SFO was aflutter with student volunteers in red T-shirts, their signs held aloft announcing the name and the place and the fact that this would be the first day of our four years together at Stanford. The volunteers were all very…upbeat. Almost impossibly upbeat to my just-off-the-plane-from-New-York eyes and ears.
Speaking of ears. My left one was angled 90 degrees from my head like a wing, crusted with dried blood. Not more than 48 hours earlier, three men, and a dog, had tried to murder me. They’d only succeeded in bashing the side of my head with a broken bottle.
Now that it was stitched up, poorly, it hurt too much to wash, so I’d left it as is.
A blond, blue-eyed volunteer skipped up to me. “Are you GENE?”
“Great,” she chirped, figuratively and almost literally. “Welcome to Stanford!”
Let me back up. In 1980, I was headed to Stanford from New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, where most of my classmates went on to East Coast Ivy League universities. Despite my best efforts, though, following a midnight showing of the Clash flick Rude Boy, I got swept up in a street fight that had me acting as a peacemaker until a broken bottle cored out my left ear. I knew none of the parties involved.
This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.
Does it matter that the guys I was fighting with were working-class Italian kids, the kind we used to call cugines? Probably not.
Certainly not when the buses the student volunteers had piled us onto pulled down Palo Alto’s tony University Avenue. Designed, I’m sure, to impress, it did just that. Stanford’s appeal back then was primarily aesthetic. Before the school became known as an incubator for the tech industry, the college recruiter’s pitch mostly involved pictures of the campus, San Francisco, and the beach. Brooklyn it was not, which is sort of why I came.
Stanford had other appeals unknown to any recruiter I ever talked to. The Specials had just played on campus. Dead Kennedys were from San Francisco. As a kid who had been claimed by punk rock when the Ramones started making the evening news and the Sex Pistols hit New York like an A-bomb in 1978, I had half a dozen reasons to be here.
Arriving “here,” though, I was unprepared for Reagan’s America in the heart of the state where he first made his bones. Stanford freshmen from California—a place where the Black upper middle class exists in scattered outposts totally different from what I grew up with—had an understanding of the world that didn’t expand too far beyond their parents’.
Young Republicans, luaus, and a general lowercase-c conservatism led to a steady stream of girlfriends shocked that their parents were shocked that they were dating me, which soon gave way to their not dating me.
Does it matter that the girls I was dating were white upper-middle-class kids who claimed not to see race? Probably not. Especially since the Black girls I had dated had parents who were equally chagrined to find their daughters dating a guy with a mohawk. I guess I forgot to mention that. While no big deal in New York in 1980, it was very much one at Stanford.
But the shock and awe extended well beyond the mohawk. I’d been lifting weights half my life. I’d also been an avid newspaper reader from age six, and I realized early on that the city I was growing up in was collapsing in on itself. Awash in the randomness of horror and violence that was like so much bad weather in 1970s New York, I required some sort of preparation. Mostly, it came in the form of martial arts that I’d been practicing since I was 10, whether it be boxing at the Boys’ Club or karate in the basement of the church around the corner.
This and the tattoos—long before CEOs and moms were slathered in them—and my propensity for muscle cars became a comfortable carapace that I carried with me from one coast to the other.
The weather in California was better, but my concerns remained existential, mostly on account of my refusal to avoid places where people might want to kill me.
In the Bay Area, punk was giving way to hardcore, a scene I eagerly threw myself into. And California was rife with opportunities that the very closed New York scene lacked. At Stanford, I started a magazine called The Birth of Tragedy, after the Nietzsche tome, and made my general alienation a feature, not a bug. With each issue, I built my own cabinet of curiosities: Anton LaVey from the Church of Satan, Charles Manson, and later John Wayne Gacy, mingled with more standard subjects like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Lydia Lunch.
While the New York scene I’d left behind was mostly disaffected art school kids who were about five years older than me, hardcore was age consistent and very much my tribe. But then, it was also not fully my tribe. New York’s punk rock racism was largely performative and employed to shock. Think Sid Vicious’s swastika, Patti Smith’s “Rock N Roll Nigger” (which has come under woke review, and not a moment too soon). Hardcore, on the other hand, came from a more confused place.
