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It took me that whole summer to really get the beginning of “Wish You Were” down. If that had been the sum total of what I accomplished those ripe musty days of 1977 I could have put June through August in the plus column.
But it wasn’t all that happened, not by a long shot.
Under the 44 caliber smoke presence of crazy chubby slack-jawed Berkowitz, the Yankees, the heat wave, black-out-and the release of ELP’s “Works”, I was let into one of the biggest secrets I had ever, would ever encounter, a secret that changed my life, though I didn’t know how much until I opened my email today. Revelations thirty years on come hard, let me tell you, but maybe it’s finally time to tell of my adventures of that summer. Maybe I should at least get it all down so I might be able to read the incredible events when my memory dulls and I start to doubt it even happened.
I haven’t pick up the guitar in years and I have definitely since forgotten how to play the beginning of “Wish You Were Here”.
Clifton New Jersey sits some twenty miles from Manhattan New York, but the bucolic suburban neighborhood I grew up in, namely Allwood, Clifton NJ might as well be ten thousand miles away from NYC. Especially back in the waning days of the decade, we were as insulated on our tree-tunneled street and Tudor houses as any spoiled middle-class white kids could be. It wasn’t Ozzy and Harriet, but it was pretty damn close.
My friends and I hung-out at the park at the end of my street every night of that summer. This time-honored ritual had begun for me in earnest two years before, when I was fourteen but in ‘77 I was an overripe, slightly chubby, but still ardently horny sixteen year-old living for my nights at the park. With the radio and girls becoming increasingly more important in my life, not to mention playing guitar from the songs I heard on the radio for the girls that were becoming increasingly more important in my life, we were a close knit group of about eight or so friends Yes, drugs were coming into vogue for us all, but other then some joints and a concoction of Black Berry Brandy mixed with Coke (don’t ask, I never partook) we were a pretty tame bunch. Cutting through backyards or standing under the second story window of our friend Everett’s dad’s Chinese restaurant while Everett chucked us down steamy egg rolls was about the most larceny we ever got into.
I was the tamest of the lot, well liked, cute enough (I wasn’t yet aware what a good pair of dimples and a quick wit could get you with the opposite sex), a typical first-born Italian male in an adoring family, a smarter then average (or maybe just a little bit better read) with a perchant for Star Trek and the progressive rock of the time. I usually stood around while mischief ensued, or listened to it bragged about later and never ever touched the illegal substances offered…though I did manage to imbibe a few of those egg-rolls.
I was the last kid you’d think would be involved in what I got involved in.
Bob ‘Pops’ Handy was eighteen, listened to Jackson Browne and Foghat on his car’s 8-track deck and was about the coolest guy any one of us had ever encountered. For some reason he took a shine to little ol’ me, I think it was because my older cousin Kim was into Jackson Browne and I had some cursory knowledge of the songs I heard blaring out of Bob’s Tarino’s “Blowpunk”. I was thrilled beyond belief to be spiked in such a cool guy’s radar and it wasn’t too long until Bob, Bob’s girlfriend Nancy (a babe-and-a-half, if truth be told) and my best friend Tom Kenny and I were making our way into NYC, the Big Bad Big Apple, well after we had all hung at the park for that night.
Ok, I guess sneaking out of my house that late was probably the worse thing I did, but mom and dad were asleep and we weren’t doing much other then riding around at the wee hours through the dazzling city streets, stopping at diners on the way home and just basically hanging out in Bob’s car. In fact, Tom’s dad even knew we were out and seeing as Tom was with me, a year older and always so much more mature then anybody else, I rationalized if my folks ever did find out they’d be cool with it all (hey, Mr. K. was, right?!)
In those first two weeks I’d managed to get out about three times, and it was at the beginning of the second week-this would be right after the blistering hot 4th of July we all suffered through and only a pubes’ from the blackout of ‘77-when I met Nancy’s half cousin Chula. He was a reed of a guy, twenty (though I couldn’t and would never be sure of his age until I read what I did today) Puerto Rican, with a full quick laugh, big brown eyes and the knottiest forearm muscles I had ever seen. When we first came upon him in ‘The Village’ that night I honestly thought he was going to try and sell us drugs, but when he got in, gave Nancy a kiss and shook hands with Bob…then me and Tom, I was transfixed.
When I saw what he had in the bag he was carrying I fell in love.
Ok, not love. I am a straight guy, have always been and always will be. I’m not damning anybody their thing, shit, you don’t get to my ripe old age without mellowing about people’s personal preferences (or at least I’ve mellowed) but I just have always been and will always be into girls. But I loved Chula on first sight. The same was true with how I felt about Tom, how’d I’d come to feel about a whole host of men in my life, filling the role of my father who was present only in body in my house (a long story for another time, believe me).
