April 28, 2013
It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything on this blog, and for that I apologize. To make up for it, I promise this piece will be entertaining. I was thinking about all the weird gigs I’ve played with the Lemonheads, and there have been many. What about the show inside the maximum security prison? Or what about the show at an elite prep school where we played outdoors through a severe thunderstorm? Or what about the huge punk festival in Portland Maine with a dozen big acts, and only ten people actually showed up to watch? Oh, or what about the show opening for the Angry Samoans at a straight-edge club where a cokehead stripper jumped on stage and stripped to a g-string while a pack of teenage skinheads moshed in the pit?
The show that stands out as the weirdest, however, was one of my first with the band in the late spring of 1987. If memory serves, I’d just joined the band as the drummer just before the release party for Hate Your Friends, the band’s first album. We played a release party, and we opened for the Cleveland punk legends The Pagans, and that was it. I was thrilled to be in the band, and I was having the time of my life – but the band wasn’t yet a particularly popular band. We probably had 150 people at the afternoon album release show, but the crowd consisted largely of the band’s high school friends and people connected to the Harvard radio station, which sponsored the event. People weren’t really talking about the band outside of their circle of friends.
Evan Dando (one of two singer-writer-guitarists in the original lineup, along with Ben Deily) and I used to hang around together quite a bit in those days, since neither of us had much in the way of daily responsibilities. I was an indifferent student in my final semester at Berklee (planning a career in punk rock), and Evan had dropped out of Skidmore. We had plenty of time to waste, and we wasted plenty of time at the pool at the Brookline Country Club, where Evan’s parents were members.
The Brookline Country Club, simply called “The Country Club” because it was literally the first country club (originally an equestrian club) founded in the United States. It’s the sort of place for which the term “WASP” was created. But it was (and I’m sure is) incredibly nice, and Evan delighted in charging food to his parents’ account as we gawked at all the incredibly beautiful young women who populated the pool every day. And they all loved Evan. I might as well have been invisible, but I didin’t mind.
Ben and Jesse (the bassist) came out from time to time, and in some perverse way they enjoyed being Jewish crashers of this WASP preserve. They’d known Evan through high school, and I’m sure other members as well – they felt right at home by that pool. Juliana Hatfield came once, and pretty much fit right in – but she didn’t appreciate all the attention Evan got from the girls. Which, of course, he didn’t discourage.
One day at band practice Evan sheepishly noted that we’d been invited to play a youth party at The Country Club. The money – a thousand bucks I believe – was mind-boggling at the time. But we all felt a little weird about playing there. I mean, we’d all tremendously enjoyed their facilities; but the actual idea of the place was a little weird for a punk band. Even deep into the second wave of American punk, we knew that punk bands were supposed to be generally “on the left” and against the trappings of elite culture. At least on a conceptual level, The Country Club was the enemy – even if Evan’s parents were members, and even though they served those incredible burgers poolside. But, of course, a thousand bucks is a thousand bucks. Two hundred fifty a man – that would’ve been rent and daily beer and pizza slices for two weeks, easy.
Behind the scenes, I’m imagining the conversation that might have given rise to this gig. I imagine Evan in conversation with someone roughly similar to the Ted Knight Character in Caddyshack. “So, young man, I hear you’ve got a little combo together? Care to play a mixer at the rec center?” There isn’t a single member of that club – other than Evan’s immediate family - that would have a single idea what the Lemonheads were about. But, yeah, a thousand clams…
On the day of the show, we drove up to the grounds in Ben’s ancient, navy blue Chevy cargo van with “The Lemonheads” spraypainted on the side. I’d seen the van around Boston before I knew they group, and it made me think they were probably lowlifes. It took a minute at the gatehouse, but we checked out. On the way to the rustic activity center deep in the woods that would serve as our venue, we passed a cluster of post-adolescent girls. They flagged us down and asked for a lift. Evan knew them and invited them to sit with us on the metal floor. They gladly, and without hesitation, obliged.
They continued a conversation they’d been having before entering the van, referring vaguely to “M’s”. “What’s an ‘M’,” Ben asked. “Oh,” one of the girls volunteered, “an ‘M’ is a ‘minority’.” “Yeah,” said another, “M’s work here, but they’re NOT members.” “I see,” said Ben. We all exchanged looks.
