Thursday, August 12, 2010
It has nothing to do with porn.
This started out as a writing exercise based on a short trip I took early this summer to visit my hometown. Everyone mentioned is based off a real person. And most of the dialog comes from actual events. But I need to make it clear that this story has become fiction. I've manipulated time and conversation like a collage, so that people may come across worse, or at least different, than they actually are.
To my friends: I love you. But we're all a little bit crazy, lost, fucked up, and full of shit. And different. :)
I'm at Julie's Hot Dog Stand in Grass Valley, California, and the boy behind the counter won't look me in the eyes. His pupils are like saucers and he's squinting, so I think he's just stoned. But he asks, “Is that a Converge shirt?” I glance down at what I'm wearing and he says, “Yeah, 'cause it says, 'Converge.'”
“You like them?”
The boy is cooking me a Polish sausage and nodding like it's a sort of dance. “Jake Bannon, his voice is amazing, and yeah, it's so fucking good, you know?” The boy tells me things about this band that I already know: that the vocalist owns a record label, that he's got a solo project out. “It's different, you know, like not heavy or loud at all, but I love that shit where you can just mellow out and...” He's putting mustard on my sausage so the thought is never finished.
“Did you grow up around here?” I ask.
“Well...Yeah, sort of,” says the boy.
“It's been about five or six years, but I used to play in some metal bands around this area.”
“Oh yeah? I go to shows all the time. What bands were you in?”
“When I was really young,” I say, “I played guitar in this band, Datura, and later in this band, Heuristic, when metal-core was a bigger deal.”
The boy's face is blank when he asks, “What other bands were you in?”
“Just those,” I tell him. “I live in LA now.”
A girl walks in wearing pink & plaid pants and a dark-brown wife-beater. She interrupts us, asking the boy if she can fill out a job application.
I can't see her face from where she's standing, but I stare at her back while the boy fetches a piece of paper. Her skin is ivory white, marked only by deep red scratches and purple welts. There's something cute about the marks, as if they're a testament to her secret kink or a tomboyish love for backwoods adventure. But when she turns around and I see her rounded face, yellow teeth, and uncovered acne, I can only imagine her wounds as a product of non-consensual abuse.
I feel sorry for the girl when she fills out her application, and pleads intermittently with the boy. “I was wondering how soon I could start,” she says. “'Cause I'm completely free, and...” she laughs, which sounds forced and kind of sad. “I've been looking for a job... for a year.”
“I don't, uh, make those decisions,” he replies. “But I'll be sure yours is at the top of the pile.”
She smiles at the boy and then in my direction, staring right through me. I want her to leave, to return to her white trash boyfriend, and get her face smashed again for being so helpless, poor, and unattractive, and not in any of the ways people still care about. But my imagination is running wild, and the fact of the matter is my pity, disgust, contempt, or whatever all stems from my inability conceptualize fucking her.
She disappears and I try to focus on something else by asking, “What's your name?”
“Henry,” says the boy.
“Well, if you're ever in LA...” I trail off, clutching my hot dog.
“Yeah. I'll look you up or something,” he says even though he doesn't even know who I am.
“You know some guy named Henry?” I ask my friend Nate, while we lounge on the couch at the only trendy coffee shop in the entire county. “He's into metal, I think.”
“Um, yeah. I think I've seen him at shows in Sacramento and around here.”
“Did he ever go to shows with us?”
“To be honest, I first started seeing him at The Boardwalk after you left. He's kind of younger than us.”
“How much younger?”
“Like, a lot younger.”
“Oh,” I say, somewhat relieved that my musical efforts were not entirely irrelevant to this region, but perhaps just missed completely by a younger generation. “I'm glad there are still kids into that shit. 'Cause last time I want to see Converge, it was just a completely different experience. The kids are getting older. They have to go to work in the morning. There's nothing intense about it and the band just seems like a caricature of whatever angst we used to have.”
“Yeah, last time I saw them there was like a barricade between us and the stage.”
Nate and I plan an evening trip to Sacramento to visit our friend, Drew.
On our way out of downtown Grass Valley, I spot the girl with the pink & plaid pants. She's sitting on a bench by herself. At first I think she's waiting for a bus, but there are none of the typical signs that delineate a public transit stop. She's not looking down the road either. Just at her feet. If she's waiting, it could be for anything.
“Did you see that girl?” I ask Nate.
Drew's standing front of his apartment complex when we pull up blasting the new Lady Gaga single from my mom's Honda Civic.
“Oh my god, what is that?”
“Alejandro,” I tell him. “The music video's amazing. It's like Madonna but way more gay.”
