Our stomach growl in anticipation of your generosity.
If it hadn’t been for Bongoburgers there would have been no speedlab for me. Bongoburgers was my first gang, my first friends. It was the apartment where Paul and Terry split the rent, and it was right above this Bongoburgers place. The first time I went there, Terry, who was Asian and therefore wellbred, made me a cup of coffee and gave it to me. There I was inside somebody’s apartment and they were giving me coffee, like in a movie. And it got better from there.
It was a happy time. It really was. Funny, I have no problem going on and on about any stupid gory misery you care to name, but it makes me very queasy using that word “happy.” It’s not my field, as academics say. There’s a lot of that kind of lying going around, people who were happy once pretending their lives have been all grim. You don’t see that with people from really awful places. That’s why African music is always cheerful; they don’t need to compare scars. They’d rather dance.
So I’ll try to describe what happiness was, at Bongoburgers. I can tie it back to this miserable story in the end, because if I hadn’t been happy there, I’d never have had the ego to decide to become a bad person. Back when I was alone and despised by the hippies, even suicide seemed too good for me. But when people have liked you, people outside the doomed family that stands for Ireland and the Church and the Ice Age mammals and everything else great and gone—then you can dream of doing bad things.
Bongoburgers was actually Persian Burgers. A fast food place on Dwight Way in Berkeley. The name Bongoburgers came from the Free Speech days, probably, the whole bongo-drums beatnik era celebrated in bad murals south of campus, cops teargassing hippies and all you could think was, “Good, good, aim for the heads with that canister, you wimps!” That’s what I thought anyway, walking to the train alone every night.
Then I met people in workshops who were kind enough to think I was kidding with those poems about the beauty of nuclear war. Thank god for misreadings. Not that everyone misread those masturbatory screeches. Thom Gunn heard them clearly and laughed, and encouraged me to do worse. But he was gay and English and liked leather. For good pious Americans the only option was pretending to think I was kidding, and they were kind enough to do that for me.
Except Paul, because he was from Orange County and his proudest boast was that he had once made Norman Lear’s daughter cry. Norman Lear was the bastard who produced All in the Family, and that Family looked and talked exactly like my family, and America laughed at them every week. Why’d he have to hire Carroll O’Connor? That was the question, mumbled very, very quietly at the TV at home. Because that kind of question was extremely dangerous. Don’t even say the word.
I knew that much; there were no illusions about Free Speech in our house. Speech was sedition, any speech we could have made, anyway. A lot of very quiet, bitter hatred. You’d think I’d have rejoiced when the sullen majority triumphed later, under Reagan, but by that time I’d lived in Vegas, I’d seen those people and they were worse. Worse than Berkeley? I can hear Paul asking that furiously even now. And yeah, I’d have to say: even worse than Berkeley.
But figuring that out has taken me my life. Back then all that mattered was that these people who were cool with each other in the workshop were also cool with me. There was an initiation, of course, and it was rough, getting sneered at on a half-mile walk through Berkeley by Paul and his even meaner, even more rightwing friend Michael. But then I actually went over to their place and had burritos and went to San Francisco and popped a qualuude, my first and last, and because I was a punk they thought I’d get in fights and I was too shy so Paul decided to start things off by going up to Fast Floyd and yelling at him onstage and Fast Floyd mumbled, “C’m’up here an’I’ll show ya” and Paul did, bounced up all eager, and Floyd popped the bottom of his electric guitar right in Paul’s eager face, blood and everything. Paul was delighted, though not so much when his two supposedly mean friends and bodyguards, me and Michael, couldn’t manage more than going over to Floyd at the break and standing menacingly.
