Monday, October 6, 2014

In the Evening

When I hear this song I always think of Pedricktown. The four corners that comprise the center of Pedricktown will always be my hometown. The people, the events, the beliefs, the environment of that place shaped what I became.

From the start of the song where Ms. Dement is singing about the street lights I can see the kind of steely light that the lampposts right around the center of town gave off. The one in front of the Oddfellows Hall stands out because I could see it out my bedroom window. It made the place, the bricks of the old post office, the concrete slab in front of the Hall and just about everything else a kind of steely blue as the night rolled in.

Walking out at 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. on a spring night after I had finished my homework I was looking for where people were. Were they going to be sitting on Sweeten’s stoop? Were they going to be at Draybolds? Were they going to be behind the school? Were they riding around in 63 Chevys or Bear Bishop’s gray Plymouth?

When I came out the side door of my house and out under the Catalpa tree in front I usually turned to my right and headed down toward Sweeten’s. Chances were if I turned right and headed down Cherry Street I would run into my old man sneaking a cigarette out of the sight of my mother. He was supposed to quit. He didn’t. It helped kill him. No sadness now it just is what it is. Me, I should quit junk food. Will I? Who knows?

In my pocket would be a soft pack of Marlboro red and when out of sight of the house I would light one up. If my old man saw me I was in trouble. I can remember the lecture, “Your Mom has asthma, you don’t do to well in the breathing department yourself and quitting is hard.” Took me a decade to figure out he wasn’t stupid and then I quit; might have been the inability to walk up four flights of stairs without wheezing that taught me my lesson. Thing was when I walked out on the streets of Pedricktown at night I knew caring (or prying) eyes were watching my steps no matter which direction I headed.

Ms. Dement talks about hearing her mother’s voice call. I remember that from a slightly younger age. I remember other’s people’s mother voices calling out for their kids to come home. No cell phones blurped an odd tinkling sound to say a text had come saying come home. You heard the timbre of those voices yelling your name and the name of your friends. The edge to the voice told you if it was a warning or if you were really late and in trouble.

And she talks about her father teaching her everything she knew. Me, I remember refusing to listen to my old man. But every old man in Pedricktown had some kernel of wisdom they wanted to share and were going to share with you. You couldn’t escape it. You got shared communal wisdom at the meat counter in Sweeten’s when Jim Dunk smiled and talked, or when you were taking a check to the bank for your Mom and growling old Mr. Langford said something, or when you were sitting on those stools near the candy counter in Draybold’s. Someone in there would have something to say. No matter how hard you tried you would invariably listen.

No matter what people told you as a teen you ignored it. But it was there in your head waiting for the hormones to ebb and then what Mr. Pickens, or Mr. Jones or Mr. Huber or somebody on the loading dock at Rubenstein’s said would make sense. People were kind of blunt and direct about what was right and what was wrong and what worked and what didn’t

Sometimes after hitting Mill Street I wouldn’t find anyone and I would just walk, not a soul in sight. An absence of people started a trek that for me that was part search and part the burning off of youthful energy. The path might lead east down to the bridge to watch the creek flow. Or I could turn up Railroad Avenue and walk to the tracks. If I was energetic I could go to the auction block. Or turning the other way I would walk by the scale house, the school and end up at the Methodist Cemetery, or Freeds Road or the creek down by the Darlington’s. The last route to the west would take you to the church.

In my day the Railroad Avenue walk would take you to the best chances of finding people drinking beer. Go south and they might be sitting behind the bank. Go north and they might be at the auction block. They might be standing behind the school. Searching people out wasn’t always about the beer or the pot but it was about the companionship. When you had friends from P-City they stuck with you when we got sent to PGHS. We were different that the kids from Carney’s Point and Penns Grove. Hell it was almost like being part of a clan.

On the right night the feeling was warm and comforting. Pedrickown always felt safe. Sometimes it seemed a million miles away from the real world but it had an order to it. It might have been youthful bliss and ignorance but I don’t think so. I have never found as tight knit a community since I left.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

One of My Favorite Teachers at PGHS

Pedricktown kids did not have their own high school.  We were shipped off to that regional high school where a number of communities joined together in educating their children.  High school brought us into contact with our first wave of outsiders.  It wasn’t a bad thing.  Over the years I have put together a couple of remembrances tied to high school at PGHS.  I went to the old high school I think for one year before we moved to the new high school, thus I remember both buildings.  Here is the first of a couple of tales from the new high school.
In this one tale I don’t think I really changed anyone’s name.  Ms. Powell would be impossible to hide with her southern accent and her stern manner.  

“Mrs. Powell, it was the aliens, I swear.”

Every single day offers us at least one lesson. In the space of a moment we may be learning the real grammar of life in an immense world. On other occasions an intimate conversation could take a turn and suddenly we are absorbing a master class in the nuances of emotional subtext. These lessons are there and we have to choice to listen or not.

In was in the fall of 1973 that I learned one of my life's great lessons. Living takes pluck, stones if you would, and a sense of the absurd. Sometimes when faced with an inevitable judgment in which you will be found wanting, sheer audacity can save the day. If necessity that great mother had not taught me well, my life might have followed a much more serene and stable course.

The 1973 day in question was a school day, and a wet one at that. Rain was falling steady and sometimes it was blowing. Usually wet days put me in a good mood. I don't know why but I have always loved a day with nice rain. Maybe it is the smell. Maybe it is because I am allergic to anything that is green and grows and the cleansing of the atmosphere left my body in a healthier and inherently more upbeat state. Or maybe a wet school day was when the playing field was mine. I wasn't athletic and there would be no outdoor PE. In a classroom I was competitive although my grades didn't show it. Grades really didn't mean that much to me.

