Harley Loco: A Memoir of Living, Hair, and Post-Punk from the Middle East to the Lower East Side. + Giveaway
I am the total opposite of Rayya. I never went through a rebellious stage nor have I really been into the punk music. So I guess you could say I wanted to live vicariously through Rayya. Well I can tell you that I not only got to see what Rayya went through but it was like a slap in the face in a good way. It felt like Rayya did not hold anything back in this book. She shared lots of details about her life from the good to the bad. From leaving Syria to moving to Detroit with her family, watching All My Children to learn English, cutting hair, getting into music, and drugs. At the end of the book it states that Rayya has been clean since August 8, 1997. I congratulate her on being clean and her success.
Here is an excerpt from the book
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from American Story: A Lifetime Search for Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things, Copyright © Bob Dotson, 2013
One night while I was drunk and hanging out in the bathroom of a club, a kid walked in, pulled out a pair of clippers that he’d nicked from home, and asked me to give him a Mohawk. I thought it was a strange request—I didn’t know the first thing about cutting hair—but I was drunk enough to play along, so I plugged them in and went to work. When I’d finished, I stepped back to observe. Lo and behold, I’d birthed my first kick-ass Mohawk at the age of twenty.
I was so thrilled about my newfound talent, that just before I got my associate’s degree from college, I quit and signed up for beauty school. Kurt and I had enrolled at Macomb County Community College together, right out of high school, but I hated it. I couldn’t really concentrate on biology or algebra anyway, nor was I very good at them, and though I had taken a couple of piano and performance classes—two things I generally liked—I hated the material they made us play, and it was hard for me to read music, since I’d only ever played by ear. I enjoyed my psychology and social science courses—I loved to observe people and their behavior—but Kurt and I skipped most of our classes any- way and hung out in the parking lot, in his van, snorting cocaine and playing cards. Sometimes, we got so toasted we’d forget to go to work at dad’s cleaners.
But most of the time, thankfully, we remembered, and with the money I made there, I enrolled in the Sybil Beauty School. It was the cheap, not-so-cool school for hair in Detroit, and was the opposite of glamorous…
…I didn’t care if Sybil’s was old school; I just wanted a license to cut hair. I knew I was good at it. Like music, doing hair came easily to me; I felt the natural flow and went with it. I was excited for maybe the first time in my life about being good at something that I enjoyed, something that was creative and alternative. When I worked on my mannequins at school I’d always receive praise from the teachers about the unique flavor of my cuts.
“You’re a natural artist,” Miss Virginia, one of the instructors would always say.
It felt natural when I had scissors in my hand, and used them like an eraser to take away all the unneeded hair and leave the exact shape that I wanted to create. It was effortless for me, and soon I had people from the clubs coming over to my house for avant-garde haircuts that I would create especially for them. Kurt, I’m afraid, got the brunt of some of my “experiments gone wrong,” sporting a few bad cuts while I worked out the details to bring out the best in facial features.
One night Kurt and I decided to go out to a large dance club we’d heard about called Clutch Cargos. Everyone had been raving that it was the best new wave club, and we wanted to see what it was all about. I danced in a corner with Kurt to the song “Don’t You Want Me,” by The Human League, trying to mimic the new wave and punk rock kids who looked comfortable in their pirate-looking, new romantic threads—ruffled and billowy oversized white shirts, belted at the hips. Some with small vests, massive amounts of dangling beads and bracelets, wearing really cool tights and pointy boots—sweating up the dance floor. I was still in my punk-a-billy phase, not used to how slick these people were, and trying out this new style of music and dance. It was so interesting to me; the music was strong, electronic, and edgy, yet still so melodic. I’d been into rock and roll my whole life and then, just a year earlier, had fallen in love with punk, and then punk-a-billy. But this new wave music was different. Everyone at the club looked so icy and cool, and androgynous; I was confused and excited, and felt like I was on the set of a Fellini movie. That’s when I saw Sofia for the first time. She was cool and detached as though she were the only person on the dance floor. Her hair was sensational, bleached to a stunning white blond and cut with precision and perfection—an asymmetric, razor-sharp swing-line bob that fell just below her left ear and brushed her right shoulder as she moved her head to the beat. She looked like one of those northern Italian models: blue eyes, skin that seemed naturally tanned, features exquisite and delicate. Her hair swooshed across her face while she danced, making her appear even more mysterious. She resembled Deborah Harry, the lead singer of Blondie—the hottest chick in the punk rock/new wave world at that time.