“I don't even want to see it,” says Drew. Still, he gives me a hug.
“What's up, dude?” asks Nate.
“Whatever,” says Drew, leading us towards his home. “Same shit.”
Inside, his studio is spare. There's a mattress on the floor and some of his guitars propped up in the corner. I recognize the Les Paul from when we used to play music together. The Fender acoustic is the same as what I've seen on his vlog.
“My mom thinks I'm lazy because I don't have a job. But I don't think she understands our generation,” says Drew.
“Yeah,” I agree with a smirk. “Real jobs are so last century. Everyone says the economy is terrible, but I don't know anyone our age who wants to work. The only people under thirty who make any money sell drugs or sex.”
“We grew up hearing we should follow our dreams. I'm not gonna do something unless I'm happy about it.” Drew pauses. “This sounds really cliché or whatever, but I saw this issue of High Times with Axl Rose on the front. He was surrounded by all these girls and just high as fuck. That's my dream. To play guitar and get stoned all day.”
Nate chimes in. “Everyone in Grass Valley sells weed. It's fucking annoying the only job I can get is trimming plants. I hate that whole scene.”
“They're all so fucking high and mighty about dumb shit,” says Nate. “But they're just as greedy as anyone else. And because it's not regulated, it's like laissez-faire economics, but run by fucking hippies.”
“Yeah, that's dumb,” says Drew. “I mean, I might start growing, but only so I don't have to buy it all the time.”
“So you're not gonna work until you become Axl Rose?” I ask him, mostly as a joke.
Drew laughs. “Well, my student aid comes in two weeks. If I don't spend any money, I still have to find five more dollars to pay my rent. But I don't know. I've been looking online for some work.” He pulls up the web browser on his Macbook Pro. It's open to YouTube.
“Oh, have you seen those vodka commercials by Tim & Eric and Zach Galifinakis?” asks Nate.
“Uh. I don't think so,” says Drew. I also shake my head, “No.”
Nate types something in to the keyboard and we watch a video where three comedians wear wigs, fight in the ocean, and pour vodka into over-sized glasses filled with ice cubes and sand. Then we watch more. Our plans for the night fall through.
While streaming a viral video on genital self-mutilation, Drew says, “God, I can't believe how fucked up people are. I go to these meetings for people effected by suicide. You know, 'cause of my dad. Anyways, this lady tells a story about the day she came home from the hospital with her newborn child. Her husband tells her he loves her, goes into another room, and then she hears a bang. So cradling her baby in one arm, she runs to the next room. Her husband's got a gun in his hand and he's spurting blood from a massive hole in his head. But the guy's still blinking. She holds her husband while he bleeds to death. And his blood is squirting all over their fucking kid. Puts things in perspective, right?”
This leads our conversation to suicide in general.
“Weren't you 5150'd back in the day?” asks Drew.
A 5150 is a California Welfare and Institutions code which allows someone to be involuntarily confined for psychiatric reasons. “Yeah,” I tell him. “Back when I was fifteen, I spent a few days in the nuthouse.”
“Again,” he goes on, “I think our parents just don't understand our generation. Like, I shouldn't have joked with my mom about my gun. 'Cause I was depressed and because they don't like me smoking weed, and because they found my gun, my mom and her husband drove me to the hospital. I was like, 'What are we doing here?' No one would say anything. Finally, my mom sighs and goes, 'Oh Drew...' So I took off running in my pajamas. I'm twenty-five years old and have to run away from hospital security in my pajamas.”
“What does that have to do with our generation?” asks Nate.
“Because when we were younger, we would do dumb shit like cut our wrists or wear makeshift prison uniforms to school and burn American flags at recess. Maybe we thought we were being political, but it was just something to do to feel different or make sure someone paid attention to us.”
“So that's why we don't want jobs?” It's a question no one really answers.
“People still get jobs,” says Drew. “They're just people I don't want to be.”
When I'm back in Grass Valley, three days before I return to Los Angeles, there's a stretch of four hours where I don't know what to do. I can't get a hold of anyone, and my mom is at work. So I use her Honda Civic to drive around town.
After spending five minutes in a small bookstore, I drive to a skate park my brother used to frequent. I don't skate, but it's the only place I know where kids will always hang out. Except, when I get there, I realize I'm not that much of a kid. Most everyone at the park is ten years younger than I am.
One of the older girls is wearing pink & plaid pants, and a dark-brown wife-beater. She's slumped over the end of a concrete table. Other than the ground, it seems like the only place left to sit. So I head over.
“Hey,” says the girl.
I give her a friendly nod.
“I saw you at the hot dog place.”
“Right,” I tell her. “You were looking for a job.”