While the day in question was a wet school day, it was far from perfect. It fell during my senior year of high school and in that year I had drawn Ms. Powell as my English teacher. Ms. Powell was southern, sixtyish, austere and demanding. She wore thick rimmed glasses popular a full decade before. The only saving grace of her spectacles was that at least they weren't black horn rims. Her standards were rigorous. Attendance was taken and reported and papers were due when they were due. A day late was a dollar short for Mrs. Powell.

On the day of insight I was caught in a conflict between three competing forces. In addition to the three page paper Mrs. Powell had assigned on a hoary old section of a Dickens's novel, 'Oh Pip, Oh Ms. Haversham….oh etc', I had a history paper due on some Russian Japanese conflict in the early part of the twentieth century. That paper was to be 10 pages long and required footnotes and a bibliography. I am not making this stuff up; it was 10 hard pages on the relatively obscure Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). This for the uniformed was a military conflict wherein a victorious Japan forced Russia to abandon its expansionist policy in the Far East. The war was important because Japan was the first Asian power in modern times to defeat a European power. It was a key element in setting the political mood in Japan that eventually led to its role in the Second World War.

Understand this, the history paper was hard, hard, hard. In 1973 THERE WAS NO GOOGLE!!! I had to work to find stuff on something this obscure and it ate up my time. Balanced against the rest of my life then, something had to give. If I was to do a good job on both papers I would have to give up on the third time demand then facing me. How could I complete both papers and still slip out in the evening to drink beer, smoke dope and sit on the street corner and engage in all the what if-ing all of life's questions with the local gang? I needed this social interaction to make me a well rounded human being. In my little town if you weren't on the street corner, then there wasn't going to be any fun. Hard, hard, hard I tell you and my paper on Dicken's (the creator of our modern image of Christmas) lost out.
On that rainy day there was no doubt my miserable allocation of time would be discovered. I had no uncertainty as to how this how scenario would play out. Going into the third period I would be measured in the balance and found wanting. I had no plan. Nothing. Nada. Judgment was coming and despite my slightly askew values that had led to this situation I didn't want to face what was bound to be unpleasantness.

Ms. Powell had a special way of collecting papers. When she gathered those pearls of prose created by the best and brightest of the dazed and confused generation she would walk up one row of desks and down another until all the papers were in her control. Her hand would extend out as she reached our desks and she would in a clear voice state our names.

The first desk would be reached, the hand palm up and open would extend and in a demanding, not questioning way. She would then state to the occupant of that seat, "Kathy." A diminutive pale feminine hand would place on Ms. Powell's palm five pages in micro fine handwriting of insightful literary analysis. Kathy was good writer and knew how to effectively suck up. A few more steps and then came the calling of the name. "Gary." Soiled crumpled sheets of lined paper were offered up, but the process continued. And then came two more steps and "Jay."

Seconds can take on the feel of hours when you have nothing to fill them with. Thus when the palm pressed a little more forward toward me and the voice again repeated my name but this time with an air of a perturbed question/demand, "Jay?" I had been running through every possible response I had ever used. Vomiting and feigning illness, while an emotionally attractive option, was really not going to work. I didn't look ill and I hadn't vomited on cue since I was a tyke. When the inevitable "Where is you paper" in all its iciness came I had nothing.

Claiming a work conflict with Mrs. Powell did not cut it, this was the 1970s and very few of us had after school obligations or jobs, especially during fall semester. Two papers for a senior in the college preparatory track should have not been a problem given proper planning and appropriate applications of one's self to the work at hand. Saying that the paper was at home on the kitchen table was not going to work either. Tiping my head back and drawing myself up I starred head onto into those cold, irked gray eyes. It was then I just decided to go for it.

The conversation went something like this….

Me. "Mrs. Powell I don't have your paper with me, but I did it. There is a story behind why it is not here and I can explain what happened. As you may remember due to some of my recent peccadilloes Mr. Feldman our fine disciplinary Vice Principal has urged me to show more personal responsibility and school spirit.
Really, he has been quite forceful in communicating those points to me in our many recent meetings."

Mrs. P. "Jay, where is this going?"

Me. "Mrs. Powell I have taken Mr. Feldman's words to heart. I want to be a valued member of our Penns Grove Red Devils community. So as I was walking to class today I tried to act like I had pride in our school. As I was turning into the hallway that leads to your class I noticed one of the four doors to the outside was open. Mrs. Powell rain was blowing in onto the recently cleaned floor. It was making slippery and was going to wreck the recent wax job our fine janitorial staff had recently put down. I knew that other students were in serious danger of personal injury and knew also it would be forever before the janitors got back to waxing the hall again. Thus I decided to take responsibility and do something productive, something right. I put my paper which is, if I might say so myself, one of the better ones I have ever written, did I ever tell you that I really love Dickens, on top of the trash can there near the door. You see I had decided to close the door and I didn't want to make your review of my paper any more difficult than it had to be. I was concerned the ink smearing if my paper got got wet might cause you to have trouble deciphering it. I care for you comfort Mrs. Powell for I see that you like me wear glasses."

Mrs. P. "Again Jay, while I appreciate your concern for my visual health where is this going?"

