The Castle was an imposing fortress, rising up from cracked sidewalks and then fading mysteriously into the blackened sky above. Goths, dressed in black and shiny metal, surrounded the ancient brick and stone building like sinister and mysterious sentinels on the payroll of Vlad the Impaler. The four of us stood out from the rest of the bar’s patrons, dressed in bright colors and khaki shorts. No one stared. It was as if we were invisible to the regulars, or they simply didn’t care. Once we were inside, a large man in dull black leather, combat boots, and a studded collar took our money for the cover charge, put plastic bracelets on our wrists, and sent us on our way. Our first stop was the slate bar – A large, rectangular bar made entirely out of slate rock, gray and rough and chiseled, like something that had just risen all on its own from the bowels of the earth. A small stream of water drizzled through the cracks in its surface, making it a challenge to handle a drink without getting one’s hands wet. A young, rotund woman wearing little more than black, patent leather straps around her body asked me for our drink order with black-painted lips that reflected the light off the pulsating blue disco ball that hovered above the center of the crowded bar. We took our drinks and worked our way around the people, all dressed in black, and silently walked up the old, wooden stairs accented with black lights and beer stains.
At the top of the stairs we heard the incredibly loud and repetitious ‘boom-boom-boom’ of what might be termed as industrial rock. It didn’t sound much different than it did when I frequented the place decades ago. The only thing that had changed was me, and probably the three friends I was with. I left the group to explore the room by myself, moving first out onto the dance floor, wearing my khaki shorts, polo shirt, and white socks and tennis shoes. I imagine I was a strange sight, standing in the middle of the open, wooden floor alone, absorbing the sounds and the darkness, and then the blue lights passing through strange layers of haze, sipping on a glass of beer. I continued walking until I reached a metal pole stretching from floor to ceiling, occupied by a Goth girl in a mini skirt, combat boots, and a black t-shirt she had grown out of years ago. She gyrated up and down the slick, shiny metal pillar like a snake, indifferent to anyone’s presence, but reliant on the heat put forth from the crowd. Then she dismounted the steely column and rubbed my back and smiled as she walked away, disappearing into the dark, foggy dance floor. There were men with spiked hair and high heels, and women who wore what looked like rags, and the rags mingled with their long, wild hair, until one could not be distinguished from the other, and soon everything that was different was the same. Some people wore white paste on their faces that made them look like they had on porcelain masks, and many of them were embellished with subtle designs, like dots or series of small, dotted lines. One very tall man, made even taller by his heels, wore a white face that sported a single tear drawn in black below one eye, and it made me wonder who he was crying for, or if he had simply stood too close to the light.
I eventually went back to my friends, and one of them was staring at a painting on the wall. It was large – at least five feet tall and seven or eight feet across. It was mostly a crisp cerulean blue. In the center, stretching from left to right, was what seemed to be a painting of a metal cage forged out of intersecting diagonal lines, only it was in the form of a bird. Inside the form, where one might expect the bird’s head, was the horrific, screaming countenance of a man’s head. It appeared to be trapped inside the cage. However, there was no body; just lots of empty blue sky behind the man’s neck. My friend turned to me and asked, “Is that a bird?”
“No,” I replied. “It’s a painting.”
I was just being coy, but I started examining my own words in the context of the sights and sounds inside The Castle. Were the Goths who they projected themselves to be with their pale skin, black clothes, and wild hair and shoes? Or was that just the painting they presented? Did any of them decide when they got ready to go out that night that they were dressing up to be like their peers, or simply to be different in their own way? And then I saw a reflection of myself in a smoky, smeared mirror below the DJ booth. I froze for a moment, wondering if the eighties might call me and ask for their clothes back.
We all go through our lives, Goths and yuppies, old and young, wild and sedate, silently projecting the images of ourselves, while screaming mutely within the cages of our own construction. And the cages may as well all be shaped like birds, because we all long to fly, to be free, to be something different than the personification of whatever options we were presented with in our earlier years. What we wear and how we act are all part of our masking process. But why do we wear these masks? Are they part of our image, our personal persona? Does our presentation of self in everyday life serve as a means of ‘branding’ or a way of camouflaging who we really are? And in either case, I wonder if the ‘real’ surface image accurately reflects the person, or merely the person’s projection of himself. I looked into the mirror again and saw myself thirty years ago, years before these Goths were even born, and I wondered how this person I was looking at would have been perceived by that exact same person all those decades ago.
Before long we knew it was time to leave The Castle. My friends and I tucked ourselves safely inside our steel cages as we nodded farewell to strangers on our way out the front door. We folded this new experience with the past and the present safely beneath our wings. And then we flew on back home.