linguica and me

This is a Bad Subjects essay from 1999. I wanted to post it after receiving a wonderful comment on an old post from someone who played a part in what follows.

Linguica and Me

Bad Subjects, Issue #43, April 1999


You hear a lot of talk about "comfort foods" these days, as aging baby-boomers and others attempt to relive the moments of their childhood when Mom made them their favorite meals. These comfort foods take us back to a time when we could count on being mothered, could count on a warm and caring home, could simply count on good things and people being there for us when we needed them. When people talk of comfort foods, they usually mean mashed potatoes and gravy, or hot oatmeal, or maybe a strawberry milkshake.

When I think of comfort foods, I think of linguica.

It's a difficult concept for me to accept, that I might have a comfort food. I have always been ambivalent about my past; the one thing guaranteed to give me comfort is the notion that as a child, I never felt comfortable. And so it makes a certain sense that when I recognize my comfort food, it's a greasy stick of fat and spices.

The great documentarian Frederick Wiseman made a film once about meat processing. One long sequence stands out in my mind: we follow a cow from its being prodded into the processing plant, through its death and dismemberment, and in the details the viewer eventually feels as if they are watching an abstract painter at work. By the end, there seems to be no connection between the animal that entered the plant and the beef that came out. When the workers are done, there is leftover meat lying all over the place, which is collected into large dumpsters using what looks like snow shovels. This leftover meat is used for hamburger.

If there's anything left over after they make the burger meat, I like to imagine they start making sausages.

Linguica is a Portuguese sausage made of pork and other stuff. Exactly what other stuff is for someone else to ascertain; I'm queasy enough just imagining what part of the pig ends up in the linguica. Linguica has been a part of my life since I was a small child, which likely explains why I take expensive cholesterol medicine today.

I worked with a man named Manuel back in my factory days. Manuel was a portly Chicano lift-truck driver who had lots of health problems as he approached his 40s. Finally, he had a small heart attack, after which his doctors insisted that he needed to improve his diet. They wanted him to cut back on his meat consumption, but Manuel confessed to the doctors that while he would try, they were asking a lot of him. Well, the doctors replied, at least eat only the leanest meat, and when you have a steak, eat small portions and cut the fat off the sides before you cook it. I remember Manuel telling me one night that he really wanted to follow the doctors' orders, but it was very hard because ever since he was a kid he'd been taught to eat the fat because "it was the best part." Manuel's dead now; childhood habits are hard to break.

When I was a kid, my Spanish grandmother had linguica delivered to her house. Other families in those days had milkmen, or if they were especially lucky, a bakery truck might deliver breads. But my grandmother was different: a couple of times a month, a truck from the Moniz Sausage Company would stop at Grandma's house, and she would buy a few sticks of linguica.

My grandmother lived to be almost 100 years old, and I'd like to say it was all that linguica which gave her long life, but in fact, she often had stomach troubles late in her life, and she didn't get to eat linguica in those later years. Which didn't stop her from feeding it to her own offspring. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, for decades the Rubios ate linguica. I never knew in those days that it was a Portuguese sausage, always assuming it, like my grandmother, came from Spain.

When my future wife and I started dating in high school, we regularly stopped off at the International Sausage Shop in Antioch, California, where we would pool our meager resources and split the costs of a linguica sandwich and an orange soda. Those were romantic times, let me tell you. Some years later, we discovered a place on the other side of town that made a most remarkable delicacy: linguica sandwich au jus! When the linguica and melted cheese were good and ready, they would be placed on the bottom of a large roll, after which the proprietors would take the top of the roll and dip it in linguica juice. If you've never eaten linguica, a short explanation is appropriate: "linguica juice" is another way of saying "rancid yellow pig grease." Comfort food indeed.

Linguica continued to follow me into adulthood. I spent one year living in Indiana, where linguica was so hard to come by that I returned to California, determined to never again live in a land without linguica. I did what I could to spread the linguica manifesto, although there wasn't much need to educate my fellow factory buddies who, like me, had grown up eating the stuff. When I began graduate school, though, I found a whole new cadre of friends, most of whom either had never heard of linguica or had been afraid to eat it. Early in our graduate careers, we went out for a night of pizza and beer meant to solidify our new-found collective spirit. My contribution to the festivities was to insist on ordering a linguica pizza, after ascertaining that the pub we were attending used real linguica rather than mere spiced-up ground pork. Sure enough, when the pizza arrived, there were dozens of small pieces of linguica. On the top of each piece proudly sat a bubbly glop of hot "linguica juice." I never got asked out to eat pizza with my grad school friends after that. Even the woman who professed undying love for Led Zeppelin drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham was more popular than me.

My grandmother practiced a very strict brand loyalty when it came to linguica. Only Moniz was good enough for a Rubio, she regularly proclaimed. And, in fact, most other brands of linguica had the same relationship to my comfort food as instant potato flakes have to real mashed potatoes. There was one company, though, Saag's, that made excellent sausages of all kinds, and their linguica, while not quite a match for Moniz', was nonetheless more than edible. For some years, Saag's had the sausage concession at the Oakland Coliseum, and I would look forward to eating a linguica sandwich at the baseball game. Little did I know that my small betrayal of Moniz would result in actual physical harm.

For one afternoon, leaving the ballpark after enjoying a home-team victory and a linguica sandwich, I found myself walking next to two old gentlemen, one of whom had a cap on with the word "Moniz" on the front. I asked him if the cap represented the sausage company, and he replied in the affirmative. "We've always loved Moniz linguica in my family," I informed him, asking if he worked for Moniz in some capacity. "I AM Moniz!," was his immortal reply. I couldn't have been more excited if I had just been introduced to Elvis. I started blathering about how Moniz trucks used to deliver linguica to my grandmother's house, and as I jabbered, I worked my way between the Moniz man and his companion. This other old-timer listened to me for a bit and then proclaimed that HE was the Saag's man, and that HE made linguica just as good as Moniz! Talk about heaven, I thought, I'm walking along between two of the greatest sausagemakers of all time! I turned to the Saag Man to congratulate him on all the great sausages he made, but he would have none of it. All he wanted to talk about was his linguica. Well, I said, you make great sausages, and your linguica is very good, but I'm sorry, Moniz makes the best linguica. Saag Man started punching me in my arm, insisting that his linguica was the best, which inspired Moniz Man to pound on my other arm, hoping to distract me from being swept over to the dark side. All the way to my car I walked between these two Titans of Tubesteak, getting my arms pummeled by their septuagenarian fists. I never betrayed Moniz, though.

Linguica isn't much of a choice for a comfort food: it gives you heartburn, it's full of cholesterol and unnamable meat products, it's ugly in its casing, it's ugly cooking in a pan, and it's ugly when it's ready to eat. Which is about how I want to remember my childhood: ugly and full of heartburn. But I know the lie underneath such a fantasy. My childhood was pretty normal, less interesting than the fact that I want to turn that childhood into a paean to greasy hog meat. I want to resist the very possibility that there is real comfort in my past, and so I adopt linguica as My Meat. My old friend Manuel took steak fat to his grave, but I don't eat linguica much anymore. I want to live to a ripe old age, so I can tell my great-great-grandchildren about the olden days when grease made housecalls.

Copyright © 1999, 2022 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.


This is from a follow-up post from 2003 ... and yes, the recent comment I mentioned above is from John Correia Jr., the son of the John Correia you read about below.

ohmigod, linguica dept. (rubios, read this one)

I've gotten a couple of emails recently about the article I wrote four years ago about linguica. I hear from people every month or two about that piece, but getting two emails in three days seemed a bit much, so I googled "linguica" and "rubio" and found a link to Moniz.

Imagine my surprise (and pride!). So I decided to call the number in the listing, and next thing you know, I'm talking to a woman at Moniz. Turns out she knows who I am ... she found the article on the web and printed it out for everyone at Moniz, so they all know me, I guess. We talked for awhile, and then she asked if I could hold on a second ... I heard her talking to someone in the background, "I've got the guy on the phone who wrote that article!" ... and then this old guy picks up the phone, John Correia is his name, and his job is ... DELIVERY GUY FOR MONIZ!

He says he's been delivering for a v.long time, and I said well, my grandmother used to get Moniz delivered to her house, and he said yes he'd read that in the article, and I said well, she was all the way in Antioch (Moniz is out of Oakland), and he said oh, I used to deliver out there, and I said her name was Frances Rubio, and he said he didn't remember, it was so long ago, and I said she was an old Spanish lady, and he said YES, HE KNEW WHO I MEANT! and YES, HE USED TO DELIVER TO HER!!!

So here it is, 2003, my grandmother has been dead for almost 20 years, it's been longer than that since I can remember the Moniz truck coming to her house, and ... I'm talking to the Moniz delivery guy and he remembers!

File this one under Small World, I guess ...

apocalypse, no

It's been a while since I posted an old Bad Subjects essay, so here's one I wrote in 1994. I am reprinting it here, unedited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years.

Apocalypse, No
Bad Subjects, Issue # 15, September 1994

Know that I fear Thee not. Know that I too ... prized the freedom with which Thou hast blessed men, and I too was striving to stand among Thy elect, among the strong and powerful ... But I awakened and would not serve madness. I turned back and joined the ranks of those who have corrected Thy work. I left the proud and went back to the humble, for the happiness of the humble.... If anyone has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. Tomorrow I shall burn Thee.
-- Dostoyevsky

Thinking about the apocalypse, I construct four categories that describe some various positions we might occupy in relation to this possible Big End. (Already my obsessive-compulsive need to categorize is working to counteract one result of the apocalypse: the destruction of all categories.) One, which we might refer to as 'religious fanaticism' (without condemning either religion or fanaticism), encompasses those who believe in an impending apocalypse, and who believe they will be on the 'right' side; after the scum has been washed away, these people will populate the post-apocalypse world. Another, 'apocalyptic nihilism,' includes those who believe in the impending apocalypse, believe the scum will be washed away, and considers themselves to be on the side of the scum; they likely don't believe in a post- apocalyptic world, because if you wash away the scum, there isn't anything left. A third vision, 'uncomfortable liberalism,' would be constituted of those who believe in the impending apocalypse, and believe the scum will be washed away, and even believe this is a good thing, but are uncertain which side they are on; self-observation does not lead to any clear feeling that they will be around or not, post-apocalypse. Finally, a last group consists of people who don't believe in an impending apocalypse. These people would seem to be uninteresting, at least for the duration of this essay; they are the unbelievers, as such having little apparent value to offer the student of apocalyptic culture.

Common to the three 'believer' groups is the notion that a time will come when huge change will occur. The stereotypical 'religious fanatic' looks forward to this apocalypse, because it heralds a new and better world, free of all which makes our current situation nearly unbearable. The opinion that the world is currently in sad shape is shared, of course, by many; apocalyptic religious fanatics are not the only people who think the world is in dire straits. Confident, though, in their belief that a great change will come, after which the world will no longer be evil, these believers await the apocalypse with something approaching greed: death and destruction can't come too soon in this scenario, for those who die will be Others. The need to make changes now, in the real world, is of little import here. What matters is that when the apocalypse comes (and come it will), God is on our side.

