The LIfe Sentence.

I walked in the room and it was grey, the walls and the floor, and there was no window, but there was cherry-white paint splattered on the light bulb attached to the grey ceiling over the metal table. I shut the door behind me and nodded to the three people behind the table. They did not nod back. I just stood there, a little too close to the door, and afraid to go any further until I was told doing so was acceptable.

With a curt drop of his head the man in the middle, too short with blistered skin and sun-bleached hair, motioned toward the single wooden chair in front of me. I sat down, my hands pushed together in my lap as if they carried heavy metal cuffs. I was not entirely sure if they did or not.

On his left was an overweight black woman, with thick thick glasses and a permanently disgusted look on her face.
On his right was a razor thin person (I could not discern a sex) wearing all black over paper-weak skin. The face was a skeleton.

“Tell me where it all went wrong. Tell me about ( he checked his notes) Peter” the man said, his two associates picking up their pens in unison, as if every word I would say mattered.

Peter was my terrible friend. Me= too impressionable in my teenage days, him= older and a dropout with a pocketful of money, since his dad made him work and he still lived at home and drove his dad’s car. He lied to women in the worst ways, dangerous, anti-social untruths to get what he wanted. Drugs and alcohol for barely-teen teenage girls, exaggerated borderline cartoon tales of his life and all the things he’s never really done and…

“Stop. Tell me about you. Tell me things you’ve seen.”
This year? Or Ever? Or today?

A rotten, rat-chewed mattress in a house of garbage hoarders, a 30- year-old man rolling over just often enough to not become entwined with the springs cutting his back and shoulders. And he doesn’t get off that mattress, ever, for any reason. You want to hear things like that?

“What? No, Lord no. I want to know… when did you become this way?”

Maybe 3am in the desert, 1995? And the desert was a sand-awful place to break down. But the Van picked it for us, a busted transmission and not enough oil. We were literally camped out on the border of Utah and Nevada, two throwaway states, at least for Southern punk rawk trash, nothing more than means to an end land on the way to the waves of California, the guitars of Seattle. We’d spent a hard 10 hours in Las Vegas ogling the strippers smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk between shifts, and stepping over the pornography crowding up the gutters. Bet it all on black. Bet it all on the dark side.

“That’s too long ago… more recent?”

Wasserman and I stumbled through a freezing cold New York City, the inside of our bottom lips freshly tattooed. We walked Greenwich Village looking for nothing to do, our mouths all bloody and swollen. Being straightedge never felt so good…

“Even more recent?”

I did a week on my head in a closed down hospital. My hand was all sorts of burned in a house fire and it was no big deal and it got infected and they said the poison had poured into my bloodstream and it became a very big deal. But me? I’m fine, I’ll be fine. On Night One at Hotel Carraway I snuck past the nurses/doctors/ valets and ran through downtown, onwards to Speakeasy. I was drugged up so bad from… the drugs that I don’t even remember being there, or running back. I do remember that I was going through a real phase of surfer-acid reverb tunes and The Raveonettes were my soundtrack of escape.

A friend snuck me in contraband, that being a red bandanna, and I stood in the doorway of my room with it tied backwards on my head, scaring visitors of the terminally ill that adorned every other room on the floor. My incarceration that week pumped my blood so hard; I could feel the veins contracting. Or maybe it was just the dark side taking over, who knows, and more importantly, who really cares?

“Excuse me, but did you just say ‘who cares’? As in you go over to the dark side? And what does that even mean?”

Sitting there I realized I had come up with two great book ideas, a cool poster, and a new game to teach Janey. I looked around at the grey, I felt the veins, my veins, contract. This hearing needed to end.

I blurted out, without meaning to be so rude, “Are we almost done?”

The three faces of judgment looked stunned, looked at each other, looked back at me. “Do you want to add anything else before we make our decision?”

And I have so much more to add.

“Yes,” I said, “you know what else?”
They didn’t answer. They just waited.

Writing these one and two thousand word pieces is masturbation. They fill this untitled, dark-abyss, void I have to do something bigger with my days. They are hit and run, small-time skirmishes, militant-enforced guerilla tactics.

I’m going to fight my war.

I’m going to fight my war on my terms. I’m going to put down 90,000 words this year on notebooks, my computer and on the back of receipts and napkins. And…

I’m never going to dress like anybody else, or look like anybody else, or think like anybody else ever again. Or write or react or speak like anybody else either. I am now my own celebrity.

Passion, inspiration… those words are for posters, laminated pictures of cats and mountaintops. Books with how-to titles, cheap poetry and late night commercials on the off-channels.

So let’s get homeless, lets get abused, lets get sick, and lets get dying. If that’s what it takes to war the good war.

Call it what it is. Say it. Say the word out loud.
Say it!
The word is possessed.
Say it and swallow the red pill boy.

Their faces mirrored equal parts shock, disdain and disgust. The silence in the room seemed eternal, but was probably closer to 30 seconds. “Uhhh” the man in the middle of the table uttered, “that was more than enough of what we wanted to hear. Mr. Cowgill we have decided that you are to be given…”

“Wait” I yelled, a last ditch effort on my part, “just wait! I can be good. I can learn to smile and laugh politely. Wear suits, drive in rush hour traffic and drink wine socially. I can. I can belong.”

They smiled back at me, their smiles were sad. “No, no you can’t sir. I’m afraid what you are, what you have done to yourself, with yourself, the direction you are going… only warrants one thing.”

I took a deep breath and stood up, no longer feeling the nonexistent shackles on my wrists, my back already turned before… the condemnation.

“Life Sentence, Mr. Cowgill, I’m sorry. But you’re already well aware I’m sure.”

I nodded yes. I turned and thanked the three of them- the man with the blistered skin, the heavyset woman, and the skeleton. All three of them were so so sorry. I opened the door and walked away, far away, from the grey of the room, not at all surprised with the decision.