Now, at the beauty school two weeks later, the door to the classroom opened and Rosie, who gave the tour of the school to the not-yet-signed-up students, stood in the doorway. You could tell by her scrunched-up face —a look she usually reserved for a smelly permanent wave— that she didn’t like the girl she was introducing. When she said the girl’s name: “This is Sophia Gross-a-Nelly, guys,” she growled, with her gnarly smoker’s voice. “That’s Grasselini,” a confident voice corrected from behind her, and then Sophia Grasselini walked into the room, and I thought I would die and sing a thousand songs to the angels. It was her! The Debbie Harry clone from the club!
Sophia scanned the room, then gave me a nod of recognition and a short smile, which I quickly acknowledged.
“Wow,” Brooks smiled, then made a purring sound. “She’s a hot kitty!”
“Yeah,” I replied, trying to be cool.
“You think she’s gonna sign up?” Brooks elbowed me. “I hope so,” I said.
“Pick up your jaw honey, you look simple,” Brooks added while shootin
A Conversation with Rayya Elias
Q: What was the experience of immigrating and assimilating to life in America like, after growing up in Aleppo, Syria? What piece of advice would you give to young girls going through the same process today?
A: This is a hard question. Everyone is built differently with variations of perspective dependent on their own past. My biggest piece of advice, and I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true, is to be themselves. The more I pushed, the more I was pushed back, from family and so called friends. I tried to get rid of my accent and did a phenomenal job, but now when I hear my sister’s beautiful accent, I wish that I had a slight cadence to my voice to remind me of my heritage. Also, I think in today’s society, there is so much more tolerance of foreigners than there was in the late 1960’s. It’s much more accepted and even admired to dress differently and speak different languages. I say use it, and enjoy it, and most of all, do not forget who you are because this is your foundation.
Q: Knowing what you know now, what would say to the ten year-old version of yourself? What about at twenty years?
A: I would tell her not to worry about her whole family and to relax and enjoy her childhood. I would also tell her to be honest with one person, whoever that may be— sister, brother, mother, friend—and let them know what was happening in her life, good or bad. Not to hold it all in so it would rot away and shake the core of who she is. Let that shit out! There is nothing I could tell the twenty year-old that would make her listen at that point. She was off to the races, thinking she had the solution and recipe to her life. The only things I’d wish for her is that she be safe and read a lot.
Q: Why do you think you first turned to drugs, and was there one moment when you first realized that you were an addict?
A: I was looking for a way out of having to feel the reality of life. Navigating through life is hard enough without a language barrier and cultural differences. I think reaching for drugs was a way to find a spiritual answer, to disappear into a place that was ultimately kinder, but it doesn’t work that way. We know that we have to be present for life if we want to “have” it. Even though I was addicted to drugs, I didn’t know I was a drug addict. My first counselor at my very first rehab told me that I was an addict, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I just thought I was a fucked up person who didn’t know how to control or deal with her life. It was actually a relief to know that I had a condition and, if I wanted, there could be help for it.
Q: The moment when you decided, with finality, that you were going clean, no one was there to tell you – you simply decided all alone. For the benefit of individuals and their family members going through a similar situation, what advice do you have?