We quickly loaded in to the activity center and set up as a few dozen kids, ages probably 11 to 16, milled around. Mostly boys. They didn’t seem all that young to us, as we were all either 19 or 20. We’d see kids that age at the all-ages hardcore matinees we all frequented in Boston. In other words, it didn’t seem like babysitting.
Once we’d set up and checked the vocal mics through the low-power vocal PA provided with the room, we launched into our set. I guess we all thought the kids would get it, and just respond like a typical hardcore matinee crowd. Or perhaps we didn’t think that would happen, and we simply didn’t know what else to do. For a couple songs the kids just stood there, sort of stunned. They didn’t clap after songs; they just stood their ground, looking vaguely confused. Then, after three or four songs, a kid approached us, waving his arms. “Wait, wait,” he said. “We don’t even know these songs. We don’t like these songs. You need to play something we know.”
None of us had every played in a cover band. We’d never learned any other tunes, except maybe a few Misfits songs and maybe some Big Star – songs that would be just as meaningless as our originals. “Okay,” said Evan, “What is it you want to hear?” Without missing a beat he said, “we want to hear “Fight For Your Right (To Party).”
We huddled and made a quick effort to learn and perform the tune. The kids were clearly not satisfied with our efforts. The delegate kid came up once again and said, “you need to let ME sing it!” Ben took the mic off the stand, handed it to the kid, and once again launched into the song. He sang every verse, and I noticed before he was done that a line was forming. He handed the mic to the next kid, and we started once again at the beginning. We played it at least a dozen times, until each kid that wanted to sing took the mic.
After we’d played out that number, the delegate kid once again approached. This was when the movie Ferrie Bueller’s Day Off was popular. The kid said, “Do you know ‘Twist and Shout’?” Yes, I think we can figure that out. We did the exact same thing for the half-dozen or so kids who knew the words. Then for the encore, another dozen passes through Fight For Your Right. After that, our novelty had worn off and it was still broad daylight. The kids all just wandered off without so much as glancing back in our direction.
January 5, 2012
My brother Jake used to collect baseball cards. He was really into sports statistics and other stuff I just couldn’t pretend to care about. I cared about sports only as much as necessary to keep my friends from discovering me as a fraud. Still, I coveted my brother’s baseball cards. He wouldn’t even let me look at them.
Jake wouldn’t tolerate me starting my own, because it was his thing. He had a strict “no copying” rule. I bought a pack or two, but he ridiculed me and made it clear he would not tolerate my baseball card collecting. So I started collecting football cards.
I wasn’t much of a baseball fan, but I really wasn’t a football fan at all. I actually played organized baseball for years, albeit badly. When my family traveled to Vero Beach over spring break every year to visit my grandparents, we’d always catch a Dodgers spring training game or two. Once every year or so we’d take a family trip watch a Cubs or Reds game during the regular season. I even watched the Cubs on Channel 9 occasionally, but I doubt I ever watched an NFL game from beginning to end. I never even had a favorite NFL team.
So I bought these football cards in part because I didn’t know how else I should spend my money. I was seven or eight; I didn’t really have any interests yet. I bought pack after pack of cards, chewed the gum, glanced over the cards, read the trivia on the back, and then tossed them into a large shoe box. I enjoyed the act of buying the cards and first opening the pack, and then I enjoyed watching the shoe box become full. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment, though Jake ridiculed me for failing to keep my cards organized.
Around age nine I discovered how I really wanted to spend my money: buying record albums. I wanted so badly to own all of the albums by Kiss. I owned Kiss Alive, Kiss Alive 2 and Love Gun, but I really wanted Destroyer, Hotter than Hell and Dressed to Kill as well. I wanted to join the Kiss Army and buy the Kiss comic book, with real Kiss blood in the red ink. And I knew how I could get some money that didn’t involve dreaded yard work.
I knew a kid a grade or two below me at my school who was really into collecting all sorts of sports trading cards. I approached him in the cafeteria one day and asked him if he had any interest in buying my cards. “How many are there,” he asked. “I don’t know exactly,” I said. “I think there might be a thousand – it’s a full shoebox, a big one!” He said, “how much will it cost?” “I don’t know,” I said. “Ten dollars.” “Okay,” he said, “bring them by my house and I’ll give you ten dollars.”
