The Popes & the Punks

The out of uniform day is the Catholic school equivalent of a prison tattoo. It’s your chance to show what you are all about. If you didn’t go to a Catholic School, this is how it worked. Once, maybe twice a month there would be a fundraiser for a particular club. The band needed new uniforms, the theater department needed to rent costumes for the spring musical, I’m pretty sure I gave money to the Pro-Life Club to buy paint for their protest signs. They would go around at lunch or in homeroom, charge you a dollar and on a specific day you got to come sans uniform.

T-shirt choice was a huge factor. You only had one shot and if you blew it you’d have to wait weeks before you could make amends. No matter what music you listened to, most kids chose to wear a concert shirt. This was the mid 90’s in the suburbs of Chicago so there were a lot Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band, and Pearl Jam shirts.

If you were into punk rock, it was your only shot at finding like-minded punks to hang out with. We couldn’t have piercings. We couldn’t dye our hair. All we had was the out of uniform day. When it came to shirts, the more obscure and local the better. Green Day had already sold out so if you wore a Green Day shirt you were instantly a poser. And since the bassist from Green Day wore a Screeching Weasel shirt onstage at Woodstock ‘94, they were out as well. But that was okay. There were a number of oddly named bands to choose from: Sponge Tunnel, No Empathy, 88 Fingers Louie, Los Crudos, Trenchmouth, Naked Raygun, 8 Bark, the Bollweevils, etc.

On the first out of uniform day of my sophomore year, I would go where no punk rocker had gone before. I decided to wear a shirt by the band, the Smoking Popes. The Smoking Popes would later go on to achieve some modest commercial success but at the time of this shirt, their biggest show would be a $5 concert at the Metro that might, almost, kind of sell out.

Not only was the name sacrilegious enough for my Mom, President of the Society of Catholic Women, to debate on whether or not to put it in with the laundry or cut it into rags, the shirt also featured a caricature of Pope John Paul II smoking a crumpled cigarette and playing a guitar.

To me, it was subversive. This would be the shirt that would define my badassery amongst the droves of sheep passing through the hallways to read some bullshit book by some bullshit author. I was so badass that I waited till my Mom left for work before I put it on.

That morning, my buddy Dan picked me up in his Ford Escort, my shirt hidden under a ripped up hoodie like a dynamite vest waiting to blow the minds of my classmates. I kept the conversation light but as we drove closer and closer to school I began to have doubts if I could go through with this.

When it came to our Dean, I was a marked man. I had earned a reputation as a button pusher. I spent most of my time combing through the student handbook to find loopholes and gray areas to exist in. If my tie was a little loose, or pants a little too baggy he was on me with a, “Stafford, fix that tie before I fix it for you.” and would then make a hanging gesture with his canned-ham-sized hands.

I knew he’d be looking for me.

I kept my hoodie on as I made my way to my locker. I had to share a locker with a kid who was really into the Smashing Pumpkins. My side was covered in photocopied fliers for punk shows of which maybe I attended half. His side was covered in glossy pictures of Billy Corgan. Not the rest of the band, just Billy Corgan. Every time I opened it up I was greeted with his dead, dumb eyes. My lockermate was wearing a ZERO shirt and jeans that he had spray painted silver because nobody had great internet access in 1995 so finding silver vinyl pants wasn’t that simple.

It was time to let my freak flag fly, though I wouldn’t say that back then because that’s some hippie shit, and I was punk rock. My hoodie was hung up in the locker and my Smoking Pope was out and strutting down the halls like a declaration. Of what, I wasn’t sure but I felt awesome. I was a rebel without a cause or decent GPA. I was the bad boy your parents warned you about.

The first test of how badass I was when I entered my homeroom. I had Religion class first period so my homeroom was with Sister Joanne, a no-nonsense, old school nun who opined regularly about the good old days of teaching when you could hit kids with wooden yard sticks. It was not looking good. A kid in my class already got sent to the office for wearing a “Big Johnson” T-shirt. When I entered the class, Sister Joanne looked me up and down and said, “Smoking Popes, huh. You make that?”

“No Sister, I bought it at a concert”.

“Well, it’s funny. The pope looks really cute.”

Cute? This shirt wasn’t supposed to be cute. It was supposed to be an open act of rebellion. This was my way of telling this private school “You can take my parents money, but you’ll never take away my identity!”

It went like that most of the day. Even the super Christian kids in their Jars of Clay shirts liked it and asked where they could buy a Smoking Popes album. I was despondent. I was confused. How could I have made such a significant error in judgment? Even the punk rock kids in their mall bought Rancid t shirts were unimpressed.

I had forgotten all about the Dean until I walked out of the cafeteria and he crept up on me like an eclipse. “Stafford!” he bellowed in his deep-dish thick Chicago accent, “My office. Pronto!”

Finally some recognition! I figured that at worst I would get a detention or made to turn it inside out. Best-case scenario was to get a meandering lecture about cleaning up my act that would take up most of my Biology class. I was feeling cocky until I entered his office and there was a police officer standing near the window. This seemed a bit harsh for an offensive T-shirt. Before I could ask what was going on the Dean said, “Take a seat. You’re in deep shit.”

The cop walked over to me and in a caring tone said, “Son, I think you know why I’m here so why don’t you just tell us what we already know and things will go a lot easier.”

I was pretty sure they weren’t talking about my shirt anymore, but I went ahead and told them, “Well, I got this shirt at a concert 2 weeks ago. It was $10, and well actually my brother bought it and I took it from him so….”

The cop was confused. The Dean chimed in, “We’re not talking about a frickin’ t-shirt. We’re talking about this” and he threw a dime bag of ditch weed onto the table in front of me.

I didn’t smoke weed. I didn’t even drink. Although I didn’t adhere to the tenants of the Catholic faith, I still carried a heavy load of Catholic guilt that kept me from doing a lot of dumb stuff. I flat out denied it.

“That’s not mine” to which they both groaned.

“Son, we found this in your locker. You could just tell us now and save us all a lot of hassle or we can send it to the lab, test it for fingerprints and then you’re in a world of trouble.”

“Fine”, i said, “Test it. It’s not mine.”

The Dean stood up walked to his office door and said, “We’re getting to the bottom of this right now”

He opened the door and in walked my locker mate, Billy Corgan Jr. As soon as he saw the bag of weed on the table, he started crying which confused the shit out of the Dean. He thought for sure it was mine and that he finally had something to nail me with.

“Is this yours?” he asked.

“YES!” he cry-screamed, “Its mine! And I don’t care”

“Why did you bring this crap into school?”

“Because despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in the cage”

At that point the cop said I was free to go. The Dean walked me out so that he could write me a late pass and I left my soon to be expelled locker partner weeping in front of the cop.

“Take this and get to class.” he said as he jammed the late pass into my hand.

“Is that all you have to say to me?” I responded passive aggressively hoping for an apology.

“Yeah. That shirt’s funny. Wear it to school again and I’ll make you use it to wash the cafeteria tables.”

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About Tim Stafford

Tim Stafford is a poet and storyteller from Chicago. He is the editor of the Learn Then Burn anthology series on Write Bloody Publishing. His work has appeared on HBO Def Poetry Jam and featured in the PBS documentary "The Day Carl Sandburg Died". He performs regularly at colleges and festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe including the ABC Brecht Festival in Augsburg, Germany, the 2010 Zurich Poetry Slam Invitational, the 2011 German National Poetry Slam, the 2013 Kiel Festival in Kiel, Germany, and the 2014 Woerdz Festival in Lucern, Switzerland. View all posts by Tim Stafford

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