As I gazed upon the pool table located within the spacious rooftop sky retreat, I was taken aback by my childhood. Thinking back to a time when going to bars and pool halls with my Father was a constant. Watching my Dad win game after game while I reveled in my cheeseburger and fries. Going over every title on the jukebox. The many nights when he’d leave the bar with me in one hand and a fist full of cash in the other. Often leaving with a fist full of cash from his night of sharking. Much like the poker games and betting halls, I became familiar with a young, wide-eyed shorty. There was always a game, and always players lined up to get a taste.
While some have found it shocking that a kid not old enough to see over the bar was exposed to an adult world. I look back on those days fondly. Intended or not, they provided education as to what I wanted to be and what I certainly didn’t want to be. Though I was taught to keep a tight lip at the time. Over the decades that have passed, much of what we experienced has become conversation and reason for laughter at family get-togethers. Over the years, I’ve learned that the perfect childhood, often detailed in movies and sitcoms, is a rare beast. Though I can admit to being one of mankind’s worst pool players and has rarely ever placed a bet or even played the lottery. I can’t help but think of and admire my Dad for his skill with the pool cue.
The other night I had a dream involving a very close childhood friend who was both a victim of child abuse throughout his youth and murdered before becoming an adult, regardless of the dream involving us partaking in a crime. Considering the thirty plus nightmares that had me revisiting his blood-soaked body or the blackened eyes or bruised back, this was the brightest and overtly positive dream I’ve had regarding my best friend. A gift of sorts, rewarding me for finding closure after more than thirty years.
Even as a kid, I often felt helpless and afraid to say or do anything to improve the situation. Being aware of and even witnessing some of the beatings or the following results were terrifying to me. I can only imagine what it might have been for my friend. Choosing between who was more abusive, the oversized nonfunctional alcoholic father, and his quick fisted bartender mom is hard enough. The two of them inflicted enough physical and emotional damage to last two lifetimes. While everyone on the block and my parents were aware of the abuse. Perhaps due to the times or their fears of what might happen if they got involved. Not one of us picked up the phone or visited the local precinct to file a report. The thought of being a rat or pushing into a foster home both played a part. However, in the end, the fear of possibly making things worse formed the most significant cloud over our wanting to protect him.
Considering it took me close to twenty-five years to put his murder and the mental scars of his abuse to appreciate what a special and unique friendship we shared. To get over the nightmares and thoughts that focused solely on the darkness. It feels rewarding to look back at all the good times we shared and the many adventures we embarked on.
Glen loved baseball and, more specifically, the Yankees, for which he knew the history of just about every player wearing pinstripes. As pre-teens, we shared a love for comic books, baseball, the original star wars saga, and slasher films. There were countless sleepovers where we’d avoid sleeping to get a jump start on the next day’s adventure. We did everything in our power to see every horror flick that was released during that time, whether it meant finding a way to break into the theatres’ back door or convincing an adult to pose as our parents or guardian. It seems as if at least ninety minutes of each Saturday dedicated itself to catching a flick. These days I can’t help but think those slasher films were an escape from his own nightmarish life.
I’m not sure, and I don’t remember when or how we met. Though living just a few houses apart most likely initiated our first meeting, my first memories involve being curious about why some neighborhood kids attended pre-school. To think we were already exploring an environment outside of our front yards and parents’ protective eyes is somewhat of a head-scratcher. For sanity’s sake, I’ll say the times were very different.
Glen’s thirst for adventure and nose for trouble led us on countless adventures. Some of which, I find it hard to believe we managed to survive or, at the very least, evade the police and a possible stay in juvenile detention. Whether it be trespassing, shoplifting, vandalism, arson, or worse, Glen had a particular taste for trouble that only seemed to grow over time. Perhaps being the smarter or at least, more analytical of the two. I often served as the moral compass that kept us from getting in too much trouble or, to an extent, getting killed. Funny how in looking back. I never looked too far into the future. Whether a life of crime, prison, or following his parents as both alcoholics and abusers. And though we spoke about juvenile hall as sort of a badge of honor. I’m grateful to add; it never came to that.
