I was born in 1974 in a poor city in northern Ohio. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to regale you with my whole life story. But circumstance and environment shape perspective, so I ask for your indulgence). My developmental years fall in the 1980s and early 1990s. It featured concerns (and the eventual decline) of nuclear fear, the Cold War, and the twin god-emperors of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. I was angry and attracted to rebellion, but I was a hearing impaired, socially awkward nerd without access to nightclubs or musical friends. As a result, I wasn’t shaped by one musical movement, so I sampled from anything I could find. I listened to heavy metal and hardcore hip-hop before finding inspiration from bootleg punk cassettes. The rough lyrics and basic chords tunneled through my thick hearing and seared my heart.
When I went to college and got access to real subcultures, I dyed my hair sea-foam green in time for punk to evolve away from me. All my friends wore black, Victorian clothes, which appealed to my secret love of the literature but made me feel awkward and ugly. I grew to love Vampire: The Masquerade and became part of a massive live-action game on the campus of the University of Akron. But even then, the Brujah and the Anarchs spoke to me, the last gasp of old-school punk in a growing crowd of pale and sexy people.
As I embraced my outdated aesthetic, I clung to Vampire‘s self-applied model of Gothic-Punk, and saw punk all around me. Again, I lived in Ohio, which did not have a thriving underground scene (or at least, not one I was invited to), but the media I consumed filled the void. Judge Dredd comics and Doctor Who episodes smuggled from friends in the UK. Hellblazer comics bought when I could afford them. Games of Cyberpunk and Kult played when we could find time. I sought out anything that felt punk to me.
And that’s when I met my first neo-Nazi, around 1994. And he terrified me. I remember swastikas tattooed all over his head, and the red shoelaces on his boots. In fact, he’s the one who explained the red shoelaces to me. It was a badge of pride, which became a warning as I refused to speak out against my friends of the “mongrel races.” If I ever saw anyone with red shoelaces, he explained, that person would hurt me as a traitor to my race. He told me to reconsider.
I was scared and angry, and in my head, I wanted to punch him back, punch him first, do something to get him to stop saying such horrible things. What I did was shake my head, refusing his bile, and then I hurried away. My whole body shook uncontrollably as I called the police and babbled incoherently before hanging up. I stayed to clubs and houses that firmly excluded neo-Nazis, and a few times I was the person who acted as lookout while my friends threw the punches I never had the nerve to throw.
After that, I had bigger concerns: I flunked out of college and looked for a job to pay for rent in a barely furnished house. But I let my hair grow out, ditched my leather jacket, and steered clear of people with red shoelaces in their boots. All my punk trappings became a costume for my character, not a part of me anymore, because I betrayed them. I had my first chance to throw a punch against tyranny, and I had failed.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. Over the years I’ve reincorporated bits of my old punk persona back into my life. As I gain more experience and access things on the Internet I never saw before, I’ve come to understand what I was actually chasing. I became an archaeologist of my youth, uncovering the connections and threads that got lost in fear and awkward Midwestern understanding. I discovered that while I had used the word “punk” as a hammer for every nail of “thing that spoke to me,” I wasn’t entirely off-base. If I had closer contacts to groups like the straight edge movement or antifa punks, I probably would have had a clearer path, and a better outlet for the anger and terror of my youth. When I got a chance to work on Vampire, I channeled that old-school punk voice because I felt it was lost under the polished, darkly erotic surface. I dropped “punk” as an exclusive term in describing myself, and instead made it part of my personal gestalt.
In recent months, I’ve been reminded of those formative years again. It felt like a second chance for me to reclaim discarded punk mantle and vindicate my past self-treachery. Neo-nazis weren’t something from World War II; they were a terror from my past, an evil I could slay now that I was older and wiser. Surely, I could finally punch a Nazi.
I learned that an alt-right rally was scheduled to take place less than an hour from my house, and I was filled with an old, familiar terror. I found myself glancing at a stranger’s boots once, checking his shoelaces. I didn’t know what to do, and social media shouted about punching Nazis and not punching Nazis. I never had much of a punk scene in my life, so I went back to the scene I had constructed for myself: the TV shows and comics and books that influenced me.
I started from first principles, and I discovered all the things I ham-fistededly collated as part of the same movement had two things in common. They all had a sense of humor and a lingering sense that everything would work out in the end. The anger and violence (both physical and social) was there, but they could be directed to a purpose. The Doctor didn’t use violence, but he still stood up against fascists, angrily pointing out how ludicrous they were. John Constantine was an asshole, but he was an asshole that used his brain. As I move outside the punk sphere, most of my heroes used intelligence and conversation as much or more than violence: Sherlock Holmes, the Fantastic Four, Captain Kirk, Ford Prefect, and so on. While I had obsessed over the trappings, I had missed the result that not everyone who fought racists and fascism used a fist and a broken bottle. Some people rebelled through a loud scream, an angry satire, or a damning put-down, and not all conversation is about conciliation. In the end, I would never be Sid Vicious, but I could be Tom Baker’s Doctor. (Or, to steal the language of Vampire, I wasn’t a Potence Brujah, but I could be a Presence Brujah.)
My life is now based around words. They’re my weapons, my shield, my livelihood, and my obsession. Sometimes I tell my own stories, and sometimes I help others tell stories to each other, but this is who I am and what I do. Just because my hands shake from fear and adrenaline doesn’t mean I won’t stand up against what I think is wrong. Some days my words are careful and considered, and others they’re a jumbled mess of passion and anger. I know now that I didn’t fail when I refused to punch that neo-Nazi; I had succeeded when I refused to bow to his hateful rhetoric. I didn’t punch someone in the face, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t stand and fight. And now I know that not everyone with red shoelaces is going to hurt me.