Not a single piece of candy litters the street on Sunday night.
Grand Avenue is quiet and still, cars hum by every two minutes. Street lights flicker from red to green quickly. Red white and blue tapered flags hang from the light posts. The sky is black with a flash of gold. I’m the only walker of the night. It was never this way in New York. Maybe a few times here and there, but never like this. It’s just about midnight in my hometown. I left my car over on Joe’s street across town last night because I was too drunk at 7am this morning to drive us back home. I told myself I’d have a few beers and call it an early night. Turned out to be the longest one of the summer, with beer cans scattered all around the living room, cigarette butts in the alley, the morning sun rising above the water tower on our walk home. McDonalds breakfast. Sunday morning. Exhausted.
The last time I walked these streets was Friday morning. The sun was hot and the crowds heavy. People dressed in only three colors lined the sidewalks of Conti Pkwy, down Fullerton Avenue, past the car wash, barber shop, banks, post office, skate park, pizza joints and LoLo’s Sub Shop. Eager faces of kids were brighter than the sun, tripping over themselves for more candy than the kid next to them. Girls and boys sat in the back of pick-up trucks, a marching band blew their horns, banged their drums, cars honking, playing music from the stereo, waving. Make way for the big parade.
The rest of the day was dedicated to more adult things like drinking too much beer, jumping off of roofs into pools and playing video games at 5am. I had people over after the parade for a barbeque and it eventually turned into a full-fledged party; one that my mom was almost forced to call the cops on. She was coming home from the Sox game and heard about the roof jumping from a phone call with someone she didn’t know on the other line. Now hear me out, I was the first to jump and had the whole thing under control. We took out a ladder and went up to watch the suburban fireworks explode past the tops of trees in all directions. During the finale, I jumped, then Zach, then Andy, then Joe shotgunned a beer and then jumped. People continued to drink in the yard all night until groups went home and a few people wandered in the house to pass out. As host, it was only right that I be one of the last ones awake. The yard was a demolition site when I went in, the fire still smoldering, beer bottles everywhere, the grass turned to mud and the patio area a wreck. When I woke in the afternoon, I found it near spotless. My mom cleaned it all. I’ll never be able to pay her back for that act of pure kindness and selflessness. My appreciation is still shooting through the roof for that one.
Parking lots and side streets are now empty. A train rattles heavily in the quiet darkness. Shop windows are dark, so are the houses. The rest of summer in the future, the middle point just ending.
The weekend passed and is now gone. The Fourth is always my favorite holiday. It’s the essence of summer; barbeques, beers, warm weather, friends, family and the occasional pool jump. It has no religious accompaniment, no spiritual undertones, nothing complicated about it. Just a simple celebration of a group of Brits who bailed on their country because they didn’t feel like paying their taxes. And now we drink cold beer in the hot summer and for that, I thank them.
And to you, I say cheers and until next time.
And next time, let’s have it at your place.
The next stop we make is to Marry Marge’s wondrous, lofted tree house that is atop a spiraling wooden staircase that acts as more of an attic than a top floor of an entire house. The staircase leads to a tiny but roomy porch with a table centered by chairs with antique ashtrays scattered all around the railings as string lights light up the fragile ceiling that attracts hundreds of southern bugs.
“Peter Pan,” I thought. “This is where Peter Pan would hang if he bummed cigarettes and shot whiskey.”
Inside is a kitchen with a ‘50s style fridge and wooden paneling on the walls. Shelves hold cookbooks, utensils, and half empty bottles of booze. Down the hallway is the living room with a sunk-in couch and a guitar case off to the side. Oriental rugs carpet the messy floor and suitcases piled up five feet high hold a record player that booms the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the music filling the room’s space with 80s grooves and sing-a-longs. The shared bedroom is more to the back and is kept out of the tour. I sneak a peek at the comfy bed and dream of the mornings spent under this roof with coffee brewing in the kitchen, records on in the living room, birds singing outside in the trees and a day’s worth of writing to take up my time. It was by far and wide my favorite living space I had ever been in.
As we pour whiskey drinks, we put Bob Dylan on the turntable and grab seats outside on the porch and huddle around the ashtrays. More of their friends start to show up and make their way up to the tree house and pretty soon there are about eight of us on this tiny porch, the creaks in the wood grow louder and stiffer with every step. I grab one of Jimmy’s guitars for background music and as I bend down to grab it a cockroach scurries out from underneath the couch into the hallway. Marie says she’s learned to treat them more as roommates than rodents. I shiver at the idea.