After school that day I rode my bike across the park to this kid’s house and handed him the box of cards. He glanced at the box and then handed me a ten dollar bill without a word. I rode home, giddy as I considered which two Kiss records I would buy with the money. Although I’d invested probably fifty dollars in the football cards, I felt no regret over the sale. The cards really meant nothing to me, the ten in my pocket meant everything. It meant two Kiss albums.
That evening the phone rand during dinner. I could tell by the way my mom stared gravely at me over her glasses as she spoke that the call was about me. “Yes, yes that sounds reasonable,” she said. “I think that’s a fair solution, and I’m very sorry this happened.” When she put the phone down she said “that was Mr. Jordan, and he says you sold his son some sports cards.”
Mr. Jordan was a science teacher at the high school with a reputation for being a tough grader and a stern disciplinarian. It seems Mr. Jordan had taken the time to count the cards. Rather than the advertised thousand cards, the box only contained seven hundred twenty three cards. Mr. Jordan was pissed. So he called my mom and said “Your son sold my son a box of one thousand football cards for ten dollars, a penny a card. Since there are only seven hundred twenty three cards in the box, my son is entitled to a refund of two dollars and seventy-seven cents.” What an asshole, I thought.
So after dinner I rode my bike back over to the kid’s house and knocked on the door. Mr. Jordan, a square-jawed guy with combed-over reddish hair and cold blue eyes, answered the door as his son stood by his side. “Well,” he said, “I guess you’d better count the cards next time you make a bargain.” I said “yes, sir.” I handed his son the two dollars and change and quickly shuffled back to my bike. I stole a glance at the door and they both stood there, staring at me through narrowed eyes.
I still managed to buy what I really wanted with the money, a copy of Kiss Destroyer. And the album brought me many hours of joy. I don’t think I learned anything from the exchange, and I doubt I’d have counted all those cards under any circumstances. I just wasn’t that sort of kid.
June 18, 2011
My Great Dad
My Daddy is 35 years old.
He weights 2 pounds and he is big & tall feet tall.
My Dad loves to relax by the he rock-a-byes me and he likes to wear sweat shirt, T-shirt that’s cool.
He loves to cook crabs.
His favorite household chore is clean house.
His favorite TV show is “Daddy Movie” and his favorite song is Dawes.
Daddy always tells me a secret.
It makes him happy when he cooks garlic and fish.
When my Dad shops, he loves to buy lobsters, muffins, cupcakes and a little ice cream.
If he could go on a trip, he would go to Alabama and he would take me.
I really love it when my Dad turns on the kid shows
He’s the best! I love you, Dad!
By Sophie Strohm, June 19, 2011
Happy Father’s Day!
March 27, 2011
Even though I managed to sustain a “professional” music “career” for a decade during the late 80s into the 90s, I knew in my heart it wouldn’t last forever. Somehow I managed to have enough, or nearly enough, money to get by. I played shows, received the occasional mailbox money, lived for awhile off a publishing deal. But at last when I returned from a year-long Lemonheads tour in the fall of 1997, my financial life collaposed with dizzying speed.
I’d followed my then-girlfriend (now wife) Heather to Birmingham, and although I’d technically lived there for half a year during tour I’d only spent a half-dozen nights in town. When the endless tour finally came to an end I spent the last months of 1997 writing an album and watching my savings dwindle down to nil. The sum total of my supposedly marketable skills (as a guitarist, songwriter, fledgling audio producer/engineer) rendered me practically unemployable in Birmingham, a town at the time pretty much bereft of music industry. By December I’d gratefully accepted a friend’s offer to work the holiday rush at the local Barnes & Noble, and by the first of the year I was working full time just to get by, grateful to have health insurance.
I’d been thinking about going back to college for years, but recently I’d begun to think my window of opportunity had passed. I was 31, and I’d invested everything into trying to make a living as a musician. Finally it wasn’t working out. I absolutely had to do something different. Going back to college was, at minimum, a way to take a little time out to figure out what to do next. I applied to the best local option, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). I got in.
My previous pass at college was more than a decade earlier, a half-assed two years I spent at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where my focus was on my band, not my studies. Surprisingly my credits all transferred, so it made sense (or so I thought) to finish up a music major. Heather encouraged me to audition for a scholarship, which meant showing up and getting in the que with a bunch of high school kids carrying band and orchestra instruments. I carried my acoustic guitar out to a brightly lit recital room stage, where I played and sang on original song to the entire music faculty. To my astoninshment, I received a full scholarship.
