Monday, February 27, 2006
(Imagine, if you will, a rather charming collage of photographs. It was my intention to post a number of them, right about here. However, modern technology has once again beaten me down. So, you don't get to see me progress from an Opie Taylor lookalike to the scarred and weatherbeaten soul I am today. Maybe on my next birthday.)
This Thursday, March 2nd, is my 49th birthday. Some people turn 49 and start moaning about lost youth and never again being able to do such-and-such. They act as though it's some sort of minor death sentence.
Those people are idiots.
It's a number; nothing more, nothing less. Do you have any guarantee concerning how long you'll live? No, and neither do I. You could die tomorrow. Heck, you could die today. As a matter of fact, you might have died during that last sentence, so why am I still writing?
Right at this very minute there's probably a piece of bacon you ate thirty years ago traveling into an artery in your brain and you'll think your name is Glblllbbb a half-hour from now. Who the hell knows? On the other hand, you might be destined to live to be 106, so if you're 49 you aren't even at the halfway point.
It's all a crapshoot. Some people smoke, drink, consistently go to bed after 2 am, never do any more exercise than pushing the button on a remote control and they live to be 90. Other people eat right, exercise, look both ways before crossing the street and a meteor crushes their skull when they're 33. Me? I've done enough drugs to kill a small herd of elephants and I've smoked enough cigarettes to give cancer to a bakers dozen of lab rats. I probably exercise more than the average 49-year-old, but not much. I eat cream cheese and peanut butter and red meat, at least once a week for each of them, and I drink about a half-gallon of milk a day and put cream in my coffee. I'm not dead yet. Good enough for me.
The number "49" means nothing unless you know the context. And, since none of us have any idea what the context is (until it's too late for it to do us any good) to let your life and emotions be ruled by some abstract number is just ridiculous.
Of course, some people accomplish a lot more by the time they reach my age than I have. For instance, by the time he was my age, Jimi Hendrix had been dead for 20 years.
(That's a variation on a joke by the great Tom Lehrer. By the time you reach my age, almost everything is a variation on a joke by someone else, including your sex life.)
If you haven't reached 49 yourself yet, what lessons can I impart that might make your own journey to 49 easier? What have I learned in 49 years that might be of value to you? Not a damned thing, because what worked for me might kill you. However, I'll still spout off about a few things and you can use this useless information in whatever way you wish.
1) No matter what you do, the world will still be spinning after you've done it. Relax.
2) No matter how much you don't want to, you're still going to every once in a while. Relax.
3) Moderation is the key to excess and vice-versa.
4) If you wake up and see your wife having sex with the mailman, hear a garbage truck hit your BMW, smell dogshit, taste puke, and feel something wet that you aren't quite sure what it is? Consider yourself lucky. You've got all five of your senses; you're married, so even if someone else is getting laid, you probably are, too; your mail has been delivered; you've got a nice car; you have a pet; you probably have more to eat and drink than 90% of the world; and you probably had a wet dream on top of it. What more do you want?
5) Have a cookie. It'll make you feel better.
6) Every once in a while, take a nap and don't set your alarm. There is almost nothing as sweet in life as a nap taken when you want it and until it ends naturally.
7) Smile! If you do it physically, it will take hold mentally. It will also piss off your enemies.
8) If you feel bad and you have some pills that will make you feel better, take 'em. Why in the hell people choose to suffer when the solution to their suffering is at hand, I have no idea. Some people do, though. They were probably told at some time in their life that such suffering "builds character". It doesn't. It builds pain.
9) Make some art. Do something that expresses you creatively. Sing. Bang on something. Let the world know you're alive.
10) Finally, don't ignore the folks around you. The more of them you stay in contact with, the better for you. Unless they're real assholes. Then you'll die quicker, but that's a good thing, too - if they're assholes, why would you want to stick around?
So, Happy Birthday To Me.
I'm going to be taking a couple of days off from work, so this will be my last post until March 7th, Tuesday. I will then be 49 years and 5 days old - a relic; an antique; a dinosaur. I'll be so superannuated, I may even crumble into dust before I get a chance to type again. If so, it's been a pleasure. When you go to my funeral, ask my Mom to show you some pictures. Mom has always been more reliable than any scanner I've tried to use here, so I'm sure you'll actually get to see them.
Friday, February 24, 2006
The lovely and talented Tara, regular reader of this blog (God help her), brought the following to my attention: The Lucky Strike bowling alley in Dorchester has permanently closed its doors as of last Thursday night. What does this mean to you? Probably not one hell of a lot. To me, though, it's like Pee Wee Reese being told that Ebbetts Field has been bulldozed. Why? This.
Not that any comparison between my athletic skills and those of Pee Wee Reese could ever be considered valid, of course. Still, if any one of the remaining bowling alleys where I once had some success was dearer to me than another, Lucky Strike was it. I bowled more strings there, over the course of my career (such as it was), than anywhere else. When I was good, much of my goodness happened there. After I lost my skills, I battled those lanes hour upon hour, trying desperately to regain what I had once had. It was a place of triumph and tragedy for me. My blood, sweat and tears - literally - were shed there.
Beyond the relative silliness of bowling, Lucky Strike was also one of the places I took MY future WIFE on one of our very early dates; our second, if I'm not mistaken. This was way after I had given up on bowling in a serious manner, of course. I wouldn't have subjected a woman who hardly knew me to the temper tantrums and psychosis I might have exhibited a few years earlier in that venue.
(MY WIFE swears to this day that the only reason I took her bowling on that date was so that I could freely check out her ass without looking like some sort of perv. I tell her that this is obviously some fantasy she has built up in her head over the years, because since when did I give a damn if anybody thought I was a perv? However, digression has reared its ugly head again, so now I'll get back to what passes for a story around here.)
In any case, the place is gone now. And I never had an opportunity to go there one last time to soak up some atmosphere and re-live a few memories. I'm sad about that, but I'm also pissed off. There have been far too many losses of this sort in my life. What can I call it? Loss of a beloved location? I guess that might be a fair name for it, but it doesn't do the feeling justice.
Most of these buildings and such - that I would dearly love to physically be able to go into again - aren't even available in photographs. I searched the 'net for a photo of Lucky Strike, but all I came up with were old cigarette ads and a tenpin place out in Tucson. I didn't really expect to find anything. Hell, who was going to waste film on an old bowling alley?
(Me, if I'd known.)
So many other places and things I loved, lost and gone forever. Ground to dust for one reason or another; "progress", mainly. The Oriental Theater, movie house of my youth - gone. The chocolate silos - that fantastic piece of architecture at Baker's Chocolate in Lower Mills, my old neighborhood - gone. The Gilbert Stuart, my grammar school - gone. The public library I adored as a kid - gone. The el (elevated railway of the T, Boston's public transportation system, for those of you from out of town) - gone. These, and so many other integral parts of my life, all gone forever.
The Oriental Theater in Mattapan! I can't find a single photograph of this place, yet it was famous enough in its day to have been mentioned in the movie Auntie Mame. The first time that Agnes Gooch (played by Peggy Cass, a Boston native) enters Mame's apartment, the only comparison she can think of is with the Oriental Theater.
