Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mary Jane Peters

Just writing that name spooks me, all these years later. Mary Jane Peters was that one kid in grade and high school who caught shit from everyone. She had “cooties” … whatever the hell they are. If you wanted to freak a guy out, you’d write “Mary Jane Peters + (insert guy’s name here)" on any surface, and this would inspire an immediate cross-out campaign with a ballpoint pen or magic marker that would leave tears and indentations on the writing surface. Those bullied kids (and apparently young adults) who freak out now and shoot up their schools? Mary Jane Peters was the one person from my youth who would have had valid reasons to ponder this.

I looked in my senior yearbook, and she wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened to her between grade school and our senior year of high school. (We were in the same grade.) She must have transferred at some point, although I can’t recall when that was. I’m not even sure what town she was from in the area. I pictured her having a hard scrabble existence, living in a crooked house on the side of a coal bank, parents with bad dental work, skinned rabbits hanging in the back yard on a clothes line, like The Addams Family, always raining over their house.

A few years ago, one of my co-writers at the NYPress, George Tabb, put out an excellent book about growing up Jewish in suburban Connecticut in the 1970s: Playing Right Field: A Jew Grows In Greenwich.

The book is written by the male Mary Jane Peters, the one kid who got his ass kicked on a regular basis, who was harassed constantly, raised by a maniacal father, picked on constantly for his ethnicity and simply falling into the role of being “that kid” – kids have memories like elephants and will drag the tarnished image of “that kid” from grade to middle to high school. George got it in spades; the book is darkly hilarious. Frankly, I didn’t like his follow-up book anywhere near as much, as George actually found some kind of happiness and acceptance in his life. (In my mind, he writes much better when the odds are completely against him, and there’s no hope of him ever escaping his horrible situation.)

At that time I wrote to George, confessing to him my sin of the one situation where I could have treated Mary Jane Peters humanely, but instead chose to be a typical adolescent prick. Shit like that haunts me now. I didn’t do a lot of it, but the times I did do something horrible in my youth, I can recall them now clearly.

I think Mary Jane’s main crime may have just been that she looked odd. She was a bigger kid, not huge, but a big girl, with stringy, light brown hair and standard-issue cat-eye glasses that didn’t do her any favors. A round face, very plain looking. Hygiene problems? I don’t recall any, although I’m sure legend has it she smelled “funny” or something. She did act “weird” by asshole teenage standards. Her manner of speech was very clipped and formal which, given her working-class background like the rest of ours, stood out. I do recall her style of dress being a little run-down, a little beat-up, clearly some Salvation Army duds in her spring and fall collections. This being a rural working-class area, plenty of kids fell into that category. Shit, I was constantly wearing ragged hand-me-down pants that had clear lines in the hem where my mother had let down and brought up the length of the leg to suit whichever brother was wearing them at the time. I don’t recall her ever being abusive or strange to people. She didn’t really have a chance as kids were being abusive and strange to her 24-7.

Kids would do the most incredibly insulting shit to her. A big one would be for some burlier guys to pick up a small guy, when the teacher wasn’t around, and heave the small guy onto her desk while she sat there. Of course, the small guy would act like he had just been heaved into a sewage treatment tank, writhe in faux agony, then bolt away, screaming. Girls would pretend to see “cooties” in her hair or on her desk and scream shit like, “Ew! Ew! Look at Mary Jane’s cooties!” while everyone sitting near her would pretend to scatter away in fear.

The implication was head lice? I got news for you. We were checked for head lice constantly in grade school. I don’t recall her ever being flagged for this. The concept was to paint her as someone who had fleas and lice, because she was weird. There was no evidence of this. All there was evidence of was kids doing what they do best: treat each other like absolute pieces of shit because they were warped. We all did this to each other in varying degrees, but no one seemed to grasp the insanity of singling out kids like Mary Jane and making her a constant recipient of this sort of irrational abuse. Most kids, it occurs to me now, were borderline psychopaths, constantly on the lookout for situations where they could humiliate another kid. Why? I guess there would be any number of reasons for that. Even in my own house where we were raised reasonably well, I can recall fighting like cats and dogs with my siblings, raging fights, over nothing, really. Ditto childhood friends. I’m sure a child psychologist could separate all the bad wiring, but the basic, unavoidable truth is kids tend to be assholes. And they often grow up to become even bigger assholes when they can’t figure out why their personal lives are rubble. Dr. Freud, eat your heart out!

So, there’s your picture of Mary Jane, this basically isolated person whose daily life at school was transformed into burning hell by kids who would normally blanch at the idea of lynch mobs and bullies … but for some reason suspended all logic for her. I think she did have some friends, but I’m not sure how close they were. I hope she had someone to keep her head on reasonably straight. She must have, because despite the constant harassment, she seemed fairly well-adjusted. Sure, very much on the quiet side, but again, I’m factoring in the full-court press of abuse she tolerated every day.

Let’s go back to the sixth grade. One Saturday, I was riding my bike around the hospital. I lived in a very small town, less than 500 people, but we were noted for two things: having a Catholic/Protestant cemetery on the hill, and a hospital on the edge of town. Both the cemetery and the hospital were great places for kids to congregate, as both had open expanses of green grass at various points. We often played football and baseball on the hospital and cemetery fields. In winter, we’d sleigh ride on the hill in the cemetery, and walk through the hospital grounds to get to the great hills on the country club golf course just past a wooded area behind the hospital.

And we’d ride bikes around each. The hospital had a maze of roads leading around the grounds, a very small, vaguely industrial area with a big power plant on the edge by the golf course, a place that seemed like a haunted castle. I’d often go on bike rides around the hospital grounds just to get away from it all, i.e., a small house filled with six other people, and a neighborhood crawling with too many kids on the tail end of the Baby Boom.

That day, I was riding around the hospital parking lot, when I noticed a kid slightly younger than I was, probably about 10, staring at me while he leaned on a car. No big deal, I thought, stare all you want, I’ll do one more lap around this parking lot, and then I’ll be gone. As I passed him, the kid yelled out “Asshole!” and started sticking out his tongue.

What the fuck, I thought, in my 12-year-old mind. Doesn’t this kid know I could destroy him in a fight? What’s his problem? What have I done to arouse his anger. I circled back and asked, “What’s your problem?” He answered something like, you, you big dick.

Just as I was getting ready to get off my 21-inch Huffy with banana seat and dust the little prick, I saw two more kids approach from the hospital, a boy and a girl. For whatever reason, the lot, which had plenty of cars, was empty of other people. As they got nearer, I could see, much to my surprise, that one of them was Mary Jane Peters, apparently with a little brother, younger than the kid who was trying to pick a fight with me.

