My eyes darted over to Matt. He stood close by, at the kiosk next to mine. With eyes narrowed in concentration, he watched my boss Dan. Instead of greeting passing shoppers and trying to lure them in for a look at merchandise, Matt watched Dan with laser-like focus.
“Don’t come over! Don’t come over!” I kept chanting in my head. My hands wrung the pen I held. I did not want the two men to meet, and for good reason.
I’ve worked retail off and on for years. It can be boring, but that wasn’t the case when I worked at a Christmas ornament kiosk one holiday season.
It wasn’t the customers who made the work interesting. No, it was one of the employees at the kiosk next to mine.
One day during a lull in customer traffic, Matt, revealed he was a former skinhead. After that going to work was . . . suspenseful.
At that time in 2013, I worked part-time as a teacher’s aide at an elementary school. The job didn’t pay during the Christmas holiday, a two-week break.
So just before Thanksgiving, I started working evenings and weekends at a Christmas ornament kiosk, located at my town’s mall. I expected it to be an easy-going job.
Next to my kiosk stood another that sold t-shirts. Printed on the shirts were things like “I’m with Stupid” and images of cuddly teddy bears. A hot selling tee had a bald eagle with wings spread and talons gripping an American flag accompanied by the words “Live free or Die.”
The kiosks were close, just 4 or 5 feet apart. Like my work place, next door there were several employees working different shifts. Matt looked like many of the locals. He wore a baseball cap, plaid shirt, jeans, and work boots.
One thing that wasn’t as common in North Idaho (that’s what it is called, not Northern) for regular day-wear was the hunting knife and sheath, attached to his leather belt. (No, this didn’t pose a problem with mall security, apparently.)
Turned out wearing the pointy tool was a form of advertising. Matt had a knife-making business. He, too, was supplementing his income with a kiosk job.
As we worked alongside one another, Matt grew on me. He showed himself to be a caring person. He helped those of us who worked in the kiosk cluster.
He would do things like assist us with the physical tasks of opening and closing our kiosks. He’d offer to get us food and drink when he went on a break. If he and I worked a night shift together, he’d walk me to my car, even though I was slower at closing than he was and he had a much longer commute than I did.
Matt was gregarious. And he was an open book. He shared with the kiosk crowd about his past trouble with drinking. This was common knowledge.
Then one day, Matt shared with me a part of his past that stunned me. This he did not share with others in our group. He had been a skinhead.
I suppressed a gasp when he admitted to what he referred to as his misspent youth. At the time of his confession to me, Matt was in his mid-thirties.
Murderous Skinheads Portland Brutal Killing
Some years before, I’d lived in Portland, Oregon. Matt’s disclosure brought with it the recollection of a brutal killing. In 1988 skinheads had murdered an Ethiopian immigrant, a graduate student, living in Portland.
And I knew all too well that a little more than a decade before, the Aryan Nations’ (a white supremacist terrorist organization) Idaho compound had been located within fifteen minutes of the mall where we worked in Coeur d’Alene.
There had been skinheads at that compound.
I didn’t live in the area during most of the Aryan Nation’s time in North Idaho, but I’d kept myself informed because Coeur d’Alene is where most of my mother’s family lives, and I lived there and in nearby Spokane, Washington in my childhood.
Racist skinheads form a particularly violent element of the white supremacist movement and have often been referred to as the “shock troops” of the hoped-for revolution. — Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)
The Southern Poverty Law Center put the murderous skinheads of the Portland crime behind bars.
Later in 2000–2001, the North Idaho white supremacist compound was closed and auctioned off.
SLPC bankrupted the organization by winning a lawsuit for its plaintiffs. The plaintiffs’ car had been shot at and hit with bullets by the Aryan Nations’ security guards, during a car chase on a public road that ran outside of the compound.
A backfire from the plaintiffs’ car sparked the car chase. A truckload of armed security guards pursued the car.
Two miles down the road the local residents’ car careened into a ditch and the occupants, a mother, and teenage son were battered and held at gunpoint. Two of the guards were sentenced to prison for this 1998 attack.
Matt didn’t share the details of his time as a skinhead. I don’t know if he was at the compound or not, but it’s a strong possibility. He would have been in his late teens or early twenties around the time of the security guards’ onslaught.
Former Skinhead Disturbing Childhood
According to Matt, growing up, he’d had a volatile relationship with his father, a fire and brimstone preacher of no particular denomination, a church founded in fear and the “them against us” mentality.
