|Proving there wasn't just one white way down the middle of the road.|
Props to Nathan Stephens and Jason Meigs for knowing that so early on.
My angst about how I looked and the world really became clear to me on Saturday, May 28th, 1984 – the day I saw The Clash at the US festival in San Bernadino, California. Before that day, everyone in Tuolumne made it clear that I didn't look like everyone else, and after that day, I began working really hard not to. But only thirteen years old, and already a Clash fan, I naively showed up to the US festival, my hair still feathered, wearing red terry-cloth shorts, with a draw string bow that cinched up each side, and some strappy-leather hippy-looking flip flops that had belonged to my mom. They were the first shoes of my mom’s that I could fit into and wear. I didn’t even have a Clash shirt yet.
It was Memorial Day weekend, and Amelie's mom, who also loved the Clash because they sang about Latin America, drove me and Amelie all the way from Tuolumne to the San Bernadino Valley in her white compact Fiat station wagon that would only start when parked on a hill. A seven hour drive took us about ten in the dry valley heat through Fresno, Visalia, Tulare, Delano and Porterville. The dry valley heat blasted into the open windows all the way there because there was no air-conditioning just a fan, the heat making us simultaneously drowsy and unable to sleep, and when we weren't able to find a hill to park the car on, Amelie and I would have to get out and push the car. Her mom would push the car with one hand on the driver side door and the other on the steering wheel, and Amelie and I would push from the back. Just when she thought we got the car going fast enough with the ignition on and the car in second gear, Amelie’s mom would jump in and pop the clutch. When we could get the car going fast enough, it would start with jerk and a sputter. It was a bit of a hassle, and at one point I worried that we might get stuck out there in the hot valley forever.
Or maybe it was that I knew somehow that going back would be different – that I’d be different. But we didn’t mind having to push the car; we were determined to get to San Bernadino before noon on Saturday. In fact we left Tuolumne after school on Friday, arriving somewhere outside of San Bernadino and Glen Helen Park at around one or two in the morning. Amelie's mom, barely able to hold her eyes open a second longer parked the car on a hill, told us to go back to sleep before letting her head drop back on the seat. And so we all slept until I woke at around seven the next morning with a full bladder to find that we were surrounded by empty rolling hills filled with dry grass and weeds – somewhere between nowhere and having our minds blown wide open by Joe Strummer and The Clash.
While waiting in line for the turnstiles of Glen Helen Park, Amelie and I, her mom too, watched all the people around us, a lot of young people, skater types, guys with Mohawks and leather jackets, women with pink, or, blue, or green, or purple hair, some with all four colors all at once; they were older and tougher and cooler looking than we were though Amelie, who was always a bit ahead of her time, wore baggy shorts, her Combat Rock t-shirt, and Converse. When we finally got to the front of the line, we were stopped by a young man in a vest and pimples who was charged with looking through our bags for contraband or recording equipment. Our tickets stated that cassette recorders were not permitted, but Amelie’s mom brought hers anyway, and hiding it carefully under a newspaper, a sweatshirt, and a bottle of Mylanta which she drank to calm her ulcer, she successfully smuggled it past the young man who only peeked inside her backpack without bothering to move anything around. After closing up our bags and still holding our breath, Amelie and I pushed our way through the metal turnstiles and walked straight into our adolescence.
Before the first act, the Divynals, took the stage, Amelie’s mom made us find a designated spot near the front of the stage for us to meet since Amelie and I wanted to walk around. People were milling about finding a place to stand or sit on blankets. We saw a group of older teens sitting in a circle playing telephone, girls with big hair, thick eye-liner, and guys with different versions of the Flock of Seagulls hair. Amelie and I stood watching them while we waited our turn in line for the porta-potties. I didn’t think that real teenagers still played children’s games, and I wondered what kind of word or phrase they were passing around the circle. There were people rinsing off in the outdoor showers, women in stripped bikinis and topless men in shorts, and people in lines at booths buying cold beer, and cold water, and US festival t-shirts. There were people smoking joints out in the open – something I had already seen a lot of, and there were people already drunk, stumbling around and lost. After our turn in the bathroom, Amelie and I went straight to the t-shirt booth to buy t-shirts, and I put mine on immediately, happy to put on something cool over the top I was wearing and my terry-cloth shorts –relieved to be wearing something that declared the new me to the world.
Being both musicians and edgy music fans, Amelie and knew the words to most of the songs, or at least the popular ones by the bands that played that day. We sang and pogoed along to Oingo Boingo and The English Beat. We swooned when Michael Hutchins from Inxs took the stage, swinging his wild long hair over his shoulder, and Amelie swooned over Stan Ridgway from Wall of Voodoo – she always liked the weird looking guys. We studied Terri Bozio of Missing Persons, knowing that neither of us would ever show that much skin, wear plastic wrap, or have blond hair, and we sang along in earnest to just about every Flock of Seagulls and “Down Under,” and “It’s a Mistake,” by Men at Work song, but when The Clash, the band that we were really there to see, the only band that really mattered, finally, after a controversial delay, stormed the stage around midnight we were transformed.
“All right then, here we are in the capital of the decadent U S of A,” Joe Strummer growled into the microphone. And right away, after a day of bands and people watching, hair cut at weird angles, assorted scissored band t-shirts, and leather jackets in 110 degree heat, we knew we needed new clothes, attitudes, and new haircuts, fast. But there was more to it than clothes and hair; and we got that too. The Clash took the stage and called us decadent straight away then launched into London Calling, its opening guitar riff, slicing its way through the air. We knew that it was true – technology and music and twenty dollar tickets while others were starving or being disappeared in countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador by death squads, and we wanted to be punished by the barrage of loud guitars and Joe Strummer's growl then soothed by the sounds of Mick Jones’ high sweet falsetto, seduced by Paul Simonon's swagger.
The Clash’s anti-American decadence stance spoke directly to us, both Mexican, and weird, and poor, and disenfranchised. Joe Strummer even mentioned East LA – a part of LA where he had probably never been, but where I had been born. It’s like he knew Amelie and I were there and put us under his spell, two Mexican-American weirdos, waiting to receive their message, our marching orders, and so we marched, singing every word to every song, slamming our fists in the air, and tearing up when Mick Jones sang “Somebody Got Murdered” because somebody had to care.
When the song ended, Joe Stummer railed, “You make, you buy, you die. That’s the motto of America.”
All of it got me thinking something I had not understood before – the thing that I would never say, wouldn’t be able to articulate, even then. Amelie and I were different; we stood out because our skin was brown, and we did not come from money. None of this was going to change, and people would judge us, or try to make us feel like less, ugly even, undesirable.
“You get born to buy, and I’ll tell you those people out in East LA they ain’t going to stay there forever.”
And we hadn’t. I hadn’t stayed in East LA.
“If there’s anything going to be in the future it’s going to be all parts of everything.”
But we were all over, in Tuolumne even, a fact of life in America that wasn’t going to change.
“It’s not going to be just one white way down the middle of the road.”
Not just one white way down the middle of the road – not just one way, not just the white way; he was right. Joe Strummer was right about that.