I picked up this Agnostic Front tank top at a punk store called 99x on the Lower East Side somewhere around the year 2000 during my first trip to New York City. Scene kids from all over the burroughs would go there to pick up their Doc Martens combat boots, TUK creepers, plaid Lipservice pants, laces and braces; they were an all in one where you could get whatever you needed if you were a punk.
I made a trip out there for the first time that year, then again the next, and on one of the trips, I can’t remember which, I was still under age, so there was only so much we could do during the day before we headed out to whatever show we were attending that night.
To pass the time, my friends and I would sit in the dressing room of 99X, located along end cap wall in the very back of the store and brown bag 40 oz bottles of cheap beer while our other friend, this chaos punk with huge liberty spikes held up with Knox brand gelatin worked his shift there during the day. I'm pretty sure he was in a band with my other friend; all my friends back in those days were always in this or that band, sometimes several of them, and most of them paid their rent by working crappy retail jobs during the day.
There were no survelance cameras in those days, and when customers came in we’d just draw the curtains shut so they’d sort of not see us, but I don’t think we were fooling anyone. A couple of times, some confused or stoned punk kid holding bondage pants or a Dead Kennedys shirt would open the curtain just to see us with a big smile on our face, bottle of Old E in one hand, thumbs up on the other. Most of the time, they’d just chuckle, wave back, and re-draw the curtain.
Other times, they’d ask for a swig of our beers, or to bum a cig. We’d always share, there was more than enough to go around when you had nothing and there was a certain kind of karma we all had being poor and broke hooligans, because somehow those items always managed to replenish themselves. Back in those days, if you were a punk you were a punk. It didn’t matter if you were a rudeboy, a crusty, or a chaos punk, we were all chased and hassled by the same cops, half of us were queer, and we all knew someone who lived in a kitchen pantry, or in a closet.
They weren’t in the closet, like they were gay, but they literally lived inside the closets of dingy, leaking, very Fight Club looking houses that were usually pretty close to being condemned. It was the first time I'd ever understood the concept of a "tiny home," but within another house entirely. I hung out on both Haight Street in San Francisco and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley back in those days, so I blended into the LES crowd of kids in New York City perfectly.
Being a punk also meant that one of your parents probably drank or beat you up, and for a lot of us, it was both. Many were kicked out and left homeless for being gay. There was this silent comradare among us all. Nobody had to vent or tell sob stories for us all to know that we all had that uniquely in common; we could see it in their eyes, and they could see it in ours. Those days were the early days of AOL, nobody was really online back then, but a few of us savvy, techie scene kids were early adaptors. (You should have seen me ten years later on MySpace, I was on fire. Even just writing this article feels like a LiveJournal entry to me, still) And for the first time, scene kids from across the nation finally were able to meet each other, connect, and build unique and valuable friendships outside of their local areas.
I was always looking for a way to get out of the house and away from my dad, who was a big drinker, a war vet who'd have horrific blackouts and fits of rage at the drop of a hat. I never knew what would set him off, or when, but no matter what it was, it always seemed to be my fault somehow. There was never enough room at home for both me and his demons to co exist at the same time, no matter how small I ever made myself. His issues with alcohol and anger took up every inch of space in that stupid house, so eventually, one of us had to go.
I finished high school a year early and started hanging out in the East Bay with kids I was introduced to by my high school friend Megan Katayama, who I met in theatre class, she was a senior when I was a freshman. She had a car, and took me to my first shows at 924 Gilman where I met my first boyfriend, just like in some old Rancid song lyrics. I still remember the smell of his leather jacket, the way it would squeak when he put his arm around me when we walked.
I remember the lunch periods when both her and my friend Jimmy Russell would sneak me off campus in the trunks of their cars, only the juniors and seniors could leave during that period, and I remember hearing the Smiths for the first time in the back of JR's beige Chevy Nova hatchback driving off the grounds. I wonder if the campus guards ever knew I was in there? They probably did, I've still to this day have never even gotten so much as a detention, but somehow got away with absolute murder in high school running around with my older friends because I was otherwise so respectful, polite and well behaved.
