“Think fast!” Joe says out of nowhere.
Joe is the Joest Joe in the history of Joe-dom. There has never been a Joe as Joe-ish as Joe Perruccio. He’s built like a fireplug; squat, but all shoulders with cinderblock hands and a considerable thatch of Disco-level chest hair escaping the collar of his tacky Hawaiian shirt. He’s got a Bruce Willis receding-hairline, and just has to be from Jersey or New York with that accent. Right now we’re driving up Shell Hill in Long Beach, the steepest incline in the city, made legendary by the routine deaths of skateboarders and bicyclists who brave the slope every year. It’s like going up that first steep rise on a roller coaster, just chinking along one link at a time. My inner ear is telling me we’re about to fall over backward, and that only the space shuttle should point directly skyward as we are.
Which is why I find it so alarming when Joe reaches over from the passenger seat and turns the key to the OFF position and pulls it straight out of the ignition.
I instantly jam my foot down on the brake, only to discover that a Reliant K has power brakes and steering, which do not function when the ignition is in the OFF position. The pedal is unyielding as stone and the steering wheel has become inert in my white-knuckled hands. I don’t have time to wonder what the hell Joe is playing at before my hands and feet begin to act entirely on their own, with knowledge I didn’t know they possessed. My left foot hammers the parking brake into the firewall, while my right hand shoves the drive selector into park, and then both feet stand on the frozen brake pedal, leveraging my hands against the useless wheel, forcing the pedal down maybe half an inch. I turn to look at Joe, out of my seat and fully standing on the brake. He’s smiling at me from under an epic moustache, his chuckle a low rumble like distant thunder.
“Just wanted to see what you had in you, chief,” he says, and hands the key back to me. “Not bad.”
At that, I look around and realize that I’d instinctively done exactly what I was supposed to do; the car is stopped and resting "safely" on the fifty-degree incline. No one is more surprised than me. When class began three weeks ago, I was literally the worst driver anyone had ever seen. When I got behind the wheel, the other three students in the back seat held their collective breath, and I was often the reason for their gasps of barely-restrained terror. At fifteen, I was the only one of the students to have absolutely no experience behind the wheel. The rest were taking this Summer Driver’s Ed class—offered through our High School—as a perfunctory training to qualify for their license. They’d all been driving with their parents for months already.
On the other hand, I got my permit the day before class began. No experience of any kind. I’d never even started the car to warm it up. Nothing. So for example, I didn’t realize that when one turns the wheel to take a corner, you must turn it back to straighten out. Apparently, they do not autocorrect as I’d somehow expected. Consequently, my early turns were usually somewhere around ninety-four degrees, and often involved encounters with curbs and innocent garbage cans. After three weeks of training in the “state of the art” simulator—housed in a double-wide trailer behind the gym—and some truly terrifying outings onto the streets, I’d finally earned the trust of Joe Perruccio.
It dawns on me that Joe has a brake on the floorboard of his passenger-side seat in the specially-outfitted K Car Training Vehicle, so we were never in any real danger. I should probably be a little more pissed than I am, but his approbation is hard to come by. He doesn’t just give those “not-bads” away. Usually, silence was the best you could hope for. Add to the fact that he didn’t try that stunt on anyone else and it finally occurs to me, this was actually a compliment of sorts.
Joe is probably the coolest teacher in school, and Poly’s most celebrated baseball coach, too. But the fact that he was the only person in the vehicle to never break character, is the real reason I look up to him. He’s my Social Studies teacher during the school year, and was the kind of guy who had students show up in his class at lunch to eat, hang out, and episodically watch the R-Rated action movie of the week. Predator, Lethal Weapon, etc. He cussed in class routinely, but conversely had a very serious Catholic-based code of honor that he enforced strictly. You could say “damn” but not “goddamn.” He never seemed to pay attention to what the class was doing while he was grading papers, but would often walk the rows of desks looking over our work. A few times he threw people’s backpacks out the 2nd floor window if they were sleeping in class or were turned around talking to someone when they should have been minding their business.
One time, as he was stalking the rows, Joe discovered that a kid named Frank had brought a gun to school. He caught just a glimpse of the chrome .44 from down inside Frank’s backpack and then moved like lightning. Joe grabbed the bag first, and then Frank, and hauled him up out of his desk one handed like he was a feather. Joe was a former longshoreman and, with that gravelly baritone and noir-ish, hardboiled Mike Hammer-demeanor, for a second I thought both Frank and his backpack were going out the window. Because even though he was a teacher now, he still had the instincts and the stones to deal with a problem the roughneck way, like a Union Man should. Who knows what might have happened if he hadn’t?