“I don't think I got it.”
“Are you homeless or something?”
“What?” she says, somewhat offended. “Why would you say that?”
“Sorry. It's just the third time I've seen you wear those pants.”
“The third time?”
“Never mind,” I say, turning my attention to the shirtless boys sliding across metal rails.
“Do you smoke?” asks the girl.
“I haven't had a cigarette all day.”
“That sucks,” I tell her, and then go, “Listen. I have this idea about you, and it's probably more fucked up than the truth. And I just want to know if I can ask you a question?”
“Is that the question?” she asks.
“No.” Then after a moment: “What happened to your back?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” I say, “you've got all these welts and bruises. They're on your arms too.”
“Oh.” She looks at her shoulder. “I don't know.”
“How can you not know?”
She points towards her left forearm. “This one I think is from hiking. But some of them might be from my dad, or from being clumsy, or maybe something else.”
“Do you live with your dad?” I'm not entirely sure why I'm asking all these questions.
“Not anymore,” she says. “I'm staying with some friends.”
“They don't hurt you, right?”
She laughs. “Well, not on purpose or anything. Sometimes we fight, but no, they don't hurt me.” There's a silence between us before she asks, “What's your idea about me?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Do you want to be my boyfriend?” This sounds less like a joke than I expect.
“That's not why I'm asking.”
“Well, you still haven't answered my question. But I'm nice, so I'll tell you. No, I don't have a boyfriend.”
“I guess I just thought you were a different kind of person.”
“What kind of a person?” she asks.
“Someone I could feel sorry for. I like thinking people are worse off than I am.”
“You're kind of mean,” she says. “Even though you don't look like it. But maybe you are better off than me. I mean, do you have a job?”
“Sort of,” I tell her. “I guess I make decent money for someone my age.”
“Well, if you have money, you can do what you want, right?”
“Sometimes,” I say.
“Why are you even here? You don't have a skateboard or anything.”
“I guess I'm bored.”
“Yeah, me too,” she says.
“So why don't you do something?
“Why don't you?” she bites back.
“I don't know.”
It looks like the girl chews her tongue before she swallows. “Exactly.”
Nate and I go to this show behind a venue where a louder, more popular show is going on. It's mostly comprised of whiny, acoustic, lesbian rock, but there's a band playing I really want to see. Some of the members used to play in a metal band, so I'm expecting something heavy.
“What brings you up north?” asks the vocalist of the potentially heavy band.
“Just visiting,” I say. “How you been?”
“Amazing,” he says, holding my shoulder and smiling. After this, he walks away.
Some guy approaches me and introduces himself as Andy. “You're Chris, right?”
“Yeah. I'm sorry, how do we know each other?”
“I used to see you at parties in Santa Cruz? You still live there?”
“Oh,” I say. “No. I'm in LA now. You went to UC Santa Cruz, right?”
“Only for a year,” says Andy. “Now I'm back here.”
“I guess. I'm sort of living in a half-way-house. Sort of doing the sober thing. It's hard 'cause not a lot of kids our age aren't into that scene.”
“I don't drink or smoke or anything, but yeah, I know what you mean.”
“We're two in a million, right?.”
I shrug. “So what are you up to besides being sober?”
“Believe it or not,” he says, “being sober takes up a lot of time. But I've been playing guitar again. Been messing around a lot with pedals and stuff. I want to record a demo soon.”
“That sounds... interesting.” I'm looking past him because the girl with the pink & plaid pants is standing on the other side of the street. I feel drawn to her like she embodies a car crash or the scent of rotten food. “I'll be right back,” I tell Andy.
“Are you going to the show?” I ask the girl with pink & plaid pants.
“No,” she says. “Everyone looks kind of faggy.”
“They're artists,” I say, which doesn't seem to change her mind.
“I also don't have any money,” she adds.
“If I paid for your ticket, would you go?”
“I don't think so.”
“So it's not about money. You just don't like music.”
“What kind of music is it?” she asks.
“I'm not really sure.”
“People who look like that...” She nods towards some modern bohemian. “They think they're better than everyone else.”
“A few years back I would've argued with you. But you're probably right. Anyways, I'm more interested in what people like you think.”
“Take a guess.”
“I really can't figure it out,” I tell her.
“I just want what they...” She's referring to the bohemian. “... think they have.”
“What? Credibility?” At this moment, some guy with an electric banjo starts playing a song outside the venue.
“Is that what it's called?” she asks.
She seems to think about this. “Credibility might be nice, but I really just want to be happy.”
“Oh my god,” I say. “That's original.”
“That's not what you want?”