“We seek only reprieve and welcome the darkness. The myth of a meaning, so lost and forgotten
.” – Lamb of God


Essay #2

(Not only did I change names but the new names all come from Material Issue songs. Material Issue was an opening set rock-n-roll band from the super early 90’s that no one ever listened to, or had even heard of, but me. And when the lead singer killed himself it broke my black emo heart. Essay #2 is not a ‘fuck you’ essay. I’ll save that one for later on.)

Diane’s body was broken and smashed underneath the roof of her car, a brand new ‘96 Honda Civic. The roof was crushed down, violence, from the weight of the tree on top of it. A dog or cat, or raccoon, or ghost, ran out in front of her, in the rain, at night, and she swerved, and she died, and the whole thing took maybe five seconds. Calling it a freak accident would be an understatement. The details of this wreck are akin to a sideshow carnival act, much like the two-headed dog, the Enigma Man, or the Siamese twins that, ironically, both know how to eat glass.

Diane was all sorts of Christian-religious, but that was okay because she backed it up by actually being a good person. She dated a boy who was crazy about Christian hardcore, bands and t-shirts that said things like Strongarm and Wish for Eden. He was straightedge, and she was on her way to save the world. I loved them both. Two years after Diane died I saw her boy out on Highland Avenue, and he was filthy and drunk. I haven’t seen him since.

Last week I stood outside on an East Lake corner, in the rain and thunder, and heard Diane call my name. The corner is an unfortunate view for this side of town’s not-so-subtle slide into spiraling abandon, chewing up its young, burying off its old and swallowing the souls stuck in between. The neighbors on the next corner position beat-up pitbulls chained equal paces to safeguard their drug house, the downed power line, and the infants learning to walk on the dirt yard and gravel.

On this corner the children, all babies, inside the East Lake address were once reduced to sleep nights in a doghouse, escape from a mama and her abusive boyfriends and her black shadow of addiction. I nodded along as Diane spoke, not a bit surprised to hear her after all these years.

She told me to quit sleeping.

“You can sleep when you're… you know…” she trailed off for a moment. “And help someone who needs it. For no reason. Help them because you can.” I pictured her with her arms out, wide and spread, and smiling. Her world, her idea, is much more beautiful than mine.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Quit wearing so much black. It’s bad for your soul.”

I walked inside the East Lake house, and I said hello to the babies that survived their mama.

And Valerie,

Valerie crashed her car too, a flipped-over, metal re-arranging affair as well. And yeah, that’s what killed her, but me, I blamed the needles. Before crashing she’d just picked up the contents for the needles, a black moist powder in a rubber balloon. Before dying she’d had a kid and gave it away, she’d had a mama and her mama went legally insane, and she’d had a boy at home that liked to fill up the needles too. This particular boy of hers and I used to shake hands in the high school hallways and talk about industrial music. Skinny Puppy and Ministry kind of talk.

Valerie was such a leather wearing rebel punk rock girl. She was short and fiery, and had a different boy, in the days when I really knew her, that she always left me to runaway to. The two of them would share needles stuffed with the same black moist powder, and that went on and on until he went to prison to serve real time. He was inside when she crashed her car and died.

I was on Arkadelphia at midnight, again in the rain and thunder, helping medics piece together a drunk driver. It took a really long time to cut him out of his pretty sports car. In the back of the Rescue Truck I held his scalp on, blood running down his eyes and mouth, that not even being the most severe injury he, or we, needed to worry about.

Valerie’s voice sounded like she smoked two packs a day for a reason. “There is nothing else when you die, ya know”, she said, “this is it.”

“Why are you telling me this now?” I wanted to say, my hands wrapped around the cracked skull and exposed brains of the victim, his blood dripping off his chin and on my arms.

“Go do something dangerous. Soon as you can. Tonight even, who cares? This is it George. Go hitchhike to Portland, or jump a train. Rob a liquor store and give the money to the poor. Fuck, just don’t die boring.”

“Am I boring?” I may have said that out loud and gotten a look from the other firefighters and medics.

“Life is not an option, man. What did you write one time, ‘Life is living fast, dying young and living forever’? You wrote it, so… back it up. Don’t die boring, George. Too many people are lined up doing that already. And don’t ever wear white. It just tells the cops where you're hiding… and it’s bad for your eyes.”

I thought of train tracks, and books I want to write, abandoned wood bridges over water. Small Southern towns with polite waitresses and black coffee. I thought of my grandfather. “Fast, young, forever… got it.”

I get it Valerie.

Then little Christine… she just put a gun next to her head and fired. Her parents found her in her bedroom, an 18-year-old body with tear-stained eyes from a meaningless boyfriend/girlfriend argument. And all that blood. Her funeral was so quiet... (I still think about you Bobby Jean)

And little Christine talks to me all the time.

In graveyards at night, if I'm there just to be dark and morbid, putting lyrics against her tombstone.
Or inside burning houses, romanticizing of being a super hero.
Or driving highways late at night, making sure the world is indeed round.

“Pick the best place to commit suicide,” little Christine said, “and never go back. Burn the map to get there too. Believe me George, it ain’t worth it”.

“But you did it!” I screamed, and I’ve screamed it more than once, many times over the last 13 years.

“So? I was 18 and dumb and impulsive and, and, and…” she sighed too loud, trying to swallow her anger. She caught her breath, lowered her tone. “Listen… you and I, neither one of us are known for thinking things through okay?”

Her words were broken, and bloodied.

“But, please, you have to listen to me. Find something small, something otherwise meaningless, and use that to get you through. Try this. Try staring at that building off Highway 31, the one downtown that says ‘American Life’. Okay sure, it was originally some stupid insurance ad or whatever but still, those words… American Life. Use it, and don’t ever forget what that says.”

“I don’t know what that means, Christine.”

“Then spend the rest of your life figuring it out! Oh, and one more thing… quit being so sad all the time. You’ve got too much to do.”

