WDET interviews Brian Smith about this story. (MP3)
Jesus of Suburbia (12/19/2007)
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My facial features felt like frozen protrusions, as if stung by bees. Toes were beyond any description of pain; I imagined them plum-colored and shriveled-up like dead baby birds, inside those cleated shoes, affixed to those pedals. Lungs were numbed and throat was blocked by a petal of icy phlegm. Eyelids squeaked. Not a bit of my anatomy escaped the skin-singeing ice crystals. They pierced my long-sleeved wool team jersey and bibbed leg tights, pierced thermal-fleeced cycling gloves and cap; pierced every layer, everything. The snot running from my nose froze before it hit my upper lip.
As if that ride out on country roads wasn't horrible enough; the snow had begun its miserable fall 15 miles ago and we still had 25 to go. Twenty-five more miles of the most incredible iced-agony you could ever nightmare up, and I'd never been so cold in all of my 15 years. A kid could die out here unnoticed, I thought. Never bemissed.
The roads were slippery frozen too. I had touched the wheel in front of mine twice already but somehow didn't go down. Pinecone-sized snow chunks, wet leaves and twigs pelted our faces and visibility didn't extend much beyond the guy in front. This line of cyclists (20? 25? 30?) angled into whipping crosswinds and across the two-lane road —like a large snake sliding sideways atop a frozen black creek. This is insane, I thought. Fucking crazy.
Nothing was said — too cold — only the occasional shaking head and verbal shudder: "Fuuuuuck. This. Shit." The weather front battled for our souls. It was almost laughable.
The team coach took turns pulling up next to each of us in some diesel-chugging foreign auto driven by the team doctor. From its backseat with the window rolled down he'd hand up Styrofoam cups filled with hot tea. A warm draft rose to my face as if god lived right in there, right in that car's backseat. I'd give everything I had to be there at that moment. The steaming liquid would go down fast, and, as if by some miracle, the toes would warm up slightly; the whole body gave in to some mockery of warmth, some version of heaven, one that'd last, maybe, 10 minutes. The temperature that day dropped from 40 to 10 degrees (and the wind-chill?) in less than two hours.
I dreamed that morning of being back in my room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, toasty warm under covers, heat rising from wall vents, a book in my face and the Ramones riffing on the little black cassette player.
Most cyclists saddled that day were from places far chillier than my home in Tucson, Ariz.; Davis Phinney, Ron Kiefel and the spindly Alexi Grewal from Colorado, I think Greg LeMond from Reno, Nev., was there, and assistant cycling coach Mike Neel — an ex-pro who once finished 10th in the professional world road race, and who was a bit of a hero to me — and so on. I didn't know cold, but I was feeling privileged because I was the youngest guy there; the physiological differences between the ages of 15 and 18 and 21 and 25 are huge in sports, and I was still growing, and here I was. I'd been winning races against guys in their 20s, over mountains and in time trials. And the team coach had just named me to the Junior National Cycling Team.
So there we were, on a training ride in Colorado Springs, on Christmas Eve. A day when I could've been back home in sunny Tucson, digging in some Christmas feasting — anxiously, awkwardly — with my siblings and mom and dad and later hitting open roads, under big sunny skies, me and my bike. But I wanted out of the house, away from that air of permanent teenage oppression, away from chronic inner sadness. I was 15, shut down and lost — except for the open road and the terror and elation of the competition. When I did get away from home for a race, or a series in multiple cities — it felt like a little rock tour.
I missed my pop and mom that day, my four sibs Christmas at our house — whatever was under the surface — was this glorious celebration of family and love and consumerism and joy; a suburban gothic wonderland swirling under streetlights, around mesquite trees and atop manicured lawns. That Christmas capped a year that was all mixed-up in Catholic fear, schoolyard longing, complete inner-bewilderment and athletic prowess.
The coach, the Director of the U.S. National Team, was Eddie Borysewicz — or Eddie "B." for short because there wasn't a soul who could pronounce his name correctly — a burly immigrant with a résumé that included a bunch of Polish Olympic medalists under his tutelage. His broken-English mantra circled around and around inside my skull. "You must be tough, you must always suffer and then rest, everyday, if you want to be in Olympics, if you want bike racing career. ..."
