One of the things I’d forgotten during Covid was how sometimes a show can get under your skin in a way that reverberates for days or weeks. When you can’t come down from the high enough to sleep, when the next day you’re hungover as hell even if you didn’t have a single drink. When you simultaneously feel you are floating on cloud nine and like you’ll never be able to catch that particular high again so life has got to be downhill from here.
Every show I’ve been to since June (when we all naively thought the light at the end of the tunnel was not the Delta Acela bearing down) has illuminated a facet of what I’ve been missing the past two years: That first one back, Brian Fallon, who was actually the last artist I saw the night before shutdown, when he started with “A Wonderful Life,” one of the last songs he played at that last show. Sitting at a table with my girls Kathy, Kelly, and Michelle, whom I hadn’t seen in ages, even though we kept complaining and crying to one another online. Running into our concert pal Tall Paul made us feel like the world was righting itself.
Then meeting up with my road dog, Sharon, for a Low Cut Connie show. It was only 15 minutes away from where we live, not one of our epic road trips or Asbury Park weekends, but at least we were back on board. That first live small-venue punk show with Off With Their Heads, an actual pit and people screaming along. A Laura Jane Grace weekend doubleheader; we’d gotten locked out of her Four Seasons Total Landscaping show (a rare occurrence for me and my friends, since we’re skilled ticket buyers and scroungers), and feeling normal for the first time in two years singing along with “Sink Florida Sink.”A couple of outdoor shows at the Stone Pony with big crowds to remind us of how that worked.
But it was that Jason Isbell show at the Met in Philly night before last that I had been waiting for like no other, for over 15 months. It had been rescheduled twice, and I wasn’t going to let myself believe in too much even after strolling past the tour buses on the way to the venue.
I met up with Tall Paul, who was already front and center on the barrier when I arrived. Of the nine shows I’ve seen post-Covid, Tall Paul has been at seven of them. Sharon and I met him in line at a Dave Hause show nine years ago, and we just expect to see him everywhere even though he lives hours away from us. (Check out almost any concert video on YouTube and you’ll see him too; about six and half feet tall, always front and center, wearing a blue bandanna.) I’d hung out with him for the first time in ages at that Off With Their Heads show; he’d just gotten back from seeing Jason Isbell at Red Rocks. I was so jealous; one of our favorite artists at what people tell me is the best concert venue in the country? We have no relationship outside shows and I didn’t even know his last name until 2019, but Wednesday night he told me he’s been at more shows with me than with any other woman. This is what happens with show friends: Maybe you’ll also become friends on another level, maybe you won’t even know each other’s last names but that’s totally fine.
Kathleen Edwards opened and did a great set. I was a fan but had never seen her live before. Tall Paul didn’t know who she was and I had to brief him before the set, but he liked her and said he’d be checking out more of her music.
I hadn’t realized how keyed up I was until Jason and the 400 Unit walked out onstage and began playing “What’ve I Done to Help.” I had to remind myself THREE TIMES during the song to breathe so I wouldn’t black out on the rail. It wasn’t even that particular song; they could have started with anything and I would have been overcome.
As soon as the song ended I got the adrenaline shot I needed: “24 Frames,” one of my favorites and, as it fortunately turns out, one of Tall Paul’s lose-your-shit songs too. Because that meant there were two of us screaming lyrics through our masks, waving our arms, and leaning over the rail, not just me. And in my case, fingering chords; the song is one of the only ones I can play on the Strat I bought a year ago when I started writing songs. Even on busy days when I convince myself that things like working or cleaning something take precedence over plugging in and playing (with) the guitar, when I walk past the room it’s in I stop and strum “24 Frames.” I’m pretty sure I left bruises on Tall Paul when I grabbed his arm and shoulder.
The usual folks were shouting out their requests, but I honestly didn’t care what got played. I always go to a Jason Isbell show without expectations and still hear all my favorites. This night was no exception, but it transcended the usual. Shows can be special for many reasons: The first time seeing a particular band, or watching an old favorite on a night where they take it to another level. Catching someone you thought you’d never get to see. Meeting new show friends in line or on the barrier and maybe even forming a show family for an evening or a tour. (Like when an Asbury Park photographer dubs you and your new friends “the Ladies of Social D” and your picture is featured on the Stone Pony website.) But mostly it’s just an artist being the right one at the right place to give you exactly what you need most at that moment. I needed it all: a joyful front-and-center experience, exquisite lyrics and one of the tightest-sounding bands around, the presence of an artist who was both soothing my soul and kicking my ass. I think for me that last thing is what really makes a show more than just a show.
So I whether was forgetting to breathe or losing my breath singing along, or standing quietly drinking in lyrics, or mesmerized in the lucky spot right in front of where Jason was doing all his solos (the great thing about the 400 Unit is if I’m not watching his fingers on the frets I can watch Sadler Vaden’s), I was finally, firmly locked in that place I’d missed for so long. Where time stops and only the necessary parts of your brain are out of standby mode, but those parts are really LIT.
I teared up during “If We Were Vampires.” No joke, I LITERALLY cannot listen to that song all the way through. It’s too good. It’s too perfect. Too sad. Too much me and my husband, too close to the heart. We’ve been married 39 years as of last month and met each other 43 years ago this week, so the song has special resonance. I love it but I have to turn it off when I hear it. It’s too much. But I couldn’t that night; Jason was just a few feet away so I had to listen and let the raw beauty of the words assault me like I was being stabbed. Sometimes you have to face your deepest fears, and what better place than where you feel the most secure?
“Be Afraid” was my Covid song. I heard it in the car (where I first hear most songs I love) near the beginning of lockdown. I turned it up, rolled down the windows, and told my new pandemic pup “This is Jason Isbell,” and she looked at me like, “I’m from Georgia, hon, really?” And my whole life has been about being afraid and doing it anyway. I listened to the song incessantly all year, it was the last song I played in 2020 and the first in 2021, and hearing it live for the first time was overwhelming.
So throughout the set I went from the depths to the heights and took in guitar riffs like they were black-tar heroin and tried not to think about when it would end. There was an encore, of course, and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sway,” and as for what happened to me during that, a cigarette and a splash of cold water afterward might have been appropriate. Those guitars WRECKED ME.
Tall Paul and I stood around for a while in a fruitless quest for a setlist, and then I bought a T-shirt on the fly and stepped out into pouring rain. I held the shirt over my head during the half-mile walk to the car. When I started the engine, the radio was playing Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me.” Yes, you did.
I got caught in a huge traffic jam trying to get down to Center City, then in a few hard, harrowing rain squalls, and another half-hour mess in Chester where they’d taken I-95 down to one lane. It took me an hour and a half to get home, then another hour to settle down. I was in a useless daze all day yesterday. I started the day by playing “24 Frames” on the guitar before breakfast and ended it playing a live album version after my Zoom class was over.
But as of this morning there were Frank Turner tickets to buy at 10:00 and work to do, and I’m seeing Cracker tonight in Wilmington. It’s been more than two years since I stood at David Lowery’s feet or watched Johnny Hickman’s fingers, so it will be a great night one way or the other. There is a mask requirement at the venue, but that won’t stop some asshole from screaming for “Low” all night AS IF. Tall Paul won’t be there because he’s not a Cracker fan and he was leaving for Riot Fest yesterday. I’m sure Riot Fest will be a blast but this is not the year I’d choose to go. I can find transcendence closer to home. All I have to do is show up ready for it.
I had my first Covid-19 vaccine administration this afternoon. Since my age cohort finally became eligible in Delaware last week, I had been nervously hitting up all the pharmacies and other sites trying to get appointments for myself and my husband. It seemed like the first piece of genuinely hopeful news we had gotten in over a year, but he likened the difficulty in obtaining an appointment to hearing he’d received a reprieve from the governor, who was not in any hurry at all to sign the papers while he continued to languish on death row.
For me, it was more like trying to score Springsteen general admission (floor) tickets off Ticketbastard the minute sales opened. I was born for this, I thought, I know how to keep multiple screens open, refresh-refresh-refresh, keep trying as people time out or throw back their reservations. I’ve dealt with TicketMaster suddenly deciding the credit card I’d had on file with them for years had to be “authenticated” on an outside site just when I was ready to pay (and then timed out as I frantically tried to do the authentication on another device). I’ve sought tickets on a shaky connection from a remote island beach, and kept plugging away while staying in constant contact with a friend doing the same thing at the same time to see who could get in first. And yes, I’ve gotten those Springsteen tickets, scored a decent seat at an Iggy Pop show, and made it into a Loved Ones reunion (which is harder than you might think; it involved a frantic DM to/from Dave Hause himself and I was prepared to ask his father out on a date if necessary).
So after we had done things like try at midnight and 4:00 AM and sign ourselves up with every possible source, I decided early Saturday morning to go for it. My friend Vicky had messaged me overnight that there might be some pharmacy slots in my old hometown, where she still lives. But first I checked our local branches on a hunch, and I got appointments for both myself and my husband: mine today, his tomorrow, and our follow-up second shots in April.
I actually put on makeup, earrings, and my special leopard-print mask to go to Walgreen’s today. As I searched through my T-shirts to pick out something fierce and fun to wear, I spotted my Titus Andronicus one.
“No Future Part 3” has taken on a different meaning here in the time of Covid and the potential transition to a post-Covid, or at least living-with-Covid era. Here’s why.
Like most people, this past year has freaked me out. I attended my last live show on March 12, 2020: Brian Fallon with Justin Townes Earle opening. Justin, of course, is no longer with us; one of my local venues closed for good and another is for sale and not having any punk shows; one of my favorite Philly venues also closed. I’ve watched endless livestreams over the past year, seen some of my friends and acquaintances grimly reminiscing in the accompanying chats, moaned and complained on social media, and talked to some of my favorite artists on same. I’ve gone from 3:00 AM panic attacks last spring to seriously wanting to punch someone, anyone, the last few weeks. I went through the banana bread phase and the cleaning phase and I stay up way too late because hey, Jason Isbell might pop up on Twitter, and anyway I don’t want to get out of practice for when the scene starts up again.
It’s been a strange year in other ways, too; we lost a treasured member of my husband’s family to a sudden, tragic non-Covid death last summer, and her funeral was the only time we’ve seen (masked and socially distanced) family in over a year. We discovered when we went back to a cousin’s place after the service that a tree had fallen on his house during a tornado the week before (yes, we also huddled on our basement steps for an entire morning Zooming and editing as tornadoes tore up the state), and nobody had even thought to mention it. So the post-funeral gathering had to be held outside.
I hit a very strange wall last August. I started writing songs. Country songs. I’m a punk rocker. Well, they’re more like Americana-punk, but still. The first couple were me and my shit, but then a few came out in a voice I didn’t recognize at first. Despite my obsession with music, I inherited my dad’s tone-deafness. (Not his fantastic metabolism that kept him under 140 pounds his whole life. Not his brilliant mind. Not his beautiful blue eyes. Just bad teeth, bad filing skills, a tendency to procrastinate, and tone-deafness. Thanks, Dad.) I cannot sing, and my only attempt at music lessons (acoustic guitar when I was 14) was unsuccessful. Yet I began craving a guitar. Specifically, an electric one, a Fender Stratocaster. I looked at ads online. I became obsessed. Finally, I bought one. And wrote more songs.
And just as this was happening, I went for a routine mammogram—though mammograms are never routine for me. And it looked like I’d made the hat trick, the trifecta: My mom had three different types of cancer, five different times, and I now have the pre-cancerous versions of all three. I have half a thyroid, can never eat garlic or drink wine again, and this past fall I had to have a lumpectomy, followed by radiation treatment in January, and am now on an estrogen-blocking drug. Though it was not quite cancer yet, it was about to be and had to be treated accordingly. No one was getting out of 2020 unscathed.
In the middle of this swirl of crazy (don’t even get me started on the election and subsequent events), I also started writing a novel. I haven’t been able to get the previous one (would be my second) published. In the past two years two agents have RAVED about it and one told me she was actually in love with one of my characters. Both passed. Others have passed with no feedback at all. I don’t have the $$$ to do a hybrid or quality self-publishing job. I swore that this time, fuck it, I was done. It wasn’t even heartbreaking anymore, just annoying. But on Election Day of all days, I started another one.
And the main character is the girl writing those songs that weren’t mine, just getting channeled through me. The country songs. Based on the poisoning of the land, water, and people of the state of West Virginia. My mom’s people. The family members with random cancers and auto-immune diseases. Three have/had lupus, but I am the first cancer repeater; everyone else has a different one. My family members worked at and lived near chemical plants and smelters. The one my grandfather worked at was owned by DuPont. He very nearly took a transfer to a plant here in Delaware. His two eldest daughters both moved here in 1958 when their husbands changed jobs. Frying pan, meet fire; Delaware is the home of chemical poison and for many years was No. 2 in the nation for cancer. We used to stand outside and wave at the “spray plane” dropping insecticide on us to kill the mosquitoes in the nearby marsh. There was a Superfund site behind my elementary school, and five boys from my class died before they were 50. And as I went into the hospital every weekday in January for my radiation treatments, I passed the donor plaque in the lobby with the name of the company that had given me, and my mom, the condition in the first place. The five stages of grief at this point are anger, anger, anger, anger, and outrage.
