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Wise Guy Skinhead Rutgers Disc Jockey Pedro Angel Serrano Is Happy To Be The `Old Wise Man'
LAURIE GRANIERI STAFF WRITER
April 18, 2004
Pedro Angel Serrano's got a painfully skinny, 6-foot-1-inch frame, mutton-chop sideburns, a sprinkle of acne scars across his cheeks and a well-loved pair of combat boots laced up his calves - not necessarily a look that screams "guru."
But to some people, especially kids in the local punk scene, he's exactly that - an inspiring, been-there-done-that counselor who can dole out sage advice without a hint of judgment.
That doesn't mean Serrano's not opinionated.
"I wanna toughen gay kids up," says Serrano, a spoken-word poet who alternately identifies himself as "intermittently gay" and "homosexual." He says he prefers to be called homosexual because the term doesn't tend to conjure a raft of stereotypical images.
Serrano tends to blast stereotypes every day - just by existing. He has referred to himself as "Central New Jersey's resident Puerto Rican gay skinhead." Add to that that he has been ordained a nondenominational minister via the Internet, and he becomes even more of a head-scratching curiosity.
For more than a decade, Serrano has been a disc jockey at Rutgers University's radio station, 88.7 WRSU FM. (He's also a monthly host of "OUT-FM" at WBAI 99.5 FM New York City.) His RSU show, "Generation Q," a blend of talk, interviews and music by out gay artists, airs from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays.
In Serrano's own wry estimation, the show's mission is to "promote a positive, progressive and humane culture for the 21st century."
It's also about providing alternative viewpoints - viewpoints often contrary to Limbaugh-speak.
"A lot of adults think not changing your mind is somehow a good thing," Serrano says. "I see adults digging deeper and deeper into their rhetorical loops. This (show) is supposed to supply additional discussion." Serrano claims he'll "listen to anybody," regardless of their stance.
But Serrano also challenge the gay community, which he seems to believe has its own limitations.
"I went through this phase where I thought I had to hang out with gay people because `I'm gay, too,'" he says. "Then I realized, `No, I don't.' Because there are a lot of messed-up gay people.
"I think society makes a lot of gay people nuts," Serrano continues. "They never gave up the defenses they developed when they were younger, and they become these control queens who have a view about how everything is `supposed' to be ... and aren't willing to adapt or change or grow."
Even Serrano's cheeky Web site, www.oldwiseone.com, refers to his quasi-paternal status on the Central Jersey punk scene. "Rants" and "sermons" - also called "Rev. Pedro's famous moral and ethical musings" - are featured on the site.
Actually, the url is a little misleading: At 44, the Perth Amboy resident is not exactly wizened. But he's clearly got his own brand of hard-won wisdom, not the chin-stroking kind, but the street-wise kind that often comes to people by accident.
Brian Keinlen of the successful New Brunswick punk band The Bouncing Souls has known Serrano since 1988, when they crashed together in a "punk house" on Welton Street.
"Pedro was one of us," Keinlen writes in an e-mail, "but we knew there was much more depth to this guy, we knew he had been through a lot of (expletive) in his life. Somehow, this positively charged force had come out of a dark past."
Serrano grew up in Newark's Columbus Homes housing project but has spent much of his adult life in New Brunswick. (He has performed his spoken-word act on several occasions at the Court Tavern. His next CD is tentatively titled "Gay ... but cool!") He is the oldest of five kids. His parents, a warehouse-laborer dad and a homemaker mother, moved here from San Sebastian, Puerto Rico, before he was born.
Serrano's first job was in a warehouse. He tried school for a while, at Middlesex County College, but eventually left because, as he tells it, "I was nuts." He says he has struggled with manic depression.
Punk bands like the Cro-Mags, War Zone, the Dicks, the Big Boys and the Buzzcocks offered salvation.
"They had gay characters" in their songs, Serrano says. He describes his reaction: "`OK, this is cool; I exist.'
"In the gay scene, I got attention for being cute," he continues. "In the punk rock scene, I was praised for being assertive, for being a bad (expletive)." In the punk-rock scene, he says, "nobody is fat - you're big."