I play a few tunes with one more drink and everyone quietly sings along as the moon and stars hang above us in harmony. Plans are made and rides are situated to head towards the outskirts of town to a house party in the fields where a concert and party are being held. The house is being demolished in a week’s time so the homeowners figured why not go out with one last bang. We all jump in a car, grab a case of beer at the gas station down the street, open up cans in the backseat and roar off to the next and last adventure of the night. We park our car on the gravel road outside the house and are the only car that isn’t a truck or SUV. Big reds ad blacks take up the whole country lawn and lights in the windows make the house jump like a lantern filled with yellow light. Tall and sweeping weeping willows surround the house and tall thickets of weeds reach up the legs of our jeans as we make our way to the backyard. We pocket beers and ditch the case under our car in the darkness and follow the noise. Most of it comes from the living room where a hardcore rock band plays their set. The room is full of scoundrels and head bangers, cute little girls and misfits alike. The back porch gathers hippies smoking joints and gladly passing around red cups with vodka.
I make a few rounds and drink more beers than I should have and ended up being drunk for the third time that day. We had gone from 11am to an eventual 3:30am in one day. Drinking and drinking and more drinking. I spent the rest of the night outside among the trees. What I remember most about this night is the orange glow of cigarette butts waving in the darkness. Someone had turned off the back porch light and the whispers of stories told of mothers and past boyfriends and yearbook gossip lingered in my head as the cigarettes dangled from fingers to lips. The fluttering balls of light the only way to tell how close you were to someone.
I remember taking a piss break far out near a willow where the yard met a farmer’s fence and thinking about how I got there. How I got anywhere. How all the little moments are a part of the thread. It’s up to me, the liver, the dreamer, the doer, to make life an adventure. To adventure towards the unknown so you can drink cold beers under a Mississippi sky with a best friend and a dozen of his. The small moments in the life are the ones that matter the most. When you find yourself in them, really live them. Live them to the fullest and to the simplest joy you can.
Under that willow tree looking out at the stars with waving, glowing cigarettes behind me, I thought about life. I thought about how youth is wasted on the young and that tomorrow is a promise made to no one.
If you’re breathing right now, do it with a smile.
As I drive down Route 310 all I think of are the kicks Ben and I had last time I was in the beautiful state of Mississippi. I’m in my brother’s ’96 Volvo flying down southern highways this time around with no co-pilot. Just me, a stereo and the open road. Last week it was Nashville. Next week, Georgia. But tonight and tomorrow, it’s hanging and drinking under the country sky with good company.
I pass an old gas station on my right and by old I mean there’s a white haired man in a trucker cap bending over a newspaper dispenser with two pumps to pick from. There’s an ice machine, a bait locker, candy shelves and that’s just about it. I give a wave out of the open window and he responds with two fingers to his bill. The long and winding road curves around a man-made dam that sure is a sight to see as the sun dips beneath the fisherman’s horizon. I turn on another main highway that takes me all the way to campus. Ole Miss. I make a couple wrong turns and end up on Frat Row, a street with beautiful big houses where girls with newly sun-kissed legs walk up and down the sidewalks to and from class before a long weekend under the blue sky. I smile at their looks and stare through my sunglasses.
I pull into the driveway, park the car, give Ben a hug and for the rest of the weekend I’m around both familiar and new faces. It’s a good feeling that makes my heart warm with welcome.
The first thing we do is get dinner. A quaint little pizza joint back down the road along the dam. We pick up a friend in a pink house, meet her puppy pug, grab bottles of whiskey and wine for dinner and then settle in our seats. We pour drinks, share stories, share slices. The simple and pleasurable dinner tings. A familiar couple walks by the table. Jimmy and Mary Marge; one a novelist, the other being recruited by The New Yorker. I envy how fanciful and rich their conversations must be. We finish up – buzzed from bourbon – and grab doggy bags, buzzed off bourbon.
The next move is made after one more drink at Ben’s house and a few games of Beer Kart. We drive over to Everett’s house for two more cold beers before heading out into the cool night. The bars are crowded, the streets loud and the lights bright. The endless amount of books on a shelf along the sky-blue painted walls has me fingering pages of nearly all of Everett’s collection. He’s a handsome twenty-three year-old with an infectious laugh and excited hands. The house has a very grown-up feel, very lived in and worn, like the pages in the books. The blue walls sing to my drunkenness and the cat walks around the room slowly and kindly, ignoring most guests.
We make our way to a crowded bar when I realize my ID was left in my car. No worries. I sneak in a side-door through the alley and meet up with the gang inside. I have one beer before my mom calls me from back home. She’s upset, so I listen outside in the alley as boys and girls walk by with bottles of beer in hand and thin cigars between their lips. We stumble along a main street where I see two twelve-year-old kids flicking a flame with a lighter and decide to sit down with them as everyone else scatters for late-night food. They’re football players, one chubbier than the other, a lineman and a receiver. They tell me they plan on dropping out of school after tenth grade. I swear to anyone on this green earth when I say I that sat there for twenty minutes explaining the importance and vitality of education as a structure and as a place to grow up in. To learn. To make friends. To make mistakes. To enjoy youth. To make memories. To play sports. To go to high school. To enjoy high school. I’ll be that drunk kid on the bench that one night in April to them, but maybe they’ll remember it with a smile years from now. I know I will.
