Chapter Seven: Friends

 

 

I.

            Over the years that I was focused on establishing my career as a philosopher, I remained close friends with Richard and Kendrick, and I eventually married Colleen. All four of us moved into middle age side-by-side, carving out our unique but intertwined paths toward death.

As we grew older, Richard remained perpetually unemployed, spending most of his time preoccupied with health problems and his own personal philosophical dilemmas. In the successes of others he saw evidence of the unfairness of the universe and thus a target against which to direct criticism. It wasn’t that he was jealous of Kendrick, Colleen or I; it was more like he was frustrated with himself and by his own inability to be satisfied and happy with his life and the world he had built around himself. Nothing was ever quite right for Richard, and he came to spend a good deal of his time dissecting and diagnosing the reasons why this was the case.

Kendrick had always exhibited more of an aggressive, go-get-’em mentality than did Richard, but as he aged he developed from a free-spirited punk into a man consumed by the need for recognition and social status. Though, unlike Richard, he was regularly employed in good paying jobs, he constantly had problems dealing with his coworkers and his wife(s). Kendrick’s driving desire was to be held in high esteem. He wanted to be an authority; a wise sage who others respected and would come to when they needed council and advice. His greatest frustration was that no one – not his coworkers nor his friends nor his wife(s) – thought of him in this way. Perhaps as a result of this, a sense of suspicion lay behind Kendrick’s interactions with others, as if everyone he encountered was keeping some sort of vicious secret from him.

Colleen, my fire-haired punk-rock girl, like everyone else, descended into a mid-life crisis as she got older, trying to figure out who she was and how she fit into the world while passing into her 40’s. She became preoccupied with the troubling realization that she was steadily aging, and instead of bringing wisdom, her age was instead bringing an increasingly profound fear of death. Every detail of her life was a reflection of this fear, including her dreams, her fascination with existentialist philosophy and her commitment to vigorous exercise.

Colleen and I were married, and like her I became increasingly terrified of my mortality and preoccupied with meditating on the seeming absurdity of life. In this way Colleen and I were either a good match or a horrible match, depending on your perspective.

In our friends, Richard and Kendrick, we found distraction from our personal worries at the same time that we gained insight into our own situations. But I suppose that’s the way it is with all friends. In dealing with them, your attention is, on one level, drawn away from yourself. However, the sorts of friends that stay with you and that you find yourself spending time with over the years also serve a sort of therapeutic purpose. They reflect your needs and concerns in a way that words never can. They become a part of your universe, and thus become a part of who you are. They encircle you the way that planets constellate around one another, creating orbiting systems. You see yourself in your friends, they see themselves in you, and though sometimes it is aggravating, the tension thus created draws you close, like the gravity between the Earth and the Moon.

 

II.

            Ultimately we were all the same. We all formed a unit. It was only the superficial differences between us, like our daily habits and the food we liked to eat that served to shield us from this deep truth. It was easy to point to these sorts of differences in order to reinforce our uniqueness. I liked berry pie, but Colleen hated it. Kendrick hated horror movies but I loved them. Richard loved mathematics, but I didn’t. We all had our peculiar tastes, but everything that frustrated me about Richard, Kendrick and Colleen, just as everything I loved about them, really was a part of me as well.

 

III.

            The deepest and most profound bond we all shared was the truth of our mortality. We were all destined to grow old, suffer and to die. This bond connected us not only to one another, but also to my colleagues at school, my mother and to every other human being in the world.

 

IV.

            I guess the fact that as teenagers we all felt drawn to punk rock says something about a preexisting point of contact between our psychologies. We already thought of ourselves as misfits and outsiders, and we were eager to find other misfits and outsiders with whom we could share our feelings of alienation.

 

V.

            I remember as a teenager, walking in the City with Kendrick. We were on our way to see a band perform, and as we walked to the club, Kendrick behaved in the exaggerated and rebellious way that punk rock teenagers often tended to behave. He was yelling and spitting at passing cars, insulting everyone on the street for being conventional members of the “system.”

I was laughing, encouraging his obnoxiousness. He was right, after all. We were different from all of the stupid people around us who drove fancy cars, held down respectable jobs and who played the roles of respectable citizens.

“What a bunch of drones,” Kendrick said, half disgusted and half amused. That he needed to vocalize this particular sentiment to me was symptomatic of the fact that he wanted to see and hear that I supported his assertion. He needed evidence that I agreed with him and that I was there to stand behind him in defiance of “them.” In lashing out against “them” he was seeking to form a bond with me.

