What time is it Mr. Fox?

The Fantastic Mr. Fox paid another visit to our yard last night. I know this because the Indomitable Moxie was beside herself with excitement this morning, running around in circles, sniffing his scent and barking into the darkness. The hound dog in her really shows itself whenever Mr. Fox happens by. She gets so excited, and looks up at me imploringly as if to say “C’mon boss, put on the red jacket, the black cap, and the riding pants and saddle up. It’s time to go on a fox hunt!”

It took awhile, but she finally calmed down before I left for work, and was burrowed under the comforter, dreaming dog dreams of foxes, squirrels and tasty bones. Driving in to work, under the low gray blanket of clouds, I have to say I envied her. It’s that kind of a morning here on the porch, overcast, damp, and perfect for sleeping. My boss has taken a day off, so despite the best of intentions, I know I won’t be worth a damn to anyone today. May as well sip coffee and day dream.

It’s been a fun week of posting. Story time is always fun for me, and I hope interesting for my readers. All three of you. I apologize if I get a little wordy. I read somewhere that the perfect blog length is 500 words. Any more and most ADHD people (which is all of us these days) lose interest and click away. I think the author who wrote that had some statistics to back up his assertion, but it was a long article and I lost interest half way through.

So folks, I apologize. I got nothing today. Just a deep doggie sigh, and another cuppa’ Joe. Peace.

Sorry is not enough

Eighth grade began with a surprise that no one in our class of 24 kids had ever expected. In the previous 7 years of elementary school all of our teachers had one thing in common. Whether they were ruler wielding, habit wearing, Sisters of Mercy, or bell bottom clad, VW driving, 60’s love children, they had all been women. So it was a great shock when we arrived at School that first day of class, and learned that our teacher for the year was a man. In fact, in all of my time in St. Joe’s, he was the first male teacher in the entire school. That should have been an portent that things were changing.

As classes go, we had been among the best behaved the school had seen. Sure we had our moments, but for the most part we were the meek and humble lot that you’d expect of a Catholic school. Not a hell raiser in the bunch. What trouble makers we had over the years, had left one by one, as if the chaff were being sifted from the wheat. So the poor faculty and staff at St. Joe’s had no idea of the chaos that was about to befall them. Neither did we.

In the 7th grade we had picked up two new boys from some of the outlying school districts in Genesee County. It wasn’t unusual for parents to pull their kids out of the public school, if academic or behavioral issues had become a problem and send them to us as if we were a reform school. The result was about what you’d expect when you place a shark among the fishes. It didn’t take long for the trouble to begin.

Ever since the 6th grade our hormones had been building like an active volcano, slowly taking charge of our self control, and waiting to erupt. In the lead up to 8th grade our teachers had been strict disciplinarians. Sister Josepha was a tough, eccentric, unstable old Nun that could go from kindly to maniacal at any minute. Sitting in her class was sitting on pins and needles, never sure what might set her off. In the 7th grade Mrs. Hoag was tough as nails. We found out immediately that she did not suffer fools, but she was fair and we respected that and for the most part we toed the line.

Mr. Crimando in contrast, was one of the nicest and meekest people I have ever met. He was sincere to a fault, and was in no way prepared for what awaited him. Like those volcanoes in Iceland, as soon as the glacial weight of strict discipline was removed, our class exploded with hormonal energy. It didn’t take long for things to get out of hand. Unfortunately for our hapless teacher, one of the trouble makers we had picked up the year before happened to be an old student of his from his days in the Alexander school district. Brent was a goofball, and an instigator, and not someone the class respected very much, but when he started telling us false stories about Mr. Crimando it was just too tempting to resist. Before long, chaos had descended on the eighth grade class at St. Joe’s.

We began to run wild like a pack of wolves. Class room disruptions increased, and Mr. Crimando couldn’t get through a lesson without a chorus of sniggering over some juvenile, sophomoric humor. After school, as we waited for our basketball practice to start, the eighth grade boys began roaming town looking for mischief. It was shockingly easy to find. It was 1981 and a video game arcade had opened on Center Street. We’d wander through downtown on our way there, pushing and shoving, and laughing hysterically at our 13 year old humor. After spending our quarters we’d wander back to school, hiding behind cars in the snowy parking lot at Mancuso’s, looking for a bumper to “pogey” on.

In case you aren’t familiar with “pogeying”, it involves hanging onto the back bumper of a car that is driving over snow and ice, and sliding along like a water skier. Of course, the trick is to get onto a bumper without being seen. This requires skill and cunning, not something in great supply among 13 year old boys. The result was usually a driver stopping and yelling, and us running through the back alleys behind the movie theater to escape.

