Friday, November 17, 2006

Racing to the Big Apple (Chapter 8)

The difference between a drunk and an alcoholic is that a drunk doesn’t have to attend all those meetings.
     — Arthur Lewis


One night when I was around 12, I was up and watching movies with Eddie after my mother had gone to work. We’d watched one of our all-time favorites, an obscure British comedy called “A Stitch in Time.” It starred Norman Wisdom, who when I was older a British friend told me was a popular lowbrow physical comedian, a sort of Jerry Lewis or Charlie Chaplin-type. In the movie he played a bumbling guy working in a hospital and after messing up over and over again at the end of the film says a line that cracked us up every time we heard it. “I know I’ve made one or two mistakes.” It’s funny because he didn’t make one or two, but more like thousands of mistakes. It was its very understatement that made it funny. It was a nice shared moment we had with that movie, and many others.

But on this particular evening Eddie had been home all evening, quietly drinking, although he was in a rare good mood. We were having a good time but after the movie ended, there was nothing else on and neither of us seemed interested in the night ending. And having become something of a night owl, I wasn’t tired yet. I don’t now recall the circumstances that led to the big decision, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Of course, that times was one in the morning.

So we hopped in the car and headed for New York City, a two and a half hour drive away. At that moment, Eddie’s car was a big Cadillac convertible and it was summer, so we had the top down. It was a dry, hot night and the air rushing by was a welcome relief. I had never been to New York City and the idea of driving there in the middle of the night was exciting to a twelve-year old.

The first part of the trip was familiar, through Berks County heading northeast. Then it opened into unfamiliar territory as we neared the Delaware River at Easton where we crossed over into Jersey. I drank it all in, the lights at night seemed magical. Eddie was racing the car because he wanted to get there by four, when the bars closed. So when we hit the New Jersey turnpike he gunned the car up to a 100 miles per hour. We were literally barreling down the road with the car bouncing on the hills, scraping the macadam and shooting sparks up from under the Caddy. If it had been any other driver, I might have been tempted to be scared, but Eddie was a better driver drunk than most people were sober. It was uncanny, but he really was a good driver. Anything to do with cars and Eddie really excelled at it.

As we hit New York, I was still up and taking it all in when we drove through Times Square. If Eddie was going to a specific bar, he never let on. He parked the car and we went to a undistinguished bar in Times Square and Eddie ordered a Rheingold beer and a Coke for me. I remember the brand because it was the first time I can recall seeing the brand, yet it sounded familiar all the same. This would have been the early Seventies, and by 1976 Rheingold had shuttered its doors like so many regional brands during that decade. Eddie downed his beer and ordered another. He sat on the bar stool and I stayed near the door, looking at the window in wonder at the Big Apple, hardly believing that only a few short hours ago I’d been in my pajamas on our sofa.

After Eddie drained his second beer, we left the bar and walked around a little bit before we came upon an arcade. Eddie got a roll of quarters, handed me some, and we played pinball and other cool arcade games for about an hour. I had never seen so many pinball machines in one place in my life. It was amazing. First there were the neon lights flashing in Times Square. Then inside this cavernous arcade the bright flashing lights of the vending machines plus all the sounds of the games was almost surreal. It was almost five in the morning before our quarters ran out and it was time to head home.

I was still pretty amped up when we walked back to the car. So was Eddie. He kept the convertible’s top up because it had finally cooled off as we cruised across one of the bridges on our way back to Pennsylvania. The windows were still down, though, and Eddie had the music cranked up, presumably to stay awake. It’s a trick I still use to this day when I’m driving tired. It seemed to work on Eddie but I crashed hard and don’t remember much of the trip home. I knew it was a close call as to whether or not we’d actually make it back before my mother got home from work. Neither of us seemed to want that to happen, as we got closer to home Eddie woke me up so we could get our story straight, just in case.

It was light when I opened my eyes just outside of Reading on the north side. It would have been coming up on seven a.m. My mother got home right about 7:30 so Eddie was gunning the engine and stayed on the highway in the hopes of making up some time. He generally preferred side streets and driving through town but time had suddenly almost run out and we needed to hurry. I really thought we had no chance of making it but Eddie remained optimistic.

