Gut Check

Wake up. Spend ten minutes in bed quieting my mind. Start at my toes and move my way up, cataloging every single ache and pain along the way. Back muscles, near my belt line, are tighter than hell. Left latissimus dorsi, too. Fingers are a bit stiff. I take a huge breath and feel a slight pain in my sternum. That was from the headbutt. Face and head feel fine. I sit up as slowly as I can, taking another deep breath to anchor me in the now. My toes touch the cold wooden floor. Might as well get this over with, so I put both feet firmly on the icy floor of my bedroom. I stand and my body sounds like Rice Krispies on steroids. Snaps and crackles and pops coming from all points, loud as hell, too. I stand there, on the cold floor, running scenarios in my head. I normally wouldn’t go off on a fancy, but last night was a bad night. One of the worst nights we’ve had. 

One minute it was under control. We talked both sides down. We handed out drink tickets and told them to come back on the weekend. As we walked to the exit, I heard a crash. When I turned around, all I saw was Hetchy holding a dude over his head. At about six-five and weighing around three-thirty, he made it look effortless. Hetchy slammed dude on the ground and it was on. I didn’t remember too much. What I did recall came to me like a flip book of Polaroids—snapshots with little to no connective tissue. 

I remember shoving Hetchy before he stomped the dude, after already slamming him. Dude was not moving. I dragged him behind the bar. I felt a bottle whiz by my face. I cleared the bar only to catch a headbutt to the chest. All of my air left my body and I was lightheaded. The little Milli Vanilli looking dude who smashed my chest caught a knee then an elbow. I saw Lian going nuts on a giant dude with her maglite. Her face was emotionless, and she was beating this mass of a man like he was the world’s most stubborn nail. As soon as he collapsed, she stopped and went after another one. I was off balance. 

I didn’t have my radio. Lost it somewhere. We were on our own. The three of us: me, Hetchy, and Lian, versus God only knows. And as if things weren’t bad enough, some asshole threw up Vice Lord. Gang shit? Goddamit. As soon as this punk threw up Vice Lord, shit got worse. It was no longer drunk dudes going at each other. No longer fragile male ego and bullshit masculine posturing, bumping into each other like bull elks on the Nature Channel. This was turf and reputation and loss of face. A brawl, a bad one, but still only a brawl. Now fools were trying to kill each other. I was still off balance. Something that rarely happened to me. I couldn’t get my bearings. Did I get hit, other than the headbutt? Was I, God forbid, afraid?

We were buried. The three of us linked up and tried to form a wall between the warring parties. Some distant part of my mind repeatedly wondered if this other group of folks were Gangster Disciples. Vice Lords and GDs were mortal enemies. If this were the case, we might have to shut the club down for a few days to let it all blow over and away from us. I finally became aware. Fully aware. I became more focused on getting my people out of there than fighting these idiots. From a distance, I heard Kyle’s whistle. Loud and sharp. 

Kyle was one of the best bouncers I’ve seen or worked with. He had that white boy charm, more southern gentleman than Eddie Haskell. He had hands, and could throw with anyone. And he was absolutely fearless. His whistle was closer and I felt the rapid triple shoulder tap that let me know that one of the squad had joined us. All I saw were Kyle’s tattooed arms snatch fools and toss then around. He gave us some much needed breathing room. 

Blinding hi-beams. I saw three cops, flashlights on us, guns drawn approach. Thank the lord it was our regulars. Derik, one of the managers, whispered to them and slid them each a little knot of money. Couldn’t have the news of this fight escape the club and endanger the liquor license. I never faulted the cops who made extra-vocational money. Shit was rough. Money eased it. Couldn’t imagine a worse job. 

We identified the shit-stirrers and the cops took them away. We then basked in the glow of Derik complimenting us on how we held it down and handled our business. I was disgusted. I was shift-lead and this happened when I was supposed to be in charge. Not good. No one blamed me. Not a bit. But I couldn’t let it go. It was my job to make sure that stuff like this never jumped off. If it did, it was meant to be smothered as soon as possible. I was in charge of two entities: customers and profits. A fight breaks out, folks get scared. Folks get scared, they don’t buy drinks. They don’t buy drinks, the club loses money, waitresses get no tips, bartenders get no tips, and the waitresses and bartenders don’t tip out the bar backs. Not to mention the shadow economies of drugs and prostitution are also affected. Major disturbances in the club disrupt and entire financial ecosystem. 