Sharing a sense that the world is evil, even reveling in that evilness, and also welcoming the apocalypse, the 'apocalyptic nihilist' is not as different from the above fanatics as might appear at first glance. My desk dictionary offers two definitions of nihilism: the first, 'a negative doctrine, the total rejection of current beliefs,' the second, 'a form of skepticism that denies all existence.' The apocalyptic nihilist is closer to the first of these definitions, for existence as such is not denied; rather it is posited that all existence is negative, which is not the same thing at all. In fact, it would be hard to imagine anything further from the philosophy of the apocalyptic nihilist than 'skepticism,' for the apocalyptic side of these people is 'proof' in itself of a belief system. One 'believes' in the apocalypse. We can argue over minor issues, such as whether the apocalypse is forthcoming or is in fact already upon us, but beneath all arguments is a simple belief in the apocalypse as real. Ultimately, this belief makes our apocalyptic nihilist all apocalypse and no nihilism, at least according to the first definition above: to welcome the apocalypse with open arms does not represent 'the total rejection of current beliefs' but merely chooses a particularly destructive and enticing belief system that pretends to non-belief even as it anticipates its own emergence.

Somewhere between the religious fanatic and the apocalyptic nihilist we find the uncomfortable liberal, honest (if confused) in their belief in some ultimate apocalypse, but not nearly as certain as our other groups as to the imminence of the apocalypse or their place in the great changes to come. Aware of the problems in the modern world without believing all is lost, believing in their souls that there is 'more to life' and that a final judgment is due without knowing how their report card will read when God performs the final tallies, our uneasy liberal vacillates between attempts to make the world a better place today and to bring their own affairs into proper order on the one hand, and bouts of vague despair and occasional 'sinning' on the other hand. This describes most of us, perhaps, on our best days and on our worst, unwilling to give up the notion that the modern world can be fixed, driven by unspoken beliefs, neither fearing the apocalypse or welcoming it, but rather putting it off as long as possible. The real world awaits us, and we will do our best in the time given us, hopeful that we're passing whatever tests we are being given.

Popular representations of these varying responses to a possible apocalypse are generally either simple-minded or disingenuous. As fundamentalist groups are fond of pointing out, much of our popular culture ignores the existence of religion as a major factor in our lives; it is the rare sitcom family that attends church or thinks about religious matters specifically as religious matters. Instead, religion is treated as just another topic of the week: last week D.J. sneaks off to church, this week D.J. masturbates, next week Roseanne loses her job. This is not a confrontation with the religious, but instead a disingenuous 'solution' which substitutes benign neglect for any real attempt to deal with religion. We applaud a Roseanne for its insistence on the importance of the real world of the here and now, but we can't look to such programs for assistance as we await the apocalypse, because they condescend to the apocalypse, deprioritize it, as if there are more important things to worry about than the possible end of the world.

Not that the culture of our religious fanatics and apocalyptic nihilists is any better, although they certainly have different priorities than Roseanne. But a firm belief in both the apocalypse and our assigned role in that apocalypse effectively shuts off most responses beyond carrying a sign reading 'The End Is Near.' This world is too simple, the options are too clear. Whether we place ourselves on the side of God or the side of the scum, we know who we are, we know what is coming, we know what we want when it gets here. Most liberal culture sidesteps the issue by sweeping apocalyptic thoughts into the closet; the fanatics and the nihilists sidestep the issue by assuming ahead of time that everything has already been decided. There are no choices, only waiting.

Which makes Michael Tolkin's movie The Rapture all the more interesting, because here is one movie that refuses the easy solution. Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a bored and jaded directory-assistance worker who prowls airport hotels with her friends, looking for new sex partners. Sharon gradually becomes disillusioned with her life, and discovers a religious cult that believes in the upcoming 'rapture' whereby the true believers will be whisked up to heaven forever. The liberal fantasy would be to reject the rapture as too literal; the nihilist would go back to having sex; the religious fanatic might focus on the rightness of Sharon and her mates as they await the oncoming apocalypse. But Tolkin tries something more complicated, more disturbing. He accepts the apocalypse; the rapture in his movie is real, not imagined, and he does not condescend. The believers are correct, the rapture does happen. But by the conclusion of The Rapture Tolkin has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the demands of the God of the apocalypse are too great, too inhumane, too ghastly to accept. When Sharon refuses salvation, she does so not because she thinks she is at one with the scum, as would the apocalyptic nihilist; not because 'the rapture' isn't real, which would be the liberal version (the apocalypse always hiding in the closet, never making itself seen). She refuses salvation because God is wrong; God exists, but God is wrong. She turns her back on God, and the audience is fully aware of what she is giving up: eternal life in heaven. She goes back to the humble.

After The Rapture, most other attempts to confront the apocalypse seem a little shallow. Confronted with salvation, real and tangible, yet also with full knowledge of what is demanded of the believer, The Rapture simultaneously believes and rejects. To do one or the other is simple; to do both is impossibly heartbreaking and startlingly brave.

And yet, for myself, even The Rapture is too romantic. Many of us who have fallen away from earlier faiths can appreciate the middle-fingered response of the humble in the face of the terrible demanding God of the apocalypse, but it is ultimately a dishonest appreciation, a nostalgic return to a time when a rebellion against the Father felt like a revolution against all oppression. When The Rapture presents a real God, it ups the ante considerably for those who would rebel, makes fearfully real the consequences of such a rebellion. Yet The Rapture also makes its heroine more heroic. One cannot magnify the importance of the oppressor without simultaneously enlarging the role of the heroine. And heroism is not the only thing that matters.

The Rapture, like our groups of believers, treats the apocalypse as truth. It feeds on that supposed truth, as do our other believers; the apocalypse, and our response to it, defines our actions. At some basic level, all believers desire an apocalypse, a utopia, a definable, different, perhaps distant future where our beliefs will be proven true. Often this desire for a definable future either apocalyptic, utopian, or dystopian, inspires us to great achievements; the attempt to fulfill these desires can make heroes or heroines of the least of us. However, this desire for definition, these heroic acts and individuals, do not make the desired apocalypse or utopia 'true.' For the unbelievers among us, the apocalypse is not pending, the apocalypse does not exist. Once we have had our rebellions, we are left, with the humble, in a decidedly non-heroic state. And there will still be work that needs to be done, and we will need the help of all the disillusioned who staked their claims on the existence of the apocalypse. Long after the apocalypse, long after the revolution, long after utopias have come and gone, there you will still find the humble, igniting fires at the feet of our heroes and heroines to light our way into the darkness.

I, and a few others, know what must be done, if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don't help us, who else in the world can help us do this?
-- Albert Camus

Copyright © 1994, 2022 by Steven Rubio . All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.

dirty laundry

(I wrote this in 1998 for the journal Bad Subjects. I am reprinting it here, unedited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. Looking at it now, I realize the third paragraph has the style of the fiction I wrote briefly in the mid-90s. It's also interesting to look back into my past, since as I type this, my wife and I are retired and doing pretty well because she worked at an HMO for 15 years.)

Dirty Laundry: Wherein a trip to the laundromat leads to ruminations about health

I'm at the laundromat. Five quarters to wash a load of clothes, another three or four to dry them. I have lots of loads. I come every two weeks; we have a washer and dryer, but the dryer has been broken for months going on years, and even though it probably wouldn't take much to get it fixed, and even though I detest the laundromat, every two weeks I trudge down with load after load of dirty laundry.

I sit at a table while the clothes get clean, reading Dostoevsky on my Palm Pilot. At the table to my left, a woman does her banking while she waits for her own clothes to finish. The manager of this laundromat is an older guy who moves very slowly from one end of the room to the other. He moves so slowly, I've come to think of him in my mind as Uncle Joe, after the character in Petticoat Junction. Some say he lives in a room hidden behind the dryers. Every once in a while when I am washing clothes, the owner comes in to collect the change from all the machines. He banters with Uncle Joe, as if they were old friends. In Berkeley, owners like to think they treat their workers as equals. In the far corner, a man sits staring at the washing machine that holds his clothes. Every few minutes, he gets up, goes over to the wash basin stuffed into his corner, and washes his hands. Then he returns to watch his machine, until he again gets the desire to wash his hands in the basin. He does this a dozen times, two dozen times. The washing machine with his clothes never seems to finish, but perhaps he doesn't mind, as this gives him more time to clean his hands.

I decide to step outside for a bit, to get some fresh air. I go to the parking lot and walk over to my car. A man is sitting in a car parked next to mine; he is listening to talk radio and coughing up mucus into a cruddy handkerchief. Across the street, a middle-aged woman stands on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. We're an unhealthy lot. I go back into the laundromat, where my dirty laundry gets clean. There is always lots of dirty laundry at the laundromat. I check on my clothes and go back to "Notes From the Underground."

Laundromats are public places. But they are not exactly the town square, not really the site for communal gatherings. Revolutionaries wouldn't meet in laundromats to plot their insurrections. Long ago, when I was first married, my wife and I had one of those meaningless spats that allowed each of us the chance to prove that, married or not, we were still separate individuals. I decided to run away from home. Since I only had a couple of bucks to my name, I decided to head for the closest laundromat. I knew it was open 24 hours a day. I knew I could hide there. I knew there would be no revolutionaries to ask me troubling questions. It was the laundromat.

I'm still married. I'm still going to the laundromat. I see many unhealthy people in the laundromat, who I assume are fighting personal demons, as we wash our hands and do our banking and relax in our rooms behind the dryers. It's a public place, but I never speak to anyone. A friend told me recently that she has begun trying to strike up conversations in the laundromat. I wonder why she bothers, even as I am impressed by her efforts.

Public places are important, even or perhaps especially anonymous public places like laundromats. For the ever-growing number of people who are abandoned by more traditional outlets designed to help the poor and infirm, laundromats provide a momentary refuge from the rest of the world. Of course, I am only guessing at this, for unlike my friend, I don't talk when my dirty laundry is out where people can see it. I go back to my Dostoevsky and imagine what kinds of lives my fellow laundromat inhabitants lead.

Even in this public place, we are all on our own, with our Russian literature and our checking accounts and our hand-washing rituals. When it comes to our health, physical and spiritual, we are on our own. The sick of America need our laundromats, which are open 24 hours a day, whether or not you've got health insurance, whether or not you're stable enough to get from one day to the next without your mind exploding.

"Lord, you don't know the shape I'm in."
-- The Band, "The Shape I'm In"

These days, it seems like individuals are responsible for their own health. One of the most treasured aspects of some jobs in the USA is health insurance. Without it, you are at the mercy of your body and your pocketbook. Without it, you are on your own. I rely on my wife's group insurance plan at her work, which allows me membership in an HMO. A few years ago, she was free-lancing, and so she had to arrange her own insurance. There was no group plan, and her new plan wouldn't take me with her. I am not healthy. My cholesterol is too high, my blood-pressure is too high, I have a history of migraines and my lungs aren't too good, and I get kidney stones every few years. I am a bad risk. What to do? Eat better. Get more exercise. Improve my mental attitude. Drink many gallons of water every day. Piss it out all night long. I am responsible for my own health; if I get sick, and I don't have health insurance, and I don't have extra money lying around, I will just have to stay sick. Better to take matters into my own hands, make myself healthy, so I don't have to worry about insurance.

Of course, if I don't take matters into my own hands, then my poor health is my own damn fault, and if that's the case, then why should the government worry about me? God helps them that help themselves. Pull yourself up by your proverbial bootstraps. Like the hand-washer, like the man living among the clothes dryers, I am responsible for my situation. If I don't like it, I can make it better. This is America. Don't wait for someone else to take care of you; do it yourself. The rest of the country has more important things to do.

