No one is dancing. You were warned, but it still doesn’t look right. At Sunset Temple, there’s a hip young local band, Little Deadman, and an all-ages crowd. Some 200-plus people. There are a few seating areas created with white vinyl cubes, some high bar stools, and a couple of throne-like chairs (all occupied) near the walls. Much leaning takes place. Those jammed up against the stage bob their heads. Otherwise, nobody moves.
“Don’t expect a lot of dancing,” Stacy told you an hour ago, over pork-belly tacos at El Take It Easy.
A freelance photographer who seems to know everyone in this town, Stacy often tweets photographs of the hip places she goes and the people who inhabit her world. When she invited you to an evening of music for the final night of Sezio’s Four Day Weekend festival, you were psyched. Headed to a music festival in North Park, you figured jeans and heels would be a safe choice, but then Stacy and her friend Natalie, also a photographer, showed up at El Take It Easy in jeans, hoodies, and sneakers. At one point, Stacy referred to her shirt as a “luxurious two-dollar tank top.”
The shoe of choice in this crowd is the classic Chuck Taylor low-top; the print of choice is plaid. The girls are mostly Chloë Sevigny cool, in dresses or shorts and boxy men’s blazers. On the guys, jeans and beards complete a skater-meets-lumberjack look.
“There’s a guy in overalls,” Natalie says.
“He roasts his own coffee,” Stacy says. “He has personally delivered coffee to me.”
This doesn’t surprise you. Stacy and Natalie have friends all over the place. At El Take It Easy, Natalie said she knows the guy who made the shelf behind the bar where the glasses hang. When you first walked into this venue, both women laughed at the video montage playing over the stage — their friends made it. Before the show began, they mentioned that they know the DJ and the photographer running around taking official event photos. They also know the organizers.
Up near the front of the stage, you make a friend, a 50-year-old woman named Tori. She wears a knee-length dress, dark leggings, ballet flats, and a newsboy cap. She’s here with her 13-year-old daughter, Bella, who won the tickets on 94/9 FM.
Tori tells you that if she had to choose the coolest person here, she’d pick “any of the guys from Sezio, because they’re super artistic.”
You wonder who you would’ve become if you’d had a mom like Tori. But as cool as she seems, Bella looks as if she’d rather have given the second ticket to her best friend. Bella’s wearing flats and a little dress, too. She doesn’t take her eyes off the band’s guitar player, Anthony Levas.
“He’s nice to everybody,” she says, “and he’s really cool.”
After Little Deadman’s set is over, the over-21s swarm to the bar at the back of the room, where cute girls with platinum-blond pixie cuts serve drinks in plastic cups. The under-21s sit on the floor and pull out their smartphones. Outside, the MIHO Gastrotruck is parked by the curb. A group of under-21s count their pooled money. They check out the menu to see what they can afford.
Cigarette-smokers light up a polite distance from the venue’s door.
Stacy introduces you to Sezio’s Zack Nielsen, a clean-shaven guy who, from the looks of him, could as easily work on Wall Street as run a nonprofit arts organization. He estimates that 25 percent of tonight’s crowd is under the age of 21. Many of Sezio’s interns are high-school kids, he says. Even though teens are major players in the music-buying market, there are few all-ages venues where they can hang out and listen to music. So he tries to accommodate them when he can.
A teacher from High Tech High walks up in sweats and a T-shirt. The money-counting kids in front of the gastrotruck greet him with familiarity.
Before he turns to chat with the teacher, Nielsen says he loves the people that surround him. “No one cares about being cool.”
Hannah, a 16-year-old collage-and-mixed-media artist from High Tech High, admits that she does care. She says “cool” is no accident. You just have to know how to do it right. For girls, it can go in two different directions.
“Girls can look nice and be cool,” she says, “or they can look gross and be cool.”
After a pause, she explains: “It’s a mix of looking nice enough, but grungy enough.”
Hannah wears an ornate, brocade-looking black-on-black top, jeans, and ballet flats. There is pink in her pixie cut. Long feather earrings dangle. She picked out this outfit a couple of days before the show. At the last minute, she almost changed her mind.