The Oriental was an amazing place. An old-time movie palace, spacious and elegant, it was probably somewhat flea-bitten by the time I started frequenting it, but I was so young that it wouldn't have struck me as anything other than beautiful. There were these gigantic statues of Buddha on either side wall of the theater and each statue was fitted out with actual electrically glowing red and green eyes (one statue had the red eyes, and the other had the green eyes.) They struck awe into many a kid from my neighborhood. Another great thing about this place was that, if you ever got tired of the film, all you had to do was lean back and look at the ceiling of the theater to be entertained. There was a constantly changing rolling projection of an outdoor starlit night on the ceiling! I would give ten years off of my life to be able to spend one more afternoon in that place.
(No, really; I would! Well, if I knew I was destined to live to be 120, I would. Unless I was 110.)
What happened to the Oriental? It is now an electrical supply store. What happened to the giant Buddhas? I wish I knew. I know they aren't still sitting on the walls of the electrical supply store - I checked. I know that if I had 'em, I'd put them in my bedroom. Might not be the best thing for my sex life, but there are other rooms in the house and I know I'd sure feel safe and secure with those big guys looking out for me every night.
When I was a youngster, Baker's Chocolate had its headquarters just a couple of blocks from my home. They moved the whole operation to the Midwest when I was about 5 or 6. While they were still in Dorchester, the whole neighborhood smelled of chocolate everyday. How could you be a kid and not love that?
The chocolate silos I mentioned were just that - huge storage bins for chocolate beans. It was actually one gigantic concrete edifice, perhaps 50 or 60 feet high and 150 feet in length, constructed in such a way as to give the impression that it was nine very large round silos. The name "BAKER" was painted onto the middle five of these, while "CHOCOLATE" had one large brown letter on each of the front surfaces. A railroad spur ran behind these towers and they were fronted by an access road and the Neponset River. A highly visible landmark, they were easily seen from much of the surrounding area.
After the factory itself closed down, we kids from the neighborhood would occasionally go inside of these silos and explore a bit. There were steel stairs, of the type used for fire escapes, inside of each tower, and these led up to the very roof of the structure. No, Mom, I didn't climb them; too scared of heights. Some of the other kids did, though. I mostly stayed below and looked around, although I don't know for what, exactly. The only things in them were standing water and rats.
The factory proper has now been converted into high-priced yuppie condominiums. What became of the chocolate silos? Just demolished. I suppose they served no real purpose anymore, except as a reminder of what had once been. I sure would like to see them again, though.
As you can see at the top of this page, I was actually able to come up with a picture of my school, the Gilbert Stuart. It's a photo that predates my attendance by a good thirty years, probably. By the time I went there, that field of grass across the street was a First National Supermarket parking lot, while the store itself would have been just out of the picture beyond that last tree on the right. There seems to be a building there in this picture, but I have no idea what it might have been. Probably some place that someone 30 years older than me groused about not being there when he went back to the old neighborhood.
The library I loved was just up the street from the school, less than a two-minute walk. It was a lovely old brick building, with many odd nooks and crannies that naturally endeared it to children such as myself. I spent hours of immense pleasure there, exploring the myriad worlds opened up to me when I learned to read.
So, what happened to my school and my beloved library? Well, they tore down the school to build a new library. Two memories killed for the price of one!
The El, or elevated, was considered an eyesore by many Bostonians, so it was slated for destruction for a considerably long time. The only reason it stayed around as long as it did was because the politicians couldn't get together on just exactly what would replace it. There was also some opposition to its removal from the people who lived in a few of the neighborhoods it serviced, since the replacement rail line wouldn't run the same route. The MBTA promised those people alternate means of transportation, and so that opposition vanished and the elevated went the way of the passenger pigeon. Those people are still waiting for that alternate transportation, but the el is history.
Truth be told, I was both fascinated and scared by the el. I've always been uncomfortable with open heights, so standing on an elevated platform wasn't my idea of a good time. However, I enjoyed riding the thing and the views of the city you got by doing so were sometimes magnificent. And, of course, I've previously related to you my happiest moment in the subway, and that actually took place on the el, so...
So many places, gone. The Boston Garden, where I saw my first concert and watched the Celtics win championships from the second balcony (which was itself gone years before the Garden itself); The Rathskellar, aka The Rat, Boston's answer to CBGB's, probably the most famous venue I ever played as a musician; Charlie's, my neighborhood store, where Charlie Capabianco kept a tab on scraps of cardboard for those folks who couldn't pay him until their next check came in, and where he let us kids go behind the counter to pick out our own penny candy, trusting us to be honest - which we were 19 times out of 20; The Combat Zone, which now exists in name only, but where teenagers used to go downtown to see dirty movies and play pinball at The Arcade, and where sailors on leave could get their needs met; Colstone's, a self-service restaurant across from the Arch Street Chapel (itself now endangered) where I was amazed as a kid to be able to fill my own water glass from a soda fountain type of machine (and, as a result, I drank four or five glasses of water any time my mother brought me there, and was dying to pee by the time we got home); Stores that don't exist anymore, except in memory - Grant's, Woolworth's, Kresge's, Lechmere's, Gilchrist's, Zayre's, Raymond's, Kennedy's, Mickey Finn's, and the granddaddy of them all that nobody from my age group could even imagine not existing in downtown Boston, Jordan Marsh; Every single one of these places, gone.
I suppose I should just grow up and stop whining. Everybody has something from their childhood that they miss. Are my losses so damned special?
Yes. I lost chocolate silos and giant buddhas and a railway that traveled through the sky. I lost magic.
Soon, with more better stuff.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
I was on a hillside in Italy, having decided to take a short hike in the snow, and that's when I saw him. He was dressed in a skin-tight orange and green leotard, and he was carrying two long skinny boards. I had never seen the like before in my life, so I just had to find out. I walked up to him and engaged him in conversation.
"Hello! Is the circus in town?"
"I was just, um, admiring your outfit and I was wondering if you might be with the circus."
"The circus? No. I'm with the Estonians."
Ah, a religious cult! That would certainly explain the clothes. I continued my enquiry.
"What are you going to do with those boards?"
"Well, do you see that ramp over there?"
"The one that ends in mid-air, some fifty feet above the ground?"
"Exactly. I'm going to strap these boards to the bottom of my feet and then propel myself down that ramp as fast as possible. When I reach the end of the ramp, I'm going to jump."
"What! Don't do it, man! Think of your wife and children!"
"My wife and children? They're down there at the bottom of the hill."
"Well, then, you just turn around right now and walk back down to them and thank your lucky stars someone came along and stopped you from killing yourself."
"Killing myself? What are you, insane? This is what I do for a living!"
"Not if I have anything to say about it! Where's your keeper?"
"The man who feeds you and gives you your medication and makes sure you get back to the home safely whenever you escape."
"Feeds me? Medication? Oh, you must mean my trainer. He's over watching the skeletons."
"Skeletons! Where are they?"
"The next hill over."
I raced as fast as I could through the snow to find this man's doctor before he could carry out his suicidal plan. I came upon a long stretch of frozen ice and told the first person I saw what had happened. I asked him where I could find the Estonian's doctor.
"Oh, do you mean the trainer? I'm him."
"Oh, thank God! I was just over at that hill and..."
"Good Lord! I think that was a man!"
"Well, yes, it's the skeleton."
"No, no. That was a living person with a horrible grimace on his face and he must have gone by us at 80 miles per hour!"
"79.6, actually. Too bad. He's out of it."
"If he did that on purpose, he certainly is! Aren't you going to do someth..."
"There goes another one!"
"Ah, much better. 83.2 miles per hour! He's got a good chance."