“Like what Christine”?

I heard her smile, I heard her fade away far too young and far too soon. Her words broken and bloodied with regret.
I get it Christine. I promise you darling, I understand.

“Song #1 is not a fuck you song. I’ll save that thought until later on. You want to know if there’s something wrong? It’s nothing.”
- Fugazi


The Hardcore singer, The Hardcore song.

I know what caused this. A stupid song. The song is not really stupid but I’ll call it stupid since I let it get me so worked up. The song is “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. Oh, and “I Knew Prufrock Before he got Famous” by Frank Turner. So two songs. Two stupid stupid songs.


The microphone is held together with duct tape, the chord connected to it affixed with duct tape as well. The house lights are too dim, busted bulbs and black light, you can see the outlines of cigarette smoke and sweat in the halogen. The singer seems so much older than me, he’s not, and he’s wearing a t-shirt of a band I’ve heard of but never actually heard. They’ve played four songs already, the crowd is piled on top of itself at the front of the stage, ravenous for more.
It’s 1989,
or 1999,
or 2009,
or last night.
“This song…” the singer says “is one I wrote at 2am… after everything went wrong” he says, “and I mean every word of it.”
And I mean every word too.

East Lake Trash. There were too many of us in the car and none of us were old enough to drive, including the driver. I sat in the backseat, pressed tight against the window of the beat-down 4-door Chevy. I had my shirt pulled up and over my mouth and nose to mask away the pot smoke. I was tall and too skinny, and had already started chopping off my hair. Jon drove, the cassette tape music were his choices. Black Sabbath. Black Flag. Hendrix. Sounds that sound like that.

Parking lots were no sanctuaries. Electric weekend nights hummed with seething violence and drugs and teenage sex. I was just the passenger to it all and I would find myself gazing in eyes that were glazed over, or rolled back, or wide-open asleep. Briana’s house, lost in the White Projects behind the airport, was always on our radar. Her mom would snort coke and sleep with Briana’s boyfriends. Her mom was only 32, too young to be a grandmother but it wasn’t up to her, no not anymore. I ran away at 1am and rode my skateboard there, past Bama Motel Hookers and the Woodlawn Wolves, showing up with my shins all bloody… decorated in pieces of gravel and glass.

Secret Handshakes and New Years Eve Promises, all strengths of East Lake Trash. Jon taught me how to drive in a wrecked El Camino and I drove fast, maybe too fast, but fuck, I’m impatient now, I was really impatient at 15. You want to know the REAL reason I don’t do drugs or drink? Morals? Religion? Recovery? No, no, no. The real reason is because I’m fucked up enough as is.

That, and I’m a control freak.
My personality is cocaine. My mood swings are heroin and vodka. And at 15 I had no idea who I was becoming.

News traveled Amphetamine fast when Martin wrecked, and he was drunk, and it was the third car his dad had bought him, and the third car he’d wrecked. Jeremy was in the back seat and his legs crushed and broke in the tumble. Everyone around me was on LSD and didn’t care, so I pretended not to care either. We poured into a car for the Rugby Deli, the all-night store that sold beer and cigarettes and porn to anyone, any age. We hit Thrill Hill so fast in the wrong lane, Campbell driving with his pupils wide from the Acid. I was in the back seat in a hoody, freezing cold in the January electricity.

And no one knew why we were supposed to fight that time, but we were, and it was in the graveyard off Division Avenue (ironically next to Station 19, and maybe 100 feet away from where I’m writing right now). The East Lake Trash buzzed with the voltage, the potential blood. I was scared and stupid and too skinny and I wore a fist full of heavy spiked skull rings, there were two baseball bats on the floorboard. Boys I didn’t know with long hair and ratty jeans from different zip codes lit Molotov cocktails; seeing the fire in their hands was electric.

News traveled LSD fast when the skinheads moved into East Lake. Wisely, they kept to themselves in the angry half-black, half-white neighborhood, UNLESS. Unless they hosted their tourist nazi allies from out of state. Trucks with Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi tags lined their street on Friday afternoons and that always meant hostility for the weekend. 35 bald angry boys surrounded a handful of us, us being the Outsiders, at the Rugby Deli. Police cruisers kept black eyes and broken ribs to a minimum. A retaliation of severity was planned, one week out and to the day.

East Lake Trash gathered in a church parking lot, maybe a mile away from the skinhead house. Weapons were passed around, sharpened, chipped and displayed. We caravanned to a high school parking lot and quietly circled around the dirt infield of an abandoned baseball field, directly behind their house.

I carried a lead pipe in one hand and a fist full of heavy spiked skull rings in the other.

Two “scouts” shattered the windshields of every car in the driveway, then ran to the field, the trap set…

But Police had been waiting and they knew, and I think the skinheads knew as well, they weren’t as dumb as they seemed. I think back to all of the knives, and brass knuckles and spiked skull rings. The moon was so bright, you could see the gleam of steel and the nervous violence of the East Lake Trash. We were there to maim, to hurt and kill. I ran through pitch black woods, hiding from Police, hiding from skinheads, running with the East Lake Trash pumping through my veins.

Lately, out of concern for my well-being, or out of morbid car wreck curiosity, I’ve been asked about my writing. The details, the stories, the characters… are they real? How do I remember them? Am I lying?

It’s simple.

I don’t want to just write the song, I want the song to be about me. I have the pen, the axe, the fists, and the terrible ideas. And I can write memory, and mental snapshots, and moments… and I can morph them all into portraits of sorrow, or hope or death or life or fuck it all. This song is about me. This song is my account of nothing.

The singer is so much younger than me and that’s okay. He’s wearing a shirt of a band that I was friends with, once. There is zero ventilation in the room and you can smell the testosterone sweat and smear of teenage hardcore. But no one is smoking so that helps. The microphone looks new, no duct tape. They’ve already played two songs, the second one had no lyrics. The singer is leaning over, pushing on his knees for balance.

