Looking around at the line-up, John and I seemed like the youngest Iggy Pop fans there, if you could even call John a fan. So it didn’t help when he turned to me in a bit of a panic as the line began to move forward, inching us closer to The Godfather of Punk.
“Oh man. I didn’t bring anything for him to sign. Do you have something I could borrow, bud?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I only have the stuff for me.”
John thought about it for a second and then came up with an idea.
“Hey, maybe I can get him to sign my parole papers.”
John is an old, close friend. We grew up together in the public housing projects of South Oshawa, a dying blue-collar town just outside of Toronto, and we were thick as thieves, literally. Our neighborhood, known as “The Hill” by those who lived there and those who didn’t, wasn’t a terribly violent place, but it was one that you didn’t want to spend much time in, just to be on the safe side.
Criminals, alcoholics, white-trash guys who beat their kids / wives / pets, me and John, and our small group of tight-knit friends. This was home.
Our friendship formed quickly and easily the summer before Grade 8. All it took was for one of us to say or do something stupid and goofy and for the other one to think it was the funniest fucking thing in the world. It was a bond formed almost instantly. From then and all through high school, we would continue make each other laugh with made-up raps, stupid gags, and practical jokes. We’d listen to new music in my room, play Dungeons and Dragons on Saturday afternoons, and have go-nowhere crushes on the same girls. And then there was the car hopping.
Summer nights we would venture into neighboring parking lots and let ourselves into unlocked cars to steal spare change and lighters, see what bad music people were listening to. If we didn’t like your choice of Linda Rondstadt or the Oak Ridge Boys, we’d take your cassettes and throw them into the nearest dumpster. I viewed it as a public service.
For me, this was something to pass the time. There was an adrenaline rush that came with the close calls of getting caught. It was exhilarating and it seemed like no one was getting hurt. But the more we did it, the less it thrilled John and the more he wanted to do. Why stop at unlocked cars? Why stop at spare change? Why stop at cars?
Things changed the night we lifted a guy’s checkbook from his glove box. A checkbook filled with all kinds of information we never expected to happen upon: an account number, a balance, a name, and a signature.
I spent the next couple of days locked in my bedroom, practicing how to sign the guy’s name. I did it over and over until John and I felt it was close enough—close enough that we could walk into the bank and get ourselves a few extra bucks. That was the plan. But by the time we got around to actually attempting this, we had convinced ourselves that to make the risk worthwhile, we should probably try to get more than just a few extra bucks. We wanted it all.
This was at a time when people still had to actually go into the bank—it wasn’t some simple ATM scam. It was live and in person. And in retrospect, completely fucking insane. In the bank, I filled out a withdrawal slip for most of the money in the guy’s account, leaving a couple of bucks behind to avoid suspicion. I gave the slip to the teller and signed it as steadily as I could in front of her. I could feel my heart in throat, though I wasn’t sure it was even still beating. John sat in a chair by the window, doing his best to not look like he was waiting for the only other public housing kid in the bank. He might have even been reading a paper. And he wore sunglasses. This I remember, because it made him seem more prepared than I was for what we were attempting. The teller started the transaction but wisely began asking me some questions—just standard things, but I wasn’t prepared for them at all. Then she moved away from her window and went to speak with who I’m guessing was her manager and one other person who my brain would only let me assume was some type of plainclothes security. I decided the best move for me to make as my next one was to get the fuck out of there. I stepped away calmly and walked past John, giving him as small a signal as I could. He got up behind me and we strolled out the front door. Once we cleared the bank’s wall of windows, I told John to run. And we ran like hell.
And with that, I was done. The rush of what was essentially an attempted bank robbery was more than enough for me.
But my finish line turned out to be John’s starting point. From there, he started hanging out with people who were more willing accomplices and who were either smarter criminals or dumber friends than I was. After upping his stealing game, he got into a bit of trouble and ended up in juvy. We speculated that it was his mom and step-dad who had turned him in.
When he escaped a couple of months into his time there, I was the person he came to. (Incidentally, he wasn’t the first friend of my mine who came straight to me after running away from the law. I knew all too well about the trouble that would come my way, so I told John I couldn’t help him and suggested he should just turn himself in.) He was free for about a day before he ended up going back. And sometime around then, he got into drugs.
By the time he got out legitimately, he was a marginally better criminal. His drug use turned into drug selling. And his drug selling turned into an ill-planned scheme of ripping off his customers. Selling them short. Selling them fake shit. It’s the kind of behavior that can catch up with a guy, and when it caught it up with John it didn’t end well.
He was never much of a scrapper, but he was strong and rangy. And John knew a desperate situation when he was in one. So when one of his buyers grabbed him, John fought back as best he could.
I never got the full details of what happened—partly because John was too high, too scared to remember them—but it ended with John running away and the other guy face down in a creek, unconsciously breathing mouthfuls of water into his lungs until he died.
John’s prison time wasn’t easy. The guy who died at his hands was a lifelong biker who had a lot of friends in prison and a son who deliberately got himself arrested, smashing up a row of parked cars in downtown Oshawa in attempt to get at John himself. After too many beatings at one prison, they would transfer John to another.
When he got released after serving the bulk of his five-year sentence for manslaughter, John was sent to live in a halfway house in Toronto. I was the only person he knew who lived in the city and we had kept in touch during his time away, writing to each other whenever we could. At one point he sent me a picture of how much upper body muscle he had put on. The once scrawny, lanky kid looked like he had swapped one addiction (drugs) for another (weights). Another time, he wrote to me about finding God. When I wrote him back, I told him told him I was happy he found something to believe in, but that maybe organized religion wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was a while before he wrote me back again.
When we re-connected in person, it didn’t take long for us to pick up where we left off before all the bad shit happened. He wasn’t the same guy, of course—he had stopped drinking and doing drugs, but mostly he was a lot bigger and not used to being free. Despite the changes in him, we could still make each other laugh in ways that few others could even understand.
After being out for a little while, he got a part-time job and made plans to enroll in university. Bit by bit, his life was beginning to look like something normal (tagging along with his nerdy music friend to meet Iggy Pop at Tower Records aside).
(excerpt from "Me and Iggy and John" by Troy Palmer)