My mom worked so much I hardly ever saw her, I didn't realize it then but her absecnce was a way for her to disassociate from it all, it was a distance that she never really ever quite returned from that grew wider and broader as time ellapsed. As the years went on, my house felt less and less like an actual home, so for a few years in between high school and college I scraped up my life savings and started to travel to other cities to visit friends, explore other scenes, go to punk shows, and attend some of my very first festivals.
Before AOL, if you wanted to meet kids outside of your local area, you’d have to go to the record store and pick up zines, my personal favorite was Slug n’ Lettuce out of Richmond, VA. It’s hard to believe now, but that zine was almost like a punk rock Facebook before social media platforms even existed. My favorite section was the pen pal section because I was so lonely, I spent hours writing handwritten letters to other kids in the scene, especially the punks who were locked up in prison for fighting, drunk and disorderly, drugs, or stealing shit because of the drugs.
I never, ever got in trouble as a kid, at least not on paper or with the law because I was so afraid of my dad, who was a retired Air Force Master Sergeant, I knew that any punishment I had waiting for me at home would have been far worse than anything I could ever receive out in the world. I was a sensitive, gentle, gifted and creative autistic child, a late bloomer who was always either talking way too much, or not at all. I constantly had a discman strapped to my head, I loved animals, dogs and horses especially, oil painting, vintage thrift store fashion, and music magazines. I’d devour so many of them, reading every single issue of Rolling Stone and SPIN cover to cover from 1996-2000 or so, because it took me a while to really understand people and social dynamics enough to develop real friendships. Years in fact.
Writing back and forth with all those kids who were locked up I formed connections I couldn’t with those in the civilian world, they were the only ones who understood the unique sense of isolation and lonliness I felt, also my complete lack of options. Growing up in a wealthy suburb, it seemed like everyone had options but me. "Is your family going skiing this winter break?"
Still to this day, “options” is my favorite word, because you don’t always have a lot of them. In all those years of letters back and forth to this or that state pennitentary somewhere in Ohio or Florida or Chowchilla, wherever, my penpals and I quite literally were counting down the days together.
Somewhere, in a box, I still have all those letters.
The editor of the zine was this crusty woman, I can’t remember her name, but I was always in awe of her. She did most of her own photography, and managed to have an entire network of contributors, show reviewers, and other photographers that she organized by phone. By actual landland telephone. Otherwise, she’d drive out as far as Indiana, Vermont, or Georgia just to photograph a show on her own dime. The zine was a not for profit, and I don’t think she ever recouped a penny of her own expenses.
It was through this zine I became involved with organizations like Food Not Bombs, taking BART to the city starting when I was 17 to help with the free food giveaway events we had at Dolores Park, ladling out bowls of nutritious vegan soups and stews to whomever wanted, or needed a meal. One year, Fugazi came to play a benefit for Food Not Bombs in the middle of Dolores Park, I think it was the summer 99' or 2000, and I didn't realize it back then, but it was the only opportunity I ever got to see that band. Everyone including Fugazi donated their services, talents, and time, and that sense of collaboration for a larger cause has never left my character or spirit.
What impressed me the most was the way the editor would include and promote every single type and sub genre of music into Slug n’ Lettuce, which in those days, especially as a crust punk, was unheard of because in those circles if you liked anything but Noothgrush or Dystopia, you were a poser. But she clearly didn't care about what other people thought. She was always above, and ahead of the curve. She really wanted a lateral platform where everyone’s music could be amplified and any sort of show could be promoted whether the music was good, or anyone had heard of your subgenre or not.
Her diplomatic approach to creating community has always stuck with me: no hierarchy, horizontal structure, everyone has a job or role revolving around their own unique skill sets, but we all do the same amount of work, show up early, stay late, make, clean up, and do everything ourselves. The only "politics" ever involved, were the ones from all the systems were were constantly trying to hack in order to ultimately dismantle and therefore, defeat. We did everything DIY, with our own hands, resources, and man power. I think we made a difference. I hope we made a difference.
If anyone wonders where my sense of work ethic comes from, it’s from all the hours of free labor I did working with punks, for punks, trying to build our version of an ideal community where one didn’t exist before.
But back to New York City.
If we sat and hung out on the sidewalk the cops would hassle us, and if we picked a random stoop to post up on, eventually the owner of whatever walk up or brownstone would grumpily come along and tell us to leave, which is how we ended up “dressing room drinking” during the day, a “warm up” so to say, for the long night to come. One time in Queens, we even brought ceramic coffee mugs along with us from my friend's mom's kitchen so we could hang and drink on a stoop in a spot they liked with nobody harping at us. It always worked. There was always a way when it came to us.
