So I'm driving for an indie pizza store located on University Avenue. Started off with a 1985 Honda Prelude, then moved up to a 1998 Civic DX.... The first "new" car I ever owned; the Civic was a fleet lease return with about nine thousand miles on it. I'd change than number upwards, but quick.
I originally started off working a six-to-ten shift four days a week. It was just supplemental income for my day job driving for a corporate mail service, which paid a crap hourly wage but had health insurance, not a bad trade-off. The only reason I left that day job was I got snookered into moving back to Modesto, ostensibly to help run a courier service I'd worked for a couple years earlier (a whole different story in itself). I got out to Modesto to find they didn't want my help running the business at all: they were just so starved for competent drivers, ones who weren't either geriatric or dumber than a boot full of pebbles, that they out-and-out lied to me to get me back.
So I get out there, find an apartment, and start writing out plans to increase efficiency and generally make the business run better. I'd driven for them before and knew the nuts and bolts of daily operations, so I could spot where ergonomics and processes could be improved. (Getting NexTel radio/phones was number one on the list, instead of the pagers we were attached to.) Mere words couldn't express their indifference; they wanted me on the road, period. I was unamused to say the least. Modesto is a mid-sized town in the Central Valley, smaller than Stockton and bigger than Merced. It's also a total shithole. Sure, Modesto has nice neighborhoods: so does Detroit. I had already lived out there for about eighteen months and generally loathed it; it took the offer of helping run, and possibly becoming part-owner of, a business that had the potential for success, not just the state of stasis it was in when I was a driver the first time.
After about three weeks I had it out with the owner, a fat old racist fuck who took pride in his heroin-addicted son --- who was in and out of Soledad so often I don't know if he even bothered to change mailing addresses --- for being a member of one of the prison system's white power gangs. I called him a liar and scoundrel for scamming me the way he did, he called me a sucker for believing what he told me. Silly fuckin' me, taking a small business owner at his word. I took the keys to the truck yard gate off my ring, telling him that for the time being, he really didn't want me around his vehicles unsupervised.
"You threatening me?"
"No, I'm threatening your rolling stock. You fucked me, Bob, and I'm real pissed right now. This is in our own best interests," I said, whacking the keys onto his desk. Then I went home and called my landlord to find out how long I needed to be there so that I wouldn't lose my deposit. Four months.
So I was stuck in Mo-Town for three months and one week longer, saddled with a job I refused to do more than the bare minimum to keep. I knew I'd lose any sort of war of attrition, so I just became the laziest human being possible. Other than the actual deliveries, there was no task I didn't need to be reminded to do at least twice. No vehicle I drove was returned with fuel in it. I was basically daring Bob to fire me... And he couldn't. Even with my low-level sabotage, I was still the only driver he had that was worth a shit. Still didn't stop us from spitting venom at each other every time we were within a hundred yards of the other person.
(It should be noted that probably 95% of our business were medical runs. As much as I hated Bob and the company, if I've got instrument trays or a cooler with twelve pints of whole blood on the seat next to me, basic morality makes me put miles under my tires as quickly as possible. It's not the hospital's or the patient's fault that Bob was a dick. Screw Bob, someone's life is on the line, so put the right foot to the floor.)
On my last day, I got my own car out of the yard, walked to the front of the building where Bob could see me, and threw my truck keys on the roof. I then made a rude gesture at Bob and walked back towards my car. Bob waddled to the front door and yelled, "Hey! You go get those goddamn keys!"
As my name isn't Reed Richards, this seemed like a silly request. "Why don't you have somebody who works here go get 'em? You know, one of the spry, healthy young men you always hire?" (Honest to God, Bob would recruit drivers from the local Elks Lodge; the other drivers were all old men who wanted something to fill their days. The two "younger" guys who were there when I first came back? Both got the sack --- admittedly, rightfully so --- for using the corporate gas cards on their own vehicles. And like, constantly, not just once or twice. Did they really think it wouldn't be noticed? Total thick-wits.)
"You'll never work in this town again!"
"That's my entire goal, Bob."
"Fuck you, Lenny!!"
I turned and said, "No thanks, Bob. You could ask your son, though. He's in prison, he should know lots about fucking other men."
I'd heard the phrase "too angry to speak," but had never seen it in play. Bob turned a surprising shade of purple, and..... Sputtered. He was so pissed off he literally couldn't form a word, much less a sentence.