Me. "Okay, I know what I am going to tell you next is going to be a little hard to believe but you have got to believe me because it is all true. All of it. I swear it. Okay, okay, so when I got to discover what was actually going on with the door I was absolutely flabbergasted. First off when I went over to the door I reached out not looking at the door because I didn't really want to get wet and gave a tug on the door handle. It didn't budge. I had to turn to see what was going on and there he was as real as sin. Mrs. Powell I know this will be hard to believe but there was an honest to God alien holding the door open. He was short and covered with phosphorescent orange fur but he was strong as a Moose. However thinking only of the safety of others I began to pull harder and actually got a little ground on him. But then he yanked on the door again and pulled it ever wider open. And all of a sudden a whole bunch of these soaking wet orange critters came running through the door. There fur was wet and they were shaking like dogs do when they come in from the rain. Clearly the hallway condition was getting worse for the safety of my student comrades. I was beside myself. The one goofy orange goober at the door smiled a huge toothless grin. His mouth must have been two feet wide but it had no teeth. I didn't know what to do, but I did have to do something."

Mrs. P. "So what did you do?"

Me. "Well Mrs. Powell I watched for my opportunity and as fate would have it most of the orange furry dudes had slick soled feet. Having shaken their fur they were slipping and sliding on the wet floor they had created. Quickly I began to grab them by their coarse fur and one by one I forced them backside. Here is where it all ties together for you. I had thought I had gotten them all, I mean it was confusion but I was sure I had got them. Well, truth be told I had gotten all of them but one, and as fate would have it the sole remaining alien was the big toothless guy that had pulled the door open in the first place. As I pushed what I thought was the last one outside I heard a noise behind me I turned around to see the toothless bugger who had caused this commotion running by me toward the door, but and I swear this is the truth he had my paper in his weird tentacle like hands. I yelled for him to stop as he ran for the exit. But I slipped and skidded and as I was looking like Wiley Coyote, he hit the crash bar and headed on out. I yelled I needed the paper and he shouted back to me, and believe this if you can, he knew English. He in a voice that was part howl, part torn bass speaker yelled he was getting even with me because Mrs. Powell was one mean woman and his revenge for having been dispossessed of entry into the school would be forciing me to face what he asserted was an unmerciful you without my paper.

Me. "Mrs. Powell I stood up for you. I said you were kind and merciful, that you cared for your students and that you would never punish me for the evil acts of a bunch of day-glo aliens."

By this point the class had been stone silent for five minutes. No gum was being popped. The usual tap tap tap of the pencil tappers was still. Nobody was moving or adjusting their desks. It was the silence that precedes a car hurtling into the unknown off a cliff. It was the silence heard perhaps in the moments before the floor drops and the doomed man falls victim to hemp and gravity. It was a clarifying silence, cool and astringent, and I swear my testicles were so far into my chest at this point that it is amazing they ever came back down from that defensive move of evolution.

Me. "Mrs. Powell, I swear this is all true. You don't want to prove those evil aliens right do you? I promise the paper, 'cause I am going to have to rewrite it all, will be in your hands tomorrow."

Mrs. Powell by this point had the first couple of papers she had collected clutched to her breasts. For the longest time it was impossible to tell if she was pissed off to the point that me and Mr. Feldman were going to have a much longer bonding period than usual or if I was about to be referred for some serious psychological counseling. It was then I saw her smile ever so slightly and I knew it was going to be okay.

Mrs. Powell. "Fine, tomorrow it is."

When Mrs. Powell moved on to the next desk the routine she followed was repeated, hand outstretched, her voice inquired "Don?" Don looking down at his desk so as not to break up in laughter began, "Mrs. Powell, I was following Jay down the hall and you know he did put them out but no sooner had he left but they ran back in and I was faced with the same situation….." At this point Mrs. Powell just rocked her head back and said "Okay, okay I give up the paper is due tomorrow." She then proceeded to hand back the papers she had collected so far.

So what did I learn? Well I guess it comes down to this, when faced with no hope, no excuse, no shot well you just have to go long, go in your face with confidence and go weird.
Shock and humor may save your hide when all the legal arguments in the world will do nothing but hang your ass out to dry. People love to be amused. So when in doubt, don't doubt, just drive on like Hunter S. Thompson and make the reality that dominates your reality and not theirs. And sometimes it just might work.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

How the Pedricktown Swimming Pool Set Me on a Path that brought me to where I am Today.

A few years ago I used to work in downtown Lansing, MI for the State of Michigan. Next door to my office was a coffee shop called Beaners.  (The name has been changed now to Biggby’s).  Over the years I would go in there to have coffee or tea and talk with the baristas.  Over time I got to know some of the other regulars.  One of them Chris remembered me from when she had been the foreperson on a jury trial I had handled.

Chris is from Iowa and I am from New Jersey.  Over several years we compared growing up stories.  Most of my stories began in the words of an old Robert Earl Keen song, “We were so messed up…”  Chris urged me to write my stories down.  After a few months of her badgering I did start a blog.  Over time several stories of Pedricktown worked their way into the blog.  

What I wrote about Pedricktown was from my perspective as someone who felt he had to flee his home town to grow up.  I made some basic attempts to change street names and the names of people who might be impacted.  Some worked and some didn’t.  Funny thing is that pretty much most of what I wrote could have ended up on a script of Freaks and Geeks.  If you grew up in the seventies this is your life story. It shows on IFC from time to time.  If you haven’t seen it check it out some time.  The one I have never gotten right is the streaking story.  Maybe someday if I have the time and the clarity of mind I will get that one down.

I wrote this current story about three years ago.  In order to protect the “innocent” some names have been changed.  After careful consideration I have decided I am not going to rewrite this story to avoid making myself look like a dumb ass.  In the years from 1966-1974 I was a total dumb ass.

As you read this just remember that when I grew up in Pedricktown I was intoxicated a fair bit of the time. Also I had some nefarious tendencies, perversions and a generally bad attitude.  I was no saint, nope, but neither were any and I mean any, of the people I grew up with. So here is a tale about how that concrete body of water at the end of what is now according to Google Maps called Seminole Lane changed my life. 

