It’s a crisp night on the tail end of a prolongued summer, and the leaves on the trees are making one last ditch effort to stay relevant and fashionable by taking on the hues of pumpkins and other decorative gourds.
Hungry eyes flit and flicker about as the gamemaster clears a bong and exhales an Impressionist landscape of clouds, announcing what we already knew, “The game is SPIN! THE! BOTTLE!” A spent bottle of Andre Spumante is placed sideways at the center of the circle.
Behind us a bald man with a wispy goat beard, baggy eyelids and a lineless, smiling Gerber Baby face is plucking out the melody to “Bohemian Rhapsody” on a banjo.
Defying Newton and his laws of motion, the bottle spins a near infinite amount of times, even hopping, skipping and chipping on the uneven backyard gravel before making its choice.
A bonfire surges behind the banjo player (he could be any age between 17 and 70, he’ll likely look the same for that entire span, and I can only guess he’s on the younger end of the spectrum because of his tolerance for shit beer and his ebullient roommates), and the flames illuminate a stack of Frankenstein bicycles leaning against the wooden fence: choppers, tallbikes, trikes, and small-talls.
The bottle lands, decisively indecisively between two more babyfaces, a vegan straightedge boy and a trans boy goth, maybe not actually a rivethead but rocking the look in his studded coller and long, black Keanu-in-the-Matrix overcoat.
“BO’FUM!” the entire circle shouts excitedly.
“Bo’fum?” I ask.
“Whenever the bottle lands between two people, you have a three-way kiss! Both of them. BO’FUM.”
“It’s a rule we made up. It’s in Urban Dictionary now.”
Three tongues tangle fighting for dominance. No lips touch as chins jut against one another, but like so much of life, a three-way kiss is more about the journey than the destination.
The bo’fum couple gets the next turn. Once out of every 1000 times, the bo’fum ends in a fo’fum. Four by four, as decadent and preposterous as one of those cakes adorned with edible gold. Once every lucky thirteen games or so, Spin the Bottle ends in an orgy.
You know how in puuunk movies like SLC Punk or Suburbia, you’ll see all these different stripes and flavors and costumes of subculture and you have to suspend your disbelief because the world isn’t like that (skins live with skins, mods with mods, rockeros with rockeros)? The Beach House was actually like that, a little bit of everyone.
The Beach House sits on a tree-lined block of adorable duplexes just west of Humboldt Park’s baseball diamonds and lagoons. Every night, the watchful eye of a police surveilance camera opens up and turns the whole street into a flashing blue disco. The Beach House residents and guests (and what really is the difference if you stay long enough?) were anarchists of every stripe, organization, and disorganization:
standard issue mohawks and chelseas and natty dreads, bondage pants and creepers and Caustic Christ and Witch Hunt backpatches, sustainable living farmers with their desperate vegetable gardens that had to be built in boxes above the tainted soil of the West Side, folk punk buskers with their six-strings and mandolins, 2-toned rudeboys and rudegirls, the Black Bloc, the Animal Liberation Front, radical cheerleaders, radical vegans, radical queers, radical feminists, radical disco mutants, black hat hackers, hula hooping pixies, pop punks forever defiant in their problematic love of NOFX and the entirety of the Fat Wreck Chords catalog, dumpster diving freegans, one single Taqwacore-by-default girl in her patched-up hijab, drag queens and drag kings, sex workers and service industry workers, furries, rail-riding hobohemians, in-your-face-about-it nerds, a butane huffing white rapper working his way through every single chemical listed on erowid.org, horny brocialists, dreamy bike messengers that receptionists in top floor offices from Printers Row to the Gold Coast fantasized about when they jerked off but were too smart to ever take home, clowns (of both the Jim Rose Sideshow Circus variety and also of the Comedia Del Arte school), goths, witches, wookies, gnomes, burners, dressed-up fops and flappers and dandies attempting to revive both the pre-War excesses AND the Socialist undercurrents of the Roaring Twenties.
