Jeff Smith noon, March 8
George Michael’s Penis: Commando Performance in SD? Plus I Sold My Albums, Rockin’ Tattoos & TJ Bathrooms
Wham Wang, Locals Rock Their Tats, Everybody’s Gotta Go Sometime, and I Sold My Albums to Off the Record
Wham Wang, Locals Rock Their Tats, Everybody’s Gotta Go Sometime, and I Sold My Albums to Off the Record
1 – Did George Michael’s Penis Make a Commando Performance in San Diego?
2 – The Day I Sold My Albums to Off the Record
3 - Rockin’ Tattoos; Locals Talking Tats
4 - Tijuana Bathrooms: Everybody’s Gotta Go Sometime
5 - An Excrement Job In The Gaslamp District
For George Michael’s opening tour date at the Sports Arena June 17 - his first U.S. show in 17 years - attendees report getting a bit more than they bargained for: Michael’s penis.
"You could tell he wasn't wearing underwear. It [his penis] was flopping all over the place," said one attendee, quoted on E! Online.com.
Over the next few days, the forums section on georgemichael.com was rife with speculation about the commando performance, from both fans and haters.
Liljoe: “OMG, I swear it was like he was daring people to just come up to the stage and touch it.”
Manomana: “Oh yeh, I want his sex…I don’t care if its a public bathroom.”
Diablo665: “I was thinking WTF, I wanted to hear the music...not watch softcore gay porn.”
Cazturner: “…just coz I’m a girl please don’t expect me not to take a peak at that floppy thing.”
Jammrz90: “…nuthin everyone hasn’t seen before.”
Nofanish87: “He should have had a fluffer backstage to pump it up for him…are you sure it wasn’t just a tootsey [sp] roll in his pocket?”
Most media reports indicate that the Sports Arena show only sold around two thirds of the available seats.
“This isn’t the original paper sleeve, you know. It looks like someone just cut it out of a grocery bag and stuck the album in it.”
Off The Record co-owner (at the time) Rich Horowitz wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know about the copy of “Two Virgins” he’d pulled from my collection of around 4,000 vinyl albums.
His expert eye quickly noticed that the cover jacket featuring a nude photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was as counterfeit as the wraparound sleeve that had been cutout in one spot, to reveal famous faces rather than Beatle balls.
The bootleg release commonly sells for around $40.00 in collector’s magazines like Goldmine and through online auctions. Horowitz added my copy to a stack of records he was willing to buy for $5.00 or more apiece, along with about two dozen choice selections.
There were three other stacks of potential purchases, worth to OTR either twenty five cents, fifty cents or one dollar. Several hundred albums were separated into these stacks, with what Horowitz and company called “the quarter bin,” sprawling in six long rows across my living room floor.
I’d heard good things from other vinylholics about OTR’s willingness to buy large collections, to supplement the inventory described on their website then as “250,000 titles of all genres of music…expertly graded for appearance, sound quality and authenticity.”
The mountain of LPs I’d hoarded while running a record store in New England occupied nearly one full room in the two bedroom house I was about to vacate.
Stacked along three walls within wood watermelon crates and on rows of steel shelving, the records were so heavy that the walls behind the stacks were cracking and a portion of the floor was beginning to sag concave…
Dreading their relocation, and since the collection had gathered a decade of dust, I contacted OTR through the website. My decades of long-playing debris was heavy with 60s and 70s psychedelia, imports and European progressive rock, fusion jazz, regional garage bands, novelty records and soundtracks from cult movies and TV shows.
Horowitz phoned me the next day, and his first question addressed the topic most vital to all memorabilia collectors – condition.
“[For] the common stuff or ones that have wear and tear, we only pay a quarter each. Records in mint condition, even if they’re recent or common, might be worth a lot more to us, and if something is rare or a key piece, like a Beatles butcher cover [first print Yesterday And Today LP], we’ll pay around fifty percent of whatever we think it’ll sell for. That’s if it’s in good shape. Do you have a ballpark figure in mind for the whole collection?”
I said yes - without divulging the amount - and mentioned my background in record resale. “It sounds like the way to go would be for us to go through the entire lot and make two bids,” he said. “One for the choice pieces, and then what we’d pay for the entire lot.”
Arrangements were made for his two buyers to come by for an appraisal. On their arrival the following week, I set them loose to pull apart the albums while I worked on some overdue artwork in the next room.
A round record cover on an album by The Goggles was called “unimpressive. “We have lots of these. They did the cover this way because they probably had an old cutout template left over and wanted to get more use from it but it gets lost in the rack since its too short and the band pretty much sucks.” Says him, anyways. Me, I really like that album, AND it’s singular packaging.
“…Dr. West, that was an early Norman Greenbaum band…”
…and “It’s a Tommy rip-off, a rock opera - Alice Cooper does a few songs” (Flash Fearless).
On finding a run of over fifty Frank Zappa LPs, one noted “I haven’t seen some of these in a long time. They’ll sell really fast.” About ten of the albums turned up in their $1.00 stack.
