Peter was the morning shift cook at the hospital kitchen where I worked in high school. He had about ten years on me, though you wouldn’t have know from his looks and antics. He lived for stupid pranks and tasteless jokes of a type that made our supervisor wince before delivering a stern lecture.
In his younger days, Peter had been heavily into the punk rock scene. His anecdotes about the litany of shows he’d attended were the stuff of legend. He kept a copy of the Trouser Press Guide on the shelf above his work station and recite esoteric snatches of punk song lyrics while he prepped gallons of oatmeal in an industrial mixer.
If it wasn’t for Peter, I wouldn’t have become a punk rocker.
During the restless weeks following my mom’s death, I gravitated toward the (weirdly sizable) contingent of my coworkers who were thrash metal fans. The music was a far cry from the mellow Sixties soul and pop I’d been listening to since junior high, but its aggressive angst — and geeky undercurrents — found purchase in my damaged soul.
It was through the metalheads I fell into Peter’s orbit, as they were pals with him despite difference in musical tastes and overall demeanor. The metal kids were a bit on the dour side, their rebellious streaks wrapped up in blue collar conservatism and an aspiring musician’s fixation with technical flawlessness. Peter didn’t buy into any of that nonsense. He was a happy-go-lucky troublemaker and irritant and a big proponent of “whatever works” as a philosophy.
I knew jack shit about punk rock, but I realized that Peter’s attitude and buzzed haircut better matched my own aspirations than those of my metalhead pals did. He was an enthusiastic mentor, probably because I was the only other person in the place who’d ever seen Repo Man or bothered to listen to his semi-coherent evangelism on behalf of the Butthole Surfers (long before the “Pepper” years).
There was an hour-long gap between the end of his shift and beginning of mine on Fridays, so he’d drive us to the bank to cash our checks before making a quick stop at Newbury Comics in Burlington. He was unsparing in his criticism about my music purchases and quick to offer alternative choices. Peter was the reason I bought the first Clash album, which he put in my hands and told me I had no right calling myself a punk rocker without it. He was also the impetus behind my purchase of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and several other albums I would later use as evidence of adolescent hipness.
In the early fall of 1989, a bunch of us were gathered in the hospital parking lot around Peter’s hatchback. We were there to marvel at his ride’s newly installed CD player, which was still a luxurious novelty in those benighted times. To demonstrate the power of his new toy, Peter tossed a random CD, skipped to his favorite track, and blasted it at full volume for thirty seconds before ejecting it and repeating the process.
One of the CDs was Louder Than Love, a new release from an unfamiliar act named Soundgarden. As his car windows shook and the din echoed back from the exterior walls of surrounding homes, Pete shouted “IT’S FROM THE ‘SEATTLE SCENE.’ IT’S GONNA BE THE NEXT BIG THING, TRUST ME!” The metalheads and I rolled our eyes and humored Peter’s obvious delusions.
(Peter’s words carried enough weight, however, that I did pick up a white-label NOT FOR RETAIL cassette of the album at Mystery Train a few weeks later. I listened to it a few times, but it sounded too much like the marriage of 70s hard rock and badly produced indie-metal — two things I had made a conscious effort to distance myself from. Still, it did serve me well a couple years later, after the band broke big and my affectedly jaded self could tell folks that I was over them in 1990.)
The hospital closed up shop at the end of 1989, and I lost touch with Peter and the rest of the kitchen crew. I bumped into him once the early 1990s, when I was coming back from getting my hair buzzed and ran into him outside the unemployment office. It had only been a few years, but he’d aged a lot. He commented on the evolution of my punk style and cracked a couple of jokes like the old days, but there was oddly confused cast to his features, like he’d ran into a ghost.
I never saw him again. He’d be pushing sixty now, if he’s still among the living. I hope he is.