Singing two nights a week and having a front-row view of the mating rituals of drunks and barmaids was another adult education in more ways than one. I have always had a poet’s heart, and I felt honored somehow to watch unnoticed as people lived such raw lives in front of me.
So many characters and faces that will forever be engrained in my mind. The smell of stale beer and vomit as we did our sound checks before the doors opened. As I got older, my favorite places to sing were biker bars. The bikers were always protective and sweet toward me.
When I was about twelve, playing at the Trade Winds biker bar in Anchorage, a man was outside foaming at the mouth, overdosing on PCP. Angel dust, I remember a woman whispering to me. When I saw the red lights flashing through the window, I set my mic down silently mid-song and walked from the stage to the bathroom so I wouldn’t get kicked out for singing in there underage. I knew the routine.
A couple of the biker men saw me do this and nodded to their women, who silently followed me to keep me company. The bathroom was long and narrow, and I remember the women coming in, drink making them warm and wordy. We sat on the toilets, the doors all flung open, and two sat on the sink counters, all of us looking at each other in the long mirror above the sinks.
The stalls on each side of me were occupied by women weathered and road weary, bleached blondes, brunettes, and one redhead, all wearing acid-washed jeans, tank tops, and leather jackets. Slight variances on the same theme. My stall in the middle, startling in contrast. A twelve-year-old wearing a long-sleeved shirt buttoned up to the very top button, showcasing a whimsical and heartbreakingly sweet pattern of kitty paw prints in beige. Long honey blonde hair straight as sticks tucked behind my ears, posture erect as I visited with the ladies, glad for their company.
The brunette on the sink wore fringed boots that hung off the edge of the counter.
“You sing real nice, kid. Real nice.”
“Thanks,” I said, enjoying the compliment.
“You know, my old man is finally gonna make an honest woman of me. The son of a bitch,” she said, to several chuckles from the other stalls before she continued. “You guys should sing at our wedding.”
I knew not to accept gigs on my own, and so I said, “My dad handles all of our bookings, but I’m sure we would love to sing at your wedding.”
In most bars I felt invisible, but it was always the bikers who kept an eye on me, sensing my vulnerability the way only other outcasts can. Bikers had their own code of ethics, which was palpable to me even at that age. With time I learned to be street-smart and to trust my instincts elsewhere in barrooms. I had to.
When I was about nine, a man in Alice’s Champagne Palace placed a dime in my hand, folding my small fingers around the cool silver, and said, “Call me when you’re sixteen.”
Another time I was walking to the bathroom, and as a man passing by caught a quick glance of me, he said casually, “You’re going to be a great fuck when you’re older.”
I learned to let my energy expand only on stage. Offstage and between sets I stayed small and drew little attention to myself. My dad made rounds and visited with patrons, and I would entertain myself by looking in a Michelob beer mirror, learning how to move each muscle in my face.
In fifth-grade science class we were told about involuntary muscles, and how we couldn’t move them, so I set out to prove that wrong, starting with my lower eyelids. I mastered moving my ears in all directions, isolating my lower eyelids and each nostril separately, and each quarter of each lip independently.
I loved to observe people. I watched love and life play out in a million ways, but one of the best things I learned was this: You don’t outrun pain. I saw men and women in those barrooms all trying to outrun something, some pain in their life—and man, they had pain.
Vets broken and drifting, abused women, abused boys who had grown up to be emotionally crippled men. I saw them all trying to bury that pain in booze, sex, drugs, anger, and I saw it all before I was able to indulge in many of those behaviors myself.
I saw that no one outran their suffering; they only piled new pain upon their original pain. I saw the pain pile up into insurmountable mountains, and I saw the price people paid who buried all that pain, and along with it their hope, joy, and chance at happiness. All because they were trying to outrun the pain rather than walk through it and heal.