excerpt from Scaffolding
I’m Lena Cosentino. What you are about to read is true except when it’s not. I’m an unreliable narrator. Some names have been changed but not all. Just to keep you guessing. The genre is autobiography/fantasy. This is a novel about a time and a place that doesn’t exist any more except in my mind. Memory is a slippery mirror. Things change. Through the haze of memory. The mistakes of things I may have altered or left out or changed to make more dramatic. I tell the story of my early twenties in nineties Portland contrasted with my life in Los Angeles pushing forty in the late twenty-teens. The story begins in the fall in my senior year of college: 1997. I was twenty-one.
It was a different time, nineties Portland. So much has changed. So insidiously. Now I think I can’t live without being plugged into the Internet and Twitter and Facebook almost all day. Back then that whole digital world just didn’t exist. There was primitive DOS email that seemed more troublesome than it was worth. In a world free of screens, except the occasional TV but free of interactive screens, we were left to our own devices. I read a lot more books and zines than I do now but there was also so much IRL social time. We weren’t hiding behind hashtags. We were having “You’ve been talking shit about me, bitch!” showdowns behind the Delta Café with arms waving. Eyeliner fierce.
I’m not going to look through the fuzzy haze of an Instagram filter in telling these stories of the Dustbin. I‘m going to try and tell you what I remember. Being twenty-one: freshly minted, barely legal. Every experience was something explosive. I felt and saw for the first time. The story begins when I moved into twelve-person punk house called the Dustbin up the street from Reed College while in attendance. Ready for adventure but at the same time scared of not being cool. Punks are a tough crowd.
I guess you could call this a coming of age story. It is about my very early twenties. A time in my life that was difficult but magical and fun at the same time. This is what happens when you’re young and unaware of how naïve you actually are. Then are thrown head first into a cauldron of dogmatic ideology. Emotions. Half-baked anarchist ideals. Class war. Condoms. Negotiating things like boundaries. Everything slipping the opinion of that foxy unwashed girl or boy you just met.
Read on. Let it explode around you. It is a novel of transformation.
Portland, Oregon. 1997. The clump of plastic hair steamed as I dabbled on more Superglue. My fingers mottled with dry glue scabs. Mel squirmed between my knees. Blue and black twists hung ragged off her head threaded with silver wire and springs. They were supposed to be dreadlocks. Some scheme of artificial white girl dreadlocks that she’d enlisted me in making. I would have twisted railroad ties into braids if she had wanted it that way. Mel was my favorite housemate at the Dustbin.
“No, no, down. There’s a lot more to go.” I stuck my fingers into her greasy scalp. Pushed down. The dreads lay like licorice twists. Unevenly glued to patches of her short hair. “This is going to take all night, you realize.”
“Alright, can you cut me off a long piece of wire?” I asked. Mel handed me back a strip. I wound it tight over the glue node with dented thumbs. It was soothing. The room was dripping with kids, as we liked to call them. Late teen, early-twenty-something college kids. They milled around the living room with Old Milwaukee 32-oz clenched tight in their hands. Listening to the math-rock band spilling from a record player. Several conversations about welding bicycles and the intricacies of the latest Anthropology paper were hanging in the air. Anthropology was a popular major at Reed, the college the Dustbin was up the street from.
Conversations drifted around my head as I sat. Better to fiddle with my hands and look down than do what I usually did at parties: clutch the bottle to my kidneys and nod attentively when I didn’t really give a shit, or swagger and tell the same stories I told at every party about fistfights and drug drama on the Canadian border. One girl talked about being a crazy cat lady when she got old. Her bold voice made it seem like it would never happen. It happened. A guy ranted about seeing someone talking on a cell phone in public. The ostentatious horror of it all. It was 1997. None of us had cell phones.
Lucky, Mel’s current fling, was trading train-hopping stories from the opposite side of the couch. I could catch little drifts of words. Piggybacks and boxcars. Cities passing fast. I stuck the sharp ends of the wire in Mel’s hair under the rest. Started twisting the blue plastic hair counterclockwise. Wound it at the same time clockwise. I followed Mel’s eyes as they bored into Lucky’s back. Bulging with muscle under a red St. Ides shirt.
