Posts Tagged ‘Athens’

Jerry and Jenny: Protection

August 4, 2016

School was a drag, from the earliest years of kindergarten to last frayed edges of my psyche as my high school years petered to a shambling halt, all the while my innards groaned every morning I drove the 1978 Corolla to the school. It was as if I had to nail myself upon a cross made of bricks, racism and corn every morning, my stomach swaying as I bounded over the soft rolling hills, past epic farms of corn and soybeans. Just like a John Cougar Mellencamp record. The first awakening to the unfairness of childhood, stabbed my brain as if I were shrouded in an invisible cloak that covered all the innocence of a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy of five. Standing outside Ms. K’s doorway as children ran to waiting yellow school buses, metal tubes of laughter, nausea and the sweet pungent scent of childhood who would roll through the nearby neighborhoods, dropping children off as if they were bits of fleshy, noisy mail, I turned slowly when Ralph Scarmack called my name. I knew him, sort of anyway, as much as a kindergartener could know another little kid, his father worked with my father, this much I knew. “Maybe we can be friends?” I thought, as I smiled at him. As my brother stayed in school all day, he was a first grader, I spent the afternoons waiting for him to walk down Sunnyside Drive. I’d sit on the porch, or set up various bulky green Army men under the porch and pretend the Daddy-Long Legs would attack them, perhaps I’d ride my Big-Wheel down to the corner and spy out for him. Big black plastic wheels flicking bits of gravel behind me, I was a blur tearing up the sidewalk.

“Hi Ralph” I looked at him with the hope that I had a new friend. Eyeing me up and down, he snarled, “I’m going to kick you in the shins!” Looking down, I noticed he wore brown socks underneath brown leather shoes, complete with brown stiff laces. Looking back up, I tilted my head, much like a puppy and wondered what he just said. Biting his bottom lip, he raised his foot backwards and with all his little-boy force struck my right shin as hard as he could. Collapsing on the sidewalk, he stood over me, “don’t tell anybody or I’ll do it again tomorrow!” Water filled my eyes, while a lump the size of a loaf of bread rose in my throat, choking on shame and confusion, I was not going to cry. I turned heel and limped away, trying hard not to but he had managed to peel away a small layer skin on the bottom of my leg, small creases of blood dripped down my leg. Maplewood Avenue had never appeared so long, the cut hurt to the touch and I soon made it home. Crawling under the porch, I stacked the Army men in rows, they would wage battle against the ants and other insects. The feeling of being an outsider was literally hammered into me that fall day.

Every year, autumn would slump from childhood summers like a slow moving fog, rising around skinny ankles, winding its promise of long hot school days, sweating while August afternoons mocked us through thick glass windows, and chalk-scented air soon it would choke the fun out of our lives. From the dreamland of summer afternoons, staying up watching Double-Chiller theater, to the drudgery of turning yellowed paper, with artwork from the 1950’s still in our textbooks, it all seemed desperate. Even to an elementary school child. School was like a carousal, attending over six schools by the time fourth grade arrived, I would stand in line while waiting for another multi-colored wooden horse to arrive. Picking me up and taking me on the same old trip. By the time fourth grade arrived, I was in a state of motion sickness when it came to school.

Shy at a young age, but warming up when feeling comfortable, the husk that had accumulated from bracing new schools, new friends and the awkwardness of saying my name, and having to repeat it over and over to disbelieving little kids was burnished by these successive years of change. But when the trust came, I would open from the inside, folding out in a tumble of words that could cause other to be startled into dizziness. Bruno, is the same, and I can see in him the trepidation of my past. Bruno, makes things, big things, out of discarded wood, string, and found objects in our garage. His favorite store is Lowe’s and he bounds up and down the aisles as if he were in an amusement park. June would seduce slowly, with the promise of unending days filled with imagination brought to life, fort-making, back-yard cookouts and late night episodes of kick-the-can and then July would clutch and hold onto childhood like a metal vise, everything was frozen, days spilling into nights the summer would never end, and finally August thumped into consciousness with humid footprints reminding us that school was ticking ever closer. As the sweat dripped like melting ice-popsicles down our backs, August brought along dread that soon, so very soon, afternoons would be spent in steamy classrooms while swaying trees and bleating insects mocked the children through open windows.

A sense of distrust for school manifested itself in me from an early age, from Mrs. Amamuil in first grade who admonished me in front of my new classroom for wetting the floor, I went home in tears, never trusting this older hardened woman who was there to bring out the splendor of discovery in children, but instead struck with an invisible shaming stick to the little ones in her charge. And next, just two years later, a brunette teacher, with her hair pulled tight in a careful bun, long skirts and red-lollipop lipstick who stated to the only black kid in our class (in Newport News, Virginia), “Why can’t you just read Otis, what are you? Stupid?” This was my first experience in racism, as she spoke a portion of my gut tightened, as a child knows inherently when something is amiss and while I could not put my finger on it, I realized what she did was so very, very wrong. Later, in fifth grade, with an already strong sense of right and wrong, the spring sunshine was blanketing the baseball field of East Elementary school. The gym teacher, Mr. Swartz was a stereotypical gym teacher, tight thigh length athletic shorts worn at all times, black baseball cap, whistle dangling from a black cord that reached his tight polo shirt and spotless tennis shoes. He coulda been cast for a Hollywood movie, an intense man, prone to barking out instructions as if all the children were standing 40 yards away and not the five feet from him as we were, and at times he could splice in small insults to players that were not doing well, “Jimbo, you are kind of wussying out there now, you’re going to let Eric run right by you? Eric’s a little on the chunky side.” I didn’t like him, I had the sense he was a bully, plus he played his favorites, Mike Quacktri, a toothy kid who seemed to have a different baseball hat for every day of the week, was prone to bragging, was a kid who you could tell held his favor. Being a small boy, I was often overlooked but also had a competitive spirit and was fast and agile, who played backyard football with a glee that felt as if I were on a ride at an amusement park. We were playing tee-ball, and as I stood on third base, the score tied and Mr. Swartz bellowing that this was the final play and that it looked like it would be a tie game, when the ball was struck I ran home, determined to prove him wrong and I slide into home plate, striking my knee into the tee-ball stand. The base shattered and my knee bled, my classmates huddled around me as I fought off tears and I heard the teacher tell them, “let him be, he’s being a little pussy.” From the ground, my cheeks covered in the fine powered dirt of the batter’s box and fingers bloodied by my knee, I yelled out, “Shut up!!”Suddenly, my small body was flung against the chain linked fence, my head cracking on the steel railing, bouncing off, Mr. Swartz grabbed me by my collar, “you little punk, you broke my tee ball plate, who taught you to talk like that?!”He tossed my to the ground, scooped me back up and pushed me towards the office, tears strained to poured off my face and I fought hard to keep them at bay. I limped to the edge of the playground, “pick it up!” he barked, grasping my left arm tightly, he lifted me a few inches off the ground, the tips of my tennis shoes dragging in the dirt. Certain to get paddled, knee bleeding and the shame of being tossed about in front of my classmates, I swallowed hard, making certain I would not cry in front of this man. As we walked into the office, Mr. Swartz yammered for the principal, “this kid needs a paddling and his mouth washed out!”

Sitting in the principal’s chair, knowing soon he would pull the thick wooden paddle complete with three large holes in the middle for maximum pain, I almost choked on the lump in my throat which had started formed after being tossed against the metal fence as if I were constructed of burlap bags and straw. Sitting in a hard plastic chair as the Principal furrowed his brow and looked across his grey metal desk, his back bathed in the bright spring sunshine, outside birds hopped along the power-lines. “What happened?” he asked his face a mask of concern. “I was running to home plate and I slid, hitting the tee-ball stand with my knee and Mr. Schwartz was telling kids not to help me, I told him to shut up. I was bleeding….then he threw me against the fence.” I had started rubbing the red rings from the rigid grip of the teacher, his hand had enveloped my thin biceps and left his imprint soon bruises would form. The principal called my father and asked him to come pick me up, hot tears were now dripping from my eyes, as if they had become swollen candles, embarrassment crawled up my neck and into my ears. A few minutes passed and I looked up, hands still trying in a pathetic futile attempt to wipe away the red scars of the gym teacher’s hands, “are you going to paddle me now?” A voice as small as a reed bending in the wind, the fear was almost alive. Standing up, the principal folded open in front of me, he was a tall man, nearly six foot three inches. With a dollop of black mussed hair that sat like a woven crown up his head, he walked around the desk in what appeared to be like a giant step. I still remember his hands, they were large, thick like fleshy boards of wood, almost planks and they reached for me, wanting to recoil but holding fast and I looked up at him. He placed his hands on both my shoulders, bent down and looked me in the eye, “no, I’m not going to paddle you, you’ve had a bad enough day.” He gave me a small hug, “don’t tell anybody that I didn’t paddle you though. I have a reputation to think of” he said with a wink. Relief, escaped from my quivering mouth. He asked the secretary to fetch me a glass of water. Time slunk by as I waited for my father, it was as if it were beaten about by the shoulders with its back broken in half, the clock ticked in a booming fashion, I was slumbering towards punishment. I waited in another hard plastic chair in the waiting area of the office, staring straight ahead as children walked past, my brother slid by the door waving his hand in a gesture of solidarity and I wanted him to save me once again. My father picked me up soon after, he held me tight as sobs escaped from my chest as if they were pigeons being freed from rooftop pen, he stroked my hair. We drove to his office, stopping at McDonalds along the way.

A few years later, sitting in the carnivorous school auditorium as countless seventh and eighth graders polished up the last few detention hours of the year, ordered to sit every other seat apart as if this would dissuade 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls from communicating, Mr. Davis a bearded bear of a man bellowed from the stage. “You are all here because you have misbehaved during the course of the year, as-such you have had ample time to fulfill your requirements of after-school detention which you have been too lazy to do. Hence you are here with me, there will be no talking, no looking around and if you didn’t bring anything to keep busy, then tough. If you communicate with your neighbor you will not get credit for being here and will have to redo detention this week, or finish it in summer school.” He was large man, who had a reputation among the children as being a mean-spirited, cruel and violent. The year prior he had snapped up a youngster, by his shoulders, twirled him in the air and slammed the child against a locker rendering his wrist inoperable for the next month. He was a man to be feared, a veritable Javert whose presence at the end of the long lacquered hallways would send children scurrying like rats into the nearest sewers, on top of that, he was a lousy teacher.

Zoltan was getting ready to graduate the 8th grade, he towered above me on so many levels, popular with the boys, girls and teachers, his charming ways had made his transition to various schools and neighborhoods as easy as warm butter on toast. He sat in the row in front of my, grinning as the last minutes of middle school ticked away, he eyed our friend Eric Zudak who meandered his way down the same aisle as Zoltan and listening to Mr. Davis scream from the stage, “Mr. Zudak, why are you late?! And if you have a good excuse you can sit five seats away from Mr. Koe-Krompecher!” Replying with a wide grin, Eric explained, “I was helping Ms. Houska pack up her car, she said you could check with her.” He plopped in the thin folding wooden seat, his backside feeling the crackling wood starting to splinter after so many bottoms had sat through innumerable hours of choirs, plays and graduations over the years. Sitting between the both of them, one row back, I noticed Zoltan making eye contact with Eric, nod his head and mouth, “hey man.” No sounds emitted from his mouth. A bomb went off from the stage, a giant sound that filled the high spacious room, Mr. Davis croaked from his perch, “Mr. Koe-Krompecher, get up here right NOW!!” The anger of his voice eating the air out of theater, it resonated long after the spittle had left his hairy mouth. Zoltan moved towards the front, slipping by Eric, everybody’s eyes moved from him to the authoritative teacher. Zoltan was still smiling as he approached Mr. Davis, in his mind he had nothing to worry about, it was the conclusion of a long three years of middle school, his time in Athens had been rewarding, this young brave man had worked extremely hard and disciplined himself to shake off the dire predictions of professionals who had painted him as a troubled kid, a boy whose frustrations just a few years prior would erupt in volcanic episodes of violence had been tempered by incisive intelligent, slicing humor and the ability to form friendships out of the smoky passage of seconds. He had found his home. Standing in front of Mr. Davis, “yes sir?” Lunging at the boy, Mr. Davis plucked my 13-year-old brother up, and proceeded to shake him as if he were a chicken leg, secured in a zip-lock baggie, a human Shake-n-Bake on the stage. Through gritted teeth Mr. Davis, snarled, “I told you to not make any contact with anybody.” With that he pushed Zoltan away like a king to a servant who had just dropped his golden chalice. “Now go sit down and shut your mouth.” Gathering himself, Zoltan walked proudly back to his seat, with bated breath, the collective gasps of the children were focused on the inevitable tears that would flow from his cheeks. Alas they never came, Zoltan sat down, his eyes reddened, but no water escaped from his eyes. His face sweltering beat red from fear, shame and astonishment at what transpired he nodded towards me; he was ok. Anger filled me, it was like the room had been filled with water, submerged in anger at the unjust treatment of a child, my brother and trembled inside but could do nothing. Weighing maybe seventy-five pounds, arms as thin as red and white stripped straws, I struggled to keep my ass in my seat, wanting to flee but realizing I had to stand fast. “Mr. Zudak, what is your problem? Did you not bring anything to detention?!” Mr. Davis obviously wasn’t satisfied with assaulting one child today, “Get your butt up here!” Eric moved slowly towards the front, taking the side steps up to the stage he stopped well short of the big man, “Well, it’s the last day of school so I turned all my books in so I don’t have anything…sir.” Mr. Davis stepped towards Eric, his boat-like leather shoes echoing across the stage, the wooden floorboards wheezing under his weight, even these planks of dead trees were fearful of this man. Eric took as step back with every step Mr. Davis took towards him, an odd, almost graceful dance of mimicry. Eric was a bright boy. Finally, the bearded giant stopped, “well get a piece of paper from one of your classmates who actually came prepared for detention and write about what got you here.” With that, Mr. Davis turned in disgust and returned to his afternoon newspaper. Eric, hopped off the stage, waited as a classmate handed him a single page of notebook, the left side riddled with the tiny flaps of paper that had once held it fast to the small metal rings. The last day of school indeed.

Summer came and went, soft sounds of adolescent burbled through our veins, things were changing fast, the nineteen seventies were over and the eighties were now unfolding in our lives fueled by teenage hormones that would dictate our collective lives for the remainder of the decade. The sounds coming from the uptown record shops were changing, chugging and whirling sounds of electrical guitars popped through the air of Haffa’s and the newly opened School Kids Records, punk rock had settled in firmly in the small college town, and mixed with the early sounds of hip-hop, the cold disco beats of a disintegrating club scene in NYC and England, the air was electric and from a thirteen-year old’s perspective as wide open as the universe. Reagan had not yet launched his assault on defunding every government program to help the poor and middle class, AIDS had not been named, therefore it was mostly a hidden scourge the was quickly burying homosexual men on the coasts—it had not yet torched the gay community in the Midwest. The school year of 81-82, was a step towards adulthood, albeit in the clumsiest manner a boy of thirteen could muck his way into. Sex was a mystery, one that was witnessed through the eyes of R rated movies like Porky’s, Animal House and The Rocky Horror Picture show, funny and confusing situations that played out on giant canvas screens in our tiny town. Snickering in the back row, the boys were brave, puffing out meager chests, pretending we weren’t virgins while wondering what a vagina actually felt like let alone an orgasm. Acne popped out of faces like dandelions overnight and the fear of being discovered was played out every morning in choosing out the most looking casual outfit that was planned with early-morning anxiety that produced buckets of tears in many households. Eighth grade. A big step and at the time, there were kids in Athens County, whose parents never finished the eighth grade, as the importance of a college education was not yet baked into the national consciousness.

Pro-Ked sneakers grew smooth as I slummed all over the town, bouncing from record store to record store, arcade to arcade and people in town started to know my name, stepping from beneath my older brother’s shadow, finally gaining confidence as the year went by. Classwork wasn’t too difficult with the exception of math, where an undiagnosed learning disability started trickling in fear and self-doubt about my academic abilities, and many of the teachers were receptive to my dark and sarcastic humor with the exception of the curly haired science teacher, who hung a large smooth wooden paddle on the wall behind the aquarium. A silent statement about who was in charge. And Mr. Davis, who taught math, a double-whammy for a kid who played Dungeons and Dragons, couldn’t sit still and had trouble keeping his mouth shut. Sitting in the middle of the class for most of the year, staring out the window as cars rolled by, birds sang songs that mocked the children sweltering in the broiling classroom, there was no air conditioner in the building, until finally the last day of school arrived. I had made it, not one issue in Mr. Davis’s class, the plan for the entire year was not to talk. Ever. And on that last day of school, I thought that this girthy foul man did not even know my name, I was proud and excited, the eighth grade dance would be that night and I had a date.

I sat in my chair, it was the first class after lunch, mid-May and the sun baked the grass outside, cicadas were escaping from their fifteen-year slumber, their chirping sounds of lust filled the air. An insect choir singing for all the children, a cacophony of sexual urges by bugs stuck to the sides of trees, trembling against the rough bark for all of adolescences on the final day of school. The hallways were polished, set for a summer of sleep where no small feat could rub the sheen away, rubber soles upon the floor would instead be traded for thin flip-flops and bikinis at the local pool, where small gestures of kindness could propel a teenager into roiling states of awkwardness. Crumpled bits of paper, lined the corners of the hallway as lockers were cleaned out in hurried rushes, as if the process of tossing old assignments out as quickly as possible would rid our lives of all the anxiety they once inspired. “Fuck ya’all”, went the thought as notebooks were emptied out into circular metal trash bins. Going years without a diagnosis, living with ADHD is at once thrilling and at other times a jumbled mess of panicked moments and feelings of inadequacy, at times the shame and self-loathing are as heavy as trying to pull a tireless semi-truck. Filled with boulders. As big as the trucks hauling them. Massive. Big. Large. Thick.

