Monday, July 09, 2012

Used Cars

Well, we just had our big 30th high-school reunion this past weekend.  It was a blast, as usual, a strange and wild night that left me feeling exhausted the following day.  And the thought occurred to me: at this point in our lives, we’re all used cars.  Got road miles.  You can find some devious way to roll back the odometer, but there will still be telltale signs of how far we’ve traveled, in our eyes, how we see the world.  The good thing about used cars is, no matter how hard you kick our asses, we keep on running.

Being a used car is a good thing.  Valuable beyond its dollars, it gets from Point A to Point B many times over, probably to work, places one has to go to get things done.  Road miles.  No frills.  Probably still has a cassette deck and manual windows.  Just gets it done.  That’s us.  Or maybe that’s just me.  I can’t speak for everyone!  But that’s how I feel now, and I’d call it one of those small victories you don’t realize until someone points it out to you, or you look in the mirror and realize things are all right, despite all the dumb, embarrassing, weird shit you’ve done or gone through over the years.

That’s why I go to these things, that sense of recognition I won’t find in the city, that sense of being from somewhere, and somewhere that I’ve learned to appreciate.  I may live in New York City.  But I’m from this small town in Pennsylvania, and there’s no denying it, I’m always going to be from there.  That thought terrified me in my 20s.  Now it guides me, the same way the World Trade Center did when it was around, coming out of a subway station downtown, trying to figure out which way to go, and I’d look up, see the towers, ah, that’s south, now I know where I’m at.  It wasn’t lost on me coming back this time that the “Freedom Tower” (or whatever they’re calling it) is at full height now, gleaming in the sun from my bus window as we rounded that New Jersey curve into the Lincoln Tunnel, and I’m now going to be able to use that building the same way, which made me feel good.

I don’t think I had too many embarrassing moments this time around.  We botched the photo ID badge of one of the people attending, as she had the same name as another classmate.  I felt so bad when she walked in, and I could tell by the look on her face, she already knew.  (Sorry, SFJ, if you read this!)  And in that early part of the reunion when only a handful of people were there, man, the song “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath came blasting over the speakers.  Just listen to it.  It was my idea to include a healthy dose of metal in the mix … but probably not a good idea to include a song that sounded like what Satan might play if you’re unlucky enough to meet him at the gates of Hell one day.  From that point forward, I don’t think anyone even noticed the music, as people were talking so loudly and excitedly with each other that it drowned out the music, and that was fine by me.  Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a bar or club where the volume of the music made it impossible for me to hear a person less than a foot away screaming into my ear. 

As with all these reunions, I felt guilty and stuck-up the next day, too, because I didn’t make time to talk to everyone.  Sometimes because I didn’t know what to say, or we just never connected back then and felt weird about approaching each other, or simply never met physically in the crowd.  I know how these things work – you start talking to somebody, anybody, and there’s just about always something worthwhile and interesting that’s going to flow out of that conversation.  It can’t help but happen with anyone who’s lived this long.  But I had a terrible night sleeping afterwards, with the dozens of conversations I did have rolling around in my head, not to mention it was hot as hell that night and bad sleeping weather.  At least I wasn’t hung over.  A group of folks had tried to talk me into the after-party, but I’m not kidding, I’m too old for this shit!  Hanging out from 6:00 until 11:00 had me feeling wiped out.  I’ve spent more than a few Saturdays and Sundays in my life, all day, performing mental road repair after a hard night out.  Been a long time since I cooled my fevered brow on the smooth porcelain of a toilet bowl rim, after putting my face where it should never go, and hopefully a long time before I do so again!

But overall, a great time.  What struck me this time was having unexpectedly deep conversations with people about their kids, many of whom are at or near college age.  (Meaning these folks had them in their 20s … a lot of people my age at work started in their 30s and have kids still in grade school … and then there are weirdoes like me with no kids.)  One really stuck out for me.  I was taking a leak in the men’s room when J walked in, called out my name and said, “You and me, buddy, we’re going to have a beer when we get back out there.”

The correct response to that is “O.K., man” and so we did.  J then explained to me that his daughter had just graduated in what had to be the top 1% of her class and was on her way to a fairly prestigious local college.  It made him feel a little befuddled … because here he was, working these outrageous hours in a local factory, his wife working just as hard, too, and their kid, somehow, had become a borderline genius for whom it made perfect sense to go to college.  Befuddled, maybe, but obviously proud, too, that he had laid the groundwork for this to happen, worked his ass off, saved, tried to give her everything she wound need to face the world.

And it made think about my late father, who was in the same boat J is now.  I wasn’t as smart as his kid in high school, but smart enough.  Expected to go to college.  So I did.  And had a great time while I was there.  Really spread my wings in a lot of senses, got some kind of bearing as a writer, a taste of what I could do, an introduction to a whole bunch of people who “got me” on some wavelength that didn’t always happen back home.  Got good grades, too, although I’m not sure what all that means now.  It was more the experience of being there and feeling another level in my life that seemed crucial at the time and made me feel like I could go into the world and try anything (which I did, after a few stumbles).

