All of this happened. One guy I knew really met his maker on some train tracks in Wisconsin. I used to live in Northport, a village on the North Shore of Long Island. My friend Carl Bullard, otherwise known as “Crazy Carl,” called it Nutsport, and the name stuck, at least between us and the other members of our gang. It looked a lot like West Lafayette, Indiana, minus the Atlantic Ocean. I swear to you, I saw Patti Lu Pone making out with some other woman in a booth of Otto’s Shipwreck diner one night. The downtown scenes of the movie “In and Out” were photographed there; don’t cry for me, Argentina.
I went back to Long Island last year. I stayed at my sister Nicole’s place. On my second night there, I got together with Matt Fleming, my oldest friend. We hung out in his favorite haunt, Gunther’s Tap Room, a bar famous for the milky track lights that drench every barstool and the steady presence of Jack Kerouac during the last years of his life. The Dharma still burns.
We made friends with Nutsport’s foremost citizens, an ex-Navy Seal who also fancies himself as “Gunther’s Best.” His name is Spud Crowley. He told us that he grew up in a bungalow that stood where the Macy’s side of the Walt Whitman Mall is currently situated. We asked him what is was like to grow up without a shopping mall, and he said that it was terrible, because you had to go to church to meet girls, and religious settings didn’t provide too many opportunities for necking, unless you managed to get a quick piece in the confession booths after hours, but that happened with “Halley’s Comet-like frequency.”
Things were worse for Spud now. “My life is a fucking country song,” he said. He was recently divorced, and lost his house in the settlement. He was now living in a studio apartment behind the train station downtown. The constant rattling of the trains gave him headaches like you wouldn’t believe; too much football without a helmet, he joked. And yet, as bad as all of this was, his kid sister was shot and killed in the Colin Ferguson rampage on the Long Island Railroad. As Specs put it, this was “the star on my Christmas tree of misery.” Oh me, oh life.
He sent Fleming a card for Easter, and this is what it said:
“Happy stupid Easter to you and your beer drinking buddy and I pray that we’ll drink again—in a brothel of honky-tonk women with nipples calling out to us like secret satellite dishes, should god forget.”
I adore that: “should god forget.”
I would love to tell you what this collection of words afforded me in acquaintances and friends. When I moved to southern Illinois, I figured it would be easy for me to write about my times in the Walt Whitman Mall, since I would only need to pick and choose from my food court of memories. And I thought, too, that it would be a major motion picture, since it was a story so immediate that you want to thank god young Joey Nicoletti survived it, mostly so he could write the book.
But hardly any words came to me about the Walt Whitman Mall; even less fell in my notebook then, barely enough for a poem, let alone a short story. A few more words are coming now, as an aging Generation X’er with his words and his scars, his unborn children.
I think of how eager the Walt Whitman Mall part of my subconscious is to leap out of my head like a Flying Walenda, and I am reminded of my Mother’s favorite song lyrics:
This is the time to remember Because it will not last forever These are the days to hold onto Because we won’t although we’ll want to This is the time A time that’s gonna’ change I know we’ve gotta’ move somehow But I don’t wanna’ lose you now
And I’m reminded, too, of the old joke that goes:
What’s black and white and red all over?
Read all about it.
As I get older, the people I meet often ask why I left New York, and I’ve always replied that the main reason was to return.
I said that to Cyrus Humm, the one-time boxer, one time, and he lowered his head and said, “It’s tough to do, you know.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Sure is.”
“Do you know what I tell people when they say they’re coming back?”
“I give up. Tell me, Joey.”
“I say, why don’t you fly to Mars instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that Mars was far away, and that it was as easy to go there as it is to the scene of your childhood. I concur.
And even if Mars was just as far away as childhood, there was always adulthood.
When I finished graduate school, I asked Fleming if I could pay him a visit. We used to be in a band called The Overweight Anorexic. He was still the drummer and living with his parents. He was also the only one of our gang of friends who still lived on the Island. We grew up on the same street, six houses apart. We expected to make it big after high school, but we were living from paycheck to paycheck. Like many a pair of friends before and after us, our interests and pursuits had drifted us apart. It had been years since we’d spoken.
