Monday, May 26, 2008

Hot Snakes

One thing that occurs in your 40s: time really does a number on your memories. The farther you get away, the harder it is to recall things that aren’t hallmarks in your life. There are certain memories from back then that are burned in my mind – like puking in church on Easter Sunday, 1972. But many other things – the huge bulk of life, I’m having a harder time with.

My Grandma, for instance. She passed on in 1981, just a few days before my birthday in June. Somewhere in her early 80s. Six years earlier, she had suffered a massive stroke which truly did a number on her memory and cognitive abilities. At the time, and being a kid, I just rolled with it, not knowing any better. If something like that happened to my Mom now (who is just a few years shy of that stroke age)? I’d be devastated, mostly because I now know and can recall how rough a six-year ride that was.

I wouldn’t say it was like growing up with death in the house, but it was growing up with the recognition of someone very old who had been dealt a grievous blow, and my teenage years, that time of blooming and discovery, were tinged with that knowledge of old age and impending death. And I don’t consider that a bad thing! A worse thing would have been to have her shuttled off to an old-folk’s home, which was not an option.

Before the stroke, Grandma had been the matriarch: mother to four sons and a daughter she had raised through the Depression and sent off to fight in World War II. Her husband, my grandfather, must have died before I was born, in his 50s. He worked in the mines – not sure if he was a coal miner or not, but I know he worked at the mines. When there was work. Dad would tell us that during the Depression, guys who worked the mines got to work one day a week so they’d have just enough money to afford basic food needs and not much else. To raise five kids in that sort of time must have been something – but they were far from alone.

For years, Grandma kept a little flag in a drawer that was given to mothers of soldiers in World War II to designate how many sons they had in the war. Hers had four stars (red on a field of white with red stripes on the edges) for her boys (my aunt was in the WACS, but I guess that didn’t register as a star), who got around: one in a bomber (which was a near death sentence), one in the jungles of New Guinea, don’t know what my oldest uncle did, and Dad, thanks to a grenade accident in boot camp that killed two guys behind him (their body parts covering him ensured that only his legs got sprayed with shrapnel), missed the Battle of the Bulge, but spent a few years in Germany as the war ended and during the Nuremberg Trials.

These guys had been through a world of shit by the time they were 25; there’s a reason that generation wanted to settle down, fast. My uncles and aunt went off in their own directions, but Dad stayed home after wandering the world as an army mechanic for roughly 10 years. Think he gave college a try, didn’t like it, and found his way into factory work. How it was he came to take care of Grandma and live at home, I guess it was a slow sort of acceptance that this is how it was going to be. I grew up with an unrealistic view of home ownership as a result: I thought everyone paid their mother $1.00 for a house, and it was theirs.

It was mostly a blessing to have her there. I’ve noted this earlier. One of my earliest childhood memories is Grandma leading me to the upstairs bathroom, after I had shit my diapers, a full load, and had me sit on the toilet … while she picked up each turd by hand and dropped it into the water between my legs. While I just sat there, slack-jawed and shit-assed; this probably freaked me out as much then as it does now. I’d post a “kids, don’t try this at home” warning about something like this, but I think most people would ride a bike through a safari park in a steak suit before they tried this at home.

She was always doing hard-core things like that. Things that sort of said, “I love you, little boy,” but also, “I’m harder than you are.” And I can imagine a woman who raised sons through that above-noted storm of circumstances must have been hard as nails. The most memorable incident for me was Hot Snakes. That part of Pennsylvania qualifies as deep country – even now, although I notice way too much of suburban influences starting to sink in as time goes on. You can see it in various pictures, where there’s a wilderness beyond our backyard, where houses were just starting to be built in the 60s and 70s. Thankfully, not many were built, and the woods crept right up to the cemetery a block away, still do.

In the spring, sometimes we’d find snakes in the backyard: copperheads. Never got bit, but they scared the shit out of me. Why they came out of the woods was to seek warmth, which they’d find on cement that absorbed and held heat longer than woods and grass. So one of those breezy May mornings, you’d sometimes look out the kitchen window at the backyard, and there’d be a snake or two sunning themselves on the sidewalk. Sooner or later, they’d leave, but just the idea of them being that close to kids and pets wasn’t cool with anyone in the neighborhood.

Grandma did her thing, at least on one occasion – not sure if this was a regular occurrence. But she once went out with a baseball bat and beat two copperhead snakes to death on the pavement. The picture is long gone – and you better believe I wish I still had it – but there was a polaroid taken of her standing with the two “hot snakes,” one in each hand, smiling as the spring sun rose behind her.

She was tough. I noted earlier, “mostly a blessing.” The downside was hard-line Catholicism. I mean full-on, “if I had my way, you’d all be priests” Irish Catholicism. When Dad married Mom, a filthy Protestant, he may as well have married a topless African native – the level of acceptance would have been slightly better. It was like a “mixed” marriage, something staunch Catholics just wouldn’t advocate. I can tell you now, marrying Mom was the best thing Dad ever did, because her sweet and open view of life and the world was something that perfectly set off his more hardened, stoic take on things. It wasn’t as bad as the actual Catholic/Protestant “troubles” in Ireland, but it was surely frowned upon.

Especially by Grandma. But I think Mom immediately won her over, or at least I never remember them arguing about religion, mostly because Mom was a non-practicing Protestant for the most part, and Dad bagged church religiously every Sunday (claiming to go off to church in another town, but driving around listening to the Big Band station in his Sunday’s finest, which probably did him a world of good in terms of keeping his head on straight). Grandma was the Catholic enforcer, and, boy, she put us through the paces. Routine confession, all the classes involved with catechism, confirmation, etc.

Luckily, we dodged being sent to Catholic school, probably because it cost extra as opposed to a free public-school education. We also dodged being altar boys. How, I don’t know, as I know Grandma was hot on having this happen. Thank Christ she never got her way … as we later learned the parish priest was diddling little boys at his various assignments, and I shudder to think if he got anyone in our neighborhood – I assume he did, but don’t want to think about it.

