Only the Good Die Young
Look at the face in the picture above. It's the face of a dying man. But it doesn't look contorted with malignant bitterness and resentment. His heart and consciousness are intact. This weekend, while sequestered up in the mountains taking a brief reprieve from my heat-and-hot-waterless apartment in Brooklyn, I got to thinking about my old buddy Anthony Poynter, who passed away six months ago from cancer at the too-young age of 32. For many years, he was the quiet force behind Lexington, Kentucky’s DIY punk scene. College towns present a difficult alchemy for someone trying to build a community and scene—there’s a fresh crop of new students every four years and not too many people stick around for the long haul. Anthony had a heart of gold and posessed a Southerner's innate generosity and warm-heartedness that often feels like a rare thing in the stony-hearted North where everyone is looking out for themselves. In my experience, it really does sometimes seem like the best, most pure-hearted people are the first to die, often tragically, leaving the rest of us—the Wicked—to roam this Earth. The last time I saw Anthony was a chance meeting in Lexington, on my way driving from North Carolina to Cairo, Illinois, to write a story about an anarchist community center for TIME magazine. I stopped off looking for a little all-night diner, a diner that Anthony had first taken me to—and these are my notes from that last encounter.
The gorgeous scale model quality of Winston Salem, NC, in the morning—a lone man in a puffy parka trudging across the tundra of closed down factories, barbershops, train tracks and water towers.
As I climb into the West Virginia mountains, the overlooks become dizzying. The state is truly “wild and wonderful” but has some underlying grimness to it, as if long ago some ancient evil were imprisoned there. Snow blows off the mountains, whipping around the highway, little ghost trails and veins swirling. There are huge WPA-era tunnels pocking the highways, all of them still in full possession of that 1930s quality. I stop at a gas station to de-ice my windshield. I ask the teenager attendant when the state flattened out. “It doesn’t—West Virginia’s pretty damn mountainous.”
From the highway, Charleston, West Virginia, looks like some kind of lost Shangri-La, the kind of city you’d want to stop in and buy some cheap property and start a commune. There’s a rushing river, some picturesque train tracks, mountains, and a beautiful golden dome downtown. But when you actually exit into Charleston, the mirage shimmers and fades—there’s not much there, just a collection of pharmacies, churches, and clinics. It’s almost as if Charleston put all of its attractive qualities by the interstate highway in order to lure long-distance travelers into stopping there.
The rocky green hills of Kentucky—untouched, pristine, not quite Southern, more like a gateway of the South into the Midwest. The local radio station is playing a segment about how bourbon is made. I arrive in Lexington, Kentucky, and drive circles around the sprawling college town, hopelessly searching for a rundown little diner I had visited years before and gotten the first-time-to-Lexington breakfast special. Eventually I find the Tolly-Ho—it’s a great little open-all-night spot.
I ordered the double veggie burger, hoping to pull the “It’s my first time here” deal and get the meal for free. Turns out that I had misremembered the deal, perhaps confused it with the first-visit special in some other city. The deal was not, it turns out, that you got a free breakfast, but that the employees sang you an embarrassing song. The guy at the register benevolently excuses us both from that awkwardness.
As I’m waiting, a sketchy-looking punk guy with bleached blonde hair comes in and orders a veggie burger in a syrupy Kentucky drawl. He looks so familiar.
They call our orders at the same time. “Anthony! Aaron!” We each sit down at separate grimy tables, but give each other a little nod to say hello. Turned out to be Anthony who had set up a show for my band four years before! He was still living in Lexington.
Anthony said he had moved away to DC for a year before moving back home. “In DC, everyone worked too much and no one hung out. It’s like people only care about causes there. Everyone has to have a cause.” He continued, somewhat bitterly, “In the end, I’m going to be close to someone because we’re friends, not because we worked together on some campaign or something.”
“I had an apartment in College Park all to myself. $550, digital cable included. Wife Swap saved me for that seven months when I had given up on everything.” Anthony explained that he had made his money in DC by splicing metro cards together. “It’s like splitting stem cells. You take one, splice it, and keep adding to it. I was selling my $500 dollar cards on craigslist for 400 bucks.”
Anthony’s plan was to go help out in Cairo, Illinois, for a while, but first he was going to do a few rounds on the “bus of broken dreams” [the Greyhound] out to Tucson and California. For a while, he was back in old reliable Lexington—setting up shows, starting punk spaces, and surviving on scrap metal and stealing expensive jackets, as he had been doing for years. “I’m 30 years old man, I don’t know how to do anything else.”
He invited me over to his house for a show later. After loitering around town a while, I decided to go check it out. As soon as I entered, I immediately regretted agreeing to come. Everyone was 19 years old and they all had acoustic guitars. Anthony’s housemate had made vegan cookies. There was a no drinking policy.
To pass the agonizing sober time, I played a round of Battleship with a rockabilly guy who, unable to take it anymore, ran outside to the front yard mid-game and shotgunned a beer. Even Anthony came over and muttered that he wished that some loud bands were playing instead—at a show he himself had booked. But such was his dedication to DIY punk and the idea of “inclusive, all-ages spaces” that he wanted to keep things wholesome for the kids. Around 11, the last teenage kid finished warbling out his godawful acoustic songs, and I said my goodbye to their 30-year-old patron saint, the guy who had provided them a place to go, a place besides the mall or the coffee shop or their parents houses where they could be together. It was the last time I would see him. If he knew he was sick, through bodily intuition or a doctor's diagnosis, he didn't mention it.
Staying in your hometown as you get older doesn’t necessarily mean stagnation—but it can mean being the old guy who hosts events and plays the sagely elder to bunch of young people. Peter Pan to the Lost Boys. Leaving, joining the gray world of peers who are eager to become adults isn’t necessarily the answer either—soon enough, you’re going to bars, scowling, complaining, and getting boring like everyone else. Choices, endless choices, all of them leading down different paths, affecting the world in different ways.
I waved goodbye and sped down the frosty Kentucky Parkway, relieved to be away from the sobering presence of all those young people I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, blasting Against Me’s Crime EP and feeling what it was like to be 18 again. As we get older, it seems more and more important to be among people from your specific micro-generation, people who understand and were there for all the cultural milemarkers that shaped your life. It’s like finding veterans of the same war. “Portland summer 2002?” "Yeah!" Even if it's been a long time, you still run over and embrace, misty-eyed—after all, it was your war.