Wednesday, November 19, 2014

THE ONLY LIFE HE’S EVER KNOWN


He was born under Eisenhower skies,
by a Kerouac Stream.
Jack helped build the Pentagon,
Ike built the highways we drive on.

John Gorka


Part I – The Ties That Bind

Born in 1957 into the post-war prosperity of the late fifties and the Dr. Spock permissiveness of the sixties, as the forgotten middle child in an Irish, German, Romanian middle class family, it’s no wonder he grew up as an intoxicated, anal-retentive gypsy wanderer.  Blissfully located between sweltering New York City and the simmering Long Island bays and beaches, his safe suburban Ozzie and Harriet home allowed him to wander far and wide and experience everyone and everything he could, as long as he was home by six for dinner. 

At an early age, his school teacher mother Nancy would escort him across his busy suburban road and he would be gone for the day.  He would holler for her to cross him back when he returned or he would lay down and gaze at the puffy clouds and nap on the grass until she found him for dinner.  All the houses on his street looked the same but he had no problem finding his own since it was full of love and light, warmth, humor and family. 

When he came home from fishing the Great South Bay one day, he proudly showed his mom the three fish he caught for her, swimming lazy circles in his bucket.  After dinner he checked them out and they didn’t look good.  He woke in the middle of the night to find one fish belly up and the other two suffocating.  He woke his mom up crying and she put on her bathrobe and drove him to the Bay so he could put the fish back.  His brother called him a sissy but his mom called him brave.

To the joy of his mother, dismay of his dad, and aggravation of his teachers, he was a comedian, class clown and a smart ass.  He was bored with school and had more fun making his classmates laugh with his wit and couched wisdom.  He incurred the wrath of his teachers, brothers, nuns and priests and withstood their physical and mental abuse as part of the game.  He developed a manipulative, optimizing, faux respect for authority and did very well dealing with nuns, police, coaches, bullies and bums.  Leading with humor became a good way to diffuse, engage and befriend almost anyone.

When he comically refused to remove his clip-on Christmas tie for breakfast as instructed, and then proceeded to drip the traditional lamb kidney gravy all over it, his holiday–stressed mother ripped it from his neck and submerged it directly into the gravy boat.  The family all looked nervously at each other for a second and then broke into an empathetic howl.  They were a tight knit clan where humor ruled and independence was encouraged, but in the end they had some problems letting go.

His father, Arty the Smarty (the best daddy on the block) taught him how to work hard, ride a bike, ski and skate, throw and catch almost anything and to love water.  His dad was a public works director and a water guy.  He often took him to the beach and into the ocean surf.  Jones Beach, off Long Island’s Atlantic shore, was a huge public beach built in the Depression with bathhouses and swimming pools, which were served by elegant Parkways for the automotive-mobile middle class. 
At any one time it could be filled with half a million bathers from the suburbs or the BBQ borough city folks (Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens).  It was a huge expanse of fine sand and surf where it was sometimes difficult to find a spot to place a blanket or play on a wave.  It looked like a human ashtray with a million butts stuck in the sand.  Later he learned to ride his bike or hitch-hike to the beach and eventually drive his own car, but that wasn’t half as fun as going with the family. 

His dad taught him to ride the big waves and dive under them or flip out the back door when they got too big.  Despite the power and persistency of water, the wave would always let him up and the undertow would always release him.  He became so comfortable with water and the sea that one day he fell asleep on an inner tube and floated out to sea so far that they had to get a boat to go out and wake him up and bring him home.  He caught hell for that.  Water, like dad, was to be respected and revered but never feared.

His dad also took him to the burnt-out South Bronx, in the dead of winter, to witness the poverty and filth of the failed social-engineering of the neighborhoods around Yankee Stadium, and to watch the New York Football Giants.  New York seemed to him to be black and white in the 60’s and barely brown in the 70’s, sepia colored like an old photograph.  His father held his hand and slowed his pace so he could keep up in the mob-scene melee around the stadium before game time.  There is no place colder in the world than a steel and concrete stadium on a cold and damp December day but there is nothing warmer than a fathers ungloved hand, gentle guidance and unspoken understanding.  His sadness and fear of the city evaporated when they entered the arena and he saw the phosphorescent Technicolor of the players and playing field contrasted with the dark and gloomy New York Courthouse buildings overhanging the outfield bleachers.  The dichotomies and injustice of the world loomed equally strange.