After receiving the good news of my scholarship (endowed by UAB benefactor Stevie Wonder), I met with the prim department dean, who also served as the choir director. He informed me that for every quarter I received scholarship assistance, I would have to be a member of either the concert choir, the symphonic concert band, or the marching band. Since I’d never really learned to read music properly and didn’t play an orchestral instrument, the symphonic band was not an option. It was choir or marching band. When I told Heather about my options she laughed for a long time before informing me that she would not be a party to my plan to fly under the radar. It was just too good an opportunity for comic relief to invite friends to come see me in either a choir robe or a marching band outfit. Panic began to set in.
I had a few weeks before the session began, so I carefully studied my options. The music major carried many requirements that would not be fulfilled by my transferring Berklee credits, so despite the two years of transferred credits my degree would take at least three years to complete. Alternatively, I could get a history major with a music minor in two years. In the end it was an easy choice – I would very happily pay the full (though modest in-state) tuition for an extra year of life…and to avoid the certain humiliation of the ensemble requirement.
Nevertheless, to make my Berklee credits count and to receive the music minor, I still had to endure a number of pain in the ass requirements from the ultra-high-maintenance music school. The first requirement was a remedial piano class, which I took as a sort of “getting my feet wet in college” sort of softball class. I’d never really been to college (as music school is a different beast altogether), and having grown up in an academic family I’d always assumed that college – any college – would be challenging and labor-intensive. In addition to the piano class that first quarter I think I also took a first-year Spanish class, having taken three years of high school Spanish and visitng Spain a half-dozen times. I wasn’t taking any chances.
The piano teacher was right out of central casting. A stern, emaciated task-master woman of late middle age with a massive steel-grey hairdo that seemed fixed like the hair of a statue, she seemed constantly poised to snap a ruler down on the knuckles of any student that dared play a sour note or lose time with the antique metronome. Twelve of us met at 8:00 in the morning in a room in the music school packed to capacity with bargain-basement japanese digital pianos. The task-master paced the room barking comments. “Play in time!” “Keep going!” “Hand position!” As we struggled through six-finger arrangements of ancient easy-listening hits such as Mahogany or the theme to the Posiden Adventure.
I actually worked my ass off in that class, partly because I really wanted to re-claim my very rusty sight-reading skills, but also because I didn’t want to be humiliated by the task-master. There was this one guy in class who was utterly hopeless, and I think we were all grateful to him for being so balatantly terrible as to absorb all of the task-master’s negative attention. This guy, an African-American guy with a wispy mustache and a strong lisp who showed up every morning fresh from his shift – and still in uniform – from the Huddle House, must have been about my age. He smelled strongly of bacon fat. He must have been working multiple jobs, because it was obvious he’d never cracked his piano book.
The class would gather by the door at 8, since the task-master was routinely five or ten minutes late arriving. You could hear the Huddle House guy coming down the closed stairwell because he sang gospel songs tunelessly at the top of his lungs. Every morning he’d approach the group and say “Well, well, well, it’s the Piano Geniuses! I don’t know how you all got so good at piano. Piano Geniuses! All of y’all!” We’d all stare at the floor as he scanned our faces, hoping to start a conversation. “Yes, sir…Piano Geniuses…yes indeed,” he’d mutter to himself.
I managed to finish piano class, first-year Spanish, and all of the other requirements to finish my degree. I’ve gotten into the habit of telling people that I went to college with law school in mind, and it’s true that I started thinking in terms of law school once I really found my rhythm. But if I’m being honest I have to admit that I had no idea what I was getting myself into or where I was going. Barely half a year passed between touring with a famous band playing sold out concerts and having anxiety fits over learning beginner arrangements of old Bacharach and David songs under the demanding eye of the task-master. I’m not sure how I got through it. Glad I did.
April 20, 2010
There is was, right in front me…my heart’s desire. And it might as well have been a mirage before a thirsty desert wanderer. Damn.
One day in the spring of 1978 my mom and I drove out to the recycling center north of town. In those days if you wanted to recycle newspapers and magazines, you drove them out to the place yourself. There was this massive bin to receive recycling, big enough to seem more like a small barn and loaded with paper, bottles, and bags of junk. Earlier that morning, my mom had bundled two large stacks of newspapers and loaded them into the trunk of the Datsun. She hoisted one of the bundles and started toward the bin, gesturing for me to grab the other bundle.
