White Like Me

A close shave with skinheads.

It's been a week since I became a skinhead.

Seven nights ago I did a few tequila shots, and then I did a few more, and then I said "Let's do this" to a friend of a friend who's in beauty school. She cut away the long hair I've had since I was seventeen -- fourteen years ago -- until only an inch remained. Then she broke out a razor, dialed it to one, and shaved the remains of my once-proud mane down to little more than a five o'clock shadow on my scalp.

During the seven days that followed, I've learned a few things.

I've learned that my scalp is just as vulnerable to solar radiation as are other parts of my body that I normally don't point toward the sun.

I've learned that simply by dressing a certain way -- peg-legged blue jeans rolled up at the cuffs, Doc Martens boots and a tight black shirt with the picture of a crucified Nazi on the front -- I often inspire fear in people who don't know me.

I've learned that even though it's very wrong of me, I like that -- sometimes.

When the Cherry Creek Arts Festival power shopper -- you know the type -- who parks next to me dings the side of my pickup with the door of her $40,000, never-seen-a-speck-of-mud SUV, I like her reaction when she's about to just walk away but then catches sight of me. All of a sudden, she's truly sorry and calling me "Sir."

But when I get on an elevator in the lobby of an apartment tower and the only other rider is a young black woman who glances at me and then hops out as the doors are closing, well, I've learned I don't like that at all.

I've also learned what it's like to be harassed by the cops because of the way I look. Less than 48 hours after I shaved my head, I found myself down on my knees, with my hands behind my head, while a Denver police officer searched my vehicle without a warrant. I hadn't so much as flicked a cigarette butt out the window. My offense was hanging out in public with a bunch of guys with shaved heads dressed like neo-Nazis. They were real. I was posing to get a story.

We were in the parking lot of a grocery store, trading rumors about whether the Rocky Mountain Heritage Fest was happening or not, when the cops rolled up on us. They emptied our pockets, looked through our cars, asked for ID, took our photographs and then told us to get lost.

These, of course, were members of the same Denver Police Department in trouble over its secret spy files, which civil libertarians have been raising holy hell over of late. Leftist activists had phoned the cops with what they knew was a false report of "neo-Nazi types" dealing drugs; had those same activists been subjected to similar treatment at the hands of law enforcement, I'm sure they would have called the ACLU and held yet another press conference the next day to vent their righteous indignation.

When I called the DPD as a reporter, a police spokesman cited the drug-dealing tip as justification for searching the skinheads. But the police had already had us under surveillance before that tip came in; there were unmarked police cars all over the supermarket parking lot. If they didn't know that the citizen complaint was a lie, they should have.

Truthfully, though, at the time, I was thrilled to get searched. I thought it would foster a sense of camaraderie between the skinheads and me. I wanted that badly, because up to that point, they had seemed decidedly unconvinced that I was who I said I was. According to my cover story, I was a neo-Nazi skinhead who had recently moved to Denver from Alaska. I had read about that day's white-power festival online and was looking to network with my Euro-American brothers and sisters in the Rocky Mountain region.

When I concocted this identity, I had thought it would only have to carry me through small talk inside the festival, shouting over loud music. But anti-racist protesters wreaked so much havoc that the festival's site kept changing, as did the location of the checkpoints where directions to Heritage Fest were to be handed out. As a result, I was spending way more time standing around talking to skinheads in parking lots than I had bargained for, and something about me was sending up red flags.

I think it was my unadorned arms. All the other skinheads I met that day who were in their late twenties and early thirties had been in the movement so long that their arms were covered with Nazi tattoos. I had none. I should have used henna. (Instead, I came up with some excuse about skinheads being so rare in Alaska that Eskimos would gang up on anyone with a white-power tattoo.)

After the police broke up our little Safeway confab, the other skinheads invited me to follow them to the next checkpoint: the American Motel in Wheat Ridge. During the twenty-minute drive, I severely freaked out, convinced they were leading me into a trap. I chanted the mantra that Tim Roth's undercover cop character employed in Reservoir Dogs: "They don't know shit, and they're not going to know shit, because you're super cool." I chanted it over and over, looking at myself in the rear-view mirror.

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