Just boys. I was an oldish boy already, 23, but if you don’t get it out in adolescence it has to come out later. There were three years then, of equally silly and chivalrous expeditions, amateurish drug buys, dilettante decadence, and we were friends. If you’ve never had a gang, a gang is the best thing in the world. These people who talk up the loner cult…I always wonder what they’re talking about. Have they tried it? Loners are idiots, they have no clue what’s going on around them. Me, I love gangs. I love uniforms. That was where punk came in: I wanted to be loyal to punk to the death, and it irked me that there wasn’t a military wing. It would have been great to die with that soundtrack, all full of some overpriced drugs, in proper leather uniform.
It would have been much, much better, in fact. Hey, I still had a chinline at that age; I’d have made a great, soldierly coffin. And none of the bad stuff I did would have had time to happen.
Because Heidi was also in that poetry workshop where I met my new friends. She was with a dumb rich guy, but of course I didn’t get that. I was sure money was silly, a consolation prize for those who didn’t have a shot at glory.
She took me up, and then she put me down. A footnote in her picaresque narrative, and burial in the heart of a glacier for me. Unthinkable, because it never happened in the movies, to go from lonely misery to happiness and then back? No hero ever went back. Unbearable, unthinkable.
In the murk and chill of that jettisoning I somehow allowed Paul’s victim writer girlfriend Marian to jump me one night. It wasn’t lust; if it was lust I could have forgiven myself in a second. My body would have declared an absolute amnesty. It wasn’t lust. It was her face when I said, “No, we can’t.” Her face collapsed like the end of the world. I thought it was the end of the world. I didn’t know then that she did that face collapse thing about five times a day. I thought the world would end if I said no. So I said yes, and bla bla bla, Paul found out, the guy who taught me how to exist, and fled Berkeley to work minimum wage at a bookstore back in Orange County and I got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, three years of deserved nonstop coughing agony, and nobody would hire me because my thesis was about Sade and…and…and therefore when Butler said we could make money running a speed lab I jumped at the idea. Not so much the money as the crime.
I knew Butler was a bad person; that was the point. He slunk around the edges of the Bongoburgers crowd, avoiding Paul’s sharp tongue (that Paul never used on me) but dangling after the weaker members of the group, notably me and Doug. He knew fellow trash when he smelled it.
He had this idea. Saved it for when Terry was out of the apartment. Terry never even locked the door; we all went in whenever we were on Dwight, threw darts at the map of the universe and made instant coffee and played first-generation games on Terry’s first-generation Mac.
And then of course Paul had to move out because I betrayed him with Marian and wrecked his life. And Terry offered Paul’s room to Butler. Who sat around the formica table talking about how smart he was, and he was, in a mean way, one of these people who hit their peak at the SAT and scuttle around like gifted little scorpions for the rest of their lives.
He had this idea. A lot of money in it. A thousand dollars an ounce. But where would you, uh, sell it? I said, trying to sound cool, like a movie.
Oh, that was no problem either because he had a dealer, very cool guy. Named “Pink Cloud.” That was his actual name, apparently, right there on his CA driver’s license, “Pink Cloud.” Did that send me fleeing for the hills? Obviously not.
Let’s do it, I said. Yeah but we need a place to cook it, Butler said. I know, I said, we can use this house my parents have in Benecia. I never hesitated to offer him our one asset, our one hope of something appreciating and lifting us out of the demographic where you wince at every knock at the door, because in those days collectors could come to the door. I winced, knowing I was betraying my parents, but so much was betrayal, what wasn’t? I was trying to adjust, and that seemed to be the way things worked, like it or not. And besides, I’d spend the money on them. Little selfish dumb coughing pedantic overage baby Robin Hood, that was me.
Butler jumped at that offer, and the next thing I knew we were in our stupid disguises, in my parents’ surplus cop Plymouth, driving down the access road to that chemical supply warehouse. Butler had mentioned that the DEA staked this place out, but by that time I had too much momentum. I was going to crash the bad world’s party, I was going to be in it but not of it, robbing the tweaks to pay the…something or other. I’d get my mother that Cadillac, heads would roll, Heidi would be sorry.
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