thisisrunningyourlifeThe Uses of Nostalgia and Some Thoughts on Ethan Hawke’s Face

Let’s call it the theory of receptivity. It’s the idea, often cited by young people in their case against the relevance of even marginally older people, that one’s taste—in music or film, literature or fine cuisine—petrifies during life’s peak of happiness or nadir of misery. Or maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe a subtler spike on the charts—upward, downward, anomalous points in between—might qualify, so long as it’s formative. Let’s say that receptivity, anyway, can be tied to the moments when, for whatever reason, a person opens herself to the things we can all agree make life worth living in a new and definitive way, whether curiosity has her chasing down the world’s pleasures, or the world has torn a strip from her, exposing raw surface area to the winds.

In Part I we introduced each band member, with particular emphasis on attention-deprived lead singer David Lee Roth. In Part III we tried to surmise what, if anything, can be taken from an Alex Van Halen drum solo, and we somehow survived Dave’s guitar playing in Part VI. In Part VII, I identify the rock I lost.

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In Part I we introduced each band member, with particular emphasis on attention-deprived lead singer David Lee Roth. In Part III we tried to surmise what, if anything, can be taken from an Alex Van Halen drum solo, and we watched Dave throw a tizzy-fit in Part V. In Part VI, let’s try not to cringe as Dave plays guitar.

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In Part I, we introduced each band member, with particular emphasis on attention-deprived lead singer David Lee Roth. Part II delved deeply into the squat as a Van Halen performance tool, and we explored possible explanations for Little Lord Fauntleroth in Part IV. In Part V, let’s enjoy a quiet moment with Eddie before Dave throws a tizzy.

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In Part I, we introduced each band member, with particular emphasis on attention-deprived lead singer David Lee Roth.  Part II delved deeply into the squat as a Van Halen performance tool, and we examined why you damn well better have a good time at a Van Halen concert in Part III. In part four, we now take a closer look at what’s really happening onstage…

Want to start at the beginning? Part I is here.

And you can find the whole series here.

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Two songs into the set, Roth offers a final “WOOW,” and Alex gets his double kick drum rumbling in a way that even a caveman would understand signals “drum solo.” I’ve never been a zealous fan of the drum solo, but I respect that these folks can put together complex rhythms, and without an obvious place for them in pop music, it’s nice for drummers to have this little forum where they can dump their more abstract work on us. All this to say, drum solo time equals pee time for me.

Want to start at the beginning? Part I is here.

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The band opens with a song called “Romeo Delight,” which is the fourth track off their third album Women and Children First. I wouldn’t have been able to name this tune until I remembered it as a favorite off that album. It’s a great “guy song”—a demographic Van Halen never had a problem accommodating—with an aggressive beat and the memorable couplet from the chorus: “I’m taking whiskey to the party tonight/And I’m looking for somebody to squeeze.” The band accentuates the tempo with plenty of first-song-of-the-night regalia: lots of jumping and kicking and gesticulating. Dave struts around like a transvestite on some very expensive amphetamine, bopping his shoulders for the camera, preening, sticking his tongue out.

Late in 2011, I typed “Van Halen” and “live” into YouTube’s search box.

I’d started this habit earlier in the year, diverting myself from whatever I was supposed to be doing by plumbing my rock fan past. I’d wasted entire mornings watching Kiss, Rush and Led Zeppelin videos, each filling me with a nostalgia that, all of a sudden, wasn’t nostalgia anymore. There it was, right in front of me, as close as it had ever been. I watched some of these videos obsessively, bookmarking them, feeling something of that original surge each time. ABBA, Uncle Tupelo, Fastway (Fastway!), the supply was bottomless. It was like finding long-lost friends and those friends having stayed as young and vital as ever.

We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

Like everywhere else, Oslo has had movie posters up for weeks announcing “Alt Ender” for Harry Potter. One of the strangest things about traveling as an American citizen is that—as far as billboards and media are concerned—you could be in some strange town a few miles down the road rather than a strange country. As it got closer to the release date, the signs multiplied (almost magically one might say).

There is a saying.

It’s a saying I wasn’t aware of until a couple of days ago, but apparently it’s a saying nevertheless:

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who love Neil Diamond and those who don’t know they love Neil Diamond.