Mr. Davis was my math teacher in 8th grade, leaning nothing in the class except to realize that I sucked at math (again, the learning disorder that wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my mid-thirties). But it was the final day of school, it had passed without once being a target for his brutal teaching methods, his classroom was built upon fear with him pulling out that wooden paddle and tapping it on his large cracked leather feet. His personal life must have been one of misery. Mr. Davis did very little to educate the children under his responsibility and his lack of concern for the education of the children in his classroom was palatable even to the young eyes of early teenagers. If we were flies, he would have pulled off our wings.  As the students would enter his classroom, the large man would peer at each one, dark eyes half shut would scan every child up and down—needing no practice for intimidation as the small folds of skin above his eyes would strike fear in every child who entered his classroom. It was a talent he no doubt relished. But on this, the final step of a long journey of middle school had reached its apex with nary an issue, somehow despite a proclivity to draw attention to myself I had made myself small the entire year in this behemoth’s classroom. This trait of staring down young children, I have learned, is quite common among intimidating teachers. A trait that some regard as a talent while others feel it no room in a place of learning.

The desks were small, with a small plank of wood used for the top, it was connected by a green metal arm to the chair, itself another hardened piece of wood that had caused great unrest to little narrow butts over the past forty years. Underneath the chair was a small cubby where a student could stash books, notebooks or a miniature backpack, but on this day, the final day of school there were no books, papers or backpacks to stash. It was the second to last class of the day, a trembling sigh of relief hung over the hallways and classrooms from the 400 students. Usually, I sat towards the back of the classroom, it was more ubiquitous and for a small kid like myself it was easy to huddle behind all of the bigger boys in the class and at this point in my life all the boys were bigger than me. Alas, all the chairs were taken when I danced into the room, just under two hours to go and we had the 8th grade dance that evening. Perhaps the burgeoning awaking within my body played even a larger role in the giddy anxiety I felt, as I had a date with a very pretty brunette girl who no doubt was as nervous as I was. Even in the days, it was hard to believe that any female would be nervous around a boy, working hard to maintain whatever sliver of cool I had and usually plugged my hands into my pocket and cracked wise. As I skidded towards the lone remaining seat I apologized to Mr. Davis as I was a few minutes late after helping to set up the cafeteria for the dance.

“You’re still late BKK, and if it wasn’t the last day of school, that would earn you a detention. Now just sit there and shut up until the end of the period.”

“But Mr. Davis, I was with Ms. Anderson helping  to set up the dance.”

“I said SHUT UP and put your head down!”

Placing my head down and looking sideways, I saw my friend Danny Abdella sitting next to me, he made a wide eyed face, his eyebrows arched high, staring at me as if to tell me that this was no time to act up. Smiling, I pointed my finger at Danny, making like a gun with my fist, I pulled the trigger. Suddenly I was lifted out my chair, in one fell swoop Mr. Davis flipped me into the air, all 80 pounds of me, hitting the floor he kicked me over the smooth wood towards the far corner, “I told you not to move, not to talk, not to do anything! Now get up and stand in the corner!” his voice lurched above my fear. A pitch black shadow covering my emotions. Hunkering in the corner, fat tears crawling down my soft boyish face, I eyed the window. It was half-way open, “it’s what maybe six feet to the ground, I can jump out and run to mom’s office, he would never catch me.” The soft green grass beckoned, a six-foot jump was safer than being in the room with the bearded brute. Bees flew from soft white flowers while the wind made tempting waves upon the green carpet. Cars drove by, and college students walked the sidewalk, feeling a kinship with them I suddenly yearned to be old, to be strong and to be big enough to fight back. In the end, I wept softly in the back of the classroom, all the children’s eyes upon me and after the bell rang, I hurried out of class away from the hesitations of my friends, as if approaching me would put themselves in harm’s way.

Making my way to the cafeteria was a blur, wanting to run as far as away from the school, exiting the wide glass doors, up the concrete steps towards the gymnasium I felt sick. Nausea had replaced the fear that had choked the breath from my throat, confusion bounced around my head as feet didn’t need a command to take me towards safety. Behind me I heard my name, “Bela, Bela, wait up!” Turning my brother stood in front of me, “we gotta call mom, if you leave then nothing will get done and she can meet you out here.” If anything, he was usually right, “O.K., but I’m not going back in there unless mom is with me.” Zoltan called our mother from the payphone in the cafeteria doorway, I slinking his head between the door and the corner of the black and silver metal phone, it was fastened into the wall as if someone may try to steal it and every teenage secret it no doubt stored amongst it green, red and white wires. The spiral metal cord wrapped around his finger, the phone call took a least two weeks to finish. A few moments later, he hung up, taking me by the elbow he guided me outside. “She’s on her way, she is going to meet up by the gym. I told her you were too scared to go back into the school.”

There is nothing like seeing a mother come to the rescue, her short red hair and confident walk comforted me but in the end I was ashamed, and it wasn’t until she pulled me in tight to her waist and kissed the top of my mussed hair did I let myself feel again. More droplets of water escaped my eyes as I described what happened, “We are going to talk to Mr. Smith about this.” Mr. Smith, was the principal, a short stocky man with a full Grizzly Adams gray beard, his daughter was in my grade and they went to the same church as us. Entering the office my mother asked to see him and he ushered us in, closing the door his first words were, “why didn’t you come straight to me?” “I was scared. I wanted to go home.” I meekly replied. Looking down the barrel of the past 35 years, it makes sense, as the school did nothing when Mr. John Davis manhandled my brother the year before and broke the arm of another kid. “Well, I want an investigation Donald!” my mother was angry, “and I’m taking Bela home now, we can talk next week.” The short fat man, held his hands together, parsing his words he was careful, “Susan, if Bela leaves now he will only be counted a half day and he can’t attend the dance tonight.” He stared across the desk from me, “that is the rule of the school and I can’t override it but if you want to stay you don’t have to go to your last class you can stay in my office until the end of the school. There is only about 45 minutes’ left.” With a small voice I pleaded with my mother, “that’s not fair, he beat me up, and now I have to stay. I already have my ticket to the dance and I’m taking Coleen.” “Sorry, rules are rules” Mr. Smith replied. “This does not seem to be fair, he is upset and there is no reason he shouldn’t be able to return for the dance.” “If he leaves school now, he can’t return tonight.” In the end, full of weary fear, and stress I stayed, I returned to school that night for the final dance of the year. Less than two weeks later we moved from Athens to Catawba, Ohio. There was no investigation.

Northeastern High School basically consisted of five hallways, one story, a cafeteria, and gymnasium. It was a small school, surrounded by cornfields and a pockmarked gravel lot for the handful of beat up cars and pick-up trucks. The majority of teachers in the school had been there for years, and many had been born in the area, attended nearby colleges and returned. Besides a handful of excellent teachers such as my freshman and sophomore English teacher, Jon Barber it was safe to say that many of them did not encourage intellectual curiosity. The guidance counselors were lacking in skills having told both Zoltan and I were not “college material” and we should think about trade schools. Walking through the doors for the first time felt like a prison sentence, as I overheard hushed voices whispering “did you see that new kid, with the funny name, is he even old enough to be in high school?” or “I bet that kids a fag with a name like that.” Climbing into books helped, fantasy stories, history books and Kurt Vonnegut provided the relief that was a life outside the gold and red cinder block walls of Northeastern High School. Retreating into the shyness of my younger adulthood, I kept my head down but being an adolescence with Attention Deficit Disorder was an obstacle as it one-liners fell forth out of my mouth without nary a thought to hold it back, a quick quip is worth every ounce of punishment. The freshman science teacher, Mr. Stevens was a younger man, he looked a bit like a boyish Mr. Keaton from “Family Ties” with parted wispy hair and sometimes he caught hold of one my jokes and half smiled, giving me the impression that he actually liked me. Other times, he asked me to sit in the front or to wait outside of the classroom to gather myself if I was too excited and bouncy. One day we were working with some sort of acid, using thin eyedroppers we were to put dab of the acid on various organic and inorganic items such as a hardboiled egg, the skin of a dried lizard, and wood. We worked in teams, two or three of us, each placing the acid on the item and the others recording the results. Very pedestrian stuff unless the student has a difficult time following directions because he can’t focus. Jeff Entler had the luxury of testing the frog skin, a small billow of smoke rose out of the dried reptile, he handed me the small glass container, carefully I put the eyedropper in, mindful of the oversized plastic gloves and how they made a clumsy boy more clumsy and squeezed the small black rubber top on the white springy egg. I had misjudged as I placed the end of the eyedropper directly onto the egg, a small amount of acid shot out from the sides, like a cherry tomato popping in an open mouth. It squirted into my face, and my eyes, luckily the protective goggles protected my forehead and black curly hair as I had forgotten to pull them over my eyes. Importunely for my eyes, a small amount landed right on my below my eyes, “shit!” I yelled, as Jeff called for the teacher, who rushed over and with astute thinking lead me to a small sink and rinsed out my eyes and face. Remarkably, it did not hurt too much and it all happened in a matter of seconds. “Thank you” I said, being a little nervous, grabbing me by my wrist he hustled me into the hallway. “What that hell are you doing to my classroom?! You could go blind fooling around with that stuff!” Clutching my collar, he threw me against the lockers, “If I could kick your ass right now, I would you little shit! I didn’t like you the minute you walked in my classroom and if I could get you out of my class I would!” Mr. Stevens then shoved me against the locker a second time. “Not again” I thought. Being a little older, I defended myself, “Mr. Stevens I was not fooling around, you can ask everybody at the table, I was doing what you said to do.” Wrestling the goggles off my forehead, yanking my hair in the process, “Bullshit, because if you did you would have these on your face! Listen, I want you to stay out in the hallway for the rest of the class and to shut your little mouth for the rest of the year.” “yes, sir.” Learning from my previous encounters from angry aggressive teachers, I never said a thing. Why would I?

Tucked in the corner, beneath a hand-drawn map of the world, and next to a wooden shelf that was exclusively built for LP records, with the top shelf constructed to hold roughly 100 7” singles, cover’s facing out for easy flipping but now holding one shelf devoted to Star Wars, Pokémon and the original dog-eared Charlie Brown paperbacks that Zoltan and I learned to read with sits two small guitars. One is an acoustic purchased with love by an adoring grandfather and the other, a small red Fender Stratocaster, which is housed in a stainless steel stand, and when the light hits just right, both the guitar and red guitar twinkle like specks of glitter on a girl’s face. There are actually three of those shelves lined together, all stuffed with tiny cubbies, books, baseball cards, guitar picks, stuffed animals that provide comfort when the maple tree branches thump against the green colored garage, reminding the neighborhood throughout a stormy blackened night that, yes, nature is still in charge and is something to rile the fear out of a small boy tucked under a mountain of blankets. On the other wall, a framed Spider-Man puzzle given away by a musician friend and tacked up around the room are a bevy of silk-screened rock posters, all hand made with the names of the everyman musicians that dot my record collection: Karl Hendricks Trio, The Whiles and Dinosaur Jr. At first impression the room looks just like a youngster’s room, the Pokémon shelf, the Charlie Brown, the hand-drawn pictures of mom and dad, sister too, even the lines drawn against the far wall marking age with lead pencil lines as the children in the house climb higher and higher over the years, an inch here and another inch there. Then the other items, the rock posters, the guitar, the line of Christmas lights, hung carefully along the walls, and some tools scattered on the floor. These are not little kid tools, but the adult flavor, heavy made of metal and heavy plastic and Bruno knows how to use them. He can spend hours outside making ladders, stages for his drums and guitars, a fort that never quite makes it past floor level, for his seventh birthday he wanted a toolshed. Every day when our friend Mike came out and built it, Bruno was outside helping, watching, carrying wood, holding the sides up and in the end helping to paint it. The kid has more tools than his father.

Children bring the world into a perspective that is never imagined, it’s as if a person lived their entire life living underwater. In the dark. And suddenly they are thrust of above the waves, into the shimmering sun, pulled from a cold and blurry life into one of brilliant colors and yes, choppy waves. One may not know one has ever been drowning until they can suck in the air, that is what life can be like for an alcoholic who discovers sobriety, and children. Some of the elements we look for as adults are the ones that we felt we had to find as teenagers, sex, intimacy, and the feeling of not being alone, and for a while, they come easy and at other times they come desperately, a three am desperation with trembling fingers and awkward pauses that break through the brittle darkness like darts aimed at the moon. Usually falling short, but at times, charming in their feeble attempt. My children did this for me, and slow process of time management, sacrifices, with the mundane being the gravity that holds they family together. Such as the yearning for a crying child to finally fall asleep, transforming from a screaming, shrieking animal caught in the bear-trap of its mind, into the soft salve for a violent universe. Bruno, cracks wise, he has a sense of humor that stands wise and cutting that makes one think he is a very old soul, like his sister who reads books that aren’t always age-appropriate and listens to the Mountain Goats alongside Taylor Swift. When he runs across the soccer field a determined look across his face, his blond curls dangling past his shoulders, it’s as if I was there with him, living a childhood I never had. The joy that dances from his cheeks is as infectious as lighting dotting the dark summer sky, brilliant flickers of white energy that booms across the landscape. Bruno has arrived.

One never thinks that a child’s life can be broken by the inner violence of an adult, unless you are the child that is licked by the adult or at times a parent that feels the hidden experience of abuse sideways, when it erupts in small earthquakes. What I understand as a parent is that it is my job allow that child to be a child for as long as he can be, no matter what and by doing so, he will always be a child on the inside.IMG_2905.JPGIMG_2896.JPGIMG_0198.JPGcanvas.png KIDS.JPGIMG_0263.JPGsaskiacharilebrown.JPGPUMMLE.JPG

he can play this on his guitar:

Above photo: Randy Newman signing autographs for my children at The Nelsonville Music Festival.



Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae: place. pt one–kinda

February 21, 2016


The shore was pocketed with holes and debris, the tide rolled into the beach in terrible fits, white peaked waves hurtling themselves towards the houses that lined the coast, a competition to see which one would wreck one of the million dollar homes. Heavy gray clouds hung just above the sea, like a water logged ceiling waiting to burst, they mimicked the waves, tumbling and wheeling over one another, almost dipping themselves into the ocean. The storm was most probably the residue from Hurricane Faye, that battered the beaches of East Long Island as if the beach houses were constructed out of Styrofoam We walked the beach, the winds blowing hard against us and the sea wrestling with itself, we happened upon a row of houses that had been eaten by the sea, large bites from the waves had splattered the houses, exposing the skeleton of the houses, some were literally cut in half. It was like giant sized doll houses, with paintings still visible on walls, bedroom sets, and furniture exposed to the world. There was nobody else on the beach, and if there were they would have most likely been Midwestern transplants who had never walked the beach before as the natives knew better than to stroll the beach post Hurricane.

My fondness for the sea was planted there, and I still think about living near the ocean, the mystery and wisdom of the water has held sway in me since that year and a half on Long Island. Memory has a way of making people trip over the cinders in their mind, some things happened and others didn’t but the emotion of the memory is seared into the skull like a branded cow. This summer on the way to Boston to pick up our children we stopped in Rhode Island, taking two hours to fall into the sea, I breathed in the salt and felt the hard pebbles of the craggy sand under my toes, swimming into the calm waves, letting the water ride over me as if I were floating in space, my soul tried to swallow the sea instead of it swallowing me, and I was transformed back into a child, all of six years old gazing and the wonderment of the North Atlantic.

Larry’s smelled of old wood, beer and cigarettes, a pocket of familiarity that was at once calming and inviting, unlike the beer soaked enamel floors of the south campus bars, that someone smelled of both stale beer and bleach, two chemicals that can induce nausea, the heart-worn décor of Larry’s and a few of the other neighborhood (i.e. dive-bars) felt as comfortable as an old blanket. Larry’s was the bar where my father met my mother, it was where I met Jerry Wick and the place that felt safer than almost anywhere else I went, including home. After we split up, Jenny avoided most of the haunts we ventured into together, she kept her distance from me for nearly a year, ex-lovers have the power of dismantling a person with just a shadow or a scent. She asked me several times to warn her when I was going to a show she might be at, although the chances of us running into one another were rare as I didn’t want to see her as much as she didn’t want to see me. She drifted towards Dick’s Den, where the nightly jazz musicians provided a solace to her as she entertained whatever man was trying to uncover her secrets and I stuck to Larry’s, Bernie’s and Staches, all of them now shuttered. And with a sound of a song or the scent of a beer I am transported back there.

The neighborhood of North Linden in Columbus, was eaten from the core outward from the parasitic substance of crack-cocaine, the fall of a once proud neighborhood was swift and like most African-American neighborhoods over the course of history the powers that be left it die from neglect and a careful, deliberate ignorance of the facts. I sat on my grandfather’s Austin’s knee, as the fireplace snapped and popped, small hissing sounds seeping from the wood just a few feet away. On the black and white television, images of Archie Bunker flickered and small chuckles slipped out of the old man’s mouth. Reaching his hand around me, striking a wooden match against the sandpaper-like side of the match-box, he lite his Winston and was careful to blow the smoke away from me and took a sip off his Jim Beam and water, I held his brawny hand. He had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, had a shotgun in the closet of the guest room and spoke very little, whenever we asked about the war he would say it was a long time ago. In those days, as a five-year-old in 1973, the Second World War seemed like another life-time, when in reality it was less time than my first discovery of Larry’s nearly 30 years ago.

Stomachs leaped high into our throats, while our bottoms went the other way, the yellow bus tilted this way and that, rocking to and fro with every pothole, sharp turn and stop. Hills grew steeper when in the bus, it chugged up the steep Appalachian foothills like a retarded Little-Engine that could (n’t) as the shocks had long been shocked out of existence. We lived roughly eight miles into the recesses of Athens County, a forty-five-minute marathon of a bus ride that choked the childhood out of me. It was a mass of sticky tweeners and early teens, and the children on the bus were not really the well to do kids of University professors, we were on the far west side of town heading towards Fox Lake, up and behind the soon to be closed State Mental Hospital, this winding road was dotted with poverty. With pit-stops along the route, that were furnished with dilated trailer parks, barking dogs, massive mud puddles that appeared to have springs of brown polluted water under them, and small bare-legged children screaming every time the bus pulled up. This was a hellish ride, some of the children grew cold at this early age in their lives, the emotional coldness manifesting itself as hardened cruelty towards some of the other children. I sat quietly, I stood out for my nerdiness, I was small kid, liked to draw pictures of rock bands and cartoons in my notebook and cracked wise whenever I good, much of my sarcasm flung at many of the poor Appalachian kids when I was in the safe confines of the school. The rednecks could be brutal, and the bus-driver, a young man who wore a ball cap and smoked a cigarette while driving would play the radio. The only time when the kids all agreed on something was when Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” or Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” came on the small portable radio that hung from the large dashboard of the bus. The bus would erupt with the chorus of children screaming “We don’t need no education!” and for the majority of the kids on Athens County Public School Bus number 24, their scholastic education would end in a few short years.