“No,” I tell her. “I want to be young and desirable forever. Which is impossible. So I guess I want life to be a consistent letdown.”
“Uh, okay. Well, I'm gonna go home. It was nice seeing you again. Sort of.”
I can't stop thinking about this girl while the bands play their sets. Aged punks, hipsters, metal-heads, drug addicts, or whatever, croon into the night. Some of it seems like powerful stuff. The amplification helps. I wonder why I'm so moved by these pieces of music. Because once the songs are over, everyone looks like a piece of shit.
“Are you still playing music?” asks an old acquaintance of mine.
“I'm focusing mostly on the film thing, and other stuff just to make money. But yeah, I play guitar almost every day. Just not in a band or anything.”
His eyes squint. “That's a bummer.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I always thought you'd do something with it,” he says. “But I guess LA's a hard place to hack it.”
“I'm still not really sure what you mean.”
“Yeah. Don't listen to me,” says the acquaintance. “All I meant is that it's a faster lifestyle. Here you can just live and do your thing. I imagine LA to be hard to deal with.”
“Have you been there?” I ask.
“A long time ago with my parents. We were staying in a sketchy part of town. I was walking down the street and this Mexican guy was just sitting there. All I could think to say was, 'You don't see many white people around here, do you?' The guy nodded, which was a nicer reaction than I expected.”
“That was a good idea,” I tell him, and then in a mocking impersonation: “'Look at me. I'm different than you.'”
The acquaintance laughs, but he looks kind of hurt. My friend, Nate, saves me before I feel like I have to apologize.
“I think I'm gonna go,” says Nate. “Found a ride back to town.”
“Yeah, I should probably head out too. I was thinking of going to the river in the morning, and I want to get some sleep.”
If I say goodbye to the acquaintance, it's not on purpose.
My body rests on the granite rocks that cradle the Yuba River. Two girls lay by my side. One is a friend I used to be in love with: Ashley. The other is her younger sister: Lexi.
Ashley is trying to explain to Lexi that the guy she likes, or rather, who likes her, is a complete fucking idiot. “I mean, he said he was on tour in fucking Oroville. You can't be on tour in one town.” She's sounds more upset than she probably is, but it's this type of act that makes her seem so passionate. “And he said he lost all his money after a three day Oxycontin binge. Not that I believe he had any money to lose, but that shit's for heroine addicts.”
“I've never had anyone tell me they love me before. I know he's awkward, but when we're alone together, he's like a different person.” Lexi stares at her feet. “Besides, you hate everyone I try to date.”
“Well,” I interject. “He's cute. At least there's that.”
Ashley keeps going. “He's twenty-six, Lexi. And what does he want to do with his life?”
“My ex just wanted to be famous. This guy wants to play music. I don't think he cares if he becomes famous.”
“But he doesn't have a job!” More of the passion comes forth.
“Ashley, it's not that big of a deal. It's not like she's gonna marry the guy. Let her have her fun,” I say, blocking my eyes from the sun. “I've had sex with complete idiots. I get the attraction.” I turn my projections to Lexi. “It just depends how much emotional destruction you want to wield. Because people like that get really attached.”
“He would probably die if I broke up with him,” says Lexi.
“You've been with the guy for a week.” Ashley rolls her eyes. “Is he even really your boyfriend?”
I don't remember the answer to the question, but when we leave, I tell Lexi, “Just don't think about it like it's a big deal.”
On my last day in Grass Valley, I drive back to Julie's Hot Dog Stand. The only person behind the counter is a middle-aged woman. “Is there someone who works here named...?” I begin to ask for the girl in the pink & plaid pants when I realize I don't know her name.
The middle-aged woman starts to list all the hot dogs on the menu.
“I was just looking for someone.”
“Well, I'm new here,” says the woman. “But I can check the schedule if you know his name.”
“You just got hired?” I ask.
For some reason, I feel like I'm going to cry. I will probably never see the pink & plaid pants girl again. And now I feel such a desperate need to know the answers to every question I could never ask her. Even if the questions aren't really tangible, I'm completely sure I'll never know the truth. I'll never come to understand how could someone grow up in this town, or even live here without dreaming of something bigger and better and completely unrealistic. Maybe the American dream or rock star agenda, or whatever it's called, is only granted to those with parents kind enough to lend out their garage. But if those parents don't exist, maybe the hot dog stand is the only thing left to look forward to. That, and happiness.
The fact remains, though, that the girl is not working at the hot dog stand. So happiness might be all that's left.
But maybe the pants really are a sign that she's one us; a part of “our generation.” Because, of anyone I've met here, she's the only one I know to be different. And that's what we're all about.