In fact, I discovered, the original quote comes from the movie What About Bob, in which the title character attributes the failure of his would-be marriage to his ex-fiancee’s love for Neil Diamond.  He resolves:  “There are two types of people in the world: Those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

I prefer the other one.

How are you?

By Mary Hendrie


Hey John,

Thanks for the note on my wall. Your exuberant “hello” was heartening like good soup on a bad day, which isn’t to say yesterday was bad. It was a good day. I heard from you, after all, and work went pretty well. Aside from the hour I spent looking through photos of friends I no longer speak to, I’d say the overall experience for the day was net positive.

But it’s a funny thing when people write on your wall and want to know, “How are you?” It’s a more sincere question than the passing-in-the-grocery-store variety, but it’s loaded, and it can’t really be answered via wall post.

How am I? Well, I’m alive, but somewhat disillusioned. I miss the slow, easy life of our hometown, but I don’t miss the ignorance of some of the people. I quit smoking since we last spoke, and sometimes I wish I hadn’t.

I live near DC, where the air quality is toxic, and I know because they tell me every day on the radio about the air quality — code orange, which means we should all avoid strenuous outdoor activity. I’d like to lose a little weight, but that’s hard to do with all these codes to follow.

Every day, I drive home and scan the radio for familiar songs to fight off the particular loneliness that breeds in my car, and when Morrisey comes on, I belt out all the words, right or wrong.

I have a good job in a boring city, a great husband, and a normal sex life, I think (but I don’t know what’s normal). Oh, and I wrote a book of sorts, but actually it was my grad school thesis, and I can’t bring myself to look at the thing for editing purposes or to print copies to send to agents, so it’s just sitting on my shelf now. Some of it is pretty good.

To tell the truth, when I look at all our old friends on Facebook, the people who are outrageous and fabulous and those whose lives are quiet and generic, I feel I’ve lost something. I’ve been hollowed out a bit, and I don’t know how it happened or if I am alone. I feel I’ve had limbs severed, but all my parts are here. I wasn’t looking when this phantom part of me died, so I’m not really sure what I’m trying to revive.

I have not yet joined the ranks of lonely folks who teach their pet birds to sing pop songs, but I have lost a couple cats. Anyway, I guess birds do it for some people. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t like birds much.

The truth is, I keep waiting, John. I keep thinking something amazing will happen, and then I’ll feel right. Like the book I’m meant to write will just spontaneously come into being as a best seller. Then I’ll feel like the person I was always meant to be. Like my ship has come in, right? But until then … until then …

Well, I took a bike ride after work, and I went down to the grocery store just to see if I could do it. I wanted to go inside and buy some squash to cook for dinner, but I didn’t know what to do with my bike while I went inside, so I just turned around and rode back home. It was fun, anyway.

And tonight, we’ll celebrate my husband’s birthday with a few friends at the house. Our house. Did I tell you I own a house now? We’ll eat crabs and drink beer on the back deck. We have a lot of trees, which are pretty, and a nice view of a little creek. After dinner, we’ll watch a movie. It’ll be fun. Maybe before the night is over someone will end up naked, but most of our friends have outgrown that.

I was about to say life ain’t half bad, but maybe it is, John. But even if it is, 50% is better than some presidents get. And the truth is, at least I have people, ya know? At least I love someone and go outside sometimes. Code orange be damned, right?

So, how are you?

I was amused when it was suggested that my Gravatar wear a fedora.  It happens that I really do have one, a particular piece of headgear that has special meaning to me – not that anyone could have possibly known that.  Note that I didn’t say “I wear one” because I’m not actually much of a hat guy, aside from the occasional utilitarian ball cap.  But I have one.  It’s rather small, well-worn and lives in an old trunk in my basement.  It belonged to an equally small and well-worn man who was a larger-than-life icon in my childhood.

