Fair to Middling

Max and Marg. Photo Credit: Kim R. Shelby

I come from an extraordinarily small family. As the product of two only children, my sister and I have no aunts, no uncles, no first cousins. We bill it a family reunion anytime the two of us find ourselves back in Connecticut the same week.We have undoubtedly reaped untold benefit from having seen the world, having ventured away from home, having left. One regret is having been so far away (Atlanta, GA) when my grandfather first fell ill in NYC. But I got back there as often as I could, through to the end.

People warned he wouldn’t recognize me (Parkinson’s + Alzheimer’s), didn’t know where he was, confined to a nursing home the last couple of years. Yet, the first time I visited he gave me instruction on which bus to take to get back to their apartment. Another time, he couldn’t understand how I had managed to stay dry with all the rain coming down. It was sunny and seventy. He didn’t have access to a window. This, a man who lived in the streets, had evidently not been outside for who knows how long. The last time I saw him, he had lost his ability to speak. He attempted to scrawl a note on a scrap of paper. All I could make out was over. He’d had enough. Within weeks, his battle, his struggle, his confinement was over. He was free.

I talk like this took place yesterday, like my grandfather is the only person I’ve ever lost. But he left us just inside fourteen, fifteen years ago. A handful of years later, our father passed as well. I regularly consult them both: on how to approach a situation, how to manage something I’m dealing with, how to navigate a thing on my hands. Only, my father having moved out of our household when I was a kid, I consult him on separate things than I might consult my granddad. My father raised me to a point, set a handful of worthy examples to pull from. But granddad was on hand to witness me grow up. There are fewer gaps to fill him in on before he and I can talk about a thing.

The present struggle has us all on lockdown. My grandmother is still in NYC and doing well. My mother is managing back in CT–fair to middling is a term she likes to use. It means slightly above average. I suppose we’re all hoping to do fair to middling these days. Lack of access is the primary difference in our world. As small as we are as a family, they have always been able to count on one or the other of us to make it home to check on whatever needs checking. Today, my sister (Orange Count, CA) and I (Austin, TX) are unable to readily get to them. Even if we could get there, the possibility we’d carry with us some infection that might spell doom for one or the other of them is too great a risk to take. More troubling, they wouldn’t be able to get to each other if it were to come to that.

9/11 is the first time I was unable to reach them. Though the 9/11 attacks were more localized–the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, that field in rural PA where the last plane was put down–this has a similar feel. It’s a shock to the system, the entire globe taking the blow firsthand this go-round. The long-term effects are only just beginning to mount. How will we as a society recover? When will we recover? What will the world look like on the other side?

Most of us will get through this largely unscathed. Many will not. It is hard, one day to the next, to tell the most from the many. We’ve all seen those heartrending scenes, folks posted outside a window waving to an infected loved one, their palms pressed against either side of the glass to remind them of their connection. Folks not permitted to comfort one another, fearful of breathing the same air with one another. Folks denied their final farewell, wrapped in each others’ arms. It’s enough to stir the most callous of souls.

We will get through this. We will. But we will be forever changed because of it. More alert, more cognizant, more appreciative of the bonds we share, whether immediate family or otherwise. People depend on people, thrive in proximity to one another, even guarded proximity to passersby on the street, fellow shoppers, from your bodega or corner market, to some big-box store. We need those interactions, that subconscious exchange on a semi-regular basis to feel whole. Six-feet after all is an enormous distance to endure.

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The Legend of Chicken Charlie’s Rock

Allow me to explain the legend of Chicken Charlie’s Rock. As you may have gathered, my daughter Marley has nothing to do with the tale, paths with Charlie having crossed nearly two lifetimes ago from her vantage point.

Marley in front of Chicken Charlie’s Rock, ’09

She simply accompanied me on a trip down memory lane. (Her sister Jules, aka Green Machine, was back at grandma’s house, glued to the weather forecast praying for snow).

