-but-little-known writers read three-minute, slice-of-life stories about commuting on public transportation and thinking about their aunt and that kind of thing. I watched five or six of them. They were at times funny, clever, and thoughtful. All of these writers, though, clearly spent a lot of time crafting these little three-minute stories. They thought about every word. It was big deal for them to read at the Festival of Books.

The crowd was bigger there than it had been at the celebrity stage when I left. I was happy to see that.

Twenty minutes into Dime Stories, who should take the stage but Razorcake’s own Jim Ruland. He read a twisted story about a guy obsessed with Nietzsche and pro sports. It got a little edgy at the end. Some spectators who’d brought their young children squirmed in their seats. I felt a little swelling in my chest, proud for ol’ Jim.

Was his reading so powerful, so beautiful that it vindicated my whole experience at the Festival of Books? No. Clearly, I’m still grumpy about it all. I was just glad to see that among this vacuous display of a culture in ruins that passes itself off as a Festival of Books, at this homage to pop cultural pap where honest attempts at communication are lost in the clutter, at least organizations like Razorcake, Gorsky, and Manic D still have a foothold.

 

When the hullabaloo subsided, I packed the unsold books back into my truck and thought about the dog and her squirrel. I tried to make sense of the metaphor. Who was the dog in this scenario? Who was the squirrel? What were we genetically programmed to do? How was nature running its course?

I still don’t know. I’m sorry.

I wish I had a better answer for you.

Author’s note: This is the seventeenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #51.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

Let Him Go

sean_illo_48_by_brad_beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #48 by Brad Beshaw

I was checking out Chester Himes’s first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, the other day, trying to remember how that rhyme went. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a… And I couldn’t remember what you were supposed to catch by his toe. I remembered how I learned the poem, but I knew that wasn’t right. I knew there was something else you were supposed to catch by the toe, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember what it was. I dug around in the recesses of my brain, trying to bring it up. It wouldn’t come to me. I didn’t want to look it up on the internet because 1.) I don’t want wikipedia to become my long-term memory and 2.) come on, I had to remember what I was really supposed to let go if he hollered.

Eventually, I gave up thinking and slunk back to my computer to look it up. Tiger. You probably already know this, but it’s a tiger that you catch by the toe.

I sat there, looking at my computer screen, thinking, who the fuck ever heard of catching a tiger by his toe? I looked at all the different versions—fishy, piggy, monkey—and none of them sounded familiar. One British version caught a fairy by his toe. I could’ve pictured us as kids using that one, if we’d been British, if someone had thought of it. But we never did. So tiger. It must’ve been tiger.

The thing is, though, we never said tiger. When I was a little kid, hanging out with all the kids in the neighborhood, divvying up teams for wiffle ball or whatever, we always said, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a nigger by the toe.” I find it hard to picture now: a bunch of cute little White kids, mostly blond, tan in the Florida sun, gathered up for a game of something in the street, looking as all-American as can be. And we were all-American with our little rhymes of “catch a nigger by his toe, if he hollers let him go.”

I don’t know what we said when Rudy Smith played with us. Probably the same thing.

 

By the time I was old enough to know better, I’d quit making my choices using that rhyme.

 

I’m not sure where it came from. I’m sure my parents didn’t teach it to me that way. I don’t blame it on the fact that I grew up in the South, either. I remember hanging out with some older cousins in New York. I was only five or six years old. One of my cousins had taught me a joke, and he was prodding me to tell the other cousins. I wasn’t all that stoked on telling the joke because I didn’t get it. I told it anyway: “Sammy Davis, Jr. walks onto a bus. The bus driver says to him, ‘Back of the bus, nigger.’ Sammy Davis, Jr. says, ‘But I’m not a nigger. I’m a Jew.’ So the bus driver says to him, ‘Get off.’ ”

I didn’t know who Sammy Davis, Jr. was. Hell, I didn’t even know what a Jew was. I did know that jokes like that got me in with the older kids.

