We’ll never know exactly what happened on that road in Mexico in 2009, beyond the fact that there was a sudden stop, a swerve, an oncoming truck, and a collision that took the life of my cousin Sara Vargas. She was a couple of years older than me, but the fact that I’ve now lived longer than Sara did has given me a new perspective on just how much life she lived in her 35 years.
I’ve written little that’s directly about Sara, but I dedicated a book to her—Insiders’ Guide to the Twin Cities (2010). It seemed only appropriate that those 300 pages about activities and events in Minneapolis and St. Paul should be dedicated to Sara, since as long as I can remember, she exemplified the possibilities in life: how much you could do, and how much fun you could have doing it.
My siblings and I grew up idolizing Sara: she always seemed to have the best ideas, the coolest clothes, the most interesting friends, and the funniest jokes and observations. What particularly endeared Sara to us was that she wasn’t one of those snobby cool cousins (we didn’t have any of those, but you know the type) who tell you what’s wrong with you—she was always friendly and inviting to us, and made us feel like we were cool too.
As I grew up, my indie-minded cousin introduced me to the intoxicating (not literally—other cousins would have happily done that if I’d thought to ask) world of alt culture. In the 80s Sara made me tapes of albums by college rock bands like R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, Trip Shakespeare, Fifty Four Forty, and Scruffy the Cat. In the 90s she took me to my first concert: an all-ages show at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis with Zuzu’s Petals opening for Run Westy Run. I shook the hand of Zuzu’s Petals frontgirl Laurie Lindeen—who would later marry Paul Westerberg of the Replacements—crossed over to a dance night in the Mainroom, saw Siouxsie and the Banshees projected on a giant screen, found $10 on the stairs, and felt like my life had officially begun.
After college Sara moved to Uptown—a Minneapolis neighborhood that was then unquestionably the coolest, and where I now live and continue to define as the coolest in part because Sara lived here—and participated in various artistic and musical projects that culminated in a highly conceptual buzzband called Walker Kong and the Dangermakers. Frontman Jeremy Ackerman was a skilled musician, but the other Dangermakers—Sara included—were half-winging it, dressed in a changing wardrobe of outrageous coordinated costumes (cavewomen, etc). In 1999, when my sister Julia graduated from high school, Walker Kong played a set in our living room for what will possibly stand as the world’s most epic graduation party until Blue Ivy Carter gets her diploma.
I moved to Boston for college and graduate school, and for several years I saw Sara only infrequently. We were able to become close again in fall 2008, after I’d moved back to Minnesota and just before Sara moved to Mexico to work at a resort. Sara and I were both in tumultuous relationships, and she became a source of comfort, companionship, and perspective as I tried to figure out what the hell was going on with my life. One night we went to a show at the Entry—the same place she’d taken me for my first show—and when it turned out that we’d arrived way too early for the band we wanted to see, we headed out for a downtown adventure that involved Sara buying my first-ever lapdance and one of her friends giving me what may or may not have been my first-ever experience with hallucinogens. (I wasn’t quite sure—I leaned over to Sara and whispered, “What was in that Starburst?” She paused and replied, “Corn syrup?”)
The band who are now simply called Walker Kong are still together, and playing a show in Minneapolis tomorrow night to release their new album, which concludes with a song called “There’s a Light,” written in tribute to Sara. I haven’t followed in Sara’s footsteps by starting any bands, but my friends and I did start this blog—which turns out to be very much in Sara’s spirit. In an interview about the new album, her bandmate Jeremy says:
It was Sara’s early philosophy that has defined the band over all these years. She once said that the band had to enjoy all other aspects of life together and if that happened the music would have a real purpose. I’m paraphrasing…I think her actual statement was more along the lines of “As a band we should eat lots of cookie dough and watch movies together.” We’ve always been a band of friends over a band of musicians and I think that’s why Walker Kong has endured for all of these years.
Make stuff with your friends. Don’t be boring. Don’t suck. There’s no dedication page on a blog, but there’s no need: you can see Sara’s influence all over my life, and the lives of everyone else in our family, and the lives of her many friends. In her last Facebook status, Sara asked, “How much beautifulness can two eyes absorb?” I don’t know, but I’m going to keep looking, and making, and remembering. Life’s not the same without Sara—but much more importantly, life’s not the same because of her.