The next day starts early. Nine to be exact. We get breakfast where they sell bagels with cream cheese right there in the middle of it with caramelized onions melted on. It’s heavenly, and just what I need to start the morning, because soon after, we started drinking and didn’t stop until 3am the next morning.
I start with beers and mimosas at a friend’s house. At one point there are three sets of twins in one living room. After a second spiked orange juice we make the walk to the Square where tents and restaurants are full of people looking for art, food, drinks and bathrooms. Other than football games in the fall, this is the biggest weekend of the whole year. I came at the right time. We walk around and dig the streets for as long as the hot sun allows us before we duck into a Mexican joint to cool off but end up staying there for close to four hours. We take up the entire back patio with a group of thirty strong. After a handful of two-dollar margaritas, some of our group goes home to take a nap. I decline. I take a walk round with a buddy Nathan and try to scrounge up more food and more cheap beers at a spot right in the middle of the Square. We meet two nice looking girls at the bar and join them for a drink and a sunset out on the balcony. We split up for a bit and chat with a girl each while I steal finger foods from a table across from ours. Another drink comes and goes, a conversation about Alabama I can’t quite remember, and then it was time to go again.
It’s 6:53 in the morning on I-57 and my legs are sprawled across the backseat of Mark’s old Buick when a folk song comes on in my headphones just before I start to doze off to sleep. The barren farms of central Illinois whiz by outside through every window of the car as ice and dusty snow cling to the metal and plastic of the grey beast flying down the highway in the early February sunshine. Mark and Will talk up front and are both oblivious to me now because I had gotten a rotten night’s sleep; the kind where you shut your eyes and your alarm clock goes off the very next minute and you feel like you haven’t slept at all.
The sun begins to rise over the Indiana skyline and its’ rays beat down on me in a flashing and warm light. As I should have mentioned before, this is no ordinary folk song. This folk song, whenever played over speakers or headphones or a car radio reminds me of one girl and one girl only and it’ll probably stay that way until the day I die. We all have those little mementos, snippets and scenes of our lives that bring up moments from our past not consciously but unconsciously. We don’t investigate for the memory or call upon it but something minute and minor reappears in our imagination that begs for our attention.
Well time has a way of throwing it all in your face
The past she is haunted, the future is laced
For me it’s things like the raspy voice of a baseball broadcaster, the creaking of the back door when my dad comes home from work or the distinct taste of either M&Ms, pretzels or chips. Back in 3rd grade me and my knucklehead friends would bring anything we could find in our parents’ snack drawers and cabinets and would dump everything into a bowl once a month during lunchtime and take fistfuls of the stuff until a lunch lady or teacher would come by and tell us to knock it off. And now every time I eat one of those snacks I’m instantly brought back to the Elmwood Elementary lunchroom.
The other notable thing I can think of now is the plucking of that acoustic guitar in the intro of this folk song and I’m taken back to memories with her in my dorm room or out in a dark bar somewhere on campus and it’s like I’m in love with her all over again. Even two weeks from now, in a crowded backroom at lunch, I’ll sit across the table from her and wonder if her lips taste the same as they did years ago, wonder if her soft hands feel the same as they did when she would put her palms on my collar bones and up my shoulders, run her fingers through my hair, the same fingers that now play with each other over hot soup.
Heartbreak, you know, drives a big black car
I swear I was in the backseat just minding my own
Mark merges right and then left and continues to laugh and bullshit with Will up front and I close my eyes to the sun as the orange glow projects itself on the inside of my eyelids; I feel warmth through the foggy window, the shadows of trees and trucks slide by the bright sun, the song still playing, my vision clouded, my heart still remembering.
If I listen to this folk song, I can be with her whenever I want. The same feelings will arise, the distant memories and playful conversations, the lips and fingers, but the feeling only lasts for three minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Then it’s just the long highway and sunny clouds.
Sometimes the song in my head is all that I have.
He’s never been to Georgia before.
I spent the summer there last year, he couldn’t visit.
His plane leaves tomorrow morning.
He’s never been on a plane alone before.
Our family drove 13 minutes up North Ave.
Five on the way there,
four on the way back.
Long hugs in a parking lot.
He had two bags with him;
one a camo backpack and the other a Christmas present from our Aunt Julie
six years ago.
Only needs room for two civilian outfits,
he only brought one,
we gave him hell.
Tears swelled in my father’s eyes.
My mother held her shaking hands up to her mouth.
My sister smiled through her tears.
I wore sunglasses.
The car ride home was silent,
the radio on but inaudible.
Tonight he’s staying in a hotel because
his plane leaves tomorrow morning.
He’ll get one last check-up at the hotel:
His phone has 2% battery,
he sends me one last text.
I’m on a delivery so I pull over to read it.
The glowing screen blurs immediately as my eyes water.
I deliver the pizza with uneasy hands,
That night we drink beers and cheers to our brother.
