StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

85A Log: High School Bullies and Skinheads

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 24, 2008

Alright, so, I’m at Tea Lounge on Union Street in Brooklyn, gearing up to do some final edits on 85A before handing it off to Shell. It’s so bizarre to be at an age where a hipster barista calls you “sir.” Maybe next time I’ll bring my walker and ask him to help me to my chair. It was only ten years ago that I was his age and now I’m Sir! Still, he played his cards right: I upped his tip to a whole dollar.

Jefferson Park, Chicago L Station - Destination of the 85A North Central Bus

Jefferson Park, Chicago L Station - Destination of the 85A North Central Bus

Anyhow, for all intents and purposes, the first draft of 85A is done. That is, I finished Parts I and II and then, for Part III, I basically threw mud at the wall, hoping at least a speck of it would stick. No such luck. The whole of Part III ended up looking something like: “And then, a lot of stuff happened and then…well…The End.” Thank God for Second Drafts. My editor friend Shell’s got her work cut out for her, at least with Part III.

Don’t worry, people, it will be all shaped up, scrubbed up and ready for inspection by the final draft. Above is a picture of the Jefferson Park L station in Chicago. Seamus takes the 85A bus there everyday before taking the L to his south-side school. This is an unorthodox stream-of-consciousness novel, most of which takes place on Seamus’ way to St. Saviour, the school that wants to kick him out. What happens next will affect the rest of his born days.

To help me flesh out the actual in-school parts of 85A, I started rereading Jodee Blanco’s Please Stop Laughing at Me…, her autobiography about being the victim of bullies from middle school right up to the last day of high school.

I remember when it was first released about six years ago. My Mom heard about it on the radio and then called and told me to buy it. Well, I didn’t rush right out to the store. In fact, I forgot she’d even mentioned it until a couple days later when I was poking around the stalls at Borders. Something told me to pick it up, though, so I did. A couple days later, some guy I was dating – can’t even remember his name now – unceremoniously dumped me. I had the day off work the next day, so I got into my shlub clothes, crumpled up on my couch, picked up Blanco’s book and proceeded to have a wailing cry.

Jodee Blanco, 2007

Jodee Blanco, 2007

Look at Jodee Blanco now. She’s hot! But, according to her book, it wasn’t always like that. The peer abuse and torture that she suffered was way off the charts – constant assaults and degradations. I’ve been there. That’s how it was for me, the class faggot, in my elementary and middle school years. (Actually, the Catholic school I went to wasn’t a middle school. It had grades 1 to 8. It would be a baleful simplification to call those years and that neighborhood a living hell, but I’m all out of worthy superlatives just now.)

Blanco went on to become a writer and an A-List p.r. consultant in New York. But, after the success of her New York Times Bestseller and all the many emails and calls she received from concerned parents and teens who were on the verge of recreating the Columbine tragedy at their own schools, she decided to relinquish her high-profile executive career in order to head up The Blanco Group, a nonprofit in Chicago that works nationally to prevent school bullying. I applaud Jodee Blanco’s efforts. A friend, who was complaining about office politics at her job, recently made the highly generalized statement: “Adults are just overgrown teenagers who play the same kinds of games they did in high school.” There might some truth to that, but adults are rarely as overt with their pettiness as pre-teens and teens and my heart goes out to any kid who has to stand defenseless against that kind of barefaced harassment and violence.

It seems to me that, for middle-class kids at least, bullying is probably worse at suburban high schools than at inner-city magnet high schools like my alma mater. One reason might be that, at an inner-city magnet school, kids commute to school from everywhere and, if you live in another neighborhood, there isn’t a sense that your life is confined to the same locale as your school. Even if the kids at your school are assholes, they at least have lives outside of school and they have the whole city to keep them occupied, which is an advantage bored suburban youth like the ones at Columbine don’t have.

from the film based on Marguerite Duras' novel THE LOVER

from the film based on Marguerite Duras' novel THE LOVER

In high school, I wasn’t bullied so much as outcast, which hurt terribly but not as bad as daily beatings would’ve. That’s how it is for Seamus in 85A too. He’s more outcast than bullied at St. Saviour.