"I don't think so! You say you're a doctor?"
"And you're just standing here watching these poor souls go hurtling by and you're doing nothing more than timing their hellish descent with a stopwatch? Your name wouldn't be Mengele, would it?"
"What are you jabbering about? This is the skeleton run."
"I suppose so! The bones must be piling up gruesomely! You fiend! I've got to find the police!"
I ran as fast as I could, looking for a sane person to direct me towards the nearest police station. I came upon a lovely young girl of perhaps 15 or 16.
"Excuse me, miss. Where is the nearest police sta..."
I then noticed that she was only half-dressed. The poor child. She was obviously indigent and had had to wear the same clothes for many years and had outgrown them.
"Um, I don't mean to be indelicate, miss, but your panties are showing. Here, take my jacket and wrap it around your waist."
"Get away from me, you pervert."
"I don't have time for this. I have to get to the show."
"Show? What sort of show?"
"The ice show, of course."
"Ice show? What's going to happen there?"
"See these boots I'm carrying, with the skinny iron rods attached to the soles? I'm going to put them on and attempt to maneuver around a sheet of ice."
"Uh-huh. Wouldn't it be easier if you didn't have the metal rods on your shoes?"
"Duh! I don't have time for this, Grampa. I have to meet my partner."
"Oh, you have a partner?"
"Yes, he helps me around the ice."
I wanted to say, "Wouldn't he be more of a gentleman if he helped you home, where you could put on some decent clothes and a sensible pair of shoes?" However, she seemed rather determined. I asked her what else her partner did with her on the ice.
"He picks me up and spins me around and then he throws me in the air with all of his might."
"What?!? The brigand! I'll brain him! Where is he?"
She pointed off to her left, but the only person there was a rather slight fellow dressed in an ill-fitting sky-blue waiter's outfit. Not to be too indelicate, but he appeared to be the sort of man who wouldn't find touching a woman especially pleasing, if you know what I mean. Perhaps this explained his aggression towards the waif. I went to have a word with him.
"Excuse me, sir, but do you intend to forcefully lift that young lady, twirl her in the air, and then toss her away like yesterday's rubbish? I swear I'll not see it happen!"
With that, I raised my walking stick, fully intending to bring it down upon the top of the rascal's skull. However, as he started to run away, screaming, someone grabbed my cane from behind. I turned and saw a member of the local constabulary. Thank goodness! Now I could finally get someone to stop these many asylum escapees from doing harm to themselves!
"Come along, sir. There'll be no more of this from you."
He placed a pair of handcuffs on me!
"Wha.. What are you doing?!? There's a man over there throwing himself off the side of a mountain while his wife and children watch! A madman with a stopwatch clocking how long it takes for a living human to slide down an icy mountain! A poor defenseless underdressed urchin being forced to undergo physical trauma at the hands of a deranged waiter! Let me go! Let me go!"
As the policeman was dragging me away, I heard large crowds cheering. The last thing I remember seeing was a man sliding a large rock down a sheet of ice while two other men with brooms feverishly swept a path in front of the rock. The man who had slid the rock was yelling, "Hard! Hard!"
"And that's when I awoke, doctor. I fear I may have gone insane. No one in his right mind would have dreams like these for the past ten days. What should I do?"
"Shut off your TV before you go to sleep, Jim. Or, at least, don't leave it on NBC all night."
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
I told you recently, and also a while back (#54), that I am technically a professional bowler. I also told you that I'd tell you all about it someday. Well, today is the day. Feel free to run from the room screaming.
Now, the first thing we have to do - if you're still here - is get our terms straight. When I say "bowling", I might not mean the same thing as when you say "bowling". I'm talking candlepins here.
Candlepins is to tenpins as baseball is to softball. Except, in this case, the easier game is the one that you can make a living at. Candlepins is a much tougher game than tenpins.
Why is candlepin bowling a tougher game than tenpin bowling? Well, I'll tell ya.
1 - The candlepins are thinner than tenpins, therefore harder to hit.
2 - The candlepin ball is approximately 2-1/2 pounds and fits snugly into the palm of your hand, while the big-ass tenpin ball is roughly the size of your head and can weigh as much as a small Buick. While it is entirely possible to hit the #2 pin in candlepins and have that be the only pin that goes down (I've seen it happen and I've done it) any ball on the #2 pin in tenpins can't help but take out at least half the rack.
3 - Tenpins is so easy, they only give you two balls in a frame and they clear the wood after every shot and if you don't get every pin down with those two balls it's considered a grievous opening for your opponent. In candlepins, you get three shots per box and all of the wood is live and...
Let's cut to the chase. Professional tenpin bowlers hold averages in the range of 220 to 230. Perfect games of 300 certainly aren't easy, but they're not exceedingly rare, either - just about every pro has bowled one. Pro candlepin bowlers, on the other hand, hold averages around 125. Heck, I could drop acid and bowl a 125 in tenpins with one eye closed. As a matter of fact... no, let's not go there. And - listen up, tenpin people - there has never been a perfect game in the entire history of candlepin bowling. Game, set, match.
At the peak of my game, I held a 111 average. What did this mean? It meant that I could finish in the money (or even win) a short tournament - say, 10 strings - if my game was really on and if the field wasn't overloaded with the best pros. And so I did, a couple of times.
To put it into terms that some of you - unfamiliar with candlepins - might understand more readily, let's pretend that it was a golf tournament; a short one - 18 holes. I'm a 2 handicap. I shoot a very good round for me - 3 under par - and I win.
Would this happen often? No. Could it happen? Yes. In my case, it did. It didn't happen often enough for me to do the pro tour (yes, there is one for candlepins) but I was good enough, when I was on, to be a danger to any pro that wasn't on his game.
I was good at the game right from the get go. I was a natural. It's still the only sport I never had to think about. Baseball, basketball, hockey - every one of those was something I had to really sweat at just to be decent. Bowling? I wound up and threw and the pins went down - at a much higher rate than any of my friends.
When I was very young, my Mom would often buy me a couple of strings of bowling as a reward for some minor inconvenience, such as accompanying her on a shopping trip downtown. I'd often get to bowl a couple of strings at the lanes which operated in the basement of South Station then. I was under 10 and shooting over 90 frequently.
As I grew older, I got stronger and better. My average climbed into the low 100's as I hit my teens. I had my own set of 4 balls. They were a beautiful green and white marbled pattern. God, I was proud of those. Only the pros had their own and mine were as good as any of them. My Mom and Dad got them for me as a birthday present, along with my own shoes and a bag. At that point, I started taking it really seriously.
I'd go to the Lucky Strike lanes in Dorchester and bowl 25 or 30 strings in a row, sweating off three or four pounds in water. I was a maniac. It was pick up a ball, set, fire, pick up a ball, set, fire, scribble a score as I pushed the reset button, pick up another of my balls and throw it behind my back into my other hand while I waited impatiently for the next rack. I'd soak through two shirts and God help anyone who was bowling in the alley next to mine, because I'd shoot daggers at them with my eyes if they didn't observe the proper etiquette and wait for me to roll before they made their approach. I always requested a lane with no one on either side of me. The proprietors knew me, and they knew this was best for their business overall, so they usually gave me one.