After two hours of browsing, one of the buyers called Horowitz. “It’s really an eclectic collection, a little of everything. Definitely some key stuff and stuff we don’t see too often. Hendrix, Beatles, Moody Blues, Miles Davis, blues and jazz and some real obscure progressive [bands] – it’s definitely worth coming out to take a look yourself.” I found this encouraging. Bring on the big dawg ---- he'll know how rare and in-demand some of this stuff is. A rare freak-folk album like Comus' First Utterance was going for $100 and up -----
By the time Horowitz arrived, the front half of my house was overflowing with winding rows of vinyl, stacked upright and covering nearly every inch of floor space. He did his own once-over and inquired about a few items.
“This one, ‘Epitaph,’ what are they like?” I described the German group (with a British singer) as a cross between Pink Floyd and Journey, with space-rock synths and guitars with slick commercial production. Or a hard-edged Wishbone Ash, with a similar multiple-screaming-guitar sound. I still totally diggem, especially their 1974 debut. I'll always be a sucker for good prog rock ---
“Do you know what this goes for?” he asked of a hexagon-shaped LP and jacket featuring the movie soundtrack from “The Andromeda Strain.” I mentioned seeing online auctions for around $75.00, and that my asking price was at least $40.00. “I’ll pass.” I think he was just testing me, to see how up-to-date I was on price guide values.
I flipped through several hundred of the records they were interested in, and pulled about three dozen that I didn’t want to sell at the offered prices.
“The soundtrack to [the film] ‘Candy’ is big with Beatles collectors because Ringo’s in it. I could get twenty bucks on eBay for it.” Horiwitz and I haggled up to five dollars whereupon I offered to include a poster with the album if he’d up the price to ten dollars. He agreed.
“All these Zappa albums are original prints,” I pointed out while pulling “Absolutely Free,” “Freak Out,” “Uncle Meat,” “200 Motels” and a few others from the fifty cent and dollar stacks.
“Yeah, but look at the records themselves. They’re in pretty poor shape.”
Though I had to acknowledge his grading expertise, at least regarding retail sales potential, I knew that none of the albums had scratches or skips bothersome enough to dim my enjoyment of them. Should I ever bring my lonely turntable back to life anyway.
Rather than negotiate, I returned them to my sagging, cracking, climate-controlled back room. Still half-filled with LPs.
I asked what those remaining albums were worth to him, and Horowitz shook his head, smiling with what I interpreted to be a bit of amusement and a bit of pity.
“To be honest, the rest is just junk. The market for common stuff doesn’t even exist anymore, and nobody can sell worn out albums, it isn’t worth the cost to store them. Tell you what, I could give you the number of someone who can haul them away for you and give you a few bucks to recycle them.”
I declined – keeping around 2,000 albums for myself - and we moved on to their bid for the maze of vinyl in my living room. I’d calculated the wholesale value [by OTR’s specs] at just under a thousand dollars.
Their offer was close enough to this figure, and we quickly closed the deal. I got them to toss in a bit more for a couple of concert poster books I had duplicates of, and that brought the number up to an even grand.
Earlier in the day, I’d been worried – would I really be able to do this? Part with a chunk of my collection? I’ve lugged these albums cross-country over six different moves. Twice that many homes.
I swear, once - when I had around 1,500 albums in the car, and we hit tornadoes in Tennessee - the weight of those albums is all that kept us upright and alive, as we cowered in the wheel-wells and watched parked trucks and phone poles topping onto their sides all around us!
Would I really be able to ween myself of my vinyl addiction????
As the three carted out the records, in boxes I’d prepared for my impending move, I felt none of the regret I’d anticipated. Instead, I felt relieved of a longtime burden.
Aside from their physical weight, all those LPs required housing, climate control, square footage of floor and wall space and security, so much so that I was feeling like the records owned me rather than the reverse.
All three OTR reps were grunting and sweating, their spines curving downward as they lifted each 20-30 pound box. I thought to myself, “better them than me.”
The weight I felt lifted from my shoulders was approximately equal to the weight of those departing boxes.
However, the sale had only culled a bit less than half my collection. There were still around 2,000 albums in the Leaning Tower of Vinyl threatening to knock down one or more walls of my house. What to do, what to do???
(to be continued…….)
“I FOUND NIRVANA (NEXT TO THE FOO FIGHTERS)” – A POEM ABOUT RECORD COLLECTING
Awhile back, after exhausting myself with hours and hours of filing records in a massive album collection, I was inspired to pen this little ode to OCD:
I found Nirvana - next to the Foo Fighters
I saw Asia with ELP
I caught Badfinger pointing at the Beatles
and Velvet Underground burying Lou Reed
I filed Buster Poindexter with the NY Dolls
And placed Ted Nugent with the Amboy Dukes
I mixed Meatloaf with Rocky Horror
and Southside Johnny with the Asbury Jukes
I have Box Car Racer right next to Blink
I placed Yes with Wakeman and Howe
I have Roy Harper mixed in with Pink Floyd
And the Doors with “Apocalypse Now”
I split Fripp with King Crimson and Gabriel
With Bowie, there’s Eno and Pop
Roxy Music includes Manzanera and Ferry
and Texas Jam's there with ZZ Top
Denny Laine's filed with Wings, not the Moodies
Ronnie Wood's with the Stones, not Small Faces
And Cream just goes perfect with Clapton
Like A Night At The Opera goes with A Day At The Races
ELP has Greg Lake, 3 and Carl Palmer
But Emerson’s under the Nice
Bauhaus has Pete, Love & Rockets
(and an audio book read by Anne Rice)
Tommy Bolin’s with Deep Purple and Zephyr
Frampton’s solo, not with Humble Pie
Alan Parsons has Ambrosia AND Pilot
(most of whom played on Eye In The Sky)
I found so many folks with the Dead
they needed their own separate box
a mystery worthy of Behind The Music
given I think that all Dead music sucks
I'm so sick and tired of filing
and remembering where things are filed
but it's better than trying to find things
in a mountainous, long-playing pile.