They’ll put a gun in his hand and a line in his head.
He’ll scribble letters in his bunk,
sing the songs of men,
work with his hands and wake up to the Georgia sun with a purpose.
He went for him.
He went for all of us.
He is Pvt. James J. Filbin of the United States Army.
He is my brother.
He is our brother.
It’s 2:33am on the first day of the new year and I just put a fresh pot of coffee on the firehot burner in the kitchen of my house. It’s been a while since I’ve had the comfort of unlimited coffee and food since my parents do the grocery shopping around here so I make sure to take the opportunity whenever I can when we’ve got grounds in the cupboard. The night is blue and cold and a light flurry of snow is falling just outside the window in the front room. I left the party I was at tonight earlier than most guests because I drove (that’s the excuse I used – even on the one night when you’re not supposed to drive). I did it anyway to avoid the constant begging and pleading and celebration of another shot or another smile and laugh and empty resolution or congratulation just because the clock on the wall says that everyone’s lives change when we all start a new year.
New Year’s is a crockashit.
I’m making coffee this late because a girl I talk to from time to time texted me on her way back home from the city and told me to stay up and wait for her. Little did she or I know that I would end this night on my basement couch after eight or ten beers an hour after the sun already showed itself to the new year.
I put my winter boots on, lace them tight around the loopholes, throw my peacoat over my shoulders and take the cup of coffee out in the backyard. My dad asked me to shovel the sidewalks tomorrow morning so I figured I might as well get a head start on it if I’m staying up this late. I grab the shovel from our garage which is a lot cleaner than I ever remember it being: rakes and shovels hung up nicely next to the garden tools and bags of sod and salt stuffed under shelves – I’ve had three bikes stolen from this very garage. We never locked the door, my own fault.
I finish up the back and head out of the gangway to our front steps. I put my mug down on the first step of our porch, breathe the night air and think of all the games of cops and robbers, jailbreak and sidestreet football we all used to play as kids. I take a long look down on Dickens Ave. towards Sewer Stadium, the intersection turned whiffle ball cathedral, now covered in dirty snow, cars slushing slowly by. Everything turns into memories. That’s all we can ever truly have at the end of the day; every special and non-special moment in our lives all turns into a memory.
The street lamps burn brown above and a distant humming comes down the sidewalk a dozen houses down. I turn and see a black figure holding a square case singing loudly in the January air. As he comes closer I realize what he’s holding but can’t quite make out the face. Then I hear the song he’s belting out for all of Elmwood Park to hear: “Gale Song” by the Lumineers. It’s my brother Jimmy, drunk as a skunk and happy as all hell carrying a full 12-pack of Miller High Life’s in one hand and his phone in the other – the song blares from the tiny speakers. I put the shovel down and take the coffee mug up to my lips, half because I’m in need of a warm sip and half to hide my gigantic smile.
He sits down on the stairs and watches me shovel and tells me all about his night – how he struck out twice with two different girls, not all his fault. We were never allowed nor thought to bring girls back to our folks’ house. Not very romantic or smooth. We crack open a bottle each and I go straight from the warm coffee to an ice-cold beer. We shove the box in the snow to keep them chilled, not worried about whether this is legal or not. We’re on our own property after all. We pay no mind to city laws or drinking ones either and just talk and talk before it gets too cold to stay outside so we bring the two-man party inside.
He heads in first with the case and I go back to put the shovel away, the night gets colder but stays the same blue haze that it’s been since nine that night. Snow continues to fall – I’ll have to shovel again tomorrow.
I walk in our backyard where every sport imaginable has been played: whiffle, football, baseball, badminton, everything. I think of all our eleven-year-old selves and reflect on the year I had. Everything that I’ve done in 2013 has led me to right here. The backyard of my youth. This year I saw John Fogerty tear the roof off of the Beacon Theater in New York City, drove up and down the yellow hills of Kentucky in March into the wild and neon nights of Nashville. I saw the rock n’ roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, swam in the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of North Carolina, played Ryan Adams records in a dingy Manhattan hotel room, took a beautiful girl out on movie and dinner dates down in the East Village, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge at sundown with my family. I drank coffee on scorching hot Atlanta afternoons, drove through the greens of Alabama on my way to dark and romantic nights of Oxford, Mississippi, drank beers with authentic southern sweethearts, played a rock show in front of 200+ people in my college town – songs that I wrote in the darkness and of my bedroom in the middle of the night, sang loudly and imperfectly to friends and strangers alike. I ventured to a farm in Manchester, TN to see Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and Jack Johnson play to 60,000 people delightedly high on life and whatever else was in their system. All of it in one year; the best year of my whole entire life – all of it led me right back here. My backyard that I know and love so well.
