Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Skipping Through the Graveyard in My Puke-Stained Suit

The day has arrived: Skipping Through the Graveyard in My Puke-Stained Suit: Growing Up in 1970s Rural Pennsylvania is now available on Amazon, in Kindle and Paperback versions.

The past two months have been insane. The key thing I’ve learned: proofreading your own book is like representing yourself in a court of law. You may think you’re smart. You may see yourself as empathetic. But when push comes to shove, there’s a ton of tiny details about yourself that you’re just not seeing.

I read this thing through so many times now that I’m simply exhausted. If there is a next time, I need to pay someone to have a go at this. It’s amazing how many minute details there were that took forever to detect, and I’m not sure I caught them all. Forget about comma usage … I’m all over the map with that stuff. But I have a propensity for dropping verbs and key words like “the” or “an” to make a sentence read as though a caveman wrote it. Mentally, these mistakes should be glaring, but time and time again, I missed details like this. If you do pick up a copy, feel free to let me know about minor glitches like this. Amazon allows me to edit the manuscript at any time, even after publication.

Overall, I’m excited about the finished product. In my mind, it’s a Frankenstein monster of bits and pieces I’ve written since about 1985 through last week. In the last two months, I added six new pieces that would have easily made posts on this site. One memory lead to another, and there were things I just had to include. Even now, there are bits and pieces floating around my head, but I just had to let this hen out. Whether it makes sense to anyone else, or has any appeal beyond people from that part of Pennsylvania recognizing their own lives in my words, time will tell.

You know how when you read a book, there’s an Acknowledgements portion in the end that recognizes what seems like a cast of dozens of people surrounding the author as he raises his new literary work and unfurls it like a flag?

For the life of me … I did this shit on my own! Sitting here where I am now, in my leather chair in my basement studio in Astoria, cranking this shit out, much as I cranked it out in my bedroom back home in spiral notebooks back in the 70s. The only assistance I had was Angie Jordan’s husband, Scott Sullivan, helping out with the cover design, taking a photo of the actual cemetery in question and applying a more professional touch to the image. Are these writers really living like this, surrounded by a swarm of people supporting them and picking them up every step of the way? That wasn’t my experience at all. I always feel like a dick when I read those Acknowledgement sections. More precisely, the word “Bull … Shit” appears in my mind. Don’t let anyone fool you. An undertaking like this, as Glenn Frey once sang, you’re all alone in the center ring.

So, please, if you’ve been reading along here for any amount of time, follow the link, buy a copy in your chosen format, you won’t be let down. If you like it, spread the word, get on any given social media outlet you may imbibe in, pass along a recommendation. I suspect that sort of informal “word of mouth” publicity is how things work now, much more than the old machinery clanking away at the publishing house. It’s been an interesting learning experience seeing just how fast and self-reliant a method of publishing this is. Of course, every crank with a book idea these days is doing the same thing. I like to think I’m a higher class of crank. You be the judge.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Tom Petty's Inferno

Scene: A tastefully understated bathroom in a Malibu beach house. The Pacific Ocean is visible through a bay window over a vintage cast-iron tub. On the toilet sits an elderly bearded man: Tom Petty. He’s smoking a cigarette and reading a book about The Shroud of Turin. Suddenly, a bolt of pain shoots up his left arm, paralyzing that side of his body. Petty stands, drops the book in the toilet, kneels to the marble floor and loses consciousness.

He wakes up on a bathroom floor, but not the one he passed out on. This is a non-descript, clean bathroom of the sort found in doctor’s offices. Outside the door, he can hear voices, feet shuffling, a lot of activity. He gets up, pulls his pants back on, brushes himself off and looks in the mirror: the same person. The book is gone, but all else remains the same.  Huh, Petty thinks, that was a cigarette I was smoking, there’s no logic behind this. Having been along for the ride on many similar drug experiences, he knows to roll with whatever’s happening.

He opens the door onto a bustling backstage area of what he recognizes as a TV studio: cables, the backs of klieg lights, stage curtains, fold-out director’s chairs, assistants hustling to and fro. Petty thinks this vision will require him to perform live since that’s the only reason he’d be at a TV studio.

Monty Hall: Wrong, Tom. You’re not here to perform.

The voice comes from behind him, and it sounds vaguely familiar, as most game-show host voices do. He turns to see Monty Hall approaching him in a green plaid leisure suit, as he was in the early 1970s, smiling broadly.  The only difference, Petty notices, is that he has two small horns sticking out of his temples, and the slight smell of sulfur accompanies his presence.

Tom: Monty Hall! Didn’t you just die a few days ago?

Monty Hall: Monty surely did. He’s with us now.

Tom: What? No. You’re Monty Hall.

Satan: No, Tom, I’m not Monty Hall. I’m Satan. I’m using Monty Hall’s visage to create your vision of hell.

Tom: Wait a minute. You’re telling me I’m dead? Man, I’m not even 70!

Satan: No one saw it coming, Tom, not even me! Keith Richards walks the earth, yet here you are!

Tom: What did I die of?

Satan: Massive heart attack while reading a Jesus book on the can. Just like your idol.

Tom: And now I’m in hell?

Satan: Literally, no. We’re at the gates of hell, figuratively speaking. We’re here to play a little game.

Satan: Bingo!

Tom: Are you sure my name is on your list?

Satan: It sure is! There’s no waiting in line for Tom Petty!

Tom: Look. I could be an asshole. Most rock stars are. You don’t get that far for that long without doing some damage.

Satan: Oh, you did. You were no picnic. The usual rock-star stuff. Drugs. Debauchery. Neglect. Pride. The shit that went on with Stan Lynch was pretty lousy.

Tom: Sure, Satan, but he was being a prick, too.

Satan: Undoubtedly so. But you should understand one of our circles down here features a Jimmy Iovine clone in a recording studio control room making drummers hit the same snare roll, over and over, for eternity, while constantly barking “again, again” and “I have Jim Keltner’s number on my rolodex, why don’t you take a break.” For eternity. That place is for aspiring drummers who come here, thinking they’re going to realize their lifelong dreams of being rock stars, only to find themselves locked in a recording studio with an irritating twat in a baseball hat calling them “asshole” for playing the same beat, over and over, and never getting it right.

Tom: That does sound like what happened.

Satan: You should be honored. You and Iovine served as inspiration for one of my better burns.

Tom: But so many people loved my music.

Satan: Me, too. Obviously, the long string of early hits, but when you later got into stuff like “Echo” and “Room at the Top” … I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve sat here in my lair, ruminating on the nature of mankind, and those two songs perfectly define how I feel. You had a real knack for writing lyrics that were deceptively simple, but suggested more profound meaning.

Tom: Thanks, I guess. But come on, now, there’s more going on here than me giving Stan Lynch the hard time he deserved.

Satan: Oh, there is. I’d call it vanity, more than anything. For centuries, this had been the domain of kings, rich men and heads of state. But in the past 50 years, musicians and actors tend to suffer the same consequence. Your talent endears you to millions of people who, on one hand love and respect you for your warmth and immediacy. But on the other, encourage you to see yourself as super human, special beyond comprehension. Thus, the one-night stands on the road. The brusque behavior with record-company and hotel staffs, assistants and band members. The purposeful distance with loved ones who knew you before you were famous.

Tom: That’s enough for hell?

Satan: It’s the gateway to hell. Remember all the times you were doing things that you recognized as wrong, stupid and abusive, there was that voice in your head, reminding you that this was wrong?

Tom: Sure, my conscience.
Satan: No. That was me. It's always me. That's one of the jobs God gave me, along with running hell. To give people fair warning of bad, potentially damnable behavior. I am your better angel. God gave you free will, so I have no control over your life. It's human nature to be sinful. That part of my job is easy; I literally do nothing. The hard part of my job is trying to subtly convince people that they should change their ways, and thus never lay eyes on me. I do this with the understanding that most people never listen to me.