Jules aka Green Machine frolicking in the snow, ’09

Naturally, the trip included a handful of slow laps around the same parking lot where my grandfather first let me drive. I was twelve, thirteen tops. Having just turned thirteen, Marley got her turn at the wheel, the same as I did–no gas, permitted only to ease a foot off the brake pedal, achieving no more speed than cruising on idle would allow. Still, I imagine it to have been as exhilarating for her as it was for me, sitting beside my grandfather in my mother’s newly acquired used car.

Chicken Charlie’s Rock started out simply as The Rock, a massive granite protrusion that I have since come to recognize as endemic to the New England landscape. Our rock sat in the woods just behind the Village Green Apartments where my sister and I moved with our mother the year our parents split up. In time, Kim found her set of friends and got on with her thing. And I found my set of friends, Gary C. principal among them. We spent the vast majority of our spare time exploring the woods, at first on foot, then by bicycle. Eventually, we acquired motorized transportation allowing us to explore the far reaches of the woods by dirt bike, a string of secluded waterfalls leading the way to an abandoned rock quarry. The details of our gas-powered antics will have to wait for a future installment of my tales of a kid from Connecticut, making his way in the world.

The Rock played a central role as home base for our activities during breaks from school. We waged one-pump BB-gun wars on and around the rock (thankfully, no one shot their eye out). We built forts. Debriefed atop the rock upon successful completion of our daily excursions, conjured future plans sitting in full survey of the entire universe as far as any of us was concerned. We formed and strengthened bonds on that rock, tested allegiances. Through thick and thin, we grew up together.

Last and most certainly not least, I had my first kiss on the rock. We can debate whether woman or man is capable of achieving perfection. Whether any of us would know how to conduct ourselves if perfection were to show up one day and plop down in front of us. Still, I am eternally grateful to have borne witness to the tender beginnings of what I imagined at the time to be as near to perfection as might ever exist–Andrea P.

Andrea was outgoing, energetic, athletic. She would hang with us most every day, doing anything we could do and then some, though we never lost sight of the prospect that Andrea was separate from us. She was GLORIOUS–outgoing, energetic and all that jazz, and glorious to boot.

I can still picture her–even brown skin with deep set eyes like she was imagining things bigger than the rest of us were capable of comprehending and a mouth that made you wonder why lips were ever used for anything other than kissing. It would be years before I’d get another glimpse at perfection, that shift in perspective that occurs when you meet someone so far removed in thinking, in examining the world from anyone you’ve encountered, who inspires you to be more than you might have known achievable without the benefit of her outlook.

Even Andrea can’t claim responsibility for the naming of Chicken Charlie’s Rock. Charlie was a kid who moved to Village Green a couple of years into the rest of us having settled in the neighborhood. He earned the Chicken part on account of his run–stiff and upright, a cardboard cutout of a kid pushing like a sheet of plywood against a determined wind. A thick mop of rust colored hair stood on end, flopping in rhythm with the breeze to form the crowned comb atop a rooster’s head. This coupled with an innate chicken-shit demeanor and Charlie couldn’t hope to escape the nickname.

One summer, we found ourselves in possession of a length of sturdy rope. We tugged on it, swung on it, bound and tied various things with it, Chicken Charlie included if memory serves. Gary and I eventually got the notion to drop the length of rope down the face of the rock and scale the damn thing. This was well before rock climbing was popularized as sport, housed in purpose-built gyms. Instead, we climbed to achieve the pinnacle of adventure for boys growing up in Village Green.

For reasons I can’t remember, Chicken Charlie accompanied us on our maiden voyage, our trusty rope securely in place. But, being Chicken Charlie, he couldn’t be convinced to venture a climb. After several successful roundtrips apiece, Gary and I headed down the face for lunch. When we stepped outside again, we were met by a high-pitched screeching. We took off in the direction the woods where we found Charlie dangling from the length of rope having steeled his nerves to attempt the climb in private, free from jeers over his upright, stiff, plywood way of doing things.