There was a petite young girl on the bus, a year older than me who had long stringy blonde hair. She always sat quietly, looking forward, not making eye contact and clutching her books tight against her. She wore a Navy Blue coat, with the elbows rubbed thin, her pink sweater poking through and the collar pulled up tight. Suddenly a boy behind me threw a spit-ball at her, it landed in her thick hair. “Ain’t you gonna pick it out!?” he snarled as he spits another one at her, this was also landing into her blond locks. She didn’t move. I looked back at the boy, he was fat-ish, with large teeth that made the rest of his pudgy cheeks smaller, he wore a fishing hat and a jean jacket. “Gimmie another piece of paper,” he motioned to the boy next who him, who snickered away, ripping a corner of paper and quickly chewing it he spit it out on her again. “Hey, you got three now!! Quite a collection going!” Soon, a barrage of spitballs was landing atop of the girl, I sat quietly as boys and girls around me hurtled insults pasted on the end of bits of wet paper at her. Caught up in the moment, I ripped a piece of paper from my notebook, the one with carefully drawn pictures of Cheap Trick and John Lennon and stuck it in my mouth and in a moment, I too, spit it upon her. I looked at her, and saw large bulbous tears running down her cheeks, and I was suddenly flooded with shame, the remorse I felt was unsettling and even though I was just a child, maybe twelve it was one of the worst moments of my life. I climbed across the aisle of the bus, and watched her gallop across her mud-caked yard as a large brown dog, tied up with a hunk of twisted rope barked madly—surely he loved her, and witnessed these boys and girls yelling insults at her as she scampered into her house. “Mom, I don’t want to ride the bus anymore.” She looked over at me, a spoonful of mashed potatoes dangling above my plate. “Why not?” she looked concerned, no doubt her mind wondering just what I would do with myself after school. “Well, it takes forever to get home and sometimes Zoltan has football, why can’t I just hang around up-town until you are done with work?” “Mom, the bus is pretty gross” my brother answered. “Well, I suppose but you can’t bother me at work.” Soon my afternoons would be filled with sitting behind the record counter of Side-One Records (where the fellows had to be the only Herman Brood fans in the midwest) and the basement dwelling of Haffa’s records and books, themselves making emotional imprints on my mind with the smell of cardboard records covers, paperback books and the musty smell of comic books, and while I deeply regretted my act of bullying that fall day in 1980, the feeling of guilt and sadness for that young girl has never left me.

Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae: Pokemon

April 12, 2015


His hair is a soft blonde, shaggy-it is starting to hang in his eyes, long curls twisting just above his sea blue eyes, and the room brightens when he smiles, giggles worth a lifetime of pleasure. Bouncing up to me a few weeks ago, “Daddy, can I have Pokémon cards?!” Sighing deeply, “Pokémon? They still make them?” Bruno shoves a muddied yellowed card in my face, “yeah, look—I found this on the playground. My friends play it, they are really cool. See dad?” and he shoves the bent card, complete with little kid footprint in my face. He grins, and somewhere a chunk of the universe’s ceiling becomes unhinged. “Sure, we can get you Pokémon cards.” He thrusts his hands up high in the sky, as if he just scored a World Cup goal, “YES!!! Pokémon!!!”

Growing up in the 1970’s was almost surreal as I look at faded blurred photos, it can as if even the memories are as bleached out as the pictures of a young me, wearing a long-sleeve yellow turtle neck, looking crookedly at the camera, a mischievous smile (the same that my Bruno holds the world captive with) anchored towards my brother who is laughing as the camera clicks. Behind us a hazy Christmas tree stands, a prop for our childhood and my father wearing black plastic framed glasses, a moustache and his arm around my mother, her long red hair reaching just below her shoulders. She eyes him nervously, no doubt wondering just how soon she can jettison herself from his madness. I collected comic books with my brother, my step-father David had let us read his, a large collection of early to late sixties Marvel titles, that no doubt would pay for my kids college education if we still had them. Early “Spider Man”, a nice run from the early twenties to the late 90’s, “The Incredible Hulk” most the early ones from #102 onward, “Fantastic Four, “Sub-Mariner”, “Thor” and “Silver Surfer.” We kept them in a small cardboard box, David was very kind and patience with us and we were told not to let them leave our rooms, be careful how we handled them and he would later buy us comics. This was 1975/76, a rough period in our lives, lots of movement both in the relationships my mother was involved in and geographically. From 1973 to 1976, we moved five times, after divorcing my father my mother moved us to an apartment in Athens, soon she married David and we moved to Youngstown where he got a job working in a steel-mill, not the quite the job a future PhD. professor at MIT had envisioned for himself. Soon though, David procured a job in Springs, New York where he worked as a scientist near Montauk–we lived just a skip from the ocean. From New York we moved to Newport News, Virginia and in Newport News we moved a few times.        The commotion of moving was difficult to say the least especially for my older brother, who had a difficult time adjusting, we relied on each other. With our plastic green army men, Lincoln Logs, and especially comic books. We dug in deep with them, losing ourselves in the adventures of Peter Parker, who always seemed to doubt himself and for me, the Hulk as misunderstood anti-hero whom I identified with at that early age. Completely bewildered, Bruce Banner yearned for acceptance yet, because of his emotions and the state of the world, he could not. This was me, even as an eight year old.

Coming home, I was latch-key before there was a latch key from second grade onwards, if the sun wasn’t shining I would get a plate of cookies and a tall glass of Kool-Aid and head to my room. Pulling the box from the closet, sitting in front of the closet door–not even making it to the bed, sprawling out I would read the comics over and over. The slightly mildewed smell of the pages, a bit musty even the ink had its own smell. This was comfort. After moving to Athens with my father and my brother at the end of the 3rd grade, my brother started coming home with other comics with the same vintage as the ones we had in Virginia. He and Mark Schazenbach, would come home and lay them out, teasing me by locking me out of his room while they read the comic books. Eventually, the lead me to Haffa’s, a literally underground store in Athens that not only sold comics from $1 on up, but also just as importantly sold records. Soon, I would make Haffa’s my destination point, hanging out – and saving my weekly quarter allowance to buy both records and comics. Soon though, the competition for our affections increased as we discovered football and baseball cards, they were cheaper than comics and we bought and traded these constantly. This was the hey-day of rough and tumble football our favorite teams were the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings, and soon we would have multiple cards of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan, Fran Tarkington, Sammie White and Chuck Foreman. Taping them to our desk tops and carrying them in our back pockets, with nary a care that someday, people would collect these cards, handle them with gloves and diapering them in small plastic sleeves. This past summer, my brother stopped by my house on his way to Alabama and we finally divvied up the cards, passing them down to our own sons. Oddly, Bruno has no care for football as he has never played the game nor has he watched one on television, so the cards still sit in a box.

During my fourth grade year, “Star Wars” came out and soon the world was transformed especially for a ten year old. My mother would not allow us to see Star Wars as it was PG, but I was able to watch the movie by buying and trading Star Wars cards, soon stacks appeared all over the house. They came out in colored series, blue, then red and finally yellow, if you flipped them over and connected them it made a giant poster. Finally towards the end of the summer, my father took my brother and I to see it. The next summer, Jaws II & Battlestar Gallectica came out, and soon there were more stacks of cards cluttering the already cluttered house. Clutter upon clutter. A cluttering mess. All the while, we still bought comic books, but soon as I entered fifth and sixth grade my interest was more laser-sharp on music, all I wanted was records and soon I was hanging out after-school at Side-One Records which was above Haffa’s, on a daily basis.

The nineteen seventies was now coming to a close, the decade was birthed with bell-bottom pants, the blossoming of soft-rock, tinged with the optimism of the baby-boomer coming into their own, just below the surface though the snarling cauldron of greed, cynicism and the darkness of Nixon, Vietnam and racism boiled. For the most part, the children of the 70’s were protected by the innocence of PBS television: Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Mr. Rogers, then Saturday Morning Cartoons and whimsical movies starring a talking Volkswagen Beetle, or small dogs and as the decade wound down, the story of a coming of age man saving the universe with the help of a princess and smuggler. In small town Athens, before milk-carton kids and the immediate fear mongering of the internet, we chased each other around the neighborhood, our weapons of choice were nerf footballs, wiffle ball and vicious games of kick-the-can. Nobody locked their front doors, while parents only saw their offspring at dinner time. Cable television barely existed, late night Friday and Saturday nights were crammed with Double Chiller Theater’s or Fritz the Night Owl, my brother and I would make a fort of blankets and shovel sugar cereal into gaping mouths as Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price cracked open our minds with sinister cackles and tales of murder. Music had changed dramatically from those early feel-good am radio days of the early seventies to the closing racket of punk rock. The Boss Guitars, a pub-y rock garage band formed by Ohio University students played my eighth grade dance, they not only played originals but also covers and it was here that I witnessed the seed of punk rock in a live setting. Sporting slicked back hair, wore leather jackets, torn jeans and mutton-chops, they played the Clash as well as sixties soul, a small pit of stinky adolescence boys careened off each other while the band smiled at one another. John Denver and David Gates were miles away. Later members of band would form Cleveland’s Bongo’s Jungle Party, and write an ode to Prisonshake’s Doug Enkler, there is no way these men, who seemed so old to me then, would have an inkling the impact they would have on a smallish curly brown haired boy with crooked teeth and an imagination that could muster an entire world out of clods of dirt and a plastic water pistol

During that same time period, a new way of playing games began to gain traction, gone were the luck of the dice roles of Risk and Monopoly, and new way to play had infiltrated the minds of awkward young men around the county. “Dungeon’s and Dragons” invaded Athens Middle School in a swarm, transforming the be speckled kids of University staff from brainy analytical kids who sat passively on the sidelines of the gravel encrusted playground into Necromancers, wizards and battling elves with the role of multi-sided dice and stacks of hardcover books whose artwork appeared to be drawn by an 8th grader sitting in Geometry class. Soon D&D took over, even some of the jocks were playing but it was mostly played by a small group of us, I played with my best friend Eric and a few other kids, during lunch and over the weekends where we would settle into a spare study room at the University library. The entire day would float by as we battled our way through orcs, disgruntled kings and heaven forbid a snarling smoking dragon. My mother was poor, at the time we lived in cramped University housing, four of us pinched into a small two bedroom apartment on Mill Street. My sister slept on the couch or with my mother, my brother and I had metallic bunk-beds that was cold to the touch, only slightly more freezing in the winter months than the brown speckled linoleum floors; I couldn’t afford any of the books but in between drawing pictures of Cheap Trick, Rush record covers and action shots of Lynn Swann or Chuck Foreman I would draw the plans for a castle that our band of made-up warriors would investigate the coming weekend. This infatuation lasted two years, by the end of my eighth grade year, hormones had taken over as well as a growing desire to read as much as I possibly could all the while saving whatever coins and I could slap together to buy dollar records at Haffa’s. The wanting to lose myself in the imaginary world of dice had faded against the fantasy of unhooking lacey brassieres, guitars and in the printed word of Michael Moorcock, JRR Tolkien, and soon, Kurt Vonnegut and outrageous musical biographies with names like “No One Here Gets Out Alive”, “Up and Down with the Rolling Stones”” and “Hammer of the Gods.” Video games consisted of Pong or Tank, and while the early Atari systems came out, the covers of those early games were much more imaginative than the blocky, cumbersome graphics–there was no bother in playing these games as they looked nothing like the games in the arcade. By the time Nintendo came out, I was seventeen, getting blowjobs, sneaking into bars and seeing some of my favorite bands such as R.E.M., The Replacements and Lou Reed—I had no time for television games. At some point during this time period as many of us found our footing amid our later high school years, getting lost in the musical underground of the time, though the sharing of fanzines, college radio and of course, the center of the collective universe of music fans everywhere, the local record store, a new generation that was being raised on the much improved computer graphics of Nintendo tended to stay indoors and made the jump from video games into the expanding world of cards played with gaming cards. Magic and Pokémon spread their wings, while at the same time relegating Dungeon and Dragon’s to an afterthought, the teenagers who had spent countless hours rolling dice and pleading with an often-cruel and power-hungry dungeon master had now become adults. We were off to college, or jobs or yet into other subterranean worlds filled with like minded outcasts, shaking our collective asses to the spinning sounds of black vinyl records and holding the backside of the be-speckled blond haired girl who manned the counter at Kinko’s while screaming along with the Jad Fair, Steve Malkmous, Marcy Mays or the Lazy Cowgirls was much more fun than pretending you were a 16th level Neurotic Ranger. The pleasure was now fucking a real neurotic person, than being an imaginary one with a cape, sword, amulet or pouch with secret potions.

Several years ago I took my kids to the Laughing Ogre, the large comic book shop in Columbus, just up the road from our house. I had not been in comic book shop since buying Hate!, Cherry Pop-Tart and Eightball at Monkey’s Retreat the essential underground bookstore that operated next to Staches for nearly twenty years. Monkey’s not only sold comics but also adult magazines, underground publications like ReSearch, Forced Exposure and lots of paperbacks, it was one of those places that attracted not only the underside of High Street but also the certain type of person who has no problem crouching down on bended knees, rifling through dusty and musty old boxes for hours at a time, the sort of place which required a shower upon getting home. These stores were akin to flea markets or antique stores except the pursuits was intellectual curiosity, some brief present or future titillation, and perhaps the greatest motivator of all, escape. For many along High Street, Monkey’s Retreat was the person’s first introduction to Charles Bukowski, Robert Crumb, Lydia Lunch or the fascinating black and white photos of S&M, latex or homosexual literature. These were things that were not easily found in the local Little Professor bookstore. Laughing Ogre is a different sort of store, family and kid friendly with clean shelves, pristine book spines, large open tables to display the imaginative world of graphic novels and comic books. The days of sitting on a mucky floor, getting red eyes and blackened hands looking for the one Spider-Man comic that is has interrupted a run for twenty-seven in a row has disappeared as the underground has turned itself inside out-now my daughters favorite show is Comic Book Men, a reality show starring Kevin Smith and his side-kick staff who gently insult one another and customers, for many of us this was the sort of life we had lived for year, albeit not the shiny clean version on television.

The comic book shop is a destination for us, especially for my daughter who has an active imagination, relishes good story telling and can lose herself in a book for hours. She has met famous graphic novelists and I encourage her to ask questions, read as much as she can and to express herself as much as she can. Standing in the middle of life stepping forward while glancing back is a bizarre excursion, as the past can be brittle, cracked around the edges with the rush of minutes, hours, days weeks and years pouring over tangible memories that appear so real they can bring a gulp in the throat or a hearty chuckle, but in the end they are nothing—simple thoughts dissipating into the next moment, all the while I see the future for my children the wonderment they have, sudden rushes of emotions at the simple acts of holding a book, staring at Luke Skywalker with a light-saber in hand, overcome by the special effects that are cemented in my own head, the sound of a song transforms them, still as it transforms me.

“Daddy, when can we get Pokémon cards?” Bruno asks, as he leaps from one couch to another, curls flopping, arms swinging while the stereo blasts Superchunk’s “Crossed Wires.”

“We can go today, after soccer and guitar practice, I’m sure the Laughing Ogre             has some.”

“Saskia, daddy said we could get Pokémon cards!!”

“Bruno, I don’t care about Pokémon, daddy can I get a new book–Raina Telgemeier has a new book,” replies Saskia dancing on the table, her slim body twisting and contorting, she appears to be having a seizure when she dances, she is that clumsy.

After guitar lesson we drive to the Laughing Ogre, the sun has managed to splash through the dullish Ohio sky, a veritable sidewalk of gray and bleakness that has tortured millions through the years, outside the traffic is bottled up as people try to escape into the sun, our neighborhood is filled with coffee shops, craft stores and restaurants. Bruno is jabbering non-stop, he spits out words as fast as a auctioneer, completely focused on one subject: Pokémon. The shop is filled with other families and their children, books and graphic novels are displayed on clean even shelves, the comic books are stacked side-by-side along the walls, glossy covers, signs announcing new releases. There are grown men and woman holding stacks of new comics in their hands, children bustle about and Saskia heads towards the Archie comics and grabs a copy of “Sisters”. Bruno sighs deeply, pulls on my shirt, “daaaad, ask about Pokémon!” “Do you want a comic book buddy?” He enjoys Popeye and Peanuts but has no interest today.

A small wisp of a woman sits behind the counter, she has a nose rings, a thin brown tee-shirt and a collection of silver brackets that rattle around her left wrist. She also self publishes her own comics, small press real-life sketches of the mundane and slow moving actions of the day, she smiles at us, “can I help you?” Bruno, fingers gripping the counter, “do you have Pokémon?!”

“yes, we have some Pokémon Manga’s over on the wall.”

“I’m sorry, he wants Pokémon cards, not the books.”

“Oh….I see….well, we don’t sell those” her voice now reduced a whisper, “I think the Soldiery in the back of the building has those, but I don’t know, I’ve never been in there.” Her nose wrinkles a bit, her eyes grow big, suddenly I get the feeling that I’m involved in a drug deal. “Oh, is that the gaming store?” I ask. “Yeah, I think they should have what you are looking for but, like I said I’ve never been there.”

Bruno, eyes exploding, as if they were replaced with resplendent blue crystal bowling balls, “can we go?!!” As I pay for Saskia’s book, the clerk winks and says, “good luck.”

Exiting we walk towards the back of the building, the entrance to the gaming store is basically off an alley, an almost dweebish speakeasy, against the brick wall outside the store we shuffle past a rouges gallery of misfits and techie types, one man is stuffing an oversized submarine sandwich into his mouth, his black tee-shirt with a bleached out image of a space-invader icon barely containing his girth, his beard filled with crumbs and droplets of mayonnaise, there are a few men holding tightly onto two-liter bottles of soda and tall energy drinks. Entering the store, the smell of awkwardness is palatable, with tables upon table of gamers, ranging in age from high school far into adult hood, the oil of acne pervades the air. I feel out of sorts. Saskia looks at me, and I return her smile, the walls are covered with fantasy posters and shelves are stacked high with role-playing, war, and fantasy games. One the counter is a stand of multi-sided dice, bringing back memories of D&D and my own long weekend afternoons stretched out as I battled made up dragons and evil forces in the library at Ohio University. We take a small walk around the shop, mostly the clientele are boys and men, layers of cards cover the tables, some of the players also appears to be playing video games while playing these other games. Games within games. I show Saskia a row of games she may like, there is a small section of historical games, the one I show her takes place in Victorian England, she looks at it, “I can ask my teacher at the gaming club if he comes here.” She is enjoying looking around, Bruno is transfixed, and we make our way to the counter.

