Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Hold Steady





Like entirely too many other times in my life, it had seemed like a good idea right up to the second the cops showed up. As soon as they did, it immediately became obvious how insane it was to be on the grounds of the Lakewood Country Club after midnight on a Saturday, looking to vandalize one of the exclusive homes inside its gated walls with impunity.
But impunity was my middle name back then, and the girl that lived there had had the temerity to find me nerdy and uninteresting on our one and only arranged, quasi-blind lunch date. She’d been dressed like a Gothic court jester, talked about the power of crystals and how she could use them to levitate things, but somehow I was still the loser in that match-up. Which is why we were there, caught out in the open with 96 rolls of toilet paper and no earthly reason to be breathing the same air as Brenda Jezak and her affluent clan.
This fact was sharply underscored when Mike Burke—our de facto wheel-man—hissed, "Cops!" from across the street and then dove across the front seat of his Volkswagen Beetle. Then he pulled the door behind himself, thus killing the dome light and rendering himself invisible in the relative safety of his cherried-out antique vehicle. Meanwhile, Christian and I were in the middle of the broad circular driveway, mid-throw on a couple of rolls of single-ply Vons house-brand TP, completely exposed as the cop's cruiser came around the corner. I grabbed Christian by the shoulder and yanked him down into a squat beside the gleaming black BMW sitting askew in the driveway, just as the wash from the cop's headlights swept across the house in an arc.

Christian, who is not a girl
"Shit!" Christian exclaimed in a voice too squeaky for a guy his size. It was no wonder my Mom always thought he was a girl when he called the house, even though he was 6'2" with broad shoulders, kind of gangly all around. He was my new best friend because I'd traded in my old one, Phillip, for the girl who couldn't decide between us. Aside from music, books, movies, and culture, being rejected by women who were out of our league was the thing Christian and I most had in common.

I was nineteen and he was seventeen, so probably only one of us was actually going to jail that night for whatever charge they could level. Criminal trespass and vandalism, probably. Maybe vagrancy, since we were both technically unemployed and had spent all our cash on toilet paper. But for some reason Christian seemed far more nervous about the prospect than I was. Although to be fair, this wasn’t my first time playing hide and seek with the boys in blue.

The first of the handful of times I’d found myself in the searchlight of the cops had been two years previous, with Phillip as always. We’d gone up to Shell Hill, the highest point in Long Beach and our local lovers’ lane, looking for his girlfriend Claire, whom Phillip suspected of cheating on him with a jock douchebag who’d been making time with her at school. Turns out he was right. Which we discovered by roaming around the Barrens—the industrial wasteland smack-dab in the middle of the hilltop where all the illicit fornicators parked—on foot, peeking into the vehicles randomly scattered around the giant water tower and oil derricks to see if she was in one. We’d split up to search separately, but were communicating regularly via the walkie-talkies we carried. So to reiterate, two teen boys were running around lovers’ lane, peaking into parked cars with fogged-up windows and jabbering into walkie-talkies, just suave as hell. No idea what took the cops so long to show up.




By the time they did, we’d found the unfaithful Claire steaming up Billy’s Celica windows, made a little scene about it, and were headed back to Phillip’s Impala without her. We’d jumped a low fence and were cutting across the area beneath the water tower, passing through a wide gravel lot randomly dotted with trundling oil derricks, tirelessly slaving away with their ghostly, yawning squeals, when we saw the cop car prowling around the lane. Phillip had a semi-feral way about him, and could always spot trouble in our road from miles out, so he knew instantly that they were there for us. As their spotlight clicked on and stabbed out toward us in the darkness of the Barrens, I felt totally exposed.

Phillip, the Conman
“Shit!” I exclaimed in a voice too squeaky for a guy growing such an impressive, not-smarmy-at-all, first mustache. Phillip grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me into a squat behind the only cover available, a piece of tumbleweed a bit smaller than a park bench. Its unlikely presence in the emptiness of the gravel lot high atop a butte in the middle of 33,954 square miles of metropolitan sprawl was a reminder that Mother Nature’s intent for the Los Angeles Basin was for it to be a desert. Apparently, twelve-million people never got the memo, but the damned Clint Eastwood High Planes Drifter tumbleweed sure did, and thank God for it.

Even so, out there in the open industrial wastes, fifty yards from anything, a thorny skein of dried vines felt a lot like trying to hide behind a kleenex. The light seemed like the solar pinpoint of a magnifying glass would to an ant as it searched for us, so when the million-candlepower light finally made its way to our tumbleweed, I fully expected it to go up in flames. It inched across us in agonizing slowness, and only Phillip’s hand on my shoulder kept me from running the second the glare touched my skin. It was so unbelievably bright, it felt like we were inside the sun itself. There was simply no way they could’ve missed seeing us, two ghostly white kids, hidden as we were by something essentially made of holes. But Phillip remained stock still, hand on my shoulder, steady as an Easter Island Totem, willing me to do the same.


“The ones that run right now, are the ones that get caught,” he whispered.

When I heard the cruiser’s door open and shut briskly in front of the driveway, I knew Christian and I were out of time. In a few brief strides the cop would be around the BMW and the jig would be up. I motioned to the underside of the Beemer and then belly-crawled like a grunt in Basic, seeking the flimsiest shelter imaginable. Short of a tumbleweed, that is. Christian joined me under the chassis just in time as the cop walked up the drive, his Maglite snapping on and probing all around.

His footfalls were slow and deliberate, the localized halogen pool of light swung in careful scrutiny across every surface, pausing when he found the abandoned pyramid of TP stockpiled in the driveway. The muted chatter of his radio seemed too quiet to mask the sound of our breathing, which felt like a cacophony under the Beemer. I could tell he was a cop from an affluent city by the mirror polish of his Florsheims, and knew then that he wouldn’t let us off with a warning in mock disapproval at our youthful shenanigans. We were inside the walls of the palace that paid his salary, so we were going down, no two ways about it.



