Friday, March 30, 2007

MP3 of the Week #8

Squeeze was (is?) a great band. I remember the first time hearing "Another Nail for My Heart" and thinking that song was as good as anything The Beatles did. A lot of their songs were. On top of the pop sheen and melody, the lyrics were often excellent, detailing a loutish, fumbling, mildly self-loathing English working-class existence.

They managed a few hits in America, "Tempted" being the biggest by far, but were done in on the "massive success" level by what kills many bands from the UK in America: inherent Britishness. Their songs were stock full of British slang and references -- even "Tempted" had them (a flannel for my face, the car park, the baggage carousel). When lyricist/guitarist Chris Difford took his occasional turns at vocals, they were sung with a flat cockney accent. That shit just doesn't make it here. And I wish it would, because bands like Squeeze and many others, especially in the 80s, put out some incredible pop music.

When I think of Squeeze, their musical diversity comes most to mind, which recalled how so many artists of the 60s and 70s (Bowie, Elton John, Queen, The Beatles) could effortlessly move between so many sounds, influences, production styles. Songs like "Labelled with Love," along with other "rock" country songs like "Radio Sweetheart" by Elvis Costello or "Faraway Eyes" by The Rolling Stones, served as a nice introduction to country music, and let me know that liking country wasn't the horrible proposition I'd made it out to be in my youth. It took me years to follow-up on their influence, but I always enjoyed it when a pop/rock band took a country turn.

This week's MP3s will be three country songs, courtesy of Squeeze:

"Labelled with Love" appears on a recent "covers" album called South East Side Story by Chris Difford. I say "covers" because he's covering songs he wrote with Glenn Tilbrook, albeit they were done back in the 80s in a distinctive pop style, and with lead singer Tilbrook handling the vocals. What's surprising is that Difford, who was never known for his voice with Squeeze, really shines taking the lead on these songs. The arrangements on the songs are novel, too -- a very smart idea pulled off well. "Labelled with Love" was originally done country style, but this version is still worth having.

"The Truth" is from Squeeze's 1991 album Play. Their 90s album get short shrift, as the band went through various line-ups and no longer had hit singles, but there are still plenty of great songs to be found. That pleading guitar riff and rolling drum pattern are pure country, as are the lyrics, in which the protagonist admits to being a lying bastard and is baffled why his lover doesn't leave him.

"Genitalia of a Fool" is from Glenn Tilbrook's 2004 solo album, Transatlantic Ping Pong, and fans could be mistaken for thinking it's an original with its sly subject matter. But it's a cover of a song by Austin, TX country artist Cornell Hurd that brings to mind the Squeeze song "F-Hole," in which the song's protagonist is caught cavorting with a woman, wearing only a tie, by a bouncer-looking gentleman who turns out only to be a lodger in her house as opposed to an enraged husband. Here you can find the lyrics to Genitalia: a fun song to say the least.

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Soytz

As kids growing up in our neighborhood, we did some pretty stupid, mean-spirited things that should have gotten our asses roundly kicked. Even if it was by association – I can recall not raising my voice in dissent in a lot of situations that were clearly wrong. As I type this, took a quick channel-surf on the TV. Lo and behold, the 1963 British version of Lord of the Flies was on Fox Movie Channel. Good timing!

What comes to mind most is Soytz. There were three grown brothers in my neighborhood, all with houses on my block. Frank, Joe and Eddie. I mentioned Frank earlier as the lawn-mowing king of the neighborhood: a good guy. Frank also had an infamous eye for junk, which he’d store in this cavernous two-story concrete bunker in his backyard. If he was out driving and saw a pile of dirt by the side of the road with a few bricks in it, he’d pull over, retrieve the bricks, throw them in the back of his pick-up, drive home and put them in the bunker. By the time he passed on, he had a two-story junkyard that his wife had to hire a garbage truck to dispose of. None of it made any sense.

Joe lived down the block. He was famous for being a war hero in World War II. The local paper once re-ran his story – that somewhere in the South Pacific, he and a severely wounded buddy had been isolated from their troop in the jungle. So, he heaved the guy over his shoulder and walked him through miles of enemy territory before re-connecting with the troop. An amazing feat – can’t recall the medal he won, but it was impressive. He was also known as “Hammer Man” in the neighborhood, for once going off his nut and attacking another guy at the polling office (i.e., the firehouse) with a hammer during a particularly heated election. Despite this, and an odd way about him, I can’t recall him ever being rude or unkind to me.

Across from the school, Eddie lived with his wife and son. Picture the father in the animated series of King of the Hill – this was a lot like Eddie, with a burr-head haircut. As with Frank and Joe, I don’t recall anything particularly mean-spirited or wrong about Eddie. Baseballs would constantly be hit into his yard when we played in summer, so I imagine there might have been a few altercations, probably over kids dawdling or messing with his property rather than just retrieving the ball. Since our family’s house was on the other side of the schoolyard, this happened with our yard, too, and was much worse as we had a dog called Duffy, a mutt whom we unfortunately trained halfway in terms of fetching balls. He’d fetch them, but never give them back, so you had to chase after him for minutes on end, and at that point, usually have no luck prying the ball from his jaws as he snarled. He wasn’t a mean dog – we simply made the error of not training him properly on this.