Eighth grade. Mr. Caruthers. My social studies teacher. I ignored him daily. I'd step in and seat myself at the very back of his class, stick my face in a book or plop my head down on my forearms, sleepy after a hard morning ride. I never carried anything to school, no backpack, paper, or even a pencil. It pissed Mr. Caruthers off. So he'd pick on me. There wasn't a lesson question he could throw at me that I couldn't answer. You can't learn anything if you don't pay attention, right? Shit. I humiliated him in front of the class.
But Mr. Caruthers knew I was a cyclist, he'd see me out on the roads around Tucson. That embarrassed me. Embarrassed the shit out of me, in fact. See, the school was crammed with callous, mass-produced suburban white kids who'd already pegged me a social gimp, a kid misplaced and troubled. They were correct. I went to bed early. I ditched P.E. I dug stuff they couldn't stand or didn't know like punk rock — and singers they'd never heard of like Peter Perrett. I was already into Flannery O'Connor. I'd been invited to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. I had to ask myself, "What have they done?" They didn't even read. I lived bicycle road racing. Anyway, this humiliated Mr. Caruthers knew something about bike racers and one day pointed out to the class that I shaved my legs. Not good. At that moment I prayed for a hole to open in the floor below me so I could fall in it. In the ensuing months kids would want to fight me in the desert out beyond the schoolyard fence — and I'd get my face pounded in more than once there. Kids kept their distances. They walked around me as if I were a leper while whispering in each other's ears, and then breaking into wild laughter once they passed. Girls particularly. Sometimes a girl would approach at the urging of friends standing nearby and — with head-titled, twirling a lock of hair and holding back laughter — ask something like, "Is it true? Do you shave your legs?"
The school kids had no clue about cycling, and I couldn't begin to explain the sport to them. So my mouth stayed shut. I hated them. I hated school.
Pictures and posters of Eddy Merckx (the greatest-ever cyclist) and other Euro cycling stars covered my bedroom walls, next to Perrett, Patti Smith and Joey Ramone. I read Salinger, Verlaine, Updike, Lester Bangs and, my bible, Creem. In fact, O'Connor, Merckx and Creem became my holy trio of sorts, shaped my little mind's world view and helped jumpstart my (self) education.
By my first year in high school, I knew what the kids were about, figured that public high school in suburban Tucson was a means to a dismal finale, where you die young but are buried old. I knew those popular football dudes would all wind up beer-gutted, divorced and living in some dry-walled tract-house with weed-peppered gravel front yards decorated by crappy speedboats up on cinderblocks, all within spitting distances of the high school football field goalposts. They'd relive the glory days over and over and over. That's how I saw it. And that's what happened. So I got out, albeit frightened as hell. I never had dates with chicks from school; there was no prom, no borrowing the old-man's car, no going to movies or getting drunk at desert kegger parties surrounded by friends, cars and girls. I was a full time cyclist at 15. I spent hours each day on the bike. I was lonely as hell. That made me a freak. What more did I need? What else was there? Shit, I was going to be a superstar cyclist in Europe. Of course ... I had no head for nuance then. The best-laid plans ...
Eddie B. would always shrug his hand at the idea of school. Athletes in Poland, he'd remind me, didn't have to go to school — anybody worth their salt in sport didn't attend school. I loved that. "But they were state-funded," I'd say, half-joking. He'd furrow his brow and quickly throw his hand forward and down, and then pull it back. It was his way of dismissing you. And then he'd turn and walk away.
So, I said, "fuck it." I couldn't stand the stares and looks and laughs and friendlessness and inertia at Sahuaro High in Tucson, Ariz. I quit school a month into 10th grade. The "choice" distanced me further from my parents, a disconnect that lasted years — before then I hadn't spoken more than five meaningful words with them since fifth grade. But I was on my way, man.