Whether midway up or midway down the face, only Charlie can say for certain. But there he was, clinging for dear life, screaming at the top of his lungs for somebody to save him. We sprang into action. I took my place as spotter at the base of the rock should Charlie lose his grip and fall the rest of the way to the ground while Gary sprinted around to the summit then scaled down the face and escorted Charlie to safety–all in a day’s work for a couple of boy adventurers. And that’s how The Rock came to be known as Chicken Charlie’s Rock.

Everything changed after school resumed that fall. Andrea advanced to junior high leaving us to toil another year steeped in our elementary school, king of the hill, BB-gun warrior nonsense. She and her family moved out of state within the ensuing year. Gary’s parents found more spacious digs to accommodate their brood a couple of streets over, within the same neighborhood. But that quashed nearly all activity around the rock as the center of our daily adventures. Chicken Charlie eventually disappeared too. I can’t tell you with any certainty what any of us did the next summer. Some things together, many other things apart from one another. Junior high and high school eventually exposing us to our respective, separate new worlds. But that summer forged bonds that have persisted to this day.

 

 

I have limited interest to unearth what became of Chicken Charlie. But look who I found via Facebook–Andrea P. decades removed from those days on The Rock but little worse for the wear. And still Glorious. (Images used with permission.)

Andrea P. - teen years

Andrea P. – teen years

 

Andrea P. twenties
Andrea P. – twenties
Andrea P. - recent
Andrea P. – recent photo

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Locomotion and Other Obsessions

My skateboarding ambitions started modestly enough. Any wheeled thing represents the same opportunity to a teenage boy–locomotion. To see any of us, you’d have to catch us on the run, a collective frenzy of motion not heading anyplace necessarily. But constantly on the go.

Those days, a ten-speed bicycle was the coveted mode of transport (a Schwinn if your family had the scratch, mine didn’t), a high-end cruiser, the handlebars curled under to foster a racing pose. This was supplemented with a no-gear bike, built ourselves from spare parts bought and scavenged and traded from throughout the neighborhood. Mind you, this was a couple decades ahead of the internet age with the likes of eBay and letgo, OfferUp, placing at your fingertips a world of treasure that no longer serves the needs of someone else.

You knew someone who heard about someone who had the frame or rims or crank assembly you needed. A handful of shrewdly bartered exchanges, and your daily-rider came together, some with composite wheels and knobby tires suited for BMX (well before that was a thing). Others, like mine, had a banana seat with a modest sissy bar. We set out to perfect the art of wheelie riding, our aim to spend as much time on one wheel as two, the front tire dangling in the air ahead of us, our narrow frames providing needed counterbalance.

Originating among west coast surfing communities, skateboarding was slow to make its way to our sleepy little corner of Connecticut. It too requiring balance and grace mixed with a bit of daring, skateboarding offered its own special brand of exhilaration–ride an asphalt wave and be set free.

My first skateboard was a hard-plastic thing bought from the local sporting goods store, cheap imitation invariably the main path toward any new craze gaining widespread availability. The wheels were nearly as rigid as the deck, polyurethane infused with age-old concrete as far as I’m concerned. It was fine for tricks, wheelies and front-/back-side 360 spins (completing as many rotations as you could muster before setting the front wheels back on the asphalt). But downhill, it was a death trap.

Gary Cooper, Billy Fume and I set out one summer to shoot a skateboarding movie along the steep descent leading away from Grasso Tech in the direction of Sutton Park, each of us taking turns as cameraman screaming downhill alongside our cohorts. Had we only taken ourselves more seriously, we might have beaten Super 8 or Boyhood to the punch–to the screen as it were. (Had we only had better boards, more pliable wheels especially, we might have managed to string together downhill runs consistently enough to capture a couple of worthwhile scenes.)

