It was March and I got in my car with a bunch of burned CDs on the passenger seat floor. I stopped at a rest stop an hour outside Cleveland and bought two cokes and a pack of kools. It was already late, I had to keep my wits about me. I had to work all day so I counted down the minutes like I used to do in high school, bouncing my knees up and down in my seat like a fidgeting mess of energy and awkwardness.
On the drive I had no one to talk to, so I took swigs of coke and chain smoked with the window down and I screamed along with my CD player and when I got tired of singing I’d talk to myself. I was 21 and going to a wrestling show and thinking back on it now, the whole scene plays out in my head like the opening credits of a movie, the black car going too fast on an empty highway, the driver exuding exuberance, the title popping up out of nowhere and the mood is set before the cast list appears in smaller print and the music dies down.
I got to Philly and drove around and it was way past closing time for bars. I drove back out of the city and found a rest stop and curled up in the back seat with a wool blanket and some fast food bags as a pillow. I remembered my mom telling me when I was a kid you should only run the heat for ten minutes every hour, so I would turn it off and close my eyes and wake up and turn it back on and stare at the clock and turn it back off and shut my eyes again. I probably didn’t need it at all, but it became something to do, a little ritual to pass the time. An oddity of isolation. It was mid-morning by the time I made it back in to the city and I didn’t know what I would do. I tried to go to Bauman’s, but it was closed on the weekends and apparently you needed an appointment anyway. I drank a few beers and went to an anarchist bookstore and treated it like a library.
After a while I ended up in line for the show and I had worn too many warm clothes so I asked strangers to look after my spot while I dropped a jacket and a hoodie off in the car and came back in just a shirt and jeans and a bandana. I’m pretty sure they thought I was a homeless person.
Midway through the card, BJ Whitmer came out and called The Necro Butcher a bunch of mean names. The screens above the entrance ramp went dark for a second and Necro came out, and people went bananas. I’ll never forget standing up and watching Necro pause at the top of the ramp and carefully take off his birkenstocks before barreling down on Whitmer with reckless abandon.
It’s hard to describe just what the CZW/ROH feud felt like to fans in those arenas. I suppose on some macro level it was like the nWo, but as a kid who loved watching wrestling on the TV, that was like watching superheroes take part in some Shakespearean drama.
When ROH and CZW were in the same building, it was like being in the saloon when some angry man in a black hat walked in and the music stopped and the only sound was the clicking of his spurs and everyone knew that there would be a fight, and any sudden movement would set it off.
Necro Butcher literally does not stop throwing punches for about two minutes, until Whitmer throws him in to the ring post. BJ finally gets Necro in to the ring and it feels almost like a de-escalation for all the potentially violence. They both tease a bunch of things from the ring apron that would result in a both a far fall onto a hard floor and an angry rant from David Bixenspan. A high knee finally does it, and Whitmer basks in the adulation of the ROH fans until Super Dragon shows up.
An air horn goes off in the back of the arena. It’s perfect, a jolt, a spark, a signal that the ROH faithful are officially sharing a no longer safe space. Super Dragon goes to the outside with Whitmer and the Green Lantern Fan is fucking pissed. He says mean things to Super Dragon. I probably haven’t watched a Super Dragon match in close to eight years, and it’s a delight to see how quick and impactful he made everything look.
Whitmer starts to fight back, but Necro finally comes too and quickly helps Super Dragon put the boots (feet?) to Whitmer. Finally, the ROH locker room comes out to defend Whitmer, the Briscoes and some students and on the outside Necro Butcher stoically hold two fingers up, pointing out the hypocrisy in ROH’s not exactly heroic behavior. He answered a challenge and was subsequently attacked by a dozen men. He hits himself hard in the head with a chair, once, twice, a dozen times. His facial expression never changes. I was entranced, like watching Leatherface’s weird dance at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a monster doing something entirely unknowable, a mix of fear and elation and frustration as the world carries on around him, people chanting for him, people yelling at him to leave.
Later in the night, once Samoa Joe arrived, the CZW wrestlers arrived in full, and the crowd reached a fever pitch. I remember Zandig threatening to kill BJ Whitmer if he didn’t get a microphone and I remember thinking that he would do it because there was a weedwhacker in the ring and barbed wire. In some way, the assault on BJ Whitmer was an assault on purity, an assault on righteousness.
