AT ANCIENT GROUNDS, A RELATIVELY NEW WATER-PIPE CAFÉ IN SILVER LAKE, FOUR Arab men are playing gin rummy in a corner. For an hour they sit, engaged in their game, dragging on water pipes and happily chatting. A few tables away, I suck on my own pipe, a sort of gorgeous, elaborate bong. Suddenly, everyone starts screaming, raising their hands, throwing cards at one another. I don't understand what is happening — the fight is in Arabic — but one man, Mohammed, yells the loudest, standing over everyone and pointing his fingers. Soon the others call out to an old man with sad eyes sitting near the entrance, “Abu Yusef, Abu Yusef.” Abu Yusef walks over and speaks quietly with the men. Mohammed storms out and paces in front of the store as the others laugh and go back to playing cards. Abu Yusef sits down again, and I approach him.
“Ninety percent of the Arabs who come here are Christians,” he tells me. “The Muslims are harder. They have their own places.” Mohammed, the one Muslim, is outraged, Abu Yusef explains, because he threw down cards he meant to keep. He didn't understand why he couldn't just pick them back up. “I told him, 'You made a mistake. It doesn't matter what you meant, it matters what you did. You blew it.'”
Abu Yusef tells me he's from Haifa, Israel. When I tell him that I speak Hebrew, he says he'd much rather speak that language than English. “A day in Israel,” he says, “is better than a year here.” But he blew his kidneys and has to go to Cedars-Sinai (“All my doctors are Jewish”) every few days for dialysis. Otherwise, he says, “I'm flying to Israel today.”
Abu Yusef knows he'll never see his home again. “When I'm not in the hospital, I'm here. When I'm not here, I'm in the hospital.” His face reflects profound grief as he stares through the door. “My son got married, then he came here. Then my daughter, then my other son, then me.” He describes Haifa — the beautiful mountain overlooking a harbor — and says that it's the greatest place to live. I ask about terrorism and the anger many Arab Israelis feel toward the Jewish state. He waves a dismissive hand, “The shit. It's good there.” He says the only place he likes in Los Angeles is Fairfax, where he eats in the Israeli Jewish restaurants.
An Egyptian named George walks up and says to me in English, “I love the Jewish woman better than the Arab woman. The Jewish woman is best in bed.” George turns to Abu Yusef. “Who is best in the bed? Jewish women or Egyptian women?” Abu Yusef smiles and says nothing, so George answers the question. “I love the Jewish woman.”
Amtanis, Abu Yusef's son, says to George, of Egyptian women, “Your girls suck.” George lets out a delighted whoop.
Amtanis, who tells Americans that his name is Tony, opened Ancient Grounds in mid-October. There hasn't been an Arab Christian place to smoke water pipes since Abu Yusef closed his Hollywood café a few years ago. Water pipes are sometimes called nargileh or hubbly-bubblies, but everyone here calls them shisha. The Egyptian tobacco is flavored with strawberry or cherry or peach, though apple is traditional, and it's in shisha cafés that Arab men spend the bulk of their leisure time.
“Basically, just to bullshit with friends, relax, shoot the shit and go,” Amtanis says. “To smoke cigarettes and smoke shisha is two different things. Shisha tobacco has no chemicals, it's all natural. It's way lighter. You don't get high, you just get relaxed. There is no harshness, it's very pleasant and mild.”
I mention how strange it is that this place is in Silver Lake right next to a couple of gay bars and near hipster restaurants. Amtanis says it doesn't matter where he put the place, Christian Arabs would find it. Most customers drive at least 45 minutes to get here. Anyway, “Gays, no gays — no problem, as long as they don't try to pick me up.”
“Why not?” asks Munir, a pudgy middle-aged man from Egypt. “I've been hit on by guys, and I was tempted. How do I know if I'm not gay? I never tried it.”
“We've had Mexicans come in here,” Amtanis says, ignoring Munir. “Everybody.”
Just then, Mohammed walks back in, staring angrily at me, speaking Hebrew. I ask someone a question in English, I don't remember what, and Mohammed says, “Don't answer him.” George laughs and calls him Osama bin Laden. The moment passes, and we all go back to smoking our shisha.
MY BOYFRIEND AND I ARE HAVING A charged yet slightly awkward “new relationship” moment, grinning at each other with a mixture of infatuation and self-consciousness. It's not about to be our first kiss, we've already gone way beyond that. We're in the middle of a dungeon. To be specific, we're seated side-by-side on a regulation-sized, black vinyl-covered gynecologist table complete with stirrups, surrounded by shelves of sensory-deprivation masks and restraints, facing a wall rack hung with whips, chains and riding crops. We're tied to each other with a length of thick black rope. I'm having one of those ironic mental flashes that occurs when you're in the middle of doing something that could be considered wrong, immoral or perverse and you catch yourself thinking, “Hi, Mom!” What makes this situation odd for me is not what we're doing or where we are, but that the room is full of strangers. What makes it a little more “normal” is that everyone else here is doing the same thing we are: performing an assignment in a class. Tonight, we're all attending Bondage 101.
