Skinheads at the Turn of the Century, Skinheads at the End of the World

I do esketamine and/or ketamine once a week. I consider this to be a consolation prize in a life that’s been entirely cleansed of illicit drugs, the one great and consistent love that I’ve known. It happens in a busy unit of a psychiatric clinic where the rapid fire emissions of transcranial magnetic stimulation marry with the furious typing of the administering psychiatrist and the hum of the machine that monitors my vital signs.

Administration varies based on the substance. Esketamine comes in sleek little two shot bottles that emit a measured vapor. It takes four of these devices to produce an effect that would be considered therapeutic. Therapeutic in this case equates to a breakthrough psychedelic experience. 

Ketamine is more temperamental. It comes from a compounding pharmacy rather than whatever sleek production process births esketamine. The bottle is prone to clogging as it empties. Sometimes it takes several sprays before an adequate mist emerges. The doctor sprays it up my nose in 11 sets which equates to 22 instances of another person placing an object in my nostrils. 

It’s not terrible. I like him. We make small talk as he places what amounts to a flonase bottle into my nose. We talk psychiatry. I wonder sometimes if he’s humoring me, that I may know a measure less of the topic that dominates my life than I think. It gets progressively more difficult to speak, or at least to speak intelligibly as things progress. 

When the medication has been administered I lean back in a recliner and wait for the altered state to take hold and wrest my consciousness from its usual circuit. 

Drugs have their own spirits, a kind of collective ethos that reverberates across the entirety of the range of experiences they engender. Psilocybin is a storyteller and a funerary celebrant, powerfully human and profoundly alien, capable of inducing a cosmic collapse into the whole of being or a terrifying chronic confusion about where one stands on the narrow threshold between life and death. 

Dimethyltryptamine is a cosmic trickster and a rocketship that slingshots off the lens of God’s eye. Joy, terror, confusion melt into a golden spike that lances your heart. It can reveal to you the hidden rhythms to which the universe moves its feet or the faultlines of your life, more heartbreaking than it is possible to bear. 

LSD is a dissolving into intellect, an immersion in the moment, either an acceptance or denial of where you stand as a human being at the end of the age of man. 

These drugs all have a political history, an association with people, their own cultural milieu in which they’ve given instruction, been revered, been outlawed, but through it all the common thread (aside from the neurotransmitters that they bind to) is that they stand outside the bureaucracy and clinical ministrations of the 20th century. If there is anything that can be said about them it is that they have avoided commodification in the classic sense. 

Not so for ketamine. It struggled out of the birth canal of formal medicine in time to facilitate the treatment of flesh wounds in the Vietnam war, continuing a button-down career as an anaesthetic into the 2000’s at which time it came into use as an antidepressant. It is denied the honorific of psychedelic. It seems lonely to me. It seems lost. It has yet to find its voice. 

This is not to say that it is not visionary. It most certainly is. It is just that these visions are scattered, unable to reach the rungs of emotion, always struggling and failing to signify. Perhaps it will find its way. I call its name as the trance state descends and talk to it like an unbroken horse. 

While I have taken breakthrough doses of this substance once a week for six months it is only in the last several weeks that there has been a tint of emotionality to the experience. The most recent was the first time I felt gifted with the insight usually dispensed by the serotinergic drugs, those substances held sacred by societies targeted for extermination. 

This signification requires some introduction. It encompasses three distinct thematic periods of my life. 

Upon the advent of adolescence I pivoted from the quiet repression of the good kid to a creature that became progressively more venomous as time went on. I hated the world and knew that the world hated me. This played out in the kinds of skirmishes with authority that I lost even when I won. The aesthetics and music of punk culture meshed well with my emotional bearing. Everything was stark contrast and jagged edges, unabashed ugliness issuing an invitation to conflict.  

After delivering a brutal beating to a classmate I was placed on probation and ordered to attend a group for troubled teens. It was as useless an overture of intervention as any I’d seen. It was raucous and when the social worker left the room we traded the unimpressive war stories of people who had only just begun on their sad and doomed trajectory as social scum. 

There was a kid in the group with a mohawk and we became fast friends. Haircuts were very focused signifiers in the late 1990’s, communicating your affiliation with a definitive subculture. To immerse yourself in it was essentially a ‘fuck you’ to normalcy, a line in the sand that disallowed back-stepping. He and I became drinking partners, getting shitfaced with people much older than ourselves, stumbling our way home as the sun rose. 

