The claustrophobic walls of my 12x12 bedroom are forcefully squeezing me out tonight, like my pores to the abhorrent acne that would take residency in and scar my yet-to-be-tainted adolescent face in 2 years. I’ve just finished dinner and flipped through my latest subscription of Circus magazine – October 31, 1978 – Linda Ronstadt adorning its cover, featuring a concert photo of Boston’s Tom Scholz on his knees, which I am especially taken with. We’ve agreed to meet on the corner of Hamilton Avenue and DeSoto Place in a little while, just a few blocks from where I share living quarters with my procreators. There’s nothing particularly significant about this spot – yet; you could swap it out for virtually any other in my .85 square mile city-suburban hometown, positioned a mere 6 miles driving distance from Manhattan. My nerves are at heightened awareness; it’s my maiden voyage into the relationship realm; first date, first girlfriend, first kiss. My thoughts coalesce into a mishmash of internal dialogue resembling, Do I breathe once our lips meet? What do I do with my hands? How does my tongue fit into all this activity?
I dress in my most comfortable torn-at-the-knees Levi’s, torn-at-the-sleeves plaid collared shirt, faded pinned back-badged denim jacket, and blow dry my feathered hair – which is getting longer by the day – partly in homage to the rock stars I idolize, partly as a defiant middle finger to the self-righteous, hypocritical systems of authority that have pervaded my teen years. Either way, I look pretty fucking good, in an awkward 16 Magazine-Sean Cassidy-type way. As it turns out, this proves to be one of the more memorable moments in my life, as I will perch myself on these same pavement cracks virtually each year forward on this day at this time, waiting – fulfilling a pact we made that night – replaying the scene frame by frame, wondering if she’ll remember, too. Positioning myself under the noxious glow of the street lamp overhead – the shivery October air signaling the need for warmer ware – with the green chain link fence to my left and the eastward view of compressed two family homes, I await her slender frame peering around the corner. I am bedazzled by her freckles, cocoa eyes and Jordache jeans, and the unsteady drum of my heart that jumps unflaggingly every time I see her.
I’m in the thick of serving icy iridescent treats, spinning dough and utilizing all the neat cleaning gadgets and toxic agents at our local pizza joint two years earlier, situated on the main drag through town, where bare-backed roller skaters, girls with green apple Lip Smacker-frosted mouths, bespectacled math whizzes, denim-clad rockers, and mesomorphic, steroid–injected jocks converge. Positioned across from the neon candy-saturated depot where I purchase chalky packs of baseball cards and sticky root beer barrels, it is also adjacent to the bookstore where I purchased a fresh-pressed copy of Jaws – a hot new novel three years prior – much to the chagrin of ocean-goers everywhere that summer, the likes of which I blazed through midpoint in one sitting. The pizzeria also houses an active jukebox, one that will introduce me to a new song called ‘Roxanne’ the following summer which will, in a small way, alter the way I hear music. I am exploited for my tireless efforts with an hourly wage of $1. After burning holes in my wallet for a few elementary school terms’ worth of lunches, I was graciously offered the gig by its two proprietors who dubbed me the ‘wart kid’ due to my tendency to request slices with the largest burnt air bubbles.
Upon earning a staggering $35 for a few weeks’ worth of underpaid child labor, I decide to make my first-ever large-scale music purchase, which will be nothing short of every Aerosmith record to date, totaling five at present. As I’m too young to drive there myself, I hop aboard what is one of the longest-ever bus rides in transportation history across town, placing only second to the one I’ll take on the return trip with vinyl in tow. As I enter the compact shop, I make a bee-line for the ‘A’ section and there they are: in full subtractive process color, sitting erect, contending for my attention to be cherry-picked and fondled. The combination of the paperboard sleeve, printed ink, cellophane, and cooked 33 ⅓ vinyl biscuit floods my olfactory receptors; the scent is alluring. I hold out hope that at least one of the five contains a gatefold sleeve, lyric sheet, poster and/or merchandise form; it’s almost too much to bear. After final inspection for dog-eared corners and crumpled spines, I carefully place them on the counter, shell out all my earnings and head home. For the remainder of that day, in the confines of my seemingly secure cube of a room – and to the dismay of friends who can’t comprehend my choice to self-imprison on a sunny July day at the mercy of my hi-fi set – I consume all five releases utilizing each of my senses, in chronological order, as layers of sonic bliss ooze creamily from my cheap stereo speakers.
I’m covering one of three bases in a ball game called triangle, one that my father played as a young boy in Astoria and has introduced to my friends and I around four years earlier. The playing field covers the span of the narrow street on which we live, our dead end status ensuring minimal interruption from cars. As my dad has advantages of height, weight and age, he assumes the role of steady pitcher and umpire.
