i. The Shrine
He was eleven the first time he snuck downtown to visit the Tropicana, accompanied by some older boys from Bishop Pinkham Junior High. He no longer recalls what season it was, but he feels that it had to be autumn. It had to be the start of the school year, when the weather was still warm yet the days glowed like firelight. Bishop Pinkham nestled into low hills beneath the yellowing poplar trees of Southwest Calgary. The Tropicana, on Eighth Avenue, stood one block up from pawnshops and diners. Sneaking downtown to skateboard, to gawk at the ebb and flow of downtown life, was a rite of passage into adolescence, and the Tropicana was a shrine.
When he first walked through the door he forgot about the light, the people shouting and drinking on Eighth Avenue, the other boys. Their voices, some still cracking, grew faint. The smell of teenage sweat faded. A distorted metallic rush of sound veered toward him. A voice, stripped to pure hoarseness, roared above the rush. He stood holding his skateboard, hesitant. That step across the threshold, and the snakebite of music, enticed him. To his right he noticed the words Beyond Possession, in lettering that glowered above a skull.
Banners hung from the ceiling, and high-gloss rock posters decorated the walls. The images seemed to freeze sound. The fonts aggressed. He had never thought of language as being able to visually hurtle, to strike its imprint into the air. The posters, silent representations of loudness, exposed his innocence, and his legs felt weak. Even if he wanted to drop to his knees, he remained standing and absorbed the figures of singers and guitar players, the long hair and the blur of performance, and yet, more than the images, the words entered him with an intimate force, as if they knew him. They echoed aloud in his thoughts, and for days his mouth relished their contours:
Back in Black
Ace of Spades
Punks Not Dead
He didn’t have the vocabulary to describe the art, but he could feel the art shaping a new vocabulary for him. Even so, he couldn’t have explained why it transported him out of the chamois-hued flatness of the suburbs. The suburbs, with edged and weeded lawns, freshly washed sedans gleaming in wet driveways. The suburbs, whose thin pulse was nourished by McCain. The suburbs, whose spacious, carpeted living rooms were hung with watercolour landscapes, where his white friends’ parents owned Elvis Presley and Paul Anka records.
Thirty-five years later he might observe a young version of himself curious about the name Tropicana. The shop had nothing to do with the tropics. He might also reflect on the relative innocence and quaintness of a boyhood not mediated by the internet. Thirty-five years later, the city locked down during a pandemic, he might consider the power of presence, the act of entering and existing within counterculture. He might recall the familiar odour of cigarette smoke and attribute the shrine’s attractiveness to a carefully aestheticized violence; a mix of cynicism, sci-fi, and the macabre; carnality and occult iconography; or even, concisely, sex and death. At eleven, feeling was being. He felt everything. Once he passed through the Tropicana’s doorway, the numb world became animate. The objects winked, as if they might draw him into the forbidden. Forbidden because he could imagine his parents’ reaction to the shop, how they might dismiss it with a single treacherous word, sordid, half-whispered while they turned away. Would they turn away from him if they knew he had lied about where he was going? He had snuck about in order to discover that which was sordid. He shivered, knowing he could not hide from himself.
The world of the head shop would violate his parents’ innocence, and that too was attractive. His parents believed he was too young to go downtown unsupervised, indeed that he had no interest in downtown. Why would he? For the suburbanites who drove the wide highways each morning, whose homes and commutes sprawled, downtown was a purely functional place. They paid for it but abandoned it when the workday ended.
For his mother and aunts, who were from Georgetown, Guyana, children should not roam the streets after dark. They should be studying or engaged in other “constructive” activities. Idling was a product of parental neglect that might produce tragic consequences. Embarrassment was one such consequence. What parent would let their child roam at night? His father grew up in wartime housing in Saskatchewan in the 1950s and didn’t see the prairies as culturally alien. To his father, the prairies were rough but familiar.
His parents had trespassed on a cultural boundary by being together, by having him. He had once overheard two women at a grocery store discussing his mother: “I wonder if she’s that same colour all over.” He glanced at them, surprised, and yet they didn’t seem embarrassed. They fixed him with defiant stares. He sensed he and his family were unusual, even though their lives resembled those of their neighbours. He was beginning to understand that for some girls in school, he himself was forbidden. One lunch hour in the cafeteria, he overheard Jennifer Mahoney, a popular junior-high blond, saying: “My dad said he would kick me out if I ever brought home . . .”
Perhaps he was sordid, and perhaps that explained everything. He intuited, walking into the head shop, that he was also diverging from what he perceived as the conservatism of his parents, of the suburbs, that he was diverging from a consciousness that objected to his presence, perhaps to his very existence.