He stalked around the car like the killer in a horror movie while we, the idiot teens, hid under the bed waiting to die as we watched his feet plod in painful slow motion, inches from our faces. Each time he stopped I expected to see his face fill the narrow rectangle between the concrete and running board, smiling in sinister fashion at the nitwits face down on the gritty driveway. But after a minute of circling the car and shining his light all over the front of the house, he made his way to the side to look over the fence into the back yard. Just as he left our sight, Christian made to bolt from our position, an instinct I understood only too well. But I grabbed him by the shoulder and held him steady.

“The ones that run right now, are the ones that get caught,” I whispered.

We stayed where we were in defiance of every urge from the lizards living deep in our unevolved brains, watching the officer make his rounds, hunting for us impudent vandals behind the garbage cans and in the arbor vitae. He came back toward us, stopping at the TP pyramid to mutter something into his radio, before taking a final look around and getting back into his prowler and creeping away slowly.

Not yet lulled, I held Christian fast until the cop car came back past the house on his way out of the gated community. Once he was out of sight, Christian and I clambered out from under the Beemer, dusted ourselves off and looked at each other, finally daring to breathe a sigh of relief.

“That was too close,” Christian said.

“Hell yeah, it was. Can you imagine if we’d gone to jail tonight and had to tell our cell mates we were in for toilet papering a house? Might as well be wearing a dress.”

He laughed in nervous release, looking around to see if anyone had stirred from the activity, but we were alone in the dark again. “I don’t think I’d do well in prison,” he said. “With these looks, I’d be traded for cigarettes on day one. Probably fetch at least a carton, maybe two.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, buddy. I’d pay three for you, any day,” I said.

“Thanks, man. You’re all heart.”

“I guess we should give Mike the all clear, huh?” I said.

“Nah, let him stew for a few more minutes. Serves him right for only saving himself.”

I looked around at the sad tableau before us. A couple of lame streamers over one corner of the house and a lonely white garland up in the crown of their tree. Compared to some of the epic mummifications I’d doled out over the years, it was hardly worth mentioning. In fact, suddenly it seemed kind of childish. I walked over to the stockpile in the driveway and gave it a little kick, toppling a few rolls from the peak.

“We should really get going,” Christian said.

Ms. Bahaus, Brenda
“I know,” I said, picking a roll up and pulling loose the first square to unspool the end. “Just a couple more rolls. This is too pathetic to leave like this. I mean, she called me a nerd, dude. She was wearing black-and-white striped Pippi Longstocking leggings and looked like Beetlejuice’s girlfriend. And still Ms. Bauhaus herself saw fit to call me a nerd, with a straight face. I can't let that go with three rolls, it wouldn't be right.”

“You’re nuts,” he responded, but then picked up a roll, too. “Bella Lugosi’s dead… Bella Lugosi’s dead,” he chanted under his breath.


“Bam-bam-bam, b-b-b-bam-bam-ba-bam, I wanna be levitated…” I chimed in sing-song.

I lobbed one up and onto the roof, just shy of the ridgeline, it rebounded and rolled back down, laying a trail of single-ply ass-wipe all the way. Christian pitched his and it sailed high up into the diffused halo of light from the streetlamp and over the ridge, unspooling squares furiously as it tumbled. It went out of sight into the back yard, never even touching the house, the long tail fluttering down onto the roof.

“Perfect shot, man. That really had some mustard on it.”

“Thanks. It felt good as it left, I could tell it was gonna be a goner.”

“Well, you may sound like a girl on the phone, but you sure don’t throw like one,” I said.

“That’s funny, because you don’t sound like a dick on the phone at all…” he replied.

I tossed him another roll from the crumbling pyramid. Then turned to pitch some up into the tree, knowing that I couldn’t hope to match Christian’s throwing arm in clearing the house.

“You know, if Mike had been out here, instead of squirreled away in his Bug, we probably would’ve gotten caught,” I said. “I mean, if one guy goes down, he takes everybody with him.”

“I guess so,” he replied dubiously, cocking his arm back for another throw. He paused and said, “I suppose we’re lucky he didn’t bail entirely.”

I thought about that for a minute, wanting to believe Mike wasn’t that kind of guy, but realizing he was. “We’d have been screwed for sure, then,” I answered.

“Nah, you’d have thought of something,” he said as he pitched his roll. The white streamer laced out like the tracer behind a shooting star as the roll disappeared into darkness. “You always do.”

Mike Burke, the Wheelman
“Jeez, let's never test that theory,” I answered.

“I think we just did, didn’t we? ‘Cause I’d definitely have made a run for it when the cop went around the corner of the house. I thought you were out of your mind to double down on that bluff. He was six inches from our faces.”

I thought of Phillip’s steady hand on my shoulder as he’d brazened us both through the narrow margin between escape and certain doom. The ultimate conman—where almost every grift in my bag of tricks had come from, and the reason I never sat with my back to the door—forever hanging on by his fingernails, but somehow always coming up smelling like a rose. For the second time that night, I heard Phillip’s words to me in the Barrens tumble from my mouth.

“Hold steady. Deny till you die.”

After a few more rolls we decided to stop pushing our luck and went back to the car, leaving the ersatz TP pyramid as a cryptic calling card for them in the morning. Christian rapped sharply on the VW window with his knuckles. Mike’s head popped up like a whack-a-mole, wearing a look of purest guilt, obviously thinking we were the cops. Christian and I both chuckled as we wedged ourselves into the tiny Beetle, teasing Mike incessantly about being such a pansy as we drove off. It wouldn’t be long before he showed his true colors and we stopped hanging out with him altogether, but since we never TP’ed anyone again after that, he wasn’t missed much.

I was laid out in the back seat, letting my steady breathing quell the adrenaline storm I’d been disguising the whole time, watching as the Jezak job receded from view. The paltry streamers faded away like the fluttering remains of a tepid parade whose celebrants had forgotten why they came. 



When we cleared the gates of the Country Club Mike asked, “Where to, boys?”

I said, “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses.”

