Last summer, I went to a bay area’s women writers’ gathering at a pub downtown Oakland. It was a pub, so just about everyone was drinking artisan beer. I ordered a glass of red wine.
The purpose of this gathering was to network with other female writers. I went by myself with no idea that I was about to come down with a violent stomach virus. I attributed my sudden, but familiar, feelings of standoffishness to a comment from one of the gathering’s organizers, a white woman, just five minutes after I arrived.
“You look like Alice Bag,” the women smiled and shook my hand.
My hair, which parts on the side, was cut in an asymmetrical bob, dark with bright red pieces opposite the part, and I had just told her that I was working on a memoir about being in a female punk band.
“I do?” I said.
I could see the woman’s face fall in a sudden realization.
“Because I’m Mexican? Or maybe it’s my haircut,” my voice trailed off on the word haircut. I decided that I should try to give the woman the benefit of the doubt.
The woman stammered something inaudible, then turned and introduced me to her friend standing nearby. The friend and I exchanged the requisite writer information, what kind of writing we do, publications, and what we’re working on now; then I decided to sit down. I needed to think carefully about what had just happened.
Had I stood up for myself and questioned a potentially rude comment, or had I nearly accused the organizer of being racist, or at least of stereotyping?
It is actually a good thing, in the writing world, if you resemble another writer in some way, writing style, genre, or region because it’s a convenient way to give a frame of reference for your own work, to demonstrate that your style, genre, or region already has an audience, so I know that writers do this, make these convenient comparisons, but telling one person of color that she looks like another person of color, always smacks a little “they all look alike.” Of course, Alice Bag had recently released her own memoir about growing up Chicana and being in a punk band.
This was all getting a little hard to sort out.
When the movie Lone Star came out in 1996, many people told me that I looked like Elizabeth Peña (RIP). This seemed like a convenient comparison too – a Latina in a movie seen by many people that I knew, a film that got attention for its content and good critical reviews, and I all of a sudden looked like her. It felt like the fact that I now supposedly looked like someone in a movie, a woman deemed pretty by the movie industry, legitimized my face, my slightly Mayan nose, my heavy-lidded, almond shaped eyes, my full lips. Most people probably didn’t really mean for the comment to feel this way, but I can’t help having a lot of baggage about standards of beauty growing up in a small town in the 80’s when perfectly blond feathered hair and blue eyes reined supreme.
The irony, I’ve realized, is that while Elizabeth Peña and Alice Bag look nothing a like, I do actually look a little like both of them. I look more like Elizabeth Peña around the eyes and maybe like Alice Bag around the mouth (or is it the shape of our faces?) but perhaps more so because my hair is often cut and died similar to hers and we are both Chicanas who were in punk rock bands, though years and years apart – superficial things?
It’s confusing isn’t it, which is why you might want to be careful. Those of us on the receiving end may want to be careful too, because I quite like the way Alice Bag looks, and looking like Alice Bag, looking like a fierce, not-so-light-skinned Latina is what I look like and what I want to look like after all.
I am super excited to announce that in Spring 2016, The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Female Punk Band, a memoir about my days in Spitboy will be published. The book contains about eighteen separate pieces (a few you may have already read here on this blog). What follows is an exploration of Spitboy lyrics, an effort to explore the most important aspect of the band, what we actually stood for. I hope to write a few other brief pieces like this one — let me know what you think, as they won’t likely be as narrative as the previous Spitboy pieces.
Everyone in Spitboy wrote lyrics, but Adrienne and I wrote the bulk of them. After Spitboy was together for a couple of years, we realized that Adrienne tended to write songs that made the personal political, and that I wrote the overtly political ones. I wrote the lyrics for songs like “Motivated by Fear,” “Seriously,” “In Your Face,” “Ultimate Violations,” and “Wizened.”
To date, I believe “In Your Face” to be one of my best lyrics because I was able to able to use the structure of the lines to help me say what I wanted to say, and in very few words, about how the words people choose tend to illustrate the way they think, and how the way that they think is often powerfully influenced by media images, including the widespread acceptance of (an enthusiasm for) using women’s bodies to sell products.
I think that I wrote the guitar riff too, though I could never play bar chords. Karin would take any riffs that I wrote at home on my acoustic guitar and turn them into searing power chords.
In Your Face
It’s in you face.
It’s on your mind.