When finally reached Shillington, it was almost too late and our hearts sank as we saw my mother’s car already parked on the street outside of our house as Eddie’s Caddy sped down State Street. “Damn,” we thought. “Too late, we didn’t make it after all.” But then we saw something unexpected that immediately lifted our spirits and brought us right back in the game. All was not lost, after all. We saw the figure our my mother in her white nurse’s uniform as the screen door closed behind her going into the house next door, calling our neighbors, the Jeffries. Verna and my mother had become friends over the years so it was not unusual in and of itself that she was visiting her. But that she was doing so at exactly the same moment we needed just a few minutes of extra time seemed positively uncannily lucky, but Eddie just laughed. I think some part of him just expected something like this and that his luck would indeed hold. He was surprisingly lucky in many ways. His life may have had myriad problems, but he was a very good gambler and rarely lost at games of chance. This, I think, led him to be more reckless than most people because he actually expected to win. And here was more proof.

We circled the block, parking the car in the back alley. I raced into the house once we confirmed that Verna and my Mom were not in the Jeffries kitchen where they could see us coming in from the garage. I ran upstairs and threw off my clothes, jumping into bed as I finished buttoning up the shirt to my pajamas. Eddie likewise undressed quickly and hopped into the shower to give the impression he’d just woken up. I’m sure the shower probably was just the thing he needed after driving all night. After a few minutes — that frankly seemed like hours — I heard the back screen door below my room slam shut and then my mother’s footsteps could be heard coming up the staircase. I suppressed a laugh and she stuck her head in the bathroom to say good morning to Eddie, before coming in to wake me up for school, which was what she typically did.

I felt sure she’d see through our deception but she didn’t. She treated me like it was any other morning, and she hurried me out of bed to get dressed for school. School started at 7:55, meaning I had only about ten minutes window to dress and get out the door for the fifteen-minute walk to my elementary school. I never ate breakfast from an early age, I think because my other was simply too tired to cook after working an eight-hour shift at the hospital. At first, she’d put out cereal and I’d sometimes have a bowl, but as I got older and was staying up later, I simply preferred sleeping in as long as humanly possible and she eventually gave up on breakfast. I still rarely eat breakfast.

Sometimes on a Sunday after church when I was a little older, she’d cook up a breakfast feast of eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, oatmeal and kinds of wonderful things we almost never ate. Those were always the best Sundays. This was after I wasn’t staying as long as Bushies on the weekends once Junior High started and I had mandatory catechism classes for Sunday School and had to go to church every single Sunday for a few years before being confirmed. I’d come through the door to the smell of bacon and syrup and know the day would probably be a good day. The polka show would be playing on the radio. My mother loved polkas and later I played clarinet in a couple of polka bands. I still have a fondness for them. And the strongest association when I hear certain ones brings me back to my mother’s lavish Sunday breakfasts. She’d make hash browns, too, and hand-squeezed orange juice. Even Eddie would pitch in on the pancakes. He liked flipping them in the air. It was one of the few times I could pretend we were a real family, and on those days I could almost convince myself.

The day after Eddie and I drove to the Big Apple, I walked around school in a bit of a tired stupor. I told my friends about my trip to NYC, but only a few of them even believed me. It was years before I told my mother. It wasn’t actually until after I’d graduated from high school. As far as I know, Eddie never told her either, because she seemed genuinely surprised when I finally did tell her about it. In that sense, as a shared secret it did seem to make our relationship just a bit better. Eddie learned that I could keep a secret and perhaps most importantly, I could keep one from my mother. He must of sensed our growing distance because over the years he shared many other things with me he clearly did not want my mother to know and which I never did reveal to her, even when he was at his most vile. I don’t know if it was simply the fear I felt and the knowledge that what would likely happen to me if I did tell her the things I knew or if his charms had actually worked so that I felt I should betray a trust. That feels strange to say out loud, but I had so few male role models that I think I longed for any semblance of male bonding, and in the absence of any healthy relationships, I gravitated to the only thing I could find. Whatever else Eddie was — and that covers quite a lot — he was that man’s man from an earlier time, deeply misogynistic, but he had very close men friends with whom he was always candid, honest and loyal. I saw that time and time again at his garage. Old friends, down on their luck, would invariably visit from time to time in need of some kind of help and he almost always did would he could. Some he gave money, some he gave booze, some he even gave work, even when he couldn’t really afford an employee. It was oddly endearing to see he actually did have a caring, softer side. To just know it existed gave me pause. In some ways it was bewildering that he could be so horrid to his wife and her son, and yet be so kind to these vagabonds.

And that was the enigma of his personality that I never really cracked, try as I might. I always felt that if I could just figure out what made Eddie tick, perhaps he would stop hurting us. I don’t know if I ever gave up hoping that might one day happen. It never did, of course, but there were these little events such as our trip to New York and the shared secret between us that did lead to greater insights about him. Rheingold beer to this day reminds me of New York and that trip we took. In a way it marked a new phase of my life that was a little bit more independent as I fought to find my own way in the world.

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