“Hi, Bill,” Mary Jane called out. I was shocked that she knew my name. Sure, we were in the same sixth grade class, but I don’t recall ever speaking to her before. And I wasn’t one of those kids who took perverse pleasure in ragging on her all day. I didn’t mess with anybody. A, I wasn’t raised that way; B, I couldn’t stand when other kids would mess with me. I think the theme song of my youth was “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” by Bo Donaldsen & the Heywoods. While I wouldn’t take part in the degradation of Mary Jane Peters, I also wouldn’t befriend her either.

“Hi, Mary Jane,” I answered, a little befuddled.

“Don’t mind my brother, he fights with everybody.”

“He called me an asshole.”

I can’t remember the kid’s name. Let’s say it was Dave.

“Dave, apologize to Bill for calling him an asshole.”

Dave kicked some pebbles away, eyes downcast, hands in the pockets of his shorts.

“Aw. I’m sorry for calling you an asshole. I didn’t mean it.”

“Thank you, Dave,” Mary Jane said, “that was very nice of you.”

Dave asked if he could ride my bike. I think that was the real reason he called me an asshole. He coveted my bike, which was no great shakes, but I gather Mary Jane’s family wasn’t in great shape financially. While I let Dave ride my bike around the parking lot, Mary Jane and I had a conversation, I can’t recall exactly what it was about. I gathered she was there to visit a sick relative, and her parents were still inside during visiting hours, telling the kids to go out and play.

What I recall thinking was, christ, she’s normal. She’s actually a nice person. Good manners. Reasonably intelligent. Lucid … although the word “lucid” would not have materialized in my 12-year-old mind. I would have expected her to be a cauldron of bitterness and rage over the constant abuse. She still seemed weird, with a very formal, clipped way of speaking, like we were at a tea party. But certainly no more weird than other kids, and far less hostile. Eventually, her parents came out, Dave, who now seemed happy, gave my bike, and I rode off into the late spring evening, mind partially blown by this unexpected encounter with a legendary cootie.

How was I going to handle this new knowledge? Probably no differently than I had. The conversation wasn’t so revelatory or exciting that I left thinking, “I’ve found a new friend!” I surely wasn’t attracted to her. It was just a nice moment where I got to extend an olive branch across that pre-adolescent sea of misunderstanding, to see that this person who was treated like a monster wasn’t much different than anyone else I knew. I’d say “hi” to her in the hall, talk to her on occasion – I was convinced that much would change. I wasn’t the kind of person and am not now that I’d pretend something hadn’t happened and present her with a stone face.

I go to school on Monday. All is well in my neck of the classroom. At some point, probably a study hall around lunch, I hear a commotion over near Mary Jane’s desk, which isn’t unusual. Coarse laughter, finger pointing, the usual. One of the more popular girls in the class blurts out, hey everybody, read this, as she holds up a notebook, apparently Mary Jane's notebook. Mary Jane just sits there staring straight ahead.

On the back of the notebook is a huge heart with an arrow through it, and written on the inside, in florid blue script is “Mary Jane + Bill.”

I just about shit. Two days after our quiet hospital parking lot interlude. Who else could it be. I could see that she was so un-used to basic kindness from kids her age, that once I showed her some, she went completely overboard and had developed a crush on me. While I should have been thrilled that any girl felt that way about me, this felt more like being chased by a bear covered in burning shit. I was terrified that everyone would find out it was me who Mary Jane meant. There were a lot of Bill’s around. Kids knew I had no contact with her, positive or negative. No one immediately suspected. Maybe she meant a troll named Bill who lived under the bridge by the interstate?

Ms. Popularity started grilling Mary Jane in front of everyone; it was like an episode of Phil Donahue where he had a Nazi or someone of that ilk in front a grumbling, angry audience. They wanted payback, answers, recriminations.

“So, Mary Jane, who’s your new boyfriend, this ‘Bill’ – do we know him?”

Mary Jane just sat there, staring straight ahead, as she always had when kids pulled this kind of abusive crap on her. Thank God she was playing dead again. If she had pointed or looked at me, I think I might have spontaneously human combusted. One thing to note here: I was a chubby kid. I guess I was cute enough, but chubby kids tend not to be sex symbols of any sorts to pre-pubescent girls. I wasn’t hot stuff by anyone’s standards. The concept that Mary Jane would suddenly fixate on chubby smart-guy Bill on the other side of the class room didn’t seem to enter anyone’s mind – there just wasn’t any connection. If I had been some Rob Lowe-looking kid, then it could have been implied that Mary Jane had become infatuated with an unobtainable god.

I can’t recall Ms. Popularity’s name, but I recall we got along, because she was a “smart kid” too. (Yes, even some smart kids were animals.) Smart, but nasty, like an egg-sucking dog. I think as a joke, she called across the room, “Hey, Bill, did you know Mary Jane is in love with you?”

Fuck’s sake, I was on the spot. Ms. Popularity’s voice was dripping with sarcasm, like she was sharing an inside joke with me (in front of 30 other kids with everything but a spotlight on her). She knew it couldn’t be me. But I had to play along because if I had shrugged and told the truth, it would have blown everyone’s mind: “Yeah, she probably does mean me. I ran into Mary Jane in the hospital parking lot on Saturday, we talked, and while I thought we made a nice connection, we’re certainly not in love, or at least I know I’m not. Mary Jane, you’re a good person, even better in light of all the shit you take from these regrettable goons, but I have to make it clear that I see us being ‘just friends’ much as none of us like to hear that. We get along. You’re cool. Let’s just be friends, because I don’t want that boyfriend/girlfriend thing with you, OK?”

I recognized I had to completely reject Mary Jane in front of a kangaroo court of 12-year-olds who would never understand that sort of humane, rational answer. Their response would have been to start chanting: “Mary Jane and Bill/Sitting in a tree/K-I-S-S-I-N-G …” You can’t reason with shitheads, a point I’ve had driven home many times before and since, with people of all colors, creeds and classes, across every strata of humanity. I made a sour-puss face.

“Oh, no! It ain't me! I don’t want to get cooties! I would kiss Mr. Savage first!”

(Mr. Savage was our sixth grade home-room teacher. I don’t think he was gay, but he could have been, can’t recall his back story and if that was part of it or not. He did seem vaguely gay. The implication, of course, was that I would rather make it with a man than Mary Jane, thus alleviating me from even the slightest suspicion that I would have anything to do with Mary Jane. And, of course, the thought of me kissing Mr. Savage was an outrageous bon mot, clearly aimed at the cheap seats, some dime-store homophobia in lieu of a fart joke.)

