Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Good-Bad-But-Not-Evil Kids

Living next to a schoolyard, I’m privy to overhearing the wondrous dialogue of 15-year-olds. It’s a public school, looks to be about grades 7 and 8. These kids should be 14 and under. A lot of them are obviously older, having flunked once or twice, and are well on their way to maintaining the obscenely high dropout rate in the city. Have I mentioned I wouldn’t send a dog to your average New York City public school?

The criticism kids most often receive is that they’re unaware of mortality and repercussions to their actions. It’s my take that they should be unaware of their mortality at that age, and repercussions, like anything else, are best learned through experience. My main criticism is how bone fucking stupid so many kids are. Unforgivably stupid. As if they wake up every morning with the sole purpose of dumbing themselves down as much as humanly possible. Stupidity beyond arrogance – the kind of stupidity that’s darkly nurtured, like a psychopath slowly weaving together the dark threads of his ugly future. Think I’m being negative? Overhear 1/10th of what goes on in a schoolyard any given day, then we’ll talk.

I wonder how many of them are playing stupid. Some are. Because I can remember a few kids growing up who were actually pretty smart, but did everything they could to hide it, not just from adults, but from other kids, too.

The classic example of this was Roachey – a nickname based on his last name. We got to know each other in the fifth grade, and at that time, he was a very smart kid. With fifth grade, a lot of us had to transfer over from our old grade school in another town, and Roachey was one of those kids already in that town. Thus, even though this kid was bright as hell, the teachers had a strange way of being careful around him, like he was a bomb about to go off.

They must have been seeing signs all along. That town was always known for being rough around the edges, and it was pretty rare that you’d get an intelligent, well-behaved kid. There was always some weird character quirk that suggested he’d be just as happy whipping another kid with a jump rope as learning about geometry. This was Roachey. He was hardly a mean kid, just volatile, and most likely with odd parents. I remember him once telling a class that he got into a fight with his father while they were both watching a TV special on famines in Africa. His father was pointing at the distended bellies of malnourished children and saying, “Look at how fat those kids are! They don’t need any more food!” Not quite realizing the relation between starvation and distended abdomens. Roachey calmly pointed out to him that this was a sign of malnutrition. His father called him a moron. No matter what Roachey said, his father remained convinced that these kids were chubby, well-fed bullshit artists.

And I guess with that kind of parentage, you’re in for some strange shit in life. As we got into high school, Roachey’s fate kicked in. His grades started slipping. Drug intake began and flourished. He got into senseless trouble and hanging out with nothing but dirtbag kids. Understand that all through this, we could sit and have an hour-long discussion comparing William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Music was also a real connection with us. He was a Neil Young fanatic, and I can also remember him wowing a few dozen people in the cafeteria by playing a note-perfect rendition of “Hotel California” on a 12-string guitar. I still remember sitting with him listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which I had heard on WMMR (in its entirety) on Thanksgiving morning of 1979. A week later, we both listened to a tape version in his brother’s car, with our mouths hanging open at how good it was. (That was one album that drew in both the stoners for its outsider status, and the general music fans because it was such a great album.)

At the same time, I can recall him cocking off to our 8th grade math teacher, who was famous for grabbing kids by the hair and using their heads like a gearshifter – a fate Roachey realized many times over. He’d get A’s on all the tests, then flunk the class because he rarely showed up. There was a thin line between a smart ass who knew the boundaries (like me), and a kid who either knew the boundaries and didn't respect them, or was just so wired that he was bound to fail.

