On The Street Where You Live

Charlie Brown kisses the Little Red-Haired Girl.
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On The Street Where You Live

I have often walked down this street before;

But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.

All at once am I, several stories high.

Knowing I’m on the street where you live.

Are there lilac trees in the heart of town?

Can you hear a lark in any other part of town?

Does enchantment pour out of ev’ry door?

No, it’s just on the street where you live!

And oh! The towering feeling

Just to know somehow you are near.

The overpowering feeling

That any second you may suddenly appear!

People stop and stare. They don’t bother me.

For there’s no where else on earth that I would rather be.

Let the time go by, I won’t care if I

Can be here on the street where you live.

Lerner and Lowe, My Fair Lady

Autumn leaves.  Cool, misty evenings under ethereal Friday-night lights. It is a consuming, timeless soap opera whose episodes may never be forgotten by its actors. Adolescence is a four-season sport and rose-colored romance is in full October bloom.  It begins in September with new faces and the slow, steady march toward maturity.  A sudden annual collision with the opposite sex brings conflicting signals, fleeting hookups, unrequited crushes and heart wrenching breakups.  It is a time of football stand cheers and under the bleachers tears. A three-symbol text message can be a weapon of mass destruction or a winning lottery ticket.

The first crush has been finally given a clinical designation by the pharmaceutical industry – HATO1 (Heart Ache, Total Obsession number 1). HATO1 has been confirmed by the Center for Disease Control to be more virulent and permanently damaging than its highly communicable cousin H1N1.  The delirium alone can linger longer and its effects may be felt over an entire lifetime.

Yet, the age of the Internet and cellular phones has spawned a virtual form of romance that has reduced the art of puppy love.  We have faded from adolescent courtship – – the mood music of a thousand notes passed in class, and a proxy courtship where vicarious messengers and best friends confirmed the terms of your first steady relationship.  Romance is now a massive roving gang of polygamous boys and girls speaking in text, sound bites and cyber encounters that are mistaken for substantive interactions.  Kids believe they are “going out” with someone simply based upon how many hours they have logged speaking on Ichat.  It is now possible to date and actually never see your beloved’s lower torso.

Some time ago, one of my children came into dinner and declared to the family that he was now going out with “Girlfriend 1”.  We asked him when this all came about.

“We were Ichatting,” he said cockily.

We spent the next half hour teasing him and theorizing on where his new relationship might go.  He might actually have to see her – in person.  A half an hour later, he came back into the kitchen and declared they had broken up.  “What happened,” I asked.  “Things got too complicated. We’re both ok with it. ” I laughed and asked him which of them was getting the dog.  He gave me his classic “ you are an odd man” leer and left the room.

From the premature age of nine, I was dazzled with girls.  Having watched way too many old movies, I was consumed with the idea of having a larger than life, epic romance.  But as is often the cruel fate of nature and the Gods, I was not proportioned correctly, wore hand me down clothes that did not fit (they were too tight) and had the head the size of a pumpkin. I was Charlie Brown perpetually courting the “little red-haired girl.” Like the animated anti-hero, my heart was also oversized.  My inability to attract the opposite sex – except for an equally corpulent buck toothed girl named Martha –did not deter me from playing Cyrano to many of my more swarthy friends – advising them in the nuances of romance.

I offered tips on how to avoid such relationship killers as pregnant telephone pauses (always make notes of everything you want to say). I counseled on how to avoid being labeled a poor kisser (I had never kissed anyone myself but endorsed the use of Spearmint Binaca).  I picked out a cheap jeweler where one could purchase a talisman of affection (always have your St Christopher medallion and chain ready to give her as a token of going steady). I shared verbatim my brother’s strategy of feigned indifference – -always walk by her class looking straight ahead.  It makes you look like you can take her or leave her, and always observe the 48-hour rule of not calling back after a successful call. Having watched two savvy older brothers navigate the treacherous straits of romance, I dreamed of becoming the greatest mariner d’ amour yet.  Now, if only I had a boat and could find some water.

Each back to school September I would fall in love with the new girl who just moved to town.  Perhaps, this new recruit would see beyond my XXL hat size, cement calves and famine immune figure. Perhaps, I was a born too late. In Medieval times, girls would have chased me as only a scion of a family fortune would be prosperous enough to possess his own love handles.  The thin were not in.

In days before they clinically defined my actions as “stalking ” and my crush as an”obsession”, I would lather up with my father’s Hai Karate or English Lavender cologne and mount my trusty ten speed to ride up and down my love’s street, hoping to see and be seen. In retrospect, I am quite certain that inside their new home, between boxes and echoing chaos, an amused mother was peering out of a drape-less window, ” Holly, who is that boy outside that keeps riding his bike in front of our house? ” A magnificent 10-year-old brunette girl with waist length ponytails – a Cindy Crawford in waiting, would glance outside. “Oh, that’s some boy in my class. He must live nearby.”

