On the Edge
The room is a sweatbox, a human pinball machine gone haywire. Young bodies crash together, topple to the floor, kicking, flailing. A couple dozen guys and a few girls maul each other.403 Chaos, an alternative record shop and punk concert space situated on a quiet brick street near downtown Tampa, is living up to its name. The hardcore rock band Omega Man is crammed onto the small, carpeted riser, its four members grinding out a deafening barrage of vicious beats, bludgeoning guitars and shrieking vocals.But there is something about the Sunday night scene that seems out of sync. The moshers don't wear bloodlust glares. There are no cheap-shot punches or retaliatory blindsides. These kids are smiling, laughing.A mosh pit with manners?The people are sober -- sweating out Snapple and bottled water, not beer. Most of them are straight-edge, part of a punk subculture that forswears alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and promiscuous sex. Most straight-edgers are vegetarian or vegan (eschewing the use of all dairy or any animal products). Some won't wear leather.Unofficial demographics profile straight-edgers as overwhelmingly male, age 16-24. They have not yielded to worldly temptations. They have not become cliches. They are alert and positive amid a youth culture that's often written off as a bunch of hedonistic slackers just looking for their next drink, joint and lay. At its best, straight-edge is a means for clear-eyed self-determination and social activism; at its worst, straight-edge is a narrow-minded, judgmental, often violent way of life with similarities to urban gang culture.Straight-edge is not a lifestyle to be chosen lightly. One of its credos is "True 'til death." Like any strict social movement, it's easy to fall by the wayside. In high school, straight-edgers generally wrap themselves in a cocoon of other straight-edgers, forming a kind of support group, an inner circle of like-minded kids. But some go off to college, where holding the line is tougher. A T-shirt from the band Chain of Strength bears the imprint: "True 'til death/ Not 'til college.""Sometimes they just turn 21," says a cynical scenester outside 403 Chaos. "Straight-edge is easier when you're not legal.""The turnover rate is pretty high," says Omega Man's vocalist Bill Rogers with offhanded wryness."And it's not a revolving door," adds guitarist John Allen. "Once they head out of it, they rarely come back."Most of the time because they are not welcome. Peer pressure can be immense among straight-edgers. Get caught slurping a beer and risk being ostracized. Light up a Marlboro and get tagged as a "sell-out." Get hit with a Big Mac jones? Make sure you chomp it in the privacy of your bedroom.Their symbol is the "X." In the '80s, during the movement's early days, door people at shows would scrawl an X in magic marker on the hands of under-age kids, signifying that they couldn't buy alcohol. Straight-edgers soon adopted the X as a badge of honor, signifying that they chose not to imbibe, do drugs or smoke. They would "X up" all over their bodies with felt pens, sometimes tattooing it into their skin, or wearing Swatch watches with an X.Although straight-edge aims for purity, its ideologies, which have mutated during a decade and a half, are anything but. The movement has no governing body, no handbook, no national convention. The no-meat mandate took hold in the late '80s. Over the years, various offshoots have sprouted up embracing animal rights, pro-life, communism, environmentalism, Christianity, Krishna and other beliefs. In its most extreme form, straight-edge has sidled up to white supremacy -- that apparently being the ultimate purity. Perhaps its most absurd manifestation was by a gay 'zine editor who felt that overpopulation was the world's most pressing social ill. Therefore, he espoused homosexuality as the true way to be straight edge. (Hence, to be straight was to be gay.)Setting aside extremists and militants, the largest contingent of straight-edgers seems to be rational folk who are more concerned with keeping their own house in order than imposing their will on the world. Omega Man drummer Ken Harg, at 27 older than most straight-edgers, says, "I don't believe in pushing my views on other people. This is about me. It's not a trend, it's a lifestyle. I have friends who are not straight. That's their business, although if they are indulging I don't care to be around."Harg's round face and soft, disarming eyes reflect an inner peace. It wasn't always so. For years, he was addicted to drugs and did "the jail thing" for drug and weapons offenses. Four years ago, he got "sick and tired of being sick and tired" and found straight-edge.A central bone of contention between straight-edge factions is the issue of tolerance. The majority of