Friday, August 3, 2012
Wobbly times number 152
Set San Diego, California, 1959
There was a trace of fog in the air from the night before. Jack awoke to another cool, grey morning, knowing that temps would jump to the sunny seventies by eleven or so. It was 6:30 am just another April school day. His mom was calling to him from the kitchen where she was already busying herself with breakfast for the family.
His dad was eating his bacon, eggs and toast washing his breakfast down with milk, about ready to leave for work. From his bedroom down the hall, Jack could only hear his parents as a low, mumbling murmur. He didn’t bother trying to decipher what it was they were speaking about or even to look down the hall, which he could easily do from his bedroom. Undoubtedly, whatever they were saying was irrelevant. At least to him, it was irrelevant. When they wanted his attention, they usually yelled in his direction. The sound of crickets combing their legs together held more interest for him than eavesdropping his parents’ buzz. At least crickets were soothing Most things that people his parent’s age did were of little consequence and sometimes, irritating to Jack.
His father drove a delivery truck for Sparklett’s Water, all dressed-up in a uniform. The cap had a shiny, brown, patent leather brim. Jack’s dad wore this outfit on his route. Shoes were the employee’s own choice, as long as they were brown leather with brown laces.
Delivering bottled water was a heavy lifting job. His pop had to lift a five gallon glass bottle, filled with water from the loading rack of the truck and then, heave it across his shoulder. He’d deliver it into one of the suburban residences or local businesses. Carrying the empties back out to the truck was much easier. His father mentioned once, during a commercial break on TV, that he was sometimes able to take two empties at the same time back to the truck. “Work could be done faster”, he said. “Attitude is key.”
But Jack’s attitude was none too good. In fact, he prided himself on cultivating a bad attitude. Bad got mixed up with cool and cool got mixed up with bad. So, to be bad was to be good in Jack’s youngish lexicon. That’s the way things worked in Jack’s world. He had little idea of why his father went to work for Sparklett’s--other than for the money.
Sparklett’s was non-union of course. Jack’s dad didn’t mind one little bit. In fact, he preferred matters that way. He was proud to be an individual. He distrusted organization. Organization meant bureaucracy and bureaucracy meant the death of individual freedom. Among other things, Jack’s father staked a claim to having seen the movie version of “1984" on TV.
Peter Goetz was a working-class Republican of the Eisenhower era, meaning that his voting behaviour was a form of brand loyalty rather than a choice of social/economic policy or expression of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. He kept voting for one brand of political party for the same reason that he kept buying one brand of car, soda, fast food, or for that matter, going to the same church - because this was what he was familiar with. Evaluating all available options and making a rational decision was not the way he did things. Like most of his fellow workers, Peter was not a rational utility maximiser. Instead, he was a transaction cost minimizer and ex-post facto rationalizer. He wouldn’t necessarily go for what could give him maximum gain. Instead, he went for what required minimum effort in the here and now. He told himself, and everyone else who’d listen, what he did was, “a good deal” for himself and for his family.
In order to distinguish himself from his parents, in short, to rebel, Jack developed a fascination for Nazis. He figured that they’d gotten a rotten deal. He saw through the phoniness of it all when he watched movies on TV. TV stations were incessantly mining their stocks of World War II films. “Victory at Sea”, one of Jack’s favourites, was another matter. Be that as it may, in the Hollywood and British versions of filmed fiction, German soldiers were almost always bumbling about with single shot rifles. To be sure, they had cooler helmets and uniforms, but pulling the bolt back to put another round in the chambre of their Mausers made them look too dumb. Meanwhile, G.I.s would be shooting bullets one after the other from their M1s. Result: busloads of dead Germans. “Highly unlikely,” Jack thought. Very few Americans ‘bought it’ in the films Jack saw on TV. It was all so unfair and probably another deception foisted on the young by his parents’ generation. That’s what Jack thought. Anyway, the Germans were clearly the ‘underdog’. Instinctually, Jack felt an affinity for underdogs.
He remembered his father telling him once, “The Nazis were just a bunch of gangsters. They were just a bunch of thugs.” That statement alone made it possible for Jack to admire Frank Nitti when it came time for the next “Untouchables” episode on TV and may have had the direct effect of making “The Godfather” an essential movie going rite of passage for himself later in life.
