the traveling spoken-word gang Sister Spit started five years ago as a weekly open mike where grrrly-type poets and performers could ply their trade at San Francisco bars and coffeehouses. In 1997, co-ringleader Michelle Tea, author of the charming and intimate memoir The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, and her partner-in-crime Sini Anderson, who has rocked poetry scenes from subway stations to Lollapalooza and everywhere in between, kicked off the annual Sister Spit Road Show. Every spring they determine the tour lineup by drawing from a hat filled with the names of women whose writing they like. The randomly chosen few pile into vans and take off across the country, unleashing new-school, girls-only poems and stories armed with heartbreak and humor (and the occasional striptease) on rabid fans and hapless victims everywhere.
Of course, tours need roadies. You know, drive the van, sling t-shirts and books, and try not to get drunk before you count the money. The day I met Michelle, she "just had this feeling" that I was destined to be the roadie for Sister Spit's 1999 Road Show. Um, give up my professional summer internship behind a desk editing copy in exchange for a few thousand miles in a caravan of rowdy, punk-dyke poets? Hell, yes.
Oakland, California | June 30
It's late and I'm a bit delirious. I'm spending the summer with a group of women I don't know. As cool as they are, as utterly defenseless as I am in my college-girl bookishness, what stands in the way of humiliation? I have visions of sleeping in the van, parked outside of a biker bar, while older, veteran Sister Spitters drink each other under the table. Mommy!
Santa Cruz, California | July 1
I'm riding with Tara Jepsen, who reads hilarious stories about New Age yoga retreats and high school keg parties; Kassy Kayiatos, slam poetry and beatbox champ; Anna Joy Springer, who sang and wrote songs for the now-defunct punk band Cypher in the Snow; and Silas Flipper, guitarist and songwriter for the legendary punk-dyke extravaganza that is Tribe 8. We are cruisin' in Tara's dad's Astrovan, with Tara as captain. A '78 Chevy van named Sheila is crammed with the rest of the gals: Nomy Lamm, fat activist, singer, and author of the erstwhile zine I'm So Fucking Beautiful; Ali Liebegott, who on any given night may make you cry with her heart-wrenching poetry or elicit entirely different emotions by crushing a beer can with her tits; ex–Vitapup singer Jane LeCroy, who charms us all with sexy a cappella jazz songs about praying mantises and rhinoceri; Tarin Towers, who rocks the mike with a hand on her hip and slam poetry to knock your socks off; Laurie Weeks, pee-in-your-pants-funny poet and story writer of The New Fuck You fame ("The best dyke anthology ever!," says Michelle); and our fearless leaders Sini and Michelle.
My fears are assuaged pretty quickly when Kassy admits she's never done anything like this before either. Anna Joy puts me at ease, too—she paints her toenails on the dashboard and makes everyone laugh.
I wasn't aware we were staying with the infamous Susie Bright in Santa Cruz. I'm a bit starstruck as we stumble out of the van and into her big orange Victorian. Susie's a great hostess. No one else seems fazed, so I'm quiet and amazed all by myself for the rest of the evening, trying to act cool. Yeah, I hang out with lesbian icons all the time, whatever. Still, I'm sitting on her deck two hours later eating dinner prepared by her partner, thinking, "Who can I call and scream, 'I'm at fuckin' Susie Bright's house eating salmon and rice!'?"
Highway 5 | July 2
At our first meal stop, Ali and Laurie do some kind of stand-up routine involving croutons. Laurie has a wicked laugh and says things like "That's enraging!" in a very bad-girl, Heathers kind of way; she introduces the first of many running jokes when she refers to the vagina as "nature's little backpack." We derive endless humor from this, with different versions getting crazier and more disgusting with each passing moment. Everything is funny, especially the descriptions of the food on the Denny's menu, and I'm beginning to think this is some kind of defense mechanism against road psychosis.
