Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kickin' it old school

Well I’m kickin’ it here with a little help from my friend, Budweiser. It’s fitting, I guess. Years ago, as a young college student I declared a major in journalism, reasoning that it was the kind of job where I could do two things I loved to do – write and drink beer at the same time. I had an almost virginal idealism and naiveté’, --- a righteous vision of the press comprised of soldiers defending the Church of the First Amendment. This was right before the Media Industrial Complex started consuming news agencies like a rampaging Grendel and whoring itself out like nymphs at an orgy.

To hell with all that, I’m here to talk about good things – writing, drinking, kickin’ it old school with my original rat pack of friends. I mentioned that I’m imbibing and writing, fully cognizant of Hemingway’s quote: “After a life of writing and straightening rummies, I’ve learned to keep the two separate. The truth is nobody ever wrote as well even after only one drink.” Funny, I should mention Hemingway.

Along with my wife, Liana, I celebrated New Year’s Eve at my good friend Adam’s house. Our old friend Russ was there. Interestingly, I remember being at a New Year’s gathering with these guys 20 years earlier as 1989 gave way to 1990. I had read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” the previous summer and gotten into the beat poets. I said something to the guys and gals I was partying with about how I’d been writing poems. “Let’s hear ‘em,” somebody said. I said that wouldn’t be right because poetry and language were sacred and reciting creations to a group of drinking cretins would devalue the literary process.

“What about Hemingway?” Adam said. “He was an alcoholic. Don’t you think his friends would cheer him on? ‘Ernest! Ernest! Ernest!”

He was right of course. I guess only time can give you the discerning faculties to know when not to take yourself too seriously and when to grind your shoulder to the wheel. Time had yet to enlarge my critical thinking processes. In those days, the frivolity and beautiful self-delusion of bullet-proof invulnerability innate and incidental to youth and hormones just getting their legs clashed with the darkness, the incessant self-doubt and fears of the future that encroached upon and penetrated my concentration.

I went to Adam’s house this New Year’s Eve, feeling a lot more at ease with my place in the world, proudly introducing him to my wife, Liana. He, in turn, introduced his wife Dea. A DVD “Hangover” was on Adam’s TV. It was one of those drunk-suspended adolescence-let’s get loaded and go to Vegas -- road trip movies. I took note of a character in the movie that was terribly sunburned, yet gets married the next day with the expectation that he will perform wedding night coitus like nothing had happened. “That’s bullshit,” I said. “I’ve been sunburned before, had to see a doctor. I still had a tan in October.”

Sitting on Adam’s couch, laughing at the movie and making loud comments at the TV, was my old friend Russ, whom I introduced to Liana. Russ, me and another guy were roommates for a short time.

“Is he the one who always left turds in the toilet?” she asked.

“Nah, that was our other roommate Dickey,” I said, referring to the guy by his last name.

It was a small attic apartment above a house. You walked around the back of the house and climbed a narrow hill of wooden steps to reach the door to our living space. This tiny abode was ideally suited for one person, but for a month, three guys lived there. Russ would be the first to leave, Dickey the second and I was the last.

I mentioned Dickey, the bastard who never flushed. He was a foul man, a guy who would shit in the open and initiate conversation with you, LBJ style, while wiping his buttocks – a man who could have diarrhea and not wash his hands afterwards.

We’re older now and slumming would not hold the same allure for us. I would surmise that we all value a decent bathroom more than we would have 20 years ago. In between playing auction and watching people take shots at Adam’s kitchen table, I mentioned to Dea that her bathroom looked meticulous – a trait I value in lavatories. (I have an aversion to germs, especially the kind that fester in rooms where people relieve their bladders and move their bowels.) Of course, I had to tell her about the closet-sized hole in our old place. The ceiling slanted inward and there was barely enough room for a bathtub and toilet.

“There wasn’t even a door, just a curtain over the doorway” I told Dea, who responded with repulsion in her face. “When we first got the place, Ol’ Russ said, ‘We’ll have to do something about this ‘cuz nobody’s gonna wanna take a shit in there.’ A month later after he’s moved out, he comes over, pulls the curtain and starts dropping logs like a horse. Jesus, I thought Mr. Ed was in our crapper.”

Going to somebody else’s house to take a crap? What a bum. But as a mutual acquaintance once said of Russ, “He’s a funny bum.” So he was, so he is.

Russ and I attended the same community college in the same hick town. However we became acquainted, not through college, but from working together in the same restaurant – a hot steakhouse with a rancid grease pit and a locker full of enough frozen patties to impel a hurling contest. The district managers who acted like the place was some spiritual Shangri-la were a coterie of slave-driving fascists.

“I’m glad the damn place is torn down,” I told Russ, in between sips of my first beer that night.

“I loved that place,” he shot back.

So he did. One more reason for me not to like the guy when I first met him, I thought he was an ass kisser. Unlike me, Russ would get comfortable working at the hell hole, easing into the kind of comfort that turns food service workers lazy and leads to lapses of hygienic etiquette. I didn’t cotton to him at first. I thought he was egotistical. And maybe he was, but there was something about Russ that you couldn’t help but like. It was always a good time had by all when Russ was around.

One night as I was spraying dishes over the kitchen sink, cleaning up after the filthy cretins who packed their fat torsos into the tables and booths of the meat house, Russ asked how I’d like to go with him on a spring break road trip to South Padre Island in the border town of Corpus Christi, Texas.

“Sure, what the hell,” I said.

I hope my kids never go to one of those wild-on tourist traps with enough lures to trap a Youth for Christ convention into debauchery. At least we were going a couple of years before MTV would turn spring break into media bread and circuses. The CSI: Miami episode where a kid dies, smoking a bowl, and his friends toss him out the hotel window and into the swimming pool to make it look like suicide so they won’t get in trouble for smoking pot – that seems more realistic now than the true life experience we had where there was maybe one wet T-shirt contest in the vicinity. We just never caught wind of one.