A crashing tide of crusties washed ashore and found port, sleeping on couches and floors, occasionally in bath tubs they never seemed to activate. So steady was this flow of expats and aliens it was as if one single Olive Drab uniform sat forever on the couch with only the faces changing. You’d go to sleep and the uniform is wearing a petite black girl with a pit bull in her lap, but you’d wake to the uniform, held together by safety pins and sheer will alone, wearing a chubby white guy with a chihuahua sleeping at his feet. The whole motley crew was united in few things: radical gender politics, hatred of the government, and a love of bikes.
The Beach House was one of the defacto headquarters of the Rat Patrol Bike Club (on the other side of the park, their sister compound Pot’N’Rocks offered a less theatrical, more meat-and-potatoes- or possibly tofu-scramble-and-potatoes- variety of DIY defiance). Rat Patrol was and is a group of enthusiasts who build, repair and resurrect bikes, rescuing whatever they can from the garbage and occasionally offering scrapper truck drivers a buck or two more than they would get at the scrap yard just to keep more perfectly good bikes in circulation.
Mostly they build frivolous monstrosities like the tallbikes resting against the fence, but some of them are freakbike missionaries traveling to remote villages a world away that don’t have paved roads to help design innovative, replicatable bikes, trikes and carriages, different designs to help with different tasks: bikes for comfortable long distance trips between towns, bikes for farming, bikes for cargo, Commie bicycle buses where groups could share the burden and blessing of pedal power.
The rest of the time they go on beery adventures and sightseeing trips, usually through alleys where they liberate feasts from the dumpsters behind bakeries and grocery stores (“Fuck Whole Foods! Do you know they dump the stinky ice the fish rots on over perfectly good produce just so hungry people can’t get a free meal?”). They joust and race and bomb each other with explosive packets of flour in homemade games like Foot Down.
Perpetual underdogs, they were despised and maligned by both punk rock “gangs” like Chicago Mafia Skins and the 77’s and also by moped clubs (if you haven’t guessed yet, the year is 2006) like Peddy Cash and Murder Club. Sometimes they clashed, sometimes they got jumped (it’s not at all hard to knock a guy off a tall bike if you’re properly motivated and also a jerk), at least one Rat got stabbed.
I don’t know why they were so hated; some of them could hold their own in a fight but in the years I was active, there wasn’t a bruiser or a brawler in the bunch. It’s probably that thing that makes steampunks such easy targets, in that what they were doing was so ostentatious and unnecessary, it was deemed offensive. Why do *you* think you deserve so much attention?
In the end, is it really more ostentatious than swarming parties in matching boots and bombers or studded Sid-Vicious-meets-Johnny-Thunders 1977 flair? Is a group centered around choppers and pennyfarthings that much more ridiculous than a group centered around the more-than-a-bike, less-than-a-motorcycle vehicle the moped?
The joke’s on the haters anyway. Whenever I go to a city where silly assholes live, your Austins and New Orleanses and Newer Yorks and Portlandias, if I see a Rat Patrol or a Black Label Bike Club or a Scallywags patch, I can rattle off a couple names until we’ve got someone in common and I’ve got a new friend.
The basement of the beach house was littered with not-ready-for-primetime bike parts that had to be swept aside for events: an arthouse burlesque show by Cabaret of the Nameless, a traveling circus from punk rock clowns Miss Lizz and Eric Bang, cabaret weirdness from Right-Eye Rita and Ratty Scurvics, a grinding noise show by Bloodyminded (whose songs were shorter than their song titles), ending in bottles thrown and a bald-guy-on-bald-guy fight as the Gerber Baby rushed the stage screaming “Hipster!” I don’t think any of them were hipsters, although just like hipsters they all hated hipsters, and no matter how much good they tried to do in their adopted black and brown community, they were still dirty, stinking first generation gentrifiers, even if unintentional, even if they were flat broke, even though the words *dirty *stinkin gentrifier are to be taken literally.
A hundred novels, plays or talky independent arthouse films could be made about the Beach House residents, and they would all be completely different depending on the protagonist.
