By Greg Kim
We were from different sides of the tracks and would have never met if it wasn’t for work. If there’s one good thing about work, it's that it forces people from different cultures and classes to mingle, which is rare, no matter what Berkeley liberals tell you. Face it—all of our friends are little clones of ourselves and we rarely venture out of our comfort zone. And if we do, it’s usually forced and contrived.
For the most part, Greg and I were identical: we went to grade school together, lived in the same town and shared the same white, suburban culture. We went to different high schools and when we came back together during the summer after graduation we had changed.
He was essentially a burnout—stringy brown hair, dirty flared jeans, Vietnam army jacket and various concert T-shirts. I was a suburban punk: quarter-inch bleached blond hair, Vans and pegged, ripped jeans. While the difference in our appearances was a big point of contention between us (neither of us wanted to be seen with the other), our musical differences were greater. At this age, identity is everything; you define yourself by what you listen to and what you look like. Greg was rock and I was punk. Oil and water.
For example, four years earlier, at the age of 14, my friends and I almost came to blows with a few friends-of-a-friend (FOF) over the band Foreigner. We were at my friend Chico’s house listening to the Rolling Stones on my boom box. While we weren’t looking, the FOFs changed the tape to Foreigner. They just assumed everybody liked Foreigner and it would be ok.
Before the first verse of "Hot Blooded" had been sung, the tape was flying through the air, landing on Chico's bed. The FOFs were stunned at our intense reaction to the band. They didn’t understand why we were so angry and ready to fight over such an innocuous incident. I told them that the boom box was ruined and that we’d have to throw it out. They quickly left, grabbing the tape off the bed, bewildered and shaking their heads. Once gone, we didn’t laugh or call them pussies like most 14-year-olds. No, we seriously lamented their actions and discussed actually throwing away the boom box. At 14, music was identity, even if it was the Stones we were defending.
Because of our differences, Greg and I were forced to make a strong effort to find common threads between us. Sports and weather were usually safe, but neither of us cared about sports, and discussing California weather, where almost every day is clear and warm, would only take us so far. So, we settled on the great common denominators of 1982: Pot and Aerosmith. Even though Aerosmith was a rock band, they were my favorite from childhood and I still clandestinely listened to their old records. I wasn’t much of a pot smoker—that was Greg’s thing—but I would compromise in the name of harmony and smoke with him. I learned that pot went well Aerosmith.
For a big stoner, Greg was kind of nelly and goofy. There were no pretentions or teenage posturing to him, unlike me, who was proving his identity around every corner.
He didn’t call me by my name; rather, he enjoyed calling me “True Punker,” emphasizing “Punk,” with a higher than usual note. It was so weird and he enjoyed it so much that I just went with it. In reality, punks hated the word “punker.” When saying it, you kind of outted yourself as a poseur. Staying cool and punk was not easy—you had to know the rules. But behind the costumes and punk vernacular, Greg and I were essentially the same person.
Greg and I worked as janitors. My mom got me the job through a guy that cleaned her office building. He owned the company and looked like Tommy Lee Jones in The Executioner’s Song. Greg was already working there and took me on as his partner. Before work, we’d meet at a pinball hall near the Alameda County Fairgrounds. Whoever got there first would play Aerosmith's "Kings and Queens" and "Draw the Line" (their punkest song). We’d play one game of KISS or Evel Knievel pinball and then caravan to our first stop: a Catholic church near the Livermore/Pleasanton border.
Having no janitorial experience and no passion for the job, we did the bare minimum and sometimes nothing at all. If the place looked clean, we’d empty the garbage cans and pick paper flecks off the carpet. That was it. This behavior led to our demise.
One Sunday in October while cleaning the church, Greg and I decided to smoke pot on the pulpit. He grabbed his bag and retrieved his bong. Smoking pot at work had become one our rituals, although we usually did it in his car.
Like most bad ideas, it seemed like a good idea at the time. He “fired up a bowl” and we both took multiple hits, very proud of ourselves. Smoking pot in a church was like the drug equivalent of having sex in public. Afterwards, we went about cleaning the main church. The place was dirty so we actually had to work.
As the industrial vacuum cleaner roared like a chainsaw, and the sun filtered through the stained glass windows, washing the pews in a kaleidoscope of colors, I felt a wave of paranoia and fear rush over me. What if there was a God? Maybe I was just plain scared of having offended God, but something told me that Greg was feeling the same way. There was a presence—internal or external—that was none too pleased. We kept looking over at each other, wanting to stay close, but not wanting to admit we were scared.
Finally, I said something: “Dude, let’s get our here. This place is freaking me out.”
We quickly gathered our cleaning supplies and vacuum cleaner and headed toward our cars. Once outside, we divulged our fears and vowed never to smoke pot in the church again. We were both stoned and paranoid, but we quickly got over it once we were in our cars. We were teenagers and really only cared about ourselves.
The next day I got a call from Tommy Lee Jones, my boss. He said I was fired—not for smoking pot in the church, but for not cleaning a dentist office that was our next client after the church. Supposedly, the dentist hid in the office and caught us doing only the bare minimum—emptying the garbage cans. We spent most of the time in the office trying to turn on the laughing gas. We were caught.
The next day, I drove to Tommy Lee’s house to give back the cleaning supplies. He met me in the front yard, took the supplies and then threw me against my car. He had on jeans and a tight white T-shirt that accentuated his muscular frame. I found him very intimidating and didn’t resist.
Pressed against the car, unable to escape his grip, he said I was a little asshole and that my actions cost him the dentist account. Behind him, his teenage son made faces and flipped me off. He finally let go and I sped away, as his son ran alongside the car, banging on the passenger side window, continually flipping me off and calling me a pussy.
Seven years later I was taking a piss at a Guns 'N Roses/Aerosmith concert at the Shoreline Amphitheatre. In the next urinal was Greg, looking exactly as I left him in ’82. He looked over at me and said, “True Punker.”