Dead End

It says a lot about me that the local cemeteries are my favorite place in Batavia. As a kid I spent many summer days, alone, riding my bike over to the cemeteries, and the industrial ruins that sit like a wedge dividing our town into a North & South side. I don’t know why, but it has always drawn me to it. I’d walk the rows of headstones, and read the names and dates, and wonder about the history and the lives that went before. The three cemeteries on Harvester Avenue, are among the most sylvan, and shady spots in town, and I have always felt at peace there. Maudlin children, and Gothic kids everywhere can sympathize, but sometimes life was easier among the dead, than it was among the living.

This past Sunday, I drove over to the cemetery to pay a visit to Dad’s grave, and ended up wandering those shady lanes for an hour, alone, looking for something that I felt like I lost once. It was still there. The emptiness, the peace, the silence.

When I started this blog in 2009, I felt like I had so much to say, and so many stories to share. Now, in the summer of my 44th year, I find myself returning again, and again, to the same places, only to find that the words I have already written about them, sum them up so well I have little left to say.

So I’m saying goodbye. Again.

I’ll still be working to publish the book of historical fiction based upon the E.N. Rowell murder from 1883, and once that is complete, I will most likely move onto compiling the stories, fragments, and memories that I have written here, into some sort of cohesive whole that I also hope to publish. Thank you for all the time you’ve spent reading 20 Prospect, and stopping by the front porch to chat. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

So I leave these words like footprints, pressed into cement, and recorded for posterity. May they someday inspire another introverted child to pick up a pen, and go exploring.

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On the Maid of the Mist

There is no better way to experience Niagara Falls than from the deck of the Maid of the Mist.

Well, maybe a barrel, but your chances are better on the boat.

It was 90 degrees in the shade, and getting pummeled with the effluent of Lake Erie felt wonderful. Finished the afternoon with footlong charbroiled hot dogs and curly fries at Louies in Tonawanda, then spent the evening on Big Bruddah’s back porch sipping a beer as the streetlights came on.

 

Walkers & Bussers

Every kid in Mrs. Schroeder’s 2nd Grade Class room was either a busser or a walker. My first two years at St. Joe’s I had ridden the bus home from school every day. But upon reaching 2nd grade, according to the calculus of the Batavia School District, I was now too old to warrant a government subsidized ride over the mile and a half to Prospect Avenue. As Mrs. Schroeder liked to remind us, 2nd grade was the “age of reason”, the age at which children like ourselves could make decisions for themselves, and suffer the consequences. It was the age at which we could choose sin, and as such it was the age at which we made our first penance, and our first communion. These were big responsibilities that were being laid upon our slight little shoulders, but we could do little to protest.

2nd grade was also my first year alone in St. Joe’s. My closest sibling, and constant tormentor, my Bratty Big Sister, had graduated from 8th grade the previous spring, and was now attending Notre Dame High School, with The Middle Child, and my Big Bruddah. This meant several things as I prepared for that first day of school. While Mom would drop me off in the morning on her way to work in the Industrial Center I would need to find my way home alone that afternoon. Granny was living with us by then, sleeping on a roll out bed in our front living room, and would be watching Days of our Lives and Another World waiting for me when I got home.

While Mrs. Schroeder may have been convinced that we were old enough to handle such challenges, I knew better. It was 1975, and I was a painfully shy, mop haired little freak of a kid that was still learning to tie his own shoes. Up until the end of 1st grade, Mom had humored me by buying dress shoes with buckles for me to wear to school. Granted, it was the mid 70’s, but I’m sure I still stood out like some little pilgrim hippy, as I walked the halls of St. Joe’s in my white shirt, blue Dickies, and blue clip on tie with SJS embroidered on the front, peering out from under the bangs I combed straight forward over my forehead in a futile attempt to hide from the world.

Mom had coached me on the specific route I was to take on my way home. I was to take a circuitous path, up Summit Avenue to North Street, then west, past Platten’s North Side Grocery, up the State Street hill to the Blind School, where North turned into Richmond Avenue. Then on through Centennial Park, past the Rowell Mansion, finally turning left down Prospect Avenue to our home tucked snugly at the bottom of two hills. By taking this route I would avoid the “rough” section of Washington Avenue, near State Street, where the great urban renewal was still in the process of tearing down old homes and replacing them with vast grassy tracks of land. It was a much longer walk this way, but she was convinced that a trip down Washington would result in either kidnapping, or a tragic death. I needed little convincing of the danger.