He turned out onto Paramount Blvd, where the commoners’ territory began, and turned his amazing stereo way up. With my head between the rear speakers it was like being inside music itself, as Depeche Mode sang:

“As years go by
All the feelings inside
Twist and they turn
As they ride with the tide

Clean
The cleanest I've been
An end to the tears
And the in between years
And the troubles I've seen

Now that I'm clean
You know what I mean
I've broken my fall
Put an end to it all
I've changed my routine
Now that I’m clean”

And it was like I’d never heard it before.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Nostalgia's Greatest Hits



When we were kids, my sister had an inexplicably awesome stereo in her room, which she cobbled together from my Dad’s old bachelor hi-fi; felt covered Zenith speakers, Marantz tape player, Fisher turntable, and a Pioneer receiver. So while I was blowing through my allowance weekly on slurpees and action figures, she was using hers to hoard 45’s and K-Tel’s smorgasbord of one-hit-wonders, storing them up in an old milk-crate. I would come across different mysterious treasures of hers when she was out with friends and I was sitting home bored of comics and Star Wars and looking to give her Barbies haircuts for kicks. I wasn’t trying to be cruel; I figured that if Growing Up Skipper could grow a pair of boobies, her hair would grow back, too, right? Actually…no.

It was on one of those little scavenger hunts that I came across the milk-crate, and in it the album “Escape” by Journey. Most of her other musical collections were K-Tel greatest hits albums, with the likes of Blondie, Soft Cell, Michael Jackson, The Clash, Hall & Oats, Diana Ross, The Stray Cats, and The Pointer Sisters. But the first album I ever sat down and listened to, start-to-finish, was Journey’s “Escape,” because that was the only full stand-alone album she had in the crate.

I would sit and listen to it on the Magnavox headphones she’d scavenged from the heap of random boxes in the garage, only getting up when it was time to perform the sacrament of turning the record over to side two. That was kind of an intermission when I’d go get another oatmeal cream pie and Hawaiian Punch, flip the album over and settle in for another session. “Escape” contains the single most popular song of the 20th century, “Don’t Stop Believing,” but the entire album is great. Certain songs from it have played at key moments in my life, ever since. “Still They Ride” was the first song I ever slow-danced with a girl to; “Don’t Stop Believing” kept me from getting into a fight I was sure to lose with Andy Vigilucci in sixth grade; and “Open Arms” was the track playing when I discovered that million to one odds mean nothing when fate decides to intervene.

But before any of those things could happen, when it was just music coming through scavenged headphones—notes I couldn’t name, chord progressions without theory, and words whose import were beyond my ten year-old’s experience—the music still conjured something. Something abstract that I had no name for, but whose edges were implied like an emotional algebra I was almost ready to comprehend. If I could just solve for X I'd unlock the secret of why we’d invent words like “wistful” or “bittersweet.”

I mean, at 10, there was really no reason that lyrics like “midnight train to anywhere” should have made me feel the way they did. I'd never had my heart broken, unless the unattainable Ms. Brimmie—my first grade teacher—was taken into account. My very first kiss with Ylani Ballares was still almost a year away, and even that was a millisecond-long peck. So it was like being nostalgic for places I’d never been and things that had never happened. Like I was already yearning to have my heart broken, just so all the songs could be true.



So when Jesse rode through the night under the Main Street lights, the traffic lights keeping time and leading the wild and restless through the night, I’d yet to experience the lonely romance of a highway scrolled out like a ribbon of black, no one ahead, no one behind. Or why a vast horizon ahead, or the vanishing point in the rearview should hold such powerful sway over me. Only that they did. Of course I grew up and populated those archetypes with my experiences and imputed my own meaning to all those lyrics until every song was somehow about me; the tragic, misunderstood hero of my own story.


But where did the instinct to do that come from? How could a ten year-old kid project from a world tetherball and hopscotch into a melancholy one of romantic solitude, nameless longing, and broken hearts? And why would he want to? It seemed an odd and superfluous mechanism to be designed into a kid, like a dog’s ability to dream. I wondered about it for a long time, then came across an unlikely answer in an unlikely place.

In the book “Count Zero,” by William Gibson, an art student is tasked by an enigmatic billionaire to find the creator of a series of anonymous curios, released by an unknown artist simply referred to as the Poet. The curious were single-serving tableaux of random objects—a tarnished silver comb, snippets of pearl necklaces, the wing of a bird, a doggerel of disintegrating lace—arranged in an antique box in such proportion as to evoke powerful reactions of yearning and loss in its audience. People were becoming obsessed with them, yet no one knew whom the creator might be.

Eventually the student discovers that the Poet is, in fact, a machine, a truly sentient Artificial Intelligence. The machine spent its days directing a robotic servo-arm to sift through the heaped remains of an affluent family’s lost heirlooms, constructing the curios from the crumbling bits of treasure left from a centuries-long dynasty that had finally imploded under the crushing weight of its own decadence and dissipation. A lone machine mind, telling stories to itself by sifting through the mouldering detritus of forgotten luxe. After discussing its haunting work with the Poet, and learning why it was making them, the student finally asks, “Are you sad?” The Poet replies that it is not, but when she presses it about the sadness reflected in its creations the machine replies, “They are songs of time and distance. The sadness is in you.”

And just like that, I understood.

The wail of the train passing at midnight, the vanishment of the rearview and every far horizon…all of it. The dog-eared copies of haunting novels, a box of love letters and fading pictures, a look back at the airport gate, long desert highways, a scroll of streetlights keeping time, that first bashful ask of a slow dance with a pretty girl, and how the four right chords can make you cry. I finally understood it all.



The list is endless, because the ache of heartbreaks past and the yearning for an unknowable future is equally endless. When tomorrow's horizons become yesterday's regrets and cherished memories; when all of the mundane trials and small victories take on the sepia patina of nostalgic reflection; when the ordinary moments become the good old days, regardless of how they passed, we invent words like "bittersweet.” Because in so doing, we can be happy and sad at once, in a way that's better than either one alone. That isn’t in the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall or the major lift. It’s in us. In how we’re all connected, our lives woven together of chaos, heartbreak, love and distance.

If, as Homer said, men are haunted by the vastness of eternity, perhaps that's why yesterday is so sweet and so much hope for happiness is placed in tomorrow's promise. That sweet place of longing and hope, anxiety and happiness, finds a balance of wistful harmony sometimes. It's how we come to terms with the abstraction of our emotional algebra when we finally solve for the mystery of X, and the vastness of eternity is balanced against the vanishing mist of our days here. The place from whence every song arises, and why every story is told.