And somewhere between the guitar obsession in August and Election Day, I had become obsessed with country music. (This probably deserves its own entry later.) I think I miss the punk scene so much that it hurts rather than helps to watch the livestreams and think of the old days; I need something else to grab and learn about; to fire up that part of me that had gone missing the past year. All of this is making its way into the book. And of course every punk and hardcore frontman has a sideline playing acoustic guitar and singing Johnny Cash songs and asking if you know who Blaze Foley and John Prine are. And there are cowpunks. And Social Distortion, my gateway drug to punk so many years ago. And another favorite band, Lucero. And Philly’s own version of Willie Nelson, Roger Harvey (too punk for country; too stoned to care).
But back to Titus Andronicus and the light at the end of the tunnel I hope isn’t an oncoming train.
My life the past year, like everyone else’s has been a form of “No Future,” or at least an indefinitely delayed one. We live day to identical day, differentiating them as trash day, generator self-testing day, and the day Frank Turner does livestream benefits so we know when to step away from Zoom and watch TV instead because it’s a weekend.
And now it could be a matter of a just a few months before things slowly start grinding back to life. A few weeks before we might be able to eat something I haven’t cooked myself, someplace other than our own house. For the past year and nine days, everything’s made me nervous, nothing feels good (but for a very good reason), same dark dread every morning. And it all came down at a time when my life was at its peak: I didn’t even begin to figure out what I wanted and how to get it until about a decade ago, and as I look at my Facebook Memories recounting all my tales of moshpit mayhem and after-show hangs with the artists I saw and trips all over the eastern seaboard for shows, I keep thinking will it ever come back? Will I still be able to drive late nights to make those trips and those hangs? Will the fatigue that’s been enveloping me since the radiation treatments stopped and the drug started keep me home wistfully watching my friends go back into the newly burgeoning scene? Before my thyroid diagnosis 20 years ago I spent many years so tired I did literally nothing in my life but work and sleep, putting off the necessary surgery an extra two years to look after my parents and their age-related illnesses and needs. I have no desire to lose that precious second wind and second chance I was given, and it’s too early to tell if the drug is causing it or if it will pass. So yes, “I was a river, I was a tall tree, I was a volcano, now I’m asleep on top of a mountain, I’m covered in snow.” Not by antidepressants, as in the song, but by something that’s meant to save my life in another way but has the potential to make it somewhat unlivable.
But when I reached for that Titus Andronicus shirt this morning, I was struck by how the lyrics related to Covid life in other ways: I am wearing a faceplate for protection stretching across my mouth; nothing gets in and nothing gets out. And in a few hours I’d be in Walgreen’s pharmacy, waiting for my man.
And there is indeed another down in the dungeon who never gives up the fight. He’s always been there, yelling “loser!” but now he’s also yelling that there may be changes and transitions, some good and some bad, and some things are gone forever and some are just asleep on the mountain with me and we’ll all wake up and it will be awesome. I can feel things moving around in my body right now, swimming and swirling into my cells; maybe they’ll give me a slight fever or something later, but it’s a small price to pay. The faceplate may not go away for a while, but maybe I’ll be a tall tree or a volcano (Volcano Girl, maybe?) sooner rather than later. And I still have songs and a book to write, and a guitar to learn to play badly, and friends to see again and shows and tours to watch for. Because, after all, the subtitle of “No Future Part 3” is “Escape from No Future.”
This book arrived in the mail the past weekend. I heard about its existence a couple of weeks back through Twitter, when people I admire such as Steve Earle posted tweets about it, and I immediately went to bookshop.org and ordered it. (Do so through them or your local bookstore, if you can.) And then I made sure to pass the tweets on so others would know.
Phil Ochs (December 19, 1940 – April 9, 1976) is one of the most influential people in my life; the only musician besides Frank Turner who has arguably changed the entire trajectory of it in drastic ways. I don’t remember how I came across him initially; it might have been a book I found in the library while I was in high school about protest songs, or it’s possible I took out that book because I was already into Ochs. I just know he became a presence in my life somewhere in that time, though he was long past being someone you heard about regularly. So I was stunned when I read the news about his suicide in 1976.
I read more later on about his tragic final years, the serious depression and other mental illnesses that robbed him of his creativity and set him on a path to destruction. The day he died, I was in the middle of my own first major depressive episode. These crashes have dogged me every ten years or so ever since. I learned about the history of depression and anxiety disorders on both sides of my family and realized early on that genetics and circumstances (including a highly dysfunctional family) would influence my own mental health. Though I never came close to considering suicide, I remember sitting on a plane in Denver watching a crew de-ice it and thinking that if it weren’t for the other passengers, I really didn’t care what happened to it. And I remember the dark aftermath of my best friend’s murder, when I truly considered myself a complete waste of oxygen.
Phil dealt with a much more serious and complex set of demons than I did. He even developed what used to be called a “split personality” (that term is not used in mental health so much these days) to act as a repository of some of his feelings. This shadow side, John Butler Train, dogged him in those last years, where he couldn’t write songs anymore and saw himself as useless. Useless is something I can identify with, and so is not being able to write.
The way Phil (and John Train) influenced my life directly is something I’ve only recently come to grips with intellectually, despite knowing it on some visceral level all along. My fascination with Phil’s music carried along with me when I started university, where I had an eye out for anyone who might share the interest. That led to my meeting two men, almost exactly six months apart, who were the most important negative and positive romantic and sexual earthquakes of my life, one who nearly destroyed me and the other who has become my lifelong partner and soulmate. For years I was at odds about how that could have happened, how Phil had brought about these two disparate things.
Freshman year I heard a tribute show to Phil, a year after his death, on the campus radio station. I made a mental note about the DJ who presented it, who had known Phil, written a song about him, carried the flame. Not quite a year after that, I met this person: a crowded table of friends and acquaintances at a local bar, someone mentioning “Phil Ochs,” and two of us, at opposite ends of the table, snapping to attention. That DJ/musician/activist, in a most unlikely fashion, began pursuing me. (Nowadays we would call it “stalking”: he would have a history of doing this to women who were both initially receptive and firmly unwilling.) I was not in a position to ask the questions I should have, although some part of me knew all along how wrong and unhealthy it was for this thirty-one-year-old to call me daily for a month (one of his strongest and most unsettling attempts to get me to see him was on the second anniversary of Ochs’s death). During the two months of this “relationship” (I eventually succumbed to his pursuit), I became so ill I couldn’t eat, lost seventeen pounds, and was in constant emotional turmoil. It ended with a sexual assault; I would learn over the next decades that this was also a pattern with him, but due to his self-promoted reputation in local lefty-political and musical circles, such things were never mentioned or examined. The women involved were expected to either extricate themselves from the situation or blame themselves for not doing so, and this is what we did.
It would take me eight years to fully recover from this “relationship,” and when you live in a small town and the other person is someone of no small local prominence, it’s in your face a lot. Slowly I learned to untangle myself from the people, places, and things associated with him, and since much of our relationship had been based on music, this was the thing I struggled with most. Especially after I finally went to therapy after another breakdown in the 80s, I became adept at deciding what music I would move away from as a liberation gesture and what I would keep, even though it had become in some way associated with him, because it was and had been mine before I met him or it was worth wresting back from him. Phil Ochs was in the latter categories.
So six months later, in a class centered on literature and culture of the 1960s, I knew what I wanted to base my term paper on when the professor announced it would account for three-quarters of our course grade. There were over a hundred students in the class and the prof didn’t want to grade that many papers, so he decreed we would have to work in groups of three or four. Group work was something I didn’t do, based on previous bad experiences, but the professor insisted I had to work with at least one other person. When those of us who had topics in mind had to get up in front of the class and attempt to recruit groups members interested in the same or similar themes, I announced my Ochs idea, smugly certain no one in the class would respond. One boy did.
He came up to me after class. He was polite, smart, and brought out the exact opposite reaction in me that the other guy had. We agreed to work together, came up with an idea of contrasting Dylan and Ochs as “The Poet and the Historian” (an irony being that he wrote poetry and I studied history and was nominally planning to go into journalism at the time—Ochs had studied to be a journalist and considered himself a historian too). We got an A on the paper and in the course; we talked about ourselves and our lives even more than we did Dylan and Ochs; we learned that we had practically grown up together, with our families intertwining and crossing paths in another small town where we had been raised. And yet somehow, though his father had taken my baby pictures and my father had taught all his cousins in high school and my family often had tripped over his dog on the steps of the store where his older brother worked during several summers of my childhood, we had never met.
Not surprisingly, two months after the class ended we started dating. Not quite four years after we met, we got married. We gave Phil Ochs full credit. When we met his sister, Sonny, at a folk festival, we had brought a copy of the paper we wrote to give her.
The other man was still portraying himself as the keeper of the Ochs legend. That meant I sometimes had to avoid things that otherwise might have interested me. Decades later, long after he had finally left town and I could go weeks, months at a time without thinking of him, I still hesitated after getting into a brief Ochs discussion with a friendly Twitter acquaintance; what if he checked Twitter for Ochs references and saw it?
One of the most vindicating moments of my life happened about two years ago, the day I learned of this man’s death. He may have passed, or at least his death might have been discovered, at the same time I was attending a #MeToo march on the university campus, mere steps away from where I had first met him, a couple of blocks from the bar where we discussed Ochs and made a connection. Finally I was completely free.
Only recently have I come to terms with how Ochs managed to perform this odd feat of drawing me to these two extremes. Ochs had not been gone that long when I met the first man, and I am convinced that, because this man was so damaged, so narcissistic and selfish, so evil, that the side of Ochs he responded to was actually John Butler Train, and that negative shadow side consumed him. The positive side of Ochs I identified with—historian, journalist, musician, songwriter, activist, humorist—might have lost the fight for the temporal life of its host, but as I see the reaction to this new book, published to celebrate his December birthday, by so many people who revere him, I see that Phil beat out Train in the long run.
Normally I dive right into new books I buy, but I am saving this one to start on December 19. It is a collection of the many kinds of things he wrote besides the songs he was known for. I am struck by how little appreciation there was during his life for all the kinds of writing he did, including many of his later songs that were at least as artistic as Dylan’s and more accessible emotionally. Phil died in agony over not being able to break through his early image as a straight-up protest songwriter, as an artist supposedly “inferior” to Dylan, as a rock’n’roller rather than a folkie, and as a prisoner of his own mind. But looking at the breadth of writing in this book, my heart breaks that he didn’t live long enough to experience the DIY punk scene—the thing that saved my life, that has kept me thriving and growing; the thing that led me, at the age of 52, to feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life; to find a purpose, a goal, a dream (things that had always eluded me); to stop looking at myself with the disgust, disdain, and dismissal that too many people around me, including my own family, had projected on to me for decades.
The afore-mentioned Frank Turner was the catalyst for the hundreds of times I have found myself (pre-COVID, of course), standing at the foot of a lighted stage knowing it was exactly where I belonged, the place that was the source for everything that kept me alive and moving forward. I’ve met dozens of people who have experienced the same feeling, and dozens more who stand on that stage drawing strength from us below it even as they double up that strength before passing it back. Phil was tortured in part because once he lost his place on stage, he didn’t know where to find that strength.
Because what Phil’s writing tells me is that he studied journalism and history for the same reasons I had, and that he saw writing the way I do: as communication, as something that goes out in the world for a reason, to accomplish something. And that view is what kept me from writing for too many years. As a child who was miserable at home and attacked at school, writing was pretty much the only thing I ever got a positive reaction for; the same kids who tortured me in middle school wanted to read what I wrote. In high school and college I impressed and pissed off the right people with it; I have literally never gotten a job, a promotion, or a man without writing playing some role.
Yet around the time I figured out I didn’t have the personality to become a journalist, I also became convinced I had no ability to write. The man I married is an incredible writer, with the soul of the poet he channeled to write the Dylan part of our college term paper while I wrote the Ochs part. He comes from a family of successful creatives, including a somewhat famous journalist. The family also includes a painter, a sculptor, two photographers (one a photojournalist) as well as a lawyer, a judge, a musician, and an architect. My brother managed to combine a successful business career with a sideline as an actor, director, and film editor. I was just the girl who made the brownies and washed the dishes after family get-togethers.
Every now and then I would take a stab at writing, but by the mid-90s (when I had a very serious mental breakdown that took years, not months, to recover from), I had given up. I spent the next decade, book-ended with another breakdown, desperately trying to find a purpose for myself, wondering how the hell some people got multiple helpings of talents and abilities while I had literally NONE AT ALL.