Tom: OK. So I screwed around, like any other musician on the road. I got cross with people. I got moody and abusive sometimes. I didn't kill anyone. Start any wars. If anything, my music helped people keep their heads on straight and avoid going off the rails like this.

Satan: All good points. But the key to your vanity is that it will strip you of the self-awareness required to overcome it. That’s what I’m not getting about rock stars. You pride yourselves on connecting to the common man, of relating to every-day humanity and emotions. Yet, your personal lives are virtually no different from those of influential men from the past who lived like angry gods, as opposed to decent human beings. According to your songs, you’re only human. But the adulation heaped on you led you to believe otherwise. To the point where you accepted this illusion of superiority as universal truth. I think that’s the crux of why you’re here.

Tom: Other rock stars are down here?

Satan: (laughing) Sure! Far more than are in heaven! Pretty soon, we’ll have a Traveling Wilburys reunion! Jeff Lynne will be the last. We’ll get him more for the drum sound he created in the 80s than anything else.

Tom: So why am I here? Not hell. This TV studio.

Satan: Well, as you can see, I’m Monty Hall, and I’ll be hosting hell’s version of Let’s Make a Deal, featuring Tom Petty as the first contestant.

Tom: The band and I used to get high in the morning and watch game shows all the time. If I recall, Let’s Make a Deal made the contestants dress up like it was Halloween.

Satan: Correct.

Tom: So what will I be dressed as?

Satan: The Crypt Keeper. You really don’t have to change a thing.

Tom: Ha-Ha. Do you know how many times I’ve heard that one?

Satan: Probably about as many times as guys told you they once dated a girl in high school who looked just like you.

Tom: Yeah, a certain kind of guy always had that one girl.

Satan: I don’t think they were being complimentary.

Tom: No. They meant the girl was plain, sort of homely, and had droopy eyes from getting stoned. How do I know this? Because I dated a girl who looked like me in high school!

Satan: Well, if it’s any solace, you did look OK up through the mid-80s.

Tom: My greatest revenge in life was knowing I was an un-layable dude who, thanks to his musical talent, had sex with dozens of beautiful women who otherwise wouldn’t have looked at him twice.

Satan: Well played, sir, well played. A fitting epitaph. That’s why guitars were invented. But that was then, this is now, let’s go!

Satan claps his hands, and he and Tom Petty immediately materialize in the cheering studio audience, Tom standing among a group of people dressed as sailors, witches, soldiers, cheerleaders. He’s standing next to Satan who is holding a thin microphone and laughing heartily.

Satan: So, Tom Petty, where are you from?

Tom: Originally from Gainesville, Florida, but I lived in Los Angeles.

Satan: Are you ready to make a deal?

Tom: Do I have a choice?

Satan laughs his bellowing, game-show host laugh again. A beautiful woman in a gown rolls out a deluxe Kenmore refrigerator to center stage. The audience gasps in amazement.

Satan: Jay, tell us about this wonderful prize.

Jay (a disembodied television announcer voice, speaking very fast): Monty, we have a Kenmore 50023 25 cubic foot, Side-by-Side, Stainless Steel Refrigerator. Fit more fresh food and delicious leftovers in this spacious Kenmore 50023 Stainless Steel Side-by-Side Fridge. Top-to-bottom storage space gives you plenty of room to stash away snacks, produce, leftovers, pre-made meals and household staples with room to spare. Gallon door bins means you won’t have to find a place to cram the milk, juice or wine while the tight-sealing doors help keep foods fresher, longer. Adjustable shelving and door bins let you organize the fridge just the way you like so everything, even the leftover lasagna, has a place in the fridge. Suggested retail price, $1,213.96.

The audience continues to sigh in amazement.

Satan: Tom, that’s a lot of space to store alcoholic beverages and scoobie snacks for the munchies.

Tom: That’s right, Monty. And my collection of human heads that I keep in mason jars, too.

Satan doubles over in laughter, as does an audience member dressed like the “devil” version of Satan. Tom stares in amazement as he realizes the audience member is Jeffrey Dahmer.

Satan: Tom, that dark sense of humor is going to serve you well here. But seriously, you know how the deal works.  You can have this wonderful Kenmore refrigerator, free and clear, or … we have other options waiting for you … behind doors 2 and 3.

The beautiful woman onstage strolls to her left. Tom looks more closely and realizes the woman is Marilyn Monroe. She raises her left arm, while waving her right arm up and down to showcase the doors that have appeared on each side of her.

Tom: Well, you know, Monty, the refrigerator is tempting. But since I’m in hell and have nothing to lose, why not chose one of the doors instead.

Satan: Always the gambler, always the risk taker, living by his wits, Tom Petty, which will it be Door 2, or Door 3?

Tom takes a moment to ponder his choice.  He looks at the audience and realizes Adolf Hitler is dressed as Charlie Chaplin, and John F. Kennedy as a rodeo clown.

Tom: Is that Adolf Hitler dressed as Charlie Chaplin?

Satan: Tom, this is hell, not Burbank, California.  Of course, that’s Adolf Hitler. Adolf, are you enjoying yourself?

Adolf: Ja, sehr gut, sehr gut. Much better than dragging dead Jews into mass graves you had me doing yesterday, danke, Herr Satan, danke.

Satan: Good, good. Tom, I should tell you, things work differently when you make a deal in hell. We’re going to show you what’s behind both doors, the full implications of each choice, and let you decide rather than have you feel terrible for making a bad choice.

Tom: That’s awful nice of you.

Satan: Well, let’s see what’s behind the doors before you make that assumption. Marilyn, if you will, please show us what’s behind Door #2.

Marilyn waves her left arm with a flourish as she walks in front of the dissolving face of Door #2. The sound of the French National Anthem plays … but it’s not. It’s the introduction to The Beatles’ song, “All You Need Is Love.” The scene that materializes from behind the door is the studio session that was filmed for worldwide broadcast on June 25, 1967. Petty remembers it like it was yesterday, as any time The Beatles or Stones were to appear on TV, he was on it. Something strange though.  There appeared to be a fifth member of The Beatles playing dual lead guitar, seated next to George Harrison. A skinny, young guy, blonde, shoulder-length hair … son of a bitch, Petty thinks, that’s me!

Satan: Jay, tell us more about Door #2.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. This prize is a membership in The Beatles for eternity. History will be revised just for you, Tom Petty, so that it will show when The Beatles fired Pete Best for Ringo Starr in 1962, they also hired a young American guitarist they had met playing night clubs in Hamburg, a certain Tom Petty from Gainesville, Florida who played in Gene Vincent’s touring band. Unlike George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney will include you in their songwriting process so that you can share in the making of such hits as “She Loves You,” “Ticket to Ride” and “A Day in the Life.” They will consider you an equal creative partner and, in fact, you will serve as an important bridge between Paul and John when they start drifting apart as friends and songwriters in 1966. Suggested retail price is beyond comprehension for a music fan like you, Tom Petty.

Tom: Now, wait a minute. This is hell. There must be some catch, like in the movie Bedazzled. Everything I choose, no matter how rewarding and attractive, will be revealed as having a dark side that I didn’t anticipate.

Satan: Thank you, Tom, for noting one of my favorite movies that depicts me correctly. But, no, there is no catch or hidden agenda. You will become part of The Beatles and spend the rest of your after-life living that dream. Of course, the downside will be there too: pissing off Ringo so badly during the recording of The White Album that he quits. Lennon’s heroin abuse. McCartney’s ego. The fist fight between John and George during the making of Let It Be when John finally snaps over one of George’s throwaway insults about Yoko. As with any band, as you well know, shit happens. But you will also be a full participant in the creation of songs that will be remembered centuries from now. How about it, Tom, does Door #2 strike your fancy?

