Noe Valley Voice March 2006

Crashing America

By Katia Noyes

This month's Last Page features an excerpt from Crashing America, a novel by Laidley Street author Katia Noyes. The book, published last fall by Alyson Books, is a finalist for the Northern California Book Award for Fiction and has been named a Book Sense Notable. The novel chronicles the adventures of Girl, a 17-year-old street punk who decides to run away from her turbulent life in San Francisco and seek out "a sense of home" in the American heartland. During her travels, she stumbles across an assortment of characters, from Christian punk rockers to landlocked farmers. "Unlike the usual story about a young person coming to California, the book is about a vagabond's pilgrimage to the middle of the country," says Noyes. Noyes will discuss her own adventures, before and after Crashing America, at a wine and cheese reception at Cover to Cover, 1307 Castro Street, on March 31, at 7 p.m.

An Excerpt from Chapter One

Crashing America


CARA AND I WENT to my granddad's and tried to get Mrs. Jam, his landlady, to let us into his apartment. It was afternoon, June 1999. A ghostly bit of warmth managed to find its way through the early summer fog.

We stood just on the inside of the smell zone. Mrs. Jam's couch had the remains of her shwilly life stuffed inside the crevices, and the place reeked like a rotting pier. I kept my arm around Cara.

"Can't do it." Mrs. Jam shook a little. Wore a blue nightgown and a big plaid jacket.

Last month I had watched Jeopardy with Mrs. Jam, curled up on her couch. Helped her fix her antenna. And now she was squeezing me out.

I tried to get through to her. "We aren't gonna bite. You want something from the store?"

"Your grandfather said he's not letting you stay with him anymore." Mrs. Jam's bird-claw hands crumpled a Kleenex from her big plaid pocket. She turned around and looked through a pile on her table. Her hands shook back and forth, grasping at an envelope with my name.

I stepped over and reached for it. "So what now?" I grabbed the note and stuffed it in my jacket pocket. My granddad was probably going to meetings and getting clean again.

Mrs. Jam didn't answer. She looked outside. "Is your friend sick?"

Cara had wandered away and was bent over on the stairs, spitting on one of her knees and rubbing it. She had this thing where she rubbed her legs over and over.

"You girls shouldn't even be on my property."

I walked down the stairs to my granddad's in-law apartment and tried to get the window open, which was stupid because there were bars on it. So I went to his front door and kicked it hard. Bam!

"Let's go. I'm hungry." Cara squinted down at me from the stairs, her long brown hair falling over her face. Behind her I could see the fog-smeared hill. A little smile curled on her mouth as if she heard a good song playing. "Come on, Gir-r-r-l."

I crumpled the envelope with my granddad's handwriting and threw it on the sidewalk. Mrs. Jam poked her head out the door.

"I need to get my stuff sometime," I yelled. "I'll be back. You'll have to let me in." I had some clothes in there and Flopsy, my old raggedy sleeping companion.

Cara took my hand and blinked like a cat. We walked down the hill. She always knew how to chill. Cara never believed in giving in when bad things happened. She just scrawled another mark on one of her legs. The wavering star on her ankle, the Taurus sign on her calf, the snaking branches wrapped around her thigh. Every time something bad happened, she made a tattoo. "They make me safe again," Cara would say. She rubbed them all the time.

After my first arrest for being Beyond Parental Control, it was Cara who came all the way back to Redding to hang with me. By then, I was crashing in the semi-carpeted chicken coop outside the big house, way outside of my dad's latest girlfriend, Marianne, and her kids, and the kitchen, and the big happy family my dad was trying to make. (My Clorox-smelling dad. Mistah White Socks, Cara called him.) Enough of that. Enough of trying to be some funkabilly punk corpse, with my eyes locked up, in a town on the way-too-far edge of the Trinity Mountains. Easygoing Cara came to rescue me, helped me open my eyes and see again. Got a ride in the back of a pickup--over the Golden Gate Bridge at midnight, heads up out of the blankets. Be-you-tee-full, as my granddad would say.

As we walked down the hill, Cara rambled on. "You smell her breath?" She blinked at me again and held my hand tight. "You kookamonga. Shwilly old Bird Beak told you this was going to happen. So did your granddad. Remember, Girl. Gir-r-r-rl. You don't listen to what people say. You get so mad. Way too ma-a-ad."

