The author’s senior photo
The first thing you need to know about Danny is that Danny wasn’t punk. I mean, Danny wanted to be punk. Danny wanted to be a lot of things, to be fair, but punk was definitely one of them. He also wanted to be my boss. I met him on my first day on a new job, fresh out of college, where I had been hired to help manage a statewide network of food pantries. Danny had held my job for a year before I was hired; it was eventually determined that this was too much work for one person, so the position was split, and I was the lucky person who got the second half.
The day I met Danny, I walked into my new basement office, a spring in my step and a box full of knick knacks in my arms. It was a small office, full of cheap furniture and a computer that probably could have applied for a learner’s permit, but it was mine. Well, half-mine. The other half belonged to the man slouched in an office chair by the sole window, a small rectangle of light inexplicably wrapped in bubble wrap. (Later, it was explained to me that the office manager thought plastic was trashy, so the residents of the office resorted to cramming bubble wrap into the small windows when she wasn’t looking. One of many signs that this gig would not be ideal.) He looked me up and down, a shaggy blonde near-mullet brushing the collar of
his Bad Religion shirt. He badly needed a shave, and the knobby knees his long hands rested on jittered incessantly––the cold or nerves, who could say.
“Hi, I’m Harmony.” I smiled at him, putting my assorted plants and toys on what appeared to be an empty desk.
“That’s my desk.”
“Oh.” I looked it over, then looked back at him, trying to convey a willingness to get along. “I’m sorry, it’s just… it looked empty?
“I don’t need a bunch of shit on my desk. You can sit by the window.”
“Ooookay.” I shrugged. “Uh, cool shirt? I love Bad Religion.”
“Cool. Me too.”
He wheeled back over to his empty desk, gesturing at the workspace he’d now left open for me. Time to get to work. And so I did. I spent my winter sneezing and shivering by the window, eyeing Danny’s empty rarely used desk and learning to hate his fucking guts. Back then I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why we disliked each other so fervently, but with the perspective that comes with age, it’s actually pretty obvious why we couldn’t get along: he was a dude whose authority had been taken from him, he had a chip on his shoulder about working with women, and we were both unrepentant, stubborn assholes. It was a recipe for disaster, exacerbated by close quarters and stress. If it were a romantic comedy, we would have married each other. As it is, we’re lucky we both survived.
Danny wasn’t a bad person necessarily––on one occasion he taught me how to parallel park, which I am still grateful for––but he was very much a standard issue Workplace Dude. He was awkward and occasionally rude, and always thoroughly convinced he was correct no matter what. He also had a habit of accepting praise for work I had done, up to and including writing a nomination for himself to win a service award based off of projects I had actually led to completion. My suggestion that he cut out the middleman and simply nominate me was not well-received.
The only thing Danny and I ever agreed on was music. I upped the ante on his casual Bad Religion shirt by bringing in my busted denim jacket covered in pins and patches, a silent dare to call my musical bluff. To my surprise, he was delighted by it, and we soon spent an amiable lunch trading stories about times we had spent in the alleys behind Columbus’s finest bars.
Danny liked to go to punk shows. Danny liked punk music. When we talked about punk music, Danny liked me. But Danny wasn’t punk, not in the real way. Danny couldn’t hang, and Danny couldn’t handle his shit. I learned this on our first road trip together, when Danny met Frankenstein.
Not the book, not the titular monster, not even the Universal Studios creature. Frankenstein was my first car, a damned and misbegotten vehicle that at one point was a forest green ‘98 Toyota Tercel.
She wasn’t always named Frankenstein. When I first purchased her for $2,000 from a library bulletin board, she was the nicest car I’d ever had. I named her Thunderchild, after the human battleship from War of the Worlds. However, I got her when I was dead broke and I had more money for duct tape and bumper stickers than car repairs. To compound this lack of care and feeding, Thunderchild was in three separate hit-and-run accidents (one rear ending, one side-swipe, and one side-front collision) that would have totaled mere mortal cars.
