The Violence Given Me by Johnny No Bueno
Editor Roy Coughlin, Editor's Choice, June 28th, 2013
Existence itself is an act of violence.
There is a river of blood unseen, but fueling the very society in which we live. I just happen to be a boatman. I was born into it, baptized in it, and nourished from it my whole life. I hate it, but it is there. It is not something I want people to experience. I often find myself wondering how large my martyr complex is, but then again such terms were created by mundane privileged people, who lead mundane and privileged lives. You see, where I come from violence is a ballet. The cold inhumane street lamps: stage lighting. Boomboxes and headphones: orchestra pit. We carry on in our universe so that the rest of the world can look upon us, and judge us: criminals, thugs, monsters, ruffians, gangsters, scum of the Earth. However, I agree with Orwell when he claimed that people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. My friends and I are the rough men and women of which he spoke of, standing ready to fight. We grew up at the end of a fist. It is what we know.
+ + +
I tell the arresting officer to please call my mother instead of my father. My mother lives in Canby, the town I had come back to to hang out with friends, the same friends with whom I got picked up for curfew alongside. It would be so much easier for her to come and get me, seeing she lives only blocks away, than it would be for my father who lives ten miles away. Plus my father is drinking again and will definitely beat the shit out of me.
Every year, throughout my life, my father had gotten more and more violent with me. It started as spankings, then flicks to the back of my ear. This progressed to smacks upside the back of my head, and on to kicks to wherever he could drunkenly land them. The last time my father had struck me it was an open-hand slap. I’m afraid this time it will be a full on fist.
When the officer comes back into the room I ask him who he called. He tells me that my father was on his way to get me. I have to get out! My eyes darting around the room for an exit; of course there is none, this is the police station. But what if I made as if I was trying to escape? I wouldn’t get far. They would surely have to charge me with resisting arrest, eluding an officer, and attempted escape. I would be a run risk. They would have to take me to Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center, but I would be safe from my father. I guess I just have to sit and wait.
I can’t tell you how much time has passed, but I can say that the second I see my father’s whiskey-red face through the window in the steel door, all time slows down. He glances through the window and sees my face. His jaw clenches, and he walks into the room like an assassin walking out of the shadows and into a gun fight, all Clint Eastwood and ambiance music. Every movement is fluid and purposeful. Even his swaying and intentional drunken gait seems to have its own rhythm. Just as his head crests the threshold of the door, he is called back by the officer. I hear, “Mr. Bowers, your son is scared that . . .” and the door closes.
This stupid fucking cop is telling my dad that I told him that my dad will beat me up. You have got to be fucking kidding me. This well-intentioned, yet ignorant, cop has just signed my death certificate. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck! I look at Holly next to me and tell her that if she doesn’t hear from me in a day or two, to call the police. My dad will at least attempt to kill me. I just pray he isn’t successful. My dad opens the door and holds it, head bent in shame. I get up to go with him, walking as slowly as possible, so I can cherish these last moments of life. I know too well that this act won’t last long.
We walk in silence to the car. In silence, he starts the car. In silence, he starts driving. In silence, he turns the radio up. In silence, we edge our way out of town. In silence, he turns the radio off. No longer silent, the monster speaks: “So I am going to beat you up, huh? I thought you were smarter than that. But no. And now you are going to know what it is like to get beat up.”
+ + +
Violence was given to me just as one might receive breast milk, from as close to the heart as any other human can be.
+ + +
We gather in the park blocks of what will come to be called the “Pearl District.” Punks, skinheads, anarchists and street-corner hooligans, there must have been forty or fifty of us. The tension is thick as concrete. I’m chain smoking, trying to look as confidant and “together” as I can. Some people are stretching, some are checking their weapons, some are lacing up their boots. Everyone is anxious. Bobby, the captain of Rat City Boot Boys, the local Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (S.H.A.R.P) crew, cries out, “Alright, everybody gather around.”
Bobby gets us all in a huddle, or at least what could be thought of as a huddle. “Okay, most people know why we are here. White supremacist band West Side Bootboys are playing under an assumed name at the Lion’s Den. They know, as does all of Portland by this point, that the further spreading of the white supremacist agenda will not be tolerated. This. Is. Rat. City. This. Is. Our. City. We have done away with asking. This is not a mission of diplomacy. So if any of you are afraid of getting your hands dirty, possibly winding up in the hospital, worst case scenario: dead, then now is the time to back out. Everybody going into this needs to be one hundred percent on board. We need to be able to rely on that. If this is something you can’t do, then please leave now.”
Everybody glances around, some seem nervous, some seem pensive, all are nauseous with fear. One guy starts to back away, and before he breaks he looks askingly at Bobby. Bobby glances to Marcus, who is the founder of the gang, as he makes his way behind the nervous young man. “It’s okay, Frankie. I will buy you a beer at the show on Saturday to show you that there are no hard feelings.”
