(A version of this essay appeared in the anthology Punk Rock Saved My Ass, edited by Terena Scott and Jane Mackay and published by Medusa’s Muse.)
My first taste of punk culture was seeing live footage of bands on TV upside down from the floor, where my mother was trying to cut my unruly toenails against my will. This predated MTV and my parents weren’t into punk at all, so I can only assume it was a variety show brought to us via the cable my father spliced off a neighboring house. I was young enough to appreciate the colors and sounds without receiving a message from any of it. If I was even able to pick out the words, “Oh bondage, up yours,” or, “Are we not men? We are DEVO!” they were meaningless to my seven-year-old self, but the music was pretty cool.
The term “punk rock” still meant nothing specific to me when, in the seventh grade, my friend pointed at me and said, “You’re a punk rocker. You’re one of those punk rockers, aren’t you?” This accusation was leveled at me because I got bored one summer afternoon and painted multicolored splotches on my black Converse high-tops. Even a compliment from this girl felt like being tried and convicted of witchcraft (“Look at you! You have boobs!”). Since I lived in fear of her noticing something a little more dangerous (“You have a crush…wait, on me?!”), I threw my shoes over the clothesline and stopped wearing them. This all left me with a mystery to puzzle out: What did punk rock have to do with painting my shoes?
A few years later my parents let me stay up past my bedtime to watch Saturday Night Live with them. My objective was figuring out why all the grownups I knew were yelling, “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger,” and collapsing into hysterics. Patti Smith was the musical guest—this was around the time that Horses had come out—and she took the stage in black suit pants and a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and the first words out of her mouth were, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” My parents never took me to church and I was not a brilliant child, but I knew this was a Big Deal. Before I could even process how big, she was talking about a woman not just leaning on, but humping—humping!–a parking meter. She went on to describe G-L-O-R-I-A, coming up her stairs, then through her door, and at that point I kind of split in two: My heart leaped up in recognition, though I still lacked the words or experience to explain what it was I was recognizing; my body, on the other hand, would have been happy to decompose and dissolve right through the carpet and into the floorboards, away from my parents’ line of sight. Surely I was phosphorescent with this new, sudden stain. One of those punk rockers. One of Them.
My first move away from home was to share a dorm on a small community college campus. My roommate looked at my half of our shared space and said, “Everything you own looks like it came from a thrift store.” It took weeks for me to understand that this was not a compliment. No matter: it was true. I loved my collection of old paperbacks and the tapes I traded with a network of pen pals. Was new stuff so much better? It seemed to me that all my old stuff kept mulching down and coming back as something new, anyway. Hip-hop was sampling hard rock and heavy metal then, and it just gave me new ways to appreciate two things I already liked. It still didn’t exactly compute that this constituted a lifestyle, but I didn’t stop going to thrift stores to please my roommate; in fact I spent sixty-five cents for a copy of Horses at the Goodwill, and stared at the cover for a long, long time.
One night around this time I was out with a group of friends when we detoured to pick up something from a friend of theirs that I hadn’t met. We found her in her room, sewing a cloth cover on a journal. During the course of our brief visit, I interrupted the general conversation at least five times to blurt out, “I’m sorry, but this is the most amazing tapestry/bead work/sculpture/wall art I have ever seen in my life. Where on earth did you find it?” In each case the answer was the same: “I made that.” I had to keep finding my eyeballs and manually reinstalling them in their sockets. Stained glass. Woodwork. Leather work. We ended up in the kitchen and yes, she made the soy milk, too. The truly mind-blowing thing about this was she was just sixteen. At twenty I felt I’d somehow missed the boat. My best crafting years were obviously behind me. I’d gone from age zero directly to Salieri in his waning years, shaking a withered fist at these upstart teens with their knitting needles. Despite my premature attack of cranky pants, this was irresistibly inspiring. I wanted to make stuff, too!