Tampa Bay straight-edgers fall into the live-and-let-live category. Some locals have even begun calling themselves, simply, "straight," as if to distance themselves from a movement that the national media tends to paint as nutso. Militant straight-edgers have been the topic of a number of television news-magazine exposes; they've also been seen frothing at the mouth on tabloid TV.Horror stories abound, some substantiated, some probably apocryphal. In the late '80s, Tampa Bay straight-edgers used to form "wolfpacks" and run around terrorizing people -- spraying mace on inebriated revelers at Guavaween, for instance. The frontman of the Boston band Slapshot would carry a hockey stick on stage and pop people on the head who he saw drinking or smoking. One tale from the Northeast says that a "sell-out" was attacked by his former posse, who carved an X into his back. Straight-edge band members have reportedly punched girls in the face for smoking a cigarette.In all, though, "straight-edge is not a violent movement," says Mark Simpson, owner of the Song X record shop in St. Petersburg. He is not straight-edge but sells a lot of the culture's music and 'zines. "I find that locally a lot of straight-edge kids have a great sense of humor. In other parts of the country, especially the Northeast, the movement is more grim, with a lot of tough guys with a super-hard mentality. Down here, they love to have fun and love doing it sober."When Tom Stevens got married in May, an issue was whether he would drink wine during the toast. A straight-edger for more than a decade, he chose grape juice. Stevens is sitting in a spartan office in the new car showroom of Crown Nissan in St. Petersburg. He's a salesman (a job he has since left). Clad in khaki Dockers, penny loafers and Nissan-issue polo shirt, he shows no vestige of straight-edge. Unlike the fallen, he's been able to reconcile his straight-edge mentality with a mainstream lifestyle. He owns a small hardcore record label called Significant. He still goes to punk shows, but no longer feels the need to X up.Stevens, 27, grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and started going to punk shows at age 13. He engaged in a little peer pressure drinking but didn't get drunk. His parents divorced, and his mother drank heavily."I remember going to a party with friends and seeing this guy punch his girlfriend," Stevens says. "A bunch of guys jumped in and she was yelling, 'Don't hurt him, don't hurt him, it was just the alcohol.' I thought, 'There's no way I'm gonna end up that way.'"He turned to straight-edge at 16. Stevens ended up promoting shows in his hometown, running with the Zilla Crew, whose drink of choice was Zeltzer Seltzer. The only fighting he did was against Nazi skinheads. He dated a party girl for almost a year, but now views it as a mistake. Stevens moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he met his future wife (who is not straight-edge, but finds herself getting straighter all the time). They relocated to the Bay area two years ago.He's not altogether sure why he's stayed "nailed to the X," citing a song title. "It's a lifestyle that got me through my youth, and it's certainly something you can use in adulthood," he says. "I did it for myself, not to be part of a crowd or a trend. And maybe because I wasn't so militant about it I was more realistic about the outside world. I never sealed myself off. I can honestly say I'll be true 'til death; no doubt about that."The members of Syracuse-based Earth Crisis, probably the world's most popular straight-edge band, are "true 'til death" as well, but that's where they and Tom Stevens part company. Earth Crisis' members are fire-breathing militants with a penchant for launching fists; they're strident about the need to spread and enforce the straight-edge way of life. Their music, slower and more metal-edged than early straight-edge sounds, is more reflective of raging violence than punk nihilism.Last summer, Earth Crisis played Joe Mocha's -- The Refuge, a combination Christian mission, homeless shelter and concert spot on Martin Luther King Street in St. Petersburg that presents a steady stream of hardcore shows.Sitting on a curb around the corner from the club, they talked fervently of their beliefs, but insisted they had been the victims of a bad rap. All the stories about them punching chicks and jumping people for smoking pot were fabricated. Frontman Karl Buechner's ice blue eyes wore a look of persecution. They assured me they were live-and-let-live types. I listened, beer in hand, nearly convinced.We went separate directions after the interview. I rounded the corner a few minutes later to a major commotion on the sidewalk in front of The Refuge. It seems Buechner had sucker-punched a guy for reasons no one was sure of. (It