Catholicism was a constant under-current in the house, and the quiet message was that Mom was an outsider. I’ve always been leery of religion as a result. When you’re raised in a house, by a woman you know is true and would give her life for you, and you’re being fed the subtle message that she’s somehow lesser because of her religion, you either reject the person or the concept of religion. Seeing as how Grandma was forcing the stuff down our throats like castor oil, you can guess which side I leaned towards. But I never fully rejected Catholicism – still haven’t, although I’d be hard-pressed to call myself one. I think when you’re raised Catholic, that sort of things sticks with you the rest of your days, and not in a bad way. Like guys who have been in the military. But I’m far from a practicing Catholic and don’t particularly worry about it.

All along, the matriarch quality of Grandma’s life was constantly driven home for me, mainly by our relatives routinely visiting the old homestead and paying tribute to her. I hardly ever see any of my cousins anymore, as we’re pretty spread out, and even if we weren’t, it seems like we all have our own lives now as adults, and we’re not like one of those extended clans where cousins are constantly flitting around each other’s lives. But every summer, it was visiting time, and every few weeks, there’d be another massive family invading our house, which was already crowded. Kids in sleeping bags. Huge vats of baked beans. Cook outs where we could have eaten an entire cow. Amusement park visits, constant activity of some sort. It was fucking chaos. Upwards of 12 people in a house that would have comfortably suited four. It was amazing we didn’t have too many memorable blowouts, but we were also on our best behavior, and looking back, I genuinely liked a lot of my relatives and recognized them as good people.

But it was made clear, these visits were happening because in my uncles’ and aunt’s minds, this house I was being raised in was their home, and my grandmother was their mother, whom they still loved immensely. Again, a good thing to be exposed to that and recognize the value of someone. Do I miss those sort of huge family convergences? Not really, but by the same token, I’ve realized they weren’t the horrific weekends I made them out to be at the time.

And then, of course, one day around 1976 (I can’t recall the exact timing), I come home from school and am told by Mom that Grandma won’t be home for awhile, she’s had a stroke and needs to be in the hospital. When she came back, man, day and night. Before that, she had been vibrant, hands-on, wouldn’t think twice about putting you over her knee and giving you a good swat for being fresh. The effects of the stroke were immediate and obvious. Slurred speech. Scrambled thoughts. Memories jarred askance. Physically, she lost a lot, moved slower, was prone to falling and hurting herself in ways that would leave her bed-ridden for days. Until one’s experienced a family member going through something like this, it’s hard to explain. But again, I’m hoping nothing remotely like this happens with Mom. Lord knows, Dad was hobbled in his last few months from the chemo he received for his stomach cancer – and I think in his mind, he was probably thinking, “Been here with my mother. Later for this shit, I’m checking out.”

That was the cataclysmic change in all our lives, especially Mom's. On top of taking care of four kids – luckily we were either teenagers or just getting there – she now had an elderly woman to watch over who was having a rough time just dealing with every-day life. And Mom, to her credit, handled it like a pro. Never once complained. Did everything and then some to make sure Grandma’s life was as comfortable as possible. This would often involve bathing her, helping her up and down stairs, watching over her all day to make sure she didn’t wander off, basically being a round-the-clock nurse that would have cost a fortune to hire. You have to understand, up to that point, I felt like I had two mothers, which is a great thing for any family to have, and why I'm prone to not busting on grown adults living with their parents in some form.

This is also where the Catholicism got strange. Because of her stroke, Grandma could no longer attend church. And with her mind wandering through her entire life, she’d often be banging on our bedroom doors at four in the morning on Sundays, telling us to “get the horses ready, we have to go over the mountain.” She was referring back to her childhood when she and her family would prepare a horse and buggy to take them to church at the next town on the other side of the large ridge on the edge of our town. Since she couldn’t be at church, she became totally obsessed with making sure we got ready for it on Sunday morning, with the campaign usually kicking into high gear by Friday.

It was nuts. This was when my brothers and I stopped going. Sure, going through the motions, getting dressed, and leaving at the appropriate time. But we’d pull up short, stop in the cemetery next to the church, and go sit around the mausoleums, waiting for the bells to ring that signaled the end of mass, so we could scurry back home and make it seem like we had gone. This became our teenage ritual. We weren’t all that nuts about church to begin with, but to be harangued over it constantly all week … forget it. When we were in the cemetery, one of our neighbors would sometimes drive by in his utility vehicle and stare us down. Expecting what to happen, I’m not sure. (As this guy was later nailed repeatedly for tax evasion, he should have been more worried about his own problems.) We just sat there and stared back. We weren’t “bad” kids. Christ, we were wearing plaid pants and clip on ties! Short hair! Just sitting there. A sane adult, like me now, would have said, "fuck it, kids bagging church, obviously they're not going to cause trouble for anybody as they don't want to get caught." But he had our number, yes sir! We’d also field disapproving glances from some of the “church” people when we saw them during the week. To which I thought, too bad. You make church seem like a prison sentence, no kid in his right mind will want anything to do with it.

I should mention that all along here, my grandmother’s sisters (of which there were four or five, I can never recall) all lived in the same house in a town called Port Carbon, which is still a gritty little town back home. Back then, I recall there were occasionally riots, the kids in that town were particularly nuts, over what, I have no idea, probably just a very bad grouping of kids by chance (and drugs, most likely). Their small row house was by the side of an enormous rock-faced hill on the edge of town, and everything about it screamed “old lady.” I don’t know how they all ended up there. A few of them had been married, but I gathered their husbands had passed on. The place smelled funny. Like pennies, vinegar and cigarette smoke. It seemed like Bing Crosby was always on the stereo. In my mind, it was always raining over their house alone, like in The Addams Family. This was Irish Catholic Central. We may as well have been in Belfast.

