Fruitcake and a Long Lost Family by Nina Rockwell

Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Music, July 25th, 2017

"I hadn’t danced so hard or sweat so much or laughed so loud."

Nina Rockwell Essay Nailed Magazine
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Broke Social Scene Part 2: Fruitcake and My Long Lost Family

I could feel the truth in the soles of my feet. In my skull. This magic – my home.

Early autumn in Portland – the rain doesn’t weigh your body down, but moments go by and your clothes are soaked. I didn’t own a raincoat back then, I still don’t, and I was wearing canvas sneakers that were heavy with groundwater by the time I arrived at The Valis. I was seventeen years old and going to my first real house show. The Valis was the only house on the whole block, tucked away behind the Goodwill superstore on SE Grand Ave. – perfect for loud music.

I had been hiding in the corner of the kitchen because Damian had left to buy beer and the only other people I knew at the show were kids who still went to the high school I had dropped out of the year before. I had previously ventured into the basement where the bands were playing and watched a few minutes a two-piece band made up of a married couple. The husband was yelling at someone in the crowd for talking through his song about how he had met his wife – so I climbed back up to the ground floor to my safe hiding space in the kitchen where a plate of plastic-looking fruitcake sat on the table, getting stale. A nice looking young man with thick-framed glasses and a black and white striped shirt approached me.

“Do you like fruitcake? I hate it, personally. Fruitcake. Nasty. So. Who are you? I’m Zach.” His grin was the only intimidating thing about him. In a house full of cranky punks his cheer made me uncomfortable. My feet were still soaked, and they were starting to smell like wet dog.

“Nina. Hi. No I don’t think I like fruitcake, but I’ve never eaten it before.” I was quiet, and nervous, and a stranger. I thought about excusing myself for a cigarette. I thought about asking where the bathroom was. The front door opened and a very soggy Damian walked through it with an 18 pack of Pabst. “Oh, my friend is here. Nice to meet you.” I started to turn to leave the kitchen, but before I got far enough away the two of them were tangled in a long limbed embrace.

“Hey! I see you met my new friend. Nina, Zach, Zach, Nina. Great! This is her first show. Let’s treat her nice.” Let’s treat her nice.

The mark – my entrance into a world – it would define every part of my life for the following four years. There was a lot of nice. There was even a lot of really great. My life would become so beautiful and so full of grief within a few short months of this night, and the whole time was sound tracked by The Taxpayers, the band that was about to start playing in the basement as the boys handed me beers, cigarettes, and tossed my damp jacket onto the corner of a couch.

“You won’t need that down there. It’s going to get hot.”

It had been a long time since I had been so full of reasonless joy. I hadn’t danced so hard or sweat so much or laughed so loud. I had been living in a world of silence and illness. I finally let go of my nerves. I slammed my body into a wall of sweat and vocals and fretless bass kicks. I drank beers until I had the heart to dance with the kids from my high school. After the show ended I met Rob, Noah, and Nate – the boys of The Taxpayers – and they all hugged me like I was a long lost friend. Like I was family.

Later that night while we lay in his bed, drinking coffee, not touching, Damian introduced me to the music of Laura Veirs. He showed me her concert posters that he’d gotten her to autograph. He loved her. I hoped I would love her because I wanted him to think I was cool, but I didn’t really have to try with Laura. Her voice calmed my post-mosh pit nerves. My over caffeinated skin cooled along with the lyrics of “Galaxies.” Loving her was easy and never ceased. I continued to hope for Damian’s approval for so long I became defined by it.

My boyfriend and I broke up often. He was violent and a republican, and unless it translated to me kissing girls for his enjoyment he was growing tired of my queerness. Damian was the least dramatic person I knew, and he refused to touch me for the longest time. He moved out of his small two-bedroom house that he shared with an old family friend and took over an old house venue and changed its name from Brainstains to The Coop. Most of the block was filled up with dental offices and jazz bars so when we held shows there we never had to worry about police activity.

The Coop felt so alive, it breathed, its walls had the feel of paint wars – every room was a different color. At any given time someone would throw dumpstered multicolored streamers around the front rooms and they would be up for months, each piece that was torn down could be made into head bands or sashes. One year there were underwater animal cutouts nailed into the walls for no clear reason. Walking into The Coop unharmed was a challenge. The weatherworn front steps themselves were a safety hazard. The right side of the foyer was where a mountain of bikes was kept. It was also used as the load-in area for bands. The two uses battled each other regularly. To the left stood an arcade-sized air hockey table. It was streaked with blood from months of drunk-at-3AM tournaments. If you could make it through the foyer without tripping over the bicycle mountain or getting pegged in the face with an air hockey puck you made it safely into the living room, which was also where the stage had been built.

The living room led to the right into the family room. It was here where we all slept during the winter when the house lost power. It snowed ceaselessly for days that year. The pipes froze; there was no running water, no working toilets, no heat, and lots of rats living in the walls. Luckily there were enough people sleeping there that everyone together managed to keep each other warm.

It was during this snowstorm that I learned how to really keep warm during freezes. A skill I would use in my travels later in life. Dani walked into the living room to see me wrapped in four layers of long johns, a wool coat, and a sleeping bag, and I was shivering.

“All those layers are cutting off your circulation and actually making your body colder,” she stared at me, and I stared back. “Come on, dude. Trust me. Take off all but one layer of long johns and keep the jeans and the hoodie. And save the sleeping bag for when you’re sleeping.”

“You’re crazy. I’ll freeze,” but I did as directed. Once my blood flow sped up my teeth stopped chattering. My fingers tingled, and I laughed.

Once The Coop was formed the scene swelled. Suddenly it seemed like shows were happening all over town at any given time. We were rigging up trailers to our bikes and hauling out instruments and cases of beer to the Skidmore Bluffs and throwing renegade acoustic punk shows throughout the whole summer. The summertime was the best season for the lives we lead. Everyone was falling in love with each other.

I was falling in love with everyone.

Everyone was so beautiful. Everyone was so beautiful.

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This essay is excerpt from a larger work, Broke Social Scene, which will, in its entirety, cover a number of years, places, and identities to pay tribute to the all-ages music scene that defined an era.

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Header image courtesy of Valerie Usui. To view more of her photography, go here.

writer nina rockwell nailed magazineNina Rockwell, the daughter of fate and worry, lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She has been published in the Portland Community College literary journal, The Pointed Circle, Penduline Press, and Nailed. Most of her writing education has come from The Literary Kitchen, Ariel Gore’s School for Wayward Writers, and from having two eyes and a heart.

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Carrie Seitzinger

Carrie Seitzinger is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Seitzinger is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.
Learn more about her at her official site.