A ten-year-old boy may not have been able to articulate that thought, but he damn sure knew it to be true. Knew it in his bones. 




Friday, April 27, 2018

In His Wake


The day after Christmas 1995, a Scotsman walked into an Irish bar for a German wake in a fading corner of the geographically largest city in America. I was 2,956 miles from home. At twenty-four, I was old enough to order whatever I wanted inside the doors of MacCool’s, but still young enough to feel like I didn’t belong in a place called MacCool’s. I went in anyway because you don’t duck out on a wake, especially for your own Grandad, regardless of how you felt about him. Or so I'd gathered; I’d never actually been to a wake, which seemed like a very grown-up thing to do. At that point I’d yet to do anything that actually made me feel like an adult, and I thought maybe going to a wake might be the thing that would.

And I guess it did, at that.

Leo Frey was: a first generation immigrant, born in England to German parents, a military man, and a hard drinker. He arrived at Ellis Island as a child of ten, just in time to grow up in New York City in the teeth of the Great Depression. So they lived the kind of hard-scrabble life that immigrants do pretty much anywhere in the world, multiplied by the grueling effects of that economic nightmare. Eventually he went off to war, and when he came home he raised two kids who turned out to be outstanding individuals. Who, in turn, raised another crop of outstanding individuals, if I do say so myself. Which I do. His wife Nana—that's Muriel to you—stayed with him through thick and thin for all the decades of their married lives, with one notable exception.

She came to stay with us for a time when I was about nine, because of Leo’s drinking. My parents put her in my room, and I moved out into a glorified shed on the back of our property. I didn’t really mind because it was like having my own house, plus Nana doted on us all the while, so my cookie intake tripled. Still, it painted a picture of Leo that was kind of disturbing to a kid, and I didn’t have a lot of positive memories of him to begin with.

Mostly I thought of him as a gruff guy who liked to tease. Like once, when I was five, he let me steer his golf cart, but I almost put us into a sand trap and never heard the end of it after that. And he used to joke about making cat soup out of our household kitty, aptly named Klutz. It should have been obvious he was joking, but the limits of my humor didn’t extend past an anvil dropping onto Wile E. Coyote’s head, so ironic remarks about the culinary appeal of my pet were not well received. His nickname in the family was Pickle-Puss, not only because of the roughness of his affect, but the permanent scowl on his face, even at rest. Resting Bastard Face, we call it today.

He wasn’t all bad, he used to sit my sister and me on a giant stuffed lion named Leo, which he owned as a personal mascot, and drag it around his living room with us on it while he made lion noises, which he excelled at. But since the birthday and Christmas cards always came in Nana’s handwriting, and even his name was signed in her floral script, he seemed like a distant ancestor whose entire contribution had been in making my Mother. So walking into his wake in MacCool’s Irish Pub in Jacksonville, FL in my only button-up shirt to say a final goodbye seemed like a formality. A show of respect to my Mom and Nana, but little else.


Needless to say, I was surprised when—after the salty, old-school elegy his compatriots delivered—one of his VFW buddies made a beeline for me while I was waiting my turn at the bar. The ancient pub was full of white heads and VFW garrison caps, it smelled like dust and spilled liquor. As I waited, the air was slowly turning blue as a pall of cigarette smoke filled the joint. With all the dark mahogany paneling and inches-thick armor of lacquer on everything, it seemed like a library of alcohol.

The Irish were born thirst, so I'd been waiting for a while. In all fairness, at a wake full of seventy and eighty-year olds, a twenty-something punk doesn't even register on the radar. However, the instant the old VFW guy walked up, the barman immediately had time to take an order. But the old duffer kindly deferred hist turn to me.

"What's your poison, boyo?" the old duffer asked in an Irish brogue that must have been quite thick in his youth.

The barman looked at me like I wouldn't have the decency to order a Guinness, or worse, that I'd order a Coors Light instead. Which I did. I was just starting to become a proper beer snob, but none of the microbrews I approved of had made their way to Florida by that point. Since Guinness seemed less like a beverage and more like an ingredient for a pipe bomb, what choice did I have?


"Coors Light?" the old duffer asked in dismay. "Belay that order," he said to the barman. After a moment's silence, he looked up from his facepalm and asked with exaggerated patience, "You know what kind of beer we drink in these parts?"

I shook my head.

“Scotch.”

I barked a laugh, the first I'd had since being immersed in the solemnity of Leo’s passing, days previous. The old timer smiled and his dentures were white as snow as he extended his hand to shake mine. “I'm Doyle. How’s about I buy you a man’s drink, O’B?” He seemed to enjoy my surprise at his knowledge of my childhood name, long since changed. He continued, “Or are you still going to insist on being called Lawrence?”

I looked around, trying to figure if someone was playing a joke on me. Should I know this grizzled old Irishman? I couldn’t even say if Doyle were his first name or his last; could've gone either way with old Mick like him. So that was no help and my family was spread out around the room socializing, and none were looking my direction.

“Stand easy, boyo” he said. “You don't know me. But I knew Fry a long time, so I felt like I knew his kids and grandkids some, too.”

I started to say, “Actually it’s pronounced…”

But he went right on, “I know bloody well it's pronounced ‘Fray’, but ol’ Fry hated being called Fry, so I kept right on with it. Served the old Kraut right.” Doyle said to the barman, “Two Glenlivets.” He gave me the once over, then turned back and said, “Lots of ice for him.”

“Thanks,” I said, not meaning it now that I had a glass of Scotch to choke down.

We plunked down on a couple of stools against the mile-long mahogany bar, and he pulled a pack of Pall Mall’s from his shirt pocket with liver-spotted hands. He offered me one, but I was already reaching for my Camel Wide’s, as a big a snob about cigarettes as I was about beer. He beat me to the punch with his lighter, and I noticed that his hands shook as he chased the tip of my smoke with the tiny flame. I felt a sharp pang of fear at the idea of growing old.

“I didn’t think that barman was ever going to serve me,” I said.