When relatives would visit, Port Carbon was always part of the agenda, we would always go down there, on top of us routinely visiting with Grandma throughout the year. There was a forlorn park on the other side of a shit creek a block from the house, and we tried to get over there as much as we could. The place felt like Mars to us – the whole fucking town. Even now when I pass through Port Carbon in a car, I feel vaguely melancholy as I zip by that crooked rowhouse that used to be theirs, that I spent so many rainy Sundays in. They had two dogs, a pissy little chihuahua that bit, and a big old Irish setter that was friendly as hell. Most times, they’d be camped out behind the coal stove, wagging their tails as they took in the heat from the boiling tea kettles.

After Grandma’s stroke, Mom got in the habit of taking Grandma down to the house in Port Carbon much more often, I guess because she sensed that whatever had happened to Grandma, the end could always be near, so she was probably just honoring Grandma’s request to spend more time with her sisters. Mom’s reward for this? Being called a filthy Protestant and a bum on a much more regular basis, as it was clear the sisters were inundating Grandma with even more anti-Protestant dialectic when she was down there. Without fail, every time she came back from a visit there, the Protestant bashing rose to a much higher level. Understand that my Mom never gave a shit about being Protestant – non-practicing, and frankly didn’t care what you or anyone else believed in, so long as you were a decent person.

This memory shades my overall memory of those women as a result. I don’t hate them now – in fact, I can recall how loving and warm they were to us kids, how glad they were to see us, every time. I was forever wiping my face after getting a big wet kiss from one of them, generally after hearing, "Oh, look at little Billy, all the children in Dublin look just like darling Billy!" But the bullshit they put Mom through over something as pointless as religious differences, man, Mom had the patience of a saint to never blow her top. She owed those women nothing. They weren’t her blood relatives. She could have just as easily said, “Screw it, I’m never speaking to those assholes again. And someone else can take care of her, since I'm not good enough!” But that never happened, because Mom was better than that. And I think they eventually came around when it became clear a few years on that Grandma’s health was truly deteriorating, and Mom was going all out to make sure all was as well as could be.

When that started happening visibly, I think I’ve blocked out a lot of it, but it surely went on for a few months, at least. All I recall is that she started having more accidents, falling down and injuring herself more, becoming more delusional. I don’t know how long this went on. I think the bulk of her post-stroke life was tolerable, but the last few months, things came apart more quickly. There were a few falls requiring hospital stays, and it was becoming clear, at least to us, that this was leading nowhere good. Again, for a kid, this was an odd experience – I’d never watched anyone die over a period of time. I didn’t know she was dying. People want to believe the best when it comes to situations like this, like a bad spell is happening, and things will get better. But there are points in life where things don’t just get better and only get worse.

I recall the last fall, that June in 1981, a perfect summer’s afternoon. My sister went into the bathroom and found Grandma on the floor, unconscious. Immediately, we called an ambulance. And I’ll still remember what a nice summer day that was, twilight, fireflies coming out, crickets starting to chirp. When the attendants wheeled Grandma by the screen door in the kitchen, where Brother J and I were, her eyes caught ours, and I’d never seen such a look, which I now recognize as “goodbye” but at the time wasn’t sure how to interpret. J blurted out, “This is it. I think she’s gone this time.” I didn’t know what to think. A few years earlier, a similar situation had happened with our dog Butch, an old dog who died on the carpet in the kitchen early one winter morning with Mom and Dad vainly trying to administer his medication with a dropper. We heard one last choke, Dad gasp, “shit,” then nothing, and J and I in the living room, with J saying, “Butch is gone.” Didn't have to see it. We just knew.

Sure enough, that was it, we never saw her alive again. She passed away in her sleep early the next morning at the hospital.

The next few days were absolute chaos. I don’t know how many people converged on the house: dozens. All her children came with their families. All her friends showed up, some traveling miles to be there, a few dozen older people, I gather who had known her decades ago, showed up for the wake and funeral. A few were legendary bums who only went to funerals to get a free meal. It was like a sad circus, with a lot of crying and eating. Food everywhere. As a kid who lived there, I felt territorial towards the house, but that feeling was forfeited for a few days, just absolute madness. I was too blown out first by her death, and then by this whirlwind of activity, with relatives and strangers, that I didn’t know what was going on. I remember us kids sitting in the living room on the morning of her funeral in our pajamas, just too freaked out to move. People everywhere. We had to get dressed and use the bathrooms. We couldn’t, as there was a constant stream of people in and out. When we finally did get out shit together, we were late for our own grandmother’s funeral.

All I remember about the funeral is that my brothers and I sat at the top of the hill in the cemetery, away from the action, and took our shoes and socks off because it was so damn hot. We were wearing collard shirts and ties, which was something we rarely did and never in summer. Everything about the day was disorienting and off. The Temptations have the song “I Wish It Would Rain.” It made sense on a hot, sunny day like that, a day that would have found us normally making money mowing lawns or playing tennis. We eventually put our socks and shoes back on for the ceremony, probably because Dad waved us down, but again, afterwards, going back to our house, there were far more people I didn’t know in and around the house that I didn’t know than the handful of relatives I recognized as being part of Grandma’s life over the past decade. Whether people were annoyed by our "antics," I have no idea. They weren't antics. We were shocked by her death and had virtually no space to gather our wits and relax from literally the next morning after she passed on.

Brother J and I found our way upstairs, got into our shorts and t-shirts, went to the local mall and caught Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had opened a few days earlier. Just as going out and renting Anchorman the night after Dad’s funeral had cleared me out, I’ll always have a soft spot for Raiders – for the simple reason that it gave me a chance to disengage for an hour or two from a really bad situation. Afterwards, we drove around as much as possible, got home around sundown, and luckily, it was just down to our uncles and their families, still a huge horde of people, but at least we knew them all. And everyone left the next morning. I can recognize now, for Dad and his siblings, that was it: their father had passed on years earlier, and now their mother was gone. I can anticipate what a raw, empty feeling that's going to be and don't look forward to that day.