Early in my youth my family belonged to a swim club, it wasn’t fancy. New Jersey in the summer gets hot. Having a water-hole built of concrete and filled with filtered cold clear H20 was wonderful. The place’s mere existence was thoroughly consistent with the progress focused American Dream of the sixties. It was onward and upward for us there in P-City.

In retrospect the private club part may have existed for more than just sharing the cost of a common water playground. Being private our man made cement pond was exclusionary for people like us and only like us. This was the country club for the factory foreman and the folks working night shift. You didn’t have to swing a golf club or put on a jacket and tie to socialize someplace, any place out of your house.

Describing the physical place is simple; describing the social place is much harder. As to what one would see with the eye there was a chain link fence surrounding the whole place keeping non members out and wee members in. A little compound, the swimming club had concrete block changing rooms for both men and women. These rooms were housed in a long rectangular box that stretched in a line across the western edge of the site. Access to the pumps and other guts of the pool’s actual operation was obtained through the men’s dressing room, as rightly it should have been back then. I mean men were still men and they worked with wrenches, gaskets, filters and the like. The pool even had a snack bar. Everything about the place smacked of progress and modernity. Our pool represented upward mobility in a solidly middle class way.

The pool itself it seemed to be in my young eyes thoroughly up to date, current as of that minute. It had a shallow end and a deep end with a diving board. Again as it is in all my tales my memory is not reliable as it once was but I think the board was used mostly for cannonballs and belly flops. When used it produced a distinctive sound, a sproing-oing-oing as the fiberglass plank oscillated to a stop. But the board was not the only sound you would here when someone made a dive. When one of my more massive contemporaries hit the water you could hear the smack of that massive torso and feel his wake at the other end of the pool. There was even a separate kiddie pool. Being up to date in all things and given the time’s focus on education during the first few weeks of each summer Red Cross sponsored swim courses were given. I know I got up to junior lifesaver before I quit taking lessons.

From my house in the heart of our little farm town it seems like it was about a four minute drive out to the pool; maybe a mile. In the early years of our membership before I hit what is now considered middle school age my mother would load me, my older brother and some folding aluminum chairs into the big old Ford on hot summer afternoons. Once in the car Mom’s eyes focused straight ahead and we barreled down that old county road, made a right just past the Darlington’s place and kicked up dirt on the unpaved road for about an eighth of a mile until we parked by the pool. What a way to spend sunny summer afternoons. At seven years old it was heaven. My fingers and toes were raisins each day as I came out of the cold, cooling water. At thirteen or maybe fourteen my time at the pool became something else much more interesting.

No matter what age I was I really don’t remember using much in the way of suntan lotion back then. Besides with my buck teeth I really wasn’t at risk for sunburn except for the top of my shaved head. The increased risk of my head for sunburn, the rest of my body being shaded by my buck teeth in case you missed the joke, was because I like every other male child in that part of the world got a shaved head the week school ended as his summer haircut. Our hair would not be addressed again in a Baldini’s or Lomeyer’s barber’s chair until the week before school resumed in September. School started the day after Labor Day as God intended and never before.

Okay let us take in the visual image now of my naked, but for one butt ugly bathing suit, self. There I was under the burning sun, a myopic fat kid with big ears and a shaved head with either a pasty white or blistered red skin tone. Oh yeah I had black horn rimmed glasses held together with electrical tape at the broken bridge too. It is an absolute wonder nobody drowned me for the betterment of society in an act of vigilante eugenic purging. Gary Larson owes me royalties damn it.

While I don’t remember much about some areas of the pool I do remember that the sunbathing areas were uncomfortable. Instead of sand the areas where you would lay out on a towel were covered with small white stones. The net result was that that the surfaces were you could lie out were both hot and uncomfortable. Little sand burrs grew up between the stones waiting to attack a less than watchful patron with a naked foot as he or she padded to a sunning spot. Adding to the pleasure of this space was the issue that back then I only got a small towel from home to lie upon. My legs below my knee would hang out across the rocks. My lower calf would sizzle and drip sweat on those white and hot rocks. The effect was kind of like a steak dripping juices on a gas grill’s lava rocks.

Did I mention this place was heaven to me? No I mean it; the pool really was something special.

As I grew older I would ride my W.T. Grant’s blue/purple banana seat butterfly stingray bike out to the swimming pool. That’s right with my plump legs pumping, my fat ass was hanging out-sort of sucking the whole of my banana seat into invisibility. It was about a 10 or 15 minute ride down an asphalt road that was more a memory of a paved road that a real road. There were patches upon patches of macadam of different shades some oozing as the weather got good and warm, some just breaking up in dry brittle clumps.

On my way to the pool I would head down Railroad Avenue past the town school. It housed all eight grades and has been in use since about 1914. I haven’t been back home in a long time but I have seen posts from folks back in P-City.  The school is no longer in use and weeds seem to be growing everywhere. Still that school to me is what a school should look like. Winding its way out of town to the east the road became empty of houses. There were two exceptions, a farm house and a migrant shack across the street from it. Sometime I would see the Puerto Rican men in their straw hats heading into different parts of the fields.

Curving slightly just beyond those houses the road would pass over a short causeway over a creek. In Mom’s car you didn’t even notice the causeway or the creek they were hidden in some deep foliage. But to a 14 year kid it was a mandatory stop. Might be turtles out there either swimming or sunning themselves. Of course you didn’t stop if the old black people were there fishing. I never stopped long anyway for this was brackish water and there was a plant we informally called skunk cabbage that grew out there. It stank something really awful, if not with the exact aroma then with at least the same intensity as skunk spray.