Tom: Satan, you’re like a lawyer, asking questions you already know the answers to.

Satan: (laughing) Well, funny you should say that Tom, everyone who has ever received a law degree from the start of time is hellbound, no matter what he does in his lifetime. Perhaps the only more certain bet on going to hell than being a celebrity! But no matter, before you decide, let’s see what’s behind Door #3. Marilyn?

(Marilyn Monroe sweeps back in from stage right, winking and curtseying before strolling in front of Door #3 as the door dissolves to show a wood-paneled family room circa 1965 in a middle-class American home. A thin, gaunt, bespectacled man in his 30s with a crew-cut and face similar to Tom Petty’s, but harder, stands glowering over a gawky teenage boy sprawled on the carpet watching an episode of the TV series, F Troop. I thought I told you to mow the lawn, the man snaps at the boy. Yeah, I will in half an hour, the boy replies listlessly, F Troop is on, Dad. The man grabs the boy by the legs, yanks him to his feet, and pulls back his right hand, where the scene freezes.)

Satan: Jay, tell us more about Door #3.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. Tom, should you choose, Door #3, your after-life will be to be spend a very long time in hell with your father, locked into a five-year period between 1963 and 1967. As you recall, Tom, this was when he was at his most angry and abusive, lashing out at you and your brother for no reason, irrational outburst of rage. You may also recall, your driving emotion at the time wasn’t reciprocating anger and fear, but the desire to find out why your father was this way. You will have a lifetime in hell to try to find out why your father was mentally and  physically abusing your family, then make him stop.

Satan: Well, Tom, what say you?

Tom: (still shaken from being transported directly to one of his more harrowing childhood memories) What do you mean, what say I? You’re telling me to choose between heaven and hell.

Satan: Tom, do you remember how Let’s Make A Deal worked? Particularly when we had a contestant win, let’s say, a set of Samsonite luggage?

Tom: Sure. That was a trick prize. The contestant would clap along gamely, thinking, oh well, I won some luggage. And then you’d say something like, “Well, now wait a minute, you’re going to need some place to take that luggage” and the door behind the luggage would slide open to reveal an all-expense-paid trip to Brussels, Belgium.

Satan: That’s right, good memory. Jay, tell us where Tom can take his emotional baggage behind Door #3.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. Tom, if you choose Door #3, it will take you a very long time to convince your Dad he’s wrong, as you knew that stubborn Southern rebel streak well and possessed some of it yourself. There is no sense of time as you understand it in hell, but in human terms, it may take you decades of repeated abuse before you can break through and convince him that he’s wrong. But when you do, you will magically be transported to heaven, where you will spend the rest of your days hanging out, smoking pot, making love to blonde bombshells, playing your guitar and watching as many episodes of F Troop as you please.

Tom: So, you’re saying I get to be myself again.

Satan: That’s right, Tom. You get the rock-star lifestyle all over again, as does everyone in heaven.

Tom: Monty, one key question.

Satan: Shoot, Tom, shoot.

Tom: Where is my mother? I know Dad is in hell.  That makes perfect sense. But where’ my Mom?

The audience sighs knowingly, nodding their heads. General Custer, dressed as an astronaut, wipes a tear away from his cheek.

Satan: You can’t get anything past this perceptive young man! Yes, Tom, what you’re thinking is true. Your Mom, bless her heart, is in heaven. She was a no brainer for taking all that shit your father dished out, never once losing her composure and sacrificing herself so that her kids could be raised with some semblances of love and dignity.

Tom: So, you’re pretty much saying I can live out a lifelong dream for an eternity in hell. Or take decades, maybe even centuries, of abuse from my old man so I can see my Mom again.

Satan: That’s right. This is how we roll in hell. Door #2 with The Beatles will be indecipherable from how many people spend an eternity in heaven.

Tom: Monty, did you ever see the movie, Cool Hand Luke?

Satan: (laughing) Oh, I can see where this is going. The scene where they roll Luke’s mama up to the prison in the back of the jalopy for one last visit, with the understanding that she’s going to die while he’s in jail?

Tom: Exactly. I never mentioned this in interviews, but that moment had a far deeper impact on me than even seeing Elvis in person or The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. All the more so thanks to Dad beating the shit out of me and my brother all those years. You see, instead of being in prison, I was a rock star, which was no prison at all. But it kept me on the road and wrapped up in my own affairs from the moment I left Gainesville for Los Angeles. When I saw Mom on her death bed days before she died, figuring I was going to be on the road or in the studio when her time came, I made a vow that I would do whatever it takes to see her again, this world or the next.

Satan: This is the next world, Tom, and that’s a long road ahead of you, should you choose it. Do you seek the redemption you never found in life?

Tom: I have no choice, Monty, I made a promise. I choose Door #3.

Instantaneously, Tom disappears from the studio audience and is transferred to his childhood self in the scene from Door #3. The action unfreezes, and his father’s open hand slaps Tom directly on the face, dropping him to the living-room carpet. His father expects him to start crying. Instead, Tom rolls over and smirks, the very same smirk displayed on his first album cover. He winks at the studio audience, who starts to fade from his view, with Satan leading a standing ovation. The last person in the studio audience Tom sees is George Harrison, smiling broadly and waving to Tom, dressed as The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Just to let readers know, the past few weeks I've been assembling and editing various posts, older articles from publications, unpublished bits and pieces, etc. to form what should become a book about growing up in rural Pennsylvania circa 1972-84.  I'm not sure yet how I'll present this, whether going through Amazon and self publishing or trying to weed out some type of publishing deal.  But I like what I'm seeing thus far.  Not doing it for the money, as with all things you read here, but simply because I'm good at doing it and have always enjoyed the process.  Any recommendations or interested parties out there, feel free to check in with me via Comments.  I should be getting back on a more regular writing schedule in September.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Christ Comes to Coaltown

Author’s Note: This story first appeared in on February 21, 2000.  I always liked it, and it’s worthy of reprint now.  From what I gather, Whatsyourname  is still around, taking the concept of Jesus into new territory as the Dude must certainly be somewhere in his 50’s. 

"And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?"

-- Luke, 24:13-18

Emmaus is a good ways south of the Coal Region in Northeast Pennsylvania. Down around Bethlehem. And Nazareth, made famous by The Band when Levon and Robbie pulled into for salvation via a new guitar at the Martin factory. All they would have seen heading South on Route 81 was woods, farms, Golden Arches and small towns in the distance.

Had they left the interstate, they'd have been amazed how an approaching town, through tangles of tree branches and telephone wires, resembled some small Eastern European village, with the bulbous, golden domes of Russian Orthodox churches and angled steeples rising over factories and houses. Each town would look the same, but somehow different, as even the blank slate of a shantytown like Shaft or William Penn would mean civilization after a few hard miles of great black slag heaps (soon to be gone thanks to coal regeneration plants). The Molly Maguires traveled these back roads in the late 1800's, before an undercover detective and the hangman crushed their murderous coal miners' rebellion.

The long arms of Philly and New York don't reach this far. The suburban sprawl and six-figure restored barns of the southern part of the state haven't seeped north. I grew up thinking Scranton and Wilkes Barre were big cities to the north but see them now for the even-larger coal towns they are. The one or two ski resorts are miniscule compared to the tourist chalets in the Poconos. West of the Poconos and east of Eden.

