Aaron Elliott, Mr. Cometbus, told me that that my band Bitch Fight should stop saying we were from San Francisco and say we were from Tuolumne instead. I was eighteen and Aaron Elliott, the drummer of Crimpshine and East Bay scenester was my boyfriend. Aaron was the rare guy who thought it was cool to date a girl drummer, someone like him, but not, all at the same time. I was taken with his long-armed, pointy-kneed, awkward drumming style, full lips, and bleach blond hair, and I let him pursue me until I was ready to break up with the mysterious, oft-distant, stage-hand boyfriend who said he was Italian, even though his mom and sister looked distinctly Mexican. Aaron liked my brown skin and thought it was cool that I was from a small town, a fact that Bitch Fight hoped to put behind us, and we weren’t really from Tuolumne once Elka Zolot jointed the band.
I had moved to San Francisco from Tuolumne in 1987, just two weeks after I graduated, left town with my band mates Nicole Lopez and Sue Ann Carney, seeking to make a name for the band we started in high school and to attend City College. The band, Bitch Fight, was appropriately named for our constant bickering, petty jealousies, and our gender, as there were not many women playing punk rock, and we knew that, and felt it was worth pointing out.
Having grown up in Berkeley, Aaron Elliot had a sort of a romantic or idealized notion of what it meant to grow up in small town, and he never tried to understand why the Tuolumne Bitch Fight girls didn’t want to claim it. He was right that it made us different, made us who we were even, but there were plenty of things he did not understand. He definitely did not understand, and I didn’t know how to explain to him what it was like to be a minority, a person of color in a small town, a place that had tried to grind me down.
Sure, Aaron was different too, nerdy, awkward, and punk rock, but the punk rock part, that was just an attitude, ripped jeans, and weird shit tied to his wrists, things he could take off. And his attitude represented a major flaw common in the Bay Area punk scene. People of color in punk were often viewed as the white versions of who we really were. My last name was Gonzales, but I didn’t speak with an accent, the black kids in the scene didn’t act “ghetto,” and” scenesters like Eric Yee didn’t substitute an ‘L’ sound for an ‘R’ sound, all facts that were commented on with the following “compliment” — you’re the whitest Mexican/Black guy/Asian that I’ve ever met (shout out to Kendon Smith).
And while I wasn’t at all able to articulate my feelings, my annoyance with Aaron’s opinion about what I should claim and how, I did know that growing up brown in a sea of whiteness, on welfare, being poor, the instability, and the shame, that it was all still too close. But I get it now, what Aaron meant about thinking Nicole, Sue, and I should claim Tuolumne even though he never tried to understand why we didn’t want to.
But Aaron Elliot’s directive about what I should claim, no matter how misdirected and naive it was at the time is something I never forgot. Long after I stopped reading his love letters, hoping to run into him somewhere unexpectedly, listening to Crimpshrine, and long after playing drums and writing lyrics for Spitboy and Instant-Girl, touring Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and the United States twice, going back to college, getting married, and having a son, Aaron’s ideas about my small town made some sense to me.
Ten years after Instant-Girl, Spitboy’s offshoot band, played its last show, and once settled into my tenure track teaching position, I wrote two personal essays about growing up in Tuolumne. I wrote “Blondes Have More Fun,” and “Queen of Chlorine” and then Aaron’s words came to me. He had wanted Bitch Fight to claim Tuolumne, and we never did, but there I was writing a somewhat humorous memoir about the most painful, trying, and agonizing years of my life, and the town I sort of pretended I wasn’t from for so long — there I was claiming it.