He began walking stiff-legged back towards the office. Silently. That set me off balance: Bob was the kind of guy who would yell invective in any situation: if it was his granddaughter's birthday, he'd bellow about how her new fuckin' toys wouldn't mean shit to her in five years, and how she's that much goddamn closer to being dead.
.... And the penny dropped: I remembered Bob showing off his Smith & Wesson .38 to me once, which he kept in his desk drawer. Time to beat cheeks. I turned south out of the lot and opened it up. Bob must have either forgotten where he put the damn thing or had to load it, because I was nearly to Kansas Ave. before hearing POPs behind me. Looking in the rear view, I could juuuust make out something lumpy standing in the road, nearly a half-mile back.
That night I was tempted to call him up and tell him he'd forgot to adjust for windage, and that snub-nose revolver he owned was crap for accuracy at that distance anyway. I wrote the idea off for a couple of reasons. First, we'd spent over three months purposely trying to piss each other off, and that was a battle I'd won: when you've goaded someone into using firearms, you've made them snap.... And so long as their aim is shit, you've "won." (If their aim is good, winning is a Pyrrhic victory.) Also, my neighbors were hanging around with me while I packed the last few bits of crap; my friend Liesl was cat-sitting for me, and most of my stuff was already in storage in Richmond. And my neighbors would have had an immediate solution: grab the arsenal, cut the lock to the truck yard, and blow the windows out of everything with wheels, plus the windows of the office building.
My neighbors were nice enough guys. They were also semi-retired Norteños, "aging" gangbangers --- in that world, if you make it to thirty you're an old-timer --- who'd managed to avoid prison and were past the age where thugging it up or being involved in any kind of extralegal activities had appeal. We'd got along well for those four months. Again, they were gangbangers, but older ones. They didn't need to have the tough-as-dirt , mean-as-blood front going on, like when they were nineteen. A young Norteño would have me labeled as a freak, a weirdo and a faggot. These guys viewed me with bemused friendliness; to them I was just a cultural anomaly, a white dude who looked really funny and listened to "that crazy wild punk rock shit; man, that stuff's nutty!" They harbored no animosity: hey, that Lenny dude's cool, he's just from Berkeley, he's like that.
We were on good terms because when I first met them, I was still expecting to take over a potentially prosperous courier service, and was in a non-stop good mood. I bumped into a few of them on the walkway heading to my apartment. The walkways were very narrow and you had to kind of scoot past people. I smiled at them and said, "Hey, do you live here?"
All three gave me a suspicious eye and said, "Yeah..." ...With the phrase "What's it to you, dicknose?" left unspoken.
I stuck my hand out and said, "Hi! I'm Lenny, I just moved in here! It seems like a really cool little complex, is there a pool? I haven't had a chance to really explore yet!"
The oldest-looking of the three said, "No, no pool. I'm Manny," and shook my outstretched hand. The other two also responded: "Luis." "Rico," and also shook my hand. The initial suspicious looks had morphed to surprise and slight confusion.
"Right on! I'll see you guys around, 'kay?" as I continued on towards my apartment. It's hard to work up any animosity towards someone in that good of a mood.
And as it turned out, two of those guys --- Manny and Rico --- were pretty much right next door to me. Luis and two other guys lived right around the corner. Manny seemed to play a 'supportive older brother' role for the other four. All five--- it's hard to say. If they weren't Norteños, they sure as hell looked the part, and even played it to an extent: the baggy pants, shiny black shoes, wispy moustaches, wraparound sunglasses, thin-line tattoos. But I noticed one thing: no teardrops. You may have seen the small teardrop tattoos on the Mexican gangsters? One drop equals one stint as a guest of the state. None of these five had teardrops. That mean that: (a) they'd been very lucky, (b) they'd been very smart, (c) any action they'd been part of was something low-risk, or (d) their look was entirely a pose. If it was "d", they lived dangerously. Looking the way they did screamed "I'm A Member of the Norteño Criminal Organization!" and would invite trouble from a lot of different directions: cops, Sureños, Bloods, and even other local Norteños, who would realize "I've never seen these chumps in my life." Dressing up like a cop and pretending to be one is safer: for that you only go to jail. Faking being a Norteño (or Sureño, or Crip, or Blood, or....) means that other gangs will attack you on sight, and the members of the gang you're pretending to be in, if you're caught out, well.... Three weeks in the hospital, minimum.