As I quickly learned, this was not a car that could be totaled. Unlike the ill-fated symbol of mankind’s hubris I’d originally named her for, there was nothing that man, nature, or God himself could do to stop her. Sure, you could stove her bumper in and break the back door and knock a headlight or two a bit doo-lally, but she was going to keep surviving.
Hell, she was thriving. Every time I had to patch her up, I would go out into the parking lot of my apartment complex and look her in the headlights, weighing a roll of duct tape in my hand and eyeing her sagging frame. I would frown, as if to say “are we really doing this again?”
In response her hood would glint at me, the car version of an impish grin. She was less a simple automobile than a vehicular avatar of Mick Foley: sure, bust her up. Throw her through the top of a steel cage. We’ll just patch up the damage and she’ll be back on the road in no time. All a part of the game, brother.
Thus her rechristening: partially due to the myriad of patchwork parts I used to keep her going, partially because she was basically undead, and partially in tribute to another famous Frankenstein, the hero of the film Death Race 2000. In the movie, Frankenstein is played by David Carradine, and he is a half-man half-robot that has survived over 1,000 car crashes to continue as a favored competitor in the post- apocalyptic sport of death racing. The best thing about that Frankenstein is that he refuses to die until he achieves his ultimate goal: to shake the hand of the dictator that rules over their dystopia, and then blow him sky-high with the grenade he has had embedded in his cybernetic paw. They literally glued a toy grenade to David Carradine’s hand for this gag.
And yes, he calls it a hand grenade. Just picture it. I often do.
(Death Race 2000 is a grotesque and deeply stupid movie, but it got three things right. It predicted the rise of reality television, it predicted the return of neo-Nazis to national media prominence, and it gave a young Sylvester Stallone the opportunity to chew scenery and drive around in a car with a giant paper-mache knife stuck to the hood. That’s fairly impressive for a Roger Corman joint. I will not vouch for its overall content but feel free to check it out if you have the stomach for exploitation films.)
My working theory was that Frankenstein the car was not going to die until, like Frankenstein the death racer, she had served some higher purpose. Probably nothing as high-profile as an assassination, but maybe some sort of heroic sacrifice, or maybe just hanging in there until I could afford a car that didn’t have a colony of ants living in the backseat. All I could do was just drive her into the ground and pray nobody died along with her when something finally took her down.
By the time this story takes place, Frankenstein looked less like a car and more like a fevered, cubist imagining of what a car might be. Sure, it had a car-like body, but the bumper stuck out at odd angles and the tail-lights were crumpled inwards, blinking at each other in a Dadaist statement of futility. Multiple impacts from late-night drunks left dents in the doors and hood and holes in the car’s finish that allowed massive chunks to simply rust out. Attempts by myself to cover this damage with the myriad stickers I lifted from record stores were not effective. Worse yet, the inside was constantly filled with papers and garbage and the ad-hoc auto garage accoutrements needed to keep her on the road. This was due to my laziness and conviction that nobody would ever want to ride in her; those that did were typically forced to tunnel in around the mayhem and hold any variety of loose car parts in their lap.
She attracted attention everywhere I went. One time I was surprised at work by a call from the Columbus Police. They wanted to let me know that my car had apparently been stolen and taken on a joyride, where it had been smashed up pretty badly.
I panicked for a second, then I realized I had only parked her about ten minutes ago. That didn’t seem like long enough for some teens to huff a bunch of spray paint and ram her into a tree, or whatever it is freewheeling joyriding teenagers do for fun. So I asked where she was, and the cops informed me she was sitting at a meter, parked nearby a very familiar address.
I glanced out of the bubble-wrapped window and waved at the cop who was scowling at my car, ripping pieces of paper out of their ticketbook. “No…no, it’s fine. That’s just my car. No, I know it looks like that, but that’s just the way the car looks, I guess? Yes, it runs. Thanks for calling.”