Out of your mouth
It’s what you say
The words you choose
The way you think
On your mind
On your mind
On your mind
It’s in you face.
It’s on your mind.
Out of your mouth
It’s what you say
The words you choose
The way you think
The pretty faces
The sexual connotations
The sexual objectification
The sexual exploitation
Who’s to blame?
Who do you point the finger at?
Who’s to blame?
Who do you point the finger at?
The sexual connotations
The sexual objectification
The pretty faces
Don’t buy it!
I’ve never been a fan of rhyming lyrics, but I did use a lot of repetition and parallel structure. The rhyming that does take place here was not on purpose, but it was convenient, and Adrienne’s vocal on “In Your Face” on the True Self Revealed LP is brilliant.
I was only like twenty-one or twenty-two when I wrote this song.
One of the most memorable Spitboy shows, for me, was the show we played in Little Rock with Chino Horde outdoors during a spectacular summer rainstorm. I fell in love in Little Rock too (something I only did once while on tour), but that’s not the story I’m going to tell, though the two are definitely related.
We must have arrived in Little Rock early in the morning, or the night before we played in the afternoon by the river because we spent a lot of time at Burt Taggert’s architectural marvel of a house, soaking up some genuine, old-fashioned Southern hospitality. Burt’s mom was kind to us, but she clearly did not approve of our crumpled, fresh-out-of-the-van look and unshaven armpits, urging us to use her shower, “there’s one here and another one down the hall,” and rest up before we came to eat.
Rested and fed and chatted up, we made our way to the amphitheater where we’d play with Chino Horde and probably some other band too. Adding to the magic of the day, Burt and the rest of the guys doted on us quite a bit, asking if we needed to make any stops for anything we might need once back out on the road. I got the feeling that the Little Rock scene kids were this way with all bands that came through, but that we were getting the extra-special treatment because we were women, and not in the let-me-take-care-of-you-little-lady way; still, there was something sort of gentlemanly about it. And there had been, for quite some time, a strong connection between Little Rock and Bay Area bands, which probably started when Econochrist relocated to the Bay Area in the late 1980’s, but these slightly younger Little Rock punk kids were more Ben Sizemore (quiet, thoughtful in action, and serious about their message) than they were Jon Sumrall (funny, wild, and sometimes out of control). Though, the Ben Sizemore comparison isn’t quite right either. These guys were a whole new, kinder, gentler, punk guy – nothing hard, or threatening, about them.
The sky was a hazy blue when we arrived to the large covered amphitheater, where we would headline since we were the touring band, but we would have been happy playing anywhere on the bill, especially when we saw this beautiful spot — the lazy river, a bridge connecting the two sides of Little Rock on one side, and a large grassy area that spread out all around us. We had played churches, Elk’s lodges, basements, small all-ages clubs, and garages, but this was our first outdoor amphitheater and our first time in Little Rock.
To my surprise, the haziness in the sky had turned to clouds as people began arriving for the show, and by the time Chino Horde began to play, the rain was coming down heavy. The large, covered, amphitheater stage held all the bands and all the punk kids who came out, and we all managed to stay mostly dry. I had never seen or heard of Chino Horde before the tour, but I couldn’t take my eyes of them as soon as they took the stage. Depending on how tired or over stimulated I felt on tour, I would sometimes sit in the van and read before playing. I didn’t usually get nervous before playing, but I did often need to gather myself quietly before playing, and sometimes the van was the only quiet place to go. But sometimes there were bands like Chino Horde who gave you energy, made you excited to get up there after them and participate in the moment, and that’s how I felt on this day. It didn’t matter that the rain was coming down. It only added intensity to the band on stage, their performance punctuated by claps of thunder and flashes of lightening.
At one point during the Chino Horde set, with Burt, and Steve, and Jason, all at their mics, the rain started coming down sideways, wetting one side of the stage. I remember looking from Karin and Adrienne and Paula and to the suddenly dark sky and the rain all around us. They looked worried too, for we couldn’t be sure that Chino Horde or the rest of us wouldn’t be electrocuted. It seemed that Mother Nature was trying to match the energy on stage, or even demanding that Chino Horde keep up, for the further Chino Horde got into their set, the harder it rained. I had never seen such a thing before, a group of young men so intent on playing their music that what seemed to me a dangerous electrical storm was of no consequence. And for a moment, I didn’t want them to stop. The weather, the music, the young men playing their hearts out in front of us, the whole thing took my breath away.