After the causeway I went up the hill past the big old frame house on the right and turned on that dirt road to the pool. At the start of the road it was sandy and hard to pedal. On a summer day this was the part of the ride that made you sweat. Combining a stiff jaunt up a pretty steep grade (for New Jersey normally about the flattest place in the universe) with pushing a bike through loose sand and I would be working up a real sweat.

With the pool in sight my legs pumped the hardest they would on the whole ride. I would be straining on the pedals of that bike, a machine that was a couple of years too small but which was still my ride. But I pumped hard, real hard so that when I got to the hard packed sand of the pool parking lot I could lock up those coaster brakes and kick that dusty dirt into the air. Cool is very relative to a way too immature 13 (or 14) year old.

I have been thinking about the pool because of Facebook and the recent heat wave.  Cooling water would be nice right now.  On the other hand Facebook is an insidious thing (what does social utility mean anyway). Recently I got a friend request from one of the people who, in my mind at least, is tied to my memory of the pool forever and ever. I have not seen or talked to this person to the best of my recall since 1975. It was a hoot seeing her image. She looks good, older but still good. But my memory of her will always be atop someone’s shoulders in a two piece yellow bathing suit chicken fighting in the shallow end of that pool on a summer day.

I have struggled as to how and frame this story, should it be about the pool or the people? If it was about the people I should mention the lifeguards. I remember a couple of the lifeguards in particular. Actually I knew at least one lifeguard pretty well. Her name was Linda and she went to the University of Michigan. She was fairly intellectual and a bit of a wild child. Sitting on her elevated chair on a sparsely attended July afternoon she was desperate for conversation with anyone and there I was. She talked to me about things that were interesting like Camus’ The Fall and The Stranger and about Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. We talked about music. All the while I was sitting at the foot of her life guard stand like an acolyte to an elevated female Buddha. Her love of U of M probably impacted on my choice to go to Michigan State.  Michigan to hear her describe it was a little bit of the Promised Land, only colder.

Linda had been a mutant child herself, a little too academically smart for her own good and thus somewhat mistreated in school. Me, the year she was our lifeguard, I was fat and somewhat academically talented, you do the math on the peer torture equation. Plus I was the last child and my parents were tired of raising kids and dealing with adolescent angst and trauma. What I got was not the most hands on parenting advice. My Dad’s response when I got bullied was to tell me, hit ‘em back. That stratagem never worked out for me, ever. Linda would always tell me to get out, to go away to college. She swore to me that once you got away from your hometown choices opened up in terms of socializing. She was right in my case and I thank her for that. Had I not been at that swimming pool I might not have gotten that advice.

There were other people there too. Some of them I correspond with now thanks to Facebook, e-mail and the like. Some I don’t. The people that are the key to this story are individuals we will call Teenage girl 1, Teenage girl 2, Buff teenage dude 1 and Buff teenage dude 2. Somewhere floating at the edge of this was one of my now dearest friends, but I don’t remember her being involved in the sort of social scene that the above four were. Because I was at the pool on a daily basis I was kind of a voyeur on these folks' adolescent social development. These girls were growing breasts finally that were bigger than mine. I did mention I was fat didn’t I? That one change seemed to stir all sorts of stuff up.

So very much of what we learn about life comes in places outside of schools. Sometimes the education is subtle like watching the kind gesture of someone sharing food with a friend. Sometimes that education is pretty brutal like seeing a beat down start at a bar and then watching a couple of bouncers get even more brutal to break it up. At the pool one summer the education came by watching what happened when hormones, pheromones and cold water combined.

As I was saying when you are hanging around the swimming pool midday in the summer as an early teen, a very fundamental education in life just happens. If you are fat and ugly you aren’t a real participant this was lesson number one.  Still you would get to watch teenage bug lust on display. As you get to the pool most days there are the guys who clearly are going to play football in high school sunning themselves on the white rocks. They are already conditioning themselves and their bellies and upper torso are taut.

Nearby are the girls. They would lie upon their towels and would rub suntan oil on each other. They wore bikinis. If they had been at the beach they would have unhooked their bra straps for a better tan as they lay face down. But this was a small town and that was just too risqué.  I struggled with the last word in the preceding sentence originally typing risky.  What I meant was risqué, i.e., verging on the slightly indecent.  Risky works too.  Lying on the rocks with an unhooked bikini bra strap would only invite someone to drop ice or something cold on their backs. We are talking teens here.

The four of them would banter back and forth. They would talk about what would happen next year. They would talk about who had been seeing whom at the end of the last school year. They would count up their change and go by a soda at the snack bar and maybe a frozen Zero bar. Ah, this was a real frozen Zero bar not to be confused with the ice cream confection branded that way that they sell at convenience stores now. They made small talk that wasn’t so much about the topic at hand as it was about learning to talk to someone of the other sex. Me I lay there and read Shakespeare. Fat, nearly blind, mutant child reading Othello; could I have been any more of a pariah?

Yes I am wallowing in self pity right now.  However Linda was right, once I got out of P-City things got better.  First were the summers I spent in Ocean City and then came the college years in East Lansing at university.  I lost weight, I learned to dress myself and buy my own clothes.  It was the seventies, a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt and some photo-grey glasses and you were covered.  The seventies didn’t require a great deal of style sense.  If those later years hadn’t played out that way this piece might be bitter but it isn’t.  The pool to me is a fond and cherished memory.