Lucky strung up a bunch of National Enquirer and Herald Star features about Robert Mitchum above the compost pile in the kitchen. The swarming fruit-flies danced in and out over movie stills. Lucky was obsessed with Robert Mitchum. It seemed like every wall said something about Robert Mitchum, Robert Mitchum, Robert Mitchum, in his messy scrawl.
The two men Lucky was talking to, Bud and Eddy, wore leather hells angels jackets over sweatpants. Stood with legs wide. They came over every night around six, bearing cases of beer and Jim Beam.
“Oh, come on. Lena! I’m sick of sitting around here.” Mel pulled a black twist. “This is scratching the shit out of my scalp.”
“Wait a sec! I’m almost done.”
Eddy came over to us. Smirked under his mustache.
“Hello ladies. You playing beauty parlor?”
“You could say that.” I said.
“You wanna PBR?”
My secret shame: I actually hated PBR. I thought it tasted like the fermented piss of a fat man shot in a bottle and thrown in my face. This sentiment I knew would get me excommunicated from my new house and my new friends.
I took the can. Opened it, gingerly. Let the whoosh of the foam drift over my thumb.
‘You’re Lena, right?”
“Yeah.” I was semi-new to the Dustbin. Lived here for a year. This felt like an initiation. I was anxious to prove myself.
Mel’s dewy shoulders touched the inside of my thighs. I shivered. Hoped it was just the booze.
“Okay,” Mel said. “Let’s take a walk? How about that?” We crept out between smirks. The yellow of the porch light followed us outside. We blundered through the stench of rotting compost vegetables and vomit hanging around the mildewed steps to the street.
Black plastic draped the streetlight. Piles of dirt reared up hemmed in with caution tape. Striding fast over the intersection on a red light. I saw that it was scattered with cut glass like spangles on a stripper’s bra. Shining as we walked over it. Mel was a stripper. She wondered out loud what accident took place while we were sleeping. It could have happened that night. In the house we were so distracted with each other. Everyone was swinging between one part-time coffee shop or piecework job. One day to night shift on the pole. One food stamp re-up cycle. One semester or another. Swung between point A and point B and lurching. Swung between cracks in the dirty wood floor.
We were all jumbled together in that big house. Students or not. Unified in our hatred of the new construction that was trying to turn the home-like, dingy Reed College Student Union into some terrible white sterile thing. The Sharpie-scrawled ethos claimed the space for us in our minds. The messy expanse of the porch. Big dogs humping each other on the patchy lawn. Students streaming across the porch with intrigues and breakdowns. The Student Union was one of the things that had made Reed so viscerally real to me, beyond the stifling quiet of some lecture hall.
Past the gouged out grass, fluttering plastic hung over scaffolding. Where the Student Union had been, there were metal webs over scraped wood. I smelled gasoline and fresh lumber. We stood there. Our noses a foot from a chain link fence topped with barbed wire.
“What the fuck? I used to hang out here every day with Lucky. You know, right after school ended.”
A sign read “Caution, Hard Hats Only, All Visitors Must Check in at Office.”
“Yeah, I don’t know – we should check it out anyway. There’s got be something cool underneath all this shit.” I slid my hand along the fence. Glinting under the lampposts. Grabbed the end pole. I slipped between two fence sections. Stepped into mud. “C’mon, this looks kinda exciting.” Mel followed me. We sloshed through a dark passageway edged by scaffolding. I stuck my feet on concrete ledges on either side to skip the mud. Yellow dirt-smeared plastic hung thick on one side. The familiar wood of the building on the other.
“Hey, look! That’s where the Paradox used to be,” Mel said. Pressed her hands to form a dark hollow on the window. Inside, there was a stark white room. A pink insulation-wrapped column speared the middle. Held it. We pressed on. Rounded the corner of the building. The scaffolding stopped. A green truck loomed up where a delicate table used to sit.
I remembered damp nights waiting on those wrought iron chairs for some punk band to stop. For Mel to get off from her Paradox shift at midnight and come run around with me. I remembered the halos of the late night mist around the Plaid Pantry. Mel and I scuffing our feet in the gravel trying to decide who was going to risk the fake I.D. this time. Mel ran up and pulled at the heavy door. It opened. She jumped in and sat on the cracked vinyl. Turned the wheel. Made honking and whistling sounds between her teeth.
