There are times when I find myself driving through my old hometown. So much has changed. The landscapes, the storefronts and the people have changed too. There are, however, the unchangeable familiarities that my mind will never forget; and when I’m home, it’s as though my body knows where to go. I don’t need to think about which direction to turn. Somehow, it’s as if my mind shuts off and I revert back to the different stations of my youth. And the town, she is fine with me. The old places and familiar streets are like an ever loving mother, anonymous and gentle, always welcoming and always comforting, regardless of who I was or what I did.
I pass the corners of my youth and feel the meanings. I see the faces. I can hear them too, my old friends. I can see them as they were when we were younger. I remember my old friends from the early years in their Cub Scout uniforms. I remember their bedrooms and the stages of innocence as it fled in stages throughout our youth. I can feel this. As best as I can describe anything, I can feel this in me. It is more than emotion. It is more than a thought or a memory. I can smell the old smells and remember exactly where I was for something like the first time I ever held a flashing sparkler in my hands early in the morning during the 4th of July.
There was never much to do during the summer months. Then again, maybe there wasn’t supposed to be anything to do. School was out. This meant the old saying was true. No more pencils. No more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks. There was nothing else but long days beneath the hot sun. There was nothing pressing, except of course, to be somewhere outside and meet up with friends. My suburban town was small and the homes were mostly average. This was not a bad place to be. We had a town pool. There was a bowling alley and a few movie theaters. There were parks and schoolyards and vacant lots and parking lots which later became the place for us as young misguided teens.
I was no different from any other kid. At least not at my core. I was plain and simple. I wanted to find a way to live, love, laugh and learn. I wanted to feel. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to have a good time and earn the visceral understanding of what it means to be so absolutely young and carefree. We felt and we lived. We swore and we carried on. We did crazy things like climbing up on the roof of the school. We’d run from one end of the neighborhood to the other because above all, we were safe. There was nothing holding us back. We were happy to be uninvolved with the real world and eager to see how much we could dare each other. In fact, as crazy as we might have been, this was the safest time of my life. I can’t remember a time when I was ever more safe than when I was young and crazy.
I have always been a person who honors anonymity. To me, confidentiality is very important. So are secrets and so are the secrets that I swore to keep for life or longer. So, to honor this I admit that names and places have been changed to protect the less than innocent. Then again, nothing was so scandalous that we were pulling drive by or gang-style hits.
I never got into any gangs or gang life. Then again, gangs were not in the neighborhood. There were no colors flying or special wardrobes or anything like that. There were only cliques and groups. There were kids who were more dominant than others. There were the park boys and the kids from the stores. Then there were the jocks and the athletes. There were the tough kids and the local hoodlums. Of course, there were the bookworms and the nerdy kids who were socially distant and seldom included. Besides, the smart kids always kept to themselves.
Either way, whether it was the burnouts or the jocks or the nerdy kids in the town, there was still a pecking order to every group. There was always some kind of unspoken leader. There was always the loud one and the smart ass. I suppose there was a position for everyone. As for me, well, I guess my position was whatever I could find.
Try as I might to find my own way, I was part of a clique. I was part of a group and part of that pack mentality. I know that people say, “Be a leader, not a follower.” And I know people, like some of my old friends from the neighborhood for example, I know how we’d say that we’d never be followers. But we were.
Come to think of it, of all things I learned in my life, I’ve learned there is always a pack mentality. There will always be the different positions of the herd. There will always be the leaders, the followers, the flock and the shepherds. I suppose I was all of the above (it just depended upon the crowd).
Say, did I ever tell you about the time Mike and I found a stolen car in the vacant lot near Glenn Curtiss Boulevard? Someone must have stolen the Volkswagen Beetle that was at the top of this hill. Mike and I found the car in one of the empty lots near my house. At one point, a developer was supposed to buy this huge plot of land and build homes on it. But to us kids, this was our hideout. This was a place where we could explore and walk through the trails.