But I never forgot Dad, and bless him for getting me work inthe factory those two summers, as it set me up financially for most of my college career.  I can only imagine how he felt the day he watched his youngest kid graduating from college.  He had tried college fresh out of the armed forces in the 1950’s, but didn’t care for it, and eventually fell into the factory work, on which he raised a family and left Mom a pension she still lives on today.

Whenever I’d come back from New York in the late 80s and for the rest of his days, he loved to drive up to Hazleton and pick me up from the bus station, just so we could talk and relax together on the way back home.  That’s where I really got to know Dad, as a fellow man, as someone I could speak with on some type of equal ground, and oddly enough, find that we got along even better like this.  But the one thing that always stuck in my craw was when he’d say something like, “Bill, go for the money.  I’m so glad you’re doing something in your life that allows you to make some real money.  That’s all I ever wanted for you, not to end up like me.”

Well, I got bad news for Dad … I’ve ended up a lot like him.  Which is good news for me, because I’ve always known he was a good man, and whatever quiet senses of resolve and personal responsibility he carried through life, I’ve aspired to carry, too.  We’re worlds apart in some ways, but most of them very surface.  I turned into him, for better and worse.  My mom, too.  I can see so much of how I am in her.  More and more each day, which comforts me, because that will be how they live on.  And I always wanted to tell Dad, “You know, this life you envision for me, you have no idea what I’m dealing with.  Nasty pricks.  Ruthless people.  The kind you wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with for five minutes, much less spend eight hours a day working with for years on end.  This ‘upper crust’ life you picture yourself missing out on is packed with headaches, greed, insecurity and dishonesty in ways that would make you cringe and run straight back to the factory you know so well.  My life ain’t as great as you think it is.”

But I know he didn’t want to hear that.  He wanted the illusion that any sort of white-collar work was far beyond his blue-collar work in terms of personal happiness and fulfillment.  In some ways it is, in others it’s far from it.  Everyone’s life has problems, and you better believe, people with more money often have more problems.  I don’t even have that much, been hanging on to this way of life by my fingertips for a long time now, and I can see, the people who are successful in some easily identifiable way often have mountains of personal and financial issues that I would find crushing and oppressive beyond belief.  Generally speaking, the more you make, the more you want, and it never stops.

So … I often look back to Dad’s way of life and romanticize it as being far more simple and honest.  But I’m not kidding myself these days.  I’ve written many times before: sane, healthy and solvent.  You got those three things, the world can say anything it wants about you, but it can’t tell you jackshit.  And I think that’s what I’d tell Dad now if I could.  That’s what he lived by, that’s what he taught me (by example … I know he wasn’t even aware of it), that’s how I try to live, too.

All this came bubbling up inside as I spoke with J.  And I guess the main thing I wanted to get across to him was the simple act of recognizing he was sacrificing so his kid could live a better life was about the best he could do for himself, and that his kid could pass along if she wanted.  The act of sacrifice, parental sacrifice in particular, is a beautiful thing that speaks volumes about a person’s character, and something I saw in J’s character, immediately, could see it in his eyes when he spoke about her, and I knew that was how Dad talked about me when he was bragging to the guys in the factory about me and the Dean’s List at college.  And how they looked when they got to  know me those summers and felt some kind of personal stake in my beating ass out of the world they knew so well.

The truth is a kid who’s raised working class, goes out into the world and gets into ways of life that aren’t working-class, sort of finds himself playing it by ear, making it up as he goes along, hoping he’s doing it right, but not really sure if he is.  Hell, I’m still not sure!  But I know I’m living the life I want to, mistakes, missed opportunities and all.  Punching a clock in many senses, just like Dad did, but I’ve also learned just answering the alarm clock, getting your ass out of bed … may not seem like much, but that sense of routine keeps all of us going, no matter how good or bad we feel about it.  It’s work.  I learned over the course of 9/11 in New York, when my world felt empty and shattered, when that sense of routine was blown away for close to a week, I was yearning to get myself back in the office.  We’re conditioned to think the routine is embarrassingly dull and unimaginative … but try living life without it, especially for a reason like that.

There were moments like that all night.  Where I was simply talking to somebody about their kids, or work, or crazy shit we’ve done … and this door quietly opened in my mind or heart to see these other things that come out when you talk about simple things with people who knew you before you were all grown-up and putting on such a brave face.

And that’s why I go to reunions, in a nutshell.  Sure, there’s the flirting, fun, crazy stories, drunken revelry and occasional screwed-up memory that comes flashing back after a few beers and leaves you wondering “where in the hell did that come from.”  But most of it is this strange sort of time travel, where you recognize you’re in the here and now, but someone says something that takes you back to another place in your own life, maybe theirs, too, and makes you see some good things about yourself, the people who brought you along in the world and the person you’re talking to in that given moment.  So it’s not all beer guts, gray hair and gossip.  Well, sure it is.  But this is what you find when you stop paying attention to those things and start to absorb things that really matter, when you learn how to listen, to other people and yourself.

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