06 June 2006

Keep your eyes on the road...

An augmented entry from my journal, July 27, 1982
(original journal text in Helvetica font)

Preface note: in 1982, the legal drinking age was 18. (This is not to say that my partying career began in 1982, but it does place this piece in some context.)

I worked as per ever Friday (oh, didn't mean to leave out Thursday 'cause I worked then too), 3 pm - 9 pm.

Summer of 1982. Freshman year of college beckoned, in piney, frozen New England. In the run-up, I was cashiering in a Queens, NY supermarket that made the United Nations look plain-vanilla. And forget about diplomacy—these shoppers were pissed off, almost as a rule. I'd grown up in this neighborhood, yet my Manhattan schooling had completely insulated me from its emotional volatility. I frequently got into multilingual arguments that had no chance of resolution, as neither party understood the epithets being hurled. One lady repeatedly jabbed me in the breastbone with a bony finger when I wouldn't allow her to buy nine jars of mayonnaise. She just didn't grasp the "limit three" comment in that week's circular. I was out of my depth, daily.

Rushed home in my usual state of exhaustion and then hurriedly got ready—for what, I didn't know: Sue and Chris had both neglected to call me. But I did know to expect them at 9:30.

Sue and Chris formed the core of my social life that summer: high school friend and new boyfriend, respectively. On that Friday, my working mom had not seen me all day, and I arrived home in a state of post-job agita like a snarling dad ready to blow off steam. So Mom got a half-hour of my unpleasant company while I shoveled in some Lean Cuisine entree that had been extruded from a snipped baggie onto my plate.

Chris came and we blubbered something about Pub 74 [a local hangout] to Mom, though I knew we REALLY had talked about seeing Sue's bungalow in Rockaway. Mom said to be home at 3, which we promised. HAH!

My stepfather had left for good that spring, and his absurdly strict rules had evaporated along with his wardrobe--jingling hangers dangled in his closet. For example, one night that wild summer, I failed to come home at all after promising to be home by 2. When I tiptoed into the apartment at 7:00 am, Mom sat up in bed (where she could see right into the front hallway) and intoned, "You're grounded." I laughed immediately, the selfsame "HAH!" that I'd inscribed in my journal, above.

Sue as much as asked where my pajamas were and I quickly realized "the crew" intended to sleep at the bungalow.

(You'd think I might've gotten laid out of this, but no dice. The Catholic kids I knew were way too freaked out by potential pregnancy to even attempt it.) The car I climbed into was a dull blue Opel. Its horn meeped like the Road Runner, and its owner, Eddie, was perpetually nursing a bottle of Bud as he drove. His (small-b) bud Barry rode shotgun, as always. Sue was in back with us. So we were transporting five teenagers in a car that might hold four, if two were skinny. The floor was totally obliterated by a tableau of empty brown bottles that rolled and clinked in tandem whenever the Opel came to a stop. My legs were draped over Chris' the whole way, a slight space saver. 

The supply of Budweisers in that car was boundless. Eddie never ran out, and the beers were always sweaty and just cold enough.

At 10:20 or so Eddie's wonderful car stalled dead on the Cross Bay Parkway in the middle of nowhere—nothing was within reasonable walking distance.

We milled around the Opel on a sultry New York night, each of us working a beer as we tried to figure out what next. It was hard to believe that Queens could contain such a deserted stretch within its borders--but then, I was learning a lot about my home borough this summer. You could hear crickets this far out. Jets crisscrossed overhead, into and out of Kennedy Airport. A few cars zoomed past us. Given that our only flares were hoisted glass bottles, who blames them for not stopping.

After an hour or so of frustrating waiting, a police car pushed us into Broad Channel.

I was too buzzed to observe how the police linked their car up to the Opel. They curtly told us all to get into the car, and once seated, they began nudging the vehicle forward. Eddie had been instructed to put it in neutral, and he clowned with the wheel at the 5 mph speed. Giggles and snickers overtook us, and then we heard the voice of God: "This is not a laughing matter." Wait, God had a bullhorn? No, that was the cop behind us, issuing the only warning we got for this escapade. Try not laughing with a beer buzz when someone orders you not to laugh, over a crackling bullhorn.

The cops abandoned us to our fate in front of a neighborhood bar.

Seriously. They shoved the car along just till we reached a semblance of civilization, and then they roared away. It really was a century ago, wasn't it? or is it just that there were far bigger crimes than ours to detect and prevent, so the police had no patience for the likes of us?

I was drowsing out in the back seat on Chris' lap—we were all drinking beers throughout this crisis, by the by--and Chris and Barry were joking around while Sue and Eddie tried to find us some means of getting—somewhere. We eventually met a guy named Joey in the bar, and he jump-started the car.

Quite wisely, in fact, the cops had left us in front of a bar that was in full drunken swing. Our own inebriation seemed tame against this wood-paneled, smoke-filled, pool-playing landscape. We crept through the crowd, parting sideways through people this way and that, and finally found a savior, the afore-mentioned Joey. Eddie probably slipped him a ten or something, and he assisted us gladly.

