July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home (Revisited)

serf1

If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

plaza

(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words, this was the number one hit thirty years ago today (and more on Donna Summer, HERE):

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair.

********

Old School

 

This is old school, I say

to my niece who, at five years old, is now

the same age her uncle was when his parents

transported him to this place—new then, old now.

 

Old school, she repeats, repeating things

I say because I’m older, because I’m still

interesting, because I am…old school.

Even I can see that.

 

You Can’t Go Home Again,

someone once wrote and he was wrong.

 

Of course you can; all you have to do is never leave.

Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.

(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child

who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,

in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—

to the old streets that I came to outgrow,

the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends,

exchanging them for jobs and cars and co-workers.)

 

You can always go home, and you need to go home.

It’s only when you want to go home that you should

start asking yourself some serious questions.

 

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.

She also doesn’t ask if I ever played

Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.

Those games got neglected, or else we learned

to play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.

And I wonder if we are better off:

Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is

queer and no enjoys being…over.

 

I put away childish things each time I think

about them, storing them safely inside my heart

where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

 

“Uncle, did you play?” she doesn’t say.

(She doesn’t know everything, but she knows

enough to understand her uncle was never young,

the way she is and the way she’ll always be, and

far be it from me to tell her otherwise.)

 

Question: Can you play?

Remember when that’s all we used to say?

Summers summarized in a phrase we learned

eventually to overlook.

 

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)

was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat

we righted the wrongs of an evil world, where

Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip,

and the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway

those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.

 

(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,

this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember

block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes

and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything

but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say.)

I had no idea how little I knew but I knew this much:

If there was a beer besides Schlitz or Bud I was unaware;

That’s all adults drank back in the bad old days.

 

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball

anyway: ball was our business and business was good.

 

Get it! The ball would invariably make a break for it

ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,

We were old school). Without a second thought

we pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.

 

We never thought twice about it—we were young.

The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.

(I look now, and think: I wouldn’t go into that hole

for all the allowance money I never earned.

I know there are rats and who knows what else

down there: the things our parents never realized

they should warn us about.)

 

We never worried about the things that weren’t

waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

 

“What are they doing?” I don’t ask aloud, noticing,

just in time, before I can call attention to it,

two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they’re young & free.

That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about

my niece asking me to explain I understand: I’m old now.

 

Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).

That’s how it happens.

This would never have happened, then.

 

(I didn’t know much, but I knew this: cats

did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists.)

 

But this is what happens when you go away.

Back then, in our close and cloistered community

even the cats had discretion (they were old school).

 

Or maybe they were mortified, because

bent over with booze or barbiturates they were

silently screeching behind closed doors,

all of us, unknowingly, out in the light

winning the World Series, while wicked women

garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind

the anodyne of automatic garage doors.

 

It’s quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.

Please allow them to have been happy,

in our memories if not in their actual lives.

 

I don’t remember, but have a feeling that if

I think hard enough, I will recall things

never said and therefore never forgotten.

 

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,

which tastes unlike anything other than

what it is: freedom.

 

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste),

with those sharp & awkward silver ring-tabs

we pulled off for the privilege of first sip.

 

That is old school, I don’t tell my niece.

It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes

like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,

a manufactured feeling, just like in school

it’s cheating if the answer’s already in your lap.

 

The things they can’t package or make you pay for:

That they never tell you about until you’re old enough

to know better: that’s what freedom is.

 

Curiosity killed the cat,

someone once said and they were right.

 

But something’s going to get all of us

eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

 

The cats are gone, maybe they’ve gone home

(they can always go home), back to their families and

those heavy silences and the salvation of routine.

 

(Do they still have strict rules about no TV,

and everyone present around the table when

dinner’s on the table at six-thirty sharp?

I certainly hope so, for their sakes.)

 

Or maybe they’re getting down to business—

dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—

Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,

keeping the sewers safe from rats & reality.

 

Curious or content, we know enough to take

whatever it is that life offers up.

 

We went into those sewers the way we went into the world:

Unafraid, unencumbered and above all,

unconcerned about so many things

older people were kind enough to never…say.

 

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious.

Smiling, she does not comprehend at all.

Old school, I don’t say, reticent

because I do remember it (all).

 

If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

 

How did we go down there, then?

How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

Share

July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home (Revisited)

serf1

If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

plaza

(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words, this was the number one hit thirty years ago today (and more on Donna Summer, HERE):

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair.

********

Old School

 

This is old school, I say

to my niece who, at five years old, is now

the same age her uncle was when his parents

transported him to this place—new then, old now.

 

Old school, she repeats, repeating things

I say because I’m older, because I’m still

interesting, because I am…old school.

Even I can see that.