Ms. Popularity laughed. Everyone did. Except Mary Jane. Who sat there, stone faced. She glanced at me momentarily, and in that glance, I could see something breaking. Not her heart. I don’t think that was possible after all she’d been through in the past few years. It might have been her faith in common decency, that one person could treat her with such kindness, and then carelessly turn around two days later and lay a brutal smackdown on her in public that would destroy all previous goodwill.

I had gone over to the dark side and felt like a real asshole, made all the worse by the approving howls of laughter around me. I was one of them now, one of the pricks who delighted in humiliating this poor girl who had never harmed anyone. The Beatles were huge on my playlist at the time, and the instrumental portion of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” was playing in my head. Evil-sounding stuff.

It was a perfect storm of bad circumstance. Mary Jane hadn’t meant other people to see her secret heart – it was on the back of the notebook, no doubt snatched from her desk by one of the cretins as a prank. I guess she wrote that so she could have some physical evidence of kindness that existed after the fact. Ms. Popularity saw her chance for another moment in the spotlight, grabbed it, then dragged me into it in public, not grasping that I really was this mythical “Bill” referred to in the heart. Like another infamous Bill, many years later, my policy of self preservation became obvious: deny, deny, deny. They never did find out who “Bill” was. A few days later, she had put a big “X” through my name in the heart and told everyone she and Bill had “broken up.”

Is it clear why I still feel troubled over that situation, a good 30 years later? I’ve surely mistreated people since, sometimes on purpose, but that one instance, that was one time in my life when I hung someone out to dry when I should have made a stand against the ass-backwards world we were living in. Didn’t happen, at least not on my watch. I don’t want to romanticize the plight of Mary Jane – she was just a kid who got picked on too much and somehow learned to live with it. By the same token, I don’t want to play down what an awful thing that was I did to her, and how it still bothers me now that I shit on my principles to save myself from a moment of the humiliation she experienced on a regular basis.

Where is she now? Man, who knows. I couldn’t answer that question in 1982, much less now. When did she break off from the rest of us? I wish I could pinpoint that. A few of us would like to fantasize that at one of our reunions, kids like Mary Jane would show up looking like Cindy Crawford in a french maid outfit, toting a flamethrower and lighting people on fire as they slow-danced to "Keep on Loving You" by REO Speedwagon. That never happened either. I hope she turned out all right – I suspect she did, as the inundation of darkness she received as a kid no doubt prepared her for adulthood and the “real” world. People do come out the other end of experiences like that, often with a depth and understanding that attractive and/or popular kids could never understand. And it still grates on me that I made life that much harder for her.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Gloves

People often ask me if I'll ever get into the boxing ring, but at this point in my life, what's the point? True, if you want a complete boxing experience, you need to spar, as learning how to move and get hit is just as important as hitting. On the other hand, getting hit on a regular basis by a trained boxer, unless you're training to be a professional or amateur boxer, is senseless. Hard body shots have the potential for causing long- or short-term damage to internal organs. Head shots? Do some reading on the subject. One concussion could have lingering after-effects for years. Most boxers, whether they're aware of it or not, receive numerous concussions, ranging from mild to severe. Even with head gear, the strong possibility for receiving a concussion is very real. It just aint worth it.

Getting hit is not as painful as most people are led to believe. I'd wager that most guys who get mild concussions shake them off and are back in the ring in a matter of minutes, or the next day at the latest. Damaged kidneys? Urine turns a strange color, but you keep going. These are boxing injuries that most likely wouldn't occur in a street fight. One thing you learn about boxing is that the fear associated with getting hit is worse than getting hit. Kids who get their ass kicked on a regular basis by bullies understand this. Bruises heal. Somebody pops you in the face, sure, it hurts, you might even bleed, but life doesn't end. In fact, you go right on moving. It's that fear of anticipation leading up to physical contact that gets to most people, as if getting punched in the face will be some cataclysmic event involving oxygen tents and last rites.

Of course, this doesn't hold true for professionals or well-trained amateurs. Those martial arts exhibitions with guys punching through cinder blocks and such? For real. Even a guy like me who doesn't train anywhere near that level, I can hit very hard, harder than guys much stronger than I am via weight training who aren't trained in any way to fight. Do it long enough, and this just happens. Your body "learns" the motion associated with throwing a punch, your coordination increases. Guys in a gym flexing in a mirror have it wrong, or don’t understand real power. If so, they’d be showing off their thighs and lower back, where the real power comes from when you attack someone in any fashion. Bulging biceps are window dressing.

But I promise not to turn this into another “weightlifters are assholes” digression. The real reason for this post is to describe a night I had last week going to see a fellow boxer from one of my classes fight in his first Golden Gloves match, trained by our instructor, Kid Avila. The match took place in Harlem, a Police Athletic League gym on Manhattan Avenue and 118th Street. I went for a boxing match, and what I got was an eerie homecoming of sorts based on my decade in the Bronx.

Back in the late 90s, Kid had a class in the oddly run-down NY Sports Club gym on 46th between Madison and Fifth. “Oddly” because that’s swanky midtown, but that’s the mangiest Sports Club I’ve ever been in. I caught athlete’s foot there twice – the only times I’ve contracted this malady. The gym there was boxy and cramped. As I noted earlier, I got turned onto the class after taking a six-week “boxing camp” the gym provided at extra charge (which was a great intro to the sport), and later spying Kid teaching a class at the 46th Street gym that looked like a try-out for Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. (Roughly 10 years later, I’m still doing it three times a week.)

One of the regulars there was Ron, a lawyer with a hobbit-like vibe – on the short side, friendly, open. Unusual for an attorney in his unforced geniality. The key word there is “unforced” – you’ll find plenty of lawyers who are very charming, but pricks underneath. Ron seemed like he was a nice guy all the time. After awhile, he started bringing his kid, Ben, who was your average suburban teenager. I gather Ben was probably like me as a teenager. I recall very much wanting to learn how to box, but back in that part of Pennsylvania in the 70s, despite Muhammad Ali having a training camp near-by in Deer Lake, boxing was a non-entity as a local sport. Wrestling was king in my high school (we provided a few state champs in their weight classes annually at the time), and I’ve already noted how uncomfortably close to prison shower sex wrestling seems to me. A, I don’t want guys touching me while we both wear tights; B, I don’t want them touching me like that ever.

The classes would find us merrily beating out our frustrations on the heavy bags. A large part of my relaxation process is boxing, a great physical release for emotional and mental stress. Sometimes I’ll walk into a class with a headache, and it will be gone by class end, whisked away by extreme physical exertion. Ron’s kid was like the rest of us: awkward at first, but after awhile, you could see development, the learning of the combinations, the body intuitively sensing how to move. I don’t recall being overly impressed with his skills, or any of ours, for that matter. We could hit hard and fast -- how this compared to other boxers, I still have no idea. I do know Kid’s stepped up the cardio portion of his sessions in the last few years, but the boxing stuff is so fundamental to me now, I have no idea how good or bad I am (which would be easy enough to find out).