Regardless of our differences and perhaps due to our similarities, we were inseparable. There were a few fistfights over the years, but no bloodied nose or black eyes kept us apart for more than a few days. From the age of four to thirteen and beyond that, we were brothers, even taking a blood oath when we were eleven.
For better or worse, his father’s attempt at sobriety took them to Las Vegas when we were thirteen. His father, a long time nonfunctional alcoholic, was finally looking to turn his and Glen’s life around. Returning to his gift for cooking, he took a job as a line cook in Vegas. During the two years apart, we kept in touch through letters and occasional phone calls, conversations about girls, music, and, most importantly, girls. A couple of months before my sixteen birthday, he wrote a letter announcing his plan to take a bus back east. A lengthy bus trip from Las Vegas to New York Cities port authority was undoubtedly a better idea than hitchhiking. Sure, what could go wrong?
Upon his arrival, it was easy to see that the sense of brotherhood we shared was still intact. Though we had grown in different directions, our bond seemed more vital than ever. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, there was talk about my mother adopting him. However, Glen never lived by a set of rules or curfews. His not coming home for days and even weeks proved to be too much for us to handle. While I often wished he would adapt and accept the boundaries of a new life. Part of me fully understood why he couldn’t.
Weeks later, his bloated, beaten, and bloodied body found blocks from where the bus dropped him off to start a new life. There amongst the trash on the side alley of a midtown late-night food joint. Though I never really followed the case, investigated what he got into or why he ended up. Both I and those who knew him all have their theories.
However, with years behind me and somewhat of a sense of closure, I wanted to look back on the best friend I ever had and let him know how much his friendship still means to me. Through closure and a sense of acceptance, I’ve finally opened the doors to remembering all the good times we shared, the adventures we embarked on, and the many discoveries we made along the way.
Recently, my father and I have engaged in numerous conversations regarding drinking and his alcohol consumption over the years. This morning’s call to him had no intention other than to tell him how proud I was of the man he’s become. As of late, I’ve become somewhat reluctant to write about him within a specified period, as not to paint him as a one-dimensional character. You see, the stories and the time frame in which I’ve chosen to write, come from a time, though not forgotten, happened long, long ago. If I can take away anything from both our conversations and the many experiences we’ve shared over the years is that A; We’re lucky he’s alive, and B; Grateful for the changes he made.
Though we often clash on things such as politics, religion, music, and even sports, they all feel pretty small when I think of how far we’ve come in creating an environment of mutual respect and admiration. So, in short, I just wanted to write a few words for a man I always looked up to, but could never dream of coming even close to being.
Okay, maybe I’m finally losing what’s left of my mind. Due to the loss of a family member and a constant reminder that my neurological issues are continuing to fuck with my balance. I’ve been doing my best to stay busy and creative. For the most part, I’ve splitting my free time tending to my music column United By James and reconnecting with my love of photography. Along with purchasing some Neutral Density Filters and a wireless remote, I’ve been revisiting and getting reacquainted with my Canon 5D’s many functions and even planned a few photo related outings for memorial day weekend. As for the picture on the right. I took it after hearing about a family members passing. It was shot 5:43 pm on a tripod at 1.0 seconds and f/14. The ISO was 250. It was taken to convey loss and perhaps the sense of loneliness we tend to feel when losing someone we love.
Though we lived just blocks away within the same neighborhood, I never did see or hear much from my grandma Sherry. Though it might seem strange to some, it never really phased me or made me feel incomplete in any way. My Dad’s mom and my grandmother were also close by, and the loving attention she gave me was more than anyone would ever need. What I did learn about my mother’s side of the family, most of whom I never met, came in small samplings over the years. Grandma Sherry, who I would get to know a little better in my mid-twenties, was an aspiring musician who recorded and toured with her country act the Melody Maids in the late thirties until the early forties. She also had a radio show in Milwaukee during that time. Though still alive at the ripe old age of ninety-five. She left me with what would best connect us, Her 1939 C-Series Martin Guitar, case, harmonica, and tuner. What amazed most was the pristine condition with which it was kept. In the years I possessed it, I was able to photograph it along with some of the models I worked with as well as have a few musician friends take it for a test drive. Special thanks to my friend Tory for teaching me how to keep it hydrated. Eventually, as planned, I sold the guitar to someone who would appreciate it as both a piece of work and a historical artifact.