“This next song” he says, “is your life. Every word. Now do something with it.”

The bass guitar thumps against the snare and the crowd, ravenous, moves against the sound.
This is right now,
and right now,
and the night was so so electric…

He says, “Bill, I believe this is killing me,” as his smile ran away from his face. “Well I’m sure that I could be a movie star, if I could get out of this place.” – Billy Joel


Imagining the Bay.

Imagine every division below exists as its own entry. Excerpts from a journal. And by journal I mean handfuls of scrap paper, receipts, the back of my hand, self-sent texts and anything else I can jot down meaninglessness on before I wise up and forget.

Imagine I’m schizophrenic and that I see things… on my own terms. Imagine I’m temperamental, and too emotional, and self-destructive. “Imagine all the people”, haha. Haymakers, people. I’m still throwing haymakers.

I was staring, I couldn’t help it. He wasn’t moving, everyone else was yelling, running up and down apartment stairs, or walking down the Sunrise Hills to get a good look at the witness stuffed in back of the cop car. And that guy ain’t saying a word. So I could stare and not feel awkward, no need to explain, no one to explain anything to. Face down in a parking lot, him not me, I kept staring. A thin creek of blood sloped down the asphalt, un-ironically arrowing toward the cop car and the silent witness, and I just stared.

I spent the night there once, in Sunrise Hills, on a 1988 New Year’s Eve. Elizabeth Somebody’s mom was out on the town, which meant a handful of Outsiders and yours truly were crashing on the floor. All those guys had a thing for Zeppelin and Hendrix, while my tastes ran… a little angrier. Warzone patches and Public Enemy t-shirts accompanied an everybody-is-my-enemy lifestyle. I wanted to rebel against everything, anything, nothing. I was very good at it.

And I still am, sort of. Kerri says I’m born a rebel and to not even try to explain my tattoos to anybody else. And he told me this outside of an $18 a night hotel, in front of a domestic assault call. A “no ID, no credit card needed” kind of place. Then…

Then Harley quit. Harley quit standing over dead bodies, molested children and burning skin. Harley quit sleeping when he grew sad over what mankind does to itself. Two little girls and a wife at home, he paced the floor all night long, in constant fear of the horror business outside their front doors. And Harley was the real thing too. Patching up bullet holes, shocking hearts back to life and delivering babies. Dive in head first every single night.

Family first though, and I get that. Defending the Bay comes second to something serious. Flesh and blood is that kind of serious.

I had to stop writing when a man called 911 and 911 called for Engine 19. He told the operator he’d be waiting for us on the front porch with a knife.

Still staring at Birmingham murder victim #endless, I leaned down and watched the blood and brains slow from the hole in his mouth. I do the math. He was two years old when I was rebelling against the inevitability of 1989, Sunrise Hills.

Hope called me at midnight in hysterics, in the 1990’s, to meet her in the Southside streets so she could kiss me. And it seemed like that was what life was supposed to be like. Hopeless moments, romance nights and loud, too loud, songs on the radio. Not the Bay.

No, no one died, no one was raped. No, I am not okay. That last call got to me baby. Shook me up good… I’ll tell you about it soon enough.

I can’t stop listening to Billy Bragg. I can’t stop wanting to do something stupid. My next essay will be a document of 24 hours of self-destruction, one bad thing after another, with the hopes that I make it out alive. Billy Bragg is punk rock’s answer to Bob Dylan, so what better soundtrack for it all.

Another tonight, and there are too many kids in the house and I don’t want to leave it, what with the violence and all, but there’s a word for it. The word is “protocol” and I hate it but oh well, a lot of people dig ditches or sit on a shelf for a living. (Against Me borrowed line). The house is sick with kids, not enough men and a 14-year-old girl in a red bandana. “He’s beating on her… again”, she says emphatically.

Police showed up in a pack, and the violence spreads like plague from the bedroom to the living room to the streets of Oporto-Madrid. Kerri ushered the children into a back bed room and told them not to look. People in the street went separate ways… jails and hospitals and other homes in the Bay. I went back to the station and threw up.

Leaving is not what superheroes do.

And I missed a 17-year-old hanging himself on my off day, Grandmother finding him in his room, next to a ladder, the blood pooling with gravity, lower and lower inside his body.

The Queen collapsed behind the SOS Lounge off 1st Avenue, open for business just a few feet from where the streets of the Bay bleed into Roebuck. The Queen looked dead, face down in the gravel, one arm awkwardly twisted behind her back. Unconscious drunk in the 1pm sun looks a lot like death. The back door of the SOS Lounge read “No Bums Allowed” and “English speaking customers only”. Kerri told me the locals call her the Oporto Queen. Fat, drunk and sunburned to hell she scraped to her feet, and the cops told her to shake it off, and wait it out at the Krispy Kreme. They’d give her a ride home (somewhere) later.

Taylor Swift’s “Fifteen” is the last song I should think of… but I do anyway. Roaches are everywhere. And trash. And kicked-in or punched-out holes in the wall. And roaches. And yelling. There was a lot of yelling, threats, and obscenities. And children. There were a lot of children. In their underwear, and dirty, and not shaking off the bugs crawling over them.

“And you're dancing around the room when the night ends”…

This is the house that God has abandoned. The father won’t quit screaming and the grandmother’s neck is tattooed, she’s chain smoking. They are overly polite to us, as if they’re talking to prison guards, but they really just want us to leave. Four little boys and two little girls in the living room, I wandered through filth and found another girl asleep on a back room floor in a pile of garbage. One boy, six, is heading to a downtown hospital. The children seem to have a consensual fear, but it’s masked by the filth and the screaming, their sad acceptance that this is life.

This? This is something called life? No, no one died, no one was raped, no one was burned alive, But no baby… I am not okay.

This is the house where I renounce God, Heaven, and Hell, those kinds of things. Because no God exists that would allow these children to wake up this way every morning.