The bundle was heavy, and by the time I made it half way to the bin I passed my mom, already on her way back to the car. I, of course, made a huge production of my discomfort, hoping to guilt her into paying me a few bucks or at least buying me a blizzard at Dairy Queen. She showed no sign of noticing my display. Upon arriving at the bin, I opened the door a crack and started to toss the bundle. Something red and glossy just inside the door immediately caught my eye…an issue of Playboy.
I slipped quickly inside the door to investigate. It wasn’t just one Playboy. I’d seen the one issue on top of a bag, but for all I knew the bag was full of Good Housekeeping or Time or some such boring crap. But to my amazement the large shopping bag actually contained four years worth of monthly issues in chronological order…nearly fifty issues of Playboy. I picked up the issue on top and quickly leafed through…centerfold intact, perfect condition.
My mind raced…how could I possibly get these home?!? How could I even get one of them home? In my running shorts and T-shirt I couldn’t tuck any issues into my clothes, and I sure as shit couldn’t carry the bag back to the car. I was eleven: I couldn’t drive (though I’m sure I entertained the possibility of learning), and it was too far to bike. I just turned and walked back to the car, shaking my head and hoping for sudden inspiration.
I’m no porn historian, but it seems to me Playboy Magazine held a much more significant place in American culture in 1978 than it does now. As a boy I found the “harder” mags such as Hustler pretty disturbing. But Playboy – my friends and I would tear into an issue as if it contained all the answers to the Universe. If anyone had the incredible fortune to come across an issue (usually nicked from the Nite Owl convenience store on Third Street), we’d all get together and study it like a tome. Even the cartoons held the answers to our most hotly-debated topics.
One of my friends went into business around seventh grade (it wasn’t his last capitalistic venture before eventually landing in the pen). His superior shoplifting skills enabled him to accumulate a substantial stash of mags – by then we weren’t so prone to brand loyalty. He’d let us come over and look through his collection, and the he would let us “rent” a magazine for a buck a day. As a courtesy, he permitted the renters to tear one page out of the magazine for keepsies. By the end of seventh grade I had a decent stash of torn-out, well-worn pages bound with a giant paperclip. My mom had a habit of casually leaving my collection of pages out on my desk whenever she discovered a new hiding place. I guess I wasn’t the first to think of stashing something between the mattress and the box springs…
My magazine collecting days ended suddenly and painfully around ninth grade. My father had an elderly housecleaner named Florence, a frail, emaciated chain-smoker who used an entire can of Comet during each bi-weekly visit. Florence picked up where my mom left off in policing my habit, leaving magazines found stashed under the bed out in full view. One day I invited a couple of girls from the school bus over to my house to watch the Brady Bunch. The girls walked straight into my bedroom and discovered my stash of Playboy and Penthouse magazines, spread out in full view on my drafting table. Thanks, Florence.
This all seems sort of innocent now, but I can’t help but feel a little cheated that magazines played such a large part in shaping my notions about sexuality. By the time I had an actual girlfriend, I’d already viewed literally thousands of posed, styled and airbrushed images. I’d developed personal tastes and preferences that really had no connection to objective reality. Perhaps it’s true that men respond to visual stimulus in ways that women do not, and perhaps the porn industry simply responds to the demand created by these tendencies. But regardless, the porn industry and, increasingly, the mainstream media encourage this trait in men to the extent that it’s totally unavoidable. No wonder so many women have body image issues.
My fear is that kids are profoundly affected by viewing erotic images. I know the images I viewed shaped my own perceptions and attitudes. It’s one thing when the images are idealized versions of female anatomy; but my feeling is that it’s a fundamentally different issue when it’s so easy for kids to access violent, repugnant, patently misogynistic images on countless websites. It seems so much easier now to access images in general, and it seems that there’s no limit to the level of degradation depicted in those images. I know for a fact that if I were eleven today, I’d be all over the Internet by any means necessary. As a parent I shudder.
February 8, 2010
I went in to get my driver’s license renewed. The woman behind the counter, a pleasant-looking woman in her mid-to-late 40s with long greying hair, engaged me in conversation. Here’s a sample.
DMV: So where’d you get that wedding ring from?
ME: Uh, I don’t know, it’s been nearly ten years; uh, I guess from a jewler friend in Indiana?
