September 4, 2016

The First Curse


In the early Eighties, a strident and righteous faction calling itself “Straight Edge” emerged out of the hardcore punk scene in Washington, D.C. Touted by Minor Threat vocalist Ian MacKaye, the idea behind Straight Edge went like this: Traditionally, punks had shown their contempt for mainstream culture by wearing funny clothes, getting funny haircuts, and screaming about anarchy and how much society sucks. At heart, though, most of them just wanted to get drunk, stoned, and laid like regular top forty rock stars, and, for that matter, damn near everyone else in America. If you want to really rebel, MacKaye argued, if you really want to say “fuck you” to suburbia and all it holds sacred, you should be adamant about not drinking, not taking drugs, not smoking, and not having sex. Keeps the mind more clear and focused that way. Alcohol, tobacco, drugs and sex are all just tools of the corporate power base, simple ways to keep the masses numb, distracted, and docile. Better still, if you’re very public about Straight Edge as a life style choice, it will really screw with people’s heads.

            Well, thousands of kids took the bait and bought the line, and over a very short period of time the Straight Edge kids grew militant and violent about their clean living ways, evolving into another Nazi skinhead gang. Not only did they steer clear of booze and drugs themselves, they took to stomping the crap out of other kids at shows who didn’t. The Straight Edgers were the most annoying people on earth—humorless politically correct assholes with chains and combat boots. These days so far as I know MacKaye is still preaching sobriety, but as per usual corporate America won out, and the Straight Edge movement faded away.

            That’s all merely a roundabout and only vaguely relevant way of introducing a very stupid story.

            When I was a kid, all the way through high school, I was incredibly straight. Outrageously and insufferably Squeaky Clean. I may have been obsessed with violence and mayhem, lowlifes and criminals, and I may have had a headful of self-destructive tendencies, but I never drank or smoked, the idea of taking drugs never occurred to me, and, well, let’s just say sex wasn’t exactly a realistic option. Hell, I didn’t even swear.

            Those primary vices were fairly easy to avoid, My folks didn’t smoke, didn’t use drugs of any kind, and only drank in moderation. They did curse quite a bit, especially my dad, but even then there were limits. He never used “fuck” or any of its myriad variations, and there were most certainly no “cunts” or “cocksuckers” dropped casually into the mix. Still, both at home, on the street and in school I was surrounded by an ever flowing stream of obscenities which I consciously chose not to use myself.

            So I was living the Straight Edge lifestyle long before the term was coined, even going far beyond what Straight Edge dictated, and was doing it for the same reasons MacKaye laid out. I saw the stoners shambling through the halls or off to the park across the street to sneak a smoke, and listened to the cool kids talking about how many brewskis they’d downed at the party the weekend before. I had teachers offer to sell me pot, while others I saw outside school made crass cracks about the girls in their classes. Taking it all in, I decided I’d be just the opposite. It was the same reason I started listening to classical music—just my own little “fuck you” to the culture that surrounded me. And in terms of swearing, I stuck to the old pain in the ass dictum that I had vocabulary enough at my disposal, so didn’t need to resort to “shits” and “assholes” to make whatever point I was trying to make.

            I wasn’t militant about it, never tried to inflict it on anyone else, and never condemned anyone for doing or saying what they did. Just opted to live that way myself for my own reasons, without giving a good goddamn about what anyone else thought.

            Okay, now for another little meaningless aside. I may have mentioned this before, but my German teacher in eleventh grade had nicknamed me “Tschungle,” the German word for “jungle,” as in, yes, “Jungle Gym,” get it? Don’t know how or when that started, but it soon simply became another of the dozen or so overused nicknames that haunted me throughout my years in public school.

            But back to what I was talking about. When the final bell rang one afternoon in the early Spring of 1982, I had to drop something off in the main office before I headed home. By the time I left the office, the hallway was already packed with a mad torrent of students charging the front door. I still had to get to my locker, so I put my head down and slowly picked my way back toward the main hallway while hundreds of teenagers swirled past and around me in the opposite direction. In the midst of all this, Mr. Walker, a science teacher, saw me and shouted, “Yeah, that’s you all over, Knipfel—always gotta swim against the stream.”

            A minute later, as I was still trying to get to my locker and growing more frustrated, a fat kid from my German class named Lenny (of course) swaggered past me on his way out and said “Hey Tschungle, ya fuckin’ weirdo.”

            Without even thinking about it—I was distracted at the time, and didn’t give a damn about anything Lenny had to say—I reflexively shot back, “Hey Lenny, ya fuckin’ normal person.”

            Then I stopped in near shock, realizing I’d not just cursed for the first time, but also said “fuck” aloud in school, and right outside the main office to boot. I’ll be damned. But you know, something about it was just so right and appropriate for that moment, it didn’t bother me much.

            Well, that was pretty much that so far as my personal “no cursing” rule was concerned. The drinking started three years later, the drugs and smoking a year after that.

            Considering my initial childhood impulse to be contrary, and considering fundamental changes in public perception in the years since, I think it’s pretty funny that while swearing and drug use remain acceptable cultural currency, alcohol abuse and chain-smoking still make me a pariah in certain circles. I’m grateful for that.


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