If you’re lucky, life will provide you with many colorful and complex characters. One’s who, despite their flaws, weaknesses, and complexities, provide you with the warmth of their love, stories, and experiences. For me, my childhood would provide me with countless adventures, characters, and stories to share for years to come. Thanks to a less than storybook youth and a knack for remembering even the most minute details. I’ve been given a portal to many of the people and exchanges I had throughout those very impressionable years.
Of all the colorful characters I met, regarded as friends and became part of my extended family. Some of the brightest loomed just around the corner at the local watering hole. It’s where I went from ordering my steak and burgers well done to medium-rare. Where I learned that calamari was just a better way of saying breaded squid, it’s where I met one of the bar’s regulars Roger Dodger.
Roger had dirty blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and when I come to think about it, looked a lot like a younger William Devane. I’m not sure of exactly when we met, but he soon became a familiar face and someone I looked forward to seeing when my dad’s girlfriend opened the bar, or I was returning from my nearby little league game. At the time, I loved coming into the bar for a cheeseburger and fries or a plate of calamari. I’d always sit next to Roger and talk about baseball while stuffing my face with whatever was on the menu.
At the time, I was crazy about baseball and had gone from being a back alley slugger to my first year in little league. With Shea Stadium standing over the junkyards and fly by night auto repair yards just a short distance away, I quickly latched on to Flushing’s lovable losers The Mets. Though Roger and I both loved the game, Roger was a dye in the wool Dodger fan who attended his share of Brooklyn Dodgers games as a kid. He’d joyfully reference players with names like Newcombe, Pee Wee, and Duke. Players, who though retired, were considered legends of their time. The mere mention of such icons brought much glee and color to our conversations; Essential ingredients to ad to my young and still very impressionable psyche.
One day while enjoying a spirited discussion about the game. I decided to take a detour by asking about what he did for a living. “I have a truck route where I deliver beverages to local bars and restaurants.” Looking back, it made sense. While I never did see a vehicle, uniform, or hand truck. Considering the timing of many of our encounters, I didn’t see any reason to question.
Fast forward a few years, and while visiting my dad, we happened to watch the movie ‘Goodfellas.’ While it instantly became my favorite movie of all time. I saw many similarities between the characters and the people I grew up around. It opened the door to conversations we had never had before. It wasn’t long before Roger came up. I remember referring to Roger, commenting that he was one of the kindest people I had met during that period. My Father followed with a big exhale of laughter. “Yeah, he loved you, which might be the only reason he never murdered me.” Strangely enough, it turns out that Roger was also a hit-man who fulfilled contracts for both the Irish and Italian mobs. My dad, who was always a great storyteller, was kind enough to detail his methods and some of the places he’d dispose of the bodies. When all was said and done, he had made quite a name for himself before meeting his demise. And though the thought of unknowingly trusting a contract killer with your time might seem fucked up. It was all a part of what I always considered a pretty normal childhood. And though Roger might have raised some hell in his time. I’ll always look back on my days with him, our conversations, and how he always treated me as positive. I was lucky to learn early in life that things aren’t necessarily black & white. Maybe, just maybe, it goes to show that every man, woman, and child has a purpose and a place in this crazy, sometimes upside-down world.
John was good, very talented soul. A tall red-headed gentleman with a gifted voice that could carry you to the moon and quick sense of humor and that would send even the most cynical asshole into uncontrollable tears of laughter. Like many good souls. John had his demons. One’s he would keep to himself throughout his life. His way of dealing or not dealing with these unresolved issues was drinking. On the occasions where he did hit the bottle. He would often drink to excess and to the point of no return. In the end, it was his addiction and love for guns that would lead to his suicide.