Enter Frank Turner and the punk scene. I didn’t draw any parallels to Phil Ochs, at first. I just reveled in this place where I finally could be myself completely, I didn’t have to pretend to be anything just to get by. I could just live. And somehow the words came after that. In the past twelve years, I’ve written four books, published one, am in the middle of new one, with another half-finished that I hope to get back to. This past August I hit a COVID wall and started writing songs and bought a Fender Stratocaster I am learning to play quite badly. (Despite my lifetime love and commitment to music, I inherited some of my late father’s tone-deafness.) And I do music just for fun, without any expectation of outcome. Frank Turner and the punk scene taught me that: “Try This at Home.” Just experience and enjoy.
Because I made a mistake when I took book-writing too seriously: I was so delighted to finally have a reason to write that it just about killed me to think that writing might never have an outlet. And here I most closely relate to Phil Ochs’s final angst: If you believe, as he did and as I do, that writing is communication, that it is meant to serve a purpose beyond mere self-expression, then if that writing is not read (or listened to) it simply does not exist. That’s why I once wanted to be a journalist but have never liked keeping a journal. It’s why Phil became Phil. You have to DO SOMETHING or it doesn’t count.
And that is what punk gave me: a chance to say something, do something, maybe not on the level I would like, but something. Would Phil, who spent his college years mimeographing his own publications, have found a home in DIY punk, a place to experiment with different kinds of music and writing, a supportive environment where mental illness is not just tolerated but generally expected? Could he have found the salvation I did, the thing that has (crossed fingers) given me the longest, most fulfilling, depression-free stretch of my life? Could it have helped him limp along just long enough to have access to improved mental health care that wasn’t available in 1976?
We don’t know, and we can’t. But, Phil, I would love for you to know, and your family too, that you continue to inspire me on a daily basis, and that as I’ve stumbled across social-media discussions of this new book the past couple of weeks, I see that I was far from alone in my Ochs obsession, that he is still a musical, literary, and political influence on thousands of us to this day. Thank you, Phil. John Train won the battle for your body, but he lost the war for your soul that is still here for us.
One house, five roommates, five points of view. Who’s responsible?
This TV thing with Camilla is just the last straw. This would be such a great house if she wasn’t here. We put on some awesome shows, and it’s mostly chill. But she’s selfish, and she gets away with it because she’s kind of cute. Small, and blonde (when she’s not putting different colors in her hair), and she plays it to the hilt. Check this; she can stand in front of Oglebay Hall in her punk boots wearing a Converge T-shirt and look all helpless and a FRAT BOY will actually LIGHT HER CIGARETTE for her. One of those Neanderthals who parade six abreast around the WVU campus after football games in matching jackets pounding their chests, screaming, and punching street signs, and normally they’d as soon smack a punk into the bushes, even a girl punk, as look at them. But all Cam has to do is drop a book and one of these assholes will pick it up, walk her to class, and hold the fucking door open.
So we had this show last night, pretty normal except the turnout wasn’t great. It was raining and it’s getting close to finals. So without asking the rest of us, Cam tells this one band they can sleep on our floor. Now we have traveling bands stay over all the time, it’s just hospitality, but these clowns are from fucking BRIDGEPORT right up the road. They just didn’t want to drive in the rain. So fine, they crashed on our floor. I stepped over them this morning to get to this stupid biology class, because that fascist Professor Ransom says I can’t skip or be late one more time or I’ll flunk. I’m still litigating that history incomplete from last semester and I don’t need more trouble. Anyway, when I got home later I felt like something in the front room wasn’t right, but I didn’t really pay attention.
Later I come downstairs and it hits me: The fucking TV is gone. We have this cheap flatscreen, looks like it came from Kmart. Ryan found it in the trash up the street back in September. It had a broken connection, but we’re all pretty good at repairing stuff if I do say so myself. Jorge even built a PA system out of spare parts. So we fixed it up, and we’ve been pirating cable from next door. After the novelty wore off and fall semester got heavy people weren’t watching it much, but I like to tune in and chill out sometimes, you know? Everybody has their special thing.
It turns out Cam just GAVE that TV to those hillbillies from Bridgeport. Josh across the street said he watched them put it in their shitty van with Cam waving goodbye in the driveway.
I’ve had it with this prima donna bitch and everybody who sticks up for her. I mean, okay, she isn’t a bad housemate in some ways. She always makes sure the bands get fed (I bet those Bridgeport hicks got a nice tofu scramble before they left). She’s usually chill about doing stuff in the house. Say there’s dishes in the sink. Ryan has to do them IMMEDIATELY and then sterilize the sink because he’s a germophobe and God help you if you touch “his” bar of soap or leave the toothpaste tube on the back of the toilet. Rebecca is a slob who will just let things pile up until the food scraps turn to concrete and ants are swarming in the sink. Jorge’s never here because he has like seven jobs and a girlfriend but he’ll leave an IOU if it’s his turn and then clean the whole kitchen when he gets home. Cam is the only one who just does stuff and shuts up. Like she’ll wash the dishes or at least rinse them off.
But she hogs the bathroom and tells us to “shush” when she’s studying instead of just wearing headphones like a normal person, and I can tell a lot of the bands think SHE’s the driving force here, booking shows, when it’s really all of us contributing. Okay, so she’s usually the one who sweet-talks the neighbors into not calling the police (including that time I shoved that dude who got in my face). But she uses her sugar for more nefarious purposes, let me tell you. She gets away with murder.
Speaking of, I’m so boiling mad about this I’m actually fantasizing about killing her and throwing her body in a dumpster behind the Clarksburg Hardee’s. Nobody would suspect us because we’re all vegan or at least vegetarian. I say “us” because I want to believe, deep down, that everybody else is as sick of her act as I am. I gotta go walk this off before the others get back. There’s gonna be hell to pay.
I don’t need this shit right now. It’s the end of the semester so the library is a fucking circus, and even though I’m only taking two classes I’ve got to study and finish this one paper. We had our final show of the year last night and I just want to settle down and work, and here’s fucking Cody screaming about his stupid TV until his face is purple and I just can’t.
Technically it’s everybody’s TV, or maybe Ryan’s since he found it, but Cody’s the only one who sits in front of it watching Game of Thrones all the time. And he says Camilla just gave it away, which I don’t believe. Now, Cam and I get along, but I know how she can be. I almost wet myself last weekend while she was in the bathroom dyeing her hair lavender. I mean, she doesn’t have to be in the bathroom while it processes, right? But she was using the time to “exfoliate” too, so by the time she gets out I’m ready to go pee in the yard.
But she’s a good person, and if she gave the TV to the Port Rats there had to be a reason. And besides, I’ve had it with Cody, and I think his obsession with her is unhealthy. Just last night, before the show, he was accusing her of always showing off to the bands and seeking all the glory (PROJECTION MUCH?). And he’s getting ruder and more uncooperative with all of us. I’d really rather he didn’t come back next year. He fits every description I’ve ever read of sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists. It’s a wonder they haven’t found one of our bodies in a Clarksburg dumpster.
It’s hard enough dealing with depression without this asshat always telling you “Happiness is a choice” and “You’re depressed because you’re a pig. Clean up and you’ll cheer up.” He went off on me last week and insisted I had ALL of our coffee mugs in my room, dirty. Okay, I had one in there, maybe two, but did it ever occur to him to look in the fucking cupboard instead of whining like a three-year-old that his favorite cup wasn’t on the counter? Nope, he just yelled like a madman and punched the door.
I think it’s significant that Cody is the only one here who doesn’t work or have loans, and he doesn’t understand the pressure we’re all under. Jorge and I are only part-time this semester. Jorge works more hours and is taking one more class than I do. Of course, he’s the first to admit that his library job is significantly cushier than mine. He works the reserve desk, so all he does is hand people stuff, make microwave popcorn in the back office, and occasionally unjam the photocopier. I’m a shelver, so I’m dragging big carts of books around all day. It’s good exercise but hard work. And then yesterday Cathcart has to pull one of his surprise inspections in my section, when I’m re-doing it for the SECOND TIME because some shithead decided to “own” the female professor teaching Pre-English for Illiterate Johnny Jockos 101 by removing all the books by women authors and scattering them around. And then Cathcart went off because (a) I missed a Virginia Woolf the asshole had hidden inside the botanical display and (b) he’s a paramilitary goon (I may do my senior psych project on him if I don’t do Cody). I don’t want to get busted back down to the basement dungeon working right under Cathcart’s nose, so I agreed to work this weekend even though I need to study. I signed up for four classes in the fall and if I can’t even pass these two I don’t know how I’ll manage. Anyway, fuck Cody, fuck Cathcart, and fuck the patriarchy. I just want to sleep.
I’m on break at the bar but only for five minutes, so no time to proof this poli sci paper I have to hand in. Jake says the crowd may thin out later because some people are actually studying instead of going out, so maybe I’ll do it then. Or go over to Maryam’s after we close. There’s some kind of drama going on at the house. Cody and Ryan have been texting me all day, blowing up my phone, so I finally turned it off. Cody’s ranting about Camilla again, and something about “his” TV. Rebecca says he’s been “decompensating” lately. If that means being an entitled asshole while also developing a kind of creepy serial killer vibe, she’s right.
We need to decide soon about next year and whose names are going to be on the lease and if we’ll stay together, so I’m feeling edgy. We’ve had ups and downs, but this is a really great group. We’ve put on the best punk shows south of Pittsburgh and had a lot of fun. Like that show back in October. We had Atomic Peasant from Ravenswood open for fucking Lee Bains III & the fucking Glory Fires; it felt like half of Morgantown was there, and we had a bonfire afterwards. You live for nights like that. And we pulled it off, man. We created some shit.
I give a lot of credit to Ryan. He’s sort of the dad for this bunch. He’s thinking about transferring to Fairmont State because his brother is going there. If he leaves, I’m not sure the center will hold.
I think we’ve worked well because we’re all so different. It’s not just that I wouldn’t want to live with a house full of Codys, but even all Rebecca or all Ryan or all Cam wouldn’t be right either. Somehow we all have complementary talents and abilities. It’s a shame somebody has to fuck it up. I guess I’ll find out later just who.
I can’t believe I just yelled “I’m pre-med, but not pediatrics, you obnoxious man-baby” at one of my roommates, but here we are. Cody’s working my nerves.
Cam and I sat up for a while with Kyle and the other guys from the Port Rats last night. We felt bad because not many people showed up, and the donations were off because everybody’s broke by now. Kyle was playing around with the TV and I just said, “You want it?” It’s pretty fritzy because of the pirated cable, and those neighbors are moving out at the end of the semester so that’s probably the end of it anyway.
But Cody’s got it in his head that it’s all Cam’s fault. Rebecca’s been warning me that he’s headed for a psychotic break over Cam. I don’t think it’s anything that complex, but considering his other behavior lately this crap is a bridge too far.
Okay, I probably should have texted the others that we gave the TV away. But Rebecca is always losing or forgetting her phone, and Jorge shuts his off sometimes when he’s working, and Cody would have gotten mad anyway. I did put a note in the kitchen, the old-fashioned way, but Rebecca didn’t notice and dumped some books on top of it so nobody saw. In retrospect I should have put it on the fridge with the show fliers, but again, Cody would still lose his shit because he’s Cody.
I feel like it’s my responsibility to stay here and keep this thing going. I was talking to people last night about how this might be our last show ever, and everybody was like “But what will we do? Who will take your place?” And on the one hand, screw it; people want shows that bad then they can organize them. On the other, it’s nice to be needed, and we have developed a lot of skills and contacts and have gotten some pretty big names in here to play. That’s hard to walk away from. It’s like I have two families, and I have to decide which one to be with.
More immediately, I think Cody needs to either sit down and take a really hard look at himself or just go live behind a dumpster in Clarksburg and save people the trouble of dealing with him. He’s scaring the women, not to mention annoying the fuck out of them. Cam brushes it off more than Rebecca. She may look like one of those Junior League types who belong on a homecoming float, but she’s tough and smart, and so is Rebecca.
A lot of stuff has come to a head the past 48 hours. Cody stomped out after Ryan yelled at him and was gone all night. This morning, he sort of apologized to me. That seemed like a big thing from him, so I was trying to be cool with it, but then he whined about that frickin’ TV ALL DAY and where was he going to watch GoT on Sunday. I told him he could go to a fucking bar or to the student union for one of those viewing parties the incels from Ye Medieval Enactors Society have, and he got mad again and said he wasn’t coming back here for fall. I think he forgot that Rebecca and Ryan were in the kitchen, and Jorge was just coming in, and they all started applauding.
Ryan is still on the fence about whether he’s coming back. We’d miss him a lot. On the other hand, it might be nice to have an all- or mainly female house. Jorge’s not around much, but his girlfriend is super nice and she might want to live here. We could try to get some female-identified bands like War on Women to play.