Not sure why a hardcase like that would choose to become a teacher, especially on the heels of a lucrative union job. Could be he was in witness protection, or otherwise on the lam? I liked to think that maybe he’d killed a man. What can I say? I’m a romantic. He was a study in contradictions. Often terse, but loquacious when we got him off-subject, usually about some bar-fight he’d been in, or a skank what done him wrong.
But if he saw you about to make a dumb mistake in life, he went from a Guido to a proverb-spouting Yoda who’d occasionally refer to you as “Dumbass.” Usually because you were being a dumbass. He wasn’t above an endearing cuff upside the back of a guy’s head while he did it either. But he was always kindly and protective to the girls in class, often exhorting them dress and behave modestly, because boys only had one thing on their mind. When he was walking the rows, if he caught a guy with a comic book or a Playboy he’d tell him to put it away and focus, without embarrassing him. But when he caught me drawing pentagrams in my notebook and filling them with arcane Latin incantations, he ripped the sheet right out of my binder, held it up high and quite loudly inquired, “What the fuck is this?”
So… tits and ass? Cool. The Devil? Not cool. Got it. Credit where it’s due, it did end the witchcraft phase of my life pretty much instantly.
I remember some of what we studied in class, but everything about the K-Car. Especially the times he told the candy-asses in the back seat to shut the fuck up while I was driving. Yeah, that was alright. While everyone else’s freeway test consisted of merging into one lane of traffic and then getting off at the next exit, Joe had me get all the way over into the fast lane to pass a bunch of cars in midmorning LA traffic, pushing it to almost 90, which is practically a miracle in an ’82 K Car. By the time we were done, I got my license with a 97 on the DMV driving test, by far the highest in the class. Thanks, Joe.
Within the year, I’d become quite the daredevil driver, my spatial judgment and reflexes making me a natural. Playing car tag with my buddy Phillip; outrunning cops and gangsters when we got ourselves into tight spots (which we did with alarming regularity); drifting through crazy turns riding the E-brake, mastering the old Starski and Hutch reverse power-slalom move. From humble beginnings to Fast and Furious in three easy steps. Not sure how he would have felt about me using those skills to ditch the cops so many times in my teens and twenties. Part of me thinks he would have said, “Nice one, chief.” But then I can also hear him calling me a Dumbass and telling me to respect authority, too. Joe’s passed away now, so I guess I’ll never know.
I’m grateful though, because just this past Winter, as I was taking a cloverleaf exit from one freeway to another, all four of the wheels on our Camry lost traction with the oily, rain-slick pavement at the same time, and I took the old grocery-getter through the arc of the cloverleaf while pin-wheeling around backward. At the last second, I flipped the nose back around in the right direction two feet from the guardrail I was about to slam into. Never even came to a stop, just powered out of the backward slide and slalomed back into the lane. My hands and feet just did what they do, faster than a thought could go through my head. I saw on the news that day there were three wrecks at that same spot, one of which was a cop responding a previous accident, and winding up in one itself. Thanks, Joe.
I guess the thing that stands out the most were his little aphorisms and insults. “Fell out the ugly tree, and hit every branch on the way down.” “Bad company corrupts good character.” “The Devil finds work for idle hands.” “Your mama got so many double chins she needs a bookmark to find her mouth.” “The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.” He was an endless repository of shit like that, which I always imagined him learning at the knee of his Mema—some hard-boiled, chain-smoking matriarch on the stoop of a Brooklyn tenement, as she cuffed him on the back of the head from time to time, for good measure. Probably while calling him Dumbass.
Of all Joe’s boilerplate proverbs, only one ever really made any difference to me: “Your focus determines your direction.” He didn’t mean it as a philosophical sentiment, but literally. Keeping the car headed straight, hands at ten and two, if you look out either side window for a count of five, invariably the car begins to slowly drift in that direction, no matter your efforts to the contrary. You move toward what you’re focusing on. Want it or not, like it or not.