Taught by Sabrina Belladonna and Ilsa Strix, two of the most well-known and sought-after professional dominatrixes in town (not to mention the international fetish community), Bondage 101 is just one in a continuing series of monthly workshops. For the past couple of years, based upon their combined decades of experience, the pair have been holding classes teaching the finer points of BDSM (bondage and discipline/ sado-masochism) including coaching on spanking, sensory deprivation, flogging, and the like.
Like any adult education class, the 20 or so people in attendance are a mix of young and old, gay and straight. Almost everyone is dressed in jeans and T-shirts, though there are a few more piercings and tattoos than would be found at your average Learning Annex course. One or two students are busily scribbling away in notebooks, and many seem to be pals, laughing and joking. Tonight's class is being filmed for a documentary, and a camerawoman moves through the crowd as unobtrusively as possible. Besides my boyfriend and me, there appear to be only two other couples. There's an average-looking man dressed in entertainment-biz casual whose date sports pigtails and a Catholic school uniform, and a heavily made-up person of indeterminate gender, holding a chain that attaches to the spiked collar of a slip-clad woman who is sitting on the floor. Aside from the woman on the floor, it's hard to tell who's a “top” and who's a “bottom.” During a break in the class, a strapping, clean-cut, rosy-cheeked guy whom I'd pegged as a top turns out to derive more than a little pleasure from dropping trou and getting a birthday spanking from the entire class. Appearances — even in this world where roles and looks are more defined than usual — can be deceiving. Except for Mistresses Belladonna and Strix, of course.
Even seated in folding chairs, like glamorously evil talk show hosts, they ooze authority and control. An imposing duo, they present a contrast in opposites, and work well together. Belladonna is a sultry brunette with piercing eyes; Strix a pale, removed ice queen. Both look every inch the dominatrix, even without the cliché uniform of corsets, fishnets and spike-heeled boots. Like their students, they are dressed down tonight, but their body language and composure says it all. In head-to-toe black, they present an impression of . . . maybe goth movie studio execs or perhaps a couple of wicked news anchors.
But right now, the mistresses are unconcerned with roles or appearances, focusing primarily on safety. In well-modulated tones sprinkled with both humorous and cautionary anecdotes, they go through the finer points of performing bondage safely. Some of what they discuss is pure but rarely practiced common sense. For example: Both parties should be sober. You should know your partner's medical history. Granted, these days, talking about STDs is de rigueur, but who thinks of inquiring about diabetes or hypoglycemia . . . or even about the last time your partner ate? Fainting could be potentially life threatening in a dungeon situation. Strix goes through a list of supplies to have at arm's reach or on your person during a session, simple items like a handcuff key, smelling salts and scissors. Who wants to waste precious seconds fumbling through drawers for a pair of scissors when a slave is choking on a ball gag and you can't undo the knot? Belladonna lists sensitive areas of the body to avoid binding for health and safety reasons, and adds that the person in charge should routinely check with their captive about pins and needles sensations in extremities — never a good sign — especially when one is hog-tied! She expounds on the myriad types of ropes and restraints, and the drawbacks of using certain materials. Silk scarves? Maybe in a cheesy movie, but in real life . . . forget it! They don't give, and can easily cause nerve damage, especially on the wrists.
Belladonna explains that her fascination with bondage began in her teens. Raised on a Midwestern farm, she was adept at the knots and hitches used for roping livestock. Instead of engaging in lover's lane parking, she'd bring her dates to the barn and tie them up with bailing twine, which served its purpose then, although she doesn't recommend it now.
Strix delves into a drawer, pulling out various restraints, introducing each one like a movie star at a premiere: common items like handcuffs, moving up to more exotic and intricate immobilization devices, including a full-body suspension system, along with practical architectural advice for its installation in a home. An entire segment of the class is devoted to collars, and appearance versus practicality. Lengths of ropes are passed around the class in kindergarten show-and-tell-style as Belladonna starts a step-by-step demonstration of basic knots. The old Go-Go's song “Fun With Ropes” goes through my head as she urges everyone to partner up and try out the maneuvers.
Picking up the practice rope I've been handed, I hope I've correctly absorbed the information as I turn to my date.
“Right hand or left?” I ask.
My date raises an eyebrow and asks, “Oh, you're going to tie me up?”
I explain that I figured we'd take turns on each other. After a pause, he offers his left arm around which I slowly and carefully try to reproduce a basic hitch that Belladonna said was popularized in vintage Bettie Page photos. It takes a while, but when it's done, it's not bad — for an amateur. I admire my handiwork before holding out my own arm. My boyfriend replicates the knot swiftly and I tell him that I'm amazed he's such a quick study. Then it clicks in: He's done this before.
