Oh better far to live and die
Under the brave black flag I fly
Then play a sanctimonious part
With a pirate head and a pirate heart!!
–The Pirates of Penzance
At fifteen years old, I was a runaway. It was perhaps 9:30 at night, my first night out, having hitchhiked a couple of hundred miles north towards Tallahassee, when they rushed me to the emergency room from the teen center where I’d gone to look for a crash pad. I’d been vomiting for half an hour, moaning in pain, from the migraine attack that had shaken the frightened twenty-something staff of well-meaning hippies. I’d already spent the $15 in change I’d stolen from the top shelf in my parents’ bedroom closet from where it was hidden behind the old pair of binoculars and a couple of moth eaten scarves. The money had gone to three expensive meals out, a bunch of donuts, and two joints. It seemed well spent. After all, I could make money. Along with the $15, I’d also stolen a shoe shining kit. Surely, that was all I needed.
Anyway, the hippies took my moaning, throwing up, sorry self to the ER where a doctor repeatedly asked me what drugs I had taken and I repeatedly explained that I had a migraine, I’d had them before, I knew what they were, my father is a pediatrician, it runs in the family, and I hadn’t taken any drugs (although, secretly, I was certainly planning to smoke the two joints in my pocket which I fervently hoped were not going to be found). Eventually, the kind ER staff shot me up with something to stop the vomiting and let me sleep and sent me back to the teen center to spend the night on a cot in an office, wrapped in a comforter.
I woke up the next morning as happy as a clam! Was I safe? With nothing but the clothes on my back, two joints, and an attitude, I’d never felt safer. I had escaped from a home where safety—emotional safety —was unheard of, and that was the only kind I understood or cared about. In my room in the garage, where I’d been exiled from the main part of the household, I had actually painted a tombstone over my bed, indicating my name and date of birth, leaving the rest unfinished. It took years of therapy, in my fifties, before my kind and talented doctor felt gently able to suggest an interpretation: I felt, as a teen essentially rejected by my family-of-origin (they would deny this), that I was already dead.
I did not run away because I didn’t understand dangers—I understood dangers all too well, but the dangers I knew at home were more real to me, seemed more genuinely life-threatening, then those represented by the stranger who picked me up hitchhiking, the night spent by the side of the road, or the street drug taken for fun.
I had flung myself out into the world like a pirate on the high seas, declared myself an outlaw from my very real and very threatening and truly soul-destroying oppressors, and it was worth any risk.
Why are pirates so appealing? Because they just “arrrrggghhhh!”
I took LSD in a crowd of other teenagers on a snowy afternoon at the Boston Common, outside a concert, then walked through the crinkling snow under the sunset, down Commonwealth avenue through the quiet streets of Newton, while rainbows of color shot up from my feet and danced around me like water snakes and they were singing. Dangerous? I couldn’t imagine it.
Picked up by strangers on a country highway in rural North Carolina, I went to stay for a month in a two-story ramshackle country shack with no electricity or plumbing, where we sat up late at night drinking cheap wine and throwing pots on an old foot-driven wheel listening to Bob Dylan and Brownie Terry and Sonny McGee on a battery powered phonograph by the light of a kerosene lamp. So what if the lamp fell one night from the pane-less window by my bed where I’d rested it to read myself to sleep with The Lord of the Rings. We put out the fire; what’s the big deal? Happiness is worth a lot of risk when you’re running from misery.
Another time, I stayed overnight with a paranoid guy who’d picked me up hitchhiking and didn’t mind giving me a place to sleep, but it was on a pallet on the floor handcuffed to the foot of the bed because, he said, he needed to be sure I couldn’t get up in the night and rob him. Yes, this too, looked like safety.
On a rainy night in Baltimore, two junkies took me into their sketchy slum apartment, cooked me their last pork chop, and made me watch them shoot up while lecturing: “Promise you’ll never do this.” That felt like love.
And if there was some risk in all this, well, that was fun too. I was a pirate, an outlaw, standing up against forces that were truly trying to destroy me. I wasn’t wrong.
When I look at the pictures of Ghost Ship, with the art and the instruments, the clutter, and the complex and stimulating space, I don’t see danger—I see a home. I see safety. I see support and love. I see a necessary alternative.
It is easy to imagine that anybody who’d stay in such a so-called “death trap” is irresponsible, or ignorant, or crazy, or perhaps a drug addict or an alcoholic. But I know in my bones that some of us run from dangers that are all too real to find a home among outsiders that feels like all kinds of safety. We are fleeing a danger we know all too well, for a safety that is truly profound and loving, risks be damned. We can be pirates, riding the high seas with our fellows, risking all for the safety of true camaraderie.
Yes, there is tragedy. One can look and see stupidity, and denial, selfishness, greed, needless loss, exploitation, a whole cornucopia of horrors.
But put the kaleidoscope to your eye, matey, and give it a turn. You might also see hope, and escape, adventure, risk, love, and —dare I say it?—martyrdom in a good cause.
Why do pirates seem so cool, so fine, so exiting, so good, and so happy? Because they just are.
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks The Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.