Frankie looks down, ashamed, “I’m sorry, Marcus. I just . . . ” and with that he turns and quickly walks towards Broadway Street. With the green light of the first individual to leave, fifteen or so others follow suit, staring at the soggy ground as they walk away. Part of me is ashamed of my own fear, wishing I could join them and another part of me is angry that they had taken “the out,” because I can’t. This is the only chance to prove myself. I find myself getting angry, thinking how others have the option of opting out, but I always feel compelled beyond my will to stay the course.
After the crowd of defectors are out of earshot, Marcus perks up, “Now that the cowards are gone, let’s talk strategy,” and launches into a long, drawn-out war games session that I can’t stay focused on.
Years of getting beat up by my father, years of homelessness, my father’s murder, and I have never really thought of the application of violence. But I am now faced with it. What are we about to do? Why are we doing what we are doing? Doesn’t this violence just become a cycle? Just as I get dizzy with fear and confusion, I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Bobby.
Bobby has always been like a big brother to me ever since he first saw me getting my ass kicked for pushing a bonehead into a fountain for handing out white-power fliers at a punk rock show. He beat off the boneheads and picked me up off the ground. He bought me food when I had no money to eat. He paid for me to get into punk shows. Bobby is the man I use as my example of how a real man should be: compassionate and loving, but stoic and dangerous.
“You alright, Tugboat? You look upset.”
I’m more afraid to tell Bobby that I’m afraid than I am afraid that I’m about to take part in something that could kill me, imprison me, and most definitely alter the course of my life forever.
“I’m fine man. Just a little on edge, being the small guy and all.”
“Well, that is why Marcus and I have a special plan for you. You see, nobody knows who you are. We want you to set it off and then vanish,” and Bobby breaks into a detailed plan. Basically, everybody is going to wait around one corner from the venue. I am to approach from the other side, sucker punch the first guy I think I can outrun and lead him around the corner and directly into the gauntlet of anti-racists waiting for him.
This is not only something I can do, but it also makes me feel valuable, like I am part of the team. My cigarette shakes in my hand as our large group crosses West Broadway toward the venue, and passed the awkward stares of traffic and pedestrians. I really hadn’t thought what we must have looked like to an unknowing innocent bystander. Tattoo-faced punk rockers with pit bulls. Skinheads with bricks and baseball bats. Guys in track suits and Kangol caps. Unrecognizable figures with every inch of their body covered in black, all except their eyes. We know we are going to war. One can only assume that the rest of Portland can feel the tension emanating from us.
Half of the group lines up against the wall on the north side of the street and the other half against the wall on the south side of the street. This has to be done fast, before the cops get here. We assume they have already been called by a nervous busybody and that they are already on their way. Marcus and Bobby lead me around the block. I smoke a cigarette in what feels like one drag and it doesn’t seem like enough. My heart is trying to jump out of my throat, as is my stomach. I just need to get this over with. As we near the corner, I feel something cold and hard against the palm of my hand. I jump a little and notice that Marcus is behind me trying to put a brick in my hand. “It will give you a couple of seconds to get out of arms reach,” he says steadying my arm so he can place the unnaturally red stone in my hand.
If I think about it one more second I won’t do it. Without even peeking to see who is there, I put my bricked hand behind my back and make my way around the corner. There are four of them outside the venue. One of them has a patch that says “EK,” for European Kindred, and I instantly feel at ease with what I have to do. In front of me are four men, a small representation of the possible one hundred inside, who are out to destroy communities and families with their message of racial hatred. My pace quickens. As I near them I actually overhear, “I can’t believe there is no sign of those Antifa bastards. Looks like we might finally be left alone.” Right then a cop blasts his siren at what I am assuming is a driver. One of the boneheads turns his head (my pace quickens). I see that he is standing outside of arms reach of the others, (my pace quickens) furthest towards the other side of the block, (my pace quickens) and closest to my allies in waiting (my pace quickens). The brick feels as if it is an extension of me, (my pace quickens) pendulums front (my pace quickens). Then back (my pace quickens). Jump. Swing.
+ + +
Existence itself is an act of violence.
+ + +
My best friend Rodent and I are sitting at the Multnomah Pub, trying to get as drunk as our no-money will allow us, and Cynthia walks in. The sun is shining, making her a silhouette, but her shape, her dreads, and flower dress are unmistakable. Cynthia is a hippy girl who just happens to drink in our local watering hole. We normally don’t have any love for hippies, but she has a tendency to get drunk and buy rounds, so we keep her around.
As the door closes behind her and light swarms her face, I see that she has two black eyes, a busted nose, and a number of other nicks and scrapes. Rodent and I mockingly ask her what boxer she said the wrong thing to. Her hands race to her face and she begins weeping uncontrollably. She might be a hippy, maybe she looks down on my friends and me, but she is our classist hippy. She drinks where we drink, and that connects us. With that understanding, Rodent and I rush to her side, as she starts to wobble. Guiding her to an empty seat at our table, we simultaneously ask, “What’s wrong” and, “Who did this to you?”