was commonly held that he encountered a young man peddling pot, a fallen straight-edger whom he had known from before.) Outside, lots of kids were pissed at Earth Crisis' terror tactics, but the show went on.Earlier this year, Earth Crisis returned to Joe Mocha's. An ample crowd of about 400 turned out. Tom Nestor, who runs the shows at the alcohol-free club, remembers the band insisting on being paid in advance. They also asked that all lights be turned out in the club as they hit the stage. Nestor refused. "The band's getting ready to play, and some of the kids started heckling them," he says. "Before they struck a note, the band and their security guys jumped into the audience, and there was a big brawl."After sorting out the mess, Earth Crisis performed yet again.But that's the last time at Joe Mocha's. "Straight-edge is supposed to create some type of inner peace in people," says Nestor, a Christian who is not straight-edge. "If there's that much rage inside (Buechner), maybe he needs to eat a steak and get laid."The Bay area straight-edge scene had apparently had enough of Earth Crisis' bully act. "I used to sell a lot of their product," says Simpson of Song X. "Now it just sits there. When I get rid of my Earth Crisis stuff, I'm not re-ordering any more." I'm a person just like you But I've got better things to do Than sit around and smoke dope 'Cause I know I can cope Laugh at the thought of eating ludes Laugh at the thought of sniffing glue Always gonna keep in touch Never want to use a crutch I've got the straight edgeIn 1981, Ian McKaye of the Washington, D.C., punk band Minor Threat spat these lyrics over buzzsaw guitars in a 45-second blast called "Straight Edge."He had unwittingly authored a manifesto for punks who were disenchanted with the lifestyle's dominant drug culture. Not long after, in D.C., Boston and New York, kids tossed away the weed and brew, proclaimed themselves straight-edge, started hanging out together, going to shows, X-ing up.McKaye now fronts the vaunted punk band Fugazi and heads Dischord Records. I called their D.C.-area office, seeking an interview. Fugazi was on tour, but a label employee who asked not to be identified spoke of McKaye's relationship to straight-edge: "That song was a very personal thing that was going on with Ian when he was 18. He never intended it to be a movement. We try to distance ourselves from straight-edge. It has taken forms we do not agree with -- conservative and violent elements. The words came from the song, and we have to live with that, but the straight-edge mentality in 1997 has almost nothing to do with the song or Minor Threat."By '83, straight-edge had effectively petered out. Two years later, a diehard named Ray Capo, who was in a Connecticut band called Violent Children, decided the scene needed a shot in the arm and formed the group Youth of Today, which is still viewed as the most influential band in straight-edge. They went at it with a vengeance, spilling out songs like "Straightedge Revenge," "Nailed to the X," "Clear," "Thinking Straight" and others. A void was filled, and in the process straight-edge became more politically charged. Several bands and a legion of fans formed a loosely knit collective called the Youth Crew. They adopted the uniform of baggy shorts, sneakers, T-shirts emblazoned with the band names and hooded Champion sweatshirts.Straight-edge went nationwide. Bands spawned like lemmings: Gorilla Biscuits, Bold, Instead, Reason To Believe, Uniform Choice, Born Against, Judge, Chain of Strength. As the scene grew, it became increasingly fractious. Posses and crews formed around certain bands. Rivalries developed. They'd brawl at shows. Non straight-edgers became targets of random violence.Most of the gang mentality took root in the Northeast. The Southeast straight-edge scene has always been considered less antagonistic.The music, inextricably linked to the lifestyle, grew more dense and metal-oriented. Vocalists began to emit guttural roars in the manner of death-metal frontmen.Weird shit happened. Ray of 2 Day, as Capo had rechristened himself, became Krishna, bailed on Youth of Today, and formed a band called Shelter. Almost immediately, kids started wearing burlap tunics and sandals, and passed out Krishna lit, all the while adhering straight-edge.Religion has been another point of argument within the straight-edge community. When asked how God fit into straight-edge, Rogers of Omega Man pauses, shrugs and says, "It doesn't."His bandmates nod in agreement."People invest so much time and energy into the after-life," Rogers continues. "There's a big life to be lived and enjoyed now. We're not about putting a deity over self."Adam Worshowski feels just the opposite. Some might call him Christian straight-edge. He sees that as a contradiction in terms. A