Work by day. Ride by evening. Write by night.
Posts from Matt:
I was always told ‘The Princeton’ was the proper man’s haircut. That was my grandfather speaking. And what he advised was law.
High and tight. Military. A shellacked coiffure, ending its reign over young adults by the late 1960’s.
The Princeton it was for me. And still is.
My grandfather said to never solicit a barber shop without a barber pole. On display, it had to hang just outside the entrance. The older the better. Both the pole, the shop, and those barbers employed inside.
On my commute to work, dozens hang, filthy, lackluster from the sun’s shine. Each, a beacon to a vacant space once filled with aging history.
Piles of Golf Digest and Sports Illustrated laying on stools. Pictures hanging: Of ancient race cars when boxes of steel propped on rubber wheels caught light speed.
Shelves of clichÃ©d items. Endless junk.
Nic-nacs that define what it is to be a man.
And the conversations:
Who’s hunting what, with which rifle,
Conquests run amok,
Men talking about manly things.
The barber pole dates back to Medieval times. Barbers were on hand to cut your hair, extract a tooth, or, to use a barber’s pole in the aid of bloodletting.
The pole: a white staff. At the top, a basin to hold leeches. Once extracted, the patient’s soiled bandages were wrapped around the rod as blood dripped to the bottom. Here it was corralled in a lower basin.
Patients were asked to hold on. Tight. Squeezing the pole to make the blood flow.
‘What would you like sir?’
I sat down in the rotating steel chair. Bolted to the ground, it magically spun three hundred and sixty degrees. With a cast metal base, weathered leather armrests, and that metallic squeak, it resonated the sounds of decades as I was spun full circle in front of the mirror.
‘A Princeton,’ I answered.
It was half statement, half question as I sought some sort of recognition. The hope of acceptance into their coven. Of wise men with a millenia of secret knowledge.
Looking above the mirror I catalogued those artifacts of a lost time. Dusty golf balls lined an old toy railroad track. And there was a photo, propped on an altar. It looked like a blown up baseball card, signed by the player.
‘˜To Fred. Thanks for the cut.’
‘Isn’t that what you call it?’ I asked after a long pause.
The barber pulled scissors out of an opaque cylinder. They had sat dormant, disinfecting in a bluish ooze.
‘Damn right it’s a Princeton,’ he confirmed.
He shook his scissors. The liquid flung across the terrazzo floor as the smell of mint filled the shop.
‘High and tight…damn right,’ he commended.
Barbasol was the brand. It sat underneath the sink next to the liquid Drano. Grandpa swore by it. The only cream that lathered correctly he had said. Always more than enough on one press. And Cheap.
A buck and a quarter for one can.
And it lasted months.
And made your head smell like a leather saddle.
The Barbosol can, like the Barber’s pole, was a mix of those three indicative colors. Medieval doctors thought the blue stripe resembled deoxygenated, venous blood. The red, oxygenated, arterial blood.
The blood that bled from a plague victim hundreds of years ago.
Or today, the blood drawn from a cut too close.
‘Hustler still a magazine? I’m out of the loop when it comes to porn.’
I had gotten through the door just in time. The last cut of the day where I was propelled into an established conversation.
A lady walked by the window as I was seated. Her business attire revealing little.
‘Wow she’s hot and she’s older.
What’s she? Probably forty-five?
Have you seen the younger girls and the way they dress?’
‘I wonder what those women from the salon think next door?
When we walk by, I betcha’ they say ‘˜Whoa, here come the barbers!’
‘They probably say, ‘˜Wow. Look at all those barbers. They all probably have small pricks.’’
The room broke into an uproar of guttural laughs. Each man, having smoked a pack of menthols. Their voices deep and rasping from years of lung abuse.
‘A Princeton, huh?’ The barber asked, hoping to engage in another throw away conversation.
One of many that day for him.
The small talk that consumes superficial relationships.
Those obligatory connections forced out of the act of service.
‘˜My Grandpa told me that that’s the only cut to get,’ I answered, half jokingly.
‘Well, I guess so back in the day,’ the barber confirmed.
His electric razor already clear cutting the scruff on the sides of my head.
Until the vibrating teeth on the razor nicked my ear. I could feel the drops of blood drip down my neck.
And with a towel, the barber applied pressure to stop the bleeding.
After a minute, he peeled it away.
And there, on the ivory-white cloth, red streaks spiraled down.
‘On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be…’
Our elementary school was the oldest building in the neighborhood. Red brick with a crawl space. Its architecture rare in North Tampa. The hallways stunk of graphite. The coat closets mildewed with hooks hanging so high a third-grader was well out of reach. Each metal half-loop curving upward with a ball on the tip. Embossed on the face plate was ‘Made in the USA.’
And in the USA, at a school in rural Colorado, Nicaraguan, Russian, and Cuban armies parachuted into the courtyard. With automatic machine guns, they opened fire on students and teachers. Kids scrambled. Instructors were shot at close range. The image of a teenager, a bullet hole through his forehead, his limp body draped over broken glass from mortar fire, resonated within my memory. I was seven years old.
The movie Red Dawn was fresh out of the movie theater. John Milius directed the picture: one that could have become reality at the height of the Cold War.
It could have, when, months later, Iran sold weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras. The world was drastically changing. Military powers were being shuffled. Tension rose on the news in between my morning cartoons.
Not far from school, at the very end of Tampa’s peninsula, sat U.S. central command. It was stuffed with airpower of all sizes and shapes. With enough nuclear explosives to sink our continent into the ocean.
Often, F-16 fighter jets would fly low enough to rattle the school building. On each fly-by, I cringed, knowing one day that hum would be the enemy. I waited for their bombs to drop.
