Philosophy of The Pit: Skins Talk Straightedge

Telling a `Skinhead' from a `Trendoid'

One minute the group wearing black leather jackets and bald pates stands huddled together laughing. A man, standing in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank on Mass. Ave., wails on the bagpipes. The skinheads laugh and heckle. He puts away the pipes, and a cheer erupts.

A reporter approaches to where they are sitting in a straight line along the wall talking to each other and listening to some speed metal on a large box. "Tell me a funny story," he asks. "Yeah, I know a funny story, it's about a newspaper reporter..." says one skin rather threateningly.

In the rapidly gentrifying Harvard Square world of smooth shiny-clean boutiques, the skinheads represent the counter-culture, and they are proud of it.

Dressed in black leather bomber jackets and shiny army boots, they hang out near the Harvard Square T Station kiosk, in the area nicknamed "The Pit." On a given Friday night, more than 20 skins flock to The Pit. At first glance they look like any other fringe social group. Punks, metalheads, skins--one would think they're all the same, but, according to the skinheads, the differences are obvious.

The Pit serves as a kind of Mecca for the Skinheads who come to Cambridge from Somerville, South Boston, Brookline and Springfield. Even though the skinheads hang out in other places, such as Kenmore and Copley Squares, Harvard "is the best place to hang," they say. The police are very strict in Copley Square about people loitering, the skinheads say. And "Kenmore Square is a violent place."

Chris, a skinhead who attends Metheuen High School, explains his concept of skinhead life. "The basic idea is I live in a lame town. So we come here and have fun."

The reasons the skins stick together aren't too different from that of any other group of American teenagers. "We hang out together, stick together, and help each other out," says Sean from Cambridge. "We like to hang out and go to shows together," Chris says. "We're a group of friends who like each others company."

"All we're doing is socializing with our brothers and friends," says another skinhead.

But even though their sentiments may be similar to those of mainstream American teens, their dress, music and ideas certainly are not.

Dock Martin army boots, a Bomber jacket with an American flag on the back or on the shoulder, red suspenders and a hardcore t-shirt comprise the skinhead uniform. Women skinheads dress similarly but don a bandanna over their heads, with a few tufts of hair jutting out from underneath.

The skins are careful to distinguish themselves from pseudo-skins or "trendoids" or "catalog kids." "A `trendoid' is someone who goes out and buys a $175 leather jacket and then puts studs in it," Chris explains.

Slapshot, Wrecking Crew, Minor Threat are the main skinhead bands, they say. It would be a rare day for these bands to ever be heard on Kiss 108, or any other commercial Boston radio station including `Rock the Boat Radio' WFNX. "That's more hardcore," says WFNX disc jockey Bowser. "We don't play that kind of stuff. It's too hard for commercial radio."

And if the skins seem hardcore in their music tastes, some them adhere to equally spartan political or moral ideals, which they sum up in the moral philosophy called "Straightedge." But unlike what one might expect from a fringe group, "Straightedge" connotes exactly that.

Shane, age 15, from Brookline High School, says, "You don't drink, you don't smoke, you don't drink, you don't have sex..." And five skins immediately interject, "You don't have sex." He clarifies, "You don't have casual sex."

Straightedge began around 1981 with a skin band called SSD. Slapshot, a local Boston band, has continued SSD's philosophy and influences many area skins. "Slapshot dedicates their life into having a pure life, a pure body," says Modley, who, though he considers himself a `Mod', is friends with the Skinheads. "They play a lot of street hockey and are bodybuilders."

When one skin says goodbye to another, they shake hands. The good old American way.

"Straightedge is an attempt to reconsider values in a sort of untheoretical way, in a narcissistic and indulgent society, to try build a different world, one that's not derived from MTV," says William J. Whelan '88, a Social Studies major doing his thesis on "Music Subcultures in the United States." Whelan describes himself as an ex-punk.

But the political ideas of some skins seem even more amazing, and sometimes frightening. Many skins espouse a form of strong patriotism ranging at its extreme to nationalism and neo-Nazism.

"I'm proud to be an American," says Chris, exhibiting the American flag on his bomber jacket. "I'm an American," says Victor from Somerville. Pointing to another skinhead he added, "And this guy's an American."

"In America, you can be whatever you want," says Sean.

