Going through old photos the other day and came across this gem. Ah, the poncho. Difficult piece of clothing to pull off. Women should never wear them, and the only men that can really rock them are Mexican revolutionaries or drug-addled hippies. I guess at the time I fancied myself the latter.
But I look fucking ridiculous. A poncho. C’mon dude. Really?
I know. I know.
I was wearing that poncho the first time I tried scoring weed in Santa Fe. I had new buddy drive me to the plaza where I had seen a variety of doper-looking scruffians and ne’er-do-wells hanging out. A few were kicking the sack around. Others huddled around in conspiratorial circles talking. This was generally fertile grounds for sowing a pot connection.
Unless you’re a stranger wearing a poncho.
I jumped out of the van and walked over to a small group of these Plaza Rats.
“Hey guys. Do any of you know where I can score a little herb?”
They all shook their heads no. Emphatically. It wasn’t like a no, not right now, but a no, never. We don’t know anyone who ever sells marijuana.
Strange. What gives? I don’t see any X’s on their hands. They don’t seem straight-edge. Especially that dude with the knit rasta cap selling hand-carved soapstone hash pipes. He’s shaking his head no, too. Hmm. I walked back dejectedly to the van.
For many years, my friend, Russell, would remind me of that day. He was there at the plaza hanging out.
“We all just knew your were a narc!” he’d laugh. “Oh, here comes some buzz-cut guy that jumped out of a white van…wearing a poncho! Like that was going to throw us off. He totally looks like a cop, but he must be cool, because…he’s wearing a poncho. Hahahahahaha! No way man.”
He had a point. I wouldn’t have turned me on if I wasn’t me. What was I thinking?
Fortunately, a little later, I met a guy named, David Scott, who sussed me out as a legitimate fuck-up, and finally vouched for me to his friends. He invited Keller, my sister, and me to the house where he was living and introduced us. I didn’t wear my poncho that night and we were welcomed warmly. So that’s how I got to know The Plaza Rats, an indigenous tribe of freaks, punks and hipsters I immediately felt at home among.
And for the record, none of whom would ever know anyone who sold pot.
At least not anyone who would sell it to a burr-headed state trooper-looking dude wearing a poncho.
So what was the deal with the poncho in the first place? Well, hear me out. There was some reason behind my insanity.
I had just moved to Santa Fe, NM from Southern California in ’87. Or was it ’88? Doesn’t matter. My sister and I had driven through a blizzard that got so gnarly we had to pull off and spend the night in Seligman AZ. We had spent three hours of night driving in white-out conditions with everything we owned crammed into a Chevy Chevette (diesel) and a U-Haul roof carrier.
All I could do was try to stay in the wheel prints of the semi in front of us. If he went over a cliff, I would have been following right behind. It was some of the most wide-eyed, ass-puckered motoring I’ve ever had the joy of experiencing. A memorable first time driving in snow. I think that U-Haul carrier saved us. Kept us squashed to the road.
When the semi finally pulled off at Seligman, we were elated. To this day, that two-horse-turd town holds a special place in my heart. I will never forget how good it looked that night with all its glowing neon angels. Gas. Motel. Beer. The holy trinity for tired travelers. A sweet divine sanctuary.
We bought some snow chains, sandwiches, chips, and sodas. (Try saying that with a bilateral lisp) Anyway, there is a very good chance that I purchased some beer that night, but I can’t remember for sure. The fact that I got roaring drunk in the town bar that night made the purchase of package store beer uneventful in my memory. There were bigger things to remember about that night.
I remember my sister and I checking into a little motel and being very grateful to be alive and that we had made it, so far. We still had a long way to go, over some treacherous snowy and icy roads, but for now, we were okay. Breathe deep. Holy shit. What have I gotten us into?
I also remember feeling very proud of her. She was damn good co-pilot. Goddamn. When things were looking grim, she kept her cool and that helped me keep my shit together. I always knew she was gutsy, but that night, I got to see her at her finest. Poised. Steely-eyed. Determined. Scared for sure, but not letting The Fear best her.
She’s a good person to have at your side, pointing the way to go to avoid the burning zeppelin.
After I finished appreciating my sister, I decided to hit the bar. She was in for the night, so I trudged through the snow to the only place open that night. What I saw when I went in was pretty cinematic.
A black-haired biker babe behind the bar drying glasses, and one sole patron sitting at the bar. A desiccated piece of grizzle, a wild-haired, bushy-browed, burned-out freak…wearing a poncho. Oh fucking yes! So exactly the bar of my dreams. A sexy chick to look at and a weirdo to talk with is all I really need.
The place was rustic, with antlers and shit on the wooden walls, the plank saloon floor was urine-stained and varnished with years of vomit. Probably a few quarts of blood splattered here and there. Nice. Perfect actually. I know you can’t have any real fun without spilling a few bodily fluids.
I ordered a beer and a shot for myself and the fabulous furry freak. He nodded his appreciation. Hell, I just looked Death in the eyes and didn’t flinch too much. I could afford to buy the house a round or two.
