Recent Work By Hank Cherry

Philip Larkin’s noted poem This Be the Verse harpoons familial sanctity.

 

“Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out early as you can
And don’t have any kids yourself.”

 

Not solely an angry poem, This Be the Verse is a recalcitrant force. In reality, Larkin’s fucked up benefaction is as much a sly smirk as it is contemptuous memorial. Along the lines of that anonymous dictum, it takes one to know one.

What Larkin has been to the anti-familial, John Tottenham strives to be for the anti-marriage set. Tottenham’s second poetic issue is Antiepithalamia and other Poems of Regret and Resentment, from Penny-Ante Editions. The epithalamia the title sets itself against is an obscurity and so is defined on the back- epi-tha-la-mium n., pl. –miums or mia: A song or poem in honor of a bride and bridegroom. Right from the start, the book winks at its reader, for it is a screwed up invention about what it perceives as a screwed up invention. As the first line of the book’s first Antiepithalmium stresses “At last their smugness is united.” Quite.

Nude Funk

By Hank Cherry

Music Bios

The Persuasions have lasted for over forty years as a recording group. But they experienced their golden era in the early Seventies, fostered by Frank Zappa. Zappa’s Straight label released the first Persuasions recording in 1970. As the story goes, Zappa was introduced to them by David Dashev, the band’s manager, over the phone. Despite the tinny audio of telephonics, Zappa was hooked. Long a lover of early doo-wop, he flew the group out to Los Angeles, set up a concert and recorded it. The rest is history, sort of.  The Persuasions never became the household name that the Temptations did,  that Smoky Robinson and the Miracles did, that Zappa himself is, despite years of touring and recording a song that was included in Steven Spielberg’s movie, “E.T.”

Listen, dear readers, I want to discuss the records that exist only in my mind. You know, the ones that would be perfect if you added one key component, or the ones that could never exist no matter what, but they should. Like if you poured glue all over the shitty Zeppelin record and then played it at 45 speed while the glue dried. Or if Alice Cooper scatted over Coltrane’s Ascension.

These, then, are those records.

While numbered, this order is contextual only—it can be rearranged by whim.

Proceed.

A-Line Veniality

By Hank Cherry

Poem

So strands of my hair fall into
Into a soda pop can in
A room full of people
Distracting themselves with collapse.

One guy nurses apocalypse
On his chest like others
Would a paperback,
Or a choco Danish.

But the bell ringer is the woman
In the floor length gown, and flip flops.
No matter of my concern.
Body to dress, light to tunnel.

Here we are rumbling through
Depreciated minds.
Our teeth bared from boredom,
Wagons before the fire.

And with us, the magnanimous browser
Of rose tattoo sketches
Permanently clawing down to her
Ankles for none to know.

The fluorescent beam above
Exposing too chewed nails
Gathered nervously around tables where
Coffee and donuts long have ruled.

I swish in her cottony stamp
Of inaccessibility while peacock-y men
Strain to achieve temperance
And leave their eyes socket bound.

No one can complain about it.
She wears this dress the way
Good singers curve their tunes.
But to me, reason is an empty stomach.

The day I fell in love with Irma Thomas I drunkenly slow danced with the Abbey bar’s jukebox to one of her songs, waiting for the night to fall out of focus. She had a voice that culled drunkards from their cups, and brought them to their feet. Mostly, her songs made you want to get up and dance, drunk or sober.

I fell in love with her sixties songbook.  I fell in love with her voice. Most of all, I fell in love with the simple elegance of each song.

The next day, hung over at work searching to blot out the Quarterflash record Wes, the store manager, was playing, I realized the stunning eloquence of Irma Thomas. In the midst of Quarterflash’s soulless bleating I managed to reconstruct one of Thomas’s soul gems note by note. Quite a feat. I was really hung over. Usually, when Quarter Flash made their appearance- a regular occurrence- I bounded upstairs to the store room where thousands of New Orleans R&B and Jazz records sat in boxes gathering dust, ostensibly to catalog them, but really just to free my ears from the garbage.

Everything I expected not to happen was happening. I hadn’t altered previous bad behavior, in fact, I vehemently flouted rules, honor codes, basic human truths. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Once again, I found myself facing the repercussions of willful teenage rebellion. Once again, I found myself on the short end of a stick I’d whittled down to nothing.  Snowshoeing through Maine in February with a group of other at risk kids also fanning their kaleidoscopic refusal to face  responsibility. The first night a question was put to me, just like it was put to all the rest of the group. Had I accepted my role in the actions of my past? I didn’t want to answer the question because it sounded like any answer I made would make me sound stupid. What teenaged kid accepts anything, really? The world has yet to fully develop before your eyes. What you know is so far outweighed by what you don’t know, any thought of acceptance is lost in the white matter mountain ranges of our brains that scientists have yet to define. Sure, sure, I said, eager to move on. I am responsible for all the bullshit bad behavior I dished out over the years, next. Once again, I was telling anyone who would listen what they wanted to hear.

I was seventeen, hadn’t made any of the wise choices most of my close friends had. Instead, I found ways to get tossed out of one school twice, which led to me to the kids on the skids place up in Dublin, New Hampshire. On the night in question, all action remains a blur, a drunken ballet performed under the star bright night in the crisp freeze that so often comes after a northeast snow, outside the dormitory where I lived. Faces drift in and out of view, but never find focus. The alcohol- cooking wine and a case of beer-  purloined from the kitchen, and once spent, discarded like a child’s candy wrapper on the ground, leaving a definite trail leading back to me.  You must have wanted to get caught, people have told me over and over again through the years. While that might be so, I don’t speak to it. The real truth of the matter is that I wanted to get fucked up. And I did. And when you’re as fucked up as I was that night, you don’t think about covering your tracks, and if you do, you aren’t bothered, or worried about much of anything at all, let alone getting caught, and so you don’t do anything because, well, you’re too fucked up to care. At seventeen, my worldview was a little myopic. So, in the morning, when the powers that were recognized they had a problem on their hands, I recognized nothing out of the ordinary. Which is to say, I’d grown accustomed to my own drama. By evening the school administrators had set up a meeting with the rehab up the road, Beech Hill.

Instead of cycling through daylong clinical assessments by equally clinical counselors up the hill, they pushed an Outward Bound rehab program. I’d heard a little about Outward Bound. A few friends had taken the challenge a summer before, just for fun. They had sailed in two and three man sloops off the coast of Maryland, to islands that housed wild horses, and armies of gnats and black flies. Lived in tents. Ate toothpaste when they got hungry. Found themselves, and readied themselves to go to colleges like Amherst, and Sewanee, and Stanford. Panic severed any logic I might have had, connecting the experience of Outward Bound with an increase in academic prowess. What I already knew about Outward Bound unfurled into an absolutely blissful picture, an idyllic sailing trip where you ate weird stuff, and came back bronzed, smart, and charmingly sophisticated. I didn’t stir the rehab part of the trip into the mix, and why would I? This was fantasy I was creating, an acceptable image to get stoned on. Someone at school had mentioned an Outward Bound rehab program that operated out of the Florida keys, on sailboats. Now that information came rushing back at me, and I stupidly embraced it. I embraced it until I could embrace no more. Then some reality started to seep in. The trip I was going on would also be a drug rehabilitation, to be billed to health insurance. They were definitely going to have group therapy meetings. And what I knew of group was from 80’s movies, and maladjusted teens looking to vilify any and all process they came in contact with. God, I thought to myself, what kind of lies am I going to have to tell in group?

The thing is, they didn’t send me on that Florida Keys sailing trip. Instead, Beech Hill had cooked up their first winter snow shoeing adventure rehab in conjunction with Outward Bound. A paragon of winter mountain climbing was brought in, a black haired beardo named Rick, or Frank. And Rick or Frank would lead us through the mountains of Maine, in the deep of February, as snow piled three feet high and upwards. That’s what the craggy faced drug counselor Rudy told me when the school administrators brought me to the school owned lodge for our meet and greet.

