BRAVE THE RAVE
When it's time to recoup your lost youth. . .
Family life has a way of sneaking up on you. The other day I was amazed and quite frankly appalled to realize that I am 42 years old, a wife, the mother of three boys, that I drive a mini-van, and that our monthly overhead is more than I used to earn in six months during my 20’s. And worse than that: I completely missed out on the last ten years of alternative youth culture.
How does one recoup her lost youth? Well, she can either wait until the kids have grown up and left home—a long, long wait, at the end of which she’ll be using a walker to get around and warming a seat at the Bingo club on weekday afternoons—or she can go to an underground rave (yes, they’re still around), which is what I am going to do.
A loose affiliation of music-lovers that calls itself "Unity" is putting on a party. The party is called "Tranquility." The number to call is written on a tab of cardboard the size of a Cheerios boxtop—purchased on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and non-refundable, says my younger sister Bernadette. The time to call is 8:00 p.m. The voice you hear on the line will give you directions to the first "map point." Rave search, phase one: An ersatz treasure hunt with Ecstasy being the treasure.
It’s 9:00 p.m. when Bernadette and her friends arrive (average age: 22). We put on our "candy" (face glitter, press-on tattoos, etc.) and pile into Portia’s car—a very small Japanese vehicle with a bumper sticker that reads, "Just say no to sex with pro-lifers." Portia has her cell phone to her ear while she sets her multiple CD-player to random play. Track 12 opens to whale calls put to computerized percussion with a background of synthesized oceanic melodies.
I am in the center of the back seat. I feel slightly edgy, and very vulnerable; a little lost in time, a tiny bit lost to myself; extremely dependent on Portia’s good driving. We're flying across the Bay Bridge on our way to a shopping center in the Castro where a guy in a red jacket outside of Jamba Juice will give us directions—upon evidence of proper documentation—to the next "contact."
Something about driving 85 mph in a rockin’ and stompin’ little car at night prompts you to locate yourself in your particular box in time. My box is pretty small and very rigidly built. It’s made up of our recent home addition that lasted over a year and drove us all insane. I brought cups of coffee to the carpenters every morning and watched them literally cut our roof off and throw it into a dumpster in our front yard. They jack-hammered our foundation out from under us and tore off the siding while the kids watched Barney and Sesame Street over the noise and built forts with the couch cushions. Then there are my children’s medical problems that seem endless—Kyle’s and Daniel’s asthma that often keeps us up at night while we run the nebulizer, and Cameron’s ear infections that frequently require late-night emergency-room visits. There’s my job as a magazine writer with its incessant deadlines that reside in the central corridor of my mind, and the drudgery of housework and the permanent obligation to cook. My box makes me feel extremely indispensable . . . but also profoundly confined.
Julie, on my left, and Bernadette, on my right, don’t have boxes with tangible perimeters. They are girls dancing—fully dancing—in their seats on their way to a rave where they will lose themselves completely in space. Look Ma! No perimeters! In front, Portia and Auzzie, are both fully dancing in their seats too, and I’m not exaggerating.
"There he is."
At home my husband John will be reading Go, Dog, Go. Cameron will be cherry-cheeked by now, Kyle will be looking doughy and droopy, and Daniel, who has just lost his two front teeth, will be whistling annoyingly through the gap, and acting bored and too sophisticated for Go, Dog, Go. After the book, they’ll brush their teeth, dash to their rooms, and fight on their beds for a few minutes, procrastinating the inevitable moment of lights out. By then, John will be snapping at them, "In bed boys! Before I have to count! Okay! I’m counting! One. . . Two. . !"
Back in the car, Auzzie gets directions from the red jacketed guy, and we head to South of Market where we pull into a parking lot. The doors fly open. Portia and Julie are dancing by the car. Portia’s hair is tied up in pigtails and she’s swinging her head around and around, and Julie looks as if she’s running in place on a speedy treadmill. The whale music is echoing inside the concrete structure and spreading our positivity onto Market Street. As if they can’t contain their energy, Bernadette and Auzzie are doing Tai Chi in the middle of the parking lot. Bernadette is wearing Gortex waterproof pants that unzip at the knees—just in case rock climbing is added to the agenda. All are wearing running shoes.