A crazy few days, and I turned 17 while all this shit was going on! That’s a birthday that came and went without a trace, over-shadowed by a far deeper event. I wish there’s more I could remember. I’m sure pictures and chats with family members would dredge up a ton of stuff, most of it good, but these days, Grandma is more a feeling or a fiber of my being than an actual memory. If there's any toughness in me, and there is, I know where it came from. I think this is what happens when people pass on, and then decades pass. All that’s left is whatever they put into you in the first place. And it’s hard to remember how this happened.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Goodbye, Bullshit Stars of the City

Last night, I was going through some old files on my computer from the mid-90s, mainly coming across some old love letters that made me realize one thing: I wouldn't have fucked myself back then! Lord knows, I was a handsome specimen at 25, but my head was completely up my ass. Life does get better in some senses!

But I also came across this short story that was rejected at the time by the NYPress, where I was just starting to get stuff routinely published. The date on the original MS Word file is 12/1/95. I can tell that this story masks a lot of my feelings towards the Bronx at the time, but probably also captures my undiluted feelings towards the place, too, which weren't always pleasant. That was a strange way of life for a white guy from a small town -- but it worked for nigh on a decade. In any event, enjoy the story -- I did some minor editing, but most of it appears as it did in 1995. (Hopefully, the text comes out all right; it's giving me hell in HTML, but hopefully will appear halfway legible on your screen.)


Charlie’s dad was a big country fan. Maybe that’s why he had found it so easy to go away. He had named Charlie after his idol, Charlie Pride, the only black country superstar, ever.

Charlie had vague memories of his father explaining this to him, years ago, when he was five, and his mother was young and beautiful, and his two big brothers weren’t so big. The Charlie Pride’s Greatest Hits eight-track was plugged into the beat-up stereo, and his father nodded along as the whine of fiddles floated out the window and down the fragile Sunday morning streets of the South Bronx. "Is Anybody Going to San Antone?" was the song; the answer in the Bronx was “fuck no."

"Damn, that nigger can sing," his father said. He wasn’t drunk, and Charlie liked him this way, so gentle and wise.

“And it ain’t just the singing,” his father lectured, "it’s the man himself. A black man singing country music. Imagine that. He’s playing the white man’s game better than most white men. People must have thought he was crazy in the beginning, but this is a greatest hits album. I tell you now, son, so you’ll never forget. I put Charlie Pride on the same shelf as Jackie Robinson and George Washington Carver. People don’t know. That’s why I named you after him."

But for every quiet Sunday morning listening to music, there were hundreds of fallen Saturday nights: drunkenness, carousing, bitter arguments. At first, it was all behind closed doors. Then the doors opened. And the foul words would fly in front of the children. Near the end, Charlie’s father sometimes hit his mother. She would hit back. All Charlie and his brothers could do was cry. Soon, he went away. They didn’t know if he was a drunk, or a crackhead, or homeless, or in jail. Charlie hoped he was dead, for life seemed to be nothing but pain for the man. One of the kids in the neighborhood had caught a raccoon eating garbage from a trash can one day and put him in a cage. The animal died a few miserable weeks later, and the whole time, Charlie thought about his father’s situation. He had been a night watch man at the Hunts Point Market. For two years he had taken night classes at the community college to become an accountant, but he failed most of the classes, and that was when the drinking started.

But it wasn’t unusual to have no father. Most of the kids in the neighborhood grew up this way, for one reason or another. Some fathers were dead, or in prison. Most just left, coming back every now and then to see how much their children had grown and pick fights with their mothers, then leave again. Fifteen years of Charlie’s life had gone by since that morning with his father. They had been hard years for his mother. She watched her first son, Joseph, ease into the drug trade. It seemed as reasonable a choice as any. People knew it was wrong, but there were a lot of things wrong in their part of town, and one of their own may as well have grabbed a little for himself if that was the case. Everything was wrong, so there wasn’t much shame in breaking laws in a world that didn’t care.

Joseph had started as a roof-top look-out. Many days on the way to school, Charlie would pass by an abandoned building a flew blocks from his tenement. He’d look up and see his brother silhouetted against the morning sky, waving to Charlie as he ended his night shift. Charlie thought he looked like a pirate waving from the top of a ship’s sail. This would be the only time they saw each other, as his mother had kicked Joseph out the first time he came home with a pair of Air Jordans and an attitude.

Around this time, Charlie had taken it upon himself to fall in love with country music. It offered some kind of escape from the neighborhood. The life there could be seen on the pavement and in the gutter. Garbage all over the place. Dogshit left sitting for weeks. The tiny blue stoppers for crack vials. Obscure forms. Sometimes they were bundles of rags and newspapers, other times they were people.

Seeing his brother on the roof wasn’t so romantic to Charlie. He knew Joseph would be dead in a few years, or if he was lucky, in jail. The romance was behind Joseph. The open sky. Charlie couldn’t separate the sky from country music. He would go down to Tower Records in Manhattan with money he had saved form delivering groceries after Catholic school and look through the country section. All the old-time country was cheap on cassette, far cheaper than the new rap and soul stuff, which he shunned. His mother had a huge reggae and 60’s soul record collection, and all the new soul only bored him. Charlie loved pure country. He had them all. Hank Williams, Senior, not Junior. Patsy Cline. Jimmie Rodgers. Bill Monroe. Johnny Cash. George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Charlie could tolerate the strange glances and blatant snickers from the Tower employees. Most of them seemed like half-assed white kids pretending to be rock-and-roll stars anyway. He would buy one tape a week, and after a few years, Charlie knew as much about country as anyone from Nashville.

It was his habit to get his boombox at night and go up on the roof of his project. He played the music low and watched the stars come out and move away. The bullshit stars of the city, Charlie thought. Once, his CYO group had gone on a white-water rafting trip to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and Charlie had seen the stars in the country. They were so much brighter. He thought of his father’s words. And the music was sad and wise, like he had been. City stars had too much competition with the neon and skyscrapers down south in Manhattan. After awhile, Charlie would sing along and found that he had a strong voice. He realized that by hiccupping and moaning, he could do a pretty good country voice. Sometimes neighbors would come up while he was there, and they thought he was odd, this quiet little boy making funny sounds to that whitey music no one listened to. But “odd” didn’t mean much to him when people were turning up dead and crazy all over the neighborhood.