Roachey was brilliant in a lot of ways, but on a downward slide at the same time. He ended up getting his girlfriend pregnant and dropping out, at which point I lost track. A few years later, while I was at Penn State, I was back home playing pool one weekend at Holiday Lanes, a local bowling alley/pool hall that’s now a pierogie plant. I was shooting pool with my friend George when I had to make room for the guy with a beard at the next table making a side shot. He said, “Thanks, Bill.” He looked at me – Jesus Christ, it was Roachey. He looked like Jesus Christ. We talked a bit, I guess he was working in a factory at the time and seemed relatively sane, but we pretty much just left it at that, since I hadn’t seen him in a few years, and we’d gone off in different directions. We had been the best of friends up through eighth grade, but again, that was the time when he started sliding over to the dark side of high-school life, and I wasn’t along for the ride. It seems silly now, but there was surely a dividing line then, clear-cut definitions of the social groups, and you could navigate between each, but ultimately one would claim you as a member. Roachey had headed for the smoke-filled van in the parking lot, and that van drove off without me, "Slow Ride" blasting from the Sparkomatic cassette player.

I’ve since heard he went through some bad spells: selling drugs, getting busted, having discussions about space aliens with various old friends, finding Jesus, who knows what else. I suspect he’s probably come out the other end relatively intact, or at least I hope he has. I think the nightmare for him would be to end up like his father, certain of “truths” that were really lies, and content in that certainty.

Danny was another story, along with his third cousin Mary. These were kids in my hometown. At least partially – Danny’s family was related to that of Tommy One-Nut. Tommy was a kid who started out in life innocently enough, a good kid, but soon gravitated to the “bad kid” crowd, which ended with him joining the Pagans, a Pennsylvania “Hells Angels” style biker gang. He got his name from supposedly having only one testicle – no one knew for sure, no one cared enough to find out, it was a cool nickname. The rest of his family turned out fine, not quite sure what happened to make him go astray. Rumors of methamphetamine dealing and addiction. He died one night after losing control of his chopper – you can still see an informal memorial along the back road where this happened.

But Danny and his family were relatives from Virginia who came and went. One year, Danny would be in our school, the next he’d be back in Virginia, seemingly on a whim. I don’t know what his father did for a living, but it was flexible. Both Danny’s and Tommy One-Nut’s families were somehow related to Mary’s family – I don’t know how.

Mary was a strange girl. I recall her as being a gawky teenager with a mild southern accent and a haunted way about her. Her family lived over by the dugout – simply a large piece of land that was dugout from the surrounding woods. For some reason, all the people who lived over by the dugout were weird – almost like the “bad” part of town, if our small town had any. Maybe it was cheap housing and the people that drew, I don’t know.

I’ve recently seen an old picture of her, standing next to my sister while she tinkered on the play-by-number organ in my dad’s room. And the girl was beautiful – in that wispy Joni Mitchell type way, a sort of strange, dark beauty to her. None of this occurred to me at the time, as I was around eight, and she was a teenager. Also understand that in the early 70s in my town, there was a huge gap between younger and older kids. The older kids, who barely missed going to Vietnam, tended to be fucked-up, borderline hippies. I think we were on a late-arriving curve with the 60s – a high-school yearbook from 1968 would be filled with beehive hairdos and crew cuts. A yearbook from 1974 looked like a Woodstock primer: long hair, beads, drugged-out eyes. Mary was part of that older-kid wave: stoner kids who got into way too much trouble. If I’d have been a parent back then, I’d have been scared shitless; a majority of the kids in the neighborhood were really fucked-up and headed for bad times. Strangely enough, the younger kids, kids who hit their teens in the mid-to-late 70s, were much more clean-cut, less prone to getting high all the time. I don’t know how this happened, how this reversal of fortune took place. I think a lot of us simply saw those older kids fucking up and decided we didn’t need the hassle. All this took place inside of one generation, basically different ends of it throughout the 70s.

The one thing Mary was noted for was her love of pop music. She toted around a portable record player, literally everywhere she went, and at any given time had dozens of 45 singles, the top hits of the day, so we had a portable soundtrack to our lives, as we played baseball, or hide-and-seek, or just hung out doing nothing, as kids so often do. I don’t recall her playing favorites with any genre or artists – you’d be just as likely to hear “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” by Cher as you would “We’re an American Band” by the Grand Funk Railroad. She loved those records with all her heart. One of her gangly arms was probably longer than the other from toting that portable player everywhere.