“I was going to freak out about it,” she says. “But then I just decided to wear what I was going to wear.”
Gaslamp: “There’s a variety of music and culture…and brown people!”
It’s Thursday in the Gaslamp, the night of the Good Foot. The entrance to the Red C Lounge descends from Fifth Avenue and spits you right onto the dance floor. You arrive at 10:30 p.m. or so, trailing along behind Omar, aka Roxrite, and Marisol. They’re greeted with hugs and handshakes from the group of guys hanging around near the booth where DJ Mane One spins.
On the other side of the 10-x-14-foot dance floor, the bar stretches back into a darkness that separates it from the front of the house. A few people seated on bar stools hunch over their drinks. A lovey-dovey couple huddles on a vinyl-covered bench that extends the full length of the wall across from the bar.
Marisol introduces you to some of the guys. Among them is Saso, short, and dapper in a T-shirt and jacket. You don’t catch the name of a taller guy with a mustache and zipped-up leather jacket, but note that he is Saso’s brother. Another guy, sporting dreadlocks and red-and-white Adidas, is Art. All wear hats, mostly newsboy caps, and a couple of snapbacks. You shout this observation into Marisol’s ear, over Chubb Rock’s “Treat ’Em Right,” and she shouts back, “A lot of B-boys start balding from head spins!”
Side by side, Marisol and Omar look mismatched — they’re the same height, but she’s wearing a pair of sexy stilettos that make her nearly a head taller. Marisol’s cobalt-blue backless shirt, eyelashes for days, and sleek black hair give her a glamorous sheen. Omar exudes a more casual vibe in sneakers, baggy jeans, and snapback.
It would never be obvious to an onlooker, but Omar is the star. Last November in Moscow, Russia, he won the title of World Champion at the Red Bull BC One competition, known as the Super Bowl of breakdancing. It was his third attempt; at 29, he’s the oldest winner to date.
Everything you learn about breakdancing tonight, you’ll learn from Marisol. Omar is almost painfully low-key. His motto, as stated on his website, is “Skills talk, no hype needed.”
Marisol laughs to hear the word “casual” in reference to Omar’s clothing choices. Although it’s not formal attire, he’s serious about what he wears. It’s the same, she says, for all these B-boys.
“They’re definitely into fashion and sneakers,” she says. “It’s ridiculous how many sneakers Omar has. Every time we go out, he stops into stores and looks at shoes. To me, they all look the same. But he’s, like, ‘No, they’re not.’ They all have their purpose, too. Some are for breaking, some for hanging out.”
Within ten minutes of your arrival, the place has filled up. A circle forms on the dance floor. You and Marisol sit at the one tall bar table set against the wall, where you are outside the circle but can still see into its center. A guy in a red hat starts doing his toprock, a sort of pre-dance that serves as both a warmup and a display of personal style. Marisol says he’s from the Rock So Fresh crew. Also here tonight are members of Bang Uh Rang, from South San Diego; Epic Styles, a crew out of Mira Mesa; and Omar’s crew, Renegades. Omar sways at the edge of the circle, his hands in the pockets of his jacket, watching the red-hat guy’s feet as he transitions into more acrobatic moves.
“Most places downtown, everything is so cookie-cutter!” Marisol shouts. “But here, there’s a variety of music and culture and… ” — she pauses for a second — “and brown people!”
She laughs, and you realize she’s right. Aside from a young bald guy with a belly-length beard and trendy sneakers, none of the other breakdancers is white. They’re black, Filipino, and Mexican. And male. There is one brown-skinned girl named Sam who stands at the edge of the circle, bouncing a bit to De La Soul’s “Saturday.” It’s not quite a scene from Beat Street, but it’s closer than anything you’ve ever seen in San Diego.
“All kinds of dancers come here,” Marisol says. “B-boys, hip-hoppers, poppers.”
When the guy with the red hat is done, no one claps or says anything to him. He just rejoins the swaying mass of people that form the circle’s edge. You ask Marisol if they hated him, or what.