Life? Life is running so fast it burns. Life is superheroes and pretty girls, muscle cars and cut-off sleeves for summer parking lots.
Life is living fast, dying young and living forever.

My sister Carol lives a hundred yards away, a fence-hop and short cut through the neighbor’s backyard. She has a daughter and she worships her ground too. No baby, I just can’t…

I cant let it go.
I was fighting off a steroid rage, tears, and an uncontrollable wave of helplessness when Kerri told me you can’t save them all. He said it twice in the bay of Station 19. “You can’t save them all.”
Save them all? I’m not saving anybody. I just hope I can sleep. Again. Someday. Ever.
I closed my eyes, and thought of the missed hanging. And I saw these kids… the ones growing up wrong in the Bay. And how I no longer believe in prayer.
That is not what superheroes do. They don’t let go.

Back down Oporto-Madrid, it’s 2 am, and a woman furiously digs through the bushes of an empty lot, flashlight in hand, down on her knees. Kerri says she’s looking for baggies that dealers have hidden, or discarded in fear of the police. We pass the Oporto Queen, alive and well just down the strip, one drunken step after the other… down Division Avenue and out of sight.

And I called Harley and he said it was okay to write about him.

“Flesh and blood, flesh and bone, save us. Save us all”, is what I keep hearing.

I took an ink pen and wrote on the back of my hand “You are so fucked up”.

Can’t… save… them… all.

Goddamn you Kerri, I’m going to try.

“There was this one time, back when I could steal the show…” – The Takers


Heartbreakers. (A screenplay)

(Unintentionally & ironically posted on the first day of 5th grade.)


The first time I saw Janey was in the Atlanta airport, Terminal C. She was tall and thin, her mom dragging her by the arm, late for a flight. She was at least 12-years-old and her hair was straight and brown and all the way down her back. I had too much time to waste before a flight to Gainesville and I was dragging along the terminal with my backpack and cut up clothing. Some people wear suits to catch a plane, I dress like I’m homeless.

When we pass each other my skin burns and I turn around, waiting for her to look back. Just a glance… but she never does, her left arm well in front of her being dragged along to the gate.

I wonder how many times I fake smile writing this.

Janey is on a beach with friends listening to a California Girl song. She’s drinking underage beer and wearing sunglasses, I walk past her on the way to the salt and water of the Gulf. Her hair is bleached and she has piercings stacked on top of each other in both ears. Her eyes look hollow behind the glass, the skin around them black from stained-cheap eye shadow. The song goes on and on about the sun and short shorts and parties that never end. I swim straight out into the ocean, more worried about sharks than the red flag and riptide. I did, after all, grow up in Spielberg’s Jaws era.

I stop writing my screenplay in mid-sentence, overwhelmed by the fear of death in a hollow room, surrounded by handfuls of photographs and notebooks full of nothing. I stare at the front door, I imagine the snarling growls of wolves, predators, this world if you let it. I take comfort in simple securities- blankets, taxi locks, brass knuckles and seatbelts. I walk thru Southside and I hear the California Girl lyrics again. The parties never end, they never ever do…

I wake up in Atlanta, a city rough with all night left-behind diners, rock-n- roll shows and gay discos. My teenage days once wasted away on North Avenue waiting in line for a punk band that wouldn’t bother for fuel in Birmingham, USA. North Avenue, and Little 5 Points, stumbling past the rude indie-store clerks, the homeless asking for change, and the rich spike punks asking for change. Janey is there, in the 5 Points, talking to herself, angry in beat-up jeans and a ratty Subhumans t-shirt. Everyone in Little 5 Points seems tense, everyone is fake snarling. I watch her stop and speak to different locals, their reactions all the same. No money, no needle, fuck off. 5 Points is so strung out, so “on the line” for violence. Like everywhere else, I never really fit in, I wish Janey didn’t either.

Janey is 21, barely, and begging me to let her see her boyfriend. It’s raining, we are surrounded by garbage, and it’s all happening too fast in an Elyton alley. I watch the police flashlights wave back and fourth up ahead and I hear Tommy yell for me not to worry about bringing the medic equipment. I leave Janey with a cop who lets her smoke in his squad car while I walk against the alley in the rain… go see what her boyfriend would’ve looked like if he was still alive. (He is not)

Janey is in the back room of an underground women’s shelter. If you didn’t know the shelter existed you would never know that it existed, and that’s the point. Women hide from evil that not only hurt them once, but is looking to hurt them further. Janey has a worn away face, scarred arms and dirty hair, with clean blankets and a rusted cot frame. The lockers have hand-written bible scripture on them and nicknames in quotes. She is behind me biting her nails, leaning against the lockers. I have no idea how old she is but I turn around when I think she says my name. I bite my lip to blood and hurt, trying not to make eye contact. She walks away, around a corner, and off stage.

Then that one scene… the one where I fall off completely.
And I hear Janey screaming in Northside.


I am the only one on the porch, kneeling under burning rafters and waiting on water to fill the nozzle in my hand. The front door is wide open, nothing but red streaks and smoke inside. I hear Janey scream and I scream back, “Where!?” I go inside alone and fight my way up the stairs, hearing her scream, screaming back at her, hearing her scream again…

My mask sucks in on my face as the air begins running out. The fire is over, more or less, but it’s pitch black in the early afternoon, thick smoke and charred walls have nowhere to go. But Janey isn’t here. I see a window and, for a second, I think about jumping out of it, but that would be crazy. I yank my mask off when the air ends. The pitch black stings my eyes, rips into my nose, my mouth, my lungs, and I don’t like it.
“Stairs”, I scream.
Someone grabs my hand and pushes it against a wall. I feel the dip of the first stair and relax… believe me, I know the way down.
I fall down the next 18 stairs. Me plus the weight of the gear measures in well over 300 pounds. I laugh when I hit the bottom, and I don’t tell anyone about the screams.