And just when I didn’t think I could take anymore of the frightening weather and Chino Horde’s intensity, Burt announced their last song, and just like that, the rain slowed, the clouds parted, and the sun burst through, lighting the sky. The audience couldn’t help turning its attention to the sudden change overhead, to the sun shining down again on the bridge, creating a reflection on the water. I remember looking at the Karin, and Paula, and Adrienne, wide-eyed, relieved and in disbelief that such a thing could happen, at what we had just witnessed. Then as Burt, and Steve, and Jason strummed their final notes, and David hit his cymbals the final time, a glittering rainbow fanned out across the whole sky.
It didn’t seem very punk rock to me to have roadies, to be waited on by people hired to help, so when we had to find people to help us on tour, I felt a little reluctant about it. My reluctance about hired help was magnified because I’m a woman, the oldest daughter of a single mother, expected to anticipate the needs of others, and not the other way around.
To be clear, no one that I knew in a punk band considered roadies just the hired help. Roadies were usually friends who knew a thing or two about guitars, amps, and drums and who didn’t mind helping the band lug shit around, and often for no more than the opportunity to travel. However, when Paula started dating Pete the Roadie, Spitboy had instant access to an actual professional roadie, a man who had dedicated his life to touring with bands and practically crafting the punk rock roadie code for punk rock roadies who admired and looked up to him, even trained with him. Pete, and roadies like him, were not unlike those in other service jobs who took serving others seriously. In fact, I thought of Pete the Roadie many years later when I read Barbara Eherenriech’s opinions about what it means to serve in her book Nickle and Dimed, though, unlike Ehrenreiech who worked as a waitress and hotel maid then goes back to her real life to write about it, being a roadie and serving others is Pete the Roadie’s real life.
Pete the Roadie seemed to believe that his primary job was to serve artists, to make it easier for them to make the music that he loved and to spread the ideas that he believed in. He did what he did without the glory of actually being in the band. Being a woman whose life had, in large part, been about serving others, helping my mom take care of my brother and sister, and in my job as a pre-school teacher where all I did was take care of small children who couldn’t take care of themselves (and their parents who needed reassurance that their children were happy while they were away at work), I admired this code, but when applied to me, it felt decadent. I didn’t feel comfortable being served. Still, none of that mattered to Pete. All that mattered to him was that my drums were set up properly or that nothing moved out of place when I played them.
When we played live, Pete would kneel at the side of the stage half way between the drum kit and the amps on the stage in his grungy jeans and work boots, a roadie tool attached to his belt for easy access. Ready to jump into action, he’d watch for me to nod in the direction of my high-hat if it was sliding out of place or the bass drum pedal, which often came loose by my furious pounding. When I nodded, Pete would come running to fix whatever was out place, his fingers always in danger of getting munched by some moving part on the drum hardware, a consequence that he’d gladly accept if it allowed me to finish out whatever song we had been playing uninterrupted.
During one show in Prague, our only show in the Czech Republic (a country that had split from Slovakia just earlier that year), my bass drum pedal went clean through the head of the bass drum of the set I was borrowing from one of the opening acts. In England, while touring with Citizen Fish, I had played Trotsky’s set, and Karin and Paula had used the Citizen Fish amps, as were unable to bring our large pieces of equipment over on the plane, just guitars, cymbals and my snare drum. Not having my own kit scared me at first. Would I be able to play someone else’s drum set, a different set each night? Touring definitely required a new kind of flexibility. Still, I hadn’t actually worried so much about breaking someone else’s kit. The head of the Prague drum set must have been worn already because I could feel it give way early in the set. I looked down at it a couple times, wondering if I could see a crack, and when I looked back up, Pete had stood from his keeling position, his eyes trained on me, waiting for a cue. By the end of the song, the pedal had gone straight through the head and there wasn’t another. Pete had watched the mallet slice through the head, and was at my side with a solution when I thought that we might not be able to even go on. As I signaled to the band what was going on, Pete moved my drum stool out of the way, disconnected the foot pedal from the bass drum, and set about unscrewing the head from the drum using the drum key normally attached to his other tools on his belt loop.
“Don’t worry, Drums,” he said, looking over his shoulder on his hands and knees in front of the kit, “I’ll have this sorted right quick.”