Las Vegas, Nevada | July 3
The Double Down Saloon is not particularly remarkable-looking, but the crowd is huge. The show gets loud and dirty; the performances are sharp and hilarious. None of this comes as a surprise in a bar that serves something called ass juice.
It is decided that the best way to finish off the evening—the obvious choice, really—is to drop Ecstasy and take in a show at an ultraclassy strip club called Cheetahs, where admission is free for the ladies. The girls twirl around poles like piñatas. Everyone is happy and in awe. "You're so pretty! Here, take some money. I love your outfit!" We stay up 'til dawn, wandering around the almost-empty casinos. When the sun starts to rise, we're standing on the "dock" at the fake pirate-ship casino, listening to tape-recorded sounds of crickets chirping and ropes creaking. The Strip looks like a full-scale movie set, ready for a car chase to go careening by at any moment. One night in Vegas is enough for me.
Tucson, Arizona | July 5
By the time we arrive in Tucson, I feel drunk and strangely happy from watching the same landscape go by for hours. Our hostess welcomes us into her long, narrow house. I stay in back on a covered porch with a dirty concrete floor. By the time I lie down, it looks and feels like heaven. A big orange cat named Joshua looks skeptical at my arrival and pees in the corner near my head, but I am too tired to do anything about it. When I wake up, large red ants are busily transporting food to their home along the length of my arm.
Tonight we're at a small queer community center that seems especially reserved in comparison to the Double Down. I'm perpetually amazed by the art produced by these women. I've spent the last few days expressing myself through nervous laughter between the moments when I'm just amazed and quietly watching. Here's how it generally goes at the shows: At the club, everyone mills around; Sini and Michelle do business. "Where are the drink tickets?" "When are we starting?" I lug heavy boxes in from the van, defying both gravity and the laws of clumsiness in platform shoes. Someone, usually the bartender, tells me where I can set up the merchandise table. Generally it's too small, wobbly, or both. I unload boxes, lining up books and cds. Sometimes the suppressed poet in me squirms with jealousy. I'm guarding the tangible evidence of genius that isn't mine, grrr…
I watch the show each night from the merch table, referred to by Michelle as the Sister Spit mini-mall. Sini and Michelle have an impossibly good improv between acts. They are like nutty infomercial hosts, unfailingly charming the audience. I still don't have all the merchandise prices memorized. In fact, I have no idea what I'm selling. What's in this book? Wow, good question. I could perhaps be the worst salesperson in the world. I make a little vow to read through most of the stuff so I can at least bullshit my way through a conversation.
After the show, we stop by the neighborhood pool with our hostess for a scantily clad midnight swim. Michelle and I scramble up onto shoulders to chicken fight, screaming like sorority girls in some sleazy '80s movie. On the road that night, wet underwear dangles from the rearview mirror.
Albuquerque, New Mexico | July 7
Lightning in California is nothing like this—big flashes that crack the sky open over and over. The rain keeps it from being too hot. We seem to have imported some ants from Tucson. Now many of us are suffering from Phantom Ant Syndrome, which consists of slapping at nonexistent ants after sensing the distinct brush of their tiny legs.
Unfortunately, the ants become the least of our worries when we find that our lodgings—a concrete garage with some mats on the floor, a couch, and a fully reclined car seat to serve as beds—are infested with palmetto bugs. They look somehow more menacing than cockroaches: in essence, large chunks of living, scurrying, flying grossness. It isn't so bad until Laurie, after the lights are out and we're all tucked in, insists that she can hear the whirring of their wings. Ali takes us on a guided visualization to lull us to sleep. "Imagine you're floating in a boat, on a tranquil sea…of squirming palmetto bugs." We all scream laughter into the darkness. Soon Laurie and Ali are in rare form. Laurie insists that we all really should read the autobiography of the famous puppet Lambchop, titled Your Fist Inside Me: My Life with Shari Lewis.