When he asked me what drugs I’d done, an eagerness to please, to fit in, and took over. I listed every single drug I had ever conceptualized, all the things I’d heard about, all the things I’d wanted to take, and then, the few actual ones I had taken.

What about drinking, how often do you drink?

I was a teenager, born of controlled situations, but still, a teenager. I knew the foul flavor of warm Gin taking straight. Rudy was waiting for a response.

Whenever I get the chance, I said, both bewildered and cocksure.

I sat there, repeating the line in my head. Rudy marked another box on his list. Then he was standing, offering me a hand. That was it.

You’re on the team, he said, breaking into a comforting grin that convinced me this excursion snowshoeing through Maine was exactly what I needed. His confidence took me with it. I was good enough, I thought, to make it into rehab before I turned eighteen. When the logic of that sentence hit me, I crumpled, and started for my dorm room.

Rudy stopped me. My bags had been packed. I was heading up the hill.

The Beech Hill counselors didn’t know what to do with me. They stuck me in a sterile hospital room, with an older fellow. He was out of it, semi-conscious, sweating, sick in mind and body. His nose exploded into a veiny approximations of blisters, almost like a piece of cauliflower. At night he heard voices and spoke back to them. In the morning, I told the nurse about it. She explained, rather coolly, the guy was experiencing the DT’s.

I don’t know what you mean.

She shook her head.

Delirium tremens, she said, tapping her clipboard, and walking away.

My own Nurse Ratchet. Beech Hill was like an infection you couldn’t cure. Everyone either over medicated, or in need of restraints. I showed up with three strikes against me- I lacked clarity, was a teenager, and would be leaving in a few days.  Anyone who might have had some insight as to how to handle the place avoided me. It’s a selfish program, as they say.

At night, the man I shared my room with would moan, float over to the curtains, and return to his bed one hundred thousand times, until daylight finally arrived, and he could sleep, no longer tormented by darkness. I’d never conceptualized physical addiction before. I still wanted to get fucked up, but here I was trapped in a room with someone who needed to get fucked up to keep his mind from turning on him. A wintry month in Maine had nothing on this guy.

The morning we left, Rudy, and Rick or Frank, the two counselors loaded us onto the two white institutional Dodge vans and drove us well into Maine, to the Outward Bound staging offices. There, we suited up- boots, coats and backpacks. Some of us would carry more than the others. Being tallest I was designated to carry more. Cooking equipment, and food. They let us bring cartons of cigarettes, and lighters. They handed us monstrous white paratrooper jump boots for our feet. Lined with carpet. When you get cold feet, Rick or Frank told us, take off your boots, put them in your sleeping bags, and go to sleep. They’ll be nice and toasty in the morning. There were other tricks and instructions, but I didn’t pay attention, I was trying to figure out why there was only the one girl on the trip. There were two, Holly, a short pale wisp of a person, and this other girl, from Rhode Island, only she didn’t like white kids, and told each white kid on the trip that she didn’t like white kids. Right from the beginning we found ourselves couched in racial stereotypes- the black kids and the Latin kids had history smoking crack. In their opinion, us white kids were over privileged long hairs testing high times. Karim didn’t care much about our different skin tone, only that we had to carry more than the rest of the gang.

Ain’t fair, ain’t fair a t’all.

He told me his eyes were buggy because he’d smoked some crack in the bathroom about an hour ago.

Where’d you get it?

I had it crammed up my ass.

He started to show me.

I understand completely, I said, stopping him.

Then, we were on the side of a snow-covered road. Rudy outlined our next three hours, the last three hours of daylight, on a topographical map. Esmeralda, the girl who didn’t trust whitey, trumpeted her disapproval. Rudy stood up at that. Lit a cigarette. Blew out some smoke.

You can stay here, Esmeralda. But the rest of us are heading into the forest. And we’ve got the tents, the food, and the iodine drops to put into the water so you don’t get Giardia.

Esmeralda was a tough girl, I’ll giver her that.

Jardee-fucking-what, she asked with defiance, struggling not to lose face, but we all knew she was coming with us, and so did she. Rudy had been waiting for the moment, ready to pounce. And he stood there gloating. Rick or Frank readied the gear, prepping those of us who knew something about hiking and cold weather on how to take care of those of us who did not. His dog wagging his tail beside him.

The first afternoon of hiking was our first on snowshoes, and it was full of complaints and arguments. By dinner we’d only traveled 2/3rds of the distance the counselors wanted us to cover. Before anyone had a chance to relax, Rudy broke us up into groups. I landed with the long hair brothers from western Massachusetts and Holly. We were to gather up fire wood. The rest would set up tents, and start prepping the camp and dinner. Everyone was overwhelmed by irritation, fatigue and curiosity. The four of us grabbed enough sticks and logs to make fifteen fires, but we wanted to avoid doubling up on chores. Besides, it gave us all the chance to get to know each another.

The brothers were pot smokers, drinkers, acid takers. Holly, too. They were incredulous when I mentioned harder drugs- cocaine, and heroin. I backtracked, seeking approval once again.

Yeah, I know, it sounds like another planet, I told them.

Mostly, I like the way a few beers makes me feel.

The red headed brother, the older one nodded.

But it never ends there does it, he said. All of us turned to him like he’d said our first names, like he’d captured everything we were feeling in one small sentence. I liked him immediately.

I’ve done this before, he told us.

I was sober for almost a year.

Holly and I sucked in the cool air. A fucking year?

He nodded. Somehow, a car and a girl got in the way of it, and so here he was back in rehab, little brother in tow.

Holly told us her story while she dragged the top part of a fallen birch tree behind her, a cigarette hanging precariously from the tip her bottom lip, like they did in Audie Murphy movies. Holly had the same sprouting hair as the Hollywood soldiers, too. But her skin was marvelously white and her brown eyes sparkled with a haunting femininity. There was no mistaking her for a boy.

Her story gave top billing to a trifecta of troubling players- Opium, the Grateful Dead, and an abusive father. She didn’t mention what kind of abuse or how bad, which I knew was code for the worst kind.

My tent mate was Karim. When we rolled out our sleeping bags, after jamming our boots into them, we pretended to sleep until finally, we did. The next day I awoke to the smell of coffee eggs, and the bitter cold. Karim tore out of his bag, dressed in only his white paratrooper boots and long johns and ran off into the bush to urinate. Be careful of bears, one of us yelled after him, but it wasn’t me. I wasn’t worried about bears.

The next week followed the same routine, day in day out. Breakfast, cigarettes, break down camp. Then the counselors marched us through miles of backwoods snow drifted Maine, forcing us through an inclining valley between mountain ranges to our left and right. Noon, we broke for the same lunch- frozen cheese, frozen salami, and frozen white bread. Rudy got one half hour for group, where he pressed us until we were agitated enough to hike the next mountain.

Rick or Frank explained early in the trip  why he thought we fit the Outward Bound program perfectly. He had a term for us- at riskers.

Here’s an example, he said, after lunch one day, the rest of us laying on top of our packs and staring at the newly appeared sun.

One of you is getting water, and you don’t have iodine. The other one doesn’t care, and you both drink it. That’s at risk behavior. Or you’re unwilling to properly warm your feet on your tent-mate’s belly when they start to freeze, because it isn’t cool. Each case has serious repercussions. And each case is avoidable if you work as a team, instead of like the at riskers you’ve become. Suddenly, the rebellion each of us had launched our risky behavior upon didn’t seem so appealing. We were desperate to be a part of something each of us could trust.

That trust came about slowly, individually, in slight shifts of consciousness that eked out of us, incrementally, while Rudy pounded his concept of logic into our skulls, while Rick or Frank seduced us with the power of our own bodies. We climbed a mountain a day for a week and a half. We made our own fires. We cooked our own food. We could survive in snowstorms, and operate snowshoes through dense forests. We had done it all together. Esmeralda no longer called out the distinction between our racial divide. For the first time, expectation lost out to acceptance.

But something happened after the second week. We got cocky. One of the other kids, his name is lost to me over two decades later, knew which clouds meant snow, and which ones meant nothing, which ones delivered freezing rain, and which ones evaporated into billowy photographic epiphanies. He pointed to the group of them gathered over the next range, blowing slowly our way.