The difference between Eddie’s and our family? We were kids in the neighborhood, thus a connection to the other kids, so we were spared any sort of antagonism, since were one of them. Eddie’s son went to Vietnam, was older, and out of the loop age-wise with the kids of the 70s. I’ve noticed with kids that they can’t comprehend adults who don’t have kids, or kids their age. That seems like a very important connection. Without it, adults seem vaguely menacing, strange, not worthy of respect, to be watched. I can sense this vibe, living in this neighborhood in Queens. And it says a lot more about how dumb and tribal kids are than it does about the childless adult.

That’s the key difference, because kids, wherever they live, form their own little insular world, with its own rules, completely divorced from the adult world, and it usually holds sway in places like playgrounds. In this way, kids think they “rule” a certain neighborhood: it’s theirs because they live there. And, of course, they don’t quite grasp that they’re children, not able to support themselves, totally dependent on their parents to survive. I suspect there’s a hard-to-classify resentment in that, so when kids see a free shot to take at adults, whether it’s something as mild as cocking off or vandalizing property, they’ll take it. As kids are often prone to wandering around in groups, that gravitation towards bad behavior is hard to ignore, too.

I mention all this, because I think it gives good background towards the ongoing negative treatment that was meted out towards Eddie, who didn’t deserve one ounce of it. As noted, Eddie would often be brusque with kids who dawdled in his yard when a ball was hit into it. As an adult now, I can see it’s very easy to be brusque with kids, because they’ll often have openly antagonistic stances with adults who aren’t their parents.

Eddie got the nickname Soytz in a strange way. One summer day, while Eddie was doing something like washing his car in a pair of shorts, a mildly retarded kid in the neighborhood with a speech impediment said: “Look, there goes Eddie in his soytz.” He meant “Eddie in his shorts.” For some reason, the word “soytz” blew everybody’s mind. At the time, the Elton John song “Bennie and the Jets” was a huge hit. “Eddie and his Soytz” fit the rhyming scheme. So, all summer, kids were singing, “E-e-e-e-e-ddie in his soytzzzzzz.” The name stuck, although it was senseless and indicative of nothing but a kid with a speech impediment making a stray comment, and how well the mispronounced word fit in with a hit song of the day.

I’m not sure if this is a national trend, but back there we had a thing called Mischief Night: the night before Halloween. And the concept was for kids to go around raising mischief, before receiving goodies on Halloween night. In actuality, mischief night would unofficially begin in mid-October and culminate in one night of insanity on October 30th. Our two big things to do were to apply bar and shaving soap to the side windows of cars (if you did the front and/or back, you were a real asshole), and to pelt the windows of houses with corn. Since we grew up around farms, and corn was just hitting its stride in late September, we’d make clandestine forays into farmers' fields to steal ears of corn for mischief night – which would often result in us getting shot at, generally by farmers with shotguns, using buckshot shells. This was all tremendously exciting to us kids, gave us a real sense of danger. Once we had the corn, we then had to shuck the kernels from the cob and store them in paper bags for Mischief Night. Generally, we’d soap windows up to that point, not wanting to deplete our corn supply by the 30th.

I realize how strange all this sounds, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it still goes on some places (although no longer back home – simply less kids around, and some thread was lost in the 90s with customs like this). Everybody got soaped and corned back then – even our own families’ houses. It was tradition. I guess in the grand scheme of vandalism, it wasn’t that horrendous either – hit the windows with a few sprays from a garden hose and a sponge, and the soap was gone. (To judge by the permanently acid- and scratch-stained windows on subway cars, I’d wager city kids are much bigger assholes with this sort of vandalism.)

For whatever reason, probably associated with him constantly chasing assholic kids from his yard, Soytz got pounded every October. By Mischief Night, he’d simply leave town with his wife and son so that his trailer would be empty. We all knew not to hit his house for Halloween, because he wasn’t in the mood and wouldn’t have answered the door at that point. In the weeks leading up to it, every night there would be kids soaping his windows and corning his house. With his trailer, the roof and sides were metal, so the corn must have sounded like machine-gun fire. I remember some of the wackier troublemakers in the neighborhood openly taunting him and his wife on the street. I also remember his wife coming out and pleading, “Why are you doing this to us?” And all us little assholes laughing at her. I can’t believe neighbors didn’t phone the police more often on this. It would be literally a pack of 20 or so kids openly screaming in front of a house, pelting it with corn, and doing silly shit like running up to the trailer and pounding on the windows. It was open harassment and terroristic threats – just awful shit that shouldn't have been tolerated by the community in any way.

This went on for years. It’s to Eddie’s credit that he never went off his nut and shot a kid, or even beat one up, as it would have been well-deserved. Why Eddie? I guess because he had the audacity to yell at a few kids who were in dire need of life-threatening ass-kickings, never got them, and went on to patchy lives of drugs and low-level crime.

How much did I go along with this? Enough to feel guilty and embarrassed all these years later for playing any part in it. I got as far as being a part of the mob and throwing corn a handful of times – but I wouldn’t go on his property or soap his windows. My parents warned me not to be part of the mob stuff in mid-October – they understood we were going to go out on Mischief Night and do the usual stuff. But they understood that harassing Eddie wasn’t cool and made no sense. If I’d had a real set of balls, I’d have told the kids they were totally wrong for singling out this person for such rotten, abusive behavior, but such is peer pressure, and I quietly assented to this.