So, it’s fair to say that Frankenstein was more punk than I ever could have hoped to be. I accessorized her adversarial relationship with the law by being constantly too broke to update my license and registration. Usually I was able to sweet-talk my way out of a ticket––I was young and cute and very good at sounding sorry––but I knew that eventually my luck would run out.
On the night of the incident, I was driving through downtown Cleveland at the end of an incredibly long day. I was there on business. Though I lived in Columbus, regular visits to our network sites were required, and these kinds of trips were highly coveted gigs because they resulted in a massive mileage check. Of course I leapt at the chance to go. When you drive the world’s shittiest and yet most fuel efficient car, a mileage check is basically pure profit. God bless Toyotas.
Unfortunately, after I’d cemented myself as the person for this journey, I got an email from my boss. The Cleveland team wanted to meet with myself and Danny too––I was too new at the job to handle this kind of meeting myself. And so, Danny met Frankenstein.
I will never forget the look on his face as I pulled up to the office in my ride. He didn’t even bother to hide his grimace. The car didn’t look like it could make it to Cleveland. Hell, it didn’t look like it could make it down the block. It looked like she would have done everyone a favor if she’d simply died right there and then, to be hauled down to the river and donated as a family home to a tribe of crust-punk raccoons. But I reassured Danny that I had driven her to Chicago and back with no trouble at all. Cleveland would be a breeze.
He sighed loudly and got in the passenger side, kicking napkins out of his way. He lit a cigarette without asking––but then, who would assume any behavior was prohibited in this CBGBs bathroom of an automobile? He gave me a sideways glance, then slammed a wallet of CDs on the dashboard.
“What do you want to listen to?”
This was a good call from Danny. Music was the one way we’d found to keep the peace between us. Even if we wanted to poke each other’s eyes out, we could sit in companionable silence and listen to a Black Flag album, and that made up for a lot of our basic inability to talk to each other and negotiate conflict.
Unfortunately, there are some problems that not even punk music can fix. For example, a scenario where you have traveled to a new city and are now out to dinner with a male coworker with whom you have a contentious relationship, and he has decided to invite his girlfriend, who you did not know lived in Cleveland until she showed up at the restaurant to inform you that you are late for dinner plans you were unaware of. Unbeknownst to you, this coworker and his girlfriend are going through a bit of a rocky patch. They apparently still feel obligated to spend time together, time that for some godforsaken reason they have chosen to make a part of a professional obligation you are doing your damndest to carry out. Your co-worker will ask you if you like wings, and then order some for you and him to share.
Not to share with the girlfriend. Because as they arrive at the table she’ll squint and pout, then look away. You’ll grab a wing because you’re hungry and wings are good, but then you’ll pass the plate her way, and she’ll shake her head as if you’d offered to let her bite the head off a rat.
The wings are not for her. The girlfriend is a vegetarian. The wings were a power move, and you are now complicit. The barbeque sauce you are licking from your fingers may as well be blood.
(Full disclosure: I ate almost all of the wings. I mean, I wasn’t dating her.)
Alongside the wings, Danny ordered a six-pack for the table. We were at a well- known Cleveland brewery, after all. This would have been a friendly move except for the fact that the girlfriend did not want to drink, and I couldn’t have any on virtue of being our designated driver. So Danny drank five beers.
We paid the bill and left. And then I had to drive us to our hotel. Luckily, it was only a few blocks away from where we’d had dinner. I pulled into my numbered spot, took the key out of the ignition…
And that was the moment the cruiser, who had silently tailed me in from the main road, put on his siren.
Next to me, Danny blinked and groaned, startled out of a comfortable beer-and- wings doze. “What the fuuuuuuck.”
“I don’t know.” I blinked at the red and blue lights spinning in the rearview. I tried to remember where my license, registration, and insurance might have been hiding in the maelstrom of garbage that was my car.
“Where’s your, uh-” Danny reached for the glove compartment. I jumped.