His pop also told him that when he worked at the Ryan aircraft assembly plant during the war, he got to look at two or three captured German planes. The company brought them in so that their employees could examine them and compare quality. His dad said that he noticed that the workmanship was, “shoddy”. “Japs made their planes the same way”, he said. Jack could believe it about the Japs, but the Germans?
Jack spitefully maintained his interest in the Nazis even after this ‘little talk’. He continued to suspect that Germans were not as clumsy and stupid as the Hollywood movies made them out to be. Certainly, they could never have been as evil as the movies portrayed them. Yet, after his dad’s anti-Nazi spiel, he became suspicious of the Germans as well. Maybe there was something to the anger adults felt and were still feeling against them, the Japs and even the Italians.
Jack’s dad loved Westerns and war movies, anything where the rebelliously tinged hero wound his way successfully through the obstacles which crum-bums, rotten no-goods, Mexicans and other undesirables put in his way . Both his mom and dad would sit down together and watch “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun Will Travel” once a week. They were prime-time shows. “Dragnet” was prime-time too: the fifties reality show where, “only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” For a change of pace, there were “The Twilight Zone” and “The Honeymooners”. Jack liked watching TV with his parents, although he was sometimes frustrated with their channel choices.
On Sundays, the family went to worship in the protestant church of their choice. They were exercising, what they believed to be, a fundamental American freedom. They worshipped a fellow Jack’s pop called, “the good Lord”.
Jack reckoned that going to church was not freedom. It was a tedious exercise which involved hanging out with the odious Sunday school crowd. Sunday school teachers and their lame attempts at something they called ‘moral instruction’ made him sleepy. “How,” he thought, “could the ‘good lord’ send an angel of death to kill all of Egypt’s first born children?”
“What the heck was good about killing babies?”
Jack would always brighten up when the Sunday school teacher started handing out little brochures to be taken home. This act meant the end was near and lunch was at hand.
Jack imagined that his parents felt themselves to be very honest, decent people, even though his dad didn’t like pushy Jews or dirty people. It seemed, especially in Jack’s father’s eyes, that the darker the person was, the more likely the person in question would be corrupt, slovenly, dishonest, generally disorganized and most likely, unemployed.
Jack’s father traced his European roots to the Netherlands. People were white and clean in Holland–no crum-bums. Jack noticed that in the movies he watched on TV about the war, the Nazis had some of the same attitudes which his father exhibited. “The poor quality of workmanship in German fighter aircraft was most likely due to Nazi thuggery plus, their bureaucratic organization,” Jack thought.
His mom was not quite so concerned with the darker people as with preservation. According to Jack’s dad, that was because, “..she never goes out very much.” She had encased all her cloth-covered furniture in plastic. To her, this was an ingenious act of tidiness. It followed that if seat covers were good for the car, they were even more needed for home furniture.
Light was a fact of Nature which greatly disturbed Jack’s mother. Light, especially sunlight, tended to make furniture colours fade. It also affected the carpet. As a consequence, both were covered over with sheets of protective plastic. To be sure, it was clear plastic. Unfortunately, clear plastic sheeting did allow light to fade material. Therefore, it was thought best by Jack’s mom to shut off all but a few lights and to draw the curtains after Jack’s dad left for work. That way, their home would be sparkling clean for the evening when they sat on the furniture to watch TV.
Jack was ready to take the plunge. He had been in bed up to the last moment possible. Like his father, Jack had a timetable to meet. He pulled the covers from his body. He sat up, then wheeled his legs around whereupon, he put his feet on to the cold linoleum floor. He felt hurriedly under the bed for his slippers. “Ah yes, there they are,” he told himself as he grabbed one, then the other from the position that he’d left them in the night before.
“Jack! Get in the shower! You’ve only got half an hour before your bus comes,” his mom bellowed from the kitchen.
“All right ma,” he yelled down the hall. He got up and slipper-shuffled into the bathroom, looking at himself, flexing his biceps in the long mirror as he passed on the way to the shower. His tan was fading and his hair was messed up. He’d work on his tan this summer. His hair didn’t matter at this moment.