"I didn't know what to make of Pedro when I first met him," New York City-based out gay singer Freddy Freeman writes in an e-mail. "He appeared the antithesis of every gay stereotype I had ever heard of but had a distinct queer sensibility at the same time. He seemed to embody some kind of Zen duality. I found it very `hot.' It hasn't changed a bit - only intensified ... He opens his ears to new voices or forgotten or ignored voices."
Serrano quickly disproves the perception that skinheads - a subculture largely made up of white, working-class males who first emerged in England in the 1960s - are homophobic neo-Nazis.
Sure, he still dresses the part (no pleated Dockers or carefully aged baseball caps here) - he's got the buzzed hair and the requisite flannel shirt - but he says the concept of being a skinhead, as it relates to daily life, has changed as he has aged.
When you're young, Serrano says, "you want to take something seriously, (something) that's your own. The music was expressing what I was feeling. It's a youth culture, something to take seriously until they find a family or career."
Zak Kaplan, general manager and art director of the New Brunswick-based Chunksaah Records, met Serrano about 10 years ago.
"I didn't know many skins before I started hanging around New Brunswick," Kaplan writes in an e-mail. "I wasn't reallysure what they were all about. I wasn't sure if the whole racist skinheadstereotype held up or not. I thought it was interesting and a lot morecomfortable having a skinhead around who was not white and not straightand not young but still a skinhead who obviously held a lot of respect.
"The reason people respect him so much is because he doesn't judge people, he usually knows what he's talking about, and he doesn't talk down to people," Kaplan continues. "These are all things that you know about Pedro from sentence number one ... Very few things in this world stay consistent; Pedro is one of the few."
These days, being a skinhead means "being available for the younger punks and skinheads in the scene. It's all ego gratification," Serrano cracks.
"I like being the Old Man," he says, referring to his nickname. "I have a reputation as someone who will listen to anybody. Kids turn to me for advice."
"Pedro was one of our first mentors," Keinlen writes. "He taught us a lot when we were `green' kids just out of high school. He taught us respect and opened our minds.
"He once used an analogy to describe most people as `walking reflex machines,' just sort of sleepwalking and reacting, but never fully awake," Keinlen continues. "That has stuck with me to this day. I have learned that it is true, and that I have the responsibility of being an original thinker and creator. Pedro inspires people to wake up and embrace their destiny; his life is a great example."
Serrano's a complicated guy. On one hand, he says warm-and-fuzzy, up-with-people things like, "I make a point of pointing out that we're all connected," "gay Americans are Americans" and "gay kids should look inside themselves and find out who they are," rather than feel they must conform to a gay stereotype.
But Serrano's also a provocateur: "I'm not gay; I just have sex with guys," he writes on his Web site. "Truth be told, I haven't been gay in years. There's too much work to being gay. There's all these meetings you have to go to. Then all that furniture you have to buy. The designer clothes to keep up with. And don't get me started on the designer drugs. JESUS! ... Oh, and in my opinion, with all due respect: the music sucks."
During our interview, Serrano describes himself as "tortured" and mentions, "I have a need to do a scary thing once in a while to keep myself awake." He says he's been journaling in pencil for "years and years," then will obscure the pencil markings with new thoughts in ink to "erase the misery of that day."
In 1991, Serrano learned he was HIV positive. He says his health is relatively stable these days, although at one point, he says, his weight plummeted to 135 pounds. His volunteer dee-jaying at WRSU and the money he brings in selling T-shirts with logos such as "I'm Queer for Strong Beer" don't provide health insurance, but he says he is able to obtain medicine through the federal Ryan White CARE Act. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the program, for those suffering from HIV disease who have little or no insurance, serves 533,000 people a year.
Obtaining a steady job is tough, Serrano says; it's not easy to find an employer who will be patient with his complicated drug-taking schedule, which often calls for him to rest for an extended period after he has administered the medicine.
"It's a part of my life," Serrano says. "At the same time, it's a burden.
"There's the impression that people with AIDS tend to live more fully. Other people learn these things from owning a dog or tending a garden," he says in a voice that indicates he's invoked this analogy before.
"You don't need AIDS to have these things," Serrano says. "Get a dog."