Punks

“You’re a punk!”

“No, you’re a punk!”

At only 10 and 8, respectively, my brother and I were already prodigies in intellectual discourse.

He stormed to his room, then returned ten minutes later with his tape recorder.

“You’re a punk. You even said so yourself,” he said.

He pushed the play button and I heard my own voice, “Bob is a punk.”

In addition to my horror, I was also confused. That was my voice, but I never recalled having said that.

He rewound the tape and played it again, “Bob is a punk.”

I couldn’t admit it at the time, but he did some darn fine character voice work.

I stopped the tape. “You’re a punk,” I said.

“You don’t even know what a punk is.”

“Neither do you.”

I called for the household police, “Mom! Tim’s calling me a punk!”

“Bobby called ME a punk,” Tim argued, “and then he called himself a punk. Listen!”

He played the tape.

Mom couldn’t stifle her laugh.

“I don’t even know what a punk is, Mom. What is it?” I asked.

“Ask your dad.”

We went downstairs and found dad in his usual spot, in his chair drinking beer and watching football.”

“Dad, do you know what a ‘punk’ is?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, picking his teeth with a finger.

“Can you tell me what it is?”

“Later.”

“When?”

“After dinner,” he said. Then, remembering the important caveat, added, “If you’re good.”

Tim and I forged a temporary truce, as both of us wanted to know the definition of a “punk” yet our 1960s dictionary had no such entry and the Internet was still a good 10–12 years away from reaching the masses.

Dad held court during dinner, enjoying the power he had to keep us compliant.

After dinner, we stayed at the table while mom cleared the dishes.

“So what’s a ‘punk’?” Tim asked.

“I’ll tell you later,” Dad said.

“You said you’d tell them after dinner,” Mom said, switching roles from police to judge.

“OK, OK,” dad said. He picked at his teeth, this time using a toothpick, and seemed to stall for time.

This was unusual. Dad always had the answer. Why was he taking so long to formulate an answer? Was he trying to phrase it in a shielded way, like adults always did when answering kids’ questions about things like dying or where babies came from?

“A punk,” he started, then paused between thoughts, “Is a guy. Who thinks he’s cool. But he’s not.”

Tim and I looked at each other, only slightly less confused than before.

For years afterwards, I believed that a “punk” was someone who deludedly misperceived their own coolness. I even cited my dad’s definition when my classmates referred to people with Mohawks, black leather, chains, and piercings who listened to aggressive music as “punks”.

Thanks, Dad.

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