I try to be nice and get along with people. It works most of the time. But some people are just impossible.
On Sunday night, a young woman prominent in the punk music scene died. I did not know her personally, but we had many friends and acquaintances in common. All are grieving now, for her and for what they think they might have been able to do to prevent her death.
I’ve lost a lot of friends the past ten years. Just to name a few: my closest friend of over 20 years, my best friend from high school, a boy I dated in high school, two co-workers who were close friends, another one who was an occasional lunch buddy and valued colleague, the woman half of a couple who were our fellow newlywed pals back in the 1980s, a fellow writer I never met in person but who promised to take me to the Stardust for a beer if I ever came to Austin, Texas. This is in addition to a bunch of older relatives, of my parents’ generation, whose deaths were more expected.
The one that shook me most was the first one in that list. My longtime colleague and friend, June, was murdered in December 2008. I was already in the middle of what was my third lifetime major depressive episode when it happened. I did not know it was murder for five months. It was hard enough to get through what was initially ruled an accident, and I was not handling it especially well when the police called me in May 2009 and ordered me down to the station to tell me the death hadn’t been an accident, suicide, or a result of her ongoing cancer treatments. She had been bludgeoned, strangled, and drowned.
Just writing those words makes me think of how numb I went hearing them, how I put my head down on the table in that horrible little police interrogation room. My ex-boss was called in separately that same day, told the news in the same way, and we both had the same reaction: This is not happening. This is not real. Someone we know and care about does not get bludgeoned, strangled, and drowned.
Painful emotional experiences parallel painful physical ones. With some of them, no matter how completely awful, there comes a time when you look at the vanishing scar and while you remember the pain happening, you can’t re-create how it felt. It is distant, something you can look at with some degree of objectivity. If you’re lucky, maybe 80% of the time this is exactly how it is: a fading scar, something others might not even see, a degree of relief and pride in having survived the experience, a lesson learned perhaps.
But sometimes it’s more like something that comes and goes, an attack of some kind, like my dad having recurring malaria ten years after he served in the war. (Not to mention flashbacks and other sorts of PTSD symptoms he experienced for 40 YEARS before someone figured out to ASK HIM what was wrong and get him on his way to healing.) It’s like waking in the night to a searing pain, not sure at first what the hell happened, terrified that even if you made it through before you might not this time. Something triggered it and it could be anything: a date, a place, a similar occurrence, maybe nothing you’re immediately conscious of, but something.
Seeing the reactions of my friends to the young woman’s death has provoked the biggest flashback I’ve had in a while. They’re beating themselves up over not being there, not doing enough; or being there, working hard to do something, and their help being rejected. I think that’s what is triggering me more than the death itself. I want to sweep up all these people and assure them they WILL GET THROUGH THIS but also warn them honestly that the process will be grueling.
Getting back to June. The crime remains officially unsolved. The police think they know who did it, so do I. There is not enough evidence to prosecute. Because it looked so much like an accident, it probably wasn’t investigated properly at the beginning, and that limited what the police were able to do when the lab tests came back months later.
By talking to me and my ex-boss and other friends, the police hoped to piece something together. The killer was quite possibly abusing June emotionally. Like many narcissists and sociopaths, he is capable of charm, intelligence, and wit. Never, not in over 20 years, was I ever comfortable with him. But I never thought of him as a threat, except in retrospect. Neither did anyone else. Some of June’s other friends told the police OF COURSE he couldn’t have done it, and they believed this whole-heartedly. They had been married for decades. Over the years I had usually heard every detail of every mundane argument or rough patch, none of which had ever seemed remotely serious.
But, as I am trying to tell my guilty-feeling friends about this latest tragedy, sometimes people who are in peril, whether from others or from their own demons, won’t allow themselves to be helped, much less rescued. Depression (and June was suffering mightily from it at that time) can rob you of the ability to realize how much people care and what help is available. You actually believe you’re a burden. You don’t reach out, and you slap away the people who do. Depression shuts the door on the past and the future; all you have is the horrible here and now, which presents itself as the remainder of the road ahead rather than one rough stretch in the middle. You make stupid, life-altering or life-ending decisions and leave everyone torturing themselves about how they could “let” this happen.
In June’s case, she was aware of my own depression and the fact that I was devoting most of my time, to the detriment of my job and other parts of my life, to helping my mother through her fourth bout of cancer. Unlike June’s, my mother’s cancer wasn’t life-threatening, but the treatments were difficult and took place two hours from her home and an hour from mine in the opposite direction. Mom also was elderly, unhealthy, uncooperative, and well, seriously mentally ill. We’d never gotten along, and since my dad’s death a few years before all her rage, fury, resentment, regret, and blame had transferred from him to me. In short, she was a handful and June knew it. And in a final irony, the last day I saw June I was on my way to see about a cancer biopsy of my own. She knew that too.
Also, June and I had for many years been part of a close team of co-workers who became friends. Due to company mismanagement, many of us had left or been laid off. We all kept in touch as well as we could and re-united for occasional lunches and other occasions. But we didn’t see one another daily anymore.
In the time after June’s death, several of us realized that she had said some oblique things to each of us that may have been hints. Part of mental illness can be deliberately sabotaging yourself, not giving people information they need to possibly help you, but at the same time longing for them to know your pain. And it is possible she also feared the abuser too much to reveal enough for us to pick up that something was wrong. It was as if we each received a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle in the mail, anonymously. Had we still worked in the same office, we might have brought the pieces in to share, placed them on the conference table, and started to put them together. Even if we hadn’t had all the pieces to complete the picture, WE WOULD HAVE KNOWN THERE WAS A PICTURE that needed to be completed.
But with us scattered hither and yon, all busy with new jobs or searching for jobs or taking care of family problems or whatever, this didn’t happen.
I felt afterward like people blamed me for not knowing more. I know the police expected me to have some vital information or link to offer. But I didn’t.
My guilt, shame, whatever you want to call it, tore me apart for the next two years. I wanted to hire a private detective. I wanted to be Nancy Drew. I wanted to hold the abuser at gunpoint and make him confess. I cried almost daily, torturing myself thinking about those clues and how I could have, SHOULD have put them together. I cursed myself for 20 years of being too polite to mention, hey, your husband really is a jerk. I wondered how the hell June didn’t know that I or at least a half dozen other friends would have dropped everything we were doing, any time, to get her out of the situation and do whatever needed to be done to support her, and what the hell kind of friend was I that she didn’t realize that. And I couldn’t figure out why she had to die when clearly, depressed as I was, I deserved to and had less to offer the world than she did and if there was a God they made really stupid decisions.
On August 5, 2010, standing on a patch of asphalt with an old friend, surrounded by strangers, I watched a young man named Frank Turner stroll onto a stage in Asbury Park, New Jersey. By the end of his 40-minute set, I began to heal. That’s why I have a faded scar and occasional attacks now. That’s why I’m ALIVE to have them. The rest of the time, I can function. Because Frank told me that day, along with the rest of the crowd, that I have to. It was that simple and that complex.
Later, when the punk world lost another of its prominent members who was one of Frank’s close friends, he wrote another song that asks, “Why didn’t you call?” This time it was Frank asking the questions I had asked, interrogating the situation to figure out what could have been different and how he might have saved someone’s life.
So over the years, I lost those other friends. My high school friend I had lost track of and rediscovered, but her ongoing physical and mental health issues caused her to push me away again. So I feel guilty about that one, too. Maybe somehow I could have been a hard-ass and MADE her keep me in her life before her illness eventually killed her. But her sister told me it was Sandy’s way to push people aside sometimes, even ones she was close to, and that she lived her life on her own terms, full stop. My wanting to be there for her ultimately would have been more for me than for her. She had her own plans for coping.
My former co-worker, Lucy, and I emailed and talked often on Facebook. Her death was sudden. She too had health issues, but had been doing well. The death was a fluke. It was tragic. But there was literally nothing anyone could have done, she was on good terms and had recently been in touch with those of us who cared about her. She died peacefully after spending a day with friends. She knew she was loved.
My other co-worker, Susan, was more problematic. She was known to go underground for weeks or months at a time, surfacing only when she felt like it. During one of these times, she had moved from Virginia back to Delaware but hadn’t told me (or anyone else). At some point, she would have popped up again and we would have had lunch and everything would have been fine. But she died of complications from the flu, suddenly. So I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, but the vile cosmic joke was more on her than me. She ran out of time.
I can tell myself I’ll try to stay in constant touch with EVERYONE I know, but I know I won’t and even if I try some of them won’t cooperate.
There is a two-day stretch in December that will always be hard. It comprises Sandy’s birthday, the day June died, and the day of Lucy’s funeral. December is hard. My dad died the day after Christmas. My mother-in-law was diagnosed just before Christmas with the cancer that killed her a month later. My mother went into the hospital New Year’s Eve and never came home.
We want to save the people we care about. Technically we could always be doing more, but often nothing that makes a difference. How do we decide where to put our efforts? I neglected June because I was caring for my mother. Sometimes I regret that decision and wish I’d reversed it. But if I had, I might be having an entirely different set of regrets and a different kind of guilt. If I’d harassed Susan and Sandy more, they would have felt under attack and withdrawn further into their shells or even gotten angry and parted on bad terms.
Instead, I try to remember other deaths. The wonderful, memorable day I spent with my mother-in-law shortly before her diagnosis. A similar one with my grandmother (and a happy memory of her in her dying days still pulling a fast one on the daughters she felt were cramping her style). My dad and I spent his last full day on Earth going through photos together. My old high school boyfriend announced his terminal illness on Facebook, and we had a chance to converse about something he’d done that I’d totally forgotten about but that still bothered him, and I could assure him what a great guy he was and always had been. Even my mom and I spent a few hours in those last, horrible years bonding over one of the few things we had in common: our mutual hatred of Paul Ryan.
Death is peaceful for some, ugly for others. I mean this both for the dying person and those around them. We don’t always have control over how ugly it is.
Emma’s been hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of the ex-wife of Davey Detonator, a deceased LA rock star from the 1980s. But Emma senses there’s something that tell-all Patti Detonator isn’t telling–and the secret may derail the project.
I squeeze into an empty parking space at the end of the cul-de-sac. I’m in a 1980s-era townhouse development in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the kind of shoddily constructed place originally marketed as “luxury townhomes.” The kind of place that quickly deteriorates once its initial inhabitants flee to better neighborhoods, until thirty years later it’s a shabby DelCo backwater filled with sketchy renters and occasional newlyweds hoping to claw their way somewhere better soon.
The second-to-last house belongs to Patti Jenkins Detonator Lyndall Amoroso Harvey, who is the subject of my visit. Patti had called me to talk about ghostwriting her memoir about her days as a hottie in the 1980s Los Angeles hair-metal scene and, specifically, her short, tragic marriage to Davey “Detonator” Lyndall, bassist for the Bomb Angels. The band had been one of the LA scene’s most spectacular successes and was also proof that it’s quite possible to neither burn out nor rust; you could simply throw a Mototov cocktail into an entire shipping container’s worth of July 4th fireworks and then randomly set off a second container’s contents bit by bit over the next twenty-five years. Most people my age (30) can’t name a single Kix song, and L.A. Guns couldn’t draw a draw a decent crowd to your neighborhood pizzeria, but people still talk about the Bomb Angels, though they never had an “Appetite for Destruction” like Guns ’N Roses. More like “Thirst for Drama.”
The townhouse door bears one of those handmade floral wreaths. I ring the doorbell, which is superfluous thanks to a yapping dog who frantically flings himself against the front window. Patti answers the door before he breaks through the glass.
“Hush, baby,” she says to the pom-pug-peke-cocka-poo. “Mommy has company!”
I’ve seen pictures online of Patti back in the day, with a frizzy blond perm and a stunning body. She’s now 54 years old, heavier, skin ravaged by cigarettes or too much tanning or Scotch; dressed in Target chic, her face overly contoured by one of those kits celebrities hawk on TV. She ushers me in while the dog, who looks like a wind-up toy, collapses into a basket bed.
The living room is also Target-chic, with a few frou-frou ’80s touches like porcelain geese wearing mauve and teal bows and some dried-flower arrangements that are really dusty dead-flower arrangements. An entertainment center spills over with vintage CDs, which suggest Patti hasn’t bought any new music since “Use Your Illusion II.”
I perch on her off-white couch, which is covered with dirty paw prints, and she sits across from me in a chair. She clasps her hands together. “I’m so excited. I thought up a title for the book last night.” She pauses dramatically. “ʽI Used to Be Married to a Guy in the Bomb Angels’!”
I smile and act like I know what I’m talking about. “Publishers almost always change titles, and that’s a bit long. But I like it for a working title. Certainly sums things up!”
Patti smiles back. “Now what do we do? I have so much to show you. Pictures, stories I’ve written down….”