 

Then, there was this other time. I was in my late twenties, living back in Atlanta, hanging out a the Little Five Points Pub. A guy walked in the door. It took me a second to recognize him. He sat two stools over from me and took his own couple of seconds to remember me. His name was Andy. He’d been a regular at another bar where I used to work the last time I’d lived in Atlanta. We said our hellos and chatted for a bit. Andy said, “It’s been a long time.”

And it had been a long time since we’d seen each other. The two years that separated my lives in Atlanta flashed through my head. I’d lived in a couple of other towns, made and lost friends, traveled all around the continent, held a few jobs, got fired from one of them and almost got into a fistfight with my boss just so that I could pry my final paycheck from his fingers. The two years seemed like dog years to me. So I expressed this passage of time to Andy the best way I knew how. I said, “Yeah, it’s been a coon’s age.”

“A what?” Andy said, suddenly angry.

“A coon’s age,” I said. “You know, like a raccoon could have been born and lived his whole life in the time since I saw you last.”

“Oh,” Andy said, but he seemed like he was done talking to me.

The bartender came along, chatted with both of us, and the afternoon started to while away.

A few minutes later, I remembered that “coon” was a racist term for a Black person. I was White. Andy was Black. We were sitting deep inside of Georgia. Fuck.

I thought about that expression. Did it really mean what I thought it meant? Was a coon’s age really the lifespan of a raccoon, or something that makes less sense but is more racist? Was Andy sitting there, fuming that he had to sit next to a racist motherfucker like me? Should I apologize? Would it help?

I don’t remember how I handled the situation. I probably just had another drink.

 

I thought the word “pickaninny” referred to the braids that little Black girls wore. I thought this because I remember once standing with my mom and one of her friends, who was an elementary school teacher at the school that I went to, and my mom’s friend saw two little Black girls with braids and said, “Oh, look at the cute little pickaninnies.”

I was very embarrassed when, decades later, I learned what pickaninny really meant.

 

I’ve been thinking about all of this stuff lately, and probably for obvious reasons. I think I was a member of the last generation in America that was raised amidst such flippant racist language. In the late eighties, the whole Political Correctness movement came along. And it got a lot of backlash because no one knew what it was okay to say and what it wasn’t. The term African American doesn’t exactly work, because what about someone like Charlize Theron, who grew up in South Africa, immigrated to the U.S., and is White as hell? Isn’t she an African American? And what do we call Black people in Europe? And the terms black and white don’t work because we’re talking, in all cases, of a variety of browns. So you can capitalize White and Black to indicate that you’re referring not to a color but to a social construct, but even as I capitalize these words in this column, I feel like a pretentious jerk. So, granted, Political Correctness is a pain in the ass.

Still, it’s got to be preferable to allowing an otherwise nice little kid like myself to grow up chanting “catch a nigger by his toe.”

 

As I’ve said, whatever term you use now, it’s going to be inexact. The term “people of color” may seem like the silliest because not only are all people “of color,” but the term itself is just a syntactical variant of the old racist term “colored people.” Regardless, if we go beyond these pithy little observations, we can recognize that, at least as a society, White people stopped saying “nigger.” That has to be a great thing.

The term itself was created by a slave holding society. It’s the derogatory term that reasserts White superiority. Every time it’s used by a White person, whether he’s a Nazi or a little kid deciding who’s going to be the captains of the wiffle ball teams, it’s reasserting racial superiority. This is more serious than we typically acknowledge. There have been various neuroscientific studies recently that show that language causes us to react in ways that we’ve only recently begun to understand.

The word “nigger” is a good example of this. It’s a difficult word for me. I can type it and use it in this column, but I can’t bring myself to say it out loud, even here in my office, where I’m completely alone. I had a vague idea of why this was. I knew it was something about hearing that word in the voice of a White guy who has the accent of a former slaveholding state. But then I came across a book called The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker. Pinker explains that when we use certain words, it triggers a flow of oxygen into the limbic system in our brain. “Nigger” is one of those words. When we hear it or say it, our thought patterns flee the more rational frontal lobe of our mind and race down to the reptilian part of our brain. We literally race back to an early stage of evolution. This isn’t to say that saying the word makes you dumber, it just means that, when you say this word, you’re using the dumbest part of your brain.

