I’ve spent the past couple of weeks 1,400 miles north of The New Kroger, Milledgeville, Georgia, with my beautiful girlfriend Elizabeth and her parents at their home in Traverse City, Michigan. On the skin of things, as a class of American small towns, Traverse City couldn’t be more different than Milledgeville. Affluence. Snow. Coastal. Lakes with blue water. Functional vineyards. Vibrant art scene. Good movies. Windmills. A thriving downtown with microbreweries and quirky craft stores and spaces owned and frequented by Michael Moore. And easily one of the highest Subaru-per-capita rates in the country.
But again, this is just the skin of things.
For instance, while Milledgeville lacks Subarus, it still offers automotive vexation in its glut of lifted trucks with pink Browning deer decals on their rear windows that jackhammer down my street and rattle every window in the apartment. And while Traverse City is a liberal bastion—think Austin, Asheville, Charlottesville, Boulder—it’s hard to ignore the uncanny dearth of diversity. The town’s been whitewashed. Coming out of the de facto segregation of central Georgia—where the Whites Only signs are all still up, only now they’re nonverbal—this pleasant, quirky, progressive destination town in northern Michigan has an odd and disquieting familiarity. Like Milly, and most of America, it seems that something somewhere in Traverse City still bleeds internally.
We spent this past Saturday night in a basement apartment thick with marijuana smoke, with Elizabeth’s best friend, whom I’ll call Mary, and her live-in boyfriend, whom I’ll call Kenny, and a couple of Kenny’s stoner friends. Michigan liberals and libertarians are pushing hard for legalization, and Kenny has his grower’s license—which he of course abuses to no end, making close to $30K a year from his sales, a small slice of which are in fact state-sanctioned. I’ve seen Kenny maybe once when he wasn’t high, at a New Year’s Eve dinner at Mary’s parents’ house. He’s a gentle guy, tall, thin, and doddering, makes bulk tofu for a local food co-op, chuckles a lot, like Butt-head, with long blonde hair that he usually bands in a ponytail. The ends of his hair curl fancifully, in a way that reminds me somehow of the heel of a baroque banister.
That night, as Kenny passed his $400 ROOR bong around the basement—Liz, Mary, and I restraining ourselves admirably—he launched into a story which, though it’s not expressly about The New Kroger, I feel absolutely compelled to include in this column.
Kenny went to what he describes as a “last chance” high school. Thirty students from grades nine through twelve, who all had behavioral and/or substance problems and had Plinko’d down through all the other regional alternative schools, now this close from permanent dismissal, boarded together in a few cabins among some pines by the shores of a lake. The school had a nurturing philosophy. The kids knew this was it—if they blew it here they were out in the cold for good—and with this fact always looming the counselors could mostly stay out of the picture, let the kids try to find their own ways to turn themselves around. So they did all kinds of shit—they’d smoke pot, sneak out, even had Fight Club-type boxing bouts between cabins. They had a couple pairs of regulation gloves, and Kenny and the others would pad the cabin walls with their mattresses, pit two kids against each other, and let them wail away.
Kenny, who was seventeen at the time of the story, had been at the school a couple years already and loved it, had seemingly turned the corner—he was a cabin leader, a major player in the boxing rings, and on track to graduate in the spring. And though I don’t know Kenny very well, or why he’d been at the school, there in his basement kingdom, surrounded by cabinets and couches that he and his father had crafted and polished by hand, gulping pot and chuckling, generous, affable, employed, and loved, it seemed something somewhere had indeed rooted and bloomed.
But Kenny, pulling from the boutique glass bong pinned between his knees, a steady warm breeze pumping in from the ceiling vent above him, was talking about this other kid, a fifteen-year-old skinhead from Cadillac, Michigan, who’d bounced from school to school before landing in Traverse. Traverse City sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, part of America’s Third Coast. (And, dear Readers, if any of you haven’t been to the Great Lakes, please go some summer soon to the Caribbean of the North.) And as many of you have undoubtedly also observed, the coastal areas of the US are more crowded, and their politics by and large more progressive. It’s got something to do with heavy commerce, and the economic and practical necessity of tolerating people different from yourself. Hatred is exhausting, and a bigot on the streets of Brooklyn is in for a long day. But Cadillac is about an hour inland from Traverse City, small and insulated by thick wild pine forest—like Milledgeville—and its politics are regressive. Home to the county seat of the KKK, too, and this kid’s dad was reportedly a member. And so at age fifteen, this skinhead from Cadillac was already a hardcore, vociferous, dyed-in-the-wool neo-Nazi racist scumbag.