When the streets and parking lots weren’t slippery enough for pogeying, we took the more direct approach of throwing snowballs at cars to court trouble. This always resulted in the adrenaline rush of the chase. Once, it was even the Police that chased us. I can remember lying under a car in the parking lot watching the squad car roll slowly by. Eventually, word of our antics got back to school and we got into some hot water with the principal. As mean, and nasty as Sister Eileen could get, we still were not deterred. So they brought in the big guns, Monsignor Schwartz, a man as formidable as General George S. Patton. I can remember him slapping one of the kids upside the head and knocking him out of his desk chair.

After that we flew straight for a while, and stopped our “wilding” around town for the rest of the winter, but poor Mr. Crimando was still tormented relentlessly on a daily basis. By spring, we began wandering the streets again, but this time in smaller numbers. One of our classmates lived on the south side, and used to walk home along Harvester Ave., past the century old hulk of the Johnson Harvester factory. The building was mostly vacant now, but some parts were being leased to different businesses. One of the renters was the local Frito Lay distributor. In his exploring, Jock had discovered that once a week the distributor would throw away his product that had passed its expiration date in a dumpster by the railroad track. So we began paying weekly visits to the Frito Lay distributor to see what we could find. Sometimes we ate the products. Doritos that are past expiration aren’t exactly a health hazard. More often than not, the food was used for food fights in the industrial wasteland on the south side of the building. This activity was colloquially known as “hitting the Lay”.

Mr. Crimando had surrendered by then, and seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As graduation approached, the administrators used every threat they could think of to get us under control. They cancelled our 8th grade field trip to Crystal Beach, an annual rite for the graduating class. Still we rebelled. They used the “you will not be allowed to graduate with the class” routine, but we were wise to that. As long as we maintained solidarity there was no way they’d refuse to graduate all of us and admit defeat. They threatened that this would go down on our permanent record, and if there is such a thing deep in the archives of the FBI, I am sure this whole sordid story can be found there. However, nothing short of physical intimidation by “Schwarzy” seemed to have an effect, and how many of us could he slap upside the head before some parent caught wind of it?

No, I am sorry to say, we were horrid little brats right up until the last days. Graduation came and went, and the parish and school administration let out an audible sigh of relief. We were someone else’s problem now. Mr. Crimando did not return the following year, but he did not disappear either. One of the rules of living in a small town is that there is nowhere to hide. His parents ran the waffle booth at the St. Joe’s Lawn fete every year, and as I helped my folks work the game booths, I would always see him. He was such a gracious man. He always asked me how school was going, and sincerely cared. I felt so horrible for the way we behaved.

One summer, years later, I had returned to town for the lawn fete, and was helping my parents in the ticket booths. They’d gotten out of the games booth, after their child labor force (my siblings and I) had grown up. I stopped by the waffle booth on my way across the parking lot, and said hello to Mr. Crimando. We talked for a while and I apologized for my behavior all those years before. He told me he felt he was partly to blame for the way things turned out, and admitted that he wasn’t a very happy person at the time. I felt as horrible as you might imagine, standing there, seeing him be so gracious about it all. He told me that in a way it had helped him realize that he did not want to teach elementary and middle school kids, and that his real passion had been to teach at the college level.

One of the other things about a small town is that even when you leave your Mom will keep you informed of the goings on of everyone you ever knew. I heard from her that he had received his PhD. and was now teaching history at a University in Rochester. She said he seemed happy, and whenever he saw her he would still ask how I was doing. I would like to say that the story ends there, with forgiveness and redemption, but it does not.

About 6 years ago, he was walking to his car after a faculty function one night in Rochester when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver. I can remember the hollow, sick feeling I had in my stomach when Mom told me. He deserved so much better out of life than what we gave him that year. All the sorry’s in the world can never make it right. I am sure he had long since forgiven, if not forgotten us. He was just that kind of compassionate soul.

I would like to close this story with some grand philosophical paragraph about life, but instead I’ll just end it the way his life ended, prematurely, and with words left unspoken. And I will pray that somewhere he’s received the respect and adulation that he so right deserves.

Lilac Time on Prospect Avenue

Photo from the Prokudin-Gorski collection at the Library of Congress

Spring has come early on the Front Porch this year. The Lilac bushes in the back yard are just about ready to bloom, and as I played catch with 20 Prospect Jr. last night the yard was fragrant with them. All over town the crab apple trees, and fruit trees have blossomed. This is almost a full month earlier than most years. In my experience there is no better mood elevator than the smell of lilacs at dusk, as the catbirds and cardinals are trilling in the dying light.