Janey is walking down the median of Highway 31, defeated, when I finally lose it. Memories of white trash teenage romance, laughing and marginally breaking the law (my late 1980’s) prove too much to confront on a road run over with bullshit strip malls, fast food joints and, now, the nightmares of four college girls burning in a crummy hotel. I think of Janey in college room hotels, I think of her in underground women’s shelters, in gutters and backstreets as well. All the wrong places, all the wrong people, all the way down.

So what if this is heartbroken?
So what if this is doom and gloom 100%? Fake smiles, false hellos and Smiths records on a sinking ship. Are you fake smiling now?
Because I’m snarling.

I hold Janey’s hand along New York City streets, a Manhattan Christmas, the two of us in search of Greenwich Village and peanut butter sandwiches. Janey is wearing a faux fur jacket with a hood that I keep pulled over her ears. She says it makes her look like a miniature King Kong, and she’s right. I hold her hand and flag down a taxi, the horns and cold fading away behind us.

I usher her into the cab, pull the door closed and lock it. I buckle her seatbelt, then mine.
Simple security to keep away the wolves.

“When I see a woman on the news, who didn’t ask to be abandoned or abused, it doesn’t matter who she is… I think about you.” – Colin Raye


The Hunter

(Everything, as always, is true, or at least as true as I remember. Names are changed, it’s getting to be a habit.)

The one time Briana saw her dad was in a folded-over picture cupped in her mom’s hand. It was a 1978 overheated June, she was riding in the backseat of a wrecked and green Chevy Nova down Highway 11 to meet him for the first time in a Circle K parking lot. She was five-years-old then, which meant her mom would soon turn 20.

Briana looked forward to seeing Dad, the handsome boy in the folded-over photo. They waited, and her mom cried, she didn’t understand why, nothing but a young and dumb teenager soaking up cigarettes and Coca-colas somewhere between Trussville and the White Projects of Woodlawn. “Somewhere between Heaven and Hell”, to coin Mister Mike Ness.

Dad never showed, her mom threw the picture away, and Briana never looked for her father again.

I met Briana when I was 14 and I’d just started looking for something.

I started looking in dead American writers. Hemingway hitting his knuckles bloody on a marlin before writing “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, blood dripping on the pages of a book with torn, dusted covers all across high school libraries. And Fitzgerald smiling, drinking poison and furious about every verb and adjective. I stood over his grave in Rockville once, envying the great dead American writer(s). I read their books, I hid in the pages. I stared at every word.

I stole anarchist books from high school libraries, and I bought zines with cut-and-paste pages. DIY philosophies meets ancient political manifestos, I read them both leaning against a Circle K wall, skateboard and Coca-colas.

A decade later I stumbled through Hollywood, still looking, now on the Boulevard of every boy and girl’s vision of the Runaway American Dream.


Dana’s friend tried to kiss me and I didn’t kiss her back. It was way past 2:00am and we were in a nameless park on its benches in the heart of it all. Surrounded by trees, blue and red and yellow city lights in the distance, faint highway noise. Dana told us about the skinhead wars, she was a skinhead. Her and her dark skin and Chelsea bangs and Doc Marten boots. Dana’s friend was dark skinned too, but without the tough guy/tough gal air. I still didn’t kiss her back.

Dana told campfire tales of the Hollywood skinheads and where they left each other bleeding and dead, the gangs (primarily) divided over white power rhetoric and anti-white power rhetoric. 5 on 1 fights bruised the celebrity walk of stars. Dana’s beliefs, and skin color, told me which side she was on. Some gang called SHARP. Skin-Heads Against Racial Prejudice. (I love clever acronyms, no sarcasm intended) Shaved heads would quickly turn into shaggy surf bangs and beards, at least until the heat died down, until the rust blood washed off the razors.

Still looking… I listened to Dana’s tales of violence echo away into the California stars. I thought of her years later when I waded through the violence in suicides.

Tarrant’s man still wore his Oakland Raider’s jacket in the 100 degree indoor hot, the gun in his lap in the blood in the end. Tarrant and her man lived behind a garage, in a hidden room, with tacks in rap posters and records in a stack against the wall. There was a Corvette in pieces in the garage and I hate fucking sports cars. I tilted my head to the side to stare at his body, see if an alternate angle would make this seem less real. Tarrant did a lot of screaming, but she didn’t cry. They taught me to laugh so I did, and I kept looking.

(They taught all of the hunters to laugh. Laugh at danger, shrug off blood and guts, fall asleep with an eyeful of took-their-life teenagers, burned bodies and cut-in-half car wreckers. Laugh. Laugh, keep going… or collapse under the weight of brutality. If you want to help humanity, then learn to shelve your own.)

Betty V. was pretty in an ugly neighborhood crying, her eyes running down her face in black smears and pink circles. The headlights of the SUV were still on, she kept pointing at it over and over. I got out of Engine 14. Her boyfriend had celebrated his early release from rehab with some puncture-wound heroin. He was collapsed behind the wheel, eyes empty and jaw flared back and up, mouth agape, pulse grounded. He looked… dead, and his heart wasn’t pumping.


A medic’s IV, another needle, and Narcan, the great overdose reverser, put him back in this world. He sat up in a zombie-embedded confusion, violent and dizzy. Betty V. kept crying. I leaned my head to the side and looked in her eyes. It was raining, she was still crying, and my view of her never changed. Her eyes seemed so sad.

And then that one time I looked in Portland… the city’s majority runaway citizenship, and heroin dilemma, too many strip joints and Chuck Palahniuk. I stayed in an upstairs flat with closet junkies and their blue-black dyed hair, we stopped by the Salvation Army Store to buy sweaters for the beach. The beach was brilliant cold and beautiful and there were huge rocks in the water, white waves smashing violently around them. The stairs from the street to the beach went straight down and I was lost to the left of a USA map, Pacific Northwest. Teenage girls on family vacations rode horses next to backpack transient punks throwing a baseball. It felt more like hiding than hunting.