“Yeah, fuck ’em all,” I laughed. I sincerely felt filled with contempt at the time; there was nothing fake in my utterance. I hated all of these people around me, even though I knew none of them. Thus, there was nothing personal about the sentiment; it was just an ontological expression of what I was at that moment. I felt intense hostility toward the undifferentiated mass of everyone “out there” who was not a part of my world. The individuals who passed by us on foot or in their cars were symbols of otherness to me, not flesh and blood people. To me they represented everything that I was against and everything I was fighting to avoid becoming. My only ally at that moment was Kendrick. We were like fellow soldiers battling against an army of drones.

I recall that one of these “drones” took offense at our behavior that night. He was driving down the street in a slick and expensive looking sports car. Sitting next to him in the passenger seat was a blonde woman, all made up and dressed to go out on the town. Everything in their appearance made me hate them. They were well-to-do, attractive and seemed not to be worried about anything except having a good time. Nothing in their behavior hinted at a fear of death or of anxiety or of a lack of self-confidence. They seemed to have no clue as to how screwed up the world was, how unhappy I was, or how pissed off Kendrick was.

As the car slowly passed by us in stop and go traffic, Kendrick spat in the passenger’s face and kicked the side of the vehicle. “Fuck you, yuppie,” he barked.

The sports car came to an abrupt halt and the male driver bounded out, appearing before us on the sidewalk. His girlfriend or wife or whoever the blonde passenger was angrily yelled for her partner to kick our asses.

As this unfolded I remember wondering, first of all, how old these two people were. At that time I perceived everyone who was not a part of my punk rock world as an elder, and such was my quick conclusion in this circumstance. Because I thought of this approaching man as someone older than me, I felt indignant that he was acting in such an aggressive manner. My gut reaction was that, as an adult, he should turn the other cheek, take the high ground and behave in a mature manner. Instead, here he was bringing himself down to a teenager’s level. In my mind this fully justified what came next.

As the driver approached us, Kendrick spat in his face and yelled, “Fuck you!”

I yelled at the guy to just get back in his car.

The guy took a swing at Kendrick, striking him in the side of the head. Apparently the punch was not very powerful, since Kendrick did not fall, but stood his ground and continued to taunt Mr. Sports Car, calling him a “Yuppie Prick.”

It was then, completely unannounced and unexpected by everyone present, that a figure appeared like a blur. At first I didn’t recognize who it was, but when the figure tackled the yuppie and knocked him to the ground, I felt exhilarated. As it turned out, this blurred figure was an acquaintance of ours by the name of Derek. He had also been on his way to the show, saw what was happening, and, like a comrade in arms, intervened to offer us assistance. As he lay on top of the now very frightened yuppie, Kendrick and I swooped in and began to kick our victim anywhere that we could find an opening. I planted a few solid kicks in his ribs and I saw the toe of Kendrick’s boot strike the yuppie’s head at least once. I must report, though it now sounds atrocious, it was a wonderful feeling to pummel this man. This was, after all, not a real human being that we were assaulting, but a symbol of everything that we hated. We were paying the world back for all of the indignities and all of the humiliation that we felt we had suffered so far during our teenage lives. Each time our boots struck this man’s body, I felt an increasing sense of power. I felt as if my greatest enemies were nothing and that so long as I stood with my friends, no one could hurt us.

The blonde in the car never left the vehicle, but I do remember the glee I felt when the angry tone in her voice was replaced by one of fear and panic. I don’t recall her exact words, but I do remember the spirit of what she yelled to her companion: Get back in the car! Wasn’t that what I told him to do in the first place? The change in her attitude was something I wanted to savor, and as the man we had just attacked finally made his way back to the vehicle, I did savor that moment. We had won. Fuck him and his girlfriend. Fuck everyone.

 

VI.

            Hatred is something that we normally think of as an emotion that is felt by us. At times, however, it becomes not just something that you feel, but a part of what you are. At those times, you don’t feel hatred; hatred is felt through you.

 

VII.

            It was quite common, when we were teenagers, for street preachers to be attracted to the large groups of strangely dressed kids who would congregate at the entrances of punk rock venues. In us they saw a chance to save souls and make a difference in the lives of the youth. I recall standing outside of a nightclub with Richard one evening when a middle-aged man, carrying an armful of pamphlets, approached us.

“Have you ever thought about where your life is going?” he asked us.

“That’s a very vague question,” Richard responded. “Exactly what do you mean by ‘where my life is going’?”

“I mean,” the man responded, “have you ever considered that the way you are now living your life is sinful and that it will end up killing you?”

I felt myself filling with rage at the insinuations of this preacher, and I could likewise see that Richard was fuming. Richard’s anger, however, was more focused on the linguistic vagueness of the man’s utterances than it was on his thinly veiled accusations against our morality.

“You keep talking about ‘my life’ as if you know exactly who I am and what I do. Until you clarify and specify exactly what it is that you mean, your questions are complete nonsense!” Richard exclaimed.

