Minneapolis Star & Tribune
It's Friday night at Hennepin and Lake, and the Uptown punks are out in force.
Cassandra Miller's black army boots thump out a cadence as she and fellow punkers
parade down Hennepin Av. A wild sheaf of hair explodes from Cassandra's otherwise
bare scalp. The hair is dyed black, yellow and the bronze color of metal wire.
Her eyes dart cat- like. Her face screams with painted animal designs. The mouth
is black, the eyes sheathed in ebony. Around Cassandra is a profusion of punk,
Minneapolis-style: Black leather. Ripped jeans. Dippity-do spiked hair. Storm-trooper
boots. Tow-truck chains. Leather neck bands with spikes.
There are kids like Jessie Bottomley, who draws looks
of horror. His dishwater-brown hair is cut in a Mohawk and gelled until it
stands up like a shark fin. He's thinking about coloring it black with white
tips--like a skunk. Even in hot weather Jessie wears a black leather jacket with
a heavy chain drooping off one shoulder and storm-trooper boots. He says, "It
scares people to death, and I love it." But his grin is more mischievous than
There's Colleen Cassidy, a gorgeous 17-year-old who used to model hairdos
for a hairdresser at Horst until she shaved a swath from the right side of her
blonde hair and dyed it black. Now she wears ghostly white makeup and ultra-red
lipstick. Her mother shudders at how Colleen has deliberately ruined her good
looks and hopes this is just a phase she's going though.
Jeff Sorenson, who tired of the punk look last year after it got to be trendy.
He was savaged by groups of tough guys five times and got really bored with
school. He says he's been kicked out twice and quit school on his own three
times, most recently in October. He's 17.
These are American descendants of
British punk--alienated kids who ripped their clothing, dyed their hair green,
stuck safety pins into their cheeks and spat at the society that seemed to have
no place for them.
But talk to the Minneapolis punkers, and the shell melts
away. They exude confusion, sweetness, conflict and searing assessments of
Sonia Peterson, a 36-year-old mother of a teen-aged son on the punk
fringe, said, "They're living in an age when times are really difficult. It's
their reaction to it: 'I might have to be living on the streets. I have to be
tough. I have to be strong.' "They're saying, 'Yeah, we could die tomorrow.
Society as we know it is probably going to break down.'"
For the most part,
Minneapolis punkers are a relatively harmless lot who seem content "hanging
around and looking weird," said Sgt. Marvin Rorvick, a Minneapolis police
officer in the juvenile division that handles the Uptown area.
It is a
visible minority--most of whom are white and middle class, said Nancy Heitzeg, a
Minneapolis sociology Ph.D. candidate who has studied connections here between
socially deviant behavior and attraction to underground music.
low-risk rebellion--"kind of an adventure," said Colleen Cassidy, a Minnetonka
newcomer to punk.
"This is the group on the outside, and nobody knows where
to put them," said Cassidy. "It's like an extra piece in a jigsaw puzzle."
One of the outsiders is Cassandra Miller. Freckles peek through layers of
her artfully constructed leopard mask. Animal spots travel across her face to
the sleek parts of her scalp, shaved clean of hair.
"Leopards are cool," she
said breathlessly. "They're so swift. If I could be something other than me, I'd
be a leopard. But maybe I wouldn't, because so many of them end up on someone's
Leopard or no, it is sometimes Cassandra who is laid
low. After only a day and a half at Washburn High, things weren't going well. As
she passed the school's front stoop, a heavy girl stopped dancing to stare, her
mouth agape. "God! Would you look at that?" the girl said in a voice calculated
to be overheard. Cassandra's body drooped. Her black patent-leather shoes
scuffed the earth. "You see? I get that wherever I go," she said in a dispirited
The week before, she'd been asked to leave South High School and
had hoped for a fresh start at a new school. Instead she drew ogling looks and
You're so ugly.
Punker gonna die. Why don't you get a
So she bleached the obscene name of a local punk band from the back
of her jean jacket to scrawl, "You know I hate most of you," on its retouched
"This school sucks," she said, shivering against an autumn wind.