Eventually the bunch of them would go into the pool the heat of the rocks having gotten to be too much. The guys would try and do some dives woofing on each other for various perceived short comings. The girls would sit at the edge of the pool and drop their legs into the shallow end slowly. After a minute or two of swirling their legs about they would drop down into the water and shiver and giggle. They were indeed such girls. In memory they were very beautiful, in the extreme even.

Once Teenage girl 1 and Teenage girl 2 had entered the shallow end the diving would soon stop. The girls would work on their strokes. Buff teenage dude 1 and Buff teenage dude 2 would inch their way down to the shallow end diving under the buoyed rope separating the two parts of the pool. At first they would rest their elbows on the edge of the pool and pretend to be talking about something, maybe a summer job at the vegetable packing house, maybe not. Eventually the girls would stop and would come over and join in the Buff dude’s conversation. Maybe a small rubber football would be thrown around, maybe not. But most days it the end it ended up in a…..

Chicken fight!

A chicken fight works best if certain rules are observed. The lower part to the two person team should be the stouter, stockier of the duo. This is why mixed doubles are the rule in really good recreational pool chicken fights. The upper part of the team should be agile and sinewy. Buff dudes on bottom, teenage girls on top. With her fingers locked in her opponent’s fingers forearm strength and general flexibility are definite pluses for the female top of the tower. Twisting, torquing and wrenching all at once the goal is to knock part or all of the other team back into the water without going down yourself, or at least being the last to fall and submerge.

There isn’t any more hormonally charged but theoretically more wholesome activity for two 14 year old boys and two 15 year old girls than water bound chicken fighting. Think about it; is there anything more sexual you can do while still being in open public in broad daylight than thrashing about the water in such embrace? Freud just kind of oozes from the imagery of these erect young figures writhing about in so much moisture. It was a teenage boy’s dream come true.

A willowy and breast endowed teenage girl would sit elevated above the water. Her smooth legs wrapped around a beefy teenage boy’s neck, her foot heels pressed into the top of his ribcage in the shallow water. Okay maybe it would have been the teenage boy’s dream if he was facing the other direction but still it wasn’t bad. Hey the water was warm and splashing was involved.

As I mentioned I was the fat kid standing off to the side, on the concrete sidewalk that surrounded the pool merely watching. Myopic but focused on the events transpiring I would just never be part of the action. I was fat not strong. Like a character in Portnoy’s Complaint I stayed on the sidelines and just watched. How is that for a late 1960s reference? Note unlike the main character in Portnoy I was Baptist, not Jewish.  However I along with being a mere observer had lots of guilt much like the Portnoy antihero.

Back and forth they went, twisting and turning, splashing and laughing. Teenage girl 1 and Buff teenage dude 1 tipped back from a sudden drop followed by an upward push from Buff teenage dude 2 and Teenage girl 2. Buff teenage dude 1 then crouched in a near squat planting his feet and steadied himself. On that rigid human oil derrick Teenage girl 1 pushed Teenage girl 2 with more strength than I thought she could have mustered. Teenage girl 2 leaned back at about a 70 degree angle to the water’s surface; it was almost the tipping point.

With a flex of her right shoulder and a push forward Teenage girl 1 pushed forward sending Teenage girl 2 ass over head into the water. Lunging forward to complete this motion it happened. With that right arm extended almost straight out and now part of a 45 degree second side of a parallelogram with Teenage girl 2’s falling body, Teenage girl 1’s left cup of her bikini bra fell open and there it was, her nipple.

It was wonderful. Assuredly it was the first female nipple I had ever seen that wasn’t covered with a glossy coating incorporated into a body segmented by a tri-fold with staples in her abdomen located in the center of a thick men’s magazine. As nipples go for me it was Plato’s concept of the ideal, lying in a world somewhere beyond that tainted realm that our five senses bound selves inhabit. That wet perky puppy was perfection and beauty. It was the standard against which all nipples would be judged for years to come.

If this sounds like arrested development, it probably is, I am after all a man and nothing more. However I am not a pervert, well not unless it suits my purpose and everyone else involved is okay with it. But that wardrobe malfunction was magic and did something to me. (No I am not talking about that obvious thing that you are most likely thinking happened to me although that probably did also occur). That areola with its tiny little pill box center was a key to my future of sorts.

A quick glimpse pretty much confirmed to me I was heterosexual and that I wanted to see more nipples. All the key clues were there, a quick pumping pulse, my heart rate was surging. Stop it now if you think the next sentence should reference something else surging. I had a slack jaw and was overcome by a transient catatonic state. I think I kept staring at the same spot without moving although the water fight was over for a good minute afterwards completely lost in a place that you visit only once in a lifetime.

That flash motivated me. If I was going to see another nipple I would have to lose weight. And lose weight I did. I think by the end of that summer I had dropped about 35, maybe 40 pounds. Hey it was a fair tradeoff for the hairy palms. My mind understood its biological drive was to see more of those puppies and that looking like the fat kid from a Far Side cartoon wasn’t going to get me there. That little pencil eraser shaped piece of flesh surrounded as it was by goose bumps would never been seen by me again without change on my part. Okay while I never saw that particular breast again the changes I made did eventually work out. I mean I am married and have kids that are putatively mine.

As this “damn short movie” has sped by, that day and in fact most of the experiences I have recounted here had slipped from my mind. But having found out thanks to Facebook that Teenage girl 1 and Teenage girl 2 are still alive and kicking I have been reminded of that place, and of the hormones that rage through the bodies of young teens. What a charge to remember that time and the absolute energy tied into the building sexual tension of my then young body. The flash that day was a pebble that started a ripple which became a cascade that became a tsunami of personal redirection for me.

