My hair is long, as it often tends to be, and lately I’ve been letting my beard grow. It’s been doing its own thing for almost five months, so it’s about as long as it’s ever been. Unlike (some of) the hair on my head, the beard is almost all white. I wear jeans every day, and usually a t-shirt, sometimes a shirt that buttons up, if there’s a meeting or I want to look like what passes as professional in my business. That doesn’t take much.
One morning last week I walked up to the elevator in the underground parking garage at the office, and a guy in genuine professional office garb was waiting there. I’d seen him before, he works at a bank office on the same floor I work on. Usually when you run into someone at the elevators you exchange innocuous, insincere pleasantries and small talk. But I guess my friend was having a different kind of day. Because he said to me, “What are you trying to be, an outlaw or something?”
Which caught me a little off guard, since that’s a strange and hostile thing to say to someone you don’t know. Especially since a real outlaw might react by sticking a knife into your belly or at the very least, applying a fist or two to your face.
“I’m not trying to be anything, brother,” I said (I call everyone “brother,” or “sister.” It’s one of many irritating things about me).
He made a smug cluck-chuckle sound and shook his head.
We got into the elevator and he pressed the 2 button. The doors closed and I looked at him and asked, “Don’t you want to be an outlaw sometimes? Just go out and rob a liquor store or fuck somebody’s wife? I’ll bet you do.”
He didn’t know what to say to that.
But I know this guy. Deep down he does wish he were an outlaw. He watches those Johnny Depp pirate movies and he sees himself as that pirate. He thinks that’s who he really is. A badass in a business suit. He’s the type who goes to rock and roll fantasy camp with a ten thousand dollar Les Paul from the Gibson custom shop and gets to meet Joe Perry or Slash for five minutes, then rocks out uncomfortably in a Polo shirt and some $250 jeans that his wife bought for him at Nordstroms.
We got off the elevator together, he went right, to the bank, I went left to the Internet company.
Today I’m not an outlaw. Today I’m playing the same game that everyone else is playing. Though I kid myself into thinking that I play it on my own terms. Time will likely prove me wrong, but I cling to my personal delusions, they keep me going.
But the bank man got me thinking, and I came to the conclusion that I am a god damn outlaw. At least I was an outlaw, I know that to be true. I’ve rarely let reason be my guide. I’ve made and embraced horribly bad decisions that I knew to be bad at the time I was making them. I’ve chosen freedom over security. Repeatedly.
I played in two different touring bands. You probably know someone in a band, maybe even a few people. Everyone seems to be in a band these days. But playing in a band on the weekends and playing in a band that has a life or death attitude about music are two different bunches of bananas.
When you roam around the country – or the world – in a band you are outside of society not by choice, but by benefit of the way you’re living your life. You don’t punch a time clock, you don’t answer to anyone but a rolling stream of bar owners or venue managers. You rob the liquor stores (figuratively), and fuck the wives (literally). You are the closest thing modern times have to Wild Bill Hickok or Billy the Kid.
When you finally quit the road – as everyone inevitably does – the road stays in you. You can’t wash it out or educate it out or pretend you don’t stink of it. You’re branded.
Outlaws of every stripe follow something most people can’t even see. You can’t force it and you can’t fake it. Ultimately there’s nothing you can do about it. You is or you isn’t. Real outlaws don’t choose to be outlaws. Their place in the rest of the world at large makes them outlaws.
If I am an outlaw it’s by virtue of my ideology and who I am. I’m not like the bank man, and I’m not like most of the rest of the world. It isn’t better or worse, or a value judgement, it just is.
Next time I see the bank man I’ll just smile. There’s no point in anything else. He is his own punishment, and he’ll never know that.