“No one really gives each other props,” she says. “When they’re done, someone might pat them on the back.”
A gaggle of girls comes down the steps. They look like they might be Filipino. All are casually dressed in sneakers, jeans, and T-shirts. One says, “Damn, everybody’s here!” She hugs half the people in the circle.
Marisol tells you that the ratio of boys to girls is always unbalanced. “Most of the girls here are someone’s girlfriend.”
A peppy, eager guy who goes by the handle KidRiz starts chatting you up, naming the songs (Boobie Knight’s “Loveomaniacs Sex” and Erik B. & Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique”), and the dancers (Sumo, Optic, Flash). While the other B-boys do their thing, Omar’s low-key vibe shifts. He becomes sort of jumpy.
Now it’s his turn.
Suddenly, the soft-spoken Omar becomes Roxrite, world-champion B-boy, right here in a tiny underground lounge with a low black ceiling and dirt spots on the linoleum floor. He makes his way into the circle, starts with his toprock, then lets loose down on the floor.
Roxrite describes his style as “complex, intricate, and technical.” The thing everybody says about him is that he’s got amazing “stick-freeze” skills. You watch as he dances. His body creates all kinds of freakish, contortionist shapes, and then, mid-move, he freezes briefly. Again and again. You’ve seen videos of him dancing on his website, but this is different. In person, the effect is like a series of photographic stills, set to the tune of Bo Diddley’s “Bite Me.”
When Roxrite returns to the edge of the circle, KidRiz nods at him. Roxrite nods back. He turns to watch the guy everyone calls Brooklyn out on the floor. When you suggest to KidRiz that maybe he should take a turn, he says, “I don’t dance anymore. I’m a DJ now.” When you ask why, he laughs. “I don’t have health insurance.”
La Jolla: “I feel like I’m in a catalogue.”
When you arrive at the 6000-square-foot house in La Jolla, an usher hands you your name tag and suggests that you join the other guests out by the infinity pool. There you find the homeowners and a handful of people holding wine glasses and looking up at a palm tree: Suzan Shaanan regales the group with the story of how she needed the largest crane in the city to lower this 12,000-pound palm onto the property. A cater-waiter walks through the group with a tray: smoked salmon on potato pancake with capers and sour cream.
You’re relieved to see that most people are wearing business-casual attire, khakis and such, rather than the diamonds and furs of your imagination. You’re also relieved to see that Stacy’s here, too, this evening in a black lace top, black pants, and heels. She’s on the job, hired by the Museum of Photographic Arts, which organized this event, and she sneaks around with her camera, taking shots of the guests and the house.
The Collector’s Salon is a series of private events for museum patrons. Artists whose work is on exhibit usually give a public lecture at the museum, then a more exclusive one in another location for those who donate $5000 or more. Tonight’s guest of honor is Seattle-based artist Chris Jordan, whose Infinite Balance series consists of photographs of the decayed bodies of baby albatrosses in the Pacific Garbage Patch. Among the grays and browns of beaks, feathers, and follicles left behind, the birds’ decomposed stomachs reveal the colorful plastics of the lighters, bottle caps, and pens they ingested, then were unable to regurgitate during their short lives.
You wonder if Jordan’s subject matter is the reason for the reusable bamboo plates and utensils at the buffet table.
Though you are not an important museum patron, you were able to obtain an invitation from a woman you’re supposed to meet here. She has not yet arrived. While you wait, you become attached to two other guests who have also likely not paid the $5000 donation: the artist’s wife, poet Victoria Jordan, and his Los Angeles–based gallerist, Paul Kopeikin.
“I feel like I’m in a catalogue,” Victoria says.
The three of you wander into a room where a huge black-and-white leather sectional sits atop a tribal-print rug. The ceiling is at least 15 feet high. On the wall across from a fireplace tiled with hammered Jerusalem stone, a series of 200 eight-inch squares hang in a 10-x-20-foot grid. One hundred eighty of the squares are white. Twenty are bright green. A ladder stands to the left of the grid, and across the top, there’s a track for sliding the ladder along the wall. On the wall, to the right of the grid, a small digital frame changes every few seconds to display earlier incarnations of this piece of art, each with the green and white squares in a different order.