“He wasn’t. It's the Devil’s own luck he didn’t keel haul you out of here, dressed like that,” Doyle said.

I looked down at myself. Button-up blue and black plaid shirt, khaki pants, Doc Martin boots. Again he confused me, which is all the old Mick seemed to be able to do. I couldn’t tell if he was just a drunken Irishman, or if I was just an idiot.

He read my confusion and seemed to enjoy it. “That’s a Scottish tartan you’re wearing for a shirt, boyo. Your family’s, I’d guess. Any other day in here, they’d have fed you your lunch and popped the bag. But Fry was alright, for a Limey-Kraut and all, so us old timers made an exemption for him drinking in here with us. Long as he had his garrison cap on.”

He took his own off his iron-gray head, and showed it to me. It had an emblem sewn onto it that I couldn’t make out, but it seemed heroic. It was surprisingly heavy for what was essentially a woolen envelope for your head.

“You feel that weight?” he asked. “That’s three silver dollars sewn in under the patch. That way when we was in port, if some towny ballbeg started asking for it, a fella could sap his noggin with it right quick and proper.”

I knew his words were all in English, but they were still Greek to me. I nodded sagely and took a drink of my Scotch, lest he think me a ballbeg and sap me.

“You need a chaser with that, boyo?” He asked, ready to flag the barman. I shook my head, afraid I’d have to chase the napalm out of my mouth with the nitroglycerin of Guinness. I waited for the warmth to hit my stomach and then had a hard hit on my smoke. It didn’t help much, but it was better than nothing.

“Sounds like you must have known my Grandad a long time?” I asked.

“Oh, aye. Me and him came up Puddlejumpers in the Coast Guard back in the war, when them Navy Squids was too hi-falutin’ to take guys with missin’ teeth like us.”

I nodded sagely, as though I despised them Navy Squids as well.

“Bout had to thump Leo good when he made Warrant Officer,” he continued. “A workin’ man’s got no business bein’ called ‘sir’. But he got what was comin’ to him when he had to work with all them college pukes as had gotten their commissions the easy way.” He drained his Scotch in a draught and signaled the barman. When he had a fresh glass in hand, he raised it up and said, “To absent friends, Limey-Kraut Sunsuvbitchin’ Officers though they be.”

“Here, here,” I joined him in his toast, realizing it meant I had to fire another swallow down my gullet. It went down a little easier than the first draught. After that we sat in silence for a minute, him out of respect I guess, and me because I had no more in common with this old stranger than I did with my Grandad. If Leo had been there instead, the same silence might have been there between us since we hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in over ten years.

“You know he used to talk about you kids?” Doyle began again, apropos of nothing. “I suppose all us old-timers do, sooner or later. Nothin’ else to go on about ‘cept them glory days, and even we get tired of those old lies, eventually. So he’d show us pictures of you young chiselers, let us know how you got along in the world. It’s how I recognized you, don’t you know?”

“I was wondering about that. Guess I’m surprised he had that much to say.”

“Oh my, but he did. ‘Bout all you kids, though you’re the only one I see here.”

“My sister’s here somewhere,” I said. We scanned the room and found her looking for an escape from the semicircle of dirty old men trying to dazzle her with their charm.

“Shall we go and rescue her then?” Doyle asked.

“No. Trust me, they’re the ones in trouble.”

He laughed and said, “You've got ol’ Pickle-Puss’ tongue on you, all right. Said you were a quick one.”

I had no idea how Leo would have known any of that, and felt a strange sense of having been watched, retroactively. It was unsettling, though not entirely unpleasant. Like I was being curated from afar.

“Runs in the family, I'm told,” I replied. “But I've always taken it to be a Scottish trait.” I gave with a wink and had another slug of Scotch. It looked like he was thinking about giving me a proper sap with his garrison cap, but instead he let out a peel of laughter.

“Perhaps it is, O’B. Perhaps it is.” He crushed out his smoke then asked, “So how do you find driving a forklift to be? Better than diggin’ them ditches, I'd wager."

“Beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick,” I said. “But…”

“…Not by much,” he finished with me, followed by a wry chuckle. “Guess you’ve kissed the Blarney a time or two yourself, Lawrence. So I suppose you can be forgiven for tradin’ your moniker from a fine Irish one like O’Brien to a Limey one like Lawrence. Least ways as long as you don’t go by Larry. That’d be a travesty, even for a Scottish dog like yourself.”

“God bless America, land of the mutts,” I said.

“I’ll drink to that.”

I crushed my smoke out and said, “I thought you might.”

He signaled the barman for another round for both of us, and I didn’t object. My stomach was feeling pretty warm and my head pretty light, but the avalanche of ice in my tumbler hadn’t had a chance to melt much, and it would be wrong to let it go to waste. It went down easy as I sat and talked with Doyle for another half hour or so about ol’ Pickle-Puss, and so met a man I never knew.

Never knew that he’d kept track of my various jobs and girlfriends, the occasional move or adventure. Never knew that he was actually proud of me. I’m not sure I would’ve believed that as the kind of generic, reassuring platitude from one of my relatives at a funeral. But from a stranger picking my face out of the crowd, solely from the pictures he’d been shown over the years? That went down easier than the Scotch.

Doyle and I went our separate ways soon after that, him blending back into the sea of white hair as I went and rescued those dirty old men from my sister. She had them wrapped around her finger like she’d kissed the Blarney a few times herself.

All in all, the wake was pretty much as I’d expected, except for the part where it was nothing like I’d expected. You know, the part where I met a guy at his own funeral more alive in the memories of his crusty drinking buddies—and on the unseen fringes of my life all those years—than he’d been to me in the decade prior to his passing? I thought about the little narrative I’d written, rehearsed, and replayed over and over through the years about who Leo was. I started to wonder where the hell I’d come up with any of it.



As the family regrouped and headed out of the dim Irish pub and into the Florida sunshine, warm even in December, I was feeling a lot less sure of the world than when we went in. Like maybe I had no idea what was going on.