Until last week and the 4th of July when I went back to the White Projects where Briana grew up, only now named the Mexican Projects. We were once two dumb 15-year-olds driving through alleys with street names to change shirts for a high school football game. The first black family moved into the White Projects in the early 1980s and the neighborhood drove a burning car through their living room that night.

(I once created a fictional neighborhood in a novel and modeled it after these alleys. I named it Nopelika.)

I drove Engine 19 down a now-Mexican alley to find fire. Gangsters with shaved heads and white t-shirts leaned up against cars and clothes lines. An old lady walked past me with no jaw, an oxygen tube in her nose, small tank on her hip. A handful of cops smoked cigarettes, leaning against their cruisers. And the kids! The kids were everywhere, in the street and dirt. They stared at the engine and I waved and smiled. They looked at my tattoos, I looked in the windows of their homes and the black electrical tape holding together the frames, the uneven breaking doors and chipped away walls.

Briana is so long gone, and I doubt I’ll ever find her.

But I kept looking. I needed something- a meaning, a purpose, and at the very least, a valid explanation.

I found a stack of 1980’s movies, Breakfast Clubs and Outsiders and Pretty Pinks. Pony Boy killed two Socs with a switchblade, John Bender got birthday cigarettes, and the poor girls got the rich boys.

I found a handful of 1970’s adult contemporary songs and they said something about the good dying young.

And I found weights. I ran, and sweat, and bled. I fought myself over and over, since nothing is ever, ever, good enough. I found reckless abandon, a neighborhood born of hell and rotten hotel rooms at 3:00am with girls on their way to somewhere else. More hiding than hunting.

I found fire. I taped a piece of paper to my locker, it read “You are never finished.”

Hiding, I found nothing. There was never any secret one-sentence summary that explained it all… no religion, or message in the clouds. The only meaning was there’s not one, keep going.

I am the hunter, passing through this world never content and never comfortable, always looking for… something.
Her eyes in the rain.
The Boulevard.
A photo of a father that doesn’t exist.

And Briana look at me now. My eyes are open and forward, absorbing the suffering of others, the violence and loss, and missed moments. I try to embrace the actions and people that actually matter, ignore everything else, keep going.

Until the end, I am the hunter, coded and cursed with four words…

Something I once read taped to my locker.

“All of her lovers all talk of her notes and the flowers that they never sent. And wasn’t she easy? And isn’t she pretty in pink?” – Psychedelic Furs.


East Lake, For all my Life.

Haymakers. Love it hate it degrade it ignore it all you can, but when I write I’m throwing haymakers. I want to write like I’m standing in a minefield, like there’s a knife to my throat, and bullets in my spine. Writing this brought out the Jekyll and Hyde good and bad in me. It made me clench fists and look for something to destroy, it made me want to run away to Portland and Seattle, it made me want to burn this world down in ashes. And then there were the bad thoughts…

Haymakers. I’m throwing haymakers here.)

I changed some names.

Ronnie leaned out the window with the shotgun in his hands, I drove slowly down an East Lake alley. It was a weekday night, it was something to do in 1989, it was revenge against a man and a gun that’d been aimed at us a few moments earlier. He drew down on us and I spun out the tires of my Dad’s hand-me-down Malibu, in the trash and mud on the dividing line of East Lake and Woodlawn. We raced down West Boulevard, no time to think things through, no point in trying. Ronnie retrieved the pistol grip shotgun he kept under his bed. His grandparents asked what we were doing, we did not reply.

Terri still sleeps under the overpass near 81st. His American flag is usually up, and he’s always reading. This morning he was sitting in a beach chair underneath the southbound and northbound bridges of I-59. His shirt was off in the early May heat and I couldn’t read the title of the book he had in his hands.

See that lady? She waved to the Engine, I waved back. She killed one and shot the other two, the owner of a walk-in closet boutique next to the church where I went to boy scout meetings once upon a time. I thought of the pocket change in the register the day three boys opened the door, pistols in hand, none of them walking away, one of them never walking again.

East Lake kids cover the streets and sidewalks, the vacant lots and all the wrong spots, all night all day. Black boys walk pitbulls on homemade leashes with silver spike collars. The airport is buying up homes in it’s shadow for runway space but there are houses with families in them right now, airport babies just weeks old, their front door a piece of plywood, even more plywood covering the windows. Arthur stood over the first murdered body I’d ever seen in an East Lake alley and said something under his breath to the corpse. The flies had found him before anyone else, it was 8am in a July. He was younger than me, he was a lot younger than me and I stared at him, the other firefighters staring at me for any crack in emotion. I did not give them one.

The lady cop with the tattoos up and down her arms is still working out East. She and I hugged in the middle of I-59 at a wreck just this morning, Ruffner Mountain still shadowing the pavement.

The abandoned Elks Lodge is right outside Station 19’s bay doors and that’s where the firefighters rallied during the strike of ‘79. They asked permission to bring in black firefighters because it was 1979 and that’s how things were in East Lake in 1979. Dumpster fires and burning abandoned cars terrorized the city during the strike, the National Guard soldiers proving a poor substitute for smoke eaters. A fire officer boarded himself up in Station 23 and got drunk, the National Guard unable to do anything but watch him through the windows. Unrelated to the strike, but on the night of, a firefighter shot and killed a man in a Northside juke joint.

Listen to the radio. Listen for Engine 19...

I was in Dollar’s Barbershop on 1st Avenue the day of the Minor High riots. Old Man Dollar, at least 90, butchered my hair and I listened to the men talk of their time and their lifetimes. I never said a word, why would I? I was only 16. Across the street was an Exxon, and a classmates’ brother was executed one night for using the payphone on a weekday after sunset. I watched her cry away the rest of the semester, I never said a word, what could I say? I was only 17. And that Exxon is a Shell now and Dollar’s Barbershop is long gone, but the payphone is inexplicably still there.