I had the most extreme kick out of my right leg that I've ever seen on any bowler. (As a visual aid, look here) On my slide and release, I'd get down so low and kick out my leg so far, that I would, over time, wear a hole on the right side of my right shoe as well as in the knee of my pants. I fired the ball with every ounce of strength I had in my body, on every shot. When I hit the pocket right, the pins just exploded. They'd all go down at once with a crashing sound that is still the most satisfying sound I've ever heard.
I'd throw 750 or 800 balls that way. Think of it - it added up to an actual ton of balls on some days. My long hair would be soaked, my shirt all wet, and when I woke up the next day, I sometimes wouldn't be able to lift my arm above my shoulder. I worked as hard at my game as any athlete I knew.
I bowled in leagues, of course. My favorite was at Wollaston Bowladrome on the beach in Quincy. There I bowled with a team including my friends Mike, Craig and Mark. We called ourselves the Reefer Rollers. There were some people who were under the impression that this was our team name because we drove refrigerated trucks. These people were not too smart and they must not have had very good senses of smell. We reeked of smoke. Before every match we toked up.
I've got to tell you - smoking weed did NOT hurt my game. If anything, it improved it. If you're familiar with the effects of pot, you know that your focus while high tends to narrow to the minutest details. When I was high, all I saw were the pins. Outside noises didn't exist. I was dialed-in. Every part of the experience became its own concentrated delight. I would never recommend smoking grass before a more strenuous athletic endeavor, or one that involves a more varied and complex set of actions, but it was a perfect fit for me and for bowling. I was so on it. If I knocked down nine with my first ball, leaving the 10 pin, I would just grab a ball, fire, and turn my back, knowing as soon as I released it that it was perfect. I'd just walk over and hit the reset button without even looking to see that I had made the shot. I knew I had. That trick sure pissed off a lot of other teams.
Mike was a good bowler, too, and we often entered roll-offs together. Roll-offs were the qualifiers for the TV shows that used to be more numerous, wherein you could win some decent cash. The granddaddy was the Channel 5 show, hosted for so many years by Jim Britt and then for even more years by Don Gillis. It was almost a religious practice for Boston bowlers to watch this show on Saturday mornings. There were also great shows hosted by Bob Fouracre and Bill O'Connell. The stars who appeared regularly - Tony Karem, Tom Olszta, Rosario Lechiara, Fran Onorato - were my idols. I never won a roll-off, nor did Mike, but we did get to bowl with some of these great pros and we came damned close once or twice. One of the biggest thrills of my "career" in roll-offs was going toe-to-toe with the great Charlie Jutras for five strings, at Sammy White's in Brighton, coming up six pins short in the end.
(I'm glad to say that some of these shows may be making a comeback. Check out this.)
I bowled in Wollaston, at the Wonderbowl in Quincy, at Lucky Strike, at Sammy White's. Anywhere there was a bowling alley, I bowled. There used to be a gigantic bowling center underneath Symphony Hall in Boston. It had 55 lanes. I loved that place. I mentioned South Station earlier. There were places in Milton, Mattapan, Weymouth. I bowled my high single in Weymouth, a 156, which was part of my high triple of 424. Just about all of these houses are gone. For the most part, I can't even revisit the sites of whatever triumphs I had.
Here comes the sad part. Do you remember a baseball pitcher by the name of Steve Blass? Steve Blass just totally and inexplicably lost his ability to pitch a baseball with any degree of effectiveness. He was a major leaguer one day and a bum the next. Same thing with me as a bowler. I lost it. I just totally lost it. Whatever I had, naturally, just went away one day. And, since I had never thought about what I was doing, I didn't know how to get it back. I tried. God, how I tried.
It happened suddenly. I just couldn't control the ball. I thought I was doing all of the same things I had always done, but now the ball was just flying off wildly. My average fell into the 80's. I was completely embarrassed and mentally fucked up beyond belief. I tried everything. I went to a different approach, I slid less, I tried to keep my arm completely rigid, I started from the left side of the lane, the right side, in the middle, I looked at the pins, I tried aiming from the marks on the alley, I tried throwing a curve, a hook, I tried dropping the ball slightly before my slide, slightly after I went in to it, I tried to not think at all, I tried to concentrate on every tiny little motion, I even tried bowling with my eyes shut, God help me, but NOTHING got it back.
It was maddening and tantalizing. I'd bowl well for three or four frames and get a glimmer of hope that I was recalling the muscle memory that I needed, and then I'd fall apart completely again. I don't think I can adequately explain to you the mental anguish I had, or the physical pain I put myself through. It sounds so damned silly, to be talking this way about something as unimportant as bowling, but there is nothing in the world quite so frustrating as having been able to do something better than anyone you knew and then finding yourself unable to do it even as well as when you were a rank beginner.
I bowled 20, 25, 30 strings at a time, same as I did when I was good, but now it was four or five hours of swearing, cursing, trying to figure out just what the hell had happened and never being able to do it. I finally gave up the game completely. Over the past 20 years now, I'd guess that I've been bowling no more than ten or twelve times.
I don't quite know how to end this piece without leaving you with the impression that I'm totally whack. Unless you've had that experience of losing something, and then trying with all your heart and soul to regain it, then you can't fully understand the emotional wreckage involved. It sounds crazy, and it was crazy while I was doing it, but it wasn't crazy, you know? No, maybe you don't. I can't say that I blame you.
I still have those green balls that my parents gave me. They're a bit worse for wear now - small chips in them and scars - but I haven't thrown them out or given them away. Someday, I'm going to try it again, one more time. Maybe I've been away from it long enough to just let my body take over and find that elusive muscle memory one more time. When I do try it, I'll let you know what happens.
Monday, February 13, 2006
For Valentine's Day, I have a love story to tell.
MY WIFE is my soulmate. Without her, I'd be far less than fully alive. She is the yin to my yang; the peanut butter to my jelly; the Laurel to my Hardy.
(Damn, how do I come up with this stuff?)
However, our love story is a great story, so I'm not going to just dash it off quickly to fill space on Valentines Day. When I write it up, I'll take my time and do it right. Therefore, you can expect to see it some time in 2009. Maybe.
To fill space here, I had considered just listing all of the women I've had crushes on and love affairs with and otherwise stalked until they called the cops, but there might still be a couple of restraining orders extant, so I think I'm limited in what I can publish. Instead, I'll tell you about one woman from my past who probably wouldn't be terribly embarrassed about the tale I'm going to tell, mainly because I'm not going to use her real name.
When I was in fourth grade, I kissed the first girl I ever kissed.
My best friend, Stephen Murphy, was having a birthday party. Julie and her friend, Lorraine, classmates of ours, were invited to the party. Somehow or another, during the course of the party, Stephen and I had decided that his girlfriend would be Lorraine and mine would be Julie. I don't know how we decided this. It was his birthday, so maybe he chose first; I don't know. I would have chosen Julie anyway, so it didn't matter. She was a really cute little blonde and she was always friendly. Lorraine was a tall brunette, and just a bit scary. I was almost a year younger than everybody in my class, and skinny as hell to boot, so Lorraine looked like she might have been able to beat me up. I thought I could handle Julie if it came down to it.
Anyway, as the party was ending and kids were going out the door to head home, a propitious moment arrived where only Julie, Lorraine, Stephen and myself were left in his living room.
Stephen whispered in my ear, "OK, you kiss Julie and I'll kiss Lorraine."
I whispered back, "Ugh. KISS her? Why would I want to do that?"
"That's what you do with a girlfriend."
"OK, then, you kiss Lorraine first and then maybe I'll kiss Julie."