This social scene coalesced around a band as punk cliques tend to. We went to their shows and celebrated the wholesale flouting of social norms that this scene embraced. We huffed gasoline and drank cheap forty ouncers of malt liquor until we fell down face first. The kind of trolling that occurs on the internet now we did in person then. Our very appearance summoned hostility and in the drunken near-psychosis of early morning I felt like a being apart, not human. Something more free than that.

There was an odd phenomenon in the street punk scenes of the time. Right wing skinheads would often attend the shows of their political enemies and dispense a beating to anyone foolish enough (and there were plenty of us) to wander off alone. This happened in the city too, but on the Island it was worse. The downwardly mobile (and none of us knew the half of it) sons of raging Reaganite parents still reeling from the shutdown of the defense industry had nothing to do and so they made their own fun. The historical affinity between skinheads and the bleached out ska of the time turned skater kids into something darker, an alcohol soaked and violence fueled crew of dumbasses.

There’s an historical precedent for this spanning two continents. Skinhead culture was born among working class English youths who became fans of the first-wave ska that the Jamaicans that they worked alongside brought with them to their new, dreary home. It was only a matter of years before hard-right groups began to recruit from amongst this set. The fashion of this scene (tightly laced Doc Marten boots and bleach spotted jeans held up with suspenders), its music and its politics crossed the Atlantic and no one at all benefitted.

The suburban skins of the 1990’s were most likely unaware of the political geography of their affectation. They had their own terrible bands with bad reputations and so their weekends revolved around the creative output of people who were marginally better than themselves. The tension simmered below the surface until my crew announced the inauguration of open hostility.

We challenged them to fights that rarely materialized as direct fist-to-mouth combat. We got their bands kicked off of shows. One of them was the brother of my best friend of a few years ago and I drunkenly called their house at 2AM, announcing to the family that their son, Joe, was a dedicated racist. There was a profound incongruity here. His mother was Jewish, his father a Croation immigrant, his brother just embarking on a lengthy negotiation of his sexuality. But it is rare that you find a fascist who is free of these kinds of contradictions. 

Several of them had perpetrated a hate crime in which they beat a gay man into a coma. They disappeared from the scene as they tried to toe the lines of their bail conditions but there were plenty of them left and as time went by the conflict deepened. 

The epicenter of this rapidly bifurcating youth culture was a bar in Suffolk County, the Roadhouse Pub. It’s a mystery why the owner allowed weekly street punk shows- they had to be more trouble than they were worth. There were enough drunken minors getting soused in the back parking lot that he couldn’t have missed the peril this put him in. Perhaps he simply didn’t care. I passed out underneath a car once. On another occasion I got punched in the back of the head while taking a piss on the chain link fence that bordered the parking lot. The skinhead who did this was named Andrew and he was a recurring antagonist in my young life.

I loved the fighting. I craved violence in the same way I craved alcohol and the latter was my suit of armor. While being trashed does nothing to improve your ability to dole out violence it is an absolute wonder in terms of your ability to absorb it and I truly didn’t care whether I lived or died. Or perhaps I simply wanted to die. 

I went away for a while and in my absence this conflict continued. The frontman of one of the bands I was affiliated with was living in a van behind the thrift store he worked at and one day one of the skins came in. With some concern, as if things had gone farther than he wanted them to, he told him that that a faction of them had stated that they knew where he slept and that they planned on killing him. At the next show his band played he appeared in a t-shirt with a bullseye over his heart.

On another occasion there was a fight where the numbers were overwhelmingly against them. They ran, leaving behind one of their cars and it got beat to shit, windows smashed, tires slashed, upholstery pissed on and burning trash thrown inside. 

When I arrived home from my time away I mostly kept my distance from my old friends.  I spent my free time in Alcoholics Anonymous soaking up the zeitgeist of another subculture for damaged people. Just as punk had been an island of misfit toys so too was the place they went to dry out. 

There is an emphasis in AA on welcoming the newcomer. They are the most important thing in the room. Your own sobriety hinges on your willingness to help them. This is the twelfth of twelve, the culmination of the process of recovery. 