Soytz wasn’t the only one; there were other old people who got the same sort of abuse. And the pattern was always the same: if you in any way reprimanded a kid publicly, it was open season on you. Granted, some of those people were loony old cranks, but some weren’t. I remember the paper boy who walked through the neighborhood being physically attacked a few times by various nuts in our gang. Why? Because it was cool to yell out “paper boy” in a loud, sarcastic drawl, and watch him get pissed off in return when he knew he was being made fun of.

In short, kids are fucked up, we were certainly no different, and I regret profoundly wrong situations like what happened with Eddie. I can see that when you leave kids to their own devices, it’s the law of the jungle, there is no higher authority at work, no innate desire to be good and righteous. Kids have to be taught those sort of things, and I guess when not being taught that, and amongst themselves, they sometimes resort to the worst possible behaviors they can come up with. Some people might classify that as rebellion, but I view it more clearly as some sort of acceptable mental illness that doesn’t serve as any sort of healthy outlet, or do anyone any sort of recognizable good. How much a kid chooses to indulge in that insanity is probably going to be a mark of what kind of person he turns out to be.

Eddie’s gone now, as are his brothers. I think his wife is still in that trailer, with their son, who looks after her. I guess if there were still packs of teenage rejects wandering around, this would be somehow strange and worthy of unwarranted abuse. It’s strange for me to go back there and physically see these people and places, realizing all is relatively normal now, as opposed to the sort of insanity that went on far too many times back in the 70s. I’m still wondering what’s happened in our world, as true in the 70s as it is now (probably more true), that kids are given such free reign to get away with stuff like this that would land your average adult in jail and make him the pariah of a community.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Best Shape of My Life?

Working out a majority of my life, I’ve often wondered at what point was I in the best shape of my life. I’m in good shape now. Would much rather drop some weight and lose this bouncer countenance I’ve been carrying for nigh on a decade. But overall, I have a fiendishly hard boxing workout three times a week, do weights two other days, and always do some sort of respectable cardio workout in the gym the other two days. While I tolerate too much shit in my diet, I eat reasonably well. Haven’t been sick in any form in years, not even a head cold. Haven’t been in a hospital since I was a kid.

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.

Friday, March 23, 2007

MP3 of the Week #7

Red Sovine messed me up. The past two weeks, I've been hooked on nothing but older 60s/70s country songs, preferably about ghost truck drivers, crippled children using CB radios and smokies. I've been thinking a lot about Korean war vets circa 1974, Evil Knievel, Sparkomatic eight-track tape players, bass fishing supplies, hippie Jesus freaks in camper vans, green polyester prom gowns in combination with Farah Fawcett perms, nylon mesh baseball hats from the 70s (i.e., back when we hated wearing them because they were so god-damned cheap), Playboy bunny car air fresheners, glee clubs performing songs from Godspell, Elephant Butts chewing tobacco and Mac Davis' afro.

Steel guitars, too. Today, I'll have two offerings, one with a story. The one without a story is by Joe Goldmark. It's a cover. See if you can guess what it's a cover of, and if you know what it is, marvel at the inventiveness of him doing this. (Not going to name the band or the song -- seems like every time I see a song by that band on a blog, even a cover, it gets removed ASAP. Hoping to avoid that here. If not, I'll get rid of it!)

The one with a story is "America the Beautiful" by Bill Stafford of Gulport, Mississippi. A few years ago, after watching a VHS copy of Gus Van Sant's movie My Own Private Idaho, I remembered how much I loved the steel-guitar soundtrack to that movie. So, I got on my horse and went looking, only to find there had never been an official soundtrack released -- or if so, it had long since been deleted. Some more poking around found that the "musical director" for this movie was someone named Bill Stafford.

So, I googled off in that direction. Via a website called The Steel Guitar Forum, I came across reference to Bill Stafford, and then actually saw Bill himself posting on the forum. Believe it or not, there is a fairly sizable audience for steel guitarists. You wouldn't know it to judge by our larger musical culture, or might be inclined to picture steel-guitar players as lonesome sidemen who do nothing but session work in Nashville. But there are dozens of highly-accomplished steel guitarists who do play sessions, and manage to do nicely for themselves playing conventions, fairs and their own shows. In that circle of people, Bill is considered a great player (for his touch and tone) and a stand-up guy.

So, I emailed him, asking him about the Private Idaho soundtrack. He told me that while there was no soundtrack, he'd be more than glad to sell me a few CDs, one of them having versions of all the tracks he did for the movie. I was struck by how kind Bill was -- you could just tell he was a good person, a Korean War vet who simply went about his working-class life (still not quite sure what Bill does for a living) and doing music in his free time. He met Van Sant purely by chance while living in the northwest and got hooked into doing a few tracks for the movie.

I bought a few CDs from Bill, thanked him, and was glad I could actually make a personal connection with a recording artist who had affected me. A few years later, disaster struck, the hurricane obliterating Gulfport, so I emailed Bill a few weeks later asking if there was anything I could do to help out. He immediately wrote back saying no, don't worry about me, I'm living in one of the few brick houses in Gulfport and managed to get through all right. He was a lot more upset with the devastation to the rest of his town and was clearly caught up in helping his friends and neighbors get back on their feet. Haven't heard from him since, but I suspect he's doing fine.