Listening to Matt describe his dad, it wasn’t difficult to infer that Matt’s childhood and been fraught with abuse at the hands of the so called “Man of God,” his father.
Matt told me that he’d been overwhelmed with anger in his youth.
Then he met his wife Jenny, and her love and acceptance changed him in profound ways. She encouraged him to seek professional help. And to his credit, he did so.
I am nobody’s fool when it comes to deceitful men. I am the daughter of a con artist, my father.
I didn’t read Matt as deceptive. I believed him when he said he hadn’t been a skinhead at heart.
I knew from personal experience that people can break free from their abusive childhoods and that victims don’t have to resemble their abusers.
So even though I loathed and feared white supremacy, I decided not to hold Matt’s past against him. I saw the allegiance with the hate group as a symptom of his childhood abuse and something he’d moved beyond.
That didn’t mean I trusted him completely.
I watched Matt closely for a while. When he interacted with the few people of color at the mall (North Idaho is not known for its diversity, which is an attraction for racists), I watched his body language and I eavesdropped.
He passed my inspection. Not that I am any kind of expert on social relations, but like any kid on the playground, I can recognize a bully. Matt didn’t show himself to be one, so I let go of any doubts I had about his character. Or so I thought.
Is the Former Skinhead Completely Reformed?
A week or so after I’d given Matt the green light, I discovered something about my boss Dan that made me concerned about the two men meeting each other.
Dan spent most of his time at his main business, a store that sold hair and beauty products. This type of merchandise suited him more than the Christmas ornaments did.
Dan was from L.A. and it showed. He wore skinny jeans. His eyebrows were groomed, and his hair was perfectly coiffed. He was metrosexual in a land of men who thought nothing of unibrows and tufts of ear hair.
Also, Dan’s skin was more than tan. I’d assumed he was Hispanic. Then one day as we walked in from the parking lot together, he took a phone call and spoke in a language I knew wasn’t Spanish.
When Dan got off the phone, I asked, “Do you mind if I ask what language that was?”
“Hebrew. I’m Israeli. I grew up in Israel and the states.”
Dan was not the first Israeli I’d met. He was the first I’d met in North Idaho, however. What alarmed me was that it was my impression that skinheads hate Jews with a particular intensity.
But, Matt was a former skinhead, so in his case that didn’t apply to him… right?
Then came the day when I chanted in my head “Don’t Come Over” and held my breath.
Dan had dropped in for a visit. The tapping of his hard-soled dress shoes striking the floor announced him. When I looked over to the t-shirt kiosk, I saw that Matt had spotted him and paid no attention to anything else but Dan.
My boss didn’t appear to notice that he was being watched. Or maybe, he chose to ignore it.
Matt had mentioned to me that his employer had told him to stay away from mine because he might say the wrong thing.
Could the Man be Triggered By the Past He Choose to Forget?
I hoped that he would heed the advice.
Matt’s boss was also his friend. No doubt she knew his hate group past. And she knew Dan, their shops were located near each other at a mall across the border in nearby Washington state.
So there was a good chance Matt knew, from his boss, that Dan was Jewish.
Would this be a trigger or was he truly reformed?
To my relief, Dan’s visit was brief and Matt kept his distance.
“My boss threatened to cut my hours if I spoke to him. She doesn’t trust me, I guess. Made me want to meet him.”
“Better safe than sorry. Dan doesn’t have much of a sense of humor,” I replied.
She’s not the only one who doubted you, I thought. I busied myself with paperwork, hoping he wouldn’t notice my reddening cheeks.
“Yeah, I do make awkward jokes, sometimes. Jenny’s pointed that out. Well, takes all kinds.”
“That’s for sure,” I agreed.
The rest of the holiday season passed without drama, and at its end, Matt and I moved on with our lives, away from the mall and each other.
The Former Skinhead Turned Caregiver
Five years later, I worked as a receptionist at an assisted living facility. One day Matt showed up with an elderly gentleman who was in a wheel chair. Matt was his caregiver. They had come to check out the facility.
Upon recognizing me at the front desk, Matt reached out for a hug, which I accepted. It was as if we’d seen each other only days before instead of years.
He told me that he loved his work as a caregiver, and that he still made knives on the side.
Matt was as out-going and endearing as ever, and more at ease with himself. I could see that being in a helping type of job suited him. He was happy.
After we said goodbye, I reflected on the kiosk days and getting to know Matt. I was glad I’d given him a chance back then.
Although admittedly, it had been a fragile decision, with my doubts threatening to shatter it as a glass ornament dropped onto an unforgiving surface.