DMV: Yeah? Nice. You like being married?
ME: Sure, most of the time…
DMV: I had a guy in earlier today, married 13, maybe 16 years. One day he woke up, but his wife didn’t…nothing wrong with her either.
ME: Must’ve been something wrong with her…
DMV: Nope. Nothing. Perfect health.
January 9, 2010
I grew up in a house without any acknowledgement of religion. I didn’t even see the inside of a church until age ten when I went to the wedding of a girl who used to babysit my brother and me. The wedding took place in the First Methodist Church in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the stained glass windows looked with the light coming from outside. My father studied and taught the Old Testament, but he sure didn’t believe in it. My mother started going to church after my parents divorced, but she didn’t ever mention religion when they were married.
Although nobody ever told me that God watched and judged my actions, I still always felt that someone or something was watching. My parents framed the gatefold from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the one with the four mustached men standing shoulder to shoulder in their satin uniforms – which hung it at the foot of my crib beginning months after my birth. I grew up with that picture staring down at me, and it took me until age seven or so before I had any clue as to their identy. I felt that they were there to watch me; and judging from the looks on their faces, they remained passively amused by my every move. Their eyes seemed to follow me around the room.
In addition to the Beatles, I felt very strongly from a very young age that I had an audience somewhere, somehow. It wasn’t a sense of God per se – it felt more like a live television audience. I saw my life was an endless, mostly mind-numbingly boring sort of cinéma vérité. I often imagined a narrator’s voice inside my head describing the action. “Now the hero will commence to spoon sugar onto his Wheaties…not too much, but just enough to sweeten the milk…he is incredibly skilled at spooning sugar; observe that he rarely spills a single granule.” Everything I did inspired reverence and awe from the off-camera announcer.
My brother had a best friend in the neighborhood, a kid named Pete. He lived around the corner, but our backyards faced one another. Pete had an older brother named Tony, a serious kid with glasses. Pete’s parents enjoyed conventional things such as golf, recreational boating, and home decorating. My mother admired Pete’s parents, though I suspect my father considered them dull and conventional. Once they built a weird, sprawling concrete and glass addition onto their ranch house that consumed most of the back yard. For months during the construction they had this giant dirt pile that became our favorite place to play. I found several real Indian arrowheads that had been buried deep beneath the yard.
One time during the early fall when I was about seven, we went over to Pete’s parents’ house for dinner. Before dinner, the adults chatted over drinks in the living room as my brother and Pete talked animatedly in the basement about the Chicago Cubs. I wandered alone through the house, exploring. I wandered through various rooms, picking things up and putting them back to appear undisturbed. In Tony’s room, on his desk, I saw a neat stack of one dollar bills. Without thinking about it, I picked up the stack of bills and stuffed them in my pocket.
I nervously felt the bills in my pocket as I sat and ate dinner, wondering what I would buy. I thought I might buy a new G.I. Joe, or perhaps a real army helmet from the army surplus store. I felt slightly nervous, but I didn’t feel the least bit guilty.
Then on the way home it occurred to me that I would have to explain to my parents how I suddenly had all this money – six dollars as it turned out. I had an idea that I’d pretend to have somehow found the money in our basement. As soon as we arrived at the house, I went straight to a large walk-in closet in the basement that connected to the large bedroom that my brother and I shared. I waited a few seconds and then shouted, “Hey, mom, come look what I found.”
My mother, brother and father all came down the stairs and directly into the closet as I held up the stack of ones. “I was looking for something on the shelves over here, and I found this money. Can I keep it?” With hardly a second’s delay, my brother chimed in. “Hey, that’s my hiding place for money, and I hid that money there.” Of course I knew he was lying, both because I’d stolen the money, and because my brother would never have misplaced money. Back then he was the biggest tightwad in the world. I knew exactly where he his his money, and I knew he kept count down to the penny.
Our father looked us over with a furrowed brow, thinking it over. After a moment, he spoke. “Well, it seems there’s only one solution,” he said. “Since Jacob hid the money and John found it, they should each take three dollars.” My brother quickly agreed, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. I revised my thinking, calculating what I could buy at Air Way with only three dollars. Not much.
Then, almost immediately, the phone rang. My parents disappeared upstairs for several minutes and then returned with grave looks on their faces. “That was Tony’s parents,” my mother said. “It seems Tony’s lunch money for the week has gone missing, six dollars to be exact.” My stomach dropped. “John, do you have something to tell us?”