Tara was a lesbian drug dealer and that’s why we were in an alley on the dividing line of Woodlawn and East Lake. I crept through with the headlights dim and circled back around the Corvette dealership, Ronnie still halfway out the window. His hands were scarred from punching out airport trash windows over news he was going to be a father at 16. We circled the dividing line…

Cinema City 8, you will always be a part of me.

As well as the Anchor Motel and the family that lived in the janitor’s closet-turned monthly room rental. There was one mattress on the floor and the couple were both HIV+, and he was a bounty hunter wearing all camouflage. Their 12-year-old son was having problems breathing and I hate it when kids don’t get a chance. The Bama Motel too, it’s bright neon red lights and I was only 15 and snuck out on a Friday to get a $40 room, next door to pretty white hookers who leaned against the door frames and propositioned and/or insulted everyone that walked by.

The women’s shelter defeats me every time. A woman touched my arm in the lobby and said “George, right?” or maybe it was “George, it’s me Cindy…” and I knew who she was and I remember seeing her in a Southside bar a decade ago, and I knew her from having cheap sex with a friend and I knew she had just had a job working a grocery graveyard shift and she told me over skim milk and peanut butter purchases at 2am that her husband had given her the black eye she wore and that he was a Nazi skinhead, and she could never leave him. I remember paying my tab and telling her how much I hate Nazi skinheads.

Cindy touched my arm in an East Lake women’s shelter, and smiled, and it all makes sense now, but not really.

My mom and I sat in the parking lot of Burger King and ate in the car. The row of porn shops were catty-corner to us, and we laughed at the men sneaking in to the Cinema Blue, the way they parked so far down the Avenue. The Cinema Blue used to be the “College Theatre” and the college in question was nearby Howard which packed up and moved to Homewood and changed it’s name to Samford. I was a student of Samford for one day, and hated it so much, and I excused myself from my counselor’s office and found a water fountain and I never went back. In 1981 Burger King gave away Empire Strikes Back glassware, and I had an unhealthy obsession with Star Wars, one that I’ve never gotten rid of.

They closed the Go-kart repair shop this winter.

Johnny T dealt drugs out of his one-room flat in the top level of an old East Lake mansion. A teenage beauty queen client went missing and her father and brothers held Johnny T, and a roomful of Outsiders, hostage with hunting rifles. Anger-raged tears and fueled on Southern-violence, the beauty queen’s family cooked up Johnny T’s cocaine and tied off each other’s veins. She surfaced a week later in one of those surrounding little towns that you only hear about in references to high school football or the weather. Johnny T tried to be a firefighter for a few years, and quit when they started drug testing.

I took LSD on three different occasions in ’86. We ate the paper and skated over scary dark streets and hid in Rugby Avenue corners. On New Years Day 1987 I decided to never smoke, drink or do drugs again. A few months later I discovered a band called Minor Threat and learned the word “straightedge”.

But then Harold met that girl on the Panama City Strip and her name really was Chaos and they split time living in an old house, in the heart of it all, and a Fultondale hotel room. He left her for a pregnant 14-year-old bleach blonde and they are still together to the day, their kids all grown up.

Cinema Blue is still… Cinema Blue, recently making national news in a glory hole sting operation. Rows and rows of abandoned stores face off against 1st Avenue and the porn shop strip mall, their shelves and stock left behind with the cracks in the sidewalk, and the weeds growing in them, and small business doom. This is my hometown Springsteen, this is my hometown.

The next night in the same women’s shelter and another woman called out my name, a fabled tension all its own. She and I spoke for a few seconds but I don’t remember anything said. I couldn’t get over the children in the lobby and in the dorm rooms, eating cheap pizza and their superhero bed sheets. The shelter wasn’t always exclusive to women and children, but the director said having men on site created too many problems. I told her I understood. I didn’t tell her that I saw a man hang himself there once, because I understood the problems she alluded to were a far different matter.

East Lake save my soul.

The next murdered gangster was pressed against a wooden fence, the rain thinning out the blood and guts of his face, soaking his cliché bandanna. It was cold and I’m sure he was freezing on the ground, the seconds he spent there before he died.

The first house fire in my return to East Lake and the first Birmingham cop to show was once in a high school basement when I got “jumped in” to the Black Gangster Disciples. There were five of them and just me and I took my licks like any 16-year-old was supposed to do. Mitch was there too, and in charge, and he’s dead now. The BGD later brawled with a rival gang, friends of mine from the Southtown Projects, boys I knew from East Lake that would get high with the Outsiders and watch us bleed up our knees on skateboards. Nate is blind now from a machine gun drug deal gone awry and Lewis… he’s in a wheelchair from a similar bad situation.

“Ladies and gentleman, please direct your attention to the loser in waiting. The savior of nothing, and protector of the already-lost.” I had the nightmare again. I couldn’t breathe, there was fire and black. I woke up afraid and screaming, sucking air. I woke up, the loser left behind to clean up the junkyard neighborhood that he grew up trying to get away from. “Ladies and gentlemen, listen for the radio, listen to the tones for Engine 19”. The stabbing deaths and collapsing houses, nonsense assaults, cars burning and overdoses. Just listen.

Listen for the goddam radio.

Ronnie sat back down in my Dad’s hand-me-down Malibu, he put the shotgun under the seat and lit a cigarette. There was no revenge on the dividing line that evening. Ronnie’s son… he’s out there at 18 or 19 now. Living proof of nights that couldn’t end and lifetimes without a chance. And Cinema City 8 is so long gone, and Terri is under the bridge with his books and American flag. And Ruffner Mountain even burned down once or twice, or tried to.

And I’m out here too. Scarred proof of nights gone wrong and one lifetime to make things right, or at the very least…

Go down trying.

“After all the loving and the losing, for the heroes and the pioneers, the only thing that’s left to do is get another round in at the bar.”– Frank Turner