Growing up at 20 Prospect, the people in the house behind us on Ellicott Avenue had lilac bushes that leaned over the 8 foot chain link fence, into our yard. We used to cut the flowers from the low hanging branches and put them in a vase in the kitchen. My bedroom window faced the backyard, and on those first few warm nights when I slept with the window open the place smelled of lilacs.

I say that the bushes belonged to “the people behind us”, and not “our neighbors”, because we never actually knew the people who lived behind us. All along the length of Prospect Avenue there was an 8 foot high chain link fence, separating our backyards from the ones on Ellicott. Growing up this was just the way things were, but as I think back about other streets and avenues in Batavia this strikes me as odd. Why here, between these two streets, did the city erect an 8 foot high chain link fence? Was it to keep the undesirable peasants from Prospect from despoiling the yards of the elites?

The fence was a nuisance to us more than anything. It never stopped us from getting into their yards to retrieve foul balls, (We cut a hole with Dad’s NiMo grade cable cutters) and the fence never stopped us from exploring among their bushes, pools, and summer houses. (The summer houses were a few small brick enclosed patios left behind from the days of lemonade, parasols and gentlemen callers.) To the gang of dirty faced, Sears Tuffskin wearing kids from Prospect they were as fascinating as a Pharaoh’s tomb.

Our backyard - Note the prison grade security fence

When we went out to play, we always knew that every house on Prospect Avenue was “in bounds” for playing. It didn’t matter if kids lived there or not. Sometimes the best hiding places were in the wild, overgrown backyards of the old ladies. It’s funny to think about it now when people seem so uptight about property lines, and worried about serial killers waiting to abduct small children. I guess back then our parents figured there were enough eyes around to keep us from getting into too much trouble. In retrospect, I guess I would agree for whenever we started doing something we knew we weren’t supposed to adults would materialize onto a back porch, or out of a window to catch us. It may not have taken a village to raise a child, but it sure seemed to take half the old ladies on the street.

While we played up and down the length of Prospect, we all knew that Ellicott was “out of bounds”. There never seemed to be any kids on Ellicott, even though I know for a fact a few did live there. Those big backyards, for they were twice as deep as ours, were mostly just big vacant expenses of soft green grass begging for a game of baseball. We obliged on more than one summer afternoon, climbing the fence to play a few innings when we knew the owners were off to work.

Once upon a time there was a clear class divide between Ellicott and the surrounding streets, but by the 70’s the “Nouveau Riche” of Batavia had abandoned Ellicott and fled to the newer homes on Naramore Drive. Was the 8 ft chain link fence their legacy? The instinctual sense that their backyards were off limits was still present in our generation. Over the years I have come to know the answers to many obscure questions, but I am afraid I will go to my grave without knowing the answer to that one.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…

Vision Quest

Part 2…

School ended, and graduation came and went. My sister was married, and by July I had begun to forget Marianne, falling back into my childhood crush on Jeanie Clark at my sister’s wedding reception. The JV football season started in August, and before long I was swept up in the swirl of life at Notre Dame. Chris and Dan had gone on to BHS, and I was making new friends with the guys that I had played basketball against at St. Anthony’s, St. Mary’s and Holy Family, not to mention all those wonderful Sicilian and Polish girls that ND had to offer.

When football season ended, I joined the wrestling team, just as my Big Bruddah had done before me. After scoring 4 points in the entire season of 8th grade basketball, it was pretty clear that I would not being going out for the ND basketball team. Our wrestling coaches had gone to BHS, and before Christmas they brought us over to scrimmage with the BHS JV wrestling team.

I was a lanky 108 pound spider of a kid, and as we paired off with the BHS wrestling team I was introduced to the kid I would be scrimmaging. It was none other than my nemesis Sam who’d stolen Marianne away from me, and destroyed my chance at getting a kiss. My mind reeled as I sized him up, getting ready to face off against him. He was shorter than I was, but much more muscular, his curly black hair, and dark eyes menacing in a way I had never imagined. As much as I had fantasized about my rival in real life he was more imposing than I had imagined him to be.

He pinned me in the first period of our scrimmage match, and for the rest of the practice we wrestled each other, and went through drills together. My scrawny little string bean arms were no match against his sculpted biceps. I was humiliated, and beaten time and time again. He had no idea who I was, or that I had ever been in love with a girl that he had dated once. I’m not sure if that made it any better, or worse. I was nothing to him, just some weakling that he could toss around the mat.

We practiced with the BHS squad two more times in the run up to Christmas, and each time it was the same. I came to know my enemy better though, and found him even more foul and despicable in spirit, than he was formidable in wrestling. He boasted, bragged, and bullied his band of BHS toadies. He may have been the ring leader of his little band of Mafiosi, but he was as dumb as a box of rocks. How could Marianne have left me for a guy like that? Oh God how I feared and hated him.