A hard-edged Chicago tale about an ornery skinhead bouncing back and forth between every reputable and disreputable restaurant kitchen in the city because he loves to work but refuses to take shit. A next generation Ghost World about a mousy girl with a literal pet rat living between her tits under her hoodie because it didn’t get along with the other rats in her room and she loves them all so much. A modern day Greek tragedy about a woman who takes great pain to live as a man, only to end up living as a woman again like a mirror version Tiresias, only instead of being punished by goddess Hera, she’s being punished by society itself, a patriarchy that treats women generally and her particularly with savage cruelty. (Respect people’s gender identities y’all)
The iconoclast that drew me in to the fold, however was Betty, the Spin the Bottle hostess. I can’t help but to get hyperbolic talking about her because she lives her whole life with exclamation points. Shaded by familiar archetypes, she defied them all. She was a manic pixie dream dominatrix, but unlike some Natalie Portman Deschanel teaching some hearthrob-nebbish how to love by teaching him how to play, she was never neutered and absolutely full of agency, agency up to the gills and out the wazoo. She wasn’t here to be the single savior to one broken down buttoned up Zach Braff Gordon-Leavitt; she was here to be Dr. Frank-N-Furter, healing every awkward Brad AND Janet with the power of unrepentant, bawdy pansexual polyamorous capital-F Fucking… and maybe also the importance of elaborate outfits.
Breaking the most important of Biggie Small’s “Ten Crack Commandments”, she was a sex therapist who got high on her own supply, an evangelist for a religion she called Glamarchy. If it was the Tumblr era instead of the Myspace one, it could have become a movement, one of those microcultures like seapunk or normcore that maybe only lasts for six months but generates a thousand thinkpieces and at least as many cool Japanese photo spreads.
Glamarchy was just what it sounds like. Olive Drab if that’s your bag, but also ball gowns and cocktail dresses and tuxedos and gem sweaters and maybe a little pomade for something other than liberty spikes. Use EVERY aisle of the thrift store like a responsible hunter uses every part of the deer. But then pick and choose what parts you want to use from your Sugar Daddies and sugar Mommas and houseboys and lifestyle subs and every other aspect of life like Goldilocks at a buffet. And maybe swap out cheap forty ouncers for cheap bottles of chanpagne, like the one spinning and spinning and refereeing tonight’s Stanley Cup qualifying game of tonsil hockey.
And that personality shaded every thing that happened at the Beach House, all of the mundane and spectacular and tense and scary things typical to a punk house. A vegan straight-edge, make-your-own-chili dinner party was “GRAND, DARLING!” but so was a mirror full of ketamine. A backyard mud wrestling match was “GRAND, DARLING!” and so was “I’m gonna stay in and read a book”. Craft nights, Blockbuster nights, bike builds, the grocery store, Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker, G.G. Allin, Snoop Dogg and World Inferno Friendship Society singalongs and screamalongs were all “GRAND, DARLING!” It was “GRAND, DARLING!” when I was invited to the pansexual orgy and politely declined and “GRAND, DARLING!” when the situations were different and… I POLITELY DECLINED AGAIN [plausible deniability because my Dad reads everything I write].
The Beach House ran its course in the usual fashion: no disaster but lots of turmoil, a revolving cast of characters, breakups and makeups, runaways running away, confusion and sleight of hand about the rent. Residents would spill into lofts like the Slut 69 Palace and squats like the Lowercase Collective. Much of the treasures of the house were returned to the dumpsters from whence they came, or a free-for-pickup post on Craigslist would describe the books /art supplies/clothes as, “GRAND DARLING.”
New punks would move in to replace the old. They renamed the place Granny’s Ass. They threw shows and backyard parties, but not as often. Almost a decade later I was back in the basement of the former Beach House, which had been turned into a fake casino for a party. While a lot of the old tags were covered up or illegible, you could still see the outline of a grinning mouth with the words BO’FUM.
DISCLAIMER: it’s really hard to research a house called Beach House because the band with the same name is much more popular and because there are lots of DIY spaces with the same name (hell, this wasn’t even the only punk house with that name on the same stretch of Beach Street at the same time – it’s kind of an unresistable name). Because of that, and because Betty and I failed to meet up outside of a party for a million months, absolutely no research was done, but everything is true as remembered. If your truth differs from mine, or if you have any stories you’d like to share, I’d love to read them in the comments.