 

You Can’t Go Home Again,

someone once wrote and he was wrong.

 

Of course you can; all you have to do is never leave.

Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.

(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child

who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,

in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—

to the old streets that I came to outgrow,

the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends,

exchanging them for jobs and cars and co-workers.)

 

You can always go home, and you need to go home.

It’s only when you want to go home that you should

start asking yourself some serious questions.

 

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.

She also doesn’t ask if I ever played

Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.

Those games got neglected, or else we learned

to play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.

And I wonder if we are better off:

Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is

queer and no enjoys being…over.

 

I put away childish things each time I think

about them, storing them safely inside my heart

where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

 

“Uncle, did you play?” she doesn’t say.

(She doesn’t know everything, but she knows

enough to understand her uncle was never young,

the way she is and the way she’ll always be, and

far be it from me to tell her otherwise.)

 

Question: Can you play?

Remember when that’s all we used to say?

Summers summarized in a phrase we learned

eventually to overlook.

 

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)

was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat

we righted the wrongs of an evil world, where

Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip,

and the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway

those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.

 

(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,

this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember

block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes

and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything

but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say.)

I had no idea how little I knew but I knew this much:

If there was a beer besides Schlitz or Bud I was unaware;

That’s all adults drank back in the bad old days.

 

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball

anyway: ball was our business and business was good.

 

Get it! The ball would invariably make a break for it

ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,

We were old school). Without a second thought

we pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.

 

We never thought twice about it—we were young.

The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.

(I look now, and think: I wouldn’t go into that hole

for all the allowance money I never earned.

I know there are rats and who knows what else

down there: the things our parents never realized

they should warn us about.)

 

We never worried about the things that weren’t

waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

 

“What are they doing?” I don’t ask aloud, noticing,

just in time, before I can call attention to it,

two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they’re young & free.

That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about

my niece asking me to explain I understand: I’m old now.

 

Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).

That’s how it happens.

This would never have happened, then.

 

(I didn’t know much, but I knew this: cats

did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists.)

 

But this is what happens when you go away.

Back then, in our close and cloistered community

even the cats had discretion (they were old school).

 

Or maybe they were mortified, because

bent over with booze or barbiturates they were

silently screeching behind closed doors,

all of us, unknowingly, out in the light

winning the World Series, while wicked women

garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind

the anodyne of automatic garage doors.

 

It’s quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.

Please allow them to have been happy,

in our memories if not in their actual lives.

 

I don’t remember, but have a feeling that if

I think hard enough, I will recall things

never said and therefore never forgotten.

 

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,

which tastes unlike anything other than

what it is: freedom.

 

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste),

with those sharp & awkward silver ring-tabs

we pulled off for the privilege of first sip.

 

That is old school, I don’t tell my niece.

It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes

like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,

a manufactured feeling, just like in school

it’s cheating if the answer’s already in your lap.

 

The things they can’t package or make you pay for:

That they never tell you about until you’re old enough

to know better: that’s what freedom is.

 

Curiosity killed the cat,

someone once said and they were right.

 

But something’s going to get all of us

eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

 

The cats are gone, maybe they’ve gone home

(they can always go home), back to their families and

those heavy silences and the salvation of routine.

 

(Do they still have strict rules about no TV,

and everyone present around the table when

dinner’s on the table at six-thirty sharp?

I certainly hope so, for their sakes.)

 

Or maybe they’re getting down to business—

dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—

Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,

keeping the sewers safe from rats & reality.

 

Curious or content, we know enough to take

whatever it is that life offers up.

 

We went into those sewers the way we went into the world:

Unafraid, unencumbered and above all,

unconcerned about so many things

older people were kind enough to never…say.

 

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious.

Smiling, she does not comprehend at all.

Old school, I don’t say, reticent

because I do remember it (all).

 

If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

 

How did we go down there, then?

How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

serf

Share

July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home (Revisited)

serf

If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

plaza

(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words, this was the number one hit thirty years ago today (and more on Donna Summer, HERE):

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair.

********

Old School

This is old school, I say
To my niece who, at five years old, is now
The same age her uncle was when his parents
Transported him to this place—new then, old now.
Old school, she repeats, repeating things
I say because I am older, because I am
Still interesting, because I am…old school.
Even I can see that.

You Can’t Go Home Again, someone once wrote
And he was wrong.
Of course you can—all you have to do is never leave—
Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.
(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child
who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,
in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—
to the old streets that I came to outgrow
the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends
and exchange them for jobs and cars and co-workers).

You can always go home, and you need to go home,
It is only when you want to go home that you should
Start asking yourself some serious questions.