"It's my birthday. You should start."
"I already gave you a present."
"We could both do it at the same time."
"Come on! They're gonna leave!"
And, with that, he kind of shoved me at Julie, while he grabbed Lorraine.
I looked over and saw my buddy kissing Lorraine, so I planted a very dry quick smooch on Julie's totally unprepared lips. I don't know how Lorraine reacted to my buddy, but I know that Julie didn't seem all that upset about things. She smiled, as a matter of fact.
Of course, now that I had done what my buddy had explained was what you did with a girlfriend, I didn't have any idea what to do next. So, I just stood there like an idiot, blushing my fool red head off, while Julie continued smiling.
My friend now announced, loud enough for everybody to hear, "OK, now Julie is my girlfriend and you get Lorraine."
My guess is that Lorraine wasn't overly impressed with his kissing technique, so now he wanted to try it out on someone else - or maybe he was just way ahead of his time. My best friend was a jungle gym lothario; a pre-pubescent swinger! Fourth-grade girlfriend swapping!
Lorraine said, "I don't want to kiss him!"
She appeared to be pointing in my direction. I didn't have any idea why she wouldn't want to kiss me. I had watched enough Leave It To Beaver episodes to know that girls always wanted to kiss boys, although it was never explained why they did.
Julie pointed at my friend, and said, "Well, I don't want to kiss him, either!"
Stephen said, "You have to. That's the rules!"
Where he got these rules, I had no idea.
I stood there, blushing more strongly than ever and wishing I was home. Lorraine said, "Hmmph!", or something to that effect, and walked out the door. Julie followed, leaving me and my friend to ponder just what the heck had happened.
Eh. We were fourth-graders. We didn't ponder long.
"You want to go to Charlie's and get some candy? I've got birthday money."
"OK", I said, and off we went to drown our sorrows in Pixie Sticks and Mallo Cups.
So, that was the first time I ever kissed a girl. It would be another five years or so before a girl actually kissed me. The next day, back at school, it was as though nothing at all had happened. Nobody was embarrassed and nobody avoided anyone else; it was business as usual. If only romance was that simple all the time.
Soon, with more better stuff.
This Story Has No Point, Nor Does It Have A Climax, And If You Look For Either You Will Be Severely Disappointed
It's 5:15pm on Sunday night here in Watertown, MA, and there are about 18 inches of snow outside. The snow is still falling, but they expect it to stop in the next hour or so. Quite a snowfall, but it doesn't compare to...
THE BLIZZARD OF '78!!!
Sherman, set the wayback machine for Fogeyville.
Fogeyville, Mr. Peabody?
Yes, Sherman. We're going to visit the site of an interminably long reminiscence that has no readily obvious reason for existing.
(Even the reference comes from Fogeyville. If you're under 30, you probably have no idea who Sherman is, nor should you. Mr. Peabody, though, he's another story. It's not every day you see a talking dog who invented a time machine. And he wears glasses!)
Anyway, there was this blizzard, see? And it happened in 1978? So, like, we called it the blizzard of '78, man? It was awesome, dude! It was, like... like... uh...
It was a big snowstorm.
It was February and I was 20. I was also unemployed. Therefore, I used to go to bed at around 2 in the morning, after a healthy buzz and (sometimes) getting laid, and I'd wake up at 10am or so. That was important, the 10am thing. That was when The Beverly Hillbillies came on.
Being an out of work stoner, I was collecting unemployment benefits and enjoying the heck out of the whole experience. I think my last job at the time had been with Prudential Insurance, working in their office supply warehouse just outside of Brookline. I was probably getting $65 every two weeks in unemployment, but I was under no real pressure to get another job, at least until the benefits ran out. My Dad, bless him, wasn't on my back for any rent, and I bought food and other stuff for the house. My remaining money went for bass guitar strings, trips to the dog track, and bowling.
(I should mention here that the trips to the dog track and the bowling were actually profitable ventures. There was a six or seven month stretch during this time period when I went to the track almost every day with a couple of my friends and we made considerable money. Also, I was technically a professional bowler, having entered and won a couple of local tournaments. However, these are stories for another time that have nothing significant to do with this story. I will tell you all about them, someday, but for now it's just... Digression!)
(You should stick your index finger in the air and say that word as though you were Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof saying "Tradition!" and it will be much more satisfying.)
Anyway, on this morning, I woke up at a bit before 10 and ambled downstairs to grab a bite to eat. My Dad was already on the road. He was a salesman for Singapore Airlines and he had calls to make, so he had probably left the house around 7 o'clock. I grabbed a sleeve of saltines and a jar of peanut butter, stirred some Hershey's syrup into a tall glass of milk, and carried this stuff back into the living room. I switched on the TV, turned it to channel 38, and settled in to watch Granny whack Jethro over the head with a frying pan.
I ate the peanut butter and crackers while drinking the chocolate milk, all the time immensely enjoying Jethro's comic attempts at trying to make a success of a restaurant called The Hungry Gizzard. Then I smoked a bone and laughed like a loon while enjoying Barney Fife's law enforcement misadventures. Returning from Mayberry, I plugged in my bass and threw some Grand Funk and Black Sabbath onto the stereo, playing along for an hour or so. After that, I felt like reading a bit. I picked up Twain's Life On The Mississippi, which I was in the middle of at the time, and traveled back to the 19th century for a while.
Understand that I did all of this without ever looking at the outside world or hearing about it in any way. All of the blinds were drawn. The telephone was connected to an answering service for my Dad's job, so I didn't answer it unless whoever was calling gave me a signal (everybody who knew us knew that the code was to ring once, hang up, then immediately call back, otherwise we would assume it was business and let it go through to the service, which would pick up after three rings.) Also, this was before cable and satellites, so unless I got up from the couch to physically change the channel, it was channel 38 all day and they had no news coverage, so...
At about 2 o'clock, I decided to check and see if the mailman had come. I opened the front door and there it was. Lots of snow. Shitloads of snow. Snow up to the middle of the storm door, which was up to the middle of my belly. Snow, which I stood gaping at blankly. So much snow that the street was totally covered with more than two feet and not a living soul was anywhere to be seen.
Far out, man.
I got dressed (I had been in nothing but a pair of jeans since I got up) and pulled on my boots. This was awesome. I went outside and plowed my way through snowdrifts up to my chest. I wanted to see if anyone else was around to enjoy this with.
I trudged through the snow towards River Street, which was the main drag two blocks away. My street wasn't plowed, which was no surprise. The city of Boston sometimes never plowed Caddy Road, it being a side street off of a side street off of a side street. I reached Monson - nope; not plowed. Sturbridge? The same. And as I approached River Street, I saw that it was only slightly navigable. It was a busy street and cars had probably been on it, off and on, since the snow started, but it was still a mess.
I was enjoying the bejeezus out of this winter wonderland. I spotted a couple of my bowling/racetrack/unemployed buddies and made my way towards them. We exchanged amazed words as Mike lit up a joint that we shared. It was obvious that there wouldn't be any racing for at least a few days, so that was a bummer, but we had enough dope to last a while, so no problem keeping a steady buzz while we waited for the streets to clear.
After a bit more conversation, I made my way back to the house. After shedding my boots and wet clothes, I turned on the radio to get some news and see what the prognosis was. The word was that there had been 28 inches of snow and the city of Boston was pretty much shut down. Many people were stranded wherever they worked and would be staying there overnight. A state of emergency was declared by the governor, and there was talk of bringing in the National Guard to patrol the streets and keep down looting, etc., and everybody was advised to stay off of the streets except for emergencies.