You could just smell the wickedness coming off Chula. He was a feral animal kind-of-a-guy, not dangerous per say but slick, slightly sad but defiantly up to no good in every fiber of his being. Unlike anyone I knew then (but unfortunately like most people I know now) Nancy’s fiery-eyed cousin had an agenda. He had something he wanted to do, something he needed to say and a way to execute same and it was connected to what I spied in that bag that night, something I knew Tom, Bob even Nancy probably hadn’t even noticed, or if they did, it didn’t mean anything to them.
It meant a lot to me, though I didn’t know why.
“Getting’ up, my little brother,” Chula whispered to me as he writhed in the backseat to my left and caught me looking down into his bag longer then I probably should have.
I couldn’t think of much to say with the heat coming off the guy, “Too Late For The Sky” blasting and the full swash of city lights whizzing by us then.
“You a paintin’ man back in the wilds of Jersey?” he quipped, Nancy turned to look over her seat at her cousin and Tom shot another query at Bob about the car’s suped-up magnificent engine.
“I…uh…I don’t…” I said, or something just as articulate still looking down at the array of spray paint cans littered in Chula’s duffle.
“You def got the look homes,” the lanky young man next to me said.
I looked up at Nancy who was smiling over at us and Bob drove Chula someplace to the mid twenties. I kept quiet the rest of the ride until we got back to Jersey and fries with gravy at the dinner.
“It’s not that I don’t like it,” I was protesting to Arty and Barb the next night. We sat on the ‘adult’ swings, waiting for the rest of the gang, while my radio sat under us, blaring “Hotel California” for what had to be the tenth time that day.
“You just don’t like The Eagles,” Arty replied.
True, they weren’t my favorite band, but I didn’t dislike the quintet from California. Shit, if the radio had played the new Emerson Lake and Palmer as much as they were playing “Hotel California” or “Barracuda” that summer I would have been just as bored with it (well, maybe).
Just as I was about to reply, Nancy, of all people-Bob’s blonde goddess Nancy in those amazingly tight Jordash jeans-walked through the park gate and came right across the chipped macadam to …me!
Luckily by then a few more of my friends had sauntered in and were joining us all at the swings so Nancy walking up, while not unnoticed, didn’t garner much more then a few side-long glances. She kind of nodded her head indicating she wanted to get me alone and I followed, more transfixed by her ass then ever as she walked in front of me.
I had never seen Nancy up here without Bob. The two of them weren’t really from this part of town and though she was only seventeen she was all ‘woman’ to me, and all that much more intimidating. But she had always been nice to me, actually Nancy was nice to everybody, not a bitch with her obvious great looks and popularity (and popular long-haired boyfriend with the hot car) so I wasn’t as much worried as intrigued why she had shown up obviously looking for me.
“Chula really thought you were cool,” she said as we made our way around the merry-go-round.
To say I was thrilled would be an understatement.
“He’s cool,” I offered, not knowing what else to say except to return the compliment.
“You know what all that was about in the car last night, the spray-cans?”
“I didn’t think so, but Chula said you did,” Nancy said and laughed.
I could tell by the way she flashed her tiny blue eyes, tilted her head that she wasn’t laughing at me, so I laughed with her and joined her as she sat straddled one of the merry-go-round benches.
“My cousin thinks everybody is in on it,” she continued. “Like if he meets one person he thinks might have a little bit of an interest, somebody who sees his bag and doesn’t start asking stupid questions that that person’s got to be ‘getting’ up’, like he says.”
“Yeah, he mentioned that last night, I…”
“Look, it’s no big mystery, ok?” she said and lean in so close I could smell her (and feel her ample right boob brush my forearm).
“Chula and a couple of guys he knows are graffiti artists; you know spray painting trains and all.”
The facts that I didn’t know then (and have just read about today) was that 3 and half million riders rode NYC subways back then. If you could tag (that’s what they call it when you manage to spray paint your stenciled moniker-a throw-up or piece-on the side of a subway car, overpass, even the front grate of a store) then your personal graffiti could be seen by thousands. In the case of ‘getting-up’ on the side of subway train car, your mark had the potential to be seen by thousands more people then even a well-attended museum got through its doors daily. If an artist could manage it, to tag in all five boroughs, then he was deemed “all city”, which was a huge honor indeed. These gangs of guys, some very well-known, near celebrities really, would steal into train yards and work all night…what I would come to do myself!
“Chula thinks he can be all city this summer,” Nancy finished, as I am sure I sat there mind and mouth agape, “and he wanted to know if you maybe wanted to help.”
I have no idea how my chin didn’t hit the wooden bench we were sitting on.