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.
Nor does she ask if I ever played
Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.
Those games got outgrown, or else we learned
To play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.
And I wonder if we are better off:
Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is
Queer and no enjoys being…

I put away childish things each time I think
About them, storing them safely inside my heart
Where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

“Uncle, did you play?” she does not say.
(She does not know everything but she knows
enough to understand that her uncle was never young
the way she is and the way she’ll always be and
far be it from me to tell her any differently).
Question: Can you play?
Remember when that’s all we used to say—
Summers summarized in a phrase we learned
Eventually to outgrow.

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)
Was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat
We righted the wrongs of an evil world, where
Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip
And the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway
Those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.
(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,
this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember
block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes
and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything
but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say).
I had no idea how much I did not know but
I knew this much: if there was a beer besides Schlitz or
Bud I was unaware of it—that’s all
The adults drank back in the bad old days.

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball
Anyway—ball was our business and business was good,
Get it: the ball would invariably make a break for it
Ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,
We were old school). Without a second thought
We pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.
We never thought twice about it—we were young.
The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.
(I look now, and think: I would not go
into that hole for all the allowance money I never earned—
I know there are rats and who knows what else
Down there: the things our parents never realized
They should warn us about).
We never worried about the things that were not
Waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

“What are they doing?” I do not ask aloud,
Noticing—just in time, before I can call attention to it—
Two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they are young & free.
That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about
My niece asking me about it I understand: I’m old now.
Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).
That’s how it happens.
This would never have happened, then—
(I did not know much, but I knew this:
cats did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists).
But this is what happens when you go away.
Back then, in our close and cloistered community
Even the cats had discretion (they were old school)
Or maybe they were mortified, because
Bent over with booze or barbiturates they were
Silently screeching behind closed doors—
All of us, unknowingly, out in the light
Winning the World Series, while wicked women
Garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind
The anodyne of automatic garage doors.
It is quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.
Please allow them to have been happy,
In our memories if not in their actual lives.

I don’t remember but I have a feeling
That if I think hard enough I will recall
The things that were never said and therefore never forgotten.

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,
Which tastes unlike anything other than what it is: freedom.

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste)
With those incredibly awkward silver ring-tabs
We pulled off for the privilege of first sip.
That is old school, I do not tell my niece.
It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes
Like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,
A manufactured feeling, just like in class
How it’s cheating if the answer is already in your lap.
It’s the things they can’t package or make you pay for:
Those things that they never tell you about until you are old enough
To know better: that is what freedom is.

Curiosity killed the cat, someone once said and
Maybe they were right.
But something is going to get all of us
Eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

The cats are gone, maybe they have gone home
(they can always go home), back to their families—
The heavy silences and signified banality of routine
(do they still have strict rules about no TV
and everyone present around the table when
dinner is served at six-thirty sharp?
I certainly hope so, for their sakes).
Or maybe they are getting down to business—
Dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—
Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,
Keeping the sewers safe from rats and reality.
Curious or content, we know enough to take
Whatever it is that life decrees.

We went into the sewers the way we went into the world:
Unafraid, unwavering, unencumbered and
Above all: unconcerned about all those things
Older people were kind enough to never…

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious
because she does not comprehend at all.
Old school, I do not say, reticent
Because I do remember it (all).
If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

How did we go down there, then?
How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

serf

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Giving it up for the Hottest Band in the World…KISS!

KISS

A proper tribute to the hottest band in the world has been on my to-do list going back to…1977?

So yes, that will happen. For now, in honor of Kiss getting their Hall of Fame on this evening, I’ll happily revisit two pieces dedicated to two of their albums. The first, from a real labor of love, 10 Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Don’t), here’s my assessment of the oft-maligned Dynasty:

10. Kiss: Dynasty (1979)

Okay, let’s get this one out of the way right up front. It’s not necessarily that this album is better than average (it’s not), it’s that so many members of the Kiss Army—not to mention normal people who understand, and accept, that Gene Simmons wears a toupee today and likely wore a wig then—think it sucks (it doesn’t). More than a few folks point to this as the nadir of the original band’s output. It might be, actually, but that still does not mean it sucks. Yes, it has the made-for-radio, inspired by disco (!) debacle “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, a title so insipid, uninspired and calculated it could not possibly be tolerable on principle. There are a lot of other stinkers on this set, particularly the one contribution from Peter Criss, a cat who went from being a drummer who sometimes did drugs to a druggie who sometimes played drums. In fact, the same guy who played on Ace Frehley’s 1978 solo album (and who would later gain fame as the drummer in David Letterman’s late night all-star band), Anton Fig, provided most of the drumming on this one. How embarrassing (for Criss; for the band).