His parents changed their phone number. As was the case with the previous number, the new one was also unlisted. After several failed attempts, I finally found his cell phone number on the Internet, via the Facebook social network. Talk about your technological advances. I’m an insomniac. When I can’t sleep, I wake up my computer, and deactivate my cell and home phones. And then, hitting the keyboard like a crazed Beethoven, I enter the names of old friends into the site’s inner space, hoping to make contact with intelligent life; to boldly go where no one cares.
This is how Fleming and I were reunited. I am tall and he is short. Everyone called us Penn and Teller in school: if only we were as talented. He yelled “Joey” before I could finish my sentence. The band had just finished a rehearsal. He sounded tired. The other band members had just left.
“Matty-Ass,” I said, “I’m working on a story about the Walt Whitman Mall. I can use a hand with my memories. I was wondering if I could fly out and see you, we could make chilidogs, drink many beers and reminisce.”
He was stoked. He said he remembered everything. He told me to come see him whenever I could.
“I think I’ll begin the story with Justin Kayal and Monica Horowitz,” I said. “It’s perfect. Boy meets girl. Boy gets rejected by girl. Boy beats up girl’s boyfriend when she gets shoved into a car. Boy gets girl. Boy and girl elope to Edmonton, because both love Wayne Gretzky. Oh Canada becomes their wedding song. Love. Hate. Violence. Sex. Music. its kismet, don’t you think?”
“Sure,” said Fleming.
“Don’t you think that’s an engaging opening?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I’m not a hockey fan.”
I first brainstormed the Walt Whitman Mall story in my Freshman Composition notebook. The best draft I ever wrote was at the Hamburg Inn, in Iowa City, Iowa. My brain was fueled by a buttery-tasting order of two fired eggs and corned beef hash, rife with potatoes dashed in Tabasco sauce and red pepper flakes assaulting my tongue; it was a heavenly start to the day.
I used a multi-colored Bic pen that I found in my overcoat pocket. I used one color for each of the characters in the story. Red was for Monica, because she was the romantic interest. I used green for Justin, since he was a virgin; unknown to women in the Shakespearian sense, and acutely unaware about how precarious life could be. Blue was for John Dempsey, who committed suicide by jumping in front of a train somewhere in Wisconsin, just after he’d been released from prison. Any mentioning of the Walt Whitman Mall was written in black ink to represent the bane of the character’s existence, as well as the peace they would all eventually obtain; whether the peace was momentary or eternal.
The end, where the colors stopped, was a cottage in Eaton’s Neck, a small island connected to Nutsport by a bridge. The moon was rising. Questions were being asked. The curtain had been raised for Whitman’s powerful play, as described in his poem, “Oh Me, Oh Life.” The high school graduations in America had been over for three months. Teenagers were still signing yearbooks, with phrases like “Don’t ever change,” “Keep in touch.” Jeannie Eppolito, the first girl I was ever interested in, wrote, “Have a neat summer.” We were waving good-bye, to everyone; our parents, brothers, sisters, friends, store-owners, our first crushes, teachers, hundreds of thousands of us about to start determining our answers; what our verses would be.
And below the paper were other acquaintances and friends, some of whom would stay behind. On our last day in the mall together, Fleming and I climbed into his car. He didn’t have any souvenirs. Everyone else did. I had a Darth Vader glass from Burger King, still do. Crazy Carl had about 20 CD’s and records he stole from Sam Goody. He stole these things to give as gifts to Trish Berger, his ex-girlfriend, who dumped him for Bobby Sbarro, the sole heir to the Sbarro eatery fortune. Oh me, oh life.
Eli Frazier, who never received a grade lower than a 99 % in high school, had a souvenir of sorts in his knapsack: he would reach into the bag every now and then, and his hand would emerge as a clenched fist. He would then pump his fist in the air, and say, “Knowledge is power.”
I thought that this was pretentious bullshit, but I was mistaken. Eli needed someone to confide in, and I was that someone. One day, he reached in again, and opened his fist. He had a picture of the mushroom cloud of the atom bomb.
“Imagination isn’t more important than knowledge,” he said.