I had no clue what was cooking up in me when I got serious about bicycle racing at age 12. I didn't drink when I was racing bikes, of course; I'd avoided anything that'd interfere with my ability to ride or win bike races. By age 15, I was taking immaculate care of my body. It was a veritable machine, constantly tested and monitored, well-fed, often massaged by a masseuse and pushed to insane physical and emotional levels and limits.
But I later realized that cycling was my first intoxicant, a huge, years-long dosage of self-medication, the first of many that would bedevil me well into adulthood. The endorphins obliterated any emotional pain, and the sensations I'd experience after an 80-mile training ride in the morning before my first eighth grade class was like, I'd later figure, an endless supply of cocaine time-released into my bloodstream, but better — the endorphins lasted much longer, leave me on a high well into the day. (Winning bicycle races was something else; you'd have the endorphins from the pain and suffering with the added bonus of glory. That was it ... pain and glory ... addictive as fuck.) It was crazy that I'd sometimes do an 80-mile training spin — up at 4 a.m. — before my first eighth-grade class.
But ... there was always a dark flipside to that endorphin-fueled, emotionally high joy. A flipside. I withdrew into myself. The silence was deafening. I was never able to start a conversation, much less join in on one. I was immobilized by shyness and a self-hatred that had festered inside since childhood. It should be said that such character defects made for perfect race-enhancing drugs. Who needed steroids or speed?
What made me a fucked-up kid and unable to function in a world outside of cycling is what made me good at the sport. Eddie B. saw that, encouraged it. I loved him for it. Maybe my parents saw that too. Maybe that's why they didn't encourage my racing. I could never explain that I turned to cycling to escape the chronic disappointment that rose from within, out of nowhere, and otherwise, paralyzed me. But they were dealing with their own disappointments — they were splitting up. And whatever I did then, it seemed I was letting them down.
In those days of cycling — just before fat corporate cash had entered the sport, which my OTC bud LeMond helped usher in later with his worldwide fame — everything was done on the cheap. We'd travel the country and barely survive on tiny race winnings and what little scratch team sponsors could cough up. It wasn't easy: The bikes and associated gear were expensive, as were the provisions attached to huge appetites, the lodging for travel. It didn't make sense to have us just sleep on floors and eat shit food and expect to perform. Though we did it that way, many times.
I discovered that most cyclists had coin from home. I didn't and it was a sport best performed by kids from wealthy families. My parents weren't wealthy, and I never asked for money. I was afraid of my parents, of my dad, and my own inability to string words together to say what I meant, to justify my intentions to him, a way to outline the pure joy or deep deep sadness I felt. I didn't escape to booze and drugs ... yet; no, I had the bike, the road, the races, the endorphins, the obsession. If someone would've told me then that I'd be a chronic drunk by the time I was 19, and that I'd watch my one-time best friend Alexi Grewal — on a tiny, fuzzy-pictured, black-and-white TV — win the Olympic gold medal while I was living with my band members, roadies, girlfriends and wives in a bleak, concrete rehearsal space in downtown Los Angeles, miserable and starving with absolutely no money, it would've been craziest thing anyone could ever make up.
Even before I got in a band, long before I started writing, when I was this Olympic-hopeful kid, people still wanted to beat me up at the Circle K, at any highway Denny's, because I was a "fag." I got my ear pierced in Colorado Springs on a whim and suddenly I was "queer." See, it wasn't cool to dig punk rock in the late '70s or early '80s. No way. There was no Internet then, no communication between kids in different states or different countries. No way to hop some trend, or even want to. It sounds hackneyed now, but I had to seek out the cycling-music-literature, in that desert suburban wasteland, 60 miles from Mexico.
The cyclists, then, offered a semblance of family that seemed to substitute for what was missing in the one I was born into. I was always the youngest it seemed, hanging with older racers, and a guy like Alexi Grewal was like my brother. Sometimes we'd be in his red van heading to some race and stop along the highway because we needed to ride, to stay physically sharp. So we'd take turns pacing behind the van, while the other drove, going 40 or so mph for miles and miles. My real older brother Barry raced bikes too. He was damn good, my inspiration. We'd take turns hammering each other on Arizona roads, up mountains and so on. We once won a huge two-man team time trial (where the team races against the clock) in southern California, beating an Olympic cyclist or two. I was the youngest in the race by about four years.
