But the best shape I was ever in had to be back in mid-to-late 20s. It was also the worst time for me financially. That’s me from the summer I turned 26, standing on the sidewalk in front of my landlord’s house in the Bronx. I had left a pretty bad/low-paying job at an advertising firm and was bumming around. When that picture was taken, I was lucky if I had a thousand bucks to my name. Was I happy? Take a look at the picture – I was doing fine, all things considered. (I think the stop watch around my neck was some misguided Public Enemy "clock around my neck" affectation. It looks silly, I know.)
Before I left that advertising job, I tossed in my gym membership at the Y and had ordered a huge cast-iron chin-up/dip apparatus from a higher-end sporting goods store. It was a freaky thing to have in a small apartment – the sort of thing Travis Bickle would have had in his apartment to train on when not working on spring-action mechanisms to automatically drop a loaded .44 into his waiting hand. Way too bulky and out of place – I used to hang clothes on it to make it look less foreboding.
But using that thing every other day for a variety of chin-up and dip combinations, I got my upper body into pretty solid shape. I’d do ab workouts on the off days. Every day, I’d get up and do a four-mile run around the Bronx, with the winding hills and quarter-mile staircases. I lived just south of the reservoir next to Lehman College and would run up to that every day and back. The last hill on my run, leading from Bailey to Sedgwick Avenue, was as nasty as any I’d ever run. Some days, I’d time my run to a garbage truck on its route, and I’d race it up the hill, usually beating it – the guys hanging on the side would be hooting and hollering in disbelief that a guy running was moving faster than their truck. In the afternoons, I’d ride my bike from the Bronx down to Central Park, via Riverside Drive most of the way, do a lap around the six-mile track, and come back – probably about 12 miles of riding all told.
I figured, why not. I had the time, and in the back of my mind, I was getting worried about the money issue, so I wasn’t feeling in any sort of comfort zone to get writing done. (That’s always been a problem with down time and writing. People seem to think I’ll sit around writing all day in these stray down-time periods we all get in our adult lives. I would if money wasn’t such an issue, especially in this town. I don’t know how other writers handle this, but I need some sort of comfort zone to write in.)
That time in the Bronx is a good topic to get into, because much like my college days, it’s a time in my life I rarely get into anymore, and I’ve only gone back to that neighborhood once since leaving it in 1997. I lived there just shy of 10 years, a long time, and it was a strange decade. When I first came to New York in 1987 and stayed on the upper west side with my Cousin B, he suggested getting in touch with a college classmate of his who was living in a boarding house in the Bronx. I did, and within days had a cheap place to live. That first room there was the size of a large closet, but less than $200 a month. (I’d eventually get the largest room, which topped out at $320 a month when I left.) It was a cool boarding house in that everyone kept different hours, so I’d often get the vibe that I was living there alone as it was so quiet.
I’d see a few other white people in that part of the Bronx, but not many, and most over the age of 60. Moving there was just something white people didn’t do! Leaving is what they had done over the past two decades. I could see it was a once nice neighborhood really gone to seed. Gunshots at night. Crack vials and dogshit all over the sidewalk. Graffiti on every available public space. Seemingly parentless kids hanging out in packs in front of their project houses. Just not a good scene, and the kind you'll find repeated endlessly in bad neighborhoods all over the world. I was too dumb in the ways of city life to grasp how far gone this neighborhood was. And being that dumb probably saved me in that I approached the place without any prejudice or malice towards the people who lived there.
(By the time I left, I was grumbling and vaguely angry. For all the shit-talk I’d purposely over-hear about white people, there were no white people screwing up that neighborhood and making it a much worse place to live. You want to get an earful, talk to a black or hispanic family leaving the same neighborhood when they can afford to; I can guarantee you they won't mince words and will say things I couldn't get away with. The last straw was a 12-year-old girl getting murdered in the next apartment building up – the one you see in the background of the above picture. Shot point blank in the face in the laundry room on a Sunday morning, with no apparent motive. No one came forward with one shred of evidence, although that laundry basement was a well-known crack den in the neighborhood, and someone had to know what had happened that morning, or would have easily known the main culprits hanging out there. That silence over her death was it for me. Sacrifice a 12-year-old girl to maintain some misguided code of silence with the law? Enough. Goodbye.)
