A few weeks ago, my old high school had a fire. It turned out to be not so big a deal, a small fire in a heating duct that was discovered and extinguished quickly. This was a Thursday, and the administration decided that since there was an ongoing smoke condition, school would be cancelled on Friday and marked as a snow day. That Friday, the sun was out, temperatures in the high 20’s, no wind, maybe some residual snow on the ground from a previous storm.
And that got me thinking ... January and February are such odd months that most of us just write off as a “woodshedding” time of year. Stick to some bullshit resolutions. Lay low. Dread Valentine’s Day. Don’t really reap the full benefits of having MLK and Presidents Days off. Life will start again when the weather gets better.
Growing up in the Coal Region of Pennsylvania, I viewed January and February as bleak times. They’re bleak times anywhere, I’ve learned since. In New York, it’s a time of howling winds and gray corner slush moats. But something about the Coal Region: the snow, those great, black coal banks by old mines between towns, looming like Transylvanian mountains through the fog of a defrosting car windshield on a cold, slushy day. It was pretty god-damned depressing sometimes.
By the same token, a sunny, clear day like that Friday the kids recently got jailbreaked from school? I can guess how elated they were. A gift like that in the dead of winter is a great thing, and I’m certain most of them seized the day as opposed to lazing around, Facebooking, watching shitty reality shows and pounding junk food.
What would I have been doing given similar circumstance circa 1982, given a gift of a day like that? My high school days winding down, feeling that directionless pull of a senior not quite sure how the world is going to change when all this ends.
I’d have gone running, as I did every day back then. That shorter route around Hampton’s Hill (as described here in my recent dog bite misadventure). I miss running in the morning as I recall how relaxed I felt after working out at sunrise. Doing the same now would require getting up before 6:00 am, and it just aint happening. It was nothing to run four miles in the morning, and I hated myself if I skipped for any reason, which was rare. Snow? I loved running in snow. As noted in the dog-bite story, I was elated to do so again recently.
After that, sure, the TV would have been on, like on a sick day, and I’d have been drawn into shitty Love Boat/Gilligan’s Island reruns, or worse, The Price Is Right. Sick days, and I mean real sick days which were the only kind I’ve ever taken, often lost their allure after two or three hours of reruns of bad 70’s shows, which seemed like Citizen Kane compared to the afternoon soap operas soon to follow. (I recall one of the cool things about college was having time off during the day one could use any way he saw fit, which just as often found me hitting the great pool hall on campus or listening to cool shit on a friend’s stereo in his downtown apartment. I’d love to have a lifestyle again with that sort of informal breathing room, but it hasn’t happened!)
But I’m sure the main draw of the day would have been gathering the tribe for a long lunch at the Ponderosa Steakhouse at the mall, followed by shooting pool at Holiday Lanes.
This meant rock and roll, too. Listening to it on a car stereo, driving from place to place. If it was my friend G driving, that would have meant Zappa, T. Rex, Joan Jett, The J. Geils Band, Billy Squier, and a host of other 70’s and early 80’s rock acts. If T was driving, one thing and one thing only: Van Halen. However many albums they had by that time in the 80’s. David Lee Roth, only. Sammy Hagar was a solo act at that point (and G had a few of his albums on cassette). I grew to hate Van Halen at the time (but changed my mind later when not being force-fed their music multiple times a week).
Just because Ponderosa was a steakhouse didn’t mean we had steak. In fact, I don’t think I ever had a steak at that Ponderosa. They had an open salad bar for some outrageously low price (less than $5.00 if I remember correctly). And while you think we would have eaten an endless supply of lettuce and tomatoes, it was more like all that other hideously wrong shit you’ll find at cheap steakhouse salad bars: really bad soup, potato salad, mac and cheese that was somehow worse than the instant shit we made at home, and I can’t recall much else.
Actually, I did eat a lot of vegetables, probably two or three plates worth. The absolute worst though was the soft-serve ice cream. We would see people getting large dinner plates piled four inches high with soft-serve ice cream. Of course, judging by the size of most of them, they were on a diet, and this was some sort of concession. We ate like horses and had free soda refills. Back then we were kids and seemed oblivious of the fact that a glass of non-diet soda was over 200 calories, and we’d have five or six. In theory, salad bars should be healthy, but steakhouse salad bars were more like the cheap end of a very unhealthy trough, for pigs like us on a budget. We thought actually ordering a steak along with an unending salad bar was ostentatious over-abundance. This is what Rome must have been like before it fell! (Rome, Georgia, maybe.)