He stared at a poster: A family of four sat around a dinner table. The father looked like he had just returned from work. He was still wearing his blazer and tie. His dark hair was perfectly parted, perfectly laid to one side. Out a window behind the dining table was a view of undisturbed grass, trees, sky. Predictably, the wife wore an apron and smiled while serving dinner. The entire family was smiling, anticipating slices of meatloaf. Their faces were rendered as irradiated skulls. An atomic energy symbol decorated one corner of the image.
ii. Wonder Bread
Two weeks earlier he went to Sean McDougan’s house after school. The house was a white rancher in Bayview, where the lots were broad and the backyards boasted high wooden fences. The father, Dr. McDougan, wore V-neck sweaters with polo shirts beneath them. Top-Siders. Dr. McDougan rarely spoke and seemed moulded to an easy chair, reading a newspaper. Mrs. McDougan was a teacher. She was humourless, respectable, with shoulder pads and artificially blond hair sprayed into a fixed position about her head. She was willing to put up with the boy’s presence because he was her son’s friend and classmate. The boy understood he wasn’t welcome in their home. In spite of her distaste for the boy, she fed them bowls of Alphaghetti. She had arranged toasted slices of Wonder Bread around the perimeter of the bowls, like rays of margarine-soaked sunlight beaming out from the molten core of canned noodles and sauce. After they ate, she told her son to wash up and invited the boy into the living room. He hesitated, uncertain about being alone with Mrs. McDougan in the white-walled, white-carpeted room. Above the mantel hung a large, framed photograph. The background was white. A white pony stood in the centre of the frame. The daughter, the youngest, sat barefoot atop the pony. Blond and laughing, she wore what seemed like a child’s version of a wedding gown. A white rope was tied around the pony’s neck, and the pony seemed to be pulling back. The three sons, in ascending order of age and height, stood opposite the pony, holding the rope. The boys were all blond, all barefoot, all laughing, and all wearing white slacks and white oversized shirts, untucked. The image overlooked the room. Mrs. McDougan asked the boy what he thought of the picture.
The Tropicana’s rock posters hung close to the ceiling. He looked up to them as if to gods or idols. They offered climactic images, the total release of performance, or the stylized evil of a metal album, or a mysterious combination of words: Suicidal Tendencies. Why would people name their band after something every parent, guidance counsellor, friend, and authority was supposed to prevent? Why would they embrace suicide, and was that even permissible? That trespass, that rupture of the very norms of what was considered (yes, respectable, but also) life, that negative posture, that claiming of the thing against which his existence was constructed, that simple act of embracing the evil revealed that the suburban universe was not omnipotent.
In his parents’ home, the decor was brown, blue, varied shades of green, and assorted other colours. The house often smelled of cooking, of some combination of spices or some stewing of odours. Black African statues stood in corners, and masks stared from the walls, stared as if from a distance of centuries. In the living room were two rattan chairs whose cushions had a navy background and were patterned with fronds, vines, and bright birds.
Whatever the colour and decor of the households, and whatever that said about the people who lived there, about their race or culture, both households spoke of similar class aspirations, similar class perceptions. It was expected that the children would go on to university and would follow a prescribed trajectory that included specific accomplishments, and that they would fulfill a certain promise. They would graduate to wearing cardigans, khakis, and deck shoes on their days off, once they finished mowing the lawn. They would be enlightened by the editorials in the Calgary Herald, perhaps the Globe and Mail if they had “eastern” pretensions. He was a vessel whose course had been plotted, all the way down to his adult wardrobe, his morning reading, his centre-right voting preferences.
Beneath the surface of its bongs, switchblades, pentagrams, and rebel posturers, what gave the head shop its power was an attitude in which he hadn’t yet been immersed. It offered cynicism as world view. Neither of his parents was cynical, neither was contrary. The cynicism he encountered in the shop was refined. It wore snakeskin boots and belts made of leather and bullets. Superior, it sneered at the world. It growled back. The words Corrosion of Conformity, which he had read on a poster, troubled and enticed him. The shop boasted contrariness for its own sake. It told him he wasn’t a mere function, a consumer, potential waiting to be fulfilled. He was not an accountant or a doctor or an insurance salesman in waiting. He couldn’t imagine having children, any more than any other teenager could, nor the bruising monotony, the repetitive trauma of the idea of work. He could not imagine having to dress in a suit and drive to the same office every morning to do—what?—the same thing every day until, like Mr. Lester up the street, he got cancer the year he was set to retire.
The head shop, for all of its liberating cynicism, posed problems. Red swastika badges sat among the ZOSO symbols and marijuana leaves. Confederate flags hung among the banners. They appeared limp and depleted, but still their presence shocked him. He wondered why, in this shop, there was any tolerance for something so odious. Was it because the shop owners held Nazi sympathies? Was it because they valued commerce above all else, and they knew that people existed who would buy those flags and iron crosses, and they were willing to overlook their personal squeamishness to cater to that clientele? Did that not make them Nazis, or at least Nazi apologists, people who were comfortable enough with the existence of Nazis to assist them in representing themselves?
Does a mix of collective white entitlement, cynicism, and rebellion cut a path toward Nazism? He now thinks of faces chanting “You will not replace us” in the glare of tiki torches. Thirty-five years later, informed by Charlottesville, he guesses that the path toward Nazism may be shorter, broader, and more familiar than he imagined. At eleven, he knew he could not associate with Nazis any more than he could grow straight hair. Straight hair seemed a prerequisite for the cult of the head shop, straight hair that was long and flowing and that could fly in every direction at once, that the wind could blow through, that could fall down over shoulders, that could be parted in the middle or on the side, that could be tousled and feathered, that could hang over an eye or obscure half a face, long hair that hung down in defiance of conformity, parents, the Alberta Wheat Pool, the company car, the chamber of commerce, Dr. and Mrs. McDougan, school, homework, everything conventional and monotonous, everything that wanted to decide his future for him. He could never have straight hair, and he knew he could never celebrate suicidal tendencies, which he had never yet had. He would have them later, but not then. The head shop was seductive, and although he could visit, could stare at the spike-haired skull beneath the word Exploited, he realized, running his hand through his uncombed afro, nearly everything the shop idealized was unattainable.