"HAZLETON, PA. He appeared out of the blue back in October, clad only in a dirty white robe as he walked barefoot along the two-lane highway into this struggling former coal town. Folks pointed at first as the man with the shoulder-length hair and scruffy beard preached to whoever would listen. Before long, though, many in this largely Roman Catholic community were embracing him as a holy man."

-- "Some See Hope in Mysterious Preacher," Joann Loviglio, Associated Press, January 29, 2000

I can see him now in the dim yellow light of a firehouse hall. The bingo cage and microphone sitting on a card table off to the side of the plywood stage. The firetruck smell of rubber and metal seeping from the garage next door. Creaks and scrapes of folding metal chairs opening on a cement floor. The taps at the bar turned off for this holy night, and the regulars in their baseball hats and blaze-orange hunting vests grumbling. The halo of a Pepsi clock glowing over his head.

Or maybe he's in a field. People milling around him, where they normally gather for turkey shoots and block parties, kids hunting for Easter eggs, and a cover band with umlauts in its name playing Skynyrd and Springsteen in the summer. The faces, hard and round, shadows of the Ukraine and Ireland, with bifocals and wrinkles, rosary beads and little black Bibles clutched in hand, gazing back at this man in nothing but a white robe and sandals in the dead of winter. Turn a six-pack of Yuengling into the blood of Christ. A box of Mrs. T's Pierogies into His body.

According to the A.P., when anyone asks his name, he replies "What's your name?" He says it's part of a Hebrew tradition not to reveal your name to someone until you're their friend. So the locals now call him: "What's YourName". His real name, according to a police affidavit, is Carl J. Joseph, 39. I've seen his face in a picture. Like Christ as traditional surfer dude. Ted Neeley and Willem Dafoe. He's got the look, even a year shy of forty. But where was Christ all those years, after teenage sparring in the temple with the rabbis and before a three-year lunge at earthly authority so burning and desperate even his own followers called for his head? "What's your name" is a Hebrew tradition? It's also a line from a David Bowie song that Pontius Pilate would have liked.

The newspaper says he's been traveling for 9 years, through 47 states and 13 countries. But he's never stayed in one place for so long before. He spoke to 2,000 people once in Hazleton, and it's not uncommon to see dozens of people "standing in a field at 2 a.m. listening to him preach. "He turns over all money and gifts he receives to local parishes, except for sandals he received recently because he did not own a pair of shoes.

"He said he will remain in the area as long as there is a need for his words."

-- from the AP article

I left when there was no longer a need for my words. Or at least I was filled with enough anger, boredom and resentment that whatever I had to say wasn't going to do anyone any good, and I had to go away. Back then I blamed it on the place, that I had "outgrown" it in some sense and had to move on. And maybe that was true simply in the sense of leaving home, wherever it may have been. But I can look back now and see that I had to outgrow whoever I was much more than the Coal Region itself. That sense of abandonment haunts and comforts me to this day. 1978, a good decade before I left. My brothers and I would sit on the steps of a mausoleum in the graveyard by the church. Bagging it because our relentlessly Irish Catholic grandmother had a debilitating stroke, preventing her from attending Mass. Our sister was still going through the motions, although that wouldn't last. Our father was doing much the same, only with the benefit of a car. And our mother was a filthy Protestant, so she was already hellbound and didn't count.

We got dressed up every Sunday morning, left at quarter to nine, and hung around talking about rock stars and school. Occasional parishioners passing by would glare at us. They didn't know teenagers like being glared at. We lived. The parish priest at that time was later nailed for possessing child pornography, and he was in the pictures, too. The church folded a few years back. My friend George bought it for a song. He didn't want any freaks moving in next door.

Here's a picture I clipped from a local newspaper and held for years before it turned too yellow: a group of Catholic school children re-enacting Christ's agonizing walk up Calvary Hill. Roman centurions in wire-frame glasses and shag haircuts, bearing plastic Star Wars lasers and trashcan lids. The Virgin Mary in a headband and two-tone saddle shoes. Christ, a pasty-faced 12-year-old, bearing his cardboard cross, wearing a white sheet and a pair of Nike running shoes. They do roughly the same show in Gordon every Easter, only with adults. What I always wondered: If this reenactment were to be authentic, shouldn't most of the crowd be bawling out taunts like "King of the Jews" and "crucify him" and throwing stones at "Christ," even if they're only styrofoam chunks painted to look like stones?

"SHENANDOAH -- Gary A. Moses, 42, said when driving to Mahanoy City on Friday, he saw What's Your Name walking the road. 'It was bitter,' he said. 'It takes a lot to walk in these conditions with sandals and a robe,' he said. He stopped to offer him a ride but the nomad refused. 'His reasoning for not taking a ride is he said that's how he meets people.'

-- "300 Hear Nomad's Message," by Stephen J. Pytak, Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, February 2, 2000.

The only Buddha I meet on the road back there is a guy named Buddy. Rumor has it he spent an afternoon hanging out at the bottom of a swimming pool as a boy, and is lucky to be alive, but is slightly brain damaged as a result. He thumbs it everywhere. It seems to be his purpose in his life. You'd have to be nuts to pick him up. He has a shock of red hair, and his rocking body motions let you know something's slightly off. He's often wearing a bright red Philadelphia Phillies warm-up jacket. No one knows where Buddy goes. He just goes. And he never gets there. As Woody Guthrie must have known every Dust Bowl backroad, Buddy surely knows even the abandoned, dilapidated mining roads in the Coal Region. Buddy's going to be there long after What's Your Name is gone. I suspect one day he'll be thumbing my hearse as it passes on the road to the cemetery. Then again, much like Christ, Buddy has more reason to fear the motives of those nearest him than the capricious whims of omnipotent rulers:

"TAMAQUA -- The 27-year-old Tamaqua man who allegedly robbed and repeatedly stabbed a hitchhiker with a screwdriver Wednesday morning remains today in Luzerne County Correctional Facility in lieu of $75,000 bail.

Tedd Richard Fredericks, of West Broad Street, was arraigned before District Justice Joseph D. Zola, of Hazleton, on charges of aggravated assault, three counts of robbery, simple assault and theft by unlawful taking or disposition. The victim, Harold 'Buddy' Klinger, also of Tamaqua, was treated at Hazleton General Hospital for numerous lacerations and a broken right hand. Klinger is originally from the Ashland area, according to Tamaqua Police Chief George B. Woodward, who said the man is known for hitchhiking and panhandling in the Tamaqua area.

According to the affidavit of probable cause filed by Corporal Brian S. Tobin, a state trooper at Hazleton, the attack was initiated when Fredericks offered Klinger a ride for $6 when he saw him standing along Route 309 near Tamaqua. Tobin said Klinger knows Fredericks because they reside in the same apartment building, so he agreed to the ride. They then picked up Fredericks' mother in Hometown and took her to work at J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills, he said. After dropping her off, the two drove back to Tamaqua for gas, then headed back to Hazleton, he said.

'They drove on Interstate 81 and got off at the Hazleton exit,' said Tobin, who spoke with the stabbing victim. 'Klinger said they made a couple of turns and didn't know where they were. Then Fredericks stopped the car to go to the bathroom.' Fredericks then exited the vehicle and opened the trunk. He called Klinger to the back of the car and asked him if he did drugs. When Klinger said no, Fredericks began stabbing him around the head with a screwdriver, Tobin said. According to Tobin, Klinger didn't see the weapon at first, but when he started to get stabbed by Fredericks, he attempted to flee, but the attacker jumped on him and continued stabbing.

'Fredericks then took approximately $380 from Klinger and drove off, leaving him behind,' Tobin said."

