There was never any fuss from my parents, because they never knew a thing. I was spending the night at a trusted friend's house, that is, one I trusted enough to lie for me. Every few weeks I would load up my sleeping bag and my toothbrush, and ride off to Greensboro or Durham to stick another knife in the back of an emerging subculture. I went to raves, enough raves to know that I had never, and still have never, "raved" in my life. What did I do there? Business, the cold, hard, American way. Not at the behest of some corporation that dangled my family's well-being over my head, not even for the money, which I certainly didn't need and grew eventually to hate. I did it because I thought it was what I was supposed to be doing. I was fourteen.
Look at me now, kids. I'm a drug dealer.
Here's a little secret that you'd never know if all your news comes from Time and CNN - rave culture was originally not drug culture. It was something born out of a virtuous desire that exceeded the innocence of the progressive movement of the early 20th century, of the counterculture in the late 1960s, perhaps even of the budding, prepubescent emergence of this "rock and roll" in the 1950s. People could get together, people with an excess of love and of energy, and dance to music that didn't even have lyrics. Its origins were not chaste - simply its birth as a separate entity. It sprung from the materialistic excess of the urban 1980s, but it purified club culture into something that could draw aging hippies back into the circle of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests. The rave was an illicit child, an unexpected virgin birth, of the club. In clubs, you showed off your new stiletto heels and snorted coke with hundred-dollar bills. At raves, you covered yourself with Christmas lights and wore a two-foot wizard hat. And if someone asked for that hat, well, then, off it would go, more likely than not, and find five different wizards by the end of the night. People dropped away or were carried away into chill rooms, to return an hour later with a bottle of water and a knowledge of community that no longer existed in neighborhoods, by then known exclusively as "subdivisions". There were not subdivisions here, even in the midst of variety. Love went to beats per minute, and I would sometimes watch dancers stop - people I knew would never touch drugs in their lives - and realize that everyone else was moving in complement to them. Raves were a Carnival of sight and sound that mimicked Twelfth Night and all the masked revelry of Dionysian mystery cults in their role reversals and communal ecstasy.
Rave culture, like the 1960s counterculture, did have a base that sprung from recreational drug users. In my own innocent years, I knew very well that there was not a DJ, an MC, or even a technical hand in the entire locale who did not smoke copious amounts of weed. (Marijuana had become defanged to me many years before I ever tried it, thanks to the D.A.R.E. program, which served ultimately as a guide to which drugs I would try and which I would not.) Pot was not a challenge to purity, as long as it stayed mostly off the floor. But here was a community that was already open to the idea of better living through chemistry. A new culture that saw itself as pure needed new drugs, drugs that had not suffered at the hands of morally outraged presidential candidates or smarmy after-school specials. An import from Britain was just what the doctor ordered: a feel-good, 2-hour-trip, psychoanalyst's-wet-dream import, known chemically as MDMA, and already well-known outside of the good ol' US of A. It has a frightening menagerie of street names according to the federal government, but the only short, one-syllable whispers I ever heard were "E" and "X", derived from a word stolen from the purpose of my being: ecstasy.
It wasn't new when I got there, of course. I wasn't on the cutting edge of anything; I was just a kid. There's no need to bore the reader here with the basic chemistry of the stuff, as I was able to find it even then with a few clicks on a supervised computer. To me, it was a series of round, flat pills, with co-opted symbols stamped onto the top. I knew the chemist and I never sold fake shit (even in those days someone somewhere could be counted on to mix PMA and caffeine and sell you half a horrible night for some god-awful price). AOL, Batman (with grudging acknowledgement of Owsley), Mitsubishi (now exclusively the sign of non-MDMA fakes), the ubiquitous smiley face, and the accompanying prices, these were identifiers to me, not chemical bonds or content or dosage. I was ignorant in the way only a salesperson can be.
A kid named Thomas was my boss and my provider, and he could have been meaner than he was. I was very useful to him. Raves, even illegal raves, had strict age policies, but the ability of under-eighteen ravers to elude some four "responsible" adult organizers in a dark, loud, crowded, and anti-authoritarian environment was not any special talent. What was a skill was getting stuff in and sold without any suspicion. I was pegged by pretty much everyone who saw me as a sneak, a kid who got in underage to have a good time. Fourteen-year-olds, despite whatever horror stories have been concocted on the Today Show for your viewing pleasure, are not likely to be drug dealers. Nobody knows, nobody frets, nobody feels guilty, and everyone, everyone, is surprised when I ask them if they want some X or some schwag, cheap, fast. I work the chill rooms like a pro, with the pride of a dildo salesman in a sex-toy con. Surprise, as every good capitalist knows, is the key element not only of violent ambush but of its close cousin, the American hard-sell.
Wow, a little kid at a rave. Wow, a little kid talking to me. Wow, a little kid offering me drugs.
Wow, this kid must know what the hell he's doing.
