I got back home from Philadelphia late last night. I spent just under 24 hours in the city of brotherly love, but I managed to pack those hours with as much living as possible.
In order, then.
Not a ton interesting to tell about the drive to Philadelphia. I stopped in Lancaster to stretch, and dropped in Angry, Young, and Poor. Partly for nostalgia’s sake, partially to look at boots. I always want to look at boots. I bought some records, but didn’t find much else I was stoked on. I still loved the familiarity of being in the shop. It felt like returning to a place I had known and loved after a long absence. Punk Rock one hundred percent saved my life when I was a lonely teenager stuck in Southern Pennsylvania in the nineties, and this place was a lifeline back then. I even still have some of the records and punk rock t-shirts I bought at this place twenty years ago. I made small talk with one of the owners behind the counter, joking about how I hadn’t set foot in the shop in just about two decades and I was just happy that it still existed.
“Well damn, dude. Welcome back to Pennsylvania.”
Something hit me that would be a repeating motif all weekend, was how friendly and just how real punks, even jaded aging punks keep it on the east coast. I couldn’t remember when a punk rocker I didn’t know in the Pacific Northwest was this friendly to me. Even some of the ones I did know, well odds are just as good they are gonna pretend they don’t see you in the grocery store or at the show anyway. Olympia is a cold fucking town and I was so glad to be done with it for good. As if to punctuate all this – the friendliness of punk rockers, the eager kids still keeping it real – as I was getting ready to leave the shop, two young kids came in to buy t-shirts and patches. Dude behind the counter eagerly engaged with them, asking them what they were looking for, instead of treating them like some chump posers who would be so lucky to shop at his spot.
I smiled to myself the whole way out of Lancaster.
Driving through Pennsylvania doesn’t haunt me the way it once did. I used to not be able to roll through Southern York County and through the expanses of forest and farmland without returning to the eerie feeling of being trapped that accompanied the very first time I crossed the Pennsylvania state line with my mother twenty-eight years ago. I remember it still, like it was yesterday. Ten years old in the passenger seat of my mother’s car and feeling like the trees that lined either side of the highway became more ominous as the mile posts ticked ever upward until we were in Pennsylvania proper. Even then, I had a sinking feeling I might never leave this place.
So it was a surprise seven years later when Momma moved away. Still, the feeling of being ensnared by Southern York County lingered for years, decades. This place was a backdrop, a foundation. So much a part of me and the person I grew into. I see this place in my dreams, in my memories. I write about it often.
More on that later though.
I rolled into Philly through rush hour traffic and went straight to pick up J for the show. I know I used to talk shit on cities, and the gray concrete expanse of Philadelphia does make me feel a little bit claustrophobic, but goddamn. This city has some beautiful architecture. Rush hour sucked, but I was happy to take a breath and marvel at the buildings. The whole northeast feels fresh like this for me, really. I think this feeling is another product of living in the drab as shit, Pacific Northwest for five years. I remember when Hannah visited me there a few years ago and she commented on how drab and lifeless, without history all the buildings and houses looked. She’s not wrong.
I picked J up and we went to the show. It was at some bar in South Philly. Inside the show, the feeling of familiarity found me again. I commented to J about how little the Philly street punk aesthetic had changed in my twenty-year absence. I even saw a few kids with Blanks 77 and Violent Society patches on their jackets, bands I loved and absolutely lived to see when I was a kid who I don’t think have put new records out since before I was old enough to drink alcohol. I think I read somewhere that Blanks 77 are playing shows again, but I don’t know. They’ve been off my radar for years.
I don’t remember the name of the first band. The Stance played second. They played the gruff brickwall Oi that the punks and skins go nuts over. I liked it well enough. A little too gruff and not enough melody for me. If I had any complaints, it was that the show felt a little bro-heavy, but I was still happy to just be out in the sea of smiling punks. When the pit started too close to me, I just kept a side eye on the crowd and kept an elbow out, a tactic that has kept me safe for well over two decades now. I thought about that time kids in Olympia jumped a dude, drug him out of the bar and broke a pint glass in his face for dancing too hard. Color me relieved to be far away from reactive nonsense like that.
I grabbed some water at the bar before Battalion Zoska. Pat was up there grabbing a pitcher of water for the band at the same time. We made small talk for a second when he complimented me on my “Sometimes Antisocial, Always Antifascist” shirt. Thanks dude. I awkwardly shuffled through saying that catching Violent Society shows when I was a teenager was like finding an island in a sea of dead eyed pop mediocrity when I was a kid. I went on to elaborate that watching one of my best friends deck a Nazi skinhead with every ounce of strength and bravery in his teenage body at a Business, Warzone, Vision, Violent Society show in April of 1997 was one of my introductions to antifascism, and gave birth to a lifelong hatred of Nazi skinheads, full fucking stop. He said thanks for telling him that story, and walked to the stage.