It is perhaps a useful metaphor for the health of the country, that we so often act as if people are as healthy as they want to be, as if illness were purely a function of the decisions we make as individuals. We think of our own health as something distinct from the health of other people. A more holistic approach to health might look to an ailment in one part of our body as something which affects the body as a whole; we would indeed look to make the weakest members of our society stronger. But America rejects the holistic approach. No matter how many sick people walk the streets of America, the so-called healthy assume that their own apparent good fortune is all that matters. We are on our own. If you have the money, you buy a washer and a dryer, so you never have to air your dirty laundry in public.

The flaws in this "system" should be obvious, and thus it is no wonder that "alternative" medicine is on the rise. And it is easy, too easy in fact, to assume that such an alternative must be viable, even crucial, to a healthier public, on the level of the old saw that the enemy of my enemy must be my friend. On the one hand we have for-profit "health" in a capitalist society, rooted not only in profits but in the omnipresent (and therefore questionable, for anything so closely tied to the capitalist menace must be challenged) "Western science." On the other hand, we have an "alternative." To what precisely it is an alternative hardly matters, as long as it is presented as the enemy of my enemy.

And so increasing numbers move towards this alternative, often leading to startling cultural dislocations, as in the case of Isaac Hayes, Mr. Hot Buttered Soul himself. One week Hayes, in his role as Chef on South Park, sings about how delicious are his spicy chocolate balls. The next week, he appears on the cover of Alternative Medicine magazine, touting the wonders of the Master Cleanser. "For nearly a month," we are informed, Hayes gave himself a cleansing fast where "he drank six to 12 servings a day of a blend of water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup." Which certainly qualifies as an alternative to chocolate balls, if nothing else. Is this the proper alternative to a life of dirty laundry? Can we ride Master Cleanser into the millennium, proud and victorious over a health system that has abandoned so many?

"The Twentieth Century has not been particularly kind to me"
-- Bob Mould, "I Hate Alternative Rock"

There are at least three areas where Alternative Medicine falls short. Granted, in at least two of these areas, mainstream medicine fails as well, but this should not prevent us from exercising our critical thinking skills in the analysis of the alternative. First, though, it is worth noting that the problems I describe here relate to what we might call the "alternative mainstream," systems of thought whose opposition to standard capitalist medical practices is more apparent than real. As is true in so many areas, excellent work is being done at the grass-roots level to help improve the health of the many Americans forced to the fringes of society. But, as is also often true, such work is largely neglected, by both the mainstream and "alternative mainstream" media, in favor of the Master Cleanser version of alternative medicine.

One initial problem is that the insistence on personal responsibility for one's own health that often pops up in discussion of alternative medicine is -- or should be -- more limited than it actually is. A smoker might be well advised to give up cigarettes as part of an attempt to improve their own health. But can you blame the patient for having germs? For getting cancer? For being born with a weak this or an impaired that? Do we blame the patients when they don't get better? The mainstream health system, with its emphasis on the doctor/expert, may give too much power to that expert, but with that power comes responsibility, and failure results in blame. Alternative medicine, taking power away from the experts and giving it to the patient, also transfers responsibility (and blame) to that patient. It isn't any different from conservative social theory that blames the poor for their own plight. You aren't sick because you have a disease which might be cured with a pill; you are sick because you haven't fully integrated your mind and body into a whole. It's your own fault.

Second, it must be noted that whatever alternative medicine is opposed to, it is not an alternative to capitalism. Alt-health gurus are as interested in making a buck within the system as more traditional doctors. This relates to the previous problem: your poor health isn't the fault of the for-profit health system of capitalist societies, it's the fault of the "dis-eased" patient who hasn't accepted their holistic reality. Whether it's colonics or vitamins, aromatherapy or shark cartilage, someone is always ready to make a buck off of your anxieties about health.

Most importantly, though, is the rejection not only of problematic aspects of the Western science tradition, but of important and vital aspects of that tradition. In particular, the frequent absence of systematic analysis such as double-blind testing means that far too many alt-health claims are rooted in the anecdotal and the unverifiable. That some people are susceptible to vague claims is understood; that people concerned about their health might be particularly willing to believe that something might improve their lives is also understood. What is hard to understand, though, is why anyone (including leftist cultural critics) who is ready to attack complex social problems with critical thinking strategies, would turn their brains off when it came to the relative merits of aromatherapy versus a visit to the doctor for a drug prescription. We are back to our old saw: the Age of Reason and the glorification of Science and Progress is so clearly problematic that the absence of concrete scientific data regarding the value of something like aromatherapy is seen as a positive. Aromatherapy proves it is the enemy of Science (my supposed enemy) by existing outside Science, which makes aromatherapy my friend. That this is nonsense is only part of the story. What is especially sad is how often this means that otherwise intelligent people risk their very lives in the service of "alternative" health notions.

"You took my joy, I want it back"
-- Lucinda Williams, "Joy"

Me, I take pills. My cholesterol has been high for at least 20 years. I've lost weight and I've gained weight, I've been in good shape and I've been in bad shape, I've eaten crappy food and I've eaten healthy food, and through it all, my cholesterol remained high. About a year ago my doctor prescribed something called Lipitor. Within months, my cholesterol reached normal levels for the first time since I can remember it being checked. I have had severe headaches ever since I can remember (and I can remember stuff from 40 years ago). I tried acupuncture and I tried meditation. Then my doctor prescribed Beconase, a topical nasal spray steroid. I haven't had a headache since.

Meanwhile, I avoid the worst of the self-flagellation that comes from blaming the victim. Yes, I need to take care of myself; yes, I am responsible for my health. But my headaches aren't a result of pent-up aggression, they are (happily, I can now say "were") a result of sinus problems.

To enjoy good health is to enjoy life. A life full of joy, this is a goal many of us would love to achieve. But while lip service is paid to the notion of joy, there is actually very little joy in American health. Not from the alt-med crowd, with their endless Thou Shalt Nots and their Maple Syrup diets and their victim-blaming philosophy. Living on Master Cleanser for weeks on end is a way of placing health ABOVE joy; it mistrusts joy, assumes that we are better off being miserable but "healthy" than we are being some combination of joyful and healthy.

But neither is there joy in the laundromats of America. It's hard to find joy living behind the dryers. Good health isn't any easier to find. The cholesterol medicine I take is paid for by our healthcare plan. The actual cost of the pills is about $135 a month. Without health insurance, I'd still have high cholesterol. And too many Americans, too many people across the globe, are without guaranteed health care of one kind or another.

No health care, no joy. No joy, and we're in the underground with Dostoevsky. Our collective laundry is still dirty. We can wash our hands as many times as we like, but we can't get rid of the depression that accompanies the helplessness and joylessness of the modern health care "system." We need to demand our joy.

Copyright © 1998, 2020 by Steven Rubio . All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.

a saint without god

I wrote this in 1995 for the journal Bad Subjects. I am reprinting it here, unedited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. I chose this because it includes some thoughts about my favorite book, The Plague by Albert Camus, which seems appropriate these days.

A Saint Without God

This essay is dedicated to my mother.

St. Jude

'Kiss someone you love when you get this letter and make magic. With love all things are possible.'

Thus began a chain letter I received recently. Chain letters are interesting, if scummy, examples of what might happen to us if we let faith overrule other sides of our character. Someone, often a perfect stranger but sometimes, sadly, a so-called friend, offers us a chance at riches, if we only put our faith in the person who has sent us the chain letter. All we have to do is part with some of our hard-earned money, and as long as we can find enough chumps who, like us, are stupid enough to unthinkingly put their faith in others, we will make far more money than we are giving up.

This particular chain letter, which arrived, as far as I can tell from reading it, from St. Jude himself, differed from others I have seen, though, because this one wasn't asking me for money. No, all I had to do was kiss someone, and then send the letter along to twenty other people, and everything would start going my way, because 'with love all things are possible.' 'This is no joke,' read the letter, 'Send copies to people you think need luck.' At this point, I begin wondering which of my friends was thinking of me when they saw this line; clearly someone out there thinks I 'need luck,' or I would never have gotten the letter in the first place.

'Don't send money,' I was told, for 'Fate has no price.' I've been thinking about that last sentence for awhile, now, and can't decide if it is extremely deep or merely obscure. But if I have faith, its meaning will be irrelevant, since I'll be rewarded with great riches, just for kissing someone and for believing that with love, all things are possible.

'This is true. Even if you are or are not superstitious.' This is faith: I believe something is true, whether or not other people believe it. If I have faith, I will be rewarded. In this case, my faith is magnanimous, it is a faith that asks only to be shared, even with non-believers. If we all at least pretend to believe, if we all keep the chain from breaking, we will all be rewarded with riches. And we don't send any money, we just kiss someone. 

'Do not ignore this letter. IT WORKS!!!!!!!' I'm an unbeliever, but I'm not going to ignore the letter. Oh, I never got around to sending it to twenty friends (although I did kiss someone I love). But I've been thinking about it off and on ever since it arrived; at this point I couldn't ignore it if I tried. Because it's about faith, it believes in something, it wants to share its good fortune with others, and it seems to leave room for an unbeliever like me. I am forced to break the chain, of course, if I am to remain true to my non-beliefs, but I'll honor the spirit of faith that drives the letter by thinking a little more about the Patron Saint of Lost Causes who sent it to me. 

We Are Bad Subjects

The more I look at the paragraph above, the more I realize I could be talking about Bad Subjects just as easily as I could about chain letters. Bad Subjects is about faith. Bad Subjects believes in something. Bad Subjects wants to share its good fortune with others, and it seems to leave room for an unbeliever like me. 

Faith requires a belief in the future, a sense that what happens tomorrow will be different from today in some critical manner. Last year at this time, Bad Subjects ran 'The Apocalypse Issue,' and for many of us writing then, the apocalypse evoked discussions of the meaning of faith. I wrote in that issue, 'At some basic level, all believers desire an apocalypse, a utopia, a definable, different, perhaps distant future where our beliefs will be proven true.' Believers have faith in that future; indeed, without such faith, action would seem irrelevant, unnecessary. It requires a leap of faith to believe a kiss and twenty sealed envelopes will lead to riches; it requires a leap of faith to believe that a critical analysis of the politics of everyday life will change the world in some central fashion, whereby our utopia will eventually be realized. It is exceedingly difficult, in fact, for any of us to work towards the future without having any real belief in that future. One could even argue that a belief in the future is a prerequisite to living itself, in that we might surely give up the ghost and waste away if we didn't have faith that the next second would be worth living. However, as I argued in these pages a year ago, our need to believe does not, in and of itself, make that which we believe 'real.' Our faith is real; the object of our faith may be real, or may be an illusion. That is to say, anyone who sends along St. Jude's chain letter is believing, at least a little, in the potential power of the letter, but the letter itself is probably only that, a letter. And anyone who works towards a better tomorrow believes in the potential power of their work ... but their work is possibly only that, work, and not necessarily guaranteed to bring about utopia, no matter how much faith we have. 

And so faith in utopia, in the future, inspires us to act in the name of that future. We believe in the future, and we apply our critical tools to the understanding of the future in which we want to believe. The present becomes merely the prelude to the future; faith allows us to sacrifice today in the name of tomorrow. 