In addition to his dedication to the service, Pete also really loved the communal feel of being on the road, the friendships that developed, the habits, the fast-pace, and the inside jokes. Pete rarely called me by name. He’d usually call me drummer or drums, especially when I was on stage. He called Adrienne “singer,” and he called Paula “Mrs. Roadie,” as he still does today. Pete also took it upon himself to make sure we had drinks if we wanted them, and he memorized what we liked to drink and when. He knew I was homesick too, missing Jason, my Little Rock boyfriend, and so he’d sit with me while I drank my glass of Tetley once we finished playing, and he had the drums torn down, and the equipment sorted and put away.
The movie Wayne’s World had just come out, and we had all seen it, given that, like Spinal Tap, it parodied rock musicians who we both represented and were rebelling against at the same time. Somewhere early in the tour, Pete and I began making Wayne’s World jokes, trying to make the other laugh harder with each new joke. But nothing made me laugh harder than when Pete the Roadie, who’s not known for being the sexiest guy in town, his punk band t-shirts tucked into his road-dingy jeans, for quicker access to his roadie tools, arched his pelvis toward my high-hat and said, “Sha-wing, high hat.”
I felt like I should do something to help Pete fix the bass drum head, but there wasn’t much I could do but watch in awe as Pete, pit-crew-fast, pulled the rim off the drum, turned the head 180 degrees, put the rim back on, tightened all eight tension rods, and duct taped the hole that was now at the top of the drum instead of near the bottom where it would be hit by the mallet.
“Party on, bass drum,” he said, with a big smile once he finished.
This cracked me up extra hard given that I had just broken someone else’s bass drum head, and Pete’s duct tape job had given it more life, though much altered
I wanted to hug him but there was not time.
My mirth over the repaired drum head only lasted so long because after the show we learned that most people who attended the show had paid a week’s wages to get in. We were sitting in the tour organizer’s grey, utilitarian-looking, high-rise apartment. It was hard to hear. All I could think of was that I should have paid for the drumhead and Spitboy should have played for free. If we had known this in advance, we would have done the right thing, even though Prague had been a super long drive from East Berlin. Though the prostitutes all along the highway on our way there should have been some kind of clue that the recent reunification of East and West Germany, and the breaking apart of the former Czechoslovakia had not resulted in any kind of instant economic prosperity.
I thought about Prague and all its haunting beauty and gray scale block housing on the long drive back to East Berlin, back by the sex workers, probably the same women standing by the side of the road on the way there. I thought about the people who spent a week’s wages just to see us play and wondered if it had been worth it, and how naïve we had been going there. I hoped that the drumhead that Pete had doctored with duct tape would last.
When we released our Mi Cuerpo Es Mio 7”, a riot grrl from Olympia accused Spitboy of cultural appropriation. The riot grrl, I’ll call her Amy, had ties to the Bay Area, and she was white. Maybe she really believed the accusation. Maybe cultural appropriation was a new concept to her, one that she wanted to try out, and felt it applied to us, or maybe she was just pissed off at Spitboy because we had distanced ourselves from her movement. Amy objected to our use of Spanish for the title of our record. She objected to the words “mi cuerpo es mio” which translates to my body is mine – apparently my body was invisible.
Mi Cuerpo Es Mio, Spitboy’s third release, followed our self-titled 7” on Lookout Records, and our full-length LP that came out on Ebullition. Mi Cuerpo Es Mio was an Allied release, and we chose Allied because of our ties, mostly through Karin, with John Yates, and because we had decided that we would not be owned by any one particular record label, especially since like the punk scene itself the punk record labels were run by men. We were of course, grateful for these particular men, but we didn’t want any of them to feel any kind of ownership over us, our music, or our message. I remember Karin framing our approach that way, and it made sense to me after feeling a great deal of embarrassment from comments made during the release of the Kamala and the Karnivores 7” which came out when I was still dating founding partner of Lookout Records, David Hayes. Turns out that Girl Band was just a really good record after all and with a brilliant cover concept that I will take some credit for. In it, each member of Kamala and the Karnivores is depicted with Barbie dolls. We even found a brown skinned Barbie for my doll and an Asian Barbie for Lynda who played guitar.
During my days entrenched in the scene, I never tried to pass for white, but my nickname was Todd and people didn’t always go by there last names. Familial ties were less important than what band you were in, zine you wrote, or city you were from, and a lot of us were from broken or dysfunctional families anyway. If you were in a band, you went by your first name and your last name was the name your band: Todd Spitboy, Adrienne Spitboy, and so on. Before Spitboy, people called me Todd Bitchfight.