Every year the High School in Warsaw hosted a Christmas tournament for the local JV wrestling teams. With more than one 108 pound wrestler on our JV team we held wrestle off’s for our dual meets, but at the JV tourney we were allowed to enter more than one kid in each weight class. This would be my first chance to wrestle in a real match. My stomach was in knots the whole week leading up to the tournament.

We drove down to Warsaw in a car pool the morning of the tournament. My folks were working and wouldn’t be able to make it. The only people that would see me wrestle would be my coaches and team mates, which was fine by me. I’ve never been big into public humiliation. I packed a lunch, but fully expected to be back home again by noon after losing in the first round. But a funny thing happened. To my great and everlasting surprise I won my first match.

Advancing to the second round I thought for sure I would come up against a more formidable foe. But when the whistle blew I found I was quicker, and was able to use my spidery frame to my advantage. I won on points, and by that point my coach was elated at my performance. One by one my team mates were eliminated, but I proceeded through the brackets, and made it into the semi finals. I would have to stick around into the afternoon after all.

Like storm clouds gathering in the distance, each move up the bracket brought me closer to the inevitable match up with Sam. Slowly and inexorably the dark clouds gathered until I saw him pin his opponent, and make it into the semi finals. The battle lines were drawn. We would meet now in the ring, once and for all, to reclaim the honor, and the hand of my fair maid Marianne. Or something like that…

My stomach was knotted so tight I could barely stand up straight. I was sick with nerves, but my coach kept talking me through it. “Keep it simple. Don’t worry. Stick with your best moves”, the pedestrian double leg takedown and the basic half nelson. When the whistle blew I could see the smirk on Sam’s dark face. He was laughing at me! The b@stard wasn’t even taking me seriously. We circled each other on the mat looking for our opportunity. Grabbing, and feinting, he tried to sucker me into a throw, but I kept on my toes, and used my long arms to keep him away from me. Finally, after 30 seconds of feeling each other out, I saw my opening, and dove in for a takedown. I caught him off guard, and as he kicked his feet back to try to sprawl out of my grasp, I slid out from under him and he dropped to the matt.

Holy krep! I had just scored a takedown on Sam. He was as stunned as I was, but it didn’t take him long to gather himself. He was all power, and no finesse. He strained his back upwards, and tried to power his way out of my grasp, but I hung on for dear life. He bucked, and flailed and I flopped around on his back like a rider on a bull, but still he couldn’t get free. The period ended and I was up 2-0.

I started on top for the second period, and expected more of the same. Sam was getting frustrated now, and was no longer smirking. His dark black eyes glowed like coals as he glared at me. I kept my face expressionless, caught my breath, and tried not to look him directly in the eye. The whistle blew, and the period began right where the last one had ended. The world outside was lost in a swirl of sound, and color. There was just me and my enemy, wrestling on the mat with all the strength we had, focused only on beating the other. I hacked at his arm to break him down, he pushed back and got up onto his feet. With one arm still around his waist holding onto his wrist, I did the only thing I could think of, and I slid my foot around in front of his leg, and let his own force pull him forward. He wasn’t expecting me to relax, and when I stopped pulling back he stumbled forward, over my leg and sprawled flat on his face. In a moment I was on him, and had slipped my arm up under his bicep and across the back of his neck. My pulse was pounding inside of my head, and in my confusion and delirium I looked up to see my coach crouching by the mat, demonstrating a half nelson, and talking me through it. I leaned forward onto Sam’s back, and began walking my legs up around his head like turning a corkscrew. He popped over onto his back, like a cork popping out of a bottle of wine.

The world spun around me as I lay across his chest, straining with all my might to hold onto him. The referee slid around the mat with his whistle in his mouth. His hand raised.

One!

My coach screamed, and my opponent grunted, straining even hard.

Two!

All of the sound in the gym disappeared into one long ringing note inside my head. I only had to hold on for one more count and it would be over…

There are times in life when the veil is pulled back from the world around you, and suddenly you see everything clearly as if for the first time. I had played sports since I was old enough to walk. Alone in my back yard I had dreamed of future glory on the football fields, baseball diamonds, hockey rink, and the wrestling mats of the world. Girls would flutter their eyes, and gasp at my exploits as I scored the winning touchdown, or hit a walk off homerun, and here I was, about to pin my bitter foe. Success and love and happiness were within my grasp, all I had to do was close my fingers around them, but somewhere deep within my soul I always knew that these dreams would remain just that. The day dreams of a kid in dungarees, tossing a ball to himself in the lilac dusk. Laying there on top of my nemesis, it seemed like the entire world was turning upside down.

