Epicenter (1998)

Published in Maximumrocknroll upon the record store and community center’s demise (RIP). A photographer from the SF Weekly took this photograph for an article about Epicenter. Those of us working this shift (Wednesday afternoon) had no idea she was coming! That’s me in the middle. I remember distinctly being sad that I had just washed my hair that morning!

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Too much happened at Epicenter.

A collectively-run record store and otherwise amorphous space (sometime community center, sometime art gallery, sometime venue, sometime riot HQ, sometime dance party), Epicenter opened in 1990 to provide a little bit of everything – punk, with a smattering of politics. With the Switchboard in the library and Blacklist Mailorder in the back room, for a while it felt as if 475 Valencia -and the Bay Area in general, with Maximumrocknroll close by and Gilman across the water- was the Punk Rock. Kids from all over converging on the second-story space to come face-to-face with subcultural potential, realized. But the store was also the stage for too many of my own ups and downs, best friends and bad relationships (only one of these was mine), a grab-bag of enthusiasms and frustrations. Just like any other volunteer, I think most of us were of a divided mind about our shared love-hate object – punk or Epicenter, or both.

I moved to the Bay Area in 1992 to go to school and be closer to the action, frustrated with golf-course Republicans and the militaristic nationalisms of San Diego. Somewhere I still have the one and only Epicenter collective zine called Learning to Fly Despite Missiles, an anti-Gulf War project I coveted as a protesting senior in high school, surrounded by miles of yellow ribbons and flag-waving fervor. I was deeply envious of course; by way of Maximum I learned that Epicenter served as a focal point for both legit political organizations and angry rioters during the war as well as the Rodney King verdict, and I knew what I wanted most was to be there.

I mean, “open all holidays, closed for riots” — that was ad copy I always could get behind.

I worked Saturday, all day, from noon to eight at night, BARTing in early to sweep and putter around before unlocking the doors, staying late after counting out the till. I remember the summer that followed like a home movie – full of clicks and whirs, awkwardly pieced together. The rented Kiss flick on our twenty-inch set, blackouts and torch lights, handing the kids candles as they came through the door, in-store frisbee with bargain records, my hand on the bicycle seat trying to convince Karyn to put her feet on the pedals, pushing her around the store. Whatever tom-boy prankster I nurtured still got ample opportunities to stretch her legs at Epicenter, scaling the metal fire-ladder out behind Blacklist, late at night, armed with water balloons, committing small acts of vandalism at four a.m. on our getaway bikes.

A few of us started EWOK -Epicenter Women’s Outreach Koalition- for punk rock feminist purposes, throwing together benefits to raise money for women’s self-defense scholarships and battered women’s shelters, co-sponsoring shows for AIM and other political organizations we variously supported. Kristin and I would curl up on a couch after a meeting, making jokes about “smashing patriarchy” and drawing up the agenda for the following week. We even organized a Women’s Outreach Weekend at the store, making some of the collective a bit grumpy (“how are we supposed to run a business?”) but also (we hope) making an impact on the hundred or so girls who showed up for the workshops, films, discussions, and of course, the Safer Sex Sluts getting hot ‘n’ heavy on the floor.

But then there were the white boys and their displays, pumping righteous vegan fists in the air, shaving heads to Earth Crisis, waving pipes and bats to the vitriol of jock-edge rallying cries, something about beating up junkies in doorways, they were all thieves and scum anyway. New volunteers came and went after a few weeks of being ignored – or ridiculed. A girl and 475 co-worker came to me after a Saturday shift and in the relative quiet of the library room, pulled up her green dress to show me the bruises up and down her back. She left town a few weeks later. Her ex-boyfriend stuck around for years.

It made me sick.

So I walked away from Epicenter.

When I came back, I pulled records and talked to the kids coming in through the door, painted the bathroom, did my best to stay away from in-store politicking. I gave away show posters off the ceiling to sweet but surprised Japanese kids, ready and willing to pay for a piece of punk rock history and amazed that it could be had for free after all. The Riot Kids vandalized the store, something about it being a whitestraightpunkboy scenester circle jerk, and accused Epicenter of gentrifying the local neighborhood. Of course, less than a third of those with responsibilities were straightwhitepunkboys – half were women, a third people of color, and not a few of us queer. I heard it was an assignment of some kind, pictured them in all their revolutionary fervor plotting and sipping coffee at Muddy Waters, buying their duds at Clothes Contact and sex toys at Good Vibrations, making it late to class at New College, all within blocks of each other — and Epicenter. About the same time I stopped listening to grind or hardcore and instead picked up Team Dresch and Slant 6, bored with male pain. Because I wanted out, my then-boyfriend got piss-drunk and threw a bottle at me, just outside the Epicenter stairwell. I learned to want him dead, standing at the iron gate with whisky soaking through my shoes.

I left the second time because I didn’t want to be reminded.

When I came back, I posed for an SF Weekly photographer with Floyd and Kevin – the rest of the collective, knowing ahead of time she was coming, declined to show. I was only upset because I had actually washed my hair the day before. Afterward, Kevin and I talked about race in punk rock, quietly, and wondered what we were doing here. I went to Q-TIP shows, danced with Iraya in her terry-cloth daisy dress, watched cute girl bass players and armored keyboardists bang out somehow melodic chords. I sent the drunk punks who called Epicenter looking for Chaos Days to the Haight and organized a few meetings with people of color in various stages of p-rockness. And I remember sitting in the library with Miriam, looking dapper and dashing in a pin-stripe three-piece suit, as she said, “It’s all going to hell. It’s all going to burn down in flames and I don’t care.”

I left a third time, moving to New York City to become a graduate student and to get away. But still I heard stories about girls in platform sandals putting feet through glass doors, throwing punches at dykes, high on PCP; enthusiastic crusty kids pulling down pipes and starting floods; clean-cut white girls disappearing into the bathroom to shoot up, naked; former workers staging farewell heists, cash from the till stuffed into pockets and backpacks. I ate up all the news and the rumors as if I still lived a BART ride away, and always felt a bit sick, afterward.

Since I moved back to the Bay Area in 1997 to finish graduate school, I’ve probably returned to Epicenter ten times in the last two-and-a-half years, and only to browse for zines. After the first few times I asked to see the old photographs that once were stashed in a desk drawer. The desk was gone, of course, and so were the snapshots. The wall of Epicenter photo-flyers had been dismantled, the room that had housed both the library and switchboard rented out as studio space. The refrigerator Christopher and I had once spent the wee hours scrubbing clean of punk rock stickers -and to which we’d lost several layers of skin in the process- had disappeared. My name was still on what was my box, ineffectively crossed out with green marker. And someone –I won’t name names– had thrown out the store journals, full of in-jokes, drawings, petty shit-talking and not a little bile.

Good riddance, I thought. I wouldn’t want to re-live it.

I couldn’t ever stay for long after I came back; the store seemed dimmer, more cluttered than I remembered despite the empty and half-empty bins. Still, news of its imminent demise struck a bad chord in my gut, I worried over the financial state of the store for the first time in years. Going to one of the last meetings to discuss the fate of Epicenter, I watched the kids who worked there most recently talk about opening up a newer, better space, an infoshop, or a café, or a real community center. But the vast amounts of energy they kept referring to, I couldn’t feel at all, or it didn’t feel familiar. Somewhere along the way I lost Epicenter, it was no longer mine either to cherish or revile

So I let it go.

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