My new ghostwriting career so far is limited to a few magazine articles. Paid music journalism has dried up, and though #MeToo has gotten me a few published feminist rants, it’s not a living. My friend Allie is a professional ghostwriter. She’s done some big stuff: books by a couple of famous politicians, a tech guru, and even a movie star. She has an agent, makes good money, and also puts out romance novels under a pen name. I just want to pay my bills and eventually find an agent myself. And publish Hail Satan, my novel about heavy-metal kids in Jersey.
Allie has prepared me well. “Basically, your marriage is a start for a memoir,” I tell Patti. “But we need to find a better hook to make it stand out. Could be a number of things: Small-town girl goes to LA, falls in love with musician, addiction and tragedy ensue. Or LA scene girl mixes with the best of the ’80s metal bands, has adventures, and meets the man of her dreams only to be disillusioned. We can explore some ideas.”
Patti uncrosses her legs, which are not half-bad for a woman in her 50s. I recall a photo I saw of her in Duff McKagan’s lap, one of those legs slung over his shoulder, a stiletto-heeled sandal dangling off her toe. “Whatever you think will work. I just want a bestseller so I can move to Florida. Get a nice condo in South Beach.” She sighed. “Or at the very least, make enough to keep paying off this house. I got laid off a couple of years ago—I was an office manager—just after my third husband left, so I refinanced, and now I owe a ton. My current job doesn’t pay very well, and my hours just got cut.”
“I’ll be honest, Patti. Memoir is a hard sell, even celebrity-related stuff, unless it’s current. 1980s nostalgia is getting passé, and even the ’90s are peaking. But if we find a good hook, we’ll do some sample chapters and an outline, and then approach agents and publishers. We’ll go through what you have and think up something unique that might catch some interest.”
Patti jumps up. “Of course, Emma. Come in here and we’ll spread out my stuff.”
Two large plastic tubs and some shoeboxes are on her kitchen table. She opens one of the tubs. It’s chock-full of photos.
She passes me an 8×10. “I thought this might make a good cover.”
It’s Patti in skintight pants, lace-up platform boots, and a fuchsia satin bomber jacket over a gold lamé bustier that’s overflowing with boobage. She’s wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and making the duck face.
“Publishers determine the cover, not authors. But we can certainly suggest it.”
We go through more photos: Patti with her posse of girlfriends prowling Sunset Strip in 1986; blurry concert shots of some pretty famous bands; party photos of dudes doing lines of coke off women’s breasts. Everyone is wearing bright colors and pants so tight I wonder how they ever peeled them off to have sex. Or even to use the bathroom.
I look at a group shot that features of a couple of members of Poison along with assorted girls. Patti is kissing Rikki Rockett’s cheek. He looks indifferent and is fondling another girl’s thigh. Probably why I’m not being asked to write “I Used to Be Married to Rikki Rockett.”
“Here are some stories I wrote.” Patti opens another box and pulls out a pile of looseleaf sheets. “Just trying to remember some of the crazy stuff. The fun we had.” Then she touches another box, one we haven’t opened. “And the sad stuff. Maybe we can talk about that another day?”
“Sure. May I take these with me? Might give me some ideas about structure. And…” I hesitate. “I will need to corroborate as much as I can. Meaning I may need to talk to people you’re still in touch with from the scene, the surviving band members, even Davey’s family.”
Patti swallows and looks a little distressed. “Well, okay. I don’t know if some of them will talk.”
“Leave that me.” I get up. “I’ll call in a couple of days and touch base, okay?”
Patti leads me back to the door and embraces me. “Oooh, Emma, this is going to be awesome. It’s hard to think about Davey, but I think I need to confront it. All my therapists said so.”
The tiny dog wakes up when I shut the door and hurls himself against the window again. I can hear him yipping as I walk to my car.
Patti’s stories are a mess. Clumsily written, they veer from mundane to funny to horrifying. There are enough anecdotes to set the scene for the early chapters. But we’ll definitely need more than decadent LA party tales to sell a book. It’s all been done.
I do more research on the band before I call Patti back. Most people know the basics: Two DelCo boys meet behind an illegal teen band venue in the early ’80s when one bums a cigarette off the other. The boys’ names are Rex Loomis and Dave Lyndall. Dave plays bass. Rex doesn’t play anything, but he has astonishing vocal range and can howl like Robert Plant. After high school graduation, they take off for Los Angeles and join bands that don’t last past the second rehearsal. Eventually they run across kindred spirits: Drexel Colby, Mike DeBonis, Harley Haydon. They call themselves The Do-Whats at first, but eventually they morph into the Bomb Angels: singer/songwriter Wrex King, lead guitarist/songwriter Drex Rox, drummer Mikey Bone, guitarist Harley Hell, and bassist Davey Detonator. Wrex and Drex collaborate on some incendiary riffs and killer lyrics. They’re better musicians than many of their peers. They’re all good-looking. Wrex and Drex ooze so much charisma it puddles on the floor with the sweat of their fans. They quickly rise to the top of the LA rock pile.
The first album is a major hit; KROQ radio does a double-shot of their songs every day at two. They have more girls than they can handle, and more drugs and booze. Wrex and Drex fall into a classic singer/guitarist feud, jealous of each other’s talents, fans, women. The other band members take sides, and switch sides. The second album is also a smash, but as the band hits the road nationally, things get uglier. Harley threatens to quit. Mikey OD’s and has to be detoxed. Drex gets arrested for throwing a bottle at someone. Nobody realizes amidst the chaos that Davey may have the most serious problems of all.
Somewhere around the time the fun lurches toward disaster, Davey meets pretty blond scenester Patti Jenkins. They fall in love. Patti patiently listens to Davey’s complaints and stories of band discord. She looks after him as he tries to stay out of the fray. On a weekend getaway to Mexico, they wed.
All too soon, Patti realizes she’s married an addict. The others begin to scare themselves straight, or at least functional. Wrex decides that drugs are the cause of all the band’s problems: When they started out, it was just a little cheap pot, an occasional line of coke, maybe a bottle of pills found in the Roxy dumpster, and everybody got along fine. Drugs (and women) have spoiled everything. He decrees that everyone has to straighten up, and this includes getting various romantic relationships sorted out “because the bitches are fighting, and then we fight too,” Wrex declares in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Davey can’t shake his heroin habit. He also can’t shake Patti, whom the other band members regard as a bossy nag who “spoils” her husband. They call her Yoko and try to get Davey to cheat on her. Finally, the band unites around one decision: Mr. and Mrs. Detonator must go.
How messed up do you have to be to get kicked out of the Bomb Angels in 1989?
With a new bassist in place and everybody reasonably sober, the band begins the 1990s with a promising new record. But a worldwide tour raises the same old problems between Wrex and Drex. After a spectacular backstage fight in Japan, all five band members are arrested. Wrex and Drex never speak again. The Bomb Angels are over—for a bit.
Contracts signed while the band members were under the influence of stardust and blow are a little vague about who owns the actual rights to the band. After a decent interval, Wrex finds an entirely new group of musicians to go on tour with him as the Bomb Angels. Everyone, especially Drex, raises hell, but Wrex got there first and is legally permitted to use the name. The others drift off to the usual washed-up-rock-star futures: producing (Drex), suburban fatherhood (Harley), session work (Mikey), and sad drugged-out decline (Davey).
Broke and broken, Patti and Davey move back to DelCo so Davey’s concerned family can stage an intervention. After several rounds of rehab and relapse, Patti and Davey split up. One day his mother finds him collapsed on the floor. At the hospital, no drugs are found in his system except a prescribed antidepressant, but he’s had a stroke and is partially paralyzed on his left side. His speech is slurred, and there is possible brain damage. He can stand but finds walking too difficult and won’t complete physical therapy. He confines himself, mostly, to a wheelchair, watching TV all day. His parents finally persuade him to check into a stroke rehab facility, where he overdoses on prescription painkillers, dying at age 33.
I go back to Patti’s with a few of the anecdotes I want to use picked out, but still no hook. I raise the corroboration question again.
“Well,” Patti says, looking flustered. “I kept a diary; will that help, you know, authenticate things?”
She presents me with a five-year diary, which I take home. Unfortunately, it’s not much help. Patti’s diary entries consist of things like “Went to the Roxy,” “I HATE CHERYL!!!!” and “Screwed Bobby ❤ ❤ ❤.” There is a bit more about Davey; clearly he resonates more emotionally than her other flings. And she does worry about him. “What to do about Davy he’s messed up I’m so freaked out.”
I tell her I have to attend my cousin’s wedding in LA (my parents are paying for my flight, since it’s a mandatory family event). I can stretch the trip out a few days and try to catch up with some of the band members and others from the era. I see something like fear in Patti’s eyes, but she nods, petting her dog and telling me to have a good trip.
I contact every surviving member of the Bomb Angels and some assorted acquaintances to line up interviews in LA. Wrex’s people email back immediately: Wrex King will not discuss anything about any former band members, end of story. Funny thing because he manages to reel off an insult about Drex or Harley nearly every time he opens his piehole in front of a journalist.
I actually saw Wrex and the current lineup of the Bomb Angels play in Philly about a year ago. I wouldn’t have bothered paying for tickets, but my friend Lindsey got a pair from a local radio station that was giving them away. Not to the 25th caller, or if you could answer a trivia question; they were just handing them out at the mall. So much for the legendary Wrex King and the Bomb Angels.
The show was crowded, though not at capacity. Wrex could still belt one out; his range had narrowed but guys half his age would still kill for the pipes he had left. He’d obviously started working out since the last tour in 2012, where he had performed in baggy sweatpants and gotten visibly winded just walking around onstage. The latest fake Bomb Angels, though, were pretty lackluster, perhaps chosen for looks rather than talent. The lead guitarist struggled to imitate Drex’s solos. The bass player didn’t whirl around like Davey.
The crowd was more interesting than the show. Many people my age seemed to be there out of curiosity, like me, or a need to cross a legendary band off the bucket list. Some people were openly disappointed that Wrex had gotten in shape this time because they couldn’t yell “Lard Angel” or “Train Wrex” at him. And a lot of the old timers treated the show like either a historical re-enactment, to be filmed on their phones, or some bittersweet talisman of youth.
Wrex had assured the audience that a new Bomb Angels record was on the way. Nobody seemed to care. It had been six years since the last one (now seven).
I had wondered that night why he hadn’t just started fresh when he struck out on his own. Surely his massive ego would be better served by making a career as Wrex King, rather than flogging the dead band’s name?
But on the flight to Los Angeles, it occurs to me that his narcissistic impulses were more satisfied with the thought that he alone WAS the Bomb Angels. And he’d never have to struggle to build a new identity for himself, the way his bandmates had. Perhaps Patti couldn’t let go of her identity as Mrs. Detonator either.
Drex Colby has agreed to meet with me at Starlight Studios, where he is producing a record.
Drex hasn’t done too badly for himself. He used Wrex’s hijacking of the band to paint himself as the white hat in the fight. Around the time he and Wrex had progressed from boffing scene girls like Patti to dating budding supermodels and B-list actresses, he had met a model named Arielle and eventually married her. Her entrepreneurial talents overtook her desire to pose on a car hood wearing nothing but cowgirl boots and lip gloss, so she started a successful chain of California health spas and was writing books about holistic wellness before Gwyneth Paltrow knew what “organic” meant. Drex and Arielle had also managed to raise two kids, one now attending Stanford. Drex is an in-demand record producer and still crunches riffs at charity shows and on other people’s records.
And he still oozes charisma, I notice when we shake hands. The curls are short and graying rather than black and flowing, but the bod is incredible, his gorgeous brown eyes are still piercing, and his cheekbones could cut a steak. I’m usually not interested in older men but if not for that gold wedding ring he’d be tempting.
“Patti.” He shakes his head as I start asking questions. “Maybe we weren’t kind to her, I admit. But she was hard to take. Huge sense of entitlement. Usually coked to the gills and lecturing us about being a bad influence on her previous Davey. I wrote ‘Cocaine Princess’ about her, you know. She got her hooks in him just before he lost interest in anything but where his next heroin fix was coming from, so she didn’t have to worry about competition.”
I ask him about a few of Patti’s stories. He laughs and smirks, “Really?” about one, denies another ever happened, and tells me to ask Harley Haydon about the third one, because Harley had witnessed the episode and always described it quite differently.
Harley Haydon meets me in a Burbank park where he coaches youth soccer. His son had played on the team, he explains as we jog up and down the sidelines during a game. He kept coaching even after his kid grew up.
“Wrex used to yell at me that I was disposable,” he says about the old days. “Maybe he was right. After I got arrested, I just couldn’t live with myself anymore, or the music business. It was a blessing to get out. The suits were ripping us off, the fans were sucking us dry, the drugs were killing us, and the women….” He shakes his head. “The women were all Patti Jenkins, full stop. Barracudas. Money, drugs, see and be seen. Yeah, we were no better, but the rest of us made it out one way or the other. Davey didn’t.”