2 - ROCKIN’ TATTOOS; LOCALS TALKING TATS
Tattoo shops flourish in San Diego, and pretty much always have. Customers used to be perceived, correctly or not, as coming from predominantly military, blue collar or “outlaw” (bikers and ex-cons) backgrounds. In actuality, practitioners and aficionados come from every conceivable social strata, though the clientele for these highly regulated businesses has shifted sharply toward a young, non-military rock and roll demographic in recent years.
Heavily inked bands like blink 182, Limp Bizkit, Suicidal Tendencies, Motley Crue, Pantera, Biohazard and Bad Religion are poster children for the growing new tattoo nation and skin art has already surpassed fad status and is practically a mainstream form of expression among 18-25 year olds.
Images used most often are stock (predesigned) rather than custom (based on a client’s design or request). Flash sets, collected sheets with design illustrations, are sold and traded among tattooists and customers looking for the ideal mark, as well as being available from several catalog sources.
Color sets are usually most expensive at a couple hundred dollars per twenty. The same money will get you around thirty or more black and gray design sheets. One set usually includes images grouped by themes, such as “reapers, wizards, fairies, moons, lizards, Egyptian eye, demons, tribal, dolphins, angels, mermaids and fire dragon.”
You can find collections of these flash sheets in bound books and hanging on the walls at most tattoo shops, and most include rock related images like guitars on fire, band logos, intricate copies of album cover graphics and similar iconography.
San Diego native Judy Parker of Pacific Tattoo on Main Street has been creating tattoos for twenty two years, having begun as an apprentice downtown where tattoo parlors have long been concentrated. “Everyone has flaming guitars, drums, bass, all kinds of instruments. Mostly I just do people’s favorite groups like Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, things like that. I do the word Kiss with the images of the faces of the characters in each letter.”
She’s also recreated album covers for fans of various bands. “Right now I’m doing one of Great White where I’m changing it so it’s more military. It has a mermaid being pulled up on a fishing hook but I’ve changed it to an anchor.” She mentions a tattoo version of an Ozzy Osbourne cover, but almost reluctantly. “I mean it’s okay but it’s not one of my favorites. I prefer underwater scenes but I do what I’m told because that’s how I make a living.”
Parker has inked for several local musicians but most of her rock tats are done for fans. “I did a Stevie Ray Vaughan portrait. Kiss and Rolling Stones tattoos probably are the number ones I would say. But I get the newer ones that I’m not even familiar with because of my age group. I’m forty and I’m doing things with Bush, bands like that.”
The Ink Spot in Pacific Beach offers sample designs like a skeleton playing guitar, a mouse playing a flaming sax, a flaming skull with crossed guitars, a flying drum, WB’s cartoon Tasmanian Devil bursting through some drums, a skeleton playing a fiddle similar to Phil Garris’ album cover for the Grateful Dead’s “Blues For Allah” and bloodshot eyeballs popularized by 60s poster and album cover artist Rick Griffin. There’s also an iridescent scarab logo made famous by concert poster painters Mouse And Kelley (on albums by Journey and others), variations of which seem to appear at most tattoo shops.
The Inkers Tattoo Company on El Cajon Boulevard near College Avenue has sample sheets which include the usual comic strip swipes and tribal logos as well as some standard rock icons - a flaming guitar, a flaming skeleton playing guitar, flaming music notes, another Journey scarab (yes, with flames), a dragon wrapped around an electric guitar and an old bluesman wearing a long trench coat and playing. Brooklyn transplant Hammer says custom jobs are more popular at his shop than generic stock designs. “For awhile we were doing Social Distortion with the skeleton, that was happening all the time.”
He shows me a striking recreation he did of the album cover for Jethro Tull’s “Broadsword And The Beast,” featuring a Tolkeinesque Ian Anderson wearing Robin Hood tights and sporting butterfly wings, draping his wizened hands across a jewel encrusted sword. “The guy’s in the army, I’ve done a lot on him. That took over three hours and we charge around a hundred dollars an hour.”
He’s also done tattoos for members of Epitath and Sledd while others in the shop have worked on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Regarding Sledd, he says “I did a drum set for Dino [Deluke]. That’s actually his drums, right down to the nuts and bolts. You can see the wing nuts on the adjustable stands.”
Asked how he got involved in tattoing, Hammer says “Like most people I guess. I was in construction at one time and I managed a titty bar, but I used to do [tattoos] as a hobby, kind of a side thing. When I got to the point where I could do it pretty well, people said ‘hey, you should get a shop.’ So I got some equipment, got some inks and started working for the guy who used to own this place. One thing led to another and I ended up buying it.”