I find a plastic baseball bat and stand at home plate in one of the corners of the yard, snow up to my ankles. I stare the imaginary pitcher down and point one end of the bat into right field. Past Philly’s yard, over the picketed fence is a homer, the three-flat apartment a longball of all longballs. I remember the feeling of thinking that over that fence is just about as far as I’ve ever wanted to go. Get the ball over the fence and you’re a legend, you’re a hitter and the pitcher, (whether it be Jimmy or Aidan or Zach) wouldn’t dare throw you another fastball like that again. And if they did, you knew where it was going – over that fence. That’s where I’ve always wanted to go. Now I find myself in lonely cities and dark streets by myself without a soul to call my friend. But now I remember where I’ve always wanted to go.
Over that fence. These days, my fences have gotten a little higher – that’s all. Here’s to another year of adventure. Another year of longballs.
One beer turns into eight or ten and I ring in the new year with my best friend. That girl never called me. But no matter, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Being lost at 4 o’clock in the morning is nothing to be pleased about, especially when the morning’s first snow starts to fall and the street lamps start to dim out to give the sun its time to shine. It’s cold in Williamsburg where I’m walking around strange streets once again and it would seem to a reader that this is one of my favorite things to do and I wouldn’t disagree with anyone out there who said that because I always stumble around with white hands fisted in coat pockets late at night and won’t apologize about it to anyone either.
And another thing about 4 o’clock in December is that it’s always sad and always dark but just as romantic as any time and place in this whole wide and far country. The streets and sidewalks are wonderfully dead with parked cars lined on both side of the streets and late-night shoppers shuffle along to their warm kitchens where stoves are hot and ready and the kids are snuggled in their beds with socks on their feet and blankets tucked tight under their arms – it’s all the same at 4 in the morning in America. That I can guarantee because I’ve walked alone at this time too many times to count, except tonight I’m not alone.
What happens to me every night when I go out to bars to get drunk is I see one girl out of the sea of ‘em and pick out the prettiest most gone gal in the whole establishment and romanticize to myself what it’d be like to talk and flirt with her. Rarely do I have the guts to go up and talk to this girl, I’ll watch her from afar and study how she sips her iced drink and how she covers her mouth when she laughs and how she whispers secretly and sweetly into her girlfriend’s ear, but when a flower-dressed blonde came walking through the crowd tonight in my general direction my heart ached with lust and I couldn’t let her get away as long as this night would end.
After a few beers and a few shots and few games of tabletop shuffleboard I introduced myself politely and even mentioned I’d been eyeing her since I first saw her. Turns out she was doing much of the same. We bought one more round and talked a bit, on the way out we passed a crane game with stuffed animals and t-shirts on the floor of a glass box and she asked me pleasantly to put a dollar bill in the machine and win her one of those rubberbanded t-shirts and after I got a hold of it – the thing all the way to the top of the wire – the claw shook and cut loose the t-shirt and we laughed and laughed and she held my hand tight for the first time all night in encouragement – so we just kept laughing.
After a shared glass of wine at another bar down the block I offered to walk her home and this is when we get lost – the directions on her phone mess us up north and south and we end up walking in the wrong direction for 20 minutes or so and at one point I’m standing on one side of the street and her on the other screaming and pleading for one another to “Come this way! It’s this way, I promise!” So I listen to her eventually and by the time I’m at her doorstep it’s turning 4 o’clock and I give her a sweet kiss goodnight with my hands on her hips and watch her open her door with a key in her unbending cold fingers and I head off to the subway station two blocks away.
How romantic these streets are – sad and dark and possibly the loneliest streets I’ve ever been on. Telephone wires hang loosely above, paneled apartment buildings glow dismally from the streets lamps and the clang of an iron fence echoes out into the street from the old shopper lady. How good it felt to kiss her thin purple lips (from the wine). The most desolate streets I’ve ever seen are in New York City, the land of the lonely and lost, black plastic bags and never-read newspapers swimming across the concrete, my breath visible in the freezing cold Larimer St. station, two big black women yelling and cussing at each other with big smiles and big bellies, complaining to two hobos about how they outghta ask some real men out next time – all I want to do is be in her bed tonight and feel the nakedness of a stranger before I go back home to the faces that’ll judge me up and down from what I look like and who I’ve made love with, good judgments and bad. And what’s it to them who I love and who I don’t? I would have loved that little blonde beauty with every fiber in my lanky bones, waking up to a Brooklyn sun on Saturday afternoon in white sheets and warm coffee because that’s what drunken life is all about; seeing the most beautiful girl in the bar, buying her a drink and walking her home to a two flat and making sweet love to her in the middle of an American night.
I was supposed to be with a girl from high school tonight but her plans and my plans didn’t exactly match up so I just finished my third beer at Phil’s bar over on Harlem Ave. a few doors down from my house so it’s another night of drinking and laughing with the people I call my very best friends.