I was not the only kid in Mrs. Schroeder’s class that was making the change from busser to walker. My friend Jimmy was also being kicked out of Eden. He lived on Bank Street, across the field behind the Hospital, and his route home would also take him up Summit Street to the corner of North. Despite my fear, I was convinced if we stuck together we might at least make it to parking lot of Genesee Memorial Hospital before tragedy befell us.

When school ended the walkers would retrieve their coats and bags from the cubbies in the back of the classroom, and line up by the door for dismissal. The 2nd grade classroom was on the 2nd floor of the building, our first year upstairs with the big kids. When the bell rang we would process downstairs by grade in two orderly lines, across the parking lot, taking care to walk between the rock wal, and the double yellow lines that had been painted to separate us from the cars in the parking lot. Surly sixth graders with orange belts and gold sheriff badges signifying their authority, would see to it that we stayed in line and did not break ranks prematurely. When we reached the end of the chain link fence and the sidewalk on Summit we would be released to our freedom.

After two years of cowering under the seats in the school bus, hiding from public school heathens, and St. Anthony greasers, I discovered to my surprise that being a walker wasn’t so bad after all. That first breath of freedom on the sidewalk was always a joyous release. We would throw our book bags in the air, and hoot and scream, and begin running about like wild dogs. The walkers were usually divided between the kids like us whose parents worked, and those that had stay at home Mom’s that would come and pick them up. Some kids turned left into the parking lot to their Mother’s car, but Jimmy and I, and most of the others, turned right up Summit Avenue. Kids from Kindergarten to 8th grade would pair off into groups for their walk home. Lines would form to walk along the concrete retaining wall by the house on the corner. If the crossing guard lady that ruled the corner of Washington and Summit caught you walking on the wall, she was always quick to scold you. She had a little uniform that she wore, which gave her an air of authority normally reserved for Cops and Nuns.

The corner of Washington and Summit was the most dangerous part of our walk home. Not because of any traffic concerns, but because it was the point at which our paths would cross with the kids from the Junior High School on Ross Street. It was a well known fact that the kids attending the Batavia Junior High school were second only to the inmates of Attica State Prison in terms of cold bloodedness. Woe be unto any poor parochial school kid caught alone on that corner by a roving pack of juvenile delinquents from the Junior High. Rumor had it that one third grader had been found the year before swinging from a tree by his monogrammed SJS tie, his face the same color of blue as his uniform pants. Our school let out 15 minutes before the Junior High, so it was standard practice to walk double time to the corner, to cross Washington to the relative safety of Summit Ave. Like foxes being released before the hounds, fifteen minutes gave us a sporting chance of getting home alive.

Jimmy and I were not the only walkers in 2nd grade that turned up Summit Avenue. There were other kids from families that lived in the neighborhood’s off of Ross Street and had been walking since Kindergarten. One of these kids, our classmate Chris, had fallen into walking home on Summit with his sister, and the Welch girls. The Welch’s lived on Ross Street, and had 15 girls in their family, one for every grade in the Catholic School system. Notre Dame High School would experience a 15 year run of volleyball championships on the strength of the Welch gene pool. Despite their athletic prowess, in the eyes of Jimmy and I, a girl was a girl, and walking home from school with one was like putting on a dress and skipping rope. It only took a few days before Jimmy and I began walking behind Chris and the Welch girls, and singing in a high mocking tone “Christopher Robin likes to play with girls”. To his credit Chris followed the catechetical teachings of the Nun’s and Priest, and turned the other cheek. At least he did for a week or two until he’d had enough, and turned around and hit Jimmy upside the head with his book bag, knocking him down, and shutting us both up. From that point on, Chris came over to our side, and joined us in following the Welch girls home taunting and teasing them, and pelting them with snowballs when winter arrived. This continued for a few months until right before spring one of the Welch girls picked him up and planted him head first in a snow bank. From that point on, Pax Romana reigned the length of Summit Avenue.