-- "Tamaqua Man Charged in Stabbing," Chris Dean, Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, 2/3/00

There are strange things about the Coal Region reporters will never pick up. Having been born and raised there for 20 years, I'm not even sure I have. Forget about the accent, a strange, guttural mix of Irish and Slavic. I can't imitate it, although I sometimes drop hints of it when back there for a few days. Mahanoy City is famous for always being on fire. And for once having their Christmas tree right in the middle of the main street, and it would invariably get wiped out every few years by a drunk driver. Old coalcrackers pronounce it "Mock-annoy." Shenandoah is the heart of the Coal Region, if not the head. "462 da fuck" is a popular local saying, the town's area code, stated with profane emphasis. What amazes me about What's His Name--how he didn't get locked up in the hoosegow for vagrancy and then given a ride to the edge of town the next day. This unnerves me. Makes me feel like King Herod, and the pharaohs before him. Are people in the Coal Region easily led astray? No. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find people more stubborn. I know the hardcore coalcrackers, the factory workers who never make the papers unless it's holding a trophy or the antlers of a dead buck, are having a good laugh over What’s Your Name. But I would say that as in any small town, curiosity runs wild in a situation like this, and it doesn't hurt that What's Your Name is pushing all the right spiritual buttons. I'd imagine a majority of the audience at his shows are Christians; the rest just want a piece of the action. And they see a man who is not Christ, but gives good scripture anyway.

I've known Paul Rieder for a few years now, a gentleman farmer in the wilds of southeast New York state who's also a fine musician. One of his songs is called, "Jesus Died at 33- 1/3." He and his wife, Heidi, have traveled extensively, and it's his habit to keep journals of these trips. It was Paul who brought my attention to What's Your Name's saga with the AP article that has touched off a media frenzy, with Time, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and ABC News hot on the trail. He sent me the AP article, along with his journal entry from a trip to Mexico:


Palenque and Misol-Ha, Chiapas, Mexico

It takes a bit to find out how to get to the waterfall at Misol-Ha without spending a lot of money. Everybody seems to want us on some kind of $50 package tour with all the tightlipped sunburned Germans. Finally, we decode the local schedule and get on a chicken-class bus--telling the driver "Crucero Misol-Ha" a few times so he'll remember to stop there—and slowly wait for the bus to Tila to fill. It's an ancient school bus painted bright blue (inside and out).

About half an hour in the bus stops in the middle of the jungle--not a building or path in sight--and on gets a white hippie guy dressed only in a thin blanket--the polyester kind found in bad motels. He sits down in the aisle up front. I know immediately that he's getting off with us.

So of course it's just the three of us there at Crucero Misol-Ha for the two miles or so to the water. He starts up a friendly conversation--he's American. Did we know there was a Rainbow Gathering at Misol-Ha this week? No, we did not. Turns out he's been on the Rainbow trail for six years now--no vocation, no money, and unless he's hidden some back there in the jungle, no clothing except a blanket. He expounds his philosophical position--he's essentially a holy fool, constantly moving around (Central America these past six months), going to these gatherings, sleeping in the wilderness and eating whatever he finds. (Maybe the Mexicans feed him 'cause he looks like Jesus.) He asks us what we do and Heidi says we're farmers--he thinks she said "performers," then laughs when we correct him, singing to himself, "Am I a farmer, am I a star?" We chat some about farming. He asks us our names.

"Paul and Heidi. And yours?"


"Um ... Paul and Heidi. And you are ..."


Aha. I laugh and he laughs too. It seems that What'syourname is his nomde-Rainbow -- sort of a litmus test for a person's tolerance and humor.

We arrive at the falls: it's a much grander, jungly version of Hamilton Pool in Texas, a big collapsed grotto with veils of water pouring into a deep cool lake. It's around 95 now and very humid. Looks like the bulk of the hippies have taken off. What'syourname has a baggie with his passport and some money, but he doesn't have enough to pay the entrance fee at the park, so we pay for him. He then gives me all the money that he has and won't take it back, saying that he's held on to it for too long anyway. I'm wondering what the hell I'm supposed to do with this hippie's pile of pesos, if I should buy him a drink or something. But there is no one around selling drinks. What'syourname dives in the pool, blanket and all, and that's the last we see of him.

P.S. There's a picture with the article, and it's definitely the same guy. I feel like I should send him a couple of pesos.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The Dead Files

God bless Amazon Prime.  There are times when I wonder why I have it, but then the are times like now, when they exclusively carry the new Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, that it all makes sense.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed watching this, warts and all.

The warts?  Maybe “lack of warts” might be a better description.  Not necessarily warts: there’s a lot missing.  I was waiting for a good 20-minute segment on their insane trip to play at the pyramids in Egypt in 1978 (which I read about in real time via Rolling Stone as a 70’s teenager).  Some legendary band associates are glossed over, and infamous wives of Jerry are completely missing.  Entire albums, particularly in the 70’s, aren’t even mentioned, particularly post Workingman’s Dead.  I wouldn’t mind all this, save an entire episode is dedicated solely towards their legendary fans, The Deadheads.

And that’s a complete waste of film when there’s so much other far more important ground that needs to be covered in a documentary of this size and scope.  I didn’t truly get into The Dead until well into the 90’s, after Jerry died.  I can’t recall the exact time or place, but I remember hearing “Box of Rain” in somebody’s apartment, and it struck me light a thunderbolt.  One of those album tracks that rarely got played on AOR radio in the 70’s or 80’s.  The clouds parted for me, rushed out and bought Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.  And thus I became a fan.  If you’re skeptical of The Dead’s greatness, buy only those two albums.  They aren’t all you need, but they’re the best.

Why wasn’t I a fan in the 70’s or 80’s?  Was I not exposed to their music?  Sure, I was.  I think Brother J might have even had that standard-issue greatest hits set from the time.  (Brother M, I’m certain, thought they were horseshit, although in fairness he seemed to think roughly the same of most 60’s bands and focused in on his 70’s heroes like Bowie and Rundgren.)  I constantly heard songs like “Truckin” and “Casey Jones” on the radio, to a lesser degree tracks like “Ripple” and “Uncle John’s Band.”  It was usually the same handful of tracks, over and over and over.  No other album tracks.  Ever.  No “transcendent” live tracks, ever.  (Commercial FM radio stations surely would not have played bootleg live material at the time, although they would play cool stuff like King Biscuit Flower Hour concerts.)  I liked those handful of songs.  (I love them now.)  In real time I was hearing stuff like “Shakedown Street” … which wasn’t quite doing it for me!

Back then?  In my mind, as a kid in the 70’s, there was a whole hippie stigma attached to The Grateful Dead that I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around.  I respected them, but only because I was religiously instructed to do so by the waning counter-culture powers that be (like Rolling Stone).  I thought Jerry Garcia was an affable and likable enough character, but I had no concept of just how talented a guitarist and songwriter he was.  I suspect even if you had exposed me to the good stuff, the tracks that floor me now, it wouldn’t have made sense in my 70’s adolescent mind.

It was the 1980’s that cryogenically froze The Dead for me, that whole decade and halfway through the 90s, until Jerry passed on, when that immense door quietly swung all the way open.  College should be a time of great discovery for anyone smart enough to recognize four years of relative freedom compared to the prison of high school, and the anticipation of getting by in “the real world” when it all ended.  It surely was for me; it opened me up like a flower.  Musically?  So much stuff happened, and not just with 60’s music.  Although I will say, it wasn’t until then that Bob Dylan made any sense to me, and became an overnight god.  He wasn’t alone.  (That massive Atlantic Soul series of the mid-80s affected me just as much as any white 60’s recording artists, maybe even more so as it opened me up to a whole different space and feel that rock music could possibly offer.) Bob Dylan’s classic mid-60’s period, that was a guy who wasn’t fucking around, or fucking around so cosmically that you had to stop and marvel at his ingenuity.  If he was stoned, it was in a much more enlightened, deep, human way than whatever general hippiedom appeared to offer.  That music felt real to me in a direct, immediate way.  Still does.