"Yeah, sure."

"Here's my theory about our new home. Do you want to hear it?" Cara sucked on a long brown strand of hair. She always had theories. "Everything in the city is connected to our underground place, all the pipes and Muni stations. It's a labyrinth. We need to explore it further."

I waited as Cara bent over her sandal in the middle of the street. Her eyes went far away, in one of those exotic mute looks that guys liked.

"Really?" I said. "Tell me more." She liked to talk about our special place in the Castro Street Station, a nook we'd found down in the tunnel. Cara found it cozy, but I hated hearing the trains running through the night.

We meandered down to the corner store on Mission, and Cara chattered on about her dreamy labyrinths. I couldn't listen. All I could think about was how much I was going to miss my granddad's hot shower and soft blankets.

With the last of my spare change, I bought us a bag of trail mix at the corner store. We were both sleepy from partying all night with Angus and his new guy.

We climbed back up Coso Street to sneak under the crawl space of the Winfield house. With driftwood-colored shingles and wide dirty windows, the house perched on cement-pillar stilts and looked ready to collapse. Rocks and weeds gathered under its hollow foundation, a crawl space where we had slept a couple times in the dark. Now it was light and people might see us sneak underneath and call the skunkers, but I didn't care. We wouldn't get arrested--they'd just tell us to move on.

Cara and I snuggled up by the stilts and we talked serious. What were we going to do?

I suggested we head right to Nebraska.

"All we need is some money." I looked at the weeds around us. "I want to see the cornfields."

Cara twisted her hair around a finger. "You and your cornfields!"

"Yeah." I tapped Cara's ankle star a couple times for luck. "Let's leave soon. Anywhere."

After losing my granddad's place for good, I knew it was time to get on the road and leave San Francisco for real, or I would implode. Had to do something with my last months' living on the mudball planet.

I let Cara hold me tight, as if she could keep me close forever. "Gi-r-r-rl. Gi-r-r-rl," she chanted.

I REMEMBERED LAST YEAR when I showed Cara the Winfield house the first time. We stood arm in arm, and I told her all about it.

"My mom had me the all-organic method, right on the couch, right there in the living room." I pointed over the high deck to the big dirty windows. Never showed anyone my birthplace before. I usually even avoided walking by. "My first look at the world."

I didn't tell Cara how I cringed when I saw the house, how I wanted to go up to the door, break it down with a battering ram, kick the people who lived there out. Make it mine. I didn't tell her because she'd make fun of me, make fun of how much my eyes locked up when I got mad.

I described the view from inside, how great it was to look down from the deck at the color and flurry of Mission Street, over at the pearly skyscraping buildings of downtown, and way over to the westward mounds of Twin Peaks. The truth was that I only wished I could remember being inside.

"So...yeah." Cara sucked on her pretty brown hair and blinked. "You really lived there?"

"It's kinda nice knowing you came from some place."

"Gi-r-rl...look." Just then more sunlight broke through the morning fog.

The beyouteefull mockery of light touched everything--our faces, the hill, the chrome on the cars. Fresh. Oh, yeah. So Saaan Fraaancisco. You could call it a god tease, a sea-smelling drift of visible gold. Up above us, the house had looked almost wet from the sun. Even the weeds glistened underneath its high deck. The big, dirty windows faced us, making glint, glint, glint. And we drank in the smell of the Pacific, a salty whiff, flying all the way across town.

Yes. The sunlight was holy, even when I wasn't up to being part of it.


Katia Noyes, 47, is a Bay Area native who has worked as a go-go dancer, roofer, math tutor, journalist, and volunteer counselor for runaway youth. She shares her Upper Noe/Glen Park home with a cat named Wolf. When hanging out in Noe Valley, she likes "wandering down the streetcar tracks to Dolores Park, taking friends for libations at Bliss Bar and Lovejoy's Tea Room, and stroller-dodging on Saturday mornings." In addition to Crashing America, she has written a book for young adults called Snooky. "It's a fantasy about two girls who learn how to fly." Currently, Noyes is working on a novel set in 1999 Belgrade in the midst of the Bosnian war. "There are four main characters, all of whom are idealistic people with vision who are taking risks with their lives," she says.

You can meet Noyes on March 31 at Cover to Cover bookstore, 7 p.m. Meanwhile, check out her blog/writer's diary at

--Olivia Boler