The air was so cold that it felt like my lungs would crack when I breathed. We were rushing from the car into the street. Four white-trash, teenage punks on a Friday night rampage. Out onto the icy blacktop of our Central Minnesotan wasteland. Into the freedom of downtown.
Our home for the night was a short stretch of closed shops that littered a paved cement mall and the road that split it in two. We scurried over piles of hard snow covered in black dirt, pollution, and ice toward Waldo’s, a pizza place that doubled as a pool hall and arcade. A safe haven from the bitter freeze.
“Hey, Gench!” Johnny called out to me. “I’ve got first game! You gotta wait, man!”
He pursed his full lips at me as a taunt, turned in his red and white checkered Converse high tops, and ran inside the brick building that housed Waldo’s. Johnny was half Latino and half white, which was unique for my town filled with German Catholics. His sandy blond mullet ran upward into a curly tousle of hair.
Jeff had already sprinted inside, warming his completely shaved head. He had recently rid himself of his eyebrows, too. He said he did it because he’d watched Pink Floyd’s The Wall too many times in a row while on acid.
“It’s cool, Gench. I’ll wait for you,” Eric said saddling up to me. He was the clean-cut one and the only one of us with a driver’s license. Eric owned the rust-orange Datsun we had all driven downtown in. Tall, very skinny, with braces that made his mouth seem larger than it really was. He was wearing a Prince Controversy t-shirt and a brown leather jacket that was far too thin for the weather.
None of us wore clothes fit for the winter. That night it was minus five Fahrenheit. So cold that snow didn’t fall. A typical late-January night in Granite City.
Eric, Johnny, and Jeff were my gang of friends when I was fourteen. Misfits from a neighboring town and some of the first people to educate me about music, girls, and drugs. I had switched from being a preppie geek to a new wave punk a few months earlier, inspired by my new friends. I wore a long army trench coat. My hair was shaved on one side of my head and it showed off my duo of earrings. The rest of my hair was ratted out in a bird’s nest of activity.
Before entering Waldo’s with Eric, I scanned the streets for people I knew. Small packs of kids gathered in the frigid night under street lights. Some smoked while others made out and groped each other under their jackets. Others listened to headphones connected to their Walkmans in musical solitude.
“Gench! Man, get inside! I’ve got my new stick ready!” Eric stood holding the door to Waldo’s open for me. He held a leather bag with a pool cue inside.
I bounced over and followed him inside and up the stairs, bounding up two steps at a time. At the top, the room was thick with smoke, which had a glow on it from the lights of pinball machines and video games. Pin-Bot and Black Knight. Mario Bros., Galaga, and Centipede. In the center of the room, a crowd gathered around the main event: the pool table.
Getting ready to break was the star player. A seventeen-year-old former break dancer named Rod. He wore a black vest over a stained white t-shirt tucked into tight jeans and looked vaguely Italian with a mop of dirty black hair. He shot pool like a praying mantis standing sideways. Skin and bones and dripping sex. The girls wanted him and the boys wanted to be him. He pulled his stick back and forward, cracking the balls and spreading them across the green felt, then lit a cigarette.
I also aspired to be Rod. I aspired to be almost everyone in the room. Punk rock, new wave, and metalhead kids in their torn jeans and hole-filled black sweaters. I looked up to these outsiders and this was our cocoon. Free here from homes of abuse, safe from the sting of the arctic winter, and finding connection in a town with little to do.
All of these beautiful misfits surrounded the pool table, played arcade games, and reached for each other’s bodies in the dark. Crammed into high-walled booths and bouncing against pinball machines. Hair-sprayed and dyed and shaved. Wearing emblematic tee-shirts: Alien Sex Fiend, Bauhaus, The Cure, The Clash, Dead Kennedys, and the Sex Pistols.
I wanted to look like and have sex with all the boys and girls the same. Their cool androgyny made them all the more enticing. And I wanted to fit in, peel myself off the wall of my wallflower youth and come dancing out in profane color.
Outside my secret world where the outcasts of Granite City found each other on weekend nights, my winters were bleak. Endless, black-and-white emptiness, leafless trees, and piles of snow were met at the flat horizon by a giant sky. Looking up, there were no mountains or ocean to end my gaze. The sky was a canvas to paint my future. One where I could get out of there.
It felt like the only movement out of town was by train or floating down the Mississippi river. I escaped by imagining myself hopping a Burlington Northern or sailing south down the rushing river. I got away from the Fingerhut factories, the paper mill, the granite-walled prison, convents, and long miles of wheat and cornfields on imaginary adventures jumping trains and drifting on the mighty Mississippi.
The river ran through the center of town. It was just deep enough to drown in and narrow enough to swim across. In the winter, it mostly froze, showing patches of water surrounded by ice. Then, it felt like only the trains kept moving.
Trains ran through town on a spiderweb of tracks. Whistles blew and cargo cars clacked by the state university, the Frigidaire factory, and over railroad bridges. The crown of Granite City’s rail bridges was the 19th-century bridge that snaked over the Mississippi near downtown. Wood, metal, stone, and steel created a 60-foot-high dinosaur over the river.
In the summer, we’d cross Veterans Bridge and then slip through the high grass under the railroad bridge. A hidden place to smoke joints and drink fifteen packs of Stroh’s beer while trains ran over our heads. We’d lay near the stone piers, stare out at the river among the mosquitoes and gnats, and eventually find lips and tongues to devour while unbuttoning each other’s pants to reach inside.