My ‘home group’ was a shit show. Seriously working class and seriously fucked up, whiter than white but with dirt under its fingernails. These weren’t bank executives who ran over the neighbors’ dog or day traders whose wife threatened to leave them. These were orphans, foster kids and the parents who made and lost them.

People died all the time. They ‘went out’ and got found blue with a spike in their arm, or maybe they wrapped their car around a tree. Some killed themselves outright, dangling from a rope but mostly it was more ambiguous. Who knows what’s in the hearts of the dead? 

Freaks and weirdos were the rule. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a shambling mass of tattoos to walk through the door. Me and a friend were among them.

He was another wreck, transitioning from various stages of homelessness to a punk house where I hung out, a place where there was less drunkenness and reckless disregard. I came to hate him over time. I spit in his face once. But for years we were joined at the hip in a toxic platonic marriage. When the drummer for one of the odious skinhead bands, the one whose brother I was so close to years before walked through the door I didn’t know what to do. So I shook his hand and welcomed him to AA.

People only come to AA when the chips are so down they’ve fallen on the floor. They are desperate. Things are irredeemably fucked and they are so sick of themselves, so horrified by the life they’ve led that they are willing to molt- to shake off the skin of who they used to be. Part of them dies. And so I learned to love this certifiable, dangerous madman who was a mortal enemy until he raised his hand and said “I’m Joe and I’m an alcoholic”.

The three of us fit snugly together. It wasn’t like we went out in mixed company though. He was a secret to be kept. The logic of AA and the logic of left wing punks wasn’t likely to translate well.

He told stories of his crazy and violent life. The local keystone pigs in a town trying to wipe off its blue collar grime told him and his friends that they would look the other way as they loitered and harassed passers-by if they would repay them by beating up the homeless men who camped in the woods. He talked about travelling to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to drink and start fights. And he told me about the hate crime. 

Three of them had cornered a man on a late night train home from the city and beaten him to the ground and proceeded to stomp on his head. The queer community called for their heads on stakes and they deserved it. Had the man died they would have been charged with murder but somehow they got off with plea deals, scarcely spending a day in jail.

My newfound friend, still covered in the little known insignia of white power skins told us of his fear that one of the three, Andrew, was going to sell him out to lessen his own sentence. Andrew had no real home at the time, no parents worth staying with and so he slept in a house under construction. My friend stated that he’d gone to this house in the early hours of morning with a pistol, intending to kill him while he slept. But he lost his nerve and I can’t really say that it was for the best. 

Andrew, homeless and alone in the world, was someone that I would encounter throughout the early years of my sobriety. We were always running up to those windows of violence, a fall threatening both of us. I would get word that he and his crew were at a show and I would arrive with a bat, 17 years of nastiness unconcerned with my own well-being. There is an intimacy to this kind of hate, an intensity not unlike love.

On one occasion I stopped at a 7-11 after work. He was inside with a friend and insults and threats were exchanged. There was no way I was going to win a fair fight against two of them and so I filled a cup with steaming water. As I approached the door they lurked outside and I pointed to the security cameras, laughed in their faces. When I stepped outside they asked if I planned on throwing the water that had been boiling mere moments ago in their faces and I said that I did indeed. They followed me in their car for a good while. I pulled into a driveway and they sped off. 

Joseph had removed himself from contact with these people but he spoke in generalities about what he knew. That Andrew was especially in love with violence and had been trained for it from childhood, brutally beaten by his father until he was old enough to escape. I dated a girl who was with him for a time and she said that he liked to hurt her during sex. 

In AA other aspects of his life came into relief. AA is a catch-all. It’s rare that you encounter a drunk that doesn’t do drugs just as it’s rare that you encounter a drug addict who doesn’t drink to excess. Perhaps unfairly AA is considered to have ‘better sobriety’ (whatever that means) than Narcotics Anonymous, and so people show up there hoping to avoid the heroin slinging that supposedly occured in the parking lot after meetings.

I found myself giving lots of rides to people with heroin problems. One of them had grown up alongside Andrew and seemed to have the kind of love for him that two people who experience intolerable childhoods together develop. When I expressed my hate he countered with love, with sympathy, perhaps girded in the sort of racist milieu from which they emerged but nonetheless I heard more about the brutality that he had survived. This person overdosed and died some months later.