And here I ask for the indulgence of longtime Bad readers, who may have tired long ago of my frequent contemplations of the writing of Albert Camus. Jean Tarrou is a character in Camus' great novel, The Plague, an allegory about (among other things) the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Late in the novel, Tarrou asks the hero, Doctor Rieux, if they might 'take an hour off' from their work fighting the plague that has infested their town, 'for friendship,' as Tarrou puts it. He then proceeds to tell Rieux a story of his life. Tarrou's father was a prosecutor who sent many men to their deaths, a fact which, when realized, deeply disturbed Tarrou, who decided 'to square accounts' with the criminals in the dock. He became an agitator, working against a social order 'based on the death-sentence ... by fighting the established order I'd be fighting against murder.' He understood that on occasion the people with whom he worked would themselves place a death sentence on an enemy, but Tarrou managed to live with the contradictions involved in those sentences, until he saw an enemy executed and made an explicit connection between that enemy and the criminals in the docks of his father's courtrooms. At this point, he says, 'I came to understand that I, anyhow, had had plague through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I'd believed with all my soul that I was fighting it.' His comrades make 'excellent arguments to justify what they do,' but for Tarrou, 'my concern was not with arguments,' but with the men in the docks. 

This makes it impossible for Tarrou to work with those comrades, of course. 'Once I'd definitely refused to kill, I doomed myself to an exile that can never end. I leave it to others to 'make history'.' 

What Tarrou decides is that he can no longer sacrifice the present in the name of the future, can no longer do that which he hates in the name of a faith in what might come. He recognizes the limitations this places on the ultimate usefulness of his actions, but he opts against ultimate usefulness in favor of living as properly as possible in the present. 'I have realized that we all have plague, and I have lost my peace,' he tells Rieux, 'And today I am still trying to find it.' Tarrou's life becomes purposely smaller in its scope, for he has moved outside the bounds of 'making history.' Now his life is simpler, if no closer to utopia: 'All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.' 

Faith and Propaganda

Tarrou's comrades had faith. They believed in their vision of the future, believed with enough certainty that they could justify behavior which mirrored that of their enemies. They were revolutionaries, believers in a cause, dedicated to making history. Tarrou answers their faith with only a recognition that we all have plague, and a desire to, 'so far as possible,' refuse pestilent forces. 

Recently, the Bad Subjects Mailing List has featured a fevered thread on the contemporary issue of affirmative action. Bad Subjects, being critical in the past of some of multiculturalism's flaws, and the Bad Mailing List, where like-minded people (and some not-so-like-minded people) hang out to critique the politics of everyday life, are enlightening places to analyze the complicated issue of affirmative action in the mid-1990s. Some of us have faith. We believe in our vision of the future. That vision, informed in part by a ruthless criticism of everything existing, leads us to question the very roots of affirmative action and the multicultural movement. Our faith in the verity of Marx' challenge to be ruthless led many on the Bad List to construct effective, well-stated objections to affirmative action, objections that in their intelligence did much to advance the debate on the topic, at least among list members. 

But in the meantime, it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. To quote Doctor Rieux in The Plague (as I have done far too often in my short life), 'For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they'll think things over; and so shall I. But what's wanted now is to make them well.' Let others with more faith take care of making history. Later on, we will all benefit from their faithful efforts to remake the world in the image of the believed-in utopia. But for the moment, the forces of pestilence are upon us, they have the upper hand ... and sick people need curing now. 

And so some on the Bad List suggested that this was not a time when we have the luxury of ruthless criticism of everything. The plague is upon us now; faith in the future won't do much good for those who are the targets of our enemies in 1995. Faith, to paraphrase, is the opiate of us all; it deadens our ability to feel what is happening right now, allows us to become what we hate in the name of the future. Faith is a luxury we can't always afford, even though it seems most appealing at just the moment when we need to reject it most violently. 

And so, with Tarrou, I move outside the bounds of making history and concentrate on curing the sick in the here and now. For me, in the fall of 1995, this means that I fight against those who would destroy affirmative action. 

A Saint Without God

'Do not ignore this letter. IT WORKS!!!!!!!' 

How ironic that my chain letter 'came from' St. Jude. How exactly does it work, being the patron saint of lost causes? If they are lost, what can a saint do? 'Can one be a saint without God?' Tarrou said to Rieux. 'That's the problem, in fact the only problem, I'm up against today.' 

A saint without God. Living without faith. Somehow reconciling the desire to cure the sick, with the crushing knowledge that we all have plague. When you've got a lost cause, you can always pray to St. Jude. Have faith, and no cause is lost. With love all things are possible. Do not ignore this letter. It works!!!!!!!

Copyright © 1995, 2020 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved.

in defense of fucking off

I wrote this in 1997 for the journal Bad Subjects. I am reprinting it here, unedited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. Perhaps it reads differently, now that I collect a monthly social security check.

In Defense of Fucking Off

The proletariat ... remains irreducibly present ... in the shape of the vast mass of workers who have lost all power over the use of their own lives and who, once they realize this, must necessarily redefine themselves as the proletariat - as negation at work in the bosom of today's society.
-- Guy Debord 

I worked as a steelworker from the summer of 1973 until the summer of 1984. Our plant made the bodies and lids for cans; we did not make the actual cans, but instead made can parts that were sent to other factories in other companies to be filled and sealed. For most of those years, I worked swing shift, from 3:30 in the afternoon until midnight, with half-an-hour for lunch. As factory jobs go, it wasn't bad, I suppose. The physical work was rarely heavy. But there was nevertheless something heavy going on: each night when I would climb into my car for the long ride home, the first thing I would do is adjust the rear-view mirror downwards. Apparently some time during those eight-and-a-half hours I spent in that factory, I had gotten smaller.

For all I know, that factory is long since closed down. I am sure that the plant underwent what later became known as downsizing some time after I left. Most of the work was moved to another of the company's plants, where workers under a less-powerful union than our own United Steelworkers of America made less money than we did to perform the same work. I know that I was lucky enough to get out; others were not so lucky, and still others never wanted out and were thus perhaps the most unlucky of all, if they lost their jobs. In any event, I've spent most of the subsequent thirteen years fucking off. 

We aren't supposed to admit such a thing. First of all, I'm lying. Writing this essay does not fall under most people's definition of fucking off, although a lot of my former work mates might disagree. Second, I have a lot of things on my To Do list, and I've had a lot of things on my To Do list for most of those thirteen years, so if I admit to fucking off, I'm also admitting that I'm not "getting anything done." Finally, I owe my ability to fuck off largely to the efforts of my wife, who is not fucking off as I type this, who is in fact "at work" and whose paychecks give me the luxury of fucking off without starving to death. It's bad enough that I'm a leech; it's even worse that I'm admitting it. Some things in our society are better left unsaid. 

And so most people would never admit that they ever fuck off. It's an odd reversal of the usual interpretation of work in the capitalist era, where actual work being actually performed gets obscured, as if it never happened, the entire process of production being mystified so we won't notice those workers busting their asses on our behalf. Fucking off is almost as mystified as working, though. It happens, but the actual fucking off takes place off-stage. It gets mystified, so we won't notice all those workers fucking off on our behalf. If anyone catches you fucking off, they will tell you to "get to work," although once you get to work, your labor will hopefully disappear from view so we won't notice you busting your ass.

Nonetheless, sometimes you just have to fess up. So I'm confessing: I fuck off, I've been doing it for years, and the main reason I continue my sinful ways is simple: I hate work.

And so should you.

Personally, I have nothing against work, particularly when performed, quietly and unobtrusively, by someone else. I just don't happen to think it's an appropriate subject for an 'ethic.'
-- Barbara Ehrenreich 

If you take a guided tour of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's self-designed home, you are told that most of the work that kept the house running was performed out of sight of the residents. For instance, Jefferson placed rooms like the kitchen in a separate building from the main home, so that when he had James and Dolly Madison over for dinner, they could enjoy their repast in the dining room without having to experience any of the sights and sounds of the meal being prepared. It would be a bit of a stretch to describe the life of Jefferson at Monticello as one of fucking off. Still, the amateur architect made certain that he would be able to attend to the important work of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without worrying himself over the less-important work of cooking and cleaning.

Jefferson was a great spokesman for agrarian virtue. "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God," he wrote, while the non-farmers amongst us mark the general degradation of society. In fact, Jefferson believed that the proportion of non-farmers to farmers in a State "is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption." A trip to Monticello helps us to understand how Jefferson might have come to his conclusions about the importance of farm life; the land on Monticello is vast and beautiful, breathtaking to even the most citified of visitors. One is left to ask, though, exactly who were "those who labor in the earth." One doubts it was Jefferson the slaveholder.

Jefferson had the luxury of letting other people do his shit work for him. This gave him the time to fuck off, which he seems to have used to write the Declaration of Independence, buy Louisiana, serve as President of the United States, and mess around with his slave mistress. OK, Thomas Jefferson was a very busy man, who probably never fucked off a day in his life. But if he did work, it was work that he chose to do. He could have fucked off if he'd wanted to. If there was work to be done and Thomas Jefferson didn't want to do it, well, that's what slaves were for, and by the way, could you take that hoe over yonder so I don't have to watch you use it?

Another American icon, Henry David Thoreau, came closer to admitting he was a fuck off. One could make a case that all Thoreau did during his time at Walden Pond was to fuck off. But there is a utilitarian sense to his fucking off. When he writes, "The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure," he is not promoting fucking off as an end in itself, he's describing efficient labor. And even Mr. Self-Sufficiency himself still needed help on occasion: as he informs us during one of the anal-retentive recitations of his accounts, payable and receivable, which he offers as proof of his frugality, "washing and mending ... for the most part were done out of the house." Still, we know that ultimately Thoreau wasn't fucking off, for he was too busy living life to spend any time playing it. (We also observe a devaluing of "domestic" work in this passage, for it would seem that Thoreau sees nothing contradictory in his willingness to farm out the laundry while professing to self-sufficiency.)

In the lives of both of these great Americans, we can see a near-obsessive desire for accomplishment (although Thoreau might define accomplishment differently from Jefferson), but also a desire to let others do the shit work (although again, the two men might define shit work differently from each other). And that's the problem with leisure, with living life, with liberty and the pursuit of happiness: as society is presently constructed, and perhaps in the entire history of humankind, one's opportunities for fucking off are dependent to a large extent on reducing the fucking-off opportunities of others. Those others likely have an appetite for fucking off at least the equal of the rest of us. But they don't have an opportunity to satisfy those appetites, because they're too busy busting their asses on our behalf.

Which helps to explain why both work and fucking off are mystified in our society. Those with the opportunity to fuck off don't want to piss off the workers busting their asses, so they never admit to fucking off, even if they're doing it. But they don't want to be bothered with the details of the work being done on their behalf, so they move it to another building on the plantation. They can't see the work, and they live under the illusion that the workers can't see them fucking off. Any connections between work, fucking off, and the relative level of opportunity to fuck off amongst the various classes in our society is obscured. But ultimately, fucking off is the thing that really disappears. The workers don't have the time and resources to indulge in fucking off, and the leisure class appears so susceptible to "accomplishment" that even though they have the opportunity to fuck off, they spend their time working anyway. Youth, they say, is wasted on the young; fucking off, it seems, is also wasted in our culture, wasted on those who have no idea how to do it.