Kopeikin shakes his head and says something about the “huge difference between art and decoration.” He wears a suit and sneakers. Somehow, this puts you at ease. Victoria laughs a lot. This puts you at ease, too.
Suzan Shaanan leads a group of guests up a staircase. The three of you follow just in time to see her point to a group of paintings hung in the stairwell (which Kopeikin has already dubbed “art-fair art”) and hear her say of the artist, “We love this guy. He’s also a personal friend.”
Shaanan wears her hair long and highlighted, in the style of many young women. She’s dressed in snug black jeans and a loose-fitting brown top. Her frame is small, fit, and well proportioned. From many angles, she could be anywhere from 25 to 50, though the look of her hands probably puts her closer to 60.
She continues the tour up the stairs, into a cozy media nook. She tells stories about herself and her husband through each piece of art on the walls, including a framed quilt that she says is from the late 1700s (at which point Kopeikin rolls his eyes, causing both you and Victoria to choke on stifled laughter).
You finally meet your sponsor, Gail Bryan, in front of the buffet table, where, in the minutes before the talk is to begin, you’re piling your reusable plate with cheeses, bread, and mini-carrots. (The disruptive nature of carrot-chewing during an intimate living-room talk doesn’t occur to you yet, but it will.) Bryan, one of the Museum of Photographic Arts’ distinguished trustees, is also the founder of the Collector’s Salon events. The epitome of statuesque, minimalist cool, she is dressed in all black, save for the gold of her jewelry. You have to look up when talking to her.
The point of these events, Bryan once told the Union-Tribune, is to bring donors “closer to the art.” And close, they are. The talk takes place in the room with the tribal rug and the squares on the wall. The 28 or so guests don’t all fit on the leather sectional. Some perch on the stairs, others on the few chairs that have been brought in from another room. Chris Jordan, the photographer, sits in front of the fireplace next to Deborah Klochko, the museum’s executive director, whose questions will help direct his talk.
While you listen to the tale of Jordan’s transition from corporate attorney to full-time photographer and how he came to photograph dead baby birds, Stacy sneaks around, snapping photos of the gathering. Paul Kopeikin sits beside you. Victoria sits on the other side of him, gazing lovingly at her husband.
An audience member asks a question: “Can capitalism and sustainability co-exist?”
Several 16-x-20-inch prints of the decomposed birds are passed around. Klochko mentions that portfolios with 13 prints each (“No two with the same set”) are available for purchase at $12,500 each. Later, by email, Kopeikin will inform you that none of the portfolios sold, “though I would have been surprised [if they had], given the crowd.”
Presently, Jordan addresses the group with a few words about the importance of sticking with an artist, even when he’s “not bringing something that will hang above this fireplace.”
The caterers quietly clean up empty wine glasses and cheese-smeared bamboo plates from the floor and side tables around the room.
Sherman Heights: “Everyone from judges to McDonald’s counter-people.”
Although you’ve had plans to meet up with Senior for weeks, he sends you a text on the morning of the dance. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” it reads. “How do I know you’re not working undercover or something?”
After some convincing, he concedes that you are probably not a cop. Then he warns that if you say the wrong thing, he might not be able to protect you. Though this makes you nervous, you agree to meet him and his motorcycle club in the Rite Aid parking lot at the corner of Federal Boulevard and 54th Street. You tell him you will be bringing your friend, Marie.
“Kickstands up at 9:15,” his final text says.
In the parking lot at Rite Aid, Senior, president of the AMU (All Mixed Up) motorcycle club, introduces you and Marie to vice president Dirty D and two other club members (MCs), Slow Motion and Storm. (Storm is the one female MC, but she’s not on her bike tonight.) You also meet Pebblez, Sweetness (who gives you the stink-eye), Luscious, and Li’l Bit, all female members of the AMU social club (SCs). Technically, Luscious and Li’l Bit are still considered prospects and should therefore go by “Prospect 1” and “Prospect 2” until their membership is official.