Although I looked quite different from the rest of the Spitboy, my ethnicity didn’t often come up in conversation, not in the Bay Area. In the 1990’s, people were still trying to be colorblind, to not see race, or to pretend not to see it, as the case may be. It wasn’t polite to talk about race, and so I didn’t really talk about it, but this one conversation sticks out in my mind:
“What’s your last name?”
We had just played a show and a friend of Karin’s had come to see us play.
“Gonzales,” I said. It was an unusual question.
“Your last name is Gonzales? Are you, um, Mexican?”
“Yeah, I am,” I said.
This was sort of nice – most people usually said, “What are you?”
“How come I didn’t know that before?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s so weird. I’m sorry,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“It seems like I should have known that before. I’ve seen you play and Spitboy, you know, you’re a punk band. I never thought about you all being anything other than that.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said.
“I feel bad.” She reached out and touched my knee.
I didn’t know what to say.
“Identity is so important, and I didn’t even see it, see you. I just saw Spitboy.”
“I don’t think that’s uncommon,” I said, “It’s easier just to see the short hair and clothes I guess.”
“Well, I’m not going to do that again,” she said, “It’s not right.”
After so many years of race/class ridicule that I endured growing up in Tuolumne, fitting in was important to me, but fitting into the punk scene the way I did then created a whole other problem. In conforming to the non-conformist punk ways, adhering, mostly, to the punk uniform, I had lost something along the way, and I began to experience rumblings of discontent that I didn’t quite understand. I secretly listened to Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre and sang along, holding long sad notes to words that, like Ronstadt, I only vaguely understood. I knew that my identity was the root of my confusion and discontent, so I began taking Spanish classes at a local community college when I could fit them in after work.
Learning to speak Spanish had been a life-long dream. As a child, someone had given me a red hardcover Spanish/English dictionary, and, naively, I thought if I read it everyday that I would become bilingual like the rest of my family in East LA. Later, living in the Bay Area and not being able to speak Spanish began messing with my head, made me feel inadequate, like a phony. I sometimes avoided going to the Mission District in San Francisco because while I was working super hard to fit into the punk scene, playing in bands, going to shows, and volunteering at Blacklist, and not always feeling totally accepted or understood, I felt really out of place in the Mission where it seemed like everyone spoke to me in Spanish and looked baffled when I couldn’t respond. Learning to speak my family’s language, even the little that I was able to speak after only a couple of semesters of college Spanish, provided some relief and helped me to come out as a person of color in the punk scene.
I didn’t say all of this out loud when I suggested Mi Cuerpo es Mio as the title for what would become Paula’s last release with the band because I still didn’t really have words to express all that was going on inside me at twenty-five. Later, when I did have the words, they often came out wrong, clumsy, angry, abrasive, and alienating, especially in those last days of Instant-Girl, but I suppose this was part of my process.
Everyone in the band liked the phrase mi cuerpo is mio because of it’s strength in sound and content and because it summed up all that we were about. The syntatical alignment of the masculine ending noun “cuerpo” and pronoun “mio” is what creates the strength in the line and is an aspect of the Spanish language that makes it particularly euphonious and easy to create rhyme. It was also a concept of the language that I understood particularly well, and I when I learned it, I was drawn to the way it created emphasis.
Still, the main reason that I suggested mi cuerpo es mio as the title of the 7” was to acknowledge an aspect of my membership in the band that I felt was missing, an aspect of myself that I felt unable to or insecure about expressing. Blame the scene; blame Tuolumme; blame America. It could have been any number of those things. Probably all of them together were to blame for my locura, for my schizophrenic, or closeted identity.
I hadn’t been at all sure that the Spitwomen would want to name our record “My Body is Mine” in Spanish, but they did, and that felt good, but being criticized by a riot grrrl was a huge blow. It really pissed me off.
Like a lot of people, my first reaction to anything upsetting back then was anger. Anger is a good mask for sadness, so I didn’t understand right away that I wasn’t really mad that that some riot grrl, keen on accusing people of cultural appropriation but who couldn’t recognize a person of color when she was staring one in the face, had attacked the band. I was hurt. I was hurt because people didn’t really see me, and I had let it happen. I had been invisibilized. People in the scene did not see my identity, the core of who I really was, the face and body through which I experienced the world. At shows, I did not register as a Chicana. I was just the drummer of Spitboy, and for some reason, I couldn’t be both.