It was.

Victory had become defeat. Glory had become humiliation. Later my coach talked me through what happened as he tried to console me on the side of the mat. In my rush to pin him, I had leaned my weight too far forward over my opponents head. As he struggled to free himself, I had pressed down even harder. Then he arched his back, and used every fiber of muscle in his compact little frame to lift his back off of the mat. As he did so, my weight rolled off of him, and onto my side. He kicked his legs up, and over, and suddenly, was on top of me, as I lay on my back, his arms now around my neck, pressing against my shoulders blades. There was nothing I could do. It was over in seconds.

We stood, and shook hands, and through the sweat and exhilaration on his face, I thought for one moment that I saw something resembling respect. He went on to take first in our weight class, and I went on to win the consolation match for third. As thrilled as I was with bringing home a trophy, all I could think about on the long ride back through the hills of Wyoming County, was what might have been.

The season would continue, but I wouldn’t wrestle Sam again. As the years went by he became just another face in the crowd of delinquents hanging out in the Pizza Hut parking lot. Marianne seemed to disappear entirely. Thinking back across the years I can’t ever recall crossing paths with her again, not even at the BHS dances that I used to attend. My wounds would heal eventually, and as my stories attest, I had far bigger heartbreaks to come, as well as far greater loves.

If you had told me that someday I would look back on the whole episode and smile, I would not have believed you. 28 years later though, I turn this memory of innocence over in my mind, the way a hand turns over a coin, marveling at the smoothness of it. It’s worth far more than the value stamped on it’s face.

A Boy’s Life

There comes a time in each boy’s life when girls cease to be an abstract concept, and become the living, breathing, human enigmas that they will remain for the rest of our days. In my life, that time was eighth grade. Oh, sure, I had noticed them long before that. In 5th grade there was the painful crush I had on Holly Miller, a petite, little brunette, with doe eyes that brought a lump to my throat every time she was within 10 feet. Despite there being only 24 kids in our class, I don’t think I ever actually spoke to the girl, and when her family moved to Cleveland at the start of 6th grade I lost whatever chance I had.

But 8th grade was a time of change. It was our last year at St. Joes, and we were finally the big kids. Our hormones were raging, and sitting still in class, and keeping our eyes off of the girls became nearly impossible. For their part something had changed as well. No longer did they scowl at us, or roll their eyes at our desperate attempts to get their attention. Disgust was replaced with a coy smile, and something deep inside our hearts leapt at the change.

It wasn’t long before something resembling flirtation began. Out of the blue one day a girl that I had gone to school with for 8 years, turned around in her chair and spoke to me. Whatever she said to me, was lost in the mists of time, and perhaps was no more profound than “can I borrow a pencil”, but it wasn’t what she said that was important. It was the way that she said it. Whether one believes in Darwin and the theory of evolution, or not, you cannot deny that there are times in our lives when instinct replaces reason, and our bodies react of their own accord. My response to her was immediate, and where 10 minutes earlier she hardly existed, now her presence, just inches away, was magnetic.

Her name was Marianne, and ever since she ate paste one day in kindergarten, her mere existence had been enough to turn my stomach. But that day in October when she turned around in her chair, flipped her Farrah Fawcett bangs back, and batted those brown eyes at me, suddenly paste began to sound downright tasty. And so, borrowing a pencil turned into small talk between class, and before long, I was receiving furtive notes on pink stationary when the teacher had turned his back.

Yes kids, in the days before cell phones, and text messaging, your Mom’s and Dad’s used to pass each other little slips of paper with messages of love scrawled upon them. Profound thoughts, crafted with the skill and wit of Shakespearian sonnets. Things like “This class is so boring!”, or “Tell Dan that Eileen said that Kim likes him.” OMG, LOL indeed.

I wasn’t the only one being drawn into this intriguing world of coeducational communication. All over Mr. Crimando’s 8th grade classroom little slips of paper were making the rounds, with a sense of clandestine urgency not seen since the days of the French resistance.

Marianne and I had hit it off immediately. That is if you can call taking 8 years to acknowledge each other’s existence “immediate”. I discovered for the first time in my life that the written word was my true medium. With pen in hand my thoughts didn’t stammer out in quivering uncertainty, they flowed forth with poetic grace. By that point it was only a matter of time until the little pink stationary could no longer contain the depth and breadth of our interest in each other. If our relationship was going to continue to blossom we were going to have to take it to the next level. And so one Friday evening before Christmas, I pulled out our dog eared copy of the Batavia phone book, and looked up her number. With sweaty hands, and palpitating heart, I sat in the upstairs hallway holding the hand piece of the black rotary dial phone, my heart rate increasing with each successive ring. After an eternity her Mother answered, and seconds later Marianne’s deep, velvety voice was whispering in my ear. I don’t think I had ever felt so alive in my life. Well, not since the first time I saw Star Wars anyway.

