Friday, November 10, 2006

High School Blues (Chapter 15)

I feel sorry for those who don’t drink because when they get up in the morning that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.
     — Frank Sinatra


Once we were fully immersed into high school life, we had two mistresses, Genny — as in Genny Cream Ale — and whatever girl we could persuade to spend time with us. And that was difficult as a tenth grader. At Governor Mifflin high school, a sophomore was the lowest rung on the social ladder. Junior high ended with ninth grade and high school was tenth through twelfth. Other schools I knew were often ninth through twelfth, but not ours.

As a result, the girls in our class would have virtually nothing to do with us socially. They had their sights sets on juniors and seniors. So it was that for the most part, tenth grade was mostly about drinking, parties and the social order. Our revenge on this situation would begin the following year, when for the two remaining years of high school we would concentrate on the girls of the lower classes, ignoring those in our own class who had so cruelly abandoned us. It was a vicious circle with no end in sight.

So we resigned ourselves to another loveless year, and instead paid homage to the Goddess Genny. Genesee Cream Ale was hands down our favorite beer and the one we tried our hardest to come by. We weren’t particularly picky about our beer, but we knew what we liked. Genny was much smooth than the lagers our parents drank. When I drank it years later, I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss had been about but to the untrained palate of a fifteen-year old it was liquid gold.

The deal with my Mom, good as it was, turned out to be not as useful as I might have hoped. My mother had limits to the deal that she had not disclosed. I guess they were in the fine print. She was not interested in me having parties every weekend and was comfortable with only a few friends being there, and generally the ones she’d known for a few years were the only acceptable friends. So while that was fine on weeknights, on the weekends I was away from home. I did keep my end of the bargain and confined myself to drinking.

School actually started a few weeks early because I was in the marching band. Football season started almost immediately with the school year and like the team itself, the band had much to practice in order to be ready. Even though many of the people were the same, high school band seemed much different somehow. For one thing there were majorettes and flag girls, increasing the ratio of female to male considerably. Some of the older girls, themselves victims of the pecking order paid more attention to us sophomores and I made some good female friends that fall. Band was great for keeping me out of the house both before and after school, even more so than in previous years.

Friday nights there were football games and it was quite an ordeal getting the band to the games, whether home or away. Mifflin had no stadium of its own and we played our homes games across town at Albright College, on the western edge of Reading. I also volunteered in the uniform room to help hand out the band uniforms, yet another excuse I could use to be not home. Then we’d load up four full school buses and an equipment truck with our instruments and other gear. The logistics were like moving a small army. It was even worse when there was rain or snow. Then in addition to everything else, we all had to wear these thick, heavy rubberized poncho made by someone like Goodyear. They made us look like giant Jawas from Star Wars, but in maroon and gold, our school colors.

After the games, there was almost always at least one party at somebody’s house, and more often choices to make. Some parties we were simply not invited to, like senior football ones, fancy ones thrown by the cheerleaders or others hosted by snooty upper classmen. We just ignored those. We weren’t really that bothered by the cliques because for some reason band guys had enough clout to get into most normal parties, and that was fine by us. Eventually, we started throwing our own after game brouhahas, and we drew people from all swaths of school society. We built such a reputation for parties that band parties became the ones to go to, even members of the football team and other popular groups showed up for our keggers. We had them wherever someone’s parents were out of town, so it rotated quite a bit. There were band geeks in the modern mold, to be sure, but the majority of the band was made up of average kids, not necessarily the most popular kids in school but also not the sort of dweebs we would have gone out of our way to humiliate, either.

For myself, I ignored the cliques and had friends in every social strata. I just couldn’t be bothered to adhere to social convention. Nobody seemed to mind that much and freed me up to be wherever I wanted, which was simply not at home. I was quite singular in that pursuit. I’m sure my behavior perplexed people unfamiliar with my situation at home. I did care what other kids thought, of course, and peer pressure was just as important to me as anyone else. I tried not to get too caught up in it, and I may have succeeded more than other did, but that didn’t mean I was immune to it. So I didn’t go out of my way to tell people I lived with a stepfather who was an alcoholic psychopath, but I didn’t hide it either. And my closest friends all knew. Many of them had even witnessed bits of Eddie’s meltdowns or had at least been present during his more erratic behavior.

So most of my friends understood when I would inexplicably wig out myself, while the rest of the school shook their heads. I developed something of a reputation for odd behavior. It served me well at some times, but over time became a liability of sorts. In many ways I didn’t care that much what people thought of me. I had enough problems without worrying if I was making the right impression with people I didn’t really know very well. But, of course, I wasn’t really that different than most teenagers — I just had pressures that most did not have — so a part of me did care. And at that I was a miserable failure. I was prone to just go a little nuts sometimes and make a spectacle of myself. My friends understood for the most part and gave me a lot of latitude, but the rest of my class increasingly distanced themselves from me and it became harder and harder to maintain casual friendships. I grew closer to my friends and grew apart from everyone else.

