A Goth and A Gypsy Take On Acceptance

I don’t know how or why, but we end up in front of Wawa pretty often. The one right off of the bottom of South Street. And we usually take turns. One person watches the bikes, the other person goes inside for drinks and refreshments. It’s a run of the mill tradition for people that ride bikes, get thirsty and don’t carry bike locks around South Philly with them. And so we partake in it dutifully.

For ten minutes afterwards, we sit in front of Wawa, drinking iced tea, observing life and snickering behind the backs of the everyones that use the Wawa as we do. The usual checkout girl is goth and at least three inches taller than she’s supposed to be, because of her boots. She gets the brunt part of our jokes. But it’s not her specifically, it’s the boots. She might win the Nobel Peace Prize someday, and then we’ll feel like assholes when we’re still laughing at her boots that look like something out of a Kiss-costume catalog. Actually, we should feel like assholes now, but everyone’s got their breaking point, and for us, it’s goth boots behind the cash register of a convenience store. It just don’t make sense.

This day was different though. Goth girl was three inches shorter. Half and half lemonade iced tea was nowhere to be found, and despite the time of year and season called Winter, it was warm outside. Still, we set about our routine. I got first shift, and patiently waited my turn. A cop passed, parked his bike next to us, and went inside to the ATM. A homeless man sifted through some trash, and a unidentified Wawa contractor rolled a hand truck in and out to a lunch meat delivery truck parked on the street. Normal everyday shit. Things I shouldn’t bother to notice.

After my turn inside, one raspberry tea and half a soft pretzel later, we were both outside. Sitting on our bikes, eating, bullshitting, observing. Suddenly, a smile behind our backs, and before we could even protest, a confrontation.

A plain clothes girl, no older than us, blissfully skipping down the street, head scarf tied overhead and around her chin. Draped from her heck, a large charm on a necklace, shaped like a cauldron.

“I am a babushka, a Russian gypsy. And to you both, I grant three wishes,” she said. From the cauldron charm, she pulled a receptacle shaped stick, blew a gaggle of soap bubbles into the sky and merrily skipped away before we could even recognize the situation, what was transpiring or how to react. And before we knew it, she was gone, around the corner, into a wayward alleyway.

Instead of saying, “What the fuck,” we made off with our wishes, pedaled down the street and wasted them away on the night. Then we made a promise to ignore the goth girl’s boots. From now on, we would instead pay attention to the shit we shouldn’t bother to notice, in and around the curbside world we created for ourselves.

It just seemed more productive.

THIS MESS I’M (NOT) IN (ANYMORE)

I get the same feeling every single time I return to New Jersey.

Why did I hold on so long?

What did I ever see in this place?

And damn, isn’t Wawa like so much better than Quick Check?

But I still return, on the odds, at least once a week. To retrieve mail, have someone else pump my gas for me, and enjoy the serenity that comes with me on my own, in the car and on the Turnpike. For the first 40 miles or so, you wouldn’t even know you’re back in Jersey. You get two lanes of traffic going either way, cutting through swamp and farmland, with the occasional gas station and Starbucks every 22 miles or so. It’s calm, it’s desolate and it’s completely not the New Jersey I grew up in.

And then it begins, around exit 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike. Two towers jutting into the sky; one’s a Sheraton, the other’s an office building. I spy it about five miles before the exit arrives, and I know their meaning. The beginning of congestion, the gates to Northern New Jersey and its close friend New York City.

Life takes on different meaning past exit 9 on the Turnpike. Traffic and the cutthroat driving that often accompanies it began here. Or was at least perfected here. All routes running North to South and vice versa become impassible between the hours of 6-10 AM and 4-8 PM. And unfortunately, driving an automobile is the only way to get from one place to another in this tiny but overpopulated corner of the world. (You can take trains, but the train stations are never near anything. So you need to drive to them, but you need to get on a waiting list to get a parking pass to drive your car to the train station, and that can take up to five years. So you’re fucked.)

With that established, I’m driving up the Turnpike yesterday. It’s about 3PM when I get to exit 11, pay the toll, then jump on the Parkway for a few exits. At exit 133, I jump off and make my way up Rt. 27 North. When it ends, I make a left at the NJ Transit tunnel, the same one I rode my bike under countless times, and continue down St. Georges Ave, past diners, strip malls, fireman bars and the general signs of suburbia discontented. At the Drug Fair plaza, I wait five minutes to make a left turn through oncoming traffic, park and proceed to pick up my mail at the UPS Store’s P.O. Box array.