My childhood was pretty bleak, growing up on the edge of poverty and being raised primarily by… well… myself and the television.  My parents were unhappily married and equally unhappy about an accidental pregnancy in their forties, my mother once confessing that she was about to file for divorce (scandalous for their generation) until she found out she was pregnant with me.  They were distant both to each other and to the accident that bound them, a distance reinforced by the fact that both worked just to barely keep our heads above water.  When I say this, I don’t mean it in modern McMansion-we-couldn’t-afford terms.  It was only when my eldest brother kicked in his entire construction paycheck that we had the luxury of paying the rent and affording food for the month.

My mother was a neurotic mess, believing that the best way to handle this late-in-life burden was a mix of barked orders, slapping hands and shrieked dire warnings.  My father was a passive-aggressive sulker who, not wanting to divide his parenting efforts in a similar manner, specialized almost exclusively in ignoring my existence.  On a good day, it almost looked like he was encouraging my intellectual curiosity by meeting my questions with silence or by responding with either “Ask your mother” or “Look it up.”

On the bright side, with both parents working, my life was pretty simple and structured.  From third grade on, I came home directly after school – no time for friends or hanging out, since my mother worked a four-to-midnight shift – and let myself in with my own key.  My mother would then berate me for being late anyway and fly out the door with the usual litany of all the potential deathtraps to avoid – don’t go near the windows (proximity would lead to my being sucked out and plummeting to my death sixty feet below), don’t answer the door (I would be kidnapped, molested and/or murdered), don’t touch the kitchen knives (they’re known for turning on their masters and severing wrists).  Lighting the gas stove to cook my own dinners ironically never came up on that little morbidity and mortality report but whatever.  My father was a floor manager at a retail department store (long since defunct) and, being salaried, was pretty much an indentured servant from opening until closing, not usually getting home until after seven each night, which left eight-year-old me on my own for a good four hours.

On my own except for the man referenced by my mother as an afterthought to her daily Cassandra routine. “If something happens, call Uncle Tony.”

There’s lots of missing and conflicting details about Anthony Gianquitto and it wasn’t until after my cousin died – barely surviving her parents – that anyone attempted a genealogy of that branch of the family.  I always remember Uncle Tony as being “old” – although that was anyone over forty to me back then – but exceptionally hale.  As it turns out, he was born in the late nineteenth century, making him about fifteen years older than he looked.  He married my father’s half-sister somewhere between world wars and sired one child, a daughter.  But he became the father-figure to most of the neighborhood, myself included.

He was a small, wiry little Sicilian monkey of a man. Looking back and picturing reference points, I’d probably guess he was about 5’6″ and I’d be shocked if he was ever more than a buck ten in weight. He was quick with a smile and a laugh – always genuine – and spoke the most horrifically broken English. He was gentle and generous, understanding and philosophical.  He also once bit off a much larger rival’s ear in a fight over my aunt’s hand.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

During World War Two, he wasn’t allowed to serve in our armed forces – perhaps because of ethnicity, perhaps age – but he was a patriot as only an immigrant can be and, in an effort to serve his adopted homeland, he got whatever job he could, eventually literally working on the war machine of America as a machinist.  It was a different world back then, one in which “Italians need not apply” was still a recent and socially acceptable attitude.  Combining that bigotry with the fact that Italy had sided with Hitler, it wasn’t entirely unsurprising that Tony was threatened on his second day.  So, on his third day, he went to work, grabbed a flat of scrap steel, ground a crude edge on a knife that would’ve given Jim Bowie a hard-on, beat the shit out of the guy that threatened him the previous day and generally announced that he would gut like a fish anyone that tried to keep him from doing his part “for-A-may-ree-ka” (it was all one word, the way he spoke it) from that point forward. He carried it under his shirt every day. One of my brothers inherited that knife when Tony passed. I may have to steal it some day.

That was the only tale I’d ever heard that involved him being employed.  I have no idea what job skills he possessed or what he did for a living before he retired but I had unwavering faith that there was nothing in the universe this gargantuan little man couldn’t handle, negotiate or make right.  He was – and I suppose, on some level, still is – my idol and the closest thing I ever found to a superhero.  A superhero whose only costume was his fedora.