 You think you're so clever and classless and free

 But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see

  -- John Lennon

Clearly, we need to take the role of fuckoff away from the leisured elite who don't know how to do it and give it to the rest of us, who would like nothing better than to fuck off the rest of our lives. We need to claim the right to be lazy, along with Marx's nephew Paul Lafargue, who wrote, "The objective of the revolution is ... to work as little as possible." The problem remains the same, though, no matter who gets to be the fuckoff. Someone has to work their ass off so the rest of us can fuck off. The idea, then, is generally presented as the need to revolutionize our approach to work, to recognize that a society that gives all of the fucking-off opportunities to a small elite is a bad society, to spread the wealth around so we all get to have equal opportunity for fucking off, which suggests that we would all then take part equally in doing all of the shit work that gets done to support the fuckoffs. This utopian vision has been espoused on many occasions, including an appearance in the Manifesto for Bad Subjects:

At Bad Subjects we believe that having dreams and fantasies of a utopian future is integral to conceiving of an alternative radical politics.... we want to put utopia back in the future, where it belongs.... we can only see glimpses of it, because it's impossible to imagine a world so completely unlike our own.... But this is what we know. In the future, we will always work in solidarity. No one will compete for jobs. And your work will not be painful, nor will it deprive you of family and friends.... Certainly, there will be death and there will be labor, but we will not see them as being in conflict with life and pleasure.... All work will be freely chosen. And to work at one thing will not be to sacrifice your life to it, for you will work at many different things. 

This beautiful vision brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. But for me, it doesn't go far enough. It's still about labor, it's still about work. We're still fucking peasants. We're equal peasants with everyone else, to be sure, but peasantry ain't my idea of fun. And this is utopia we're talking about here, where you can dream big. It's time to take fucking off out of the closet and onto the streets. Doug Henwood, who has argued convincingly against the "End of Work" ideology currently making the rounds, is certainly not advocating a new era of fucking off when he writes in a recent edition of In These Times, "few people have any good idea of what to say yes to. We've said 'No!' to NAFTA, to the abolition of welfare, to budget cuts and so on without any positive vision of what the alternative is." But these words inspire me, in any event. And so I offer the following Manifesto for Fucking Off:

This is what we know. In the future, we will always fuck off. No one will work. You won't feel pain, you'll revel with family and friends. There will be no labor; what the heck, since this is utopia, neither will there be death. No work will be freely chosen, because no work will be done. You will fuck off forever, you will make no sacrifices to the work ethic, you will fuck off in as many different ways as there are molecules in the universe. Fuck work. Fuck off! 

Who knows how many potential Jeffersons and Thoreaus are hiding out there, buried in their work? How many Debords, how many Ehrenreichs, how many Lennons?

 Oh baby, it would mean so much to me, 

 to buy you all the things you need, for free ...

 When you're dreaming, when you're dreaming, when you're dreaming

 Free, free money, free money, free money, free money

  -- Patti Smith 

Copyright © 1997, 2019 by Steven Rubio . All rights reserved.

music friday: pour out a little liquor for tupac

(I wrote this in 1996 for the journal Bad Subjects. I am reprinting it here, slightly edited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. This feels very 1996 to me.)

Pour Out a Little Liquor for Tupac

Four or five years ago, my daughter Sara went down to Berkeley Square with a friend to see Raw Fusion, one of the many spin-offs from Digital Underground. Sara was 13 or 14, and she was kinda sweet on DU's Money B, so when the group hit the stage, she went straight to the front. Late in the show, a couple of assholes started some shit, someone sprayed mace, and Sara and her friend snuck backstage to get away from the crap. She was totally enthralled, as well she should have been. Among the folks hanging out at that show was Tupac Shakur, who was another one of the Digital Undergrounders back in the day. Sara remembers him with a beer in each hand, very down-to-earth, just chillin'. Berkeley Square is very small, and it says something about the easy feeling of community that can emerge around local music acts that there was room in the tiny club for rapstars-to-be and young teenage fans. 

I've been thinking about a recent thread on the Bad Subjects mailing list about generational stereotypes. And I've been reading Todd Gitlin's book on culture wars. And there's been a long-lasting and very fruitful discussion going on at our house lately between me and Sara and her brother Neal, about an upcoming album track by Vallejo rapper B-Legit that features Daryl Hall from Hall and Oates. And all of these thoughts come together in my mind when I think about Tupac's stupid death (as if death was ever anything but stupid). 

Gitlin argues that the left has become fragmented partly because we have lost our ability to think in terms of commonalities. He attacks identity politics for many of the reasons Bad Subjects does, noting that while the left emphasizes difference, the right latches onto a fake-but-effective commonality, best represented by the image of President Ronald Reagan. Gitlin draws a line back through the 60s (as he always does) and beyond, to show why he thinks the left fell victim to this fragmentation, in effect celebrating the fragmentation under the multicultural umbrella. 

Some folks on the Bad List have noted that the 60s generation was different from the 70s, or the 80s, or the 90s, while others have said "hogwash." Meanwhile I am thinking about the notion of community, both narrowly defined as it can be when identity politics hold the upper hand (I am a Spaniard), and more broadly defined as it can be when commonalities hold us (I am one with all oppressed peoples). The Me Decade, Gen X, and other derogatory stereotypes are attached to various post-60s generations, but Gitlin seems to be saying that the memory of the 60s as a time of great community is false, that the roots of 90s fragmentation can be found in those 60s. 

And my kids are 18 and 21, and they have their own notions of community. They are not children of the 60s, for sure. Not even children of the 70s: when I used to go to Berkeley Square in the 70s, it was to see punk, not rap, but times change. 

And now B-Legit, one of the many hot Vallejo rappers currently making some great music, has gotten Daryl Hall to do a reworking of the old "Sara Smile" song. My kids and their friends are all totally excited about this. They don't much remember Hall and Oates, but they love that B-Legit has gotten Daryl Hall on his new album. I've talked to them about this a few times in the last couple of weeks. I don't understand why they'd want a hot, current artist to go back and drag up some leftover from another time. B-Legit should be making his own music, not dragging Daryl Hall into the mix. But Neal and Sara tell me that they'll be happy if even one Hall and Oates fan takes a listen to the new song and decides that B-Legit is good. I try to insist on a generation-gap reading of this stuff, but then my kids tell me "our music doesn't always have to be about rebellion, that's YOUR thing." It would have crushed me to think my parents liked my music, but my kids are happy if I like their tunes. They love B-Legit and the whole V-Town music scene, they want to share it with everyone, and if Daryl Hall can get more people to hear the V-Town sound, then, as Neal is always saying, "It's all good." 

That is to say, my kids are part of a community based in part on their love of particular styles of music, but that isn't enough. They want the whole world to be a part of that community. In their way, they are rejecting the notion that we must be fragmented in the 1990s, and are instead grasping for a larger community where "It's all good." 

As soon as the news of Tupac's death hit the wires, the two main "urban contemporary" radio stations in the area started into Tupac mode, playing his music, playing interviews with him, playing Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday," which may be the standard song for such situations now. The DJs stepped out of their usual act to talk about what had happened, even making tiny and perhaps soon to be forgotten steps towards connecting the music they play on their stations, the music that Tupac made, with what happened to Tupac when the gunmen opened fire. And they took calls from the folks in the community. Community, there's that word again. 

Of course, Tupac, through his music, through his art, through his public persona, is not blameless in the events that led to his death. And gangsta rap culture is not blameless in the events that magnify the fragmentation of our culture. Too much of gangsta rap culture is based on the narrow version of community, not a reaching out for recognition of the common ground of all oppressed people as much as an exaggeration of the Us versus Them mentality that too often drives identity politics. East Coast vs. West Coast, revolting sexism and homophobia, sometimes so awful you understand people throwing up their hands in disgust and joining in with the Tipper Gores and Delores Tuckers. But as I type this I'm listening to the radio and they're talking about Tupac, and I'm thinking about my kids, who are not happy right now, and I'm thinking about Sara going to see Money B back in the day, and I'm thinking about how my own kids understand the importance of Daryl Hall in 1996 better than I do, and I think there is still a chance that community can recover its broader definitions, can defeat the self-marginalized, I-got-mine-I-hope-you-got-yours "community" that can't see beyond its own self-interest. But it's still hard. When I was growing up, I didn't have any rituals surrounding death. No one ever died, it sometimes seemed. But my kids, they're fucking 21 and 18 years old, and they have death rituals, people dying ain't an abstraction to them. They're out somewhere right now, pouring some beer on the ground for their dead homies. And on the radio, Tupac is singing: 

How many brothas fell victim to tha streets

 Rest in peace, young nigga, there's a heaven for a G

 Be a lie if I told ya that I never thought of death

 My niggas, we tha last ones left

 But life goes on


I wrote the above words a few weeks ago, the night Tupac died. I've had a chance to think about those words, revise them a bit, and I've also had a chance to read the tens of thousands of words others have written about Tupac and his death. I'm not sure how many people realize what an impact Tupac has had and is having, not only on hip-hop culture but among all the regular folks who might not have explicitly identified themselves with that culture but who loved his art nonetheless. Comparisons to Kurt Cobain are appropriate, including a note of the different ways members of various subcultures respond. My guess is that at least some readers of Bad Subjects were deeply affected by Kurt's death, and that most readers would understand that Kurt Cobain was "important." I also guess that Tupac Shakur would not seem as "important" to many Bad Readers, and that fewer of them are deeply affected by his death, although I could be wrong. In both cases, we have a recognition that the fragmentation of daily life during the reign of Taste Cultures makes different people important to different peoples, that Kurt Cobain is important to particular subcultures but that nothing universal is to be learned from him. There is another recognition, that there is a hierarchy among subcultures, that while Kurt Cobain can not speak to anything universal, what he does speak to is more "important" than what Tupac Shakur spoke to. There is an easier recognition of Kurt Cobain as Artist than there is for 2Pac. 

Most commentary on Tupac in the aftermath of his death continues the simplistic "analysis" of his art that existed prior to his shooting. People latch onto what is easy, no matter from what perspective you approach the situation. Tupac is good or he is bad, he is a saint or he is evil. Everyone has evidence to support their opinion, and everyone who takes this simplistic, easy approach is required to ignore all contradictory evidence. So Tupac's fans cite his touching, realistic ode to his "Dear Mama" while his detractors point to his jail term for sexual assault, and no one bothers to investigate the possibility that Tupac Shakur, like all human beings, was a complex individual who lived among other complex individuals in complex times. If we can reduce Tupac to a single element, if we can turn him into a symbol, our own lives are easier. Tupac will not force us to re-evaluate our own lives. We will file him under whatever narrow label matches our preconceptions, and we will forget about his life and his art. 

And this would be an insult to Tupac's art, which asks that we do not take the simple and easy way out, which gets in our faces and demands that we actually think about the deep implications of his work. Too much of what has arisen in the past weeks insults Tupac by drowning in simplicity. He was not a saint, he is not the devil, he was not one single thing at all. 

Tupac sang, "Only God can judge me, nobody else, all you other muthafuckas get out of my business." We answer to no one but ourselves and "god"; I am not responsible for you, you are not responsible for me. It's a 90s rap replay of Fritz Perls in the 60s: 

 I do my thing, and you do your thing.