It made me feel good to see Richard get angry with this preacher and to articulate his objections. Normally, Richard was shy and unsure of himself. He usually acted awkward and hesitant. However, when confronted with someone like this street preacher, Richard really came into his own. He was quite confident and self-assured when it came to recognizing the gaps and flaws in the arguments of other people. Seeing Richard react in this way made me feel more assured that our opponent was, in fact, being unreasonable. Richard’s assertive critique of the preacher’s questions was like an alarm going off, signaling to me that I was correct to be annoyed.

“Your life is a life of sin!” the preacher responded. “You and your friends come out here dressed up in your punk rock clothes, doing drugs, drinking, fornicating and thinking that life is all fun and games! But this will lead you to Hell. In the end, you will be sorry unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”

“How do you know that I do drugs, drink and fornicate? Can you tell that from my ‘punk rock clothes’?” Richard spat back. There was a laugh in his voice, mixed in with the anger, suggesting to both the preacher and me that there was very little to take seriously here.

“So are you saying that you don’t do those things? Can you honestly tell me that you are living your life according to Christian values?”

Richard’s shoulders convulsed as he started laughing. “I wish I had someone to fornicate with! The only reason why I don’t do those things is because I don’t have the resources! If only I had some money and a girlfriend I would be having all the sex and doing all of the drugs and drinking all of the booze I possibly could!”

“So you admit that you are not a Christian?” The preacher now saw his opportunity.

“I don’t know,” Richard said. “How exactly do you define a Christian?”

At this the preacher held out his stack of pamphlets. “It’s all here in black and white. If you want to know how it is that Jesus wants us to live our lives, all you need to do is read this. All of the answers are here.”

I shot a quick glance at Richard, and he shot one back at me. Nonchalantly, I reached into my jacket pocket for my lighter. We were standing so close to the street preacher and his outstretched pile of literature that I was able unobtrusively to hold the flame of the lighter beneath his stack of papers. As he was so focused on Richard, the preacher did not immediately notice that his pamphlets had ignited.

“It says in Revelations that the flames of Hell will be the fitting punishment for those who reject God! You will suffer eternal torment and pain because of your sinful ways! The righteous will watch from Heaven and witness how the will of God is done! Do you want to burn and suffer forever? If not, you must accept Jesus now, before it is too late!”

Many of the people standing outside of the club noticed what was going on, and a few of them had gathered around, laughing at the ironical scene unfolding before them.

“Hey buddy,” one of the bystanders shouted out, “I think God is sending you a message!”

It was then the preacher finally noticed that his pamphlets were being consumed in fire. Instinctively, he dropped the whole stack of materials onto the sidewalk, causing them to spread out on the ground and to flare up in a renewed and more violent blaze. Sparks flew up into the air as the papers hit the pavement, and the assembled crowd let out a collective vocalization.

“Whoooahhhhhh!!!!”

The preacher, on the other hand, just stood there, hands at his side, appearing quite defeated. He shook his head slowly back and forth, never looking any of us in the eye. The expression on his face was the expression of a person who felt impotent and unsure of what to do next, although I also think I detected a slight look of pity. Whether this was a look directed toward us or toward himself, I could not determine.

The only words out of the preacher’s mouth were, “You will all burn in Hell.” He kept repeating this sentence, over and over as he shook his head and stared at the heap of ashes at his feet.

“We all suffer and die. That’s it. No Hell, no Heaven; nothing.” I taunted.

The preacher didn’t say anything. He just walked away as everyone in front of the club continued laughing.

 

VIII.

            We graduated from being spectators at shows to forming our own band called Nihilism. I was the singer, Colleen played the guitar, Kendrick played drums and Richard was on bass. Our music was simple, fast and aggressive. The lyrics of the songs dealt with a variety of themes – political, moral, philosophical – but whatever the subject, the tone was always cynical and angry. We played shows whenever and wherever the opportunity arose.

Nihilism had a small but enthusiastic following in our hometown. Our shows never failed to attract a crowd of punks who would slam dance and sing along with the songs, creating an atmosphere in which the boundaries between band and audience seemed to melt away. We all became one inside the club, sharing the common experience of being there together and allowing the same emotions to wash over us. As one we were all angry. As one, we were all jubilant. As one, we were all melancholy. People I otherwise did not know became my brothers and sisters simply through the visceral power of music, and this state of enchantment could be induced again and again, recurrently, on differing evenings simply by playing the same songs.

One night we played a show in the most unlikely of places: a functioning glass warehouse. The warehouse was rented out to a local promoter for a small fee with the understanding that all of the merchandise would remain safely protected behind wood panels lining the walls of the space. The cost of any broken goods would come out of promoter’s own pocket. When we first walked into the place, the only hint that there were large quantities of breakable materials stored here was the tell-tale glint of the edges of glass sheets that peeked out, about 20 feet above the floor, from their plywood enclosures. Only about a foot of the glass was visible behind the protective barriers, but I imagined that the sheets had to be long enough to reach halfway to the floor.