Oh, but we were going to go prepared. We would blend into beach country having caught a few rays while sprawled on towels laid over the low level shingle area of the house Dickey and I were living above. We only got around to that once. We were going to bulk up on weights. That was also a one-time deal, working with barbells, dumbbells and other home exercise crap while he played some cheesy big hair “workout rock” in the background. One night we went jogging and never did it again. Of course we would be meeting up chicks and telling them all kinds of stories. Hell yeah, we’d be getting laid.

All I got was a damn sunburn.

I was a lot more vagabond and capricious in those days. When Russ and I took the road, it wasn’t like those family vacations I take now with the wife and kids. Liana is an intricate planner, securing the best hotels at the cheapest prices from the internet and printing out itineraries. Russ and I just bummed around during the day, hanging out at the beach, crossed the Mexican border at night, drank a few Coronas, then walked back and sleept in the car. I remember shivering, shriveled parts of my body flopping around as I scrubbed clean beneath a single strand of water in a community shower.

He and I recalled those days at Adam’s house this past New Year’s Eve, while warming ourselves around a pit fire on his patio, the snow blanketing his pine tree-filled back lawn. Russ brought up the fateful day I went to sleep in the sun. Back at the beach, I fell into a reverie and came to, saying how we had been there a long time.

“So then we go down to Mexico, hit the bars. We’d done it the night before and I said, ‘Man, you got boils all over your face’” Russ recalled, wiggling his fingers in front of his face with wild gesticulations, boisterousness and exaggeration in his inebriated voice. “And he said, ‘I don’t feel so good.’”

Russ wasn’t remembering it with exact accuracy. What happened was I started feeling weak and squatted down, holding myself up against the wooden pole. I only learned later that some bar goers -- lost to base bacchanalian abandon – had wanted to push me off the wooden sidewalk and into the dirt, but Russ stopped them, saying, “He’s my friend.”

So the guy was a douche bag? He was all right. Loyalty runs thick with me. Not just anybody gets a spot in the J. Guy circle. Prior to this past New Year’s Eve, I hadn’t seen Russ in around 18 years. The last time I had run into him, he was waiting tables at some stupid restaurant chain. I guess a person could be cynical and say, “If you hadn’t stayed in contact all these years, you weren’t that good of friends.” All I know is he was a damn good friend to hang out with all those years back and he’s a good friend now that we’re back in contact and have careers and families. That’s good enough for me.

Ironically, I’ve been in better contact over the years with Adam, whom I got to know through Russ. “I knew who you were when I was in high school,” Adam told me. “You were legendary.” I knew him as a football player and wrestler, a name that was swarming around my circle, but somehow not quite on the other side of the periphery.

However, I have reminded him on several occasions that I remember us being in the same Sunday school class of the First Baptist Church when we around the first, second grade and third grade. I recall finding it interesting that he shared a name with the first man created, that dude who ran around naked with a woman named Eve in a place called Eden. Adam attended elementary school in a working class section of town and I remember once asking him, “Are there any black kids in your school?” – a concept I would have found intriguing in our whitebred with mayo town. “One,” I remember him saying. I fell out of the habit of attending church after the third grade and I didn’t know Adam during the next several years. It’s all cool. A guy can’t be expected to remember much from first or second grade.

We had gone to high schools in different towns -- roughly six miles apart from each other -- and there was spillover from our respective circle of friends when many of us attended the same community college together. In college, at around ages 19 and 20, I got pretty tight with Russ. He had played football with Adam at their backwater high school to the east of my stomping ground, a Podunk town that looked a bit cosmopolitan next to their hooterville of a hamlet.

Like me, Adam went into the newspaper business although he went a lot further with it than me. For several years, he worked on the sports desk with the Wichita Eagle, covering high school sports, small college sports and later following the Wichita State Shocker baseball and basketball teams on the road. His latest venture is a newspaper website, in which he has enlisted me to write stories. He’s also getting help from other old friends. Adam, like Russ, is a super human being, and while he probably feels that I’m doing him a favor writing for his news site, I see it as him giving me a gift. I revel in the thrill of meeting new people, finding new roads and constructing them into stories. Adam has played a role in jolting me out of the complacency that crept into my life during these past few years. He’s saving me from becoming an old man and his having me out to a party with our old friend Russ made me feel – in the words of the always relevant Bob Dylan – “forever young.”

It’s a cool place with these clowns in my circle of friends. Calls to my mind one spring day when Russ and I were cruising and playing the radio in his metallic blue ’75 Fiat. He had it on an oldies station blaring 1950s music. We were stopped at a light on the corner of Summit and Central, the main drag in that redneck town, when a song came on -- “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis. Awesomely, we sat, transfixed by the forbidden sounds emanating from the soul of this wild young man ensorcelled by the duende of the black man’s rhythm and blues. We were gyrating to the sulfuric plunking of Jerry Lee’s pumping piano, rolling with Pentecostal fervor. In the next lane over, a girl in a car shook her head, possibly dismissing us to be a couple of guys caught in a time warp. But what did we care? Son, this was killer speaking.

And I knew for that moment, everything in the world was perfect, nothing but F-I-N-E -- so fine.

A couple of weeks before I met up with Russ again at Adam’s house, I was driving on a cold night, the dark lake road winding with turns as I made my way home. I momentarily turned the public radio station I primarily listen to and flipping through the dial, came upon the song, “Kokomo.” Russ decided way back that this novelty tune about the Florida Keys – a temporary career resurgence for the Beach Boys – would be our road trip song. I never had the heart to tell him I always hated that song. But driving along the road that night… I loved every damn minute of it.

The American Way of Dying

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