 I am not in this world to live up to your expectations

 And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

 You are you, and I am I,

 And if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.

 If not, it can't be helped.

It's a celebration of fragmentation. 

But Tupac's art is not that simple. He may claim that only God can judge him, but he must have known the power of his own music to affect others. We who listened were being connected to him in a larger way than is possible when we owe nothing to no one. And because Tupac's art is not simple, we see this in his own songs, as when he describes being shot five times in an earlier shooting:

 How did it come to this?

 I wish they didn't miss

 Somebody help me

 Tell me where to go from here

 Cuz even thugs cry

 But do the Lord care?

Tupac is commonly vilified for his misogyny, for which there is indeed little if any excuse. Dave Marsh, in an intelligent and heartfelt defense of Tupac in Addicted To Noise, might note that "Tupac was sent to prison for a crime that white rock stars have committed, and continue to commit, with absolute impunity," but that doesn't justify Tupac, it only explains what happens to the Tupacs of the world in comparison to other more privileged artists. Nevertheless, as Marsh and other Tupac champions point out, Tupac's work could be far more respectful of women than his image would imply, most famously in "Keep Ya Head Up":

 And when he tells you

 You ain't nothin', don't believe him

 And if he can't learn to love you

 You should leave him ...

 I know you're fed up ladies,

 But keep your head up

Ultimately, the misogyny or lack of same in Tupac's work mainly serves those who would think simplistically, misogyny being so prevalent in gangsta rap that it becomes far too easy to merely add Tupac's name to the list of sexist rappers to be condemned. The bigger problem, I think, comes not from the attitudes of either "Keep Ya Head Up" or its opposite, but in the combination of machismo and individualism that informs "Only God Can Judge Me." It is, again, too easy to merely say that Tupac's art is "what killed him" (a notion expressed by fans and detractors alike, with one side sadly but with admiration crying "live by the sword die by the sword" while the other side screams the same, but without admiration, and at some level are glad that he "got what he deserved"). However, it is safe to say that whatever elements of Tupac's life and art that contributed to the situation which ended in his death, he was not killed because of his attitudes towards women. Valerie Solanas was not in the car with the shooters.

 Each and every black male's trapped

 And they wonder why we suicidal

 Runnin' around strapped

 Mr. Police

 Please try to see

 That there's a million muthafuckas stressin' just like me

Tupac, one of the "black males trapped," demands respect, in the absence of anything better to live for. "I'd rather die like a man than live like a coward." Because he insists on his existence as an isolated individual that only God can judge, because Tupac accepts on one level an ideology of the power of American individualism, he sees every attack on his life in personal terms. He wants other muthafuckas out of his business; if they interfere, it's personal, it needs to be addressed on a personal level. This seems true even though Tupac expresses great love for his homies (a love that gets artistic expression via the interaction of various friends on each other's albums). It appears that while one should always be there for your partners, ultimately, it comes down to "my" business. What begins as a cartoonish version of two tough guys blowing ass at each other on a playground escalates into something far more horrific, as if the very escalation itself is the meaning of life, as if the demand for respect overrides any other considerations. And, of course, the refusal and removal of respect for one's enemies becomes a way of getting respect for yourself, with this "playa hatin" then becoming an excuse for a hatin' response. 

And so Tupac put a song called "Hit `Em Up" on a release of a single from his latest album. Tupac had always blamed Biggie Smalls for being behind his earlier shooting, and in this song, Tupac offers his reply. As a song, it's terrific, led by the bass line to Dennis Edwards and Siedah Garrett's "Don't Look Any Further" that had already been effectively sampled by Eric B & Rakim in "Paid in Full", and propelled by a dynamic vocal performance from Tupac. In the right frame of mind, one might even laugh at some of the razzing Tupac sends Biggie's way. After announcing up front that "you claim to be a playa, but I fucked your wife," Tupac gives the mic to his friends, saying that Biggie and his crew are so far beneath Tupac's level that he doesn't even know why he bothers to appear on the song. He disses the shooters ("five shots couldn't drop me"), but gradually, the bile increases: "Fuck you and your muthafuckin' mama, we gonna kill all you muthafuckas." And then Tupac lays it down, sounding less and less like Joey Ramone singing about beating on the brat and more and more like Johnny Rotten scrabbling at the Berlin Wall. Tupac means it, maaan. He chants a mantra of hate at his enemies. "Fuck Mobb Deep! Fuck Biggie! Fuck Bad Boy!" ... the list goes on to include any who would side with the wrong ones: "Fuck You Too!" And finally: 

 All y'all muthafuckas



 My .44 make sure

 ALL your kids don't grow!

As Tupac sings in "Only God Can Judge Me," "They say it's the white man I should fear, but it's my own kind doin' all the killin' here." 

We're a long way from community, here, but as with all of Tupac's art, it isn't that simple. For he tells us, "Please try to see that there's a million muthafuckas stressin' just like me." What killed Tupac is the denial of those million muthafuckas in the face of rampant individualism, the insistence on the personal, the rejection of everything outside one's self. Tupac gets respect, he's thug `til he dies, but "now ya gone, and all I got left are stinkin' memories." If those million muthafuckas came together, what then? If we refused the simple answer, refused to accept as inevitable the ideology of the individual, overcame fragmentation and our own personal demons, and banded together as a community of muthafuckas, what then? Who would we fight? Who are the real enemies? 

"If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other's objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak to your own private, entirely circumscribed situation's many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis's. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you." 

-- Lester Bangs, August 29, 1977 


Copyright © 1996, 2019 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.


oh bondage up yours!

(I wrote this in 1993 for the journal Bad Subjects. It was anthologized in a book in 1997. I am reprinting it here, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. I have added a video at the end.)

Oh Bondage Up Yours!: Thoughts on the Rhino Punk Anthology 

'Thus, as soon as the original innovations which signify 'subculture' are translated into commodities and made generally available, they become 'frozen.' Once removed from their private contexts by small entrepreneurs and big fashion interests who produce them on a mass scale, they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise.'
---Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style

1977: While I'm browsing in Rather Ripped Records of Berkeley, the in-store stereo begins playing one of the most powerful pieces of rock and roll I have ever heard. I stand transfixed until the song is over; when it ends, I go up to the counter and ask the clerk, 'What WAS that?' He sneers at me with know-it-all superiority and says, 'The Sex Pistols.'

January 14, 1978: I am at Winterland, the aging ex-home of ice shows, turned into a rock emporium by Bill Graham (and soon to be torn down forever, though the name lives on in the souvenir company that sells rock and roll tee-shirts). The Sex Pistols take the stage for what will turn out to be their last concert ever (so far), and the crowd begins the most awesome display of audience participation I have ever witnessed. The Pistols are used to playing clubs; Winterland holds 5,000. It is the biggest crowd in Sex Pistols history, and Johnny Rotten, at least, hates it. People begin throwing things at the band, not just the usual wadded-up paper cups, but money, toilet paper rolls and dead flowers. Rotten hangs on the mike stand, dodging the missiles, and though I am perhaps halfway back of the old auditorium, I can see the piercing intelligence of his demonic eyes as he badgers the audience and sings our favorites: 'Anarchy for the USA' indeed. He paces the stage, pocketing the most useful debris, asking 'Cameras? Anyone got any cameras?' (and sure enough, what looks like a camera flies through the air and lands at his feet). Greil Marcus described his own reactions to the show in Lipstick Traces

Walking the aisles of Winterland as the Sex Pistols played, I felt a confidence and a lust that were altogether new. Thirty-two years had not taught me what I learned that night: when you're pushed, push back; when a shove negates your existence, negate the shove. I felt distant from nothing, superior to nothing. I also felt a crazy malevolence, a wish to smash people to the ground, and my eyes went to the ground, where I saw small children (what sort of parents would bring little kids to a place like this, I wondered, thinking of my own at home), and thought of smashing them. 

My own reactions were odd variations of those Marcus was experiencing. Surrounded by the largest display of public nihilism I had ever participated in ('real' or 'fake' seemed unimportant at the time), my thoughts kept going back to MY children, not only my two-and-a-half year old son, but the daughter who it turned out was born the very next afternoon. Perhaps it was the thoughts of my daughter-to-be, but in the midst of all that spectacular malevolence, I was happy. To be a part of 5,000 people singing 'NO FUTURE!' in unison seemed somehow both the most negative and most positive statement possible. Camus once pointed out that to refuse suicide is to accept life; in refusing the future we had been offered, we were accepting something more unknown, more frightening, more wonderful.

Winter 1993: Amidst rumors of a Sex Pistols reunion tour, Rhino Records, anthologizer to the Boomer generation, releases a series of volumes called DiY ('Do it Yourself') that encapsulate the punk moment as it appeared on record. I snap up a few of the volumes right away, and find myself one night driving my now-teenaged son's car down the freeway, listening to Anarchy In the UK: UK Punk I. An old favorite comes on, 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!' by X-Ray Spex. This single, and their one great album, Germfree Adolescents, had been very hard to come by in America; I can remember listening to 'Oh Bondage' on the radio many times, but I never actually saw a copy of it, and I never even heard Germfree until a friend made me a copy of his import version. But now, here was that classic song, easy to find in the CD era of endless anthologizing, and I was happy.

Poly Styrene, the lead singer with braces, led off with her wonderful British accent, calmly speaking without accompaniment: 'Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think ...' and then she upped the stakes, screaming into the void, 'OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS! ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!' And the band kicked in, led by Lora Logic's amazing amateurish sax playing, and I drove down the road, bouncing like Wayne and Garth in Wayne's World, alone with my music and my memories, singing along as best I could: 'Nyah nyah nyah nyah chain me to the wall, I wanna be a slave nyah nyah, Oh Bondage! Up Yours! Oh Bondage! No More! Oh Bondage! Up Yours! Oh Bondage! No More!' At that moment, I loved Rhino Records.


It probably isn't a question of whether or not punk rock died that night in Winterland. The Sex Pistols died, maybe; but punk and Sex Pistols were never completely interchangeable terms. Much terrific punk rock music has been made in the fifteen years since the Sex Pistols broke up, not only by Pistols contemporaries like The Clash but by the many children of punk: Hüsker Dü and the Replacements in Minnesota, X in Los Angeles, the Seattle grunge bands of today. No, punk rock didn't necessarily die at Winterland, but what about rock and roll itself, the music which 'defined a generation'? Did the Sex Pistols really bring on the end of rock and roll, as Johnny Rotten, now using his 'real' name of John Lydon, claimed in the post-Pistols years?

Many of us who believed in the notion that rock and roll represented liberation welcomed punk with open arms in the late 70s. Our music had gotten too cautious, too worried about the bottom line; punk rock was for us a return to the rebellious roots of rock and roll, filtered through Iggy and the Dolls and stamped with intentional ugliness. Many of our contemporaries took one listen to the Sex Pistols, or the Ramones or Flipper or whichever band first interrupted their contemplations, and decided in a seeming instant that it was time to grow up. They changed the buttons on their car radio from 'underground' stations to oldies, classic rock, and Tom Petty; they might tolerate the so-called New Wave, but they weren't about to listen to a group called the Dead Kennedys. Those of us who embraced punk adopted the sneer of the Rather Ripped clerk: we had seen the future of rock and roll, and it was playing on college radio, not KFOG. In distancing ourselves from the oldies fans, we thought we were placing ourselves in the forefront of the elder statesperson wing of the New Rock and Roll. We perhaps never noticed that punk wasn't the beginning of a new era, but the end of an old one.