‘…On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night…’
My mom tended to ground me every weekend. Although there were windows that easily opened for escape, I’d lay in bed, pissed. Clenching my fists, I’d pound the mattress. Sand flinging into the air: that residue from refusing to let her clean my sheets. It was easy to blame her for everything. It was her fault that my life was difficult.
I hated that there was always food on the table. That the electric bill was always paid on time. That I got everything I asked for.
With DRI cranked on my stereo, I was punk. Fuck those neighborhood kids who thought I was a poser.
Suicide was probably the easiest way out. I contemplated it every weekend, often debating the most convenient method. Slit the wrists? Choke myself out? Find a gun?
It was all a puerile act. A selfish facade, thinking this is the world, my world, one that everyone and everything needed to revolve around.
I, was all that mattered. And unfortunately, I realized all that mattered was inconsequential.
It would be best to just end it, I thought.
But ending it was just too much work.
‘…And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now…’
We walked across a bridge in rural Germany. Dusk fell. The water below puffed humidity skyward, balancing the chill of that June freeze. Still. The silence couldn’t have been more perfect. But in silence you’re left to think. And then you think too much.
In less than six months, the millenium would come to a close. Computer engineers, scientists, and mathematicians were confident the world’s grid system was to implode.
No one had planned on sedating the culprit: a binary code, untranslatable past the year 2000.
Devoid of electricity, that life’s blood fueling every facet of our lives, would send the Western Hemisphere into a black spiral. Our monetary system would collapse. Looting gold and silver would create a mania. Your neighbor would be your worst enemy.
‘…Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.’
Czeslaw Milosz was stuck in the European massacre of World War II. His wisdom sprouting out of his giant, unkempt eyebrows. He was a man stuck between Lithuania and Poland, two countries that ceased to exist. And he Jotted words on paper, meaningless then, to those thousands suffering in tandem.
For him, every free land was occupied. Every ‘free’ man and woman was captured psychologically.
To Milosz, to the millions in central Europe, each day was a gift as the world was perpetually ending.
But the end never came.
…A Song on the End of the World.
By Czeslaw Milosz.
Urban Myths are propelled out of mundane events. The Clearwater Monster, for instance. It lumbered out of the surf in the late 1940’s, leaving tracks on multiple occasions. Its footprint, a narrow heel with three elongated toes. The imprint was described by a witness as ‘more bird like than reptilian.’ Coincidentally, they were left over the course of several years, exactly six months apart.
Decades later, the monster was discovered to be a father and son duo. A relative discovered giant cement feet in their attic. On questioning the family, the truth was laid out in a series of involved steps. Getting into a small boat. Paddling through the gulf onto shore. Stepping on the blocks of cement and hoisting each up, with every step, by aid of a rope pulley. It was a giant pair of cement flip-flops.
A path of consecutive prints were made. Ominous. Circumnavigating the beach. And finally, ending back in the ocean. Here the creature took off its myth making shoes, and sailed, with his son, back to the suburbs.
There is the infamous ‘Skunkape.’ Our peninsula’s version of the abominable snowman, but one found in the humid, tucked away swamplands of Florida. There’s a species named for each remaining natural habitat: those areas not gobbled up by the gluttonous and ever expanding development apparatus. The Myakka, The Ocala, and the Glades. Its ‘skunk’ smell, a residue left when being pursued.
Although Florida has some unique, endemic creatures (The Manatee, The Florida Panther and American Crocodile), the Skunkape(s) is more than likely a group of primates. A posse of escapees, fleeing exotic pet zoos during countless Hurricanes. Let loose, they hide, forage, and elude us humans to become legend within the expanse of the Sunshine State.
Those unexplained noises in the shadows, those shapes creeping into the folds of night, are petrol to fuel the mind’s eye. To make it reel, to spin yarn out of each observer’s subjectivity. Each minute detail more dramatically developed, spiraling through conversation and painted on thick through the telling and re-telling of each story.
So exists Mini-Lightning and the Ten Green Men.
I’d first heard the story in the mid-ninetees. Some friends had rented a two-story house, that bent, off kilter, over the Roser Park Creek in South St. Pete. Giant Banyan and Live Oaks lined the water, spanish moss hung from their branches, low and grey. The scene: icing on the ominous cake of a cut-throat tropical paradise. This is where the Ten Green men lurk.
Mini Lightning was a voodoo priestess. And her Ten Green Men, a cache of little people who kidnapped those unsuspecting wanderers. They would snatch you up, and shuffle you, hopeless, back to the priestess.
In her den, unspeakable rituals were performed.
Through the years, any blasphemous deed (a home burglary, a mugging, a headless body found stuffed in a shaded nook) was blamed on Mini-Lightning and her minions.
Through the years, I’d hear multiple variations of the myth. I was told never to cross the Roser Park bridge. Underneath, the Green Men hide. And human chatter (the creaking of an old rusted bike chain, the footsteps of unsuspecting interlopers) would conjure them from the depths.
The Mini-Lights hated cement.
‘Stay clear of any grass in Roser Park and you’ll be fine.’
‘They weren’t actually green, they painted themselves.
But their eyes were red. Blood red.’
The yarn spins and piles up thick. Especially amongst those on the periphery. Those who were told by their sister, who was told by a friend, who heard from an aunt, who got the story passed down to them by their mother.
‘Yea man, we wanted to find the mutha-fuckas and break em off’
I sat down with Ben. Born and raised in South St. Pete, his southern drawl sometimes hard to understand.
‘They used to hang in ‘˜The Jungle.’ Ya know, down there under Roser Park bridge.’