And if that ain’t the definition of grown-up, I don’t know what is.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Punchline



I first realized that God has a sense of humor on August 30, 1988, day one of my senior year. I was standing against the wall of an overcrowded classroom with thirty-five other kids, waiting for Ms. Zerby to assign our seating in the dingy space that would be our homeroom as we sprinted toward the daylight of graduation and freedom. I always hated when teachers assigned us desks, instead of letting us pick our own seats. Especially at a school like Long Beach Poly. There were so many thugs and tough-guys in the population that picking the right seat in a class could make the difference between sailing under the radar and getting noticed by someone that would spend a year making a sport out my misery.
Speaking of which, looking around the room at the cross section of human misery not ready to faceAlgebra II at 7:45 in the morning, I’d already identified a half-dozen guys that I knew would be trouble. My feral survival instinct as a 98-pound whiteboy at an inner-city school would have been to let them pick their seats and then sift myself somewhere in between the ones I was trying to avoid. Instead, I’d be stuck sitting next to whomever fate had assigned me the misfortune of sharing an alphabetical association with. Aces.

In spite of all the questionable characters in the room—ranging from neophyte gangsters to truculent bruisers racing toward expulsion and a career under correctional supervision—I’d singled out the guy whom I’d decided was the absolute worst one. The competition was stiff, but I’d winnowed it down to the white guy wearing the Elvis sneer, black boots, ripped jeans, white T-shirt, and a black leather motorcycle jacket. He looked like he’d stepped right out of The Outsiders, as though he belonged in 1950’s Poly instead, ready to menace Melvin Poindexter, my 50’s counterpart. Out of the wretched hive of scum and villainy that made up my plethora of shitty choices, why I picked Sean Blake from among their number, I’ll never know. But when Ms. Zerby called his name, I thought, “Thank God, he’s a B and I’m an E. That should put plenty of distance between us.”

Then she started directing the students where to sit in the bizarrely laid-out room, and the impossibility of predictions became clear. Instead of a standard class layout—with the teacher at the front and the desks all facing toward her—the room was divided in half, with rows of seats on the left wall and rows of seats on the right wall, both sides facing the center of the room with a wide aisle between them. Ms. Zerby’s desk was on the third wall of the room by the blackboard, in line with that aisle. Thus, the students all looked across the room at each other, but had to turn their heads to see the board or Ms. Zerby. This complicated things, so my mental calculus went into overdrive, one jaundiced eye on Sean the whole time.

I assumed that, like any sane person, she’d start with the first seat on the first row closest to her desk and assign people A, B, C down that row, move to the next row and so on, until she’d filled that half of the room and then move on to the other half. Given the proximity of B and E to each other, I thought I’d likely wind up on the same side of the room as Sean, but several rows down from him. However, as I was soon to learn, Ms. Zerby was an insane person. She began seating people across the rows, right to left along the back wall—instead of down the rows front-to back—and working out from that wall toward the center aisle. What kind of a psychopath thinks that way? One that puts on a sock and then a shoe, then the other sock and the other shoe, no doubt.

As I watched each person trudge slowly over to their seat, I was trying to estimate just how close a B and an E could be to each other when plotted along this cartesian cross-section of Ms. Zerby’s madness. I was suddenly filled with a dawning certainty that I’d wind up in dangerous proximity to Sean. He took his seat one tier in from the wall, and I watched seats fill with glum souls like I was watching a fuse burn inexorably down. 

“Blake… Bueller… Calhoun… Calibuso… Chu… Cordova… I closed my eyes.

Dacosta… Dao… D’angelo… Dorsey… Duarte… Echevarria… Eimer…

Elliott.

When I opened them, I saw that I’d be sitting next to Lynelle Eimer… and directly in front of Sean Blake. Sweet, fancy Moses! What were the odds? I trudged over to take my seat, resigning myself to a year’s worth of Wet-Willies, Flat-Tires, and Indian Burns, already feeling him flicking me on the back of the ear and demanding “Yo, dork! What’s the answer to number four?”

As it turns out, the first words he said to me were actually, “You have to perform the functions inside the parentheses first, then go left to right through the equation.” He didn’t sound anything like Biff Tannen from Back To The Future, despite my expectations to the contrary. He also didn’t have any tattoos, keep a pack of smokes rolled up in the sleeve of his white-T, or listen to Slayer like I assumed. And of course, he was much better at Algebra II than me. So the year unfolded in ways unanticipated and unplanned, as they ever have, as they ever will.

It turned out that Sean and I made a sport out of Lynelle Eimer’s misery instead, by playing on her revulsion with spiders, squishy bodily noises, and the word “moist.” She gave as good as she got though, and cast us in the role of lovers desperately pretending to be straight, with our displays of machismo and boorish behavior. Eventually, I went on to tutor her in Chemistry in trade for her teaching me how to do the Robocop dance so I wouldn’t make a complete ass of myself at the Spring Formal. Or so I’d at least blend in with all the other twits making asses of themselves by doing the Robocop.

As the days passed, Sean and I discovered the many commonalities that we shared outside school. We both went to church, listened to Simon & Garfunkel incessantly, wanted to learn to play guitar and form a band someday, and enjoyed a good debate session for its own sake. He was from the wrong side of the tracks, or the river actually. The LA “River” was really just a massive concrete culvert we called the flood control. It bisected the city and there was definitely a right and a wrong side of it to be on. On the East Side, we had pockets of crime and gang activity, on the West Side, gangs were in open control of huge swaths of territory. So Sean’s West Side tough-guy demeanor and adornments served him well as a camouflage, but a peek under the hood revealed a kind guy, with an incisive mind and a nimble wit. Sean was a Junior, so we only had the one math class together, but we slowly built bridges each day toward being actual friends, as opposed to the at-school-only variety.

The day came that we crossed over when Sean said, “So, who you basin’ on, dude?”

My mind instantly went to work trying to decipher by contextual clues what “basin’ ” was, so that I didn’t have to appear uncool or lacking in street-cred, which was an actual thing back then. I took a stab at answering the question, based on the assumption that he was asking who I was trying to date. I couldn’t really answer because I’d become embroiled in a cold-war love-triangle with my best friend and his girl, and I couldn’t admit it, and I couldn’t move on.