It took me awhile to come around to country music and steel guitars. Back at Penn State, my first year at the main campus, I lived in a house a few miles off-campus -- a duplex with the owner living on the top half, with a roommate and me on the lower level. I didn't know my roommate -- an older guy named Mike who looked like a Vietnam Vet, although he was in his mid-20s at the time. He was always sitting around the living room, either watching M*A*S*H reruns or listening to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album Four Way Street. I hid in my bedroom. Especially when the landlord, who put out definite Norman Bates vibes, started playing steel guitar in his living room. The sound would drive me nuts. I'd picture him up there naked, save for a hockey mask, whining through "Your Cheating Heart" on his lap steel.

But I've since come around. Like celtic music, something about the sound of a steel guitar being played right goes way beyond any emotion pop/rock music can ever touch.

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

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 fa├žade, 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.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

I can’t remember why I got into distance running as a teenager. The first few times I tried it, only going for a mile or two, gave me sore ankles, to the point where I’d have to take a week or two before trying again. A few years into doing it, I could have tried out for cross country and easily made the team, but didn’t. It was just one of those strange teenage obsessions I can’t quite describe, save to say that I started when I turned 14 and didn’t stop full-time distance running until the age of 30 or so.

If I could trace my intentions back to the start, I’d wager that losing weight was part of it. That summer when I turned 14, I magically lost all my baby fat – just the right combination of gaining a few inches in height and doing various workouts like tennis and weights. I’m certain that’s when I started running for real and making it stick. Like tennis, running (or “jogging” as it was called) was one of those late 70s trends people tended to try at least once. Once I got past the ankle pain, I found that I really liked the discipline; to run several miles a day repeatedly, you couldn’t fake wanting to do it. I also grew up in a small house with six other people, three brothers in one very small bedroom. Any chance I had to get off on my own, I took it. I grew up in the country, and running was a way to directly experience the sensation of space to move around in -- I sure as hell wasn't getting it at home.

It should have been easy to run back there, with the miles of back roads around my home town, but in all those years back there, I’d only see a handful of runners along the way. And I constantly took verbal abuse. I still remember a pack of construction workers on the roof of a house, one of them yelling, “Hey, what ya’ runnin’ for? I’ll vote for ya’! Haw, haw, haw!” A popular one was to call out “Hey, Rocky” – I guess because in the movie Rocky, Stallone’s big “Gonna’ Fly Now” montage was of him running through the streets of Philadelphia.

Usually, I’d just notice people staring at me through car windshields as if I was running naked. It could get dangerous, too. The roads back there aren’t designed for exercise (as they are in some places I’ve been with special biking/pedestrian lanes), so many’s the time I nearly got sideswiped by a pick-up truck, a few times clearly on purpose. I got in the habit of running early in the morning, as there were less shitheads out then. Late afternoon, I’d invariably run by a bunch of rednecks having a cookout, and get the usual shouted comments and buffoonish guffaws let loose in my direction.

Whatever. Most people lobbing bon mots my way were in terrible shape – smoking, pot-bellied, haggard-looking. So I took all that shit with a grain of salt. For every momentary diversion like that, the rest of the run would be peaceful. I don’t think that’s what a lot of non-runners grasp: how relaxing distance running becomes once you reach a certain level. I found that I could run fast for miles and slip into a zone that was like meditating – I’ve since learned the brain releases some type of enzyme that replicates the effects of marijuana smoking. And I believe it, because I’ve felt that sense of relaxation many times. This is hard to convey to people who get winded walking up a small flight of stairs, and run only when they’re being chased, i.e., never.

If I was in a hurry, I had the three-mile course that included Hampton’s Hill, which was basically a quarter-mile grade rising at about a 60-degree angle, a real challenge that always left me winded. If I was lifting weights that day, I’d do that shorter run. My “running days” were the seven-mile course that weaved all along the backroads around my hometown, ending on a two-mile stretch of Route 61 that lead back to my house. The good part about running back there was hills everywhere. Most not as challenging as Hampton’s Hill, but still enough to throw periodic jolts into a workout.

It didn’t take me long to get good at running, and by the time I was going to Penn State’s Schuylkill Campus, I was in great shape. Skinny as hell, too – boy, I’d like to revisit those days physically! Bonnie, one of the campus phys. ed. teachers, was always training for triathlons and liked to run along with me, knowing she couldn’t keep up, but it would be good for her to have someone that fast pace her as long as possible. I was regularly running sub-six-minute miles, every day. Not quite world level, but pretty damn fast. I also found some longer courses near the campus, one being 10 miles, and it was a personal challenge to finish that in an hour, which I almost always did. There were three days on campus where I had a class at nine in the morning with the next at two in the afternoon, so I had plenty of time to burn, and did so with running.

The only official races I ran in were at this point, a five-mile “fun run” at a local shopping mall, which I finished in just under 26 minutes, and this was with my stopping on the last steep hill, my lungs feeling like they were going to burst into flames, and another runner grabbing my arm and refusing to let me stop. (Like the asshole I was, I burst ahead of him in the last 50 yards and beat him. If I’d had any class, I would have finished with him, because if it wasn’t for that guy, I’d probably have just dropped to my knees and stayed that way for a few minutes.)

And the campus had a three-mile run, which I should have won handily, but didn’t. I knew the course that we were to run inside and out. The thing was, the always-drunk ROTC guys who were marking the course made a mistake and picked two wrong hills on the course, thus slowing me down immensely. It was so bad that I wasn’t even breathing hard on these hills, purposely staying with the pack because we were lost, when hills were my specialty, and I should have been opening up huge leads at each. I ended up losing to a guy who was a champion high-school sprinter – no great surprise. But hats off to him, too. If it had been six miles, forget it, but the race was just short enough so someone with that kind of training could stay close until the end then turn on the after burners.

