Tuesday, August 10, 2010
The back lawn of Coindre Hall, Huntington, NY. This was a Gatsby-era mansion on Huntington Bay at the lip of Huntington Harbor that had become a school and other things over the years. All the freaks in town used to hang out on this lawn playing guitar, playing frisbee, drinking, smoking, etc. When I first heard "Sugar Mountain," I would have sworn that Neil wrote it about this place.
We all understand the pull that music holds on our memories. Smells, tastes, and other sensory stimuli, like the madeline cookie in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, can also elicit powerful memories, but music has the deepest affect, at least for me. This in part explains my weakness for nostalgia. Or perhaps the nostalgia vein that runs through me explains my attraction to music.
In addition to launching into direct and predictable reveries, certain songs bring me back to certain places. I don't just mean that in a general sense, as with New Order's "Age of Consent" reminding me of my high school days, my bedroom, and the store, Newbury Comics on Newbury Street in Boston. What I'm saying is that there are many songs which place me directly at some specific suburban street corner; or maybe next to some aluminum bleachers in a school yard; or a glimpse out of a backseat car window as my father drives. Some of those are easily traceable; maybe a first impression of this or that song occurred while being in or passing that specific location. These memories are usually kind of vague, but are often vivid enough to be a specific time of day, in a specific season, as the light falls a certain way.
But more perplexing are the songs I hear for the first time later in life which bring me back to one of those specific geographic spots from my past. I'm sure there is some neurological name for this phenomenon, as there is for people who cross up their senses, like synesthesia; seeing the taste of fish, or hearing blue, and so on.
There are at least two songs which bring me to a specific street corner in Huntington, New York, my old hometown on the north shore of Long Island. The corner is at the outer edge and corner of a public park, which forms the home plate and backstop area for a little league baseball diamond. This is the field on which I launched my first and only home run, in my last year in little league. By then I was stretching the eligibility age cut off. Field seen here at the end of the clip as I drove past it a couple of weeks ago. Not great cinematography, but a preserved relic.
The first song that places me at that corner any time I hear it is "Suite Judy Blue Eyes." The other is the Bobby Hebb classic hit, "Sunny.”
Bobby passed away this week. He had a great friend up in in Boston named Joe Vigilone, a fella I know a little. Here is a review of the song that I wrote years ago on allmusic.com It is this week’s CoTW. Scroll to end to avoid reading another memoir.
If Facebook is good for nothing else -- indeed, some, myself included, would argue that the bad is running neck-and-neck with the good -- it scratches the itch that sentimental people like me have, satisfying pangs of nostalgia and cravings to revisit the past, or at least people and places from our past.
As much as the Buddhist-curious ("Bu-curious?") part of me would like to think that the past is simply gone and that we are something like empty vessels who can move through time and space adapting endlessly, I am more a prisoner of those times and places than I would care to admit at times.
The chicken/egg examination of this particular aspect of my personality would have to include discussions of nature/nurture, my innate predispositions and emotionality, my upbringing, and so on. And primary in this examination shall always be the fact that I lived my whole life in an idyllic town until I had to move to a sleepy rural exurban hamlet in a different state at the truly vulnerable age of 16, during the summer between sophomore and junior years of high school. I have written about it enough. I mean, for chrissake, enough already! Moving? That's the biggest event? Or maybe not. Clearly it was one of the defining events, if not the most defining event of my life. For, all things followed. And most of them ending up being good. Massachusetts led to University of Massachusetts, which led to forming Buffalo Tom and meeting my future wife, which led, respectively, to producing pretty good music and better children. But the few years that bridged that move to those good things felt like a lifetime.
To leave during the beginning of summer, just the perfect season in Huntington (those hard core among you might recall the line, “your favorite time in your home town”), playing in my band, which was the love of my life, for my own farewell party, made the whole thing worthy of a suburban angstfest tragicomedy; John Cheever as directed by John Hughes.
To leave a place and relationships that you know like the back of your hand is difficult enough. To have to do so when you have not yet attained the coping tools offered by maturity is more difficult still. To leave someplace dynamic, someplace where you don't need a car to have mobility and freedom, a place that offers few excuses for ennui, and to arrive someplace that is boring in the best of times (Curt Schilling has chosen to settle there. Enough said), in the dead of summer, with no friends and no car... Well, I'm not comparing myself to the tragic adolescents of history; surely reading Anne Frank or even Anne Sexton could wake me from that notion. But it was not easy for an emotional weakling like me.
All of this leads me to tell you little about a sentimental journey I took about a week ago back to that Long Island of the mind.
Again, Facebook, if nothing else, was good for something. In this case, a bunch of 40-somethings reconnected and reminisced about the old town, neighborhoods, schools, shared cute and embarrassing old photos, etc. Many of these people lived there through high school, have family still there, or even still live there, or nearby, themselves. But there a few others like me who moved out fairly early and have not been back more than a few times since. It is this latter group of us who you would think tend toward the more mythological memories of the town. Might be true, but not to the degree you might expect.