One day in Spring, as it was time for us to line up to be released, Mrs. Schroeder called me up to her desk and asked me to stay behind after school. I had never before been held back for anything, and the look of shock registered on my face. I was struggling to learn cursive at the time, being a slightly dyslexic / ambidextrous kid, and I was having trouble completing my assignments on time. Mrs. Schroeder informed me that I had to return to my seat and finish the assignment that I had been unable to complete earlier that day. I was crushed and humiliated. Returning to my seat, I retrieved the giant blue pencil from inside my desk and began copying over the assignment one painful cursive letter at a time, as the walkers lined up to go home. They eyed me with the pity usually reserved for death row inmates. Soon, even the bussers had dispersed as their buses were announced one by one until finally, there was only me and Mrs. Schroeder left in the room. She sat at her desk correcting papers, while I toiled away with my pencil, nervously eying the clock, hot salty tears burning down my cheeks in streams. When 3:15 came and went, I couldn’t hold it any longer and began sobbing uncontrollably. Mrs. Schroeder approached and asked me why I was crying. In between sobs I gasped for air, and tried to explain that if I left for home now she would be condemning me to certain death at the hands of the Junior High heathens. I don’t think she could understand a word of it. Eventually my convulsions subsided, and she told me to pull myself together, and go home.

I left the school building shaking in terror. By the time I reached the corner of Washington and Summit, even the crossing lady was gone. Had they got to her too? My eyes darted around as I stood there frozen, waiting for the light to change. Looking across the street I could see a group of kids emerging from Quarterly’s corner store. Mr. Quarterly must have pulled his shotgun on them, and forced them out at gun point. I looked back up to the light, praying for it to change. When the electrical box on the telephone pole buzzed, and clicked, and the light changed from green to red, I sprinted across the street, and started running. Down the length of Summit I ran, looking back over my shoulder, expecting at any moment to be taken down with a shot from a snub nosed .38, or a stabbing pain from a switch blade. I was out of breath by the time I reached North Street, and collapsed with my back against a maple tree, panting for air. Looking back down the sidewalk, I couldn’t see a soul. I had gotten away. Turning quickly up North Street, I began running from tree trunk to tree trunk, like a soldier in a war movie. Within a half hour I had managed to reach Centennial Park. There was nothing between me and home now, but the vast empty expense of grass and maple trees. Maybe I would make it after all. Crossing Ellicott Avenue, by the haunted mansion, my heart leaped for joy. I was on the same block as home. Nothing could stop me now. I knew every back yard, and porch, and lilac bush between Ellicott and Prospect from my years of playing war, and hide ‘n seek, and kick the can with the neighborhood kids. I had survived. I ran the rest of the way, saying a quick Hail Mary to the Virgin Mother for to thank her for her protection. Coming in the back door at 20 Prospect I expected to find my Mother sobbing tears of joy for my arrival. But it was oddly, eerily quiet. Granny sat in the rocking chair in the living room, crocheting doilies, and watching her soaps, her tube of Oxygen trailing into the front room. The clock chimed 4 o’clock, and she asked what had taken me so long. Slumping onto the couch in total exhaustion, I shrugged and said “Nothing Granny. Just walked slow today I guess”.

How could I begin to tell her of my close call with death? Surely, if she knew the truth I would never be allowed to walk home from school again. Grown ups just didn’t understand. No, some things were best left unspoken.

There she sits buddy, just a-gleeming in the sun…

Growing up I used to listen to Kasey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown. Not out of love for Top 40 music, but out of boredom, and pure desire to be current. Each week Kasey would read a letter from a listener, who wrote in to make a long distance dedication. These were always heart wrenching letters, along the lines of…

Dear Kasey,

I’m writing to ask for a long distance dedication to my brother Earl. I haven’t seen him since we were both 8 years old. You see Kasey, we were Siamese twins, and it wasn’t until we were four that Mom was able to raise enough money to pay for the operation to have us separated. Little did we know that it would be both the best and worst moment in our lives. Mom loved us dearly, and wanted us to have a normal life like all the other children at the playground. She spent 4 years traveling, and working to raise enough money to give us that operation. If only we knew the problems it would cause in our family life. You see Kasey, my Mom took us to have that operation without my Dad’s permission. He was furious when he found out. Once Earl and I were no longer Siamese Twins, we were dropped from the traveling freak show. What followed was 4 long years of living in bus stations, scraping up gum from the floor and selling it on the street. Those were hard years Kasey, because people don’t like to buy used gum from homeless children on the street. Yes, it’s true. I am sorry to say that Mom & Dad split up. Mom kept me, and Dad took Earl. I am now 25 years old, and have a family of my own. I haven’t seen Earl or Dad since that fateful day. I want more than anything to find Earl, and bring him back into our lives. Ever since he left, I truly have been half a person. So Kasey, I would love if you could play my song and dedicate it to Earl wherever he is.