Sometimes we’d end up puking in the parking lot, JB in particular who seemed to have an aversion to any non-meat related food. Those Ponderosa lunches were essentially drinking sessions without the alcohol: those freewheeling, hours going back and forth types of myth-making bullshit sessions were the same kind of things we’d do a few years later in bars, with the added allure of beer and women. We already had it all in some sense, that underlying sense of camaraderie which is what most guys really want from a good night out at the bar (despite telling themselves they’re trying to get laid). And the older I get, the more I miss those sort of informal male-bonding sessions as it grows so much harder to get adults on the same page to enjoy each other’s company.
From the Ponderosa, it was a short ride to Holiday Lanes just outside of Shenandoah. It became a pierogie factory after that, then a storage space, then I don’t know what. Last I saw, they were trying to launch a farmer’s market there. It’s hard to believe I spent so many teenage nights in that space, working on my pool skills. While the bowling lanes took up most of the space, I don’t think I’ve ever bowled more than a handful of times in my life. Off to the right side of the entrance was the pool hall, where you’d pick up a rack of balls from the counterman and work up a few hours at an open table.
I can see why we never got laid in high school when the most fun we were having was in exclusively male-bonding scenarios, like the Ponderosa and pool shooting. Aside from G, who had a table in his parent’s basement, we were all pretty average players, despite getting off the occasional Minnesota Fats, table length, multi-bumper shot that always felt like a gift from God. Such a shot would usually come with a game on the line, a desperation hail-mary of a pool shot that found us aiming in the general direction and praying the crappy side bumpers actually responded according to our on-the-fly geometrical projections. Such a winning shot would generally be followed by our opponent ass-hammering us in the next game, and so on, all night long, until we got tired of taking up space and hit the road.
As usual, rock and roll was blasting the whole time, adding to the cool factor, I recall many air-guitar solos fingered on pool cues, pretending I was Neil Young when "Powderfinger" came blasting over WZZO on the radio. There were no jocks, or stoners, or kids who got A’s, or kid’s who got D’s, in the pool hall, just guys shooting pool, from the ages of about 14 through 30. Pool is one of those things that just fell away for me after college. I recall going to a few radically over-priced halls in Manhattan when I first moved here, but it just didn’t take hold and no longer had that same allure of a gritty place like Holiday Lanes.
How many hundreds or thousands of hours did we waste there? Of course, none of it was a waste. That time we spent as kids, who had just learned how to drive as teenagers and reveled in those new senses of freedom and identity, it’s the kind of time I no longer have a sense of after decades of adulthood. Everything I do now in a similar sense of spending leisure time has a purpose of some sort. Whether that means working on my physical and mental health in a gym, having dinner with a friend, or going out for drinks with coworkers and such, everything feels weighted with purpose, even if it’s the same purpose (bonding) as we had back then. I felt directionless back then doing stuff like the Ponderosa/Holiday Lanes circuit, in a good way. Time suspended, all the time in the world to hang loose, let’s just hang out and enjoy each other’s company.
That’s what we would have done, set free a glorious, sunny school day in late January. I can see the physical impossibilities with ever having that same sense of freedom again. Everyone I knew back then was in the same school, so we all had the day off. We all had nothing to do. We all did the same things in our spare time. So it only made sense that we’d band together and take advantage of a free shot like that.
Flash forward a few decades. Everyone I know is spread out among various jobs, living in various states (and even countries), living in various circumstances (married, with kids, divorced, working 14 hour days, etc.). Some of us aren’t even on the same page, warring over various issues that sprung up over the years, falling in and out of touch, whatever time brings, I can see it brings strange sometimes troubling shit no one saw coming. I’m finding, even with an old friend, that when she gets on Facebook and tries to gather troops for a night out when I’m back there visiting (really, just an excuse for anyone to hang out for a few hours in a nice bar/restaurant to have a few drinks), people either play dead or act like it’s pulling teeth to make time to spend 2-3 hours of their lives doing this.
Once upon a time, we’d do that with no warning, on a moment’s notice with a phone call, and everyone saying why the hell not, got nothing better to do. I would love my life to be that way again, and if there’s any sort of resolution I’d make, for a new year or otherwise, it’s to allow that sort of freedom into my life again, instead of acting like I’m too important or busy to have that sort of important fun. I like to think kids are idiots, but so long as they understand this, they’ll always have something over adults. And I don't know why we're so stupid.