When I selected my shirt for the evening I’m quite sure I put consideration into the reaction it might evoke- I was likely hoping for curiosity, questioning, and maybe even a bit of intimidation. The music I had gotten into over the past few years made me feel those things in spades, and I misguidedly assumed that anyone in my eventual surroundings would share them. The shirt was either from the band Suicidal Tendencies or Overkill, and whichever one it was, the imagery and language were kind of severe; I was 15, and neck-deep in a somewhat frightening underground scene that I thought was the coolest thing in the world, partially for those very reasons.
We had gone to Buffalo (more specifically, Orchard Park) to visit our aunt, uncle, and cousins, and for me that meant sneakily watching rated “R” movies that I probably would not have gotten to see otherwise, shoplifting prolifically with my cousin at the local mall, or attempting to matriculate with his somewhat uppity social circle. I stood out in demeanor (as well as appearance) at such gatherings however my general pleasantness had always allowed for nice conversations with a few of the girls that tended to be around. The party this time around was at the house of a well-to-do boy whose parents were out of town… cliché, yes, but that is what kids did in the world I was visiting. It seemed like a merry-go-round of traveling social events based on adult absence and availability of cheap alcohol. I didn’t get it, and it in no way resembled my life in Rochester, but I was there and decided to ride the ride.
It was crowded even as we arrived, and there were very few people I recognized. The house itself was beautiful, and I remember thinking what a chore it would be to restore it to its pre-teenage wasteland state, though I’m sure the young proprietors had plenty of experience in executing post-party makeovers.
I wandered throughout the house, into the backyard, and eventually down into the lavishly furnished and accessorized basement. There was an ordinary-ness to it all, even in its pomp and frills; The most beautiful things very often require the least effort to be so, and the forcefulness of the grandeur cheapened the appeal. There were small clusters of kids in all rooms, and among them were just three I had met before- all girls, and all appearing quite popular. My cousin had disappeared not a few minutes after our arrival, and after sitting by myself on a basement couch watching MTV on the large-for-the-time television, I rationalized that having a beer might make the ordeal feel a little more normal. It would be my first drink of alcohol, and although I was not without reservation about it, I settled on a “What’s the harm?” perspective and went about it. It was in a can- Budweiser– and it was disgusting. In addition to tasting terrible I’m quite sure it was supposed to be much colder- I wasn’t drinking for enjoyment nearly as much as fuel for social integration, so taste be damned.
Feeling like a little less of an outcast now that I was flying the same flag as most of the others, I wandered around a bit and said hello to the three girls I had previously met. Two were engaged in some very theatrical gossip/ storytelling and didn’t have the time of day, and the third- Kirsten- seemed happy to talk to someone outside her usual circle. We talked about school, we laughed a little bit about how similar everyone looked and acted, and I asked her what she did outside of school for enjoyment. She said “Oh, just normal things. Parties, the mall, I played soccer in 9th grade but got cut in 10th so now I just play tennis with my mom and her friends.” None of that struck me as normal, but then again, if I had told her that I routinely snuck out of my house and traveled hundreds of miles to see shows that often ended in violence and mayhem, and almost daily threw myself down stairs on a bicycle for fun, I’m sure she would have felt the same.
I finished my first beer and Kirsten had gotten me a second which I had begun drinking as we talked. I wasn’t drunk, but was fuzzy, and between beer and conversation none of my attention was focused elsewhere. At this point she and I were talking about our few pieces of common ground, including curiosity as to how anyone could actually like math, and the recent shocking discovery that one of the stars of ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ was actually in her thirties!
I remember feeling unusual, but also slightly normal, and impressed with my effort to blend. I heard some commotion behind me and upon seeing a strange look come across Kirsten’s face, I turned towards it just in time for mine to be struck with what appeared to be a small metal folding chair. I fell, was again struck by several boys upon attempting to rise, and then grabbed and brought outside. I was dizzy from both alcohol and blows to the head, and was relatively defenseless against the group that had now put me in what was presumably their parents van. They seemed older than I, and their taunting told me that I had been targeted based simply on the fact that I had the nerve to talk to a girl they knew, and that I looked like a “freak”. (In reflection, I am sure that I stood out, but the freaks I pictured were always those with prominent piercings, colored hair, elaborate ornamentation on their clothing and jackets… I simply had Vans shoes, Dickies pants, and a music T-shirt. Strange to think how drastically times have changed in that regard.)
I was attempting to shield myself in a back corner of the van, definitely not knowing the endgame or what else I could have done to improve my situation. I had been hit multiple times in the stomach and sides, at least several times in the head, and was in a lot of pain. My hand was bleeding a little bit, so I thought, but I later realized it had trickled down from my nose. I attempted to shift while continuing to cover my head and face, and as what was to be the last round of taunting began one of the boys kicked me high in the chest, snapping my head back and splitting it open on the rear door of the van. The warm liquid trickling down my neck brought me to anger, but it was overwhelmed and quieted by pain and fear. I had gone out briefly at that point, and awoke to the doors being opened and then being put down on a sidewalk in what looked to be an industrial part of town. The short time after was a blur, and the next clarity I had was climbing to my feet and beginning to walk.