Tony was always a part of my life and I don’t remember ever seeing him outdoors – even on family trips to the beach – without that fedora on his dome nor do I remember ever seeing him indoors without it in ready reach. It is visible in almost every picture I have of him.  I don’t recall any transition, either. It was like this binary magic trick: outdoors on – poof! – indoors off.  I would visit downstairs early (he lived on the third floor of our apartment building, we lived on the fifth) and find him already awake, almost always dressed in dark slacks, a “wife-beater” undershirt and a simple dress shirt over it. Tucked in, of course – Tony was no cafone. You could tell the seasons by the length of the sleeves and how many buttons were undone. You could also tell the time of day by his seated activity. If he was sitting in the kitchen, reading the newspaper, having espresso and a single slice of toasted Italian bread, it was morning. If he was sitting in the dining room, having espresso with a few fingers of Sambuca, it was mid-morning. If he was siting in the livingroom, watching a baseball game, having a Miller Lite (I worship him, so I forgive this) and a slice of prosciutto on a single slice of untoasted Italian bread, it was noon.  If he was sitting in the dining room, eating like a longshoreman who’d just come off the Bataan Death March and washing it down with more espresso and Sambuca, it was five o’clock. I usually had to go back home before I could see what he was eating and drinking to denote bedtime.

Somewhere in the midst of these repasts, several times each day, he would make the rounds.  I used to say that he was the mayor of our neighborhood but that doesn’t show enough respect or convey the love he inspired.  He wasn’t some mere elected official.  He was at the very least our beloved knight errant if not our fedora-crowned king.  Uncle Tony taught me the difference between power and authority.  Keep in mind, there are some… “unsavory” relatives in my family.  I don’t mean muggers and pickpockets.  I mean guys with interesting nicknames who tended to spell “family” with a capital “F”.  Uncle Tony not only wasn’t one of them, he used to routinely run them off.  His wife, my aunt, was pretty much estranged from her family because this corrupt, murderous, violent pack of classic Guinea gangsters was scared shitless of this affable little monkey-man, who possessed a genial forthrightness that camouflaged a hidden but unstoppable intensity.  You did not want to piss him off.  Remember that whole ear thing.

Uncle Tony would don his fedora and just wander the neighborhood. He’d walk the tenth-of-a-mile to the local bodega and buy the morning edition.  He’d chat with the owner, with half the customers as they stopped in on the way to work, with the other shop owners along the block.  In a city suffering from severe racial tensions and in which there were some places you just didn’t go unless you were “the right kind”, Uncle Tony walked with relaxed impunity.  He would identify people as “Chinaman”, “Portoriccan”, “da Black” but they were statements of obvious features, like saying “the one-legged bald guy”.  There were no connotations – people were just people and you treated them with human respect until they earned your contempt, which you delivered with equal sincerity.  I went with him a few times and it was a veritable cacophony of “Hey! Tony!” the whole way.

And he knew their names. He knew their family stories. He knew their problems. He remembered every detail and asked – sincerely – “Howz-i-goin wit dat…[fill in the personal problem here]?”  And it wasn’t a manipulative thing nor was it a “community organizer” thing.  It was just… Tony.  Every person he talked to was his best and only friend yet was nearly forgotten as soon as he saw the next face.  He listened, he heard, he offered a little advice and a large side order of “So what? Life’s good!”  He was totally invested yet completely detached and everybody felt better after talking to Tony.  They called him “Boss”, like the rest of us in the family did.  I’ll always remember that.  Those “other relatives” might be called that, too, but they demanded it.  It was extorted respect, borne of fear.  My uncle?  It was tribute.  It was honor.  It was respect, freely given.

Of course, he had his quirks. He was utterly baffled by my Irish mother’s resistance to his giving her seven-year-old a glass of wine with dinner.  He would smuggle me shots of Sambuca on Sunday morning.  For some reason, he treated Bulova watches with absolute reverence and would occasionally show me his, ensconced in a mahogany box, like he was revealing the Ark of the Covenant.  He always carried a pocketknife.  Nothing “tactical”, just a simple folder – but I saw him cut through rope with it like it was a fucking lightsaber.  The admonition to “don’ never touch da blade” came out of his mouth every time the knife came out of his pocket.  He taught me how to oil a sharpening stone and hone a razor’s edge.  He taught me a lot of things, all by example.  About honor, about respecting others, about being true to your word, about the irrelevancy of odds and effort when you’re doing what you believe is right.  About forgiveness and compassion.