Moving up to the main campus at State College, I still ran every day, rain or shine. Friends would be amazed to see me out running in a blizzard – running in the snow was actually pretty easy, and a very peaceful experience. Ice was about the only hard run, and even then, if you just ran slower and placed your steps carefully, it wasn’t hard to do. I also found that running was a great, if brutal, remedy for hangovers. Something about drinking alcohol would make me wake up the next day before 7:00 a.m., even if I’d been out drinking until 2:00. I’d be on the verge of puking, head feeling like a crushed watermelon, but I always found that if I got out there running, this would do wonders for me physically. Headache would fade away, as would the nausea. The first mile would be mind-blowingly awful, literally on the verge of passing out or puking, but by the second mile, the body would slowly wake up and respond. Of course, I’d end up taking a three-hour nap in the afternoon, but I wouldn’t spend the entire day feeling like a piece of shit. (These days, I spend the entire day feeling like a piece of shit, which is why I rarely drink to excess.)

This sort of high-level running went on well through my 20s, until I had two key injuries. The first was nearly blowing out my right knee when I crashed a bicycle in the intersection of 125th and Broadway – a truly painful experience for which I should have sought medical treatment, but didn’t as I wasn’t covered at the time. The second, I think I was 29 at the time, I was back home running in the fall, when I stepped on a beer bottle hidden by leaves by the side of the road, which unfortunately didn’t break. Had it broken, I might have cut my foot, at worst. Because it didn’t break, the bottle spun out from under me, causing my right ankle to bend at a horrible angle while the rest of my body lurched forward at full pace. How I didn’t break my ankle, I don’t know, but that one injury stopped me running for a good six months afterwards.

That signaled the end for me and daily running. I came back a bit after that, but I also had the problem of an adult life, and the only time to run being before work, which in winter months meant before sunrise (in the Bronx, where I was living at the time). While I loved running that early in the morning, and that was about the only time the Bronx was a peaceful place, running in the dark sucked. I was always coming across stoned assholes still wrapping up the previous night’s festivities on the streets, or stepping in dogshit and broken glass, both of which were everywhere and hard to see in the dark. After work, there was just too much traffic, car and human, to get in any sort of solid run. The Bronx was similar to my part of Pennsylvania with the hills and such, and there was a huge set of stairs between two avenues that made for a great physical challenge, but it just got to be too much of a hassle to get up every day at 5:30 (or earlier) to work this into my day.

I still run that seven-mile course when I go back to Pennsylvania. Nowhere near as fast as I once did, but there’s something odd about the body in that it never forgets how to respond to a physical challenge like that. I do that run easily – for every day I’m back there (usually about 4-5 seven-mile runs). For me, it’s a bit embarrassing that I run so slow now, simply being larger physically than I was in full running/late-teen prime, but when I tell friends I just ran seven miles, they act shocked, as if I was scaling Mt. Everest. I don’t know. Anyone who’s done any sort of distance running understands you could easily run 20 miles if you had to – the trick is speed over distance, and I’ve totally lost that sort of discipline, and most likely will never get it back, unless I take up running again.

But, I enjoy boxing now, which is different in many ways from running. When I ran, I was always annoyed that my body would never get bigger, which most guys want when they’re teenagers, to be physically imposing. You want to get bigger? Box. Your body frame will grow as much or more than it would with weights. It’s a different kind of workout in that there are short periods of intense physical stress, generally followed by short lulls – repeated many times over in a given one-hour workout. More like sprinting than distance running. Still, all professional boxers do road work, the kind of running I used to do, albeit probably much slower, with the idea that stamina is key to a boxer’s success. But I often get that same feeling with boxing, when I’m going full gun and feel like collapsing, that my body is adapting to the challenge, and I’m experiencing some sort of enlightened physiological level that would be impossible without this high level of stress. Also reminds me of those annoying pricks who used to yell “Hey, Rocky” at me. I guess I took their advice.

**

Quiet realization: this is the one-year anniversary (to the day) of starting this thing. What have I learned? The less work I get, the more I write. That’s about it. But I am glad to be regularly churning out material, whatever the quality. Like boxing or running, writing is something that has always kept me relatively sane, and most likely always will. Only makes sense to keep it up.

Monday, March 12, 2007

25 Years

Earlier this week, the woman who organized my high school’s 20th year class reunion let me know she’s started the ball rolling for the 25th year reunion. I know in the past, they’ve had trouble getting people psyched to attend “5” year reunions, having better luck with the 10th and the 20th. But I guess “25” is one of those numbers, a quarter of a century, and this will surely happen later this year, probably in the summer.

I’m not too freaked out over this. The big freak-outs were my late 20s and the year 2000, both of which occurred about five years apart. The late 20s, in my mind, is the worst time mentally in most people’s lives, worse even than high school. Because we set all these artificial barriers around the age 30, by which time, all these designated things must happen, and if they don’t happen, I don’t know, it’s like Columbus sailing his ship off the edge of the world. The approach to the year 2000 had that same ominous vibe to it, with all the doomsday shit being predicted, and our own private doomsday scenarios, remembering how we viewed the year 2000 as graduating students in 1982 and wondering how radically different out lives and the world would be. (In some ways, everything has changed, and others nothing has changed.)