In ten minutes, I’m back on St. Georges Avenue, waiting to head South on it, so I can get to the mall, buy some Christmas presents and get back on the Turnpike before 4 PM. But I’m kidding myself. That’s never going to happen. And I know this when I arrive at the Woodbridge Mall, five miles from the P.O. Box, 45 minutes later.

For the next two hours, I do nothing of the “buying Christmas presents” idea. I buy myself jeans at the mall, then get the hell out. 30 minutes later, I go for a massage in Edison, 8 miles down Rt. 1 South, and hope that my time spent in the darkened room of a Chinese herbalist will help get the traffic out of my way. 40 minutes later, I’m back on the road, aiming for South Jersey. But another mall, and still more traffic stands in my way. 30 minutes later, I again disembark from Rt. 1 for a Target, buy cat litter and spend more time searching for a parking spot than I do within the store. I also stop at a liquor store and actually do some Christmas shopping. (I’m still not accustomed to the ins and outs of Pennsylvania liquor stores. New Jersey does have that on me.)

And then again, I’m in traffic. Rush hour traffic, heightened by Christmas traffic, exacerbated by an accident. I capitulate to the right lane, then stop and go til signs for 95 South/Philadelphia begin to make an appearance. In an hour, I’m home. And on the way in the door, I drop a bottle of wine that was bought as a Christmas present. A $30 bottle of wine.

Still, I escaped the mess that raised me. And returned home relaxed, relieved and only $30 worse for the wear. New Jersey isn’t the home it once was. It holds a lot of my past, and that takes a long time to navigate through; it’s just no longer the place I thought it once was. But I’ll return to the beginning.

Why did I hold on so long?
Cause I thought I belonged there.

What did I ever see in this place?
A home at first, a crutch later on.

And damn, isn’t Wawa like so much better than Quick Check?
Fuck yeah, the Peach Iced Tea is calling my name right now….

The Ghost of Gwar Present

An unsure week. That’s the best I could come up with. Monday arrived, and with it, work. And news. And rumors. This friend was quitting this. This business was merging with this new one. This other friend was about to have his first kid. And still another friend wasn’t sure what life meant or how to apply it to the current job role he had taken.

It all felt unsure. At face value, I perceived it as not so good, that I wasn’t moving forward enough, and that life all around me was changing. So why in the world was I allowing myself to be pleasantly content in something that might not be there next week?

I didn’t have an answer, so I put it on the back burner and went outside instead. It was 60 degrees (in December) and I wasn’t about to let the immediate future, haphazard plans or money get in the way of what could’ve been the last warm day of the year. Still unsettled, but enjoying the weather regardless.

As the week progressed, so did the news. And rumors. The quitting friend found a new job. The business merge wasn’t as bad as it sounded. Twins arrived. And Brad decided that construction was a means to an end and not the culmination of his life’s work thus far. Still, I felt unsettled. Funds were low, bills were high, rain was falling and Christmas was approaching. I could swing it, I knew that, but I was worried about money, the future, the “career” (if I could call it that) and still, more money.

So when Dave came home on Wednesday afternoon and said, “Hey, wanna go see Gwar in Atlantic City tonight,” I put on an old t-shirt and asked, “When do we leave?”

To describe Gwar, at this point in my life, would be an injustice to all that they stand for. So in lieu of injustice, I present the Wikipedia summarization of the band: “Gwar is a shock rock band formed in 1985 by a collective of artists in Richmond, Virginia. The band is best known for their elaborate sci-fi/horror film inspired costumes; raunchy, obscene, politically incorrect lyrics; and graphic stage performances, which consist of humorous re-enactments of scatology, sadomasochism, necrophilia, pedophilia, bestiality, fire dancing, pagan rituals, executions, and other controversial violent and political themes. GWAR has been on the leading edge of shock rock since their formation. Their costumes are generally made of foam latex, styrofoam, and hardened rubber. It should be noted that the costumes cover very little, with the rest of their bodies accentuated with makeup. They further their production in concert by spraying their audiences with imitation blood, semen, urine, pus and other bodily fluids. Another trademark of GWAR’s live show is their lampooning of celebrities and figures in current events. Victims of GWAR’s antics have included O.J. Simpson, John Kerry, George W. Bush, Jerry Garcia, Osama Bin Laden, Paris Hilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and many others. The band also makes frequent references to political and historical figures, fantasy literature, and mythology.”

