Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Goin' APE

San Francisco is the only city I’ve ever been to that charges a cover at the door. The four dollar toll at the Bay Bridge is the promise of exclusivity, like the city itself is a nightclub full of bright flashing colors and the heartbeat of bass-heavy music and strange people that would love to meet you as much as forget you in the morning. All of this is sponsored by Coca-Cola, apparently, if that big glittery billboard that towers over the skyline means anything. Fortunately, every time I’ve visited the city by the bay, I’ve had a purpose -- namely, the Alternative Press Expo, a little comic con for folks like me that make their comics and zines by hand. With APE as a pseudo-professional pivot for the weekend, one can only monkey around so much . . . but sometimes trouble finds its way to you, too.

Barreling Down the Highway

I’ve been making comics with my buddy Brent for years, but we haven’t exhibited at APE together since 2006, so I was excited for a chance to show off our respective works since then. His latest solo effort, Dog Town, is an awesome comic book; even if you don’t read comics, peruse the sketches on his blog and behold his amazing talent. Anyway, he and I rented a car from Orange County and began the northbound trek on the 5 freeway shortly after lunch on Friday afternoon. Thanks to talk radio’s obsession with Bubble Boy, the drive was entertaining enough, and even when the stench of cow country infiltrated the car, Brent and I didn’t whine one bit.

Little did we suspect that the freeway had plenty of “whine” in store for us. Just before the 580 freeway, a truck hauling huge, old-fashioned wine barrels lost one. It shattered in the road and the debris struck a lot of cars in a lot of different ways -- and we were no exception. I swerved to avoid the twisted metal, which in the white headlights looked like the macabre skeleton of a barrel, but it punctured our driver’s side front tire. We pulled over and Brent quickly put on the spare while I called our rental car place to file an incident report. We pulled over in the next closest town, Livermore, to inspect the car in better light and discovered a leak, the possibility of a damaged oil pan.

A tow company was to deliver us a new car but the closest open location was the San Francisco airport, so we killed a few hours eating at Applebee’s. When the tow truck arrived with a nice new Ford Focus, the glassy-eyed driver took his time, which by then was par for our course. Brent watched the guy eat a Lunchable -- you know, a little round piece of bologna, a little square piece of cheese, a faux Ritz cracker. Assemble. Eat. Repeat. When we finally got back on the road, we were in San Francisco within the better part of an hour, and in our hotel room at the Bay Bridge Inn by 11 p.m. When we checked in, the clerk asked if we minded the milk he was storing in our room’s refrigerator. We didn’t. We were utterly exhausted.

What A Bummer

I’ve seriously contemplated sharing this part of our weekend, because I know it’s one Brent would love to forget, but as long as I’ve had the privilege of exploring the inner city in any capacity, I’ve been fascinated by homelessness. I even wrote a comic book about, Doug Deever, Dumpster Diver. I’d like to think my interest transcends mere rubbernecking; I’m genuinely curious in the origins of homelessness, from the traditional stereotype of the shell shocked war veteran, to the strung out alcoholic, to . . . what? The question I always ask, at what point in a person’s life do they run out of loved ones willing to help? How many friends and family would I have to burn through to end up on the street, too? I know the phenomenon is by no means this simple, but in a dense city like San Francisco, where homelessness is rampant, it’s a challenge to look at them as people, and not just part of the ornate architecture. Sometimes it’s better not to.

Consider our Saturday morning, when Brent and I were strolling toward Market Street in the hopes of a Starbucks. Perhaps our minds were eager for APE as we took in the street art, from graffiti to intentional attempts at beautification. At an intersection on 7th Street, in the heart of what appeared to be a skid row, Brent and I caught sight of something I’ll never forget: two homeless folks, an old white man and a black woman, with their hands down the other’s pants. Though I could tell they had been trying to conceal themselves with their jackets, they were beyond the point of subtly, and the man especially was rocking back and forth in a ragged dance of hasty desperation.

You know what they were doing, so don’t make me say it . . . and as much as the sight was admittedly hilarious, it humanized these two people beyond the thought of normal street dressing. Perverse, sure, but no more so than any seemingly “civilized” businessman visiting a strip club or massage parlor -- but in this case, perhaps more -- cherished? In the context of urban survival, perhaps more forgiving, this moment of fleeting respite? I don’t judge them, and, as sick as it sounds, I’m grateful that I shared in that moment of raw intimacy. Beyond the preconception of begging drunks, these are still people, with just as many complicated needs as the rest of us -- and dark reflection of there but for the grace of God go I.