Ben went off to college in Pennsylvania, and Ron faded out of the class after some vague health issues. Kid had kept in touch with Ron, so I’d get these occasional updates on what was going on, the best news being that Ben had joined the boxing team at his small college and was doing well. I didn’t see him for a few years there in any of Kid’s classes.

Eventually, Ben came back, although not full-on. He started taking Kid’s classes occasionally, but was taking more training sessions at the Kingsway boxing gym in Manhattan where Kid did full-on training with sparring. When Ben came back, you could see how vastly improved he was as a boxer. His punches were faster and harder, his movements more accurate. You can generally tell how much boxing experience someone has by how he moves – I have very little, but know how to move, always keeping the head in motion, pulling away after a combination, pivoting after a hook. Most of these things come naturally when someone’s trying to hit you.

So, this fall, Ben makes it clear he’s going to try for the Golden Gloves, under Kid’s tutelage, and he wants to do it at 165 lbs. – with him weighing just over 180 lbs. I gather he thought he might be too thin for 175 lbs. and surely not bulky enough for heavyweight. (He’s a taller guy, a little over six feet.) So it was his idea to drop way down, if possible, and kick some much smaller ass.

The problem is, it looked like a lot of guys had the same idea this year. There were 40 some boxers who signed on for that novice weight division this year in the Gloves, meaning at least five matches if you want to win the whole shebang. That leaves a lot of margin for error: five fights in roughly two months time, with the level of competition probably rising steeply with each match.

On top of which, the guy has to drop around 15 lbs. in a few months, and hope he can maintain that weight for two months and manage to stay strong. Ben did make it, but I gather he worked his ass off with Kid, training and dieting the whole time, which seems a lot easier to do in your early 20s! I can recall having the ability to drop or gain five pounds in a weekend back then. Now I just have the ability to gain that much, but am smart enough not to do that.

So, Ben signs on for the Gloves, all systems go, the first match is assigned at this PAL gym in Harlem. Great, I thought, at least I can attend this one, as that implies a straight shot on the 1 Train up to 116th, and a short walk over to the gym on 119th. I’ve read the schedule, and the matches are often held in far-flung places in the NYC area (Jamaica, Queens, or Yonkers, or Staten Island, etc.) that would be hard to attend simply in terms of travel. I don't give a rat's ass about the neighborhood -- there are few places I won't go in New York. But I don't see myself taking a damned ferry to see a boxing match.

The night came last week, and off I went on the 1 Train, getting off at 116th, the Columbia University stop, grabbing some pizza at a small place by a huge medical center. I walk over to Morningside Avenue and am surprised to find on the other side a long wooded park on the side of a very steep hill: call it the other side of the tracks. Top of the hill is the affluent Columbia area, the bottom is Harlem. Period. Even at night, you can grasp this from the top of the hill, the cheesy yellow bodega fronts, the gritty, no-frills look of the streets flowing out from the park.

And I flashbacked to being about 25, and realized that was the last time I was on Morningside Avenue, riding my bike down from the Bronx, purposely getting myself lost so I could find my way out and learn about the city. I’m sure with Morningside, I simply came straight over from Broadway to see where it lead, ran into this beautiful avenue, and gazed in wonder at this valley-like park that spread out underneath it. I knew some people who lived around here, but back when I visited, the gist was to head west to Riverside, the concept being the farther east you went across Broadway, the more ragged it got.

Well, here I was again, about 15 years on, looking down this empty park on a dark winter night, thinking, shit, I have to walk through this to get to Manhattan Avenue. I don’t like walking in any park at night – too many shitheads out. I’m thinking mostly kids in gangs, people either buying or using drugs, the idea being hanging out in the woods at night, much as in the country, is not kosher.

The good thing is the park is long and thin – I could run the width of it in under a minute if necessary. I could see a lot of convenient hiding places along the walking path, large patches of bush and underbrush. As I started walking down the steps, something else started occurring to me: I liked this. I liked being alone in the middle of a major city, no one in sight, we’re talking 7:00 pm, not exactly three in the morning. It reminded me of the Bronx, how I’d walk along desolate Bailey Avenue that rose over the Harlem River instead of the more populous Sedgwick Avenue, mainly because I was of a mind that less human contact was a better policy, even if it meant risking getting jumped while walking alone (which never happened). So it was more dangerous in a sense. So I’d be on my own if shit happened. It still worked for me. I firmly believe that when I lived in the Bronx, I was often spared any weird shit because I could pass for a cop, and most trouble-seeking goons, when they saw me, either thought that, or, “Christ … what’s a white guy doing here?” Either way, they probably reasoned it was a better idea to leave me alone.

I made it down fine. Actually, towards the end, I saw two teenage hispanic girls walking towards me, both stopped when they saw me, and went back in the direction they came. Great! I was scaring people! What’s this freaky-looking white guy doing walking in the park after dark? It felt re-assuring to intimidate people.

The streets around there were just like back in the Bronx. A little beat-up. Think strip malls. Pit bulls. Merengue blasting from gypsy cabs. C-Town supermarkets with Pampers stacked against the grimey front window. Telltale yellow Café Bustelo coffee cans in bodega windows. The theme from Welcome Back, Kotter may as well have been playing in my head. This was all familiar terrain to me from a decade in the Bronx. There surely weren’t smiling black and brown faces appearing in windows and yelling, “Welcome back, Billy!” I’d think “up yours, whitey” would have made me more nostalgic. I had only been back to the Bronx once or twice after leaving in the spring of 1997, both within months of leaving, despite my claims that I’d constantly go back. For one thing, it was a hard slog from Astoria, just not an easy trip subway-train wise; for another, when you leave a borderline ghetto neighborhood, you don’t have much of an urge or impetus to go back. For what?

I got to the gym, which was around the side of the main entrance, paid my $20, and got a P.C. Richard & Sons gift certificate along with my ticket. I’ll say this over and over, as it bears repeating: living in New York and coming from a small town, I crave people and places that show me there’s a direct, human connection between each, that hard-to-find “common ground” that comes up in so many canned speeches regarding racial harmony.