But anyway. Two days later I'm walking back through the complex with a good supply of both real food and junk, and there's Manny and Rico sitting out in front of my building, two doors over. Still on the bipolar-like upswing I had going, I greeted them like long-lost family. "Hey guys! Manny and... and... and... "
"Rico, yeah, I'm really sorry, I'm just bad with names. How you guys doing?"
"Just relaxing after work, you know? Hey, you wanna beer?" asked Rico.
"Oh, I don't drink, thanks though. Want some chips? Or Nutty Bars? Or M&Ms? Or pork rinds?"
Manny said, "I'll take some pork rinds. M&Ms and beer don't sound good together," making Rico and me laugh.
I replied, "Actually, I had a girlfriend in San Diego who would eat M&Ms and drink Miller Genuine Draft together."
"Whaaat? No way."
"Total truth. She'd sit there with a bottle in one hand and a handful of M&Ms in the other. Swig, swig, chomp chomp chomp. It's not quite as gross as it sounds, I tried it, but it's still pretty nasty."
I ended up dropping off my groceries (except for the pork rinds), grabbing a Mountain Dew, and the three of us --- then four, then five, then six --- ended up just sort of hanging around and shooting the shit for a couple hours. I was quizzed on my piercings and bleached spiked hair and engineer boots. (I gave a vague answer like "Ennh, it's an East Bay punk rock thing I guess.") Banda was playing on the radio, and a song I recognized came on; subconsciously, I began whistling along to it. Two or three heads whipped in my direction. "Hey man, you know this song?"
"Um, sort of. I've heard it before, I like it...."
"Where you listenin' to Banda?"
"At the pizza delivery place in Berkeley I used to work at. All the in-house staff listened to the Mexican stations. Heh, except for me, all the drivers were Brazilian dudes. They all listened to techno and house, and I just liked the music on the Mexican stations better."
"Man, I thought you listened to that punk rock sh--- stuff."
"Hell, I'll listen to anything at least once. If it interests me, I'll keep listening. (*shrug*) The music on the Mexican stations keeps me interested. Why limit yourself, man?"
One of the guys smiled and said, "You wanna play some punk rock here?"
"Ummm.... Sure! You wanna hear some Mexican punk rock?"
"Wait a minute. There's Mexican punk rock bands?"
"Well, yeah. Why wouldn't there be?"
That kind of flummoxed him. "I dunno, I just never.... Well, what do they sound like?"
"Um, ¡Tijuana No! is hyper-ska, Solución Mortal and Los Crudos are pretty much straightforward hardcore... Actually, I'm gonna have to play Los Crudos, since that's all I have with me. I kinda wish I had some ¡Tijuana No!, you guys would, um, probably find it more relatable...."
My descriptions didn't help much, but I went and grabbed the CD anyway. We listened to three or four tracks before somebody muttered, "Man, this shit's too crazy," and I was handed the disc back. Someone, I think it was Luis, asked if the punk rock shows were as dangerous as he'd heard. I asked him what he meant, and he said, "You know, people getting stabbed all the time, people shooting up drugs, like, right out in the open, dudes punching each other for no reason.... I even heard the chicks sharpen their fingernails into points, then put a blade edge on 'em! Just so they can tear people up! That shit's outta line, no way would I go to that!"
I told him you were about as likely to get stabbed at a punk rock show as you were waiting in line at a Burger King, the tiny number of people who banged their drugs had the good manners to go in the restroom, that since 1983 I'd known exactly two girls who'd daggered their fingernails, and it lasted about three days for both of them: it was like having a box cutter at the end of each finger. Go ahead and try to absentmindedly scratch your face with a box cutter. So far as safety went, it was like demonstrating you were armed by walking around with the barrel of your gun clamped in your teeth, barrel facing inwards.
So far as the "dudes punching each other for no reason," I finally sussed out that he was talking about a slam pit. Five minutes later, I was still trying to convince him that slam pits have no malice; sure, you get bruised up, on rare occasion somebody will get a bloody nose or black eye, but not on purpose. If you fall in a pit, people help pick you up. Slam dancing is a cathartic release, you get sweaty and out of breath and you bang into other people and you're bruised up and a bit sore the next day (or really sore if you're over 35) and believe it or not, it's fun. It appears violent, but it's not, it's just a release.
He was unsure. I tried to explain that the pit was right up front, right at the stage, and the rest of the hall people just walked around normally, but he still seemed to have his doubts. He did have one more question, though. In a lowered voice, he asked, "So are those punk rock chicks really like that?"
"Um, really like what?"