I got up and went over to the counselors.

There’s no way I’m hiking up that mountain.

That so, Rudy said, not expecting much more out of me. I guess you’ll have to hike back to base camp then.

I stood up, and lit a cigarette. Blew the smoke onto him, same as he had done to Esmerelda days before.

I know what those clouds mean. They mean snow. I don’t want to hike into any God damned snowstorm. We should camp here.

My face flushed, but Holly was behind me, and Karim, and the rest of them. I was at the head of a mutiny.

Rick or Frank ignored the situation, busying himself around our impromptu camp. Leave nothing but your bootprints, he said.

Are you done, Rudy asked.

I nodded.

He unfolded a map.

You know how to read a map? He stabbed the map with his finger.

That’s where the vans are parked. That’s the other side of the mountain. Which one is less of a hike?

We don’t want to hike to either place, Holly answered.

Esmeralda unbuttoned her coat.

Yeah, we don’t wanna hike anymore today.

We ain’t going nowhere, Karim said.

Rudy folded up the map.

Two ways you can go, he said, holding up two fingers. Two

The van, which if you choose it means you’re off the trip, you’ll have to explain why to your parents. Or over that mountain.

He pulled me aside.

They listen to you. You fix this, or you’re gone.

That’s all he said. He read me. He knew from group I feared my old man’s temper. He had me where he wanted me.

I gave an impassioned speech. I waved both hands toward the mountains, willing all of us over them, if not by words, by sheer force of suggestion. One by one, they came around. Everyone that is, but Karim, Esmerelda, and the kid who noticed the storm clouds in the first place.

Rudy looked at me like I was a piece of shit stuck to his shoe.

What about them, he said, pointing at the last of the mutineers.

I should march you off to the van with them.

I didn’t say anything. The vein in his neck was pumping. I could read a face, too. Rudy was so pissed he started for me anyway, when Frank or Rick appeared out of nowhere.

Here’s the keys, he said, placing them in Rudy’s palm.

We’ll meet you at the spot. Tomorrow night.

Tomorrow night, Rudy grunted.

He wanted to scrape my smug face on the icy frost heaved road. I know that because he told me so, right before he hiked Karim, and Esmeralda and what’s his name off into the forest.

Had we not argued over clouds, we would have made it over the mountain free of snow.

Instead, we made the summit in time to meet the storm. The ripping winds and snow drove us into submission. Rick or Frank stopped us, and had us find places to tie down our tent so they wouldn’t fly off the side of the mountain. Since Rudy had to take a large tent with his crew, two of our kids would have to sleep under a tarp, and Rick or Frank would sleep outside, just a sleeping bag for him and his dog. We drew straws. I got a long one. No tarp for me.

In the morning, we skipped breakfast, quickly packed up our tents, and smoked cigarettes as we jammed down the mountain. Everyone hated me. If only I hadn’t opened up my mouth, each glance my way seemed to say.

After that, the trip disintegrated. I didn’t want to share my feelings in group.  At night I sat next to Holly, our hands slipping into each other’s pockets.

Worst of all, I stopped listening to Rick or Frank, stopped paying attention to Rudy. When I went to drink from a stream during a break, I tuned out the iodine warning that trailed after me, slurping greedily straight from the stream.

The next day was dedicated to ice climbing. I spent all of it shitting in the woods, unable to squirt the last of the giardiasis out of me.

By the last week, I let my shirt tail hang out of my wool pants, stopped carrying food for the others, continuing to hike hard only to keep the elements at bay.

Then, with a van ride to Outward Bound offices to give back the gear, and one more to Beech Hill, it was over. We had hiked what felt like a hundred mountains, a thousand miles, discussed innumerable topics, battled all facets of our addictions. Holly and I literally hugged goodbye while our parents pulled us off each other.

I’d led a mutiny in the middle of Maine, reassessed, and coerced my allies in rebellion to rethink our adolescent logic.

There were other things that happened on the trip. We saw spectacular views of valleys and mountains we had to memorize if we wanted to see them again. We took van rides over beat up frost heaved Maine roads, which then broke into ridiculously foulmouthed sing alongs. We stopped at the L.L. Bean outlet and when everyone in the store marveled at the hardcore winter hikers before them, we played it cool and said nothing. Like the rest of the group, I did a solo, twenty-four hours by myself in the woods, alone with a tent, a watch, a bag of nuts and raisins, some matches and a pack of cigarettes. An hour before the counselors came, three birds landed on me, as the cold took into my body. It was as spiritual a moment as I’d had up to that point. But it featured none of the lessons the mutiny offered.

In the end, each of us fell from the hold of sobriety like over ripe maggots from a carcass bone. I lasted longest, going three years and change. But even for me, the concept of having a legal drink a few days after my twenty-first birthday proved too much a lure.

When I ended up back in rehab nine years later, whining to myself about all that wasted time, two things came back to me, the guy with the delirium tremens, and  that month in the woods of Maine. Like some rediscovered postcard reminding me that I’d had a real chance at scouring myself of the demons before I’d graduated from high school, and I’d let it go.

When Darrell Banks was fatally shot by an off duty cop in the spring of 1970, the soul singing powerhouse left behind just twenty-seven songs- two albums and a smidgen of singles. Each of them is worth a listen. They buried him in a grave marked by a numbered plaque in the ground. No headstone, no mention of his career, no nod to his gift of voice, nor any placement of his name. Just a number planted in the earth, only to be overgrown a few short years later, leaving his final resting place an afterthought, hidden from view.

Banks was much more than just a number, or a lost gem, or an afterthought. Born Darrell Eubanks, he grew up, like so many of his soul singing brothers and sisters, singing in church, devouring songs in the gospel canon. When he made the leap to secular jams, Banks dropped the E and the U from his last name, and readied himself for a ride on Motown’s comet.

Shivers

By Hank Cherry

Notes

Rowland S. Howard wrote the song Shivers as a teenager. It’s an indelible ode to youthful misery and unrequited love paired with a willful, yearning guitar. When he died thirty years later, in December 2009, he was fifty. Liver cancer. Impressive character to the end, Howard played a gig just a month and change before his death. In an interview with New Zealand writer Simon Sweetman, Howard sounded down right relieved to have kicked Shivers off his set-list at last. “When I did use to do it in shows, I was doing a cover of some song that had been around forever. I guess that is a strange way to feel about a song you wrote. But that’s how it felt.”

In another interview Howard refers to the song as his albatross. Howard then goes on to play a stoned out but entrancing version of the song, it comes alive despite his careless attitude, a mournful dirge, a collaborative effort between the then middle aged Howard and the youth who wrote the song.

My folks had split up. Dad lived four blocks away, up a hill. Miles away, theoretically, a thousand feet off in reality. After a particularly long battle of wits, Mom delivered me to his apartment. First thing the old man said was that it was high time I got a job. He hadn’t been paying attention. While my older brother never seemed to have a summer job, I’d long held a position at the tennis courts on the other side of the golf course bordering his apartment. Rolling them, cleaning them, sweeping them, giving the odd lesson to four year olds barely bigger than their racquets. I’d been doing that since I was fourteen. He should have known better. I’d kept the job because I needed money to pay for my bad habits. I brushed past him, dropped my bags in the living room, and burrowed into his study, clicking on his old Zenith, tuning it to MTV. The dawn of the video age perfectly coincided with my teenage apathy.I slumped into the orange desk chair he set up to overlook the parking lot his apartment had views of, when out of nowhere Whitesnake’s uniquely retardo/erotic videos shot a hot bolt right into me brain, severing any ability to pay attention to anything but that fucking video. The old man started to make conversation, but it was too late, I’d already been zapped.

Synanon came to life in the fifties. The ultimate temple of soul sacrifice. You laid yourself out to all comers, at Synanon, because this was the new school of drug rehab. But, unlike its twelve step brethren, Synanon did not mature very quickly, it didn’t really develop was until the 70’s.Scientology, itself often branded as a cult, had also become fruitful at the same time, and was selling its own drug program. And like Scientology, the fierce creatures of Synanon formed into a kind of cult. Musicians showed up, and Synanon put them to work, recording albums to promote the rehab. Ask yourself how many drug rehabs issue albums? Now, how many cults do?