Bruno, shy to a fault, his hands on my backside, sticking his fingers in my back pockets, he is suddenly my living shadow. Two young women are at the counter, timid and self-conscious, no doubt they would feel more comfortable if the counter was a drive through, “hey, do you have Pokémon cards?” I motion to Bruno, “he is really interested in Pokémon and he doesn’t have any.” The blonde girl, with brown framed glasses, small splotches of acne climbing her cheeks, quivers her lip, “ummm, you want Pokémon cards?” “Yeah, do you have those?” Biting her top lip, fiddles her fingers, “oh….do you know what kind you want?” I look at Bruno, “hey buddy, what kind do you want?” “daddy, I want Pokémon cards” speaks the shadow behind me. “He wants Pokémon.” She glances to her co-worker, her eyes shifting sideways, “hhmmmm, we have all kinds of Pokémon cards. Which ones do you want?” My mind throws up a little and quickly swallows it, “see, he’s never played before so I suppose the basic cards? Are there beginning cards?” The poor girl appears to faint inside, sighing, she explains, “here, we have these, there are all kinds” She places a small display box of shiny cards with bright colors and fanciful Japanese cartoon characters on it, “this is the newest series.” Bruno thumbs through them, pulls a pack out and we choose two. “Are there directions to these?” I ask and my questions goes unanswered, behind us, gamers are queuing up to purchase their own cards and candy bars. We pay and leave.

This becomes a weekly pattern, Bruno can’t read that well yet but he looks at the cards, carries them and talks about them incessantly. People move clumsily through life, protecting oneself from the world at large, building identities brick by brick, layers upon layers of ideas, wearing passions on tee-shirts, pins, decals, tattoos, music and even magical games played on thin cardboard cards. We bump in our own fragilities on a daily basis, for some even ordering a cup of coffee brings on brief seconds of anxiety, the internal mechanism of calm has never been calibrated correctly, at other times we joke through the waiting of the hours trying to find relief for our inner shakiness by making the world around us laugh. We escape, through fantasy, losing touch with the present through digital and imaginary avatars, standing alone is a frightening experience. Many years ago in a former life I was known for my propensity to drink, the logo of Anyway was “buy me a beer” and at one time, while I was on an episode of Al Franken’s Air America, somebody had written in on the feed, “hey, I only know one Bela in Columbus, and that has to be in” and later in the thread someone wrote, “if it was that Bela he was probably drunk.” That was my identify, I created it, through looking for something to help with whatever unease I had, it was created drink by drink, through years of practice until finally the disquiet within me had eaten me from the inside out. While I am closer to the terms of this lonely echo in my guts, I laugh continuously, making disparaging remarks about myself to melt the inner friction of others, and at the end of the day, I still rely on music to calm the white tipped waves of thought that never seem to settle. Hoping my kids find the same relief.




Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae: Christmas 1991

December 24, 2014

Christmas Trees. 1989.

The bedroom was positioned over the backyard, supported by long planks of peeling wood with widows on all four walls. It was freezing in the winter and because it hung close in the tree branches, remained relatively cool in the summer. The room itself defied all building codes as it was obviously a balcony during its glory days and then one afternoon a greedy but innovative landlord secured walls and, adding windows, carpet and several coats of paint then-presto an instant extra bedroom. The landlord didn’t even bother to run electrical in the new bedroom, as we opened up the original window and fed an orange extension cord through the window and kept a small end table on the other side of the window that housed an aqua-green rotary phone that was rescued from my grandfather’s office. We picked through his belongings, as if we were excavating an anthropological site, carting off the phone, pictures, and for me a wide array of men’s nightgowns (just like Scrooge) shortly after he was shuttled to his final bedroom, the Whetstone Garden and Care Center which sounded more like a nursery than a center that sucked the shit and urine out of bedridden patients wobbling on their last breaths. Over the door hung a large poster of Morrissey, left over from previous tenants, it was a black and white photo of the singer’s face, he was looking forlornly over his shoulders and the photo itself could have been torn from the pages of Life magazine circa 1957 not from the bleached big hair, and torn jeans of the late 80’s. One night, in a burst of anger over infidelities, I smashed my drunken arms through the poster, withdrawing my left arm from the tattered poster and hunk of glass submerged deep into the back of my forearm, a cascade of blood pooling across the floor. Looking up, “well, that was stupid, Jenny get the car I gotta go to the hospital.” All scars have stories.

The July moon poked through the dark leaves, a soft wind blew through the open windows and a jazz record was playing, most likely Billie Holiday or Preservation Hall Jazz Band, as these were the favorites Jenny would play during the summer. The green phone rattled, “hello, oh hi grandma,” Jenny spoke into the receiver. “Now?” a pause and then, “But it’s July….no that sounds cool, we’ll be right over.” Tipping a can of Schaffer’s to my mouth, wiping my lip with my left hand, “what does grandma need?” Jenny was pulling on a yellow summer house dress that she seemed to wear daily, “oh, she wants us to come over and put up her Christmas tree.” At that time in our lives, nothing seemed out of sorts or to wild, “ok.”

Upon arrival my grandmother, with two canes and translucent blue eyes opened the door, “come in children, please. I am so happy to see you Geen-if-fer, Bela now go fix some drrrrinkss” her smiled widened, showing her perfect white teeth, her Hungarian accent was thick and she always had a knack of insulting me with every interaction. As I made my way to the kitchen feeling the comfort of her air conditioning as the summer heat in Ohio is as solid and sticky as tar-paper, I opened the refrigerator door. “Bela, you must wash your hands first, I know what you men do with your hands and its dis-gusting!” I hadn’t been in her house for three minutes and she was already making allusions to my propensity of masturbating.

Grandmother ordered a pizza from Pizzeria Uno, a large with everything and we had a few drinks and I went to pick it up, upon arriving back to her house both my grandmother and Jenny had made their way to the living room. There were several boxes of Christmas ornaments and upon entering the house and putting the pizza down I was instructed to go down to the basement and fetch the artificial Christmas tree. “Bela, it is under the stairs in de bazement, be careful, you are such a clumsy man and Pablo bought me that treeee, so be verrry careful. Don’t touch anything else vile you are down der.” A streak of paranoia has run through my family, the old woman was petrified that people were going through her belongings, taking note pads, pencils or even worse jewelry. She was a hoarder, with stacks of papers, egg cartons, small cut out pictures of animals, flowers and cartoon characters slipped between bills and letters, she coveted things as if she was in perpetual starvation for things. Anything. Her basement was stacked high with boxes, plastic laundry baskets bursting at the edges with more paper, photos and empty canisters of peanut jars, puffed cheese balls and fabric, unopened packages of sheets, tee-shirts and other clothing. To find anything was a chore and after three minutes the old woman would holler, “Bela, vat are you doing down der?!! Hurry up!” She was always thinking that I may be hiding things away for myself, while she never accused me of taking anything the thought that something may disappear was always present. It was not uncommon for her to call me after a maintenance man came to her house and have her think he took something from her, whether it be a bag of potato chips or a small elephant figurine. This paranoia was passed onto my father, whose bout with mental illness has left a chasm as wide as the expanding universe between himself and his children.

In the basement, there was luck to be found as the artificial tree was sitting right underneath the stairs, there was nothing else placed on top of it. My grandmother had a very difficult time going down the stairs at this point in her life, and while her memory was sharp, she could recall the precise location of her father’s cookbooks in the basement she would get anxious when she couldn’t see where a person was. Pablo had bought the tree in the year before, a thrifty man he would peruse catalogs and discount stores for the best deals and then purchase things in bulk. He had bought four of these trees the previous spring, two for him, one for my grandmother and another for a friend in Miami. We set the tree up, pushing her warped dining room table, that she bought at a fraction of the cost at Lazarus because well, you know, it was warped.

With boxes upon boxes of Christmas ornaments, many of them carried within the confines of a bruised and dented leather crate that help everything my grandparents owned. Traveling by foot, truck and train from Budapest, to Lake Balaton, into the mountains of Austria, then lugged onto a freighter chugging across the Atlantic to Caracas. Later, they would be packed again in boxes, carefully wrapped and folded into pink and white tissue paper, to be transported by bus, train and finally the trunk of my father’s car from Caracas to Columbus. These were the precious ones, the ones my grandmother would hold in her hand as if they were made of baby skin, softly eyeing them, her wide blue eyes sparkling as the candles and lights of the room shifted and shimmied off the golds, reds and silver of the ancient ornaments. She would hold them up to the light and smile to herself, they were treasures for her and as I eyed her removing them from these dimpled boxes, I understood why she wanted her Christmas tree hung up in July. The putting up of the tree took several weeks, all of the decorating done on a Thursday night after I got off of work, she would buy the pizza, I would wash my hands, make the rum and cokes and we would commence to decorating. Grandmother would sit in her plush E-Z-Boy recliner and bark out orders to me on where to place specific ornaments, she had what appeared to be thousands. Almost all of them laced and tied with green or brown thread that she had tied, so they all hung at the same length. Some branches would be holding up to ten ornaments, all stacked in a row: a drummer boy, a plastic cat, a snowman, a wooden cross, a plastic candy-cane, a fabric Santa, a miniature race car, a tiny hippopotamus and a toy soldier. These Christmas trinkets were ready for battle. In her perch, the old woman was in total control, and Jenny sat next to her talking about plants, food and gossiping all the while pointing her finger at a branch of the tree and having me hang one of these billions of tiny plastic ornaments, which, let’s face for the most part WERE NOT ornaments but tied junk that she called an ornament in certain places and when I failed to do so her dis-satisfaction would hurdle down upon me. “Beeeelaa, how can you be soo stooopid?! Look, my finger, put that little green Santa on dat branch, NOOO!!!! Not dat one, DAT one!!” Her chubby finger wagging in the air and turning to Jenny, “Genn-i-fer, how could you love such a stoopid man? Ok, yes that is ver you put it, very good Bela. You know in Hungary, we celebrated Christmas in the right way, it was none of the dumb tings you have here.”

Flashing back, I remembered sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, we were playing Monopoly. Well, my sister, my brother and my grandmother were, little Bela was too young, placing all the hotels in a row on the table, driving the silver car to each of them, “brrurrriggrrrrrr, brrrecggghh, hey we are here for Christmas” my little voice would go to each hotel. “Stop it Bela! God, you are annoying!”my sister would stammer, “Mom, Bela doesn’t know how to play and he thinks he does!” On the television, a Sonny and Cher Christmas was flickering in black and white, the red bird feeder outside the kitchen window glowed with an several inches of snow piled high and the backyard was windswept with snow, tiny lines carved by the wind mimicked the waves of the sea. Above her red shed almost collapsing from the mountain of snow, a lone lamp bathed the backyard in yellow light that could have been a beacon from heaven showering this Christmas Eve night for the birth of the baby Jesus. “I do too know how to play” I would whisper, puttering the car all over the table. There was eggnog, pastries, the smell of chicken paprikash, duck and onions filling the air and a curtain separated the kitchen from the living room, where the adults along with the help of the boy Jesus and a host of angels would be decorating the tree.

On the other side of the curtain, the booming sounds of Spanish, Hungarian and English split through the curtain like miniature bombs, popping into our ears and we heard the laughter that followed. Latin music was blaring and my uncles would periodically shuffle in, yelling over their shoulder, eyes laughing, cheeks red and bobbing their head to the sounds of Angel Cusodio Loyola and Oscar D’Leon whose clopping and shifting beats and melodies would make even the most stubborn hips sway to the pitter-patter of the percussion. “When is Jesus coming?” I would ask, “oh, soon, the angels are already here but children can’t look or they will leave and Jesus won’t come” Uncle Pablo would answer slyly as if the decorating of the Christmas tree was an x-rated adult burden. There were in fact many woman who helped set the tree up as both uncles were charming men who loved to have the company of pretty women by their sides. The idea that Jesus Christ would be in the next room terrified me, I wanted to see the angels but Jesus was scary, more so than Santa Claus and soon, as the anticipation of the next morning grew too great, I collapsed in my mother’s arms. She carried me through the curtain and into the guest room, where our stuffed animals were piled high on the floor and around the bed, protection from the ghosts that danced through the hallways of my grandparents house. I stole a peek over her shoulder, and saw my Aunt Bellin twirling her short white pleated skirt and caught a glimpse of her pink panties, I thought I saw an angel but dropped my head on my mother’s shoulder. The next morning, the tree appeared to be miles away as presents stacked high and far from the tree, they almost reached all four corners of the room. They did indeed come and it seemed like we opened presents for hours, and all the toys we opened had to stay at my grandmothers, we were not allowed to take any home. Which was a relief to our mother, who was certain we had no room for all the toys we were given.

My grandmother’s Christmas tree stood in her living room for nearly five years, until she finally decided to take it down as she worried she would fall into it as she got older, and after seven years she was carried out of her house by five paramedics and spent the last few years of her life in various homes. She always had a several ornaments up in her room.


a longer version of this story will be broadcast on Jon Solomon’s 24-hour Christmas show on WPRB: IMG_5688

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae: Love part one

March 23, 2014


With a certainty that only an adolescence can have, the thought of love was an idea that sat in the forefront of my mind as I slopped my way through high school. The arduous task of shaking my sleeping limbs from bed was enough to cover my morning with blurred anxiety that still pulses through my body today, and then thinking of communicating with a female let alone telling my own worrisome and conflicted thoughts to “simmer down, God-Damnit!” was something that would be tackled when I was off to college. Love mind you, not sex, as sex was the mystery that appeared to be as supernatural as the ark in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Sex was found in the underwear ads of the JC Penny catalog, the blond from “Night Court, the slithering sounds off of “Exile on Main Street” and Prince records, and of course found in the pages of Ms. June 1977 who slept quite comfortably underneath my mattress. Sex in those years meant only masturbation, and the mysterious thoughts of what a woman’s body would feel like to my trembling and unsure hands. For at fifteen, the hands of a boy are as hesitant as any toddler taking her first steps. I was a voracious reader at that time, at first it was the epic fantasy novels of JRR Tolkien and then I moved onto the fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock and Piers Anthony but soon, I moved onto the essential reading of every adolescence: Kurt Vonnegut, JD Salinger, music bios (“Up and Down with the Rolling Stones”, “No One Here Gets Out Alive” and “Hammer of the Gods”) but soon I picked up Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” with its guilty bathroom descriptions of Jewish-boy masturbation while his mother pounded away at the door, screaming, “What are you doing in THERE?!!!” Although my mother wasn’t the one pounding at my door, it was my older brother who would casually say to his friends, while I silently ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while watching Star Trek, “there’s Bela, all he does is jerk off, listen to music and read. Once in a while he’ll come out of his room to watch Star Trek or David Letterman.” His friends would call me worm, a nickname only they called me and one I hated. “I’ll show you fuckers,” I would think, “I’m gonna end up with the most beautiful woman you will ever meet.” Which is exactly what I did. Not by plan of course but most likely because my wife did something terribly wrong in her former life…..

At the time when this was going on, I had never tried that, masturbation, in fact all I did was read and listen to my records. Incessantly. On the weekends I would listen to the faint sounds of WUSO, the Wittenberg station hoping to hear the static sounds of the Replacements, Smiths or Dead Milkman. But one afternoon, half-way through “Portnoy’s Compliant” I wondered what all the fuss was about, why did this kid masturbate on what seemed like every other paragraph. Shortly thereafter, I was fitted for my first pair of glasses, coincidence, I think not.

But love was elusive and found only on the songs I listened to and the movies I saw. Perhaps the only movie I could relate to the had a love story was the “Wanderer’s” where one of the character’s falls for the folk-loving college co-ed played by the lovely Karen Allen as I saw myself in Ken Wahl’s character who bucks the pressure of the neighborhood to fall for the intelligent and candid Nina. Deep in my mind, I knew I would find my love either in Athens, Columbus or New York and only when I cast off the invisible ropes of rural Ohio. I counted the days until my liberation. Love found me on the front steps of my house on an early evening in mid-December 1985, as Jenny Mae and a collection of her friends bounded up the small steps of the parsonage to serenade me with Christmas carols. Zoltan, was visiting from Germany where he was stationed, and no-doubt his eighteen year old hands, were no longer unsure as he had plenty of experience with the fairer sex, turned his head towards me as he held the door open, “it’s ok Bela, I got it. They’re here to carol, you can go back upstairs.” I was just thankful that he didn’t add, “Bela just sits up there jerking off, reading and listening to records.” But, naturally to the both of us, we figured the girls were there to carol him. “Um, actually Z, we are here to sing to Bela.” “Oh, that’s cool” Zoltan replied, “Hey Bay, come back the wanna sing to you,” and as I passed him he had a wide grin and whispered out the side of his mouth, “fucking go for it, that Jenny is cute.”

As bits of swirling snow hovered around the small flock of girls, my heart heaved wide and large inside, I smiled at them, offered them to come in and when they made excuses that they had other people they needed to carol for, I closed the door and sighed deeply. “Hey, did you ask her out?” As I crammed a hot dog in my mouth, “no, why would I do that?” “Bela, you are fucking worthless, she came over here in the snow to sing for you, you should ask her out.” “I dunno, maybe.” Something in me always recoiled when Zoltan used the word “should.”

The next weekend after Chris Biester bought me a six-pack of Pabst’s Blue Ribbon, Jenny and I lay in my bed listening to the sounds of the first Cars record, and sure enough the coils that hold sex and love together grabbed us both and wrapped around our souls, bustling them together and shaking the ethereal wisps of ourselves to our very core. And as “Moving in Stereo” played loudly in the back ground, I felt her lips around me as her head bobbed to the beat of Ric Ocasek. Afterwards, I strode out of bed and said I was going to take a shower and invited her, figuring I might as well go for broker. She joined me, and later said, “I’ve never taken a shower with somebody before.”

