(Re)Collection #27: Parents Pt.3
Updated: Mar 31
In 1973, when I was 6 years old, my dad got a job in Clearwater, Florida in real estate. He had a hard time keeping jobs so this was a big deal. He was an alcoholic and a frustrated photographer. Being a provider was not his strong suit.
What I was excited about was going to Florida. Disney World was there. Everyone lived on the beach. Or so I thought. We rented a small ranch house in a scrubby, dusty housing development. I didn't have any concept of how bland and ugly it was. It was all new and there was lots of stuff to explore-swamps, creeks, fields and farms.
I loved Florida. Hunting for water moccasins and rattlesnakes, making bike jumps, taking care of the horses that were stabled in a barn at the edge of our housing development, blowing stuff up with fire crackers. It was all novel. The highlight of my stay there was undoubtedly my 7th birthday when I received a bright orange 3 speed bike with a banana sheet and a sissy bar. Somewhere I have a picture of me sitting on it in front of our house wearing a white wife beater t-shirt and striped shorts. My mom styled my platinum blonde hair in the ever popular bowl cut.
Then the bottom fell out in the middle of first grade. My father had left the family without so much as a word. He vanished shortly before Christmas 1973. We packed our stuff in our white Opel station wagon with fake wood paneling and loaded that onto the AutoTrain and made our way back north to D.C. My mom had no job, no money, no place to stay and no way to get a place to stay. It was grim.
Our good friends the Crowleys generously let us stay with them until my mom found something and could afford a down payment on an apartment. She was very tough and determined, but I can just imagine how excruciatingly stressful it all must have been. Two young kids, 7 and 10, and she hadn't worked for a few years prior to that.
My mom was a beast on the typewriter, very organized and loved politics. She found a job working as a secretary for Polly Shackleton, the D.C. City Council person for Ward 3(the equivalent of an Alderman in Chicago government). We could now afford the security deposit and rent for an apartment. We found one on McKinley Street, one block from the Chevy Chase Community Center (on a punk rock music side note, that community center was where Rites of Spring played with Embrace in Fall of 1985. Of course, I was not there. I was away at college.) We lived above a pediatrist, a foot doctor.
In 1974, the Washington Capitals entered the NHL. They had the worst record in the league for years to come. I started playing hockey at the age of 7. My friend Ian and I carpooled together to practice. His dad would drive us in his two seat, mid-engine Porsche, a green 914. Because we were small, Ian would sit on my lap, both of us fully dressed in our hockey gear minus our skates, sticks poking out of the targa top, and the rest of our gear in the front trunk. It must have been a sight.
Ian and I were good friends and teammates for a few years. We hung out on the weekends and even went to hockey camp together up in Rhode Island at Providence College and in Connecticut. He had bright red hair, freckles and an on/off switch temper. I learned quickly not to call him Red or Fire Ant. He would start swinging. He split time between his mom in Philadelphia and his dad who lived in D.C. and also had a crazy temper. My mom dated him.
We spent a lot of time in Rock Creek Park exploring the woods. We hoped we might find a gun, a knife, treasure or a dead body or something. Most of the time we just found liquor bottles and rusty beer cans. One afternoon, we climbed down into a tunnel under the road in the wooded park that was a few blocks from my house. Inexplicably, we found a Hefty trash bag full of porno mags. What?
We were too young to understand what they really were about, but we were smart enough to know we shouldn't have them. It was our secret. We would go and visit them every few days and look at the pictures. We were really curious, but we knew it was wrong somehow and felt guilty. Then we came back one day after a big rain storm. Rock Creek flowed through the tunnel and had swept them away. They were magically gone, our secret adult stash. I wonder why they were in that tunnel in the first place. Creepy.
Ian and I both rode skateboards. We were fascinated by them. My mom saw this and got me a subscription to Skateboarder Magazine. I didn't have any concept of how you were supposed to ride one. Which leg do you push with, right or left? Does the pushing foot go on the front of the board or the back? I could not tell from the photos. I ended up settling on riding with my right foot on the back of the board as I pushed with my left foot. I had no idea pushing Mongo was considered wrong and an indication that you knew nothing about skateboarding. I still push Mongo. Too old to change now.
Skateboarder Magazine was filled with moody, sunset photos of beautiful, blonde-haired people carving bowls, graffiti-covered snake runs and bombing down steep, deserted California roads. My skateboard life bore no resemblance. Rough concrete, bad weather and the constant ridicule of teenagers and adults. We didn't care.
There were a good number of hills in our neighborhood, but most were very sketchy with a lot of traffic. One Saturday afternoon, Ian and I decided to ride our skateboards up to Higger's Drug on Connecticut Avenue. It was a mile away. Ian's dad had a lot of money and gave him a decent allowance. I was perpetually broke. The Moocher.
We rolled up there and got our modest haul of junk food. Since Ian was paying, I got Susie Qs and a bottle of Coke. Ian got a bottle of Coke as well. On the way home, we decided to take the alleys since there was usually no car traffic. But the alleys had there own deadly hazards like brutally uneven pavement, nails, glass and rocks. Even though I had a G&S Bowl Rider with soft Sims wheels, those hazards will still bring you to a sudden stop. Screeeeeeeech. And away you fly head first.
We carved our way down the hills and were a block away from my house. The alley behind our house had the worst pavement of any in the neighborhood. It was a gritty mix of old, shattered concrete and bumpy asphalt. We were flying, shouting to each other and laughing, having a great time. Ian had me hold his Coke bottle for some reason. The Susie Qs were long gone but the sticky, chocolate sponge cake residue was still all over my hands and mouth.
One moment I am ripping down the alley, the next moment I am airborne flailing headfirst tightly gripping both glass bottles. I hit the ground hard. In the process, I had dropped one of the bottles, it shattered and I landed on top of the shards and slid. At first I laughed. Then Ian pointed at my arms and legs. I was covered in blood.
Both of us grabbed our boards and took off down the alley. I was scared to show my mom what I had done to myself. But the sight of so much blood overpowered that. I ran into the house. Fortunately, my dad was there. He was never around but that day he was. Incredible. He listened calmly to my breathless, incoherent retelling of the fall. Then he grabs me by the arm and takes me outside to the garden hose.
The hose did a good job cleaning out all the glass and dirt from the deep cuts. Man, did it hurt though. My dad laughed. He then poured a bottle of hydrogen peroxide in all the cuts. I thought the hose was bad. Yeeeeeeeeooooooooow! He said that is what happens when you do stupid shit.
I was shocked, but it stopped me from worrying. If he thought I didn't need to go to the doctor, then I was fine. God knows I didn't want to go to the hospital. My dad as unphased. He took care of me.
That's the way he was. Distant and absent most of the time, but when shit happened he was cooler than I'll ever be. I think he learned that from his dad. My granddad was a tough Italian man who lived through the Depression. He was a social worker and youth boxing coach. He trained Sugar Ray Robinson when he was a youngster. And my father, though he had adopted the behavior and demeanor of a groovy artist, was not soft. He was not scared of much. I think my granddad beat that into him. I wish we could have shared more times like that in my young life. The cuts and bruises heal. The missed experiences are far worse.