When I was an early teen, he saw that I was drifting towards “certain bad elements” and did his best to keep tabs on me.  When one of my less-proud moments came to light, I found I wasn’t the least bit afraid of the law nor did I care what my parents thought.  But the idea that I had disappointed Tony devastated me.  I bawled like a baby when I apologized to him, even though he wasn’t at all involved in the incident.  He waited until I was done, patted me on the thigh, smiled, and simply said, “Don’ be sorry. Jus’ be safe.”

When I was sixteen, he had a stroke and lost the ability to speak.  It didn’t seem to impact his English skills too terribly and had no effect on his daily neighborhood interviews.  There’s something to be said for the expressive qualities of Italian hand gestures.  His wife eventually had a brain aneurysm and died instantly on the bathroom floor.  I was in my late teens by then and the only one of my clan still in the neighborhood but I was at work.  He hollered and gestured out the window for help for over three hours before somebody called the cops and they came to investigate.  It wouldn’t have helped my aunt any had I been there but… that took a toll on him, which took a toll on me.  He was never the same after that.

My cousin, then a “spinster” in her mid-fifties…. Well, I won’t speak ill of her because I can’t imagine what she was going through but I don’t know what the fuck she was thinking.  She put Tony in a nursing home.  Each of my siblings and I begged her to let him live with us.  Nothing doing.  And it was worse than the fucking dog pound.  Every time I’d visit him, he’d start putting on his slacks and fedora and I had to explain – again – that he had to stay and I wasn’t taking him home.  I was a nineteen year old kid and screwed up in my own right but to this day I am shamed to my soul that I stopped going to see him because those scenes were just too hard on my heart.  Whatever I may have accomplished in my life since then, I will always consider myself a coward for that.

The nurses loved him and, even nearing the century mark, he was doing his best to return the favor.  Hardly a year later, though, he was gone.  They said he was in the best mood ever, had a nice dinner, flirted with them (hand gestures only, mind you), waved goodbye, closed his eyes and just died.  They said he was still smiling when they took him away.

A few years later, when my cousin drank herself to death, I flew back out and helped go through the apartment.  There wasn’t much I wanted.  Just one thing, really, since the knife had already been spoken for.  And now I have a trunk in my basement and at its bottom is a very small-headed fedora.  It’s seen better days but that’s okay.  It’s not for wearing anymore.  It’s for looking at.  For talking to.  For confessing my weaknesses and recounting my proudest moments.

I am now a forty-year-old man and have led, I suspect, a far different life than Tony had, with a lot more time spent in shades of moral grey.  I have eschewed an urban environment for the quiet privacy of suburbia and the quasi-rural.  And I have little use for a watch of any brand.  But I have a reputation for being garrulous and gregarious and am well-known at the shops and restaurants I frequent.  And I remember – and actually care about – all the small details of the lives of the people there as well.  I know the busboy, Brian, spent seven years in the navy; that Melissa, the barrista, is fluent in Russian; that David, the manager, is studying to be a doctor and is a volunteer medic at night; that Devon runs a girls’ lacrosse camp in Florida every summer; that Steve wants to move to Oregon with his wife to make a clean break and start over.  I am trusted because I listen well and take great pains to keep secrets hidden, even when revealing them would hurt only others rather than myself.  And I have involved myself in people’s problems because it was the right thing to do, even though it may have cost me much and profited me nothing.  And I carry a simple, rather sharp pocketknife – among other things – with me everywhere.  But I only wear a fedora on this website because I am not much of a hat guy.

I do sorely miss a man that was, though.

I went to a high school that was pretty lax about class requirements. Students were strongly encouraged to take at least three years’ worth of every major subject: English, Social Studies, Math, Science. But the word “encouraged” is key.

My guidance counselor was just too sweet for her own good. Or I guess for my good, really, because once I realized that the requirements were flexible, it was goodbye to Math and Science. Anything with numbers or facts? Peace out, see ya later.