He says that few local tattoo artists are formally trained in art and that it’s very much a self taught and apprenticed profession in most instances. “Some of these kids that get into it now, they’ve done three tattoos or they’ve worked out of their garage and they think they can open up a shop. They may be able to do a tattoo at half the price we do but it’s half-assed work. Their shops don’t last long.”
Jonathan Loveless at Escondido’s Art Throb Studios reports that logos are popular with his customers. “Kiss, Korn, Aerosmith, Van Halen. One guy got an Eagles tattoo, the cow skull from their greatest hits album. Someone else got the Boston album with the spaceship on it. A Yes album, many Metallica albums, where we use the skulls, and a lot of Judas Priest.”
Some clients want to imitate the look of a specific rocker. “At a shop I used to work at, a guy came in who wanted the exact same sleeve as Nikki Sixx. They had a pictorial done in a tattoo magazine they wanted to copy. The Chili Peppers armband, Anthony’s, I’ve seen that done many times, or the thunderbird on his back.”
Downtown on Broadway for years, Superfly Tattoo’s display books had wide array of designs and photos, including some nicely rendered music notes done in pointillistic fine dot patterns and designed by Tom Donovan. A photo of one custom job showed an impressivley realistic electric guitar owned by the customer and rendered by Berny Fortini with a colorful flaming sun background and flashing lightning bolts. “This tattoo was a lot of details,” she says with a rich Italian accent. “It took me three hours and a half.” She mentions having done a Guns ‘n Roses logo back in Italy.
Master Tattoo - for years operating on 5th Avenue - was a local fixture since just after WWII, calling itself San Diego’s Oldest Tattoo Parlor. In the late '90s, their shop selections included the ubiquitous flaming guitar, a singing Tasmanian Devil, a skeleton playing an ax-shaped guitar that drips blood, a drum set, music notes set against a rose background, more Rick Griffin eyeballs and Journey scarabs and a buxom half naked woman playing guitar and wearing black tights.
Hiro Lynch’s father founded Master at 317 F Street in 1949 and now, several downtown locations later, Hiro ran the venerable shop with his brother Maurice. “We worked on Rob Halford, the word ‘pain’ right across his belly button. He was doing a concert at the time and came in,” he says, showing me a photo of the former Judas Priest singer. The gray haired Lynch says he had no idea who Halford was but that his nephew Gilbert, who did the tattoo, clued him in. “He’s 32 and he’s hep to all the modern music. [Halford] had a nice visit, he’s a real swell guy.” He says that around eighty percent of his shop’s business is military, due to his downtown location and large selection of service related designs.
Most of the business done at other parlors involve civilian trade - males and females (evenly split, many shops report) in their late teens and twenties. At Ace Tattoo in Ocean Beach, a store name which dates back nearly as far as Master’s, current owner Gary Hoag says “I did a lot of rock and roll stuff in the eighties. A lot of guitars, a lot of drumsticks.” He’s done a Rat Fink tattoo (by legendary hot rod cartoonist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth) for Buddy Blue, who then wrote a song called “The Inker Man” for Hoag.
“You know what the biggest logo for tattooing is? Got to be Led Zeppelin. I’ve done the Man On The Hill [from Led Zeppelin #4 aka ZOSO]. In the 80’s when we were in downtown San Diego, nine out of ten guys said ‘I want the [Led Zeppelin] Swan Song logo.’ And the Rolling Stones tongue. I’ve done Prince’s logo a couple of time.”
One of his past clients is the late comedian Flip Wilson. “Believe it or not, I tattooed the head of his [penis].” Somehow, I manage to resist asking how many penises he’s done.
Hoag has also been asked to immortalize revered real life instruments as tattoos but this isn’t his favorite gig. “It’s really hard to do a guitar because of the strings. I try to talk them out of it, I tell them the strings are transparent anyway, but people still want it.” He does enjoy reproducing album graphics. “I’m getting ready to do Iron Maiden right now, ‘The Number The Beast’ on this guy’s back. We get a lot of people who want their zombie character, Eddie.”
I talk to Casey Loewen after his nearly three hour session with Hoag (he estimates two more rounds before the tattoo is finished). “It’s Eddie standing over the devil, and he has him on puppet strings, and then the devil is standing over a little dude and he’s on strings too.”
Located on his mid-back and the same size as the original LP cover, he says this is the first tattoo he’s gotten in ten years. Both of his older tats are rock inspired. “I was listening to Guns ‘n Roses so I’ve got this cowboy skull with a gun and on the other side of my arm and I have Bon Jovi’s tattoo, the cow skull with the feathers hanging off it, the same one he has on his shoulder.”
So why, after ten years with no new ink, Iron Maiden’s “The Number Of The Beast”? “It just popped in my head one morning, ‘I’m going to fill my back up now.’ ”
The most up to date information about the business of skin art is circulated via newsletters like Skin Scribe from the Alliance Of Professional Tattoists. Topics covered include legislative attempts to ban tattoos (usually for health related reasons - tattooing is still illegal in several states), tax information and financial shelters, disease prevention and ways to limit liability in the event of accidents or lawsuits. The APT in fact offers its members a group insurance program which covers things like negligent scarring and other liabilities peculiar to the profession.
As often discussed in tattoo literature, there are risks associated with tattooing. Complications can include allergic reactions to the ink, existing skin disease flare-ups and keloid scarring. There’s also the risk of infectious disease, to both the inker and the inkee.