It had gotten colder and was well past dusk. I had no idea where I was, and the frustration I felt for getting myself into such a situation now rivaled the pain driving through my body and head. Upon coming to a cross street I opted to stay in one place, assuming that if Buffalo were anything like Rochester there would soon be a cop, or a bus, or at least a group of students that may be able to direct me to a phone or store. After waiting for what felt like hours, but was surely only 5-10 minutes, a cop drove by and I flagged him down with my arms. I briefly described what had transpired, including the fact that I had drank one and a half cans of beer at a party and that I could give neither the full name of anyone in attendance or the address, and then provided my uncle’s name. After patting me down and threatening to ticket me for vagrancy, he put me in the back of the car and drove to the police station.
The third time I had been in the back of a police car was certainly less of a rush than the first two- one of which was for riding my bike on private property in the city of Rochester, and the other was simply for standing in the wrong place at the wrong time as violence escalated quickly in front of a show venue. I was fortunate enough not to get into any trouble in either of the previous back seat visits, but distinctly remembered a feeling of excitement and a small sense of wonder accompanying each. This time, however, I felt angry to be there- based both on the disturbing nature of its origin, and the fact that I was casually accused of something (albeit as minor as vagrancy…) while visibly injured and scared. My now head-to-toe shaking was surely caused by a combination of temperature, pain, and anger, and was severe enough to make me dizzy as I stared at the computerized screen in the front seat of the car.
I was led into the station and pointed to a chair as the officer that drove me in spoke with another and then picked up a phone. I could overhear enough to know that he had called my uncle, and that he would immediately be on his way. My heart sank a bit further with the thought of him telling my parents what had transpired, and I was already picturing the lot of them coming into the station and chastising me for all manners of the irresponsibility I had exhibited that evening. I watched the goings-on of the station and attempted to eavesdrop anywhere I could, mostly in an effort to distract myself from what was now severe pain in my ribs, back, and head. Before long my uncle arrived, alone, and after blowing by the front desk walked briskly towards my escorting officer. My uncle was a thick, jovial, big-hearted man, and in all his jolly charm and good humor, he was also a bit of an imposing figure. A local waste management magnate, he had obviously been through the ringer many times and had developed the take-no-shit attitude that came with. The officer began trying to explain his version of what had transpired, but after taking one look at me, my uncle went up one side of him and down the other for the fact that I was not already being looked at in the hospital and instead sitting unattended in a bloody t-shirt alongside criminals waiting for booking. He was livid, and frightening, and since I had not done anything punishable and was obviously pretty banged up, the officer conceded (but not before commenting that I hadn’t stated I was injured) and walked away. My uncle helped me up, put his hand on my back, and took me to the hospital.
On the way over, we talked about the version of the story that made sense to share, and settled on a simple one that involved some drunken boys picking on the out-of-towner and it getting a little out of hand. Though he knew full well what transpired at parties such as the one we had attended, he also knew that telling my parents of such things served no purpose other than to further upset everyone involved. After leaving the station and now learning that I would likely not be getting grounded for the rest of my young adult life, the pain seemed to quiet to a dull roar.
We arrived at the hospital and were checked in quickly. The experience was unremarkable and thankfully efficient, and taught us that I had a mild concussion, required 9 stitches in the back of my head, and had at least two bruised ribs. I was cared for, wrapped up, and sent on our way.
Upon returning to my uncles’ house, I was beyond thankful to see all but one light turned off. I moved quietly, knowing that a shower and some sleep would lessen the visual impact on my parents, and though I’m sure they were awake and waiting for us to return, I was so exhausted that trying to explain myself right then might have done me in. Sleep was welcome but not comfortable, and the thought of what had transpired that night left me feeling strong relief that it hadn’t been any worse. My parents and the others in the house were understandably concerned when we convened over breakfast in the morning, but my uncle did a masterful job at downplaying the entire thing and minimizing the elements of the story that would have caused the most commotion. It hurt to breathe, and my head was throbbing like a rung bell, but I was able to conceal at least enough of it keep the house from entering a full-blown red alert.
We spent a low-key half day lounging in- and out- of doors, and then headed back to Rochester in the early evening. I had quickly filled my cousin in on what had transpired, and he was both furious and profoundly apologetic. I just wanted to get back to my version of reality (in which I couldn’t be the weirdest one in the room if I tried) and use this as a lesson and example of paths I would never walk again. Experiencing the fear of helplessness, and of knowing that even my best efforts wouldn’t have unwound the tangle I was in, became weights I carried that didn’t lighten until I made deliberate efforts to ensure they would never happen again.
In the cycle of over-thinking I had done in the years following this event, it wasn’t until I examined it with wide-eyes and pragmatism that the positive benefit and truth were found. My one-day foray into the herd mentality of teenage drinking and directionless socialization taught me a swift, harsh lesson- but the less-harsh, more gradual lesson that befell many of my schoolmates is arguably much more severe…
Many kids my age found such allure in the pastimes and circumstances that I visited and tried to assimilate in that they became them. They drank and partied and social-climbed their way right through high school, likely into college, and some probably even made it work for them beyond that. But a strong argument could be made that they would have been better in at least some aspect of their lives had they not as young adults been so consumed with consumption and addicted to attention.
There is a strength in solitude and a clarity in defiance that I had now begun to understand, but can’t be explained and must be experienced…
A misadventure such as this (even with its costly scars) was necessary, and taught an invaluable lesson that would have been impossible to grasp without being forced to feel.