by Clark Allen
I was a pretty stupid kid. I’m arguably a pretty stupid adult too but I can thankfully say that that’s a debatable matter. Good and ill, I have my moments both ways, and while I hope public opinion of me leans closer to the former it still remains to be seen what will be engraved on my tombstone (I’m vying for “stick a fork in me”). My childhood incompetence however, was generic, likely relatable to millions of other Americans similarly raised in the working class suburbs of the eighties and nineties. School sucked. Adults were boring. Radio hits were largely “alternative” misanthropic croons. The internet hadn’t taken center stage to vacuum our attention spans just yet, and television was more focused on what was in the president’s pants than The Gulf conflict. If your family wasn’t too poor or too rich, by the time the Clinton era was in full swing the chances of living that time in life adrift in some state of American ennui was mighty high. Out in the suburbs, man, it was a real snooze.
I was in the California Bay Area as a teenager, sleepily growing up in the city of Napa. By my early teens MTV had made me vaguely aware of some percolating counterculture out there, but I definitely hadn’t put any meaning to its purpose yet. Everything happening on the television from Sonic Youth live on The Late Show to the LA riots was equidistant, that is to say, out of reach and unreal. I’d cut school but kind of missing the point of it I’d take to the public library, although not in any smart way. I was engrossed by crappy scifi, monographs of Frazetta prints, and those crazy machines that let you wind through old newspaper articles. On some recommendation I tried Jack Kerouac but he seemed like a douche and I never quite managed to finish On the Road. So listlessly, I wandered the aisles of every 711 in town. What else was there?
Once the time came that I was old enough to get a little work and a little spending cash, just a little more of the town opened up to me. Of specific note, a floundering local bookstore that specialized in used mass market paperbacks. I think it was called Volume Two, but I’m not sure if I’m remembering that right. In any case the place is long gone now, its unimpressive selection likely scattered to thrift shops, and its only legacy that I know of being the accumulation of used periodicals kept in a small box in the back, a pile of withering old paper that ultimately made a huge impression on me although I was oblivious at the time. I spent a summer there just before the shop went under, sitting on a milk crate next to the box. Amidst back issues of LIFE and National Geographic I’d pull errant copies of Heavy Metal Magazine, gaping agog at illustrated buxom women and their lascivious fornications with bizarre sea creatures or what have you. There were old copies of Colors Magazine, Fangoria, Maximum Rock n Roll, The Onion, Zyzzyva, and off relics of UC Berkeley quarterlies that probably never made it past their first volume or so. Even an issue of Playboy had made it into the mix, and from the disinterested old lady behind the counter, consistently immersed in whatever Danielle Steele novel happened to be nearest, I was able to pick up anything from this selection for a buck apiece. All I had to do was tell her how many I had. Uncensored. She wouldn’t even look up.
Soon I was home rummaging through this mess, transferred from the bookshop to my bedroom, and it wasn’t long after tearing through it that I began tearing it apart. I wallpapered my room with the images from these magazines and with what remained I stapled together my favorite bits.
You could’ve called them zines I suppose, though I wasn’t sure what I was doing at the time. It was my own personal cornucopia of style. A sloppy stapled and pasted mass of fantasy comics, horror film stills, punk photos, and pornography. There was no attempt at direction. It wasn’t anything really, but in my stupid, adolescent naiveté, it was a visceral explosion of everything I was hoping to find. A homemade compass. I made photocopies at school and handed them out to people I liked, and before long I found a couple other kids similarly on the edge of their seats, equally curious what life might be like outside of a town that called for lights out at six p.m.
I was fourteen when I got to take my first real unsupervised trip away. A friend of mine had just turned sixteen, acquired a rattling, hand me down hatchback, and it had just enough life in it to occasion us down to Berkeley. There I was hooked quick. The anarchist bookstore, Revolution Books, the punk club, 924 Gilman, and seemingly just about every other community oriented local business had all manner of hand bound pamphlets, each one impacted with it’s own unique set of ethics and private philosophy, and each one giving me a little something new to digest. The punk fanzines were my favorite at first, and once the moral altitude of the bands I began listening to made an impression, I moved to the literature that had stronger sociological viewpoints. I learned about the Class War and Situationist International, why to go vegan and why to quit veganism forever, how to build bongs and how to build bombs, how to midwife in a psychedelic manner… endless guides to alternative living. I read terrible, terrible poems and short stories by kids exactly like me right alongside Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a pamphlet was essentially and historically a zine itself.
I was in love. I’d found this medium with infinite flexibility. A place with its own already sustained subculture open for my perusal and contribution. The internet was around, sure, but still reserved for the kind of household that had two TVs. The zine world seemed so massive, was abrasively tactile, and in my personal teenage universe information was being rapidly traded in that form. It’s an interesting time in my life to reflect on now. These random personal writings of people I’d never know were welcome porch lights illuminating vast and shadowy suburbs. They provided some sense direction. A way out that that public school, television, and even the most well meaning of adults couldn’t pitch across the gap to my generation.
Now I’m nearing thirty and I hardly produce the things like I once did. Maybe one, sheepishly, every year or so in a small run. I still read them though, and my collection stacks high. I’ve even somehow managed to fall into a funny career as a used book buyer, and as such have found myself in a paid position oddly similar to where I was as a kid, digging through dusty old crates, hoping to find something that piques my interest; a window to out there. And while I’m worried a bit about the future of reading sometimes, awash in the din of a constant conversation about the death of the printed word, the rise of the blog, the demise of the bookstore or the library as a place, one thing seems certain no matter how many hilarious gifs or informative Chomsky quotes you can cram onto a Tumblr account, the curation of a real, physical manifestation of your own personal landscape will be drawn from the world around you. Its resonance begins in the hand and that won’t change anytime soon. Grab some paper, some ink, staples or thread. It’s still cheaper than a URL.