An irritated father enters the rug-less living room lugging a box of books and glances out the window. ” Who’s the fat kid.”? His wife punches him in the ribs and he winces.

” It’s cute, Tim.  Holly already has an admirer.”

That entire exchange was pretty much the kiss of death.  Once parents acknowledged you favorably, you were toast. I was the super polite kid that the moms always thought was “cute” but the girls clearly saw as “endorsed” which removed any forbidden fruit allure.  Girls liked the rogues and boys who were so distracted by sports and activities that they did not even notice they were involved with the girl. Years ago when my daughter declared she was ” going out” with a boy.  I asked, “Does he know it?”

I was persistent and would find ways to be in the neighborhood. I just wanted to catch a glimpse of her long brown hair, see her smile and hear her funny laugh. At school she would not look at me and was always protected by a gauntlet of giggling, acerbic girls. It was agony – this crush – a thick lump of aching coal glowing in my chest day and night. Invariably, l would abandon every one of my own rules and frighten the poor girl into the arms of a more indifferent boy.

Later in high school, nature and genetics would thankfully stretch me and re-contour me into a baseball and basketball player.  Yet, in a strange way, I never wanted to forget that chubby lothario on his bike – doing figure eight turns, hoping to catch a glimpse of his girl.  You can never really forget it for somehow it’s memory makes you feel more alive.

It’s a Thursday night and I am now picking up my son from football.  He suggests I drive home along an unfamiliar route. He is mute – a virtual CIA agent – offering very little information on why I need to take this circuitous route home. “ Just do it, dad,” he hisses.  I comply knowing something is up.  “Ok, slow down,,” he demands absentmindedly from the passenger seat.  We cruise silently by a large house – windows illuminated and people moving across a dining room clearing dishes.  He takes out his cell phone and text messages with the speed of a court stenographer.“

It’s dark and wet.  Mustard and sienna stained leaves litter the edges of the rural road. The boy looks up and glances one more time toward the friendly colonial lit up like a jack-o-lantern. For a moment, I spy the silhouette of a young girl at the window.

“Ok, let’s go.”

“ What was that all about? “ I ask.

“ Nothin’.  Let’s get home.”

I suddenly recall that ancient ache and realize this must be the street where she lives.

Back To School

Back to The School

Students at Washington High School at class, t...
Students at Washington High School at class, training for specific contributions to the war effort, Los Angeles, Calif. (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

It’s the week after school has started and I am already having those yips like a war veteran as I watch my soldiers leave each morning at 6:45am with field backpacks, educational essentials and new clothes to be sent into the ” bush ” of high school.  It is a time of great anticipation and angst.  We are on a slow conveyor belt to an empty nest with one in college and two in high school.  I confess to being one of those parents who live each kid’s experience vicariously and constantly relive my own roller coaster ride of hormones and missteps on the pot holed path to adulthood.

The term “Homeroom”…still sends chills down my spine.  I was wedged for twelve years between Tammy T and Brad W.  Tammy was gorgeous and to my alphabetical delight, was seated in front of me.   Judging from her Facebook photo, she is still inspiring men’s imaginations.  Brad was my periodic wingman in mischief and malfeasance.  He fell off my radar for a while and is now either a successful creative artist or possibly making license plates somewhere in a minimum security facility in the high deserts of California.  We will have to wait for our 35th reunion to find out.

The first few days of school were always an exhilarating rush of change – – new and old faces, strange text books the size of War and Peace, anxiety that an upper classman like a horse, might sense your angst and ride you off into a corner.  Schools have gotten better about bullying and overt acts of harassment that were viewed as critical rites of passage in the 60s and 70s. However, a stare can still be withering and a turned back can be considered the worst of omens portending a horrible year.  A lifetime is a day.

I think of my own teachers and the odd chemistry they created that helped move me through adolescence.  Miss S was my firestarter and inspiration to read, write and give a voice to the my own seemingly inconsequential existance.  To Miss S, each of us was a Forrest Gump innocently flying through life’s seminal events and playing a supporting but vital role in the mythology of our generation.

There was the Vietnam Medic turned history and PE teacher whose unconventional courses, extreme behavior and daily boxes of Uncle Joe’s donuts had him repeatedly voted teacher of the year.  He later married one of his students which seemed for some, to change his reputation from creative to creepy overnight.  Secretly,  he still garners my write in votes as the best teacher to follow through the history of the United States.  There was Mr R, the charasmatic, first generation Irish, high energy math and track coach whose bad knees were only eclipsed by heavy Irish brogue.  For the hip and unconventional kids, there was always Mr I – the biology teacher who wore flip flops and coached the High School Ultimate Frisbee team (this is California in the 70s, folks).  And one of my favs, Coach K, a sensitive and inspirational guy who produced championship swim teams and taught pre-Calculus and Algebra.  He was in tune to the ravages of exclusion and once remanded our class with a punitive pop quiz  for behavior he saw within the student body that disappointed him.  I always had this theory that when he was young, he was on the wrong side of some bully and the experience transformed him into a sort of uber musketeer – – a D’Artagnon of the disenfranchised.