Ben took a long sip from his cup of sweet tea. In the background, the microwave hummed electromagnetic waves into his bowl of dumplings.
‘We knew where they was. A big ol’ white house. You know, the ones with all the winda’s.
Bout ten of us went down there one afternoon. We had bricks and bottles.
We was gonna flush em’ out.’
Ben’s cell phone rang. He picked up and started talking, or rather yelled into the phone. Over the years he became progressively hard of hearing. Every one of his conversations became more and more like listening to a sermon.
He quickly cut the call.
‘Yea, yea. So we all went down there and yelled out, ‘˜send the Mini-Lights out the door.’
And after awhile we got tired a waitin’. So with all that stuff we had, we knocked every…single… winda’ outta that house.’
They come out? I asked.
‘Nah. Some old lady came hobblin’ out. She was crying. She said ‘˜Mini-Lightning don’t live here.’
Then we heard the cops’
You take off?
‘Hell yea we took off. Would you?’
He took another long sip from his drink. Sweat cascaded down his temples.
‘But we came back a couple weeks later. We had all gotten jobs around the neighborhood. Some of us sold newspapers. Oranges. We used to sell avocado pears.
By the end of summer we went back an’ gave the ol’ lady all we had made.’
Was she thankful?
‘Yea, she was. Then she told us to never come back.’
Ben gathered up his bowl. He crooked his neck sideways to wipe the sweat onto his shirt.
This was a typical Florida lunch break at work.
‘That shit is a myth, ya’ know?’
I did know. But I wanted so badly not to.
Those stories, those myths: they give us something to seek out. Something to believe in. A purpose. Something concrete in the realm of the infinite.
Ben turned around. The front of his shirt soaking wet from the heat.
‘But I’ll tell you this…If I ever find em,’ I’m gonna whoop all they asses.’
Have you ever walked through a doorway, with something in your hand, and looking down, not know why its there?
Why are you here, now? What are you looking for?
This is not absent mindedness, but rather your brain re-adjusting to a new environment. On crossing through any threshold, your brain experiences a sort of tabula rasa. The door initiates a self inflicted clean slate where every stimulus, subjected to all your senses, becomes fresh. Soaking up this new scene, the past is compartmentalized into a little package of lost information. Sometimes you remember those random anecdotes, those threads that connect your life.
And sometimes you don’t.
For me, nothing is exempt from temporary erasure.
Not the sharing of good news: ‘The shitty, drug dealing neighbors are finally moving out!’
(I remembered to tell a visiting friend two days later.)
And definitely not the mundane. Walking into my bedroom I wondered, ‘Why is there a pen in my hand?’
Ironically, I had it to take notes for this project.
Last night I catalogued three events that popped in from distant memory. Three particulars not lost during a sojourn through Europe. Each instance experienced after passing through a threshold.
And after passing back, why were these scenes, amongst a deluge of lost memories, retained?
The van door slid open. In front of us was a short walk over a white sand beach. The sand, so bright, so illuminated that my eyes stung. It was best to stare straight ahead at the sea. Brown waves folding over in the distance, pushing the stench of ocean rot into our faces. It cooled our skin. But just slightly.
I don’t know why we stopped? Most of us hated swimming, our pale complexions shrivelling against a brutal sun. We had no air conditioning. Nine of us crammed in a van, like sardines, stewing in an Italian July. The heat must have provoked our exit.
At waters edge, brown surf mixed with white sand to make a cocoa swirled beach. Here, a door floated by. A door to a shed? Maybe a door to a house? Pale white, its three hinges still a shiny brass. The wood, pocked, from years of submission to the elements. On top, curled in the center, lay a giant, dead rat. Flies dotted against its long grey tail.
This was his lifeboat. Now a boat, minus a life.
None of us touched the water. Soaked with sweat we turned, heads down, and slowly walked back to the van.
The door opened onto a room lit by moonlight. Bunk beds ran along one wall, enough to sleep twelve. We could have driven through the night, but this squat was halfway to where we were heading. Who knows who called the shots in our group? Maybe I did?
Each bed had a plastic liner. Each liner reeked of stale sweat. But it was either this or the damp, dirt floor.
Fully clothed, I laid down on the lower bunk. Facing up, I concentrated on the wooden slats above, hoping to get a whiff of pine. My exposed skin stuck to the plastic. My pores leaked sweat, contributing to the acrid stench of this stink bed. Mosquitoes swarmed. I could hear them buzzing near my ear. I could feel them bouncing off my skin: test runs for potential meat. It was either sweat under a sheet or let them eat.
But I was through sweating.
Was it because the bathroom stall was occupied? Or was it because the bar was too thick with cigarette smoke? Light headed with my bladder pounding, I walked out through a wooden frame and into the Oslo night. It was 2AM, and the sun had not completely set. A mild glow resonated through the streets highlighting a city that truly never sleeps.
I walked to an adjacent alley. There, tucked off the main road sat a dark brown, wood paneled two story house. Its size, just perfect enough to hide a late night piss.
The chill air dissipating my body heat as steam rose from the weeds. I followed it, up, past my waist, and watched it ascend, hugging close to the house. Above my head the ebony wood gave way to spots of white. There was an image on the house that, from my vantage point directly under, was not visible. Finishing, with the last puffs of steam rising into the night, I moved backwards. Each step allowed for the white brush strokes to slowly formulate something concrete. It was a hooded figure, with white face, hands over ears holding an expression of menacing fear.
In embarrassment I quickly walked away. I had a hunch of what I’d just done and hoped no one caught a glimpse. Fleeing the scene I passed a plaque. Stopping briefly, I caught the first lines of translated narrative: ‘Here was the home of Edvard Munch…’
I had accidentally soiled the house of Norway’s most famous artist.