On Spitboy’s first major US tour, having planned to drive as far north as Michigan for shows in Detroit and Flint, we decided, why not Canada too? Of course this meant that the four of us had to devise a plan to smuggle our contraband merchandise across the border into Canada and to convince the border patrol that even though we looked like a band and had a van full of amps, guitars, and drums, that we were not going to playing shows across the border. Toronto was to be our first stop, but would we make it?
We had been on tour a couple of weeks already, so much of our merch had been sold, but there were still quite a few t-shirts and seven inches left in the back of the van under the loft. Still, if the border patrol agent found a bunch of merchandise after seeing all the band equipment, she might deduce that we were going into Canada to perform, to make money – to work, essentially, and without work permits, which is illegal. A similar kind of illegal associated with Mexicans in the US, not that we made that connection at all.
Our Canadian tour contact who really wanted us to play a show in Toronto had told us what me must do in order to avoid suspicion, to ensure border agents that we were not going to be making money in Canada, only spending it. We had heard stories from other touring bands too, so as we drove from Flint to the border, we worked out our plan. We stopped at a service station a couple of miles before the border crossing to put the plan into action. We all got out and went to the back of the van to pull out the merchandise for hiding somewhere and rearranged all the equipment to hide one larger box of seven inches that we didn’t know what to do with. When they asked, we decided that we’d say we were a band from the US that had been on tour and we were headed to Canada for a short vacation before driving all the way back to California.
We must have been sure we wouldn’t be caught or that we’d just be turned away if our merchandise was discovered, because while we were all pretty nervous, we didn’t seem to think we were taking some big risk, even after the run-in with the police in New Orleans.
We were actually on our way out of town, driving around a bit lost, looking for the freeway, when we heard loud voice over bullhorn, ordering us to pull over. We had heard a couple of short siren squawks that we didn’t think had anything to do with us, and once Karin who had been driving realized, the sirens had been for us, slowed the van to a stop once she heard the order to pull over. From the passenger seat, I remember thinking that it was weird that the cops wouldn’t let us a drive ahead a bit to a stretch of road with a shoulder instead of the curve in the road along side a guardrail not far from the freeway entrance we had been looking for. For some reason, they were in a big hurry to get us stopped on the side of the road and out of the van.
“ Come out with your hands up!”
“They have us surrounded.” Karin looked out the driver’s side window, back to us, then back toward the window.
Paula and Adrienne sat frozen in the backseat.
“Come out with your hands up!”
With that we all scrambled out of the van, and like we were in some movie, with our hands up. The van was surrounded. Four, white, unmarked police cars and several police officers in swat gear semi-circled around us with their guns drawn.
“What are you doing in this neighborhood?”
I had noticed when we circled the block looking for the freeway that it was run-down looking neighborhood, and I saw some old black guys sitting on a porch as we passed by. A couple of the officers were wearing vests that said “Drug Squad.”
“We were looking for the freeway,” Karin said an edge in her voice.
“Why were you circling around?” The lead officer shouted still pointing his gun.
“We were looking for the freeway,” I said, pissed that the officer felt it was necessary for Karin to repeat what she had just told him.
“What do you got in there,” the lead officer pointed to the back of the van.
“Musical equipment,” Adrienne said, sounding as cooperative as she could.
“Open the back of the van please.”
“Yes, Officer.” Adrienne walked the back of the van with slow careful steps.
I wanted to ask if that was even legal, searching our van like that, but I didn’t, and Karin, Paula, and I stood still, avoiding any sudden movements, lined up just off the paved road, our backs to the guardrail. We watched as Adrienne opened the double doors and as the lead officer and another officer took a look inside. The other officers, kept their guns still raised, pointing right at us, ready to shoot.
“Any weapons or contraband?” the lead officer asked before attempting to move anything in the back of the van.
“No, sir, just amps and guitars and drums. We’re in band,” Adrienne said. “We played a show here last night.”
“Why were you circling around this neighborhood?”
I was getting impatient with that question.
“We told you that already. We’re not from here. We were looking for the freeway,” I said unable to hide my irritation, my arms now down at my side.
“Don’t get sassy with me, young lady.”