Similarly, several times on our way back to the hotel throughout the weekend, we passed this vintage owl pillow in a locked doorway, and by Sunday evening, I just had to take it and give it a home. What it represents -- discarded old wisdom, ironic discomfort -- epitomizes San Francisco’s homelessness perfectly. I only hope that smell comes out in the wash . . .

The Fresh Maker

Whenever I’m in San Francisco, I have to visit the Mint Karaoke Lounge. I discovered the Mint during APE 2007, and I’ve been a handful of times since. I’ve talked about it here in The Karaoke Chronicles before, but it’s worth mentioning again, because the karaoke starts there at 4 p.m. every day! You gotta love a place that respects karaoke enough to kick it off during the waning daytime hours!

Anyway, so I hoped to get to the Mint Friday night, and even though we were exhausted after The Wine Barrel Incident, I cruised by to see if I could find easy parking, with no luck. Plus, navigating the labyrinth of one-way streets in San Francisco infuriated me after cruising at some 80 mph on the freeways, so I retired earlier than I’d hoped. Saturday night, after Brent and I went to the Cartoon Art Museum APE after party, I hoofed it up Market Street to the lounge, where the one free bar stool in the whole joint was waiting for me.

At first, I was intimidated by the crowd, because I thought the rotation might be too long to get a song in. I threw in my token “Piano Man,” anyway, and thankfully the KJ Frank runs a very tight stage, letting you know who’s going to sing three performers in advance, and playing songs right on top of each other if necessary. He’s also an excellent singer himself, so his passion fuels the vibe in the room. When I approached to sing, I had my drink in tow to swing along to Billy Joel’s piano, but Frank frowned against it. You can see how I mimed a drink, but fortunately the crowd was happy enough to oblige, and I received plenty of praise for my song choice. (My fave pic from the night is here; check out the guy in front worshipping me!) Of course, I let the crowd sing for me during that last chorus, as if the Mint itself was performing for me. As the name implies, it always leaves a great taste in my mouth.

Goin’ APE

APE, the reason we were in San Francisco in the first place, is unlike any other comic book show I’ve attended, and I’ve been to the San Diego Comic Con, the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention, and trade shows like Frank & Sons in the City of Industry. At APE, the press is truly “alternative,” ranging from traditional zines, to hand drawn mini-comics, to homemade crafts and prints. I’ll be reviewing the stuff I picked up at my comics review blog A Comic A Day, and I’m generally pretty pleased with the haul.

Setting up the K.O. Comix table is always a challenge, because we want our booth to clearly exhibit our work in a visually appealing way. In the past, I’ve brought props to emphasize our books’ themes, like a little Christmas tree to highlight our comic Little Christmas, but this time we kept it simple by stacking up pure product. Dog Town was the centerpiece as far as I was concerned, it being the newest and most professional piece on the table, and I pushed my 2009 Poetry Zine Series for free, just to get that stuff out there. Still, like any other con, I’m talking about comics getting into the hands of consumers, so what makes APE so different?

The simple answer: At APE, there’s no middle man. It’s the artist standing behind his or her work, with potential fans passing by, and sometimes the artist only has a second or two to make an impression. At other cons, retailers or office jockeys push product, which is critical to the industry, but at APE and other zine-friendly shows, the material is usually hot off the press, or straight out of the copy machine at work, into readers’ hands. It’s pure, and brutal, if you’ve poured your heart into something passers-by won’t give a second glance. In that case, pricing is critical; Brent and I both agree that our books are priced to sell, not to make a profit. The assumption is, interest now generates business and profit later. If we actually pursued K.O. Comix with some consistency, we might succeed with that model. Other creators, I encourage you to try it!

So, I’d be remiss not to mention, check out the K.O. Comix blog, and my tangible creative efforts at the KaraokeFanboy Press blog! At the very least, you’ll see some pretty pictures!

Fortunately, the drive home was uneventful. No wine barrels, no shameless homeless folks, no karaoke, no peddling comics. Just two guys worn out by an eclectic weekend. Of course, San Francisco doesn’t charge you to leave the city, which would be equally profitable, but the message is clear . . . Get out! Just like a nightclub, whenever your personal closing time arrives, they want you up and out of there, probably to make room for more folks in such a cramped space. I’m usually ready to leave anyway. I don’t know if I could live in a city so densely populated -- but I certainly like visiting as frequently as possible. I don’t mind the cover charge -- because the memories are priceless.

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