I’d just about lost that thought to the sands of time, until I walked into a Church in Seattle, twenty years later. There, emblazoned in huge letters on the wall, were Joe’s words: “Your focus determines your direction.” Pretty sure it’s nowhere in the Good Book, but truth is truth, and it brought back that gruff, endearing old crowbar of a man with a wistful pang for the years gone by. It was odd realizing that I’d reached the age that Joe had been when he said those words in the old K-Car. I didn’t feel anywhere near as wise as he’d seemed to me then. Still don’t. But if I’ve gleaned any insight at all down the span of those years, it’s that nobody really knows what’s going on, and leadership is really just the ability to disguise your panic. We’re all pretending, clinging to traditions and folksy sayings, hoping for the best. Who knows, maybe Joe was, too?
Then again, Joe sent twenty-six ball-players to the Majors, and one to the Hall of Fame. So maybe not.
“Your focus determines your direction.” I’ve thought about those words often since Seattle. Especially when the going was rough, when life seemed unfair, and the world threatening. I’ve just finished an especially challenging season, years filled with days like that. Hard disappointments, awful clients, dishonest business associates, and outright betrayals from longtime friends and mentors. Another dream down in flames. All things considered, a pretty awful chapter in life.
Or was it?
I mean, sure, my business broke up, but somehow the lights stayed on at my house. I found out that I’ve surpassed two of my mentors in terms of skill and integrity, and when my back was against the wall—the same as theirs before me—I made the choices that cost me dearly, while they just stole from people and moved on. And as bad a feeling as that truly is, finding out what you’re really made of is priceless.
Joe used to say that in boxing, “Everybody's got a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.” Looking back, I think it means that we’d all like to think we’d make the right choice, but you never know who you really are until you’re down in it, and actually taking punches for real. I used to think that God brought tests into my life to see what I’m made of, but recently it’s occurred to me that who I am is no surprise to Him. Sometimes it is to me though, so maybe those tests are to show me who I really am instead. In spite of some pretty punishing challenges, I have to say I’m glad to have met the guy I was hoping I’d be.
“When you stop expecting life to be easy, it gets a lot easier,” Joe used to say. It’s easy to focus on all the negative things that happen in our lives. The monumental disappointment of losing my business, or all the travails it involved to begin with: Court proceedings to collect from some dirtbag clients who never even had the money to finish the project; or the trusted mentor who embezzled from us; the bungling morons at the IRS who wrongly seized the balance in our company bank account and virtually ruined us. The list of woes is as endless as I choose to make it. Or I could take a page from Joe’s book and say to myself, “The guy with no shoes complains until he meets the guy with no feet.”
That same demoralizing season was also rife with surprising dividends I could never have predicted. I’ve renewed age-old friendships that I would have said were irrevocably lost to the ash heap of time and bad choices. I’ve seen the smiling faces, heard the sweet voices, and held in my arms those that I would have sworn I would never see again in this life. I come home every day to a house that resounds with laughter and love. And that’s either the metric you evaluate your life by, or it isn’t.
Right after I broke up with the first semi-serious (three whole months!) girl I dated in High School, Joe told me this story:
Two farmers met weekly at their fence. The first farmer says, “Heard your son fell from his horse and broke his arm. That’s terrible!” The second responded, “Who can say?” The following week the first says, “I heard the king is conscripting men for war with the neighboring kingdom. It’s good your son has a broken arm and cannot go off to war.” “Who can say?” the second responds. And again, “The war went well, and the men are already on their way home with an impressive load of spoils. A shame your son will bring none to you.” “Who can say?” says the second. Finally, “The king and army were set upon by ambush, ransacked for their treasure and killed to a man. How fortunate your son wasn’t with them after all!”
“Who can say?”
“Who can say?”
I’ve kept that one in my back pocket all these years, because I’ve almost always found that, in retrospect, the worst patches of my life were often a goldmine, yielding unexpected treasures of wisdom, patience, and humor. Not to mention some great stories to write about. During those seasons, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have given to fast forward through to a smoother piece of real estate. But afterward, those periods became precious memories of the people, places, and times that taught me who I am. Trophies that I wouldn’t trade for love or money. Like Joe used to say, “It’s good for you. Puts hair on your chest.”
And he would know. My God, that man had a lot of chest hair.
There’s no doubt that experience is a cruel teacher. The test comes first, and then the lesson. But if history is any indicator, the day is coming when even that dark season will be all sepia tints and fond nostalgia. Like a badge of honor from the moment my mettle was tested and, by God, I passed. I guess it kind of depends on what I choose to focus on. While I’m pretty happy to have that patch of ground in my rearview, all things considered, I still believe that our best days lie ahead of us. As for the last chapter, perhaps it can still be redeemed. It might be that I’ll look back one day and number them among the best years of my life.
Who can say?