A huge cross section of the 1960’s opened up to me in college in the 1980’s, although I already had an overwhelming affection for the decade from being raised in the 70’s: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, Hunter Thompson. Tom Wolfe, Vonnegut, and so on. 

The Dead?  Nothing.  Why?  One word: Deadheads.

I might have referenced this incident before, but I knew a girl, Elizabeth, who was a staunch English major, very clean cut, very much into poetry, very much a proper, intelligent young woman who seemed like she would have been much more at home at Princeton or Yale than Penn State, which was and is a bit of a yahoo school.  Shit, I went there one third out of family tradition, one third because it was eminently affordable (at the time, although I gather that’s changed), and one third because the football team kicked ass.  (Boy, would we get an unforeseen wakeup call further on down the road.)

We knew each other at our branch campus, and we went on knowing each other when we moved up to the much larger main campus our junior year.  I found work as an editorialist on the campus paper, and had a blast doing so.  One day I was typing up one of my columns in the basement, talking to one of the photographers on the paper.  I can’t even remember his name, but he was a very cool, slightly older guy … think Frederic Forrest in Apocalypse Now.  He didn’t look like Forrest, but he had the exact same vibe about him, slinky and cool, like a cartoon character from a Ralph Bakshi movie come to life.  I really liked that guy and respected his opinions.

Lo and behold, he said, here comes my girlfriend, and Elizabeth walks in the room.  Our minds were blown.  I knew and liked both of them, a lot, although I was surprised that she would find herself with a guy so comparatively worldly and a bit wild.  We bantered for a bit and immediately agreed to have dinner at “their place” that weekend.  Man, she was living with the dude!  This was a lot of information to take in, given that I thought she spent her nights playing chess with a bust of Alexander the Great, or something.

That Saturday rolled around, and I went to their apartment off campus for dinner.  It’s always awkward for people that age to have an adult-style dinner only with each other.  For one, we barely knew how to make real food, beyond ramen and canned goods.  I can’t remember what we had, but it had that stilted feel you get of a few people in their early 20’s acting as adult as they possibly could.  Wine flowed, another shock, I recalled her being a strict teetotaler at the branch campus.  We didn’t get hammered, just pleasantly drunk.  The conversation was nice, what we were reading, our classes, the enormous changes we were sensing in ourselves over the past six months, etc.

Dessert times rolled around.  Hey, Bill, would you like to listen to some music?  You know me, of course I would.

Elizabeth pulled out one of those medium-sized black leather cases that people would carry cassette tapes in.  Everyone had these in the 80’s as cassettes had become the medium of choice, a lot more mobile than vinyl, playable in cars, etc.  Most guys had these cases in their cars filled with their favorite albums and mixes.  She opened up that leather case …

… and every single cassette had the xeroxed symbol of a skull with a lightning bolt on it.  I knew exactly what that meant: these people were Deadheads, and all they listened to was live bootleg recordings of The Grateful Dead.  Nothing else.  Not The Allman Brothers.  Not prog.  Not metal.  Not punk.  Surely nothing recent.  Not even Dead studio albums.  Only Dead live bootlegs.

They may as well have pulled out a baby goat, slit its throat, smeared the doomed animal’s blood over their naked torsos and started howling … it had the same effect on me.  Shit.  Elizabeth.  The dude I thought was so cool from the paper.  Deadheads!  No.  Just no, man, this can’t be.  It was an exact photo negative of being side-swiped by Born Again Christians playing “cool” until they pulled The Bible out and asked if you’ve ever truly met their special friend, our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

What do you want to hear, Bill?  Well, the sound of the door slamming and my echoing footsteps running down the hall!  But in lieu of that, I always liked the song “Playing in the Band” … is there a good version of that.  Thus ensued a debate about whether the one from Cornell in ’77, or Nassau Coliseum in ’81, or Boston Gardens in ’80, or … you get the picture.  (And I’m sure your average Deadhead would correct me in a heartbeat if this song didn’t appear in any of these shows.)  The decision was made, the tape was pulled …

And I then heard what had to be the worst fucking version of “Playing in the Band” I’ve ever heard!  That was the thing about Deadheads in the 80s.  That suitcase of tapes they would always pull out.  (Which never, and I mean never, had concerts for any other band.)  They somehow managed to find the worst, shittiest dubs of those concerts that sounded like noodly hippie jibberish coming out of a boombox.  I’ve since heard many very well-recorded, clear bootlegs of numerous Dead live tracks that have floored me … but back then, it just never happened.  That might have been my first exposure to Deadheads, but surely not the last.  And it was always the same scenario.  Not your typical Deadheads, not the dreadlocked, patchouli-reeking lost souls of the 80’s, pretending to be hippies, latching on to a mostly long gone culture that was much akin to bands like Sha Na Na in the early 70’s pretending it was still 1958.

The Deadheads I met with the tape cases were always relatively clean, hip, smart college kids who were otherwise very cool, insightful people to be around.  They just had the most inexplicably narrow taste in music that I could never fathom.  Sure, I can see having a radical reaction against the artifice of the 80s, the cold synthesizers, reverbed vocals, gated drums, fake-sounding horn sections, fretless bass … that hollow 80’s sound … I could understand revolting against that by retreating into 60’s music.  But what about Dylan, or The Band, or The Stones, or The Allman Brothers, or folk music in general, or god forbid, even embracing classic country as a giant “fuck you” to the pop of the 80’s?  Had Elizabeth and the photographer pulled out a suitcase filled with Hank Williams cassettes, that would have been one hell of a night.

It never happened.  In that instance, they put on that bootleg, it was like listening to stray cats fight and fuck in an alley filled with empty trash cans.  To top it all off, Elizabeth lit up a joint, and man, the world ended, as I knew she came from a very strict background, and dating this guy from the paper was her big rebellion.  I could picture the awkward Thanksgiving dinner coming up with the new boyfriend, this hang-loose, artsy guy in his mid-20’s who had that wonderful “whatever, dude, just give me a Kerouac paperback, and I’ll sit over here on the sofa, man, while you upper-middle-class folks stare daggers at each other” countenance … she was heading for her showdown with parental authority for maybe the last time in her young adult life.

Those were your higher-end Deadheads, Deadheads pursuing college degrees, as opposed to people completely stoned out of their minds, following the band on tour from one city to another, selling whatever wares they had or made to acquire ticket and drug money.  I didn’t get it then and still don’t now.  It just seemed so constricting, to be that focused on one band to the exclusion of all others, to create a lifestyle that served as monument to that narrow sense of taste.

For me, respecting The Dead after Jerry died was understanding where alt. country was born, although it surely wasn’t known as that at the time, and wouldn’t be known as such until the late 1980’s when punk would serve as another catalyst for that whole scene to happen.  But back then?  The first two albums by The Band.  Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty by The Grateful Dead.  The first few Neil Young albums, particularly with songs like “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Don’t Cry No Tears.”  That’s alternative country music.  It’s not rock musicians playing straight country, like The Byrds on Sweethearts of The Rodeo or Gram Parsons thereafter.  It’s not The Eagles pulling that similar sort of music in a very pop/rock direction.

It’s very raw, “country” music that touches on roots far deeper than rock music, but uses the immediacy and instrumentation of rock music to communicate those age-old truths.  The Dead had that quality in spades, as did The Band.  Neil Young was just an expert at pulling together those loose strands and presenting them as a beautiful, unified sound that no one could quite classify at the time, save to note that it was good, sometimes great.  A lot of 60’s artists paved the way for that to happen, you can even credit The Stones for helping it to happen (“Dead Flowers,” “Let It Bleed,” “Country Honk”).  Credence Clearwater Revival dabbled in this, but generally veered more rock … still, they had it, too.  It seemed like a general vibe at the time a lot of those great early 70’s rock artists could tap into, seemingly at will.