I reflected on all this as I flexed my swollen hands. My knuckles were puffy and tender and felt separate from the rest of me, like they were on loan from someone who didn’t care whether or not they would ever use their hands for anything delicate or loving. I forced myself to make fists and shifted into my fighting stance. As per usual, I shadowboxed for fifteen minutes, forcing myself to feel every part of my body in use. I then went through my vocal exercises. Projecting my voice, whispering, modulating it. A bouncer’s primary tool is their voice. Well, their voice coupled with a quick wit, friendly demeanor, and humor. Most potentially violent or otherwise disruptive situations could be nipped if your mouthpiece was strong enough. 

I practiced jokes and commands to stop. I said the names of all the club regulars I knew, putting a different twist on each of them. When my body and voice felt optimum, I hopped in the shower. It had to be run for two to three minutes to get warm, but I didn’t care. I stepped under the icy torrent and felt my breath catch and my heart speed up. Maybe I was punishing myself for letting things go pear-shaped the night before. I ate the cold. I deserved the cold. I vowed that the previous night would be the last night like that. It didn’t matter if I were shift-lead or not. A fight that big meant a loss of control, a loss of control negatively impacted people’s wallets and purses. We all had to eat.

Shower done I haphazardly dried myself and stared at the clock. Eight hours until the start of my shift. I ate a few bowls of Apple Jacks and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That’s what passed for groceries in my house. I read almost the entirety of Harry Harrison’s A Stainless Steel Ratis born. I dialed my ex and hung up on her several times. Had to resist the booty call urge. Pretty sure she knew it was me. As the sun went down, I felt more awake, aware, and alive.

After knocking out a hundred push-ups, I got dressed. Black pants, black short-sleeved button-up, black blazer, black Dr. Martens. The only splash of color was my purple paisley socks. I breathed into myself and tried to shake the feeling of failure. Tonight will be a good night. I repeated this over and over. Everyone will be safe. Everyone will make money. Everyone go home happy. As I exited, I looked indifferently back into my apartment. My stuff was in there, but it was just a box with windows, In about ninety-minutes, I would be in the only home that truly mattered to me. And I wouldn’t let a one of them down.

Sober

1. It’s probably a bit disingenuous to still claim straightedge. Instead of being bolstered by all of my long ago politics and energy of being sXe, I have come to the point in my life where I must admit that my abstinence from cigarettes, alcohol, weed, and any other drugs is now more force of habit rather than grand statement. I don’t use. There was no traumatic event that pointed me towards this lifestyle. I’m a 70s-80s baby and saw the migration from dust to crack. Folks all around me were getting hooked—even some family—but it was par for the societal course. I don’t use because I choose not to. Most of my friends started to experiment with cigarettes around seven or eight-years-old, and I thought that they were fools. The shit smelled awful. The smoke stung your eyes, and it made you cough. Why would anyone want to do that, especially when there was stickball to be played and intact windows that needed to meet well-hurled rocks? These little cigarette fiends migrated to weed, and some of them went on to other stuff that took them clean out of this reality. But, as I mentioned, these events weren’t so traumatic that I made some kind of cosmic declaration to not use. I chose not to. It did not make any sense to me. It still doesn’t.

2. When I was nine years old I heard Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge.” It solidified my decision to remain drug/alcohol free:

"I'm a person just like you/But I've got better things to do/Than sit around and fuck my head/Hang out with the living dead."

I wasn’t politicized at this moment, but Minor Threat was a gigantic sign ushering me into a new political identity. A few years later, and a whole shitload of 7-inches destroying the needles of my mom’s record player, I stepped through a threshold and became a new person. All it took was for me to shave off all my hair, dress sharply, and put foot-to-ass to racists, bigots, and their ilk. I became an anti-racist skinhead.