So that time was an uneasy mix of me being in that physical prime of my life, learning a new way of life, too, and doing so in a gritty, dangerous place where I was very much an outsider. You have to describe it as dangerous although many people living there, especially kids, would deny it. I’d have denied it at the time. If you’d talk to a local cop, you’d get a much different story: drugs, gangs, guns, murders, assaults, rapes, etc. I guess if you’re raised around that sort of mess, you get used to it and accept it as part of the scenery. I wasn’t raised that way, and I’ll never get used to it, no matter where I live. Life wasn’t meant to be that hard for anyone.
When I talk about the best shape of my life, I think “mentally” should apply to – and a lot of the things I learned there still apply today. You can see in that picture I’m a relaxed person: the look on my face, my demeanor, even my shitty Chuck E. Taylor converse high tops. (I’d stop wearing those in a few years because they hurt the bottom of my feet. Those sneakers are basically a flat slab of rubber with a piece of cloth sewed on top ... and have probably done more to damage kids’ feet than anything else on the planet.) I learned to stay calm and keep my head on straight, whatever else was going on. I probably always had been that way, but living in the Bronx, and in that particular situation, running my savings down to near nothing, I really took to the concept. If one part of your life is ailing, make sure to pick up another part and run with it. Stay busy. Do something that will make you better in some sense. Don’t collapse like a house of cards.
I’ll often use the age of 26 as an archetype for flighty people in their 20s who just aren’t well-versed enough in life to know how to handle certain issues. I’ll usually use this to describe people in their 30s and 40s who are just making choices that appear immature, and attribute it to being “eternal 26-year-olds.” It’s not a bad age to pick on. I once had someone ask me what my obsession was with that age – but it’s much more shorthand for me to note a time in most people’s lives when they don’t know what they’re doing, and it doesn’t really matter all that much. You can make plenty of bonehead mistakes at that age, and they’ll be vague memories by 30. I think what I really mean to say when I use that mildly degrading line is that people much older than that should stop acting like such idiots, that they should know better by now.
I’m probably also saying something about arrogance. You can’t help but be arrogant at that age. A lot of what you think you know will be tested in the next few years, and much of it will fail, or you’ll come to understand it in a different way that acknowledges faults and problems you hadn’t anticipated before. I think in older times, this age would come a lot quicker – probably 22 or so. But these days, you don’t start to shed the last vestiges of teenage arrogance until you hit your mid-20s. From that point on, you start to become a true adult, reluctantly at first, but after awhile recognizing that unless you’re a rock star, actor or model, it’s time to ditch the Peter Pan bullshit and move with life in some sense. Doesn’t mean you have to become some corporate cog – just means you have to slowly grasp that we all age over the course of years and eventually die. I’d say adulthood is the understanding of mortality – whether you’re watching the lives of loved ones (or your own) fade away, or creating new ones.
(Of course, what does all this mean to two kids who get married at 19 and have a kid by 20? This sort of shit happens all the time, too. And they don’t necessarily grow up any quicker as a result, to judge by the divorce rates of first marriages.)
When I look at that picture, I still see myself and understand that whatever compelled me to get into that sort of spartan-like physical condition is still with me, very much so. I remember that day. My landlord Eddie’s son was graduating from high school, and I had just come back from my daily bike route. I was sitting on the ratty rocking sofa on Eddie’s porch, cooling down before I went upstairs to make some dinner. That was always a peaceful time for me. There was a family of black squirrels who lived around there and would come out on the porch looking for nuts whenever I sat there. Eddie pulled up in his car with his sister – his son was at a party. Eddie was in a suit, a rare occurrence, and he was happy. He said, hey Billie, I still got film in the camera, let me take your picture. So I posed on the sidewalk, Eddie snapped a picture, and there I am for all eternity, 26 years old, in the best shape of my life, standing on the sidewalk on a sunny June day in the Bronx. I had next-to-nothing, and life wasn't all that bad.