Here’s a video from a Choking Victim reunion show in Tompkins Square Park and the epilogue to my book Maps to the Other Side.
One Spring morning, two years after I wrote Sellout Story, I was walking down Avenue B and ran into my old friend Scott Sturgeon. As teenagers we played together in a punk band called Choking Victim. I was passing through town on my way to the big protests against the World Bank and had been up all night writing press releases about global debt.
I hadn’t seen Scott in years. When we were teenagers, Choking Victim had been the most popular band in the New York City squatter scene. We played music our friends liked to dance to.
Back in those days I had had a double life—during the day I studied anthropology and literature at Columbia University. But at night I played bass and sang in illegal tenement buildings full of drunk, rowdy kids. We played catchy songs that mixed desperate teenage alienation with violent fantasies of retribution against politicians and police, channeling the restless ghosts of putdown political rebellions of earlier eras. I was taking an urban anthropology class and writing a paper called The Squatter Subculture of the East Village. It was an ethnography of the people occupying buildings around Tompkins Square Park and the rebel culture they were creating for themselves outside the law and mainstream society. It was a paper about my friends.
I desperately wanted to be a part of the squatter community, but part of me always felt like an outsider. I feared if people actually knew me, deep down they’d know I didn’t belong. Mid-semester I had an identity crisis because I was writing in the third person about things I wanted to be doing. Some part of me was scared of ending up locked up in the hospital again. But a stronger part of me knew that I needed to be an actor in my life, not just an observer of other people. I didn’t want to be singing songs about bondage and frustration. I wanted to actually be free.
I dropped out of school and quit the band. I hit the road and started writing the stories in this book. I never again wrote about my life in the third person—from then on it was “I” and “we” and “us.” That critical perspective shift changed not only the narrative of my story, but my identity, and eventually, my destiny.
But I hadn’t seen Scott in years and he was dragging me back into an old, unfinished story.
“Sascha, didn’t you hear? We got signed to Epitaph Records! They owe you money for those songs you wrote, man! Call them up and they’ll start sending you royalty checks!” I stared at him, incredulous.
Five years later I was standing on a stage with Scott in front of a thousand kids packed into the center of Tompkins Square Park, singing our old songs. Hundreds of people were singing along and dancing in an enormous circle pit at the front of the stage. Choking Victim had become a legendary New York City punk band. Our narrative was wrapped up in the lore and mystique of the squatted buildings and riots that had defined my teenage years.
Since then punk had morphed into something enormous and foreign, Hot Topic spikes, high production values, and well-financed astroturf rebellion—a caricature of itself.
Somehow, amidst it all, my old friend Scott had crossed over into the realm of a genuine rock star. He had maintained his squatter punk credibility but he was adored—or vehemently hated—by thousands of strangers, mostly alienated teenagers. I was impressed and repulsed by the fame in the same way that I had been as a kid.
Except now I was much closer to it. In the ensuing years I had created
my own heroic narrative of freight trains, seeds, and visionary madness. Most of the people in my life knew me from legend more than reality, from stories I had told about myself and songs that had been written about me. I had seemingly triumphed—I had written myself into the myth I wanted to be living. I had escaped the stigma of mental illness by writing a better story, a true-life adventure that was admired and respected, but things aren’t always what they seem.
In my own mind I was trapped in the role of being a character in other people’s stories. I carried around an imaginary audience in my head following me around, watching my epic love story with the universe, while I played the narrator and the main character. Some part of me believed that if enough people thought I was amazing, that it would make me amazing. That if a whole bunch of people thought that I was free, that it would make me free.
But freedom was waiting in the most unexpected place of all.
Freedom wasn’t just about writing a new story for myself, it was also about learning how to step out of that story. In order to get to the other side, I needed to smash the mirror of my constructed identity and find my ground in something deeper. I needed to find my breath, my connection to spirit, and my home in my body.
Through a consistent meditation practice I’ve learned to reach the engaged observer inside myself, the part that’s not wrapped up in my story, not concerned with how anyone else sees me, or my achievements. This part has compassion for myself and for others. I’ve learned how to have conversations with the hurt voices in my head, hold them like children. Be a parent to the part of myself that never felt like he belonged.
Through stories spanning multiple decades and borders and continents and wild adventures, I have made myself a map that helps me get back to the place where I have the feeling that my body fits well on my soul. A place where my mind feels calm and centered and open—able to respond in the present moment and not get lost in some old story. A place where I feel connected to something larger than myself. Sometimes it just takes a few words to remind me how to get back there.This is how I’ve had the self-awareness and distance to finish this book, hand you my story as a gift and tell you that writing the next chapter is your responsibility.