3. In my circle, being an anti-racist skin was the beginning of a global conversation. Being half Jamaican, I felt that this culture was my birthright as the NYC Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (S.H.A.R.P) Skins, the Minneapolis Baldies (two cities that I bounced back and forth from for most of my young life) and other progressive skinhead crews acknowledged that there was a multicultural origin to Ska music (was and continues to be my favorite music) and the whole skinhead culture. Even though I was appalled to learn that some black skins in the UK attacked Indian and Pakistani folks, I wore my shining Milk Dud of a head with honor and pride. Being a skin was a kind of street currency—folks knew I was down to fight, and that I had crew who were down to fight alongside me. Several of my original friends took the flight jacket and baldhead as permission to be proactively violent. They became the arbiters of what was and was not acceptable social behavior and Jah bless you if you fell on the wrong side of their boots—these folks fell by the wayside. I was good at violence, prone to it, but allowed myself to take a few major ass-whoopings because I was liable to go overboard and kill someone. I was always teased for not going all out. I was holding back because I did not want to catch a case, nor did I want to sully what being a skin for me was all about. The clothes, the strut, the music, the late night discussions, all of it, contributed to my nascent political being. While I was a hip-hop head and had my political consciousness expanded by X-Clan, Public Enemy, The Intelligent Hoodlum, the Native Tongues and others, it was skinhead culture that was my bedrock. When hip-hop took that 40oz turn, my skin bredren kept it sober. There was something more fulfilling about participating in social change rather than sitting around drinking and puffing and waxing intelligent about it while sitting on a couch.

4. I had three friends die because of drugs and alcohol. One took some bad acid and hung herself in her grandparents front yard (possibly much more was happening with her), one wrapped his car around a tree, and the last one died on the floor of his kitchen, mouth foaming like a cartoon Saint Bernard. If my being clean was a choice before, it was now a mission. Being political about my being sXe came way later than the choice to do so. Only time in my life my politics came after a decision to take an action.

5. For a long stretch of my life, I resented any and all people who partook in any kinds of drugs or alcohol. I even became a bouncer so that I could smack around drunken people. I was morally offended that anyone would squander the wonderful life they were given by getting high or drunk. The magnitude of my arrogance still astonishes me. I can’t believe that this arrogant, violent, sanctimonious asshole (with some good qualities) grew into a near 40 year old husband, father, advanced degree holder, published author, recognized public speaker, and mentor. I‘m not listing my bona fides as some sort of braggart’s platform, but as a reality check for myself, so that I can reflect on just how far I’ve come. Making the conscious choice to not use means that I had to accept that some people choose to and that they aren’t bad for doing so, and that it’s none of my damn business. That’s a hard realization to come to when your drive to be clean and sober has taken on an almost ecclesiastical quality.

6. My wife drinks wine, on occasion. When I first saw her with a glass of wine, I flipped. All of that old arrogance and judgmental crap came roaring from my past. It took me a while to get over that one.

7. As I hurtle towards planet old-head, I’m still investigating the reasons why I continue to remain sober. It can’t be the politics as I am way too old to claim sXe as a political stance and haven’t listened to Minor Threat in years. Maybe it’s just not for me. Maybe being clean is one of the few things that I’m really good at: I have a talent for not using. There is no denying that the anti-racist skin ethos is still a part of my consciousness, as well as the too-small crew of friends who joined me on my life-long mission to never use—they act as a reminder that my lifestyle choice is okay, albeit really strange for a whole lot of people. I even lost a girlfriend because her father did not trust a man who didn’t drink.

8. I believe in the grandiosity of life. I believe in all of its mystery, its wonder, and I want to remain in a permanent state of awe—some feel that the use of certain substances enhances these feelings. I feel just the opposite. I want to meet the universe with a clear head, uninfluenced by enhancements or chemical prophylactics of any kind. But I could be wrong. I could have been depriving myself of a deeper connection with the All by wallowing in the desert of the sober. I’ll never know, as this lifestyle that I have chosen is as much a part of me as my scars and my tattoos. I need to find that Minor Threat EP.