Well, here it was again, standing in front of a fold-out table as I took my ticket and coupon, looking in on a gym that could have been anywhere in rural America: the panhandle of Texas, a Montana cattle town, a Coal Region town in northeast Pennsylvania. The lighting was off, a little too dim. There was a 10-row set of fold-out wooden bleachers along one wall, a curtained stage on the other that had probably seen many dance recitals. There was a no-frills electronic scoreboard on the far wall, basketball backboards on each end. The only difference between this gym and many others I’ve seen in rural Pennsylvania was a large, well-lit boxing ring in the center and five rows of fold-out metal chairs on each side.

There were a few other small differences. For one, there was a master of ceremonies/DJ working the crowd with a microphone, wearing a cape and a silver metal breast plate, clearly some type of local celebrity with a larger-than-life personality. There were a bunch of girls doing some strange line dance to a hip-hop tune with him by the side of the ring when I walked in, with the girls surrounding him like a star. Give him a cowboy hat, turn him white and make the song “Achy Breaky Heart,” and this could have been rural Arkansas.

(Later on, when he took up his announcer’s seat by the DJ booth on the stage, he’d have impromptu contests for even more P.C. Richard & Sons coupons, with promotions like giving coupons to anyone who could present an out-of-state license [I could have, but fuck it], or asking people in the crowd to name various 80s pop songs like “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “Hip to Be Square.” It’s a strange thing to be in a gym in Harlem with a black guy dressed like a trojan doing the mashed potato to Toni Basil’s “Mickey.”)

There was also a large video screen on the stage that seemed to be showing an odd loop of a Barack Obama speech interspersed with the DJ at a previous boxing event charming pretty black girls to get them to dance. Between rounds, the blasting music never let-up: the main reason I'm never comfortable at any sporting event, the loss of silence, like we'll all burst into flames if we actually speak to each other in a normal tone of voice instead of yelling to be heard.

I don't know who it was who sang "The National Anthem." He looked like a janitor who had just dropped his mop and picked-up a microphone, but I suspect he was one of the fighter's managers. He did a beautiful job, and that song always gets to me at sporting events. I recall going back to Pennsylvania shortly after 9/11, and going to a high-school football game with my brother, nearly breaking down to be back in my hometown, listening to this song, just glad to be alive after that awful day. This night in Harlem, it was just a nice feeling to see such a mixed crowd of people stand at atttention and listen to the song. It gets no better than that in terms of pure American moments, a bunch of people gathered in a small gym in a ragged neighborhood to watch a bunch of guys fight their way out of something, maybe get their asses kicked, but willing to take that chance.

After the first match, the “concession stand” opened up just behind the ticket table. It looked like local women who had either volunteered their services or made the food themselves: turkey and ham sandwiches and such, potato salad in tin-foil trays, fried chicken, cans of warm Coke poured into styrofoam cups. If I’d known there’d be food, I would have blown off the pizza and got a sandwich. The thing is, I had never been to a Golden Gloves boxing match and had no idea what to expect. It was more like attending a high-school basketball game in a small town than some official/intimidating environment. I should have known this – fuck’s sake, a PAL gym in Harlem – but the whole concept of the Gloves seemed so intimidating to me that I was expecting something much more elaborate.

The crowd was an odd and comforting mix. That night, there was, to me at least, a disproportionate number of white fighters, i.e., they were in the majority. (I can guarantee the pictures of the finalists in the paper will show few white faces.) Thus, there was a healthy number of white folks in the stands, most probably as freaked out as I was. A lot of coworkers, family and friends. They came to sit together and cheer on their guy. There were some boxers who didn’t hear the announcement that they were to dress/prepare in the lower level of the gym, so you had a few guys wrapping their hands in ratty boxing robes and taking stern instructions from their trainers. The Marines were sponsoring the event, and they had a chin up bar in the corner where they invited anyone who wanted to do 50 chin-ups and get a free t-shirt. (Many tried, but very few came away with a t-shirt.) Most of the crowd was black and hispanic, again, people there to cheer on their guy. You’d know whose guy was whose once a match started, with the cheering and shouted encouragements.

What was most comforting, and something I’ve never experienced before, was looking around the room and recognizing other boxers simply by their looks. It’s hard to explain. Physically, I guess you could point to guys with larger shoulders and backs. Boxers tend not to be profoundly muscled, unless they’re born that way. All I can say is there’s a certain looseness about them, they look relaxed, not feeling any need to intimidate anyone with the self assurance of knowing how to defend themselves. I guess if you got a roomful of dancers, they’d recognize each other, too. Most good boxers I’ve seen, a key component no one ever seems to notice is how loose and relaxed they are. I see in classes, newcomers are always uptight and constricted in how they throw punches. Part of that is not knowing the routines or instructor's habits, but part is not having that sense of looseness. Boxing presents a strange dichotomy in that you have to keep your hands and arms in tight (otherwise your body and face are going to get pummeled), but aside from that positioning, the key is to stay as relaxed as possible.

I looked around and saw guys like this all over the gym, in every color. The hispanic kid next to me, I could tell by looking at him, boxed. He must have seen the same thing in me, too. He left his coat by my feet to get a sandwich when the concession stand opened. All I could think was, shit, buddy, you’re more trusting than I am. But I could feel that distant sort of camaraderie, too. The guys in front of me had been boxers and were there to see one of the guy’s kids box. They just had that look.

You have to understand, as someone into music, I’ve gone to many concerts where I thought there’d be a shared sense of community with hundreds or thousands of other fans … only to find an arena or club filled with stoned pricks who didn’t seem to derive the same kind of pleasure and insight I did from the music. Music is often trumpeted as the great unifier, but that’s rarely been my experience.

Here I was in a small gym in Harlem, and I felt a greater sense of belonging with a bunch of other fans and fighters who were there for a sport no one thinks of when a loaded word like “unity” is kicked around. It was nice. Of course, this was a good night. I’d hate to think what would happen if a fight broke out in the crowd – it probably would end up like a bar-room brawl in an old Western movie. There were also no traces of racism. A few times, a black and white fighter would square off, with their retinue of cheering fans. But nothing strange happened. I’d hardly call this a monumental evening – it was probably just another night in the Gloves competition. But to me, there were so many underlying and not obvious things going radically right that night, that it left me with a good feeling. I guess this derived from the whole point of the matches: you fight your ass off, and you win or lose, doesn't matter what color you are.

As for the matches, they ranged from very bad to well fought. Some of the guys were clearly not well-trained, losing steam by the end of the second (of three) rounds. A three-round fight, if you can’t train yourself to have energy to burn after six minutes in a ring, you’ve done something wrong. Sure, you’re going to get tired, you’re going to feel beat after any kind of intense physical confrontation like that. But we’re talking what should be months of training that includes both serious road work (about five miles a day, if you’re smart) and more accurately timed three-minute intensity workouts to mimic the time period in each round. It’s doable – I could do it, and you could, too. It would be a lot of work, but you better believe if you're going to climb in a ring in public and face someone looking to knock you out, you'd want to be in the best physical condition of your life.