Except me, the killjoy. I’m wearing (ridiculously) a pair of old Doc Martins—a throwback to prehistoric times. But they take no notice of me. Why should they notice me? I’m a mother. I have enormous responsibilities: a mortgage, building inspections, baby well-checks, mammograms, PTA meetings. But that’s deep, too. I mean, really. No discrimination.
We leave the parking lot and walk conspicuously down Market (Bernadette and Auzzie doing a walking version of Tai Chi). On the corner of Market and 5th we meet our second contact. He’s a wolfish old guy wearing a 49'ers windbreaker and baseball cap and carrying a cell phone. He looks over his shoulder, up and down the street, and even glances at a manhole, then gives us more directions—but he doesn’t point with his hands. We walk three blocks to where a big bouncer-type guy is leaning against a wrought-iron gate. We show him our tickets. He looks for cops, and then opens the gate. It’s freezing on the street. Three flights up a ratty wooden staircase in a drafty Victorian house the air is tepid and smoky and jammed with people.
When I was my sister’s age punk music was a virile force. Slam-dancing iconoclasts gave my generation credibility. It incarnated the disgust we didn’t yet know we felt for the naiveté of the ‘60’s and 70’s. It told us we wanted to be everything that the beat culture wasn't, which meant essentially, non-lyrical. Punk said RAGE like hippies never could.
Ironically, punk also said peace, love, charity, brotherhood, justice, and, please vote responsibly. As anarchic as punk rock appeared, it was political in that it pushed for change—albeit through the feckless manner of drawing attention to itself. It pushed for enlightenment, for freedom from racism and homophobia, for emancipation from the annihilating forces of conservative government and institutionalized religion, for a new birth in a contemporary musical nirvana.
And it’s exactly the same with ravers, but with a difference. Ravers haven’t rejected the rage of punk and the naiveté of the ’60s as much as they’ve borrowed from, combined, and made them their own. The halter tops, bare bellies, and bellbottoms worn here are all vaguely familiar. But body parts are pierced, and you can see some major tattoos. It’s like innocence partying with disenfranchisement. Girls are walking around sucking on pacifiers and wearing little girl jewelry—the bright plastic kind—and their hair is pony-tailed with plastic elastic. Their make-up is pre-pubescent but their attitudes are street-wise. The irony is deliciously overstated. A lot of the boys are in rapper-style baggy pants and hooded sweatshirts but many are in bike shorts and t-shirts—the idea being that youth has broken free of fashion, everyone is cool, and you are here so we love you.
If punk music spoke the language of the disillusioned working class, rave speaks post-modern-techno-spiritual-universal. The track on at the moment is a mixture of hip hop and trance house, says Bernadette. It is pure synthesized sound, put to a synthetic beat and repeated thousands of times over some indecipherable vocals—an aurally addictive mix that makes your nervous system feel like it’s on pop rocks. If rock and roll and all of its ancillary genres found their niches by appealing to what is human, electronic music has found its niche by appealing to what is not-human.
The DJ looks about twelve years old. According to the chalkboard that lists the night’s line-up, his moniker is DJ Shrimp. After him comes DJ Delerium, then Kid Carson, then Alias. DJ Shrimp is spinning records as if he’d been born doing it. The rhythm is bouncing off the walls as fast-paced as a rapid-fire machine gun. It enters your blood stream and vibrates through your body all the way to your nerve endings. It is impossible not to dance.
It is 11:00 before things start to pick up. A shadowy figure with a hood and a baby face asks if I need E or O. I smile and say thank you very much, but not just now, sounding like my mother turning down a sample of quiche at Safeway.
E (Ecstasy). The drug of drugs. It’s like endorphins without the pain. Unlike pot, E gives you feelings of intense euphoria without putting you to sleep or making you wired and talkative like coke. E is a sensual drug. Witness the kissing going on. One girl says to another, whom she’s never met until this moment in the throbbing dark, "I hope you don’t mind if I rub your leg. The velvet feels so nice." You don’t see that kind of ecstasy every day. But you do here. Besides Auzzie, I am the only sober person in the entire place. I’d heard for years that the DEA linked underground raves with crackhouses as places for illegal drug use and was out to shut them down. I’d been skeptical about the association, figuring it was an exaggeration—a money-driven complaint by a government who begrudges the lower classes any kind of underground economic success. But tonight I am staring the truth in the face: Drugs are bought, sold, and taken openly here with no attempt to conceal it.