Sincerely,

Split in half in Oklahoma

Then, wiping tears from his eyes, Kasey would say… “Well Earl, wherever you are, this week’s long distance dedication goes out to you. Here’s Bruce Springsteen’s, Pink Cadillac”…

So consider this post my long distance dedication to my long lost Siamese Twin Earl. Without further ado, here’s another post about a car!

Not just any car. My first car. Well, if you discount the fact that my parents owned it and paid the insurance on it, listing me only as an occasional driver. (My Mother’s halo used to mysteriously disappear when it was time to pay the car insurance bills) This was no ordinary car. As I have mentioned before, it rivaled the U.S.S. Chester A. Nimitz in size and weight. There was so much steel in that baby that it had it’s own gravitational field.

Behold the 1972 Dodge Coronet!

The Tank

We lovingly referred to it as the Tank. Dad bought it off some guy who lived out on the Batavia-Byron Rd. The body was in terrific shape, and it ran great. With the exception of a faulty water pump that limited the car’s range to about 10 miles before it would overheat. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I have a sneaky suspicion that this was the feature that sold Dad on the car. A 10 miles radius wasn’t far enough for me to get into any serious trouble.

Luckily, it was far enough that I could make it to just about every dead end dirt road party spot in Genesee County. So other than that devastatingly fateful night at “the Top of the World”, it worked fine for my purposes. It’s ocean liner like steering, and Saturn V rocket-like throttle response took a little getting used to, but I figured it out. You just had to hold your foot down to the floor, and shake the wheel back and forth from 10 to 2 o’clock to keep it out of the ditch.

Aside from freedom from having to borrow the family minivan the Tank came with a back seat the size of a Queen size bed. No sitting in the GCC parking lot on a winter night, steaming up the windows in a Ford Escort with a stick shift sticking in your backside. (Unless of course you were into that sort of thing). No Ma’am, a night out with me in the Tank promised luxurious accommodations.

I also like to think that this was the thing that sold Dad on the car. (Looks up to heaven, flashes a thumbs up sign) Thanks Dad!

Looking back on those nights out in the country with a sweet smelling girl, umm… “studying astronomy” through the back window, all I can do is smile. At least until a right hook from Mrs. 20 Prospect wipes that misty look off my face. (Her right hook really is her best punch). It seemed so dangerous to us at the time, but looking back I am amazed at how tender and innocent we were. (No really, I mean it) I am also amazed at how lucky we were every time I read a story about a car full of kids dying in a car wreck.

So, at the risk of being a hypocrite, I just want to say, kids if you are reading this, DON’T DO WHAT I DID!

Seriously, when you are old enough to drive I am selling the minivan and buying the smallest subcompact car I can find.

Better start taking yoga classes.

Hamlin Beach

It began as a very ordinary day at the tail end of May. I’d been home from college for about 2 weeks, and had just begun my quintessential summer job mowing grass around the electrical substations of Western New York. It was a high paying job ($8.90 / hr) that my Dad had managed to get me working at Niagara Mohawk, his employer of 35+ years. It would be a hot, dry summer in 1988, the temperatures would set records, and the creeks would dry up. I would spend my days driving in circles around Western New York, from the hills of Cowlesville, north to Medina, east to Brockport, and south to the shores of Hemlock Lake. It was an enormous expanse of country to cover in a company pickup truck with 2 others, pulling a trailer loaded with mowers, gas cans, trimmers, and the tools of our trade. By July the grass has burned out to straw gold, but our work continued, making the rounds of rural back roads from substation to substation, tending to the weeds, and holding back nature from the electron laden arteries of civilization.