The Saturday night crowd stumbles in and at Phil’s it’s nothing to shout from the mountains about because it’s six or seven of us and a couple neighborhood hoodlums and the entire family of the one bartender on duty. We take over both the billiards and ping-pong table once we get there and switch off from either with everyone taking turns and hogging every spot on the floor while the others sit at the bar and watch with glossed over eyes (although Zach would later explain every single rule of ping-pong to two new Hispanic friends) and this all goes on for a few hours as we all open tabs and pull out five dollar bills for cheap beers all night.
And after this third beer I realize that during my stay in New York in lonely coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall bars – lunches and dinners for one – this is exactly and precisely what I’ve been missing the whole time. I’ve missed forgettable, unmemorable, lazy drinking nights with the people that I’ve known for years and years and even more years. And that is what makes them infinitely special.
I’ve missed drinking beer on dark wooden tabletops of Phil’s bar and shooting stick with these guys and girls and I’ve missed yelling back and forth with Chris across empty bars and catching up with William about everything that’s going on back at school. It’s the comfort and familiarity that I’ve missed. So tonight I don’t have to miss anything. I can drink this beer and be with these people and when we leave Phil’s out into the cold November night I can remember nights like these and think about the feeling that I have deep down in my gut when all of us are huddled around a table on bar stools smiling and happy; happy just to be around the people who you’ve always been around, one way or another.
So tonight, I don’t miss anything. Not even close.
Don’t tell my boss but I was on a delivery and a pop song came on the radio that I used to play on repeat when I was 10-years-old so I rode around the small streets of my hometown searching for the ghosts of the kids we used to be. I’m in father’s beat up Volvo and the soft tires roll around endlessly after every stop sign and red light. Both up and down Dickens, Palmer, Bloomingdale. The streets of my childhood. My old house across from the blue and green park that I spent so many May afternoons with the neighbors across the street. I had a crush on a girl named Allison Padiak who lived in a tall baby blue house four doors down and she was the first love of my life. I was six years old. So impressionable and such a damn fool. I wonder where she is today. She had dark red hair and if my memory serves me right she always wore a blue and white striped sundress and that’s what she’ll forever be in my head – a little girl with a big future, as big as she could ever dream it to be.
So I drive by her house and see her playing with a hoola-hoop on her front lawn while her parents look on and wave at my car at the faceless driver. I smile back and wish nothing but love and sweetness for their little daughter. Then I pass my old house and try to recollect a memory other than leaving it. I can’t so I move sadly on down the street.
I make more turns and find myself on the street that meets a row of small houses and the mighty golf course that sits in the middle of our town and acts as our only secret. Everything else is known around town except the exclusivity of this golf club. Caddies know – so do valet parkers and members – but other than that and especially for me what lies behind those trees is unknown and probably will always be. The only experience I have is smacking golf balls with aluminum bats from hundreds of yards away with my baseball buddies into the course when we were young and dumb enough to do something like that.
So I ride down the street and look over out of the passenger side window and there I am on the sidewalk siting on Zach’s handlebars racing wildly toward another adolescent adventure. My best friend and I, free from school or a job or worries or insecurities or even a curfew. We were boys of the night, only to be stopped by the brakes of our bikes and the occasional little girl who smiled at us in the hallways. His hands gripped tightly over the grips and me smiling giddy and purely open to the world. The world was so small then. It was just the town’s perimeters and anything beyond wasn’t bothered with because all we needed was right here; we needed a few dollars for junk food at the gas station, a whiffle ball or two and air filled up in our tires so they would take us as far as the darkness on the edge of town.
We start to speed up, ignoring all stop signs and old ladies so I try to keep up in the Volvo as best as I can. Zach’s Yankee baseball cap bouncing softly on his head and my little legs dangle just above the front tire, shoes unlaced and socks dirty as hell. Our faces are young and tight, our eagerness bright and alive. We’ve never felt tired in our whole lives up until this point and wouldn’t feel it till high school baseball practice or basketball suicides in middle school. But today, right then and there on the sidewalk you wouldn’t have guessed we ever stressed about anything in our whole damn lives. Now Zach’s laughing and I’m laughing and I hold my gut with one hand and hold on for dear life with the other and he speeds in front of a station wagon coming off of Cortland Ave. that nearly takes us out but I’ve never felt nervous with Zach ever so I don’t even turn my eyes to the car that could have killed us. We just laugh and yell into the wind as the driver screams and grips his fists tight in the air and says something like “Hey you goddamn kids better watch yourself you outghta get killed out here on the street riding around like that” but we pay no mind at all and race towards another day in the life of two best friends.
We make a hard right into an alley but when I turn with the car we’re long gone, black specs in the gray November night. I put my foot on the brake and take my hands off the wheel. Where has it all gone? Where have our bike-riding wild-nighted no-caring blissfully young and heartskipping days gone?
Instead of taking her to dinner or the movies, take her to a park. Take a walk with her down 1st Ave. and walk in silence. Hold her arm in yours and stare out into the streetlights in front of you. Glance up at the buildings as you slowly pass them.