Synanon’s self-popularization sang with such perfect pitch that hepcats near its Santa Monica, and Bay Area locations rang the bell, and joined up, before they even realized what they were getting into. Jazz and pop musicians- famed addict and sax man Art Pepper among them- came calling. What’s the plan? Don’t know, don’t care, it works, that’s all. Everyday Joes showed up, too. Synanon didn’t discriminate. They took you in, and gave you the rap. And the rap was tough love. To the extreme.

Synanon emerged, like an ex-pugilist with something to prove, straight out of founder Charles “Chuck” Dederich’s garage in Ocean Park, California. For a while, the program aligned itself closely to the twelve step groups that were gaining their own cult like status in the late 50’s and early 60’s. But only for a while. Eventually Dederich received tax-exempt status for Synanon. After that, the money rolled right in. The garage in Ocean Park gave way to a ranch in the foothills, then another. And then, there was the Santa Monica spot. Right smack dab on the beach.

So what happened? Synanon was built around one person. The group beat to his imperfect cadence. Members slipped out of reach because they were encouraged to relinquish past acquaintances and family members in favor of their new ‘family.’ Yeah, like Manson. Like the Children of God. Like a cult.

Some of the methods were outlandish for the time, but have become mainstream today. Rather than focus on the individual, Synanon sought to encourage group members to ‘test’ other group members, in regards to their sobriety, their faith, and their dedication. In essence, the group member became the therapist. These ‘test’ sessions sometimes turned into shouting matches, but in the end Dederich and the other ‘therapists’ sought to establish closure so the group as a whole, and the individuals therein, could move onward, upward to a new salvation. In some cases it made desperate junkie prostitutes able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, in others, it offered a major rush of egotistical power to people who had never experienced it, and they abused it. As Synanon moved beyond its gestation the twelve step tenets wore thin. Dederich began restructuring them, adding in new rules, new regulations, new regiments, making it up as he went along. One major theme Dederich stressed was that the patient needed to stay in the group, and not leave. To give back, to build a new community. Things got weird. Normally, a visit to the drunk farm ended with some sort of fresh start. Or not. Either way, there was a beginning, middle, and an end. Not so with Synanon. There, you stuck around in perpetuity, finding new ways to make yourself useful for years at a time. Synanon encouraged the beginning and the middle, but never the end. An end presented too difficult a task. Dederich had seen where other rehabs had failed. They all let their clients back out into the real world. And that was their great mistake. Success rates plummeted once addicts were set free. Synanon simply abolished that last act, instead electing to treat addicts over long periods, for seemingly endless terms. If you decided you were ready to leave, a group of your Synanon peers came round to remind you what it was like before you got there. They urged you to stick it out, to let Synanon keep working its magic. If that didn’t work, Chuck would send in the aptly named “punk squad,” which existed, in the words of ex-resident Charlotte (no last name) “for people who need to be tamed.”

Synanon family members began to get frightened when they couldn’t contact their loved ones. Critics of the Synanon ‘method’ arose. Some called it a cult. Most claimed it robbed them of relationships with their family members. All pointed their fingers at Dederich, who made no effort to give a public response.

In the very early part of the 1970’s, the Point Reyes Light, a teeny local paper in a small town north of San Francisco near a Synanon compound, started investigating rumors of staff abuse, and beatings. As the reports of negligence grew, the IRS took note, and began the process to revoke the group’s tax exempt status, saying it was no longer a medical rehabilitation facility, but something else, a way of life. Synanon, feeling like it was on the ropes, did what any cult-ish group would- under Dederich’s order the group declared itself a religion. Enter the church of Synanon.

Suspected of acting in and covering up the murder of a dissenter, the frayed group started to make headlines beyond the Point Reyes Light reach, though the small paper did capitalize on its coverage of the group, even receiving a Pulitzer Prize for its Synanon articles.

Time Magazine featured Synanon in an unfavorable light. The article portrayed Dederich as wife swapping messianic leader. Descriptions of the residents of Synanon referred to them as “smiling people” with “shiny, shaved heads,” who bowed in sync, and chanted like monks.

They listed assets, they mentioned Dederich’s 70’s era $100,000 salary, and quoted him, “A lot of guys could do this thing from an old Ford roadster and sit on an orange crate…I need a $17,000 Cadillac. We are in the people business just exactly as if we were building Chevrolet axles.”

Stranger things were in store. More investigations arose from the constant news coverage. Local police began getting calls from estranged family members. As the scrutiny wore on, Synanon security tightened. The punk squad grew. Paranoia took over. Addicts usually become acclimated to reality if given something else to become addicted to. Synanon added to already compulsive behavior a regimented structure that offered an alternative future to needles plunged into arms, and sucking off johns behind bus stations. While many celebrities had given praise to Synanon in the past (Steve Allen promoted Synanon on TV) the celebrity endorsements dried up in the face of the bad press of the early 70’s.

Since Synanon claimed such definite success, it pointed to the past record of its achievement, to the (past) celebrity endorsements, to the sobriety of its members. Synanon embraced a hive mind, a boot camp philosophy. Somehow, the myth continued to grow. New members arrived daily.

Sci-Fi writer Philip K. Dick battled his own demons. During the 60’s he started using large amounts of speed, taking more and more of the amphetamine to accomplish more and more writing. And of course, addiction rooster tailed in the wake of all that drug taking. Eventually things spun wildly out of control for Dick, who began living with local addicts trading dugs, and comparing notes. As some of his pals began to overdose and die, others sought rehabilitation. Synanon had a campus in nearby Marin. Dick likely experienced some Synanon concepts first hand. He didn’t like what he found. New Path, the rehab in Dick’s loosely autobiographical novel “A Scanner Darkly” is based on Synanon. In another book, the group is actually identified as Synanon by a character, “It’s a fascist therapy that makes the person totally outer directed and dependent on the group.” Critics Rosa Lee Cole and Phil Ritter came under heavier fire than Dick. Ritter was beaten after he left the group. Fifteen-year-old Rosa Lee Cole disappeared from the Synanon foundation’s Oakland center never to be heard from again. A lawyer for another ex- Synanon member was bitten by a rattlesnake, which had been de-rattled, agitated, and stuffed in his mailbox. Somehow the man survived. Each of these stories were reported by the Point Reyes Light, and later investigated by local and federal authorities. Paul Morantz, the lawyer bitten by the snake dedicated his life to debunking Dederich’s myths, writing a book and operating a website condemning all things Syn-Syn-Synanon.

By the time an NBC expose ran, Synanon was claiming to Connie Chung that it was the victim of bad publicity. Very bad publicity. Mostly stemming from the disappearance of a Synanon patient, or member, however they were classifying them, back in the early part of the decade.

Dederich made no bones about the hi-jinks. He admitted wearing costumes, that he was ”big brother big daddy.” The icing on the cake, however, was a clandestinely obtained recording. On it, Synanon’s founder can be heard ranting about lawsuits waged by ex-members and other detractors. “These are real threats, they (lawyers) are draining life’s blood from us and expecting us to play by their silly rules. We will make the rules. I see nothing frightening about it… I am quite willing to break some lawyer’s legs and next break his wife’s legs and threaten to cut their child’s arm off. That is the end of that lawyer. That is a very satisfactory, humane way of transmitting information…. I really do want an ear in a glass of alcohol on my desk” A few months later, Dederich, the man who founded Synanon on the concept of complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol, broken by strain and or megalomania, or both, was found stewed to the gills, and arrested in relation to the attempted murders of Morantz, and Ritter. John Watson, the LA prosecutor assigned to the case described Dederich upon arrest as being, “in a stupor, staring straight ahead with an empty bottle of Chivas Regal.”