We couldn’t laze about outside during the seven long months of winter. Instead, we needed to find warm places indoors and there were few. The occasional parentless trailer home or basement. Sometimes an empty church or abandoned building. The streets were frozen, desolate, and dangerous, and other than the cold, our biggest threats were rednecks and the police.
Bored rednecks in pick-up trucks with no football or hockey to play stalked us misfits and outcasts. Looking for someone to beat down. And Granite City cops roamed the streets like polar sharks in their sedans, hunting for anyone who looked different. Looking for someone to arrest.
Thankfully I could run. And I was fast.
I ran from bloodthirsty rednecks gunning for me in alleyways, and I ran from cops who busted keg parties or basement punk rock shows. I ran all the time.
The cold produced a kind of violence that was deeply menacing. The many months of winter gave people cabin fever, locked up together to survive the environment outside, which was colder than a refrigerator freezer. It made people lose their minds.
That January night, violence appeared and I would need to run from it again.
Rod ran the pool table for a long time, then gave up his stick and left. Eric still waited patiently for his turn to play but I was restless. I heard that a small group of girls had gone outside with a bottle of strawberry schnapps, so I went to find them, hoping they’d be behind the dumpster in the alley where we’d drunk liquor together before.
I found Rod outside with his girlfriend, Chrissy, smoking. I stood nervously nearby on the sidewalk.
“Hey,” Rod said. “How are ya?”
I was ecstatic. Rod was talking to me.
“Oh, everything’s cool, man,” I sputtered. “You’re a really good pool player.”
“Thanks, hey. I play all the time.”
He laughed and as he did, I got courageous and asked, “You got a smoke?”
“He don’t, but I do,” Chrissy said. She was tucked inside a black velvet coat and her bleach-blond hair was a thousand miles high, spread out in all directions like a hair-sprayed halo. I took a cigarette from her and lit it.
“Soooh cold tonight,” Chrissy shook when she spoke. Her and Rod’s Stearns County accents were heavy. Each o was pronounced with hollow length and t’s sometimes became d’s.
“Yeah, it really is,” I said, and then trying to be cool I added, “It’d be righteous to be in Minneapolis where we could see a show.”
Rod looked at me quizzically. “You taulk funny, kid. Where you from den, hey? You from Hawaii dere, Maauui Boy?” Then, he laughed again.
“No, I’m from here, man.”
“Ooh, oohkay then. Sure y’ar.”
We all chuckled as I tried to make out if I was in on the joke or the joke itself, and just then a bearded man in a bright, neon orange sweatsuit appeared. He was jogging by on the road just in front of us.
Rod called out with a sneer, “Nice suit, ya buddy! Kinda cold for a run, hey!”
The runner got several more steps in and was half a block away when he bent down, removed something from his ankle, and turned around. He was holding a knife with a six-inch blade.
He screamed with a guttural squeal, “YOU FAGGOTS!” and immediately ran at us, knife blade pressed forward.
I didn’t think. My flight was instantaneous. I ran directly across the street into the schnapps drinking alley. No one. Empty. Then, I went left, passing dumpsters, skidding on the ice but regaining my balance quickly. I stayed on my toes in a sprint. Listening, I didn’t hear anyone.
I finally had a moment to think. Maybe the neon orange jogger had chased Rod for his snide comments, or he just wanted to scare us? As I got into a road with streetlights, I looked behind me. The knife-wielding jogger was there, coming fast and hard. This was no scare. He wanted to hurt someone, and I was the one he wanted to hurt.
My fear rose and my legs pumped faster but he wasn’t slowing down. I got to a main street. It was vacant. I took off over the street and I could hear his feet behind me.
Breathing hard, it filled the air in front of me with bursts of vapor. I started toward the river and instead of crossing over Veterans Bridge, I went beyond it into the dark and toward the railroad bridge. The neon orange jogger with his murderous expression was still pursuing me fast.
I kept running as I formulated a plan to cross the railroad bridge. The possibility of a train coming in the dark might scare my pursuer. If a train did come, I had to get across the 700-foot-long bridge, or it was a high and treacherous jump to the freezing, black water. I was willing to risk that over being stabbed.
Luckily, the tracks were empty when I reached them. I ran onto the bridge, looking down to make sure I placed my feet on the icy wood beams and not fall into the gaps between them. I kept my steps fast, long, and rhythmic as the land fell out below me and the river rolled far below.
Cold air filled my lungs and it was painful after running so hard, but I didn’t stop and I didn’t look back. I kept going, listening for both the man with the knife and an oncoming train. I got halfway down the railroad bridge, out in the center of the river, in the middle of the darkness, and turned around. He was gone.
I knew I had to continue to the other side for fear that he might wait for me. Alert and totally aware, watching and listening for a train, I made it across, sweating under my clothes with a frozen face, ears, and hands.
When I safely returned to Waldo’s, the warmth greeted me in a rush and color began to return to my exposed skin. Upstairs, Eric was winning on the pool table, Johnny was flirting with a pretty, young brunette, and Jeff was high and grinning in a corner booth.
Rod was across the room. He looked my way and nodded his head. A gesture that meant we were alive. No words were exchanged. He disappeared from town later that winter and didn’t return to Granite City. The knife-wielding man in the neon orange jogging suit didn’t appear again either.
I never told anyone about escaping a blade that night. It felt like a nightmarish mirage, and I stayed silent. It seemed we were all getting away from something, and this was just another narrow escape that I would keep to myself.
Joy Division played on the jukebox. I stood listening and watching the room. People laughed, kissed, and smoked. I found a quarter in my pocket and tried for a high score on Galaga.