The word "Tranquility" is painted on canvas and hung across the wall. It’s embellished by mysterious symbols I’ve never seen but that hint at ancient Celtic meanings. Another wall says "Be yourself." On another, "P.L.U.R", which is the raver’s mantra: Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect. The smell of burning incense fills the air. Several people are making dizzying configurations with neon toys in the air around their heads—configurations that I suspect are capable of communicating Hegelian dialectics to a brain on Ecstasy.
I feel stoned by the stench of smoke and perspiration, and dizzy from body heat. At about 1:00 a.m. I walk up another flight of stairs to the roof and look out over San Francisco. It’s a beautiful, clear night. The traffic is a medium flow as people head home after their evening’s entertainment. Pigeons are huddled in the gutters. Beside me a circle of guys are rapping and mouth popping. Like them, I can’t stop thinking about my life.
It’s not that I’m troubled about my life, just preoccupied by it. I know that Cameron is going to get up this morning at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. and stand by our bed and say, "Get up now, Mommy, it’s morning time." This likelihood alone precludes me from dropping E, or doing anything dangerous like standing too close to the edge of the roof, or allowing anyone besides myself to drive home. I even admit to noticing the extension cords running along the walls downstairs and thinking, "This place is a fire hazard."
But even though I’m cursed by my awareness, I don’t fully realize just how trapped in my reality I am until I ask a young woman standing next to me named Crystal the stupidest question anyone ever asked: "So, what do you do?" Crystal smiles at me, looks me up and down, then answers blandly, "I work at In and Out." Seeing my look of confusion she adds, "You know, the burger place."
And that’s the end of that. I have no idea what to say to Crystal, so I go back downstairs and swim back into the smoky biosphere of black lights and neon sticks, and kissing and back-rubbing girls. It’s been a long night for me already, but by the looks of it the party is only now finding its groove and has no intention of wrapping up. But I’m too tired to be having fun anymore.
As things go, fun is a relative thing—especially when one is used to going to bed at 10:00 p.m. with a cup of herbal tea and a book. I used to have the kind of energy it took to dance the entire night but, sadly, whether I like it or not, I’ve evolved into a species once monopolized entirely by my parents and their crony friends. Pure determination keeps me awake, blurry-eyed, yawning, and leaning against a wall in stoic anticipation of the end. I am beginning to suspect that what had begun as an innocent adventure is turning out to be a disco black hole.
"Okay, I've changed my mind. Who’s got the drugs?" I find myself thinking as I fade further into the wall. I feel myself submitting to some kind of weird, sub-cellular panic. Real life doesn’t exist anymore. There is no day on the other side of this feel-good canvas. No world beyond these brick walls. No air, no water. No love, no hate. No human enterprise, no socio-economic structure. Space is not the final frontier. We’ve entered an orgiastic Twilight Zone.
The little muscular clock behind my eyes reminds me that it’s getting near dawn and I pull myself back to reality just in time to—Eureka!—see a thin flag of dim daylight appear on the west-facing wall; a beautiful ghost that signals that there is, in fact, life beyond these walls.
With undisguised elation I gesture to Bernadette that I’ll be waiting for them outside. She nods, but makes no move to apprise the others. In the chilly dawn I lean against another wall, breathing the achingly, brisk, scentless, oxygen-rich air, and watch a garbage truck making its slow trip up the street for what seems a decade. At long last, I see the stark, white, energy-spent faces of my sister and her friends emerge from the iron-gated door of what is now revealed as the most dilapidated building I’ve ever seen; and after what seems like an eternity of dancing while locating the car we head for home. I’m so thrilled to be driving back over the bridge that I go through an invigorating second wind and enjoy the gray dawn over the Bay.
In my mind I can hear the sound of Cameron and Kyle dumping the toy box out in the middle of the living room floor and sliding down the wooden stairs on bath towels. The little Thomas the Tank is burning out its battery as it strains against a couch leg. Daniel has put toast in the toaster. It slowly turns black while he takes his time locating the jam in the fridge, then conclusively drops the jam jar onto the tile floor. The jar breaks noisily into a thousand sticky shards as I waft through the front door, an incorporeal cloud of stale smoke, and head for the shower and fresh clothes.
Peace. Love. Chaos. Parenthood. It is the extraordinary beginning of another day.
Causes Veronica Chater Supports
Sierra Club; Public Library; Public Schools; Crowden Music Center; Women's Cancer Resource Center; Democratic Party