Back in the ’90s, when I was a 13-year-old a teenager living in a small town in near Sacramento, California, a friend made a promise to me: “next Monday, after you get out of school, I’ll pick you up from your grandmother’s house and drive you to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.” In the infamous district, she said, I’d be able to buy the kinds of records, clothing, and books that were impossible find elsewhere — “all that counterculture shit.” It was a Saturday night and that same friend, a Sac State student in her early 20s, made the pledge in her apartment and among other friends.
At her place, everyone but myself was chewing ecstasy “hits” and watching a brand-new show called South Park. An eavesdropper chimed in on our conversation: “you guy’s going to the Haight? That’s where all the goths, punks, hippies, and ravers hang out.” At that point I couldn’t tell the difference between a goth or punk, but I was fascinated by the mere existence of the terms. It’s a bit sad, really, because the closest thing we had to a subculture in the cow town where I lived was the Future Farmers of America, and I passed on the membership because I could never pull off the American cowboy look (Wrangler jeans make my pancake ass look like even worse).
Still, I tried not to get too exited about the trip since, in addition to being forgetful, my friend was literally tripping when she promised to introduce me to the mythical intersection. That night we attended a clandestine rave in the outskirts of Sacramento, which was broken up by the cops immediately after we got there. Before calling it a night, we stopped by 24-hour Del Taco to enjoy some soggy tex-mex food.
I loved crashing at my grandmother’s place because it was near my high school, but also because she had cable. That perk came with a price: since Mamá Luisa was a strict Catholic, I wasn’t allowed to go to bed until I prayed away my sins with a rosary on one hand, and a book of hymns on the other. But once grandma hit the hay (usually around 9pm), I would stay up to watch Mexican telenovelas, Daria, and Amp:
As planned, on Monday afternoon I walked over to my grandmother’s house after school. I hung out in the living room while grandma watered her plants in the front yard. Eventually she hollered at me: “Hey, mijo, your weird friend is here!” Surprisingly, Pills McTrippy, my ecstasy-loving buddy, made good on her promise, and after I convinced Mamá Luisa she was not just my “weird friend” but “a college-enrolled tutor who’s taking me to a library,” I jumped inside the Bay Area-bound Honda Civic.
Once on Haight, walking around the grimy neighborhood filled my mind with wonder. In addition to all the stylish youngsters, bums and junkies were scattered all around the street, and tech bros were nonexistent. One store, which specialized in bondage and S&M trinkets, offered an impressive selection of creepers and winklepickers — both shoes were impossible to find elsewhere. One bookstore sold imported magazines of people with bizarre fetishes, and also copies of The Family Jams, an album by the Manson family. Certain vintage clothing shops arranged their merchandise according to an era or specific style: rockabilly, pinup, mod. As far as I could tell, the Haight was holding up its legend.
This was 1997, the same year Amoeba Music, the “world’s largest independent store,” opened its doors across from the Golden Gate Park. I walked around the mammoth record store in complete awe of its enormous selection and, of course, wished I had money to buy almost everything. But I could only afford one record, so I picked up a copy of Reproduction, the Human League’s first LP.
More so than the eccentric people roaming the neighborhood, I became interested in the various flyers found in all the shops. Some, like the ones promoting electronic music events, were incredibly intricate and colorful. Others, like the ones peddling punk and metal shows, were comically vulgar or fantastically grotesque. It’s not that I planned to go to any of them, but I still stashed copies of the intriguing propaganda in my messenger bag as souvenirs.
At Amoeba my friend bought a copy of Homework, some French band’s debut LP, and we listened to it on our way home. While going over the Bay Bridge, I thought about all the progressive music, art, and fashion I had just been in contact with. Knowing such things were less two hours away my parents’ home made me feel anxious — especially because I still had 3 years to go before I could legally drive in California. So not only did the trip alter my perception of American subculture, but it also left me thinking: tomorrow, when I go back to school, seeing if a racist cowboy fights with a cholo over a parking space will be the most stimulating form of entertainment my boring town will be able to offer. How tragic.
And then, I felt it; an internal switch had been flicked, and powerful, bitter teen angst began festering inside me. The worse was yet to come.