The New Mexico–Texas border | July 9
We are cowgirl truckers cruisin' up to the Lone Star State, expecting trouble any second. Last year the van got pulled over like crazy, just for looking funny. Maybe it's our new "Show us your hooters!" bumper sticker, but we still seem to be irresistable to the boys in blue. We are apparently missing a license plate light (incidentally, we're also missing door handles, locks, and dashboard lights). While the first set of peacekeepers is politely informing us of this fact, four or five carloads of the Man arrive on the scene. (How many Southern sheriffs does it take to change a license plate lightbulb?) They are curious, to say the least, noses in the air like cats trained to the sound of the can opener. What are y'all doing in Texas? Where y'all from? "Um, we're poets." It just sounds funny; we know it and they know it, too. They want to search the van. They really, really want to search the van. We must regretfully decline this proposition, as fun as it sounds. Luckily, Ali is driving and she knows it's actually ok to tell cops they can't search your vehicle. We tool away unscathed, except now we are all seething with that special kind of anger you feel when movie-style bad guys manifest themselves in real life.
Austin, Texas | July 10
Anna Joy gets in trouble for dipping her tits in our hostesses' goldfish pond. The show is at a lesbian coffee shop called Gaby and Mo's, populated by lots of smiling Indigo Girls types. I am getting sick; my throat's too sore to swallow, so I haven't eaten much recently. Cranky, homesick, and unable to sleep, I fantasize about running away from everyone, somehow miraculously transporting myself back to my bedroom and normal life. At 4:00 a.m. I decide to take a walk.
The third or fourth solitary man in a pickup truck to whistle at me scares me out of my stupor. I'm realizing that any minute, one of these guys could become more insistent about his desire for company. I discover Arkie's diner, which has presumably just opened for the morning to the truckers who have worked up an appetite harassing pedestrians on the country road. It smells, and all three of the other patrons look at me like I'm nuts, but it's nice to be among strangers without the obligation to speak or interact. I entertain myself by concocting stories about the torrid affair the waitress is having with the guy at the other end of the counter—she makes eyes at him when she refills his coffee. I think about buying a newspaper, but really this moment of quiet is what I need more than anything.
New Orleans, Louisiana | July 15
The Deep South offers up some of the best souvenirs yet: Anna Joy buys a ceramic pig clock, and Laurie's new neon-green t-shirt reads, "I Go Nuts for Cowboy Butts." This will undoubtedly go over very well at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. We cross the Mississippi River in the afternoon. I am so awestruck I feel confused. It is hard for me to understand the concept of so much fresh water in one place. It takes longer to cross than the San Francisco Bay.
My illness is making me progressively crazier. Everyone hates me in New Orleans, and I don't blame them. I haven't eaten in days, and I can't tell whether I have a fever because it's a million degrees outside. I just generally pout and act like a jerk. I feel like a big baby and spend the next two days doing very unfun things, like going to the emergency room.
We perform at a restaurant/bar in the French Quarter called Lucky Cheng's. The club features performances by flawless-looking drag queens. Their slogan is "Eat, drink and be mary." Thankfully, the show is relatively low-key. Surprising—I expected a bottle-smashing, chair-throwing kind of crowd. Maybe all this talk of New Orleans being the murder capital of the U.S. is really hooey. The place is kind of creepy, though. Very frozen-in-time, with teeny narrow streets and crumbling houses. Everything is very sad and very beautiful. Except maybe the cockroaches, which are neither; they are just enormous and nauseating.
Atlanta, Georgia | July 16
By now the point game has been in full effect for at least a week—basically, we're all supposed to be competing for action while on the road. One point for kissing, two points for feeling up, three for "whatever your feminist definition of penetration is," as Michelle puts it. Silas gets a little kiss onstage, one more point. The rest of us might as well give up, though, because Kassy is way ahead—she's using a really straightforward approach to romance the ladies, and as a result is rackin' up the points like crazy. Maybe it's the fact that she looks a little like Ricky Martin, but those teenage girls just go nuts for her. Our hostess displays great Southern hospitality—she stops to buy us toothbrushes at the convenience store on the way home.