Love had come suddenly, through songs, “Silent Night” and a few days later, “Let the Good Times Roll” as Ric Ocasek sang with moist lips and his oh-so-cool new wave voice. I was staggered, we spent every day together, soon finishing each other’s sentences. She used Gloria Vanderbilt perfume and smuggled it into my house so she could spray my pillow, which I snuggled and smelled after I drove her home. The world seemed brighter, crisper and more relaxed. At the end of our senior year, I was accepted into several colleges, Hiram, Otterbein, and Ohio University although my grades were not good enough to get into the journalism school at OU, I collapsed the lifelong dream of going to college in Athens and stuffed it deep inside to be replaced with a new hope, one that was born out of teenage blow-jobs, pillows that smelled pretty and having someone wanting you. I ended up at Otterbein College just north of Columbus in the dry town of Westerville, a most dumb-ass decision that can only be blamed on teenage blowjobs, pillows smelling pretty and having someone want you.

That summer after our senior year was difficult, I had fallen for Jenny’s best friend Kathy who reciprocated her desire for me, in the meantime, in what can only be described as a miniature Peyton Place, Jenny had been unfaithful during the summer. First with a tall, lanky goofy guy named Bob who worked at the drive-in theater with her. Bob was funny, I could see her attraction, he was older at least twenty and shaved his head.  I had also discovered some of the deep secrets that lovers share and my pain for Jenny’s past only confused and angered me, and my desire to leave the emptiness I felt of rural Ohio only intensified. It all came out one drunken evening as Jenny lay passed out in Kathy’s parents living room, Kathy and I were engaged in some heavy petting that could be more described as heavy lifting, when she asked if I had a condom and something snapped, the horrors of Jenny’s past and my own past swelled inside of me and soon I was heaving as great globs of tears sputtered from my eyes. Kathy spilled the beans of Jenny’s unfaithfulness and my wailing caused Jenny to wake up and sadly, because of teenage lust and confusion their friendship was at a standstill for several years.

If one isn’t shown how to love then the dance of love between lovers will be clumsy, performed in fits and starts, full of bliss followed by anger, pain and most likely confusion. Metaphorically, it’s like putting together largest jigsaw puzzle but without a picture to know what you are putting together. Some pieces will slid together, as if by greased by butter while others will struggle under the weight of a thick thumb trying in vain to make that “LITTLE-FUCKER-WORK, GOD-DAMNIT!!” But alas, they don’t and the pain of this confusion leads inevitably to more pain. We learn from our parents, and as I gaze back over the shoulder of my past, lined with globs of dirt bundled up in the road I have walked, at times there are no footprints only the squished plants and the indentation of my body in the trenches off the road, I get the sense that my parents and caregivers had not one idea how to navigate the surging tides of love and sex in their own lives. Truth be told, I am emotionally clumsy, a clumsiness built upon an every changing childhood and with a trepidation to truly give myself, for if that is a key ingredient of love then I have always held back. For to give that part of oneself, can be dangerous, should be dangerous, a risk worth the reward. But, if oneself being is built upon a foundation of worthlessness than how does on accept love in return?

The gray had settled like a robe over Ohio, it came creeping in early November, made itself comfortable in December and dug its thick rotund roots deep into the soil and the psyche of every inhabitant during the months of January and February. In March, when splatters of sunshine would give a shot of hope to those who suffered under the morass of depression that the sky layered upon us, the gray would cackle to itself and with a sudden wave of cruelty would slather its oppressive self with a thickness that stretched from the chilled ground, upwards into space that no doubt was the final bullet for many Midwesterners that blew the back of their skulls because, well, they. just. couldn’t. take. it. any longer.  My car was gray, a compact Ford Mustang whose front quarter panel was held to the rest of the car by durable duct tape, it was a dented as the emotional state of its owner, with a black radio shack cassette deck I had wired and fastened with even more duct tape to the bottom of the console. When the engine revved the pistons, who were no doubt choking and coughing by this point of the blue collar careers made a whirling sound through the sound system. A small whistle that reminded me of the precarious nature of my financial situation. All I really wanted was a sound system that played without sounding like there was a squirrel caught in the inner workings of my speakers.

My hangover was fat in my head, even twenty some years later I can remember it, it was as if someone had placed a large cinder block, ever so carefully, just below the skin that covered my forehead between the spaces of my ears. I was still a little drunk and it was early Easter morning, the road I was driving was familiar as I curved through the sharp bends of Baker Road in Athens county, Ohio. When I was 11 we had lived in an old farmhouse on Baker Road, just a few miles from where I had spent the night. An Appalachian trailer park lived next door, filling some of my childhood nights with de-muffled car engines, screaming and the sound of babies crying into the night. The night before I had spent the night with a woman whose name I can no longer remember, no doubt if I had a shovel to cut through gnarled neural pathways and enough coffee, I would unearth her name and her body which no doubt had danced above me earlier that morning. But the memory of driving from her house near Fox Lake into town is stuck with me, in the slow collapsing tape deck, Superchunk’s  “Foolish” a masterstroke of a decaying relationship, blared while I tried to shake the fermented cinder block in my forehead away. Burbling up inside was a small rope of guilt, meandering its way through my veins, as I had been seeing a woman for a few months in Columbus.

Choices are made based on far flung emotions, outliers they may be but these can tend to control the habits we develop and the woman I was seeing was based on these emotions. At the end of the day, we had little in common with the exception of a love of music and the desire we held for our bodies. In fact, over the course of the time we spent together I had set foot in her apartment only once and she had only spent the night only a handful of times in my apartment. Our meetings were brief, always sexual and then, as she had misgivings about the fuel that drove me in those days, we would part and I would hurdle myself deep into the night, to be with friends.

I had to drive to Cincinnati, to my mother’s that morning as the overcast sky was slowly being unhinged from its wintery mores, singing “Driveway to Driveway” at the top of my lungs, I would rewind it and start the song over, I felt liberated. I knew for certain that I would return to the relationship of the woman in Columbus, who was physically stunning but we were devoid of any other connection. In a moment that had continued to be as real today as it was the April morning, the sun poked through the clouds, breaking apart the hold that winter had gripped the entire state. The small white buds of wildflowers hushed a collective cheer and in a flash the yellowed, thin waving strands of weeds that lined the black asphalt slightly turned green and a part of me awakened even further. The two month relationship with the woman came to an end at that moment, and in some ways a part of me burped somewhat into maturity as the idea of sex over love shriveled just a tad but never disappeared.

Many of my lessons in love came through betrayal, either by what I witnessed growing up with parents who flung dirty details about one another through the mind of a child, to experiences of early love that was tangled with early sexual exploration to dishonesty that pervaded the actions and motivations I carried out. Love is epic, a path that is emotionally wide as the vastness of the sea, and like the sea able to well up in white crested waves that can come crashing down in violence, churning, bending and pulling in every direction. Today my son Bruno, all four feet of him took me from a moment of utter frustration (he peed on the dog), to the fragility of slowly cracking my heart as if it were a thin piece of ice on a parking lot. Careful or it will crack. As I explained to him the rudeness of peeing on something alive, he turned his head, his blue eyes downcast and shame filling his cheeks a small sigh peeping out of his lips. “sorry,” he muttered, quick as if he were an auctioneer. “Ok, don’t do that again. Peeing on things. Now give me a kiss.” He leaned his blond head forward and I gently kissed his forehead pulling him towards me, “hey, I want a kiss from you now” I said. He looked up and with the same delicate hesitation of a moth landing on a light bulb he kissed my cheek. Behind him, his sister said, “Daddy, I wanna give you a kiss but you give me one first.” I suppose, over the years a short dock has been constructed out into my internal sea.

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae: Crushes 1990-1992 (sort of)

September 21, 2013

Loneliness was marked one listen at a time. Three in the morning, shrouded in the dark front room, only the streetlight out front flicking light streaks through the window as infrequent cars, no doubt also filled with the near despondent with a night full of booze and nicotine like myself came through. The record would spin in circles until it reached the end, at times I would lift the needle to the beginning of a certain song, the song what would capture what I felt, maybe a chorus maybe a riff or maybe the sounds of  a bow on strings. I fell in love frequently, it was easy. It was needed. Nervousness was cloaked in laughter, in the foolish things that would tumble from my lips, I would say anything to garner a smile. Jerry would as well, and Jenny was an expert at burying her feelings under six feet of joke.

In a five month period I managed to fall for four woman named Jenny, it was comical almost as if there was a sitcom screenplay my life was following. Jenny number one was of course, Jenny Mae, whose fragile existence made me worry at night. The romantic love had burned bright for two years and then the love that is born of responsibility and loyalty took over, it has somehow continued for over twenty years since I walked out in the fall of 1991. Transformed from puppy-love to the concern of parental responsibility, she is symbol of how, as a society we take care of our own for me. A fountain of frustration and stubbornness that, is rarely tempered by blasts of laughter that somehow make up for the frustration of observing a twenty-one year car accident in progress.

I had begun to make bi-weekly and weekly visits to Athens, ducking out of work early on a Saturday night, loading up my pale blue Chevrolet Chevete, perhaps the saddest sack of a car this side of a Gremlin with cassettes and a six pack. Motoring down route 33, past the flat farms of lower Franklin County, towards Lancaster where the landscape would shift abruptly mid-town town. From the smooth as a quarter landscape of the north end of town into the staggered foothills of Appalachia on the other end, just a three mile distance. One could feel the molting of Columbus as the landscape shifted, a renewed energy boiled inside as I replaced “Daydream Nation” with Superchunk’s “Foolish” and what would become the soundtrack for my next three break-ups. The affinity I felt towards Athens was profound, even though I had made and found a home and finally a sense of community in Columbus, the roots of my childhood lay in Athens. In the college town atmosphere and liberal politics of the region, while Columbus was home, Athens felt like a refuge. Chris Biester was one of my best friends, perhaps the most talented musician I have ever come across, at once a storyteller but also one that could make his guitar to do anything he desired. A master word conjurer of sorts, that could spit out a lyric that could lay next to America’s greatest poets and then entertain with a way with the spoken word with the same wryness as Will Rogers.

Chris lived haphazardly, at certain points in his life, he resided in a tent in rural Meigs County and at other junctures he lived the shambling existence of most bohemians, that is a life filled with roommates, dogs and countless lovers all of them promising relief from the storms of life. Chris was well aware of my precarious mindset, and when I would greet him at the Union, he would enquire about my mental health with a quizzical look complete with a frozen raised eyebrow and ask again, “I mean how are you?” “Great” I would reply, as I was filled with at least six drinks from my way down, a few cups of coffee and the hope only a Saturday night can promise a young man of 23. Chris introduced me to Jenny number two, a thin woman with full lips who rolled her own cigarettes and eye lashes that could reach out and break a man. They had been a couple and Chris had moved on, he had no doubt counseled her on my recent mental health issues and the precarious nature of my own existence. She was devoted to Chris, not just a former lover but as a guidepost, one whom would see that the neurosis that climbed inside him was scrubbed out. One weekend, Jerry and I drove to Athens and saw Chris’s band Appalachian Death Ride at a sub-level bar called the Dugout. ADR, as they were called amongst their faithful had just received welcoming and positive press in the College Music Journal and  Your Flesh magazine. That night a sonic bomb went off in the underbelly of Court Street, as ADR ripped through a set that, 21 years later is still fresh in my mind. They ended their set, shirtless, with the walls sweating from the overabundance of hair and stickiness of the patrons, with covers of “Pale Blue Eyes” and Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” It was brilliant. That night I went back to Jenny’s apartment, just up the hill from Sunnyside Drive and across the street from a playground I had played at when I was a toddler. To uneasy to make love, I held her tight until the room quit spinning and woke up with a dog licking my face.

Jenny and I started to become a couple and by early December she made the drive to Columbus to spend the weekend with me. She was going to spend the month in San Francisco with an Aunt. That night we finally made love and the next morning I drove her the airport that New Years Eve we spent the weekend in her new apartment in rural Athens County with her best friend Haynes. I remember drinking one glass of wine, walking in the early morning through brown weeds and a gray morning sky while thinking to myself that I would have to end this relationship. A week later she called to tell me that she was pregnant. I had helped make arrangements for her to terminate the pregnancy, and while I was a practicing Catholic, I felt relief that she had decided to make this choice. She stayed at my apartment that weekend.  And soon after the relationship ended as quietly as a leaf landing in the forest.

Jenny number three was a librarian from Philadelphia, bookish, with large eyes and a wide smile that held perfect white teeth. She was committed to a man in Philly, who she missed like the wheat misses the wind. Jenny number two came in the store frequently and my crush was solidified when she bought a Nothing Painted Blue single.  The next time she came in she went to buy a ticket to see Unrest at Staches,

“hey, you wanna go?” I asked.

Smiling a smile that was more grimace than smile, “uh, yeah. That’s why                                         I’m buying a ticket. You know, because. I. Want. To. Go.”

“Yeah, I know that but I mean, if you don’t want to pay for it I could take                                                 you. Like, for free. We get in free” gesturing towards the entire store with                                      my hands.

She put her wallet back in her purse, tilted her head, thinking for a                                                  moment, “ok, sure. why not” she replied, more to herself than to me.

“We can meet at Dicks Den across the street? How about nine or ten?”

She looked at me strangely, “is that too late?”

“no, it won’t start until ten, Gaunt is opening up. That’s Jerry’s band.”

“oh, Gaunt, they are local right? Who is Jerry?”

Jerry sat at the back counter, smoking a cigarette, head tilted back, staring                                      at the flyers on the ceiling. “that’s Jerry.”

“He’s in Gaunt? I didn’t even know they were from here. I thought they                                         were from like Chicago or something.”

“Yeah, you’re not from here are you?

“No, I’m from Philadelphia but I went to school in D.C. We played Gaunt                          on the radio. That’s cool” she smiled back toward Jerry, her head nodding                                     in approval. Jerry waved to her, as if he were sitting in the back of a                            station wagon, and he was five. “Sure, ten at Dick’s Den then?”

“Yup, see you then.” I was already worried she was going to fall for Jerry.

He walked up to the counter, “Did you just ask that girl out?”

“Yeah, well sorta, I mean I offered to take her to the show tonight, I don’t                                                 think it’s a date though.”

“She’s cute.”

Jerry, at that time swore he was celibate, “I don’t need sex, it’s over-rated” he would say between swigs of beer and draws off his cigarette. It was an odd thing to say, but he was not seeing anybody at the time, and he hadn’t yet started seeing the woman who would compel him to write “Yeah, Me Too” and “Kryptonite” in quick succession. There was a bit of jealously between us, the competition for the affection of women was unspoken and while I thought Jerry was silly for stating he was celibate, he thought I was nuts for the want of women after the dangerous break-ups I had.

“You should just stay away from them, you can’t handle them” he would offer       without prompting.

Stung by his words, “shut up, Jerry. I never fucking asked you.”

“whatever dude.”

Jerry skipped out of work early that night, he was always anxious on the days Gaunt played, his nervousness combining with his over caffeinated and nicotine addled brain made him unbearable as if he were clawing the back of his eyeballs out. “Yeah, just leave–I can handle the last hour by myself” I said as he mentioned for the fourteenth-fucking-time that his band was playing.  A relief poured over him for a flash, “thanks dude, I’ll see you tonight. Good luck on your date!” he yowled as he left the store, I stammered back, “It’s not a fucking date!.” As I heard him reach the top of the stairs, no doubt blowing a stream of smoke from his lips, “Whatever duudddeee!”

Jennifer number three and I met at Dick’s Den, she was wearing a red skirt and black hose, with a tee-shirt. She was stunning and I was still dressed in the same grimy  shirt and jeans that I had worn all day, only now they smelled of cigarettes, booze and pizza. A winning combination unless you were meeting someone for a first date. I had bounced from Used Kids to Larry’s where I made conversation with the tall bartender Becky who was just hired from Buckeye Donuts. Running into Eric Davidson, singer for the New Bomb Turks, he plopped up next to me. “Going to the show tonight, Unrest, pretty cool. Jerry must be fucking stoked. That’s all he has been talking about all week at the house. It’s like we FUCKING know Jerry, it’s cool your punk-rock band is playing with Unrest but it’s not like you haven’t played a fucking show. They aren’t the Dead Boys for Christ sakes.” Eric popped a pretzel into his mouth. The man was always eating pretzels. “Yeah, he drove me nuts at work, always fidgeting, he would take a record off three songs in, then turn his back to counter while people were waiting to buy shit and then look at them like they were stupid. He’s the most neurotic person I’ve ever met,” shaking my head, I ordered another beer.

“You going as well?”

Eric said, “yeah, I hated but I had to ask Jerry to put me on the list, I’m fucking broke and he can be such a dick about it. It’s not like I wouldn’t put him on the list for one of our shows but you guys get into everything for free so why bother. He was like, ‘Jesus, Eric, I don’t even know how many people we get on the list?’, like I was asking him to wipe my ass or something, he can be such a douche.”

It was easy to pile on Jerry, he himself had a unique way of piling on everybody else unbeknownst to him.

“I know he’s excited, I remember when he brought them last year and interviewed                                     them    for Cornhole.” Cornhole was Jerry’s Kinko’s stapled fanzine, he published                          four or five issues.

I looked at the time behind the wall, “I gotta head up to Dick’s, you wanna walk                           up there with me?”

Eric shook his head, “no thanks, I’m meeting Majesky and a few other guys in a                             little bit, we’ll be up there soon.”

“Just don’t miss Gaunt, or Jerry will kill you, ‘I put Eric on the fucking guest list                             and he can’t even see our band.’ That’s what I’ll have to hear all day tomorrow at                                   work if you don’t make it in time” explaining as I swallowed half a beer in a                            single gulp.

Crossing High Street, ambling up the west side of the street, so as to walk in the long shadows of the trees that blanket that side of the street, I get my bearings. It’s early but I can feel the cool wind of an Ohio autumn, with the flecks of hope the change in the weather brings. The old feelings of new school are brought to life, stirring as if the wind was doing the stirring itself within me. Hands plunged deep into my pockets, keeping my head down and counting my steps. There are roughly five blocks to cover, and for a good chunk of it there are little to no commercial businesses on High Street. Just past Lane Avenue, the longest road in Columbus grows quiet for a moment as canopy of trees leaning over the sidewalk into the street it’s as if the city planners knew this area would be ripe for graduate students, professors and young families. I walk past Northwood and glance across the road and up the dark slight hill that Northwood disappears into, I think of my father. Sometime, many years ago, he and my mother brought me home from the hospital to a small white house sitting on a corner alley up the road. I think of the nervousness in his hands, wiping his hair out of his eyes and he breathed in deeply, almost holding his breath as my mother handed this tiny infant into his clumsy hands. Inside were my sister and brother, with my Aunt Cheryl and my mother’s parents. We lived on Northwood for six months before moving to Athens, and as I stroll by I wonder what my life would have been like if we stayed. “No doubt, I wouldn’t be working in a record store, getting drunk off my ass” I think as I quicken my pace.