My grandfather’s room had a smell mixed between distant, stale cigarette smoke and bleach. The cigarette smoke would waft in from the dining room. It was the only corridor that was not subjected to the daily exhalation of my Grandmother’s two packs of Winston Salems. It was her house, she could do what she wanted. I just kept the door closed and tried not to breath.
The bleach was from the constant cleaning of the bathroom. It was my grandfather’s bathroom, really. With terrazzo floors, a vintage shower and sink and an exit door with a jalousie window, leading to the pool. It was by far, the best room in the house. And that’s why my grandfather chose it when my grandmother cut their slumber rights. She said he drank too much. But really, he consumed a fraction of her intake.
This was his room. Unchanged since his death, minus my minimal, non-invasive additions: a bookshelf, a record player, and a pile of laundry. Those who’ve lost loved ones often feel a sense of emptiness in a space once occupied by the living. That the space itself, as well as all the objects inside, have lost the energy endowed by their owner. I, on the other hand, felt just the opposite. I shuffled little, partially out of respect for him, partially out of fear. I felt as if he would be displeased with a re-arrangement of his things. As if, some day, he would return.
In the center of his room, sitting underneath the only window that drew light from outdoors, was his chest of drawers. It’s teak construction, a dark brown, almost black, filling the room with a comforting musk. A smell mixing the salt at sea with layers of dead things rotting in the sun. The chest was totem like, each knob resembled an eyeball, each opened drawer a mouth. This piece of wood was synonymous with my grandparents. With getting old in Florida. With crouching, late night, underneath the dining room table while my family played Trivial Pursuit. Each piece of the trivia pie, opening onto my Granfather’s infinite knowledge. Opening him up to his social faux pas, his political leanings, his laundry list of annoyances, and his not-so-subtle racism. Of the days when, post Korean War, he worked in the Philippines managing an Electric company. His staff, a group of natives. He referred to them as ‘The Pygmies.’
On top of his dresser were some oddities, that, as a child, were taboo to be around. His timepiece, once connected to his belt by a long golden chain. A two dollar bill on a brass money clip. A pile of ancient change beside it, laying in an old decorative copper ashtray. And in the dead center, a wooden hand. Made of light brown oak, its sinuous veins running down the slim fingers, with middle digit up, thumb flared to the side. The remaining three were pulled tight into a fist. I knew it was the symbol of an emotion. One that my Grandfather, the most out of any of us, had suppressed for so many years.
The hand remained on the chest of drawers. A center piece. Untouched.
A reminder that I would never truly know who my grandfather was saying “fuck you” to?
They took our shoelaces. Our shoes fit like slippers. We had to shuffle around doing our best to keep them on. Touching the floor with your feet was like risking athletes foot in a public shower. Or worse, contracting anything else left over: those things that didn’t go down the drain of the holding cell. They’d pull a hose in every once in awhile to sterilize.
They took our belts. And anything else you could hang yourself with.
This was the era of xxxl skate culture. Of a size forty waistline. A size forty when you were actually a size thirty. Will and I both had to hook a finger on a single belt loop for hours. Having your pants down was bad news.
Greg had bought a giant slingshot from an Army/Navy store. Its pocket large enough to fit a small boulder. That was if you wanted to smash a hole in a building. Or kill something.
For us, it was the perfect diameter for a water balloon. One that could, in no way, inflict harm. Rather, a perfect projectile that would soak the hell out of someone. A perfectly round cell of water that, upon impact, would simply piss off the victim.
The five of us loaded up in his Tercel. With the slingshot dormant on the floor board we drove through town. High noon. Mid summer. The heat radiating off asphalt, its waving illusion obscuring everything spread throughout the city.
We found a driving range. Adjacent to a ditch. Shadowed by oaks. A perfect place to crouch in the shade. A perfect hiding spot to lob our rubber mortars over a fence. To connect to those unsuspecting golfers with their white, tucked in polos and red, plaid slacks.
Greg had spent some time in the army. He knew how to handle weapons. But most importantly, he offered finesse with timing. Sean loaded the round. Will pulled back on the sling and let go on Greg’s command.
Posted as lookout, I watched each balloon clear fence, clear netting, and explode in succession at the feet of two men.
It could have only been better had our mortar connected to its target.
White sand in Florida can burn. Radiated from the summer sun, it sticks to your skin and fills every pore with fire. We laid partially on the cement, our torsos bent over the edge of the driveway. From the waist up we cooked in the sand.
Between the army of police officers there was only two sets of handcuffs to go around. Will and I never had the honor of wearing those. That steel banging our wrists, wanting so badly to crush every single carpal.
Instead, we got industrial strength zip ties. Pulled taught. Each hand pinched by plastic. Within minutes our skin bled.
We laid face down in the sand waiting for a convoy of paddy wagons to haul us away. This was more serious than we thought. Our crime, essentially an act of terrorism.
We were the youngest of the group. Will and I. Both seventeen. Both our Mothers were single. Both working to support delinquent children.
In nervous anticipation, we waited for them to post our bail.
To save us.
To subdue boredom, we imitated scenes from movies. Told jokes. Plotted convoluted methods of escape until we fell out, collapsing onto the floor we so dreaded to make contact with.
We woke to shuffling outside our cell. The fumbling of keys. The sliding of metal locks. And the door opened. Three men, rough, much older than us, were escorted into our space. Each wearing a one-piece, bright orange, prison uniform. They filed in and stood elbow to elbow against the opposing wall. And as the officer exited, we were left to stare at each other: head on, vis-a-vis.
