Righteous riffs

First Cuts ….

In the sobering light of the new year, we’ve forced ourselves to begin reckoning with our clutter. Less a resolution than a survival tactic, more akin to scooping water from a sinking ship. 

I refer to it as ‘editing.’ 

This makes Karry angry. 

We’re throwing shit out, she informs me. 

To equip you with the appropriate measure of tension in the present exercise, picture me chaining myself to a tree while Karry, in hardhat and chomping a cigar, is revving a bulldozer, committed to getting a good parking spot at happy hour.

After building confidence with my sock drawer (the sock drawer of a man who should have more than two feet), I was assigned a neglected set of shelves in our laundry room. Behind jars of canned tomato sauce and a crate of all the crayons accumulated over my children’s lifetime (an obscene number), I stumbled upon shoeboxes and cases containing old audio cassettes. 

My teenage and early 20-something music library.

I lift the lid on a shoebox like John Travolta opening that case in Pulp Fiction. 

There’s my older brother. My Dad. 

Ha, my college girlfriend. 

My altar egos. My heart. What used to pass for my confidence.

I heard a feint whisper, “Rest here awhile.” 

At least that’s what I think it said. Was kinda’ hard to hear over the bulldozer upstairs.

In any case the ensuing editing was going to be slightly more nuanced than my sock drawer.

Speaking of cases, close your eyes and listen. 

Remove. Insert. Press Play. 

Rewind. Fast-forward. Flip. Eject. Remove. Replace. 

The hard-plastic hands-on ritual. The tangible tethering between you and the experience.

I used to commandeer the back room, listen for hours. Gather with friends around their family’s hi-fi system like a campfire. Still remember the time Jeff Hughes hopped on top of his dining room table to air guitar to Ratt’s Round and Round. Can still hear his Mom’s voice instantly drowning out Stephen Pearcy’s with a rafter-rattling, “Jeffrey!” 

Pretty much until middle school, music was a purely stationary exercise. You in proximity to the console, headphone jack if privacy was required (i.e. whenever I raided my brother’s Steve Martin albums, eventually committing each and every bit to memory. ). 

Until that one summer afternoon shooting hoops at Areford Playground, when JonJon McCoy announced his presence from afar, appearing at the top of Garard Avenue, gratuitously sized boom box perched atop his shoulder, gloriously blasting Mr. Roboto from the new Styx album.

He was the modern man. 

For context, JonJon was not the tallest in our village, and he lived on Carnation Street, which was a three-block straight hill climb to the playground. Coupling his diminutive size with the enormity of his ‘portable,’ he was proportionally half-man, half-blaster.  I imagine he had to shift shoulders multiple times en route. Upon arrival on the court, he set the radio down behind the basketball pole, a conquerer from a far off land planting his flag, and proceeded to ball out (his game had sauce). 

Domo arigato. 

___

So much of the experience was born of expectation. 

Waiting for Friday night and a pilgrimage to the National Record Mart. If you were lucky, enough in your pocket for one good one. Heat-seeking the selections on sale for $5.99, weighing whether a $7.99 or, gulp, a $9.99 was worth the risk. 

What risk? In the days when music was doled out by the machine with an eye dropper, usually the one song they played on the radio was your only clue. Got burned often enough to make the cassingle, the cassette-ization of the classic 45 record (A and B sides), a safer, though lamer, surgical strike (I never grew tired of rewinding Real, Real Gone by Van Morrison or Every Time I Roll the Dice by Delbert McClinton). Spending precious dollars on musical roulette is also why so many of our early collections were stuffed with greatest hits. More bang for the buck. Who didn’t have the Eagles, Skynyrd, Steve Miller, the Beatles, Stones (Hot Rocks)? Homogenized like so much of our diets growing up.  

At times, though, the decision was made prior to arrival. Word of mouth was immutable law in junior high. I don’t remember a thing about a particular middle school dance, only that we gathered at Jerry Rehanek’s house first, where he played the new Quiet Riot before we walked up the hill to the school. We were all banging our heads by week’s end. And I still contend that Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry was the best $5.99 (on sale, yes!) I’ve ever spent in my life.

The cover alone made unwitting art collectors of teenage boys.

The final confirmation, though, came when you stepped to the counter to hand your money over to Bill, the big, bearded, long-haired, dark-glasses-wearing manager, whose approval we courted and counted as much as our teachers’.

As I type this I can summon any song I want without lifting a finger. 

Meant a whole lot more when you had to wait for Friday night, make your one choice count, and big Bill affirmed your selection.   

Real, real gone.

___

True music liberation came with our driver’s licenses. 

Or in my case, my friends’ driver’s licenses, as our family’s 1980 Mercury Monarch was equipped with only an a.m. radio. 