But there was something to Synanon, before their tough-love-confrontational-rehabilitation-methodology shifted into its late era thuggish free for all. The program changed lives. It kept irrefutably hopeless addicts clean, long as they stayed under the Synanon roof. Many who had been through the program paid no mind to the bad press. Synanon worked where nothing else would. To this day former members meet online and in person sharing stories of their time as members of Synanon the family. Still, after Dederich’s arrest, and subsequent downfall, it was next to impossible to keep tabs on success stories because Synanon success stories kept their mouths shut, unwilling to invite the odor of the group’s last days into their well fought for sobriety. Can you blame them? Some aspects of Synanon’s ‘no bones about it’ program can’t be argued with. Desperation’s wild horse needs a jockey, and in a lot of cases, that jockey was Synanon. But even the best jockey needs the oversight of a trainer and that was where Synanon failed.

Despite the mounting bad press, or likely, because of Synanon’s previous favored-son status during the mid 60’s media onslaught, other addiction specialists took note. New York’s Daytop Village, the name sometimes referred to as an acronym for Drug Addicts Yielding to Temptation, based their methods on that of Synanon’s primal group therapy model. Whatever. Daytop remained an incredible success in the treatment of hard-core addicts and alcoholics. One of Daytop’s founders spent time at Synanon in the early sixties before Dederich’s megalomaniacal model overwhelmed the rehabilitation process. And Mel Wasserman started his CEDU schools based on his own Synanon experiences, billing them as Therapeutic Boarding Schools. Like Synanon, they failed.

It’s not hard to see why many flocked to the Synanon model. It was damn seductive. A misappropriation on tough love, it looked like you were giving the addict a punch in the face to help them get better, and one time or another we have all wanted to punch the addicts in our lives square on the jaw. They looked like elegant marines as they ran across the beach in front of the Santa Monica headquarters, moving like chiseled gazelles, turning their bodies into temples once again. The group therapy was based on absolute interrogation and complete candor. No one was allowed to have any secrets. “You’re only as sick as your secrets” took on a whole new meaning at Synanon. Secrets were hunted down, and throttled, until even the secret keeper could no longer stomach the idea of dishonesty. But Dederich couldn’t seem to stop fiddling with the more controlling aspects of his therapeutic model. Women and men had to shave their heads. Most referred to Dederich as a kind of God. Vasectomies for men were encouraged. Then enforced. If a couple entered together, they wouldn’t last. Dederich pushed for and gotwife swapping. He sought a more lurid sort of enlightenment.

Dederich wasn’t jailed, but his reign at Synanon was over. The IRS confiscated Synanon’s property after the tax exemption revocation became official. The group ceased to exist, until the Internet.

Now a few pages dedicated to the group exist. Paul Morantz, the lawyer who received the rattlesnake in his mailbox operates one. Former Synanon members operate another- Synanon.com.

Gurus are a constant problem with twelve step programs. Touting guidance for the extreme cases, Gurus almost always end up using sex and money as their puppet strings, while often encouraging members to sever ties with friends and family in case any sense will be lodged into the group member’s mind.

As for Synanon’s physical presence in Santa Monica, the former hotel standing just steps from the Pacific Ocean has once again returned to the resort mentality- rates start at $395. About the same cost for a month stay back in ’78. And the name? In an article published in 1959 by R.D. Fox, Synanon stood for, Sins Anonymous.

James Carr – Dark End of the Street

James Carr died in January 2001. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare. His career had all but dried up. He was 58 years old, and living in a nursing home, battling lung cancer.

The sin here is that Carr was unknown. Never have I heard a voice that could gallop with such precision one moment, and slip into the shaking fears the next remaining absolutely convincing the whole time. Carr had soul dribbling out of his little pinkie finger. But mostly it leaked out of his heart, and up into his head, and he did his best to share it with the rest of the world.

Becca, my girlfriend’s roommate, sprung it on me the day before I was going to drive back home to Texas.

I’ll pay your gas if you drive me to Alabama, she blurted out while me and her roommate got in some last minute canoodling.

My girlfriend knew what Becca was up to and she promptly filled in the blanks. Going to Alabama meant going to the state prison, to death row. How could I say no? When I asked her if she drove stick shift, Becca offered me the straightest face I’d ever see her make. Yes, she said emphatically, I can. Her bags were already packed. I knew a little about her Alabama death row pen pal, but the knowledge was stowed behind too many bottles of the Shiner Bock I’d been living off of back in Austin.

Becca found him in the back of some liberal-minded magazine, the part where they used to feature personal ads. A sense of commitment to the downtrodden and abused made her answer. But something else had sprouted. Bryan, the inmate, wrote wildly entertaining stories, then backed them up with wildly passionate odes, and so, his letters zoomed into Becca’s heart. It began to thump the familiar cadence of love whenever a letter from her prison baby arrived.

Austin was a different kind of Texas than I had previously gotten to know. It had a metropolitan sway, a verifiable scene to get caught up in. At night I parked the truck off of Sixth Street, mapped out my location so when I drunkenly readied for home, I’d be able to drive myself there. Ridiculously dangerous, and immature, but true.

Even still, loneliness, an increased alcohol intake and a new to me pickup collaborated, and like that, my first cross country road trip came to life. I needed the experience. So I drove the twenty-three hours to see the girl, through a snowstorm mostly, amped up on road coffee and white crosses. Before leaving, I’d even secured a few days off from the busboy job a friend of the family gave me.

Real experience had eluded me since I’d finished a get-your-shit-together summer working on my godfather’s ranch five years before. Now, Becca, offered it up in spades.

We split the next morning, after hugging my girlfriend goodbye, and chugging the home made fresh ground coffee, we tucked our bags behind the bench seat of the blue pickup, and hopped in. I’d stacked a bunch of wooden packaging pallets in the back, to keep the rear end heavy enough to travel through the storm. They banged around until we got to the highway.

Becca and I were pals before I ever met my girlfriend. Some days we’d sit on the bench outside of the gourmet goods store, and talk in strange accents. She was fun in ways I never dreamed of, completely unselfconscious in a sea of awkward puerility. And yet she also retained a total awareness of self. She studied dance. She listened to advanced classical music and silly Midwestern punk bands with the same concentration. Naturally I was drawn to her. Those very qualities were what made me say yes to the proposition in the first place. That, and her offer to pay for gas.

Once we hit the highway, the two of us kept talking, and the tapes I’d set aside for our trip never did make it to the deck.

We flicked our cigarettes out of the windows. We spilled Mountain Dew on each other, and laughed out loud until we couldn’t laugh anymore. Suddenly, we had driven eight hours. She said she’d take over once it got dark. In retrospect, neither of us had really clocked the trip, and I suspect she said that hoping I’d just keep going until we got to Alabama, because it turns out, Becca couldn’t drive stick shift at all. After gassing up I switched to the passenger seat. Becca grabbed the stick shift like she’d probably seen her Dad do. She never let on that she didn’t know how. But when she completely ignored the clutch, and the truck popped forward, and stalled out immediately, like a teenage boy in the hold of his first bedroom visitor, it was pretty obvious.

My Dad had refused to teach us to drive, correctly predicting my brother and I would make the bizarre requirement to learn on stick. Dad had long since given up on stick shift vehicles preferring the blissful ease of automatic transmission. An old classmate of his, down on his luck after years of boozing, turned out to be my driving teacher, and Dad would laugh at the prospect him teaching me. The blind leading the blind, he said. Becca exacted that driving instructor’s revenge upon me.

We were somewhere in Tennessee. Night was approaching. The gas station doubled as a truck stop, with the trucks parking at the north end and a long parking lot that angled downward, to the south.After about an hour of facing the truck downward, getting Becca back behind the wheel,delivering a rudimentary course in the five gear locations of the shift box, we were on our way. My stubbornness was showing. I wanted to watch the country go by. I’d never been to Alabama. And soon we would move deep into repressed poverty of the state. Thankfully, the State Prison of Alabama in Atmore wasn’t our first stop.

Becca arranged for accommodations, and gave me directions. I pictured a Motel 6, a Travelodge, a Best Western in the near future. Becca arranged something else.