So here we are, on a black vinyl gynecologist table, in a dungeon full of strangers . . . and I've just discovered something pretty intriguing about my new boyfriend. Mistress Belladonna appears in front of us, nodding approvingly as she checks our work. Then she realizes we're attached. She yanks our connected arms up, yelling to the entire class, “Look at the lovebirds! THEY'VE TIED THEMSELVES TOGETHER! Isn't that cute?“
For a few panicky seconds, I fear we've unwittingly committed a huge BDSM social faux pas. And then, as if on cue, like guests at a wedding, everyone smiles our way and sighs in unison, “Aaaaaaw!”
IN LATE AUGUST OF 1993, I STOOD BESIDE the grave of a woman I'd never met and tried to say something meaningful to a patch of Kentucky dirt. The grave belonged to a 27-year-old musician named Mia Zapata, the lead singer in a punk rock band called The Gits. She'd been found dead on a Seattle street that July. In a few hours I'd be flying back to Seattle to write something about Zapata for the Seattle Times that I hoped would be more eloquent. Her unsolved murder was my obsession that long, overcast summer.
This week my mind was catapulted back to that awkward moment by the news that the police finally had a suspect in custody, a 48-year-old Florida fisherman named Jesus C. Mezquia. He was charged with first-degree murder after DNA evidence allegedly linked him to a saliva sample taken from the breasts of Zapata's raped and beaten body. If he's extradited back to Washington, he could face the death penalty for Zapata's murder.
Zapata was buried in Louisville, Kentucky, because she'd spent her youth there. Back in Seattle, where she and her band mates had lived since 1989, the mourning in the music community was in full force. Her friends, including the members of Seven Year Bitch, had already started raising money to try to catch her killer. Eventually, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Joan Jett would do benefits in Zapata's honor. Her bereft and angry friends would form a self-defense collective called Home Alive. It was the beginning of what would, eventually, be dubbed the end of the Seattle music scene's innocence. Seven Year Bitch guitarist Stefanie Sargent had died of a heroin overdose the year before. In less than a year, Kurt Cobain would kill himself.
All I really knew then was that I was looking at the fresh grave of a young woman just a couple of years younger than I, who lived in a neighborhood I knew, who went to bars I liked. I'd watched tapes of her singing, heard the husky force of her voice, the ferocity of her lyrics, looked at her artwork, read excerpts from her diary, and talked to her friends and family. There were rumors that she'd been raped, that maybe an obsessed fan or an angry ex-boyfriend had done it. Perhaps that staple of Northwest bogeymen, the Green River killer, had resurfaced. Because she was a musician with tattoos and unconventional hair, there were knee-jerk suppositions that drugs or alcohol somehow had to be involved.
For me, young and imaginative, the crime felt like a reflection of the Northwest. Choked with clouds, the place seemed riddled with a sense of doom, filled with outwardly cheery but inwardly bleak people. I wanted to know what wrong turn Zapata might have taken so I could avoid it. She'd been drinking at the Comet, a Capitol Hill bar, dropped by a friend's house, then supposedly went to catch a cab sometime around 2 a.m. It was the sensible-girl thing to do, spending a few dollars she didn't have (her day job was washing dishes at a pizzeria) to get home safely. A prostitute found her body about 90 minutes later. She'd been strangled with the cord of her Gits sweatshirt.
I was in Kentucky on other business, but I'd gone to her grave to pay my respects. I was also hoping for a piece of the story, to provide closure. In retrospect, one of those inadequate, facile swipes journalists take at trying to put things into context. In light of how many years it has taken to arrest someone, that now seems laughable. So do the dozens of stories others have written since, connecting Zapata's death with the passing of a great musical era.
Because, in the end, it was not about drugs, the times she lived in or the treachery of fame, which she reportedly never courted and achieved only posthumously. She was just a girl alone on a city street, perhaps bolstered by a tough exterior and the sense of empowerment that comes from captivating a live audience, but who was still ultimately wrenchingly vulnerable because of her sex.
If Mezquia is indeed the culprit, the Mia Zapata mystery was no crime of passion, just the act of an angry drifter who saw an opportunity and took it, every woman's elemental fear, no less so today than it was then. When it comes down to a man and a woman in an alley, the woman fighting for her life, the man fighting for whatever sick gratification he's after, the bitter truth is, the average woman will almost always lose the physical battle. That context is, sadly, ageless, and means far more in the long run than the end of the Seattle grunge scene.
By the time I left Seattle the next spring, I supposed Mia Zapata might be lost in history. In this I was too cynical. Her music is still around and well-praised. In 2000, New York Times music writer Ann Powers wrote that “the ornery Seattle band that Mia Zapata led should be a punk mainstay, like Rancid with an earth goddess up in front.” The fittingly defiant Home Alive is run by volunteers now, but it continues to offer the empowerment of self-defense classes for anyone who wants them. She left a legacy. No solace for a murdered woman, certainly, but something for the rest of us. Surely those were lovely bones I stood over on that hot Kentucky summer day.
—Mary F. Pols