There were four bands on the bill that evening. We went on second, just before a band called Ruins of Society, who in turn preceded the main act, which was a very well known band called Teeth! All of the opening bands played tremendously that night, but when it came to the famous headliners, things fell apart. The lead singer was so intoxicated that he had problems standing up. As he mounted the stage, he fell down and lay moaning into the microphone in an incomprehensible and pathetic manner. Throughout the band’s set, he repeatedly tried to get to his feet, but repeatedly ended up collapsing. Later, I learned that he was on heroin. Though at the time we laughed at and taunted the helpless singer, in retrospect it was really a sad and depressing situation: the vital and liberating energy of punk undermined by slavish addiction to a stupid drug.

After the show, while the assembled crowd remained to socialize, drink and horse around, Jason, the bass player from Ruins of Society and I approached the promoter to collect our money. We had been promised a measly $50 for our performances; enough to pay for gas and beer.

“Sorry dudes, but I barely have enough to cover what I promised Teeth!,” the guy told us, emphasizing the name “Teeth!” as if it held some kind of self-evident power that would make us back off from our request.

“Did you even see how fucked up that singer was?!” I responded, harboring the misguided thought that somehow payment should be commensurate with the quality of a band’s performance. “He couldn’t even stand up!”

“Sorry, man. I promised them.”

“I don’t give one fuck what you promised them,” Jason yelled, looking like an angry Aryan in a leather jacket, “You promised us 50 bucks!”

The promoter now looked scared. He didn’t say a word, but just stood there looking at Jason, slack-jawed and silent. I wouldn’t have been surprised if his knees had start knocking together.

“You piece of shit!” Jason screamed, leaning in to get face to face with the promoter, who still didn’t move or say a thing. As if he didn’t know what else to do, Jason cleared his throat in a slow, exaggerated show, filled his mouth with phlegm and then spat the wad into the promoter’s face, right between the eyes. The wad of phlegm stuck for an instant, and then slowly dripped down his nose and over his lips. He never even made a move to wipe it off.

Jason stomped away, but I stayed in place just long enough to give Mr. Promoter an up and down look before saying, “You’ve got some spit on your face.”

When I told the rest of our band that we had been stiffed for our $50, they were pissed off. Kendrick in particular fumed, yelling about how he wanted to kick ass. But Richard silenced him with a simple, elegant suggestion.

“We can still make him pay,” he said, looking up at the glinting edges of glass panes that peaked up seductively from behind their plywood enclosures.

Colleen, Kendrick and I all looked at one another and started laughing. We had been sharing 40 ounce bottles of malt liquor between us, and now we all realized that these bottles offered a fitting solution to our present dilemma. Kendrick was the first to down the remaining contents of his bottle in a few gulps before hoisting it behind his head like a large grenade and then stopping to gauge the trajectory required to deliver the ordinance to it’s destination. There was only a small area of unprotected glass high above our heads, but with a masterful heave, Kendrick arced his bottled into the air and through the opening behind which the glass pane was protected.

The noise level inside of the warehouse was high. The crowds of people who were talking, in addition to the recorded music that was now playing, made it impossible to hear the smashing sounds of glass. When Kendrick’s projectile found its target, however, we could see the top edge of one of the sheets disappear, collapsing behind its enclosure like a waterfall of crystal shards. Colleen let out a “Whooop!” and was the next to down her beer and then launch her bottle upwards. It also made contact, bringing yet another sheet of glass crashing down. Once out of our own bottles, we scavenged empties from around the warehouse, and, one by one, we heaved them into the openings along the walls. One by one, the tops of the glass panes disappeared from view until we finally felt as if we had been adequately compensated for our services that night.

 

IX.

            The Russian anarchist Bakunin wrote that destruction is a creative act. This is true. It clears the ground, making room for new things.

But destruction is also an expressive act.

It is also a spiteful act.

It is also sometimes a necessary act.

Destruction is inevitable in a world where nothing is permanent.

 

X.

            People change over time; but they also stay the same.

We are thrown into a world not of our own making, and as we grow older we fight to express ourselves through actions and words that are never quite perfect, but which nevertheless come to define who we become. We do the things we do because the world is out of joint with some ideal image we have of the way things should be. In this, every single one of our concrete actions falls short of its goal. Yet, if we scrutinize the patterns and the rhythms involved in the unfolding of our actions, a truth emerges from their totality the way that the plot of a novel emerges out of the collected letters, words, paragraphs and chapters that it contains.

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