The lights beating down on the lot as if to crack silence.
For what seemed like an hour, there was no exchange of words. There was no movement. Just uncomfortable nothing.
I noticed one of the inmates had tattoos. The jailhouse stereotype fulfilled. As far as I knew, I was well on my way to becoming this.
‘What are you guys in for?’
Subliminally, Will and I shared the answer. We could lie? But we didn’t, hoping that the idea of our crime crushed any fore-thunk attempt at a good ol’ jailhouse beat in.
‘Assault with a deadly missile’ we answered in tandem.
‘Damn.’ One inmate responded.
‘That’s some serious shit.’
I didn’t break a smile in relief. That would have been a bad move.
Instead, I stood stolid. My posture as stiff as a board. My chest bloated in superficial pride.
We were now part of it all, the mechanism chewing up and churning out criminals.
In that tiny cell, jammed five deep, I revelled in our escape from harm.
But even more so, I revelled in our initiation to thug-dom.
Tampa Bay once suffered a massive influx of racist, neo-nazi skinheads. And within our punk scene was where they converged. Here, fights were inevitable. Though never any that were race related. Collisions were between a bunch of pissed off, middle class white kids suffering the stale, suburban sprawl of Tampa. A city surrounded by a no-where-mans-land of pine forests, swamps, venomous snakes, and death rolling gators. Here, kids suffered what Kierkegaard defined as the human fallacy: Boredom.
And boredom being the root of all evil.
Beyond any personal politics, it was much more about a struggle. A struggle to defend whatever absurd belief system you attached yourself to when young.
Beyond even that, skins, en masse, were imbued with the brute force to whip anyone’s ass.
And there were infamous skins.
‘The Medical Skin’ was one of the crowd favorites. He wore medical scrubs to every show. And it was tradition for anyone (and sometimes everyone) to take a preemptive strike. Before any racial slurs, any puerile, ungrounded propaganda came out of his mouth, he was batted around like a beach ball. Eventually he got tossed out the threshold of the venue. And the next weekend, like clock work, he’d return.
There was the ‘Ear Biting Skin.’ A massive dude rumored to have bitten off someone’s ear in a brawl. His size was off limits: a bull always seeing red. There were instances of him pounding people into the ground: like a sledge, hammering a railroad tie. You steered clear. Always.
And there was the ‘Deaf Skin.’ Solid middle class. Clean cut. Always dressed in finely pressed neo third-reich attire. We thought him ironic considering the disabled were first to go during Hitler’s purges. For the most part, he was physically harmless.
Regardless of who you were, or what side you took in a stand-off, absolutely no one was exempt from getting their ass kicked by the skins. Not even other skins. After all, the ‘mosh’ pit was perpetuated by chaos. If, by chance, you got sucked in, no one was immune.
A swung fist, a stomping boot: once thrown, it stops when it connects.
The skin threat peaked when ‘Skinhead Island’ formed. What seemed like 10 heads wide by ten broad shoulders deep, the column of skins stood static in the middle of the dance floor. With shirts off, arms crossed, and ‘braces’ pulled up over their shoulders, the formation existed to inflict pain. The only virtue was, like an island, it stood still. And like an island, it was surrounded by a sand bar. And that sand bar, a void, was devoid of us punks. We dwelled in the shadows, a giant morphing jellyfish of thrashing kids. En masse, on the periphery, we changed shape to the speed of the music. And away from us, away from our safety in numbers, a drunk kid would often break from the depths. Stumbling inward, he’d spiral towards the island. If he got close, he got punched. And if he beached himself, there was an inevitable boot to the stomach, a brass knuckle to the skull. Sometimes he’d stumble away. Sometimes he’d lay on the floor, knocked into oblivion, with a pool of blood exiting his head.
Like the natural ebb of events, of counter cultures, of political movements, there is reciprocal flow.
In the summer of my junior year of high school was the most massive of fights.
Being the pacifist, I held back near the exit. From there I watched the silouettes of moving bodies. Of kicking. Of elbowing. Of head-butting.
Then the crowd parted.
A skin walked slowly through the isle of idle bodies. His arms folded over his stomach. His hands pressed near his belt line. I could see the blood seeping through the cracks in his fingers. Each finger holding in a bit of tissue. He brushed up against me, uttering a guttural ‘sigh’ to direct me out of his way.
Descending from chaos, the venue, with hundreds of people inside, became complete and utter silence.
And that night, as if the tectonic plates shifted within our punk scene, ‘Skinhead Island’ sunk into the many, forgotten, subcultural histories of Tampa Bay.
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
–Wallace Stevens Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.
I. Gate #98.
6pm: The witching hour for jumbo jets taxiing down the runway. Each, sailing to a different destination across the ocean.
In the backdrop, the skyline of New york city climbs into the fog. I was there, just two months prior. And for the first time–out of dozens of trips over the years–the collosal city-scape no longer choked my conscience. The congestion. The pollution of man and machine. The utter claustrophobia.
And for the first time, I could go back if I wanted.
But I’m not.
Not the Italy you see in coffee table books. A barren landscape of rock outcrops, sparing blooms of grass like toddler’s heads, with every road leading to its massive port. The silvery cement blinds you. For miles it stretches along the coast hosting a fleet of nephilim arks. Instead of a paired assortment of animals, each holds 2,200 humans, ready to be enveloped in pure gluttony.
Our taxi dropped me off at a petrol station. I bought an American coke.
One American dollar for the water it contains.
One American dollar for sugar and food coloring.
Everything in the EU costs double. Even shit.