So I offered up a different truth. “Yeah, I broke up with this girl over the summer, and I’m kind of bummin’ on chicks right now. What about you?”

“Heinous, dude. Sorry to hear it. I’m kind of into this fine-ass chick, Paulyne.”

I got a sinking feeling and said, “Wait. Not Paulyne Blanco?”

“Yeah, man. You know her?”

Unfortunately, I did know her. “Hate to say it, chief, but that’s the girl I broke up with this Summer.”
At this, Lynelle jumped in and said, “Drop the act, boys. No one’s falling for this. Just kiss and make up, no need for all the drama.”

In unison, Sean and I grabbed a pinch of cheek on our faces, wriggling it rapidly it in an out creating a gross, squishy sound that we knew was like nails on a chalkboard to her. She quickly plugged her ears and turned away, going “La-la-la-la-la,” to drown us out. Sean and I fell out laughing until Ms. Zerby shooshed us, as she’d gotten in the habit of doing. Turns out that our quadrant of the room was way more trouble than any of the so-called bad kids, who just kept their heads down and actually did their work. Buncha losers.

Toward the end of class, when we’d been good for almost a half-hour—which was an accomplishment for us—Sean said, “Well, I’ve only been talking Paulyne up for a minute. I was gonna swing by and see what she was up to at lunch, but I could check in with my ROTC crew instead. We got us a couple of hotties over there, too.”

And that was that. He veered off of Paulyne for good, and never said another word about it. For
which I was grateful, because I’d been a terrible boyfriend to Paulyne, cheating on her because she was a good girl who wouldn’t give it up and along came a girl that would. As well-deserved payback, Paulyne had no compunctions about flirting with—and dating—people in my circle of friends. So I had no doubt that Sean, with his confidence and charm, could easily have caught her interest, but he chose not to for my sake. No mean feat that, because Paulyne was smokin’ hot. And so we crossed over.

Ms. Zerby “retired” at the semester break, which I assumed was a euphemism for a recall to the factory to have her bolts tightened. It got us out from under her almost-human ministrations, though not quite soon enough to prevent Sean from seeing Ms. Zerby at the beach in a swimsuit one unsuspecting Saturday. The struggle was real, people. We all wound up in a new classroom with Ms. Wolfe, and life moved on.

Sean and I decided to take guitar lessons and start that band, so we found a course offered in the evenings at Long Beach City College. A washed-up old hippy taught us to play and sing some easy folk songs like “Tom Dooley,” “Leaving On a Jet Plane,” and “Feelin’ Groovy,” which obviously made us a band. We named ourselves Sir Lawrence of Blake Street, aka SLOBS, which was apropos if you’d seen either of our bedrooms. While we were taking the class at LBCC, Sean ambled up to a girl on the quad one evening and introduced himself, a skill I never mastered, or even really attempted. Her name was Leighann, and she looked just like Winona Ryder. I was always jealous of Sean’s ability to walk right up to girls and just start basin’ on them, shrugging off any rejections to bounce right back. I always took everything so personally that I would never venture out to initiate anything that didn’t occur organically. Sean could base on anyone, anywhere, anytime.

After the guitar lessons, Sean and I started doing more and more stuff outside of school together, which was a much-needed sub-plot to counterpoint the developments in the cold-war love-triangle of the main storyline of my life. Sometimes I would go and visit his holy-roller church, where everybody wore jeans and flip-flops and went to the mall after to share the Good News with all the boys and girls. That was another “other side” facet to our friendship, since my Church-life was governed by slick shoes, button-up shirts, and all the somberness that implies. My Church’s Calvinist Cadet Corps had taught me to build a fire, read a compass, and shoot a .22, but we didn’t share our faith, and we certainly weren’t allowed to play syncopated music the way Sean’s tribe did. Don’t even get me started on the heresy of their drums!

Having Sean as someone outside my main circle of friends was good for me in ways I couldn’t have predicted. He didn’t listen to the Cure or Depeche Mode, or obsess over Goth chicks. He didn’t have time to feel sorry for himself or ponder his navel. My nails were painted black, while his often had engine grease under them because he was fixing up a Honda Civic himself, paying for all the parts out of his wages from the frozen yogurt joint he worked at down on the shoreline. He was in ROTC at school, part of the rifle-drill team and they were seriously impressive. His room was all books on art, theology, and philosophy, stacked up on cinderblock furniture next to a weight bench. He listened to N.W.A. and Bob Dylan, Sinatra and Joni Mitchell, Metallica and Keith Green.

My Dad was an Elder in our Church, so I had a skeleton key that let me in pretty much anywhere; some nights we’d break into the Youth Room at the Church and kipe root beers, play ping-pong, and lounge in the bean-bag chairs strumming on the guitars that Youth Pastor Dan left there. Other times we’d go to the community racquetball courts at the University, or the smoky pool halls downtown to play 9-ball, or the Laser-Floyd shows at the Planetarium. As the year wore on and school came to a finish for me, he fell tragically in love with a girl from his Church named Michelle, and my secret love for my best friend’s girl, Amy, came to light in the worst possible way, blowing everything to smithereens.

Although I’d graduated by then, Sean and I were joined at the hip, and we mooned over lost loves together, all bravado and basin’ aside. I’d ride my bike down to the shore where he worked and mooch a half-gallon of Fro-Yo and an avalanche of sprinkles off of him, and we’d hatch plots that had no chance of succeeding, and then execute them with military precision. How in the world we got two guitars past security at LAX and into the international terminal to serenade Michelle into not moving to New Zealand is anyone’s guess.

For a minute there, Sean really owed me one for that. But then after my first breakup (of many) with Amy that Winter, he paid me back by letting me moon all the way to and from Knott’s Berry Farm on New Year’s Eve, listening to “Trip Through Your Wires” and “With Or Without You” on countless repeat as I lamented like only a besotted teen boy can. Which had the effect of negating all the rage from the Christian punk rock oncert we’d gone to see. I can assure you, even the thrashings of the quintessential Christian punk band One Bad Pig are no match for teenage angst and self-pity. We drove home down the 91 at 20 mph in the thickest fog I’ve ever seen, Bono serenading us incessantly. Talk about taking one for the team.

