It’s no wonder George Cowgill writes. The 40-year-old East Lake resident, who co-owns Black Market Bar & Grill and serves as a firefighter, was once a straightedge member of a punk-fueled gang of troublemakers. Both as the metal T-wearing teenager in the ‘80s and now as the tattooed entrepreneur, Cowgill lives in a world ripe with writerly fodder.
That world is the subject of his first book, an essay collection entitled An Account of Nothing — though the titles of his essays might actually be better indicators of the tales within, like “Gas Station Hugs, He Had RED RUM Tattooed Across His Neck.”
In his essays, which he says focus on death, fire and punk in Birmingham, Cowgill connects the days of his adolescence (he swore off drugs and alcohol at the tender age of 13 despite his friends’ continued, heavy usage) with the traumatic and triumphant experiences he witnesses as a firefighter.
The essays serve as self-reflection and as an outlet for compounding intense memories, according to Cowgill, but these stories are also a lens into a world that portrays a seedy underbelly to the city. The scenes of Cowgill’s Birmingham are filled with dank basements, bikers and overdoses, 32-year-old grandmothers, prostitutes and pre-pubescent punks.
In that world, Cowgill finds humor and irony. He describes the scene at a friend’s funeral: “The preacher stood over a fake-wooden podium and mispronounced ‘Metallica.’”
Now as a father and firefighter (like his father had once been), Cowgill says he feels the responsibility of protecting his community.
Weld: The events in these stories are often sensational…
George Cowgill: The guys I work with read the stories and say, “I was there. It’s true. I just didn’t see it that way.” I’ve always thought that’s what distinguishes me from other people. I see what’s happening.
Like recently, we went to a house where the kids were all sick. It was past the point of the house being full of roaches. The kids were sleeping on the floor, covered in bugs. It looked Third World. … This is East Lake.
There’s a song by Iggy Pop called “The Passenger,” and it’s a song about everything in the world around him being crazy and wild, but he’s the passenger, and it’s his job to document it. I’ve always said that’s my theme song.
Weld: Were you always that way?
GC: I was 13 when I decided not to drink or do drugs. … I have a really great memory except for school. I always joked that’s why I did so poorly in school — I was too busy paying attention to what was happening with all my friends. I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter now, and I barely let her walk to the car alone downtown, and I had snuck out and was doing LSD and was running with some real ne’er-do-wells, just troublemakers, when I was her age.
Weld: How was it that kids so young had access to this lifestyle?
GC: I grew up in East Lake and Roebuck. My parents were good to me and trusted me, but I went out and smoked pot and did acid. When I quit, I told my parents what I had done. Most parents are telling their 13 year olds never to do drugs. … My best friend growing up, both his parents were doctors. They were workaholics — textbook. They were never there. They had a maid, and we would run all over her. And then they would want the oldest brother [who had easy access to drugs] to keep an eye on the younger ones.
Weld: And that group of boys was in a gang called the Wolves?
GC: Growing up, we were something different. I changed it to the Wolves. I’m not interested in outing anyone. Everyone has their own life, and I don’t want to air someone’s dirty laundry — that they were doing drugs. Some of them have passed because of drugs. Some of them still have severe problems … In the core group, there were about a dozen. It expanded to about 30 or 40 at parties. They would come from the white projects at Woodlawn and East Lake.
I’ve written about one girl a lot. Her house was where we’d party. Her mom was only 31. It was, oh. Bad. The house is gone now, but it was by the graveyard near the airport. We were there all the time, and the mom was a part of everything, everything we did.
Weld: Did you identify as outsiders; were you pushing against the norm?
GC: That life was definitely the norm. Drug use. Violence. Petty theft. They would steal cars. It’s not right, but it was normal bad kid stuff then. The guys had a real problem with it when I quit doing drugs because they associated everything we did with drug use. … I didn’t need drugs to be crazy, to be a stupid punk.
It was reckless abandon. We would come up with ideas that made no sense. The fire tower that’s on the cover, I quit climbing when I was 16 because it sways in the wind. … And we’d climb it in the rain at midnight and think that was a good idea. We thought we were immortal. … I still have this invincible thing going on. Maybe that’s why I’m a firefighter in East Lake.
Weld: Why is working in East Lake, apart from it being home, different that other neighborhoods?
GC: Have you ever seen The Truman Show? In Ed Harris’ interview, he’s asked why Truman would put up with this world, and he said, “We accept the reality we live in.” And that’s how it is in a lot of these homes we go in East Lake. We’ll go into one-bedroom homes with 13 people living in them with no power, and they’ve accepted that’s how it is. That’s reality. We go into the Gate City projects a lot, and everything outside of those projects might as well be fantasy, be watching TV — like going to the beach or somewhere like that. It’s not even on their radar.
There’s a real thrill and satisfaction to be working the same streets that I used to skateboard down, Rugby Avenue and Oporto-Madrid. I used to sneak out and walk the streets when I was a kid and now, I’m not in charge of keeping people safe, but I’m responsible. I’m a part of it.
Weld: And how is punk part of all of that?
GC: I still listen to that stuff. Someday I’m going to grow up. Punk rock attracts two kinds of people. It attracts people who want to use it as an outlet to be complete jerks, to break things, do drugs to, give people an F-you attitude. And it attracts people who aren’t happy with the way things are… They want to be responsible like ‘I’m angry, but I want to be productive with it.’ I have this rage, but I want it to matter. I don’t want to be self-destructive, completely. That goes into my fire fighting. Punk rock goes into everything I do, how I run my business.
Weld: How did fire, death and punk become your main focus?
GC: Fortunately, going into fire is something most people don’t experience. A firefighter told me a long time ago, “You don’t want bad things to happen, but you want to be there when they do.” All these traumatic experiences with death and fire that I wanted to write about…maybe it’s that I want people to see that these things are closer than they might think — sharks in the water, that sort of thing. I have friends who live in nice pockets in East Lake who have no idea this goes on.
George Cowgill’s An Account of Nothing is available online at Amazon and locally at Little Professor and What’s on Second? for $15.