Songs like the Adolescents’ “Kids of the Black Hole” and, later, Alex Cox’s film Repo Man captured the nihilistic zeitgeist. California was full of the Me generation’s walking wounded. Baby boomers had sobered up; found crystals, Christianity, or Reagan (him again); and forgotten that they had kids. Their kids, though, were just as likely to call the drummer in my hardcore band Whipping Boy the n-word as they were to be chased by me and beaten for it.
Call it the California Okie contingent, or the skinhead shock troops—what would eventually become the Proud Boy element had always been there, attracted by the heat of a generalized anarchy and loud noises made by other angry young men. In other words, these California kids were no more enlightened than anyone else who didn’t already have an interest in being enlightened.
At my first big California hardcore show, at California Hall on Polk Street, a guy in a White Power shirt with a swastika on it sailed across the heads of the crowd to kiss me on the lips. Sometimes life gives you the perfect metaphor: In those days, I routinely found myself in the company of the most reprobate actors of any political spectrum you can imagine. Nazis? Satanists? Radicals of every kind? They were all a part of my scene.
This was a development that prompted a friend to ask me, “Why don’t they hate you? And why do you do business with them?”
The latter question was simple to answer: After graduation, I ran a record store called CFY in Palo Alto and a record label of the same name while simultaneously toiling as a technical editor at the Electric Power Research Institute. Being complicit—at least passively—in their attempted “revolutions” was fine by me. Alienation was my stock in trade and seemed a particularly Californian kind of deal.
The answer to the former question? Not so simple. Maybe they worked with me because America is as aggressively dishonest about class as it tries to be honest about race. Our hunger for validation makes us desperate for associations that offer proximity to power. In a culture where power is fetishized—especially among men in their 20s—my tatted, muscled outer shell radiated strength, even if the person it was guarding was decidedly softer.
My deeper and more personal relationship with fear in the streets of New York and mosh pits across the country taught me to embrace whatever it was that made my animal brain prepare itself for any and all assaults. This was not consciously conceived by me at the time, but rather intuited. And while others might have considered my relationships with people who would seek to destroy me a purposeful test of my mettle, I never thought of it that way. The grand promise of America is always some version of “anything goes,” and if that’s true for anyone, why the hell not me?
Losing as many fights as I won could have been a deterrent, but it emboldened me and got me to the place every martial artist tries to get to: I understood that power comes from avoiding fights. It’s an almost Buddhist idea of life beyond struggle that would’ve been hard for me to explain to my 18-year-old self.
Can I see your license and registration, please?”
I’m now in my late 40s. Still living outside Stanford, father of a raft of daughters, one of whom is in the car seat in the back of my Toyota. She’s singing to herself.
The cop is in his 20s. Blond, blue-eyed, clean-shaven, and about five foot nine, but I don’t need to tell you that.
“Sure. It’s in the trunk.”
He pauses. I’m talking to my daughter. I’m not afraid of cops and want to debunk all that cop fear for her by modeling it correctly.
“License and registration, please.”
“It’s in the trunk,” I say again.
He asks again, and it dawns on me that something is happening here. Somehow, someway, America is happening here.
“License and registration, please!”
I move to open the car door to go around to the trunk to get what he’s asked for. He blocks the door with his hip and puts his hand on his service revolver.
“Don’t do this,” I say to him. Trying not to be heard by my daughter. And so, I explain. Slowly. While staring him in the eyes. I can see he’s not really focused on me at all. Or rather, he’s looking, but he’s not seeing. He’s looking through me. I was at the gym earlier and am wearing gym clothes, but a bespoke suit and tie—even a priest’s vestment—wouldn’t help him not see the boogeyman he is so clearly seeing when he looks at me.
“My wallet is in the trunk. in my wallet, you’ll find the license and registration you keep asking me for. I cannot get it if you block the door, and so therefore you need to not ask me for that which I can’t get if either of us is going to make it home today.”
Amazingly, he wakes up. There’s no other way to put it. He takes his hand off of his gun.
“Oh. Um. I don’t need it anyway.” He calls in the plates and comes back with an explanation. “You need to use your phone hands-free.”
“I was putting my phone in the hands-free holder. With my hand.”
He looks at me, without rancor, and I return his look, also without rancor, before breaking the gaze to see what my daughter is doing. She is watching us both.
“Well, have a nice day, sir.” He slips back to his cruiser and pulls out into traffic.
“What was that about, Dad?” She’s not nervous or upset because I wasn’t nervous or upset.
“Absolutely nothing, kid. What do you want to eat for dinner?”•