Punk is a revelation the first time your skateboarding friend takes you to a show. You’re fifteen in saggy jeans. You watch bands emerge from the audience, lay waste to your eardrums for twenty minutes, then slip back into the crowd to joke with their friends. Anyone could do it and everyone was equal. You knew it was as close as you’d ever get to finding a world of people like you.
You are biracial. In the Boston suburbs, you were a black kid at a white school and everyone urged you to “grow an af-rowww.” Say “af-rowww” in the valley girl voice that trite black comedians use to mimic white folks. Af-rowww. Pause between the syllables to pull your top front teeth from your bottom lip. Af-rowww.
Your hair covers the tops of your ears. You haven’t cut it since you moved, but The Af-rowww People can’t see you in Virginia. You weren’t out to make them happy anyway. Now, you’re a white kid at a black school and your classmates call you Kermit thee Frog because of the way you sound reading.
After that first punk show, the energy of the music and the anger boiling in your apartment combine to ignite a punk bomb inside of you. You try to do something good with the explosion. You somersault out the door, stapling show flyers to telephone poles. Punk is for everyone, even people whose families can’t hold on to their houses, whose parents lecture by saying, “We’re done with you. Don’t expect anything else from us besides a roof and some of this spaghetti.” You try to be indignant and stonefaced, but start crying. You ask why. They pull out a yellow legal pad with a list of your infractions.
“Apr. 7—Did not receive full credit for drawing class. Proof that you are a slacker.”
“May 23—When I told you to spend more time on your homework, you said you were too busy, which I wouldn’t understand because I don’t have a job. You do not understand what I go through as an adult.”
“Aug. 15—Ten minutes late to sister’s birthday dinner at La Casita. You only care about yourself.”
Your old friends are five hundred miles away. There is no laughing in your new apartment. Punk is a tribe of new friends with a lexicon of inside jokes.
You call gas money, “crack money.”
When you like an album you say, “This record’s so good, I’m gonna eat it.”
Overlooking the post office from your back porch, you shave not one but two mohawks into your new best friend’s head. Twice as punk. You use Elmer’s glue to make the mohawks stick up off the edges of his skull. You don’t cut your big, red ‘fro, for fear that a punk haircut will make The Af-rowww People or the chuckleheads at school call you Mr. T.
You and your new best friend make a funny pair. Willowy you, with baggy skateboarding clothes and a kinky globe of hair. Stocky him, with mohawks and combat boots. You ramble through the historic district, cadging beers from college-aged punks who are drinking on their porches. No matter what plays on their boomboxes, you say, “Cool. Sorta sounds like The Ramones.” You’re an insider, even if the punks are white, and The Af-rowww People are on the scene, too. Af-rowww.
You’re at a matinee at a punk club that’s usually 21+. As music pounds through you, something nudges the back of your hair as if waking a sleeping man. You wheel around, hand foraging in your mop for whatever had been snuck into it. Don’t let it be gum. There stands a smiling girl who cowers when she sees your murderous expression. The band wails behind you, music swirling into an aureole around your head. The girl points up and you see her lips move, “It’s an af-rowww.”
You smile with just your mouth and stand there, sizing up the situation. Are you about to get some? Do you want to get some, or are you pissed off? Both. You’re a teenager.
Already, the punk world is feeling small. The progressive politics are wonderful in theory, but in practice, with their rooms full of dirty guys with Free Mumia pamphlets and post-apocalyptic road warrior haircuts, most gigs look like a meeting of a grassroots organization called A Bunch of White Dudes Against Racism.
You’re against racism too, but as much as you try to blend in, you wind up yourself. You walk home alone from the matinee, the low sun splashing your shadow down the buckling sidewalk ahead. Your legs have grown long, your head even bigger. Imagine your ‘fro to be a storm cloud passing over a miniature society living between the sidewalk bricks. You have become powerful. You are now Hairzilla. Fingernail-sized citizens scream and run as the cool patch created by your hair passes over them.
You lumber into the apartment, ‘fro brushing the doorframe. Dad is out on one of his drives. Your mother and sister are in the dining room, sewing a ballet costume. The sound of the mechanical needle shudders down the hall. In your bedroom, you crank a record. You stagger in circles, the music jolting in your tendons, shooting from your fingertips like zigzags of lightning. Open wide and tip your head toward the bare lightbulb on the ceiling. The singer’s gale-force screams are your lizard calls. The neighbor upstairs drops a lit cigarette into the little courtyard by your window and the stink inches its way into your apartment. It is the scorch from Hairzilla’s breath. Down the hall, the sewing machine stops and your mother calls for you to turn the music down. You scowl then proceed, loud and alone. You can’t comprehend her words. She does not speak the language of Hairzilla.