Thirty came and went, and no one spontaneously human combusted, or became the laughing stock of society because they weren’t millionaires or famous. The year 2000 was anti-climactic compared to the unanticipated shit that went down on 9/11/01. We’re still here. Maybe 30 is that time in life when much of the bullshit starts to float away, when you see through things and can gauge what they really are. And your sense of judgment relies more on understanding reality rather than quantitatively assessing your life and the lives of others. I don’t think some people ever get past that, mainly because they’ve constructed lives based on that premise, and there’d be a sense of emptiness without it. I’ve always appreciated a black man saying, “All I got to do is stay black and die.” Amen, brother. All I got do is stay white and die.

These are the kind of things you ponder leading up to a class reunion, and probably the main reason a lot of people don’t attend. Out of a class of approximately 200 kids, we’ll be lucky if 30-40 of them show up for a reunion later this year – most with spouses. I’ve surmised that out of the approximately 160 people who don’t show up, there’s probably an equal number to the people attending who had a very bad high-school experience and never would attend something like this. Gay kids, kids who got picked on relentlessly, burn-outs, kids who dropped out occasionally, etc. Some kids died -- all well documented in our memories and phone conversations, legends springing up around them as we go on. That still leaves roughly 120 people who, for one reason or another, will not attend a class reunion.

And I wonder, who are these people? I imagine once the final list is presented months from now, I could simply look them up in an old yearbook. But it’s a bit strange to me that a vast majority of kids from a high-school class would not attend a reunion, most of them not being those singled-out kids who had an absolutely terrible time in high school.

It’s my theory that a lot of them don’t see themselves as being successful in life, and therefore don’t want to put themselves in a situation where people they’d have a hard time bullshitting – who knew them when they were young – might recognize the same thing about them. I’m not sure how to define success anymore and think it's a word we all ought to be less concerned with. I’ve met plenty of people in New York with seven-figure financial worths, yet I’m not overly impressed, and in most cases wouldn’t want their lives, as I can see the enormous pressure and compromises that are part of that deal. In some cases, I’m horrified. Either they came from that sort of financial background, or they’ve fought tooth-and-nail to get there, and you have to wonder what really matters to people like that. I recently watched the movie Wall Street, and while I laugh out loud at many of the cheesy lines, one of my favorites is still young Bud Fox yelling at the multi-millionaire Gordon Gekko: “How many yachts do you have to water ski behind?”

One of the refreshing aspects of the last reunion, and the one before, was that the people who did show up didn’t seem to make a burning issue out of where we were in life. I’m sure bon mots may have been dropped in conversation, but for the most part, no one really cared. Most people were married and had kids, meaning they were running on that treadmill and probably didn’t have time to worry about such nonsense. And we didn’t all revert to who we were back then, none of that clique-forming crap I hated in high school. Frankly, there were only about 3-4 hours to hang out and get caught up, so there simply wasn’t even time to revive any of that. I’m sure if we spent a week together, we’d be at each other’s throats. But a few hours once or twice a decade? Who gives a shit? Show up and have fun. Realize we have a lot more in common than we’d thought. And if you don’t have fun, skip the next one.

Would it be some other reason so many people didn’t show up? I’m sure a lot of it is simple disinterest. These people have no curiosity about how former classmates are doing, probably see a few of them in the course of their daily lives (if they haven’t moved from our home area), and that’s good enough for them. Of my siblings, my sister will attend her reunions, but both my brothers who graduated in the same year, never will. Neither had that bad a time in high school. In short, they just don’t fucking feel like it.

And I think that’s where a vast majority of those non-attendees stand. I was hardly a popular kid in high school. To people outside my small group of weird-assed friends, I was considered quiet, studious, a little odd. A smart kid, but not that smart, and hanging out with enough burn-outs that I wasn’t wired into any “smart kid” scene. I was good at sports, but didn’t pursue them much in high school. (I regret this a little … until I meet guys from the football team today who can predict rain with their knees.) I wasn’t and still am not a gregarious person who’ll set a room on fire with his presence. You get me talking, I’ll have you laughing and keep you engaged, but I was never one of those spark-plug kids everyone was impressed with.

I guess it was when I found that reunions weren’t like some lame John Hughes flick with a desperate 80s soundtrack that I warmed up to them. The reality was just a bunch of people you once knew in some sense gathering in one place to have a few drinks and meet again, I’d imagine to see how much you’ve changed, how much you’ve stayed the same, etc. I don’t have particularly fond memories of high school, nor do I have particularly negative memories. I didn’t hate high school at the time, and don’t hate the memory of it now. I had a much better time in college – was one of those people who came into his own in college – but that doesn’t mean high school was some wasteland of negativity. It wasn’t that bad. (And it’s strange that I have no urge to attend any sort of college reunion, even though I had what I can still see was a great time there.)

I’m not looking to portray this as some “everyman” parable, that we’re all the same, and we’re all just awkward, acne-scarred kids at heart. I guess from my point of view, and a way I’ve always felt since leaving that area, it’s a good idea to maintain links to your past. I could have easily moved to New York when I did in the late 80s, stayed here all the time, cut off relations with friends and families, and started up one of those urbane existences where I created some new family out of similarly dispossessed people who ran away to the city. But fuck that. It didn’t take me long to realize that just wasn’t me in any sense, that I’ll always be from a small town, and I’m O.K. with that, to the point now where I look at a lot of aspects of city life and wonder, “What in the hell am I still doing here?”