Was burned to the ground in 88 B.C.. Twenty thousand islanders were murdered. The balance were enslaved by the Romans. The tiny island served as the financial capital of Greece: all money, all art, all play. Here, the stock market was created. Once incinerated, the Roman Empire suffered a forty year depression.
Years ago, our tour guide, one of eight resident archeologists, watched the events of 9/11 unfold.
He feared the second coming of Delos.
As we shuffled in the blistering heat, surrounded by broken monuments scattered on the island of Gods and men, he offered his parting words.
‘Remember two things:
One–History repeats itself.
Two–Nature will outlive man.’
IV. A helicopter
Flew in from the mainland during dinner. I could hear its blades pound the air, pound our steel, floating capsule as it landed on deck.
A man, stroked out, was carried away on a stretcher.
I watched the helicopter climb away, numb to suffering, my lips littered with crumbs.
Sometimes having too much fun can kill you.
Is what you see, when you see the Aegean.
There is no grid system here as raised cement walkways wind between homes and dead ends.
Myth claims Mykonos’ architecture the most efficient way to capture the plague: centuries of pirate attacks.
I’ve never seen so many beautiful women in such a tiny city.
It was best to go to the wharf and watch the crabs fiddle.
The Colossus of Rhodes fell in 226 BC. Made of brass, it fell as Gods shook the earth.
Or so they thought.
At a bar, my father and I had a drink.
Across the street was a golden mosque.
We chatted religion.
My father’s father was an agnostic.
I remember him dumpster diving in his plaid pants, perpetually resurrected electronics.
My father told me,
‘Dad didn’t believe in God.
He told me to do whatever I wanted,
to learn as much as possible,
and to be free.’
I was brought halfway around the world for this.
Enlightenment from my father comes when I least expect it.
VII. My father
woke up with a giant bruise on his thigh.
For three consecutive nights he took Ambien-C.
‘I’m not really sure how it got there,’ he explained.
‘You don’t remember tripping over the coffee table?’ I asked.
‘No, I must of had sea legs.’
Erupted between 1600 and 1500 BC. Debris fell as far as Spain. Its volcanic smoke was documented in China.
Below the mountainous island, its crescent shape cups that erect, black nipple.
980 feet up on the cliff face is the whitewashed, Lapis-Lazuli domed, poster child of the Aegean.
600 steps rise from the ocean, zig-zagging, a dozen switchbacks to the top.
You can take the Gondola, or hire a donkey.
Beside me, mid way, was a very elderly man climbing with his daughter.
I overheard: ‘Not bad for a ninety year old, Pops.’
has over 2,000 mosques. On entering one as an infidel, I treaded lightly.
Taking my shoes off, I walked slowly on beautiful Turkish carpets.
My biggest fear was not being called out as a fake in front of my father.
More so the potential exchange of a static electric charge onto the devout.
X. Constantinople Part Two.
I remembered the Hagia Sophia from a high school textbook. A church. A mosque. Now a church-mosque. There was an armed guard out front. In one hand, an AK-47. In the other, an ice-cream cone.
He, like Constantinople, like the Hagia-Sophia, was the perfect communion of East and West.
XI. A Canadian man
Sat with us for lunch at Topkapi Palace. The walls displayed ladles the size of a man. They were used to serve the masses as well as the Sultan’s Harem a stone’s throw through the courtyard.
The Canadian was retired ski patrol. His gift was this affirmation:
‘There was a woman I took down the mountain once a month. A paraplegic. I’d situate her in a toboggan and push her down the slope. At the bottom, I’d open the capsule. And there she lay, eyes wide open, blinking out of control. It was her signal to ‘˜please send me down again.’’
XII. The Athens Acropolis
was littered with tourists. Looking up at its majestic, Corinthian columns, a woman beside me announced: ‘I’m ruined.’
It was less the massive, ancient architecture that subdued my senses. More so, the mangy dogs that roamed free throughout the high city.
Behind each cordoned rope lay a dog.
A king to his kingdom.
Panting in the heat, nature outlives man.
XIII. In Pireas
the heat was oppressive. I had no desire to take a bus, no desire to walk to experience history. Instead, I sat on the wharf and met Peter, the limo driver.
Peter was one of thirty-two drivers in Pireas.
He told me the price of his driver’s license.
He told me the price of his limo.
We talked about his son in Montana.
‘Americans are slaves,’ He told me. ‘You work until you die.’
‘You doing well?’ I asked.
‘I sit outside while people do their business.’
Taking a drag from his cigarette, he looked over his shoulder.
‘I’m not complaining.’
Looking on to the Aegean,
Neither was I.
Washington, DC. Mid July. Humid. Gloomy.
I didn’t know anything important about the capital city.
I knew it had a little punk history. I could identify a monument or two. And I knew, most importantly, that there were good record stores. You never know what you can dig up in a university town. Every summer, those piles of relics dumped during the student purges. A potential gold mine at every stop. We were enveloped by music, and somehow, it was the only facet of tour that kept us motivated. Each night a venue. Sometimes three bands. Sometimes eight. You wake up, drive, wait, play a show, drive, go to sleep, repeat. The monotony was miserable. And our saving grace? A pile of mix tapes on the console. Driving all day, circumnavigating the continental US with the stereo cranked.
But collecting new music served as a placebo for only so long. Four weeks in, you start to lose it. We were in eight, and I was lost.
On tour, I thought about Betty quite often. She was at the bingo hall mostly. I didn’t blame her. It gave her something to do to not think about her impending ailments. Arthritis. Emphysema. And the newly discovered aneurism floating somewhere in her shriveled cavity.
