I celebrated this Thanksgiving at two long-standing Oakland events: Thanks for Nothing, the legendary potluck of punk debauchery, and my family’s annual Day-After-Thanksgiving party, legendary in its own right. Both events were a little less epic this year, with an intimacy that reminded me of what’s good about Thanksgiving and about family—as untraditional as they may come.
Anyone in the East Bay who’s ever donned liberty spikes and a studded anything has gone to Thanks for Nothing. And possibly passed out at it. Now in its 18th year, the Thanksgiving potluck is an Oakland punk tradition, a place for all the family-less kids in black to come together, at picnic tables under jimmied lights, and create their own family.
Of course, by “kids” I mean “punks” and not kids at all, anymore. These are the die-hards, wearing smile wrinkles and old band shirts—the folks that, once the scene-ness melts away, once all the other folks have grown out of what was just a phase, are still there, purely for the love of it. Punk may be mostly dead, but it’s not all-the-way dead; it just lives in the hearts of a small handful. And, on Thanksgiving, in an East Oakland backyard.
Thanks for Nothing has taken on a larger-than-life status; the woman that puts in on is convinced that even if she were out of town one year, people would still show up. They didn’t pump it too much this year—no flyers or MySpace posts, just word-of-mouth—and the result was a smaller, friendlier crowd, that was also a bit tamer. The event historically gets increasingly raucous as the evening progresses; as the steam from the turkey table cools and the toddlers konk out, staggering, slurring sing-alongs ensue (among other things). This year, the pot food table was nearly empty and the jar of homemade Bailey’s went fast, but the Jell-O shots were plentiful, tossed around in a haphazard game of catch that somehow didn’t end in neon goo being splattered across someone’s head.
Despite the uber-punk name, this year’s Thanks for Nothing felt more about community than anything else. Family, as most travelers know, isn’t really about blood lines; it’s got little to do with genes or ethnicity or even, as we learn on the road, nationality. Family’s about people that share similar values and perspectives coming together and sharing, growing together. (And at Thanks for Nothing, singing along to Cock Sparrer together.) It sounds more one-love than punk, more Berkeley than Oakland, but sometimes it takes unexpected manifestations to drive a point home.
But most of my “family” growing up wasn’t about blood lines—a lot of Californians’ aren’t. My parents moved my toddler brother and my infant self to California with only one blood relative within 2,000 miles. Once my uncle passed away, it was really just the four of us for holidays. Plus an ever-growing band of fellow Bay Area orphans. It seemed that my dad’s first couple of years in the fire department, he kept having to work Thanksgiving (turkey at the fire house!). So we started having all our family friends over the day after, when we’d sit back and talk and laugh and eat for hours. We invited everyone, and it became a kind of neighborhood affair. A tradition was born, and yesterday, carried into its 22nd year.
Like Thanks for Nothing, we don’t really need to invite people anymore; everyone just knows to show up. Charles deep-fries two turkeys in the driveway, Karen and Jamal make the marshmellow sweet potatoes, Nhu and Jacobo bring the bread pudding, my brother makes the famous firehouse Caesar (I used to make the vegan entree, but those days are long gone…). My parents’ small bungalow overflows; there’s an incessant wait for the one bathroom and a warm glow from the fireplace. It’s consistently one of my favorite days of the year.
The event was smaller this year, just under 60 people, and I had a couple bittersweet moments, missing people who used to come—people who’ve moved, who we’ve lost touch with, but mostly people who’ve passed away. But at the same time, there were folks there that I’ve grown up with, that I’ve known my whole life, that are the aunts and uncles and cousins I otherwise wouldn’t have really had, so many miles and states away.
Family is one of the most important things to me, as traditional or untraditional as mine may be regarded. Of course, much has been written about the “demise” of the American family, and holidays like Thanksgiving hold a particular weight for those from untraditional or un-intact families. But I’d argue that the American family isn’t crumbling, just reshaping; seeing as though this guy got a book deal out of the concept, I don’t think I’m alone. And as travelers know, the traditions of a family are some of the best glimpses you’ll get into a culture—whether it’s making stuffing with your play-cousin, or pounding Jell-O shots with punks. It may not be a Norman Rockwell painting, but it’s as close as some of us get.