member of the band Sleeping by the River that he describes as "drug-free Christian," he renounced straight-edge after finding Jesus. "Straight-edge provided me with the physical benefit and a sense of unity and brotherhood, but not the spiritual," Worshowski says, standing outside 403 Chaos after the Omega Man show. "I kept feeling a void. I think straight-edge kids are slow to admit they feel a spiritual void."Straight-edge took hold in Tampa Bay in the late '80s. The first rumblings came from Brandon, which early in the decade had been the focal point for the Tampa Bay metal scene. In '89, the area's first major show featured Gorilla Biscuits, Uniform Choice and Bold at Jannus Landing, drawing an ample, enthusiastic crowd.A couple of noted local bands emerged: Slap of Reality and Awake. Neither was an exclusively straight-edge band, but both had enough hardcore power to attract the faithful.Straight-edge kids, who numbered in the hundreds locally, intermingled, sometimes uneasily, with various other factions from hardcore culture: crusty punks, peace-punks, mods, ska boys, skinheads. All would congregate at hardcore shows at places like the Sunset Club, Volley Club, Star Club, or at people's homes and in garages.The most hard-line straight-edgers latched on with the skinheads, and for a spell caused the same sort of anxiety among the crowd as their neo-Nazi brethren. In time, that element wore out. Some current scenesters say there are still a few hard-liners in Brandon, but they don't come out to shows anymore because the gatherings are "too soft." As sound men test the PA for a hardcore show at Joe Mocha's, Peter Tsolkas busily sets up his "distro," a card table crowded with CDs, LPs, 7-inches, T-shirts, stickers and dozens of pamphlets, most of them having to do with radical politics: "Animal Liberation Primer" (including instructions on arson), "Prison Abolition," "If An Agent Knocks." The leaflets are available for a donation of 50 cents to a dollar, although Tsolkas says he prefers to trade. A scrawled sign, taped to the table, says, "WE GLADLY ACCEPT BARTER," and in smaller letters, "All money is blood money."Tsolkas is days away from returning to East Lake High School as a junior. He was expelled last year for protesting a standardized test, but after writing an essay about how to protest according to school rules, he has been re-admitted. He also attempted to set up an info table at East Lake during the Great American Meat-Out last year, but his efforts were quashed by school administrators.Compact and slight of build, 16 years old, body unmarked by tattoos, he has crescent-shaped eyes that shimmer with energy. His hair is cropped short, with the splotchy beginnings of sideburns.Tsolkas could be a poster boy for the idealistic future of straight-edge. For him, the X is little more than a style symbol. Straight-edge is part of a more wide-ranging ideology encompassing eyes-wide-open activism, humanism and radical politics. On a certain level, he sympathizes with hard-line straight-edgers. "To be militant is important, if it means you are aggressively active," he says. "But I do not agree with the violence that goes along with a lot of hard-line thinking. I can understand being a staunch advocate, but I don't like attacks on people's personal choices."For dinner the following night, Peter's mother took her first try at cooking a Thai rice dish, totally vegan. His return to school came up in conversation. "While we were eating, my dad said, 'Sometimes you gotta bite your tongue to get through,'" Peter says. "I said, 'God, I hope not.'"Later that night, Peter attends a "vegan pot luck" at the mobile home of his "distro" partner, 20-year-old Josh Rumschlaug. The trailer's living room is squeezed with two catty-corner sofas, a coffee table and an old TV. The small kitchen gives way to a narrow hall leading to the bedrooms, where hardcore rock cranks from the speakers.It's not loud enough to stifle conversation on the couches, though, where at about 8 p.m. a half-dozen kids are hanging out. Adam Warshowski, the lapsed straight-edger turned drug-free Christian, is on hand, perfectly welcome. Todd ("I don't like monikers") is the purist among them. Peering through wire-rim glasses, he pontificates on any subject that's handy. He says he exists almost exclusively on the barter system. He's studying massage, but has no plans to get his license because the only reason you need one is to make money. "People think that you can't go back to more basic ways of living, but you can," he implores. "I spend like $200 a year."Trading is a big deal with these folks -- they swap haircuts, records, tattoo work, massages, old shoes, meals.As the evening wears on, more and more kids show up, some of them with cigarettes. One drinks a bottle of Natural Lite