One of his first and fondest memories of The City, as Manhattan is called, was when they dropped his grandparents off at the Queen Elizabeth luxury linear on the west side docks that lined all of Manhattan Island in those days.  He was barely 6 or 7 but he and his brother explored all of the ships nooks and crannies.  They contemplated stowing away in the lifeboats and going to Europe with grandma, wherever that was.  Then a serious sailor in a silly hat came around ringing a bell and yelling, ‘All ashore that’s going ashore’, whatever that meant.  They quickly found their parents, disembarked down a slippery gangplank over spooky, murky waters and waved goodbye to his grandparents and the sailing ship as it pulled away.

They headed home over the Brooklyn Bridge, a bridge older than grandma herself, and drove up the Belt Parkway towards the Verrazano Narrows in the pewter twilight.  He looked with childlike wonder across New York Harbor at Staten Island, the Statute of Liberty and a new giant bridge they were building, the largest bridge in the world.   The unfinished roadway decks reached for each other from the towers on opposite shores, across an impossible gap.  Just at that moment, sailing under the massive unfinished bridge was grandma’s boat, chugging out to sea.  My God, he thought to himself, this is a wild wonderful world we live in.

His older brother Mark was his sibling rival and they fought as relentlessly as bear cubs.  Irish twins, he was always known as the little one and had to prove himself constantly to the big boys.  When they sat their bikes on a big hill looking down at a steep slope and daring each other to ride it, he dropped in and center punched the thing, on his tricycle, without hesitation, crashing dramatically breaking his arm and smashing his balls ignominiously.  His proud older brother brought him home and held him while he cried on the back stoop until his father came home from work, since they dare not go inside and disturb his mother’s nap.  His conservative and dutiful older brother followed his father’s lead and advice, married his college sweetheart, had 2.5 children and grew to be a lifelong soldier.  They eventually grew to understand each other with their different outlooks on life and, after many years, made their peace.

With his friends on Long Island he would make forts from old refrigerator boxes, climb the snow plowed hills like it was the Antarctic and follow the garbage truck around, just to find out where they went.  He sought out the small pockets of woods and wildness where he would run and ride, build forts and clubhouses and rustle in the crunchy dry leaves when winter approached.  He ran around in the woods as his alter ego, Rojo the Indian boy, with his invisible dog Woody and they were friends to all the animals in the woods. 

School was social and easy and always full of good friends.  The guys and girlfriends were always his focus with the fear-of-anything being the furthest thing from his mind.  Summers were spent swimming and sailing on the coast and winters included short forays to The City and the woods of New England to ski and hike and experience the wilderness that called to him. 

Gina Sweeney and Willy Hooper, were his constant childhood summer companions.  They would laugh constantly and bounce endlessly on the diving boards, smoke cigarettes, drink stolen beer and make out in the woods behind the boats. They shared everything and when they tied in an important swim race, Willy tore the ribbon in half on the podium and gave him his share. 

Willy lived in a huge three story house with a baseball field in the front lawn, across the street from the famous Amityville Horror house where they used to ring the doorbell and run at night when they got bored.  One night they rang it three times in a row and ran and on the third ring the owner sprang out of the door and chased them around the lawn, all of them screaming bloody murder.

Willy went to Amityville high school, sometimes, and when asked one day on the boardwalk what his Varsity letter was for (meaning football, basketball or baseball), Willy replied that the “A” on his jacket stood for “Outstanding”.    When Willy got an old red Honda motorcycle they went home to see it.  After spending a night drinking warm beer on a log in the woods, they just sat on it in his garage.  When they tipped over and lay laughing hysterically on the floor of the garage, pinned under the bike, Willy’s father came down and asked them indignantly what the hell they thought they were doing.  They unabashedly answered “we are going for a ride.”  He said farewell to Willy the night before college when they waved goodbye at the light on Sunrise Highway and Willy made a right to go back to Amityville for good and he made a left towards the rest of the world. 