“Dude, don’t.” I shook my head, looking out the car window. “Don’t move unless they tell you to. Just please be quiet and don’t breathe beer out the window.”
“Because!” I hissed through my teeth, trying to maintain a smile for the officer approaching my window. “They’re fucking cops and we’re broke and you’re drunk and I’m pretty sure my license is expired!”
We were interrupted by a loud knock on my window. I looked out to see the officer, a wall of scowling blue. He was a tall, wide man who seemed to be made in a lab for the purposes of filling a drivers-side window as scarily as possible. He was wearing sunglasses and his lip was twisted into a pre-emptive sneer. He should have been hassling teens in a seventies horror movie, not bothering me on a work night. He as expecting trouble, and I planned to give him as little of it as possible. “License, registration, and proof of insurance.”
“They’re in the glovebox and my purse, sir.”
When he said this I let out a sigh of relief and went rummaging around my seat, searching for proof that my car was legally mine.Out of the corner of my eye I saw Danny bend over, rustling through the detritus at his feet. I whispered to him to cut it out and lean back so I could pop the glove box, but he kept going, groping for some unknown treasure.
The police officer drummed his fingers on the side of the car, clearly impatient. I hissed a final warning to Danny and snapped the glove box open, hitting him in the arm. He yelped, but I ignored him. I grabbed the papers and waved them out the window at the officer.
He held them away from himself, scowling at them, as if the mess in my car was somehow contagious. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“No sir.” Always say sir to a police officer. Never respond with any detail at all if you can help it. Be friendly. Be polite. Don’t offer them anything. Don’t let them in the car. Don’t say anything you don’t have to. My brain chattered these warnings to me, all of the things that women know about getting pulled over by cops in strange cities. The warnings that keep us safe.
“Your plates are expired. Are you aware that’s a felony in this state?”
I bit my tongue so I did not reply that expired license plates are not a felony in Ohio or any other state. Next to me Danny’s rustling finally ceased. “No sir.”
“I’ll be damned. Your license is expired too.” He leaned over and leered into the car, sizing us up. “What are two kids doing driving in Cleveland all the way from Columbus with expired plates and an expired license?”
“We’re here for work, sir.” I hoped he would notice the business card I slipped into the pile of papers I handed him. Proof that I worked for a nonprofit, that I was a good person, and that I didn’t make enough money to be worth messing with. After all, if I’d had the money to replace my expired documents, I’d have done so.
Ironically, I’d used my first couple of paychecks to catch up some other outstanding bills, and I’d been waiting for the mileage check from the Cleveland trip to take care of the car expenses. I’d known I was gambling, and sometimes when you gamble, you lose. I could accept that. My goal at this point was to get away from the table intact.
“At 11 at night?” He shook his head slowly, as if he had never heard anything so shameful in all of his life. “It isn’t legal for you to drive in this city. If you weren’t parked, I would have your car towed and impounded.”I nodded quietly, not trusting myself to say anything. Next to me, I heard my CD player suck in a CD. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Danny’s precious CD wallet sprawled open in his lap. A cold feeling crept over me. He wouldn’t.
“I’m going to run your plates. If there’s anything incriminating in the car or on your record, you ought to tell me now. It won’t be good for you if I find something.”
Typical cop, offering me just enough rope to hang myself with. A chill ran up my back as I considered what “good for me” meant in this particular situation.
“There’s nothing, sir.
And in the long pause between his sentence and mine, I heard a song start––choppy surf-style guitar, squealing over a quick beat. Jello Biafra’s distinct, yodeling vocal fry.
Tonight’s the night that we got the truck!
We’re going downtown, gonna beat up drunks!
“I’m sure, sir.”
I jammed the power button of the stereo, turning the music off. Fucking Danny, of course he wanted to play a Dead Kennedys song at a cop!
The cop leaned back on his heels, glaring at me over the top of blueblocker shades nobody needed to be wearing at night. “You’d better not be lying to me.”
