09 January 2008

It seems like a mighty long time . . .

It was in 1965. I'm pretty sure it was on a Sunday morning, but I can't remember if it was in late April or early May. Early in the morning my mother dropped me off in the circle drive in front of the main entrance of the high school. She took my suitcase out of the trunk for me, and put it on the side walk next to those of my classmates. She asked me one last time if I was sure I would be all right, and then got back in the car and drove home.

I stood there in the early chill with a couple of my buddies, and we tried to appear cool and nonchalant while I secretly wondered if the doors to the school were unlocked because I was so excited I was about to pee my pants. Most of the senior class of 1965 was there gathered into little clumps. We had spent the last couple years selling magazine subscriptions, washing cars and running the refreshment stand at football games to earn the money for this trip, and now it was actually happening.

After a few minutes Mr Hart, the principal, and his wife and Mr Gross, our class advisor, and his wife lined us up and we took our luggage to the side of one of the Greyhound busses waiting for us. One of my friends had to carry my suitcase. Eventually the luggage was stowed and they had us on the busses, and we were pulling out of the drive. We were on our way to New York.

Now, I probably should explain that my mother was not by nature over protective, and my friends did not normally perform menial tasks for me. With the kind of timing I had come to expect from the universe my left knee had started bleeding the day before; and Mom was just obliquely asking me if it was a regular knee bleed or did I need to go the hospital, and my friend carried my bag because I was on crutches. Mom and Dad knew that I would have gone through just about anything to go on this trip, but they also knew I wouldn't risk going to a strange hospital so if I said I'd be okay, I probably would be. In the mid-Sixties many of what we considered routine hemorrhages just weren't treated—mostly because the treatments weren't really all that effective. My friends just knew that on any given day I might be using crutches.

When my brother or I was in the hospital my mother would make the forty-five mile drive every day to see us, but because of his work schedule Dad could only come on Saturday and Sunday. When we were in grade school he would bring us a few comic books on his Saturday visit. I always looked forward to Saturday because he brought better comics (Green Arrow, Batman, Green Lantern) than Mom (Little Nancy, Donald Duck, Archie).

When I was in seventh grade he started bringing "The New Yorker" every Saturday. He didn't know about 'children's literature' or 'young adult literature' so he brought us the books he liked. I can remember plowing my way through Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way and The Roman Way when I was in fifth and sixth grade along with the Iliad and Odyssey. And it was years before I fully understood some passages of The Don Flows Home to the Sea and Tortilla Flat. When a family friend told him "The New Yorker" was publishing some of the best short fiction around, that clinched it. It became a regular arrival on Saturdays.

My brother never really cared that much about reading—he was more of an 'action bleeder' and was into flannel shirts and hunting and fishing. Ernest Hemingway without the war wound. I, on the other hand—probably the left one, was more of an 'executive bleeder' and was into cool jazz and Brooks Brothers and droll witticisms. (Well, as droll as you can be at fourteen with acne and a voice that would shift three octaves mid-syllable without warning.) Eventually Dad went back to just taking my brother comic books, but he brought me "The New Yorker" every Saturday visit until I got married.

There was only one movie theater in my hometown and for several years I lived just half a block from it, but I almost never knew what was playing there until I bought the tickets for me and my date. What I could tell you though was what movies were playing in Manhattan, what plays had opened or closed that week and who was playing at the Village Vanguard, the Bitter End and half a dozen other bars in the Village.

"The Talk of the Town" was like a conversation with friends for me; the little column fillers were gems to be searched for and collected; the advertisements were like Gatsby's light to me. I read every story, poem and article and posted what I considered relevant cartoons on the foot of my bed.

I was obsessed.

The only thing that would have prevented me from taking that trip was death, and even that might have been iffy unless quickly followed by cremation.

The busses rolled through Ohio and Pennsylvania. We stopped somewhere for lunch, and somewhere else for dinner. The vibration of the bus aggravated the hemorrhage, and the afternoon and early evening were an agony. I had a few Darvon pills (a kind of glorified aspirin), but they didn't really help and I spent a lot of time trying to concentrate on the scenery to take my mind off the pain. Finally the scenery became definitely urban, and then, after what I was prepared to swear was at least two geological eras, we were there.

We went down blocks filled with real New Yorkers doing the exciting things real New Yorkers did. Awesome things like go to work or home or to a cafe for dinner. I tried to look at everything, but I could never see enough. My face was pressed up against the glass so hard I'm surprised I didn't break my nose. I would have hung out of the window if I could have figured out how to open the bloody thing.

The busses pulled up to our hotel, and we stumbled out onto the sidewalk. After so many hours of sitting it felt strange to be standing. There was a sanitation workers strike going on, and some of the odors drifting by made a freshly manured field seem like a delightful alternative. The change from sitting to standing also caused a shift in pressures that made my knee a fresh explosion of pain on top of the steady agony it had become.

Somehow we got our bags, and were checked in and given rooms (boys on the sixth floor and girls on the eighth, and a pair of chaperons on each to make sure we didn't get confused). My buddy carried our suitcases up to the room we would be sharing with two other guys, and we figured out which cot was whose. This was long before every hotel room had a television, but there was a radio and one of the guys turned it on and hunted for a rock and roll station. He found one playing a Beatles tune, and we took turns looking out the window at our view of New York. It was mostly loading docks in the alley behind the hotel. We had opened the window, and I had my hands on the sill so I could lean out and see a little more. After about ten seconds a giant pigeon dropping landed squarely on the back of my right hand with an audible "splat".

I washed my hands a couple times in the sink and then laid down on my cot, and a song came on the radio we had never heard before. It had a kind of slow swing to it—jazzy, with just an organ, bass and drums. The backup singers were singing "Shoo-bop-shi-bop, my baby" and then the lead singer's voice came in, "Hello, stranger...." I forgot about my knee. I was in New York listening to one of the coolest songs I had ever heard after being crapped on by a pigeon. Life was perfect.

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