You grow up and you grow away from these things, punk and AA alike. You move, you get jobs, life takes you away from the people that you grew up hating, people who are perhaps more formative than those you love. Still though, you get word of them. The circles that the doomed and despairing travel in are small and word travels fast. A race riot broke out at the bar that once upon a time catered to punks, in which a black veteran and his two friends had to barricade themselves inside as beery morons tried to storm the building to kill them. It shut down not long after. 

A story emerged about Andrew picking a fight with two hispanic men. He got stabbed in the stomach and chased them down the road as his intestine began to find its way outside his body. I heard that he married a Mexican woman and I hoped he had grown, heard he had a roofing business and I thought ‘that figures’, but again, maybe he’d left behind his life of inflicting horror for a kind of middle-aged resignation. I didn’t know how much of this was rumor and I still don’t.  

I didn’t hear about him for years. I was a different creature, still wild, rearing and crashing down, nostrils flaring, but in a different place where the footsoldiers of the far right seemed even more dangerous, and they were.

In 2010 a woman named Shawna Forde and two accomplices murdered a child, Brisennia Flores, and her father in an attempted robbery, the proceeds of which were intended to fund their border militia. In 2012 an avowed neo-nazi and one-time protege of Republican troglodyte Russell Pearce shot four people to death, including an infant child, Lilly Mederos, before swallowing a bullet himself. Inside his home police found a cache of weapons garnished by two dozen grenades. And I had my own run-ins with fascists that butted up against violence. Andrew was a decade in the past and thousands of miles away. He might as well have not existed. 

I returned to New York and I tried to kickstart friendships. It worked and didn’t work because some of them weren’t worth having. One of the better ones lived next to a former skinhead. He was on suboxone to kick a heroin habit and was addicted to xanax.

Where my younger self would have exploded with swinging fists at such a person the older vintage felt a more interested detachment. I wondered who these people were, but already kind of knew the answer – they were the crazy, sad and irredeemably broken outcomes of our culture’s white masculinity, an identity that’s wilting, that won’t survive another generation. They were economically and culturally useless and they knew it. And no one loved them enough to tell them that they could be something different. 

But I am not Jesus. Dogs that bite get put down but extending that mercy to these wretched ones isn’t something we do. We lock them up and make them something even sadder and more threatening before depositing them back in the dustbins of America where they hate and stew and simmer. 

There is a saying amongst the white power set that they sometimes tattoo upon themselves, “14 Words”. This is shorthand for a mission statement: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” There are a million ways that this can be lampooned, but the sad and obvious truth is that none of this is about saving any kind of child. It’s about nurturing the misery that for lack of a suitable womb gestates in a series of drunken nights and rageful days, never born. Not completely. There is nothing more dangerous to a child than a rageful parent. 

In 2017 Andrew appeared on the local news. He had been pulled over (and I’m sure that this was no accident- more than likely he was under some sort of surveillance) and police found a pistol and knife in his possession. Upon searching his home more weapons were found along with a cache of ammo.

His mugshot brought me back to stare-downs of the past. His is the kind of face that makes one wonder whether one of his distant ancestors was hit with a brick so hard that it became a heritable genetic trait. It’s the kind of face that looks as though it’s been carved into a potato. He was thicker, older, his nose had been broken a few more times but he still looked furious and disgusted, although whether with himself or the situation he found himself in was unclear.

I dug into him on the internet. He was sufficiently affiliated with the far right to have earned a benefit concert organized by the aging fascist hangers-on who were still making shitty music for shitty people. And I found that he had a child, a little girl, and I thought about Brisennia Flores and how his daughter would be about the same age that she was when she was executed by a grown man as she begged for her life.

In my most recent esketamine vision I saw an image of this lost and angry man, this biting dog. His face was in a gilded frame, hung in the gauzy haze of pink shifting to salmon shifting to yellow. It was a soft light, delicate, and I saw beneath and below the furrowed brow that scarcely killed the gloss of his flat, dead eyes. There was a child there. So hurt and so lost, buried in an archaeology of damage that perhaps no amount of healing could excavate. He was a person who fate and bad choices had made into an animal, a process that he may have embarked on willingly but not without a firm push from behind. While any blood that he has spilled in his life is on him it is on society as well. We have to own our monsters.

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