In some ways it was the best job I had ever had. At first I had considered the painting crew as the pay was around $12 / hr, mostly due to the inherent danger of climbing the electrical towers. But in the end, my fear of heights got the better of me, and caused me to chicken out. It’s just as well. My friends on the crew complained about the long hot days in full coveralls, burning in the sun and “bitch-a-mastic” paint, as they worked their way through the mosquito infested swamps of Bergen and Alabama. By contrast, my days were spent driving the idyllic farm roads of Western New York, familiarizing myself with every short cut, and coffee shop between the waters of Ontario, and green hills of Wyoming County. I learned more about my home during that summer, than in the other 19 summers combined, and fell in love with the place. But I digress…

The evening of my birthday was not intended to be anything special. I had made some plans with Dan’l to get together and hang out, and he was due to pick me up shortly after dinner. To my great, and ever lasting surprise, when he pulled into the driveway of 20 Prospect in his 1978 Chrysler Cordoba, the front and back seats were full of my 5 closest friends in the world. When I jumped into the back seat, I noticed a case of Molson Golden sitting on the floor, and was informed that we were heading to the lake.

It was a gorgeous, warm summer evening. The sun was slanting in golden rays across the landscape as we drove due north through the muck lands of Elba, across the fabled canal at Albion, through the orchards of Orleans County, and on up Route 98 like an arrow for the shore of Lake Ontario. Six of us laughing in the car, with the windows down, and the moon roof open, and Steve Miller’s greatest hits playing on the radio. We arrived at the beach, and sat on a break wall, looking out at the Lake, drinking beer, and talking until well after the sun had gone down.

It was a simple evening, and one that we would repeat many times over the course of the summer. A group of kids, a case of beer, and a remote rural spot where we could share a laugh, and some stories, and discuss our dreams for the future. We were a cocky bunch, like all 20 year olds are. We were chafing at the restraints of being stuck in Batavia for another summer, and looking forward to the day we moved away to somewhere important, and exciting, and did “real” work. I look back and laugh about it now. If we’d been told how lucky we were, we’d have never believed it. We were convinced that somewhere “out there” important things were happening, and we were somehow missing out on them. We were so eager to get out there and stake our claims in the world.

The time would come soon enough. It was the last free summer we had. The next summer was the interim between our Junior and Senior years of college, and most of us had moved on to internships, or “important” summer jobs in our fields that would prepare us to land that all important post college job when we graduated. It would be a time to lay the first brick for the foundation of that all important resume. But the summer of 1988 was one last fling. A summer to be spent in idleness, drinking in the cool of dusk, leaning against the warm hood of a piece of Detroit steel, watching the swallows dart through the twilight, chasing mosquitoes like so many dreams. I loved those days, even though I wished them away, and I miss those dear friends. And despite the times and distances that have grown like weeds around us, I love them still. God bless them all, wherever they may be.

Pastorini bites the weenie

Rich Stadium

We didn’t attend many sporting events growing up, not so much because of a lack of money, more because Dad had a lack of patience. Nothing sent the original Mr. 20 Prospect over the edge faster than the gridlocked traffic getting into and out of the parking lots. For that reason, more than any other, I didn’t attend a professional sporting event until 1980 when St. Joe’s organized a parish excursion to a Buffalo Bills game.

It was the 4th game of the season, and it just so happened that this particular year was the first time in my lifetime that the Bills actually fielded a competitive team. They would eventually even make the playoffs, but that trip was organized long before, and with the parish providing round trip transportation on 2 school buses, it didn’t take much pleading to convince Dad to go to the game. So it was that we purchased a set of tickets, and set off for that eventful game against the Oakland Raiders.

Now one might think that a church organized excursion to a football game would be a wholesome family adventure, involving homemade lemonade, and the singing of songs on the bus. But this being 1980, one would be wrong. One of the most amazing things I have noticed as I have approached middle age, is how our society’s definition of acceptable public behavior has changed. Now a days public drunkenness is frowned upon. Back then, it was not only acceptable, it was the central purpose for large events like football games, and rock concerts, and church organized excursions were no exception.

Each of the two buses that we loaded into that morning came equipped with a half keg of beer in the back row. And even though we had just attended the 8 am Mass, people didn’t have any problem tapping into it on the drive up to Rich Stadium. The mood was festive, and the sense of anticipation palpable. I had never been to a big time football game before, and with the Bill’s hot start, all 80,000 seats had been sold for the game that day against the Raiders.