I think that Harley might have his own book in him, and it won’t be a pretty story.
After a phone conversation with Mike DeBonis and an email exchange with the guy who originally replaced Davey (and got fired by Wrex after the Japanese debacle), I am no closer to finding a hook for Patti’s story.
But a few days after I return from LA, as I’m preparing to meet with her again, I get a cryptic text message from Harley. “Ask Patti about their wedding.”
So I do. She shows me photos of the crazy Tijuana bar where it happened and the drunk priest who couldn’t speak English. In the pictures, Patti’s wearing a white bikini top and a long black skirt. Davey’s eyes are barely open.
“I know it sounds crazy if you weren’t there,” she says with a sigh. “But it was romantic, in its own way. Colorful, not like the LA County courthouse or some cheesy Vegas chapel, you know? We were just there, having drinks, and he asked me.”
I don’t know what made me ask, just a hunch. “Do you have a marriage certificate, license, anything like that?”
I’ve struck a nerve. Patti mumbles, “Somewhere, I guess. I haven’t seen it since the divorce.”
“Bad memories, huh?” I ask.
“I don’t have ANY bad memories of Davey,” she snaps. “None. Bad things happened, but I loved him.”
I calm her back down by asking about another story she’s written for me, a pointless anecdote about Davey getting recognized in a restaurant and leaving through the kitchen. Her left eye is twitching. Something’s up.
The next time we get together, she slams a piece of paper in front of me. “Here. Mexican marriage certificate. It’s all in Spanish. I don’t know why you want to see it so badly.”
I remember enough high school Spanish to decipher it. Pretty routine. Along with the priest’s name, there are two other signatures at the bottom, “Patricia Elaine Jenkins” and “Davy Lindall.”
I look closely at the signatures. Patti’s and the priest’s are written in the same blue ink. Davey’s is in black. His legal name, I know, was David James Lyndall, and his stage name of course was Davey Detonator, with an “e” in “Davey.” I’d seen it without the “e” once before: in Patti’s diary. And I’d seen Davey’s handwriting too, on an IOU Harley had kept for old times’ sake. His writing was choppy and masculine, with squared-off lowercase letters. This signature is loopy, similar to Patti’s. With an open circle for the dot on the misspelled “i,” like Patti’s writing.
I look at her. She turns red immediately.
“Well,” I say. “We’ll have to change the book title, anyway.”
“I thought the band might respect me more if I was his wife,” she says, staring down at the table. “They didn’t. Davey couldn’t even remember the ceremony so he wouldn’t sign. But I lied to so many people, I had to pretend it was real and go through an actual divorce, and by then he was so far gone his mom wouldn’t let me see him. So I forged it.”
She looks up. “I know what you’re going to say. My best friend from the old days, Cici, told me I’d look like a gold-digger, writing this book after so much time passed. You’re such a professional, I figured you’d make it sound good. I really did love him, Emma. Davey will go down in history for being in the band, and since he’s not here to benefit, I thought maybe I could.”
We talk some more, until her dog shits on the carpet and she has to clean it up. We’ve put so much time and effort into this project, and still don’t have a way to frame it to be saleable.
Ultimately Patti decides to sell part of her story to a woman who is making a documentary about 1980s hair-metal groupies. There are no hard feelings between us.
Harley calls me. He is indeed ready to write a book, and hires me to collaborate. There’s a killer hook: The “quiet guy” from the Bomb Angels has the receipts. He was always the least wasted of the bunch, a hoarder of minutiae, and he kept a meticulous journal. Drex Colby backs the idea and may contribute as well. Mike DeBonis is enthused too. I have two agents and a publisher interested already and we haven’t even finished the outline yet.
Wrex King threatens to sue if we publish a word about him, but his own lawyer says he doesn’t have a case and any noise he makes just ensures more book sales.
So I’m sitting here now listening to the Bomb Angels station on Pandora while I email one of the agents about having lunch in New York next week. They just played “Cocaine Princess” back-to-back with Poison’s “Fallen Angel,” which is pretty appropriate. Maybe they’re both about Patti.
This week Arboria Park is a year old, and it’s time to wrap up with the last two chapters. No spoilers, but Stacy and her friends and family have organized a rally to save their community. There are speeches and entertainment, including Ruby’s rockabilly band and a reunion of Autumn’s punk group from high school. Stacy gives a speech, and finally she and her daughter and nieces perform as the Halloran Spitfires.
Through the day the crowd swells. Mary and her granddaughter, Berry, hand out T-shirts and supplies for making signs.
Ruby’s band covers Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” with a twist: She’s rewritten the song to reflect Arboria Park. Here’s a video of Eddie, followed by Ruby’s lyrics:
Oh well, I’ve got a boy with a record machine
We like to rock and make the scene
We love to dance on a Saturday night
All alone, I can hold him tight
But he lives way over on Cobbs near town
And my car is broken down
So I walk Willow Beech Mimosa no lag
By Oak and Holly I’m startin’ to drag
By the time I reach Maple I’m ready to sag
Get to Cobbs, I’m too tired to rock
When he calls me up on the telephone
Said c’mon over honey, I’m all alone
I said baby, you’re mighty sweet
But I’m in the bed with achin’ feet
This went on for a couple of days
But I couldn’t stay away
So I walked Birch and Cedar, don’t wanna brag
Up by the Circle I’m startin’ to drag
By the time I reach Maple I’m ready to sag
Get to Cobbs, I’m too tired to rock
Well, they sent to Chicago for the brakes
‘Till they’re fixed I’m gonna ache
Hope they hurry up before it’s too late
Want my baby too much to wait
All this walkin’ is for that baby of mine
They’ll find my corpse in the Pines.
The Halloran Spitfires back Sophie singing the Smithereens’ “House We Used to Live in,” a lyrically appropriate song about attachment to a particular place and the comfort of home. This song is especially bittersweet since I’ve had the privilege of knowing the Smithereens for several years now, and the recent death of singer Pat DiNizio hit me very hard. I still can’t believe I won’t be standing in front of him this summer watching the band play this song. I’m glad I heard it live as many times as I did.
The Spitfires also perform “Open Letter to a Landlord,” which gets the crowd singing along with Stacy. Soon the protesters are stopping traffic on the highway and drawing attention from local media. Will it be enough to save the Park?
The book begins and ends with lyrics from a song by one of my favorite punk bands, Against Me! Thank you, Laura Jane Grace, for sharing these lyrics to “FUCKMYLIFE666.” If Arboria Park were a movie, I’d picture this song playing during the opening credits:
Laura also does a solo acoustic version of the song, which I envision playing during the closing credits:
I wanted to use the final lines of Frank Turner’s “Polaroid Picture” to end the book. Appropriately enough, it was inspired by the loss of one of Frank’s favorite performing venues, which was torn down. But despite Frank’s very kind permission, I ran into an impenetrable wall with his publishing company and was unable to use them. But picture the book (and the movie credits) ending with this:
Tonight, a year and a day after the publication of Arboria Park, I will be receiving a first–place award for adult fiction from the Delaware Press Association, and the book has gone on to compete in the national competition of the National Federation of Press Women. During the past year, my own neighborhood lost a major, longstanding battle to prevent a local piece of land, the last green space in our area, from being developed. The project will increase traffic in already overloaded area that has no parks and now no chance of having any. Last week deer run out of the woods now being developed appeared in my neighbors’ yard, and later one of them was killed on the highway they crossed to get here. Other land battles in my state have been won, including one this week downstate. People like Stacy and Mrs. Ramsey and Mr. Jennings are fighting in every area, every day, to prevent more environmental and societal destruction. I hope Arboria Park finds these people and inspires them to keep going.
Someone’s setting fires around Arboria Park, under the noses of the neighborhood watch and police sergeant Corky McAllister. Could it be affable dad Carl, who has a mysterious illness? Iraq War vet Ryan, suffering from PTSD? Grumpy Mr. Wong, determined to rid the neighborhood of beer-swilling teens? Or the punk-rock slackers of We Are 138? Cassidy can’t start her novel or finish her mental breakdown in peace until she finds the perpetrator.
The official start of summer is still four days away and already it feels like August. The humidity’s a tease, since it hasn’t rained in a month. The petunias I planted by the front and back doors have shriveled even though I try to water them every day. They were an attempt at cheer and normalcy (like my plan to thoroughly clean and maybe even decorate this four-room duplex on Pine Court) that just didn’t take. As the days lengthen leading up to the solstice, the extra light taunts me: Do something. Go outside. Walk to the store. Walk anywhere. Write something. Anything.
But I end up on the couch or on the bed, with the air conditioner and TV on but not paying much attention to either, until an urge overtakes me to run out the door. Because, as I’ve learned during this miserable June, it’s quite possible to be kind of agoraphobic and get cabin fever at the same time.
The clouds started to gather last summer. Things had seemed good at first. Jonny and I went to the beach on weekends and helled around DC; Jonny working hard at the Washington Post and me finishing up my MFA. It was Jonny who’d been unsatisfied, bored, and full of complaints. Two of his high school buddies were serving in Afghanistan and regularly sent him stories he couldn’t do anything with, because he was on the local desk and the Post had people to cover the war, after all.
In the fall he’d blown up, quit his job, and announced his intention to go to the Middle East, officially as a news service stringer, but really, we both knew, to practice being Ernest Hemingway and Walter Winchell and every other kind of throwback writer/journalist/adventurer he could think of. Jonny dreams of wandering the world with a camera and backpack; of slugging back whiskey and smoking cigars with soldiers of fortune and ex-pats and spies. It was part of what had charmed me about him at first.
Fast-forward to January and Jonny was embedded in Afghanistan, in danger every minute and loving it. Unable to afford the DC metro area on my own, with no plans, and a bad feeling that the Big D (my personal stalker) was hot on my trail, I’d washed up in Arboria Park (near Jonny’s hometown), alone, where rent was cheap and there were no real distractions. “You can finally start your novel,” Jonny had urged. “It’s good that it’s boring there. I’ll send you some money every month, so you can hold on to the place. And I can write my own book there when I come back…”
Jonny had made a perfunctory offer not to go when it became apparent that I was heading for another depressive episode, but I knew if I’d somehow persuaded him to stay, I could look forward to a miserable breakup in a few months. At least this way we’re still nominally together, but it’s also kind of a trial separation. There are emails, one or two phone calls. For someone who could be killed any second, he’s having the time of his life. While I sit mired in guilt over doing nothing.
It’s about ten a.m. and my beagle, Buddy, knows the routine. He’s at the front door. I follow him outside. As he sniffs the maple tree, I wander around the side of the house.
Carl’s there, like I knew he’d be. He lives in the other side of the duplex. We may not be good for much over here on Pine Court, but we’re punctual. As usual he’s smoking a cigarette. Carl has some kind of neurological condition; he can’t work anymore because he gets these violent headaches and has to stay inside, shades drawn, in bed for the duration. Because of that, he loves to be outdoors when he’s feeling okay. He knows smoking isn’t good for him, but he can’t quit. He won’t smoke indoors or within ten feet of his precious little toddler, Tanisha. Carl’s a house husband/daycare daddy. His wife, Diandra, is a nurse at the hospital. Carl lives for Tanisha. She’s playing in her sandbox, like she often does. Sometimes she’s in her baby pool. Carl watches her like a hawk, puts sunscreen on her, plays ball, and even lets her smear pink lipstick all over his face. They walk around the neighborhood a lot, T in the stroller or, lately, her cute red kiddie car.
Carl throws his cigarette butt aside. “Mornin’, Ms. Cassidy.” There’s a trace of the South in his voice, and an inability to call anybody by their first name without attaching a Ms. or Mr. It bothers me, makes me feel like I’m Scarlett O’Hara interacting with a self-effacing field hand, but it’s just Carl’s way.
“Hey, Carl. What’s new?”
“Quiet again. Too quiet. Nobody’s out at night when it’s this hot, at first. All inside with the AC. But you watch, they’ll be out, up to no good soon.”
He’s been saying this for a couple of days now. He hollers, “Come on, T,” to Tanisha, and she scrambles over to accompany us to the corner. Buddy, finished with his business, comes along.
Mr. Wong, who lives in a single-family house facing Cedar Street, is in his front yard, poking at some weeds with a hoe. He nods as we approach. Mr. Wong never says much.
“Working before it gets too hot?” Carl asks. Mr. Wong nods again.
I hear a screen door slam nearby. I don’t even have to look. It’s Ryan, who lives in the duplex directly across the court from me. He owns both halves, bought them as an investment before he was deployed in Iraq. He’s battling PTSD, taking a couple of college courses, trying to get himself together. He’ll give me a ride when I have to be somewhere, accompany me to do whatever I have to do, say he has my back. We often compare notes about what his shrink at the VA says versus mine at the clinic. I think helping me makes him feel less screwed up. So we each serve a purpose.
Ryan walks over. He pets Buddy and swings T up in the air. “Hey, what’s new?”