And all the kids at the school hated him.
Kenny said this kid’s racism was so pronounced, so raging and violent and invasive, that it wasn’t long before no one at the school would speak to him. He shaved his head every day. He shaved his eyebrows. Only wanted to box if he could box Jews. He had one tattoo—a swastika over his heart, and at only fifteen, with his father in the KKK, I wonder if maybe his dad had done the ink himself. Though the kid would bic his head in the common bathroom, Kenny thought he shaved his eyebrows while lying in bed listening to hate music. I pictured him doing it there, staring through the ceiling and scraping away. Kenny said that before then he’d never known hate music existed as a genre: “It sounds just like real music, like normal punk and metal and like white-guy rap, but then you listen close and man—that shit’s fucked up.” And the kid cranked it. Rattled all the windows in the cabin, like those jackhammer trucks down South. Hate was what got him kicked from school to school, and it defined him, especially here in this liberal puddle. And his dad must have been little help—you’re the one who’s right, confederacy of dunces-type logic. To Kenny, the kid was already too far gone, no hope of adapting to the world. And Kenny doesn’t know what’s become of him since he left.
But deep in Kenny’s last winter there, when the woods around the school were quiet and soundproofed with heavy snow, a small group of boarders got an idea—unanimous and simultaneous, according to Kenny. It came during a screening of Full Metal Jacket: they’d throw the skinhead a sock party.
The group met after midnight in the bathroom of Kenny’s cabin, five of them, each carrying tube socks loaded with bars of soap. Some used oranges, which one of them had heard bruise you beneath the skin without leaving a mark. They also had a sheet, which they pulled over the sleeping racist scumbag neo-Nazi piece of shit to strap him to the bed while they beat him. They needed two kids to hold the sheet, and they took turns so everyone could get their thumps in. They pounded the kid everywhere—his body, legs, balls, face—for what Kenny said was maybe a minute and a half, which, he pointed out, if we tried to stay quiet there in the basement for a minute and a half, we’d soon see is really quite a long time to beat someone. The pathetic skinhead bigot sack of garbage screamed and cried, but no counselors came. “They knew,” Kenny said. “They had to know. They slept right next door. Maybe they ducked in and saw what was going down, but let it go. I’m telling you—everyone knew this kid had it coming. It was like all that hate he’d put out into the world was coming back into him.” Blow by blow. Then the flurry of blows stopped and the kids lifted the sheet and climbed back into their bunks, all of them breathing heavily from the effort of the beating, but apart from that, and the skinhead’s sobbing, the room was silent. After quite a few minutes of crying in bed, the kid pulled himself down from his bunk and locked himself in the bathroom, where he cried for a long, long time.
The next night, he didn’t come to the bunk. Instead, the skinhead began building an igloo in the snowy woods behind the cabin. He packed and piled bricks of snow and covered them with particleboard, then brought out his bedding and his coats. The counselors let him bivouac out there for a couple of nights, but by the end of the week he was gone. “Back home,” Kenny said, taking a pull, the story over. “Which was probably the best place for the little fucker, anyway.”
To his credit, Kenny seems conflicted about all this. He told the story haltingly, didn’t dwell in pornographic violence, and didn’t seem to relive the rush that no doubt accompanied their midnight assault. But still, he had conviction in his voice, and his long-hair stoner friends there in the basement nodded their tacit affirmation that Kenny and those other students had maybe not done the right thing, but they hadn’t done a wrong thing, either. They’d returned the kid’s hate, stuffed it all right back inside him, evidently knowing something Pandora didn’t. And now Kenny’s here, in his warm basement, passing the bud, provident, with long hair, good humor, laughter and freedom and love. Most of the bruises don’t show.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.