Athens, Georgia | July 17
How many days did I sit in algebra class fantasizing about how to get to Athens, convinced that Michael Stipe would find me the minute I stepped off the Amtrak and propose marriage? At last, I am here, six or seven years too old to be starstruck. For some reason everyone is reading gross-out stories tonight, for a crowd that seems only mildly enthused in a jaded, college-town-hipster sort of way. Silas tells a story about getting deported while on tour with Tribe 8, which includes a lovely moment about swallowing a bug. Anna Joy then favors us with another on-tour-in-Europe story, about how a particularly smelly case of chlamydia offended her bandmates. I have no idea what the locals are thinking about all this, but at least the bartender loves us. The drinks keep coming long after the show, culminating in an impromptu strip show performed on the bar by Silas and Sini.
Asheville, North Carolina | July 18
Somewhere I never thought I'd see. We somehow manage to arrive almost two hours early, so before the show I eat pizza with a weird local guy who was reading Yeats at the table next to me in a coffee shop. He's maybe a little bit creepy, but he has good stories about seeing fairies while camping in Iceland. The gorgeous bartender at the show has glittery stuff all over her; she makes me something with Alizé and cranberry juice. I think, cheerily, that vitamin C is just what I need to kill my lingering throat ailment.
Washington, D.C. | July 20
Blech, heat so thick it's like having a big mouthful of potatoes all the time. The club is packed; this venue sold tickets in advance and it's impossible to even get across the room to the bar. Jane's performance tonight is particularly great. She is part science nerd, part Etta James. She sings "Lost My Way" all slow and goosebumpy. Her stage getup—elbow-length gloves, a black dress, eyeliner—is melodramatic in the most gorgeous way. She sings her praying mantis and rhinoceros songs.
We spend the next afternoon in a big shopping center. Kassy and I ride little kids' bikes around Kmart while our clothes dry at the laundromat next door.
New York, New York | July 23–26
As I'm driving through the Holland Tunnel, I try not to think about the fact that even if I weren't totally deranged from sleep deprivation, driving in New York would be scary. Strangely, I'm fine; the whole drive is less stressful than trying to turn left in San Francisco.
My hostess is Jane; I sleep on her big tiger-print couch in a living room with red walls. Geographically, I have traveled as far from Oakland as I will all summer, but New York feels like home. I feel totally content, awake all the time and full of energy. The first morning, we eat bagels and drink coffee in the park with Jane and her husband Dorian. Everyone agrees that he is wonderful. He takes the subway with Kassy and Jane and me to the Meow Mix, where we're performing. The club is big, with a pool table downstairs and a small stage. People are packed in, but without air conditioning they don't last long. Still, both shows go well.
We find lots to entertain ourselves with in the city for two whole days off. We go to a club called Foxy's, where there's a competition among the audience members for the nastiest onstage sex show. Drunken sorority girls and frat boys do their best to humiliate themselves for cash prizes while the audience gets trampled trying to see the stage. Fortunately or unfortunately, I get a little too shitty to stick around for long. I decide it would be a really great idea to just lie down for a minute. Ali cradles my drunk head in her lap while Duran Duran blasts through the speakers. Eventually I manage to drag myself to a cab and back to Jane's, where the heat and my drunkeness create a very realistic version of hell. I feel like I'm in one of those antidrinking ABC Afterschool Specials. I am picturing how I would film myself from above, my wretched, sweaty body twisting uncomfortably in the sheets.
Providence, Rhode Island–Chicago, Illinois | July 27–August 6
Days pass in a blur. In Providence, we stay at a huge punk warehouse where they have a silkscreening shop, a big stage, and lots of bikes for communal use. Boston is a big city with lots of thick-necked guys in baseball hats. We sell out a 500-seat auditorium at Massachusetts College of Art. I feel like a real roadie, taking pizza and beer backstage, and then watching the show from so far away everyone looks like ants.