“Mornin’, Ryan,” Carl says. Recently he dropped the “Mr.” with Ryan, for some reason. “Just saying, it’s too quiet.”
Mr. Wong, who will always be Mr. Wong to all of us, jabs at a root. Now that we have a quorum, he speaks. “Those teenagers, down at the playground again. I found some beer cans.”
“Well, they’re not noisy, they’re bothering anybody yet, and they don’t stay there all night,” Ryan says. “We’ll keep an eye out, but I think they’re harmless.”
People call us the Neighborhood Watch. We’re among the few adults not at work during the day, and we take the night shift too. Carl has insomnia, so he’s outside smoking at all hours. Ryan gets restless and goes out walking or driving around. Mr. Wong and I are both light sleepers, prone to wake up if a car slows down or speeds up or kids make too much noise roaming the street. Most of them know now to keep it down if they want to avoid us. We even negotiated a deal with We Are 138, the college students who throw punk-rock shows in their basement at 138 Cedar, so they can let it rip until eleven thirty or so on weekends but are responsible for making their guests leave quietly. When somebody actually is up to no good (the all-night rager, complete with nudity and fireworks, across from Mr. Wong’s; the drunk driver who hit six parked cars in a row on Cedar; the dude smacking his girlfriend around in the street; the kids tagging people’s porches with spray paint), one of us, usually Carl or Mr. Wong, phones the police. We’re on a first-name basis with Sgt. Corky McAllister, the unfortunate state trooper who handles most calls in Arboria Park. We’re not in town, we’re no-man’s-land, so the state gets stuck with us while the politicians wrangle about whether the county needs its own police force.
The deal’s the same pretty much every day. We review the previous night’s activities (or lack thereof); maybe chew on a couple of news stories (Mr. Wong and I are particularly avid readers of the local paper). Carl shares any street gossip he’s extracted from Ms. Jennifer or Ms. Monique, whose kids play with T sometimes. Then we drift apart for a few hours. Around dusk we may gather again, see if anybody needs anything. Mrs. Wong is home from work by then, so sometimes she joins us, but she’s even quieter than her husband. We say good night, go in, and turn on the lights. And wait. For noise, for trouble, the bat signal. Whatever.
The night of the solstice, I can’t sleep. The air conditioner is on, but I still feel sticky. I kick Buddy off the bed, then feel bad and invite him back up. The AC deadens outside noise; usually it makes me sleep more soundly. I’m thinking of getting a white-noise machine for when it gets cold again. I wonder if Jonny will be okay with that. Ryan put central air in his house because it’s quieter; the roar of a window unit reminds him too much of the trucks in the supply convoy he used to run, or the generators they used. Maybe Jonny will be screwed up when he comes back, I worry. He’s seen a lot of shit. Ryan says he was fine while he was there, watching people get blown up or shot and never knowing if a kid or a woman with a baby was going to throw a bomb at him. It hit him when he got back, he told us. When things got normal again.
I get up and look out the side window, the one without the AC unit in it, for no reason. I see a lit cigarette in the darkness. Carl. It moves away and disappears.
I go back to bed. Constant insomnia must be awful. It’s rare for me; I’d sleep all the damn time when I’m depressed, if I could. The only thing that gets me out of bed sometimes is that I have to pee. Or Buddy does.
I’m dozing off when I hear a blaring air horn over the AC, and suddenly red lights flash. Through the gap between Mr. Wong’s house and the one next to it, I see a fire engine race by. What the hell, the rest of the gang will be up; I might as well be too.
I throw on some clothes and step outside. I don’t see Carl, but Ryan’s coming out, and even the woman who lives in the other half of his house. We catch up to both Wongs on Cedar, and a half dozen other folks. The engine, two police cars, and another firetruck are parked at the end of the street, where it meets Birch near the playground.
That’s where the fire is. Someone set the wooden play castle ablaze, and the swing set too. The firefighters have it out by the time we reach the end of the street, but the stuff is ruined.
Carl’s there. He phoned it in, he says. Went out for a smoke and saw the flames, was afraid the woods were on fire.
People stand around and talk for a while, even after the firefighters leave. A couple of cops are still there (not Corky this time), and Carl and some guy from over on Birch are giving them details of what they saw. It always takes something like this to get everybody talking and being friendly. Mostly folks around here just go about their own business, but a few wrecked cars or a burning swing set and it’s like a block party.
We post-mortem the whole thing again the next day, a little later than usual because some of us slept in after all the excitement. Mr. Wong insists it’s those kids he saw with the beer cans; Ryan counters that they wouldn’t burn up the stuff they messed around with and sat on. Carl’s upset because Tanisha liked to be pushed on the swings.
Jonny emails to say he won’t be in touch for a while; he’s going off in the hills. I hold Buddy and weep.
The homeowners’ association takes up a collection for new playground equipment. Things stay quiet for a few days, except for Carl breaking up a fight between two teenage girls. Ryan has a couple of bad days and calls his shrink about upping his Prozac dosage.
On the night of the 25th, I leave the windows open because there’s a nice breeze. I fall asleep easily and dream that Jonny shows up with a Pulitzer Prize and says he’s leaving me for Britney Spears.
Buddy wakes me up, pawing at my face. I smell smoke and run to the window. It seems to be coming from outside. Two fires in a week? I get dressed and run out again.
This time the field behind our court is burning. It used to be farmed but the owners are trying to sell it for development. It’s just a lot of scrubby grass and weeds, and it’s been so dry lately.
The Jamaican dude at the end of the court has his garden hose hooked up, but it’s too short. Carl appears. “I’ll get mine! Ms. Cassidy, get Ryan. He has one too.”
We string together three hoses. Everybody in the neighborhood is out now, and Mr. Wong and Ryan are hooking up another set of hoses. The punks from We Are 138 run out their back door with buckets of water, stumbling in the dark and sloshing it all over themselves.
We put out one section of fire before the firetrucks show up and deal with the rest. A police car arrives, and this time it’s Corky.
“It’s the second fire this week,” I tell him.
“It’s those kids with the beer,” Mr. Wong insists.
Corky shakes his head. “If it were closer to the road, it could just be somebody throwing a cigarette out of a car window. But not in the middle of the field.”
He takes Carl aside to talk. They’re used to each other.
Carl hadn’t been outside when this one started, though, so he didn’t know any more than the rest of us. The fire marshal comes over and says the origin appeared to be closer to Oakley Estates, the development on the other side of the field, and it had burned toward us.
Now everybody’s edgy. Carl gets a headache and stays inside for two days. Ryan’s snappish. Mr. Wong’s giving the stinkeye to every teen and college student who has the misfortune to wander by. And I’m not sleeping well. Depression has given way to anxiety. Panic attacks will come next, if I’m not careful. I force myself to walk to the shopping center to buy food, sweating all the way even though it’s not especially hot. I don’t ask Ryan to come along because he’s not in much better shape.
The penultimate night of the month, I’m lying awake again. There’s heat lightning on the horizon, but no storms or rain are predicted. Carl and Ryan have gotten their shit together and are going out a few times a night to patrol the backyard perimeter along Cedar and loop around Pine and Spruce.
I feel a buzzing in my head and my heart starts pounding. Buddy whines, and I sit up. I’m not surprised when I hear yelling outside a moment later.
This time it’s a wooden shed, behind the house next to We Are 138. It’s out by the time the firetrucks arrive because 138 have bought themselves a garden hose.
Corky shows up with another cop. By now, we all know the drill. The homeowner is alternately cursing in Spanish at the scorched shed and thanking 138, who stand there grinning shyly. They’re not used to being the neighborhood heroes.
Carl and Diandra are talking to Ryan’s tenant when the cop who isn’t Corky walks up to Carl. “Mr. Evans, please come with us.” He grabs Carl’s arm.
“I told you everything I know, officer.” Carl is polite as always. “Me and Ryan walked around at two, and everything was okay. We were going out again at four…”
The cop pulls on him, roughly. “Yeah, you’re always outside, and smoking like a chimney, according to everyone around here. Seems a little weird, huh? You’re coming down to the station.”
Diandra, holding T (who’s somehow managed to sleep through most of the excitement), asks, “Is Carl being charged?”
The cop flips out. “He will be by morning, if I have any say about it.” He pushes Carl. “Get moving or I’ll cuff you in front of your wife.”
Carl immediately kneels on the ground and raises both hands. The cop whips out the handcuffs, grabs Carl’s arms, and then kicks him. “Stand up.”
Diandra’s crying now, and people are running over. I step in front of the cop. “Well, is he being charged or not? Why Carl? Because he’s black? Because he smokes and has insomnia? You might as well charge me. Hell, I’m mentally ill. I go to the clinic downtown. Ryan’s got PTSD. Why not us? You have as much evidence…”
Corky walks over and touches my arm. I pull away and yell, “Get your hands off me, Corky. You know me, you know Carl. This is bullshit.”
Corky’s eyes are cold, and he’s all business. “Ms. Swanson, we are taking Mr. Evans in for questioning. Nobody’s being charged with anything yet, but we would prefer to do this without interference. Please step back before this gets ugly.”
“It’s already ugly.” Mr. Wong speaks up. “What right have you?”
Corky doesn’t answer. His fascist partner pushes Carl into the police car, but at least he holds Carl’s head down so he doesn’t hit it on the car roof.
We’re up the rest of the night with Diandra. She puts T back to bed and collapses at her kitchen table, sobbing. I put on a pot of coffee. Ryan takes charge.
“Diandra, you need a lawyer. I know a guy. Soon as it’s morning, we’ll call him, get Carl bailed out if we need to, find out what they’re doing.”
Diandra nods, calmer now. She calls her sister in town, asks her to come get T when it’s light. The Wongs assure her that if she’s worried about bail money or paying the lawyer, we’ll all chip in.
Carl’s back home by noon. They badgered him about his walks and the cigarettes and finally let him go. Ryan’s lawyer friend went with Diandra to pick him up and said to call if anything else happened.
Another part of the field is set afire that night.
Carl doesn’t even leave his yard. He’s been in the house all night; Diandra is prepared to swear to it. A different set of cops respond, and they don’t even talk to us.
I sleep late again in the morning, waking when I hear Diandra’s car start. I assume she slept late too and is heading for work.
I stay inside all day. Thunderstorms are predicted, and it’s dark and close-feeling. Just rain already, I think. Rain like crazy so nothing can burn.
A storm finally hits around three. Buddy goes nuts.
It clears off around five, and the sun comes out. I venture outside to check on things. Ryan comes out too, and we head for the corner without saying anything. I wait for Carl to join us, but he doesn’t. I assume he has one of his headaches.
Diandra doesn’t come home. Their house is quiet and dark as evening comes on.
Someone knocks on my door. It’s Ryan. He looks shaken.
“Cops came and arrested Carl this morning, while we were all asleep. Dude over on Cedar saw it, walking his dog. Says two cops led him out and put him in a car. Few minutes later, Diandra puts T in her car and takes off. I assume she must be with her sister.”
“Call your lawyer friend,” I tell him.
“Already did. Left a message.”
We head over to the Wongs’ house, and we all stand around in the yard, feeling helpless. Then I decide the hell with it.
“I’m calling Corky, personally. He left his card with me once.” I start back toward my house.
“Cassidy, wait.” Ryan looks awful. “He won’t tell you anything. And—I can’t believe I’m saying this—maybe we should wait and see…”
“I can’t believe you would say that either,” I say. Mr. Wong mumbles something about the kids with the beer cans and how the cops won’t listen to him. I go home and call Corky. I get his voice mail and leave a message, trying to be polite and businesslike, but I’m furious. At Corky, even at Ryan. Maybe Ryan’s the one hiding something. Or maybe he’s right, and Carl’s been fooling us all.
I can’t even pretend to sleep, although I’m exhausted. I lie awake, feeling incredibly vulnerable. It’s cooler now, after the storm. I hope the field is too wet to burn.
I finally sleep for a couple of hours toward morning, then Buddy wakes me to go out. I don’t see anyone, and then I stay inside again. Corky doesn’t return my call.
Despite my anxiety, I do fall asleep when night falls. I’m fried.
And then Buddy wakes me again. This time all the yelling and red lights are coming from over on Spruce Court, behind Ryan’s. By the time I’m outside, both Wongs are there and Ryan is running out of his house and motioning us to follow him over to Spruce.
The firetrucks are in front of an empty duplex, one side of which is on fire. It’s almost out, though.
And Corky McAllister and Trooper Fascist have a young man down on the ground. Fascist has his knee pressed against the man’s back. I’ve never seen him before.
The guy gets put in the police car, none too gently. Corky walks over to us.
“We got him. Saw him run from the house, tackled him in the field. Had it staked out for the last couple nights. I knew this guy would escalate, maybe try a house next, and we couldn’t take any more chances.”