I put Ted Nugent on the stereo while wondering if my Dad would be stuck someplace. I doubted it. My Dad was one of the all-time great snow drivers. If anybody would NOT be stuck, it would be him. If he had a Volkswagen Beetle at the Arctic Circle and had to be in Anchorage the next day, I wouldn't have bet against him. Downtown Boston to Dorchester, in 28 inches of accumulation? The only way he wasn't going to be home was if the authorities physically wouldn't let him drive.
The house was well-stocked with food and drink. I had plenty of cigarettes. The electricity was on and there were plenty of sitcoms and cartoons to watch. I had no problem with this storm. Other people weren't as lucky. My neighbor, Stephen Murphy, was stranded at his job. He was a shoe salesman. What in the hell did he do to amuse himself in a shoe store for 48 hours? You can try on only so many pairs of pumps before it gets boring.
(It was a women's shoe store.)
I heard a motor gunning outside. My Dad plowed his way down the street, slowly, fishtailing wildly but determined to get his big boat of a Chrysler into our driveway. After much maneuvering, he got it into position to go straight onto the slight incline by the side of our house. He rocked the car back and forth for about 25 minutes, while I shoveled, and he damned well got the car into the driveway, where it stayed for the duration of the snow emergency. He was one of the few who could have gotten around the city if he needed to, but he wasn't averse to taking a few days off while his bosses were under the impression that he couldn't drive in these conditions. We both settled in for a slothful couple of days.
And that's about it. I told you there was no point to this. After a week or so, the snow melted and everybody went about their business as usual. Some folks weren't as lucky as me, as some 90+ people actually lost their lives due to the blizzard. The total of property damage was somewhere above a billion dollars, I believe. Beyond those grim statistics, though, the Blizzard Of '78 seems to have existed only so that, whenever there's a storm these days, someone old (like me) can say, "Hmmff. You call this snow? Why, I remember...", and then go into the song and dance above while everybody rolls their eyes and tries to think up an excuse for leaving.
And you? You sat through this whole thing voluntarily, even after I told you what was coming. You poor soul. See you soon, with more pointless old-fart rambling.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
I've related a couple of tales concerning my days as a rock singer and general all-around dope. However, following those ridiculous days, I took up the bass guitar, became quite proficient at it, and spent some time in a couple of bands that were actually decent.
(Me, more than half a lifetime ago, onstage somewhere)
One of those bands was called Soldier. It was a "power trio", consisting of myself on bass and vocals, Bobby (I'll forego last names here, so as to save anyone embarrassment they may not want at this late date in their lives) on guitar, and Artie on drums. Basic metal, nothing too complicated - especially since I was doubling on vocals. I can sing and play at the same time only while keeping the most rudimentary of bass lines. I cut loose during the instrumental passages, but pretty much played one-note lines during the singing.
This band did not play a whole bunch of gigs. It was mostly just Bobby and me practicing in my basement for a month or so, getting the songwriting and arrangements tight before auditioning drummers and renting out a real rehearsal space. Once we had leased the space and decided on Artie as our choice for drums, Bobby and I had a disagreement and the band split. Nothing major, but we just wanted to head in different directions and that was that. We remained friends.
(I remained friends with Artie, also, and I actually ended up doing some work for his father, driving a delivery truck for his produce company. Another story for another time. As usual, I've digressed.)
Getting back to what little story there is here, I wrote all of the lyrics for this band. I think a couple of them were particularly good, as heavy metal lyrics go. Actually, as heavy metal lyrics go, mine were pretty much the equivalent of Shakespeare, if you graded on a curve; not a whole lot of Ira Gershwins working in that field.
Anyway, here's a song (or two, depending upon how you count) from my halcyon days. If you have a band and want to hear the music, I'll see what I can do for you. It would be an enormous kick for me, if someone actually played one of my songs again.
HALFWAY TO HELL (Pt. 1 - Accusation)
We all remember your pretty face
The warmth of your smile and the innocence in your eyes
We all remember how it used to be
Sunshine and playtime and nobody told any lies
But now it's all changed and
The innocence in your eyes has turned to cold steel
The smile's still there, but it's hollow and fake
You say the right things, but it's obvious you don't feel
We all remember the days of our youth
The sun overhead and nothing to do but just play
We all remember how it used to be
You were like us then - Why couldn't those days have stayed?
It seems so long since there's been a day
With cloudless skies and the sun shining bright
You used to be someone to be looked up to
But now your soul is dead and black as night
You sit all alone in your cold little room watching TV all day and all night
Something has happened to turn you around; Something that isn't quite right
The highs aren't as high as they used to be and the lows are much lower as well
The lights are on, but is anyone home?
You're Halfway to Hell...
HALFWAY TO HELL (Pt. 2 - Answer)
I've been burned out
Dusted for death
Over the clouds in the city
Insides turned out
Standing on streets
That never were meant to be pretty
I've seen it all now
I can't be shocked
By anything that you show me
Listen why now
I don't feel a thing
By these sad words, you shall know me
I've seen life in the afterlife
I've seen death for today
I've seen the days of wine and roses
I've seen them all fade away
And though I still live, I've got nothing more to give
I'm Halfway to Hell
In a pure thing
I have seen lies
Waiting to spread and take over
There's no sure thing
There's only hope
Too often, it dies when you're sober
We've all been sucked in
Fools all the way
The suckers are born every minute
The shit is trucked in
Until it's so deep
We cannot help but stand in it
I've seen you all down on your knees
Praying for salvation
You can get fucked, in that position,
But getting fucked is the beginning of creation
And though I still live, I've got nothing more to give
I'm Halfway to Hell
Can you still care? Can you still Cry?
Are you still as you were before?
I've been somewhere past all that
I'm back... But I want to see more
In the graveyards, dead men tell tales about the way their lives died out
Amidst the shouting, I could hear tears, but I didn't care as they cried out
And though I still live, I've got nothing more to give
I'm Halfway to Hell...
A couple of semi-interesting notes on this song.
(Hah! Notes! Song! I thank you!)
One day, I was walking across the Mass. Ave. Bridge, which crosses the Charles River, connecting Cambridge and Boston. As I reached the middle of the bridge, I saw that some grafitti had been spray-painted on the sidewalk. It said, "Halfway To Hell". There was no indication whether the person considered Boston to be Hell and Cambridge to be Heaven, or vice-versa. It could be taken either way, of course. Genius!
When I wrote the song, the first thing I thought of was the common conception of Heaven being above and Hell being below. If you visualize things that way, then everyone on Earth is Halfway To Hell (as well as Halfway To Heaven, but that's not nearly as cool a title for a heavy metal song.)
See you soon.
Monday, February 06, 2006
Five months back, I published a post entitled Tony C. After publishing it, and re-reading it a couple of times, I came to the conclusion that the first part of the story could probably stand alone if it was fleshed out a bit. Since this is my blog and I can do whatever the hell I want, here it is.
(I'm telling you this to save you the trouble of searching through all of my previous stuff when the thought enters your head that you've read this before. What a nice guy I am!)
If you never saw the original, and would like to do so, it is here. I don't think it's a bad piece, per se; it's just that the first part deserved a place of its own. So, without any further ado (since up to here it's been nothing but ado) here is...