The thing is, especially with the well-trained fighters, they’re thinking how little time they have to make shit happen. Thus, these things often become high-speed brawls more than well-planned matches. Amateur scoring focuses more on how many punches are landed. So, technically, you could nearly knock someone out and still lose if your opponent keeps peppering you with punches throughout the fight and dominates you in punch count.

This was Ben’s fight. Apparently, the guy he faced, he had met before in an unofficial intra-gym match (I think this guy trained at Church Street, another popular Manhattan boxing gym), and Ben had won on a TKO in the third round, ringing the guy’s bell. So, there was some bad blood to begin with. They went at each other like wolverines, a flurry of arms and pushes. Both were well trained, and I had a hard time telling who was coming out on top in each round. In the first round, Ben got belted hard in the face but managed to recover. The next two rounds, I thought he edged ahead of his opponent.

As it turned out, he won all three rounds, but each round was very close. Too close for comfort. Kid and Ron were in his corner, and I didn’t even say anything to them leading up to the fight. They had been in the far corner of the gym warming up as they waited their turn in line, but I thought, leave them alone, whatever head they’re in, they don’t want anyone outside stepping in and throwing off their game plan. Ron must have been out of his head watching his kid both getting beat around the ring and doing some serious beating himself.

I was sitting with Kid’s girlfriend, a small Indian girl who’d be a monster if she was a male heavyweight boxer. She saw the same things I did with Ben’s fight, and we both held our breath until the referee raised Ben’s hand at the end. Afterwards, Kid came around to hang out with us and watch a few more matches before clearing out. It was amazing how many people knew him. He had won the Gloves years ago, fought professionally and helped train people in a few Manhattan gyms, so a lot of people came to pay their respects. I picked up through his conversations that a lot of aging boxers who were once champs were there that night. Again, no crowns, no gold belts, no attitudes. Just guys who looked like they were going to go home afterwards and read bedtime stories to their kids in cramped two-bedroom apartments.

It was easier getting out, this time with Kid and his girl. She had said some lone pervert had spied her walking through the park, so she ran most of the way to the gym. She worked in the medical center on the hill and never once walked in the park. This time we found a path around 120th Street that was a straight shot up the hill to Morningside, you could see the path all the way, no hiding places ... will have to remember this if I come back again.

A wild night. Ben's chances? Who knows. He's well trained and received a huge ego boost by winning his first match. I imagine there are a few ass-kickers waiting in the wings, guys with the potential to make an Olympic team. We'll see, and it would be a tremendous kick to see him fight in the finals at Madison Square Garden. I'll say this about boxing: it has a very strong connection to a boxer's emotional state. There's a good reason you'll find so many black and hispanic fighters dominating the sport: they're hungry in some sense. Not just for money, but for things like self respect and a sense of belonging. A lot of them come from raw circumstances, little opportunity in life, nothing to lose in many senses. Boxing itself has that direct emotional release -- you literally punch the darkness and anger out of your system, at least for awhile. As anyone who understands anger knows, it's a well that will never run dry for most of us.

I don' t think I'd ever be a great or even good boxer for that reason alone. While I can get as angry as the next asshole, my parents raised me pretty well, all things considered, I don't feel any elemental need to dominate people, physically or otherwise. At times I do, surely, but it's not a driving force in my life. As hard as it may sound, a dark impulse like that must drive a boxer to a higher level on a routine basis. Ultimately, it's a dark sport. Beating the shit out of another human being is serious business.

Picture Mike Tyson's early fights, where he'd pulverize opponents in a matter of seconds or minutes. Part of that was training and his physical gifts. But I'd wager part was who he was and some unnatural force he could conjure when entering a ring. I believe every fighter understands that sort of darkness, whether he can verbalize it or not, no matter how he was raised or how nice a guy he is outside the ring. What he does with that force, how he uses it, is another story. Skills and training get you so far, luck helps, but I have to believe there's this X Factor -- how bad you want it, and how hard you're willing to beat someone to get it -- that drives most boxers. A boxer needs to face that sort of self realization more than he needs to face another boxer. Of course, we all have some kind of darkness. We'll see how far he can tap into that elemental force. Sorry if this sounds like mystical bullshit. But anyone who's ever been in a fight knows there's something to this.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Freeze Frame!

A very musical few weeks here. I broke down and bought an iPod, the aircraft carrier of iPods, the 160GB model. (I already have a 60GB Creative Nomad player that I’ve filled up to 52 Gigs via 3-4 years of assiduous creation of gigantic folders encompassing the best of my CD collection and various other sources, cough.) The game plan, once I got over the giddiness of a major purchase, became first buying a 500GB external hard drive to house all these and future MP3 files, and then the transfer of the files my old Nomad player to the external drive, and finally to the iPod.

Two weeks! And that was with me gunning it, every night after work, all weekend long, carefully re-tagging files that got screwy in the transfer. (I’d say 80% of the 10,000 files didn’t need any refiguring … leaving 2,000 MP3 files I had to slowly and carefully rename.) I have to admit, I love the iPod, and this after years of having my doubts. It’s a great machine. Something the size of 1/3rd of a deck of cards with the capability to hold more music than I know what to do with. Took me three years to build up 50 Gigs – something tells me this thing will never be filled up, unless I get seriously into video.

All the while, I’ve been pulling together albums and such for the first band I ever saw in concert but really don’t know all that well, even today: The J. Geils Band.

Let me take you back to the winter of 1981, leading into 1982. Last year of high school. Musically, I’m in the throes of all those 60s British bands – Beatles, Who, Stones, and especially, The Kinks. While everyone else is going around listening to Van Halen, Journey and Styx, I’m mainly into 60s Brit Pop and new-wave, which isn’t winning me any popularity contests. New wave was “fag” music back then. I still remember trying to sell one of the guys in gym class on Elvis Costello. He laughed at me: “Just look at the guy! You know he’s a fag by the glasses! They’d be steaming up while he blew me!”

Never mind that this guy had a full length poster of a heavily made-up Freddie Mercury in a silver lame unitard posted in his locker that was probably the gayest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. We were all willfully naïve about such matters back then, but everyone intrinsically sensed new wave was for fags and nerds. (Although a few years ago, I did an informal survey for the Class of 82’s favorite song based on choices from our yearbook, and it turned out to be “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts – a big choice among stoner chicks with feathered roach clips and the occasional stoner dude/nonsexist rocker. I’m jake with that song being the top choice. It rocks.)