“Hey, don’t! What if the security guy comes by? We’ll be screwed.”
“Come on, it’s past two am. There’s nobody out here.”
I stared up at her. Imagined the truck rocketing off over the chain link fence and barbed wire, over the brick rooftop of the dorm straight ahead. The lampposts lit the chrome with this eerie, alien light. Cutting her finely curved face into harsh crescents. I turned around. Glared at the new copper flourishes on the old Student Union building. Said, “I hate this. I really do. It looks like Portland State. What happened to all of our Dustbitches tags?”
Mel bent the wheel over. Slid down the side of the truck to the mud. “Yeah. You really went wild with that one.”
“It was one way to make a point.”
“Sure, but what point? That you’ve marked your territory, pissed on it?”
“C’mon! You helped.”
“Well, sure. I love me a little silver spray paint, sure. But, however clever, it will always get painted over. Anyway, let’s see if the inside’s any better. I think the main door’s around that corner we passed.”
Mel and I backtracked through the scaffolding. Past the coffee shop again. Then the windows of what looked like offices. Turned left at the first corner. The glow outside shone in spots through the plastic.
The front door was stripped of all the old flyers, leaving only the most determined spray paint. The door handles were locked. Chained closed with a padlock. I lifted it. Rattled it around. Clunked it down. Through the window above I could see the cavernous room was completely empty. The worn couches I used to sleep on – gone. The elegant stand-up ashtrays, the 1970s National Geographic collages, the mechanical bull – gone. The wood was waxed to a golden sheen. Huge shadows fell across it, laced by falling dust.
“No better. Worse.” I cracked my near empty can of PBR over the door chain. Baptized it into something else. Pouring one out for the Dustbitches spectral presence. Spilling the dregs of my beer onto the musty concrete steps.
The Dustbitches were my housemates Karla, Liz, Thandi, Mel and I. We liked to pretend that we were in a girl gang. Mainly, we just went to metal parties. I still have the old photograph of Karla, Liz and I. Decked out in our metal T’s and short vinyl skirts. My hair a burst of blonde frost with black edges. Karla’s red lips were clenched around a Capri Menthol cigarette. She always smoked Capri Menthols. Always.
Past the scaffolding, we walked across the dark lawn to the swing set. Sat down. My feet rocketed upwards. The lawn flashing by for a second before I swung down and back. A dormitory loomed like a giant bouncy-castle. Next to me, Mel swung higher. Her black canvas shoes collided with the sky.
“I can’t deal with Lucky anymore,” she said. A braid of her ragged hair tumbled off towards the grass. “He was so charming for the first three weeks. I was really started to like him. But now, he’s been Mr. Sulky Incommunicative all last week. Finally, the other day, I went upstairs and tried to talk to him about it. But, you know how it is.”
It was a poorly kept secret that I was in love with Mel. Felt she could do a lot better. She liked to date dangerous men.
“What’d he say?” I said.
“Seems like he…” Mel began. “He just quit talking to me. He just hangs around the house watching one Robert Mitchum movie after another.” The steel arch of the swing set bound us in.
I remembered talking to Lucky a couple weeks earlier. Encircled by the dim glow of the candles the last time we’d forgotten to pay the electricity bill. We’d talked about this band and that band. Berkeley vs. Portland. He’d had some good things to say about living life vividly. I remembered thinking, He’s in a fucked up place, but he’s a good guy. He had a rough sincerity that I liked. But this sympathy dropped as soon as he’d started ignoring Mel.
“Yeah, it was shitty. He kept saying things like, ‘I don’t have to answer to you, you’re not a part of this.’ Just shutting me out completely. And we had something. As of three days ago we were together, but he’s suddenly decided I don’t exist.”
“You do exist. You deserve to be recognized as a person. And you pay rent, which he certainly doesn’t.” I gripped the swing-chains harder. I couldn’t help talking shit about Lucky, now.
“Yeah, I’m so sick of this nurturing bit. It’s like, oh, poor lil’ Plaid Pantry Robber. Ooh budgie budgie boo. The cops are going to get you. Ooh I feel so sorry for you. He got himself into this situation. There are a thousand other ways he could live his life. He chose this. He’s going to have to deal with it instead of expecting me to join in and get sucked down into his self-pity thing, or some dumb shit Bonnie and Clyde. Not interested.” Mel’s face twisted up.