In fact, he’s adamant about not making a world out of Saint Saviour. After many early experiences of failure and rejection, he holds himself aloof from St. Saviour and always has his bags packed to leave at any moment. His orientation is much the same as that of the girl in The Lover, Marguerite Duras’ roman a clef about her adolescent affair with a Chinese aristocrat, who was more than twice her age, in Saigon, 1929. Here’s how she describes the situation at her Vietnamese boarding school, where she’s one of two white girls:

{The teacher] says, You didn’t go to class and you didn’t sleep here last night, we’re going to have to inform your mother. I say I couldn’t help it, but from now on I’ll try to come back and sleep here every night, there’s no need to tell my mother. The young [teacher] looks at me and smiles…I’ll do it again. My mother will be informed. She’ll come and see the head of the boarding school and ask her to let me do as I like in the evenings, not to check the time I come in, not to force me to go out with the other girls on Sunday excursions. She says, She’s a child who’s always been free, otherwise she’d run away, even I, her own mother, can’t do anything about it, if I want to keep her I have to let her be free…My mother also said I was working hard in high school even though I had my freedom, and that what had happened with her sons was so awful, such a disaster, that her daughter’s education was the only hope left to her.

I say that Duras’ protagonist and Seamus share the same orientation toward school, but her life and Seamus’ are poles apart. True, Seamus also has a lover who is twice his age, but his mom and dad aren’t anywhere near as cool as Duras’ mother and they hang no hopes on Seamus doing well in school. Unlike Duras’ character, Seamus does not work hard at St. Saviour – he can’t pay attention in class and has a 1.4 GPA – but he does have the same proclivity for freedom as Duras’ girl and he does have a budding worldliness and sophistication that his GPA does not betray.

Belmont Avenue in Chicago

Belmont Avenue in Chicago

Until Seamus can make it to England, he’ll make do hanging out in the 1980s punk scene on Belmont in Chicago or in pre-gentrification Wicker Park. He doesn’t find a lot of acceptance on Belmont either, but it beats the hell out of the rejection he experiences at St. Saviour.

American Skin by Don De Grazia

American Skin by Don De Grazia

American Skin, Don De Grazia’s estimable novel about this same period in Chicago punk history, gives a much more flattering and sympathetic depiction of skinheads than 85A. Just like American Skin, some pivotal parts of 85A take place at a juice bar called Medusa’s. De Grazia changed Medusa’s name to Gorgon and I wonder if I’ll have to do the same before 85A is published.

And now…I’ll share excerpts of Seamus’ Belmont experience in 85A before he meets his best friend, Tressa. (I reserve all rights to the contents of the following text. Steal it and I’ll sue your pants off!) Now, please bear in mind that Seamus is a foul-mouthed 15-year-old who abhors racism but is still at a point in his development where he sees blacks, Latinos, Asians and immigrants as “other.” And even though he moons over boys in his own narration and discusses his sexual experience with a much older man, he is still terrified of being pigeonholed as gay:

Man, I don’t care what people fucking say. They cut skinheads all this fuckin’ slack. Say most of them on Belmont ain’t Nazis, they’re anti-Nazi. Some are even black, some are Jews and some of the whites even walk around with t-shirts on under their bomber jackets that have ban signs over swastikas. That don’t mean dick. Nazi, anti-Nazi: one’s just as bad as the other. Like, for instance, some of the Anti-Nazi skins wear pink laces in their ox-blood Docs, meaning they killed a queer—maybe one of the queens walking around Halsted Street, just a block over from Punkin’ Donuts. They kick the shit out of people who don’t fucking deserve it just to show off to their friends. Skinheads are fuckin’ scumbags—Nazi or not—and, if I didn’t believe in anarchy, I’d petition for a law to lock them all up for life…