So, forgive me if I can live without the drugs, or the inane lifestyle choices, or the endless sea of bootleg concerts.  When I finally got into The Dead, it was solely based on the music, most of it thanks to Jerry, although Bob hit it out of the park every now and then, too.  Whatever faults the man had, they were easily forgiven by the music.  I have no idea what “kids today” make of the Dead.  As far as I’m concerned, kids in the 80’s were getting them all wrong, which turned me away from their music for a long time to come, much to my shame and discredit.  You couldn’t have paid me to listen to The Grateful Dead in the 80’s, as I had tons of very new and interesting indie music to digest, on top of going backwards and re-discovering the earth wasn’t flat via folks like Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Otis Redding, Chuck Berry, etc.  The main thing I eventually learned was to not judge music by the fans, otherwise I’d be listening to silence all the time.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Blue Shirt

(Author's Note: This story first appeared in on 10/19/01.  I've since realized that seems to be turning up page captures of certain old stories from that publication, but not sure how.  This is how I stumbled over this one again.  It's worth re-telling here.)

I couldn't stop staring at Lee's peach-fuzz mustache. Laid out in his coffin, he was wearing a dress shirt, hands folded over chest. It was my second wake, as my grandmother had died two years earlier, so I knew how to act. Stand over the coffin for a few minutes, contemplate the corpse, then move on for the next in line. I felt insincere and self conscious, but hadn't yet realized these were standard feelings in the presence of a corpse.

Lee threw me with that mustache. It was so cheesy looking, not like him at all. We had fallen out of touch in the latter half of our senior year of high school when he started dating a girl in that obsessive way teenagers and stalkers have in common. I hadn't seen him in the eight months since we graduated high school. The mustache looked fake. I wanted to reach down and tear it off, miraculously yanking him back to life and out of this charade. But I knew it wouldn't budge. Maybe it's one of those things, I thought, that hair and nails keep growing even after a person dies. But if that were the case, wouldn't Lee have a five o'clock shadow? The rest of his face was as clean and ashen as a tombstone. Even his acne had disappeared.

Of course, the real reason I focused on his mustache was to deny the horror of one of my friends dying at eighteen. According to the article in the local paper, his grandfather had found him in his mother's garage "working on his car with the motor running." This was in February, two days after Valentine's Day. The article vaguely stated there was "no foul play" in his death. But it didn't state that if he were working on the car, he would be doing so because it wasn't capable of running. If it was, he'd be tinkering with the engine, not spending the hours it would take for carbon monoxide poisoning. Lee was an intelligent kid, in no way stupid, which he would have had to been to work on a car in a closed garage. I had heard he had been drinking a lot around that time, so it's possible he could have gotten drunk, went out to the garage, started the car and passed out. But I knew that dead was dead, and it made no difference, at least to me. He had turned the key and faded himself out of this world.

I don't believe in ghosts, but I've been feeling haunted by Lee lately. I hadn't thought seriously about him for years, then a few weeks ago, I spent days dwelling on his death, to the point of tears I never bothered to shed back then. I keep picturing him, fading in and out of consciousness behind the wheel of that car, only instead of driving down a placid country lane at night, he's staring through the gloom at a cinderblock wall with tools hanging on it.

If there's one thing I've realized as I've grown older, it's that the mind plays tricks on us, especially with memories. I paged through my Class of '82 yearbook recently, and the first big picture is of the entire class gathered in a field behind our ugly pillbox high school. We're all decked out in red and blue, the school colors, kids grouped together in various social castes, cheerleader girlfriends perched on jock boyfriends' shoulders, stoners slouched over and completely ignoring the camera, the great middle class of kids in between saying cheese.

The legend of this picture is my friend Schwamy standing next to me. His shirt is an other-worldly, phosphorescent blue with what looks like a fingerprint on his left shoulder. His shirt was white that day. The photographer took six different pictures. In each one, Schwamy's whipping a bone at the camera, the middle finger of his right hand plainly visible on his left shoulder. I was doing the same, smirking the whole time, only I had my arms folded, with my hands wresting on my biceps, which ended up hidden behind the bodies in front of me. Schwamy had the shit luck of having his middle finger exposed every time. He had the fear of God put into him by the powers that be and was forced to pay for the amateurish alteration to the final picture. In that picture, my friend Tony is on my other side, smiling like a dork, and Lee's on the other side of Tony, grinning placidly.

It is now virtually impossible to see that picture without dwelling on Schwamy's bold statement, as all the other memories around that day simply involve getting out of class and standing in a field for half an hour. Some of what we did back then has become legend, retold in tall tales over the years, in bars and living rooms, relating to a time in our lives that our minds try to tell us was free and easy, but I can usually recall as being wrought with teenage insecurities. With Lee, it bothers me that I can hardly remember a thing about him, and we were good friends for six years. All I can think about is Lee dying the way he did, although random memories of him, like his trademark cackle, surface now and then like passing shadows. I recognize these as glimpses of what it will mean to be truly old.

There was a strong case for suicide. How many people accidentally die in closed garages with a running car? Lee's family had been plagued by bad luck. His parents split when he was a kid, with his father moving his medical practice out of town. He had two older brothers and an older sister. One of the brothers was a smart, well-adjusted kid who went on to become a doctor. The other died in a car crash when Lee was 12; my mother can still recall him crying hysterically at the funeral as Lee had idolized him. A few years later, his sister's boyfriend shot himself in the head in the driveway of his mother's house. All this transpired before Lee fell in love for the first time in our senior year. As with most kids at that time, he had no idea what he was in for. The girl was pretty -- a junior with a reputation for being clean-cut and intelligent. All the guys in our social circle, including Lee, were dicks with women, either being too shy to make anything happen, or so desperate that we smothered any potential relationship. Maybe it was supposed to be that way. The guys who did go steady came off as either lecherous perverts hiding their true selves from their girlfriends, or already docile husbands being dragged around by the balls.

Whatever Lee was with his girl, I had no idea, as they both floated into that stormy, elusive world of teenage love. Couples like this dotted the hallways between classes, necking openly and leaning as far into open lockers as they could to avoid teachers, the guy holding his arm around the girl's neck in a way that suggested a minute mood swing could find him strangling her. Most of them were doomed and blissfully unaware of it. When the inevitable break-ups occurred, stories circulated of vicious fights and occasional physical threats. That, or the wounded boy would do something melodramatic, like call the girl at 11:00 on a school night and play "Telephone Line" by the Electric Light Orchestra into the mouth piece.

It was routine behavior for a guy in love to become estranged from his friends, and Lee was no different. This coincided with our graduation, so that I completely lost touch with him. I went off to a local branch of Penn State, and Lee, like a lot of kids who didn't enter college or the armed forces, had no idea what to do with his life. All I knew is that he was living at home, with a minor reputation for drinking, and that he had broken up with his girlfriend -- hardly an uncommon scenario at the time. Whatever transpired between them, I had no idea, save that it was over. The next time I saw him was in a funeral casket.

A strange thing happened about six years after that. I had moved to New York and was in that annoying mid-20s phase that can only be described as counterfeit middle-age. I still hear it now with twentysomethings complaining about how they feel so old -- a concept laughable to anyone old enough to know better. What they're really trying to say is that they're clinging to a teenage sense of time -- and they are old by this pitiful standard -- but haven't yet adapted to the reality of time, that it keeps moving no matter how one perceives it. They're longing for a world that no longer exists for them. Couple this with the first few tastes of a real job with no end in sight, and it's easy to feel ancient at twenty-six.