Speaking of that Ace Frehley solo album: what a revelation. The space cadet who played the (often excellent) solos and was usually too self-conscious to sing suddenly came into his own. His effort is, arguably, the most cohesive Kiss-related album since Destroyer. True, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun had the hits and put them over the top commercially, but they were also overly produced and oddly sterile (compare virtually any of those songs with how much better they sound on Kiss Alive II). For whatever reason, whether it was fatigue, chemicals or lack of inspiration, Frehley briefly emerged as the unquestionable creative force in the band. His solo album was so much better than the others’ it seems unfair, even inappropriate, to compare them, and on Dynasty he is practically holding the act together himself. That he could not hold his own act together much longer is as unfortunate as it was inevitable (if you find that to be a harsh or inaccurate assessment, listen to the lyrics on the solo set—or just consider some of the song titles: “Snowblind”, “Ozone”, “Wiped Out”).

Frehley’s two original contributions, “Hard Times” and “Save Your Love” rock as hard as anything Kiss ever did, and his guitar playing throughout is assured and intense. Even though this album has questionable material from Stanley and Simmons, like “X-Ray Eyes” and “Sure Know Something”, those gents also acquit themselves tolerably well with “Charisma” and “Magic Touch”. Yes, “Magic Touch” is probably a song that makes even hardcore Kiss fans feel a bit faint (in a bad way), yet it’s almost disgustingly irresistible. And Ace’s solo is ridiculous (in a good way). Last, but not least, there is the Stones’ cover, “2000 Man.” First off, having the balls to cover an obscure Stones song warrants Frehley serious props, and the fact that he pulls off a much-better-than-respectable (and, importantly, not paint-by-numbers) interpretation was impressive, then, and remains righteous, now. The other members may have already been phoning it in by this point, but Ace had a few more tricks up his sleeve and Dynasty should, if nothing else, be celebrated as the last time he looked down at the rest of the world.

Bonus: Love for the band’s best album (by far).

First off, much more on this, another time. For now, to revisit my piece from 2010, Hey Gibson, Let’s Talk Guitar Albums!, here is a short, sweet love letter to Kiss: Alive!

Before the sex, drugs, alcohol and the gravity of expectations vs. ability set in, Kiss was lean, hungry, unappreciated and angry. They also wore make-up. But circa 1975, the hardest touring band in show biz was firing on every conceivable cylinder. Their overproduced, somewhat half-baked studio work did not adequately represent what outstanding musicians they all were (no, seriously), but their genius decision to put out a live album (before they were big) and make it a double album was what put them over. And it still sounds incredible; easily one of the best live albums of the era. (Even if chunks, perhaps large chunks of it were retouched and refined and redone in the studio. Chalk that up to WHO GIVES A SHIT?) The star of these proceedings is Ace Frehley, who was always better than he sounded. He is a rock god on this outing, and he never really sounded better than this. Every single song features a solo that is logical, concise and utterly original (check out his restrained but authoritative work at the 1:50 minute mark here). All those candy-ass hair bands in the ’80s weren’t even trying to emulate this because they knew it was impossible.

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #10 & #9 (Revisted)

10. Kiss: Dynasty (1979)

Okay, let’s get this one out of the way right up front. It’s not necessarily that this album is better than average (it’s not), it’s that so many members of the Kiss Army—not to mention normal people who understand, and accept, that Gene Simmons wears a toupee today and likely wore a wig then—think it sucks (it doesn’t). More than a few folks point to this as the nadir of the original band’s output. It might be, actually, but that still does not mean it sucks. Yes, it has the made-for-radio, inspired by disco (!) debacle “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, a title so insipid, uninspired and calculated it could not possibly be tolerable on principle. There are a lot of other stinkers on this set, particularly the one contribution from Peter Criss, a cat who went from being a drummer who sometimes did drugs to a druggie who sometimes played drums. In fact, the same guy who played on Ace Frehley’s 1978 solo album (and who would later gain fame as the drummer in David Letterman’s late night all-star band), Anton Fig, provided most of the drumming on this one. How embarrassing (for Criss; for the band).

Speaking of that Ace Frehley solo album: what a revelation. The space cadet who played the (often excellent) solos and was usually too self-conscious to sing suddenly came into his own. His effort is, arguably, the most cohesive Kiss-related album since Destroyer. True, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun had the hits and put them over the top commercially, but they were also overly produced and oddly sterile (compare virtually any of those songs with how much better they sound on Kiss Alive II). For whatever reason, whether it was fatigue, chemicals or lack of inspiration, Frehley briefly emerged as the unquestionable creative force in the band. His solo album was so much better than the others’ it seems unfair, even inappropriate, to compare them, and on Dynasty he is practically holding the act together himself. That he could not hold his own act together much longer is as unfortunate as it was inevitable (if you find that to be a harsh or inaccurate assessment, listen to the lyrics on the solo set—or just consider some of the song titles: “Snowblind”, “Ozone”, “Wiped Out”).