That a.m. radio was tuned to the cosmos, though. After picking up my rented tux for the prom, I was sitting at Five Corners waiting for the light to change when “Everybody Plays the Fool” came on (sigh). And when the Monarch finally died in front of our house, I sat, sad, in its front bench seat and tried unsuccessfully to turn it over one last time. I gave the radio dial one last twist, and it played, “Don’t Worry, Baby,” by the Beach Boys. 

Truth be told I wouldn’t have loved that car any more had it had an enviable cassette deck. 

The absence of one added more novelty to riding with friends. 

I first experienced Dave Brubek’s Blue Rondo A La Turk riding cramped in the backseat of Lenny Baron’s VW Rabbit. Take 5 made driving familiar streets feel like discovering a new planet. 

So much of my friends’ music just sounded better on cassette over noisy engines and piped through thin car audio systems with the heater full blast in the middle of winter. Exhibit A – The Violent Femmes. 

I forget what 8 was for.

___

When music became portable, and (cue angel chorus) recordable, everything changed, as evidenced by the time capsule in front of me.

Run DMC’s eponymous first album, courtesy of Jeff Hughes’ dual-cassette deck. 

No better baptism for one’s boom box than Reverend Run. 

Your weekly $5.99 suddenly stretched a heckuva lot further (‘ … spreadin’ … just like the flu….’). 

A lot more of your allowance went into Scotch, Maxell, TDK, Memorex. Your portfolio diversified exponentially. More shoeboxes required to collect your treasure. 

Still, you remained so tethered to the experience. Who remembers sitting with your finger ready on the record button waiting for the radio to play that song? Who is now not smiling at that recollection? Shoot, I remember calling into Jesse Thurman’s radio show in college and snatching “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” on request. 

It was the teenage equivalent of calling in a prescription to your pharmacist. 

___

And when She was really going out with Me, the tectonic plates of sonic existence shifted once again. 

Um, I’d forgotten how hard I mix-taped. 

Hard not to laugh now — a lot of extra cheese sandwiched between those playlists. Some questionable choices, yes, but not a single regret (which is how I choose to remember my college years). I’m not sure I took anything more seriously in my life at that time. When ceding your heart to surrogates, you not only agonized over each selection, but their precise sequencing. The whole experience such a sweet meditation. 

Love letters to a much smaller and simpler world. 

Poring over the fossils I note we had friends play a couple of those songs live at our wedding. After all they were our soundtrack.

Ha, and staring back at me now — the last mix-tape I ever made her. 

Last played April 3, 2001. 

I’d forgotten that the birthing suites at St. Clair Hospital had some bitchin’ retro sound systems back in a day. 

If memory serves our firstborn came into the world to the strains of Running on Faith by Clapton.

“… what else can a poor boy do?” 

Cue the closing credits of our couplehood. 

___

As I wade into the task at hand, I feel for the fine line between careful Editing and the blunt force trauma of Throwing Shit Out. 

I text a couple friends who share similar relationships — with music and with gracious wives whose patience, um, occasionally wears thin. 

I ask them what they ever did with their old cassettes. 

Andy: I still have a bunch of them here. 

Doug: I’m embarrassed to say I still have most of them. They’re stored in various places around the house — the basement, under my bed, etc.

I ponder Doug’s squirrel method for a moment, then quickly realize I’d probably end up having to ask him if there’s enough room in his basement for me and my collection.

So I end up making two piles, the larger one honoring the task at hand, and the request of the girl who I now drive mad, but who once drove me to make mix tape after mix tape. I say goodbye to casual acquaintances I hadn’t heard from in decades. Thank them for keeping me such good company when I needed them, for helping me process, escape, remember, hope. So good to catch up. I snapped pix of a couple I may want to look up again somewhere down the road.  

The second pile I neatly consolidated amongst the shoe boxes. Will make room in some attic corner.

Because I’ve learned that sometimes it’s OK for us to leave bread crumbs. 

So we can find our way back to the campfires of our youth… 

… for when there just aren’t enough adult socks in the sock drawer to keep us warm. 

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Postcards, Rearview Mirror, The Road Ahead

18,250 Sunrises ….

Not comprehensive, or in any particular order … just what comes to one’s mind upon being gifted approximately 18,250 sunrises ….