Nobody ever gave us a problem for being there, or hanging out at the store drinking all day. Our friends would never ever rat us out, we were good kids who never stole, wrecked the place, harassed anyone or caused any real trouble. Plus, it was a great way to burn time while we waited for our friend to get off work so we could head over to some band’s (possibly theirs) practice, then maybe to this bar, or some soccer hooligan pub for a reggae night, because although I had a fake ID, it wasn’t very believable so we had to pick places where we could blend in easily.
After one successful day drinking session we walked by a telephone pole on St. Mark's Place with a poster for a gig at Wetlands (RIP) for a Murder City Devils show and I stopped dead in my tracks. My friend hadn’t heard of them as they weren't that big at the time but I was obsessed with In Name and Blood, so I insisted that we go because it was happening that same night. After a mild freak out insisting that he have an open mind about it all, we went.
"Whatddya mean they sound kind of like Dracula playing the organ for a hardcore band? Get the fuck outta here!" he said, in his thick Bronx accent. I still think of him saying that and laugh to this day. Ever the concert reviewer, I think I “pitched” the show well to my dubious, GBH-loving friend, and he patonized me by coming along and thanked me in the end because that MCD show was still one of the best small club gigs I’ve ever attended. First of all, I had never in my life seen a punk venue that had a whopping three whole levels to it, and at one point Spencer Moody got so drunk he stopped singing, projectile vomited all over the audience, then finished the song without missing a beat.
I was hardly 18 years old, and remember going to CBGB's the night immediately afterwards.
In those years, I always had a lot of friends who were in and out of trouble but for the most part we were all good kids, and what we wanted most was just to spend all our time together, nothing mattered more. We were all wise for our years, growing up the way we did, and it’s almost like we all knew that this wouldn’t last forever; even though at that time, it felt like we’d live forever.
I’ve always been a very brave, extra independent, stubbornly intelligent girl, who wanted to figure things out on her own, reading whatever Tolstoy or Fitzgerald novel discreetly stashed in my Londsdale purse on the uptown bus as my tipsy friends would doze their buzzes off. I mean, someone had to make sure nobody pick pocketed us, and that they didn’t sleep through our stops because I had no idea where we were going. I also remember hiding those books a lot, because it was somehow “‘uncool” to be “reading all that preppy shit,” but I loved the all characters and the story lines, probably because I was surrounded by so many colorful characters and interesting storylines myself.
Thinking back, it’s wild how I was just a kid back then, out in the world doing all that. When I see a 17 year old now, they always look so incredibly young to me. All the crazy situations where I was a total idiot making terrible decisions that could have gotten me killed, but somehow I was always safe, because I was with other punks. I was always safer on the trains and in the streets with the punks than I was in my own home. We looked out for each other, and took care of each other.
Sometimes when I’m out and about filming a gig, watching a show, or flipping through records at Amoeba, I’ll catch a punk girl around 13 or 15, with pink streaks in her hair just staring at me. And I know that stare well--it permeates you. That, “I’ve never seen a girl so cool before!” look, the kind that scans and memorizes every detail of your clothing, all the pins on your jacket, the way you have your hair styled, your tattoos, anything that can be adapted, retranslated, and transferred.
It always makes me smile, because that teenage girl doesn’t realize that I basically used to be her, that exact same girl; because we are all that same girl at the end of the day, just looking for somewhere new and exciting to go, surrounded by other people who look, act, and think just like us. I might be “That Bitch” today, but deep down inside of me, I’m still that teenager on the Lower East Side of New York City drinking 40’s in the dressing room of 99X and drooling over Patricia Field's maximalist designs through the windows of Trash and Vaudeville thinking: "I'll be just like her someday."
Oh, and I still have that Agnostic Front tank top, and wear it to all their shows because ironically, both the shirt and I have held up well over the years. And as an extension of that thought, ask anyone I know if I’ve ever asked them if they wanted to go hop a fence and chill under a freeway overpass, passing a flask back and forth while watching the trains go by under the stars, because I probably have. I still have that sweet and tender hooligan inside me, and I always will.