The Day I Turned RottenBy: Marcelo Báez
Back in the late ’90s, when I was a 13-year-old a teenager living in a small town in Northern California, a friend made a special promise to me: “Next Monday, after you get out of school, I’ll pick you up from your grandma’s house and drive you to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.”
In the infamous district, she promised, I’d be able to buy the kinds of records, clothing, and books I couldn’t find elsewhere. She was in her early twenties, and I was at her apartment with a small group of friends.
An eavesdropper chimed in on our conversation: “The Haight? That’s where all the goths, punks, hippies, and ravers hang out.” I probably couldn’t tell the difference between a goth and a punk, but I was fascinated by the mere existence of the terms. Sadly, the closest thing we had to a subculture in my charming cow town was the Future Farmers of America youth organization, and I had passed on them because Wrangler jeans never looked good on me.
It was a Saturday night when the promise was made, and everyone but me was chewing ecstasy “hits” like they were Flintstones vitamins. I didn’t let myself get too excited about the Haight street trip because my friend was very forgetful — besides literally tripping at that very moment.
That night continued at a clandestine rave that was promptly busted by the cops, which in turn led us to a nearby 24-hour Del Taco. After that, I crashed at my grandmother’s, something I used to do because she had cable, a service my parents were too cheap to pay for. But crashing at grandma’s meant I had to do housework and go grocery shopping. It also meant that, because Mamá Luisa was a strict Catholic, I was supposed to do group prayer with a rosary. Luckily she used to go to bed early, and that meant I could stay up watching Mexican telenovelas, Daria, and Amp.
Monday came up and, while watering her cucumbers in the backyard, I heard my grandmother hollering: “Hey, kid, your weird friends are here!” Surprisingly, my friend made good on her promise and, minutes later, after making up a flimsy lie about needing to be tutored by my college-enrolled friend, I was in the backseat of a Honda Civic heading towards San Francisco, the Promised Land.
Once there, walking around the scummy neighborhood filled my heart with wonder. One store, which specialized in bondage and S&M trinkets, offered an impressive selection of creepers and winklepickers— both impossible to find elsewhere. A particular 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.
This was back in 1997, the same year Amoeba Music, the “world’s largest independent store,” opened its doors across from the Golden Gate Park. Not knowing where to begin, I walked around the mammoth record store for twenty-minutes before picking up a copy of Reproduction, the Human League's first LP, after being drawn to its strange cover.
More so than the eccentric people roaming the neighborhood, I became interested by 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 for punk and metal shows, were comically vulgar or fantastically grotesque. Hip-hop, reggae, goth, britpop — there seemed to be something for everyone. Excited, I stashed copies of the most intriguing propaganda in my messenger bag.
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 began feeling anxious; all kinds of cool things were happening less two hours west from my parents’ home, and the day after I would have to go back to my awful high school, where racist cowboys fought cholos over parking spaces. And then, I felt it: an internal switch had been flicked, and strong teen angst began festering inside me.
The worse was yet to come.