"When I walked down the hall, somebody pushed me. I turned around, and it was a
football player. I told him to .... off and die. My friend Mimi told me to watch
out for him 'cause he's always pounding on hard-core kids."
It is not
without reason that Cassandra is chary. Many punkers relate stories of being
physically and verbally assaulted by jocks, rednecks, toughs on the high school
Jeff Sorenson said he was beaten five times during his stint at
Wash- burn High, during a time he looked radically punk, hair blunt-cut and dyed
black. The first hammering by six tough-looking boys in the smoking lot outside
of school was the worst. One of them was wearing a white, pointed Ku Klux Klan
hood without the face mask. As Sorenun passed by, one of the boys asked the
hooded kid, "Are you out looking for niggers?" to which Sorenson said the boy
responded, "No, I'm looking for punkers." "One guy hit me five times in the
face," Sorenson said. "I walked away from it and didn't look back."
hassling of punk students is a substitute for racial and ethnic conflict, says
Andrew Pogoler, counselor in South High School's open school.
ironic, he said, because in his experience punkers are among the most nonviolent
For her part Cassandra has been surprised at the fear and
repugnance her appearance has generated in people. From the corners of their
eyes, new teachers sized her up, she said. "You could tell when I walked in they
were thinking, 'Oh, God, she's in my class.'"
Cassandra has always been
theatrical, said her mother, Agnes Miller. That streak has been intensified in
Cassandra's quest for a niche. It's become all-consuming, far more important
than school or the negative comments she endures.
"She's not had an
overabundance of friends," her mother said. "So I think she's trying to figure
out just what her values are at this point and trying to be part of some group."
"It just seems that with the way she dresses, she leaves herself open to
comments. I know what she's like, and she's such a good person I wonder why she
puts herself through this."
It's really pretty simple, said Cassandra. "The
reason I dress this way is because society says I can't. We're just a group of
people saying ha to society." She's sickened by silent, insistent demands for
conformity: Look like us. Dress like us. Talk like us. Think like us.
Sorenson said, "It started out with the music and wanting to rebel and being
mad with things."
The music is loud, physical. Occasionally it's melodic.
More often it challenges adult values with lyrics that are so antisocial or
raunchy that they're banned from the top-40s air- waves.
"It caused so many
feelings," Sorenson said. "I could just identify with it immediately. Just the
anger. Anger at the Catholic Church, with my family, school and the way people
are in general."
Like many of the Uptown punkers, Cassandra talks scornfully
of conventional kids, the police, school and adults. She'd stayed so long in school
only because she'd promised her mother, Cassandra said. Her words and tone of
voice clearly convey love for her mother, and that single fact had thus far kept
her from leaving home, as a number of kids in the Uptown crowd have done.
But that didn't lessen Agnes Miller's frustration over this stage in
her daughter's fretful adolescence. "Sometimes you think--why can't she dress
nice and normal? I suppose I went through enough changes ... but this one has me
There was a flurry of letters and phone calls between Agnes Miller
and school officials in their efforts to keep her daughter at South. "Cassandra
would always say she would try harder," her mother said. "But then she'd just
sit outside the classroom and not go in." When Cassandra's attendance record
didn't improve, officials refused to let her stay in the open program when many
other Minneapolis students are clamoring to get in, her mother said.
Washburn she figured she'd start anew and get her act together. She didn't plan
on missing South. But she did. "Here people come up and tell me I'm ugly and to
get a haircut," she said bitterly. "Usually it's the fat people who call me
ugly. I tell them I'd rather be ugly than fat."
She's wispy from skipping
lunches to pay for lay-away clothes and strikes you as an unlikely hybrid of
vulnerability and fitintiness. Sometimes she'd like to cry, but doesn't, she
said. She claims she doesn't mind being laughed at by those who dress alike
because they're the folks she's rebelling against.
"I talked to my more
about it. She said it's because they're insecure or feel bad about themselves. I
guess I'm a good victim for that because I'm so different."