If fear and defeat equal passivity, I was a passive little fucker who won bike races. That adage had stuck with me since my days hunting for hidden messages in catechism songs, and as an altar boy at St. Francis de Sales: If you were experiencing joy you were doing something wrong and you had to hide it, but still bear the guilt ... as Jim Carroll said on Catholic Boy, redeemed through pain and not through joy. I loved Jim Carroll.
Who'd figure that this weedy blond kid named Greg LeMond would change the feel and face of professional cycling the world over? That he'd become a millionaire and win the Tour De France three times and give a fourth win away to his teammate, falling French star Bernard Hinault? Not me. And particularly not on the day we stripped our clothes off to our socks and shoes, donned ski masks, and in a mess of teen laughter and tears, streaked the long, polished hallways in the dorm that housed the women's Olympic volleyball team. If we weren't good cyclists we'd have been kicked out of the OTC for good.
Before instructional meetings we'd giggle like doorbell-ditchers and after swallowing a handful of Niacin tabs we'd feel the rush of the capillaries exploding in our faces. Some nights we'd sneak out to an area bar, use fake IDs (mine from an address advertised in the back of Creem, and it worked!) and watch a cover band called the Wumblies play Zep covers at a white-trash rock bar where we'd get headache-y drunk on tiny amounts of wretched, Colorado-specific 3.2-alcohol beer. I stared open-mouthed at that band — they were like real rock stars and surrounded by comely chicks in super tight jeans. I wanted that. What's strange: Its gifted, head-flicking drummer was Randy Castillo, who I would, years later, gig with.
About the OTC: Colorado Springs was and is the home base of the United States Olympic Committee. And the government-funded U.S Olympic Training Center Complex was growing into "the finest multisport training facility in the world." It was a good place to live and train because of the high altitude and climate. The sizable area was situated within city limits, and looked as if it once housed some kind of Army training facilities, and there'd be other athletes living there, including swimmers, runners, volleyball players. We stayed in these ugly blue-trimmed dorms that smelled of locker rooms and disinfectants. We ate mountains of cafeteria food, including eggs, pancakes, turkey, steak, whatever. We'd train on roads all around Colorado Springs.
On some cold winter days when you couldn't get on the bike, or in afternoons after morning rides, Eddie B. would have us lifting weights, playing soccer, swimming, cross-country skiing, in the sauna, etc. You felt you were part of something that was going to be huge.
I'd burn a gazillion calories a day too. My resting heart-rate was 40 beats-per-minute. My life was as simple as a Ramones song and I liked it like that. But I'd fuck it up.
Creem magazine was a constant then, and I was the only one I knew at the OTC who read it. It was easy to find, available at any corner market. And there was a record store in town whose hippie clerk had great taste. He'd give me the punk rock cassettes that became my mainstays, including the Buzzcocks' Love Bites, Clash's London Calling, Rich Kids, Public Image, Ramones' Road to Ruin and on and on. The other cyclists howled, wanted to throttle me for playing that music, which sometimes blared from behind my door and down the hall in those brick, echo-y quarters. Some riders had elaborate stereos assembled in their rooms, and you'd hear Journey or Pink Floyd, or whatever the "accepted" music. I was the "punk rock jerk."
Eddie B. would come into my room sometimes to yak. With his gentle eyes he'd offer up stilted advice, a "don't let the bastards get you down" kind of thing. And he'd wonder what was up, why was I such "an outcast?" Why were there problems? My parents, my life? That guy sensed a lot because I never said a word about any of it. I was so strangled by my own (in)articulation, and here was this Pole whose vocal command of the English language was so littered with malapropisms and mispronunciations that his intentions were constantly bastardized so nothing was ever really said. The awkward stares had to do — he gave a damn about me and I didn't know much about anything. I loved that guy.