He still had a pee hard-on, so he propped himself up against the wall to face the toilet and angled his penis towards the toilet bowl. “A bean’s a bean but a pee’s a relief,” he recited under his breath with a slight grin. Somehow, that aphorism hadn’t left his head since he first learned it on a school field trip at age seven. (An image of the inside walkway within a dark train carriage passed through his head-- then it vanished). Jack tried to remember, but his dreams melted away as he tried to grasp them.
When he’d finished urinating, he turned the shower on. Hot first, then he started mixing in the cold and when that was ready, he stepped in tub.
First, he stood directly under the shower and scrubbed his hair with Head & Shoulders Shampoo. He dug his nails, hard into his scalp as the lather plopped into the tub water. As he shampooed, he planned his attire–today, his black turtleneck. He didn’t want a bunch of dandruff falling on his shoulders. He let the clear, strong stream rinse his hair thoroughly.
Jack had yet to learn the social benefits of deodorant. He wasn’t quite sure why it was that people put “that shit” on. Didn’t seem natural to him. He racked it up to another inane adult behaviour which people copied without knowing why. But he, he knew about Head and Shoulders and about putting Clearasil on his pimples. Jack didn’t have many of them. He scrubbed his back and face too hard with Lifeboy for that. When a blemish erupted, he immediately applied a small mound of Clearasil directly to it. Sometimes, for the really serious eruptions, he used his dad’s Pragmatar.
He peered out through the clear, plastic shower curtain. There it sat, near the sink with the lid off, all white and shiny in a squat, green jar. “God, that stuff stinks!” he thought as he washed his torso completely clean. Then, he turned the water off, got out of the shower, got a nice, fluffy towel to dry himself and proceeded to his bedroom to get dressed: jeans, turtleneck, sneakers. On his way to breakfast, he went back to the bathroom to put some Clearasil on a pimple he’d just noticed popping up on his cheek.
“Yeah ma,” he yelled from the bathroom.
“Do you want one egg or two?”
“Two eggs, ma.”
Jack sauntered into the kitchen and sat down for breakfast. His dad had already left. Jack scarfed down the bacon, eggs and toast in a matter of a minute and like his father, washed it all down with a cold glass of milk. He got up from the table and went back to his bedroom to get his books and binder.
“Ok ma, I’m off.”
His mother stopped him in the hallway. She had a worried look on her face. “Jack, your father says that you should be looking for a job this summer.”
“Ah come on, ma, it’s only April. Summer is a long way off.”
“Your father says that now is the time to be looking.”
“Oh jeez, ma.”
“I want you to go to the school counsellor and ask her if she knows where 15 year olds can look for summer jobs.”
“Jack...” she said with that special raised eyebrow. The expression on her face indicated, she meant it.
“Ah ok, ma.”
“Good then. Hurry up. You’ll be late for the bus.”
Jack left the house and walked briskly down the sidewalk towards the bus top on Cabrillo Mesa Drive. After about ten steps, he stopped, made a u-turn and went back to the house. He walked in with a deep breath.
“Jack! What are you doing here? You know the bus is coming.” his mother said as she pulled the drapes shut.
“I just want to say that if he touches me, I’m going to hit him hard.” Jack felt his muscles tense.
“Peter only wants what’s right for you,” his mother said quickly.
Jack could tell that she was afraid. He’d never seen that look before. He retreated. “Ok ma. Just tell him not to touch me.” And then, he turned and went back out the door, walking briskly toward the curb where the V-bus stopped to pick up kids on their way to Linda Vista Junior High. He’d never liked the idea that his mother had re-married.
There weren’t any blacks in Cabrillo Mesa. Most of them went to school in Logan Heights. “Man, that’s a bad-ass neighbourhood,” Jack thought. He’d never been there. He didn’t have to go there. He knew. It was simple. Blacks were badass-mohz.
As he approached the stop, he saw the usual bunch: James, Susie, Claire, Don, Roger and Roger’s brother Randy. Louis, pronounced ‘lew-ee’, was there too. Louis Chavez was a Mexican, different from the majority. The kids were all milling about, mostly making comments about the previous night’s TV episode of “Zorro”. Jack noticed the hair under Claire’s arm “She must be Italian,” he thought.
