Imagined Communities and Teenage Time Killers

When I went back to college at 35 and was studying modern European and Middle Eastern history trying to make sense of being a Jew and the general state of the world and how we all got here, I remember being struck by the similarities between the rise of the Modern Era and the experience of going through adolescence. In the 20th century so much changed so abruptly between emerging technologies and redefined political boundaries and mass violence that by the time the wars were over it was hard for many people to even imagine what life was like before. It just didn’t translate into the new experience, the old world was fragmented and gone forever.

It doesn’t seem that much different then my experience of being a teenager and going through so many physical and social changes at once and then somehow ending up an adult and wondering “How the hell did I get here?” “Did it really happen the way I remember it?”

This past Saturday was the last punk show ever at the old ABC No Rio building before they knock it down and rebuild it. The neighborhood is barely recognizable from 20 years ago and No Rio’s old tenement home was one of the last remaining relics. Back in 1990 those punk shows and the community around them were so meaningful to me: they gave me a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose that I had never had in my life. I’ve often looked back at that era in sepia tones of nostalgia remembering the good old days of being a young teenager coming of age in the punk scene.

But it’s funny: last night I was looking at some photos online of the final show (which I sadly missed) and there were a bunch of old friends of mine, all middle age looking (still looking good!), hanging out in the backyard and the first floor watching the bands with a bunch of other generations of no rio punks. And I had this feeling rise up in me I hadn’t felt in a long time that I wasn’t expecting: it was a visceral memory of self-consciousness and confusion and intense desire to belong — it was a memory of being a vulnerable 15 year old kid having to put up so many fronts and, actually, how hard it was. I tend to forget how much the punk scene I grew up in replicated so many of the shitty things about high school: the cliquishness, the posturing, the need to get wasted enough to have courage to kiss people, the unspoken social hierarchies. I actually think we were a lot more conscious about power dynamics than a lot of teenagers, but we were still just a bunch of fucked up kids and there were very few older mentors worth looking up to. Suspiciously few elders in the counterculture. We were playing out all the bullshit we watched our parents and other peers do, just like everyone else.

There’s that story in Exodus about the Jews having to wander in the desert for 40 years before they get to the promised land so that the old generation who were slaves die out and no one in the new land knows the hardship of slavery. It’s a cool story, but that’s not really how it works. And besides, we pass along our intergenerational trauma in all kinds of ways. The ghosts follow us in new form.

When we started The Icarus Project (when I was 27) a big part of my vision was to take the best things about anarchist punk activist culture and create a support network for people who had ended up in the mental health system: DIY support, mutual aid, radical political analysis, celebrating madness, a shared vision of changing the world. Part of it was creating that sense of Imagined Community and solidarity I felt growing up hanging out at ABC No Rio with a bunch of other weirdos, and many ways we did it. Icarus is a thing in the world that helps some people find their way through the mental health labyrinth, even if it’s problematic and brings with it so many of the intergenerational traumas of times past.

Anyway, now I’m 41 and for the first time in my life I’m about to actually go work in the mental health system and try to change it from the inside. It’s not a very punk rock strategy, it’s a lot more blending than shouting, but I feel like I have enough of the spirit and lessons and tenacity from all the years working in radical social movements that I actually have a chance of changing the system more than it changes me. I’m really determined to carve space open in the mental health system for change.

When the Village Voice came out last week and there was a big old black and white photograph of me and Dan Tranquility dancing with our friends at a punk show at No Rio in 1990, I had this uncanny feeling of having lived through a time warp, staring back at myself through the other side of a mirror. Who knows what the future holds? We only know it will be crazy and we’ll look back with some kind of understanding we don’t have in the middle of it. But I can tell you right now: there are so many things to be learned in the chaos of a 16 year old life, things I tattooed on my arms so this old man typing these words would remember.