Most of you will remember that back in the day going to Punk Rock shows was not always the safest things to do. Everyone knows that the best spots to see shows were always in the most dangerous neighborhoods. It ain’t like it is now, with all this sanitized, well-structured and heavily-scheduled “fun.” You took your chances when you went to a Hardcore show and any one of a million things could have happened to you between the time you walked out your front door and when, eventually, you returned there. And that was part of the excitement.
Without getting sidetracked into a long-winded discussion of the socio-political, cultural and geo-economical cause and effects of poverty, it will suffice (at least for my purposes here) to say that the indisputable truth is this: if you went to a Punk Rock show in the 80s you weren’t going somewhere nice.
Being 13 and having hardly stepped outside the confines of my lily-white suburb, Punk Rock was the first thing to take me out of my known comfort zone and show me a side of life I had really only known through television and the narratives of the earliest Hip Hop records. I was embarrassingly naïve and I have no problem admitting it because most of you reading this were in the same boat at the same time. It’s no secret that Punk Rock is and always was a mostly-white, mostly-male, suburban phenomenon (yeah, yeah, I hear all you LES NYHC peeps yelling out there, but I’m looking over a broader spectrum of demographic here), and most of us (with obvious exceptions) fit neatly into those parameters. And that was cool.
The thing about our scene was participation. It was a living, breathing, participatory beast. You had to get your hands dirty and your nose bloodied to really absorb it. You could buy all the records and ‘zines you wanted, but you weren’t really “in it” until you had gone to shows. Dirty, smelly, sweat-soaked shows. It was just a rite of passage; one of many.
My friends and I grew up primarily in Philly. We had our spots and none of them were too nice. Being leather clad, mohawked Punks or long-haired hammers or skins in full dress, going into some of these neighborhoods where the clubs resided always meant being hassled by the locals (and, a lot of times; the cops) and you took it in stride because that was the badge you wore and the flag you flew. Freaks unite! For us, getting to City Gardens was the scariest thing we had encountered. We were unfazed by North Philly; by the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Baltimore’s scary world of row-homes and rubble. Shit, we weren’t even scared of the back-woods, Nazi-infested hellholes that populated the Pennsa-tucky regions like Reading and Allentown PA.
But going to Trenton was always, somehow…different. I remember my first trip like it was yesterday. I was riding with a friend we called The Moshing Fetus. Yep. The Moshing fucking Fetus. One of my best friends, and the only person I knew, at that time, with the balls to drive to City Gardens. Just a couple of hammers trying to find a show. Well, that night we got incredibly lost and toured the wide world of Trenton for hours. Everything was gray, desolate, and quiet in the winter’s slumber. It was like a surreal dream gliding through those streets. I was thoroughly insulated and under the thrall of the sense of invulnerability that comes with youth and stupidity. When we finally found Calhoun Street we were at the bottom of it; where all the government buildings and stuff are. I remember thinking “well, this ain’t so bad. It’s right up this street…” And so we saw the sights. It seemed like every ten feet you hit a red light that lasted for fucking hours and while you were waiting you drew the most conspicuous attention from the locals. They knew. After so many years it was easily apparent what all these weirdo-looking white kids were doing riding through Trenton and sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was scary. I never felt so frozen and as accessible as I did sitting through those long, long red lights. Maybe it was being out of state, maybe it was being so completely unaware, but something about Trenton was unnerving. Of course, I was only seeing a very small part of it, but the young eyes of youth only know what is contained within their horizon. The funny thing was, looking back there was a lot more to fear inside the club than in the neighborhood around it. I’d seen people get beat down bad on the City Gardens dancefloor; I’d seen people stabbed outside. Shit, the parking lot alone was more dangerous than all of Trenton. But we were never scared of what went on inside.
Anyway, that ride came to be known as The Calhoun Mile and my friend Pablo still, to this day, says; “don’t tell me you’re Punk Rock. You ain’t Punk Rock unless you did the Calhoun Mile.” Like I said: a rite of passage. Each club in every city has its own; Trenton was no different.
Punk Rock first intimated to me that the world was a bigger place than what I knew. Punk taught me this when schools, parents, teachers, priests, councilors, etc. didn’t. Or wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. Yeah, it’s pretty corny and cliché: middle-class white boy finding excitement in the supposed “danger” of urban blight, but I can’t front. It was exciting; it was a part of the City Gardens experience.