Of course I wanted to hang with Chula and tag, get up, paint. Jesus Christ, I was as thrilled as I was scared, but what I knew about defacing a subway train with spray paint you could have fit into a thimble, then as now. What I didn’t know at the time-what only you could with hindsight-was that this night guerilla paint warfare was at its peak from ‘75 through to that crazy summer of heat, Nancy’s perfect ass and my first ever attempt to stick it to society in the guise of art.
“When?” was all I asked as Nancy smiled, reached over and actually kissed my cheek.
Tom was grounded. That’s all any of us knew or cared about that Tuesday night as we huddled in front of his house. That was the way you rolled back then, one popular guy was grounded you brought the hang to him. Tom’s mom, the warden of his recent house incarceration, came out to the front porch at about 8:30 or so and shouted:
“There’s a black-out in the city.”
Mrs. K. allowed her son-which kinda allowed the rest of us-to walk to the bottom of our street and spy the dark NYC skyline, which, on any other normal night, we’d be able to see illuminated from the end of my dead end street. On the way back up the block to continue our vigil with Tom on his front curb, Bob and Nancy drove up. I was on the passenger side of the group of ten who surrounded Bob’s car as he drove slowly with us walking back up the street. Nancy angled her ample self out the window to give me a smile.
“Chula was all set to have us come in,” she said.
As we kept pace with Bob (or he kept pace with us) more of my neighbors came out of their houses to do exactly what my group of friends and I just had. It was a busy tree-lined suburban street during any summer night, just more so with the spreading news of the black-out.
“He was gonna have you go help him be all city tonight,” she added.
“Yeah?” I asked, ever the conversationalist when face-to-face with a pretty girl.
“Next week for sure, okay? After all this sheet…” (Nancy had this over-affected way of swearing, which at the time I thought endearing, now I’m not so sure about) “….dies down, you know with black-out and stuff.”
Man was I ever the charmer with my comebacks.
Bob parked at the curb in front of Tom’s house, effectively canceling Mrs. K’s plan to punish Tom by truncating his social life for two weeks; by week’s end his two-week grounding flittered away to just that one week. I was glad ‘cause I knew I’d need Tom in that car with Nancy, Bob and I when we all went in to the city next time and I helped Chula.
It was July 18th, a Monday night when we went in. Bob dropped me off on a street in the village that has since lost its name to me (but I know I have been by since hundred’s of times). It was about eleven thirty, Tom had been in the back seat with me (told you that grounding hadn’t stuck) and as he got out of the car to let me out he whispered:
“You sure you’re cool with this? You don’t have to go.”
“I am definitely cool with this,” I said only to him. “Don’t ask me why but this is like something I have to do.”
“Carl, I have known you a long time,” he smirked back, “and I know never to get in the way of you wantin’ to do something, cause you won’t let it go.”
I hadn’t ever considered myself so determined, but I guess in a way he was right. I didn’t do a lot of stuff back then, (still don’t). I wasn’t into sports or drinking, I wasn’t even itching all that much for my license like everybody else. But I did have a passion for my friends and family and I was way into music, some would say I never shut up about how much I loved Pink Floyd’s new Animals, how I nearly cried seeing Emerson Lake and Palmer on Midnight Special or how serious I was about getting a band together in my parent’s basement and maybe figuring how best to sing “Baba O’Rielly”. So I guess like Tom reminding me right then, I was into some stuff pretty heavily, not just a lot of stuff.
I guess he, Nancy, Bob even, Chula definitely could see how important it was for me to go on this raid with Chula, no matter how foreign spray painting subway cars was to me or how scary the big bad apple seemed to a suburban momma’s boy. I guess maybe they all knew better then I how much this would all prove the particular rebellion I felt and needed. Funny, kids today this same age as I was then, communicating across cell phones, so seemingly hip with what they can download and how they make their way through the world, don’t strike me as this cool and insightful when it comes to one another or even themselves. A guy like Chula who only met me once, Nancy and Bob who certainly didn’t know me as well as Tom, they all seemed to just accept this as something I would take to.
I spun from them, came up on Chula and heard Nancy say something about picking me up at four in the morning. Four in the morning was the latest I had ever stayed out on these NYC runs and if I was ever going to push the possibility of discovery with my folks this would be the night… but it would all be worth it.