For an era must have passed before it becomes grist for the nostalgia mill. And nostalgia is partly what I was experiencing as I sang along with Poly Styrene: 'This is what it used to be like' fueled my joy just as much as did Lora Logic's saxophone. The incongruities involved in listening to 'Oh Bondage' on my son's car stereo were unimportant as long as the song was playing. In 1977 'Oh Bondage! Up Yours!' was a call to end the bondage; in 1993, it was a call to remember a time when our bondage was different than it is now. The cultural force of 'Oh Bondage!' in 1977 was empowering; the stagnation of the mid-70s, economic, artistic, psychic and social, was confronted with a NO so emphatic it became an affirmation, an insistence that things did not have to remain as they were. But in 1993, 'Oh Bondage!' in part represents a trip back to the good old days. We love Rhino Records, because we get one last chance to stare down bondage, but as long as we are dealing with remembered bondage, we are powerless. Only by using Poly Styrene's cry as a weapon against our current, ongoing, bondage, can we be true to the spirit of 1977.

If we accept 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!' solely on the terms of the Rhino reissue, as a formerly-rare artifact now offered to CD owners who want to complete their collections, then we are acquiescing in the process described by Dick Hebdige at the top of this essay: subcultural innovation becomes 'codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise.' Hebdige is not the only cultural studies scholar who believes there is a potential for dissent within the complex processes in which commodities and consumers interact, but if such against-the-grain reading of texts is difficult even at the moment when sub-cultural innovation first presents itself, how much harder is it when it must be performed in an atmosphere of nostalgia, which is ultimately only memories served up to us by others for their own purposes? Rhino Records is not interested in reproducing the social and artistic milieu that spawns an X- Ray Spex; they are only interested in creating a nostalgia for that milieu, for the purpose of selling albums. 

Of course, record companies have always been interested in selling albums; this was no different in 1977. But the tensions of 1977, in the period between the initial sub-cultural innovation and its inevitable commodification, lay partly in the desire of the exploiters to encourage a continuation of the then-current social malaise (which would create more artifacts to be exploited) and partly in the desire of the innovators to resist exploitation. With the later onset of nostalgia, our memories are exploited, the innovators are long busy elsewhere, and the tensions have disappeared. Those who 'remember when' have their memories stripped of the tension that provided a foundation for thought and action; those who are hearing this music for the first time are hearing it stripped of the social context that was equally important in making this music 'matter.' In both cases it is possible to make X-Ray Spex matter once again, this essay itself being one attempt to get beyond cheap nostalgia. But the disappearance of the social context makes listening to X-Ray Spex in 1993 a personal, individual experience; contrast my singing alone in a car with the communal nihilism of the last Sex Pistols concert.

Once there was a punk moment, when 'We mean it, maaaaan!' was not ironic, when you could, for a second or a minute or a lifetime, throw off bondage. This moment was quickly codified; the pathetic Sid Vicious, not the more dangerous Johnny Rotten, became the primary icon of the early punks, and New Wave (hello, Talking Heads) was the recording industry's money-making response to Punk (goodbye, X-Ray Spex). It is possible, even likely, that those who once heard a great and awful roar in 1977 are willing to settle for a Rhino reissue in 1993. But such a nostalgic settlement does not connect us with our past, but instead denies it.

Copyright © 1993, 2019 by Steven Rubio . All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.

smells like jobs

I wrote this in 1994 for the journal Bad Subjects. It was anthologized in a book in 1997. I am reprinting it here, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. This is slightly edited ... I never liked the ending, so I've removed the final sentence, which isn't a very good fix, since now it just seems truncated.

Smells Like Jobs

Geography made me what I am today.

I was fourteen years old during the Summer of Love, and I lived about thirty-five miles from San Francisco. I listened to the emerging hippie counterculture on something called the FM dial, where 'underground radio' was being born before my ears. My geographical proximity to San Francisco allowed me to experience this new phenomenon without leaving my house. Which was just as well, since when I left my house and entered the world of my hometown, Antioch, I couldn't have been further from the Summer of Love, Antioch's geographical proximity to San Francisco notwithstanding.

Antioch was at that time a mostly blue-collar town of around 15,000. My father's parents had moved to Antioch from Spain in the late 1910s; my father was born and raised in Antioch; when my mother was pregnant with me, the family moved into a new tract home in Antioch, where I was born and raised along with two brothers and two sisters. There were many factories in Antioch and the surrounding towns: paper mills, power plants, canneries, chemical factories, steel mills, makers of glass containers and tin cans. The air often smelled awful, thanks usually to the paper mill (I never understood why paper smelled bad) and the cannery (everyone understood about the cannery, which stunk whenever they canned tomatoes). The general opinion of the stench was simple: it smelled like jobs, and no one really objected, despite the obligatory complaining when the town reeked of rotten ketchup.

My father was a white-collar worker. After trying his hand at various enterprises he had finally found some success as a real-estate agent, working hard in his own business, becoming probably the second-largest realtor in town. We were only thirty-five miles from San Francisco; my mother, who grew up in Berkeley, I suspect had occasional visions of a life beyond Antioch; both of my parents were excellent bridge players. And so they spent many a weekend in San Francisco, staying in nice hotels, playing and sometimes winning bridge tournaments. Over the years I've had many opportunities to talk with my parents' peers about those years, and a congenial envy always enters into the reminiscing. To someone living in Antioch, my parents' lives had a touch of glamour. Nothing exciting ever happened in Antioch; our most famous residents were football Hall-of-Famer Gino Marchetti and the Mitchell Brothers, purveyors of porn. At least my parents got to visit San Francisco.

I was raised a good suburban white boy, interesting in itself since Antioch was far from suburban in those days (it has since fallen victim to suburban sprawl, simultaneously losing many of its factories and gaining tens of thousands of white-collar suburban residents). It was all geographic, of course, with various elements of the landscape conspiring to isolate Antioch from the big city. San Francisco Bay separated The City itself from the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkeley, which had their own urban character, connected to San Francisco and yet unique. The Berkeley Hills separated these urban environments from the suburbs proper. To get to these suburbs, you drove through the Caldecott Tunnel; you could mark the relative affluence of a community on this side by simply noting how far it was from the tunnel. The richest places were the closest, and every resident of East Contra Costa County clearly understood this. People from Moraga and Orinda were richer than people from Lafayette, who were richer than the people in Walnut Creek, who were better-off than the residents of Concord. Concord was very low-rent compared to Moraga; it existed at the margins of suburbia. Then came more hills, geography once again intruding. If you were on the wrong side of those hills, you weren't suburban, no matter how close you were to San Francisco. You were blue-collar. Closer to the hills, in Pittsburg and Antioch, you lived in a mill town. Farther away from the hills, in Oakley and Brentwood and Knightsen, you lived in a rural town. Wherever you lived on the wrong side of the hills, you knew you were not suburban, which didn't stop many families from trying their best to be suburban anyway. If your father was a successful realtor and you had a newfangled FM radio, you could pretend that you had somehow risen above your station, but the smell of jobs always worked as a corrective.

More geography: attached to Pittsburg, between that town and the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, was a little place called West Pittsburg. Whatever bad might have been said about Pittsburg, you always assumed it wasn't as bad as West Pittsburg. West in this case meant Worst, Worst meaning lower-class. West Pittsburg was not immune to the spread of suburbia, though, and one morning its new residents woke up and realized when they told locals that they lived in West Pittsburg, those locals assumed the Worst. And so the town changed its name; next time you're in the area, don't forget to check out Bay Point, where the Worst hides behind the Point.

Still more geography: Pittsburg and Antioch were adjacent to each other, with a hazily-defined no man's land between. Teenagers marked this quasi-neutral zone by Hazel's Drive-In, where kids from Antioch could get a burger and maybe meet up with some of the enemies from Pittsburg. (Hazel's was on a long road called the Pittsburg-Antioch Highway, the dumpiest highway I've ever seen.) Pittsburg had a few more people than Antioch in those days, and since factory work ranked higher on the upward-mobility scale than farm labor, and since Pittsburg was almost entirely factory-oriented while Antioch was in the middle of the factories and the farms, Pittsburg was also a bit more prestigious than Antioch, although in reality those two ranges of hills separating us from San Francisco effectively eliminated any chance in those days of true prestige. (Thirty years later, the needs of suburban sprawl have finally broken down these barriers, of course.) In any event, there was little to distinguish the two small towns from each other in the 1960s, with the exception of one factor which again had a kind of geographical locus, in that it helped establish beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly where was the border between the two: there were no black people in Antioch.

Geography is everything and nothing. Antioch was less than an hour's drive from liberal, diverse cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, yet we were as segregated as Selma, Alabama. More segregated, in fact, or rather, we weren't segregated at all; there was no need for a separate but equal rule in Antioch, because there were no black people to keep separate. Black people lived in Pittsburg, but not a single one lived in Antioch. The radio again: Pittsburg had a radio station, and late at night I could listen to broadcasts emanating from only half a dozen miles away, presenting a culture I could never hope to participate in. Pittsburg was on the chitlin circuit, and I would hear advertisements for James Brown and His Famous Flames or Little Junior Parker. The Hardest Working Man In Show Business would perform a stone's throw from my own house, and I knew I couldn't, wouldn't go, and not just because I was only twelve years old. It was simply a different world.

Antioch had Mexicans; they were 'our' minority. But we had no black people. My parents were very concerned about this, and I owe them an unpayable debt for their efforts to raise a family that wasn't inflamed with prejudice. We had black housekeepers, which wasn't that odd. Most white families in Antioch would hire a black housekeeper if they had the money. (We did, presumably because my father was a successful realtor. Eventually he was arrested for real-estate fraud and we learned where the money had come from all those years. We also lost the housekeepers.) But we also had black babysitters, and that was odd. You didn't let those people care for your children, after all. And our church had a black family as members, and they became good friends with my family, and they came to our house, and this all seems pitifully inadequate now, but at the time, it was important and necessary, and for the most part my parents did not act out of simple guilt. They lived without grandstanding (the positive morals we learned from this were interestingly contrasted to the ethics we pondered when our father went to jail).

We had no blacks, but we had Mexicans. My own place in this world was problematic, however, because while I wasn't Mexican, and while I was being raised 'white,' I was in fact half-Spanish. The meaning of being Spanish mostly eluded me as I grew up. My mother was in many ways a typical middle-class housewife of her era, and my father was most certainly traditional-minded about how a home was managed, and so it was my mother who composed and cooked the meals, and my mother was far from Spanish. She was an adventurous cook, and we ate everything from Chinese to Mexican to Italian, but we never ate Spanish food unless my grandmother sent some over. My father never spoke Spanish in the home, so there was no way to identify our heritage with the language. Outside of my grandmother's thick accent when she spoke English, and the occasional batch of Spanish rice she would cook for us, I lived the life of a whiteboy, albeit a whiteboy with 'yellow' skin (I hadn't learned the meaning of the phrase 'olive-skinned' and so spent years of my childhood comparing my color to that of the white and Mexican kids and concluding I had a life-long case of jaundice).

