Page Two: "I Wish That I Knew What I Know Now When I Was Younger"
Dancing and drinking in Jamaica Plain
There was this time, the early Seventies, when Uncle Fred Bayles and I had rented half a house in Jamaica Plain, Mass. Back then it was a real working-class neighborhood though now I understand it has completely gentrified. Later I lived farther out the MBTA Green Line but still in JP, in an apartment a couple floors above a pizza parlor and across the street from a convenience store. There, not unusual weekend late-afternoon entertainment would be watching young thieves, having abandoned the cars they had just stolen, sprinting across the vacant lots on the other side of the street, the cops right behind them.
But this was earlier than that, when I lived with Fred. He never was at 150 South St. above the pizza parlor. This was on a street that was L shaped. We had the top two floors of a three-story. I lived in the attic, Fred lived on the second floor.
Later Fred would become a well-known reporter for the Associated Press and USA Today, covering United States military excursions in Haiti and Kuwait; following O.J. Simpson up the California highway; innumerable major transportation disasters; Waco, Oklahoma City, and the Exxon Valdez; winning all kinds of sports-writing awards covering Olympics around the world. That was later.
I was working in the registrar's office at Boston University. Fred was a bartender at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge. We both wrote a lot – short stories both of us, Fred a novel, me poetry. We drank a lot, or at least I did. Actually it wasn't a lot really, I was just learning to drink. I had come to it late in the game, a slow starter but an eager student. Regularly I'd stagger up to Fred at the bar slurring the announcement that I had discovered another new drink I liked. He was always less than thrilled.
The Orson Welles had three screens, a bar, and a restaurant. I hung out there all the time. After a while the whole staff thought I worked there as well, which meant I drank for free (and often) and then went to see whatever movie I wanted. All the waitresses at the restaurant were college students. We wrote their school papers for free for them. I'm sure we were hoping for some stature out of this action, but very hip cinema bar waitresses had far better things to do with their time.
Life was okay. We were in our early 20s consumed by doubt and fear, struggling through the dark not even toward the light, having not yet even glimpsed its faintest hints. We spent a lot of time walking around nearby Jamaica Pond arguing passionately. We read like maniacs. And I watched movies all night, night after night, at the Orson Welles, one of the country's great retrospective/arthouse cinemas. A friend – a poet and a teacher – once told me he was certain I had a loop constantly going in my head asking, "Is this a movie? Is this a movie? Is this a movie?" Everywhere I was, everywhere I went.
It was a time of routine and lust.
I don't remember sleeping much but I do remember writing a lot. Writing all the time. Long before home computers. On typewriters. Every draft requiring an entire rewriting.
"I Wish That I Knew What I Know Now When I Was Stronger"
Uncle Fred could be a little grumpy in the morning. I was always pleasantness itself. Bounding down the stairs on my way to work I would burst into his bedroom loudly declaring, "No hangover." The foolish clarion call of too-young drinkers.
He formed the Louis Black Grudge Band with friends. They only played "As Tears Go By," not really designed as an unendingly long jam song. Fred played bass.
I met an old friend on the trolley one afternoon. We chatted. Later we would live together but not then. Together in fact at 150 South St.
We worked and wrote. There were Sunday morning breakfast gatherings where the women who belonged to other men that some of us longed for came with their children. Fred and I cooked. It was not a pretty sight.
Fred was in love. Later they married and still are. There was love all around and I couldn't touch it. I tore up my room in the throes of romantic disappointment while Fred downstairs guaranteed a friend of ours that I was in fine shape. His reassurances emphasized by crashing bookshelves.
It was a great time, not even that long a run, just months, not years, but it was when a lot could happen and did.
"Ooh La La"
It was a time of some happiness, more sadness, and mostly wildly undirected energy. We threw a party. We treated the house badly. We were young and stupid. Everyone we knew came. There was a room on the second floor that was little used. There were folks everywhere drinking and talking. Loud music was playing, some were dancing.
At one point I went to that room, opened the door. Inside was a woman friend of mine dancing like mad. Alone. Dancing with her demons and wildly dancing to get rid of them. I felt like I was intruding on a very private moment, a completely personal exorcism. The sight was more disturbing than arousing, more off-putting than celebratory. Literally like I had come upon someone masturbating. Each an act of private joy, not shared nor meant to be. I closed the door quickly. Just her dancing with her secret face exposed.
Some time later I heard that she died in a freak accident in Mexico falling off an elephant. Sometimes I think back to that whirling dervish dancing and then the fall from the elephant. In memory it is as though I know she will die, that the unrestrained dancing somehow directly led to the fatal elephant ride.
It was a time where those things happened, it was a house like that with rooms not secret but hidden. Music made in one, love made in another, writing going on everywhere. Long before computers, Fred and I often huddled over the same typewriter working on waitress' college papers. Alternating paragraphs, writing just to write because it was exhilarating and, at the time, we thought it was everything. And it was. And it is.
When you are young you often are so busy looking forward, worried about and hoping for the future that you miss the present. I ended up in New Jersey. Fred moved to our friend Everett's in Vermont. Eventually I joined him there.
"Ooh La La, La La Yeah"
This is apropos of nothing really, no great point here. I'm writing this column again, re-submerging in the Chronicle. A number of circumstances led me to spend a healthy chunk of 2012 and 2013 lying on a couch. A wedge shoved into my life between thought and action, an enforced stillness relapses kept extending that almost drove me mad. I wasn't reading. I wasn't writing. Not at all. For the first time in my life.
Weekends were especially depressing as there was so much time to fill and so few ways to fill them.
Now, I think I should have been relishing each and every moment. I was too abruptly yanked out of the life I was living to regard any of it as vacation or rest. Now with days smashed against days with near every hour claimed and scheduled, I long for some downtime. As usual the times as I was undergoing them were far better than I knew. My eyes always looking back or ahead I miss the present.
Lying on the coach, drowning in medications and feeling beyond hopeless, I wish I had had even a passing idea of the grace of that kind of utopian bliss of enforced inactivity.
Friends, to be honest, it has not been the best of times around the Chronicle these last couple of days. This too shall pass. But sometimes you get bone-numbing weary. Saved-up strength from being stretched out on a couch for two years barely lasts a breath.
It's a weekly. There is this week and next week. Sometimes, even knowing what I know now guides the path but really lifts no weights from the present.
"Ooh La La" (1973), written by Ronnie Lane and Ronnie Wood