So a bunch of the Facebookers with time on their hands got to talking trash about which particular elementary school was better. Now, this is a town that tied itself in knots with busing and redistricting in an attempt to correct some of the segregation that resulted over time. The town of Huntington is actually a large township of towns and villages ranging from the uber-wealthy coast on the north shore, through more modest middle-class areas in the center, to lower-middle class and poor areas once one crossed over to the train station for the Long Island Railroad -- literally the other side of the tracks. Moving more inward still, to central long island, there were other towns that were part of Huntington Township in government boundaries only; they were pretty much completely self-defined villages with separate school systems. The Times recently had an article which discussed a study that found Long Island towns (it is actually quite a large place, 188 miles long) the most racially segregated in the nation. This is not completely a surprise, but it is hard to segregate an all-white town like the one I moved to was.
I went to an old neighborhood school until second grade, when I was bused across town to Huntington Elementary in Huntington Station. Kids just a few houses away, on the same suburban street, went to a school in a completely different part of town. All of the elementary school students came together for only one grade, sixth, before being funneled back out to two separate junior highs and then merging again in one high school. I got lost a bit in this system and my parents worried about my scholarship, so they took me out of public school after 8th grade to go to yet another Catholic high a half an hour ride from our house.
So I had not seen some of these faces on the Facebook since junior high. But here they all were, 30 years later, talking trash about which school was the best, which led to which was the best in kickball, the classic American school adaptation of baseball, played with a red ball roughly the size of a soccer ball, but with way more bounce. This in turn led to a proposal to have a kickball tournament to prove who was and/or is now best. And a bunch of people -- people in their mid-40s, with kids, mortgages, jobs -- convened on Huntington High School fields in April when it was time to put up or shut up. It was thrown down. You might think I’m talking about 20 people. I am not; I am talking about hundreds of people.
I was so sorry to miss this spring event, you have no idea. While you can see the fact that I loved this town and these people from my past, you can not quite taste it, I understand. I had missed the 25th Huntington High reunion last summer as I was away on vacation. That tore me up. And I didn’t even attend Huntington High. I went for two years to a lame private high school before moving to Medfield to finish the final two years. But because of that, having no real traction at either high school, and the fact that these were people I grew up with, in some cases since preschool, that was the only reunion that appealed to me.
And then I missed an even better event in the spring kickball tourney. I could see all the photos online, the kickball games, all the bodies and faces which I needed to see tagged to recognize, kicking away with their old buddies and each other’s kids. And then, the pictures from the evening’s celebration at a pub in the downtown village, a pub that used to be a bar where I would stare in the window to see the bands playing when I was 13 and 14. Here were pictures of old friends who used to jam at that young age now jamming again, for the first time in 30 years in some cases.
Well, I was lucky that the event was spearheaded by go-getters who actually put their time and money where their mouths are, Rosie, Danny, Stu, and so many more who organized this thing. I was luck that everyone had so much fun and the event raised a bunch of dough for a scholarship in the name of a schoolmate who passed away at an all-too-young age, leaving behind a young family. Because of the success and the fact that everyone had a blast, and so many of us were not able to attend, it was quickly decided to hole another one in July. I cleared my schedule to make sure I would be there. My wife was all for it. She would stay home with the kids while I took this trip back to my old haunts.
And I was not the only one who had been so long away; Jeff, from Tennessee was jonesing to come up. He had been trying the patience of his lovely southern wife with tales of New York pizza, Long Island beaches, and all the other stuff I bore the shit out of my friends and family with.
And I had also been catching up with a guy I knew as child and teen, known him since kindergarten. Trevor lives up in the south shore suburbs of Boston. That blew my mind when I first heard it. Here was this guy I might have passed on the street and not known it, a guy I grew up with, came of age with, and ultimately lost touch with when I moved. He had been to the April event and said he wanted to go again in the summer. So he and I arranged to drive down together. Well, shit, we have to have lunch first at least!
So we met in Cambridge for a bite and to catch up. It was a trip. The guy looks great, but I remember him as 16 at oldest. Here was this man sitting at the table. But as soon as he spoke, the New York accent still twanging in there a bit, I could see the young Trevor in there -- the mannerisms, the gestures, the speech. It was a revelation.
A few weeks later, we drove down through Connecticut to catch the ferry from Bridgeport to New Haven and caught up on our families, and people we grew up with in Huntington. Where are they now?
When he was around 14, Trevor looked like sort of a cross between a young Mick Jagger and Brian Jones at his most angelic, not most tragic. If not quite on the same trajectory of tragedy of Jones, Trevor was also no angel. We both knew some kids who got in trouble, but Trevor was more acquainted with the night than I was.