“I like it when he does that zip-zip,zip, zip thing with his sword, man,” Louis said
Yeah man, that’s so bad,” Randy said.
“You know it,” Jack added.
Roger Toosher was on his haunches, expertly blowing smoke rings into the quiet air. “Marlboro is the coolest brand. No doubt about it,” Jack thought. He checked and confirmed that Roger had the hard pack. Susie quickly glanced at Roger. His shirt was open, three buttons from the top, his belt buckle was secured at the second loop from the button-front of his jeans, his hair fanned large on top of his head like some Spartan warrior. He wore a waist length, tan cloth jacket over white t-shirt and jeans.
The guys listened intently as Roger taught them the art of blowing rings. Roger and his brother Randy were outsiders. They’d only moved to Cabrillo Mesa a year ago. Still, they were an impressive pair because everybody knew they were, bad. Word was that they had to move down from Idaho because Roger was a suspect in a local store robbery. It was also rumoured that Roger and sometimes Randy, along with him, did stuff at night, stuff that would get you sent to juvee, if the cops caught you. Nobody knew what exactly the brothers did on these alleged sojourns. There were only rumours. Truth was: nobody wanted to know for sure. It was dangerous to ask. Both Roger and Randy were known to be ready to throw punches at the first sign of an uncool move.
Randy took a hard pack of Marlboro’s out of his shirt pocket and hit it deftly, rhythmically, top-down on to the palm of his hand.
“Hey Essay, lemme bum a cigarette.” Louis more or less asked. “Come on, man. Don’t be cold.”
Randy opened the package, throwing the cellophane down on the sidewalk, and got out a cigarette for himself and one for Louis. Louis wouldn’t have asked Roger.
Randy’s pack-to-hand ritual had forced the tobacco hard against the filter, leaving the cigarette with an empty pocket, a one-sixteenth of an inch pack-down in the cylindrical tip. Randy cupped his hands into a perfectly windless bowl as he struck his match. The paper lit quickly and the cigarette was burning. Then, he passed the match, with cupped hands, on to Louis. They both took deep drags. Randy pursed his lips flat then blew smoke between them in two, quick, audible breaths. Louis let it out of both his nose and mouth, his words accented with smoke as he plaintively remarked, “Aw man....”
The V-bus turned the corner and started up Cabrillo Mesa Drive.
“Shit,” Randy said as he took a long drag he could from his cigarette.
Jack impatiently nudged his arm, “Give me drag off that man.”
Randy passed Jack the cigarette and then shot spit between his teeth onto the sidewalk. No disrespect was meant. Spitting was more akin to punctuation. Jack took a long drag, then gently put the burning head out on the sidewalk and handed it back to Randy. Randy smiled and put the butt back into his hard pack. He already had the teeth of a forty-year-old..
Randy’s hair was shiny black. It was combed back into a duck’s ass–a DA. Hair tonic glistened from his ‘fenders’. His white face was pockmarked with small craters and occasional pink and red tipped pimples.
The bus stopped and the doors opened to a noisy interior, jammed with teenagers. Jack and Randy showed their bus passes to the driver and pushed their way toward the back. School bus riding wasn’t so bad. It was always close quarters and sometimes a guy could cop a feel. Some of the kids in the back seat were signing “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety-Yak”. Jack spotted Claire seated about three down from him toward the front, seemingly oblivious to the crowd. She was amazing and so brown. Even her hair was brown. She was also developed. Not like some of the girls. Claire was special. Claire had tits and fine, fine, superfine legs. “She must be Italian,” Jack thought. He really would have liked to see more movies with Steve Reeves, Gina Lolabridgida and Sophia Loren in them. In the Sixties, he would turn more attention to “Playboy” ‘Playmates of the Month’, Monica Vita and eventually, the “Barbarella” version of Jane Fonda.
The V-bus swayed round road curves. It dipped at stop lights and jerked at take-offs. The bus was so packed that Jack felt like it was going to flip over at times when the driver turned his steering wheel to the left and then, mercifully, to the right again. Flesh fell against flesh. At the halfway mark, the V-bus passed Sharpes Hospital. Jack could never figure out why the hospital was named ‘Sharpes’. Hell, he didn’t even know enough to ask the question. For Jack, it was school now. That’s what counted. Getting to school and to classes and maybe having some fun in between and then coming home to watch TV.
