We Can Be Robots

This post is part of my 1997 series. This is an excerpt from Chapter IV, which takes place not long after my high school graduation in 1997. A few names below have been changed. For an introduction to the project, read “1997.”


We pulled up to a house in a residential neighborhood off busy Nineteenth Avenue, not far from San Francisco State University. From inside the car, I saw a tall guy and a slim, equally long-limbed girl hanging out in the driveway of the house. I assumed the guy was Dan’s stepbrother, and he wore the most enormous pair of pants I had ever seen. There was so much material on his legs; his jeans looked like a floor-length skirt. The girl wore denim overalls and a skimpy top underneath. I got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk. I felt overdressed. Dan came around the car and slapped his palms against his stepbrother’s.

“What’s up?” Dan said.

“Chillin’,” his stepbrother answered.

“Cheri, Todd. Todd, Cheri,” Dan said, alternately pointing to us as he made the introduction. Todd acknowledged me with a slight head nod. Though he wore a baseball cap, I could tell his head was shaved, and the hair above his upper lip trekked around his mouth and down his chin to form a thick goatee. He looked over at the girl, a brunette with a large grin on her pretty face, and introduced her as Summer.

She towered over me and said hello. She smiled but was engrossed in Todd, who bopped his head up and down as if he answered to an imaginary beat. In fact, they both shifted their bodies to music I could not hear. They bounced on the concrete in their Adidas Shell-Toes, pumping the bottoms of their feet. I wanted a pair of those sneakers.

Dan lit another cigarette. “She went to her first party a couple weeks ago,” he said. Todd’s face brightened.

“Whoa, really?” Todd asked. Dan chuckled, and I nodded my head.

“That Feel Good party,” Dan answered. Dan kept calling it a “party.” I asked him for another cigarette. Todd seemed friendly, but he intimidated me because I knew nothing about him. I had to ask.

“How long have you been going to raves?”

Certainty draped over Todd’s face. “Over two years. Spring of ’95,” he said.

Later that night, my pupils were glued on Todd. I had no idea where I physically was in relation to him. I couldn’t tell if I was sitting on the ground, or if I was standing motionless on the same dance floor. In fact, I couldn’t even feel my body. I knew we were inside a warehouse, in Oakland, yet it was different and smaller than the last. Todd was an incredible dancer. His six-foot frame slinked through a three-dimensional space, operating in its own strange bubble filled with invisible gel. He moved in a way that reminded me of the two dancers outside the other warehouse when Sara, Dan, John, and I waited in line.

His body resembled the Cubist figure in French artist Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, a painting I studied in one of the final units in my art history class. I remembered staring at the slide on Mr. Glass’ screen, and the figure in the painting walked down a flight of stairs. Duchamp’s brushstrokes were frantic, continuous, and geometric, creating a flutter of images on a single canvas. The painting displayed multiple frames of the scene at once, like the sequence of an object in one of those tiny picture flipbooks was caught on a canvas.

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, Marcel Duchamp
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, Marcel Duchamp

Todd’s silhouette entwined itself in multiple intersecting planes in front of me. He contorted his arms at different angles, if just for a moment, to untangle his upper body out of one plane, then swished through this intangible gel to reach a different angled surface, as if he clicked the ends of his bones together like they were Legos. He brought various converging planes, once imperceptible to my naked eye, to life. The music kneaded Todd’s muscles and slithered through his bloodstream to keep him mobilized, like his appendages were rusty and needed lubrication from oil.

The robotic yet fluid abilities of his body frightened and fascinated me. This music was so different than anything I’d ever heard before: digital and mechanical, yet Todd’s movements were organic and undulating. He was linked to the computer creating the beat with an invisible USB cord that traveled from an outlet on the back of his neck to the speaker system, which fed him nutrients to fuel his shifts and twists.

And then, Todd was out of my sight, and my world went black. I fought to open my eyes. My body was sprawled on a cold, dirty floor against a wall. I lifted my head, focused, and saw Dan peering down at me.


Setting aside the sophomoric, stilted writing in these pages, I do appreciate the honesty. Interestingly, the material that I hated to write — narrating my journey into this world as an eager, wide-eyed teenager — is the stuff that probably resonates more with people. Not many people can relate to dancing to techno while on ecstasy — which is truly an incredible experience and exercise that makes you feel free, invincible, and completely in sync with now — but no matter how I describe it, with analogies to Matrix-like video game characters or Duchamp’s fluttering futurist figure on a canvas, it always sounds awkward and forced.

But I think more people can relate to that younger version of me, going deeper into that world. That curiosity, experimentation, fearlessness. That desire to be cool, to belong, to know. That drove me then, and it’s those very human traits that drove this journey.

And the details: the ubiquitous Adidas Shell-Toe, two ravers subtly bopping their heads to a beat only they could hear, the moment where I feel overdressed. I replay fragments of this scene in my head and now remember my outfit from that night: a sparkly black and silver halter top and slightly flared sage green polyester pants. My shoes? They definitely weren’t sneakers, and might have been platforms.

So I’m glad I captured these details and conversations when I could. Today, it’s all a blur. If you asked me, right now, to put these scenes down on paper, I’d have no idea where to start.

Featured image was taken at Ghost Ship Halloween 2014 in San Francisco.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including WordPress.com.

8 thoughts on “We Can Be Robots

  1. Wonderful post Cheri. Just once in my life, I’d love for some girl to describe me in the way you did with Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2… Maybe on the basketball court or baseball field, as dancing is not high on my list (and I suppose if we are getting technical…maybe have to shave a few years off as well). Great piece of writing, it must be something to see yourself from outside the world you lived in as a young writer reviewing your old work. It gives me a pull towards where I was at that time in life. Love this take on ’97 and the feel of a period of time (and youth) gone by. Not saying you’re old or anything 🙂

  2. This is a fascinating insight and an excellent read. Most people would forget about the way they were feeling in this era, and can recapture those thoughts by reading this.

  3. As my kids are entering those strange post high school years I travel back to my own experiences from that time. But like you write it in your post, it is hard to remember the details that were so important back then. I do remember the intensity of what I felt back then, though. So writing as you did about those intense moments of your life was a great thing to do. In this passage I especially like the comparison between Todd’s body and the paintings from Duchamp. Although I lived my own youth far from CA and danced on The Clash and not techno and that marijuana was more around than ecstasy, the hunger to be noticed and to belong was there, too. The universality of being young remains. But the place and the time period matters. Thank you for sharing such personal memories.

  4. Details that you included are things not easy to remember in hindsight. So writing about them while the experience was still fresh was really wise. I truly liked this excerpt from the point of view of a young person fascinated by something/someone new.

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