In 1987, The Journal Of Applied Bacteriology published a study which identified twenty-two different diseases which can be transmitted with needles, such as syphilis, malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, blood poisoning and both hepatitis B and C. Becoming wiser about sanitation and disease control, conscientious tattooists had already long since stopped using the same needles on multiple subjects and had been sterilizing all instruments.
According to the Center For Disease Control, there has never been a case documented where someone contracted AIDS as a result of getting a tattoo, with the exception of some prison applications where no sterilization occurred and pigments and needles were re-used and contaminated (prison “ink” is often comprised of little more than burnt checkers and cigarette ashes).
Those applying the tattoos don’t seem to be much at risk of contracting HIV from a customer. “It takes 100 microliters of blood and intramuscular punctures to transmit the HIV virus,” says the APT. “Since the needles used in tattooing are ‘solid core’ (not hollow like a syringe) and HIV doesn’t live outside of our bodies too long, [HIV transmission] is unlikely.”
Statistics reported in the Journal Of Infectious Disease suggest that the odds of getting AIDS from an accidental needle puncture are one in 50,000 - a tattooist would have to stick himself once each time with that many customers to be sure of contracting the virus.
Steve Gilbert, a veteran local inker, says “A friend of mine who had worked successfully as a tattoo artist for over eight years recently quit tattooing because she was afraid of getting AIDS. She had tattooed a man who later died of AIDS...she had accidentally scratched herself with a contaminated needle.”
Though the woman tested negative for HIV, Gilbert says that “The doctor, who considered tattooing an abomination, did his best to frighten her by telling her how dirty and dangerous it is.”
“In spite of popular concern about AIDS,” says Gilbert, “the most serious potential complication of tattooing is still hepatitis B,” a much more virulent and infectious disease. It was in fact a hepatitis B epidemic (supposedly from improper sterilization and contaminated pigments) which caused the New York City Board Of Health to spearhead a successful effort to outlaw tattoos there in 1961.
Most everyone in the tattoo community agrees that the safest way to go is to have an autoclave, a sterilization machine which kills infectious organisms by using heat, steam and pressure at over 270 degrees Fahrenheit. Other accepted methods include gas (ethylene oxide) and dry heat sterilizers.
In addition, licensed shops offer “Single service,” which means that each needle and tube set to be used has been individually packed, sealed and sterilized. All materials used in the process including gloves are disposed of immediately after use, usually in a puncture proof plastic container.
The lingering social stigma and slight medical risks of getting a tattoo can be daunting enough for a prospective client. Taking off a tattoo however has become much more simple thanks to advances in laser treatment. Laser removal can be done as an outpatient procedure and it usually leaves very little scarring, though color variations usually remain. A successful removal depends on factors such as the age of the tattoo, the depth of the ink, the kind of ink used, tattoo location and the individual’s healing abilities.
Smaller tattoos can be removed with excision, where the tattoo is surgically removed and the surrounding skin is pulled together and sutured. Larger images can require skin grafts from elsewhere on the body to fill in the excised area. Other methods include dermabrasion, where the skin is frozen and then peeled down and “sanded” with an abrasive rotary instrument.
Cover-ups with additional images and pigments can also be done in nearly all cases, limited only by the imaginations of the tattooist and the customer.
Marc Herer is not a professional tattooist but he owns a tattoo gun and says he’s done over twenty tattoos on various friends, each of them the exact same design - a Suicidal Tendencies logo. He shows me his own, done on his lower left calf - deep blue interlocking letters rising in 3D relief from an oval metallic base. “A Suicidal tat is the first one a lot of people get,” says Marc. “It kind of introduces you to the culture. Anyone who sees it and is into it, they say something to you, and the next thing you know it’s like you’re in a club and everyone in the club is getting ink done.”
I mention that out of five people I’d met with Suicidal Tendencies tattoos, three of them said it had nothing to do with the band. It was a prison gang mark. “That’s a fairly recent thing, I think. I didn’t hear of that until around last year and I’ve been doing Suicidal tats for five years. I do know that they’ve got a program now where they have volunteer plastic surgeons do free removals or cover-ups if someone’s in jail or they want to get a gang tattoo off them.”
“There’s a big convention downtown now,” he says, referring to Steel-N-Skin, a skin art and piercing showcase event occasionally put on at the Concourse Convention Center by PB’s Ink Spot. “There was a guy in the contest whose whole back was Suicidal stuff, with a border made of bones and something like fifty different individual images in there. It was cool but he was this little guy, really short, so you had to squint really hard to see them.”
3 - TIJUANA BATHROOMS: EVERYBODY’S GOTTA GO SOMETIME
Every weekend evening, thousands of people travel southbound across the San Ysidro-Puerta México Port of Entry. The majority will pass right by Plaza Viva Tijuana, a retail commercial center adjacent to the border station, and head straight for the nightclubs and bars along Avenida Revolución, the biggest "paseo" in town.
That's "where la patria begins," according to a municipal motto posted at the Tijuana Tourist Terminal between 6th and 7th streets.