Mike and I found the stolen car at the top of a hill. The idea we had was simple. We put the car in neutral and stood on the bumper to ride the car down the hill which would have worked fine had I not fallen off. Still, the fact that I fell off wasn’t so bad. Unfortunately, for some reason, there was a rope tied to the back of the bumper. Somehow, the car picked up speed as it rolled down the hill; and me, well . . . I was never a fast runner. Eventually, the car picked up too much of a pace and the rope that was tied to the bumper swept me off my feet. My ankles went up in the air, high above my shoulders and my back crashed against the ground. The car kept moving until it hit an uphill berm that sectioned the vacant lot from the street, which caused the Volkswagen to roll backwards down from the uphill berm. This meant the car would go backwards and roll over me.
I swore I was going to die. But I didn’t. I think the fall hurt me worse than the car tires. I think the landing took my breath away so I couldn’t breathe. But ah, we were young and we were crazy. In fairness, once I realized that I wasn’t dead, we laughed about this.
We used to build clubhouses. We’d build tree forts and tree houses in places like this. But none of the work lasted very long. Eventually, we’d get bored or tired. I think about these summers and the days of our innocent youth. I think about the transition into the teenage years and the times when concerts came to town and when music changed our lives. Now, this is when I learned about freedom. This is when I learned about music. This is when I learned what it felt like to be hit by a song and have lyrics overtake me into a new way of thinking.
Years later and look at me now. Some would say that I am unrecognizable. In some cases, I hardly recognize myself. I still hold on to the old anthems from my youth. I still love the music of my childhood. I still feel the same thrill when I hear a random song come out of nowhere. They remind me of the old stomping grounds. I laugh about this. I laugh because throughout my life, I never once thought I would shout at a group of kids and say, “Hey you kids, get off of my lawn!” But sadly and with regret, I admit that I have shouted similar things in my grownup life.
There were different groups and different stunts we’d pull to prove our worth. We’d give ourselves something we called a “Smiley face,” which is the burn mark left behind when heating the tin at the top of a Bic cigarette lighter. Once heated, the dare was turning it into your skin. The burn mark looked like a smiley face. Hence, this is why we called them smiley faces. I never did this much, which is not to say that I never did this at all. But as for burning or other topics of self harm, those are topics for another series of journals. But not here. Not now.
Anyway . . .
We played chicken and we’d test the line to see what we could get away with. But again, we were safe as kittens. We were the neighborhood kids. There was Mike and Myles and there was Jeff and Chris and Todd; and then there were other kids who came along later. There was Pete and Mikey L and Anthony, Scott, and of course, there was Craig. There were others like Carlos and Rico too. And then there were the girls. There were the girls who I liked and the girls that never liked me back. There were a few times when I was successful in landing a little make-out session. There were times when I found myself fortunate enough to get a little closer to a girl than to just kiss her.
There were the older kids. There was the Dairy on the corner, which is where we would ask grownups to buy us beer. By the way, beer tasted horrible to me. I never liked the taste of it, but I still drank it nonetheless. Everybody who was anybody knew how to drink and enjoy the taste of a good beer. Well, almost anybody.
I never liked beer. I never saw what anyone else liked about beer. But for some reason, everyone seemed to act as if beer was this great tasting thing, And sure, I played along. I acted as if I liked the taste of Southern Comfort or Jack Daniels, which was stolen from the liquor cabinet in a friend’s basement. And cigarettes too. Why bother? I don’t know. But we did.
However, it is safe to say that smoking and drinking and I got off to a rough start. It never got better either. I could never hold my liquor. I could never keep the same group of friends very long either. Maybe this was because I never knew how to be myself. Maybe the booze helped me with this. Then again, maybe it didn’t.
Just ask JoAnne D. Ask her about the time I threw up on her legs in Pete’s bathroom. Ask her about the grape smelling hairspray she used, which, even up to this day, I cannot stomach the smell of Seagram’s Seven or grape smelling hairspray. I have these memories. I can see them now. I can see them in their different stages of innocence and the lack thereof. In fact, if I close my eyes, I can almost hear the sounds of my old town or Chic, the ice cream truck.
Man, that was a really long time ago . . .