Elegy for J.W.

JWA phalanx of teenagers, dull-eyed and dreamy, shambling in circles around the pavement as the shadow of the Dairy Queen sign grows long across the parking lot. Some rolling slowly on sloppily taped decks, practicing ollies and attempting kick-flips that never quite land, others sitting on the curb talking for the sake of talking. Cars meandering through the lot, rust-eaten pickups and decaying minivans and thick-bodied remnants of the last days of Detroit, Caprices and Regals and Galaxies and Fairmonts, disgorging red-eyed teens with permanent grins and Wednesday night working moms on exhausted grocery runs and little league teams eager for ice cream. We perk up slightly every time a familiar teenage vehicle comes rattling into view, hoping for some blessed deliverance from routine but invariably our peers are only rolling through to see if we’ve heard of any action, knowing full well that we would hardly be here in the parking lot if we had.

I sit beside you on the sidewalk, both of us perched precariously on our boards, me sipping a Snapple while you smoke your cigarettes. We talk. We don’t say a lot of words but we talk, really talk, and it’s satisfying, nourishing. I love all these people, these skaters and punks and earnest fuck-ups, but most of them never entertain a thought about anything deeper than where their next six-pack is coming from. Sometimes we have to spiral off into our own universe, the four or five of us who need some space to talk about music and art and philosophy and what the world might look like beyond the borders of this parking lot. It doesn’t take many conversations for me to realize that you’re the best kind of smart, the kind that most people will never recognize and you never feel the need to bring to their attention. You’re content to let them write you off as another skater kid burn-out, with your sunken eyes and skull-skinny face and shredded t-shirts. The philistines don’t deserve a peek behind the curtain. They wouldn’t know what to make of it if you gave them one.

But we know. We who have sat on this curb and talked with you. Who have been in the pit with you and witnessed your thrashing, spider-limbed intensity as you carom off of dozens of other flailing, sweat-soaked bodies. Who have seen you on the stage, spilling your innards in a deluge of throat-shredding vitriol, your body writhing and bony and angular like the second coming of Iggy Pop. Who have seen the wounded defiance flutter across your otherwise stoic face as the pop-punk dilettantes file out of the beer-reeking basement and leave you to unburden yourself for a smattering of Hardcore hardcores and comatose drunks. Who have driven deep into the night with you in an Econoline van full of unwashed and overcaffeinated punks, deciphering lyrics, uncovering insights and screaming along with Jello Biafra and Al Jourgenson and En Esch on every chorus. Who have seen the spirit and sensed the pain and wordlessly acknowledged that this is a fellow traveler who shares our struggles and fears and joys whether or not any of that ever registers on that long, lean, unforgettable face.

The skaters rolling in and out of our peripheral vision as the overhead lights come humming to life, a passing woman pointedly avoiding looking in our direction as she stalks toward the grocery store. A squad car makes a slow turn into the parking lot. You take a last pull and grind out the butt under your heel. It’s the officers’ second swing-through of the evening, a cyclical game to which we know all of the rhythms. The cops half-heartedly tell us to pack up the boards and move along, we roll our eyes and wander off toward our cars or homes or Dairy Queen, all of us knowing full well that we’ll be back in the same spots within the hour. We have nothing better to do and we’re too young to understand that there is nothing better to do. It’s Wednesday night at dusk and we’re bored and miserable and rudderless and we’ll spend the rest of our lives pining to be right back here.

The last time I see you you’re miles away, barely visible behind the veil of battles and traumas that I was fortunate enough not to witness, but still unmistakably, fundamentally you. My mother meets you for the first time that day, only for a brief moment but long enough for her to tell me later that you have a gentle soul. And it is then that I realize why we have always connected. For those who can see past the scars and the ink and the sneers that serve as a shield against those too small-minded or empty-headed to attempt an understanding, that gentleness shines through, manifesting sometimes as a warming sun, sometimes as a distant constellation but always radiating life and hope and energy to those within its orbit and leaving an aching, gaping void when its light is unduly extinguished.

We knew. We saw. We remember.

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