The party continues in bars and cantinas on parallel streets like Constitución, Agua Caliente and Niños Heroes, and doesn't end until nearly sunrise. "No cover before 10:00 pm," "$20.00 all-U-can-drink" and "2-fer-1" specials pull the throngs of pedestrians into disco style bars such Club A, Baby Rock, El Jardin, Zka, Bacarat, Tequila Sunrise and Safari's, among others. These contemporary nightclubs have invested heavily in glitzy decors, elaborate lighting and powerful sound systems designed to blast out norteño, Tejano, Conjunto, rock and roll and techno music at decibel levels high enough to drown out conversation even among sidewalk passersby.
Inside, as whistles trill and onlookers hoot, it's common to see barhops moving through the crowd with Tequila bottles, inviting patrons to hold their heads back while servers pour straight shots directly down their throats. Club employees are usually Tijuana citizens (population, nearly 2 million), many of them first and second generation immigrants from all parts of the republic - Jalisco, Sinaloa, Veracruz, Guanajuato, Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas and every other state of the nation.
Most are concerned with getting liquor into their clientelle, but a few are on site to assist customers ridding themselves of those same drinks.
"Just because this is Tijuana and I work in a bathroom, I automatically get pity tips from the Americans," says "Manuel," at first reluctant to answer questions until assured he and his employer won't be mentioned by name. "I have to expect [an American] newspaper to make a joke about me and what I do. Then I'd lose this job. But I'm proud to work here, I'm proud to be working anywhere. Not everyone [in Tijuana] can say that."
He describes his position as "volunteer," in that he isn't paid a salary or required to maintain a set schedule. "I choose when I work, which is only the weekend, maybe Thursday and I pay the cost of my own combs, colognes, mouthwash, everything except the [toilet] paper and mop bucket."
Whereas bathroom attendants are a rare commodity in the U.S., except at upscale hotels and exclusive restaurants, in Tijuana the position is a fixture as integral as the wall urinals, toilet bowls and sinks for any club aspiring to provide at least a patina of high class creature comfort.
"You shouldn't need a platinum [credit] card or a diamond pinky ring to get a little pampering, a little service," says Manuel. "Why not fix up your hair, buff the shoes or splash on a little cologne so you don't walk out smelling like the burrito some guy just dumped into the toilet bowl next to yours. Everybody has got to go some time and everybody is equal when their pants are down around their knees."
Manuel says much of the bar's clientele is comprised of college students and military personnel. "Even though they don't make a lot of money, they tip very well, Many times, I make more [in tips] than the bartenders do. In the bar, one guy will buy drinks for five friends and tip a dollar. Nobody tips for someone else in the bathroom."
"They each have to walk past me, coming in and going out, and I get tips just because I keep [the bathroom] clean with toilet paper in the stalls and mop the floors."
Further down the street, a "$10.00/All You Can Drink” cover charge has lured a mostly teenage, mostly American, mostly inebriated crowd, most of them ignoring the Hispanic rock band playing cover tunes (sung in English). The line for the men’s room is long, and two multi-pierced youths shift back and forth on both feet, hands in pockets and shaking their baggie pants up and down pants nervously as they debate whether to run outside and urinate in the alley (“Nah, I hear the cops down here sell kids to South American cocaine farms”).
When I finally reach the bathroom, the attendant, Sammy, doesn’t look like he’s enjoying his job. “This night, they are not so generous. Usually, when bands play, [customers] drink very much alcohol and come into the bathroom all the time. Tonight, they come, [but] they don’t tip me.”
He explains that different events draw different patrons, with specific tipping patterns. “I thought tonight would be a beer crowd…they come to see bands play and drink beers. Beer drinkers [urinate] all night, except they’ll [urinate] almost anywhere. If the toilets are full [I think he meant occupied, not overflowing...at least I HOPE], they will go in the sink right in front of me, two feet away, looking me right in the eye while it gets all over the counter. And those are the ones who probably won’t tip me!"
"I once lifted my mop up on the counter and wiped a man’s [urine] up while he was still [urinating] in the sink, and he didn’t even thank me! So I shook the mop hard as he was walking out…it splashed up all over his back and he didn’t even notice.”
“There are DJ nights where they come to dance and there are also…I would call them cocktail crowds. [Cocktail crowds] come between dinner and ten or eleven. They wear nice clothes and ask for cloth towels. I keep the face cloths in plastic bags with [zipper] seals, so they look like hospital towels.”
He says he makes no claims to customers that the towels are sterile or laundered between each use, though he admits that the sealed bags are intended to give this impression. “When no one is in here, I rinse them in the sink, squeeze the water out and dry them under the hand dryer.”
I ask if the face cloth I just saw him use to wipe down a stall door might ever end up being sink-washed and sealed into a customer bag on the same night. He smiles but does not say anything. When I repeat the question, the smile becomes even wider as he shrugs his shoulders. Before interview’s end, I notice him casually tossing the small towel into a large toolbox full of other crumpled hand towels and toiletries kept in a (locked) cabinet under the sinks.
Sammy says that Ritmo Latina and Los Villains are popular bands who draw large, hard drinking rock and roll “beer” crowds. “When there is only dancing, nobody cares who the DJ is, they are all too drunk. Many times, the bartender does the DJ [work] and changes his name every night…nobody notices.”