I offered one to the bartender, but she declined. She looked part Indian. Probably a good idea. She looked like she’d be a handful in a bar fight. Strong arms. Powerful legs…and ass. I imagined us rolling around on a floor covered in broken glass, wrestling for the pool cue, knocking over tables, her biting into my shoulder, me pulling on her hair, then our eyes meeting. Magic. The look that says we belong together. Then her mouth opening slightly.
“That’ll be sixteen dollars.”
I handed her a double saw.
“Roads are a motherfucker I hear,” the old head says, still looking straight ahead.
“Yeah, my ass hasn’t unclenched yet. We’re driving to Santa Fe. It would be nice if we don’t die.”
The head nodded. The bartender told me nobody knew if I-40 would be open by tomorrow, and that we might be stranded. That was fine by me. This place seemed better than most. But it was about to get much better.
“You want to burn one?” Mr. Poncho asked me. Now I nodded. We stepped outside and watched the snow come down while taking turns hitting at the joint. It looked really peaceful. Not like it did from behind the wheel.
I can’t remember how, but in the course of our conversation, Captain Beefheart came up. I probably brought him up, since I was totally into Don Van Vliet. A buddy had turned me on to Trout Mask Replica, and the rest was history. Anything that utterly insane was not just something to listen to, but to somehow incorporate as a lifestyle choice. The Captain was bat-chain puller insane and I was hoping that repeated listening would infect me with his liberated madness. Like I needed more. Bat chain puller. Bat chain puller. Puller. Puller.
Anyway, not only did this guy know about Beefheart, but he could sing his entire catalog–pitch perfect, from the deep grumbles to the high screeching. I shit you not. It was an amazing thing to witness. Especially stoned. When we went back inside, I bought another round and he performed a little recital for me. He not only sounded just like the Captain, but knew every single word to every song I threw out. It was like having a living, breathing, weed-sharing, Captain Beefheart juke box taking requests. Nothing was too esoteric. I couldn’t stump him.
Ice Cream for Crow. I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby. Dachau Blues. Abba Zabba. Candle Mambo. Big Eyed Beans from Venus. Tropical Hot Dog Night. Mirror Man. I Wanna Find a Woman That Will Hold My Big Toe Until I Have to Go. And of course, Bat Chain Puller. He knew them all.
“Okay, Man With A Woman Head.”
He’d take a sip of beer and begin.
“The man with the woman head
Polynesian wallpaper made the face stand out,
a mixture of Oriental and early vaudeville jazz poofter,
forming a hard, beetle-like triangular chin much like a praying mantis.
Smoky razor-cut, low on the ear neck profile.
The face the color of a nicotine-stained hand.
Dark circles collected under the wrinkled, folded eyes,
map-like from too much turquoise eye-paint.
He showed his old tongue through ill-fitting wooden teeth,
stained from too much opium, chipped from the years.
The feet, brown wrinkles above straw loafers.
A piece of cocoanut in a pink seashell caught the tongue
and knotted into thin white strings.
Charcoal grey Eisenhower jacket zipped and tucked into a lotus green ascot.
A coil of ashes collected on the white-on-yellow dacs.
Four slender bones with rings and nails
endured the weight of a hard fast black rubber cigarette holder.
I could just make out Ace as he carried the tray and mouthed,
‘You cheap son of a bitch’
as a straw fell out of a Coke, cartwheeled into the gutter.
So this was a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood,
So this was a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood,
So this was a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood.”
Son of a bitch. He knew the whole thing. Maybe I had died back there on I-40, and this was my heaven. I felt like I’d discovered buried treasure. What a magnificent gem hidden in a wasteland of Arizona desert. More beers. More Beefheart. More pot. Digging that crazy poncho, too.
I have experienced many wild and wonderful things in my life, but running into that old freak, in a deserted bar during a snowstorm, remains a highlight. The human Beefheart beat box.
I think that’s when I caught the poncho germ. I too wanted to be a solitary, desert-dwelling human repository of cult-music. A sun-baked beatster basting his brains in a tin-foil trailer. Not giving a flying fuck. Too crazy to care. To be so out there you don’t worry about whether you’re pulling off the poncho or not. You’re too busy talking to crows, painting rusted car hoods with animal scenes, and remembering how to sing every single Captain Beefheart song ever invented. Just in case.
I already knew The American Dream wasn’t for me. This seemed like a viable alternative. Puller. Puller.
They opened I-40 that next morning. I was nervous, but had renewed faith that something was looking out. We chained up, topped off with diesel, and shimmied that clattering Chevette along the ice. That next day’s driving was actually worse. Slush from passing trucks would splash on our windshields and stop our wipers, leaving us driving blind, but we made it. Santa Fe, New Mexico.
We had never been there. We didn’t know anybody. Had no jobs. No place to live. Very little money. And we didn’t give a flying fuck.
There’s nothing like almost dying a lot to make you feel alive, and not worried about small bullshit.
So anyway, a few days after getting there, I walked past a shop selling ponchos. Oh fuck yeah. I had to get one. We had already scored a trailer to live at, inside the Space Science Center for UFO studies on St. Francis Drive. This would be the second important component to starting my new weird life. The third was pot, which I would get next.
Wearing my poncho.