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.
(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.
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:
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.
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?