"Like, really wild, man. Like if they think you're hot they'll throw you in a car and make you fuck 'em. Or like they're really into getting tied up and shit, or tying the dudes up. Like, they're always up for getting fucked, but they're fuckin' kinky about it."
I smiled. "So, uh, where did you get this information?"
"I heard people talking about it, and in a couple porno movies I saw---"
I started laughing. "Okay, be honest here. No kidding me or yourself. How does the sex you've had in your life compare to the sex you've seen in porno movies?"
He stared at his shoes. "Um.... Well.... Um, one time me and this girl----"
"Trust me on this, I've been dating punk rock girls since I was seventeen. Punks aren't doing much of anything different than anyone else is. I hate to break the news, but porn lied to you."
"Really?" He seemed slightly disappointed.
"The weirdest I've ever got was fooling around with a pair of handcuffs. Honest, punk rockers fuck just like everyone else."
I felt like I'd pissed on his parade, or at least spoiled a few masturbation fantasies of his. No, mohawked girls in red leather bustiers, fishnets, and patent leather boots weren't about to snatch him off the street and force him into engaging in kinky sex in the back seat of a 1964 Chrysler. (Punks didn't drive big old cars because they were cheap and easy to repair. No, we needed the room for all the wild perverse intercourse we were having almost constantly, pausing only for more drugs. It's all about priorities.)
The driver always ends up feeling left out anyways.
One of my last acts in Modesto, the night before driving back to Oakland and setting up temporary digs in an SRO hotel on Telegraph, was to use Manny's phone and talk to the pizza place. Firming things up: start that Saturday, 4 to close, and as many hours as I felt like taking on when the next schedule was made. Simple. The Prelude was tuned and had fresh tires and oil. I'd leaf through the East Bay Express until I found a good roommate situation or a dirt-cheap apartment (that wasn't in East Oakland).
I hung up the phone and told Manny, "It's all set, job and hotel room. Back to East Bay with me."
"Right on, 'mano. Stay safe, man, take care of yourself."
"You too, Manny. Thanks for hanging out with me."
I had the door open and one foot out when Manny's voice said, "I wish I was goin' with you."
I turned back around and closed the door again. "Really? Why? For the time being, all I got to look forward to is slinging pizza and a hotel room."
He straightened up in his chair and stared at the floor. "I been in this fuckin' town my whole life. I been running with a bunch of gangbangers since I was fourteen. I got a factory job, a '77 Cutlass, and a son I never see because his mom don't want no criminals in his life. I'm just... I'm sick of being where I am, you know? I ain't done shit, I ain't seen shit. I'm a fuckin' beaner from the valley.
"Shit here didn't work out for you, but you got someplace to go to. Everybody thinks gangsters are connected. That's bullshit. If I left Modesto, I'd probably end up in Fresno hooked up with more fuckin' criminals. You die today, they forget you tomorrow. I'd leave, but to where and with what? I got a shitbox car and $700 in the bank. I ain't goin' nowhere."
I stared at the floor myself for a while. Then I said, "When I left San Diego for San Francisco, I showed up with a half-tank of gas in my old Galaxie, less than $30, and whatever stuff I'd fit in the trunk. I lived in my car for nearly three months, and that was with a job. You ever try to bathe in one of those big sinks in a gas station garage? Hot water out of a tap is still one of those things I appreciate a lot more than most people ever will.
"Leaving is a struggle. Shit, it's scary, man. You gotta put everything you know behind you and figure out what to do on the fly, sometimes day to day. But sometimes it's the only way anything is ever gonna happen.
"I drove from San Diego to San Francisco. C'mon, Oakland is ninety minutes from here. It's a good town with a shit reputation and a few shit neighborhoods. If you want to start over, there's so many different directions to head in this state it isn't funny. I'd say to decide where you'd rather be and go. If you're willing to work, you can still make a go of it wherever you want."
Manny looked at me for a few seconds, then smirked. "Thirty dollars, huh?"
"Yup. I'd started the drive with $400, and the car broke down in King City. The mechanic was pissed because I slept in the car. I told him, 'It's either get a motel room or pay you.'"
Manny laughed. "Damn bro, you really dug yourself up from nothing, huh?"
"Well, I've always liked a challenge."
We looked at each other for a few seconds, and I said, "You take care of yourself, Manny. Do what you need to do, okay?"
Manny nodded and said quietly, "I will."
He said nothing back, just staring off into the middle distance.
I've always hoped Manny did what he needed to. He was a good guy, he deserved to have his decisions work out for him.