It was God awful hot that night, that’s the thing I would come to remember most. Chula and I ran-and a chubby kid like me never really ran-but we ran with fleet-footed speed, as if our heels never touched pavement. I met hundreds of people that night, or it felt like hundreds, all with that wild-eyed feral ache in their eyes like Chula, some white kids like me, other coca-skinned black guys with massive wiggling afros and an indiscriminate amount of guys of ethnicities I couldn’t have figured, like Chula. We started from the village and soon found ourselves someplace in Chelsea (did they even call it Chelsea then?) going down one platform up into another, flying way out on a train that seemed just for us to a yard I could never have gotten back to with even the best GPS unit (had they had them then) and as the night wore on all I could remember was how hot it was on the street, going through the garbage strewn yards and how hotter it got when we descended into the subways. I followed right on Chula’s heels as he took me to that one yard, the another, across all manner of space and time and we flew man, really flew. It’s all a wall of images to me now, colors and shouts, pats on the back, gulping Cokes, smiling stupid at Chula as he smiled back at me and told me to hold the stencil higher, the “azhhaa” of the spray cans, the stale smell of things I didn’t dare imagine in the stunted dead grass just outside the fences, the laugher-Christ the fucking laughter-madness, meeting then separating in clutches and shouts of abandon; youthful freedom like you wouldn’t even hear it in the youth of today. It was hot and crazy and hushed and hurried and fun and sad and desperate and real. That’s the thing really, it was real, it was the real-est night I had ever experienced in my cocoon of suburbia and by the time Chula somehow had me back at that corner in the village and Bob was rolling up with only Tom (I had hoped Nancy would be there to see how cool I was to have survived it all, but she had long since gone to bed Bob told me) I was light-headed and exhausted.
Did Chula make all city that night? I wish I could say he did, not that I would have ever read about in anywhere, but when I saw Nancy she confirmed what I already knew…we hadn’t managed it. There had been too many stops, to much laughter and radio playing, too much fun. I really couldn’t even get my mind around why he needed a slower then slow white kid to join the wind-footed guys Chula had running with him. I do know there was some disagreement among Chula’s crew, between being all city and simply keeping to one yard and working on what they called “burners”, entire whole-car pieces. Maybe Chula needed a nice calm malleable slave with him that night to do what he wanted to do, which seemed like paint, drink, smoke, and paint some more or I really shared a hunger with him. I really don’t know. I was smack dab in the middle of the melee so I went along, my skin as open and alive as my ears were that night. When the little guy left me on the street corner and we parted with a sweaty firm handshake I even sensed that was the last time I’d see him.
Until, of course, I was staring back at his picture in the obituary column this
The faces of my summer of 1977, the most important summer of my life, have either faded from my memory or, if I remember them, or even see them to this day (as I still do Tom) then they have morphed well beyond my dimmest flittering recall. If I think real hard, if I happen to pass one of the places I hung that summer (I own my parent’s house now and use it as a base of operations when I come north on business) I can almost, if I try real hard, taste what it felt like back then. It’s like a mental tip-of-the-tongue thing, right there teetering out of my reach and if I look on it out of the corner of my eye I can almost discern details; if I look straight on, the taste fades. I’m deliberately mixing metaphors here; that’s what memory’s like. It’s not linear, it’s not pretty, colors run, sometimes the mash potatoes do spill over onto the steak or a few peas skitter loose. The nights I ran into the city, those great arguments over which was better Hotel California or Frampton Comes Alive, wondering if I really would kiss Rhonda again, all those moments are running colors in my mind, varied and bright, but all as jumbled together as the spray cans I spied in Chula’s bag in the back of Pop’s simple car that night.
Chula’s obituary didn’t reveal much beyond that he had become a respected civic leader in the Bronx, a lawyer of note and a devoted dad to his two sons. He had died of a heart attack. I never would have seen the obituary had Tom not emailed it to me after getting it himself from his sister Kate, who was friends now with Nancy, of all people. Somehow in the ensuing years Kate had begun a friendship with this ‘older’ woman (Kate is four years younger then me) she had met at the gym, a woman who, when she found out Kate’s last name, inquired if she had a brother named Tom. When the girls got to talking, Kate mention me and how Tom and I were still buds (Kate and I had always had a thing for each other, so she liked to evoke my name as much as possible) and Nancy had made sure to get Tom’s email from Kate when Chula died, asking him to forward the item about Chula to me.
And so it goes.
For the first time in a very long time I picked up my dusty Ibanez acoustic guitar and began trying to piece together the furtive beginnings of a song that used to mean so much to me I lived and died by the challenge of learning how to play it. The effort means nothing really, or maybe it means a hell of a lot more then I care to admit. Maybe it means now that Chula is as really gone-as he had never really been all these years to me, but in remembering that wild-eyed guy, those running steamy nights in NYC, the chubby boy I was that oh-so-special summer I might finally realize. Or maybe “Wish You Were Here” and so many songs I might have forgotten to forget really formed me in a way that made me be that chubby boy running those steamy nights in NYC.
Now, what that damn opening chord again?