Ugly American: In Memory of MCA of The Beastie Boys: A True Story

Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys

UGLY AMERICAN: IN MEMORY OF MCA OF THE BEASTIE BOYS

A TRUE STORY

A memory inspired by the passing of MCA.

True Story: I once pissed off every one of my French neighbors in an apartment complex.

A year after it was released, I discovered Licensed To Ill. In the summer of 1987, I was fourteen years old and an American abroad. My family had moved to the suburbs of Paris, France a year prior. I had survived seventh and eighth grade but ninth grade loomed on the horizon that summer. I was nervous about navigating another culture where my ability to speak the language did not match my comprehension, a comprehension founded on French classes at my school and watching reruns of a dubbed version of The A-Team. Stuck in the awkward teenage phase, I avoided dressing like a tourist, of being judged yet another ugly American.

You would see them on the subway sporting fanny packs, shorts, and white sneakers, with a camera and a guidebook. But really, you heard them before you saw them. They were loud. They made direct eye-contact. They broke the rules. Trying to adapt to this new culture, my friends and I stood as far away as possible. We’d turn our jean-jacketed backs to them. We made it very clear: we were most definitely NOT TOURISTS.

I feel it is necessary to point out that there was no Internet back then. (Tragic, I know.) French Radio left much to be desired, since I had zero desire to sing about some taxi driver named Joe. My only option was to buy cassettes on a monthly trip to an American military base in Belgium. But what great luck that I chose this album based on the cover art of a fighter jet because the Beastie Boys’ music blew the top of my head off!

Thanks to MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D, I embraced my true inner ugly American. After rewinding seconds of tape over and over until I had sussed out all the words to “She’s Crafty”, I made the leap. I threw open the windows to my bedroom and blasted “Fight For Your Right” out into the apartment complex, as loud as my boombox would play, subjecting all of my French neighbors to some radical American rap. The Beastie Boys were so rad. Like totally raaad. And all five multi-story apartment buildings heard the entire album.

Today, while the world mourns the passing of MCA, an incredibly talented rapper, I remember him in my own way. I remember him in that moment when I threw open the windows to the same world, a strange world, and owned my American culture.

Because it was time for me to “Drrrrr-op!”

R.I.P. MCA.

*****

A True Story: Our Lady Of Europe

Place de la Concorde, 1997

OUR LADY OF EUROPE

A True Story

When I was 12, I saw Europe.

It was 1985. We were stationed in France for three years while my father performed scientific work on behalf of NOAA. It was an irregular situation since France left NATO years before. My parents immediately recognized the opportunity for what it was – spectacular. After navigating around a destination change to the Everglades, my father left to start his new job. Then my mother packed up the house in Seattle. Before we knew it, we boarded a TWA flight bound for Paris.

My mother quickly instituted  a new family mantra: “We’re in Europe. We’re going to see Europe!” And by George, we saw Europe. Remarkably, that was all but five countries in three years.

And that is why I saw Europe from the backseat of a blue Volvo 240 GL.

Within a week of arriving in the suburbs of Paris, we took an overnight train north. The train loaded onto a ferry, and a day later we found ourselves at the Volvo factory in Gothenburg, Sweden. It was there we picked up our beautiful car, the Tank.

Order was established quickly. My father drove. My mother never sat in the backseat. I always sat on the right side in the back while my brother sat on the left. The seat was covered with comfortable dark blue material. If I scooted down a few inches, my head would comfortably rest against the top edge of the backseat. It was the perfect place to take one of those languid teenage naps. At least, until my brother woke me up. Or we arrived.

On weekends and French holidays, we would load into the Tank and take off. Sooner or later, my brother and I would get hungry. We took a cue from the VHS recordings friends sent us of “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties” and act like the immature American teenagers we were. We would sing one of the McDonald’s theme songs ad nauseum until my parents capitulated or my mother threatened us. To this day, “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese…” takes me right back to my spot in the Tank as my brother and I bonded in mutual conspiracy. But most of the time, we would plug our headphones into individual cassette-playing boomboxes that rested in the middle seat between us and listen to music. They were soon replaced by newly released Sony Walkmans. My parents would pay for blissful silence at any price.

Once a month we would drive from Paris to Chievres Air Force Base in Belgium to buy staples unavailable in Paris, like Iceberg lettuce and peanut butter. (All of us now prefer the ever-so-French Spring Mix and ham.) We always came back with piles of books and magazines. Best of all, we got to pick out new music. My father used to joke that the Tank dragged all the way home on trip south. To be certain, my brother and I always rested our feet on flats of sodas and canned string beans. We didn’t care. We were lost in the latest issue of X-Men or Sweet Valley High novelette.

We also learned how to drive from the backseat.

My mother developed a particular style of driving as offense against crazy drivers. At the time, France had a very long and labored driving requirement to receive a driver’s license. Despite the significant obstacles to obtaining one, it still resulted in many drivers who couldn’t drive. They would pile into their tiny cars: the Citroens, Renaults, Fiats, and drive like bats out of hell. Sorry, is that a line? They would cut in from a 90 degree angle, all the while gesturing madly through the window. My mother, of stout Scandinavian stock by way of Montana, decided this was a bunch of nonsense. She developed a technique to use in these situations. If another driver attempted to engage personally in an inappropriate fashion from the right, she would stare at their front left tire. Before long the other driver would glance at it as if to see what was wrong. Now, it is impossible to see the front left tire from the driver’s position behind the steering wheel, yet this never stopped the attempts to see it. From my superior position in the backseat, I was fascinated. From my father’s position, it was a way to edge the Tank up a bit further when the opening came and block that ridiculous person from cutting in. Make no mistake, driving in France was all sport.