I lit my second to last Marlboro and walked over to Punkin’ Donuts at Belmont and Clark...That’s all I did on Saturday nights before Tressa. I’d end a lonely night at Medusa’s with a cigarette, a raspberry jelly donut, and a medium coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. They always got punks in there or in the parking lot. They don’t call it Punkin’ Donuts for nothing. I’d sit at the counter and watch crowds swarming out of restaurants and clubs. I’d sit and watch punks coming together in their own motley swarms inside and outside the store, never minding the Pakistani donut pushers, chewing them out every five seconds for acting up and being assholes. I’d sit at the counter and think, maybe I’ll have friends here someday. Or maybe I’ll know punks in England. They don’t even have to be punks. Just people. Just people. In England. And I’d smoke and stare out the window or at the smoke curling off my cigarette and I’d think about things I might be able to do for a living over there in England—maybe I could be a shrink like Dr. Strykeroth (I thought that a lot) or an actor on the BBC like I always fuckin’ wanted to be or maybe I’d write books—and I’d try cooking up ways I might be able to immigrate legally.

In my daze, I felt someone come up behind me and take the 1940s hat off my head. I swung around on my stool. It was a fuckin’ skinhead. He had these scary motherfucker red and steel-blue eyes and a face that some mad sculptor must have chiseled out on a bender—all those sharp-ass, severe-ass angles. He cocked an eyebrow to me, opened his bog slowly like a carp and then blew a mouthful of cigarette smoke he’d been holding, straight into my face. His band of nick-headed Neanderthals all hooted and howled and flipped me off. I didn’t say a fuckin’ word. (Shit, Would you, with eight motherfuckin’ skinheads staring you down?) Then they all turned around. Walked straight into a forest of other punks and skins, some of them grabbing on to some chicks who looked like they were itching for a grabbing. Then they decamped to make their rounds round the block. The fucker still had my hat on his head when he walked out with his arms hanging on his two buddies’ shoulders. Never fuckin’ knew how to walk alone, I guess.

But, see, there’s this shit I do every time someone dis’s me like that. I even used to do it with fuckin’ Payne. For about five minutes, I try convincing myself they didn’t mean what they just fuckin’ said or did. They meant something else. Maybe this guy thought I was someone else. And that’s what I dumb-ass did after the skinheads left. I said to myself, Oh, it’s crowded in here. He was talking to a lot of people after he took my hat. Maybe he just forgot to give it back before he left. If I see him again and ask him real nice, he’ll give it back. Maybe we’ll even hang out next time I see him. Maybe he’ll introduce me to his friends. Maybe I’ll end up shaving my fuckin’ head and hanging with them. But I can’t tonight. I got fuckin’ curfew. That’s what I fucking said to myself!

And then I went on thinking about England. And then I went on thinking about Dr. Strykeroth, how tight and tan his skin is, how lucky I am to be able to get together with him every week. And then about Colby. I wondered what he was doing these days, if I’d ever see him again. I remembered how Colby had steel-blue eyes too, but they weren’t fuckin’ schizoid and mixed with capillary-red like that fuckin’ skinhead’s (the one I said I wouldn’t mind hanging out with, even after he stole my hat and blew smoke in my fuckin’ face). And I recalled how Colby’s features weren’t craggy like that skinhead motherfucker’s either. They were soft, delicate. His cheek bones were high and they sloped down in such a gentle curve. His lips were like plump little cherries and just as red. I lost myself, thinking about England and Dr. Strykeroth and Colby.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone hovering over me. I was so caught up daydreaming, I didn’t even notice anyone sitting next to me. I turned my head. No, no one was sitting there. Dude wasn’t sitting at all. He was standing. Hovering. Some scruffed-up, fucked-up, scrawny-ass drunk, maybe 40 years old. I got a better look at him. He had a tight mellow-yellow undershirt on under a blue ski coat with a fur-lined hood. He was also wearing this crazy-ass belt, made up of a bunch of different colored bandanas (red, dark blue, black, yellow, baby blue) that he’d tied together. They hung down from a loose knot at the crotch of his faded Levis. He put his left hand on his left hip and jutted his right hip out toward me. He smiled, looking down at me, tapping the toe of his tan construction boot and taking a long drag off a Virginia Slim. (I saw the pack in front of him, under his pink Bic lighter. It was fuckin’ Virginia Slims.) He exhaled a long, lingering stream of smoke. His breath reeked of menthol cigarettes and bottles and bottles of hard liquor, I don’t know what kind, as he leaned up close and heaved a long, heavy, “Hah-iii,” into my face. Then he puckered up, looked deep into my eyes, and, losing and then finding his balance again, blew me a kiss. The punks around me were all falling all over themselves, laughing up a fuckin’ storm when they all fuckin’ saw all this.

