When I was growing up, we had a twenty-five-inch screen television in every room. I watched the Doors perform “Light My Fire” on Ed Sullivan in my bedroom when I was just a little kid. Dad was home from work, sucking down a bumper of beer in his easy chair in the family room, Walter Cronkite’s talking head on the evening news. Mom would watch Julia Child at the kitchen counter, staring like a buddha, and when the show was over she’d know how to make it too. Even though my older sister had X-Acto cuts on her wrists and cigarette burns up and down her arms, she’d manage to be on the couch each Friday night to watch the Brady Bunch struggle with their petty problems. When my brother came home from Vietnam he slept with the TV on in his room so there was no time that a TV wasn’t on in at least one room in our home and quite often in many at a time, all on different channels. Besides for the basics of human existence—food, sleep, etc.—there was nothing that connected my family members to each other more than TV.
But then, at seventeen, a couple of my friends from school asked me to go with them to the VFW hall downtown for a rock show. The concert lasted until two in the morning and three bands of dyed-tattooed-and-pierced punks ravaged their guitars and drums, shrieked unintelligibly into microphones (except for the occasional crystal clear chorus—“Rape the State!” “Fuck the Faculty!” etc.), and even, in the case of one sinister singer with a bull’s-eye tattooed on his skull, spat on the audience. The musicians weren’t the only anti-social miscreants in that squat, nondescript building with its concrete floors and card tables. Afterward, a pack of skinheads kicked the shit out of a black kid in spiked leather jacket, laughing and shouting fake vernacular: “I’s havin’ fun!” and “Ain’t nothing like fried chicken!” It was scary and disturbing, but we were relieved we weren’t targeted too though it wouldn’t be until years later that I realized our whiteness had protected us. Tadd’s lip got busted and someone hit me in the stomach while I was slam dancing knocking the wind out of me, but rather than scare us off punk, we were smitten. It was instantly something in our blood or maybe less deep, just beneath the skin. We were not cool kids, not even close to popular, but when we shaved patterns in our scalps, wrote on our skin in marker, wore safety pins through our ears, people at school looked at us differently and that was good. You don’t have to be popular to be noticed and everyone wants to be seen. A punk is a little like a ghost though—pale, probably harmless, but a little scary, a thing of the night. It felt like our whole lives had changed.
But things don’t change.
Mom got cancer and since she wasn’t cooking or cleaning we kids needed to pick up the slack. And that was also the year that satellites were dropping out of the sky and no one knew if they’d be the next one crushed by big chunks of falling metal. Punk rock, which had been so all-consuming for nearly a year, didn’t seem to make as much difference pretty quickly and my hair grew back even as Mom’s fell out. When her cancer went into remission, we all felt so relieved that every night we’d watch TV together in our living room. At least for a while.
John Talbird is the author of the chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind. His fiction and
essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review,
Ambit, Xavier Review and many others. He is on the Editorial Board of Green Hills
Literary Lantern and a frequent contributor to Film International. An English professor
at Queensborough Community College, he lives in New York City with his wife.