I swallowed, trying not to visibly panic. My record was completely clean. As far as I knew, I was telling the truth, though I would be hard-pressed to actually inventory the contents of my horrifying car. So why was I so scared?
Jello’s voice cut through the air once more––quietly, but raising in volume.
Got a black uniform and a silver badge!
Playing cops for real, playing cops for pay!
I slapped Danny’s hand and turned the stereo off again.
“I’m not lying, sir.”
“Stay in the car. Do not attempt to leave the scene. I’ll be back.”
He crunched away.
I turned to Danny, eyes bugging out of my head. “What are you doing?!”
“Just… tellin’ em.
“I’m tellin’ em!”
“Telling them WHAT?!”
“That this is BULLSHIT!” Danny slurred triumphantly and jabbed the power button on the CD player again, letting Jello’s nasal chanting fill the air between us. And that was the moment I realized that young white men are not scared of the police. Not the way the rest of us are.
Now, I cannot speak for every young white woman in the world, but I was always… not scared, maybe, but hyper-aware of what the consequences of making a cop mad at me could be. Danny apparently wasn’t. But if he’d ever actually listened to the lyrics of “Police Truck,” maybe he would have understood why I was so anxious in that moment:
Pull down your dress, here’s a kick in the ass
Let’s beat you blue, ‘till you shit your pants
Don’t move child, I gotta big black stick
There’s six of us babe, so suck on my dick!
“Police Truck” is a dark retelling of the real-life crimes that a pair of actual Los Angeles policemen were accused of in the seventies. It’s the story of two officers who go on patrol and spend their night beating up the homeless and raping sex workers. Written from the point of view of the officers, it confirms your every worst fear about out-of control-cops, as well as a number of your suspicions.
If you know the Dead Kennedys at all, you probably know them from California Uber Alles or Holiday in Cambodia or another one of their snarky, sarcastically violent takes on how bogus society is. And to be fair, that is a lot of what I liked about the Dead Kennedys back in the day. They were extreme and snotty and ugly and probably far, far too comfortable using the N-word. I was able to ignore all of that because their music was as urgent and angry about injustice as I was on an average day. The proto-surf punk sound with the heavy backbeat, the nasal whine and moan of Jello’s verbal gymnastics––it all sounded like a warning. Like an air raid siren you could dance to.
And it often was a warning. I suspect the reason that the Dead Kennedys made it into mall punk rotation is that for people with a certain level of privilege––ahem, people like Danny––they didn’t realize that the band were singing about things that actually happened to people. Songs like “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and “Kill the Poor” are loud and simplistic, but they’re purposeful. By being snotty and rude and throwing the ugliness of the world in your face, they puncture posturing and high-flung notions of art. It’s music with a mission, kicking you in the shins to get you to listen up.
Dead Kennedys songs are built on the foundation of exaggeration––hippie politicians running organic death camps, poverty fantasy camps for privileged college kids, holocausts sponsored by McDonald’s––but they’re rooted in the truth. Neo-nazi skinheads do infiltrate music scenes with frightening ease. The theoretical neutron bomb actually was endorsed as a scientific miracle because it vaporized flesh and left buildings intact, to be reclaimed by whomever won the war in which they were employed. And cops really do abuse their power every day, in ways the world is increasingly unable to ignore. Life is full of mean and dangerous shit, and Jello wants you to look right at it.
Since the punk scene tends to be dominated by young white men, the perspectives of women and people of color, those most often and directly affected by police brutality, tend to be left out of the most popular songs. This is one of the reasons that “Police Truck” is interesting: it’s played from the point of view of the cops, but you have to empathize with their female victims to understand the meaning of the lyrics. The women accosted by these police are taken into custody, subjected to horrific violence, and raped. These police officers target them because they are sex workers and have no recourse. The music is fast-paced and fun but the story is incredibly dark. We’re supposed to be disgusted by their actions. We’re supposed to feel horribly for the women they attacked. And we’re supposed to understand that they get away with it, and anything else they want to do, because they’re cops.