Frehley’s two original contributions, “Hard Times” and “Save Your Love” rock as hard as anything Kiss ever did, and his guitar playing throughout is assured and intense. Even though this album has questionable material from Stanley and Simmons, like “X-Ray Eyes” and “Sure Know Something”, those gents also acquit themselves tolerably well with “Charisma” and “Magic Touch”. Yes, “Magic Touch” is probably a song that makes even hardcore Kiss fans feel a bit faint (in a bad way), yet it’s almost disgustingly irresistible. And Ace’s solo is ridiculous (in a good way). Last, but not least, there is the Stones’ cover, “2000 Man.” First off, having the balls to cover an obscure Stones song warrants Frehley serious props, and the fact that he pulls off a much-better-than-respectable (and, importantly, not paint-by-numbers) interpretation was impressive, then, and remains righteous, now. The other members may have already been phoning it in by this point, but Ace had a few more tricks up his sleeve and Dynasty should, if nothing else, be celebrated as the last time he looked down at the rest of the world.

9. The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

Stupid title. Silly cover. Blatant attempt to steal some thunder from The Beatles, who were possibly at the height of their critical and commercial influence following Sgt. Pepper. So what? The fact of the matter is that this is far from a failure, no matter how many people want to slag off this lesser Stones album. Perhaps time was on its side, or there has been some retribution, equal parts ironic and inevitable, which has seen Sgt. Pepper taken down a few pegs, while there isn’t quite as much venom spewed about Satanic. This was certainly not the Stones effort that spilled over with hits (again, so what?) but taken one by one, there is much to like—or at least defend—in lesser-known tunes like “Gomper”, “The Lantern” and “Citadel” (think Iggy Pop listened to that one a few thousand times?).

And then there are the winners: “She’s A Rainbow” (which gleefully rips off Arthur Lee and Love’s “She Comes in Colors” more than it does anything from Sgt. Pepper) and the band’s unique, convincing and corny stab at psychedelia, “2000 Light Years From Home”. And then the masterpiece that inexplicably brings together both Kiss and Wes Anderson: “2000 Man”. It may not be “A Day in the Life” but if you had to listen to one song once a day for the rest of your life, which one would you pick? I know which one I’d go with (and my kids, they just don’t understand me at all).

The historic import of this one is not inconsiderable, either: up until now The Stones were forever in the Fab Four’s shadow, enjoying (or being consigned to) being bad guys and competing as best they could. This was the last time they played the underdog role and beginning with Beggars Banquet their albums were never compared unfavorably with The Beatles’, or anyone else’s for that matter. On this album, even though it sounded very little like Sgt. Pepper, imitation was still the sincerest form of flattery. Its ostensible failure likely caused the band to realize that the rules they had been following were largely self-imposed, and once they got outside that box nobody could stand in their way. They took their lumps, upped the ante and then gleefully kicked every other act out of the way.

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July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home (Revisited)

If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

plaza

(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words, this was the number one hit thirty years ago today (and more on Donna Summer, HERE):

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair.

********

Old School

This is old school, I say
To my niece who, at five years old, is now
The same age her uncle was when his parents
Transported him to this place—new then, old now.
Old school, she repeats, repeating things
I say because I am older, because I am
Still interesting, because I am…old school.
Even I can see that.

You Can’t Go Home Again, someone once wrote
And he was wrong.
Of course you can—all you have to do is never leave—
Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.
(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child
who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,
in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—
to the old streets that I came to outgrow
the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends
and exchange them for jobs and cars and co-workers).

You can always go home, and you need to go home,
It is only when you want to go home that you should
Start asking yourself some serious questions.

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.
Nor does she ask if I ever played
Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.
Those games got outgrown, or else we learned
To play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.
And I wonder if we are better off:
Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is
Queer and no enjoys being…

I put away childish things each time I think
About them, storing them safely inside my heart
Where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

“Uncle, did you play?” she does not say.
(She does not know everything but she knows
enough to understand that her uncle was never young
the way she is and the way she’ll always be and
far be it from me to tell her any differently).
Question: Can you play?
Remember when that’s all we used to say—
Summers summarized in a phrase we learned
Eventually to outgrow.

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)
Was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat
We righted the wrongs of an evil world, where
Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip
And the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway
Those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.
(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,
this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember
block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes
and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything
but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say).
I had no idea how much I did not know but
I knew this much: if there was a beer besides Schlitz or
Bud I was unaware of it—that’s all
The adults drank back in the bad old days.