Just past Patterson Avenue, just two blocks from home, I spy Dow’s on High, I need to pee. The campus area reeks of urine from too many drunken frat guys and out-of-campus visitors relieving themselves on the sidewalks, alleys and doorways of High Street and neighboring streets, it is unfathomable that these are the future leaders of the new world. I made a vow not to do this unless it was absolutely necessary, I do a slow motion backwards count of how many drinks I have had, “let’s see, at least four at work but I had pizza and I started at four.  Three beers and a shot at Larry’s, that’s only like um, seven and half over five hours. I’m fine.” The alcohol has settled in my knees and around my ears, I can feel it but I am thinking clearly. I don’t want to overshoot it, so, I manage the intake well. this has been done countless times before, I open the door to Dow’s, it isn’t very busy. “I’ll have a Bud, be back in a moment.” The bar is small, with a thin walking space next to the bar and a jukebox that almost hides the men’s room, just to the left of the men’s room is an underutilized room that has a haber-dash of beer signs and posters left over from the nineteen eighties, an old Cleveland Browns poster complete with a schedule from 1990 dangles from the far wall. The season is only half-filled out, by week nine, after a drubbing by the Buffalo Bills that left the morose team, 2-7, even the hardcore owner of Dow’s had given up. And he was an ex-Brown and played for Ohio State. The poster has started to curl at the end, a seldom used pool table sits under a thin hanging light with only three of the four bulbs working, there are stacks of beer protruding from behind an area that was once a kitchen. It would be easy to make off with several cases of beers out the back door which is at the end of a long hallway jutting off from the far wall. That would not happen in a place like Dow’s though, which is the loneliest dive/sports bar on this stretch of High Street. It’s a good place to drink, with polite bartenders who eye us carefully but after several visits accept us. The jukebox sucks, filled with the likes of Journey, Bon-Jovi and Heart, and most times when there isn’t a Brown’s game on it is playing, “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Barracuda” for the four thousandth time. I wait outside the men’s room, although there are only a handful of patrons in the bar, one of them is taking a leak. Behind me sits a small table, with a crock-pot filled with homemade Barb-queue, and a large spoon ready to fill up a thin white roll that is housed in a yellow and clear plastic bag. A stack of styrophom plates and a bag of rippled chips sits on the table. There is a football game flickering on the television but it is not the beloved Browns. While waiting to pee, I shake my head at the juke book, where Billy Idol is bellowing away.

Dick’s Den is one of the oldest bars around the campus area, with multiple nights of live jazz being played, although Dick’s was no piano bar, a tiny almost platform stage wedged between a the doorway to the most cramped area laid out for a pool table, just to the left of the doorway, shoved into a corner as if straddling a cliff sat a Terminator II pinball machine. If you played the game a bit rough, full with fits, bumps and lunges you may well make the jukebox, filled with Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, skip. Below the stage were a handful of tables, where the drinks would jockey for space much like the musicians on the stage. The bar staff was older than the staff at Larry’s, the Blue Danube and Staches, with many left over from the High Street debauchery of the 1960’s and 70’s. It was, in a way the post-doc equivalent of a bar compared to the graduate student manner of Larry’s. I was usually frustrated with doorman at Dick’s, due to the explosion of college clientele during their carnival/riotous nights of quarter beer nights during the early nineties. While, I’m sure the loved the business they made quick changes to the flood of frat types on the Wednesday nights of quarter beer nights, the first upping it to .50 beer nights and cracking down on carding people. I took some umbrage at being carded every time I went into Dick’s, mostly because I drank there at least once a week and also for the fact that I had assumed I had long-ago cemented my credentials as a High Street veteran.

Dick’s was busy that night because, sure enough, it was .50 beer night and as I stuck my ID back into my back pocket, I eyed Jenny sitting at the bar with a tall bottle of Rolling Rock in front of her. “Hey,” I said as I saddled up next to her, raising my finger to the bartender and mouthing the words, Budweiser to him. He was a Used Kids regular, prone to buying Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Dale Gilmore as well as jazz titles, he nodded and smiled, silently placing a beer in front of me he stuck his hand up, signaling I didn’t need to pay. I flipped him $2 for a tip and nodded my thanks. Jenny smirked at me, “you come here often I guess?” Looking sideways at her, as I lifted the bottle, now neck empty, “not too much, really, maybe once a week. He comes to the shop a lot, I usually give him a deal. The secret to successful drinking is to know how to treat your bartender, in or out of the bar. Smiling, and shaking her head, “I see that.”

After a few formalities she cut to the chase, “hey, I think it’s cool that you asked me to join you, I could have paid for  a ticket but you know, graduate school money doesn’t go very far. So, that was nice. But I need to let you know I have a boyfriend, Kevin, and he lives in Philadelphia. I just don’t want you to think that, um, I don’t know…..”, she looked skywards, “now, I feel stupid.” Thinking to myself, “only Jerry thought this was a date”, I smiled, “I didn’t think of anything more than just getting you in, really, I didn’t think this was a date or anything. I’m not good at that sort of thing anyway.” In some way I was relieved, shirking from any sort of romantic investment was easy for me, a great deal of the people I spent time with were woman, almost all on a platonic level. “Whew, I was worried you might be upset with me,” she replied, almost to herself, and it was obvious a burden was taken off her shoulders.  “nope, not at all.” I stuck my hand up for two more beers, pointing to her half empty bottle and my empty one. “Don’t you think we should go? It’s like 10:30 and I think the ticket said 9:30. I wanna see your friend’s band, Gaunt.” “it’s alright, shows here start late, and besides there is another band playing first, there are always three bands. I think their called Swivel-Arm Battlegrip, Gaunt will go on in about twenty minutes and they’ll play a short set because Jerry is nervous about playing with Unrest. He loves them so he won’t play too long.”

Staches was half-full, Unrest had just put out the finest record of their career, “Imperial F.f.r.r.” and chimy, ringing piece of guitar pop, the was one of the most catchy records of the year. They had played Staches the year before, again with Gaunt, and were lack-luster as was the turnout for the show. It was a decent crowd for a Wednesday night, and when we entered, I got three beers from the bar, two Budweiser’s for me and a Rolling Rock for Jenny. “you don’t have to buy me any drinks, in fact I probably shouldn’t drink very much more, I have class tomorrow.” “It’s ok, I don’t mind.” I motioned to the stage, where Jerry was just getting ready to plug his guitar in, Gaunt had jelled into quite a live band by this point, having released three records on Thrill Jockey (“Whitey the Man”, “I Can See Your Mom From Here” and “Sob Story”) and doing several tours. Jovan Karcic was a welcome addition to the band, of Serbian descent, Jovan had a startling resemble to a more handsome Frank Zappa and with his mop of curly hair hanging down the second guitar he supplied to Jerry’s fuzzy tone was at times humorous, with its startled burst of frenetic balls of feedback and sudden stops, Jovan fills bolstered Gaunt’s sound tremendously. That night, taking a cue from Jerry’s neurotic energy, they bulldozed their way through a short set, built mostly on the songs from “Sob Story” and a few new songs that came out as singles, “Good Bad, Happy Sad” and “Pop Song”, they were superb. In fact, a small crowd had gathered around the stage, I was in front, just to the right of Jerry. Jenny stood next to  the thin barrier that kept the customers at the bar from spilling into the area in front of the stage, where there were a few tables. I looked back and saw her bopping her head, smiling the entire time. Eric Davidson and Jim Weber stood next to me and as Gaunt launched into “Lies” we all yelled “Spirit of the Radio” to the feigned annoyance of Jerry, as “Lies” shared a close melody to the more known Rush song. It was absurd to think that Jerry had ever listened to Rush.

Unrest were pale in comparison, with both a male and female singer, their brand of indie-rock was almost sober following the sonic assault of Gaunt. They were decent, especially to those of us who knew all the words to their songs. Afterwards, I asked Jenny if she wanted to come by my house and listen to a few more records, it wasn’t too late I offered. Only 12:30 or so, plus we could have another beer. She thought about it, “how close do you live?” Pointing to the back of Staches, “Like two blocks from here, it is literally a stumble away.” Breathing deeply, she sighed, “O.k., but just for a little bit, I really have to go to school tomorrow.” I had no aspirations of anything from her that night, at that time of the evening my goal was to continue to listen to music and drink more beer. As I introduced her to Richard and Istvan, my two dogs, I opened the beers. Excitedly I started playing records, mostly 45’s of bands she may or not have heard of, The Puddle from New Zealand, Number One Cup from Chicago, Belreve from Columbus and the pure bliss of the Flatmates, a female fronted band from the UK who sounded somewhat like the Wedding Present. We were almost hugging the stereo, as if the giant piece of furniture and electronic wires were an Iron Lung for us, she grabbed my arm, “Listen, I need to leave. I’m sorry but there is way too much sexual energy for me right now, going on. I don’t know, I need to leave.” I was dumbfounded, at that moment, I had felt no sexual tension, I was like a five year old showing off his toy trucks. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m not thinking of that. You can stay.” I don’t think she believed me. “You aren’t? Well I am, and I need to leave.” Jenny walked home that night, I walked her partway. After this my crush became immense and over time nothing more became of our friendship, she became a late night voice for me, as I would tremble from the loneliness I felt after drinking until three am, I would call her and she would talk to me until I drifted off to sleep. She eventually broke up with Kevin, I went through a series of relationships and one failed marriage before we were ever romantic together. And these moments were few and rushed, heavy petting on a couch and a furtive brief front seat hand job that ended because, well we were on a residential street. “Listen,” she breathed towards me, “I have to teach tomorrow, but we can go out this Saturday ok?” “Are you sure you just don’t want to come up now, I get up early, I can wake you up,” I promised. “I can’t, I’d like to but I need to go, I can’t risk it.” Her responsibility to her job was very enticing, she was different from many of the women I knew. “Ok, I’m promoting the Grifters show on Saturday night, we can go to that, and get dinner before.” “Deal.” Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if she would have went upstairs with me to my bedroom that night, as the next day, my (current) wife came in the store and we scheduled our first date for Thursday. I had to call Jenny on Saturday and let her know that I had fallen for someone but would still put her on the guest list. She was very understanding.

Crushes came and crushes went, like the passing of the trees at the side of the road, if one pulled the car over, took a gander at the tree it would be easy to fall in love. To see the muscled roots burrowing into the ground, plowing deep into the soil, with the passage of time and branches stretching high into the sky with a billion leaves shaking forth in the wind, the site would be breathtaking. Currently, in between worrisome moments, where the future crushes any thoughts of the past as the phone bill winks as I rustle the keys from the front door. A child around my knees, spurting out ideas that have just been born form his young mind, I panic. “What the fuck, where I am?” I think to myself. The dog jumping high into the air, in my moment of worry I am annoyed. A flash of anger grabs my throat forcing out a stammer, “fucking stop! Hold the fuck on!” I am lost again. Other moments take flight of a mind that tries to placate the suffering the winds up in my office, the homeless woman with two kids living out of her car, the veteran trying to drive to work but can’t because his license is suspended, the woman who goes home to a house where her elderly father, in failing health waits for her to clean him even though he is the one that raped her when she was  four. The time for crushes appear to have fluttered to the earth, like the giant tree jarring it’s leaves free.

Jenny number four lived around the corner from me, her roommate who everybody called Kat was friends with Richie Violet (Jack Taylor), Kat later became a well known poet but at the time I associated her with hanging out with druggie Jack. Jenny had long red hair, she went to Ohio University and was good friends with Chris Biester, she was in a total sense an Athens woman and while we were attracted to one another the thing we did the best together. She had a wide smile, with white teeth sparkling with her blue eyes. And we cackled together frequently, the absurdity of life cast itself around us, from this hillbillies in Athens to the pretentious mob of art-fucks who sometimes infiltrated Larry’s. Jenny and I were never a couple, she would crash at my apartment when Jack and others were at her apartment. She had experimented with heroin and did not want to be tempted, she said, “I don’t need to be around it, it makes me do dumb shit. Weed is cool but all in all I’d rather get drunk with you. You’re funny.” We would listen to records, walk to bar, take in a show at Staches and eat at the Due. She was too strange for Jerry, “you hanging out with that Athens chick tonight?” he’d ask, with a skepticism in his voice. “I dunno, probably, I suppose.” “She’s got big tits, doesn’t she” he would grin, “I dunno, probably, I suppose.” I would answer.

Jenny worked as a stripper that summer, and after she left work she would drive to my house, climb in my bed and cry. “I fucking hate that shit, I hate it, this guy keeps trying to follow me home.” We never made love, that summer, she would resist when we got to that point, explaining, “I can’t do it, I want to but, I can’t.” I never pushed it, we were in a sense fuck-buddies without the fucking. More like blow-buddies.

She left for Athens that fall and during the course of the coming year, there were a few times we would fall into each other at the Union but soon she fell in love with a handsome be speckled guitar player named Brandon. The next summer, while she and Brandon had temporarily broken up she showed up at a Flat Duo Jets show at Staches. The Flat Due Jets were fronted by Dexter Romweber, a frantic front man, whose hyperkinetic energy onstage pulsated the duo’s sound. He cracked jokes and took his music seriously. During the course of the evening, it was decided that the after-hours party would be at my apartment as soon by three am, the apartment was filled with the lonely and the drunken crowd from Staches.  The house was filled with people I barely knew, it didn’t matter, just as long as I heard voices and could see people smiling. Playing a freewheeling trove of music to have bodies move was easy, the dancers may have expected rare rockabilly or art-punk damaged grimy 45’s but I kept things simple, always.

From James Brown to Pet Shop Boy remixes perhaps and Bloodstains Across (whatever) song would be thrown in but by the time four am rolled around, everybody was dispersing.

Jenny cooed in my ear as we swayed hips and spilled beer on the scuffed hardwood floors, “hey, can I stay here tonight”, “oh, yes” I mouthed back over the din of Prince’s “when you were mine”. As people left out the door, Jenny and I headed to my bedroom, sitting in the middle of my bed, we traded gulps of beer and kissed each other. the light was on and the door was cracked, in a moment Dexter strolled into the room eating a leg of fried chicken. He plopped himself down in the middle of the bed, climbing over my shoulder and leaning his head against the faded white wall. I looked at Jenny, “um, we were kinda making out.” I explained. Jenny giggled. Nodding his head and taking a bite out of the leg, “that’s cool.” Jenny and I looked at each other and laughed. Dexter was moving his head to the distant music, “so, Columbus is pretty neat. I like it, great afterhours by the way” he mumbled as a flake of chicken skin fell from his mouth, wiping if off, “sorry, I guess I shouldn’t eat this in your bed.”

After about five minutes of awkwardness I leaned over and said just above a whisper, “hey man, um I’m trying to get laid here.” Jenny blurted out, “yeah, and I think he just might!”  Dexter, nodded again, “oh? cool, that’s cool, I didn’t even realize that, I thought you both were just hanging.” And with that he left the room. That was the last night Jenny and I went out.

for Jenny # 2

for all Jenny’s

for Jenny number #4

for Jenny number #2

for Jenny number #1:

For Jerry Wick:




Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae: Freak Scene-Kisses Sweeter Than Wine-Welcoming to the Working Week

July 3, 2013


Sunnyside Drive was idyllic, even the name gave credence to the pure nature of childhood. Eighty-Seven Sunnyside Drive, “The Sunnyside Gang” is what we called ourselves, my sister, brother, the Miller’s just two houses next door and Moose Moorhead. There were other kids on the block, but this was “the gang.” East Elementary was just three blocks away, my sister and brother walked to school, came home for tomato soup and grilled cheese and then went back to school. I played underneath the front porch, crawling through a small hole and dug holes in the moist dirt, with only fragments of sun slicing through the wood slats that covered the sides of the porch. At times I would dig for treasures under that porch, usually an old Matchbox car or plastic green army man or if I was extra diligent I would come across a copper penny or nickel to put away and be able to buy a piece of one cent candy at Andy’s Confectionary.

My father taught architecture at Ohio University, my mother was active in some of the radical political activities that was common on college campuses during the late nineteen sixties and early seventies. Some days, my brother and I would be dropped off at Mrs. Dougan’s, an elderly lady who lived on a small farm with her husband, we would play Batman and Robin behind her chair, get to eat sliced colby cheese and crackers and throw stones at the daddy-longlegs spiders that stuck to the sun-bathed stone wall in the rear of the house.

Childhood memories poke in and out of our days as the children grow older around our knees, asking questions, wanting stories and as they wrestle with growing up, some of us wrestle with growing old. In the third grade, I brought a record home I had borrowed from a friend, “Great Hits of the 50’s” or something like that, the songs sounded dated to even my young ears, “Sha-Boom,” “Chantilly-Lace”  and “That’ll be the Day, ” my mother went crazy. “I haven’t heard these songs in years,” as she bopped around on the cream-colored carpet, smiling and giggling, telling us about Poodle skirts and sock-hops. “what kind of world was that,” I thought to myself, my favorite song at the time was “Fox on the Run” by Sweet and “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder, this music my mother was agog over appeared to be out of a world that long since collapsed. At the time, it had not even been twenty-years since my mother graduated high school in Columbus. My father had only been in the United States for fifteen years or so, his world had changed drastically since fleeing Europe as a child, relocating to Caracas and finally ending up in Columbus, alone, at the age of seventeen as a freshman at Ohio State.

In the car we listen to the MP3 player, and in the house its compact discs, although there are at least a hundred vinyl records littering the white IKEA cabinet that holds our twenty-year old television, X-Box game system, a stereo system circa 1995 and a turn table that has been destroyed by the sticky-fingers of a blond haired, blue-eyed boy of four. The CD’s are stacked high, in groups mostly scattered by my particular mood, one stack is full of melancholy, Adrian Crowley, Nina Simone and Townes van Zandt, while another almost has sparks shooting from it as it shows a propensity of sudden dance sessions with the kids, Superchunk,  Blondie, The Soft Boys, and Mudhoney. The largest stack is broken into smaller mounds of peacefulness, all classical, Beethoven String Quartets, a Jacqueline Dupree box set, choral music from the Harmonia Mundi label, Arvo Part and some 20th Century avant-garde. In the midst of this emotional path are stacks of CD’s without cases, some burned, many unlabeled and a few that have been sitting in the same spot for over five years. The music is everywhere, still the lifeboat that keeps a middle-aged man’s head on securely. The children have their favorites, and it’s all timeless, Woody Guthrie, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Justin Townes Earle, anything with loud guitars, Saskia is prone to sentimental music, folk, story songs and classical. In the car she would rather listen to “This American Life” than anything else. At this moment her favorite song is “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” as recorded by the Weavers, done up with so much sentimentality and hokeyness it would make Martha Stewart blush. Bruno’s favorite song at the moment is “Welcome to the Working Week” by Elvis Costelvis (his was of pronouncing it, which is the embodiment of little-kid genius). When singing in the house  he snarls  about, whilst walking around the house, his little lip curling upward almost spitting the words out. He has no idea what he is singing.