In Buffalo, we see a boy/girl who goes by "V" do a superfast striptease dance to Lords of Acid. S/he has big bleached-blond hair, punk-rock eye makeup, and a plastic miniskirt. Other queens named Armani and Fanta See Island give us signed pictures of themselves with messages like "Sister Spit—Follow Your Dreams!!"
On the way out of town, someone finds a big vibrator in a paper bag in Sheila's back seat. It has little faces in relief all over it. "It's linty!" says Ali, holding it up for everyone to see. She is distressed, waving it around. "Whose dick is this?!" No one will confess. Anna Joy waves it out the driver's window for the other van to see. "Is this yours?" Still, no one claims it. We get to a stoplight and Ali runs out, Chinese-fire-drill-style, to toss it in the passenger window of the Astrovan. It lands in Tara's lap and that's the last we see of it until Sini chucks it out the window at a tollbooth. The car in the lane next to us crushes it. The toll-taker is not amused. "There's a $100 fine for littering in the state of New York!" We are reliving the hilarity when Sheila starts grumbling and breaks down. Some kind-hearted bricklayers stop to help while we sit on the side of the road, drinking the Pabst they had in their truck. Turns out some part we had installed in Buffalo is wrong.
Laurie, Tarin, and I spend the night in a town called North East Pennsylvania to get the van fixed. The next day, Tarin and I alternate driving with our legs wrapped in cold, wet towels to defend ourselves from the heat of the engine. We miss the Columbus, Ohio, show and arrive in Chicago just in time the following night. The whole thing is quite unexpected, though, because Sini's psychic, Dante, told her in New York that we wouldn't break down.
Michigan Womyn's Music Festival | August 9–15
The festival—a huge perk of my job, as we're performing only one show this week—is exactly what I imagined: lots of women with no shirts on pushing wheelbarrows and trying to scrub off purple body paint with organic soap in the outdoor showers.
Tribe 8 plays an amazing show to huge crowds of rowdy girls crashing into each other. Some Sister Spit girls get onstage to do a little dancing in the tie-dyed g-string panties we picked up in Reno especially to impress the Michigan chicks. Sure enough, the ladies love the Sister Spitters, who prance down the catwalk waving fern branches, all hippie parody and punk-rock craziness. I chicken out of the dancing, and of course instantly regret it the minute they hit the stage. I have definitely missed my only chance to be an almost-naked go-go dancer for a dyke punk band at a notorious outdoor hippie music fest.
For the encore, Nomy comes onstage dressed as her hairy, sleazy, hesher-boy drag character, Roy. Tribe 8's Lynn Breedlove and Roy, frontman for the fictional band Flesh Thresher, drive the audience crazy with fellatio antics and pyrotechnics. Someone gives Nomy a button that says, in all its misspelled glory, "I blew Lenny."
Highway 80 | August 17–18
No stopping for anything wimpy like sleep or showers between here and California. One night or early morning, Kassy and I go into hysterics choosing snacks at a gas station. I have never felt so completely deranged in my life.
Highway 80 | August 19
I'm idly thinking about what I'm going to do with myself when I get home tomorrow morning; suddenly, something's on fire. Black smoke spills out from somewhere in the dash, and we have to pour bottled water on whatever it is. We are left with no brakelights, headlights, or taillights—but miraculously, Sheila still runs. I'm the only one with a valid license on hand, so I get to drive the van to the nearest exit. The Astrovan tails us, hazards on, into Lovelock, Nevada.
We heave a big collective sigh and check into the ultradepressing Cadillac Motel. We figure we'll just wait for daylight to get home, when we won't need headlights. The Astrovan crew is long gone, understandably too desperate for home to stick around with the sick van.
Highway 80 | August 20
We cruise over the Sierras without getting rear-ended or even pulled over. By rush hour we're at the bay, and all of a sudden there's my house. I kiss Anna Joy and Kassy goodbye and run madly into my apartment. I am filthy, hungry, crazed, and I don't know what to do first. I am almost as happy to be back as I was to be so far away.