Our conversation lasted a mere 20 minutes, but a connection had been established, and a new channel opened. From that evening onward my Friday nights no longer revolved around watching “The Dukes of Hazzard”. As cupid would have it my best friend Chris had also begun to establish a connection with Marianne’s best friend Eileen, and our weekly phone calls turned into telephone double dates. Each Friday Chris would stay over at my house, and Eileen would stay over at Marianne’s, and while my parents were off working Bingo at Notre Dame, Chris and I would call them up.

It was 1982 and there was so much to discuss. Cable TV had just arrived on Prospect Avenue, and our lives had finally been wired into the great flowering of youth culture that was occurring on TV sets all over America. Yes, we wanted our MTV. Pat Benetar, J. Geils, Kim Carnes, Madness, and Dexys Midnight Runners, had found their way to Batavia New York. No small feat considering that the only radio stations in Western New York were either playing Classic Rawk, or Commodity Farm reports.

Video games had also appeared over night, and weekday afternoons, in the hour between when school ended and basketball practice began, me and my team mates would wander over to the Video Arcade on Center Street, and drop our quarters on Galazga, Tempest, Asteroids, and Defender. Being a man of discerning taste, I preferred Vanguard.

Life at 20 Prospect was buzzing that winter. After living alone with my parents for the previous two years as my siblings were off on their own, excitement and life had returned to 20 Prospect. My “bratty” Big Sis had graduated from Paul Smith’s College the previous spring, and was back living in Batavia with her fiancé. Mom and Dad had decided that it was time to update the inside of the house in advance of the coming wedding, and had begun stripping the wallpaper off of the walls. As we soon learned there was little else holding the plaster on the wall than the 24 coats of old wall paper dating back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration. So as the wall paper came off in my bedroom, so did the plaster, leaving big holes of lathing showing through. We began referring to it as “the Ghetto”.

Something else had changed too. Despite being my source of torment for most of my natural born life, suddenly my Bratty big sister had changed. Maybe it was her engagement, or maybe it was the fact I was now as tall as she was, but she was suddenly fun to be around. When Dad was busy hanging wall paper, and patching holes in the walls, we sat in the living room with her fiancé playing the Magnavox Odyssey2 that I got for Christmas.

There was one other great thing about my suddenly cool big sister that would have a huge effect on my life that year. Since returning from college she had volunteered to coach the St. Joe’s Cheerleading Squad. I basked in the long shadow of her coolness in the eyes of the 8th grade girls. As winter wore on to its slushy end, our parochial basketball season came to a close, and my sister planned to host a party for the cheerleaders at 20 Prospect. For the first time in my life, I had finally realized a benefit to having an older sister.

Our hero at 13

Not only would Marianne and Eileen be there, but the entire 8th grade cheerleading team. Naturally, I made sure that my best friends Chris and Dan were also in attendance on the evening of the party. Don’t ever let it be said I didn’t take care of my friends. It was an epic night. After 8 years of seeing these girls daily in their plaid skirts, and jumpers and peter pan blouses, there was something slightly illicit about seeing them in Jordache jeans and fuzzy sweaters. Video games were played, records were listened too, and many 2 liter bottles of Coke and Dr. Pepper were emptied. In a photo album on a shelf in my laundry room, I still have a picture of all 13 of us piled onto the couch in the front living room for a group photo.

With winter ending, and basketball season over, I began to look ahead and ponder where our relationship was heading. In the fall I would be heading to Notre Dame, while Marianne would be going to BHS. Surely, we’d be splitting up by then, but there was still one milestone left to accomplish before we graduated from St. Joe’s and went our separate ways. We had never actually been on a “date”. So with great planning, and nervousness, Chris and I arranged to take Marianne and Eileen to the movies on Saturday afternoon.

It really didn’t matter what the movie was, but for the record it was “Taps”. A morbid film about a bunch of boys in a military school, that end up dying for some tragic cause which totally escapes me at the moment. In any case, being just 13, and it still being cold, rainy and miserable outside, we arranged to meet the girls at Mancuso’s theater. Dressed in our best jeans and polo shirts, and smelling like English Leather and Brut, we waited outside of the theater for them to arrive. When they did, we bought our tickets and went inside, but I could sense immediately that something wasn’t right. Unlike our lively and droll conversations on the phone Marianne and Eileen hardly said more than one or two words to us.