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball
Anyway—ball was our business and business was good,
Get it: the ball would invariably make a break for it
Ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,
We were old school). Without a second thought
We pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.
We never thought twice about it—we were young.
The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.
(I look now, and think: I would not go
into that hole for all the allowance money I never earned—
I know there are rats and who knows what else
Down there: the things our parents never realized
They should warn us about).
We never worried about the things that were not
Waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

“What are they doing?” I do not ask aloud,
Noticing—just in time, before I can call attention to it—
Two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they are young & free.
That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about
My niece asking me about it I understand: I’m old now.
Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).
That’s how it happens.
This would never have happened, then—
(I did not know much, but I knew this:
cats did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists).
But this is what happens when you go away.
Back then, in our close and cloistered community
Even the cats had discretion (they were old school)
Or maybe they were mortified, because
Bent over with booze or barbiturates they were
Silently screeching behind closed doors—
All of us, unknowingly, out in the light
Winning the World Series, while wicked women
Garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind
The anodyne of automatic garage doors.
It is quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.
Please allow them to have been happy,
In our memories if not in their actual lives.

I don’t remember but I have a feeling
That if I think hard enough I will recall
The things that were never said and therefore never forgotten.

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,
Which tastes unlike anything other than what it is: freedom.

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste)
With those incredibly awkward silver ring-tabs
We pulled off for the privilege of first sip.
That is old school, I do not tell my niece.
It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes
Like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,
A manufactured feeling, just like in class
How it’s cheating if the answer is already in your lap.
It’s the things they can’t package or make you pay for:
Those things that they never tell you about until you are old enough
To know better: that is what freedom is.

Curiosity killed the cat, someone once said and
Maybe they were right.
But something is going to get all of us
Eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

The cats are gone, maybe they have gone home
(they can always go home), back to their families—
The heavy silences and signified banality of routine
(do they still have strict rules about no TV
and everyone present around the table when
dinner is served at six-thirty sharp?
I certainly hope so, for their sakes).
Or maybe they are getting down to business—
Dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—
Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,
Keeping the sewers safe from rats and reality.
Curious or content, we know enough to take
Whatever it is that life decrees.

We went into the sewers the way we went into the world:
Unafraid, unwavering, unencumbered and
Above all: unconcerned about all those things
Older people were kind enough to never…

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious
because she does not comprehend at all.
Old school, I do not say, reticent
Because I do remember it (all).
If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

How did we go down there, then?
How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

serf

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #10 & #9

10. Kiss: Dynasty (1979)

Okay, let’s get this one out of the way right up front. It’s not necessarily that this album is better than average (it’s not), it’s that so many members of the Kiss Army—not to mention normal people who understand, and accept, that Gene Simmons wears a toupee today and likely wore a wig then—think it sucks (it doesn’t). More than a few folks point to this as the nadir of the original band’s output. It might be, actually, but that still does not mean it sucks. Yes, it has the made-for-radio, inspired by disco (!) debacle “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, a title so insipid, uninspired and calculated it could not possibly be tolerable on principle. There are a lot of other stinkers on this set, particularly the one contribution from Peter Criss, a cat who went from being a drummer who sometimes did drugs to a druggie who sometimes played drums. In fact, the same guy who played on Ace Frehley’s 1978 solo album (and who would later gain fame as the drummer in David Letterman’s late night all-star band), Anton Fig, provided most of the drumming on this one. How embarrassing (for Criss; for the band).

Speaking of that Ace Frehley solo album: what a revelation. The space cadet who played the (often excellent) solos and was usually too self-conscious to sing suddenly came into his own. His effort is, arguably, the most cohesive Kiss-related album since Destroyer. True, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun had the hits and put them over the top commercially, but they were also overly produced and oddly sterile (compare virtually any of those songs with how much better they sound on Kiss Alive II). For whatever reason, whether it was fatigue, chemicals or lack of inspiration, Frehley briefly emerged as the unquestionable creative force in the band. His solo album was so much better than the others’ it seems unfair, even inappropriate, to compare them, and on Dynasty he is practically holding the act together himself. That he could not hold his own act together much longer is as unfortunate as it was inevitable (if you find that to be a harsh or inaccurate assessment, listen to the lyrics on the solo set—or just consider some of the song titles: “Snowblind”, “Ozone”, “Wiped Out”).