As soon as the bus parked outside the gray stucco building, the building that exemplified all that was LVJHS, Jack walked to the place where the badest guys would be gathered –those guys who would hang out at the steel horizontal bars, in the sand pit near the boys’ gym.
Randy exited and quickly went his way, off to smoke at the periphery of the school grounds. Sure, Randy was bad, but that kind of bad eventually meant trouble and Jack didn’t want that. The rule was that you couldn’t smoke on school property, but hey, cross the street and you could hang out with your crowd and smoke to your heart’s content, but only until the bell rang. Once, about three months ago, Jack had ditty-bopped over to that side of the street. He bummed a couple of drags. “Hey man, give me a drag.” He was able to gape at some real ‘Tijuana Bibles’, one with Wimpy fucking Olive Oil and another with Minnie giving Mickey a blow-job.
But today, there were matters to prove–to himself and the others who would notice. Jack had set himself a challenge. He gripped the medium-sized bar and tried his latest–a kip. He swung his legs behind and then forward and then jack-knifed his belly toward the bar. The move was not successful. He dropped back to the hanging position and held on to the bar for a moment, seemingly in contemplation of the sand. Actually, he was bit frightened. He tried again. This time the kip succeeded and beautifully as well. He decided to dismount, starting in the sit-around position. Sitting on the bar, he forced his head backwards, hanging on with his legs. As he plunged towards a six o’clock somersault, he let go and landed feet-first, standing ankle-deep in sand.
Some other guy stood at the base of the bars next, so Jack stood aside. He’d had his turn. He’d done it. He’d done a kip. Pride surged through his body.
He stood at the edge of the pit and watched the others, all boys. Anthony Ferguson was doing a cheery drop. The horizontal bars stood high over the sand pit. One mistake and you fell the wrong way. It would no not be a soft landing either. Tony positioned himself in the sit-around position after ‘kipping’ up to the top of the bar. Then, he lay back and in a moment of perfect balance, legs straight out, head out the other direction board-straight, he shifted the weight of his body backward and flipped his feet over his head in a perfect dismount. Like the ‘hock-circle’, Jack would never see the Cherry-drop done in any competition on TV, including the Olympics.
The bell rang school to a start. Unlike his dad, Jack didn’t have to wear a uniform during school. Catholic school kids did. LVJHS was public. Jack wore jeans a t-shirt and a khaki coloured Eisenhower jacket. His hair was slick-combed back with Brylcreem. He tried other hair tonics. Brylcreem was the coolest, especially as it was heavily advertised by the ‘Fearless Fosdick’. Hah, what a cool thing it was to be combing Brylcreem in your hair in the morning–much better than Vitalis. And it wasn’t greasy either. It had something called ‘lanolin’ in it. Nope, no greasy kids’ stuff for Jack.
First period was English with Miss Briggs. Miss Briggs had wide hips. Jack thought of her wide hips as he crossed the playing field towards the bungalow where English class was taught. Miss Briggs must have been old, like 29 or something. She didn’t have much in the way of tits. Practically, flat-chested, Miss Briggs was. She did have a nice smile though and Jack felt that he learned a lot from her in class. Jack wanted to learn. He didn’t like wasting his time. Miss Briggs would parade back and forth down the aisles of the classroom in her black, horn-rimmed glasses, her book close to her face as she read the lesson aloud in her long, tightly fitted dress. Jack like her red one best. Then, she’d put the book down at her side. Yeah, that great side of hers... and ask questions about what she had just read. And, yep, she’d be smiling. What a joke. Most of the kids couldn’t care less and they showed it. Besides, most didn’t really know. It was more like they were pretending to be too smart to learn that kind of stuff–like we’ve got way more important things to think about, like maybe whose jacket Cheryl was wearing today. Now that was something which mattered. Cheryl was recognized as being one of the coolest chicks. If she wore a guy’s jacket draped over her shoulders, it meant that they were ‘going steady’, a highly significant event. Cheryl was wearing Frenchie’s jacket. Frenchie was probably the worst student in school and also the baddest. Word was that Frenchie would soon be transferred downtown to the tech-school.