When the movie was over, we had planned to take them down the street to Pontillo’s for that classic Batavia first date experience. However, after a brief trip to the “ladies” room, they informed us that they had to get going, and used the pay phone to call Marianne’s folks to come pick them up.

I was heartsick, and panicked. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. We were supposed to stroll down East Main, in full view of the entire town, and sit in one of those red vinyl booths at Pontillo’s eating pizza, and enjoying sparkling, witty banter. Then as the night ended, we’d stand on the front steps in the glow of the Pizzeria lights and get a kiss goodbye. A kiss! A kiss! What about a kiss?

Standing out front under the marquee waiting, the girls hardly paid any attention to us. When the car pulled up along the curb, they ran out to meet it shouting goodbye over their shoulders. There would be no kiss that night, nor any other night. That kiss would take another 3 years to arrive and when it did it wouldn’t be with Marianne.

It only took a few days of note passing in class to discover that Marianne was seeing someone else. The news stabbed through me with a pain I had never experienced before, but would eventually become all too familiar with. She had met a guy from the public school. A Sicilian kid named Sam from the south side, who was one of the inmates at the Batavia Junior High Correctional facility. I didn’t have a clue what he looked like, but I could imagine him well enough. Dark brooding good looks, an aura of danger hanging around him. How could I compete with that? What girl would pass on a bad boy for a nice nerd like me?

I spent the rest of the school year wallowing in my grief and self pity. Laying in the dark of my bedroom, with Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits playing over and over as I pined away for her. Suddenly I understood what loneliness was. I wondered about this mysterious thug named Sam that had stolen my girl away from me. I wondered how I would compare against him in some medieval battle for the hand of my fair maid Marianne. I didn’t need to wonder very long.

(to be continued…)

What a difference a week makes

I woke this morning at 4 am to the sound of birds, so thrilled to greet the new day that they could no longer contain their joy. By 6 am, neither could the Indomitable Moxie, who has been on high alert ever since the Fox paid a midnight visit to her domain two nights ago. After a brief patrol of the perimeter, she was content to crawl beneath the comforter and go back to sleep. Me on the other hand, decided to give up on sleep and start getting ready for the airport. My mood could not have been more different than it was last week. Choosing to travel instead of having to travel can make all the difference in the world.

Today was the great public transportation experiment. Mrs. 20 Prospect dropped me at the brand new train station in Fridley. I had planned to ride the “Northstar” Commuter Train (or Heavy Rail as I like to call it) to the Target Field station, and transfer to the “Light Rail” train for the ride out to the airport. Standing on the platform in the morning chill, the world smelled like God had just broken the seal. After 15 years of talking, and planning, and political wrangling, it’s hard to believe that the trains are finally running. Despite our self perception as free spending liberals, Minnesotans are pretty slow to open the wallet. I see that as one of our endearing quirks.

Traveling with nothing but a backpack for a carryon is exhilarating, and a bit anxiety inducing. And just like skinny dipping, I feel like I was breaking standards of common decency, if not the law. It brings back fond memories of my mis-spent young adulthood, kicking around from power plant to power plant, sometimes with no more than a backpack. Time and technology changes, but things remain remarkably the same. Now it’s an iPod instead of a Walkman, a Smartphone instead of a calling card, a laptop instead of a… laptop. OK, it has only been about 20 years, things are that different, but I like to think that I am.
Back then each city was a new adventure. Now they are like rosary beads, their mysteries rubbed smooth from years of repetition. Denver, Detroit, Chicago, Hartford, Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, Brussels, Hong Kong, each one slowly blending together in places where once they stood out.

The only true constant has been myself. Those first few years on my own, I was alone with my thoughts almost constantly. Slipping quietly along in the flow of travelers, reading faces and places, and reveling in my anonymity. I could lose myself in daydreams, become a character from a novel, no one would ever know the difference. But now, 20 years later, there is no escaping from who I am, and what I have become. At age 22 this felt like prison cell, but at 42 it now it feels like cozy chair in front of the fireplace.

Locked inside of this head, I wonder how much I have really changed, and how much remains the same. 41 years is a whole lot of living, and I don’t have any plans to stop now. Some experiences change you, some pass through you like a ghost. Overtime, your worldview and opinions begin to calcify, and form a bedrock upon which the future you will be built. We give little thought to the building process, but surely, stone is laid upon stone, and slowly the building rises.