A: The most difficult thing about this is to tell the families or loved ones going through this situation that they are truly powerless. Whether they should or shouldn’t enable their addicted loved ones is not for me to say. In my case, nothing could have and would have gotten me to stop unless the ultimate decision came from me. This decision came only when I ran out of all other options. When there was no one left to help, or rescue me. When I’d lost everyone I had loved. When I’d taken the drugs and the lifestyle as far as I could, which included death (I overdosed three times). When I’d hit every bottom and realized that my life would only ever consist of more pain and suffering. That was the point at which I faced the choice alone, and yet not so alone, as I really felt a light and spirit guiding me to finally try living for a change.
Q: Your memoir never really seems to express regret for the past, and considers life not worth living without living on the edge, but it still seems to beg the question: if you could do it over, what would you change?
A: There were times in my life that this question would have really troubled me. When I first got clean, the death of my mother haunted me, but there was nothing I could do to change the fact that I wasn’t able to show up for her like she or I would’ve liked because of my horrible lifestyle. Or when I missed my brother’s wedding because I was arrested on my way to the airport for possession of drugs. The things that I personally experienced are not things that I would change because I wouldn’t be where I am now without every one of them. Yes, I behaved treacherously, and it was very painful. I would advise anyone to do the opposite of what I’ve done, but they are weaved into a tapestry that is my fiber now, and I really like the person I am today. I get to experience all the “do-overs” now and, trust me, it’s a blessing.
Q: When revisiting Syria, amongst family members who know nothing of your life in the States, you say that life there was nothing like how you remembered it. Could you please speak to the differences?
A: As a child, I was raised Christian Orthodox. I remembered our lifestyle in Syria as grand. Very glamorous it seemed to me back then. I recall my parents and siblings dressing for parties and outings. The club where we swam, and the summers spent on my father’s land, in Northern Syria. The times we spent with my cousins in Beirut at the beach were truly magical. When I visited twelve years ago, I spent most of the time in Beirut, and it was stifled. It seemed that my cousins (who are Christian) were no longer shiny or happy, but had that weathered look that people get after losing their homes, and living in stairwells, and dealing with war. On the other hand, I met other people (mostly modern Muslims) who were living like there would be no tomorrow: decadent to a fault, and not wasting a moment with worries about the future.
Q: Your family moved from Syria to escape political conflict, and now Syria is embroiled in a long, devastating civil war. What are your thoughts on this crisis? Do you have any predictions on when the fighting might come to an end?
A: I don’t pretend to know anything about the political conflict in Syria. I don’t think anyone really knows what is going on over there. I was there two years ago for the Christmas holiday and had probably the best time of my life in Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, and Jordan. It was so civilized, and Aleppo was the highlight of the whole trip. It is impossible to imagine that this can happen in such a short period of time. That my eighty five year-old Auntie—who I took to Christmas midnight mass just two years ago, and then to a fancy restaurant where she ate and drank with my family until 2AM—is stuck in her home, where she’s lived since the 1960’s. She raised all of her children there, became a grandmother and a widow. But now, with no way to get out of Syria, she has to depend on her neighbors to get food. It’s awful to think that she is afraid of what is happening, but even more afraid of what could happen if Assad is ousted. Everyone has an opinion about the crisis in Syria, and how to stop it. If it was clear-cut, I think we would already have resolution. I try to keep positive, call my aunt and cousins when I can and make sure that they’re surviving.
Q: Gentrification is a much-talked about subject in New York City, and you definitely saw quite a change in the Lower East Side, the East Village and Chelsea over the years. What’s your input on the debate?
A: My ideas about this have changed over the years. When I was a young musician looking for the cheapest places in New York to live, I didn’t categorize it as gentrification. It seemed more like a melding of culture and counterculture, and living by the rules created by the dominant culture in that community. I didn’t mind living in squat-like conditions in a city that I couldn’t really afford. I thought it was cool that artists, musicians, and drug dealers could all live peacefully within and around the projects and do well together. But when “real” gentrification happened, and the old people were driven out of their own communities because new buildings were taking the place of their tenements, and they couldn’t afford to stay in the neighborhood they grew up and raised their families in, this didn’t sit well with me at all. It made me angry, with Giuliani for his initiative to clean up New York City’s streets, and at the developers for being so greedy. Now I’m in my fifties, and I still love these neighborhoods. I also realize that without this kind of urban development, the city wouldn’t grow and change, and change is the only constant in our lives. So I’ve come to terms with all of it, and just see it as the process of life. We all have to make room for new things, or we wither away holding on to the old.