Did I? Nah. No one knows what they're doing in boot camp either, even when you're the first through the course every single time. It doesn't matter, as long as you are doing it and doing it and doing it well. People got to rely on me, my bosses and my customers, and I rolled up and turned like a cog. There's a difference between a cog and a drop in the ocean, I found out, because cogs can't flow and neither could I. How can you rave and not dance? I didn't rave. I didn't need to; I was there to do my job. No one wanted to dance with me, anyhow. If I raided my own product and went out and made happy, Thomas would catch up and ask what the hell I thought I was doing. I didn't make friends. There were still enough people then who felt the rave and its society were something potentially unifying, something potentially defining for young adult culture. If there were two things that undermined that dream, it would have to be underage sneaks and drug dealers. The Marty McFlys of the rave scene were already trying desperately to alter future headlines that would scream at the Concerned Citizen from coffee tables in the mid- and late-nineties:
"Looking the Other Way: Rave Promoters and Club Drugs"
"Ecstasy and Our Children: What's All the Rave About?"
"Dancing, Drugs, and Danger - Do You Know Where Your Teenager Is?"
Even with one bag of pills and one bag of schwag, I was still a victim in the eyes of the gentle and well-meaning - just another cute kid subjected to the needless immaturity-by-the-mature. There were plenty of twenty-somethings with pain and concern when they saw me crouched over a ketamine freak trying to throw my last dime-bag down a hole. It was mostly the women who would try to help me. Enough maternal hands-on-shoulders from young college students I had never met; enough offers of rides home or phone calls or anything to get me out of this place. The place was beautiful, but I was an abomination, a slur on the good name of raving, something akin to the embarassment of child miners for De Beers. A spirit-girl with a bright purple ponytail and sweaty glitter tracing her form like a lover's saliva caught me hanging on a rusted railing, watching the swirling vortex of people below. In the not-loud-enough, over-exaggerated lip movement of all club talk: "Honey? Are you okay?"
I wave my crumpled plastic baggie and curve my face into a rictus of a smile: "This's from Raleigh. It's good!" I will make friends with pills.
She recoils, horrified. Two seconds later, her hand returns to stroke my forehead as an unsure smile spreads across ice-blue lips, but I have already locked up shop for the evening. "Come on, let's get on the floor," she said. Boom Boom Boom Boom.
"Sorry. I don't dance. I never learned how." I stayed on the railing for about a year and a half more before I went home.
Soon enough those headlines would be covered in concerned orange-juice and jam stains, and the Southern rave scene would bifurcate as a result. Raves would begin to go fully legit, with big-name D.J. shows and Ticketmaster outlets becoming synonymous with what was once the Outlaw, a nascent and never-born tendency towards love and life in the shell of suburbia. Wizard hats went away along with spirit-girls. Now a good half of the kids were college students from UNCG, from Guilford College, nice kids with crew cuts and white baseball hats who wanted to smoke some pot and grind with their baby-t-shirted girlfriends and screw community or oneness or whatever that hippie shit was. With them came the candy kids, the cutesy, "uppity" folks on par with me agewise but thoroughly convinced that they were still in the third grade.
The other side of that split was the harder truth of raves, cokeheads and junkies who showed up expecting the hard drug scene presented by the mainstream media, and were determined to make it happen whether it was true or not. Ketamine was a fringe drug at raves before; now it became eminently popular. If there was one thing ecstasy promoted, it was playtime. A line of K, on the other hand, sent you to the Hole for a nice long timeout. I would sit and watch the dark black soul-sludge churn within empty bodies, and wonder how many of these kids' fathers were splayed out on recliners back home with a six-pack in their system. I became more popular, and so did Thomas and everyone like me, which is when I knew it was dying. Silly me. It was already dead. I drifted off home and got my heart broken and battered my brain with Friedrich Nietzsche, and fell in love and died and was reborn and then fell in love with everyone again.
Now I work retail, a cashier for something else dying. I'm a good employee, the bosses like me, the customers like me. Except now I fight daily to justify my presence as a cog. When I see someone hand me money with callused hands and yellowed, dirty fingernails, I give them an unauthorized 50% discount. When I'm on my break, I trip back into Receiving and dice up chemical fertilizer bags with a box-cutter and use stolen Krazy Glue to fuse overpriced jackets into unsellable masses. If these folks are going to "outsource" their garment work to some kid in Saipan who gets paid 5 cents a fucking hour, if they are going to put another kid on that rail after heating it red hot like an instrument of torture, then they are sure not going to make more money off of me than I can make them lose. I send in my I.W.W. dues monthly. And yet, all I am doing to build is destroying. I don't have any friends at my work, really. I'm a good kid who does what he's told.
I save all the building for her. This summer, we're moving to Asheville and renting an apartment together. I'm going to school, and she's taking a year off, and someday we will have children and we will both be published and we will have proven that we are not cogs. We will work and cry and live in ecstasy.
Neither of us ever learned how to dance. We plan on taking lessons.