In closing I guess three things come to mind. First I am despite my comments to the contrary am an oversexed pervert, despite my missing prostate. However, I am simply going to put that conclusion in a mental box and shove it onto a mental shelf if the back of my mind’s garage with a post that says look at this later. Second, it makes me think that some much of lives are determined by chance occurrences, insignificant things that are catalysts for major change and shifts in life’s direction. Had I not seen that nipple on that day at that moment I might not have been so electrified by hormones sufficient to motivate weight loss. Of course there were other factors but what was the tipping point? I think an argument can be made for that afternoon. Finally I am certain that much more of our lives are hard wired by the structure and sequencing of guanine and the other elements of the genetic code that we are willing to acknowledge. Hormones and hard wired instincts are the drivers of our lives to a far greater extent that our intellect will allow us to believe.

As I sign off I offer a simple thanks to Teenage girl 1 and to Teenage girl 1’s nipple for that one flash that helped changed my life there at the P-City pool.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Long Time Gone

If I might make a suggestion to the reader this piece will make more sense if you either listen to this YouTube audio clip or have it playing in the background while you read the post.

Memory is a tricky thing.  Reminiscence tends to remove all the warts and rough bits of years gone by.  The dark stuff in the past is why rich people/urban people have psychotherapists I guess. Lying down on a couch with a disinterested third party helps them to cut through the layers of gauzy and obscuring thoughts that cover over what happened so long ago.

Sometimes human memory is really just not effective. We forget some key person or event because some brain cells have died and the pathway to an experience is gone. Trauma, beer and age these all work against keeping the threads of the past close. I hope I can hold on to some things from my youth as my remaining few years fly by. This desire to remember is why I write this stuff down.

Music is intricately related to my memories.  Some songs put me in a place or with a person so clearly that it is almost like I am there. Sometimes it is the tune and sometimes it is the words that open the door that makes the connection to a past long distant and gone.  Sometimes it is something that lies above or beyond both of these that make a song a key to a specific time and place.

The commerce of ideas amongst my current friends these days often takes the form of trading music. Whether it is the gift of a play list from ITunes or a disk shipped off in the mail, music has been a very important coin of the realm of my generation. In engaging in this trade amongst my cronies I often find myself listening to a song I have heard quite literally 200 or 300 times before as I sit and assemble a playlist to burn and ship off. Some of those songs are just so much pleasant aural wallpaper.

Other times, each time I hear the opening chord I know exactly what the song means in the context of my life. In listening to a song sometimes I don't hear what the singer is singing. Instead I am transported to the time at which that song became part of my life. 

Gregg Allman's Multicolored Lady is one such song for me. The song is pretty and the song is melancholy but what the song's lyrics say means nothing to me. The meaning comes from my memory of where I heard it first and who I heard it from. Every single time I hear it I am awash in the smells, sounds and feeling of one very short period of time in Pedricktown.

When I listen to this song it does not remind me of a past love. Seems odd doesn't it that what is clearly a love ballad doesn't mean a damn thing to me about love. What I hear inside my head when the song plays is the voice of one of the lost people from my youth.

When the music starts time is stripped away. Before the lyrics even begin it is the winter of 1974-1975 again and I am home from university on Christmas holiday. In a dull gray winter light a tall and lanky figure leans over the juke box in a small café and he is punching up that song. That solitary figure is a ghost.  He is of the past and of places long gone.

Once upon a time and hundreds of miles from where I live now my Uncle Walt opened a little restaurant. Walt's little lunch counter sat pretty much square in the center of my little hometown in part of an old warehouse.  The few tables and lunch counter there were for a short time a crossroads of the town. Walt (or Timer as he was known) cooked and served the kind of things you'd find in any South Jersey lunch counter; coffee, greasy eggs and sandwiches. The restaurant was small and funky but the times I was in there place seemed to do a good business. Walt is dead and the restaurant is long gone. The song does not bring Walt to mind; his is not his voice I hear.

Walt as a personal aside was damaged goods, to be sure, but he was an adequate and serviceable cook. The years he had lived away had taught him the basics of feeding a large group, effectively, quickly and with sufficient presentation so as to not piss off a hungry clientele. His restaurant was nothing more than about a quarter of an old warehouse with tacked up walls to separate the dining area from the large empty storage space. Surely in the winter it was cold, in the summer it was hot, but for a little while it existed there in my hometown.

Walt’s place had a Formica counter and counter stools. It had maybe one pool table, two pinball machines and no liquor license. On one New Year’s Eve that lack of a license did not matter.  To this day I can remember a hopped up Walt up on the counter all 300 pounds of him. He was up there with a lei around his neck doing some kind of drunken dance as the ball was preparing to drop 90 miles away in NYC. Clearly he was several sheets to the wind as he was shimmying and shaking in his kitchen cook’s white. But I digress.

The most important thing to me in Walt’s place was the juke box. For the time and the place, a small town in the marshes of South Jersey in an old warehouse turned greasy spoon, it had a phenomenal jukebox. God in the 1970s you savored those places. Some of the songs I remember on the thing were Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes, Elvis Presley's singing Chuck Berry's Promised Land and Gregg Allman's Multicolored Lady.

It seems to me that the first time and every time I heard that Allman tune start to play I would look over to the wall where the juke box sat and there would be a mass of shaggy blond hair hanging over the Rockola. That hair was a veritable lion's mane pushing up out of a faded and frayed army surplus jacket. Smoking what were most likely Marlboros or Kools (I don’t remember which but did teenager boys smoke anything else back then) the button pusher will always be leaning balanced with one hand resting on the glass of that phenomenal juke box.