Turn into the park’s gates and point to a bench to a sit. Wait for her to nod in agreement. Let her sit first. Unbutton your jacket and sit close to her. Feel the warmth of her in November. Let her rest her head on your shoulder. Hold her hand and put it your coat’s pocket. Put your right hand on her knee and feel her soft skin underneath her black tights. Let her hair tickle your cheek as she rests soundly at your side. Sit in silence. Just watch.
Watch the fountain jump with excitement, the old German man push his stroller by himself, the old couple stroll their way to the bench across from yours, the kids run back and forth from the ice rink’s entrance, the dogs walking slowly but surely. Watch the trees sway slowly in the wind, the yellow leaves bristle and whistle in the cold, the brown trees strong and steady. Run your thumb up and down her thigh, make her feel warm, squeeze her fingers tightly with yours, glance at her lips and make sure they’re pursed and sweet just as you first met them. Sit in silence.
Feel the coldness of winter rush up and down your body and hold her closer. Feel her. Don’t talk. Just sit in the silence of comfortable companionship. Don’t take her to a crowded restaurant or a dark movie theater. Take her to a park and watch the winter glide past you in an eternal dance with time.
Helen Claire Davis. That was her name. I had met her outside of a basement bar down on 14th street smoking a cigarette and two hours later I was in her apartment. It was just one of those nights. She was drunk, so was I. I was lonely, couldn’t tell if she really was but she seemed interested enough to humor me and let me hold her hand while we walked down the streets of Manhattan by ourselves. Our group was a about a block ahead. We stopped a few times to laugh and kiss under the street lamps enough times to lose the five other people we were with completely. We didn’t care too much; at least I didn’t.
She was going apple picking the next day somewhere upstate for her friend’s birthday. I told her I never had any damn plans on Saturdays and have kept it that way ever since I was 11-years-old. She smiled at my misguidance and freeness. She didn’t know how alone I really was – neither did I. But I wasn’t tonight and that’s all that mattered.
She was Australian. A soft tender voice. That accent. I was hooked from the first time she said her name. I mumbled my own and asked her if “you guys” really hate New Zealanders. Ridiculous stuff like that. I was a fool and she was the gatekeeper, the key holder, the fate bearer and all the other rulers of my night. She became my night. I was enveloped by her and lusted after her around every corner street deli and liquor store. We were drunk so we got a cab.
We had direction problems with our driver who was already annoyed by us and so was I. I had to piss so bad that my stomach began to ache. I felt my bladder beat. We got out on a street in Green Point and I ran to her building’s front door with my torso hunched over my waist paying no mind at all to the doorman who assumed I was a crazy hobo who had just been stabbed with a dull blade. I had never had to piss this bad in my whole life. She was on the second floor of a seven-flat and had a beautiful wide-open studio apartment all to herself. Picture a New York City apartment and this was it. You walked in and a tiny kitchen waited for on the right, a long hallway led to the wide open room with a big bed shoved in the corner, a large table full of magazines, bills and other lousy and no good papers spilled everywhere in every direction; a perfect mess. Clear windows with fingerprints covered an entire wall that looked down on the street. The street’s noises came up to us fast and loud, bars still energetic, streetwalkers yelled and screamed for no one, cars honking and cabs flying around barely missing parked cars as they whizzed by; everything in the apartment was still. Then there was a piano, a grand and impressive pitch black, worn white keys, sheet music all around the top. I asked her if she plays. She did. I asked her if she would play. She would.
I slumped down on the couch next to the window across from the piano. She sat down with her back facing me, blonde hair glowing from the reflection of the streetlights. I took a mental image – a picture – of all that was happening: The soft brown lights coming through the window, (the streets now quiet) the candles that she just lit – three of them on the table piled on top of the magazines – the bed unmade, the plants that were dying because she didn’t have time to keep up with them these days, the endless amount of books on the shelves to her right (have you read them all? Just about), the warm sweater she wore, her soft legs crossed under the piano, toes on the pedals, my jacket on the couch next to me, boots being slipped off; and I sat there and remembered it all with open eyes and an open soul. Free to everything that happens in life.
Then she began to play and the rest was lost to the music of the night.
Bob Dylan. That’s what I am tonight. Who I am I should say. Black blazer, black jeans, a dark gray thrifted shirt buttoned up to the neck, dark wayfarers, wild hair and a steel wired harmonica holder around my wiry neck. No harmonica, Mom forgot to send it.
Halloween. October’s last night. All Hallows’ Eve.
The plan tonight is to go down to the Lower East Side and check out bars down in that part of town. Gennette, my roommate, and I are heading down there and meet up with some of her friends once we get off the train. Fine by me. Let’s get to it.