I took over driving, knowing Becca’s concept of the gear ratios would splinter soon as we entered stop and go traffic. We were on the other side of the tracks, literally, having crossed an unmarked trestle as the neighborhood became a shambled mess of shanties and too small plots of grass.

I don’t think that Atmore had any neighborhoods that looked and felt and breathed with the warmth of a different, economically more structured South, but if it did, we did not see them. Beccabooked us a room through the inmate network. Here it is, she said, looking out the window at what looked to me like a shack to store old lawnmowers, a little bigger, but by not much.

Our host was named Amanda, or Brenda, or Linda. She was as big around as she was tall, freckled, strangely delicate, and kind. Her house was two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. And everything on that street seemed like it had lived there since long before I’d been born. Paint chipped off of each house. Rusted cars sat on wood and cinder blocks in each yard, and the grass grew weedy and high.

Our host showed us to our room, and having been through the ritual enough times already, let us be.

I have never slept in a bed that drooped on springs as creaky as that before or since. Each time one of us squirmed the other let out a quick laugh, but we clung to our sides of the mattresses like our lives depended on it. Before we finally fell to sleep Becca whispered the particulars of Bryan’s case. They each were on the last of their appeals, she said quietly. Then she announced that Bryan was innocent. As she said it her head came up so she could see into my eyes, the springs barking like over active hound dogs underneath of us. Her eyes burned fiercely, having told too many other over privileged snot noses the story of her death row inmate. I read the fury of her eyes, and quickly stifled that same reaction. Yeah, right he’s innocent, I thought to myself. But I also noticed she did not mention Ed’s innocence, immediately understanding her stance on that situation. Ed and Bryan had befriended a white girl, who may or not have been a prostitute. They got loaded, hung out for a little bit, but when the girl got mouthy, Ed took her for a walk, and when he came back alone, Bryan let it go.

A week later, the two transient men were picked up for the woman’s murder. Neither had money for an attorney. At the end of the trial, both received guilty verdicts. Bryan was unwilling to rat out his best friend. Ed was unwilling to cop to a crime where there was no material evidence. The lack of material evidence, however, made much less difference than the color of their skin, versus that of the dead woman’s.

Good night, Becca said, exhausted from the drive, from the information she just outlined.

The Atmore prison had towers. The towers had gunmen. When I parked the truck in the lot, the gunmen watched us, their weapons ready. I kissed Becca goodbye and started to make my escape. She tugged my wrist. You can’t go, she said, you have to come in and visit with Ed so he can get out of his cell.

It was an irritating favor to ask at the last minute, but I couldn’t deny the urgency splashed across her face. I looked back at the closest tower guard, sunglasses hiding sharpshooter eyes. Do it for the experience, I told myself.

Death row inmates don’t get to have regular visitor hours with the rest of the crew. They spend most of their time in their cells. Their prison community consists solely of other death row inmates.

In Alabama, the inmates wore white. As we made our way to the visitor’s area- a large glass wall encased room that resembled a public school cafeteria – the inmates appeared from behind a sliding steel door. Under the harsh purple neon light, their uniform lack of pallor from having little to do with sunlight was grotesque. Bryan and Ed were black. The vampiric lighting didn’t give them that ghoulish glow.

Becca grabbed a corner table, and we crowded around it. When you meet killers it’s unnerving how natural they are. How regular. How absolutely normal and likable they seem. A few years later a drinking pal of mine, a man I sometimes turned to for advice, revealed he was, for all intents and purposes, a murderer on the lam. We were sitting at the bar when he became a little wistful and announced he hadn’t been back to Florida to see his family for many years. Why, I kept asking- two drinks, three drinks later. By the fourth round, he could contain himself no more, and shrugged. I killed a guy, he said. He looked at me the same way Becca had the night before. I knew it was true.

Bryan was affable, and I quickly found the same charm Becca swooned over. He regaled us with tales of what each inmate was in for. See that one, he said pointing to a guy who looked like a car salesman, or a chaplain. He killed his wife for the insurance money. That kid, he said pointing to a stringy teenager pockmarked by acne with a black shock of hair, he killed his ex girlfriend, strangled her in her sleep.

Ed was opposite of Bryan. Reserved, quiet. A do-er not a thinker. Lost in naivete ( or the knowledge that I could get out of there) I asked Ed was what he did for fun. He played along, and talked about basketball. He could shoot hoops an hour a day, followed the NBA religiously.

I hated basketball. But I didn’t tell that to Ed. Instead, I asked him about his teams, mentioned I came from Maryland, and we talked about Len Bias, the Celtics and Michael Jordan. I’d gone to a sports camp as a teenager at UNC, and I told Ed about Michael Jordan visiting his alma mater after being drafted by the Bulls. He didn’t exactly light up the way Bryan and Becca did at sight of each other, but the story made him easier to be around. He told me what his day to day life was like, and I, in turn, told him about bussing tables for assholes, and spending afternoons in bookstores dreaming of something better.

Yeah, he said, I know what you mean, man. I dream of something better every night.

Becca and Bryan’s ministrations could have disgusted me. And after a few hours, I’d run out of things to talk with Ed about, and I knew I was going to leave. They knew it, too. But they still went through a few more hand jives underneath the table.

Becca got up and hugged me. Have a safe trip, she said. I was stunned. I assumed she would leave with me. No, she was staying to the end of visitation, and was going to spend the night, and come back the next day, too.

Ed shook my hand. A guard led him away. Bryan spoke up then.

Ed can only hang out when he gets a visitor. No visitor- it’s back to his cell.

He was trying to guilt me into staying, but it didn’t work. I wanted out of there. Another guard escorted me to the gate, and then I was walking on the pavement of the lot staring at the armed tower guard staring back at me. In the truck I grabbed a warm beer and guzzled it.

Then I was out driving down highway 65, past Negro Lake, past Satsuma, Saraland, and Mobile, where I picked up the I-10 and headed west to Texas, where I still felt I belonged, where dining tables waited for me to bus them.

Eventually, I found out the truth. There’s no escape from death row. I was subject to my own demonic possession, in regards to drugs and crime and jail stays. Summer of 2000, I cleaned up. A year or so later, as the chemical fog lifted, I remembered that drive to Alabama, to death row. After a couple of months learning how to explore the internet, I discovered what happened to the two men who shared their lives with me for four hours one lonesome spring day in 1992.

After that last appeal was exhausted, Ed was executed in 1996. Bryan three years later. Every time I think about them, now, I realize, had they been white, they’d likely both still be alive. In prison probably, but alive.

I saw Becca again right after moving out to Los Angeles about seven years ago. We watched a movie projected on the side of a cemetery mausoleum, oddly enough. When I asked her about that trip she brushed it off, immediately changing the subject. I had only brought it up in order to thank her for giving me an indelible experience. Maybe a cemetery doubling as a movie theater was the wrong spot.

 

I spent my teenage years getting thrown out of a few different schools. Authority stuck in my craw. By sixteen, I’d made it to public school, but I skipped as much as I showed up.

That was the year I ditched finals and rode around with another delinquent visiting a couple of private girl schools during lunch breaks. One school had blue skirts, the other, green. I liked the green skirts best, but Doug told me not to over specify.

You don’t want to miss anything, he explained. Blue is just as good as green.

He had a point.

Doug also had this German car, and drove so fast our hair blew back like that old Maxell ad with a guy in a leather jacket and sunglasses sits in a chair, the music blows hurricane force down upon him. We’d crank up Cure songs, too stoned to remember our names. One time driving out to the country, where yet another girls school was located, Doug lost control and we ran off into a field of immature corn. The engine mounts broke on the one side. On our way back into town, every bump sent the engine slamming into the hood. It didn’t matter much to me. I was happy to regally lose myself in juvenilia, blowing smoke to the brit pop beat as Doug screamed through red lights and did donuts in half empty grocery store parking lots.

Johnny Unitas had a restaurant in Towson, and we’d sometimes sit in the lot across from it drinking beer. Other times we’d land down the hill from the Country Club, where the last of the town’s grass tennis courts sat. I’d watch girls with perfectly brushed hair chew gum and memorialize summers spent in Nag’s Head, or Gibson island. They smoked Marlboro lights, and drank diet Coke, and that was the smell of victory.