I wanted to tell him to fuck off.
“The freeway entrance is right there.” The lead officer pointed in the direction we were headed when they stopped us.
“Yes, sir, we know that. That’s where we were headed when you pulled us over,” Karin cut in.
The lead officer looked at the other cops and nodded his head. They lowered their guns.
“Okay, ladies, you can be on your way now
All the cops turned and walked toward their cars, and we got back in the van and waited until the police cars surrounding the van were out of our way so we could get on the freeway and out of New Orleans as soon as we could.
We couldn’t believe we had been pulled over like that with guns drawn; still it didn’t stop us from smuggling merchandise into Canada. It was just t-shirts and records, not drugs, or people, or fruit, or non-native plants, and it was before 9-11 when you could cross into Canada with just a driver’s license, and we were American, so none of it felt like a big deal.
At the service station near the Canadian border, we put our merchandise smuggling plan into action. Each of us put on as many t-shirts as we could starting with the smaller sizes on the bottom and layering with the larger sizes. It was either my idea to wear as many shirts as we could under our regular clothes or to repack our bags with as many t-shirt and seven inches as we could at the bottom and our dirtiest clothes on the top; I can’t quite remember which, but probably the latter. Both Karin and I had brought loose dresses to wear in the van, and so we put those on top. Paula and Adrienne put on sweatshirts. We laughed when we looked at each other, each a much puffier version of her self. It was nighttime, so it didn’t look strange that we were a little bundled up.
Since we looked weird with our different shades of different colored hair, because we were so young, and because we were driving a van, we knew we’d be searched. Waiting in a line of cars for that was nerve wracking. When it was our turn to hand over our identification and answer a few questions about where we were coming from and where we were headed, we were told to get out of the van. A male and female agent, wearing blue, opened the back of van and the side doors to have a look inside. They didn’t spend much time searching the back of the van after they saw all the heavy equipment, but they did look carefully inside the van, opening our bags, which we had left out in the open to show that we didn’t have anything to hide.
As the four of us stood in a row alongside the van as we had done while getting pulled over by the drug squad in New Orleans, I could see beams from the border agents’ flashlights sweeping the van. I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I waited with the other Spitwomen, imagining the male and female agent, opening our bags and finding dirty bras and blood-stained underwear, the dirtiest, sweatiest socks, and unused tampons spilling out, and imagined them thinking, “dirty Americans,” to themselves and talking about us once we had gotten back into our van, zipped up our bags, and drove off into Canada to play two shows and to sell a couple hundred dollars worth of merchandise, our feminine wiles and our cunning, used not to lure and seduce, but instead to trick and deceive.**
My grandma Delia hadn’t been expecting us, so her short hair was a troll doll mess, she didn’t have her eyebrows drawn on, and she wasn’t wearing any lipstick, but I figured she’d be home, being as it was a Sunday evening and she was seventy-five.
“Mi’ja!” She looked confused and surprised when she opened the door and saw me there with the other Spitwomen all in mostly black, dirty jean shorts over leggings, boots or heavy Doc Martin shoes, tattoos, and faded tank tops.
Spitboy had been playing a series of shows in the LA area, including a big festival in Long Beach, and we were on our way back to the Bay Area. I couldn’t drive past my grandma’s East LA freeway exit without stopping, and I wanted the Spitwomen to meet her. A tough old broad, my grandma Delia speaks with an accent, speaks and cusses in both English and Spanish, and was born and raised in the United States after her parents came from Mexico during the revolution in 1918. In her own, proud to be American, culturally Mexican, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-I-can-make-up-my-own-mind way, she was and is a feminist too.
I gave her a big hug in the doorway and explained that we had been playing music in the area and that we were on our way home. Her house was just off the freeway in Lincoln Heights. As we turned onto Workman Street, I had pointed out General Hospital where I was born and explained that this was East LA, the place my family is from. Both Paula and Adrienne grew up in the Bay Area, San Jose and Pleasanton, a sort of conservative bay area suburb. Karin went to high school and college in the mid-west, but had lived all over, even Europe where her parents lived when she was born because her dad worked for Boeing.
“Do you want me to make you something to eat?”
“No grandma, we can’t stay long. I just wanted you to meet everyone.”
“Come in, come in.” She opened the door wider so we could all pass by. “Where are my manners.”