Watching Battalion Zoska, felt so much like coming back home to the kid I once was, enthusiastic about punk and guarded all the same. I only felt sad for not knowing any of Battalion’s songs. I did, however admire Pat’s vest from the front of the stage – it looked like the kind of thing any one of us would have worn as a kid, but made by a man well into his forties, decades past giving a fuck about what anyone at the show thought, and if they thought he was a poser for having a Sex Pistols backpatch or not.
The Boils played next. I’d been so out of touch with their music, that I didn’t even realize that they had more or less retired a decade ago, only reuniting occasionally for special one-off gigs. The kids and the middle-aged weirdos absolutely fucking lost it from the first note, to the last echo of feedback. I stood onstage occasionally ducking a stage diver or crowd surfer doing their best to get into the light fixtures hanging from the low ceiling. I smiled and got that feeling in my body that shows gave me before I left the east coast – the one where you feel at home and like this room is the center of the world for a half an hour, and that’s just fine. All the war and oppression, and atrocity that you worry about 8 out of 10 of the days can wait at the door for a bit and you can just be.
I’m well aware that I’m idealizing a scene a bit, but goddamnit if I don’t need to believe in something right now. When I was a kid, punk kept me from killing myself I don’t even know how many times because it was there to remind me of the good inherent in my fellow human beings. Right now, I want to remember that more than anything, so it’s what I’m running on because it’s a thousand times better than bitterness, emptiness and misanthropy.
Lion’s Law played, and shit was energetic, flawless, but less emotional. I sang along to the songs I like and wondered how skinheads make those tiny cuffs in their jeans. I’m more paranoid about germs than I used to be, and it’s funny. I have papercuts all over my hands from work, and was constantly trying to touch sweaty crowdsurfers as little as possible for this reason. The set ended, I bought a shirt and J and I drove back home listening to Bell Witch and making plans for a trip down south later in the summer.
I stayed up way too late talking to N, well past three AM. The next morning all three of us went out for breakfast and coffee. I felt hungover despite having consumed not a drop of alcohol the night before. Just ragged from no sleep and movement. I was happy to sip strong coffee and think about how much I love punk and my friends. Maybe I was drunk on how real J and N are, and how sorely I have missed that authenticity while sequestered in the gray land of passive aggressive cliques and infighting.
Driving through Southern York County felt like searching for something without knowing what I was looking for, as it often does. I followed my routine of going to the Shrewsbury Wal-Mart that opened in 1997, reshaping (read decimating) the economy of this town, like I always do. I go to the bathrooms in the back of the store to piss, then I buy some tea. I am always ready for someone to recognize me and make what-have-you-been-doing-all-these-years small talk, but it never happens.
When this fluorescent lit monument to consumerism opened in 1997, all my friends, and my mom got jobs here. Before the Wal-Mart opened, these were just some vacant hills that kids rode their dirt bikes around on homemade trails. Those days are long, long gone. You stand in the parking lot now, and it’s almost impossible to imagine there was anything but a Wal-Mart here. I cannot help but wonder how long the structure will stand after humanity starves itself off the planet?
When my mom briefly worked here, it was the first time I had seen any trace of hope on her face. She even chastised me viciously for bleaching my hair blonde while she was at work. “Now you look like a San Francisco Faggot, and I can’t take you to meet my manager!”. It was like she believed a nine hour a day, forty-hour week at nine dollars an hour shift might let her re-write her story just enough to let her forget that she spent most of her days wanting to die. The despair crept back in within a month. The work was grueling and thankless, and for scraps at that. The final straw came when one of her co-workers told my mom that their manager had been mocking her for wanting to change her schedule enough that it would allow her to see me on some days. Writing this twenty-two later, I still feel incredibly anger at the insidiousness and heartlessness it must take to exploit the fading dreams of all the small-town suckers like my mom and my friends, desperate to change their stories.
It’s strange to think about my mother wanting to see me, considering how little she has “seen” me my entire life. She saw what she wanted to see, putting the low down and dirty of who I was from her mind. She still does this, I just resent her less for it now than I used to. I mostly feel bad for her. She missed out on the entire adult life of her only child.
I remember when one friend quit this place when she went to the hospital for her eating disorder. That trip to the hospital began a downward spiral into heroin addiction that I don’t know if she ever recovered from. I lost track of that friend over two decades ago. My other friend, the same aforementioned one that punched out the Nazi skin at the show worked there too. He quit in style, just a month or two after my mom. He came over directly afterwards, laughing and telling us how he balled up his apron and threw it in the shift manager’s face, telling him to go fuck himself. This was the same manager my tangled with.