It was Andrew
Pogoler who tried to find a way for Cassandra to stay at South High, said Agnes
As counselor in South's popular open program he's familiar with the
school's small, but visible, minority of punkers numbering 25 to 50 students out
"When you talk about punkers, you're just talking about the
hippies of the '80s--the anti-establishment kids of the '80s .... So instead of
an unwashed, unshorn, semi-clothed body, now it's a different uniform-- the
intense colors, the shaved heads, the torn clothes--but designed for group
identification and antagonism with adult society," Pogoler said.
don't want kids to dress punk, all we have to do is for one day all of us dress
punk, shave our heads and color our faces purple."
However, he said, "I feel
we're tragically losing some very good kids because we don't know how to
communicate with an anti-establishment group."
Carol Brieschke is one parent
who communicates well with her daughter, but worries about the consequences of
her dress. Last year Brieschke's daughter, Julie, began experimenting with punk
looks and vintage dressing.
This year she shaved off her eyebrows and
bleached her auburn hair. For a week or two she had it dyed green.
believes people should look beyond external appearances, but her mother said,
"I'm trying desperately to get her out of it. I'm tired of looking at her like
that. I think some of the kids are into drugs. Some aren't, and it's
contamination by association: She's getting a bad reputation for looking like
the rest of them." The Brieschkes live in a neighborhood several blocks east of
Lake Harriet. "There's a lot of money in this neighborhood and (the kids) seem
to rebel, and this is how they do it," Brieschke said. "They're exploring the
world more than conventional kids."
Her instinct is to trust Julie, to
understand that her search for independence is part of adolescence. And she
muses that this is probably one of the few generations afforded the luxury to
express differences so visibly.
But it's probably simplistic to write the
punk movement off as merely an adolescent phase, said Heitzeg, the University of
Minnesota sociology graduate student.
For her doctoral dissertation, Heitzeg
wanted to see whether there's a link between what is considered deviant social
behavior and a preference for "subcultural music," such as punk and hard rock.
Heitzeg is still pulling correlations of her data off the computer, but
she's got some preliminary findings: Roughly a quarter of those who prefer sub-
cultural music confessed to having had some serious problems with drinking, half
used marijuana at least once a week with similarly high percentages for other
drugs from amphetamines to heroin, she said.
Well over half of those questioned
said music was for them an important source of political ideology, religious belief
and insight into everyday life.
to their rebellious behavior is the perilous future these youths face: too few
jobs, too many bombs, too little hope, suggests Vanderbilt sociologist Richard
"So they get artificially cynical at a very young age,"
Peterson said. "They don't have the experience to be cynical, but it comes
Cassandra said, "I'm so sick of this world. It would be cool
if we had anarchy, and people did what they want."
Then she reconsidered.
"In a way it would be bad, because I know I'm not a responsible person."
Precisely what she's willing to do with her life is left hanging in the air
like some half-spun web. She day- dreams again, then verbally mulls over the
"I like to do weird hair and weird makeup. I'd like to do
that, but I don't want to go to school for it because I don't see why I'd have
to "I don't really like to think about the future. If you think too far in the
future, it gets too planned, and it usually doesn't work out." Four weeks after
Cassandra Miller ruminated on those ideas, she ran away from home. She'd been
embroiled in a heated dispute among some of the Uptown girls, but, "I don't
really know her reasons for leaving," Agnes Miller said.
She'd searched for
her daughter in all the usual places and called all Cassandra's cronies. If they
knew where Cassandra was hiding, none would say. Agnes Miller had even checked
the bus station and scoured the airport with the aid of police after one of the
kids suggested Cassandra might be headed for Boston. All to no avail. "I'm very
worried, especially if she isn't in the state," Agnes Miller said.
realize at 15 she's capable of taking care of herself. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I
don't know her as well as I think I do. I'm just worried about the lengths she'd
have to go to to support herself."
Kay Miller is a staff writer for Sunday Magazine.
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