 

So then I think again about Political Correctness and all the backlash against it. I can understand how it can be a pain in the ass. Everything that leads to progress can be a pain in the ass. Some people felt like restricting the words we can say is a form of censorship. Well, it can be. But in the case of attacking the word “nigger,” no one banned you from using it. You’re welcome to use it. You just look like a jackass if you do. And you should look like a jackass. You’re using the least evolved part of your brain when you say it. But I shouldn’t say “you” here. Chances are you’re not doing this at all. Chances are, you’ve evolved.

I’m not saying that demonizing the use of that one particular word has ended racism and paved the way for a Black U.S. president or anything drastic like that. I’m just trying to understand how we teach things like racism to little kids and how it was taught to me. Also, I think that demonizing certain terms has stuffed racism into the closet, as opposed to making it something that is overtly indoctrinated into us.

Hopefully, we’re all better off catching tigers by the toe.

Author’s note: This is the sixteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #48.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

A Tour of Self-Discover

sean_illo_47_by_brad_beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #47 by Brad Beshaw

7. Seattle

In Seattle, one of the local weeklies had a blurb about my reading at Elliott Bay Book Company. The weekly said that my new book was about a “bartender [who] goes on a road trip of self-discover.”

The book is absolutely not about that.

I happened to be standing on the Seattle waterfront when I read the weekly, a bit south of the famous fish market but still surrounded by a tourist district that I’d taken a wrong turn into. I paused for a second to remember a time when the independent weeklies that you found in every city used to actually be independent and actually cover events in those cities. In the next second, I wondered what happened to this imaginary bartender’s “y” on his road trip of self-discover.

I wandered as far away as I could from this little tourist district, gradually forgetting that stupid little blurb and remembering, still, that this was my nineteenth and final city on the summer tour I did to promote Train Wreck Girl, and, while it hadn’t been the road trip to self-discover that the Seattle Weekly billed it as, I had seen some things crisscrossing this continent.

 

  1. The Dells

There’s a region of Wisconsin called the Dells. On the way back from my reading in Minneapolis, I stopped in a gas station a little west of the Dells. Someone had written on the bathroom wall, “For a good time stop at Dolls in the Dells and ask for Ticia. She is a whore and will fuck you for money.”

A few minutes later, I rode through the Dells and saw Dolls. I didn’t stop in. I did think for a while about the guy who wrote that note on the bathroom wall. I wondered what inspired him to do it. Did he have a good time with Ticia? Was it such a good time that he had to tell everyone about it? Recommend it to all his friends, or anyone taking a piss for that matter? Was Ticia an ex-girlfriend who the scribe was looking to get back at? Is bathroom graffiti an effective way for a scorned man to strike back? Was Ticia really Tricia and our scribe just a bad speller? Questions like that kept popping up into my head as I rode across rural Wisconsin.

I applauded the scribe’s clarity. He’d taken the time to point out that Ticia was a whore who would fuck you for money, as opposed to a whore who may give it away for free, but would require you to have more game than just strolling up to her and saying, “I read about you on the bathroom wall.”

After a while, I let my tour mates in on all my meditations on Ticia and the scribe. They indulged me, helped me speculate as to who this guy was who penned this note above the urinal, even told stories of graffiti they’d ruminated about. I thought, is this how I pick my friends? Those who won’t say, “Dude, you’re thinking way too much about this shit.”

 

  1. Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, it is not unheard of for someone to steal a manhole cover.

Go there. Get into town too late to do anything but sleep for the night. Wake up, eat a home-style breakfast at a hipster diner. Wander around the old city. See the site where the Constitution was signed. Pass Ben Franklin’s grave. Read the historical markers about the slaves who escaped to Philadelphia: the first free city they reached coming up from the south. Go to a gallery featuring “underrepresented” artists and take your time with the paintings. Then, when the afternoon has made itself comfortable and a thunderstorm lingers above the city, listen to Danielle. She’ll tell you the story about sitting right where she’s sitting now, looking out of that window right there, and seeing a guy on a bike wrestle with a manhole cover, stuffing it haphazardly into his duffel bag, peddling away, the manhole cover ripping through the duffel bag, and the sound of police sirens growing louder.