Joseph was killed two years after entering the drug trade. His body was found in a few garbage bags under the Throggs Neck Bridge. Only his mother cried for him. He had only fallen prey to an occupational hazard, like a janitor slipping on a freshly mopped floor. Unfortunately, Charlie’s next brother, Jerome, thought this was heroic and fell in with the crew Joseph had run with. This time, Charlie’s mother didn’t even wait for the telltale signs of flashy new clothes and surliness. She went out of her way to make sure Charlie wouldn’t catch the disease his brothers had. It wasn’t easy. Putting him in a strict Catholic school on the Upper East Side was one thing. But Jerome driving around the neighborhood in a BMW with a mouthful of gold teeth, a cellphone, and a beautiful girl close by his side was another. By this time, Charlie’s mother was drained from her battles. Her face, which had once been smooth and well-angled, was now wrinkled and sullen. Although she was forty-two, she looked to be at least sixty. She was still tough and fought for Charlie with love and reason, but many nights found her slouching in her recliner after coming home from her receptionist job downtown at an advertising agency, sometimes too whipped to turn the television off. It would drone on all night, the cop show sirens teaming with the real ones on the street.

It didn’t matter to Charlie, because he thought Jerome was bullshit anyway. Jerome had no personality of his own -- anything Joseph did, he would do, too. He was mean and stupid, and worst of all, he loved rap music. His BMW had an enormous bank of bass speakers in place of the torn-out back seat, and the throb of his beat could be heard for blocks in the ghost-town night of the Bronx. Charlie couldn’t understand why a criminal in training wanted to draw so much attention to himself. He told Charlie that if he wasn’t making the money, then someone else would, and that someone else just might be a white man if no one else in the neighborhood were to step up and take the chance. Charlie couldn’t care if the dealer was white or black, or where the money went. It was all an excuse. The only nice thing Jerome had done for him was buy him an acoustic guitar for his sixteenth birthday. It was a beat-up old Gretsch with bluebirds painted on the face. After Jerome gave it to him, he disappeared from the neighborhood, and no one knew anything, especially the kids in his crew. If he was dead, his body was well hidden, and if he was alive, he was lost somewhere in the drug world, selling or buying. Charlie didn’t care.

He almost threw the guitar away. But he saw it was the key to something else. He especially liked the bluebirds perched on the f-holes. The guitar would have looked good in Hank Williams’ bony hands. Charlie got a cheap “Learn How to Play” song book with a singing cowboy on the front and started to teach himself a few chords.

At first, his fingers bled, and he realized that music, even simple country music, wasn’t as easy as it sounded. It took him months to learn how to string chords together, and even longer to play without looking at his fingers. When he graduated from Catholic school, his mother bought him a few months worth of lessons at the Learning Annex. By day, he would work in the mail room at his mother’s advertising agency, and a few nights every week, Charlie would sit in on a class with three other people. They were all white. They started with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and worked their way up to "Moon River."

The white people were trying too hard to be friendly to him, but he let it go. He came to realize he was living in two worlds -- the neighborhood, and the white world. When he first went into the white world, through the Catholic school, it scared him. He’d sit in his seat looking straight ahead with his legs together. The wound-up spring look, trying to fit in by not standing out. He saw the look all the time when white people came up to Yankees games on the four train. Now that he worked, so much of his time was spent around white people that he no longer felt afraid. It was rare that white people felt comfortable around him, either alone or in a crowd of other black people. They either kissed his ass or treated him like he was invisible. Whenever the office manager reported something stolen or missing at work, there was always an uncomfortable silence when she mentioned it in front of the mailroom workers. No one had to say what everyone was thinking. Charlie couldn’t stand that silence. At least the students in his class shared something in common -- the guitar. He kept to that and became the best student in the class.

He drove his mother crazy with his constant practicing.

"Why you listen to country music all the time? You want to be white?"

Charlie would stop strumming for a moment.

"No, mom, I like being black. Why do white kids listen to rap music?"

"Because they want to be black."

Charlie laughed to himself and started strumming again.

"I just want to be myself."

"You crazy."

It was an opinion shared by everyone in the neighborhood. He wasn’t like Prince, a genius who walked around in ladies’ underwear and sang about sex and God, sometimes in the same song. This seemed more acceptable than a black country singer. Charlie lived for connections. He would take his mother’s old records and make up country-style arrangements for the songs. He did a knock-down version of “No Woman, No Cry,” a little slower, imagining the empty spaces in his arrangement where a good steel guitar solo would fit right in. His song list of country soul was endless. “What’s Going On.” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” “Where Did Our Love Go?” It struck him as a tragedy that Hank Williams and Ray Charles never had a chance to know each other. It was an even greater tragedy that singers like Same Cooke and Otis Redding never played the Grand Ole Opry. Even if they had been booed off the stage, the gesture alone would have been enough. The only singer who resisted his arranging powers was James Brown. He once tried half-heartedly to do a quick, two-step version of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but it came out sounding like The Village People doing a polka. The godfather of soul was too black and proud to be anything else. For this, Charlie bore him a minor grudge.

He slept with his guitar. The teacher in his class told him musicians sometimes did this because they loved their instrument so much, and it took the place of a woman. The guitar was even shaped like a woman, a fine one with a long neck and an hour-glass figure, the teacher said. Charlie asked if she had any legs, and everyone laughed. He was a virgin, and it made him feel good to be sleeping with something he loved, as if he were a kid again with his favorite stuffed dog. But the woman talk was nonsense.

Everyone in the neighborhood called him “Cowboy Charlie.” He wasn’t treated like a village idiot; he was too smart for that. But his gentle ways and white-boy musical tastes made people treat him like a strange, old eccentric. Even the drug dealers knew of Cowboy Charlie and his guitar, and they fell silent when he passed. Some people lived beyond boundaries, and Charlie felt like he was living outside the outsiders.