“Well, from what I’ve seen, all he does is sit around and feel sorry for himself, alternating with violent holdups,” I said. “Can you really feel sorry for someone like that?” Dark oaks were silhouetted against the deep blue sky under my feet. I swept up faster and faster.
“I remember. “ I said. “I remember when I was going out with that one guy, Sam. All I ever did with him was sit around and watch him shoot up. Talk about how he was quitting. How he was counting on me to help him. Blah. Blah. Yeah, right. But I was such an idiot. I kept hanging out with him and trying to help him. Fucking him.
Finally I walked in on him and his roommate, this redhead, shooting up together. She had her hand on his forehead. I realized right then they’d been sleeping together this whole time. I got the hell out, and quickly. Sometimes there’s no point in sticking around to watch someone destroy themselves.” I wanted to protect Mel from experiences like this, even if ultimately I could not.
“Yeah. I feel like because he is friends with some of our housemates, he feels he can just stay indefinitely and scrawl Robert Mitchum all over the house and the porch like it’s his personal playpen. Whether or not he’s dating me or treating me right.”
“Yeah, That’s a problem, I mean, fuck, it just makes the bigger problem worse. Yeah, he Dustbin is a party house and a crazy kid house and all that, but people also live there. We do. The travelers, the partiers, they forget that. They act like its public property. Those two older biker guys: Bud and Eddy. They come over all the time. They creep me out a lot, but I’m afraid to kick them out because I fear the wrath of Karla. She’s friends with them as long as they’ve got smokes and whiskey.”
“Can they buy us that easily?” The sky clouded over. Purples and grays like cheap eye shadow.
“I think some of us, yeah.”
“But Lucky. Lucky. He’s the one I really can’t deal with. Of all the abuses of the house, his are the worst. He’s hurting me more than just writing Sacto Vermin League or whatever the fuck all over the walls.” Mel let her legs fall limp. The swing shuddered.
“You need to talk this out with him.” I stuck my heels down. Skidded in the sand.
“Okay, let’s go back up there. I’ll try and deal. Or kick some ass or something.” She was unsure. She jerked her legs on the swing. Flew backwards. Forwards. Jumped out over the black lawn. Hands flailing. A yowling shadow over the sky.
My shins ached as we strode fast up SE Woodstock Blvd. My eyes darted from the sherbet-colored craftsman houses to the sidewalk. The dark grass seemed to hide glints from the streetlights. Next to me, Mel was talking fast. The rubber soles of her canvas boots made a hush-hush sound that blurred her words together.
“God,” Mel said “I should have known since that one time when we were making out and I saw that T.R. Thugs tattoo on his shoulder. Totally sewing-needled. Just like the ones on a couple of my other exes in other towns. I should have known then Lucky was a bad guy into bad shit. I should have gotten a clue then. Gotten away before I started feeling something that would bind me in. Damn.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “What bothers me most is the sheer sketchiness factor. Like, I mean it was the secret that no one talked about but everyone knew that he was getting his money from busting the Plaid Pantries and 7-11s around town and down in Eugene and stuff. Even our last party, you knew all the beer was paid for by his last run, right?”
We faced off in front of a pink rock garden studded with lawn ornaments. A Virgin Mary in a shell stood with a hulking frog. Nymphs frolicked small and stony next to pale blue windmills.
“Of course I knew that. I think everyone in our house knows.” Mel waved her hands. “It all disappears in a matter of days, too. He spends it all on beer and cigarettes for everyone. Then he’s mopey and broke again and has to go do it all over again.” She shook both hands in the air. Streetlight glints caught in the decorative chains around her wrists.
“And he’s going to keep on doing it. Maybe ’til he gets caught.”
“Which he whines about all the fucking time,” she grimaced.
The rock garden seemed edged with phosphorescence. The cherry cough syrup glow made me softly remember a Robitussin night. Seeing glittery circus animals stampede across the porch. I didn’t want to say anything about it. Just watching the pink glow refract in the fine wires around Mel’s hair was enough. Just watching her smooth skin undulate as she bent her features into another pout was enough, I moved towards her, slowly. A car came careening down the street, headlights flickering. In the flash I lost my nerve.
Images courtesy of Andrea Lambert.