While on many occasions John’s drinking and gun play would end with a few gunshots and random bullet holes in his family’s home. His wife always seemed to perfectly time her departures and calls to the local police. During what would turn out to be John’s last implosion. Instead of firing some shots into the home’s interior. He pointed the gun at his head. Threatening, “You don’t think I’ll do it.” “You don’t think I could.” Pleading for him to put the gun down while gripping their young, screaming child. She reached out to him as he pulled the trigger.
Hearing the news, even years later in a conversation about my Father’s history of drinking sent shock waves, though never intended on my Father’s part through me that would echo for years to come. Less than a year later, I would be hospitalized for panic attacks and anxiety related issues. John was more than a friend to my Father, Mother and myself. He was part of our extended family. I still have the pictures from me and my Dad’s first visit. The pictures of him and Stallone on the movie set. As well as visual memories of the Queens garden apartment he shared with his soon to be wife. Though recalling his suicide was painful. Thinking of him brought back memories, many good ones, I had either buried or forgotten. Little adventures and excursions to the local parks and fields with our dogs. His great big smile, barreling laugh and infectious sense of humor. My fondest memories of John will always go back to when I was a very young child and both he and my Dad had city jobs as bus drivers with Tri-Borough Coach. As a kid growing up in an imperfect world with it’s own problems and imperfections. He was somewhat of a super hero to me. Someone I loved and looked up to. He never revealed that dark side to me. Which, for better or worse. May have been a reason why I took the news of his suicide and underlying issues so hard. News that brought on some pretty intense panic and anxiety attacks. Looking back , I’ve learned from experience, to remember people for all the good they did and the many positive impressions they left on you. Focusing on one negative incident or action will never impact you in a positive way. Though it’s taken me years to fully realize that. I’m happy to recall so many of the good things John and many others added to my life. Acceptance and forgiveness go a long way when it comes to finding peace of mind and closure.
After my Father wrecked or sold ever car he owned. He began using his Mother Veronica’s decade old, beat up car to get from A to B and not much further. The trunk was so dirty that your hands would instantly turn black once you unlocked it. The seats were torn and tattered and the floorboards were often covered with debris and weeks worth of empty fast food containers. Regardless, we were able to fit my Father’s 6’4 frame, our dog, myself and up to eight kids piled up in the backseat. The Hawkins brothers Keith, Petey and M.J., Glen, Tommy and whoever else would risk the trip on that day. (Aside from those named. The cast would always change depending on the day and who was willing to brave the back seat.
Once there, we would often disperse into two separate tribes or war parties as my Dad would set up camp and build a fire to roast hot dogs, marsh mellows or whatever supplies we manged to gather before our voyage. In the few hours we’d stay we’d play war, burn tires and grab whatever we could from the abandoned cars and the nearby railroad tracks. In truth, there was no Tarzan or nearby water to be found. For the life of me, I may never learn how or why it came to be called “Tarzan Island.” But as I would come to learn at the time and many years later. It was what everybody called it. Year later, I’m talking decades. I returned to Sunnyside Queens to seek out the area. The train yard itself was still there, but it had been closed off and closely patrolled. Whoever said, “You can’t go back.” was probably speaking from countless heartbreaking attempts.
As I’ve returned to many of my original stomping grounds, I find that most things are best left to memory and the mystique many things and places held when we were young impressionable and somewhat fearless. Things definitely felt a lot bigger back then. Something that helped us grow up and mature. And while there’s no diminishing the risks we took and the element of danger we were always drawn to. I feel very lucky to have taken chances and not letting those fears get the best of me. In the end, I’m happy to be able to recall so many adventures from younger years. Like my wife always says. “Maybe one day you’ll write that book.”