School was hard because you were constantly encountering things for the first time and learning how to react to the vagaries of community living.  Think of it as being deposited daily in the middle of the expressway of life while being injected with a cocktail of hormones.  This explains the Chernobyl meltdowns that often occur in our houses every night as tired soldiers trudge in from the bush and literally fall apart.  Everything is tinged with melodrama and hyperbole…” Everyone has this except me”.  “No one will be there, except me”.  “No one wears those anymore” Oh, that’s right, I forgot, everyone now dresses like Jody Foster in Taxi Driver. “The teacher said we did not have to do that section”.  “I forgot my backpack at Teddy’s house”. On and on it goes like a great metaphysical wheel in a hamster cage – the only thing missing is the sawdust, rodent kibble and salt lick.  I often feel trapped like a rodent when I come home to the “House of Pain” on a weeknight.  Activities and sports are key as they seem to generate critical self esteem that keeps kids from drifting into those dark alleyways.

Despite the best efforts of an engaged parent and our educational institutions, some kids stub their toes.  Some do it quite spectacularly.   Many are now entering that electrifyingly exciting and dangerous era of being “young and invincible “. It means cars are driven at break neck speeds, new things are tried, popping off to your elders is a form of boundary testing and the advice of a chronically lying, pre-pubescent, acne ridden teen is of infinitely greater value than your insights – – you, with that big “ L” on your forehead.

In my old high school, we had the East Parking lot where the non conformists, disenfranchised and loadies would congregate.  The lot was situated behind the woodshop and metal shop which ironically became the future vocations for some of these maligned kids.  I played sports with many of them and while there was always an open invitation to exit the shadows and join the sea of polo shirts and deck shoes of the main stream social circles, the East Lot had its own lugubrious allure and a tight knit community borne out of being and feeling different.  Some felt most comfortable hanging out only with these kids who seemed to know their pain.  Invariably, they were always labeled as “bad kids”.  However, my Mom used to say, “There are no bad kids, only bad choices with bad consequences.” Given she was raising four potential felons, this made sense to me and I vowed I would adhere to this theology of parenting later in life. There were drugs, accidents, deaths and the occasional scandalous revelation.  Yet, the kids seemed to cope sometimes better than their parents and understood that school was an important training ground for finding passion, community and a sense of self worth.  We sometimes forget how emotionally charged the decade of age 8 to 18 can be. While elementary school is generally a time of wonderful learning and innocent exploration, middle school has become the demilitarized zone between childhood and full blown adolescence, a sort of no man’s land where kids are growing up faster than their brains can keep pace and they are experimenting to find their place in an evolving society of peers.  High school starts to lay the foundation. The pressure to fit in and the agony of being banished will never be forgotten or in some cases, forgiven.

Years later at my high school reunions I would learn of dysfunctional homes, alcoholism, abuse and mental illness that were hidden from everyone like an ugly scar and whose burden drove many of these kids to seek solace from others who were in their own way, struggling to fit in and cope.  I felt guilty that many of these kids that I harshly judged where in fact, just coping and at the same time, desperately trying to send flares into the night sky hoping that help might arrive and ease their pain.

I was amazed how many people came to these reunions, not just for the sheer nostalgia of the gathering but to mend some ancient wound.  Beautiful women that no one recognized at first – ugly ducklings turned to magnificent swans paraded defiantly across the floor.  Others that had been marginalized came to just make sure everyone knew their net worth, zip code or resume.  There were those who were hoping to regain even for a brief evening, the alpha status lost the day they graduated and entered the real world.  Everyone was once again, for a brief moment, seventeen — vulnerable, excited, secretly wanting to see what their old flame looked like, falling back into old cliques, feelings and friendships.

Everyone remembered that feeling when life was raw and unfiltered, witnessed through an innocent lens of a kid living and learning.  It was all the experience with much less responsibility than one will ever have again.  To feel again, just for a moment, the excited ache of a crush, the thrill of a new experience or revel in the triumph of peer approval.  Now imagine it all that again for the first time.  Imagine being barely mature enough to cope with the tsunami of emotions that come with those experiences.  It’s a wild whitewater ride that each kid responds to differently.  It’s about learning to fly and bumping your butt.  It’s back to school time parents, buckle up.