Chickenhead showed up at our house around 7:30 last night, Mini Cooper parked out front, utility bucket full of premium beer in the trunk. His first time in our house, he traipsed up and down the three flights of stairs, remarking at the shoddy construction and sunken kitchen. A 45 year old contractor by trade with boundless energy and a penchant for Bad Brains, telling Dave all that was wrong with the insulation of within our house. Then Derek arrived, and we were soon off.

Atlantic City is 50 miles away. We wedged the bucket between ourselves in the back seat of the Mini, tore off through the streets of Port Richmond for I-95 and made it to Jersey in 10 minutes. As we entered onto the Atlantic City Expressway, Chickenhead said, “OK, I’ll have one of those beers now,” and we all joined in. Two beers, 15 strip club stories and one piss stop later, we were in Atlantic City. Chickenhead had spent $4,400 on one night alone in a strip club. I had that much money in the bank once, but only once.

We tailgated the rest of the beers in the parking deck of the House of Blues and went inside, past the gamblers, the elderly and the odd assortment of people that call AC home and work the casinos to get by. Once inside, we went for more beer, bumped into some 17 year-old BMXers from Ocean City, bought them beer and waited for the band to come on.

Chickenhead is friends with one of Gwar’s “scumdogs.” He doesn’t play music in the band, but he does appear onstage throughout the set wearing a Juggernaut style helmet, clutching an oversized sledgehammer and antagonizing the band members. He’s about 5 feet tall out of costume and very cordial. I think his name is Bob. He said hi prior to the show and then readied himself.

About 30 minutes later, the band appears. I had seen the pictures, read the interviews, watched the videos, but nothing prepared me for the live set, and the costumes. The closest I can come with a comparison are the “Orcs” from the Lord of the Rings movies, only more satanic, more beastly and more transvestite-prone (the band’s lower halves are generally thongs and thigh high fishnet stockings; I think it’s an attempt to fuck with the would-be jock/homophobe fans that generally show up to see Gwar, but I’m not sure.)

The music is a hybrid brand of nu-metal, even though Gwar’s been playing that brand of music even before it was labeled and made marketable by a few bands in the late 90s and early 00s. But the music is only a small part of the act. Gwar is living theater for the unknowing, a dark battle of bad vs. worse in a cliched Mad Max meets Tolkien nightmare, juxtaposed against shallow accusatory based politics and pop culture references. Basically, everything polarizing in the world, from Jesus to Hitler to George W. Bush to the Pope to Osama bin Laden, Gwar beheads on stage, or skins alive, or cuts the penis off of. And then spews fake blood, urine, semen or any other bodily fluid you can think of onto the audience through an intricate array of costumes, hoses and food coloring. It’s a an hour long sacrifice, with common sense as the offering.

At first glimpse, it’s hysterical. And when you’re worried about your future, making enough money to be comfortable and paying bills, then whisked away to a gambling town at the beach by a guy named Chickenhead to watch a guy from Richmond jerk off the Pope’s fake 3-foot penis, it’s a good escape. Great in fact. But by the encore, when a Tyrannosaurus Rex is brought onstage for the lead singer, Oderus Urungus, to battle for control of Hell, and the entire audience is covered in a fake mixture of Pope semen and Hitler’s blood, a glass of wine and a Seinfeld rerun doesn’t sound so bad.

I love evil, and I love that people thriving on the comedic embodiment of evil can actually make a decent living off of it, but Gwar is all just a little too French Revolution for me. We don’t understand you, we don’t care to, so f-it, off with your head (or penis, or arms…) I know it’s an act, and I thoroughly appreciated it, and I laughed my ass off for an hour, but I’m being a snob and I’m the first to admit that. So we caught Bob backstage after the show. He was dressed in a Jonah’s Onelinedrawing t-shirt and jeans, just like any other Richmond punk you’d find swimming at the James River rope swing in the summer. He was calm, his hands were pink (from the fake blood) and he was glad that the tour only lasted for four more days.

As with any metal band, backstage was full of drunk women flashing themselves, security guards and cheap beer. And then Dave Witte walked by. Dave went to my elementary school in Hazlet, NJ. A mutual friend/old band mate of Dave’s just mentioned his name to me last Friday night, and so he was fresh on my mind. And then he walked by.

After exchanging pleasantries, he told my friends, “Yeah, his mom used to be my lunch lady.” We talked for a few minutes, caught up on everyone and said our goodbyes. He had moved to Richmond, found a girl he loved and was still playing drums for a living. Over 20 years after the fact, I still knew someone from my childhood that wasn’t direct family.