“That nigger be crazy,” was his whispered shadow.


It was a good shadow to have. Anything for safety. Charlie was at a strange place in his life. His grades in Catholic school had been excellent, and it was expected he would be one of the few to make his way into the white world. But Charlie had seen his father try that. The only thing his father had ever wanted for him was a college education. For what, Charlie asked himself. So he could start at some low-level corporate job and take years to work his way up? It made no sense to Charlie. He didn’t want to live outside the law. And the law meant nothing to him. All he had was his music. He’d look at Charlie Pride’s picture on those old albums. It was embarrassing in a way. Charlie had one of those dated 70’s bubblehead afros. And it wasn’t funky, like The Sylvers had. It was clipped short, and he had big side burns, like Elvis. He was wearing bell bottoms and a denim jacket with rhinestone doves on the lapels. He almost looked like a white guy in black face.

Sometimes Charlie thought he was crazy for wanting what he wanted. It didn’t seem like much, to sing country songs. He had it, but he also knew that he hadn’t lived enough to pull it off. He was young, and the lesson of country was to get yourself tainted. Even in the Bronx, Charlie was untainted. It seemed like an all-or-nothing place. You ruined your life all the way, or you went straight. Country singers were fallen angels. Halfway between heaven and hell. Charlie looked around and saw the desolation. But it was only a back drop. It wasn’t inside him. In so many ways, he was only a child. There were real stars out there, and Charlie wasn’t seeing them. The prairie existed only on a TV set, his burned-out mother too tired to turn Bonanza off.

"That Hoss be one fat boy. Child, I’d hate to be that horse."

All the real things seemed to be on television, and the world around him was too much of a nightmare. The worst part was he felt safe in the Bronx. It was all too easy to go down to the music stores on 48th Street and look at the steel guitars in the window, knowing he could play one, if only he had the money. But they looked good on the other side of the window down in Manhattan, and he though of Nashville, and Memphis, and Austin, and all the other places his heart knew and his eyes had never seen.

Charlie wanted his life to be a country song.


Things slowed down in deep summer. The days could get crazy with their stifling heat and gushing fire hydrants, and the early hours of the night were filled with people on the street, sitting out in lawn chairs and drinking on the corner. Sometimes the salsa and rap music got so loud Charlie’s mother couldn’t even hear the TV on top volume. But late at night, Charlie found that things got nice and quiet. He came home from work around five most days and immediately fell asleep regardless of the noise, just so he could get up around one and feel that time. It was always on the roof, with his guitar, closing his eyes as he played and sang quietly, so that when he got on a stage, he wouldn’t have to look at his hands.

Most people never knew the night sky, he told himself. It was like they were in prison and couldn’t see it, even if they wanted to. The roof was about the only place he could have this time, and at least rise a little above the noisy street. It amazed him that hardly anyone else ever came up. Maybe they were afraid that the danger of the street reached up there, and no place was safe but their cramped apartments. The only thing that gave Charlie trouble was the tar on the roof stayed hot in the summer, even at one in the morning, and he had to lay a ratty old blanket down so he wouldn’t stick to the floor.

On one of those hot July nights with the wind blowing hard, Charlie laid down flat on the roof and started playing “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.” That was his favorite song. You had to do two things to sing that song right, Charlie thought, yodel and hurt. Or at least pretend you hurt. He was tired of pretending. After awhile, he stopped playing and listened to the wind. He thought of leaving the Bronx, and then he thought of his mother. She was getting old. Men were forever leaving her. She could sing a beautiful song, if only she had the urge to do anything but watch television. If it weren’t for her love, Charlie could be fooling himself in the drug world. Or stuck in a pine box, wearing a cheap suit and mortician’s lipstick. So long as she had the TV set, life would be all right.

The feeling swept over him like the night breeze. He knew he had to leave. Anything could happen. Maybe he’d get rich. Maybe he’d fall in love. Maybe he’d shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. He wanted to die a lonesome death on a rainy country road, forsaken after selling his soul to the devil. Charlie felt himself tingling inside. One thing would be certain. He’d sleep under real stars. He’d make a deal at an empty crossroads in the middle of the night. He’d leave a woman behind, then write a song about it. The lost highway.

Charlie came downstairs. His mother had fallen asleep with the television on, a late-night Cheers rerun, so he turned it off. The set was getting old, and it took a few minutes to fade to black. When he was famous, he’d buy her one of those huge ones that took up an entire wall. He went into his room and packed his clothes in his mother’s old suit case. It surprised him how little he had -- a few pairs of pants, some t-shirts, one dress shirt, socks and underwear. His only real possessions were his tapes and his small boom box, and he couldn’t take those. After he packed, he sat down to write his mother a note. The words didn’t come easy. A note didn’t seem like enough, but if he waked her to talk, she’d only cry and try to talk him out of it. And she might have succeeded. Charlie felt like he had blood on his hands. He had to slip away.

The note said he was leaving to find his dream, which was to be a country music singer, and that if he couldn’t make it on his own, he’d be back. Whatever it took, he wrote, he’d find a way to send back money to help with his part of the rent, and he’d call her once he got set up. He decided the best place to shoot for was Nashville, where he could find any kind of job to get by then use his spare time to knock on doors and sing. In the letter it all sounded so easy, but he knew he was walking off the edge of the earth. But that was how he saw the Bronx, a square planet where people walked over the edge sometimes.

Charlie left the note on the arm of her recliner and touched her hand. He looked at her for a long time in the dark. Tears fell from his eyes, he wouldn’t call it crying, and his hands shook. Charlie didn’t think it would be this hard. His mother snored. A siren passed on the streets below. For once, he paid attention as it came down his street and sped away, as if it were calling for him to follow. He thought of his father, and Joseph and Jerome. His mother had told him that they had all fallen, and he was the only good one left. Charlie decided to forgive them. He made sure to close the door quietly as he left.