This is where things get personal. I don’t write memoir. But my fiction is laced with tiny bits of who I am, how I got here, the factors that most influenced me along the way. For me, memoir constitutes little more than this. Only, confined to some fictional world, the story line provides a bit of distance from those aspects of the narrative that ring true, sparing me the task of fully assessing to what extent those things have yet to work themselves out.

 

KoPPM – Commissioned Skateboard, Board Life 12/15

The formative years are widely understood to span the first five or so years of a child’s life. It has been my experience that this period repeats itself every decade or so. The years between ten/eleven and thirteen or fourteen represented for me a period of significant change. I can trace three longstanding pursuits to that point in time, my passion for which has persisted to this day.

My parents divorced when I was ten. After a stint living on the other side of town, my father pulled some strings, called in a favor (or wore out his welcome, depending who you let tell it), and got stationed in Pearl Harbor. A career Navy man, it would take him full-circle, one last tour before retiring in the bosom of paradise. But it came at a cost.

Thirteen is the last year I played organized baseball. I was lanky even before I grew tall. Once I convinced the coach to let me catch, it was nearly impossible to get anything past me behind the plate. That gangly length didn’t spell much in the way of power hitting, but I was a consistent, Ichiro or Jeter-like contact hitter. Plus, I “had wheels”–Forrest Gump-type speed. Once on base, I tormented the pitcher, threatening to steal if not take the extra base in the first place. Traditionally a father-son pursuit, when my father left, there went baseball for me too.

My father’s departure also meant more frequent trips with my mother and sister to visit my mom’s mom in NYC, placing me at the cusp of a budding hip-hop generation. I’d sit pressed close to a speaker in my grandparents’ bedroom, the volume on the radio broadcast turned down low so as not to disrupt life in the rest of their apartment. Another several months would pass before someone showed up with a cassette recording of Rapper’s Delight–Sugarhill Gang, the whole lot of us huddled outside Fitch Senior High’s soon to be christened new basketball gymnasium, hungry for something to call our own. I have since become a bit of a connoisseur, hip-hop having matured to amass a catalogue of classics.

Somewhere along the way, my father caught wind of my interest in skateboarding. At this stage, he was already a couple of years into his new life in Hawaii, the undeniable epicenter of surfing culture (and by natural extension skateboarding culture). It is the one silver lining to my parents breaking up. He sent me a skateboard one year for Christmas or a birthday or some such occasion. It upped my game.

My sister and I visited Honolulu for the first time when I was thirteen. Forget the sights, the tropical scenery. I borrowed our father’s bike, an aging Schwinn ten-speed after all (evidently, at some point or another, our father had the scratch), and made the trek cross-island to a skateboard shop. I bought a set of Bones, off-white supple urethane wheels. On the ride back to his place, I got caught in one of Kaneohe’s daily sun showers. It was another couple of miles before I realized that one of the wheels had soaked through the paper sack I was carrying and disappeared. I eventually replenished the set, picked up a G&S (Gordon and Smith) curved wooden board and trucks, and pieced together another dream ride, much in the same manner as the no-gear bikes we had endeavored to build.

I still have that board to this day. I own three skateboards in total. Still find occasion to ride, onlookers gawking to see a person my age take a spill. What they can’t possibly know is that skateboarding is ingrained in me, a keen sense of balance sewn deeply into muscle memory. We pay in skin for our deepest passions. In time, those passions see fit to offer restitution for our years of ceaseless devotion. (In my best Jay-Z voice, ‘I paid the cost to be the boss to floss this hard.’) In other words, I don’t fall, the universe having already exacted more than its fair share of my hide.

Even baseball has come back in small ways. I’m an avid spectator at all levels, high school, college, MLB, depending on the match-up. I stay glued to the Little League World Series as an annual ritual. I played fast-pitch softball in a competitive corporate league after finishing college. (I attempted slow pitch for a bit. But without base stealing, leading off, it didn’t hold the same appeal.) These days, I can hardly keep baseball and skateboarding and hip-hop from creeping into nearly everything I write, small parts of me leaking out into the world.

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