I’m lucky enough to have a Mom and a Dad who are both healthy and alive. And while I seldom give my Mother a break about her considerably bad taste in music. Both have played a major part in influencing and supporting my never ending obsession for so long. While I’ve learned to avoid conversations about religion, politics or any sociological topics. A good bull session about music is a great way to pass the time while helping to avoid any bloodletting during any visit or phone call. Though his love of the blues and New Orleans jazz can never be questioned. A conversation regarding Tom Waits, Frank Zappa or the Night Tripper, Dr. John (Gris-Gris) can go on for days. Some of my earliest memories revolve around sitting among my parents combined record collections. Strange how it remains one of the very few memories of my parents being together. Sitting within a pile of my parents record collection. No more than four, maybe five years old. Completely freaked out by the cover art of records like Leon Russell’s “Stop All That Jazz” Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels” or Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”. Album covers that told stories I might not be quite ready to read. One’s that might have me checking the closet or under the bed that night. A few years later, as my ear for music began to form. My Dad would sit me down and play Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton’s Blues Breakers, and for me, the most painful torture a nine year old can suffer, Frank Zappa’s 79′ release “Joe’s Garage.” Years later though, many of the records and artists my parents introduced me to reside in my own record collection. Artists such as Frank Zappa, Hendrix and especially Tom Waits get countless play on the turntable and all my other modes of music enjoyment. I pick up just about every Leon Russell and Frank Zappa I see and being drawn to record based on it’s cover art remains crucial to many of my crate digging adventures. Still, I can recall sitting in my pajamas among those piles of records, How each cover either told a story or inspired me to create one,
It began with the best intentions. The days and weeks since my Neurology follow up had me feeling angry, lost and somewhat hopeless. I had mistakenly opened up to my doctor, therapist and wife that I had briefly thought of suicide, or commented on how I wished the original death notice I received when I was twelve would have ended me instead of prolonging my suffering through related issues. Falling down and not having the control you once had on your life it not easy to get used to. With that said and fully expressed, I had felt a positive shift in recent days that mad me feel as if I had turned a corner. I had all but stopped worrying about what I couldn’t do any more and started thinking about what I could. My intention was to share with my wife that the fear and negativity were behind me. That, whatever it took, I was going to be open minded and more constructive.
As I began to speak to her, I made a point to use the word “Positive”. This exchange was going to let her know that I was leaving behind the negativity and look at all the positives and embrace whatever changes might come. Before I even knew what was happening. Before she even had a chance to reply. She buried her head in my chest and began crying uncontrollably. I did my best to make her laugh and smile “Hey, there’s nothing to cry about. This is all about looking at things with a positive mindset.” “Come on, there’s no crying,” “I’m not crying.” She sniffled, as she reached for the nearby box of tissues. All I wanted to do was tell her how lucky I was to have two parents that loved me and a wife who, despite all my obvious faults, adored me. Still, she kept her head buried in my chest. Unconvincingly trying to conceal the fact that she had become overwhelmed with tears. “I have to pee.” She announced as she quickly made her way to the bathroom. Concerned for what she was feeling, I followed. More than anything, I wanted to comfort her. To let her know that it was okay to cry. Even with the door closed. I could hear her blowing her nose and washing the tears from her eyes. I entered and hugged her. Assuring her that, maybe for the first time since that hospital visit. That everything was going to be okay. That she could cry all she wanted to as long as she didn’t feel the need to hide it from me. “I was trying to tell you that I turned a corner and how I was feeling more positive about things.” “Why are you crying?” Still red in the face and filled with tears. She said something I never thought I’d ever hear. “Because it’s not your fault.” “You didn’t do anything wrong.” I have to say, it was humbling.
Throughout our entire marriage and even when we were dating. She was always the strong one. The rock, the ying to my yang, or whatever you call it. Being on the other side of the coin. The one to say “Don’t worry. No matter what happens, everything is going to be alright.” It was hard, but I feel it was long overdue. Whatever may come, I hope I can always be there for her when she needs it. Considering how much she’s done for me in reinforcing my health and assuring my happiness. I’ve got my work cut out for me.