Before we can say anything Diandra’s car drives up and she and Carl and T get out, smiling. Carl comes over and shakes Corky’s hand. “So, who was it?”
Corky grins. “Kid named Jared Vanderwende. I talked to Matt Halloran a couple days ago. He’s head of emergency services and coaches my softball team. Carl here and I—” he slaps Carl on the shoulder, “—came up with an idea to confuse the perp, and Matt gave me a lead to follow. Said where there’s smoke, there’s a Vanderwende. Crazy family, lived around here for years. Some of them are pretty respectable—you’ve heard of Vanderwende Realty? But others have been on the police blotter for three generations now. Sure enough, kid has a firebug uncle who’s in the slammer, so I thought there might be another one around. Did some digging, and those 138 kids said they’d kicked a Jared Vanderwende out of a show once for making trouble, and he waved a lighter at them and threatened to torch the place. Kid’s renting a room over in Oakley Estates. That’s why Carl and Ryan never saw anything; he was coming from that side, maybe up through the woods.”
Carl smiles and puts his arm around Diandra. “I was kinda disappointed y’all slept through my fake arrest. We wanted the neighborhood to kick up a fuss, hoped the word would get back to the guy.”
“We’ve been staying at my sister’s,” Diandra says. “Corky just called and told us they had their man. We didn’t want to miss it.”
“Corky, I’m sorry I gave you so much shit.” I look around to make sure Fascist is busy, talking on the radio. “But your partner’s got some issues…”
“He’s learned something,” Corky says. “When you people talk, we listen. We’ll keep listening.”
The next few weeks are pretty quiet. Ryan stays inside on the Fourth of July because he doesn’t like the fireworks. Carl has a couple of headaches. They install new equipment at the playground, and it’s not wood. The kids with the beer have found somewhere else to go. We Are 138 put on a benefit show and present the proceeds—all seventeen dollars—to the neighborhood association for its new project, putting “Neighborhood Watch Community” signs here and there around the neighborhood. Ours is on Mr. Wong’s corner.
Jonny surfaces in August. I find I’ve nearly forgotten about him.
He’s in a hotel in Cairo, waiting to fly to Germany and then home. He’s got enough material for the nonfiction book he’d planned to write, and maybe a novel too, he says. But he wants to know if I’m okay.
I write back. I’m fine. I’ve started writing a little. I’m walking around the neighborhood, meeting people. Every place has a story, after all, if you know how to look. Danger, intrigue, deceit. We have it all, right here.
He backed off a little when a Titus Andronicus fan suggested to frontman Patrick Stickles that they title their next LP “Loud Thrashing Around.”
So, David, here are my thoughts:
It’s interesting that you would use turns of phrase to insult Titus Andronicus that are straight out of the cliché playbook of parents like yours and mine, from the 1950s and 1960s. It is truly sad to see baby boomers turning into the generation that they rebelled against and swore they’d never become. You were probably fighting with your dad as he turned up his Glenn Miller LP and asked you to turn down your Chuck Berry or Bob Dylan. And yes, I know you come more from the folky end of rock, but hell, you played with Neil Young and there is a pretty blistering guitar solo on “Almost Cut My Hair” back in the day. So I know you can rock, or at least liked to in the past.
And let’s face it, there would have been no room for the folk rock of the Byrds and CSN if folk music had continued to be made up of earnest men in suits singing “Tom Dooley” and ladies with crystal-clear voices strumming along with “Barbara Allen.” It was people like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs who ignited folk, and eventually folk rock, in the 1960s. Were you mad at Dylan when he plugged in? Did you attack Ochs for the gold lamé suit?
But let’s get back to Titus Andronicus. So maybe you can’t stand hearing blistering guitars anymore. Fair enough. Are you disavowing all the loud rock of “your” day as well? Are you saying only acoustic music counts? That’s pretty sad.
Is it because, to bring up another one of our parents’ clichés, you can’t hear what he’s singing over all that goddamned noise? If that’s it, I urge you to READ some of TA’s lyrics (Google them). Patrick Stickles is one of the finest songwriters of our day. The Monitor, the album from which “A More Perfect Union” originates, is a breathtaking compilation of songs that explore Stickles’s mental state and battles with anorexia and depression through the prism of the U.S. Civil War. That’s a pretty heady concept, and the fact that he succeeded in pulling it off (not just me talking; Google all the reviews when it came out) set a high bar for whatever he and the band did next.
One thing about the punk bands you disparage so much, David: They are meant to be heard live. I can’t tell you how many bands I had never listened to or was lukewarm about that I became ride-or-die for after seeing them live. That includes TA. I had heard and liked some of The Monitor before I saw them the first time (as their next album was coming out), but it took a live show, one of the best I’ve ever seen, to really appreciate this band. And every TA show I’ve seen since is a marvel of one kind or another. Stickles is a mercurial frontman: At one show he may remove his shirt and “move like Jagger”; at another he’s wearing sweatpants and sullenly complaining about his life (while taking it all out on the guitar); at one he’s genial and erudite and another testy and combative. I arrived in time for a sound check at a show he did for a local radio station that is better known for playing and putting on shows by the likes of, well, David Crosby. Patrick trolled the waiting audience outside the venue by putting the band through some really great covers of classic rock songs from the 60s and 70s, but then did the usual TA set at the show itself (and won over many of the aging boomers in attendance), plus a Stones song for an encore. He can hold his own in a large venue like a true rock star and tear up a small one like a force of nature.
There is some social commentary in Patrick’s lyrics, which I know you used to like. Other songs are personal. One of my own favorites, “No Future (Part 3)” (which incidentally is always an incendiary singalong number live), lays out a description of recovering from depression with a clarity that cuts to the chase in a way the DSM-5 and William Styron could only dream of pulling off. Attend a TA show and stand up front (have those earplugs ready; there are sometimes THREE guitars thrashing onstage) and see if you’re not jumping up and down yelling “You will always be a loser” 33 times at the end of that song.
But you may want to back off a bit if Patrick does “The Battle of Hampton Roads” for an encore. It’s easier to hear vocals if you’re not up front, and it helps if you are familiar with the lyrics ahead of time. It’s a long song (remember those jams you used to do with the guys, like “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” and “Country Girl”?) that starts out with just Patrick and a guitar and builds to a passionate crescendo that will leave you wrung out at the end. This is performance, and it is songwriting, and it is rock’n’roll. I dare you to say otherwise once you’ve seen this band live.
Of course, if you believe you’re too old and prefer yelling at clouds, go ahead. But I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt; maybe you haven’t been to a real rock show in a long time. Last chance, though, before you go on my Hopeless Old White Coot list for good.
My argument with Bono may be more sociological than musical, but his recent comments hit the same nerve as Crosby’s.
Bono, I think you are conflating a couple of things, for starters. “The charts” and pop are not what they were back in the 1980s and 90s. I won’t disagree there’s a lot of schlock out there, and it is easy to argue that there used to be more room for different kinds of chart hits in the old days, like during the MTV era when U2 came to prominence. But the absence of rock’n’roll in this limited sphere does not mean it is gone or dead or not any good anymore or any of the other crap I hear from older white men ALL THE TIME. Rock is back where it belongs: underground, in smaller venues, with passionate players and believers.
U2 are among the last of the great stadium/arena rockers. But frankly arenas helped “kill” rock in the first place. Henry Rollins put it best in a recent appearance. He’s from the same generation as you and I, Bono, and he went to those arena shows as a teen, hoping for transcendence. He loved the records and identified with the artists and longed to complete the circle through attending a show. Instead, he and I, and maybe you, ended up in nosebleed seats somewhere craning to see the band, surrounded by drunks who might as well have stayed in the parking lot tailgating for all the connection that had with the concert. We didn’t feel the love of either the band or our peers; it was, indeed, simply a “show.”
You posed the problem around the concept of “anger.” Yes, anger drove much of rock and is what drove many of us to embrace it. Not just “young men,” though. We young women had to make do, in many cases. We couldn’t express our anger or acknowledge it or even dare to strum an electric guitar unless we were prepared to be total warriors (and be accused of making music that was “girly”–I can’t believe you said something so openly misogynist). So we filtered our anger through that of the “young men” you celebrate, who were expressing some of our feelings for us–lyrically or through the sound of a guitar. And for what? So Bono can tell us our presence in the scene is, was, and will ever be nonexistent or suspect, because the anger of (probably white) young men is all music is or should be about?
And you mischaracterize hip-hop, or rather you view it through the same 1980s/90s lens as you do rock. There is controversy in hip-hop over the many directions it has taken away from the “pure anger” of its origins. There are old-school rappers who don’t think much of the current generation; just as there are new innovators who are taking the work of their forebears to new heights. Anger drives some of it, but there are plenty of other emotions at work as well. And it is not solely a “young man’s” outlet either. Women in the early hip-hop days may have had to fight for the mic, as did women rock’n’rollers, but nowadays there are plenty of artists identifying as female who are standing on those women’s shoulders to put themselves front and center in the scene. If they share the mic with a male artist it is as collaborator and peer, not as a voice used to sweeten a track. And some of them are angry as fuck.
And, as I tried to express to Mr. Crosby, there are plenty of angry men and women, boys and girls, and people who don’t identify as either gender, of all ages, making some great music of all kinds that doesn’t appear on the charts or get recorded by major labels. They may be playing in basements or tiny bars or back rooms or on the Internet, and they may want to go beyond that someday but not necessarily to play Madison Square Garden or a football stadium. They know their audiences personally. They interact with them. Audience and artist are part of the same whole. You may remember that from your early days and even miss it at times.
All hail the end of arena rock! It’s tough for fans of you or Springsteen because we know we are unlikely to see you in the kind of venue that would give us the transcendence we seek (although Bruce is trying to do that onstage in New York now). It’s probably tough for you in some ways as well. I doubt I’ll ever get to shake your hand, Bono, or tell you in person how much I love “All I Want Is You” and “Desire.” But I get to shake Patrick Stickles’ hand instead, and hang out with some of my other favorite bands, and know that if I drop them a fan-girl email they’ll probably respond patiently and kindly (and gratefully). Sure, I’m kicking myself I didn’t see you in the 80s because I’d sworn off arena shows. I spent a 20-year exile from live music because I fell for the fallacy of charts and arenas and rock as mainstream entertainment at football games. I went back in the basement some time ago, and life and music have never been better.
The only fly in the ointment, Bono and David, is I occasionally run across white men there who identify themselves as “old” (whether they’re in their 30s or my contemporaries at 60), who want to lecture me on what rock is or should be or how there’s an age limit or a time limit or gender limit or how much better the scene was in 1968 or 1979 or 1985 or 1997 or even 2004. Not coincidentally they also have strong opinions on what “counts” as rock or hip-hop or pop or punk. It’s fine if they want to narrow the parameters of their own lives, but when they try to limit the rest of us, it’s time to speak up. I’m starting here.
2007. Arboria Park is 56 years old; Stacy is 52. She and Greg are happily living in New Jersey, near Philadelphia where they both work. Stacy has found a wonderful job, and she loves her home. But Arboria Park is never far from her thoughts.
Sophie is attending college and living in the Arboria Park house with friends when she lets her mom know some bad news: The state highway department is planning to put a road though the neighborhood, to benefit the increasing population west of town living in the luxurious subdivisions that Evelyn coveted and envied. The neighborhood association (led by Mr. Jennings, the man who helped Sophie when she was bitten by a dog) is fighting the proposals. Stacy rallies her family to help out, but as they plow through the various highway studies a friend of Autumn’s is surreptitiously passing along, they realize things do not look good for the neighborhood.
This chapter centers around a song by Living Colour, “Open Letter to a Landlord.” I played the song on repeat constantly as I wrote the final three chapters of the novel. It had popped into my mind as I drove down the street in Rodney Village, looking at the houses that had been boarded up and marked for demolition. Though the song was written about an urban environment, I think many of its lessons apply to what happens to Arboria Park in the novel, what happened to Rodney Village in real life, and what is currently occurring in my own neighborhood and our area of the county. (We are losing our last significant green space; the county had an opportunity to buy it for parkland, which we lack, but did not do so.) Vernon Reid of Living Colour was writing about racism and classism in this song; these things are the reason why some people and some neighborhoods have more clout than others and can fight off things like road projects or development (and fight for them if they affect areas other than their own). Urban neighborhoods are destroyed in favor of gentrification; or the needs of aging suburban developments are pitted against those of newer, wealthier enclaves; farmland and wilderness are sold to the highest bidder despite the preponderance of vacant, unused commercial and industrial properties and empty houses in existing neighborhoods. Who benefits? Usually not the people who are already there.
Once again I thank Vernon Reid and Living Colour for the privilege of using some of their lyrics in the book. I have had the pleasure of seeing this song performed live from the front row and talking to lead singer Corey Glover about it a couple of years ago as I was writing the book. My respect for them as musicians and commentators on issues of racism, poverty, class, and the power of music knows no bounds.