We search for the bar on the late-evening street and find her two friends all the way in back sitting on stools, Sam – a self-proclaimed rapper from Seattle – and Danny – a smart young kid from the same parts of town – all Washington bred kids here in the big city of the world. So we sit and chat and have a few rounds of drinks and decide to wander around for a new crowd, there’s bound to be another crowd right around the corner, every corner of the city has new crowd waiting for new folks to come on in, sit down and yip-yap about anything they damn well please. Please, come in. Have a seat. Drink this. Good huh? That’ll be eight dollars sir. And would you tip, too? Please? See I only make… And I would really appreciate…
After the first two bars in the East Village we walk down W4th St. till our legs can’t take it anymore. What we’re looking for I can’t exactly say. Another bar? We were just at another bar. Girls? Booze? Music? We wander around like ghosts. None of us are dressed as one this year, but if anyone would have caught us on the street here they would have said, “Yup, a ghost. A drunk fool of a ghost.”
We ask ourselves those questions and decide booze. We drag our feet out of a dingy bar across the street into a liquor store and buy big bottles of beers. Three of ‘em for the four of us. The clerk stuffs them in brown bags and we go off like bums to find a street corner we could sip them on in peace. Parks are closed and bars need you to come empty handed with wallets full. Tonight being Halloween, there are hundreds of cops on the streets, all dressed in that slick navy blue uniform that looks so pristine and gorgeous in the soft lights of Washington Square Park. While looking for our corner we pass 30 of them huddled around outside of a deli with our open bottles spilling and clinking inside of our coat jackets. “Evening officers. How’s your night going officers?” like a few smartasses we smile and wave with our free hand and giggle over the curb just before we take a real nice swig from our Red Stripes.
When we get far enough away from the empty streets and busy sidewalks we post up on the steps of an old brown brick building and start to pass around the bottles in a circle and slug our beers nice and slow in the comfort of our own pace and the warmth of October. It was just about midnight. Another autumn month had come and gone.
It’s dark in our corner here – and I’m drunk – but I notice the earthy brown lights hanging above us that make the green leaves of the trees look spooky and haunted, just like the rest of the night. The lights above the street dimming in and out of focus to a point where I can’t tell if it’s my eyes playing the tricks or the mad twisted streets of the city. The lights buzzing louder than our conversations. Cool kids in leather jacket pass us on the sidewalks, shooting us looks out of the corners of their evil eyes only because we had booze and they didn’t. The last drops of our bottles start to drain and we lick our lips with pleasure and joy and it’s off to the next bar.
We cozy up to some nameless main street joint that only accepts cash. I’m in no such luck so I sit down and dig the kid Danny who’s been whispering quietly all night and nodding his head yes, yes at mostly everything. He’s a real sharp kid with a shaved head and a short beard. Red hair if I was going to give it a color. He talks quick and certain and blinks his eyes when he gets excited; sometimes he blinks seven, eight times before he finishes a sentence. He’s drunk now too but his mind is ever-present and he yaps at me for a good half hour – just sitting there with a goofy smile blinking his ass off all night.
Before we catch a cab ride home, (now it’s four in the morning and all the bars are still lit up and the shelves stocked and the girls still pretty even after their makeup has started to run and the music still plays over the muffled speakers and endless conversations starting and going all night long and into these quite and hollow morning streets) I bum a cigarette from some cat waiting outside at the bus station. What’s a Bob Dylan costume if you’re not gonna have a smoke by the end of the night. I hand the last bit off to Sam before we jump in the cab and head home to Brooklyn.
Now this drive home I remember perfectly clear like June afternoons on Saturdays when I was nine years old with my dad and my brother. At 4 a.m., it’s not dark out because the whole island of Manhattan glows like a Christmas tree, but driving away it’s dark enough still where I could close my eyes and fall asleep forever. I stay awake from the buzzing streets and the bumps in the concrete as we make our way across and over the Brooklyn Bridge. Gennette and Sam are talking about friends back home in Seattle but I pay no attention to them whatsoever, for my eyes are fixed on the gray road as if it was my first night drive of my whole damn life. I no longer feel tired. My legs no longer weary from walking around the city at night. The cruel night. I stick my head out of the window like dogs do or the young actor in the new Hollywood film does and breathe in the early morning air with a clear head for the first time in months. The icy breeze stabs at the pores in my face and my hair whips wildly without a sound. I have no other choice but to look out at the East River and watch splendidly as we fly by cars on this historic steel bridge. I turn around and watch the island’s lights fade into November. I smile at all the beauty in life. Laughing even. Giddy and wonderful. I start to think of my life: I think of summers in Minnesota, hot dry springs on baseball diamonds, winters huddled inside my living room, all the girls I got to kiss in middle school. I think of all of my friends back at home and back at school. How happy I am that they are all a part of my life. I think of my parents, the two people responsible of my wonderful life. How did I get here? How did this happen? I don’t think long enough to answer because now I feel as if I’m flying over the bridge.
This is probably how Superman feels when he flies.
But what do I know? I was just a kid from Chicago who got drunk on bottles of beer, having the time of his life.