This continues to be a problem.
During one particularly heated two-on-two matchup – where both sidewalks constitute out-of-bounds territory – I find myself at-bat facing my paternal nemesis. The sponge ball used during play is somewhat unpredictable; when slapped a certain way, the trajectory could take an unexpectedly critical short-hop to the groin, leaving a male fielder potentially stupefied, numb and prostrate for hours. As my father has been taking sizable liberties at refereeing of late, I am poised for attack. After a few foul balls, I smite one mightily back at him, of which he fumbles and loses control, eventually arriving at first base late, a few seconds after me. From every vantage point, including that of the opposing team, I arrive safely and flail my arms to this degree in sheer victory; that is, until my father calls me ‘out’. The ensuing chaos is somewhat typical of our dynamic; as I brazenly mimic Major League managers coming toe to toe with and in the face of umpires, the already contentious line between son/player – dad/decider blurs further. I proceed to utter insults at him in at least two languages, as a classic chase scene up and down my street ensues, meandering around a powder pink ‘57 Chevy, a blue Dodge utility van and several other parked vehicles, during which I lob the ball directly at his head at least once. As my young nimble star athlete status enables me to outrun him, I make it back to my home unscathed. Later that evening, I am rewarded for my duck-and-dodge abilities by being grounded, my prefrontal cortex as yet to become fully developed.
I’m slogging through the viscous pea soup atmosphere of my densely-populated hometown, currently 14,421 and climbing, the subject of a spirited song I penned years back titled ‘This Old Town Is Killing Me’. As teens ‘cruising the Ave.’, we would muse that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – all 8 minutes and 4 seconds of it – could start as you entered our baby borough and would still be playing as you crossed its periphery; now, I’m lucky to get through Side A of IV traveling border to border. Pollution resulting from non-regulated free enterprise transportation is palpable; the air feels heavy. The last of my contemporaries have either moved away, or surrendered hope and taken refuge cavorting with the senior citizens I currently work with, or taken to the self-fulfilling prophecy we once belted out car windows in The Who’s ‘My Generation’ and quite literally died before they got old. Meanwhile, a new generation has shifted into position and are dreaming of new and creative ways to assume the planet with AI, pompously proclaiming that – when given the authority to do so – they would never hire ‘grandpa’ (meaning, any person over 50). Even worse, the only time I see my cohort represented in the media is in pharmaceutical ads, encompassing less than 10% of advertising funds. And to complicate matters, the young voice that just interrupted my Spotify Ritual In Repeat listening session (to clarify, that’s a release by a new band) arrogantly thanks me for choosing their service because I ‘could have listened to an 8 track, if [I] knew what an 8 track looked like’.
But it’s not their fault – or anyone’s, for that matter. If anything, time is to blame, and its inherent nature to endow and expire, to stimulate change while wreaking its ravages. It is at once the creator and the avenger, as I witness my little hometown buckle under its process; homes defaced and mangled by a few spiteful swipes of a bulldozer, lush green vacant lots uprooted by corporate greed, low income families – ones that have depicted its limits for decades – falling victim to gentrification. With each passing year, I rely more and more on the keen reserves of my mind to reconstruct my overtly fragmented metropolis, like tender, nagging cavities being filled. Somehow, preservation maintains my sanity.
A few days after completing my latest anniversary celebration of that prodigious night at the crossroads of Hamilton and DeSoto in ‘78 – a prepared playlist unmasking slighted memories and marking her continued absence – my phone dings with a Facebook message notification; it’s her. Immediately, the drumming is reactivated; floods of time and space engulf my senses; the factory redolence of Jontue perfume and strawberry-scented shampoo, our cupped hands as we dotted points of the well-worn streets of our town – like the Kennedy Drive circle green, where she birthday-gifted me with a 12” copy of Cheap Trick at Budokan, or her best friend's house, where we waxed philosophical about teenage quandaries to Breakfast in America, or Our Lady of Grace Church, the site of my first ever flea market visit, where I picked up a grazed copy of Paranoid for 75¢, as well as my first and only square dance – or the very few blinks of light pitched against the tarred rooftop-lined sky, granting me inches of hope where there was so little.
The message she sends – a simple ‘I took a detour’ – is accompanied by a photo of that corner during an apparent drive-by. When I pressed her for the impetus behind sending it, an affectless ‘nothing really...it made me laugh...I took the picture because you’re the only one who would get it…’. With that, after 40 years, I finally experienced validation of that night – even in a passing way – of a place once filled with wonder, yet one that time has distorted, distempered, displaced. Ultimately, though, I feel vindication that our experience was indeed shared. And for the moment, that was good enough for me.
Of course, I then read her parting thought, ‘don’t think too deep.’