Picking Dandelions in the Outfield

Another fine spring evening at the ball field watching 20 Prospect Jr. and his new team mates practice. The boys are having their first scrimmage tonight, which is proving interesting. They’re third graders this year and in the Minor League, which is the first year of kid pitch in Fridley. Last year they got to hit off of a pitching machine, which always puts the ball in the strike zone. It will be interesting to see how the kids handle standing in the batter’s box after they get plunked for the first time. Right now they just kind of watch passively as the ball bounces five feet in front of the plate, or sails over their head. I wonder how long it takes before they figure out how to hit the deck.

I started playing Little League, and Pop Warner football in the 2nd grade. In Batavia, unless they did really well at tryouts, 2nd and 3rd graders played in the minor league over at MacArthur Park. Most likely they still do. William Morgan would have been mortified to know that I played for the Masonic Lodge Stars. Yes, we were indoctrinated into their dark, nefarious rites at an early age. You’d think being a good Catholic boy they’d have put me on a team sponsored by the Jesuits or Opus Dei. Perhaps the Nuns pulled some strings to have me planted among the masons as a double agent. In any case, I was issued my red t-shirt, and red wool cap with a white S on the front. That some Wrangler Jeans, a pair of Keds, and a Wilson Paul Blair model glove were all I needed. No spikes, baseball pants, stirrups, or batting gloves were required to play little league. No parent took their kids to a hitting coach at an indoor batting cage to prepare them for the season. It was a simpler time.

#4 - The coolest bike I ever had

I would ride my Huffy Thunder Road the four blocks to practice with my glove hanging on the handlebars, and a bat over my shoulder. Our practices were over in Austin Park, right behind the post office & city hall. Back in 77-78 they did not have a backstop or a ball field at Austin Park, just some dirt spots worn into the grass where the bases and pitcher’s mound were. We improvised a backstop for practice by parking our bikes in a semicircle behind home plate, so that wayward pitches would hit a few spokes before they rolled out into the street. And Lord, were there wayward pitches. Thinking back to my two years playing for the dastardly Masons, about all I remember was getting beaned by pitches. I think I got to first more times that way than by hitting the ball. In one memorable practice, my coach even beaned me in the helmet twice. Perhaps he knew I was Catholic.

Games were even less fun than practice. Back then they kept score, and there were actually winners and losers. No trophies for being a participant. Positions were determined by the coach, so if you stunk, you played outfield. No exceptions. I spent my first year picking dandelions in right field. By year 2 I had moved to shortstop, so I must have showed some signs of improvement. Still, I split time at shortstop with another kid, so half of the game I was on the bench. In 3 innings of baseball, I could realistically count on 1-2 at bats, which was fine by me. Any more shots to the head and I would have had permanent brain damage.

I only played baseball for two years, before I gave it up. Mom gave me a hard time about it, wondering what I was going to do with myself all summer, but I don’t recall ever having a problem finding something to do. Besides, compared to wiffle ball in the backyard, organized baseball was a bore. By 6th grade Batavia got its first youth soccer league, the Genesee Amateur Soccer Association. So I came out of retirement to play co-ed soccer with all the other uncoordinated kids, and a star was born. Well, a Falleti Motors “Striker” anyway. I led the team in scoring my first year, and made the all star team. We got to go play a tournament game inside of the Aud in Buffalo, but that is a story for another time.

It’s funny, but I don’t ever recall my parents driving me to baseball or soccer practices, or hanging around to watch us practice. No, we were left alone with whatever shady adult had volunteered to coach youth sports. Baseball wasn’t a problem as it was usually someone’s Dad. Soccer on the other hand was coached by the hippy subversive types that you’d expect to coach a sissy sport like soccer in the late 70’s. Long haired, dope smokers for the most part, which put them right in the median for Batavia youth at the time.

Times were different then. Even at the age of 10 we were given a lot of freedom, that I would never consider giving to Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect or 20 P. Jr. Back then, all kids were free range kids. Oddly enough, despite the hippy freaks that abounded, spray painting LOVE and what not in the center of Oak Street, we all seemed to survive. I think Lenore is on to something. Although as I say that, I am watching 20 P. Jr. taking his hacks at the ball, waiting for practice to end so I can drive him home.

As a parent in a big city, I’m really torn. I don’t want my kids to grow up completely sheltered and be unable to cope when they finally get too old to keep locked in the basement. I want them to know the innocence, and freedom of being able to run around the neighborhood without a care. And yet, it’s a big city. Two folks were shot a block away from where we sat having a donut on Saturday morning. So I would be irresponsible if I were to let them run like I ran when I was there age. There’s a big difference between an inner ring suburb in a metro area of 3 million people, and a po-dunk town of 15,000 people. I am glad to have been blessed to grow up in the time and place that I did. I don’t take one second of it for granted. I hope someday my kids can say the same.