(For Amber O. You and I are gonna go the distance, I promise. Forever Family.)
I wandered through Hartford, Connecticut as the out-of-place white-boy Southerner, read too deep in the misadventures of Aaron Cometbus and coffee-charged on the localism of Mark Twain. It was 2002 and I was in town with just enough time to watch Autumn turn leaves gold and neighborhoods turn to steel red-brown and dust. In the 1860-somethings Yankee soldiers poured out of their homes to march on Atlanta in the sharpest cut of Union-blue uniforms. Northern charm and grace became reputation for the next century. Near-water pleasantries and manners. I was on foot and looking for all of the above, enough time to kill before airing “0274”, a documentary I directed.
Don’t be fooled by the name. Hartford is a tough town.
I ended up on an out-of-place street, potholes and bottle-trash. The teenage mothers were hanging over balconies with two kids apiece tugging on their shirt-tails. Cars stopped each other and exchanged product for currency, their transmissions not even in neutral, just another day. The sun was setting and that marked my time in the middle of somewhere I didn’t belong as OVER.
Don’t be fooled by my size. I’m intimidated easily out of my comfort zone; for this tale let’s indicate that zone as the Post-Confederate South.
The documentary screening fell to pieces, the promoter backed me into his office to show off his drugs, computers, and family photos. I bit my nails in his solid white-decorated studio apartment above a nightclub, cornered in a town that had not shown me the Mark Twain accent I’d anticipated. “If it wasn’t for the forest I would hate the trees,” or something like that was once said. The promoter disappeared, I’m assuming, to find someone actually interested in cocaine, laptops and baby photos.
I found his assistant, a young fake-tan female who wore all spandex and hairspray, and passed along the message: I’m leaving and not coming back.
Don’t be fooled by the confident swagger. I go schizophrenic-useless in unanswered situations, zero to 60 in a Jackson, Mississippi second. I sat parallel-parked in Hartford, Connecticut (population 125,000 + me) in a borrowed car and banged my head on the wheel, distraught over the what next. I had no idea, and no money, low on gas, food in a backpack. I opened and closed my fist, imagining the times I’d foolishly punched out windshields, teenage anger angst attitude* and ignorance. Busted bloody knuckles over something dumb, a country highway outside of Mobile, East Lake late nights, or Highway 31…
(The Highway 31 incident was actually a semi-valiant reason, and I was in my thirties, but I was fueled on a chewing rage, so it makes the T.A.A.A.* list)
The great “0274” film tour of 2002 was pieced together like a Frankenstein map, half by me and half by a Florida nurse named Brooke. Brooke was dripping with metal piercings, muscles and Elvis tattoos. She was married to some big time radio dj and condemned to residence in Pensacola, Florida (population: Navy boys, beach bums and too many conservatives + me for one short year) She helped me selflessly, with no rewards outside of bragging rights, and those aint worth much. I dug through a notebook of contacts to find the name under the photo-showing drug-ingesting promoter. I read the next name wrong, or it’d been written down wrong to begin with, but it stuck.
Russ was 18 and living a college life in Storrs, Connecticut at a small college called UCONN. He met me in a parking lot filled with stickered up SUVS, anything goes from Phish or Portishead to the Social Distortion skeleton or Crass logo. Russ was straightedge, bundled up in the uniform- hooded sweatshirt, converse shoes, dime-store holes in his ears. For the next two days he fed me on a stolen meal card, snuck me into their weight room with a stolen gym card and let me run alongside his pack of friends. Straightedge is easy at 18, his whole table in the cafeteria wore the hoodies, had the shoes, had the ears… and I listened to them talk so excited over the rest of their lives. Brooding filmmakers, writers, and teachers, all neck deep in the life and music that spilled out of the DC hardcore scene like a black plague brooding in the fur of rats.
Don’t get me wrong. Straightedge can be a great thing if it doesn’t eat you alive.
My film screened, the room was full, and the university actually paid me. Home-fucking-run. I left UCONN en route for the West, or Boston, I can’t remember. Russ and I hugged and swore to keep up. We did for some time.
I called one time and it just rang. And rang. No machine, no answer, no Rust, and no idea why. I found an old email account and wrote “just checking in”. Weeks later Russ’ girlfriend wrote back that Russ was sick. Sick sick, and it didn’t look good.
I called again, sometime down the way, and his number was disconnected, further emails were never answered. Disconnected, I was on the other side of the country, lost at a late night diner alone, 2am. I watched tables of drunks come and go, I watched loners, fellow wanderers sit down, eat with prison manners, eyes on their food, pay, tip a buck or two, and leave into the rain and wind.
A UCONN cafeteria table…
The table in the cafeteria… a handful of the future, younger card cuts of every idea I had growing up in the scene of unpopular screaming music. Making movies, writing books, or standing in front of a classroom. I’ve always hated the phrase “let’s be realistic”, but I know what happens when you get older. The fire inside fades. The fire inside turns to necessity, survival, apathy. It turns into cold winds and power bills, new-born kids and steady paychecks. But I’m selfish. In my mind there’s a table at UCONN conspiring against the world right now, beat-up Converse shoes, blue-black hair, Time in Malta t-shirts. Russ is right there with them, studying the works of Gilles Deleuze, or justifying anarchism, and not shaking with chemotherapy. He is right where I left him. They are all right where I left them.
Don’t get me wrong, I did leave them behind. I left them to rust. Slowly crumbling into steel red-brown and dust, akin of wrong turns neighborhoods in Hartford, Connecticut (population: a thousand other towns). The world is waiting to turn them into something else; something other than everything they want to be. So I left them there, I admit it.
I let them rust.
“It’s our life, we do what we choose. Black jeans, black shirt, black shoes. Mom and Dad still don’t approve. Save me from ordinary. Save me from myself.” - Modern Life is War