What I hadn’t recognized was a need for discretion. My parents had split, and I had managed to manipulate them when bad news came. If only life hadn’t been so tumultuous. If only I wasn’t the product of a broken home. But, I got in a LOT of trouble. Car crashing kind of trouble. You won’t manipulate a grown up out of pains in their wallets as easy as you do the ones in their chest, or their mind.

So I rode bitch, and rarely had money of my own. I skipped back and forth between my old man’s apartment and my mom’s house. Not by choice.

Somewhere in there, I started dating a nice girl. She’d been a debutante, or could have been. Anyway, her dad was my step-dad’s business attorney, and that meant she was a good girl. No one thought I was a good kid. More than one expulsion, and you lose that sobriquet.

Things headed further south the day I came home to see my mom waving my report card like a cleaver.

They say you’ve stopped showing up to school.

I turned around and walked out. The old man wasn’t any happier to see me.

Since the divorce, they had  devised a simple plan of communication.

Tell you father you need new clothes, mom would direct me.

In response, my father would grimace.

You tell your mother I work hard for my money.

But this time, they’d each actually gotten the nerve to phone each other. And they hatched the plan of plans: send me to Texas for the summer. Not to lounge on the Gulf of Mexico, but to work on the ranch of a family friend.

I was oblivious to the idea. Doug and I hung out at his house most of the time. I’d ride my bike over, and lock it to a bus stop sign, walk the last few blocks. Coming by bike seemed uncool. Wandering over nonchalantly, my mode of passage unexplained was much cooler. Of course, every night I’d have to wobble that bike back home, up one vicious hill and down another, which lead to feverish acts of cowardice in the face of near death collisions, sometimes with cars, but usually with shrubs, and street signs. I was drunk all the time, and not yet seventeen. Life was one giant dare I sometimes took, and other times crumbled in the face of.

Just as summer started to gear up, mom broke the bad news. But not until after she’d broiled a steak and made the red roasted potatoes she knew I loved, a Caesar salad on the side. This was the meal I’d have asked for if I was ever convicted for a heinous crime. I didn’t even see the bad news coming. To me, a meal like that, well it seemed like she was finally back to her senses. We were going to get along just fine. She said it as calm as you’d tell someone their horoscope.

Your father and I have decided to send you to work on a ranch in Texas this summer.

I remember desperately trying to handle the information like an adult. But I couldn’t finish eating. I couldn’t look her in the face. I mean, didn’t she understand, this was a popular girl I was seeing. She even said so herself. The girl wasn’t going to wait around while I worked on some fucking ranch in Texas. That kind of thing dazzles only adults, not teenaged bathing beauties. But I managed to scramble out of the house before I said anything terrible.

The upside of it all was that my parents immediately relented on the string of curfews and punishments that had been issued in the past few months. To spite them, I ran as wild as I could, rifled every purse and pocketbook and wallet attached to either of them. I interacted with them as little as possible, eating microwave dinners, skipping out before they came home from work. I spent as much time at Doug’s as I could.

There was a convenience store in between their houses, where Lake avenue met Falls road. A grassy area behind it. I’d hang out there, waiting for friends to arrive, buy their cigarettes and mixers, and plot the night. Laying in the grass watching the clouds blow across the sky as night descended, I hoped to have the same chance to do this again, with her, or someone like her, after school was over, and college finished, before any children came. Just lollygag in the green grass, our imaginary fingers clutched each other the way only a teenager can envision his future self doing.

And in those last moments of summer and freedom, drunk on cheap beer on the outskirts of the city my parents grew up in, I could scrounge up a bit of respect and grudging admiration for the two of them stranded permanently from their monumental love by disagreements that took the form of untruths and rabid tempers. I couldn’t acknowledge any pride in being their offspring, but I did drunkenly embrace the memories of trips to the Chesapeake where they would sail my brother and me out with them into places I’ve come to remember and cherish just the way you memorialize a beautiful youth. That is, just the way they intended me to remember them.

But the next morning, devoid of that drunken emotion, I’d see them as the broken people they appeared to me to be, with no future to bank on whatsoever. And as Texas loomed in the forefront of my horizon, as each second wound down to an unknowable summer of endless hard work, I raided every medicine chest south of Ruxton hoping to blot out the revolting future in store for me. Because I wanted to lay in the grass, I wanted to smoke cigarettes, I wanted to read French symbolist poetry -Life is the farce which everyone has to perform!- I wanted to go to the independent movie theater and drink and snicker at witty subtitled films from around the globe. What I did not want to do was ride around on horses till my ass chapped, hang barbed wire fence line till my fingers and my palms blistered and bled.

Had I behaved with some modicum of restraint, and humility, had I exhibited even a bare minimum of respect, it’s clear my parent might well have relented, and cancelled that trip to Texas. My older brother was patching up his transcript in summer school. The focus that usually lay directly on my misbehavior had been eased. But I knew no restraint, or humility, and certainly didn’t operate on a level of trust. So I blew through those last few days the way an unrepentant sinner scours the earth in the time leading up to Judgment Day. But what was Judgment Day anyway? Nothing but a flimsy set of punishments fancified by power mad religious zealots.

Suddenly, it was two weeks till my departure. Then a week. Then three days.

I was a virgin, too. Yeah. I’d planned on doing something about that this summer of summers, along with the stolen radar detector ring Doug was masterminding, throw in some druggy self exploration for good measure. The radar detectors would keep us in money, the money would get us drugs. And the drugs would provide the kind of entertainment aimless youth is prone to seek. I had never committed an actual felony up to that point. When I told Doug, he skipped past the philosophical leap, and went right into the actualities.

It’s easy, he, said, snugging the barrel of a BB pistol into the lower left hand corner of the windshield of a new Saab.

One, two, three, he counted, and pulled the trigger.

The window splintered into spidery veins.

Hit it with your shoe, Doug said.

I took off my sneaker and slugged the windshield with it, and like that, it came away and Doug reached right in, and grabbed the radar detector.

That was my introduction to anonymous crime.

Some days we’d follow five or six cars home, note their address, their parking spot, and return around midnight grab every last one of their radar detectors. Doug would sell them back to a Jeep dealership in Timonium. He didn’t mind sharing that secret with me. He knew I was headed out of town. Hell, he wouldn’t have minded either way. I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a BB gun.

At least I’d gotten some criminal action, in lieu of all the kissing what’s her name and I’d gotten into, we’d been separated from anything more by my beer drinking. There had been one session in the basement of her parent’s house, but she stopped me, not because anyone was home, but because they were going to be home, any minute now, or so she said. Who cares? She did.

So with three days left, after a day of reckless driving with Doug, I sipped on a can of Natty Boh a couple of blocks away from my old man’s apartment. Within an hour fifteen of us were frolicking in the endless pool at Darcy’s parents house. An hour after that me and my virginity parted ways while I stared at what’s her name’s ass bobbing up and down in the mirror on the ceiling. I thought that kind of thing was make believe, fodder of over stimulated minds of the writers for Penthouse forum, but no, there was a mirror up on the ceiling, and I couldn’t hold back. Two minutes in, and that was all she wrote. I love you, I love you, I love you, I said, but whatever she said in response is lost.

Then, I was in Texas.

Texas differed so totally from back east I wilted. Not just from the heat. I wilted in the face of all the expectation, of the loss of my sure thing. Had I been able to focus clearly, maybe I would have known this wasn’t anything but lust, amped up teenage lust rioting through my system. But I knew nothing of nuance, and when a strong emotion hit me, it had two places to go, love or hate. Having not yet learned the delicacy of the grudge fuck, lust was still filed under love.

Then, everything started happening in Spanish, and I charged back into the interior of my head to resurrect my high school Spanish classes. So for the first few days I can’t tell you much of what happened.