Q: It’s interesting that you eventually moved back to the very neighborhood that harbored many of your lowest moments. What do you think of all the changes that have occurred in Manhattan over the years?
A: I needed to slay the beast. Plus, I loved that neighborhood so much that I couldn’t fathom living anywhere else at the time. I’d seen children grow up there and take over their parents’ businesses. It was like going home. As far as the changes: I loved the convenience of having a grocery store on 8th and Avenue C, but hated that they got rid of the community garden in order to build it. Now that I was clean, I loved having the police station right across the street from my apartment. The restaurants that were popping up were great if you could afford to eat there, or worse, get a table. I once said to the owner of Bao 111, “It’s easier to cop a bag of dope in this spot than to get a table.” He didn’t appreciate that. He loved his Upper East Side foodies coming in, paying top dollar, partying in the neighborhood and leaving.
Q: As a musician, filmmaker, hairdresser, and now for the first time, writer, how does your creative process change as you transition between mediums?
A: Well, hairdressing requires a slightly different skill set. It’s more psychological and technical. The techniques came to me very easily. I was very lucky in that way, I just got it. For some reason, I could look at a head of hair and know exactly what my approach would be, and deliver what I wanted. The psychology of “doing” hair is a whole different dog and pony show. It revolves around people (and, quite often, their emotional baggage) and is very, very intimate. I had to learn quickly how to make a person (mostly women) feel safe and completely confident in my chair, and doing that I had to be strong, trustworthy, and confident myself.
Musician, filmmaker, and writer, almost fall into the same category, the medium is slightly different, but always in the same vein (no pun intended). Music was the most immediate. I would hear a riff in my head and it would haunt me until I could exorcise it. If I was driving, I’d call and hum it into my answering machine, because the specificity of these things came and went, and if you didn’t catch it right away, it would be gone for good. I also wrote poetry constantly, or lyrics about things that were going on with me: a lyrical journal to chronicle my moods. It’s funny how the songs would come together once they were ready, they would fit like Cinderella’s slipper, and it always amazed me.
As a kid, especially while sitting with my broken legs in Syria, I would make up little stories. I would sit for long periods with my Te’te and entertain us both with make- believe anecdotes about all the kids that belonged to the Muslim family downstairs and who their real moms were. Storytelling was always something that I loved and was good at. It was a natural progression to start making film once I got clean. I was in the studio recording music again and telling stories of my lesser days. When my friend Kory Clarke suggested that we shoot a short film of one of the stories, I was like, “No way, I could never do that.” But he insisted that we could do it since we’d already shot some videos back in the day. So I went with it, bought a Syd Field screenwriting video, wrote the script, and made Anonymous, which I still love. I was able to score the music with my producer Barb Morrison, which was a dream come true. It was a total fusion of mediums—film, writing, music—and it was full-blown.
Writing the book was the most difficult as there was very little interaction with others; there were no outside distractions, or muses. It was completely an inside job. I had to dig deep without melodies or harmonies, just my memories of the past and the contemplation of my relationship to them.
Q: Drugs and art are frequently associated, and are an association that’s just as frequently condemned. Do you think for you personally, there is any correlation between your early drug experimentation and your attraction to the arts?
A: I knew as a young child that I was different from the rest of my family. I wasn’t sure how, but nothing that I experienced seemed to fit in with their groove. They were pragmatic about life and I was always the dreamer. I was never interested in science or math (although I was good at math), and was always looking for something to light me up on the inside. I guess drugs were the first thing that made me feel that fire, and though misguided, gave me a sense of security and courage to dream big and follow through with my creativity.
I have 1 copy to give away. US only. Just leave me a comment with your email address. Contest Ends. April 12th.