Climbing into the future is not an easy task when considering the weight of the past, in one sense the idea of immortality is the tether provides the motivation, and so the subconscious provides this through our children, our songs, writing and painting but the mundane of everyday life is set aside, the waiting at the traffic light, eating a crappy meal and using the restroom, these are forgotten as if Christ, Beethoven or Mark Twain never did such things. The fireworks of our lives are remembered after we go but what we remember are digging in the dirt, looking for pieces of treasure, a bottle cap, a bruised nickel or waiting for our older brother to get home to help us make a city of blocks and forts of Lincoln Logs.

As an adult I couch myself in humor, it bursts out of me, discharging out of my mouth with no safety gauge, a loose cannon in a inkwell of tie’s and decorum at the Franklin County Courthouse where I work. At times, I mutter to myself, letting the joke release in hushed tones or else my jaw may fall off. Humor is the weapon of choice for the over sensitive, for many, the prickly sharp edge of a witty barb deflects the blunt emotional force of being left behind and isolated. From childhood on, when discovering that making a person smile could actually improve the environment. Jerry Wick had the same loose cannon, his inner filter must have broken by the age of 14. He was emotionally obtuse at times, with a chasm of eloquence between his intention and his speech. This proved dangerous for him at times, on one occasion Pat McGann , the forceful drummer for Greenhorn chased him around Bernie’s Bagels one night. All because Jerry insulted Dan Spurgeon, Greenhorn’s excellent songwriter and on-time roommate of Jerry. As Pat chased Jerry around Formica tables and plastic chairs, spilling beer and knocking half eaten bagels to the ground with teeth grit and leveling more threats than a chained up pit-bull, Pat clutched air and Jerry gleefully cackled about the room.

The humor was self-depreciating, always was and always will be, I suppose, it is easier to point out one’s own shortcomings than having another do it for you. Jenny was quick to point out her sexual promiscuity, perhaps annoying some of the men on the music scene. On her first tour t-shirt instead of cities she wanted to list her sexual conquests on the back and with a nod to the Staches motto, “Staches….I Been There”, she wanted to write, “Jenny Mae, You Been There.” It is the things that tend to hurt us the most that we mold into the humor that defines us, using a weakness for a strength, I suppose other’s bury it with shades or dollops of stereotypical bravado, feminmity or decorum but it was easier for the average Sub-Pop fan to self define himself as a “loser” than to have the middle linebacker from the football do it to him first.

One night, after I had fallen in love with my first New York Girlfriend, I had planned on meeting her on High Street with her old roommate J. Mascis who had almost single handedly defined my existence with his blazing guitar solo on “Freak Scene”. I was nervous, aware of my own sense of awkward and clumsy body, of wire framed glasses that had been bent and bruised by too many late night stumbles and having Jenny toss them across the room to see me scurrying after them, “God-Damnit Jenny, these are my only fucking glasses, I can’t fucking see without them.” “ahh, but you are adorable looking for them, Nerdla.” Sharon was beautiful, with a sense of style and she loved the same hip-hop I did (Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul) and fortunately she was attracted to witty guys, with crooked teeth, bumbling hands and a deep sense of emotion that sunk into a passion for music. J was visiting Sharon with his girlfriend at the time, Maryann, and they wanted to see Soundgarden at the large boxy, concert venue the Newport. I had seen Soundgarden at Staches the year before and was non-pulsed by them, they sounded like a lumbering Led Zeppelin with a heavy bottom and yowling vocals, with nary a semblance of a melody the entire evening. I did not care, I was excited, I had drank a great deal of coffee and a shot of Jim Beam. The alcoholic drinking that would develop was kept at bay by the fear of being emotionally adrift again. As I walked back from Bernie’s in the cool autumn sun, smiling to myself  with the wide eyed excitement of meeting J and maybe holding hands with Sharon (sex was out of the question for me at that time, again the fear of emotional disappointment loomed large), a small group of teenagers approached me, a thin white male with close cropped hair and wiry eyes approached me, “Hey look at Urkle!” he yelled to his friends and punched me full on in the mouth.  Spitting half a tooth into my mouth, “You little fucker” I stammered, knowing the hopes of impressing Sharon and J had disappeared with the teen-ager’s perfectly placed fist, I grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground, my glasses hurtling into the other direction. During the next fleeting moments, as the skirmish ballooned with his posse of friends trying to kick me and him scrambling under my clutches, a few college kids pulled them away and yelled for someone to call the police. I sat on the ground, heat rising into my ears, heart beating fast and for a moment I was back in high school–the nerd. It last for only a moment, and I went looking for my glasses. They were gone. One of the ruffians must have taken them. I was angry, but did not feel humiliated, we were taught to fight if we needed to fight and the back-yard grapplings and living room punch outs with my older brother had prepared me well. I could take a beating but now , on the eve of the date of a lifetime and meeting my favorite musician, I sat toothless and blind on the High Street sidewalk. Soon, Sharon and J walked up, I used my humor to diffuse the situation. We saw Soundgarden, J shrugged them off as I had earlier in the year and we ended up back at Larry’s and I let myself pound Jim Beam as my tooth lay open to the sensations of the world. Later that night I slept at my friend Joe Moore’s house, in the bed of his roommate who clutched me tight in the night while I resisted her overtures as I had already fallen and in my mind been taken by Sharon. The next morning, I went to Lenscrafters and bought a new pair of glasses with all the money I had, $90. The frames I bought were on the bottom of their sale drawer, a pair of darkish-brown Buddy Holly type frames that I assumed would hold up well during drunken evenings and the dangers of bar-room drinking.

Saskia looked at an old picture of me and Jerry Wick the other morning, Jerry who had been practicing poses long before had ever thought about it, is staring into the camera, smoking a cigarette and holding a Busch beer. His attire is all black, “Rocket from the Crypt” t-shirt and black jeans, the confidence of having his photo taken, for all eternity. I am standing next to him, a bit anxious, too insecure to look into the camera, knowing my inherent goofiness carries well into photos, I look over at Jerry. I’m wearing torn jeans, and a fraternity t-shirt I had found at a thrift store. The absurdity of me wearing a frat shirt always tickled me and I have Walkman in my hand. I remember the day well, I had just got finished with a run and Jerry and I went to Jay Brown’s house for the photo, it was late afternoon in the spring. I had not yet plunged deep into drinking as of yet and was in fairly good shape, and my dark plastic frame glasses suited how I felt most days; hesitant yet a bit bold. Saskia stared at the picture, “daddy where are your tattoos?”

“I didn’t have any tattoos, I never really wanted them.”

“Oh, well you look like a guy who should have them.”

She looked more at it, “Daddy, is that your dead friend Jerry?”

“Yes dear, that’s him.”

“Where are his tattoos? He looks like he needs some also.”

Sighing, “well, he didn’t really like tattoos either, they were not as popular then although we knew a lot of people with them.”

“What are you guys doing?”

“just standing there, in a kitchen, getting our picture taken.”

“Daddy? Was he famous?

“Umm, not really, I mean he made records and people liked his music but he never was on television or anything. But he had a lot of friends, we loved him a lot.”

Saskia continued to look, “did he want to be famous?”

“I think so.”

“Daddy, I’m hungry.”

“ok, let’s eat.” and Megaunt 2

Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae: part 50–Two Funerals

October 20, 2012

Two Funerals: 2012.

With the flicker of lights and  widened eyes, I learned of the tragic death of a childhood friend’s wife this week. Scrolling through many mindless electronic updates of photos of food, electronic ironic cards, political outrages aimed at the choir, and links to music videos I caught one that stopped my mind for a moment. The wife of one of my oldest friends, Mark, had  fallen down the stairs and broken her neck. She had died. My first thought was of their two young boys and then of Mark himself, and how the suddenness of empty space can cripple us. How would he manage? Staring at the computer screen, contemplating phoning my brother, I did nothing except send an electronic message. My stomach hurt. Shifting on the brown leather couch, the football game seemed suddenly trite, grown men banging into one another while somewhere across town two little boys were trying to sleep without their mother to tuck them in.

On my way to work the next morning, I thought that I needed to phone Jenny. Her companion, Dale Chandler (not William, as I have previously named him in this blog) was in hospice care and I had promised her I would take her to see him, as she is confined to a wheel chair and has no transportation available. The cell phone shuddered. It was Jenny.  She croaked, “Dale just died, about five minutes ago. The nursing home called, he just died. I’m so sad. He died.”

“Oh Jenny, I’m so sorry.”

Through tears she matter-of-factly explained the obvious, “Well, we knew it was going to happen. Shit, his eyes weren’t even straight anymore, he didn’t know what the fuck was going on. But it still fucking hurts. I’m not going to see my Dale anymore.”

“Listen, I’m late to work and I have two meetings, but I’ll leave early and see you.”

Sniffling, she said, “Really, you don’t have to do anything. Nothing can be done. He’s dead. They’ll call me from the nursing home. I’m not going to fuck up though. I got my paperwork together for my state hearing tomorrow to get my Medicaid turned back on. Thank God I did it last night.” In the travesty that is the American safety net, populated by regulations that are constructed by (mostly) men who have never seen poverty up close, Jenny had managed to lose her Medical insurance because she missed an appointment. She had missed the appointment because she was in the same nursing home that had initiated her Medicaid application and despite having  had spent nearly three weeks in intensive care and then transferred to the nursing home, she was denied for the sole reason of making an appointment she was physically unable to attend.

Dale Chandler Jr. was in his late forties or early fifties. He grew up in West Virginia and walked with a gait that smacked of a life breathing intoxicants in and out, as if the trees themselves were pushing them through the veins in their leaves. Even when sober, he looked drunk. Dale was a light-skinned African American with glow-in-the-dark blue eyes that watered at the wisp of the wind. When he smiled his white teeth sparkled like the tips of a wave in sunshine.

Some people dip their toes into eternity while others dive into it as if it were a baptismal pool, shunting the cares of the world to swim with the ghosts of the past. With a life fraught with reckless behavior, Dale slowly lost the use of his mind, his organs, and later his extremities. Tall, with a thin frame that must have, at one point, many years ago, supported the adulation of cheering crowds on the athletic battlefields of his youth, he was gentle, to a point. When drinking, he could grow coarse, his mood like sandpaper rubbing against burnt skin, and woe to those who crossed his path.

Jenny had fled the confines of Weigel Hall, which she had called home for a few weeks in the summer and fall of 2005. The faculty of the Ohio State University did not take kindly to a former student living in one of the practice rooms of the building, though, and so she soon hit the street. First she found refugee with one of the daytime barflies of Bernie’s, but soon he became aware that this sad singing woman would not be leaving soon nor did she have the money to pay for the vast amounts of alcohol she needed to get through the day. He chucked her out as if she were a bucket of water. She weaved her way up north, sleeping in our back yard a few times and then running into an old friend who, like her, had found himself living through unfortunate times. They slept near the river, in a small tent, but soon she discovered that he had an insatiable taste for crack cocaine, which turned kindness into spastic paranoia, and she found safety with Dale.

Dale protected her like a lioness over her cubs, and soon they moved into a homeless camp just north of the Ohio State University. Being homeless is a difficult existence, harder if you are a woman, albeit a woman who is well educated, sassy and the wits of a coyote, but with severe alcoholism and, at times, debilitating mental illness. Dale had done time in prison during the 1990s. He explained to Jenny that it was for manslaughter for a man who had molested him, although on the streets it is sometimes better to take any criminal history and blow it through the special effects of imagination. Jenny had also connected with a man named Brian—a very tall, thin man with eyes that breathed like the devil’s breath and whose tongue danced the dance of cons perfected during long years of thieving and consumption. He was a dangerous man who was prone to jealously and had truthfully taken a man’s life. He had blackened and bruised Jenny in an eruption of envy and emotional desperation. He would lurk around the camp like stench on spoiled milk, and the seven or eight men and woman there felt terrorized by this man, who in down times looked like a subdued Snoop Dogg, albeit one who would make a better spokesman for the ravages of smoking cocaine than the fun times smoking five blunts a day. Dale eventually used a splintered, cracked two-by-four to pummel Brian and soon thereafter Brian’s frightening tactics disappeared.

When the homeless outreach workers of Columbus put their resources towards housing those in the camp, Jenny and Dale had already fallen in love. Their love was built around mutual safety, but Dale idolized Jenny. Unlike most of her previous paramours, Dale did not challenge Jenny in any creative capacity, and his worship at times prevented her from moving forward in her life. It was as if they were submerged in a quicksand that only went up to their waists, but as long as they would not smother in the iciness of the dredge then everything was okay. Both insisted on being housed together, and soon they were given a small, one-bedroom apartment, nearly eight miles from the campus area and one mile from the nearest bus stop. They had no food stamps, income, or phone. They would get up every morning and walk the three miles to the freeway, where they would fly signs. That is, they would stand by the off ramp holding a sign that stated that they were homeless and ask for money. While technically not homeless, they had no income and no way of garnering an income. Both, with severe alcohol and mental health issues, were unemployable. Their clothes were ruined by months of homelessness and they lived off the charity of church groups and the discarded wares of neighbors. Jenny had perfected the art of dumpster diving.

When they would fly a sign, they ran the risk of getting arrested or being issued a ticket that they would never be able to pay and soon a warrant would be issued for their arrest. On average they would collectively make about $25 a day for five hours of work. This money was spent on food and, more importantly, alcohol, which prevented them from going into alcohol withdrawal. Several times during this period, Jenny had severe seizures when she did not have access to alcohol and the neighbors were called. Dale would do the dirty work when they needed alcohol. Because of his own mental illness he would sometimes get lost for several days, usually when they would travel to the OSU campus so Jenny could watch the OSU Marching Band before football games. They would end up drinking all day and usually slept outdoors with friends they had once been homeless with. Dale would sometimes not make it home, either lost or arrested.

The first apartment was a sub-basement dwelling, with a large piece of plywood covering one of the windows where one of the local dope boys kicked it in, mistaking their apartment for the one in back of them. “Open up you chicken shit motherfucker! Gimme my fuckin’ money, bitch! We gonna pop you one, motherfucker! You can’t hide from us, we know you in there!” Dale hid in the closet. Jenny was getting forty-ouncers at the carry-out and the young men dispersed as she walked up, staring at the broken window while she crossed the street.

“What the fuck?” she said to herself.

“You gotta problem with somethin’ bitch?!” she heard behind her.

“Nope.” They never bothered them again, but Jenny said they beat the shit out of the guy who lived behind them, and soon there was an eviction notice on his door. And Jenny and Dale soon got an eviction notice for the broken window, I helped them pay for a new one so they would not be back on the street.

Sprawled across several frayed couches and a coffee table piled high with uncurled, spent cigarette butts was a collage of spent vodka, malt liquor, and carry-out wine bottles, shuffled together as if they were chess pieces ready to be played in a sick game of chess. In one corner of the room was a bent coat hanger tied to the curtain rod, a delicate balance that was one drunken slip to a splendid crash. A stray cat came and went with the same mannerisms as the “tramps” who frequented the apartment.  With a heart almost as big as her liver, Jenny felt compelled to help anyone and everyone, even to the detriment of her health. The tramps, who she grew to know on the streets, would find their way to Jenny and Dale’s, crashing when the weather turned sour or the cops cracked down. Dale did his best to match wits with Jenny, although it was apparent that something was cognitively amiss with him. Although Jenny later found that he did indeed graduate college, there was little evidence in his slow, mannered speech. His search for words would end in a trail of mumbles and then, finally, a gasp of a smile.

After several years, they moved with the help of their housing case manager, a Nigerian with the compassion of Jimmy Carter, into a larger two bedroom apartment smack dead in the middle of urban violence that kept most neighbors entrenched in their apartments while gun shots and gangs roamed the streets with aplomb. “Fuck Bela, this place is better than the other one cause there’s a Dollar Store just a block away, but I swear to God, they are killing people over here. If it wasn’t for Dale, I’d be dead. I’m the only white person in the whole complex.” Jenny, who grew up in the midst of rural Ohio racism, in the worst underbelly of the American Midwest, where the sagging pride of a once-proud work ethic had ebbed into a fear of the unknown, was safe in the arms of the only man who would protect her, a tall African-American man with a debilitating mental illness and an addiction to alcohol that would take his mind and body to the sea of death.

Dale went into a nursing home this past year, a fading cloud of his former self, his essence obscured by a declining liver and a brain riddled with the holes of dementia. He would struggle to name the year and the name of the President while his body was just a vehicle, torn asunder by decades of poverty and suffering. Jenny called me one day and asked, “Hey, do you know anyone who needs Depends? They just dropped off  Dale’s supply and they must have fucked up, because they brought so many they are literally stacked to the ceiling. They kept bringing them in. I was like, hold on, he can’t even shit this much for the rest of his life.” His life would not last much longer.

Dale went into a nursing home in the spring of 2012, unable to stand on his own and feed himself. After several hospitalizations it was determined that a nursing home would be best. I discussed possible placements with Jenny and Dale’s social worker at the hospital and recommended a very caring nursing home that they decided to send him to. A few months later, after her own issues with failing extremities, Jenny was also taken to the same nursing home after being in intensive care for two weeks. Their rooms were around the corner from one another. Jenny’s mood brightened. She made the staff adore her as well as the sad-sack residents, who she would wheel by and devastate with her quick wit. Off of alcohol for nearly three months her mind was quick, and although she never really regained use of her legs, she appeared more hopeful. Meanwhile, Dale sunk deeper into a swamp of death. Most days he was unable to feed himself, but when Jenny wheeled in he would flash a crooked smile and his cloudy eyes would  flicker with a spark of recognition.