I did what most people do in this condition: drink too much, thinking it somehow romanticized my plight. I wasn't alone -- the city was crawling with dimestore Bukowskis. We all had treasured stories of waking up on the sidewalk next to a puddle of vomit, or realizing the redhead at the bar we had thought was a dead ringer for Nicole Kidman more strongly resembled Carrot Top in the morning light.

It was in this state that I took the bus home one holiday season and went out drinking Christmas night with a few friends. Most of the bars were closed, but we found one open, a real dive we usually never went to, but had no choice. This bar had a back room with a pool table.

We went back there, and sitting in the shadows was Lee's old girlfriend. She had on a spandex leopard-skin top and a tight pair of jeans. Smoking. Still pretty, but harder around the eyes. It was a look I normally associated with older people who had been through the ringer a few times. She had road miles on her face. There was another woman with her with that same slightly used-car look.

At first, we kept our distance, but after a few rounds, we found our way into a booth and started talking about legendary teachers and their quirky habits. She had the accent: that thick Coal Region brogue of northeast Pennsylvania, a hybrid of guttural Eastern European and elongated Irish. That accent, to me, was someone's way of saying they were always going to live there, a sort of unconscious, working-class dedication to home, even if it meant scuffling for low-paying jobs in a place left devastated when the coal boom ended decades before we were born.

We were all flirting. The thought of scoring with Lee's old girlfriend intrigued me, although I knew there was nothing romantic about a drunken romp, no matter what the personal history. As we kept drinking, it became obvious that no one would be getting laid that night. And when that bridge was silently crossed, Lee's old girlfriend looked straight at me and said, "You were one of Lee's friends, weren't you?"

I could tell by the way she said it that she'd been sitting on that one all night, waiting for the right time to bring it out. We had gotten paired off at one end of the booth, and no one else could hear us. It wasn't an accusation, just an honest question. I said yes. The hardness drained from her face, and she told me as much as she was willing to tell. They were in love, things had gone wrong, and they simply had lost control of the situation. Nobody's fault, just the way things played out. She didn't say when they had broken up, or what the final blow was. Her accent fell away when she spoke about this, and I could see the studious girl she had been in school lurking just beneath the surface.

The worst thing she told me, and she wouldn't be specific, was that some people close to Lee had blamed her for his death. This had wounded her deeply, that her first love would always have this ugly coda. Her confession happened in the span of a Def Leppard song on the jukebox. At the end of it, she got up and went to the ladies room, and I just sat there staring at my bottle of Yuengling. She came back a few minutes later, and I could tell that she had been crying. No one mentioned Lee again, and the night played out in that hazy, late-night drunk manner of nostalgia and small talk.

The last thing I remember was stumbling to the car with my friends, looking over my shoulder and seeing her at the door of the bar at closing time. She waved at me and smiled. It was one of those frigid clear winter nights with no snow on the ground. I had long given up on church, much less the midnight mass my family would go to for Christmas. But there was something in her smile and the wave of her hand that made me think of those nights. It was tradition at those masses for the priest to hand out small boxes of chocolates to the children on the steps of the church as we exited. Now that I was so old, I was getting a hangover and mixed emotions instead.

At our 10th year class reunion, Lee, and a few other people from our class who had died young, were the objects of a fairly bizarre tribute. I went to the reunion over Thanksgiving weekend at a catering hall back home. Twenty-eight years old -- no longer "middle-aged," but closing in on the brick wall of thirty. This had the potential for a terrible time, but I ended up having a ball. It was great to meet old friends again, and a pleasant surprise to find that life had beaten us all down enough that even former enemies could sit down and commiserate over a few drinks.

But off in the corner was a table with four lit candles on it to commemorate those classmates who couldn't be with us that night. Never mind that only 60 people showed up from a class of over 200. There were plenty of living classmates who couldn't be with us that night because they hated high school and thought the reunion would be complete bullshit.

Lee was the second candle. The first was a kid named Kyle, one of Lee's friends, who had shot himself in the head at a bush party two months before graduation, inexplicably blurting out the word "cheeseballs" before pulling the trigger. The third was a girl named Carol who had a congenital heart problem all through high school and watched her days fall in numbers even then. The fourth was Danny, who was drunk driving home from a block party when he veered into the wrong lane, hit another car head on at top speed, and took two other people with him to the other side.

Some shit-assed DJs had been hired for the night, leisure-suited morning zoo types, and it was easy to ignore them so long as they kept a steady flow of Billy Squier, Styx and Journey. Near the end of the party, they started pulling out all the stops nostalgia-wise, and I could see they were going to close out the same way every high-school dance ended in 1982: Skynyrd and Zeppelin, baby, "Freebird" and "Stairway to Heaven." "Freebird" came first, and it got the dance floor crowded with nearly everyone, even when the song sped up and made the guys do more than slow dance.

 The song was met with a huge round of applause. From the stage, one of the DJs directed our attention to the table with the four candles, stating that this last song was for those of us who couldn't be here tonight, yes, the special ones who had left us early. I was sitting at a back table having a beer with an old friend when the gentle opening strains of "Stairway to Heaven" echoed through the hall. What happened next was a mass exodus from the dance floor. I could hear people muttering "fuck this" and "this is sick" as they passed on the way to the bar. The DJs had hit a raw nerve with the crowd, who didn't want to see these deaths exploited. The dance floor was empty before Robert Plant spouted his first line of lame hippie swill.

I hadn't seen that one coming, nor had the DJs, who snuck behind curtains and speakers when the song ended. There were scattered boos. Most people were milling around the back of the hall, men and women alike toting beers in both hands before the bar closed and muttering about the DJs' tastelessness. Ten minutes later, it was old news. I never liked that song. If people were going to be this offended, I reasoned, the DJs should have gone for broke, dedicated "Highway to Hell" to Danny at ear-splitting volume and beat ass out of there before they got ran out on a rail.

I hadn't been aware of it, but Lee is buried in the small Protestant cemetery on the hill in my hometown. He lived in another small town with its own cemetery a good 10 miles away, so this was a bit of a shock to me. In our town's cemetery, there used to be a wooden rail fence dividing the Protestant and Catholic sides. We used to love dangling upside down from it by the backs of our knees, even if it meant getting splinters. The fence is gone, but I gather that sense of separation is still there, embedded in family plots that will take years to fill out.

When we were kids, that cemetery represented life more than death to us. It was a great place to sleigh ride in the winter, careening our Flexible Flyers around the tombstones on daredevil runs to the bottom of the hill. There was a wide open patch on the Protestant side that served as a good football field. Summer nights found us playing jailbreak (a derivative of hide-and-seek brought to us by my Point Pleasant, NJ cousins) or telling ghost stories by those spooky graves with lit candles on them. I tried in vain to walk off my first drunk on the Catholic side late one night, shamefully vomiting next to my grandmother's grave and wiping the sweat from my brow with my grandfather's Memorial Day American flag.

People came there on Sundays and major holidays to pay their respects. This looked like hell to me. Distracted parents and their ungrateful kids badgering the shit out of each other. Older people weeping by their loved ones' tombstones, planting flowers and kneeling on the grass with dazed looks on their faces. Yapping dogs on leashes marking their territories on tombstone corners.

All they were trying to do was remember, and there's nothing wrong with that. I can see that to do so with honesty and clarity is the best tribute to someone who is gone. A subtle form of hell may be the inability to remember at all, as it leaves a sort of emptiness easily mistaken for freedom. I think of Schwamy's shirt and recognize that my memory has been like that bad touch-up job, substituting an unreal shade of blue for pure white, all to avoid that unacceptable middle finger of our youth.