For my fittingly brutal punishment I had to walk back to Tony’s house by myself, knock on the door, and return the six dollars to Tony. When I rang the bell, crying buckets, all four members of the family came to the door. Tony’s father stepped solemnly out of the screen door and looked at me straight in the face, his bushy eyebrows raised expectantly. I handed him the money and stammered a few words of apology. I scanned their faces, and they all held the same solemn look. For weeks afterward I remembered the way they’d looked as I imagined what they must have been thinking. “Well,” they must have thought, “there’s a kid who’s already started going wrong…prison can’t be but a few rough years away.”
I didn’t do much stealing after that, save for a can of Binaca breath spray I shoplifted from the Osco Drug in fifth grade. I’d seen the ads and it just looked really awesome, and I couldn’t afford the five bucks. I ended up spraying it in my mouth once or twice. Other than that isolated incident, however, I didn’t ever want to experience the humiliation that I felt over having to return that money.
Clearly the episode tought me an important lesson, which I thankfully took to heart. It’s a little troubling to me, however, that I didn’t feel bad about stealing the money at the time. Sure, I was very young; but I don’t remember a lot of wrestling with the moral issue when deciding whether or not to steal the money and deciding how to conceal the crime.
So what if I’d gotten away with stealing Tony’s six bucks? Would I now be a hardened criminal? Would the guilt eventually have eaten away at me to the point where I’d have ratted myself out? Would I have gotten the G.I. Joe and carried on with my life just the same? I have no idea. What I do know is that somewhere along the line I developed a sense of morality on my own, and I suspect that stuff like my failed foray into petty theft helped in a way religion might have helped someone else arrive at the same place. With or without God as my co-pilot, I’ve picked up a thing or two here and there to the point where I feel okay about taking a crack at trying to instill a sense of right and wrong in my own kids. I don’t want to give my parents credit to the extent that I would suggest they actually knew what they were doing back then, but perhaps they did a thing or two right after all. I don’t remember much from my early childhood, but my memory of that walk and the images of the faces at the door as I returned the money stand in stark relief. I still shudder a little.
January 6, 2010
I don’t remember much of my life prior to 1976. I remember little isolated moments from a narrative I’ve managed to piece together. I’d spent my entire life to that point, my first nine years, on the same Indiana block around the same group of kids. My best friend Eric, red-haired and two months younger than me, lived across the street and three doors down. His dad built a tree house that we slept in most weekends during the summer. We walked seven blocks to school and went sledding on saucer sleds in the winter. At age five we rode our bikes to the grocery store a half-mile away. The old guy next door to me wore a jumpsuit to work in the yard and smoked a pipe that smelled like rotting apricots.
Then everything changed in 1976. After second grade in 1975, Eric moved away to upstate New York . I didn’t really know what to do without Eric; we’d spent every free moment together since age four. My parents fought every night for a long time, maybe a year or two. My brother and I didn’t sleep much as we listened from our beds in the basement. They managed to keep it together during the day, but at night it would all come out. We couldn’t make out our father’s hushed, steady words, but our mother ignored his pleas to keep it quiet. Occasionally we would peek through the door to the kitchen and try to hear all of the words. The air smelled of cigarettes.
One day in the late fall of 1975 our parents sat us down in the living room. Our mother smiled weakly as she sipped her coffee. My father spoke first. “I’ve…I’ve decided to get an apartment. I have some things going on, um, at work and, well, I…we think it’s best for now. You’ll still see me plenty, though.” I can’t remember what else was said. At eight years old I didn’t understand what was happening. I think they asked if we had any questions. We didn’t even know what to ask. I tried to imagine what the apartment would look like. I hoped at least it would mean an end to all the fighting.
My brother and I didn’t talk about it much, if at all. We never really spoke about the fighting or the troubling things going on in the house. Sometimes we would talk about things indirectly, such as acting things out by creating characters with our stuffed animals. The animals said what we had trouble voicing. My brother is two years older, but I don’t think he understood things any better than I did. Nothing was ever really explained, not until much later anyway.