In my mind, Whitmer and the entire ROH locker room were an extension of my own wrestling fandom. They toiled away in relative obscurity, huddling together and going from town to town with love for wrestling in their hearts. For whatever reason, on that afternoon, in the old ECW Arena, it never dawned on me that the CZW wrestlers were simply a different side of the same coin. Their love ran so deep it would leave scars forever. There is romance in the idea of the death match wrestler, in the idea that a man will harm himself irreparably with his only goal to be noticed for a few minutes on a Saturday night. My ears were ringing as I left the building and I felt a pit in my stomach, an illicit excitement, like the first time you lie to your parents and get away with it.
I stayed in Philly for a couple of days to go to a Mischief Brew show that I found out about. A few months earlier I was working in a theatre on the West side of Cleveland above this little coffee shop. One of the girls that worked there would wear a Defiance, OH shirt all the time and had dyed black hair and Roman nose. I would go down there more than I should’ve and meekly try to talk about bands and music but more often than not I’d just order a mediocre brie & pear sandwich and eat in silence and quickly look away any time she caught me staring at her. In my mind, I thought if I went to this show I could go back and seem awesome, way cooler than I was, a jet setting punk rock loner with awesome stories and taste in music.
As I stood alone in someone else’s house and listened to the conversations around me, I knew that I’d probably never mention this show to her, I’d convince myself it was never the right time, that other guys probably did stuff like that all the time and I would just be bothering her. I leaned against a pole in the basement and lit cigarette after cigarette and sometimes I’d shuffle slightly out of the way to let someone pass by.
The room was packed, it was a concrete basement with a low ceiling and some broken glass in the corner. There was a permanent haze as we all smoked heavily in a room with no ventilation whatsoever and I remember laughing with someone when I went outside to not smoke. When the show started, the mood was completely joyous. Everyone knew every word and screamed along as best they could. People shoved and pushed and swayed and tried to dance. Boys slung arms around shoulders and turned to each other on lyrics that were personally meaningful, private moments in a sea of questionable haircuts. As I moved with the crowd, sweat flying off my face, I thought about what it would look like from above and the only image I could conjure was the grainy old videos of bread lines from the second world we’d sometimes have to watch in social studies.
When the set was over, I thought that it was the platonic ideal of what a punk show should be. It was loud and fast and hot and sweaty and for all that everything resulted in a tremendous sense of togetherness. It was a true shared experience and kids wandered off afterward in to the night high on each other as much as anything else. I had nowhere to go and I slowly walked to my car and stopped at a corner store on the way. I bought a six pack for when I stopped driving for the night and I bought another six pack for some kids who were at the show and I bought a third for the two guys sitting outside the store asking for change. I couldn’t tell you why but something about the night had inspired me to share something with others, something beyond words or a personal connection. Beer was the only thing I could think of, but it seemed good enough in the moment. I cracked one with the punks and the homeless guys and I walked away as they said thanks and felt like I was the meaning of the word cool for about an hour or so. I did the drive back to Cleveland overnight. I pulled in to my house as my roommate was leaving for an early shift, and I drank a warm beer in the back of my car in the driveway with the heat on and the stereo up.
I thought of this trip because Erik Peterson, the lead singer of Mischief Brew, died this week. I have since moved to Philadelphia and seen him play a number of other times, but none ever felt quite like that first night. When I heard the news, I was gutted. I thought back on these moments, ones that made me feel youthful and idealistic and perfect all at once. It was a perfect little trip for me, wrestling and punk and I shared it with hundreds of people and yet I was completely alone the entire time. As I read through the memories of my friend’s times with Erik, I hoped that some of those kids at that show were doing the same, remembering how hot it was and how that just didn’t fucking matter at all. Maybe there was even someone who sat back and thought about some weird dude in a Love and Rockets shirt buying them a six pack and then walking off in to the night.
On days like today, when I can’t help but think about how utterly desolate life can seem, it’s nice to realize that almost all of my memories are somehow tied to things that I loved in the moment; a punk show, a coffee shop crush, a shoeless madman running forever toward violence. I hope that if you’re reading this, you are lucky enough to never know the pain of loss. I hope that if you do, you can sit with your friends and share a six pack and remember those fleeting, personal moments that seemed so commonplace and inconsequential, but have stayed with us as formative for the rest of our lives. I hope that whomever we lost will someone feel them, and be content in knowing that they were relevant.