How did that prick even get through the fuckin’ doors with all those skins and scary motherfuckers skulking around? How did he escape getting his gumpy ass beat? He’s lucky he didn’t get killed just for coming within a block of Punkin’ Donuts. I didn’t finish my coffee. Didn’t want that flit feeling me up or vomiting on me. I just hit the streets. As I left the parking lot, I kept looking back, hoping he wasn’t fuckin’ stumbling after me. For a second there, I could even see why the skins would be proud to wear pink laces.

I walked back toward Sheffield on Belmont. Passed a bunch of Jesus freaks. They were holding candles and singing “Amazing Grace.” One of them handed me a leaflet. I was still in shock from that drunken fairy, so I took it. I looked at the leaflet as I kept walking. The front page actually looked like some of those xeroxed booklets they got in Wax Trax’s boutique, except there were no sex-and-violence graphics and the punks on it were wearing Crosses on their leather jackets, along with slogans like “Jesus Rules” and ban signs over the numbers 666. I crumpled up the leaflet and threw it in the gutter. I lit my last Marlboro, crumpled the pack and tossed that in the gutter too. Not fifteen minutes earlier, Belmont was crawling with people. I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden it was almost empty. When I got to walking under the L tracks, I saw a group of burly guys walking toward me in the shadows. As I walked closer, I saw they were all skinheads. They were the ones in Punkin’ Donuts, the ones who fuckin’ laughed and flipped me off. I saw the one wearing my hat. I walked up to him. I said, “Can I have my hat back?”

He got up in my face, “What? What?”

I said, “Just, my hat. Just…wondering…can I—?”

He pushed me over into the alley off to the side of the tracks with his chest, “What? What?” He backed me up into the brick wall on the side of the pawn shop. His gang surrounded me. “What?” he bellowed, “You sayin’ I stole it? You sayin’ I stole your hat? Is that what you’re fuckin’ saying?” I looked at all their faces. There was nothing I could fuckin’ do but freeze. “Huh?,” he screamed, shoving me back into the bricks, “Answer me, you little faggot.”

I somehow uttered, “Well, in Dunkin’—” Next thing I know, he punched me hard in fuckin’ gut. Then, one of the black skins hollered, “Got any proof, you lil’ carrot-top faggot?,” then he clocked me in the face. Then, they whipped me to the ground. My forehead scraped against a pile of rocks, pebbles and some glass too when they turned me over. Felt a couple kicks in my back and a few in my stomach. I could feel every hit, but it was like part of me, the part of me that couldn’t feel any pain, had left my body and was watching all this shit happen from some kind of fuckin’ aerial view. I thought, shit, I heard of shit like this. This is fuckin’ it. This is it. They’re gonna award these animals some fuckin’ pink laces for what they’re about to do to me.

Alright, people, it’s been real, but I gotta get back to editing now. Shell’s waiting on my manuscript. She knows where I live and she knows where I hang out when I’m not at home.

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