A lot of people probably ask themselves the same question the first few minutes into any class reunion. But if you feel your way around, let yourself be open for a little while, it should all start making sense. If it doesn’t, you can always go back to your regularly-scheduled life, which we’ll all do anyway at the end of the night.

Friday, March 09, 2007

MP3 of the Week #6

Truck driving is a pretty lousy job. Never did it myself, but about 10 years ago, Brother J went out and got the proper license for trucks and buses. His first job, driving a Coca Cola distribution truck, was terrible. Long hours, low pay, impossible schedule to maintain, and a lot of physical labor in terms of loading and unloading. His next job, driving charter buses, had even worse hours, and lower pay when you factored in down time on the road between pick-ups, on top of genuinely dangerous schedules that had him driving illegally, in terms of hours worked and speed limits, every day. He never got around to driving a rig based on these two experiences.

It takes a certain kind to drive trucks, and if there's anyone who can tell you about that kind, it's the late country singer, Red Sovine. (The portrait of Red to the left is by the great folk artist, Jesse Wiedel.) Here's a Youtube link to a great TV commercial from the mid-80s for a Sovine compilation. It blows my mind that you could get the collection in cassette, record album, 8-track or compact disc -- that was a very rare window of media types that existed only for a short while back then. I don't remember this collection being advertised -- these type of commercials, I generally associated with Boxcar Willie. I especially like a word from Charlie Dick, Record Executive. Cool stuff!

I'm a sucker for talking songs, particularly talking country songs espousing right-wing politics, love of country and family, sentimental stories about children, ghost stories, trucks, C.B. radio lingo, any mention of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," dead dogs, Jesus, soldiers, Christianity as salvation, Satan in the form of a dark stranger, hippies, and guns. Red nailed a lot of these themes in that earnest, heartfelt way that you're free to take any way you like. Take it seriously? That's cool. Think it's a joke? That's cool, too. Hate it? Entirely acceptable. That's the beauty of stuff like this -- however you feel about it, it goes on existing in its strange little world, with no apology asked for or accepted.

So, without further adieu, three of my favorite Red Sovine songs. I'm also throwing in a bonus track from Dave Dudley, who like Red, chronicled the lonely plight of the long-distance trucker. His song "Rolaids, Doan's Pills and Preparation H" speaks a lot of hard truths about the trucker's life, save I suspect it left out methampetamine and $20 blow jobs in rest-stop parking lots. But it's country music, after all, and some things are better left unsaid.

(What were Doan's pills anyway? I know they were advertised for alleviating back pain, but what kind of pill does that? I suspect this stuff was just low-grade speed and aspirin. Anyone know?)

"Giddyup Go" by Red Sovine
"Phantom 309" by Red Sovine
"Teddy Bear" by Red Sovine
"Rolaids, Doan's Pills and Preparation H" by Dave Dudley

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song (and that means you, Charlie Dick) has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Redneck Mystique #5

Recently in honor of Black History Month, New York City Council member Leroy Comrie put forth a “measure” (not sure what that is legally … it’s not a law, probably more a resolution that holds no weight) for New Yorkers to voluntarily stop using “the N Word.” A lot of people misread the measure to mean a legal banning of the word, as if you’d be fined or ticketed for using it. (In New York, this would mean millions of black and hispanic teenagers running up four-figure amounts in fines.)

On surface, it’s an asinine thing. Un-American. The reason so many people hate political correctness, which is the antithesis of liberalism. We should be kicking the doors open, allowing people to say anything they want, however dumb or disagreeable, rather than instructing them on words they shouldn’t use. To pass legislation banning certain words is borderline fascism.

Beneath the surface, it’s just a public official putting the concept out there for discussion, knowing full well people of all races will go on using the word “nigger” as much as they want, but hopefully planting the kernel of doubt when a person utters it, that there are people like him who are dog tired of hearing the word, who take it personally, whatever the intent.

I don’t think a lot of people outside New York recognize that this measure is aimed more at black people than anyone else, to get them to stop using the word, because people like Comrie wisely recognize “nigger” isn’t a magic word that only certain people are allowed to use, that there truly is no double-standard. A lot of black people think there is (that it’s all right if they use it, but no one else is allowed to use it), but there are no magic words that only certain people are allowed to use. You don’t mean harm by using it? It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t mean. The word goes out there, other people hear this, they interpret it however they want, and that empowers them to use it, in ways that do and don’t mean harm. You can’t control what other people say, much less the intent they place behind their words. Failure to recognize this results in unentitled people believing they’re entitled, i.e., a profound lie is created that ultimately does no one any good.

That got me thinking about Jeff Foxworthy and his lucrative “You know you’re a ‘redneck’ if …” comedy routines. Some of these riffs can be pretty funny. Not a big fan of Foxworthy myself, but I can appreciate his angle on the topic. It’s not just a white thing. Chris Rock never did a “you know you’re a 'nigger' if …” routine, but his routines from a few years ago exploited the same mildly-shocking concept: that a member of a given race or ethnic group can get away with saying forbidden, funny and/or horrible things about his given group, and the audience, whatever its racial/ethnic make-up, may laugh along as they recognize unfortunate grains of truth in the humor. (The difference is Rock could do a “you know you’re a ‘redneck’ if” routine and get big laughs; I suspect Foxworthy doing “you know you’re a ‘nigger’ if” routine would be met with stone silence, at best.)