  • That, when I was a desperate for a date to a fraternity party, she said yes. And the subsequent circles we danced to Meat Loaf (if I recall), and the subsequent goodnight kiss, and the Johnny Walker Red that may or may not have been responsible for the courage behind that kiss, and, indirectly, the subsequent 29 years.
  • That I got to be on the same stage with my Dad when he’d close his eyes and shred Harry James’ opening solo on Two O’Clock Jump. The numbers of all the good charts we used to play (#95, #39, #124, #20, #209, #93, #117).
  • Gathering with my best childhood friends every Christmas to decorate a tree, sip some Old Crow, and bear witness.
  • A big sister who let me pick out my first rock n’ roll record at the National Record Mart.
  • A daughter who still says yes when I ask her to read with me, and who savors a good turn of phrase as much as her old man.
  • A sister who sends me a card, cartoon, or clipping every week to let me know she’s thinking of me.
  • A son who asks me to hit golf balls with him even though I am beyond redemption. And on the grander scale, a gracious soul who forgives me for having tried way too hard.
  • Running under all those perfectly aimed and timed fly balls Dad launched just within the waffle-pocket reach of the oversized, Reggie Jackson model Rawlings he bought with the best $25 he ever spent.
  • Em’s Saturday morning omelets with toast (oh, and while I’m there, her home made mac-n-cheese doused with Red Hot in the manner of holy water).
  • An older brother who, like the good offensive lineman he was, wore down my parents’ resistances to allow me a clean running lane through my teenage years.
  • Roger Khan, Roger Angell, John Updike, Myron Cope, Gene Collier, David Halberstam, Roy Blount Jr. and all the others who taught me that good sports writers were just good writers who happened to write sports.
  • The small graces … squeezing toothpaste on her toothbrush in the morning … walking down the driveway together after taking out the garbage … standing at the sink doing dishes …. blowing kisses to the window while leaving for work in the morning.
  • My favorite Sunday night Oldie’s DJ.
  • A sister who raised two beautiful souls on her own and now gets to enjoy her grandchildren, and the occasional glass of wine with her baby brother.
  • A neighborhood that knew the best recipe for growing adults was to let kids be kids.
  • Preserving the capacity to be awed.
  • A mom who saved everything, including the before-and-after-orthodontic molds of my teeth, the BEFORE sample prompting my daughter to re-coil, “That looks like it’s from a North American primate,” which is pretty much exactly what the girls in middle school thought, too.
  • That holding hands still makes everything OK.
  • Parents who gave me time and space to figure stuff out.
  • Chicken wings from Drovers, two with everything and fries with gravy from Shorty’s, a Poorboy without tomato, small fries and a Pabst draft from Potter’s.
  • Charlie Watts proving that eighth notes and a bemused smile are all one needs to build a pocket big enough to fit an entire world (translation: more is not always better).
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins writing his arse off for an audience no bigger or smaller than God herself.
  • Laurel Highlands Class of ’88.
  • Jazz on a rainy day and blistering guitars ‘neath a starry sky.
  • Our only family vacation growing up … to Gettysburg and Valley Forge during the Bicentennial. The sound of pee hitting a coffee can in the backseat on our no-stop drive to the middle of the state.
  • The bewitching crackle of a campfire.
  • The 1-4-5 progression.
  • How the very specific scent and feel of crisp late summer Southwestern PA mornings always makes me think of high school band camp.
  • The old, tiny teacher’s desk from Areford that mom salvaged and refinished … that makes me think of where I came from every time I sit down to write at it.
  • The best days in my life, summed up in eight words. “I do / It’s a boy / It’s a girl”
  • Remembering to look up.
  • Making her laugh so hard she cries.
  • When they were small enough to carry.
  • Knowing it’s in as soon as it leaves your hand.
  • That little dip in our neighborhood that breezes you five degrees cooler like a kiss on the cheek when you’re running down its hill
  • Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful.
  • A dry Kettle One martini and/or listening to Paul Desmond (same thing)
  • Every letter I’ve received in the mail and kept.
  • Riding in Dad’s Sherwin Williams van on Sunday afternoons looking for a playground hoop with a good net.
  • Being Santa Claus. Until you’re not.
  • Winning the in-law lottery.
  • Peter’s brown-sugar, oven-baked, banana ‘recipe’ he fashioned when he was seven years old, that, when properly muddled with vanilla ice cream, is the key to the universe.
  • How the smell of second hand smoke always makes me think of Mom.
  • City Lights Bookstore.
  • The sound of rain on a metal awning.
  • Nieces and nephews who made great daughters and sons, better sisters and brothers, and even better mothers and fathers.
  • All the encouragers.
  • That I remembered to write most of the good stuff down, to remind me when I forget about the good stuff.
  • Chapters left to write.

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Excursions, Postcards

Best Pizza Ever ….

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It’s probably slightly north of coincidental that the best pizza I can ever remember tasting in my life is associated with a last-day-of-school memory.

I was 11 years old.

And within minutes of the #12 black and yellow bus spitting us out for the last time as sixth graders at Hatfield Elementary, my buddies and I were mounted on our bikes … report cards in our back pockets and the whole of summer laid out before us (exactly) like an open road.

