Thursday, March 7, 2013

Who Cares?

I met this skinhead in the hallway of my old apartment building in the early 90s. He was friends with this plainly insane woman who spent most of her time being blind drunk and telling the most extraordinary lies any person will ever hear. The building was holding her up when she introduced us. I have long forgotten both their names. Without any prompting from me, he began to tell me how earlier in the evening he was walking down the street when the light from a laser pointer appeared all of a sudden on his chest. He crouched behind a car, he told me, because his band of SHARP skinheads were in the middle of a war with racist skinheads from east Portland, and he was sure that the light was from a rifle laser sight. White supremacists were a real danger in Portland back then, a fear concretized by the killing of an Ethiopian man a few years before, not far from where I lived. So unlike the fantastic stories his friend often told, I did not dismiss this account out of hand. He looked like an old-fashioned rude boy: he wore a very tight blue polo shirt, tight jeans with suspenders, and shiny Doc Marten’s. His clothes were meant to emphasize his body, which moved under the clothes full of menace. Everything about him was like an implied threat. He asked me if I wanted to go have a drink with him, and I said, sure.

A few months later I ran into him as I was walking down Morrison Street. I was on my way to the Willamette River, where I liked to sit on one of the benches and watch the river, the tourists, and the runners go by. Again without prompting, he told me the story of how just a few weeks before he had gotten into a fight with someone at a party. An argument had led to him stepping outside with his antagonist. The skinhead was there with his friends and the other guy was there all alone. After some posturing, the skinhead had closed his eyes and headbutted the guy. By the time he opened his eyes again, he told me, his friends had jumped the guy and were all punching and kicking him while he lay on the ground. When he finished his story he asked me  to go have a drink with him. Why not? I said.

Several years later I walked into a bar in Eugene, Oregon, and the skinhead was sitting at the counter. His body no longer looked like that of a lean predator. His hair had grown out some, he was paunchy around the middle, and his face sagged a little.  None of that diminished how threatening he seemed, even just sitting there. As if to prove the point, later that night he threatened a whole group of people for what was a simple mistake, and they, in deference to the danger he posed, walked away. Let’s go drink with my dad, he said afterward. But before that, he had told me that a while back he had spent 18 months in prison for a drug possession charge. He had gotten in the weed business but his operation had been busted, and he had been sent to the joint. We walked out of the backdoor on our way to his dad’s place, I had assumed. But his dad was sitting in a refurbished 60s muscle car in the parking lot just behind the bar. The skinhead sat next to his father in the front seat. I slid into the back. Introductions followed. His father then handed me the bottle of Old Crow that he was drinking from. I took a drink and passed it to his son. We sat there in silence passing the bottle back and forth until it was gone. We didn’t care.

I thoroughly enjoy Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” Beyond the powerful pop hooks, the brief account of crashing a car into a bridge and not caring about it that she repeats in the song speaks to the emotional deadness of much of my youth. And just like in “I Love it,” the lack of real affect felt like freedom. I’m not going to suggest, however, that having grown older means that I know better. The distance that separates me from the person I was back then does not imply superiority. It only means that, like the lame-o of the song, I too am “from the 70s.”