It will take you a few hours to understand all of this. For now, you accept the confusion as you and Marie follow Storm and the other SCs in their “cages” (cars) to the dance. The MCs will get there when they get there.
All the members of AMU social club are black, except for Pebblez, who is white, blonde, and bubbly. They’ve had white members before, and a couple more are due to present their case for becoming prospects in the next month or two. But for now, Pebblez is it. When you and the SCs arrive at the Elks Lodge on Hensley Street, somewhere along the border between Sherman Heights and Grant Hill, you see that, even here, among the 15–20 SoCal motorcycle clubs in attendance, Pebblez and your friend Marie are two of only a handful of whites.
Within five minutes of your arrival, Storm locates a guy called Wild Dog; he’s president of the Black Sabbath motorcycle club. She brings him over to meet you. Tonight’s event, one of three similar events happening around San Diego, is Black Sabbath’s anniversary dance. After a brief conversation, Wild Dog gives his okay: you are allowed to stay.
Storm sticks close as the seven of you wait outside the venue for the MCs to arrive. You stand in a cloud of smoke, surrounded by a mix of people eclectic in occupation and lifestyle.
“Kids, no kids,” Wild Dog told you earlier. “Married. Single. All walks of life. We got military, civilian. Everyone from judges to McDonald’s counter-people.”
The age range varies widely, too. At 48, Senior is the oldest in his club. Most of the other AMU riders are in their early 40s. The ladies of their social club are late 20s, early 30s. In the crowd, you see everything from young rowdies to old weary-boneses, all standing around in leather vests bearing their clubs’ “colors” (patches). City Slickers. Heart & Soul. The Chosen. Twisted. Black Sabbath. Final Option. Top Dawg. Mongols. Pushin’ Limitz.
When Senior and the other MCs arrive, the whole group goes inside together. A tall, narrow-eyed lady with long, curled fingernails collects $15 a head for those without a vest, $10 for those with. Club presidents get in free.
Once in the door, they pose for a group photo, taken by the evening’s hired photographers: Vince and his lady Mocha (both riders with no club affiliation).
Inside, metallic red hearts and cupids adorn the walls. At the front of the house, where the lights are cafeteria-bright, a bar stands to the left. Senior, 851 days sober today, heads there first and purchases a can of 7UP, which he drinks through a straw. In the back, past the tables crowded with riders and social-club members, the DJ plays James Brown. The dance floor pulses with a mass of writhing bodies.
Storm takes you under her wing. She introduces you to people with names like Fetiish (“two i’s”), Sweet Pea, and Classy; some are women who belong to social clubs not affiliated with any particular motorcycle club. Storm provides answers for the things you don’t understand.
“Social clubs? I call ’em groupies with a vest,” she says. “Like cheerleaders with pompoms.”
Storm explains the rules of respect with regard to the colors, which cannot be covered up by backpacks or jackets or hugs. To lay your colors down could result in a fine, if they’re picked up by someone from another club. Later, Senior will tell you, “I’ve seen it as high as $1000.”
When Storm turns away for a second, you meet some of the people she hasn’t already preapproved. Many of them want to talk about the fundraisers their clubs have held (blanket drives and so on), and to wax poetic about the beauty of belonging to a motorcycle club.
“This is like family,” one guy tells you. “They all watch over you.” Then he excuses himself, saying he doesn’t want his wife to catch him talking to you.
Despite Senior’s warnings, the worst thing that happens all night is that an old lady shoots mean eyes at Marie for bumping her.
When you’re ready to go, Senior walks you and Marie to your car, which is parked two blocks away on 28th Street. While you wait at the corner for the light to change, a loud crew of bikers ride by on hogs (Harleys) painted in bright colors: one green, one orange, one red, and so on. There must be 15 or 20 riding past, one after the other.
“Who’re they?” you ask Senior.
“They came down from L.A.,” he says. “People are here from all over.”
Across the street, a group of six or seven young kids wave at the riders as they pass. The kids shout, “Hey, Superman! So cool!”