As he walked through the streets to the subway, his guitar on a rope around his back and shabby suit case in hand, Charlie felt himself crying hard. It was as if he was still on the roof and watching a shadow of himself walk the streets. He hated the Bronx, but it was home. Charlie always felt that beneath all the garbage, it was a beautiful place. A long time ago, when people first moved there, it must have looked like heaven. Farmland and rolling hills. In a way, the neighborhood had been his prairie. He felt alone at home, always on the outside, and now he wanted to be on the inside of something. He didn’t know how. It scared him. The street lights’ tired glow pulled at his heart. Charlie’s feet felt heavy on the ground. He realized that he could walk on broken glass, like an Indian could walk through dry leaves in the woods, and be as quiet as the wind.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Mix Tape Nostalgia

I’ve been noticing various pieces around the web concerning mix-tape nostalgia, the act of making and distributing cassette tapes of “various artist” collections of music to friends. And the warm, fuzzy feeling people now get for this. That misguided “world was better then” feeling. Generally regarding the actions of what one did when he was younger and mistakenly qualifying this as “better than now” in some sense. Because if you honestly miss cassettes tapes, you need your head examined.

A few months ago, I did a piece on what doing a mix tape entailed, and I hope you can gather, I’m not overly nostalgic for the process. Yes, I’m one of those people with a very good grasp of recent music history who has the collection and know-how to pull together some pretty solid mixes. I may as well go around with a large “D” for “dick” branded on my forehead, but such is my lot in life to have this useless knowledge based on my love of music. Mix tapes were a very 80s thing, and I’ve noticed on TV that all the “nostalgia” cultural references have firmly shifted from the 70s to the 80s, just in time to tap into all those thirtysomethings who fondly remember being kids in the 80s. It seems like 35 is now the perfect age to miss being a teenager. You’re far enough away that you can’t remember or gloss over much of the bad shit, yet close enough to look and feel “young” in some sense.

I’m not quite sure why mix tapes inspire nostalgia when the process of making mix CDs isn’t that much different. I can see the gathering of sources has changed – I’ll often put together a mix CD these days using nothing but MP3 files, a relatively painless process compared to gathering CDs, vinyl albums and other cassettes as I once did for your average mix-tape. Less equipment, too: my laptop is all I need, with a program that allows me re-arrange track listings at the touch of a mouse, as opposed to a stereo with a receiver, a turntable, double-cassette deck and CD player. I’m glad to get all this shit out of my life! I’m not a “warmth of vinyl” person, and cassettes always sounded like shit (on top of regularly self-destructing in players). CDs are great, but I’m pretty much sold on MP3s, too. My only qualm is that I have to wonder if CDs are going to be around in a few years for me to distribute mixes to friends – having a hard time to see how one will do this with MP3 files, considering about a third of the people I know are not MP3 savvy, choosing to get off the media merrygoround as their odometers roll past 40.

I think a lot of the recent nostalgia is based on the popularity of the book, Love Is a Mix Tape by music critic Rob Sheffield. It’s about how making mix tapes for and with his wife, who died young/a few years into their marriage, shaped and influenced both their lives and their relationship. The book was a bit of a shock to me. Rob appears on a lot of these VH-1 nostalgia shows: the I Love the 70s/80s series, which can be great fun. Judging by Rob’s appearance and demeanor on these shows, I always assumed he was gay. He just has that way about him: an effeminate guy with deep knowledge and emphasis on cheesy pop culture history (a hallmark and great attribute a lot of gay men have). Those shows are stocked with guys who seem, well, gay. And not in a bad way – in that quirky, fun way that just about anyone but the most hard-core gay basher can relate to. He was married to a woman? He had me fooled! (Granted, after reading the book, I got the definite vibe that Rob is one of those deeply non-threatening guys that women easily befriend, and I guess that works just as well as coming on like Mr. Rock Solid Cock.)

After getting over the shock that Rob liked pussy, I settled into the book with trepidations. He’s a good writer, no doubt about it. The book communicates his over-powering sense of loss. I can’t recall what she died from – some type of unforeseen health thunderbolt that struck her down – but that doesn’t make it any easier. Just terrible, heart-rending stuff. Rob got that much across in his book, and I’m surprised Oprah didn’t give him a nod with her book club, because it’s the exact kind of book that would have gone over with her audience and boosted his sales.

But the awful truth about Love Is a Mix Tape is … his mix tapes suck! The only good one, he made as a teenager, if I recall correctly for a rollerskating event, that acknowledged what his audience might be listening to and enjoying, And at that time, we were talking stuff like “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, which is one of those universal songs of the mid-to-late 70s that just about any kid could relate to, unless he was totally engaged in punk or disco. The tape was filled with those sort of rock and disco touchstones that your average 14-year-old circa 1979 would have loved.

The rest was a surly mix of indie-rock hipness and quirky “me being a music critic, you’d think I really wouldn’t like Top 40 pop music in the 90s, but I really do” nod-and-wink type material that would ruin any mix tape, save one made for a 13-year-old circa 1993. The non-quirky stuff is just a stifling mix of 80s and 90s indie music that reeks of hipper-than-thou arrogance. I call mixes like this “Stump the DJ” – I’ve done a few myself. You give them to musically knowledgeable people to impress them with both your impeccable taste, and your grasp of rarities and hard-to-find material in a given genre. (This used to hold more weight before you could find just about any song via nefarious sources on the web. So kill me if I put “I Don’t Need Drugs to Be Fucked Up” by Glass Eye on one too many “Alt 80s” collection.)

But those were the times, which I remember well, and I guess when you get down to it, their audience was each other, and this was the kind stuff they enjoyed shooting back and forth. But take it from someone who knows a vast majority of the songs they bandied about, you’d be listening to their tapes and thinking, “There’s no rhyme or reason to this bullshit.” Bad, jarring segues, senseless themes, a total lack of coherency … just about everything you could do wrong in a mix. It was like someone with great taste going through their collection blind-folded and picking out songs at random. A nice in-joke for them, but no one else gets it.