As they talk, a police officer comes by and tries to drive the skins away from The Pit. "That's annoying," Chris says. "America's supposed to be a free country, why do people tell each other what to do."

Along with the difference in uniform, one of the things that differentiates skinheads from purple hair mohawked punks is in fact, these political ideas. "The punks are anarchists, while the skinheads want to build the country to be better," Modley says.

Most of the skins take pride in the fact that because of their militaristic appearance and shaved heads, people think they're in the army. "People look at the punks and think they're freaks, then they look at me and ask me if I'm in the service," says Sean.

"We might love our country, but that doesn't mean we agree with the way it's run," Chris says.

The Cambridge skins emulate the working class British model, which started in the early 1970s, according to Whelan.

"Skinheads in England arose in the seventies, just like the mods, the rockers, the punks," says James Miller, a lecturer in the Social Studies department and music writer for Newsweek magazine. "They achieved notoriety for attacking helpless Pakistanis."

"England was in a period of high unemployment at the time. The skinheads were predominately a working class group whose behavior was a kind of protest," Miller says.

But like their counterparts in England, a dark side exists to this patriotism. Spraypainted in dayglow paint throughout Harvard Square, can be seen a modified swatstika, with dots on each of the points. On the hands of some of the skinheads Nazi paraphenelia, such as S.S. rings, can be spotted. One morning, when employees of the Cambridge Savings Bank, went up to the top floor, they found their American flag replaced with a grey flag with a Maltese cross of German Army fame, and the words "Skinheads" and "DMZ" spraypainted on it.

For at least some skinheads, the neo-Nazi elements play a large role in life. The skinheads throw phrases like "white pride," "nationalistic segregation," and the "United Nationalist Army" around in conversation, but it's difficult to tell whether they are sincere or used for shock value.

"I would tend to downplay facist tendencies in American skinheads," Whelan says. The prejudice that exists among the skinheads "is a different way of expressing a feeling they inherited from their parents, because many of the people from Charlestown and South Boston basically are racists," he adds.

Victor who is a street vendor in Downtown Crossing from Somerville, simply admits, "I'm not prejudiced. I hate everyone equally."

Another area where the skinheads of The Pit resemble the English skinheads is social class. "We're all working-class oriented," says Modley, who works in Baby Watson.

"They're not real skinheads if they're rich," says Chris from Methuen.

"Yuppies are definitely facist," says Chris.

Surrounding the reactionary ideas and harsh appearance can be an atmosphere of violence. As Modley says, "Violence is the only way to survive in certain situations."

But many skins say that they do not deliberately provoke violent situations, but just sort of fall into them. "Skinheads are stereotyped as violent," Victor says. "I try not to fight. I try to keep peace and have no trouble."

Victor gives an example. "One night a friend of mine was in Christy's Market near Newbury Street," he says. "Then some people--college students--yelled out to him, `Hey cool guy with leather,'" says Victor. "He came and got all of us. Then they were all scared and humble."

Sometimes the curiousity that the skins draw is more humorous than violent. "Once in a while we'll catch people taking pictures of us," Victor says. "I was eating in Charley's with some friends one night," he added. "Then I see a geek in a paisley shirt. He was angling his camera as he was eating, taking pictures of us," he says. "If people want to take pictures of us just be cool, just ask. Don't be like this geek, angling the camera while he was eating."

As the skinheads grow older, many tend to fade away. "I'm one of the oldest skinheads," says Victor, who is in his late 20s.

"The leaders don't hang out any more," says Modley, who is in his early 20s. "When you get to be my age, you should be taking care of your life," says Modley, who plans to be married soon to a woman who has been in the skinhead scene for years. "My heart's with my friends, but I'm going to have a family soon." Modley says he hopes to get a union job or join the Army Reserves after he marries his fiance who is the manager of Baby Watson.

The general consensus around Harvard Square seems to be that as long as the skinheads are left alone, there won't be any trouble.

"Basically, it's far enough removed from us that it doesn't hurt our business," says Out of Town News operations manager, James N. Finn. "We haven't had any problems with them."

"We have had complaints from time to time," says Captain Dennis P. Sweeney of the Cambridge MBTA police. "During the Christmas season, we have an officer stationed there, partially because of those kids," he added. "They're an occasional nuisance...not much trouble."