Why is it that there’ll never be a “measure” by concerned city council members to ban the word "redneck" … if I referred to it as “The R Word” would anyone even know what I was talking about? I don’t ask that as a baited question. On the contrary, I’m relieved that this will never happen. It took me awhile to find my way around to this way of thinking, but I can see that it’s much better for people to feel total freedom to use the word redneck, especially when they mean it as a non-humorous insult.

Rural working-class whites who harp about double standards when it comes to word like “cracker” or “redneck” are missing the point. As noted above, people are always going to think and say whatever they want … or at least I hope our country legally allows them the right to always do so. You can’t control this, nor should you want to. People who constantly harp about ‘crackers’ or ‘rednecks’ are playing their hand – they’re letting everyone know they openly despise working-class white folks, and they feel totally free and right in using the words. (If you peel away the layers of liberal mind games, you’ll generally find these folks pre-suppose that the “rednecks and crackers” they openly condemn are far more stupid and close-minded than they’ll ever be … which is kind of strange, given the context of their assumption.)

When people let you know how they feel about you, especially if it’s negative, they’ve just empowered you. They’ve let you know that in some way, you’ve either offended or frightened them, simply by being who you are, that they feel a need to openly denigrate you. I wouldn’t necessarily call it fear, although that may be part of it – it’s just as much hatred. They don’t know how you feel about them. Maybe it’s all some warped bait-and-switch game, that they hope by antagonizing you with a slur, you’ll show your hand and prove yourself to be just as dumb and mean-spirited as they are? I don’t know. Generally, when people pick fights, there are plenty of reasons for this that aren’t readily apparent … and some people just like to fight.

Why the vast gulf between “redneck/nigger” in terms of societal acceptance? Slavery? Civil rights? I’ll go for both reasons. Because if you look at living conditions and economic opportunities between rural working-class whites and their black urban and rural counterparts today, you’re not going to see many differences. You need some recent (and by recent, I mean past 200 years) historical context to attach real gravity to using the word “nigger” – a gravity that doesn’t necessarily exist for the word “redneck.” Al Sharpton recently got the shock of his life when he found Strom Thurmond’s relatives once owned his relatives. Why the shock? If you’re an African American, chances are extremely good some rich white folks once owned your ancestors. A horrible thing to discover, for sure, but to be shocked by it? Pissed-off by it is a more logical reaction … and accepting it as a strange-but-true part of your past should be the end result.

Do you think Strom Thurmond, or any other historically well-off southern white folks, are crippled in shame knowing their ancestors owned slaves? The reality is there’s not a damn thing they can do about their ancestors, whether they wish that past would disappear or return. There are probably a lot of white southerners in this boat, whether their families still have money or not. (And you better believe a lot of wealthy white southerners lost their fortunes in the Civil War and the following reconstruction.) There are far more white southerners who never owned slaves, were more likely placed in the impossible role of sharecroppers trying to compete financially with slaves, which is probably the root for a lot of misguided anger and resentment that still exists today. And there are even more white northerners who never had anything to do with this mess, save we might have lost a few family members on the Union side of the Civil War.

What to make of all that? I’d recommend that poor white and black folks recognize they have a lot more in common than they’re led to believe. But it seems like that’s been forfeited for a surly, vague disdain between each that doesn’t do either group any good. Without that historical context, I place people using words like “nigger” and “redneck” in the same boat: they mean to insult people they perceive to be somehow inferior to them. The words are equal in that context. Recent history, i.e., slavery, makes the word “nigger” (the “N word” … say that, and everyone knows you mean that magic word) much more degrading than the word “redneck.” Because most "rednecks" weren’t slaves and living in an ass-backwards pre-Civil Rights America. (The history of indentured servitude in America is pretty interesting, but if you’re shaking your head right now and wondering what I’m talking about, let’s skip this.)

And, of course, where there’s such hatred, there’s room for humor, albeit it has to be done carefully, and usually with a knowing wink and nod. Chris Rock did it well. However he’d handle a white fan telling him how much he enjoyed his “difference between black people and ‘niggers’” routine, he’d be wise to just say thanks, because what he’s really being told is a white person respects him for his intelligence and candor. (How that white fan uses the humor, derisively or carefully, is none of Rock’s business.) Would Jeff Foxworthy even have any black fans? The few times I’ve seen his specials, the audience looks 100% white. But I suspect he’d have no problem with a black person professing his love for his “you know you’re a ‘redneck’ if” riffs.

What to make of all this mess? Nothing. It’s been troubling people for years, and will go on troubling them years from now. I think a lot of people are simply afraid to get into it, lest they think other people will find them racist in some sense for not trumpeting some meaningless “we’re all brothers” malarkey. Again, no controlling what other people think. And if you’re smart, you wouldn’t want to. You’re going to have a hard enough time controlling your own damn thoughts. My take is just to roll with life, realize sometimes you’re going to do or say some regrettable things, and most times, you’re going to do profoundly right things without even being aware of them, which will mean a lot more in the context of people getting along. I can’t blame Leroy Comrie for wanting to cut more bullshit out of his life. And I don’t think he believes his “measure” is anything but one man recognizing the difference between influence and control.