THE DAY I BECAME A RED SOX FAN
I can pinpoint with precision the day I became a Red Sox fan. It was Sunday, July 12th, 1964.
I was 7 years old at the time and my parents were visiting the home of my Granduncle Jim. He was a bachelor who shared an apartment in Roslindale (a section of Boston) with two of my unmarried grandaunts, Aunt Loretta and Aunt Pat. I remember many a pleasant day visiting there. The apartment building itself has since been torn down, much to my chagrin. Looking back, I suppose it was a somewhat strange apartment, but to a kid it had all sorts of interesting and mysterious features. I loved the place.
When you went in the front door, you entered a vestibule populated by a love seat and side table, neither of which was ever used by anyone, for anything - but they looked nice. The vestibule led to a long hallway, from which all of the rooms of the apartment proper were entered, from the right. The long wall of this hallway was covered with family photographs and gigantic depictions of Jesus wearing his crown of thorns, agonized and bleeding. The rooms included three bedrooms; a bathroom (with a magnificent lion's paw tub); a sun porch with stucco walls, where I spent many hours stretched out on a cane couch reading, most notably The New Yorker Book Of Cartoons and a tearjerker children's book called, as I remember, So Dear To My Heart, which was about a boy and his pet black lamb; the living room (which had a grand oriental rug and a severe [the only adjective I can think of that fits] couch, with wooden arms and brass studs, that it was near impossible to get comfortable on, not in any way like the overstuffed ones I was used to from my own home or my grandparent's place); a kitchen (where everyone spent the most time, sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee, chainsmoking and arguing politics, and where my Aunt Loretta always had Jell-O made for me); the dining room (where a box of chocolates was an ever-present temptation, and I wasn't one to resist temptation); and an actual pantry - which was something that astounded me, coming as I did from a home where foods were kept in cabinets and didn't have their own separate living quarters.
My Granduncle Jim was an interesting guy. First off, he was stouter than any other man in the family. Perhaps I'd look at him now and think "fat", but as a kid he was just... substantial. A bit jowly, with ever-present glasses and his dark hair combed straight back, he looked a bit like Edward Arnold, who played "Big Jim Taylor" in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. He had been elected to the office of State Representative in 1945, serving one term in the Massachusetts legislature. He had also been commissioner of Public Buildings during some part of the tenure of James Michael Curley, a renowned (or reviled, depending upon which side of the aisle you were on) Mayor of Boston, Governor of Massachusetts, and Congressman. I don't know how my Uncle Jim got on Curley's A-List, but it wasn't surprising. Uncle Jim was a very smart fellow - so far as I know, the only college graduate from his generation on that side of my family - and a hard worker.
Anyway, on this particular day, while my parents and aunts sat in the kitchen talking about whatever parents and aunts talk about on a summer Sunday, Uncle Jim removed himself from the conversation to go sit in his favorite comfy chair in the living room and watch the Boston Red Sox play a doubleheader against the Washington Senators. I wasn't interested in the conversation, so I tagged along.
The Red Sox and Senators were battling it out to see which team could clinch 9th place before September. The Sox were three years away from the beginning of their rise to glory, the marvelous "Impossible Dream" team of 1967. The starting infield was populated by the likes of Felix Mantilla, Eddie Bressoud and Dick Stuart. Of the regulars that year, Bressoud led the team with a .293 average. Dalton Jones and a young Carl Yastrzemski tied for the team lead in stolen bases with 6, so they obviously didn't have speed to make up for their lack of hitting. The Senators, on the other hand, had such luminaries as Ron Kline, Fred Valentine, Eddie Brinkman and Don Lock on their roster. In 1964, you would have been hard pressed to find a less-appealing doubleheader, but Uncle Jim was a seriously diehard baseball fan.
Anyway, Uncle Jim settled in to watch this thing on his black and white TV, and I settled in next to Uncle Jim, laying by the side of his chair on the oriental rug. Curt Gowdy was calling the action, such as it was.
I knew very little about baseball, so I asked Uncle Jim all sorts of idiotic and (to a knowledgeable fan) exasperating questions. Questions like, "How come when the guy catches a ball on the ground it's not an out like when it's in the air? Isn't that harder?" and "If the guy with the bat gets to first base before the other guy catches his fly hit, is he safe?".
Uncle Jim answered all of my questions, patiently and thoroughly. Meanwhile, the Sox split the doubleheader with the Senators. Over the course of the five or six hours we sat in front of the TV watching, I became hooked. I have lived and died with the fortunes of the Red Sox since then, and even had a secondary rooting interest in the Senators, until they deserted Washington for Texas in the 1970's.
The Red Sox radio and TV theme song lives on in my head to this day...
You're just in time for the ballgame
You're just in time for excitement and fun
WHDH has reserved your place
So glad you could make it; So glad you could come
Here's Curt Gowdy standing by
The voice of the Red Sox; A real nice guy...
I also learned a number of commercial jingles which will never leave my memory. For instance...
Schaeffer is the one beer to have when you're having more than one!
Atlantic keeps your car on the go, go, go
So keep on the go with Atlantic!
I could probably dredge up a couple more jingles of defunct products, but MY WIFE will read this and then say to me, as she often does when I reel off something utterly obscure and useless, "So, Jim, what are your cousin's names?", and I'll mumble obscenities and leave the room, disgraced.
My Uncle Jim died in 1969, at the age of 72. When he was 21, the Red Sox had won the World Series. He never saw them win another one. Thanks to him and his patience on that day in 1964, I had the incomparable thrill of enjoying the Sox big win in 2004. I've also played ball for some forty years now, which I probably wouldn't have done if I hadn't become such a big fan of the game. All in all, some of the most spectacularly enjoyable wasted hours of my life I owe to him and his patience on that long-ago Sunday.
Thanks, Uncle Jim.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
My Mother says that since I started doing this blog she's found out things concerning me that she never knew before, with the implication being that she didn't want to know them. Uh, Mom? Turn back now!
I've been a cigarette smoker for 34 years. That's a long time. 34 years. I should probably be dead by now, huh?
I smoke about a pack a day, usually Kools. If Kools aren't available, I'll take any menthol. I sometimes think I might be as hooked on menthol as I am on nicotine. The odd times when I've bought packs of non-menthol smokes, I find myself smoking more. It's as though my body is saying, "Hey! Where's that minty stuff that makes me breathe easier? Smoke another one and get me some, NOW!"
What has smoking done for me? I almost never go more than 5 minutes without coughing. I hack up lovely greenish-brown phlegm after any sort of exertion. I can't run more than the distance between home and first base without feeling as though I'm going to pop a lung. My right hand smells. My breath probably stinks. I'm sure my clothes aren't springtime fresh. My bedroom smells like a particularly vile ashtray - even I can smell it, after I've been out of it for a couple of days. I've probably spent more than $35,000 on cigarettes; the sort of money that could have bought a very nice house, at the time I started. I have a continually nagging worry about some sort of disease eating away the tools of my livelihood - my tongue, my throat, my lungs. I know I'm not doing my heart any favors and, considering the history of heart disease in my family, I could just as easily be dropping dead in the middle of this sentence as completing it. When I wake up, I have to have a cigarette before I feel normal. I spend extra hours out in the snow in winter and the broiling heat in summer because I can't smoke indoors where I work. My teeth are at least a couple of shades darker than they should be - even my implants. And, when I get down to two or three left in a pack, I plan my itinerary around getting to a store to buy more.