Then there was the rest of Europe. Winding down from the Eagle’s Nest, the Tank sheltered us through a fierce hailstorm that caused millions of dollars of damages in Germany. On our frequent visits to that country, we often encountered fog. My father would pop the high beams on and we’d watch out the front window in silence for tail lights to materialize in front of us. We spent one afternoon in a party on a highway when we made the mistake of leaving for Italy on August 1st during the continental pilgrimage south. Our trusty Tank was not one of the lesser vehicles that overheated and died on that highway.

Eventually we moved back to the United States. The Tank was shipped to our new home in Virginia. A few years later, my parents moved back to France. They took a new black Volvo sedan with them. My brother inherited the Tank. It ferried college kids and empty fast food wrappers to and fro. One day it finally died. The Tank had escorted my family across a kazillion miles of road safely.

The Tank is long gone but the memories remain. There were five of us on our grand adventure – my family of four and ou dear Tank. She was our Lady of Europe.

Porsche Camping: A True Story

PORSCHE CAMPING

A TRUE STORY

All names have been changed to protect the innocent.

To sharpen my writing skills, I have tasked myself with developing a new skillset: the ability to tell new, true, and on occasion, funny stories. This is where I nail down actual details instead of making stuff up. Heh!

True Story: My father used to take my brother and I camping in a Porsche.

My father loved his Porsche 924s. He loved them so much he leased a new one every year. He’d pick us up for his weekend on a Friday evening and there’d be a new one in white, silver, or gold.

One weekend he decided to take my brother and I on a little trip. Having sold the green truck with the camper shell from the 70s, he made do. We were Porsche camping!

Picture this: my mother, a model of restraint, standing on the stairs of our split level home as she watched her ex load our overnight bags into the trunk of a white Porsche 924.

Ever seen the inside trunk area of this fine vehicle? There’s really not one to speak of. It was a minor indentation of maybe twelve inches under the slim hatchback window. In our stuff went, next to the sleeping bags and groceries, all of which were flattened in hopes that my father would be able to see out the back window.

We left early on Saturday morning. That began with a fight for “the Hump.” To any adult, the elongated arm rest which continues into the backseat between the generously named “bucket seats” might go unremarked. But in the seat-belt optional days of the ’80s Stone Age, “the Hump” was the place for kids to sit and worth any manner of physical violence, wheedling, or whining. It provided the optimal view of traffic and scenery from inside the Porsche. It was better than the driver’s view.

I lost. I sat in the passenger seat, which was really more like sliding down the leather. I don’t remember if my father put in the cassette for LIPPS, Neil Diamond, or his favorite, “Donna Summer’s Greatest Hits,” but we listened to something good on our way to a campsite a few hours from Seattle, a destination located somewhere in the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula.

The trip went something like this: super major highway, state highway, side roads, and at last, a fire trail of mud and gravel. The road was a mess. It was one car wide and full of enormous potholes the size of meteor craters. They were of such significant size, you would most assuredly not want to drive into one because you would not be driving out. My father slowed way down. He took care to drive around them. Sometimes the Porsche went off road a bit into the wet ferns. As a career truck driver known for backing semi trailers down impossibly narrow piers on the waterfront, jobs which other truck drivers refused, he was the man to navigate a Porsche down this road.

We crept along at five miles per hour. This seemed to go on forever. We were used to shooting down I-5 singing along to the Bee Gees at the top of our lungs. Who knew the Porsche could go so slow? And then we heard it.

SCCCCRAPE.

My father continued driving forward.

SCCCCCCCCRAPE.

He stopped. He stared at the road ahead. He got out. He looked down the road. He got back in.

That was when my brother and I found ourselves walking behind the Porsche. My father hoped that in removing the combined weight of two kids in elementary school, say 150 lbs, the Porsche might not have anything important scraped clean off the underside. I will always remember stepping between the lakes of potholes as the tail lights on the Porsche flashed on and off.

SCCCRAPE.

We finally made it to the camp site. It was little more than a pull off. My father set up the orange tent on an elevated outcrop of rock while my brother and I goofed off. After we tired of chasing each other around, we sat down next to my father at the campfire. He made a big deal of heating up food from a can over a sterno stove. As we ate, he told us stories. Stories about what it was like when he grew up. Most involved fireworks and explosions. 

Gradually, it grew dark. There were so many mosquitoes at dusk, the storytelling gave way to a competition. We got twenty points for each mosquito annihilated. You had to look toward the campfire to see them in the darkness. With bruised hands and thousand point scores, we went to sleep in the tent on the rock.

Not long after, my father got remarried and a new baby arrived. One day we went into the garage to get in the car, and in the place where the Porsche slept was an ugly brown stationwagon. My brother and I were dumbfounded. How do you go from a Porsche 924 to a stationwagon?

There’s one more memory I have about that trip. At some point during the night, my father tried to sleep in the Porsche 924. As a man of six feet with the shoulders of a defensive lineman, I’m not sure he actually slept. We teased him about it the whole ride back.

And that, my friends, is Porsche camping!