We left the neighborhood by way of Dawson Street (the sweetest, straightest avenue on our hill) down to Jamison, to minimize our time on busy Dixon Boulevard. Then, practicing a patience paid for in countless quarters at the Frogger table, we waited for the traffic to quiet enough on Dixon to allow us to skooch across the short bridge over Jamison Creek so we could hug the right side of Lebanon before ducking into its calm side streets. From there, it was just one single traffic light across Morgantown and a handful of stop signs before sneaking up behind the Uniontown Shopping Center and our pilgrimage’s DUAL destinations.

We locked our bikes together outside the Station Arcade and opened its door to let the glorious 8-bit symphony of all those beepy soundtracks wash over us. Without a hint of hyperbole, it was the 11-year-old, early-80’s equivalent of the Pearly Gate’s trumpets.

Pulled our report cards from our back pockets and presented them to the owner for inspection. He was a tall, black t-shirt wearing middle-aged mustachioed man with a receding hairline and a fat jangly ring dangling from his back pocket that held the keys to The Kingdom. As far as we were concerned, he was also The Most Powerful Man In The Universe.

Get this: for every single A on our report card, he rewarded us with a token. Doing the math, four nine weeks + a final grade = 5 possible tokens per class. So, a conscientious, black-and-gold-with-Mag-Wheels-Huffy-riding-straight-A-student could fill both front pockets of his (proly) Ocean Pacific shorts with 40 or so tokens.

To this day, I’m not sure I’ve come across a more powerful illustration of the importance of hitting the books than the sweet jingle of two pocketfulls of Station Arcade tokens.

Far from amateurs on the arcade circuit, we could more than make those tokens stretch across an entire afternoon. Galaga and Dig Dug were among my drugs of choice. I’d camp out at one until I wearied of it, lining up quarters on the bottom left of the screen to secure my spot for the next ½ hour or more. In my 11-year-old-prime, leveling up was as much memorization as hand-eye coordination.

After a few hours carving our initials across more than a few leaderboards, we pressed pause on our assaults and made the short walk across the alley (location, location, location) to the day’s other main destination: Pizza Town.

Owned by an Italian husband and wife who spoke broken English and exquisite pie, the humble establishment was little more than a counter, a handful of non-descript tables and a wise-old pizza oven that breathed piping hot crusty truth by the slice.

New York-style. Generous triangles served on tiny paper plates that made the pizza seem bigger and more appetizing. They made the pizza in advance, then added the toppings fresh before the husband slid the slices into that magic oven on The Big Wooden Paddle with a whoosh followed by the reverberating smack of the oven door closing behind.

I was and remain such a sucker for the human mastery of actions performed in daily repetition. (Washington peeps …  tell me there’s a more mesmerizing sequence than the lunch guy at Shorty’s dropping toppings in perfect measure onto the hot dogs lining the length of his forearm).

As an 11-year-old, I remember marveling at how the owner didn’t need a timer to know the precise moment to pull the pizza so the cheese was bubbly perfect, never burnt. And how he wielded his paddle like a ninja — sliding it one-armed under the pizza to rescue it from the oven and then, in the same motion, yanking it from under the crust to leave a single triangle perfectly squared on its tiny paper plate. Evidently, the owner knew from memorization and hand-eye coordination, too.

I can recall my exact order that day: two slices with pepperoni and the anchovies my parents would never let me get; large Coke served in an eponymous paper cup (the kind that always made the Coke taste better) with the tiny, chewable, kind of ice-machine ice chunks. Paid for with allowance money pulled from my back pocket, since both fronts were still token-stuffed.

While decades have fogged my recollection of the precise flavor profile of that exquisite pie, I can tell you with 100% certainty exactly what it tasted like to my 11-year-old self: freedom.

Achieved only via riding our bikes across town. Earning an afternoon’s worth of tokens. Paid for from money pulled from my own pocket. With toppings of my own choosing.

The experience is as vivid in my memory as it is incongruous with the present moment … Peter and Emma’s last day of 10th and 6th grades, respectively.

When I shared the above recollection with my wife Karry, she couldn’t believe our parents would ever allow us to do such a thing. I could’ve explained it a million different ways, but I just told her that we feared our parents exponentially more than any evil that might have befallen us on a cross-town bike ride to the Shopping Center.

I’m not sure we were any safer in those days. We just didn’t have as many digital media sources scaring us into believing we were in any appreciable danger.

Ignorance? Perhaps.

Ignorance as bliss? I’ll order it off the menu every day.

I don’t spend much time wishing my kids could have experienced my childhood (really I don’t).

But, if I could give them just a taste … I’m pretty sure I’d offer up a slice of Last-Day-of-Sixth-Grade-Biking-to-The Station Arcade-With-Your-Best-Friends-From-the-Neighborhood-To–Spend-a-Report-Card-Earned-Afternoon-Topped-Off-With-Paid-From-My-Pocket-Pizza-Town-Pizza.

To summer vacation.

And hoping the present generation carves their initials on its leaderboard as indelibly as their parents did.

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