I would try to call that smoke-filled, geriatric gambling factory, but it was impossible to talk. The caller at the podium, pulling the ball, and announcing that miserably magical number over the intercom. Bingo sheets, a dozen each, spread in front of retirees while their blotters dab at light speed. To their sides; fuzzy dice, crosses made of fool’s gold, and plastic, miniature trolls with flourescent pink hair. Each table, an obsessive compulsive arrangement of lucky charms. Players yakking, spreading local drama. Their piercingly loud voices creating a fog of passive aggression.
‘Bingo!’ someone would call as one hundred heads full of white hair, belched a synchronized sigh.
Betty would get home at 11pm. By then, we were playing another show, in another city, somewhere else in the US.
By 1am, our set was over. We’d load, steer our van onto the nearest interstate, and be well on our way to another destination.
Our schedules never matched for a nightly re-cap: A mutual ‘I’m doing just fine’ that would ease the anxiety of a dying loved one.
Washington, DC. Gloomy. The rain and humidity maintaining a layer of sweat on every bit of exposed skin. We walked out to the famous ‘Exorcist’ stairs. In front of us, above the staircase, was a tiny arch suspended with no real utilitarian purpose. Slowly we descended, admiring the colonial block work. There was really nothing like this in Tampa. Nothing man-made that witnessed hundreds of years of sights and sounds. I dragged my hand along the brick and empathized with that possessed girl: head spinning, cursing life.
Turning the corner we were dumped onto the main drag. Here, strips of cheap restaurants, junk shops and rows of tourist dives filled the city-scape. Speckled throughout were our coveted record shops. I was caught by the neon sign of a tattoo parlour. As our group walked on, I walked inside.
It was a stereotypical atmosphere. At the threshold, the smell of rubbing alcohol burned the throat of every potential customer. Generic, ancient Chinese frescoes adorned the walls. To the left, a catalogue of stock, flash art. Art harnessing the power to decide for those sterile, drunk, or simply impulsive connoisseurs of masochism. On that day, I was ripe for the taking. With little thought, I chose lettering across my arm in Old English. Betty’s last name was of English decent: perfect rationale for a careless decision.
‘Dawson,’ right? The artist asked.
‘Yes, thanks. About an inch high on each letter,’ I reminded him.
‘Your last name?’ He inquired.
His gun switched on. The rubber band hammering steel, showering an over spray of ink on my fresh, white shirt.
‘You’re kidding me? This is the second girlfriend’s last name I’ve tattooed today. You sure about this?’
I was, feeling no need to clarify.
He leaned over the chair, his left hand pulling taught the skin on my arm.
With his right hand he dove in, his clean needle dug deep into skin and vibrated bone.
“So, Joseph, you don’t want kids?”
I was thrown off. Not by the question, but from being called by my given name. It was a title reminding me of those visits to the doctor as a child.
Scared? I was. Not so much of shots. Or the “snapping” back of my multiple, re-adjusted broken arms. Or the revelation of needing three days in a hospital bubble after a severe asthma attack. Instead, I was scared of the doctor’s request to “please pull down your pants.”
This directive did, and still does, commit my body to a sort of suspended animation.
The fear of being exposed to the elements in front of a stranger. Do I have something less? Might I have something more? Am I deformed?
I knew it was coming.
“I don’t. No. Definitely not,” I responded.
“Do you like kids?” The doctor asked.
“I just don’t like the thought of having my own.”
In fact I do like kids. I like the idea of nurturing. The act of protection. The thought of having an unconditional best friend. I get it. But could I ever break away from a personal cultivation of selfishness?
“Yea, they’re a lot of work,” the doctor interjected. “I sometimes feel I’ve put a lot in and haven’t really gotten much out.”
Speechless, I nodded in recognition.
Was this his attempt at consolation? Was it an expression of empathy towards my decision? Or was it a scare tactic, a safeguard against a last minute change of heart. Of me as potential escapee?
“How long have you felt this way?” He asked.
As I Reminisced, events re-surfaced of my brother and me. He, creating a muriatic acid bomb, setting it off in our backyard and blaming the neighbors. Me, breaking a glass bottle and pushing him onto it. He, shattering a lamp over my head while my mother lost her patience, continuously lost her temper, and at some points, most definitely lost her mind.
The thought of being my parents frightened me. Each of them a referee to the mental and physical collisions of kid chaos.
“A really long time,” I answered.
“Ok, good. You do understand that a reversal is very expensive?”
“I do, absolutely,” I confirmed.
“Just wanted to make sure you were aware of that. It’s just procedure.
In that case, are you ready?”
Once again, I nodded. My eyes fixated on his clip board. His hand furiously scribbling down the page. And with a final, spastic motion of his wrist, justifying nothing short of a signature, he was done. My time had come.
“Go ahead and stand on the stool at the foot of the bed.”
Standing up, I walked slowly to the edge of the operating table. Windows rose from floor to ceiling over looking a major intersection. From above, the sun beat down through the glass. Sweating, I propped myself up onto the stool and looked down upon the afternoon gridlock. Below, each driver, as miserable as I, cooked in the summer heat.
“OK, then. Go ahead and pull your pants down.”
The doctor, a sorcerer of suppressed emotions.
His request, conjuring fear from the depths of my childhood.
But I had gotten this far. And I realized that in fifteen minutes, this minor surgery would be over. My limbs loosened, a warmth welled up, and I was enveloped by a feeling of transcendence.
I Grabbed my belt buckle. Unhooking it, I quickly dropped my pants.
I felt the chill of the doctors sterile, rubber gloves.
I felt a tug.
“This will hurt a bit,” the doctor warned in monotone, “but just for a second.”