Enthusiasm notwithstanding, my own foray into soy milk manufacture was not my finest hour. I didn’t know the same food could boil over, burn, blow the top off your blender (spraying the kitchen walls and ceiling for good measure), and clog the sink drain. But there was a learning curve there, and at least I was finally on it. I started to connect the dots and appreciate my tendencies toward cultural composting as a kind of continuing education through trial and error. Some things worked out, others were disastrous, but they were all fun and kept me engaged. Many of the worst failures were also the best story material, offering a detailed look at what not to do in a given circumstance. I failed a lot and took notes faithfully.
From age five onward I have never been without at least one manual typewriter. Growing up in a town with very few people made joining a band pretty much impossible (not singing or playing an instrument sealed matters). Being a fan, however, was something I excelled at. The world of fanzines—a postal network of other isolated cranks and loons with glue sticks and staplers at the ready—beckoned, as did the fresh jolt of feminism embodied by the Riot Grrrl movement. Any actual group or association I joined inevitably fell apart; I may well have provided the specific chemical that dissolved the social bond to begin with. But ‘zines gave me a voice that nobody could contradict or shout over, and an outlet that operated around my schedule. If I was writing, the meeting was on. Simple! I typed, cut, and pasted for dear life, through nine issues of my own ‘zine but mainly as a contributor to others. I cultivated a modest mountain of rejections, from the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and random sixteen-year-old girls who wielded their red pens with grave authority. I placed a lot of work as well and found a scene that felt like home, with the added bonus that we were all over the place. My voice began to sound more like me, and I eased into a period of growth with the support of this virtual community.
Even though I never made it to a single show or meeting that fell under their banner, Riot Grrrl surely changed my life. While women in Washington state and D.C. were networking like mad, protesting, publishing, and making their presence felt nationally and even globally, I was working a series of shitty temp jobs, failing to get into graduate school, and ultimately running out of money and moving back into my parents’ rented house in the middle of nowhere. Through all that, though, there were letters and tapes from girls who didn’t know me, trading music and ideas, and offering relentless encouragement. Their words still resonate when I’m struggling:
“You are never too old to fuck shit up.”
“Keep writing. Keep Rioting!”
I got phone calls from fellow ‘zinesters so far past me in terms of intellect that I would hang up the phone and reach for my dictionary and an ice pack to cool my brow. They kept me keenly aware that there was a whole world’s worth of stuff to learn out there, and this was coming from from people who never once patronized me for not having been there and done that all before. This new dynamic was totally unlike my upbringing or education, where you could be right ninety-nine percent of the time but would catch hell for the one thing you got wrong. It set me free to learn what, when and how I wanted, and offered help along the way from people I trusted. Revolutionary, indeed.
I didn’t see it at the time, but those women fostered a significant change in me. They gave me so much love and support, so much freedom to say my piece and a patient audience to absorb it, that something gave way in me. Rather than run from praise or an offer of friendship, I could breathe and accept them, albeit with a sloppy sort of gratitude. Suddenly my virtual community felt a little more real; I wasn’t one of Them any more. I was part of a larger culture, a great, sprawling Us.
At the end of the day sitting in my room, obsessively folding origami to fight insomnia, or typing up recipes for ramen noodles to put in a ‘zine has nothing to do with punk per se: nobody’s on stage and you don’t need ear plugs to get up close. But the energy of restless minds learning and sharing new things, remaining open and engaged and committed to living as fully as possible does embody punk as I understand it. Creating the culture you want to live in takes hard work and risk and close attention, and sometimes the rewards are less tangible than a more normal life might provide. But I remember my younger self and know such work is always worthwhile. If she had seen how things were going to turn out, nobody could have pried those hand-painted shoes off her feet. They’re the greatest things I ever made, and if you ask me they’re punk as fuck.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons, which is very punk]
Heather Seggel is a full-time freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bitch, UTNE, at Elle.com, SpiritualityandHealth.com, and she blogs with good intentions but no frequency at donkeywork.wordpress.com.