When Gina blossomed into a fine young woman, she became his first partner and lover, and they shared a mutual respect and attraction that remains today.  Gina loved gymnastic dancing, Winnie the Pooh and him, not necessarily in that order.  They spent several years rolling around in her basement listening to Cat Stevens and playing Heart and Soul duets on her piano.

 He dated other women, frequently long term and usually named Mary, who were generally way over his head but he could not ever commit.  You accept the love you think you deserve, they say, and he typically broke it off before it got ugly but they often remained lifelong friends.  To him, there is a thick line between love and hate.  He discovered sex early, passion shortly after and love eventually but the importance of partnership and companionship remained paramount in his choices and commitments.

He naturally adopted an east coast work ethic and in third grade he could not wait to bust out of class to deliver his newspapers like a real working man.  Raking leaves, shoveling snow, mowing lawns became his obsession but he never really paid any attention to the money.  It got deposited and recorded with a stamp in his little bankbook, savings for college.  He learned that the middle class was where the fun was and where he wanted to be.  Leisure time was the bane of the upper and lower classes. 

They belonged to Yacht Clubs, summered in the Hamptons and went to trophy private schools but they lived hand to mouth and loved it.  His sister used to claim that they were so poor they couldn't afford a can so for fun at night they played kick- tree.  He worked for a summer for his dad’s town water department for two dollars an hour, painting fire hydrants by walking around with a little wagon with a can of red and white paint.  At school he was a cook in the dining hall and worked in the engineering lab.  He moved up to lifeguard for a few years, the world’s best job, but became a victim of his own ambition and parental expectations, accepting a summer intern job, and an introduction to reality, as a traffic engineer in New York.

When he got his first Sting-Ray bike his horizons expanded over all of Long Island and when he got a car they stretched to the entire country.  When he got an education, the world was his oyster and he took a big bite.  No matter where you grow up, whatever climate or landscape, it becomes your norm, your base, from which you explore the rest of the world and judge the rest of your life.  The voice in your head, the narrator of your life, your conscience, your soul, grows and changes and matures with you but it is always consistently you.

High school was a blur of beers and books, buddies and Brothers so when he busted out and took off the uniform tie he wore for 12 years, he had the confidence of naive youth and the credentials of a successful slacker.  He had learned that even bullies and phonies, criminals and douche-bags look good in a tie so he swore to never wear one again to hide who he truly was. College was the same oppressive academically fueled bacchanalia and confirmed his dabbling nature as a reluctant enthusiast and the value of a noncommittal token effort.  

From the gritty Holden Caulfield prep schools of New York to the bucolic, ivy quads of Notre Dame, he developed the left and right sides of his personality.  The strict discipline and character building environments of home and school served him well without damaging his fragile ego, inflated self-esteem or his considerable false-confidence.  He found out how to learn in grammar school, how to think in prep school and how to solve in college, one step at a time.   

He did everything his parents expected of him, and more, but realized he would never make them completely happy.  A lover of writing, books and New England, he compliantly went to Notre Dame for his mother and majored in engineering for his father.  At his graduation he was berated by them, after an honor ceremony where he won a special prize for technical writing, for being the only person on the stage who was ‘not wearing a tie’.  They could almost appreciate the man he had become but not approve of it in their controlled generational, frame of reference.  Love was unconditional, approval had to be earned.

So he struck out on his own, to find happiness for himself.  He left his girlfriend standing at the curb with his best friend, in the soft summer rain, and returned to oppressive New York for three days after graduation to drop off most of his baggage.  The golden boy, turned black sheep, he couldn't even stay long enough for his own graduation party.  He was confused and lonely, in his old home and in the greatest city in the world.  So he hit the road to the west coast to start his first job, life adventure and an endless road trip. 

Part 2 - The Road Home...   Next week.