Sean soon caught up with me at Long Beach City College, where I was already a campus fixture on the quad with my acoustic guitar, playing Jim Croce and White Lion songs. Much to my chagrin, rather than joining in with his guitar, Sean went another direction for his campus life by rushing a frat called THOR. He got in by successfully swallowing two live goldfish, so I’m not sure if either of us could really lay claim to being the big man on campus.

After I purchased my very first vehicle—a scrappy, red fixer-upper VW Bus named Red Floyd—I hit Sean up for repair advice constantly. When the clutch plate shattered into a million places on the last day of exams, he wrangled his dad over to my house to walk me through replacing it step-by-step. His dad was a gruff Vietnam Vet with a bum leg, so he could only describe and point to things inside the engine compartment with his cane. He was an impressive mechanic, if a bit brusque and impatient at having to explain it to a couple of novices rather than do it himself. Under that crusty exterior, I think our admiration for his skills was satisfying to him in a way he couldn’t let show.

Over the next year, I had an on-again/off-again love affair with Amy that produced more angst and
heartache per square inch than any other teenage melodrama in history. It necessarily came to an end when I was forced by economic circumstances to follow my parents to a nowhere town in rural Washington State. But while my parents moved up in May of 1991, Sean invited me to stay at his house for two months so that I could take Amy to her Senior High Prom, and have one last dance to say goodbye. I took him up on it, and we became roommates. Suddenly, I was from the other side, too. And walking those streets, seeing the gang-tag graffiti scrawled on sidewalks, stop signs, and fences—then learning to read the explicit death threats they contained—I immediately felt the urge to trade the head-to-toe black gothic-ware, black fingernails, and Robert Smith-lite hairdo that I was sporting for a leather motorcycle jacket.

Although Sean and I were both gone with work and school most of the time, we were still crammed into a 10 x 12 room together, with me on a futon on the floor. You never really know someone until you live with them and literally know what their shit smells like. Thunderdome! Still, we survived, making it all the way to P-Day. Predictably, my Bus broke down one more time on Prom night, so Sean and his dad got in up to their elbows to fix it so that I didn’t get grease on my tux or under my black nails. I picked Amy up in her white dress and went to the Anaheim Hilton for our last dance together. As we parted the next day, Amy’s proclamations of love followed me down Broadway from her balcony.

Surprisingly, even after the months of living ass to elbow in his room, Sean still volunteered to go with me into the badlands of Nowheresville, WA, a thousand miles up I-5. So we headed out on our first road-trip together, mechanical problems dogging us the whole way. After a nightmare journey where both of our guitars got stolen, and a cultish backwater town filled with children of the corn almost cannibalized us for lunch, we arrived in Kingston, WA. My bus promptly died in the driveway, never to start again. Still, the fact that ol’ Floyd had sprinted a thousand miles across three states while essentially being on fire the entire time earned him a place amongst the honored dead in my eyes. After laying eyes on Kingston, I kind of envied him.

There were fewer people in the tiny hamlet than in just my senior class at Poly, and I felt like I was being marooned for all eternity. To make matters worse, during lunch down at the The Filling Station—Kingston’s only restaurant—I called home to Long Beach, even though I’d promised Sean I wouldn’t. Come to find out that even though I’d only been gone two days, Amy had already hooked up with one of my friends. That was the day of my 20th birthday. So that’s how that went.

After those months as my very first roommate, Sean could read me like a book, and could tell I was growing morose and beginning to spiral. Ever the optimist, he put on his cruise-director hat and began to manage my re-entry and decompression in Kingston, which I think had been his real intent in going with me on the trip to begin with. An old family friend of his named Eli lived about ninety minutes south, and when Sean got off the phone with him, I had a job interview with Eli’s family-owned landscaping company. Not to mention tickets to see Crowded House in Seattle with Eli two weeks later. Then he took me by the scruff of the neck and drug me across Puget Sound into Seattle to meet girls.

My heart wasn’t really in it, but we found a scraggly dive called the OK Hotel CafĂ© where Sean chatted up the locals about the happening scene and where a sailor new in town might go to find a good time. Nothing materialized, but it weren’t for lack of trying on his part. On the midnight ferry ride back “home,” the ship was ghostly quiet, and I was feeling deflated. I was mulling over how I might run away from home as a 20 year-old man and return to Long Beach to live in my van down by the river. Preferably on the East side, obviously. Although if the Insane Crip Gang would have me, who was I to turn up my nose? But without Sean or his dad to bring Floyd back to life, how would we even get there?

Even though Sean was taking the train back to Cali first thing in the morning, he went balls to wall right up to his last minute in Washington. So when he saw two girls sitting kitty-corner from us in the empty main lounge of the ship, he decided to get up and go base on them. I could not have been more exasperated with him, but true to form, Sean came back with the two ladies in tow. He’d already been talking me up, and they came over all smiles and giggles and suddenly we were in business.

The first girl was named Nicole, and she was a willowy brunette with gorgeous brown eyes and curly hair. Her friend Malia, however, was another story, and not a happy one. They could not have been more diametrically opposed in terms of their appearance, and since Sean had done the leg-work—and was all confidence and smiles, while I looked like the poster child for a suicide hotline—I assumed that I’d get stuck with Malia. It felt like a punishment in the state I was in, but I should have known better. Sean got the conversation going between Nicole and me, and then turned and promptly threw himself on the grenade.

By the time Sean left at O’Dark:30 the next morning, I had a job interview, tickets to an amazing concert, and a date with the lovely Nicole to watch her strut down the catwalk at her very first modeling show. He’d been in Kingston for a total of 16 hours. Of course, all of it went horribly wrong almost instantly, but that’s on me. If he’d been the one marooned there, they’d be calling the place Seanston today. The term ‘wingman’ wasn’t really a thing in ’91, but as far as I’m concerned Sean Blake invented the job and then immediately broke the mold. To this day, when I remember what was going through my head the first time I laid eyes on Sean, I think it was the best joke the Almighty ever played on me.

The punchline still has me rolling. Badump-kssh!