What I loved was English. I was always reading. You know that phrase people (it seems like only old ladies, actually) always say, like: “That Billy always has his nose in a book! Such a bookworm!” I was that bookworm. Literally, though; at almost all times, I walked around with my big nose in a little book. I would read on the bus, step down, and keep reading as I walked across the parking lot to class. I looked like Belle in The Beauty and the Beast, walking through the halls like I was strolling around Paris with a book in front of my face and a croissant in the other hand. If mentioning a non-Pixar animated movie is too archaic, by the way, and the reference has been lost on you, go to 1:45 in this vid. The chick ecstatically sliding across the bookshelf, that’s me.

I also loved languages. Beginning in seventh grade, we had to take a language and our choices were Latin, Spanish, or French. The hot girls took French, the apathetic masses took Spanish, and the parent-pleasing “intellectuals” took Latin. Which one do you think I chose?

After three years of Latin, I liked learning a language so much that I added Spanish, too. I dropped Math in order to do so. Then, junior year, I dropped Science, too, in order to double up in English. Our choices that year were Classical Lit—in which we read Homer, Aeschylus, and other dead Greeks, or AP (Advanced Placement) Lit, which involved Joyce, Dickens, Dostoevsky and blablabla, you know those dudes. The literary giants.

I couldn’t just choose one. I elected to take no Science, no Math, and to make up for the void by adding something called an “independent study.” For my independent study, I sat in a small storage closet with my favorite English teacher (poor, kind man) and we would discuss short stories from the 1800s.

So, to reiterate the list here: I was taking two sections of foreign languages, two sections of English, and a special private study of Hawthorne and Poe. I was a huge fucking nerd.

Senior year, I wanted to do it again—no Math or Science. But my guidance counselor insisted that colleges might not like the discrepancy, and that I should really choose at least a Science class. Of all things, we went with AP Biology, based on the logic that I had taken regular Bio freshman year and scraped by with a B, and hey, it was just memorization, after all. Kingdom, Phallus, Order, Genius, right? Lots of lists and stuff.

On the first day, the teacher announced to us, “This is AP-level Biology, I expect AP-level work and commitment.” Fuuuuck. Then she passed out a huge book and said we would cover a chapter a week and have a big multiple choice exam every Friday.

For the first test, I studied for a little while, memorized the bullshit, and felt pretty good after taking it. She handed them back Monday, and I got an 85. I was pretty happy with that. 85 was a B, and hey, if I could get a straight B in the class, that was okay.

I felt really good after taking the second test. I felt like I maybe even brought up my score from the first one, maybe got into the 90s range. But on Monday, she handed them back and I got a 74. “Hmm,” I thought, “That’s a bit of a drop. But it’s not so bad, and I’ll pull it up next time.”

For the third test, I studied harder than before. I made flashcards, and had my parents quiz me. I felt good. After actually taking the test, though, I didn’t feel so good. I just wasn’t gettin’ this science stuff! We got the test back Monday, and sure enough, I got a 65. Uh-oh. That’s like a D, right? I was upset, to say the least. I wanted to burn my Bio textbook. A year later, in college, I would get the chance to burn a book, but it would be Eccoci, my text from first-year Italian. As I held the flame to its angry pages, I closed my eyes and thought about AP Bio. Note: No books were harmed in the making of this TNB post (nor even in the photo below; after holding the lighter there long enough for a picture, I wussed out).

Meanwhile, we were nearing the deadline to drop a class. Soon, I’d be in too deep. But I also knew I couldn’t really drop the class, because I needed a science corurse.

So, for the fourth week’s test, I really kicked into high gear. I started studying a week in advance, read through each chapter twice, and tried to think of any surprise, trick questions. This time, I wasn’t fucking around.

At this point, you know where the story is headed, don’t you?

I took the test, and boy, it went great. I knew all of the questions with confidence, and walking out of class Friday, I thought that if anything, I had been overprepared!

After completing the test, I felt so good about it that after school that very afternoon, I actually went to the Science office to approach the teacher. I wanted to find out my grade, and I knew that even though we didn’t get tests returned until Monday, they were all graded with the Scantron machine (“Use #2 pencils only! Darken each rectangle fully! No errant pencil marks!”) and therefore took a teacher thirty seconds and zero effort to score each one. She had probably already graded them.