Frehley’s two original contributions, “Hard Times” and “Save Your Love” rock as hard as anything Kiss ever did, and his guitar playing throughout is assured and intense. Even though this album has questionable material from Stanley and Simmons, like “X-Ray Eyes” and “Sure Know Something”, those gents also acquit themselves tolerably well with “Charisma” and “Magic Touch”. Yes, “Magic Touch” is probably a song that makes even hardcore Kiss fans feel a bit faint (in a bad way), yet it’s almost disgustingly irresistible. And Ace’s solo is ridiculous (in a good way). Last, but not least, there is the Stones’ cover, “2000 Man.” First off, having the balls to cover an obscure Stones song warrants Frehley serious props, and the fact that he pulls off a much-better-than-respectable (and, importantly, not paint-by-numbers) interpretation was impressive, then, and remains righteous, now. The other members may have already been phoning it in by this point, but Ace had a few more tricks up his sleeve and Dynasty should, if nothing else, be celebrated as the last time he looked down at the rest of the world.

9. The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)

Stupid title. Silly cover. Blatant attempt to steal some thunder from The Beatles, who were possibly at the height of their critical and commercial influence following Sgt. Pepper. So what? The fact of the matter is that this is far from a failure, no matter how many people want to slag off this lesser Stones album. Perhaps time was on its side, or there has been some retribution, equal parts ironic and inevitable, which has seen Sgt. Pepper taken down a few pegs, while there isn’t quite as much venom spewed about Satanic. This was certainly not the Stones effort that spilled over with hits (again, so what?) but taken one by one, there is much to like—or at least defend—in lesser-known tunes like “Gomper”, “The Lantern” and “Citadel” (think Iggy Pop listened to that one a few thousand times?).

And then there are the winners: “She’s A Rainbow” (which gleefully rips off Arthur Lee and Love’s “She Comes in Colors” more than it does anything from Sgt. Pepper) and the band’s unique, convincing and corny stab at psychedelia, “2000 Light Years From Home”. And then the masterpiece that inexplicably brings together both Kiss and Wes Anderson: “2000 Man”. It may not be “A Day in the Life” but if you had to listen to one song once a day for the rest of your life, which one would you pick? I know which one I’d go with (and my kids, they just don’t understand me at all).

The historic import of this one is not inconsiderable, either: up until now The Stones were forever in the Fab Four’s shadow, enjoying (or being consigned to) being bad guys and competing as best they could. This was the last time they played the underdog role and beginning with Beggars Banquet their albums were never compared unfavorably with The Beatles’, or anyone else’s for that matter. On this album, even though it sounded very little like Sgt. Pepper, imitation was still the sincerest form of flattery. Its ostensible failure likely caused the band to realize that the rules they had been following were largely self-imposed, and once they got outside that box nobody could stand in their way. They took their lumps, upped the ante and then gleefully kicked every other act out of the way.

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #10

10. Kiss: Dynasty (1979)

Okay, let’s get this one out of the way right up front. It’s not necessarily that this album is better than average (it’s not), it’s that so many members of the Kiss Army—not to mention normal people who understand, and accept, that Gene Simmons wears a toupee today and likely wore a wig then—think it sucks (it doesn’t). More than a few folks point to this as the nadir of the original band’s output. It might be, actually, but that still does not mean it sucks. Yes, it has the made-for-radio, inspired by disco (!) debacle “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, a title so insipid, uninspired and calculated it could not possibly be tolerable on principle. There are a lot of other stinkers on this set, particularly the one contribution from Peter Criss, a cat who went from being a drummer who sometimes did drugs to a druggie who sometimes played drums. In fact, the same guy who played on Ace Frehley’s 1978 solo album (and who would later gain fame as the drummer in David Letterman’s late night all-star band), Anton Fig, provided most of the drumming on this one. How embarrassing (for Criss; for the band).

Speaking of that Ace Frehley solo album: what a revelation. The space cadet who played the (often excellent) solos and was usually too self-conscious to sing suddenly came into his own. His effort is, arguably, the most cohesive Kiss-related album since Destroyer. True, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun had the hits and put them over the top commercially, but they were also overly produced and oddly sterile (compare virtually any of those songs with how much better they sound on Kiss Alive II). For whatever reason, whether it was fatigue, chemicals or lack of inspiration, Frehley briefly emerged as the unquestionable creative force in the band. His solo album was so much better than the others’ it seems unfair, even inappropriate, to compare them, and on Dynasty he is practically holding the act together himself. That he could not hold his own act together much longer is as unfortunate as it was inevitable (if you find that to be a harsh or inaccurate assessment, listen to the lyrics on the solo set—or just consider some of the song titles: “Snowblind”, “Ozone”, “Wiped Out”).