And what a glorious day it was. For the last weekend in September the weather was lovely, with achingly clear blue skies. By the time we arrived at the game, the temperature had already risen into the 80’s. The gravel parking lots outside Rich were full of tailgater’s, and the smell of hot dogs, and hamburgs’ filled the air. Total strangers were friendly and talkative in the lines getting into the stadium, and everyone was jovial. It was apparent even to a 12 year old that over 50% of them were already three sheets to the wind. As the game began the Bills jumped out to an early lead, and it quickly became a laugher. The “Bermuda Triangle” of Smerlas, Haslet and Shane Nelson was all over Dan Pastorini, and after every touchdown the crowd was on its feet singing along to “Talking Proud”.

But it isn’t what went on down on the field that I remember most. It was the view in the stands. This being the end of the 70’s the place was full of inebriated long hairs and resembled a scene from Woodstock. My friend Chris and I were more entertained by the drunk in the row in front of us who kept drinking wine from his bolo, waving a large anatomically correct stuffed Buffalo, and shouting “Pastorini bites the weenie” at the top of his lungs, than we were with the football game. I can remember going to the bathroom at halftime, and being amazed to see grown men peeing in the sinks, and a passed out drunk laying in the urinal trough. But most amazing of all, was how people went about their business as if this was normal.

After the game, it took a while for our parishioners to find their way back to the bus. We played catch with the drunks while we waited to leave. On the way home, the grownups in the back did their best to kill the keg before we got back to Batavia, and their slurred banter was the entertainment. This was a side of folks that I didn’t usually see sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, and it made quite an impression. Monsignor Schwarz sat at the front of the bus, and didn’t seem too greatly disturbed by the proceedings, so neither were we.

I’m not sure at what point this type of public behavior became unacceptable, but somewhere along the way decorum, and decency took over. In this age of Corporate Sports such behavior isn’t tolerated and it doesn’t take much to bring down the security guards, and get the rowdies ejected. In fact, they even flash phone numbers on the jumbo-tron for narc’ing on folks.

Maybe it’s the money involved, or maybe our litigiousness has made us more wary. Or maybe we have just matured a little bit in the last 30 years. Whatever the reason, there are few places left that a person can see humanity letting it all hang out. The infield at a NASCAR race springs to mind, and I have heard stories about Mardi-Gras that make my experiences pale in comparison. This may sound odd, but in some ways I think we have lost something. Maybe if we let our hair down more, and were more tolerant of such debauchery, we wouldn’t have half of the population taking anti-depressants, or seeing counselors to work through our anxiety. Then again, maybe it’s our past that has us so screwed up in the first place 😉 Something for your counselor’s to figure out. Let me know what they have to say.

Another trip down memory lane

It’s spring. Heart achingly beautiful spring. The lilacs are poised to bloom any day now, and as we all know, I’m a sucker for lilac time. While spring may not be my favorite season,there is something about the cool, fresh evening air that transports me back in time. So climb aboard the Tardis, and lets go for a ride…

They say that the most potent of all of the human senses is our sense of smell. While sight, sound, taste and touch can all evoke memories of our past, there is something unique about the sense of smell that makes its connection to our memory stronger, and more vivid. I have experienced this many times. Put me within 20 yards of mothballs, and I am immediately transported to my Grandmother’s house. Put me near fresh cut grass during the dusty days of late August, and I can almost feel the pain of football 3 a days. So I find it highly distracting when a co-worker of mine douses himself with Polo by Ralph Lauren, and proceeds to fumigate the office with memories of 1985. Like a red shirted character on Star Trek I am suddenly beamed down to a hostile planet where I know I am doomed.

The year 1985 could have been the high water mark of my life. In fact, it had all the makings of it. When it began I was in the 2nd semester of my Junior year at ND, and had suddenly found myself in the midst of a flowering social life which seemed unattainable a mere 6 months earlier. I had a steady girlfriend, more close friends than any man deserves, and access to alcohol that only increased with each passing month. By spring of that year every week seemed to promise a new experience, and a new coed with whom to become acquainted. By all rights I should have spent the rest of my days in Batavia living in the long shadows of my life at 17. How I managed to escape that fate, and wind up happy, and somewhat well adjusted, on the frozen prairies of Minnesota is still a mystery to me. In fact, attempting to solve that mystery by retracing my steps backward to the very beginning is half the point of writing this blawg.