The teacher’s name was Miss Tyson. “Hi Miss Tyson!” I said when I walked into the Science office. “Hello, Daniel,” she said quietly. She looked grim.

Hey, so, I know we won’t get back them til Monday, but I thought maybe if you had already scored them, I could find out my grade from today’s test now? I just feel really good about it and wanted to see mine early!

She looked at me, and said, “Are… are you serious?”

“Yeah!” I said with genuine, doe-eyed enthusiasm.

She looked around the office at the other science teachers like she was embarrassed, and she said, “I’m going to write your score down for you on a piece of paper.”

“Gee golly, okay!” I said, excited to see my A+ grade.

Then she took a little corner of scrap paper and brought out her pen. I still remember it today; it was a purple Le Pen. Felt tip, gorgeous ink. A really nice pen! She wrote something on the scrap of paper and then slid it over to me with her hand covering it. Then she slowly lifted her hand.

On the piece of paper, she had written the number 47.

I gave her a puzzled look and asked, “Oh, was it graded out of 50 this time?”

“No, that’s your score out of a hundred,” she said.

I smiled, and thought for a second. I probably thought about what I would eat for my after-school snack. Then I looked up at her and said, “Okay, will you sign this drop sheet?”

When my father and mother met in 1957, he gave her a fake name. John LaSalle, he called himself, claiming he was visiting from New York to help out a friend who had just opened a bar and needed an experienced hand. He was only in Chicago for a few weeks, he claimed, so obviously he wasn’t looking for anything “serious.” This was, apparently, good enough for her.

My mother was twenty-five, which seems preposterously young in 2009, but in 1957 most of her girlhood friends were already married with children in elementary school, whereas my mother lived alone in a studio on Rush Street, occasionally singing and playing piano in jazz clubs (though she could not read music), working as a secretary by day, and sometimes falling into pits of depression she describes as “black periods,” in which she wrote morose poetry full of lines like “the faltering foot of man who wades/into the guideless brew” and “go my chain.” She had, though you were not supposed to admit it in those days, been through her share of men, including a broken engagement in her late teens. She had traveled the country with two traveling salesmen who dined on steak and made her eat burgers, selling No-Doze machines to truck stops. In California, she had briefly worked as a ballroom dance instructor and been so poor she lived on Hershey bars, but now she was back in Chicago, where she had been raised, with a stable job. Though not thin by today’s standards, my mother was a beautiful woman, with a striking resemblance to a young Isabella Rossellini. Her boobs were something to behold. A semi-famous actor once tried to acquire her as a mistress, but she was not cut out for that life. She had too rigid a moral center, or too much fear, or both, to her betterment or her detriment.

Though this is not ostensibly “about” my mother, I guess what I’m trying to say is that she, while not perfect, was in my father’s estimations “above his station.” Even now that she is seventy-seven, he seems unclear what exactly she is doing with the likes of him . . . though as with most men, this does not mean he has always treated her well. Besides his lacking hair and being older, my father had never lived outside Chicago or even graduated from the eighth grade. More importantly, he was shy to a fault whereas my mother was—and still is—the type of person almost everyone immediately likes. She is outgoing and palpably kind, and she asks a lot of questions (which seem polite and interested if you don’t know her well, albeit bordering on Inquisitional if you know her very, very well.) She’s easy-going and accommodating, avoiding confrontation as though it were a venomous snake coiled at her heel, but that her eternal optimism makes her believe she can easily sidestep and outrun. In public in their early days, she was taken perpetually for his daughter: a mistake they milked with rare and comic perversity.

Yet for all her smiles and pleasantries, my mother is a deeply secretive, easily wounded person who prefers getting to know others to being known herself. She had always been popular as a teen, and into her early twenties—a party girl who won a contest for the prettiest legs; who danced on car roofs in the rain with other bawdy young girls and lived in apartments with a string of roommates . . . but by her mid-twenties, many of those friendships had faded away. Her relationships (platonic and romantic) seemed based more on surface fun than true intimacy, so by the time she met my father in 1957, she was acutely lonely, though she may not have put it that way, or even realized it. She was, as they say, “ripe.”