If you do this, then you too can watch the rain falling on the city and wonder what the scene must be like when someone shows up at a scrap metal yard with a manhole cover to sell. What story does he come up with when the metal yard guy asks him, “You didn’t steal this, did you?”

The possibilities seem endless.

 

  1. Oxford

We stopped in a gas station tucked in the foothills between Atlanta and Birmingham, more just to stop driving for a while than to actually get anything. I wandered through the aisles of the gas station and paused at a sign that read, “Goodies and BC Powder behind the counter. Ask the cashier.” The condoms were displayed next to the sign. I stood there for a while and thought about the shoplifting patterns of this town.

After Carla, A.J., and I bought stuff we didn’t really need, we loitered in front of the store. I said, “They have the condoms in the aisles where anyone can shoplift them, and the headache powder behind the counter where no one can. You know what that tells me? It tells me that people around here get drunk, have unprotected sex, and then steal aspirin when they’re hungover.”

Carla said, “Shit. You didn’t know that about Alabama already?”

A.J. told us a story about touring with the Kings of Nothing, a nine-piece punk band. He’d get so sick of sitting in that tour van that he’d learned how to waste twenty or thirty minutes in a convenience store. When he got done with the story, he lit a cigarette. The three of us stood around while he smoked. Everyone who walked into the store looked hungover and fucked to me.

A.J. finished his smoke and we got back into the car, twenty or thirty minutes after we’d first stopped. I was learning stuff all the time.

 

  1. Cleveland

I’d never seen them at my readings before. I’m used to reading to punk rockers and hipsters in their twenties and thirties. But with this tour, I stumbled into readings with a different crowd. At Mac’s Backs in Cleveland, fully half of the audience was composed of gray-haired women in their sixties. One of them was a nun. I didn’t know she was a nun until after the reading, which seems like such a wasted opportunity to me because I know so many Catholic jokes.

My reading at the Cocoa Beach Library brought out a second crowd of sexagenarians. This made more sense to me because it was a reading in a library in a community with a large population of retirees. I still wasn’t sure why they chose to come out and listen to me, though.

As it turned out, sexagenarians rounded out the audience at most of the readings I did to support Train Wreck Girl. They laughed at the times that I hoped they would. They bought books. One even showed up with a dog-eared copy of the novel and had me sign it to her, then talked to me about the ending.

Now, you may be thinking, wait a second. Aren’t you supposed to be a punk rock guy? Aren’t you one of the founders of this here punk rock zine? What’s going on here?

I may be thinking the same thing.

 

  1. Minneapolis

After I finished my reading at Arise Bookstore in Minneapolis, the God Damn Doo Wop Band took the stage. And, by “stage,” I mean the empty area in front of the chairs in the backyard of Arise. It was one of those perfect Minneapolis days that apparently don’t happen all that often but seem to happen every time I’m there. It was sunny, temperatures in the low eighties, an even cooler breeze. The sun was starting to set behind the bookstore. The band sat on a low wall.

The God Damn Doo Wop Band: three women who know how to spend their money on boots and tattoos and hair dye, who, more importantly, know how to sing doo wop songs. They launched into three-part-harmonies about boy troubles. On the one hand, they seemed like an authentic throwback to the Staten Island doo wop of the fifties. On the other hand, it was something totally fresh and original.

One of the band members is named Annie. She used to be in the Soviettes. She didn’t wear boots. Her Vans were worn through just above the big toe. As she sang, her big toe popped out of the hole in her shoe. A little red toenail kept the beat.

 

  1. Atlanta

Above the urinal in The Highlander in midtown Atlanta, someone has written, “Jesus Hates Bald Pussy.”

I did not know that.

Author’s note: This is the fifteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #47.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.