Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side
Any serious addiction drains its servant of empathy. It's eerily natural for compassion to wane as the addict battles chemical tigers. Being a junkie is hard work, and after a never-ending workday, going on the nod must seem logical. When the addict regains relative sobriety, craving another fix or so-called “real life” is a helpful diversion from self-loathing and shame. In Rayya Elias' memoir, Harley Loco, her unpretentious, funny narration depicts her outsider existence as a junkie, hairstylist and aspiring musician in late-'70s/early-'80s New York.
Elias' unlikely BFF Elizabeth Gilbert, author of bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, wrote the autobiography's foreword. Gilbert, who describes herself as an “ambitiously artsy, polite, responsible, diligently working [aspiring writer],” jokes that her and Elias' band would be called “Siouxsie and Garfunkel.” Be warned that Elias depicts her life as a junkie with brutal, graphic honesty. Harley Loco isn't gonna be a contender for Oprah's book club. Elias sums her essence up as a “Syrian, ex-junkie, glamour-butch lesbian … and punk-rock musician.” And her memoir—subtitled of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side—gets, you know, real. The sheer intensity and grit of Harley Loco can hardly be compared with Eat, Pray Love's ennui-ridden travelogue vibe. (Yes, I'm counting Gilbert's moment of transcendence and its filmic depiction, Julia Roberts encountering an escaped carnival elephant.)
Elias' journey begins in Syria. At 7 years old, her family emigrates to the US; in Detroit, she suffers culture shock in transitioning to the American way of life. Her foreign school lunches—see “fried lamb brains on pita”—and her mother's penchant for whipping up Vogue-worthy couture makes her a target for relentless bullying. Teenage binge-eating segues into experimentation with mescaline and a host of pharmaceuticals. Ultimately Elias' longest, most passionate love affair begins. She explores her sexuality with a host of mostly female lovers but finds “true love” with heroin. Narcotics, particularly opiates, are very needy girlfriends; romantic devotion to the dirty brown horse—and skyrocketing tolerance and dosage—requires an ever-increasing commitment to making it work.
From nonlinear start to finish, Elias’ gift for storytelling is evident. In post-intro pre-chapter “Just for Starters,” the author relates her decision to prostitute herself in Tompkins Square squalor. Years later, she earns her “Harley Loco” nickname at Riker's Island by stomping another inmate in feral, successful self-defense. Her talent for hairdressing saves her life in prison. A decidedly unglamorous, rehabilitative Women's Prison Association lands her back in the old neighborhood, where she takes it one day at a time. Declaring Elias' victory over her demons is premature—as life is long and hard, and addiction is patient and cunning—but the revelations in her deeply personal, riveting story may be just what Dr. Feelgood ordered. The prose here is spare in fashion and frequently veers toward naïveté, but the reader is never allowed to forget this is a true story. The dialogue is what really struck me about Elias' style; she writes the way people actually talk, and that's not always the easiest thing to read. But Elias' authenticity, honesty and innate tragicomic sensibility ameliorate an at-times less-than-stellar literary style.