Old friends getting together, it is a good thing to do. Of course there was a time before the grownup life took over. There were times before the mortgage problems and bills that just keep coming in. Believe it or not (and I know this is hard for a new generation to grasp) there was a time before the internet and the flood of useless information. I know there was. I know there was because I remember it well. And old friends getting together, it’s enough to remind me of way back when and the things we used to do.
For instance, there was strip mall on the north end of Front Street, just across the public library, and near the bowling alley, near the bagel store which gave me one of my first real jobs, across from a shell gas station, and home to the Pathmark Shopping Center. There were other stores in this mall, which are interchangeable and slightly out of focus in memory; however, aside from the Pathmark, there were three stores which my memory holds very clear and well. First, and foremost, there was The Wizard of Oz Arcade, or The Wiz, for short. This place knew us well and we knew it well. This is where the pinball machines chimed and toned and the video games like Galaxy, Frogger, Elevator Action, and of course, Pac-Man, Mrs. Pac-Man, Q-bert, Dig-Dug, and oh, the list could go on. Inside the machine room was dark with lights flickering to add to the scene.
Next to this was a record store. Of course, this is when records were still a thing. I bought my first album here. I bought my first cassette tape here as well. And I remember that perfectly because it was raining out that day. I was home alone and I walked from my home on Merrick Avenue, all the way up on Front, crossed over East Meadow Avenue, which was named differently when I was younger, and then I went in to the store and bought my first cassette. The Album was Black Sabbath, by Black Sabbath. I walked home in the rain, a hooded sweatshirt pulled over my head, soaking wet; denim jacket soaked as well, hi-tip sneakers wet, wet socks, and my blue jeans soaked as well. But the music was loud in my ears so everything else to me at the time was perfect.
The third place was the pizza shop in the strip mall. There were other stress outside that changed names and changed hands as well. There used to be a hardware store there. The liquor store was there too—and that was fine with us because we knew who the regulars at the store were and it was routine for us to interrupt the regulars before stopping in the liquor store to ask the, “ Excuse me, Mister” with hopes they would buy us a bottle if we gave them the money.
I spent many nights at this place. Of course, I can’t say any of them were innocent. This was more or less, the burnout breeding ground. This is where the trouble manifested and where simple youthfully mischievous experimentation took on a more deliberate approach. And everybody was there too. This is where the older hoodlums of our town gathered and us as youngsters, we gathered there too with hopes to somehow become ingratiated with them.
We were teenagers, all tragically fashioned with an 1980’s regard, longhaired, and mullet-styled in some cases, trying to prove ourselves and eager to scream out, yell, and howl through our little town.
I remember these places well. This was the last place I saw Mary; otherwise known as Crazy Mary, a bag lady of sorts, crazy as ever, talking to herself while pushing a shopping cart of some kind, filled with plastic bags, and she often spoke to herself. Mary often reeked of urine but she was harmless and well known.
Mary lived in a home. She wasn’t homeless. Her home, however, was a mark in the town and for some of the delinquents (not me in this case). Mary’s house was the scene of vandal-like pranks and burned in fires which may or may not have been intentional. Eventually and tragically, Mary was struck by a car near Prospect Avenue. Her little old body was dragged to death.
Supposedly, the driver was from the neighborhood. Although never legally confirmed or convicted, the driver wore this tragedy with him and had this been true, I always figured it this way: If we knew that meant the cops knew. And no one would have let him get away with murder. But then again, maybe this did happen. Or, maybe the town’s rumor factory just spun too much yarn. Either way, Mary was gone. I hear nearly one thousand people showed up for her funeral, which shows the inaccurate view of youth’s perception. We saw her as a mark in the town. However, the rest of the town regarded her differently.
Still, I remember when these places existed with a regarding smile. I remember the way I used to stop in all three stores. I would go to The Wiz, the record store, and the pizza shop —especially if I had the munchies. I would go in with eyes, half-closed, bloodshot, and so young, so untouchably ignorant, and so incredibly high.
I swear though, this was a different time in the world. I am a different kind of kid. I was one of the lost ones, always searching, and flat-footing it around my neighborhood, walking around with Lucy in The Skies, tripped, and thinking the answers to life could only be found by living as wild, as mad, and as fast as possible.
But these days are different. I am older now and amazed of our survival. And older, last night I sat with an old friend from the neighborhood. We spoke about The Wiz. We spoke about the different spots in our town where trouble lived. We spoke about the crazy things we did with a strange laugh (not because it’s funny, but because we laugh at how truly bizarre it was) and we shake our heads because while at the time, we really thought the things we did were actually a good idea.
I was thinking of the consequences of a few nights when I was younger. It was hard to hide things like this from my parents. It was hard to walk through the front door, straight-faced, and even with all the Visene drops to get the red from my eyes, there were too many times when I would have to face the consequences of my actions.
Man, we were crazy. But we thought we knew it all, that’s for sure. We thought we knew more than our parents and of course, we always thought we could outsmart the local police. School was a joke to me, if I went, that is. Everything was about “The Time,” and I devoted myself to having the time of my life.
The funny thing about youth is we honestly believed we came up with our ideas as if they were never thought of before. Adults could never understand us. Our parents certainly could never understand us. I mean, what did they know about what it means to be a kid. They were old to us. How could they know?
Funny thing is I speak in schools and with students on somewhat of a frequent basis. No matter how much older I am and no matter how many changes there have been since my time (which is ancient to kids these days) my above feelings and ideas, thoughts about being wild, wanted to fit in, wanting to be cool, and if i couldn’t be the best; then I would be the best at being the worst, and all my other lists of inventory are equally relatable to kids today.
Maybe the actions have changed but the reasons to act are still existent. God, we were so crazy . . .
Last night, the wife and I took one of my old friends and his girlfriend for a drive around the neighborhood. It’s crazy when I think about this. If you would have asked me then, I would have never thought this would be us now.
But it is
We are older
I know this because my bones make noise when I get out of bed in the morning . . .
Old friends getting together . . .
It’s a good thing to do