I didn’t know why I had been pulled over that night in Cleveland. In hindsight it’s obvious: a car that looked like mine with out-of-county plates pulling into a hotel at eleven at night likely didn’t belong to anybody law abiding. Officer Friendly out there was on patrol, bored, and saw what he thought might be an easy target for a ticket. So he tailed me and pulled me over and did his damnedest to scare the fuck out of me, because he had a gun and a badge and nothing better to do.
But at the time, all I could think about was the potential for real danger. The stories I had heard from female friends and their encounters with cops. How they could be sweet if they thought of you as something to protect, and how they could be vile if they thought of you as something to exploit. I was of course not as vulnerable as a sex worker or a person of color, but I was poor and scared and I’d just handed the cop everything he needed to make my life hell if he wanted to. I just had to hope he didn’t want to.
If nothing else, “Police Truck” lays those fears out in the starkest way possible, in a way anybody should be able to grasp and react to. Of course, if you’re a young white man, you always have the option of not doing that. Danny played that song because he thought it was cool and he thought it would be funny to piss off a cop. I turned it off because the lyrics reminded me what might happen next.
Happily, the rest of the traffic stop ended without incident. The cop stomped back to my car, handed me a $150 traffic ticket and informed me that he was keeping my license, as it was expired and he didn’t want me to use it any more. (This was an illegal seizure, by the way!)
He also told me that until I left the city of Cleveland, I was not allowed to drive my car. “You’re going to have to let him drive.” He pointed his sausage finger at Danny, slumped in the passenger side of the car, burping and fiddling with his phone. I nearly pointed out that I was our designated driver for the evening, and Danny was pretty obviously hammered, and that maybe it wasn’t the best plan for a sober driver to step aside for a drunk one. But we were at the hotel and I wasn’t there to push my luck, so I said fine. And with a final admonition to be careful out there (out there being the motel, I guess?) the cop was gone.
And that was the end of it, other than the paperwork and the fines. It was an expensive, frustrating hassle to get my license reinstated and to drive back to Cleveland for traffic court, but it could have been much worse. I was lucky, and I was privileged, and that allowed me to walk away unscathed.
Whenever I tell people this story, they ask me whatever happened to Frankenstein. The truth is that she didn’t have any sort of great fiery sendoff or even a proper retirement. I eventually saved up enough money to buy a car that didn’t have a giant hole in the floor, and so I did. The guy I was dating at the time needed a reliable ride, so I traded her to him for a hotdog and a handshake. Frankenstein carried on in her noble work of keeping broke people employable until 2011, when her drive train finally gave out and she got hauled to the scrapyard.
But she did do me one final favor before she moved on to her new owner. Shortly before I purchased my new car, I got a call from Danny, who had since moved on to a better gig at a larger organization. He had left his wallet of punk CDs in my car for the better part of a year. By the time he finally called and asked for them back, Frankenstein had taken her revenge upon him. She’d sucked the CDs into her backseat, swallowed them, and partially digested them. The wallet was shot, and a few CDs had cracked or been scratched, including the Dead Kennedy’s one he’d tried to play for our friend the cop. I was pretty broke at the time so I could not replace them outright, but I found a few used replacements and burned copies of the rest, and mailed it all off to him with an apologetic note.
I had thought this was a good olive branch––not ideal, but I was broke, and at least it was an effort. Two months later, Danny emailed me to let me know that the CDs that had been destroyed were quite valuable, and he wanted me to replace them with actual CDs, not burned copies. He awaited my reply.
I never replied, of course, and I never will. Unless this essay counts as a reply, in which case:
Hello, Danny! You made “Police Truck” a song I can never listen to without thinking of you, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing, so I consider my debt repaid. If you get a Spotify account, you can also listen to that song or whatever else got broken in my car whenever you want to, and you never have to bother me again. Music is free now, Danny. Be well.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**