Which is fine – most people who make mix tapes or CDs have limited resources and/or knowledge to really pull it off and end up with ragged mixes. But no excuse for Rob and his late wife, they knew music inside and out, and just got lazy, most likely out of love. Why am I busting the guy on this, something that’s really inconsequential and in some ways deeply personal? Because it would be like a famous chef, say Gordon “Fucking” Ramsay, making a greasy, half-raw hamburger, served on Wonder Bread for his wife on their anniversary. Maybe that would represent some kind of in-joke between them, but the rest of the world would think, “Gordon, you fucking cunt, what the fuck where you thinking?”

And it would then be like Gordon writing a book about it! With the effect of thousands of cooking enthusiasts who read it deeply sighing over whatever hidden meaning he shares with his wife, while ignoring that the guy came perilously close to serving his wife a shit sandwich, and she declaring it the best thing he ever cooked.

There’s a certain amount of cleverness I can see in Rob’s reasoning for writing this book and basing it on the “mix tape” premise. For one, I gather his core audience will be people in their 30s and possibly younger, for most of whom death is still pretty much a mystery, a short story from college about their grandmother dying, therefore the subject is approached more romantically. You watch someone you love die slowly and painfully, all the romance is burned away forever.

A person dropping dead in his prime, or being killed, is different. It’s certainly more of a shock, which makes it easier and harder to deal with. Easier in that there’s not a months or years long period of darkness leading to the final blow. Harder in that the shock of death is immediately felt, as opposed to being slowly anticipated. And the person dying generally should have had decades more to live, as opposed to probably a few more years on the end of their mortal coil.

No one gets nostalgic for long slow deaths. No one thinks, “Man, remember that summer your Mom slowly withered from 135 lbs to 80, and we watched her vomit blood, regularly shit the bed, have hallucinations where she thought you were her grandfather, and spent her last five days zoned out on Dilaudid before dying in her sleep? Wasn’t that cool? Ah, the good old days.”

Death is the antithesis of nostalgia. But at least it allows people to see the past clearly. The same can’t always be said for nostalgia. Chances are, you are remembering a good time in your life, and embellishing it to make it seem even better than it was. Like the summer you fell in love, conveniently forgetting you felt and looked like a duck, one of your older brothers was routinely wrestling you to the living room floor and farting on your head, and you were convinced one of your neighbors was a serial killer with you targeted as his next victim.

I don’t know which would be worse: to be in Rob Sheffield’s shoes and experience one of those lightning-bolt deaths of a loved one. Or what if that never happened, that Rob and she had stayed married the rest of their days, for decades, a 50th anniversary, and he spent five years on the tail end watching her succumb to various forms of cancer that pounded the shit out of her and left her looking like a corpse at Auschwitz, while he lived on another 10 years without her?

Sorry to paint that grim a picture, but it happens all the time, you just don’t hear about it, because it’s not the sort of thing people want to dwell on. But imagine having that sort of experience, decades of memories to draw back on regarding the relationship, months or years of brutal decline, and then going on for X number of years afterwards. This is why I tend to respect and get along very well with old people – I now understand they’ve gone or are going through this, and I can see how that sort of experience is just as necessary to understanding life as any more happy one.

I’ve gotten to the point in life where I don’t look at it in terms of better or worse. In the worst experiences, like watching someone die slowly, you’re going to find a lot of good things, certain kinds of strength you never knew you had, certain types of lessons you would never learn otherwise. People are going to open themselves to you in ways that you’ll find humbling. People you thought were complete assholes will reveal themselves as decent human beings. You’ll see a lot of the best in humanity when there are people around you who understand and have been through the same experience, know the drill, so to speak. To paint it as a purely negative experience is almost as bad as painting the past in sky-blue shades of nostalgia. Life just isn’t that way. At least mine hasn’t been. Maybe I’m living wrong? But I can’t see how you get through life without embracing the darkness of it and understanding it’s part of the deal.

Rob never got that slow lead-in to death. He surely got the lingering after-effect we all get. But that one good thing about a quick death, the lack of foresight and visible evidence of life fading away, leaves a lot more room for genuinely happy memories. That may not seem like much, but it will years after the fact, long after the immediate pain has dulled down, however many years that takes. If we picture heaven as being some place where we see ourselves at our physical peaks, with wings and haloes, the memory of a loved one who died young is somehow similar.

I can remember a friend who killed himself in high school, L., and my memories of him are all pretty good, despite the obvious fact that he was distraught over the end of a long relationship with his girlfriend. In my mind, I still see him in top physical condition – he was a runner on the track team, in top shape. He had a great sense of humor, before he lost it via however burning teenage love influenced him. He was a fun guy. Smart. Good future in front of him if he had been seeing things more clearly.

What if he hadn’t killed himself? Man, I don’t know. Would we still be friends? Would he have grown in life and become a solid, decent human being I’d want to still know? I hope these things would be true, but who knows. As it stands, the memory of him doesn’t haunt me, but I can recognize it’s compact and fits a little too neatly into a category I don’t want to recognize as nostalgia, but somehow applies. Simply because I don’t have decades of real experience with him to judge it against. I knew the guy for about six years of junior high and high school. I suspect Rob knew his wife about as long?

I suspect a lot of the people I see cooing over Rob’s book – I liked it, but would never coo over it – haven’t made that distinction in their lives, learned the degrees of suffering and shades of gray that come with losing someone you’ve known for decades. All they see is a Love Story type passing, augmented by the nostalgia and romance of making mix tapes, a now-defunkt act of goodwill and sometimes love. It all fits a little too conveniently for me. Kudos to the guy for making it work, for reaching beyond the shallowness of silly cultural touchstones and pulling something real out of it. But there’s nothing magical about death or mix tapes, and that’s an emotional trick being employed here that I’m slightly uncomfortable with. We’re all going to die, but many of us are never going to make a good mix tape. That’s pretty much the one true thing I took from his book.