I retreated more and more into drinking, all the more curious given that many of the problems I was trying to escape from had their origin in alcohol, too. But there was nothing logical or rational in a teenager trying to find his place in the world with a heavy weight hanging around his neck, keeping him down. That’s certainly how it felt. No matter how much I wanted to soar, I could not seem to get off the ground. Eddie would not let me. The three years left until I turned eighteen looming before me seemed like an eternity. The older I got, the faster I wanted to grow up, get out and move on. But time just seemed to slow to a crawl. I remember sitting in class during that year and watching the second hand sweep slowly around as the minutes ticked away.

So Genny became one of my best friends, and I became a drunk of sorts. My grades never suffered, however, and I managed to keep a B average without almost no effort whatsoever. I studied for tests in the moments in between classes, wrote papers in the class before they were due, and shocked many of my teachers by acing tests. I can’t remember ever doing homework at home, not once. If I couldn’t manage it on the fly, it simply didn’t get done. I squirreled away booze at school so I could have a drink over lunch. But I kept up all of my extracurricular activities, too. I was in every band there was, most of the choirs, and volunteered in the prop room for the stage crew.

I rarely had much difficulty getting beer, even before I could drive. I could usually manage to get some from home without it being missed. One trick I used was setting some aside whenever Eddie passed out a home. He was so prone to blackouts that he never remembered how much beer had been in the refrigerator. If there wasn’t any in my stash, several of Eddie’s drinking buddies would buy me beer. All I had to do was give them a little extra for some smokes or a bottle of something else, and they could be counted on to show up clandestinely around the back of the house in the back alley. Jim was my first choice on these runs, and he was available on short notice usually three out of four times I’d ask him, or at least out of the times I was able to reach him. There were a couple of other guys I knew who might help me, but they were less reliable than Jim.
But once I could drive, it became even easier. I turned sixteen in the spring of 1976, during our nation’s bicentennial. Being near Philadelphia, there was a particular emphasis on the celebrations throughout Pennsylvania. The first car I was allowed to use after I got my license — within days of my birthday — was a blue Ford van with windows on the sides. My mother sewed curtains for the windows. Naturally, they were red, white and blue. We put the old army cot Wilbur used to sleep on in the back of the van, in case I ever needed a bed. I think my mother thought it was so I didn’t have to come home when Eddie was doing his Hulk impression, but I was thinking about how to get lucky in the backseat. Now that I was sixteen, I was hoping to lose my virginity as soon as possible. I didn’t really see not having a steady girlfriend or any prospects as an impediment. I just figured I should be ready, just in case.

But that didn’t last very long. Eddie kept complaining about me having the car and began using it as a wedge to keep me in line. Instead of liberating me, the van was threatening to do just the opposite because Eddie was using it to exert greater control and restrict my movements. I’m not even sure why it became such an issue for him, because if I wasn’t using the van, it just sat idle. My mother had her own car and Eddie had his own, as well. And in addition to the van, there were at least two other cars he owned at the garage that at least worked. So it obviously was not about that. Eddie had never seemed quite comfortable with any signs that I was growing older, though I never did really figure out why that was.

The car issue eventually came to a head one night and I was forced to flee the house after a particularly bad fight where I thought I was about to get hit. I hightailed it out the back door and walked the half dozen blocks to my Aunt Helen’s house. She had remained one of the few sympathetic figures in my family, and we had remained kindred spirits. She continued to give me books to read and seemed to enjoy talking about them with me after I’d read them. I often slept at her house on occasions such as this one so much so that she was no longer surprised when I showed up unannounced at her door. She’d even given me a key to her house so I could slip in during the middle of the night if that became necessary. Though in truth it would have had to arrive quite late indeed to fun Aunt Helen in bed, because she was as much a night owl as I was and rarely went to bed before three or sometimes four in the morning.

The next morning, I explained to Aunt Helen about the latest fight that had taken place the night before. She seemed supportive and perturbed, as usual but that particular morning she went one better. She handed me the newspaper and opened it to the classified. “She if you can find a car for yourself. Look in this section.” She said, pointing to the list of cars under $750. Surprised and a little elated, I looked through the list, circling a few that looked interesting with a pen. I handed the paper back to Aunt Helen and she went in the other room and made some phone calls. The next thing I knew, Uncle Raymond was driving the three of us — my aunt never learned to drive — to look at one of the cars for sale, which was only a few blocks away. An hour later I was the proud owner of a midnight blue 1967 Chevy Camaro. It had cost my Aunt Helen $500 and me a promise to mow her lawn for every other week.

I could hardly believe my good fortunate. I was the first of my friends to have his own car. And it was a pretty cool car, too. It wasn’t pristine or perfect, but it was in decent shape and it wasn’t a Gremlin or a Pacer or some other god awful-looking thing. I would have preferred a stick shift, but I certainly wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I was thrilled. I could stop walking to school and drive instead. I could stay out as late as I wanted, just as I thought I’d be able to do with the family van. But now no one could tell me I had to have the car back at a certain hour, because the car was all mine. I felt freer than I had in a long time. A car definitely improved my prospects for enduring the next two and a half years. I just had to figure out how to tell my mother and Eddie.

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