Into this atmosphere stepped The J. Geils Band. I knew about them from their last big hit, “Love Stinks” – a great song, surely their best. Until that point, for me, they had been a vague, seedy blues rock band with a weird lead singer. I wasn’t on the scene for the glory days of their first few albums in the early 70s. (And in the past few weeks, I’ve found that after the first three, they really fell off a cliff for the next few albums, thus precipitating the vibe that “Love Stinks” followed by the Freeze Frame album was a comeback of epic proportions.) I knew “Give It to Me” from hearing it on the AOR stations (WZZO from Allentown, WMMR and WYSP from Philly), but that was about it. I picked up a greatest hits album around that time, of which their live cover of the Motown classic “Where Did Our Love Go” registered, but most of it seemed like warmed-over blues rock.

While I didn’t go particularly nuts for the Freeze Frame album, my friend George did, buying it on cassette and wearing it out. The band had huge hits with the title track and “Angel Is the Centerfold.” The album itself was clearly geared towards a more teen audience as the band aged and recognized they had to change to survive. George was particularly enamored of the last song, “Piss on the Wall,” in which lead singer Peter Wolf disregards world events as he tries “to hold it steady while I piss on the wall.” A dumb, juvenile song that I have a hard time listening to today … but it made perfect sense to a bunch of disaffected 17-year-old kids.

Freeze Frame became the cruise tape for that part of our senior year. Of course, George was a strange guy to begin with. Any time we pulled into one of those sleepy Coal Region towns in his souped-up 76 Nova (with flaming tailpipes), it was customary to roll down the windows and play the ultimate freakout song on his cassette player: “Baby Elephant Walk” by The Lawrence Welk Orchestra. All kidding aside, that is a great piece of music, written by Henry Mancini, I believe … but not something a kid who was otherwise dogging the hell out of the first two Ozzy Osbourne albums would be prone to listening to. He also had a cassette of The Ink Spots greatest hits borrowed from his dad, so we’d just as often use something like “I’m Not Trying to Set the World on Fire” as the freakout song.

George also had a yen for Frank Zappa, thus Joe’s Garage is another album that immediately brings back 1982 to me, the title track and “Catholic Girls” in particular. George leaned more metal than my pop rock tastes, but at least he was listening to cool shit in general, along with the inevitable Sammy Hagar albums that sounded like ass even then.

At that time, my neighbor, Bubba, was in his first year at an electronics school (I think?) in the Lehigh Valley, just outside of Allentown. He was living in a nondescript apartment complex just outside the city limits with another guy from our home area who also was a low-level drug dealer. Their place was a shambles, which is what you’d expect from two 19-year-old kids on their own for the first time. Both would later transfer to a school in Ohio that would sort of fizzle into a false lead. The roommate, whom I’ll call Ray, was a nice enough guy, big, friendly. He often told the story of one of his customers being so desperate for pot that she’d regularly fellate him while he was on the toilet. Pretty ragged stuff, but in light of his legendary bowel movements, this became even more gruesome. I have no reason to doubt this wasn’t true … who would boast about such a thing?

The only thing I can recall about their apartment is a Conan the Barbarian movie poster on the wall. I’m sure there was furniture, but whatever it was, it came from the family rec room or basement, the local Salvation Army.

How I came to see this place was George scored tickets to see The J. Geils Band at Stabler Arena in Bethlehem. It was perfect timing. I can’t recall the exact date, but I’m suspecting it was right about this time of year in 1982. The week of the show, the Freeze Frame album went to #1 in the Billboard charts, the band’s first and only #1 album. Son of a bitch. I just googled this and came up with the album going to #1 on February 6, 1982. How’s that for accuracy?

Thus we knew they’d be psyched to play that show, a hard-touring bar band from Boston who finally hit it big. My parents decided it was OK for me to go – I’d never been to a rock concert. Older brother M had flamed out on rock and roll and drugs in his wild-and-wooly teen years, so my parents were acutely aware of the present dangers, but probably figured I wasn’t going to go down that path. (They were right, although I was constantly surrounded by kids who did.)

George had four tickets. (I can’t recall the price, probably less than $10.00 per ticket, which is how my mind, even now, relates to how much one should pay to see a band … I felt like an asshole spending $65 to see Springsteen a few years ago.) So, we were clearly going. None of the other guys in our circles of friends seemed to give a shit. Most were surprised that I wanted to go, but The J. Geils Band struck me as probably being a damn good live band, on top of which I had started to genuinely like the album. So, a few phone calls were made, and it was decided that Ray and Bubba would take the two remaining tickets, and would let us use their place as a launch pad/rest area for the show. My parents made it clear: this was no overnight visit, see the show, and come straight back. This would entail getting back at around 1:00 or 2:00 the next morning, as Allentown was a good 1-1/2 hour drive south. This would be one of the few nights of our senior year George and I didn’t kill endless hours shooting pool at Holiday Lanes (which is now a pierogie factory).

I remember there was snow on the ground, and being mildly shocked that Bubba was living in such a hovel, but in retrospect, his place was surely no worse than many other student apartments I’d see in the next few years at Penn State. Kids willfully lived like bums, couldn’t afford good furniture and were clearly set-up for a transient existence with maybe a few youthful touchstones – posters, bongs, stereos, albums – thrown in to make it more “homey.”

Ray and Bubba took us out to dinner (fast food), and the whole time, Ray was smoking hash. I didn’t have any. I didn’t need to have any. The simple act of breathing the same air in a closed car in the middle of winter gave me a contact high. It was a giddy hash high, a lot of laughing, spacing out. We got stupid. But at one point we got out of the car on a rural back road to take pictures with a camera one of us must have had. I should also note that we were all blasted on hash, and I had discovered a bunch of brown plastic flower pots in the backseat that, when worn on our heads, looked exactly like the futuristic hats that Devo wore as part of their stage show.

Lord, I wish I still had this picture. Somewhere, there’s that picture of me at seventeen, rake thin in a huge navy peacoat, leaning against a used car in the country, snow all around, sun is out, wearing my Grandmother’s cat-eye shades and this asinine flower pot on my head, a stoned smile on my face, arms crossed. If I could get that picture back, I’d frame it and call it “Youth” – because even thinking about that picture makes me recall the best aspects of being a kid: directionless, weightless, having fun in the moment, maybe $30.00 to my name, a Bad Company cassette blasting from the Sparkomatic, three other guys in the same head making snow angels in some farmer’s field just outside of Allentown.

That giddy feeling extended to the show. I can’t recall what substances were being imbibed. I know Bubba and George were drinking beer, although I can’t recall what brand. I think I might have had a beer or two but honestly wasn’t drunk. (They had broken me in the previous summer – read about it here for an epic “first drunk” story that’s surely hard to beat.)