The Spitwomen lingered on the porch behind me, uncharacteristically quiet, even Adrienne who always smiled and introduced herself to everyone anywhere we went. Once we made our way inside the house and once someone shut the heavy metal screen door behind her, Karin scanned the room. The way her eyes fell over every item made me aware of just how many nick nacks, photographs, and wall hangings lined my grandma’s small combined living room-dining room, including the one that said, “Home is where you can scratch where it itches.” Adrienne stood in faux leather pants with her hands clasped in front of her, and Paula smiled shyly.
“Grandma, this is Karin.” I pointed at Karin. “She plays guitar in the band. This is Adrienne; she sings, and Paula plays bass.”
“Hello, please sit down,” grandma said, for all three of them had filed around behind the coffee table in front of the couch. I could tell that Grandma Delia didn’t know what else to say.
They sat down on grandma’s couch; Karin on one edge, her head near the macrame plant hanger with the peace lily spilling out of it. She looked like she felt out of place, and I thought about a discussion that we had a couple of different times driving to shows. It was a discussion about my family, or really just a series of questions.
“You and your brother and your sister all have different fathers?” Karin would asked when the subject of siblings came up.
“Yes, we each have a different father.” I’d say, not sure why the question made me uncomfortable. Karin, Paula, and Adrienne’s parents were all still married, maybe not all happily, but Karin’s parents were actually very nice and not dysfunctional at all, the kind of family that owned an Audie and a commuter car, had straight teeth, and didn’t lose their tempers.
When she’d push me on this topic, I’d explain,” “My mom married my dad when she got pregnant with me in high school, but left him when I was eight months old because he abused her.”
This was something I figured that she’d understand since we had written a song about domestic violence.
“She got together with my brother’s dad who helped her leave my dad, but they never married and were only together for a couple of years. Later, my mom married my sister’s dad and had my sister.”
Since we didn’t think marriage was cool, I added that my mom was no longer married to my sister’s dad, or anyone else, that she had sworn off marriage forever.
I followed grandma who wore what she called a pair of joggers and a faded cat sweatshirt to the kitchen, so we could chat a minute and because no one else seemed to have anything to say. When it was warm she always wore a house dress.
“How are you, grandma?” I asked once were in the kitchen.
“I’m fine; you know, getting older everyday.” She ran her finger through her hair and smiled. Her nails looked freshly manicured, oval shaped and bright red.
She handed me two glasses filled with water so I could help her carry them, one of narrow ribbed glass and the other of tin, the kind from the seventies, each in the set painted a different color and designed to keep your kool-aid really cold.
The Spitwomen were still sitting quietly when my grandma and I got back into the front room and handed each of the Spitwomen a glass of water. Karin was still looking around the room her nose in the air; Paula, who always wore her short hair in a ponytail, looked as if she were trying to think of something to say, and Adrienne was sitting with her hands folded in her faux leather lap.
“Sit down, mi’ja,” grandma motioned to her chair, beside which sat her basket of embroidery projects. I could see that she was working on a design of a Mexican woman carrying a jug of water on her shoulder.
I sat down, and each of the Spitwomen took a sip of her water and set her glass down on the coffee table without saying a word. They were never this quiet, ever. I didn’t know what to do. Grandma read my anxiety and tried to fill the awkward silence herself.
“You girls must be tired, driving all that way.”
They all nodded.
“You see that picture there,” she said, pointing to a black metal shelf by the door, “That’s Michelle’s mom and dad when they were in high school.”
I winced when she called me Michelle because they never called me that; they only ever called me Todd.
“They were at a dance. Your mom looks so pretty, don’t you think so, mi’ja.”
I always thought she looked much older than sixteen or seventeen with her hair in a sort of a ratted, late-sixties, beehive bun. And my dad, short, dark skin with thick black hair; I looked like him with my hair cropped close to my head the way I was wearing it then, a sort of Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s baby haircut.
I nodded at my grandma and smiled, but I felt sad. I didn’t know what to say now either and that just made it worse.
Stopping had not been a good idea at all. We should have stayed on the I-5. I should not have suggested that we veer off into the second largest Mexican city in the world. I had made everyone uncomfortable, and now I was outside of my body, seeing my adored grandma and her shabby East LA home, (which I had always found tidy and comforting) her nick nacks, which they probably called tchotchkes, and all her family photos of Mexicans, and now myself through different eyes, and I didn’t like it one bit.