But once memory returned, I spent my days furiously trying to fight off blisters on hand and foot. I wore gloves, a hat and button fly jeans because I knew it was important to look the part. Every couple of days another rig arrived, and they’d pull me off of whatever cleaning job to help load the cattle. To do this, they utilized axe handles, baseball bats, tire thumpers, and cattle prods- real electronic prods that zapped a current into the steer when you touched it to the animal and pulled a trigger. ZAP! The cattle were so scared, so full of strange antibiotics, pain and electricity they shat all over you. They’d rip your leg out from under you if you weren’t sanding in the chute right, so I learned right quick how to position myself. The other hands were all Mexicans. And those Mexicans laughed a lot. The work was hard, too hard sometimes, but they kept smiling. I fucked up a lot, and they would laugh at me, even while they fixed whatever mess I’d made. They were constantly moving, laterally, up and down, however you moved, they did it, too, only faster, and with a better economy of flow.

At night I ate with the family in charge of the operation. Ranching Baptists. The prayer before the meal, something I’d long given up, took a while. We thanked God for his son, Jesus, the bounty of the world, for Mexico, our neighbor of the south, for the ice in the iced tea, fuck we thanked him for the leather in the boots on all of our feet.

They gave me a car for my own use. The man of the house pressed the keys into my hand in such a way, staring down the great beak of his nose, he wanted me to know he trusted me more than I did myself. I knew that was bullshit. I didn’t trust anyone more than me. But I took that Ford LTD out for a ride soon as the meal was cleared. Don’t stay out late, he said, but I couldn’t have if I wanted. After eight p.m., my eyes were half slits, by nine, my brain shut off, whether I wanted it to or not.

I found a dirt road beer store that would sell to me. Then I found the spot on the ranch where I could sit and watch the mute indian train the horses occluded from sight of the main house, so I could suck down beer after beer. I’d buy a six pack each night and drink every last one of them, whether I wanted to or not. Some nights the only other American cowhand would come and watch with me.

Right when it got good, right when my personality began to leak out between jobs, after hibernating behind the blisters and the sore ass, and the absolute exhaustion, they told me they were sending me south to Zapata, a border town. Each night I had written a letter to the girl. She had one of those Presbyterian whitewashed names, and I’d say it in my head over and over as I scribbled off another mash note to her. She even wrote back once or twice. I hung on the idea of her letters. Moving south just about crushed me. The real stinger of it all came when I asked the Baptist Rancher to forward my mail. Oh, you ain’t got to worry about mail there, he laughed. There’s no post office. The border runs right through the place. But we will send any of your mail back to your folks.

If I’d tried to argue with him it would have been useless. Who cares about teenage self indulgence? Only self indulgent teenagers.

The ranch was filled with tumbleweeds. A few shacks with weathered wooden slats stuck in place with rusted nails. My bed was a mattress roll on sagging springs. It creaked when you looked at it.

A cowhand named Les was in charge. He pointed to a scoprion nest under the porch of where we’d be staying.

Check your boots in the morning.

Ok.

Got a couple of ponies over that way, he said, by way of explanation. My heart sank even further, until I realized he was kidding. The two horses were full grown, adult sized animals.

Those aren’t ponies.

It’s a euphemism, he said. I shook my head.

No it isn’t.

His head tilted at my challenge.

You God damn right it is.

Nope, I said, and smiled when I pushed the hat back to let him see me grinning at him.

Ok, college boy, what is it, if it ain’t a euphemism?

It’s just plain wrong, I said.

That won Les over. That and the admittance that I’d only recently lost my virginity.

We’re gonna have to do sumpin’ about that.

About what, I told you I already lost it.

That’s true, you can’t unring a bell. But listen, there ain’t nothing sadder than a kid who knows what it’s like and ain’t got the chance to perfect it. See what I mean?

Ten days later we had fenced and posted and blasted the scrub out of that place so it resembled and honest to God workable cattle ranch.

We’re gonna paint the town, Les said.

It was a Friday. He drove his truck and I followed in the LTD. Outside a run down dance hall, a friend of Les’s appeared. He had curly hair and the hinky personality I’d later come to associate with coke heads.

Les tells me you ain’t got much ex-purr-ience.

I slugged Les the same spot where my brother used to ding me with dead arms. He didn’t even flinch. I pulled back to punch him again. He grabbed my fist in mid air. Then dropped it with a laugh.

Now hold on, kid. I’m doing you a solid.

He held out his other palm to reveal a handful of different colored pills. Take these. He handed me a beer. I scooped ‘em into my hand, and started to take them.

Wait. What the fuck is this?

The hinky guy spoke up.

We ain’t aiming to do nothing to you. They just make it so you get your money’s worth.

I didn’t know what he was talking about but I swallowed the pills and downed the beer. I was old hat at taking drugs I didn’t know the effects of. For years I’d spent the better part of houseparties going from bathroom to bathroom in search of that particular pill bottle bliss known as rubber legs. I remember holding up a bottle to my friend Chip. What’s tetracycline do? What the hell is Estrogen? He always answered the same way.

I don’t know, take a handful, see what happens.

My whole life up to that point could be described as such. Take a handful, see what happens.

I headed for the LTD. If the pills came on too strong, I wanted to at least be near a bed I was familiar with.

Where you going, Les said grabbing my collar.

We got someone we want you to meet.

His friend giggled like a little boy. Out of nowhere came this leather skinned woman all of five feet tall. Shaped like a beer keg.

We got you a hooker.

My heart plummeted.

No, I told you guys I already lost my virginity. There’s a girl back home. I got a girl.

Mr. Hinky spoke up once again.

She ain’t got to know word one.

I walked away got in the car and tried to get away, but the keg shaped hooker hopped in before I could lock the doors.

Listen honey, she said, her voice thickly accented, they already pay, it’s cool.

All I could think of was that this was as far away from cool as you could get. Before I had the chance to say anything she went to work on my pants. I tried to push her away, but she was a real pro. Hands, then lips, suction and all.

I don’t know if it was shame or her skill, but I got carried away and arrived at the destination she charted before you could say my whole name. She sat upright in her seat, and smiled at me.

Out you go, I said ever the gentleman, opening the door, and she looked at me bewilderedly, that same God damned head tilt. She got out, though, and I hit the gas and let the force of acceleration shut the door.

She smelled like stale sweat, menthol cigarettes and vinegary tequila. The whole car smelled like that. And it wouldn’t go away.

A few days later, Les and I had finished up on the ranch. The damn car smelled the same but I was ready to go.

You’re gonna go home a real man, I tell you what.

Yeah, why?

Because you got yourself some ex-purr-ience.

I tossed my bag in the back of the LTD’s trunk, next to the full sized spare, a jack, and a miniature fire extinguisher. Les wished me well and raised a can of Pearl. About a mile out of town I pulled over. I had a deodorant stick of Mennen and started rubbing it all over everything, the roof, the passenger door, the floor mat, but mostly, on the seat where the hooker had nested. Over and over and over again till the bar of Mennen was a nub.

I lit a cigarette, and accidentally dropped the match on the seat. The deodorant on the seat caught fire in an instant and flamed up into my face.

I leapt out of the car, instantly remembering the extinguisher in the trunk. I grabbed it, and sprayed the fire which, luckily, went out. The windows were down the whole time. Most of the smoke had blown free of the car. A family drove by in a station wagon. A little tow headed kid watched me put the fire out. Burnt a whole clear through the seat the size of two basketballs.

The car was drivable. Hell it was salvageable. Only the passenger seat was ruined. I drove most of the way back to Lytle clutching the extinguisher, one eye watching the seat to make sure it didn’t catch fire again.

Once I got to town, I dawdled at the dirt road beer storedowning a tall boy for courage, then hit the ranch where I dropped the keys off with the maid. While I packed my bags, the Ranching Baptist appeared in the doorway.

Got a good report from Les, he said, pleased this little experiment the adults had cooked up worked out well. I looked up, and realized I shared nothing in common with him. Any fear I’d had about the hole in the LTD’s seat evaporated then and there.

I had a little trouble with the car.

Happens to the best of us, son.

 

You don’t come of age in any measurable amount of time. Some people find they’re still passing through teenage well into their midlife crisis. Some find they never knew what teenage was to begin with.