Except, again, there was a geographical angle. My grandmother lived in the same house her husband had built for her when they came to Antioch in the 1910s, the same house my father and all of his brothers and sisters were born in. This house was in the 'old' section of Antioch, and it was the oddest thing: while there were times when I thought the only Spanish people in the world were the Rubio family and perhaps a few flamenco artists who showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show, when I would visit my grandmother I couldn't help noticing that her next-door neighbor, and the old folks just around the corner, and maybe three-fourths of all the older people in a two-block radius around my grandmother's house, all of these people were Spanish. There was, in this lily-white town which used Chicanos for their local color, a tiny enclave of Spanish expatriates who watched the Spanish-language television station and hung velvet paintings of bullfighters on their walls. These people all looked like my grandmother, they all talked like my grandmother ... although it wasn't nearly as obvious as the invisible geographic marker separating white Antioch from the mixture that was Pittsburg, nonetheless the geographic lines were there. Antioch had a 'Little Spain!'

I never identified with that Little Spain. I wasn't embarrassed by my Spanish heritage, although I can't take much credit for this attitude. I don't think it occurred to me that other families didn't have grandmothers who spoke with accents. But I never really associated myself with the Spanish part of me. Not that I didn't absorb things subconsciously. In an introductory Spanish class I took at Berkeley when I was in my thirties, my teacher told me early in the semester that my family was from Andalusia, an accurate conclusion he came to because it turned out I spoke Spanish with an Andalusian accent, although my father never spoke the language in our home. Geography made me, indeed.

But I didn't identify myself as Spanish when I was growing up. I was from Antioch. This, more than my ethnic background, more than my father's occupation, more than anything else about me, was what identified me to the outside world. Geography made me who I was: someone from Antioch. And I was most definitely embarrassed by this. To be from Antioch was to be from nowhere. Even worse, to be from Antioch, in the context of the San Francisco Bay Area, was to be from the wrong side of the hills. In the Summer of Love, you could go to San Francisco and smell incense in the air; 35 miles away in Antioch, all we could smell was jobs. (And later, after I married, when I went to work in a local factory, I, too, began smelling like jobs.)

A year after I married my sweetheart from Antioch High School, we moved to Berkeley, where we have lived happily for the past twenty years, with the exception of a two-year period around 1980 when a few bad breaks brought us back to Antioch, where we lived in a newish suburban enclave and smelled what was left of the jobs. It was the worst two years of our marriage, and I can't help but think it was once again a matter of geography messing with my self-esteem: for 18 of the last 20 years, I have been proud to say 'I am from Berkeley,' but for two years, I had to admit I was from Antioch, and I couldn't bear the thought, and I ended up one night standing in the middle of the street in our calm suburban enclave, screaming and crying at nothing until my wife came to take me to the hospital.

A few years later, I visited Spain for the first time. I stood on the balcony of the hostel where we spent our first night. It was dark; I couldn't see anything. But I could smell the Mediterranean Sea. And though we were in Catalonia, on the opposite end of the country from Andalusia where the Rubios once lived, I loved that smell, it didn't smell at all of jobs, it smelled of Spain, and I felt like I had come home.

A month or so after we returned from our vacation in Spain, I quit my job at the factory and returned to school. Once in awhile, my wife will get a whiff of some cleanser, and she'll say 'that's what you used to smell like. When you came home from working in the factory, you smelled like hand-cleaner.' I smelled like jobs. I haven't smelled like a job in years.

When I visit Antioch now, I feel like a tourist. I don't recall, as I type, if it still smells like jobs. I used to be from Antioch. Now I am from Berkeley. This feels too easy, somehow, as if I could wipe all traces of Antioch from my existence by merely moving away. We are, ultimately, more than our geography, which isn't to negate all I have said in this essay: geography makes me part of what I am today, all of my geographies, past, present and future.

Copyright © 1994, 2019 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.

ramblin' jack elliott, "912 greens"

[I wrote this in 1998. I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.]

"'Round about 1953
I went down to New Orleans
Perhaps I should say, many years ago"

Ramblin' Jack Elliott had just turned 22 in the summer of 1953, when the events took place which he chronicles in "912 Greens" (assuming they did take place, which is somehow both irrelevant and crucial). To be honest, I'm not sure he was "Ramblin' Jack Elliott" yet, 'round about 1953. He first recorded the song for the album Young Brigham, which was released in 1968. Thirty years later, the song is as timeless as when it was recorded. The story Elliott relates always happened "many years ago."

In "912 Greens," Elliott tells the tale of his trip south with some buddies to look up Billy Faier, "a 5-string banjo picker" who lived at 912 Toulouse Street. The vocals are casual; Elliott doesn't sing until the very last stanza, instead he just talks over a lovely guitar accompaniment, and the lyrics feel made up on the spot. It is impossible to imagine Jack sitting down with a pencil to put the words on paper. At times he stumbles a bit, repeats himself, and chuckles under his breath as he remembers some moment from his adventures. Even as he spins his story, adding just the right detail to bring matters to light, he suggests that there are hundreds, thousands, millions of other stories he could tell if he only had the time. As he says about Billy Faier,

"And the way we found him,
well that was a whole 'nother song
Let's just say we found Billy Faier"

Elliott was born in Brooklyn in 1931. His name at the time was Elliott Adnopoz. Apparently he wanted something different than might be expected for a young Jewish boy from Brooklyn, and so (depending on which story you believe, and there are many) he ran off to join the rodeo when he was still a teen. Somewhere along the way he changed his name to Buck Elliott; later he became "Jack" and later still, "Ramblin' Jack Elliott" (by which time he had indeed rambled). Also along the way he switched from traveling with a rodeo to traveling with Woody Guthrie, who was nearing the end of the "healthy" years that preceded his succumbing to Huntington's Disease. Woody and Jack had adventures; Elliott later became known as the premier interpreter of Guthrie's work, and for much of his early career he was perhaps known as much for being the heir to Guthrie's folk tradition as he was for anything. Clearly, Elliott Adnopoz had reinvented himself.

You could only get to 912 Toulouse Street by climbing over a fence. Once you got over, you found a concrete patio, in the midst of which was a banana tree. "Although I never did see no bananas hanging on it, as they said, it was a banana tree." Elliott is reinventing himself; his friends are reinventing reality. And succeeding: "as they said, it was a banana tree" is good enough for Jack. The house itself featured a balcony "that connected all the various different musicians' different various pads." That balcony is where reinvention takes place.

The sense of community in "912 Greens" is overpowering. Ramblin' Jack Elliott ... it sounds like the moniker of the last of the independents, a man with no home except the horizon. But when Jack sets off to ramblin', it's with his friends Frank and Guy, and they meet up with Billy Faier, who lives in a house where all the people and all the pads are connected. What makes this adventure so enticing is the ease with which Jack and the rest become friends, comfortable with each other and their different various pads. After a "tropical rainstorm" (I could talk about the three-legged cat, but that's a whole 'nother essay) in which Jack and "this girl there that had once been an ex-ballet dancer" (a bottomless phrase, to have once been an ex-anything) dance naked around the banana tree, everybody commences to "drinkin' Billy Faier's wine and gettin' acquainted." As Elliott talks and picks his guitar, gradually we realize that "gettin' acquainted" is the most important thing in the world. The various different people have different various pads, but the best part comes when we move onto the balcony and see our connections.

The sun comes up, everyone goes home over the back fence. "Stayed around 3 weeks in New Orleans," Jack tells us, "Never did see the light of day." It was many years ago. It could have been last month. And then he rambles. "And I never have been back," he adds. But every time Ramblin' Jack Elliott sings "912 Greens," everytime he comes to new people, everytime he "gets acquainted," he is indeed back in New Orleans.

As are we, back in New Orleans, when we listen to the song. There is no more beautiful ode to getting acquainted.

happy birthday, steven rubio's online life

Rather astoundingly, today is the 6th birthday for this blog. Here is the entire first post:

snapshot of life at the moment

OK, here goes. Tried installing MovableType yesterday ... I'm not good enough.

My chair has broken rollers. As I type this, the stereo is playing "Prisoner of Love" by Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra featuring Lena Horne. Robin is in the livingroom reading the Sunday paper and steaming to help her sinuses. Jillian's coming over tonight for dinner and DVD.

That post was written on Blogger, the original home of this blog until I got tired of the downtime (I'm sure it's better now, but it's a pain in the ass to move your blog, so TypePad has me for the foreseeable future).

Many things have changed in the blogging world. For one thing, comments weren't allowed on this blog back in the day. For another, YouTube hadn't been invented.

Robin still reads the Sunday papers, and sometimes she still steams her sinuses. Jillian still comes over for dinner and DVD, although Doug usually comes, too. Truth be told, a snapshot of life at the moment wouldn't be a whole lot different than it was in 2002.

As for why I do this, or better, why I continue to do this, well, who the hell knows? My sister wrote about this on her blog recently, as it reached its third anniversary, and in her post, she quoted from an essay I wrote back in 1996. I don't know that I've come up with anything new in the ensuing 12 years, to be honest, but I did do an update in 2002, "Still Nobody, or, How My Home Page Became a Blog":

[T]he very act of posting my writing to a public space admits the existence of an audience, no matter how small. This wouldn't be worth noting if all I was doing was creating Lists o' Links. But I'm writing a diary. Therein lies the rub. For diaries, at least as I imagine them, are private affairs. When you write "Dear Diary," you are speaking to a schizophrenic audience of one, a combination of the abstract "Diary" and yourself (in theory the only person who will ever read what you write). Nothing is more fear-inducing than the idea that someone else will read your diary; it records the thinking you want to keep to yourself.

So, why post it to a blog, where someone, anyone, can read it?

I think I know the answer to that question, but first, I want to consider the difference between what I might write in a private diary and what I would post in a public blog. I know people are out there when I write for my blog, and so, before my words ever hit the web, I've self-censored all the "good stuff." I'm not about to say what I really think if someone else is listening. I might write "Dear Diary, I love Robin, do you think she likes me, too?," but the blog version would be a semi-fictionalized construct around which I hint at some person named Robin without ever truly declaring myself. A blog is less confessional than a diary; I don't mind telling my diary/myself who I am, but I'm wary of exposing that true self to the Public. So my blog is, I would argue, not just censored for public consumption, but ultimately better for that censorship. Knowing that you are reading over my shoulder, I get creative with my life. The unfiltered self-indulgence of a diary gives way to the more considered, craftlike blog. Certainly, the constraints of craft result in a certain loss of immediacy in my writing compared to a diary. But I am also forced to acknowledge the existence of others, and that's a good thing, a crucial step on the road from solipsism to community. A good thing, that is, unless you yearn for the glory days when James Taylor could top the charts navel-gazing his way through fire and rain.

The subject matter of the diary blog is also affected by the audience lurking in the background. The most straightforward and "honest" writing on my blog is probably the movie reviews. I can express myself in those write-ups without wearing my heart on my sleeve. My heart is still there, it's just offered at a distance, through the conduit of whatever movie I'm talking about. I can say "what I really think" in ways I won't if I have some deep personal secret to share with the world at large. In those latter cases, my writing becomes cryptic, and basically uninteresting to anyone except myself. Ironically, I expose myself most when I write about something outside myself, and I hide myself most when I purport to write about Me.

Happy Birthday, Online Life!