Dale passed away, silently and alone, in September, without even with Jenny by his side. She was unable to get to his bedside—yet another cumbersome aspect of abject poverty. I had phoned her the weekend before he passed, when he was in hospice. Jenny said, “I saw him yesterday. He didn’t know nothin’, he has no fuckin’ idea where he is. I don’t know if I can go back, it breaks my heart.” She spoke under the slurred words of pain, paralyzed by alcoholism. I offered to take her to see him the coming week, but she demurred. “We’ll see, I can’t take another death. What the fuck will I do?”

“Survive, Jenny. That’s what you’ll do. You’ll be fine.”

A deep breath, followed by an exhale, “I know that’s what ole Jenny does. At least I got a lot of Depends if I need them.”

There was no service for Dale. His family, from whom he had been estranged since he went to prison in the early 1990s, did not want to have a service, let alone drive from West Virginia to see his body interned in an indigent’s grave. Jenny had no money so there was no obituary. His death was only spoken of—a few whispered words from social workers to psychiatrists and, finally, to other caring professionals. He had no friends. And when he left the world as we know it, a sigh may have escaped his parched lips or a spike of fear may have been in those cloudy eyes, but in the end he was alone.

At the other end of town, a small gathering converged in huddled grief as a mother, wife, daughter, and friend lay before them, encased in a $9,000 box to be covered in dirt. For five days, relatives, co-workers, and friends cried and laughed, desperately trying to unfold time from something that was unbelievable into something believable. In the contours of pain, the loss of those we hold deep, the ones we tell our biggest fears and our tallest dreams, seem to fall away—a reminder that we all stop, that reality is unreal. I put on my dark shirt, slid a razor over the white whiskers growing under my chin, mussed my hair as I have done for the past twenty-five years and drove to see one of my oldest friends, Mark, in all the dark glory of grieving. His mother had changed as I had grown older. I hadn’t seen her in over thirty years, her body smaller as I stood taller. I hugged her as a full grown, middle-aged man and  she recognized me immediately, the goofy unsure grin that I had as a fifth grader unchanged by fifteen thousand experiences. His father, who recently turned eighty, looked spry, with the body of someone years younger. Finally I hugged his two brothers. The older one, still fit after all these years, looked like a track coach, his body aging as a fine athlete’s is supposed to. His other brother  gave me a hug and asked me to help look after his baby brother, now a widower with two young sons.

Some are supposed to die young, with the itching of immortality pinning us against the well of our breath fueling the gallop to the end of their lives. Some live each moment as if it were a child’s game. Tag and you’re dead. The world spills into another moment and the past plays a fruitless game of catch up while memories get trampled underfoot. Jerry died on a bike, a fact that my children ask about almost daily when we speed past the spot where his body, in the end, was no match for a hurtling mass of metal and glass just a block from our house. Others have also died young, where the wish to seduce death was done with an easy grace that only the flamboyant can pull off. Chris Wilson, Richie Violet, Jim Shepard, Dale Chandler, Ted from Torque, and others whose addictions kept the fear of abandonment away but in the end chewed them up like a paper in the gears of an engine. Bone, blood, and snot laying on the pavement, some die more gracefully than others. But in the end, thoughts of them keep ricocheting in my skull.

Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae part 42: Outsider

April 8, 2011


Ohio lays flat in places. Just west of Columbus it has a skyline the size of the Pacific Ocean, blanketed with fields of soybeans, corn, and wheat. There are a few larger towns in western Ohio, most notably Dayton and, of course, Toledo. The rest of the wide, smooth land is mottled with small towns. These towns are glorified as small town heartland America. They have large brick courthouses at their centers, several ice cream shops, and hardware stores that have every widget known to man, complete with kindly old gents who know the names of every kid in town. A homegrown sense of Americana sprouts in western Ohio like the farms that once helped feed the steelworkers in Youngstown and Cleveland and the academics and policy-makers in Columbus. There among the one-traffic-light towns there is a sense of nostalgia that for most of them, has only existed in a vacant dream-state, one that is hazy and filled with apathy and a strangulated sense of loyalty of something, like diminishing smoke, that has only vaguely existed. Most of the residents no longer feel. The belief in the American Dream that was long ago crushed by the greed of capitalism still stands proud every Memorial Day and Fourth of July, but a cursory weekend drive through any of these towns reveals the deflated dream of Middle America, from the empty store fronts to the lack of children playing baseball, football, or kick-the-can. When I arrived in the tiny burg of Catawba at the age of fourteen, my cynicism about romantic fantasies like the American Dream had already been ripened by my experiences of broken homes and the reality of attending over eight schools by the age of fourteen; I had an ingrained mistrust of platitudes.

We moved to Catawba in the summer of 1982. I had discovered Adam Ant, the Clash, and the Ramones during my eighth grade year, before we moved to Catawba. New wave was the only thing that MTV was showing, aside from Quarterflash, and it had just started on cable in Athens, Ohio. Catawba did not have cable television, and some of the kids hadn’t even heard of MTV, let alone Adam Ant, Elvis Costello, or the Clash. I was pegged, and rightfully so, as a nerd of the highest degree. A wave of nausea washed over me as we drove through the Ohio hinterlands, a sick feeling that would not leave my stomach for the next four years.

I missed the colors of the hills of southeastern Ohio as well as the excitement of the college town, where a stroll through the streets that sunk down below the uptown shops and the greenery of the campus exposed the passerby to music playing on lawns where college students played Frisbee in shorts, laughed, and drank beer. I went to late-night movies as a middle-school student in Athens: Rock and Roll High School, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and An American Werewolf in London. My older sister Erica, a high school senior who was dating a “townie” who was a freshman at Ohio University, took me to many of these. Being exposed to this atmosphere provided me with experiences that I soon discovered that my classmates at my new high school did not have. In the truest sense, among the fields and the slow everyday movement in Catawba, it was easy to imagine that the both land and the people who lived in this rural community had grown fallow and dormant, perhaps proudly so. My first day of school, I heard the hushed tones of my fellow school bus riders as they eyed me as if I were foreigner.

“Wow, look at that new kid. He’s so small.”

“Bela?! What the hell kind of name is that?”

“Are you even American?”

“Isn’t that a girl’s name? Are you sure you’re not a girl?”.

I felt isolated even before I arrived at school. The dread I felt was so thick that I could have balled it up and stuck it in my pocket.

Living parts of my childhood years near a college campus gave me opportunities that most of my classmates at tiny Springfield Northeastern High School never had. I was used to seeing a cross section of different cultural backgrounds. My mother was friends with many Nigerian students, and we had many students in my grade school who were the sons and daughters of foreign exchange students. At Northeastern, I was shocked to learn that there were no African-American students. It wasn’t until later, when I met Jenny Mae’s mother, that I learned that there had not been an African-American student at the high school for over twenty years. On my first day of school, I felt as if I would never fit in. The school was rampant with racism, although there were no African-American kids in the school, one could hear the word nigger throughout the day, on kid of Mexican descent was referred to as a “sand nigger”, I wanted to shout at some of the kids who said these things that the slang word for Mexican’s was “spick” but I didn’t thought they would miss my point and take me seriously. It wasn’t just the students who espoused racist attitudes on several occasions I heard both our principle (Donald Smith-thankfully retired) and football coach (Mr.Wasserman) tell racist jokes to our wrestling team and biology classes respectfully.  I felt as if I were in a time warp. Growing up, we were taught under any circumstance to never use the word nigger or any other type of derogatory slang. Whenever my brother and I would use the word redneck, my mother would remind us that our grandparents were from Appalachia, we would roll our eyes at her political correctness but we took the slandering of other races to heart.

I have a photograph of myself, circa 1976, standing in the backyard of our new house in Newport News, Virginia. It was our second house in Newport News, and in reality it wasn’t a house. It was a new sort of condo that is now prevalent, with a “brick” façade hiding the particle board innards, as if this apparition of strength could hide the fragile, cheap-as-hell construction of the building. We had moved from another part of Newport News because of concerns about the urban grade school I was attending, where I didn’t have a single friend. The condo community we moved into was filled with the families of Navy personnel and working class families. I had a small room that I shared with my brother, my sister had a room just next to ours, and the bathroom connected to the hallway to the master bedroom. The yard was roughly ten feet by ten feet, big enough to catch a lizard in and that was about it.

In the photograph, I am wearing a red and white Washington Redskins t-shirt, although I was already a Steelers fan like my big brother. Perhaps I was trying to find my own identity as an eight year old, or perhaps others were trying to find it for me.  The photo is faded like so many photos from the seventies; instantly dated, as if the picture was taken behind marbled glass. It gives the impression that the whole world was slightly askew and blurred. When looking at photographs from the nineteen thirties and forties, it feels as if the poverty that gripped the thin, weathered faces of those who managed to survive the Great Depression was more severe in black and white—as if the world had never been in color. Blurred and fuzzy, I stood in the backyard in that picture from the seventies, knowing that even if this was yet another new house, new school, and new friends; I would forever be tethered to the feelings of isolation that I felt at that moment.

In the spring of 2004, I had received a message from Jenny. She was back in Columbus, at least temporarily, and she was drunk, incoherent, and lost, as if the map to her inner soul had been doused in gasoline and burned. Over the phone, her voice sounded as if it were being wired through the ages from a time that had long since passed. It was broken, brittle, and frayed. If her message had been a photograph, it would have been faded, black and white, with eyes staring towards the lens with all of the effort of a dustbowl victim.  Jenny sounded small, huddled into herself; the message spoke of desolation and the crazed chaos of alcoholism, mental illness, and the misfortune of loneliness that is only magnified by alcohol.  “I don’t know what to do. I’m borrowing some girl’s phone. She must think I’m nuts.  What can I do without him? I need help.” Click.

I had no idea what time Jenny had called and I sure where she was. I had been rebuilding myself for a few years at this point, living back in Columbus, working at Used Kids, and plunging headlong into various kinds of volunteer work to help other drinkers. I was ill prepared to offer solace to Jenny. With furrowed brow, I took to the stairs of Used Kids, passing the timeline of flyers that line the walls of the stairwell, a cornucopia of brazen and hectic nights of my life. Pavement, New Bomb Turks, Thinking Fellers Union, Love Battery, All-Male Mowdown, All-Girl Hoedown, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, The Great Plains, Scrawl—a virtual testament to my twenties that marked my trajectory from young, feisty indie-punk to cynical record-store drunk to grizzled befuddled optimist, the walls captured and dismissed me at the same time.

I headed to Bernie’s, where Jenny had struck up several romances since returning to town. I assumed that she had borrowed a phone from some future barfly there who had not yet dipped her life into the inkwell of wretchedness that years of bar sitting can bring, but Bernie’s in the daytime was a good as any place to start. Poking my head into the bar, the bartender glanced at me and said, “She left about three hours ago, and she was a mess, yelling at Nate about some craziness. She is off her fucking rocker. I told her not to come back for a while. She is scaring some of the customers.”

I glanced at a bearded man with bits of egg in his beard and four inches of stretched belly hanging out over a belt that longed to be put to sleep. His t-shirt was blanched and threadbare, with dollops of pizza stains and pocketed with small stretchy holes that barely contained his daily-beer-drinker’s girth. He raised one eyebrow, hoisted a Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy, and slowly nodded his head in agreement. I gazed at another man sitting two seats down, decked in a faded leather jacket with a chain wallet dangling against his bar stool as if he were tethered to it like a dog. He looked up from his tallboy and said, “Bela, that chick is nuts.” In the background, Homer Simpson mirrored this same scene at Moe’s Tavern.

Crossing High Street, I entered the OSU Music Building and climbed the stairs to the top floor, where the university kept the practice pianos. I crept quietly and listened. I heard the vague plinking of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.”  Opening the door, I found Jenny, hair matted, filthy and clinging to her skull and shoulders, and a thin dress drenched in sweat sticking to her arms and back as if it wallpapered onto her. She was braless, with the contours of her breasts exposed revealing not sexiness but total sadness. She gazed up at me, tears streaming down her cheeks, with a bottle of vodka stashed between her legs and the overwhelming odor of sweat, booze, and depression blanketing the air. “Oh Bela, what am I gonna do?” She turned and tried to play “Lady Madonna”, but only made it through the first several lines before switching course and attempting “Maybe I’m Amazed.”  Gurgling, she croaked, “That was his favorite. He loved Paul McCartney. I would play that over and over.”  Of this, I had no doubt, as she once told me that they had spent $275 playing David Bowie’s “Major Tom” over and over in a hotel while on a two-day-long coke binge.  The other half of the “they” was Jim Williams, her boyfriend who had passed away only a few months ago. “You know,” she slurred, “we saw Paul McCartney five times. We flew across the county to see him. Jim was like that, once he became obsessed with something he did it to death.”

My first thought, which I managed to keep in my mouth, was “like cocaine.”

Taking a pull off the warm vodka bottle, she said, almost to no one in particular, “You know, they threw out all my stuff when he died. His brother and that bitch sister-in-law, they went to the boat I lived on and dumped it all. Even my pink records.” The pink records were the Guided By Voices split she did, the one that had been reviewed in Spin magazine only seven years prior, where Charles Aaron called her “astonishing and one of the best bohemian song-writers alive.”

Frozen, I simply said, “I’m sorry.” Inside I was angry, upset that anybody would discard somebody’s possessions with such impudence. Although Jenny could be difficult, she didn’t deserve that. Peeking under the cover of madness takes skill, an unwavering sense of determination, and a smidgeon of courage, all of which I lacked at that time. My skin felt like science fiction, sweat dripping down my back. The room was an oven—don’t they have air conditioning here?  “Jenny, why don’t you go somewhere and get some help?”

Plinking on the piano, she whispered, “You can’t help, you never wanted to help. You just want to tell me what to do. Leave me alone.”  Not wanting to fight, I left, a hole inside of me shuddering as if another shovel of dirt had been lifted out and dumped onto the pile of unhappy memories that littered my life. I thought of that picture of me, taken so many years ago, feeling like an outsider at the age of seven, and I realized that there is nothing sadder than being an outsider in your own life.

Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae part 35: Songs part one-Now, back to the suffering.

July 31, 2010

Songs. Pt one: Back to the Suffering, thank you.

We collected songs the way some people collect comic books, baseball cards or shoes, holding each song close to our hearts-an immediate mood changer. Everything was about either setting the mood, matching the mood or of course changing it. Growing up, feeling separated the sounds of music provided an elixir to a sometimes utter feeling of isolation that helped many of us through the suffering afternoons and evenings of adolescence. An opportunity to escape in our bedrooms, or when we hit sixteen in our cars, feeling a sense of escape as bald tires lifted us from the mundane often cruel existence of high school, forming rapid distance from a parking lot of rusted junkers and peers that were only peers by age not interests. An album was like a vacation, a chance to step into the life of someone bigger than life, who told a story that we could relate to and at times only dream about.

At the end of my fifteenth year, as another Ohio summer slowly cranked the humid grind of days, I heard Lou Reed for the first time as I picked meat off of fifteen boiled chickens in the kitchen of a small hippie Mexican restaurant in Athens, Ohio. Within two weeks I had half his catalog and later that summer Polygram released the long out of print (only fifteen years or so at that time though) Velvet Underground records. Providing my achingly boring existence with colors I thought only capable by moving to New York City, which seemed a million miles and countless years away. From there, I discovered a mountain of underground sounds such a R.E.M., The Replacements, the Lyres and a host of other bands arising from the underbelly of the vapid clean sounds of commercial radio. I was hosting my own radio show at Wittenberg University by the end of the summer, where I was exposed to even more music such as the Minutemen, Black Flag and English pop like Echo and the Bunnymen, early Adam and the Ants and Joy Division. I was prone to like the more pop oriented stuff associated with the Paisley underground,  the Long Ryders, Beat Farmers, and Let’s Active, my punk-rock credentials have always been more of an attitude than a sound.

When Jenny and I began dating within a year and half of my musical revelation, I suppose I appeared exotic, at least as exotic as a lonely but confident seventeen year old can appear in rural Clark county Ohio can appear. After school, the gravel parking lot of Northeastern high school would be filled with the canned sounds of Def Lepard, Hank Williams Jr., and early bland banal sounds of early hair metal which in one fell swoop took any danger left in rock and roll and bottled it for the safety of every Spencer Gift shop in every mall in suburban America. It was the bane of my existence, and I took it seriously. Jenny climbed the stairs up to my bedroom on our first date, as I had no job, no money and nobody at home to watch what I did. We carried a six pack of Pabst Blue label and I opened her eyes to the sounds of early R.E.M., Lou Reed and early Bowie which she had never heard. I had about seventy records at that time, and 100 cassettes, she had never seen so much music. Perhaps it was the sound of the unknown that propelled her to fall in love with me. She had never heard any Rolling Stones besides the hits off of “Tattoo You” and “Satisfaction”, so hearing “Some Girls” and “Sticky Fingers” helped lay the ground for me to present myself as someone who I wasn’t quite sure who I was to the funny, eccentric girl of seventeen.

All most of us wanted to ever do was to listen to music, to have temporary deliverance from the reality of our surroundings, an atmosphere that at times inflicted tiny pointed darts of pain in all of our lives. Witnesses to the bruised and at times, bludgeoned emotional lives of our parents, music was (and is) the balm that allowed a mind to turn off and get lost in the wonder of being. It helped that our parents were either unavailable or scattered in the morasses of their own lives and insanity that they couldn’t pick up on the comical dangers of the Ramones or tender loss of the Smiths, it was our own secret. At times, this was the equivalent of hugging a building for redemption.

As the door to the bedroom or car shut, the stereo turned to ten, head bouncing, cracking-out-of-tune voice bellowing out the words to “Bring on the Dancing Horses”, I was fortified for moment. And when the song ended, it was back to the suffering.

Jerry and I met, we immediately found the kindred spirit of songs, of a hook that could flinch you away from now and fling you to there. There being, the space between emotion and dreams, of feeling pleasantly lost while three chords matched whatever feeling you had. For Jerry, his musical upbringing was graduate school compared to mine, by growing up in Parma, at the metaphorical foothills of the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, he had the luxury of hearing first hand (while in high school) such wonderful sounds as the Mice, Death of Samantha and Spike in Vain and was only a few short years removed from The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu and the Pagans. Jerry was a romantic at heart, whose hope for a life that only existed among the sung and written word would always tragically disappoint him. This romantic ideal would always show when he played solo under the moniker of “The Cocaine Sniffing Triumphs” (itself a homage to The Modern Lovers), as he always covered The Ramones “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”