After a few shots of whiskey and pitcher of beer in front of her, she precedes to tell us how her boyfriend had beat her up last night. This is why she came to the bar so early. She’s afraid he is going to find her. So she wants to be where it was safe. She laughingly admits, “Unfortunately, the safest place for me to be is around you psychopaths,” referring to the roughneck punks and skinheads that drink at the Multnomah Pub, like Rodent and I. So she makes a deal with us. She will buy us drinks throughout the day and into the night, if we would accompany her back to her apartment and stay with her until this “thing” with her abusive boyfriend simmers down. Being the poor, thirsty, and mooching bums that we are, we eagerly oblige her.
And with that, the party commences. How many pitchers of beer, how many shots, how many Merle Haggard sing-alongs later, I’m not quite sure, but we eventually make our way to a different bar across the river. Rodent and I are very excited, because they have $1 twelve ounce bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which we drink by the bucket load. We’re having a great time ruffling the feathers of the middle-class kids from the east side who like to dress as if they are actual punks but know nothing of the culture. Being a black punk-rocker often brings Rodent to the center of attention, both good and bad, and he loves shattering all the privileged kids’ liberal sentimentality by making blatantly racist jokes and never hiding his over-sexed and lustful intentions with every woman who didn’t detest him within seven seconds of meeting him.
Cynthia finds an old buddy at the bar she casually slept with in school and wants to take him back to the apartment to start having sex, before Rodent and I walk in and join the party. (Yeah, we’re that drunk.) We are a little worried about the situation but let her go, as she is currently our place to crash indoors, and we don’t want to get in the way of her plans. Plus she could use a piece of ass that wasn’t her degenerate woman-beating boyfriend. Unfortunately for Rodent and I, once our calming companion leaves, we are like feral dogs without leashes, quickly overstaying our welcome. The locals are getting restless, so we make our way to the bodega to grab forty ounces’ of malt liquor for the slow walk back to Cynthia’s place. Knowing there is a girl with meth and an appetite for more than one man waiting for us is rather exciting and we want to pace ourselves and prepare.
As we walk down Sandy Boulevard we casually sip our beers, as if it is our birthright. Rodent keeps trying to talk about what we were going to do to the guy when we get our hands on him. We always seem to be talking about the times we did bad things to good people together, or just doing bad things in general, and I am getting kind of tired of it. I want to be respected for being a good guy. I don’t want to be feared anymore. And right then we are approached by a guy on a bicycle. I instantly feel uneasy in the presence of this dread-locked individual.
“Hey, you know that bitch Cynthia?” the shadowed cyclist asks us.
Holy shit! It is Cynthia’s abusive boyfriend. Somehow, we had stumbled across the one guy whom this whole day of drinking and hanging out with Cynthia was thanks to. I had to play it cool. Rodent and I exchange glances. We had just found the fight we were looking for since our fifth shot of Jameson. I return his question with another. “Not that hippy bitch that drinks at the Multnomah?”
“Yeah that’s the one. Wait, you guys drink down there – I think I’ve seen you in there. So have you seen her?” he asks.
“Nah, I haven’t her since . . .” and the rest of my feigned congeniality is drowned by the breaking of glass across the dreaded face of a misogynist hippy.
+ + +
My life was built on what seemed an inherent relationship with violence. As much as we sentimentally want to try to condemn all violence, or the abstract of violence, I have learned that violence and the pains that stem from violence are often the catalyst for deeper and more compassionate understandings, and perspectives, of the world we inhabit. My years as a homeless youth, a gang member, anti-racist activist, a teenage gay-for-pay prostitute, a drug addict, lead me to believe one thing, one thing that can’t be unlearned: survival is a game of force. This world, this society, is built upon the construct that one can only ever achieve what they are willing to take by force or be broken by. Some may come from a place where this is not a reality, but will eventually succumb to it. Much like the floor of a forest, life itself is dependent upon the destruction and consumption of other life.
+ + +
Johnny No Bueno is the author of We Were Warriors (University of Hell Press). He is the curator of the reading series Them’s Fightin’ Words in Portland, Oregon. No Bueno is the Lead Poetry Editor for Criminal Class Press, as well as gopher/interviewer/editor(ish) for University of Hell Press. He has read throughout Oregon, California, Washington, and Massachusetts, and has even had the honor of helping facilitate a writing workshop in San Quentin Prison. He is the founder of Profound Existence, Boston’s Dharma Punx group, and was named one of Willamette Weeks six Voices of 2012. He is currently in school working towards becoming a teacher/mentor for incarcerated and at-risk youth.