As I have said many times before, growing up in Batavia it wasn’t so much that we abused alcohol as alcohol abused us. It wasn’t always that way. In fact, until the summer of my Sophomore year at Notre Dame High School I had never had so much as a sniff of alcohol. Well there was New Years 1977 when my parents hosted the one and only New Year’s Eve Party of my life. The next morning while they were still sleeping off of their hangovers I crept into the kitchen and took out the bottle of Black Velvet from behind the bar. (Yes we had a bar in our kitchen. We were Catholic. It came with the statues of Mary)
Anyway, I remembered what fun the adults had been having the night before, and how happy they all seemed, so I thought I would give it a try. So I took a Dixie Cup from the dispenser above the sink and filled it up. Then I took a great big swig and fell onto the floor clutching my throat. As I lay there gasping for air with tears streaming from my eyes the Black Velvet seemed to burn a hole in my stomach. I thought about the Fire Safety guy that came to St. Joe’s every year to show us slides of burn patients, and remembered the pictures he showed us of the kids that ate Crystal Drano. After about fifteen minutes the pain began to subside and I decided that I did not have the constitution to become a 9 year old alcoholic.
Add to that experience that my friends and I spent our weekends playing Dungeons and Dragons and you can understand why it took me so long to start drinking. However, as the stories here can attest, I quickly made up for lost time. I can still remember the first time I ever drank a beer. And like all the wonderful and terrible things in my life it was because of a pretty girl.
She wasn’t just any pretty girl. She was THE pretty girl. The one that I had spent the better part of two years dreaming about and following through the halls of ND like a stalker. I would love to tell the whole story of this girl, but it would take months, and rival War & Peace in length. I am proud to say she is still my best friend and I will spare her that embarrassment for the time being. So for the purpose of this story I will just call her “Bella Ragazza” which is Italian for “pretty girl”.
I met Bella during my freshman year. I had seen her during classes those first few weeks and all I knew of her was that her name was Bella and she was from St. Mary’s. She was a petite little brunette with big brown Sicilian eyes, and I was smitten the moment I saw her. So when she said hello to me as I was walking into the Varsity Football game in Oakfield one Friday night, I almost fainted. I was amazed she even recognized me much less said hello. For my part I think I opened my mouth and mumbled something, but it’s entirely possible I just opened my mouth and stared at her.
Anyway, it was a long time before we became friends. I watched from afar as she dated upper classmen and bided my time. I sat next to her in every class I could and slowly learned how to form actual syllables and words in her presence. By the fall of sophomore year I was even able to hold short conversations with her. She lived on State Street and when I discovered that she walked to school down Richmond Ave. , I started walking to school as well trying to time my departures so that we’d run into each other on the way.
Yes, I moved kind of slow. By the spring of that year I finally mustered up courage to call her on the phone. So one Saturday when I was alone in the house I dialed the black rotary telephone with my sweaty hands, and asked to speak with her. Of course I had a detailed plan to ask some contrived question about Geometry homework lest she think I was stalking her or something. We talked for something like 15 minutes, and I doubt she thought much about it. But I lay on my bed the rest of that day staring at the ceiling and basking in the glory of the moment.
Then came the fateful night of the spring dance…
I had gone alone to the dance to hang out with all the other wallflowers, and watched as she arrived with her boyfriend and several of the popular girls from our class. It was a hot and sweaty April evening, and as the night went on I hoped that somehow, someway, I would find the courage to ask her to dance. Passing her in the hallway I tried to catch her eye to say hello, but she stared right past me, glassy eyed and looking ill. Five minutes later a crowd gather on the front steps of the school to watch as she threw up and various priests and chaperons fumed and fussed around her. It was quite the drama.
I had never been to a party at that point and still thought that drugs and alcohol were dangerous things that the good kids should stay away from, so I was scandalized. I walked home that night so angry that the girl I had spent so much time building a Marian shrine to could be so, so… human.
The next day I decided to call her up and tell her what I really thought of her and how angry I was that she could be so stupid. So with all the righteousness that I could muster I picked up the phone and dialed her number, but a funny thing happened. The person that answered the phone was not some salacious harpy, but a real live girl that was suffering unimaginable humiliation and pain. All I could do was ask how she was doing, and listen as she poured out her soul. We talked for over an hour and when we were done she was no longer some cold, marble Venus de Milo, perched high upon on a pedestal, but a living, breathing person whom I cared about very much. That was the beginning of our friendship.
For the remainder of the school year she was a pariah at ND. None of her friends would talk to her because she had cracked under interrogation by the Holy Inquisition and spilled the names of all the kids that were drinking that night. Her parents had grounded her for the entire months of May and June. Suddenly I was the only friend she had in the world.
Soon our phone calls became a daily occurrence. We would hang out together at school. Even though she was shunned by the cool kids, the geeks and wallflowers in my circle had no problem admitting her to the lunch table. When summer came I would ride my bike over to her house where we would sit on her front porch talking. By the time her sentence was commuted in July, we were even going out in public together. We would meet at the gates outside Dwyer Stadium, where my friend Chris took tickets, and stand there talking with him until the 7th inning. When he got off work the three of us would sit in the bleachers for the last few innings, then ride our bikes to Jerry Arena’s for pizza after the game.
I was in heaven. It was just like having a girlfriend, except for the fact that we didn’t kiss. Or hold hands. Or do anything even remotely romantic. In fact we were about as platonic as I was with my guy friends. I was one of those “nice guys”. Yeah I would have made a great gay friend except that I still wanted her. I still dreamed about her. I was just too chicken to do anything about it. A theme to be repeated over and over in the stories of my misspent youth.
Finally, one fateful evening as Summer was winding to a close, Chris and I stopped by to take her and her friend Janine to the movies. Janine didn’t have a ten speed so the two girls sat on the seats of our bikes and held onto our shoulders as we stood and pedaled. Janine rode on the back of Chris’ and Bella rode on the back of mine. I’m not sure how our plans changed but Chris knew of a “party” that some of his BHS soccer teammates were having in the woods out by North Street Extension. So we skipped the movie and rode our bikes down North Street to the empty grassy field that served as a sort of park. When we got there we found about 10 kids and a couple of cases of Old Milwaukee beer.
After Bella’s night of selling Buicks in front of ND, she had not had a beer. Lord knows Chris and I had never drunk one. But when they were offered we didn’t want to look like dorks so we accepted them, and tried our best to look cool. Not that it mattered it was pitch black out there in the woods. We sipped away on our warm Old Milwaukee and slowly began to feel our cheeks warm, and our senses tingle. I think I drank three whole cans that night and was amazed I was still standing.
When the beer was gone we pedaled Bella and Janine to Pontillo’s where they were supposed to call their parents to pick them up. Then, feeling like James Dean, Chris and I rode our ten speeds back up Ross Street to his house where we sat in the shadows on his front steps marveling at the new world that had opened around us.
There would be no more nights of rolling dice and playing kids games. A door had opened and we had walked through it. From that day forward everything we did was focused on our one and only purpose for living. That was finding girls and beer, preferably at the same time.
Now that I think about it, even 25 years later we still are focused on the same things.
Well, except for the part about the girls. Now it’s pretty much just the beer.
As for Bella and me, even though we live a thousand miles apart we are as close as ever. So as you read this post Bella all I can say is Happy Belated Birthday, and thanks for vomiting on the front steps of Notre Dame all those years ago. Who knew at the time that it would be the start of 27 years of a beautiful friendship? I’m hoping for at least another 27.