Frehley’s two original contributions, “Hard Times” and “Save Your Love” rock as hard as anything Kiss ever did, and his guitar playing throughout is assured and intense. Even though this album has questionable material from Stanley and Simmons, like “X-Ray Eyes” and “Sure Know Something”, those gents also acquit themselves tolerably well with “Charisma” and “Magic Touch”. Yes, “Magic Touch” is probably a song that makes even hardcore Kiss fans feel a bit faint (in a bad way), yet it’s almost disgustingly irresistible. And Ace’s solo is ridiculous (in a good way). Last, but not least, there is the Stones’ cover, “2000 Man.” First off, having the balls to cover an obscure Stones song warrants Frehley serious props, and the fact that he pulls off a much-better-than-respectable (and, importantly, not paint-by-numbers) interpretation was impressive, then, and remains righteous, now. The other members may have already been phoning it in by this point, but Ace had a few more tricks up his sleeve and Dynasty should, if nothing else, be celebrated as the last time he looked down at the rest of the world.

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July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home

serf

If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

plaza

(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words,  this was the number one hit thirty years ago today:

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair. 

******** 

Old School

This is old school, I say
To my niece who, at five years old, is now
The same age her uncle was when his parents
Transported him to this place—new then, old now.
Old school, she repeats, repeating things
I say because I am older, because I am
Still interesting, because I am…old school.
Even I can see that.

You Can’t Go Home Again, someone once wrote
And he was wrong.
Of course you can—all you have to do is never leave—
Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.
(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child
who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,
in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—
to the old streets that I came to outgrow
the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends
and exchange them for jobs and cars and co-workers).

You can always go home, and you need to go home,
It is only when you want to go home that you should
Start asking yourself some serious questions.

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.
Nor does she ask if I ever played
Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.
Those games got outgrown, or else we learned
To play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.
And I wonder if we are better off:
Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is
Queer and no enjoys being…

I put away childish things each time I think
About them, storing them safely inside my heart
Where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

“Uncle, did you play?” she does not say.
(She does not know everything but she knows
enough to understand that her uncle was never young
the way she is and the way she’ll always be and
far be it from me to tell her any differently).
Question: Can you play?
Remember when that’s all we used to say—
Summers summarized in a phrase we learned
Eventually to outgrow.

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)
Was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat
We righted the wrongs of an evil world, where
Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip
And the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway
Those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.
(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,
this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember
block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes
and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything
but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say).
I had no idea how much I did not know but
I knew this much: if there was a beer besides Schlitz or
Bud I was unaware of it—that’s all
The adults drank back in the bad old days.

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball
Anyway—ball was our business and business was good,
Get it: the ball would invariably make a break for it
Ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,
We were old school). Without a second thought
We pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.
We never thought twice about it—we were young.
The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.
(I look now, and think: I would not go
into that hole for all the allowance money I never earned—
I know there are rats and who knows what else
Down there: the things our parents never realized
They should warn us about).
We never worried about the things that were not
Waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

“What are they doing?” I do not ask aloud,
Noticing—just in time, before I can call attention to it—
Two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they are young & free.
That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about
My niece asking me about it I understand: I’m old now.
Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).
That’s how it happens.
This would never have happened, then—
(I did not know much, but I knew this:
cats did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists).
But this is what happens when you go away.
Back then, in our close and cloistered community
Even the cats had discretion (they were old school)
Or maybe they were mortified, because
Bent over with booze or barbiturates they were
Silently screeching behind closed doors—
All of us, unknowingly, out in the light
Winning the World Series, while wicked women
Garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind
The anodyne of automatic garage doors.
It is quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.
Please allow them to have been happy,
In our memories if not in their actual lives.

I don’t remember but I have a feeling
That if I think hard enough I will recall
The things that were never said and therefore never forgotten.

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,
Which tastes unlike anything other than what it is: freedom.

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste)
With those incredibly awkward silver ring-tabs
We pulled off for the privilege of first sip.
That is old school, I do not tell my niece.
It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes
Like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,
A manufactured feeling, just like in class
How it’s cheating if the answer is already in your lap.
It’s the things they can’t package or make you pay for:
Those things that they never tell you about until you are old enough
To know better: that is what freedom is.

Curiosity killed the cat, someone once said and
Maybe they were right.
But something is going to get all of us
Eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

The cats are gone, maybe they have gone home
(they can always go home), back to their families—
The heavy silences and signified banality of routine
(do they still have strict rules about no TV
and everyone present around the table when
dinner is served at six-thirty sharp?
I certainly hope so, for their sakes).
Or maybe they are getting down to business—
Dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—
Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,
Keeping the sewers safe from rats and reality.
Curious or content, we know enough to take
Whatever it is that life decrees.

We went into the sewers the way we went into the world:
Unafraid, unwavering, unencumbered and
Above all: unconcerned about all those things
Older people were kind enough to never…

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious
because she does not comprehend at all.
Old school, I do not say, reticent
Because I do remember it (all).
If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

How did we go down there, then?
How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

 serf

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