by Eric Deggans, Asbury Park
The crowd surges as an earnest but ragged punk band kicks into action, heating up the drizzly evening with blasts of furious guitar work and spat-out vocals.
Dozens of partying skinheads are packed into a performance space called the Gas Station in New York’s Alphabet City district – a vision of Mad Max style punk nihilism, its walls fortified by corrugated metal topped with barbed wire. Jutting from a disintegrating corner of Avenue B, the former gas station’s courtyard is now filled with sculptures made from old bicycle pans and castoff construction materials.
Inside, the crowd is a rainbow of counter-cultural colors, with black, Asian and Hispanic skins quaffing beers while slam dancing over and into their white brethren.
ln the middle of this maelstrom of sight, sound and fury sits Pedro Serrano, his close cropped head topped by a well-worn cap, swaying to the kinetic groove. Though he’s surrounded by friends, Serrano seems to be in his own world.
“Everybody who knows me knows me as a friendly person, but few people understand me,” said Serrano later, smiling slightly.
A welfare child born to Puerto Rican parents, Serrano, 36, stands as an anachronism. A racial minority in a subculture known for its violent racists; a gay man in a movement known for its homophobia; a man nearing middle age in a scene where many are just past adolescence – he often walks alone, even in a crowd.
Serrano has devoted himself to reclaiming skinhead culture from its racist stigma. Due to hit the streets soon, his fanzine, Brother Outsider, will combine news on racist incidents and tips on fighting “boneheads (a derisive nickname for racist skins), with record reviews and listings of upcoming ska and punk shows.
“Most skinhead ‘zines don’t seem to be into discussing politics – mostly because the extreme right and left are both trying to co-opt the scene,” Serrano said. “Most skins are just interested in street politics – what affects them. Maybe through this, I can get the local skins together.”
Spend some time in his element, and it’s obvious Serrano serves as a father figure of sorts to the young skinheads around his New Brunswick home base.
Drawn to the skin scene through punk music – where in the mid ’70s emerging star Patti Smith helped him come to terms with his own sexuality – Serrano finds himself standing on the other side of a road his younger contemporaries are just beginning to cross.
“In high school – being gay and not knowing how to deal with it – I was miserable and angry and crazy,” he said. “Most people (I knew) who were gay then either tried to kill themselves or someone else. The music was a nice leveling off between that.”
At WRSU-FM, the Rutgers University-based student radio station where he helps assemble speciality programs on world music and gay issues, Serrano scans the wire services for material to place in Brother Outsider.
“At least once a month I’m asked, ‘Why be a skinhead?'” Serrano recounted. “It was more or less a reaction to other scenes I had been in,” he said. “The gay scene was disco and stuff, but in the punk rock world, you’re encouraged to express yourself. Being part of the skinhead thing, I learned to find people who accepted me for what I am.”
Alone in the crowd
In the threadbare living room of the New Brunswick crash pad where his crew of skinhead buddies hangs out, Serrano squats next to a pair of garbage cans overflowing with beer bottles and pizza boxes while waiting for friends from the ska band Inspecter 7.
A group of 10 or so skins, all friendly with members of the band, hope to pile in the group’s van for a trip to an all-day punk and ska concert in New York. While they wait, some discuss the latest event: a scuffle the night before with racist skins at a New Brunswick nightclub.
“They were from that band Aggravated Assault,” jokes one skin, holding up a battered CD case of the group’s music. As another reads off song titles like “The Eternal Jew” and “Kill a Red,” a black friend of the group shows off a recent gift: a flight jacket taken from one of the racist skins, its neo-Nazi patches still intact.
”Can’t believe they tried to come into town,” another skin says, shaking his head. “I bet they’ll think twice next time.”
According to these young skins, New Brunswick has remained fairly free of openly racist skinheads, while areas like Atlantic City, Trenton and Staten Island maintain a strong racist skin presence.
“Some of the things anti-racist skins do is beat up racist skins,” admitted Serrano later. “(Anti-racist skins) really do see themselves as being at war with these people – because they see their subculture being hijacked and associated with racist elements.”
Before long, the ragtag group arrived in New York for the show – itself a fund-raiser to help pay legal costs for a black skinhead accused of a vicious assault. Serrano again found himself alone in the crowd -and not minding it much.
“It used to be, the only time I felt comfortable was at shows … now it’s being at shows and seeing people my own age,” he joked.
And what about finding a significant other who can bridge his different worlds?
“That’s really impossible,” Serrano said. “I really think I’m working on myself. A lot of gay guys talk about finding the man of their dreams – I want to become the man of my dreams.”