Getting back to Danny, he was like a mini-rebel. And by rebel, I mean a soldier who fought for the Confederate Army under General Lee. The guy was a pure southerner: a full-on, drawling accent, long red hair that would flop over his head the same way Jerry Lee Lewis’ would when banging the piano, and a real mean streak to his character. For reasons I can’t remember, every time Danny saw me, he had to fight me. Only me. And we liked each other. But he liked to fight more than he liked me. I was much bigger than him, but he loved to wrestle, so we’d invariably get into these half-assed wrestling matches that would end with both of us red-faced, me having him in a headlock, telling him to say uncle, and him responding, “Nev-ah, yew yankee bastard!” I’d let him go, and we’d sit there, blushing and glaring at each other, before one of us would start laughing, and we’d become friends again. This happened nearly every time he saw me in the neighborhood. He was chewing tobacco by the time he was 10.

Despite our combative ways, we got along like gangbusters, really liked each other. Much as with Roachey, the reason why is I could see that underneath the redneck façade, Danny was a really smart kid. We used to play chess all the time in the fifth grade, and each of our games would invariably end the same way. I’d think I had Danny cornered, and he’d make some incredible move, drawl “check mate” in that Virginian accent, coolly slide his chair out and walk away, probably to the men’s room to take a piss.

Unlike Roachey, Danny didn’t have any scholastic aptitude – he just never took to school in any way, nearly flunking every class he took. I also remember a strong compassionate streak in him, much more than your average kid would show. I can still remember him eyeing a meter maid as we were out at recess in front of the school. She was ticketing cars for which the meter had zeroed … cars in front of houses. Danny ran over to her and said something like, “Don’t you feel ashamed ticketing cars for people parking in front of their houses? These are poor people living around here. They shouldn’t have to pay to park in front of their houses. Why don’t you have a heart and tear up those tickets?”

Naturally, the meter maid reported him to the principal, who probably gave him a few whacks with the hand: a large piece of black wood in the shape of a hand that bad kids would get spanked with on special occasions. My ass never got touched by the hand. Danny’s ass probably had finger imprints tattooed on each cheek.

I mention Danny and Mary together, because they were involved in a strange series of incidents that I’ll never forget. One thing I didn’t note about Mary, and may be mistaken to attribute anything more to it than a passing memory that could be wrong, but she was also known for messing around with the other older guys. I don’t know what went on with sex and the older kids. It stood to reason that since so many of them were getting high and going off the rails, they were probably getting laid, too, or at least experimenting. The implication was surely there.

There was a field across from our house, a patch of land that the township owned between our neighbor’s house, and the trailer one piece of land up from that. Really not that much land – about the size of two tennis courts. But the township rarely took care of it, and as a result, this piece of land became like a small forest, with bull grass rising up about six feet high, and an open sewage ditch sitting at one of the field. There were snakes in there – we’d often find the hatched eggs. And since the patch of land was so unruly, it became an unofficial dark place for us kids – a black forest to be avoided, unless you wanted to hide. We’d build paths in it so that we could take a short cut through the field instead of taking roads that were literally 40 feet away. Every summer, the field would get mowed once so the fire company could have its annual block party there, but eventually, the grass would start growing again, and we’d have our jungle back in no time. (I think the people who owned the trailer eventually bought the lot and started mowing it – now it’s just an open plot of land, sans the mystery of childhood imagination.)

Either there or in the adjacent cemetery, Mary would get frisky with some of the older guys. What they did, I have no idea – kissing, groping, maybe the occasional hand job. I have no idea. And I don’t think Mary was the only one. I think a lot of those older teenage girls, many of whom had the countenance of biker mommas, probably learned a few new tricks in that bull grass, or on the cemetery hill one night, hiding behind a tombstone any time the occasional dog walker would saunter by.