After first period English, Jack was walking across the school ground to PE. On the way, Pancho Gonzales started taunting him. “What are you looking at, Goetz? You think you’re bad or something? Hey Goetz-lips. Yo-mama wears combat boots.” Pancho was a fat kid, but he was a fat kid who lived in Linda Vista, which meant that he was probably bad. Jack ignored him. Then, Gonzales got up close and said, “I’m choosing you off, Goetz. Meet me across the road after school today.” Jack just walked on. Pancho stood there and laughed and yelled after him, “Don’t forget, mamma-hamma.” Jack turned his back and said , “Forget you.”
“What’d you say mo-fug?” faded into the background....
A crowd of kids had gathered. There was no escape from their penetrating eyes. If Pancho showed up across the road and Jack wasn’t there, they’d know that he had, “ H’d him out”. They’d know, because they’d all be there in that lot. Jack just kept walking to PE class. Pancho grinned triumphantly.
PE was always enjoyable for Jack. He was pretty good at sports and today the coach was organizing games of flag football for the boys. The girls went to a separate PE class. Jack liked playing end. He caught two touchdown passes during the class.
After PE was lunch. Jack got the brown paper bag containing the lunch his mother had made for him out of his locker and went back out to the sunshine of PE area.
“Hmm, peanut butter and jelly,” he thought. Jack stopped at the cafeteria to pick up some milk, to wash his sandwich down with. After he woofed down the last crust, he got involved in a pick up game of softball. Then, the bell rang and it was back to school–this time science class. After that was history and then shop.
As the day worn on, Jack felt his stomach churning with greater frequency. He moved through crowds of students changing classes. He felt detached. He found it difficult to concentrate on what any of his teachers were saying. In history, his favourite class, Mr. Evans asked him point blank in the middle of the lesson what year the battle of Actium occurred in. As it happened, Mr. Evans had just a moment beforehand, read that date to the class. Jack drew a blank. Mr. Evans then asked Jack what the significance of the Battle of Actium was for Cleopatra. But Jack hadn’t a clue. During the whole class, he had one concern. The fight played itself out again and again to different ends in his imagination, like some kind of psycho-dramatic scenario.
When the last bell rang, Jack found himself walking inexorably in the direction of the lot across the street where he knew Gonzales would be waiting and the crowds would be gathering. He screwed up his courage. It seemed, his palms were sweating blood.
Pancho’s girlfriend was on his arm. Yolanda saw Jack first and squealed, “There’s the little white dickhead!” Pancho looked in Jack’s direction. Gonzales did not look quite as arrogant as he had on the playground that morning. His jacket hung like a cape over his girlfriend’s shoulders. She was smiling up at him.
When Jack got within forty paces, he stopped. The crowd formed a circle around the two, the middle emptying and milling back towards the circumference. Pancho looked at Jack quizzically. Jack removed his jacket and layed it softly on the dirt. The two approached the centre. Pancho threw the first blow, a hay-maker towards Jack’s head but Jack ducked. Then he thrust forward and plowed head first into Pancho’s gut. With an “Ooff!” Pancho bent over. The wind had been knocked out him. Then Jack hooked his right foot over Pancho’s left foot while pushing the Mexican’s torso to the right and back. Gonzales fell with a thud to the ground. Jack turned and walked back towards his jacket. Pancho got up ran towards Jack. Hearing the quickened footsteps, Jack looked back over his shoulder. Pancho was coming at him full speed at about one second to impact. Jack started to run, but not soon enough. Gonzales caught him from behind, around the neck with his fat left arm. The pointed end of a beer can opener appeared rolled between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. With it, Pancho tore an inch of flesh from Jack’s cheek. Then, he let Jack slip from his grip.
Jack yelped with a ten-year old’s voice. As he dropped into the dust cloud scuffed up by the fight, sirens wailed.
“Get outta here, the fuzz!” a lone voice yelled from the stampeding herd of kids.
Jack was writhing and moaning in a fetal position. His jacket lay ten feet in front of him. Dust plumed thickly again as three police cars skidded into the vacant lot.