After Wal-Mart, I drove to the Shrewsbury Cemetery. I’m always drawn to this spot anytime I’m back in Southern York County. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s in such close proximity to where I attended my first punk show, at a rented church hall across the street. Maybe it’s because it’s where my friends and I rotted away countless crawling hours that seem so serene and idyllic now. D and I would hang out in the gravel shack during slow as molasses summer days, doing graffiti while D smoked weed. We’d stand on the hill at the south end of the cemetery and look out off into the distance, into Maryland. Watching the radio towers blink red steadily in the distance reminded me that life, an entire world existed outside of this tiny town, and one day we’d all escape it.
I couldn’t tell what, but something felt missing, like I was being pulled somewhere else, so I got in my car and moved on.
From the cemetery, I drove south on whatever that street that runs parallel to Main is. It exits on Tolna, right near where E and L lived when we were kids. Tolna Road is unrecognizable now, and part of me felt sad about this. I drove down Main and took note of what all has changed at the intersection of Constitution and Main. I surprised myself at being disappointed that the Getty Mart is gone. Torn down who even knows when to make way for a Walgreens. The shopping center next to it looked like it had changed, but it was hard for me to tell, never having been as much of a focal point for my friends and I.
I thought about driving through the neighborhood where I had my first job – a paper route when I was 13, but skipped it. Instead I drove South on Main as it gave way fully to Old York Road. I passed the hill near the baseball field where DS broke his arm in 1993. It’s still there. I wondered how many kids have broken bones on it since. There was the house across the street from the hill where I used to awkwardly fool around with a girlfriend in the basement when her parents thought we were watching movies when I was fifteen. I thought about pulling into the bank parking lot further down the street to snap a photo of the spot in the parking lot that my friends and I utilized for skating late at night, but thought the better of it. I try and spend less time looking sketchy nowadays.
My old neighborhood has changed considerably. The last two years mom and I lived there, developers were building a new street and new houses at the end of our road. J, A, and I hid up there one night when it was still relatively empty to smoke weed. That’s my big memory. Not worth driving up for.
My childhood home looks significantly different than it did the last time I drove past it. It doesn’t look at all like the dilapidated repository for my mother’s dead dreams that I left behind two decades ago. No overgrown lawn. No peeling paint. No foreclosure notice tacked to the door. The owners built a new front porch, vastly extended from the stoop that my friends and I once sat on, listening to tapes and talking.
I left my neighborhood and headed back to New Freedom proper by the back road that I surprised myself by remembering my way around after two decades since the last time I walked it. I remembered this one night during the summer between seventh and eighth grade when M and I were spending the night at his parent’s house. I was on the phone with two girls across town while M tried to fall asleep watching TV. The girls asked if we wanted to come over and make out. I was into it. I asked M if he wanted to go, and he said no. Too worried about getting caught. I tried to implore him to go along, telling him we could take this road, and not a soul would be on it at this hour and see us. M wasn’t having it and went to sleep. I got off the phone. I remember little about those two girls past that night. I fell into punk, and they fell into the background, significantly less enchanting then the world full of joyous outcasts I was falling in love with.
In New Freedom, I went to the Rutter’s to buy coffee and piss again. I skipped going up Third Street. I don’t even remember if M’s parents still live in that house. I think she told me that they had long since left. I think I remember the last time I drove east on Third, that K’s old trailer had been demolished.
Probably just as well. Who knows what kind of energy would still haunt that place? I think about that house, and being there as a wide eyed and scared kid. Watching K’s mom nod out, watching her sketchy murderer boyfriend drink beer after beer. I remember listening to sad songs in K’s room, huddled around her small boombox and CD collection like it was salvation, or at least an escape from the kind of listless summer drudgery that I could almost wish for now, in that our days were filled with more boredom than worry.
Somewhere in the winter of ninth grade, K’s mom disappeared for a few months. She ended up living with relatives. One night she spent the night at my house just as the nights were their frozen nadir. My mom made her sleep in the guest room, as if I wouldn’t end up just sneaking out of my own room and sleeping next to my friend anyway. If my mom knew, she never told me. Nothing happened that night anyway, aside from shared secrets.
K told me how she lost her virginity to a boy she was dating a few months earlier. He was older than us by a couple years. His name is lost to the years now. Something beginning with a J, I think. She told me how they had nowhere to go to have sex, so they broke into her mom’s vacant trailer and she had sex for the first time there. When they were done, the boy held her all night. They broke up a few months later. I always thought that the trailer was maybe totally empty, and they must have fucked on the floor, but I think how little sense that made now. K was living in the trailer with her mom and a different sketchy boyfriend by that next summer. D, L and I went to see K shortly after they moved back in, and all the furniture was still there, smoke stained and sticky, just like it had been the year before.