I got stuck on drive-through in the mornings. Facing East, a single oak tree served as shade, the Spanish moss pulling its limbs to earth. It was a barrier against the rising sun. A barrier, until rays of light crept through holes in the canopy. Most of the time I was blinded–each customer a silhouette until my eyes adjusted. Fortunately, I got to speak with them first through the intercom. To get a grip on their tone. A feel for their mood. To buy a bit of time in preparation for neurotic regulars: those creatures of habit.
Most of the dialogue was simple; A quick exchange of words, of cash, of a small coffee.
Some, unnecessarily involved. Like the regular who drove a muted blue, Chrysler Fifth Avenue. The upholstery, weathered. Styrofoam cups littered his dash board. He was an adult mess, overzealous in his attempt to refine others, combing the scene to educate a fledgling at minor details. Once a week, I was his child pupil.
“Would you like anything on your croissant” I asked over the intercom?
“No, I would not.” He shot back. His tone an aristocratic affectation: “It’s qwa-saunt.”
‘Great. Please drive forward.’
Paying little attention to his correction, I handed him his order.
“It’s qwa-saunt.” He repeated.
“Please pronounce it correctly.”
“Cruh-sant?” I clarified, dumb founded.
“No, its qwa-saunt.”
“Ok, craw-sant.” With a southern drawl, I Intentionally mispronounced the word. The line of cars behind him curving around the building. Considering the morning rush, I had a valid excuse to not offer this pedantic Francophile my time.
“I’m not leaving until you pronounce the word correctly,” he barked.
“Cray-sant, you mean?” My sarcasm biting.
There I was, the uncultured kid who dropped beans in the grinder and pushed a button.
Kids man. We’re a terrible lot who speak an uncivilized language: a vile combination of slang strung together to communicate our alien pop-cultures.
I poked my torso out of the drive-through. Pointing at Mr. Marriam Webster, I shrugged my shoulders towards coffee induced gridlock.
One horn blew behind him. A second. A third. I watched as his right arm slowly reached down to the automatic gear shift. Craning his neck, he shot a last glance onto the window, his eyes locking on me in arrogant hopes of corrected pronunciation.
But I kept my mouth shut as his ancient car, belching a cloud of exhaust, pulled him away.
Was it a linguistic battle to the death? Hardly. Maybe just a subtle backlash to defend my perceived ignorance. “Craw-sant,” my battle cry. I felt empowered having repeated it several times. For that morning, I was the William Wallace of underachievers. My sword slicing arcane, grandiose, real world language. I chopped them into bits to feed my people, who then spat them out into expletives like “hell no!,” “dude!’, and “shit yes!”
On that morning I reigned victor, successfully defending us kids and our bastardized lexicon.read more
I propped myself up in bed by my elbows. Staring straight ahead I saw no one.
I looked to the left, and there was my grandmother, hunched over from osteoporosis in the night-gown she never seemed to take off.
“Where’s he at?” I mumbled. Half asleep. Sticky from sweat. My skin patched with sand the cat had dragged into bed.
“He’s laying in Grandpa Joe’s chair. He’s stiff. And he’s just too heavy to pick up.”
I looked up at the ceiling for a moment as my grandmother shuffled back into the living room. I didn’t want to see a cat corpse. I didn’t want to feel the dead weight of the cat my grandfather adored.
I got out of bed and peeked around the corner into the hall. There, in the living room, facing away from me, was the head rest of Grandpa’s chair. No one had sat in that chair since he passed. Not me. Not Grandma Betty. And never the cat.
Through the squat hall, I passed Betty’s Danish dining room table. To my right, her China cabinet Grandpa sent home from the Philippines. I walked slow, taking interest in the mundane to buy time.
I stepped down into the living room. In front of me was that brown corduroy chair. Looking over the top, I expected a smell: didn’t death have a smell? But there was nothing. Just Spike’s bright orange corpse. Fat. His fur infested with generations of fleas.
Here, his memories recalled a nightly routine of being held by Grandpa. A happy place.
This was his last attempt at communion. A communion with the one person who truly loved him.
I threw a flower print beach towel over Spike’s corpse. With both hands, I tucked it around his haunches. I lifted, feeling the heft of rigor mortis and held him in my arms like a new-born. Turning, I followed my grandmother. Her shoulders sagging forward. Her diminutive frame carrying her arched back through my bedroom and out, into the back yard.
Wedged in the corner of the lot, my grandfather had once made a clearing next to the old, lichen covered wooden fence.
‘Bury him here,’ she said, then shuffled back through the sliding glass doors and into the house.
I laid Spike down on the burnt Bahia grass. Taking a couple of steps back to Grandpa’s shed, I grabbed a shovel. Its wooden handle rotting. The steel head rusted and dull from years of sit.
I could see my Grandmother moving slow through the house. Her slippers, a light sand paper against the tile. It was a comforting sound. But any sound she made was comforting. For me, those subtleties were tangible evidence of her being.
Her death was my biggest fear. And Spike’s corpse, hard in my arms, was a reminder of that.
I thought it appropriate to make some sort of grave marker for Spike. After all, it was his ninth life. A special occasion for him. But also, a special occasion for me: my first funeral as pallbearer, grave-digger, and head of ceremony.
Beside the fence was a broken two by four. Didn’t I need an elegy? Something to be said? Something to be written In memoriam on that piece of wood?
Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” came to mind. Its last line, what I had always interpreted as a promise from the dead.
‘Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged.
Missing me one place, search another.
I stop somewhere waiting for you.’
With a sharp rock, I inscribed the five letters of the cat’s name into the damp wood.
I chose a humble remembrance for him.
It was best to save an epitaph for my Grandmother.
To save it for the day I hoped to God would never come.