The freaky part was the time Mary took Danny into the bull-grass field. No one knows what happened. But the implication was that these cousins, with southern accents, fooled around. He was about 10; she was probably 14 or so. It was a scandal. I’m not sure if it reached the adult level of scandal, but us kids were scandalized, shocked that something like this would happen. Danny wasn’t talking, nor was Mary. Kids liked to think they were cool and could roll with anything, but cousins making out? It just wasn’t right.

A few weeks after that, who knows what psychological turmoil ensued, another odd, even more troubling episode occurred. I remember the day: overcast, with a low bank of fog hanging over the neighborhood. It was morning. For reasons unknown, Mary had left her portable record player on a wall in the schoolyard, with all her 45 singles. Tommy One-Nut and Danny came by. I was there with a few kids just hanging out, probably getting ready to play some baseball in the schoolyard.

Next thing I knew, Tommy had opened up the lid on Mary’s record player and was flipping through her vast collection of singles. Danny picked one up and flung it into the air. The black 45 rose, like a clay pigeon used in skeet shooting, disappear into the fog, then seconds later come crashing down on the street about 30 yards away. I knew from being a kid that the crashing sound was the hook, the unavoidable attraction to doing something wrong and destructive. We all knew that crashing sound from junkyards – smashing Pepsi bottles with rocks and BB guns, breaking flourescent lights, beating in the screen of a tv set with an aluminum bat, fun shit like that. The sound of a 45 disintegrating on the road held that same negative allure.

Within seconds, Danny and Tommy were lobbing each 45 into the air, making sure to first call out the song title on each disc, sometimes singing the title if they knew the song’s melody:

Tommy: Life Is a Rock but the Radio Rolled Me! (whizzing sound of disc in air, smash, laughter)

Danny: One Tin Soldier rides away! (whizzing sound of disc in air, smash, laughter)

Tommy: That's the night that The Lights Went Out in Georgia! (whizzing sound of disc in air, smash, laughter)

Danny: I got a pair of brand new rollerskates, he got a Brand New Key! (whizzing sound of disc in air, smash, laughter)

I got the fuck out of there. Older brother M was also fanatical for pop music, had an equally large and impressive 45 collection that he’d play on the shitty stereo in the basement (all those singles magically disappeared in the mid-80s, victims of my mother’s need to purge junk that wasn’t hers). And I knew if I’d done the same to his collection, he’d have sawed my head off with a butter knife. I knew what music meant to him. I knew what it meant to Mary. (It was starting to mean the same thing to me.) You just didn’t mess with people’s possessions like that, much less something as crucial as their favorite music. It was a truly mean-spirited thing to do – probably an indication of how warped Tommy One-Nut’s path would soon become. Danny had no excuse – he got caught up in the moment and made a bad mistake.

When Mary came by the schoolyard later, saw the contents of her record collection in small pieces on the road, her record player left empty, she just sat down and started wailing, an awful sound. I was watching from the house, afraid to go outside, lest I get blamed, or she asked me what happened. I wanted no part of it.

All I know is that the girl was heartbroken, destroyed in some sense, partially because she’d lost the one thing in life she loved, but also, as she soon found out, it was two of her relatives who had done this to her. I don’t think she ever spoke to them again. I’m not sure what happened to her after that. I do know she slowly built up another 45 collection, and was a lot more careful with it. In my memory, she disappears right there, but I’m sure we all went on knowing each other and being aware of each other’s paths a good few years after that. Tommy One-Nut took his strange path that eventually led him over the high side of a lonely road late one night. And I have no idea what happened to Danny.

Again, as with so many issues in small towns, when visiting, I could easily find the answer by walking down a few doors, knocking on a door, and simply asking, “Whatever became of your relative Danny?” I have a few friends like that I grew up with whom I often wonder, whatever happened to … with the answer as easy to find as that. But for some odd reason, it makes more sense to let the mystery be. And to remember these “bad” kids who should have been good, and were in some sense, but never quite turned the corner.

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