Creem magazine and punk rock had connected me to a place, a world or existence, that offered more space and freedom than my own. I connected with all those Creem writers, they spoke my language, called it like they saw it. Maybe it ruined my life?
Because by 17, I was done with cycling, had lost confidence. I was scheduled to go to race in Europe in a few months with the Junior National Team, but I quit. I was back living at the OTC then, but I could no longer crawl onto the saddle for even a short ride. I couldn't take any more ridicule. So I packed up, sold my extra tires and gear, purchased a plane ticket with the profits and headed back to Tucson with no plan and nowhere to live, really. I wanted to start a band, or join a band, with no musical skill whatsoever. Nearly every one of my cycling pals went on to big lucrative careers, traveling the world, racing, etc. They built the foundation of the sport in this country, the 7-Eleven pro team and Greg LeMond, the world.
That complete five-year obsession with cycling: eating, drinking, breathing it, had done me in; it was too much, too soon. I was a 17-year-old burnout. Also, Greg LeMond was too good on the bike, he was older but it still depressed me. His parents were behind him, all the way. That was another thing. Maybe I failed as a son, somehow?
I had a longing to feel. An ache to feel something other than that linear life-idea of pain-recovery-pain. I wanted the beauty around me to move into me, I longed for a sensory overload that wasn't sports-related, one that could change you from within. I remembered what Flannery O'Connor said about how it's better to be young in your failures than old in your successes.
I left the OTC one day without saying a word to anyone.
I woke up Christmas morning in my dorm-room bed. Yesterday's freeze-ride appeared in my head like a gauzy scrap of a dream abandoned in the roadside underbrush, frozen among the broken beer bottles and crumbled pages of yellowy newspaper. Flashes of pain suddenly bounced off the inside walls of my cranium like shooting stars — was it that insurmountable sense of foreboding, or was it my feet? I slid the covers away, pulled my knee toward my chin and examined the toes. The digits looked scary, buckled and misshapen, and itched and burned like hellfire, but the various shades of amethyst were quite lovely. The doctor later explained that half of them suffered frostbite. I had a gimp's limp too. Nice.
I called my dad, heard his voice on the other end of the line, and I began to speak— but the words rose up through my voice box and evaporated somewhere between my teeth.
My mouth tasted like burnt aluminum, my larynx ached. The tenderness and warmth of a dozen past Christmases rose up and hummed over me with a melancholy as silent and pure as hummingbirds. Then the inner-dialog of self-defeat grew louder and louder and finally became a scream that I felt down to my toes.
Inarticulate as ever, all my ideas and dreams and thoughts of my dad and mom became hastily boxed and stored away from the real life. Never could I tell the guy that I loved him. The call ended after a few uncomfortable and stilted pleasantries, and some tears. I thought that he didn't know who the hell I was. And I certainly couldn't begin to understand anything about him: his collapsing marriage to the woman he loved, his quiet sensitivity and that stoic intelligence and strength in the weight of raising five challenging children.
I walked out onto the dorm's second-floor fire escape, sat down on its cold, steel frame and let my legs dangle over the edge. I watched the snow fall on the pulpy colored pine trees and the ugly chain-link fence separating the OTC and me from the city street. For a fleeting moment I pictured myself stuck in a minimum-security prison.
That was my Christmas afternoon, with the transparent sadness growing in the day's long shadows and darkening skies. The only levity was that gloriously repeated Ramones guitar riff from "It's a Long Way Back" stuck in my head.
I tried hard to think about what lay ahead for me but lost all focus on anything other than a bone-deep sorrow and that stupid guitar riff. Everything felt cloudy, obscure and uninspired.
I thought of crimson vestments and flowered altars and Catholic saints. Forget Baby Jesus— I'd mastered the art of not being human at 15 years old. I thought about going to church for some kind of spiritual cleansing and how communion, particularly on Christmas, was a measly and hollow ritual compared to the lush and drunken feast of the Last Supper.
A last meal would be something to live for.
Jesus of Suburbia
A holiday tale of sorts
Brian Smith is Metro Times features editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.