I drove north to Glen Rock, and found the high school without a GPS after a friend challenged me to see if I could do so. I was only a little disturbed to find out I could still remember the way. I drove around the parking lot and remembered being up there fucking around with D one summer and seeing this other fuck up that I knew only as someone who one of our friends had tried to stab in the neck with a pencil that year over him violating one of our other friends. The boy was driving his parent’s van fast over the speed bumps in the parking lot to see if they could get all four wheels of the van airborne at once. Everyone in the car was laughing. I noticed a younger girl in the passenger seat that I didn’t recognize. The next school year that girl was dead from an accidental overdose after the boy broke up with her. Everyone blamed the fuck up boy their friend’s death. So much so that he had to change schools to escape the bloodthirsty groups of kids out for him. A few of us found out where he lived one night later that fall and threw forty bottles full of piss through his car windshield. I remembered driving away laughing, and seeing him darting out to his front lawn to stare down our taillights. I remember how angry and defeated he looked standing there in the lawn, fists balled up at his sides.
I thought about hanging out at school to write and let my dog run around, but the memory (and many others left a bad taste in the back of my mouth). It felt too weird being there, almost like an atmospheric pressure, telling me I was in the wrong place, to keep moving. I took a picture and left. Eager to put distance between me and the place that had done it’s best to indoctrinate me and kill my creativity. It didn’t even feel like a victory, writing there.
I drove to Glen Rock proper, left at the intersection where J and D and I once stalled out in a stolen car. I drove past SM’s old house which I had totally forgotten about. I instantly remembered how F told me he was out walking with his niece one night, and had seen the cops in front of the house, looking for SM. They walked by later, just as SM was coming home. F told me how he saw SM’s dad on the porch, waiting, and how hard he shoved him, right there on the porch.
I have always wondered if that was that awful night. Driving past, I wondered if SM’s parents still lived there. I heard somewhere that his mom never got over having to bury her firstborn baby. I felt for SM’s mom, and his dad, and his brother and sister, and his own children. Weird how different people can have different perspective on a life and its loss, and how time can soften that perspective.
I wished that the Wetzel’s was there, so I could go see if DS still worked there. I haven’t seen DS in twenty or more years. I’ve heard things here and there though. F and L both told me that he worked at the meat counter there since just after high school. That’s twenty years and a thank you for all your hard work and good luck out there. I just googled it. Wetzel’s was open for thirty-three years. That means D worked there for twenty of the thirty years the store was in business.
I wonder how that was for him.
I drove back down Old York Road from Glen Rock, trying to find a place to write in Shrewsbury. The park was filled with cub scouts. Not really who I wanted to be near while I sat around and chronicled my lost youth and dreams dried out. I went back to New Freedom to sit b J and L’s graves for a few minutes. In another month, they will have been gone for twenty years. I remember how significant that death felt at the time. We were so young. I sat with them for a minute, said hey, and moved on.
I used to skate in that church parking lot. A and I used to meet there to make out too. I wasn’t allowed at her house. Both because I was a bad kid, and because she wasn’t allowed to see boys yet. So that left the church. The day before ninth grade, we met there to talk and make out. She was mad that I had cut my long hair in favor of something I could put into liberty spikes. We kissed goodbye and said we’d see each other tomorrow. The next day I passed her in the hall, said hi, and she ignored me. That was it. We never spoke again.
I think we saw one another one more time after that. On D’s porch. She came over with her cousin who I had also dated to score weed. I was visibly uncomfortable, and I remember D joking that I should make an ex-girlfriend club. I heard later that she was seeing SM. I worried for her, knowing the monstrosity that guy was capable of.
I finally settled on New Freedom Park to write. I sat at a picnic table beneath the bandstand and wrote a love letter to C, wanting to share a significant and strange part of my history with them. While I was writing, I noticed Crip and Blood graffiti on the table, which amused me to no end. I told C a few things I remembered about the park and told them I missed them, but I was maybe glad they weren’t here. I thought it would just be boring for them.
The park was eerily empty, save for a few kids playing on the other side of it, near where A and I once made out. I left and went back to the cemetery in Shrewsbury to say goodbye to Southern York County for now. The moon rose red and low in its majesty just as I pulled up. I felt so thankful to greet it. I looked to the south at the radio towers that my friends and I used to watch when we were kids, desperate for any sign that life existed outside of this place. They were there, like always. Blinking softly in the fading light.
When I looked to the south, I felt an old lover out there, somewhere else and I smiled. I said hello to their spirit out in the night and thought about love, and time, and movement and letting go. The sun was down, and it was time to get moving, to go home. It was sweet, and I was ready to leave Southern York County.
I drove through the night, arriving home reinvigorated and relieved to live on the east coast once more.