I’d noticed the out-of-date sounds at other Revolución clubs, as if TJ’s DJs seem to have stopped buying new house music in 1995. Sammy has a theory about this. “The older songs were shorter, so that the customers will make more trips to the bar to buy drinks. I can hear the sounds through the walls so as soon as a song ends and another begins, I have everything ready…because many people will come at once. If there has been much yelling and cheering [during the previous song], I have extra cologne and deoderant because I know [patrons] are sweating and don’t want to smell bad for their dates."
An informal survey of patrons, asked how they rate the services in Tijuana's nightclub restrooms, reveals that not everyone feels pampered by the attendants. "It feels like extortion sometimes," reveals one customer. "I don't need someone to work my zipper or hold my [penis] for me, and I know how to wipe my own [buttocks], so why should I hand over a buck?"
Or: "I'm already getting ripped off at the hotel, with the exchange rate [average 8.8 pesos/$1.00 U.S.), and half the time the reason I'm in the bathroom is [because] I got the runs from the sewage in the water they use to mix drinks."
And: "There aren't any women in there, so who am I trying to impress by tipping?"
A little further up the street, "Juan" is willing to discuss, anonymously, his gig in a nightclub men's room. Like Manuel, he isn't paid a salary. "I don't mind because this gives me the incentive to make more [money]. We have a special permit from the town so that the bar can serve drinks until 5:00 am. Between 3 and 5, I would say that's when I make most of the money every night."
Juan usually starts his shift at 10:00 pm and works three to four nights each week. "I have a wife and two children, and this is enough [income] for us to eat, live and to send our children to school. My wife works for [a U.S. machine manufacturer] five days and makes only 300 pesos [around $40.00 U.S.] each week, which is not enough to live decently, but I can make that much in a single night. We have many poor friends with no money at all so we feel very lucky."
No salary, however, means no benefits - and no protection under Mexican labor laws. The Mexican government recently reformed the country’s social security laws, including provisions for employees who develop illnesses related to their jobs.
The main benefit to employees is that the new laws provide companies with a great incentive to improve their workplace environments - their premiums paid into the disability fund is calculated according to the number of accidents or illness claims naming the company so that the premiums increase drastically with each filing made against it.
Mexico’s Federal Regulation on Safety, Health and the Workplace (RFSH) outlines the country’s safety and health standards and their enforcement. RFSH rules and procedures require employers to ensure that employees are as safe as possible from illness and accidents originating in the workplace., in accordance with the Federal Labor Law and international treaties ratified by Mexico. Articles 165-167 of Title Six provide fines for violations from 15 to 315 times the daily minimum wage.
While this legislation is meant to protect employees like Juan, other new reforms could have very negative effects.
Juan says his income will drop by half if the nightclub is forced to close at 2:00 or 3:00 am, which is a looming likelihood. Tijuana city officials have ceased issuing permits allowing nightclubs to remain open until 5 a.m.
Further regulation has been hard to implement, however, according to Mariano Escobedo, president of the Visitors And Conventions Bureau, including legislation regarding labor laws and workers' rights. He says it's not unusual for the larger clubs to take in $20,000 a night on weekends, and that translates into a lot of civic clout. "We can't tell a bar owner he can't have free drinks for the ladies all night long, and we can't regulate $10 all-you-can-drink cover charges, or stop them from staying open [late]," Escobedo said. "Between 2 and 5 in the morning, everyone is half drunk and totally out of control."
I witness some of this wild wild west behaviour on the east side of Avenida Constitucion, just north of First Street. The Tijuana district known as Zona Norte is home to places like The Chicago Club, The Adelita bar, the Hong Kong Bar and others which look, from the outside, just like the clubs a few blocks away on Avenida Revolución.
The same songs pour out the entrances, women are dressed in slinky clothes and men are preening and swaggering no matter how obviously inebriated. On the other side of the leather curtains usually draped over the doorways, prostitutes are practicing the world’s oldest profession, which in this case is legal - licensed and regulated by the city.
The clubs are open until nearly dawn and, on weekends, the bathrooms are staffed with attendants who agree that men who frequent these bars aren’t worried about impressing a girl. “If a guy has the right amount of money,” an attendant at one club tells me, “he doesn’t need cologne or hair gel or a shoe shine. Mostly, I give change for twenty dollar bills, so they can pay for a room or tip the girls, and they usually give me a dollar each time. Not everyone automatically does this so [bar employees] come in every half hour and pretend to need change, just to make a big show, so men in here notice I have small bills, for tips.”
“I get tips when men ask questions [like] if Mexican condoms are safe, [ones] that they buy at the hotel desks, but they usually ask this after they’ve been to hotel to use one. I keep a basket full of American [brand] condoms right here but the men are so anxious to pick a girl that they don’t think about anything else. I don’t sell much [except] two ply toilet paper and soft paper towels I tear off rolls. Most of the tips are because I answer questions about the girls - which girls don’t make [the men] wear a condom, which girls do anal sex and which are the youngest girls. They want to think the girl is only thirteen or fourteen, even though they know that’s illegal here. I just say ‘I hear’ or ‘there’s a rumor,’ but I never say for sure. Especially since some club girls really are that young."
"Not at this club, of course,” he adds, making me repeat my promise not to specify his name or the venue where our conversation takes place. Answering my questions cost twice what I’d paid uptown, $20.00, which he demanded in advance when I told him I was a reporter.