They met on a blind date. A friend of my dad’s (who was, incidentally, an ex boyfriend of my mom’s) gave him her number after my father chauvinistically proclaimed that women knew nothing about jazz—the fellow said my mother could give him a run for his money. So they met at a coffee shop at two in the morning, because that was when my father got off work. Their conversation lasted into morning, when they moved to the restaurant across the street for breakfast. Afterwards, I am fairly sure they adjourned to my mother’s apartment for sex, though I was (thank god) never told this explicitly. Certainly, they could not have gone to my father’s place, as he lived with his parents in the same small two-bedroom in which he’d been born, in a rundown Italian neighborhood far from glamorous Rush Street. My mother, of course, did not know this. She did not even know he was Italian—which, if you have ever seen my father’s nose, does not speak highly of her powers of observation. When a couple of weeks later, my mother once called him at his “friend’s” bar to tell him she’d be late for their date, she was told there was “no John LaSalle” there, but that the owner, John Frangello, might know who he was and where to find him.

Hence, my father’s ass was busted—my mother recognized his voice and slammed down the phone in fury. Later that night, my father showed up at her door with champagne and cheeseburgers, and for reasons lost to history yet eternal among lonely women in any time, my mother forgave him.

Four years later, they married. If they are both still living in August 2011, it will be their fiftieth wedding anniversary. My father would be eighty-nine.

Two quick details about their courtship, just because:

1) They not only met based on a lie of identity, but married based on one. In order to snag my mother a vacation from work—her boss was rather smitten with her and never gave her any time off—my parents told the man that they were going on a honeymoon to Europe. Only once the other secretaries at her office threw her a shower and gave her presents did my mother realize that everyone would expect her to come back from vacation with a new surname. She had two options: quit her job, or get married. As an Executive Secretary, her position was a coveted one for a girl with no college degree, so it seemed a shame to lose it. “Well then,” my father said, “we’d better get married,” and off to City Hall they went.

2) My father had a predilection for oral sex and was obsessed with giving it to my mother. (Why my mother told me this would obviously be fodder for another post, entitled “Too Much Information: Shit My Mother Told Me That I Never Needed to Know,” but there it is.)

But again, as this is not the story of my mother, neither is it the story of their dating years, their sex life or—later—the lack thereof. Those are stories that are fun, or at least funny, to tell, and that I have explored somewhat in my fiction. Today, however, is my father’s 88th birthday. And so, perhaps, this is a harder story to tell: one that eludes me even as I am beginning it. The story of how you get from point A to point Y. This is a story of knowing point Z—end point—is hovering nearby, forever around the corner, yet not precisely when it will hit. The story of the wild ride, and when, sometimes, that ride goes on without you, long after you are nauseated from the curves and would simply rather get off.

How do you tell a story like that? Apparently, here, you start with the easy stuff. You start off slow, and hope that somehow you can circle things around just enough to create a pastiche, a collage, a portrait that resembles a whole, even if it can never be exactly complete.

“Getting old is a kick in the ass, honey,” my father told me when he was maybe seventy. By then, he had already outlived all his brothers spare one (long dead now), as well as his parents and most of his male friends—old customers from his bar or other bar owners, musicians, or occasional Mobsters whom alcoholism, drug use, high blood pressure or violent lifestyles got killed early. His fifties and sixties were full of wakes, and by the time he entered his seventies, he was already a Last Man Standing of sorts. When our longtime neighbor, reputed Mob boss Joe Lombardo, was let out of prison in the late 1980s, he drove by my father’s house honking his horn and waving, making a loud show of his “respect” for my father, one of the neighborhood patriarchs.

Every night my father dreams of his dead brothers. His dreams are full of barren, frozen grounds and solitary old men, dragged off by hostile crowds in the back of carts. His dreams are full of death imagery and ghosts. He never dreams of me or my mother. In his dream life, he has been standing alone for nearly two decades now.

“The show’s over,” he’s been telling us for years. And then, in the next breath, looking at my daughters, age 9, “I wish I could be around to see them get married.”

Where am I going with this? Where am I going?

I have given myself the week to figure it out. This is the thing about “youth,” even middle-aged-youth: I can still believe in the luxury of time. And so I’ll try again tomorrow.