So these periodic blasts of a dated cologne result in a flood of memories that send me off in a reverie trying to grasp the essence of what I felt at the time. The spring of 1985 was an early one that seemed to linger deep into June. With each passing week the temperature inched upward, the world became greener, and began to vibrate with life. My braces had come off after 6 years of suffering and pain, and my self esteem soared. Never before had anyone ever considered me to be “good looking”, but suddenly it seemed as if there was a different, maybe even handsome, face staring back at me from the mirror. The same could be said for all of us that year. We had turned the corner from gangly teens, to young adults, and we were thrilled to get out and try out our new equipment.

I am a born pessimist. For as long as I can remember, I have viewed every good event in my life with the suspicion that it was fleeting, and would soon be followed by Faulkner-ian loss. If ever there was such a thing as Western New York Gothic, I embodied it. But that spring of 1985, for the first, and maybe the last time in my life, the future seemed boundless. My heart still aches remembering it.

Photo copyright atsjbosma @http://www.flickr.com/photos/87185102@N00/2436554995/

It was a spring evening, with the first breath of summer sighing through the trees. It was a Friday, and after school we had borrowed one of our parent’s cars, and driven a classmate who could pass for 21, out to a convenience store on East Main to buy beer. With thrilling success we had managed to acquire 2 cases of beer. Well, if you can classify Old Milwaukee, and Old Milwaukee Light as beer, but at the time we weren’t exactly selective drinkers. Being 16 and 17 year olds, we were limited in our range and mobility. Getting a car after dark, was pretty much out of the realm of possibility, so we had to do some quick planning to figure out where to store this beer, and where to drink it after nightfall. After some discussion, we decided on the woods behind the Blind School. It was a central location, accessible by a short walk from most of our houses. So we drove the dirt driveway back behind the school that afternoon, and stashed our illicit treasure under some upturned concrete blocks, in a pile of dirt and construction waste from a recent construction project. Then we returned to our homes for supper hoping that no one had spotted us.

That evening, shortly after supper, we began to gather in small groups at various houses. The guys started showing up at 20 Prospect on their 10 speeds before, ahem, “going to the movies”. The girls began to gather at Bella’s house on State Street for the same ostensible purpose. Then as the shadows began to lengthen, we started making our way to the woods to rendezvous. The spot we had chosen was a wooded hillside that sloped down towards the north, and an undeveloped area of scrubby growth that extended to the Thruway. The nearest homes were on Burke Drive, over a hundred yards to the west, through a wooded area thick with undergrowth. It was unlit and very secluded, well off the beaten path for any passing kids, or adults.

Looking back it all seems so innocent, but at the time we felt like hardened criminals committing a felony. Retrieving our warm Old Milwaukee, we began passing cans around the circle, and talking in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Being kids it didn’t take more than half a can for us to begin feeling the magical effects of alcohol beginning to tickle our consciousness. I had never felt more mature in my life than I did sitting around that circle, talking and laughing with 8 other guys and girls. It was the first real clandestine “party” we had ever thrown, and it would not be the last.

Sitting there in the gathering dusk, the city began to disappear around us, until it was just the nine of us there in the dark, our senses alive like never before. Goosebumps appeared on my arms, as much from the excitement of the moment as it was from the coolness of late May. The girls huddled close to the guys, and we began to look at each other in a new light. Up until that point the friendships between us had been reserved and platonic. But as the night went on, and the cans piled up, we became aware of each others presence in a visceral way that we hadn’t ever noticed before. Like blind kids, the dimness and the alcohol had suddenly magnified our other senses. We could feel each others presence, even in the indigo darkness. It was an awakening for us all.

As summer came on, we would repeat this scene many times, in many places, but our relationships had begun to change. With each progressive step, our familiarity increased, and romantic intrigues developed. Over the course of the next 5 years the couplings, and breakups would become too numerous, and intertwined, to keep straight. But sitting there on the edge of 17, the future stretched out like a trackless wilderness. We had no idea what lay before us, and we tingled with anticipation, poised and ready to step forward into the virgin woods and begin blazing our trails.

That was 25 years ago. We had no idea of the twists, turns and the dead ends that we would wander into. One by one our paths would diverge into a forest of our own choosing, and slowly the path behind would be overgrown with weeds and burdocks. But the memories are still there, somewhere far in the back of our minds, until something, say a colleagues bottle of ancient cologne, flips a switch and it all comes flooding back. When it does, there’s not much that can be done except to pause, smile, and marvel at the journey.