This was how concerts went back then: everybody got stoned. Beer was the least of it. Most people were high as kites, hours before the show, and barely able to stand at the show. I recall being incredibly excited as we got there. There was literally a pot cloud hovering over the crowd – it was impossible not to be high in some sense unless you wore a gas mask. For better or worse, that’s how I remember arena concerts from the 80s – I’m sure they were even more druggy in the 70s. I’m not even sure if beer was sold at these shows, as they were mostly kids and young adults. Everyone self lubricated in the hours leading up to the event. (This would grate on me when I saw The Kinks there twice later in the 80s and realized most of their newer fans had the demeanors of fucking frat boys.)

Jon Butcher Axis was the opening band, and they sort of came and went. I recall liking them, but not rushing out to buy their album. (A year or two later in the same arena, I’d see a defiant INXS get booed off the stage while opening for The Kinks, shortly before they took off like a rocket. “Don’t Change” was their minor hit at the time, and they would shortly dominate the pop world for a few years there in the mid/late 80s.)

Lights went out minutes after the Butcher loadout, and the crowd started howling in anticipation. Stage exploded in flashpots, with Peter Wolf hopping around the stage like a frog, to the tune of “Come Back” a vaguely disco-sounding song from their Love Stinks album. It was exciting as hell. The band had it down. Wolf was a consummate front man, had a variety of dance moves he used throughout the show (his favorite seemed to be rapidly circling his hands in front of his stomach and finishing the flourish with a jump or 60s dance move). Their harmonica player, Magic Dick, had a visual presence with his big white-boy afro and, I didn’t know it at the time with nothing to compare it against, really played well. During the song “Musta Got Lost” – a minor hit from the mid-70s I hadn’t known – Wolf jumped into the crowd and got passed around like a returning hero. The band was over-joyed to finally have a #1 album. On top of having a #1 single that fall with “Angel Is the Centerfold,” this was as good as it got for them. (Wolf and the rest of the band had an acrimonious breakup a year or two later, with Wolf having middling success as a solo artist and the rest of the band putting out the regrettable You're Gettin' Even While I'm Gettin' Odd, featuring the non-hit "Californicatin," that I foolishly bought.)

I should note here that we never stopped wearing the flower pots on our heads. Normally, this would cause consternation, but seeing as how we were surrounded by stoned people and arena employees who had “seen it all” in some sense, some weird teenage rednecks with flower pots on their heads wasn’t that big a deal. I recall Bubba and I going down to our section entrance a few times and square dancing.

In short, the concert was a blast, in retrospect, one of the better shows I’ve seen. I also think that was the only time I’ve ever seen a band with a #1 album on the charts – my tastes were such that this was never much of an issue, although I’m sure David Bowie had a Top Ten album with Let’s Dance when I saw the Serious Moonlight tour a few years later at Hershey Park Arena.

The concert ended with the band forming a human pyramid onstage, with keyboardist Seth Justman, the smallest guy in the band, climbing on top to extend his right hand, palm up at the audience – the band did the exact same thing in their “Freeze Frame” video. A palm/hand print had been the band’s insignia since featuring it on the cover of their Sanctuary album a few years earlier.

For how exciting all that was, heading back to Bubba’s and Ray’s apartment was a bit of a letdown. Everyone was wasted physically now, after getting blasted in one form or another for a good part of the day. I don’t know why I did this, but I pissed in their bathtub. This must have been around 11:00 or midnight. I hadn’t forgotten that I promised my parents I’d come home after the show. It didn’t appear that this would happen. George was blotto. Bubba was pretty gone, too. Ray was stoned. If I had any sense, I’d have called my parents and weaved some yarn about everyone being too tired to drive back, and it would make better sense to come back tomorrow morning, could I stay overnight please? All things considered, it would have been the safest option.

Instead, I busted Bubba’s balls. If I’m recalling this correctly, George hadn’t driven his souped-up Nova to the show. Bubba had been home that Saturday and drove all of us down in his car … and thus was expected to drive us back. I think part of the problem also was Ray was a bit of a nut. The guy was large. I knew he was a drug dealer. While he was friendly, he also put out a strange vibe while stoned, the sort of thing that made you feel like you might wake up with a steak knife in your back and him laughing maniacally in the corner. I didn’t want to deal with it.

While I didn’t pitch a fit, I laid on a thick guilt trip (“Dude, you made a promise to get us home tonight, now keep it!”) and wouldn’t let up. I recall walking with George along the shoulder of the nearby interstate that ran just feet from their apartment, and he was pretty pissed, too. We wandered like that for a few minutes before we finally saw Bubba emerge from the skanky apartment and call up, “All right, I’ll take you home. You bunch of pussies.”

And that was that, a muted ride home after a strange, stoned day and a great concert. Actually, I think once Bubba got behind the wheel, we were fine. The driving helped re-focus him, and I suspect had we crashed out there, I would have awoken the next morning to the sound of Ray’s gurgling bong, and another half day of fucking around in a stoned haze before getting out of there. By the time we got back, I was glad I had busted his balls, and I gathered he didn’t mind taking a long ride with his childhood friends as a brief respite from the wacky lifestyle he had going on at the time.

But that was it, the first concert. When I hear of parents taking their kids to concerts, all I can think is how wrong that is on so many levels, the key one being that by a certain age, surely no later than his teen years, a kid should be encouraged to develop his own identity, especially in terms of music. Have some genuine adventures, and let the chips fall where they may in terms of how the kid handles himself – if you haven’t raised a horse’s ass, probably better than you’d think. Aging KISS fans in full make-up taking their kids to KISS concerts? Son of a bitch ... this is hell. If you had approached these 13-year-old boys in 1977 and told them this would happen one day, they’d have thought you were nuts. They’d have rejected the concept of their own parents attending a show with them in 1977, and rightfully so, even if they’d have been too selfish to grasp that their Big Band and 50s Rock parents would rather eat shit for two hours than watch KISS. (Actually, I felt the same way as their parents in 1977 and still do now!)

Then again, so much has changed with concerts, slowly evaporating like that marijuana cloud that hovered over every show. If only Mom hadn’t thrown out that $15 concert (long black-sleeved) shirt I bought that night, featuring The J. Geils Band in that pyramid on the front, and the big hand print on the back. Along with the Bowie Serious Moonlight muscle shirt I later bought, I could have E-Bayed those things for at least $50 a piece to some retro-seeking hipster. Then again, I’m spared the depression of trying the thing on and having it fit me like a tube top.

Bonus: if you've read this far, treat yourself to a free copy of the aforementioned live version of "Where Did Our Love Go" by The J. Geils Band.