beer. Another guy with a buzz-cut and combat boots totes a pint of vodka. The straight-edgers don't make an issue of the interlopers and when queried murmur, "It's cool. We're not gonna throw anyone out." In all, about two dozen kids show up and mill about the mobile home. Kristen, a drug-free Christian, roots around in the cupboard and whips together a tasty batch of ginger brownies. "If you need me, I'll be in the kitchen, where I'm supposed to be," she says, looking at me with a glint in her eye.The topics whiz by: Josh sees no need to own a car so he's putting his Saturn up for sale. Some vegans don't eat broccoli or cauliflower because these particular vegetables have the beginnings of a central nervous system. To Adam: Jesus existed, he just wasn't the son of God. Air conditioning is needless, not to mention being a health hazard.A few kids quietly complain of the stifling heat in the trailer, but content themselves with fans cranked on high.Peter enters with his mom's leftover Thai in a plastic container and several kids gather to give it a try. The reactions are lukewarm. Todd makes a sour face. "There's a pretty strong after-taste," he says. "Is that butter?""It's Parkay," Peter answers with an apologetic look."Yugggghhhh," Adam says.What's wrong with Parkay? "It's vegan," Josh says, "but as food it's shit."Someone brings up bands. They tick off name after name from the rock underground -- Snapcase, Strife, Endeavor, Ignite -- good-naturedly arguing over which ones suck and which ones are great. Omega Man and Reversal of Man, two straight-edge units from Tampa, get general nods of approval. For a few minutes the group lightens up, and the chatter of carefree teens fills the air. Music is the common denominator, as central to the scene as the trippy San Francisco bands were to late '60s Haight-Ashbury.These particular straight-edgers have overlapping ideologies with the hippies. In fact, they seem to have adopted certain tenets of '60s thinking -- the passive resistance of MLK, the ardent activism of the Chicago Seven, the communal feeling of the Woodstock nation -- while rejecting others. Drugs are not viewed as a pathway to enlightenment, but a cancer that deadens the soul and allows you to be controlled by the machine.Will they be a force? Their small number suggests no. The extremist faction, who often make a cartoon of the movement, won't help. Straight-edge doesn't seem to grow, but neither does it show signs of petering out. After a decade and a half, the lifestyle is entrenched in youth culture. New kids come along to replace the ones who've drifted away. More and more people hang onto straight-edge past their early '20s.Some of these committed young people will make their mark. Perhaps it will be Mary Gregory, 18, who graduated from Pinellas Park High this year. In February, she and some friends broke up a "pigeon shoot" at the Hi Hat Ranch in Sarasota by using U-shaped bicycle locks to fasten themselves to a fence. They were arrested. After her father hired an attorney, Mary reluctantly "signed some papers" and pleaded no contest. Subsequent to the arrest, her parents made her take a drug test. "Pretty ironic," she mutters.At the prom, she got into a shoving match with a girl who hassled her over being straight-edge. Not long after, she left the home of her father and stepmother. Mary had a job waitressing for awhile but the place went out of business. She wears her hair crew-cut short, doesn't shave her legs and has contempt for standardized ideals of female beauty (although she has a natural prettiness that will not disappear no matter how much she might like it to). She doesn't give a damn if straight-edge is regarded as a boys' club. She only has a handful of girlfriends anyway.Mary is adrift. She'd like to join a commune, maybe even start one. During the get-together, she makes a call to San Francisco, where an activist group is recruiting people to help at-risk Native American elders in the Dakotas. Josh showed her a pamphlet. When an answering machine clicks on, she hangs up.Mary hopes to attend junior college, for starters, and study political science. A self-proclaimed socialist, she has high regard for St. Petersburg state senator Charlie Crist, who spoke to her class a few times, and doesn't give a hoot if he's Republican. In her eyes, he's a good man -- and that's what matters most. Mary could see being a legislator some day."I know that would require working within the system," she says. "And I'm not prepared to become part of the system right now. But I just want to stay straight, keep educating myself. You know the reason I'd like to become a senator? So I could change things."She already has. Sparked by the protest of Mary and her friends, Sarasota County outlawed the corralling of animals for the purpose of shooting them.