My interview “tips” are higher at all the Zona Norte clubs. However, the restrooms in these noisy brothels, at least on the nights I visit, seem to be the cleanest in all of Tijuana, especially at Adelita where the fixtures and floors as spotless as those found in San Diego’s more expesive hotels and exclusive restaurants. The only cleaner bathrooms I find in all Tijuana are at McDonalds.
Of course, it’s only in Zona Norte where customers will find women casually walking into the men’s rooms, sometimes even soliciting business within. “It’s more quiet in here and already a lot of the women don’t speak English well enough,” I’m told. “I explain to the men what the girl charges and what she does, or tell her what the man wants from her. The man tips me when they leave, usually just a dollar, but the girl will come back and give me at least five dollars. If she doesn’t, I will do my best for other girls instead and tell the men only about them, not her. Or I tell the men that she will rob them.”
With so much liquor flowing, someone's inevitably going to get beligerrent or combatitive, so Javier's job at a dance club in the Zona Norte sometimes requires him to double as mediator, referee or even bouncer.
According to a 53-page report on alcohol and drug abuse recently published by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, nearly half of the weekend clubbers returning to the United States are legally drunk, with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or higher.
According to Javier, "I've been in the middle of some [very bad] fights. [Customers] have pulled knives on each other, usually because of a girl or because someone [got ripped off] for drugs. One time, I heard something metal drop...I see a guy [has] dropped his gun on the floor [while] sitting on the toilet. Two other guys were doing their business at the wall [urinals] and ran out the door before they even pulled up their zippers. I was right behind them...[that] seemed like a good time to take my break."
"My job is to take care of my customers," said Roberto Cervantes, a promoter at Club A. "I believe we do a good job keeping our customers safe. We're pretty strict about IDs and we search everyone for weapons, but you never know what can happen at a club." One of the club's bartenders agrees, but says he's never felt in danger of harm.
Except perhaps, he says as "The Thong Song" by Sisqo thumps away and all the club lights begin flashing, for the night he nearly died laughing.
"A girl went into the men's room and had [the attendent] put an empty beer bottle on the floor, open end up. She bet everyone in there, five bucks each, that she could [urinate], standing up, and get more [urine] in the bottle than any of the guys, or else she'd let them all [have sex with her]. You could tell she'd practiced how to [urinate] straight down from a standing position."
Did the woman win her bet? "Hell yeah, all the guys had [erections] and couldn't [urinate] straight down to save their lives. But, I'll tell you what, the girl had to split half her take with the guy working in there because, man, he had a hell of a mess to mop up!”
4 - AN EXCREMENT GASLAMP JOB
I was startled the first time I walked into the men's room at 4th & B and saw a uniformed attendant on duty.
"Okay," one patron was telling him. "I need, like, a comb or a brush. Oh yeah, and candy, for my breath. I don’t wanna smell like booze when I kiss my date." The attendant attended. "Here’s a buck, man."
"Thanks, enjoy the show," answered the attendant, his soft voice barely audible over the sound of flushing urinals.
At no time during this entire exchange did the two look each other in the eye.
The attendant - who later told me his name is Robert - handed another customer a paper towel, which the (apparently) inebriated man used to wipe approximately a third of his hands before tossing toward a nearby garbage can. Toward, but not into. Robert bent over to retrieve and dispose of the damp wad, expressionless, his face a blank cipher.
If Robert noticed the nearby thunderclap fart and subsequent kerplop, his face didn’t register it. Instead, he busied himself wiping the sink counter, for about the third time in a minute.
On this night, Robert's customers were there to see Blue Oyster Cult. It was clear that most of the old time rock and rollers were as surprised as I to find someone employed in the bathroom. "This is my other job, what I do nights," Robert told me. "In the daytime, I work at a fast food place. This job is a little better in a way. I actually make a lot in tips here. Sometimes anyway."
"I have no idea what the going rate is for a paper towel, so I didn't tip him," one long-haired patron told a similarly coiffed friend. The friend's right hand never let go of his beer cup from the time he entered the restroom until the time he left, resulting in an impressive display of one-handed zipperwork.
I heard ol' One-Hand tell his companion "Any time a guy's standing near me when I unzip my pants, I'm bothered." This may explain the man's hurry, and why he didn't even bother to wash the one hand.
I made a mental note: if I'm ever introduced to that man, don't shake his hand.
An older guy wearing a beret (?!) who resembled comedian Rodney Dangerfield not only gave Robert a dollar, but he dug deep in his pocket for a handful of change, taking only a shot of aftershave in return. "Why not?" he told Robert, clearly amused by coming across this unexpected entrepreneurship in the men's room. "I've never come out of a public bathroom smelling better than when I went in."
Robert told me that jazz events attract stingy patrons who nonetheless avail themselves of his services and amenities. "Rock shows aren’t bad," he said. "The people are real upbeat. The same guys come back a lot. The best crowd we’ve had in a long time was for Brian McKnight. No drunks, a lot of good tips, real steady flow. It can be a real good place to work on nights like that."
He mentioned something about looking for a third job. However, it was hard to hear him over the sounds of peeing, flushing, handwashing, and the screaming strains of "Joan Crawford Has Risen From The Grave."