Sitting at the bar on the ferry across the Long Island sound, he listed some of the suburban casualties. There was Bryce (names are being changed to avoid issues), whose father made a nice living for a guy who started as a clammer and lobsterman, lived in a big house in an upper-middle-class-reaching neighborhood that my parents also were able to move us into. It wasn't Huntington Bay, but it was knocking on the door.
"Bryce is still alive, I think," he told me. He and Gazz got into it bad in high school. In those days, Newsday (the then-Long Island paper I delivered) unions were famous for no-show jobs. Those guys were hooked up via "friends of the family." Well, anyway, there was tons of coke and that lead to heroin. Gazz died. Bryce's girlfriend died. His mom came across her body while Bryce was out puking in the bushes.
A handful off guys from that small neighborhood died -- OD, car crashes. Dennis was in the Towers on 9-11.
Trevor and I knew each other from pretty much kindergarten through 10th grade, though we really became buds in 5th-8th grades, what I guess you'd call middle school today. Back then it was junior high. His brother was four years older. When we were 14, he was of legal age to buy booze. He got us a keg for our first keg party in the carriage house behind their family's house in Huntington Village, the pretty sizable downtown center section of our town. None of us there will ever forget that day. And our specific memories apparently are remarkably the same, amazing given the years and the fact that we were trashed teenagers. For instance, we all seem to remember a certain girl passed out face down while "Wild Horses" played on the boom box next to her. Maybe it was just such a striking image for kids who had never seen such a thing, that it is imprinted on our collective consciousness, even 30 years later, immune to the sepia mythology that has tended to embellish the good times and diminish or make legendary the bad.
I discovered that my memory was not necessarily so faulty or singularly nostalgic as Trevor and I continued to compare notes as we drove off the ferry down 25A, the route that snakes along the north shore of Long Island. Later, after driving out of the circa-1975 motel in Centerport, we picked up another old friend and went down to Halesite, a little village on Huntington Harbor, for dinner with Danny, my best man and singer in my first adolescent band, who came down from Buffalo. On our way, we picked up another old friend. Katy has been in Manhattan for decades and her sister still lives in Huntington. Katy, Danny, and I have been in close contact for the past 30 years. Finally, after dinner, we stumbled on to an old reliable dive a few doors down.
The whole night was an exercise in power nostalgia. Walking into the parking lot, I was greeted with faces I haven't seen since 1982. Here they are 28 years later, aged, receding, maybe puffier, maybe graying. But I could see the kids I had known immediately in almost each case. Sometimes it took some slight body language in motion to see them. Some of them I had gotten to know from Facebook. But it was overwhelming. There was Jeff, John, Charlie, Shaun, Brendan, and so on. All these guys I had not seen since I was maybe 17 on a visit back. I told Charlie I had just learned he lives in the Boston area.
“Yeah, Newton,” he said.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I teach at Lexington High School.”
This is where my kids will be going to school when they hit that age. I was flabbergasted. He had no idea. Again, a guy who lives in my mind in the image of when we took the bus together or when we played as preschoolers while our moms visited each other.
Anyway, if anyone is still reading this, I commend and thank you, but I won’t bore you with all the details of the weekend. Short version goes like this: we drank and sang songs until five in the morning at out cheap motel rooms; played hungover kickball in 105-degree heat on three or four hours of sleep; caught up with too many old childhood friends to count (for me they were childhood friends. For most of them, they were high school and even college friends -- I missed out on those intervening years); as if I was not spent enough, was dragged across town to a “keg softball” game as part of a bachelor party; took video clips and pics of all my old spots along the way.
I expected to be let down. After not having visited in almost 10 years, and only once before that 10 years prior, I thought it could not possibly stand up to my memory of the place. I was wrong.
More heartening still was to see how everyone turned out. This was certainly a great event for a charity. But beyond that, everyone I talked with, some of whom were only acquaintances and schoolmates or little league teammates, were all warm-hearted. The kids I remembered being hilarious still made me laugh the most. Personalities seem to essentially be formed by about 99% by the time people are 16. Thats my unscientific conclusion.
Passing third base, I would high five a kid who played third base in tee ball when we were five. Out in the outfield, I chatted with the first girl I ever asked out. Over at second base was Jamie, the first drummer I ever played with. He came up with his kids from Georgia.
That night, we all convened at the Nag’s Head pub for a dadrock jam on classic rock and new wave numbers. Jamie sat in for a song on drums for a song, the first time he had played since high school. Jeff even got up to sing “Can’t You See with Us.” Of course, the Stones were represented heavily.
I met Katy when we were 14 and she sang the Merry Clayton part on “Gimme Shelter” at a party that got insanely wild, spanning junior high through college-age kids until it was crashed by a bunch of dudes in the biker gang, the Pagans. That was an interesting party to have our parents pick us up from.
Katy joined us on stage again at the Nag’s Head. She sang “Wild Horses.”