Smiling in what can be best described as a "What the fuck?" grin he scanned the song list. Finally, he sees what might be D 11, I just don't remember the actual number, and then he punched it in. Using one extended finger, a lit cigarette cradled between the punching finger and his middle finger and smoke curling out of his nostrils, he picked Multicolored Lady. Alan (Deacon) Jones loved that song. Deacon repeatedly pumped quarters into that machine and he did it while sipping a coke and smoking a cigarette.  All the while his mind was whirling.

In those whirling thoughts he was almost certainly planning the night ahead even as the first strains of the tune started to play.  The plan was simple, repetitive and well appreciated in our small town which was like every other small town in America where stake trucks hauled produce in on hot summer days. The plan would consist of an evening of cruisin’ the back roads seven ounce beers sitting between our legs cranking up the Alice Cooper or Led Zepplin and chain smoking cigarettes. The cycle was predictable; cigarette, beer, change the 8 track tape, another beer.  I won’t lie there were some joints smoked on those back road rides sometimes. The days back then in small town America meant work at whatever meaningless, manual task could be had.  But the night, ah the night, it was a party crammed into a little Chevy Vega crisscrossing the back roads.

Got on a bus in Memphis, destination Rome.
Georgia ain't no paradise but a place I just call home.
I sat next to a broken hearted bride
She was cryin', tryin' so hard to hide her selfish sorrow.

I tried to get her talkin'
She didn't have much to say
She asked me for a map to death row
But I didn't know the way
She had lost a million in the game
One look out the window at the pine trees and the rain
It wasn't her day.

Multicolored ladyyou ain't like no rainbow I've ever seen
Multicolored lady
Angry red, passion blue,
but mostly shades of green

Midnight came and brought more rain,
nothing seemed to ease her pain.
The hours that we talked seemed like minutes
all in vain.
I watched as her tears kept runnin' wide
Bye and bye and bye,
way back after a while
She started smilin'.

Multicolored lady
You ain't like no rainbow I've ever known.
Multicolored lady
Come go with me,
I'll take you to my home
Oh, by the way, I'm bound for Rome.

I had known Deac since we were tiny.  He was a couple of years older than me but we were close enough in age that we were out on the playground together. We scrambled around in the same dusty brown dirt of the school yard that lay behind the blacktop but before the swamp at roughly the same time.

Once he ran over me on his brand new five speed bike as I walked out of the Pedricktown bank.  You might remember the bank had that weird front door that didn’t allow you a good view in either direction.  His bike was new and he was pumping those pedals faster than hell. When he hit me I went flying, he went flying and the thirty bucks my Mom had sent me to get out of the bank went flying.  Deac got up, helped me up and helped me pick up the bills. He really was a decent guy.  No malice, no anger, he was really just a good guy.

In high school we rode the school bus together. Hell we got thrown of the school bus together for throwing shit out the bus windows on the ride home one day. Mr. Dietrich did not appreciate that. Rules were rules. Together we begged a ride to school with somebody else for that next week. 

Still the image of Deac I remember most comes from a time when I was in that grimy little dinner on a day when I was home that winter home on break from university. Sitting at that lunch counter, drinking sodas and me smoking my Newports he was the only person in that place and he was once again playing that song.  We drank our sodas and talked about what college was like and what he was doing.  But the time my cigarette had burnt down to the cork tipped filter that song got stuck in my memory forever.

For me he is eternally staring down at the glass of the jukebox almost wistfully. The song is playing softly. It always seemed odd to me that this sturdy self confident 19-year old would be drawn to such a romantic ballad. Deacon had a girlfriend, was well liked and the lonesome lament in this song seemed to have no place in his world. Mott the Hoople's Sweet Jane (another of his favorites) I could understand, but not this one, at least not for him.

Me, as the years went on, I would come to love the Allman song. But I was always insecure and any song that played on self doubt and sadness was right up my alley. Still he treasured that song and I just couldn't wrap my mind about the why of that fact. At first I though it might have been an accident that he played it. But the over those days and weeks when I was home quarters kept dropping in, and the tune kept playing. For months the song stayed in the juke box.

That song was there spinning on that old Rockola when I left to go back to college after spending some time home. And each time I came back, it might be a little scratchier but it was still playing. In the end it was still there when I came home after the close of my freshman school year to say good-bye to Deac.

In June there I was 600 miles from South Jersey waiting for my parents to come get me in the big old Ford LTD for the ride back from Michigan. About an hour before they were due into East Lansing to pick me up the phone in my dorm room rang. As I picked up the phone my older sister (my only sister) started talking quickly. She wanted to tell me to tell my Dad to come home as fast as he could.

She felt it was important and she put it on me to tell my Dad that Deac was dead. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anybody from back in the day that Allan's Dad was one of my Dad's best friends. Our family’s presence at the funeral was thus appropriate. I did as instructed. I told my Dad the sad news and we hauled ass back to Jersey in time for the funeral.

As I understand it Deacon had drowned in a farm pond swimming. His death was a tough hit for me and for everyone in town. Deacon was one of the good guys. He was cheerful and affable.  He liked me and at that time having somebody like me was important. Instead of treating me like dirt the way some other people we mutually knew did, he and I hit it off on some minor level. When we talked there was some substance to it. He knew I had a different future from him and some of the others there in South Jersey but he understood.  He knew I wasn’t judging him for whatever he would do with his life. Farm, factory, sales or whatever he was going to do okay. Sad sometimes the twists life takes.

Each time I hear that song, I'm in a dingy little diner, I have a cigarette lit, a Coke is cradled in my hand and it is 1975. And Deac is punching in that song one more time.