Other than that, it's been good for me and I really enjoy it.
I had my first cigarette when I was 14. It wasn't a Kool; it was a Marlboro.
I had been playing hockey on the Neponset River in Dorchester, Massachusetts, with a bunch of my friends. The game actually took place on a small inlet of still water off to the side of the main body of the river. We called it "the lagoon", and I guess that's what it was. It was surrounded by grass, dirts and reeds on three sides and a railroad bridge, under which the river itself flowed, on the fourth. You gained access to the lagoon by following some train tracks from Central Avenue, going as far as the beginning of the railroad bridge, and then climbing down the bank. The lagoon froze solid much sooner than the river itself ever did.
Except, this time, it hadn't quite frozen solid enough to completely handle the weight of eight teenage boys in skates. I was playing goal. After we had been on the ice for about three minutes, there was a rush towards my end. As the teams battled for the puck in front of my net (that is, the two rocks I had set up on the ice and between which I was standing) there was an ominous creaking sound. Anyone familiar with frozen ponds or rivers knows that sound and knows that it isn't good. We all looked at each other with alarm in our eyes and then started scrambling for shore, but the ice gave way and we took a dip into the frigid water beneath the ice.
Everybody made it to shore safely, none the worse for wear aside from being sopping wet. I was soaked from the waist down, but had been close enough to the riverbank to gain shore, among the reeds and dirt, without going deeper than my waist. It was the same for everyone else except the other goalie. Being at the far end of the ice, he had gone in up to his chin.
After we all caught our breath, we took off our skates and exchanged them for the boots we had left on the bank. We walked back up the railroad tracks, wondering what we were going to tell our parents. Most of us were under orders to NOT skate on the river. Looking back, this seems like a reasonable enough request for parents to make of their kids - don't drown yourself - but to us it seemed silly. We knew enough to not skate on the actual river, for goodness' sakes, unless the temps had been below freezing for a month solid. Anyway, the lagoon was shallow enough that, even if we fell in, we wouldn't be in any real danger - so long as we weren't right out at the edge where the current might sweep us under the railroad bridge, down the river to the falls, where we would go flying over, dropping 20 feet onto the rocks and discarded shopping carts in the water and getting mangled beyond all recognition.
Still, here we were, all wet. We were all facing at least a tongue-lashing, if not an outright beating for those of us with less-enlightened parents than myself. We had to figure out some way to get into our houses without our folks finding out how dopey we were. We figured the best way to do this was to stay out until our clothes dried and then go home.
The problem, of course, is that wet clothes do not dry when you're outside on a freezing day. What they do is freeze. We were now not only in peril for our lives (sort of) but in extreme discomfort. Our pants, our socks, our underwear were all starting to become stiff and causing us no small discomfort. This was especially true in some places that teenage boys really don't want discomfort of that sort, having not had the opportunity to use the affected equipment to full advantage yet. I, personally, had visions of my stuff freezing and breaking off.
(Even so, I was still more concerned with what my parents would say. I imagined myself standing in front of them, a tragically underused pink popsicle in my hands, and my father telling me, "Well, let that be a lesson to you! The next time you've got a dick, you'll think twice before disobeying us and skating on the river!")
At the other end of the railroad tracks, back by the Central Avenue station, was the Hendrie's Ice Cream factory. One of us remembered that there were these huge industrial exhaust fans that blew out from the factory and he got the idea that maybe we could sit in front of these fans and actually have a shot at drying off. This sounded reasonable. Just about anything, aside from facing our parents or having our nuts freeze, would have sounded reasonable just then. So, we headed for Hendrie's.
Thing was, the fans blew out from the second floor of the factory. In front of the fans there was a ledge where we could sit. However, to get to the ledge, we had to climb onto the roof of the station, make our way over to the edge, and then hop onto the ledge. What the hell. We were already wet, freezing, facing the prospect of frostbitten genitals, and we had parents waiting for us at home who might or might not lop off our heads, so what was the additional risk of a broken neck to that? Luckily, it was a Sunday afternoon in Massachusetts during a time when the blue laws were still almost wholly in effect. There was almost no traffic on Central Avenue and nobody at all in the station. We hopped up onto a couple of newspaper boxes and from there boosted ourselves up on top of the station. From there, we clambered across the roof and hopped onto the ledge in front of the fans.
The fans weren't blowing particularly warm air, but it was warmer than we were so it was better than nothing. We didn't give any thought to what sort of noxious gases the fans might be expelling. It was an ice cream factory. What could be unhealthy for you there? We sat, shivering and miserable, and I didn't know if I was actually getting drier or if I was just losing the feeling in my extremities.
After we had been there for about an hour, and as the sun was beginning to set - bringing the temperature down a bit more as it did - Ricky Feeley pulled a pack of Marlboros from the inner pocket of his coat. He had taken his coat off prior to the game, leaving it on the riverbank with his boots, so it wasn't wet at all. He took a cigarette out of the pack and, with a pack of matches advertising the exciting possibility of earning your high school diploma at home and never having to attend school again, he lit it.
This was something new and astonishing. We stared at him with unbridled admiration. Until now, none of us had ever seen anyone but our parents smoke. His stock continued to rise as he blew out huge white clouds, occasionally making a ring appear. He appeared contented beyond belief. The rest of us were now not only cold and wet, but envious as well.
To Ricky's everlasting credit, he saw our looks and decided to share his joy. He took out the pack again and extracted seven more cigarettes, handing one to each of us. One or two of us were hesitant, but he assuaged any fears we had by explaining that it would make us warmer. Well, this made sense! It was something that was on fire, after all, and if we sucked it into our bodies, we'd have to get warmer, right? So, we all passed around the educational matches and lit up.
Of course, none of us knew the actual mechanics involved in really smoking, except for Ricky, so we puffed a bit of smoke into our mouths and blew it out, the smoke never reaching our lungs. Ricky saw this and got mad, explaining that we were wasting his cigarettes by not getting the full advantage of the experience. He showed us how to inhale the smoke, saying that you pulled the smoke into your mouth and then, before blowing it out, you inhaled sharply, propelling the smoke down into your lungs. Then, you blew it out of your mouth - or your nose, if you were really cool and which he demonstrated.
We all tried this. And we all hacked our heads off. Looking back, it's amazing to me how anyone ever gets hooked on these things. You have to make a concerted effort to poison yourself; it doesn't come naturally at all. We coughed, and our eyes teared up, and if we were getting warmer it wasn't without the added excitement of feeling as though we were going to upchuck, but we soldiered on, learning the intricacies of such things as French inhales and generally feeling very sophisticated and grown up, even though we were sitting on a second-story ledge in wet clothes avoiding our parents.
As it turned out, we never completely dried off, but we got dry enough to not drip all over our floors and carpets when we finally went home, so we avoided whatever punishment we so richly deserved. An added benefit of sitting in front of the fans, of course, was that we also didn't stink of smoke when we went home, otherwise we would have no doubt received a punishment even more severe than that we would have gotten for falling in the river.
As I lay in a warm bed that night, a good dinner digesting in my belly and my folks watching Mission: Impossible downstairs, I made plans to acquire my very own pack of smokes the next day. And, here I am 34 years later, not one hell of a lot smarter than I was then. The only difference is that I now smoke menthol cigarettes.
I've come a long way, baby.
Soon, with more better stuff.