The third-floor apartment was in a large, non-descript building near the university campus, where my father taught English. It was called Poolside Apartments, though the tiny pool never seemed to be fit for swimming. The apartment had two identical rooms, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchenette. In one room he set up a trundle bed, built some shelves for the stereo with stained wood boards and cinder blocks, and he set up a card table with folding chairs. For the other room – our room – he bought a new television (our first color set) and set up bunk beds. The apartment had greenish carpeting with several large spots, maybe piss stains from a prior tenant’s contraband pet. The windows looked out to the back of a decrepit party house that seemed deserted during the day but came alive hours after we went to bed.
During the year my father spent in the apartment, my brother and I stayed over practically every Saturday night. It doesn’t seem that my father wasn’t all that involved in our lives prior to moving in to the apartment, but during those weekend visits we had his full attention. That winter we developed a routine. We’d come over on Saturday to watch Indiana play basketball. That was the year they went undefeated; we didn’t miss a game. At night my father would cook a frozen pizza and we’d watch a show called Almost Anything Goes, a sort of proto-reality show where teams representing suburban towns would participate in wacky games. Then we’d get up on Sunday and my father would cook pancakes – humble beginnings for a man who would later become a world-class cook. Sometimes we’d go to the student union on campus and shoot pool, or we’d walk a few blocks up Hunter Street to the IGA for Twinkies or Gatorade. I loved those weekends.
Almost immediately following the separation both of my parents pursued new romantic interests. My brother and I began to understand that he really wasn’t coming back to the house. My father’s new girlfriend was a slim beauty in her early twenties named Nancy. The first time we met Nancy, I asked her to sit while I drew her portrait. She sat very patiently, and I did my best to make it look like a photograph. I didn’t know how to draw blonde hair so I made her a brunette. I wondered if she would be my stepmother, and if I would call her mom. I didn’t think that would ever feel right. After a few weeks my father didn’t talk about Nancy, and I didn’t ask. I saw her once a few years later. I said hi, but she quickly looked away.
Sometimes we’d to go to this pizza place a few blocks down the main drag from campus called Café Pizzeria or another place downtown called Rapp’s Pizza Train. Both places had juke boxes with lots of great rock music. I wished I knew the names of the bands. I know the names now: I heard Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin and Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix. I wasn’t even sure what instruments made the sounds I loved. One song I especially loved – Rock n’ Roll All Nite by Kiss. I knew some of the words, but I didn’t know the name of the band or the name of the song. I told my father that I wanted to buy a record, a “hard rock” record – like what we heard on the jukebox. I wanted that particular song, but I felt too embarrassed to say the few words I knew. He took me to a place called Schoolkids Records, the place he went to buy his jazz and blues records and everything by Dylan and the Band. I thought if I looked at every record cover in the place I would know which record to buy.
I chose the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record, because it had a picture of a cool guitar piercing a heart on the front cover, and the guy looked sort of tough. My father talked me out of buying it, however, and urged me to buy The Eagles Greatest Hits. He didn’t have to twist my arm, because he told me it was hard rock, and the front cover had a picture of some kind of skull. I thought it might be the right record. Anyway, I hoped it would be.
We brought the record back to the apartment and I eagerly placed it on the turntable. I felt let down when I heard the songs, though, because it sounded sort of like the country music my dad listened to on the radio. He apologized, explaining that he thought it would be harder rock. I didn’t like it much at first, but I listened to it all the time because it was my record – my first record, other than a couple Glenn Campbell records my parents gave me when I fell hard as a toddler for the Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour. Eventually I started to like the Eagles record more – particularly the song Witchy Woman, because it was sort of like hard rock and the lyrics seemed sort of creepy. Later that year a badass kid from my class named Jimmy brought Kiss Alive to school, so I knew what to buy the next time we went to School Kids. Sometimes Jimmy brought Skoal tobacco to school.
After the fall of 1976 my father moved to a rental house, and then later he bought a beautiful old limestone house three blocks from our mother. Our country celebrated its Bicentennial, and that’s all anyone wanted to talk about for weeks. My parents finalized their inevitable divorce, and things were shaky for a few years. My brother and I bounced back and forth between our parents’ houses in various experimental joint custody arrangements, and the fights continued. We had a well-intentioned Sunday family meeting with the four of us, which often degenerated into bickering or worse. My brother and I learned to sit and wait. Eventually everyone ended up okay, but we endured some tough times.
But during that one year things felt okay. For that short period of time my parents seemed happy to be moving on to the next phase. It didn’t feel like the end of our family; it felt like an adventure.