Soon after, we left. We stopped at a Wawa, jumped on the Expressway and dozed off while Chickenhead blasted Helmet and kept himself awake. The concert ride home, despite the company, the soundtrack or the hours that had passed earlier in the night, has remained a constant, reflective time for me, from age 15 to the present. I glanced out the window, wondered about Helmet’s production values and text messaged a bunch. I also reflected. A day before, I was questioning my future, irrefutably. A night later, I reconnected with a distant part of my past, irregularly. And in between, I was doing ridiculous shit, unequivocally.

40 minutes later, we were home, and Chickenhead’s bucket was empty.

PRIOR INTERIOR DECORATING

The house, the neighborhood, the classically-styled street cars outside our window that scream “Screenplay Writer’s Dream” each time they barge down the street. It’s all a part of the new picture we’ve begun painting for ourselves. A not-so-rough portrait of life on the cheap in Northern Philadelphia.

The house is an experience to begin with. Three floors, spiral stairs, a kitchen on a downward slope with a stove top that deposits food squarely on the floor if you’re using the front burners and not paying attention (It’s true, I saw it happen to Dave today.) So we have a kitchen on a downward slope. Some call it sink-in, I call it character. Sure, it took some adjustment time. The fact that the sink wouldn’t empty out was a bit of a problem, but I took some bearing assemblies and wedged them underneath the sink to combat the sloping angle, and all seems well with what is now a past drainage problem. But then there’s the paint job throughout the house.

I’d love to say that some kinda of neo-hippies lived here before us, but I think he was a DJ that didn’t paint the walls after the neo-hippies that lived here before him moved out and he moved in. So we’re looking at two leases ago for the painters with bad taste, I’m assuming. And how did I know that the last renter before us was a DJ? Easy: sound-proofed bedroom, two turntables and a microphone (just like the Beck song) all set up when I came to look into renting the house. The DJ removed the sound proofing, but not the staples from the wall. And I’m too lazy to as well. But anyway, back to the neo-hippie-esque painting job.

To begin with, the dining room has a translucently-painted orange sun on the wall. It was previously covered up with box springs (on account of the spiral stairs, we couldn’t fit our box springs up the stairs, so they rested in the dining room for almost two months before Joe from Bethlehem tied them to his truck and said goodbye). Now though, the box springs are gone and the sun came out, in the dining room. I wanna paint something offensive over it but I’m not good when faced with permanence on the walls. I just know I’d regret whatever I painted a week after the fact.

Directly upstairs from the permanent sunrise is the bathroom door, and traced on the door are the outlines of several pot leaves. Before you say, “Bingo, hippies,” let’s remember that marijuana adulation transcends all cultural boundaries. I’m just playing devil’s advocate before you walk into Rob’s room and discover the wall dedicated to the soft conglomeration of blues, yellows and oranges. Treacherous, but livable, and not exactly reminiscent of a Grateful Dead fan’s workings. So I’ll go out on a limb now: let’s not even call them neo-hippies anymore, let’s just assume they were people that smoked pot, had time on their hands and used it to stretch their artistic wings, however much in bad taste that may have been.

It’s not all bad though. We may have a room full of stapled walls, pot leaves on the bathroom door and a an actual grade in our kitchen, but there’s character here. A character that’s adjusted to lord knows how many past inhabitants, helping to shape their lives in some small way. I like that part; there’s history here, but not in a Sci-Fi Network Ghost Hunters kinda way. It’s real, not spooky.

But oh, I forgot to mention the basement. The DJ, the one before us, had other aspirations. Namely, boxing. For the first time in my life, I am the would-be owner of a punching bag. In the hands of pacifists, it hangs dormant. But I just know we’re gonna have some drunken house guests at one point in our life of this house that need that punching bag. And for once, they’re gonna have it. Then there’s the dryer, the warmest part of our house. You see, most dryers expel their hot air outside of the house. Not us. Our dryer expels its hot air into the basement. It’s like a sauna in there, and it dries up any air-dried clothing really quick. Boxing, sauna-like conditions, our basement.

And that would be the house. The neighborhood, our block, is fairly quiet. To the left are Muslims; to the right, punks. And both are above and beyond the call of welcoming. We might have some bad paint jobs to cover up, and a sloping kitchen to contend with, but life on the border of Fishtown and Northern Liberties isn’t all that bad.

And right this very moment, our neighbors to the right (the punks) are performing at-home karaoke. They’re singing along to the Steve Miller Band, their dog is barking and the night is alive. So I think I might have a drink and laugh along to their musings…