What happened next did not make it into my journal, surprisingly. Once the Opel was functional again, it remained for us to cross a long bridge into Rockaway. Fresh beers in hand, we tootled along with music blasting, vigor renewed--and as the road arched up onto the bridge, Eddie suddenly waggled his hands in the air. "Woooooooooo!" he yowled, the universal teenage sound effect for "I'm doing something really stupid that has a 50-50 chance of ending badly." My friends picked up the mood and someone sang out hoarsely, "Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel!!" Eddie waved his arms higher, loving the Doors comparison. I remember rolling my eyes in the backseat, invisible in the darkness. Great, I thought ruefully, and then holy SHIT the road is about to CURVE—

Eddie noticed the bend ahead just in time, scrambled his hands back into place, and we swerved in the correct direction, almost magically. Chris muttered something darkly, and I rested my head on his shoulder because I knew he knew.

At about 12:45 or so we limped into Rockaway. Teresa [Sue's younger sister], who was waiting for us at the bungalow, was furious that we hadn't found a way to let her know our plight. We realized she wasn't in our crazed mood; the five of us grabbed Buds and went to a payphone to call our respective parents.

The preceding paragraph serves as a vivid reminder of what life was like before cell phones. If I remember correctly, the bungalow didn't have a working phone either, which makes Teresa's furor even more comical. How we were supposed to inform her? Carrier pigeon?

Mom, awakened from an undoubtedly sound sleep, was bitchy, bothered and bewildered when I called. I tried to impress upon her that this was a real story, not just a plan to ensure my staying in Rockaway, and at 1:00 am I really had no way to get home! She waxed snide and I hung up furious, and determined to have a good time with the rest of the crazy night.

Poor Mom. What else can I say? After four high school years of mostly toeing the line, I was finally rebelling openly. I was 18 years old; I was gainfully employed; I was tasting freedom (which tasted remarkably like Budweiser, most of the time). Mom was rendered powerless for the first time, and undoubtedly she felt disgusted with me. However, one bizarre factoid: she adored Chris. So even though he was my constant partner-in-crime all that summer, she forgave me every time because he'd been along. I suspect she believed that I dragged him haplessly into these disasters.

We went on the beach, then, from about 2 till 4. I spent most of that time with Chris, in the dark beauty of the beach at night. I won't even try to describe the intensity, the blackness of the water, or the sleepy, starry sky, or the yielding, damp sand...or the "tacky" lifeguard's chair. It was the ultimate romantic experience and I really didn't ever want it to end.

Yeah, no sex, but I'll tell you what: it was just as ecstatic. Especially from the top of the lifeguard's chair, the night hemming us in like a safe vacuum; wind and waves the only sound we could hear other than our voices. On this night, the reality of my departure for college was completely absent. We were breathing entirely different air, you could say. Focused on the here and now, with no concept of later. I mean, leaving for college...that was a month away. I wish I could bend time like that nowadays. Perhaps the beer helped.

We went back to the bungalow and tried to set up sleeping arrangements in a miniature room with three beds and a chair to work with. I was wet from the beach and afraid I'd never wake up if I slept, so I went to sit on the porch awhile.

Adult self to Nessa 1982: WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?? You spend two hours locked to this guy, blissfully, and when you finally get him back to a place with a warm bed, you decide to stay awake alone, instead?! Sheesh, no wonder you went to college a virgin.

I got locked out,

Further evidence of my teenage genius...

and rather than wake everyone up, I shivered and watched the really slow dawn breaking (though a poetic experience, it was boring as hell). I was all cramped into a rocking chair.

So maybe I needed this separate time. Maybe I hadn't blocked out reality as thoroughly as I thought. I certainly remember those moments with astonishing clarity, all this time later. A star glimmered—from Queens, that's as much as you usually get, one star. I watched it, pondered it, wondered when it would fade. I noted the sky's transit from ink-black to curiously greyer-black, then the onset of morning blue. There was a faint blush of pink around the rim, nothing majestic. The star persisted longer than I thought it would.

At 6:15 I dropped off--blacked out is more like it, awaking with a start at 6:50.

The mother in me now forces me to say: Yes, I fell asleep on a street in Queens. Well, I was on the porch...I guess that was a little sheltered. But I was outdoors, yes.

I finally woke everyone up, grabbed a bed and warmed up for a half-hour under three blankets,


had grape jelly and bread with butter sandwiches with Kool-Aid for breakfast,

[shudder] The bungalow was obviously not stocked for a teenage onslaught.

and then Sue, Teresa, Chris and I took a freezing air-conditioned bus back home, whilst Eddie and Barry administered first aid to the "fucking car".

From that night on, the Opel was always addressed as "fucking car". Like it was an unruly pet. I was relieved not to have to get back into that vehicle, but the bus was really, really cold. Combined with the shakiness I was feeling from lack of sleep, the ride home was unpleasant to the extreme. I might have had a light jacket, if that. I leaned against Chris, and each heave and bump of the road jolted me.

And now, friends, here is the punchline:

Somehow I worked 11:30 am-6 pm Saturday.

Ah, youth!! No hangovers, no repercussions, and no bounds. In a wonderfully circular way, this blog entry has brought me to the brink of dawn, and I'm shaking my exhausted head at the thought of my raring-to-go self. And basking in the vividness of memories that I burned into my consciousness, knowing full well I would want to summon them again, later.

Nessa, circa 1982, courtesy of my yearbook:

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