Fleming, Crazy Carl and I shared one last night out together in our meeting spot. We were in Fleming’s whip, double-parked in the lot of our 7-11, which was across the street from the mall. The mall had been closed for hours. The moon flashed its toothy grin and we slurped the night away with Carl’s famous “Bodacious Big Gulps.” They were compiled of a “few cups of Cherry Coke” and “a few many more of assorted vodkas” from Fleming’s parents’ liquor cabinet. “I’m So Bored with the USA,” crackled from the tape deck. The next thing I knew, Carl gave Fleming a “Kettle One Skyy Coke shower.” The face of Jesus seemed to glare 14 karat-gold disapproval from the charm glued to the middle of the steering wheel of Fleming’s nickel-gray Buick Skylark, sticky with brown drops of Kettle One Skyy Coke.
Fleming’s nostrils flared like fireworks over Jones Beach during low tide.
“You wet hair!” Fleming yelled as he grabbed the Kettle One bottle. Crazy Carl ran out of the car. Fleming chased him around the parking lot with the empty vodka bottle, wielding it like a battle ax, as if he was Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian, only without any strength or practiced skill. Although I can’t remember everything Fleming said at that particular moment, his blaring expressions of discontent generally bespoke influences of Rodney Dangerfield and George Carlin, peppered with a Darren McGavin-like flair to it, courtesy of his performance in A Christmas Story.
“Time to play hide and go fuck yourself, you mundane noodle!” Fleming yelled. Thin streams of residue vodka lined the bottle as he swung it unsuccessfully at Crazy Carl’s shaved head.
Crazy Carl howled his wolfish laughter as he and Fleming ran around the parking lot in circles. Countless empty cigarette packs, Styrofoam containers from McDonalds and beer cans were crushed in the process.
“Go get him, Matty-Ass!” I called out.
“Not a finger!”
Within minutes, Crazy Carl jumped in his burgundy Chevy Malibu, parked at the other end of the lot, and peeled out. As he pulled further away, the tinted glass windows rolled down gradually, enough to hear Mick Jones’s sharp guitar bursting from the stereo, serrating the soopersada-like Long Island Summer air.
Then we began the rest of our lives. I met my wife, MB, at a house party in Las Cruces, New Mexico. We discussed the works of Joyce—MB said that she was her favorite writer. Mucho Gusto, indeed.
We now cut and paste together.
And I’m all grown up now, and I’m an aging Generation X’er, with his scars and his unborn children. These are the days to hold onto. But we won’t, although we’ll want to.
When I can’t sleep, I sometimes try to find my old flames on Facebook, amidst the hooting of innumerable owls. I always enter their names into the allotted spaces. “Jean-Marie Eppolito.”
“Your search was unsuccessful” is usually the response: I always forget that some crushes marry. Names change. Have a neat summer.
And I either feed our youngest or I talk to him. I let her know that I care about him. He’ll return my affections with a snore. He doesn’t care if I stay up late.
“Hey Casey Stengel,” I’ll say to our Boston Terrier. “Pork is not a verb.”
When computing doesn’t work, I turn on the DVD player and watch an M. Night Shyamalan film; there’s always a twist, and Paul Giamatti has gradually become one of my favorite actors. Nothing is too small for my insomnia.
I eventually fall asleep, and Casey wakes me up. His bladder is smaller than mine, which is saying something. I’ve taken him out four times on more than one night. He loves it, though: so many poplar trees to smell, patches of crab grass to piss on. I love the bark of every tree in southern Illinois, which I can always taste, slick with rain.
Sometimes I think about my undergraduate days at the University of Iowa. In my first semester, I had a philosophy instructor who told me to eat as much food as you can at other people’s parties. I wonder if he’s still there.
Another thing I learned was to consider all opinions. After my parents were divorced, my father told me, “There’s no point in trying to write for a living—you’ll only become famous when you die, and that’s if you’re weird, like that Emily Dickinson broad.”
I replied that I could not stop for death.
While I was learning to tell the truth slant, I was also a disc jockey for KRUI, the University of Iowa college radio station. I usually worked the graveyard shift, which meant that almost nobody heard me, so I could play whatever my little pancreas desired.
One night I played Public Enemy’s “Louder than a Bomb.” A listener called in, and said, “Nice choice, man. Love that song.”
“Thanks,” I said, somewhat surprised. I never got phone calls.
“I have a request—do you take them?”
“Well, could you play ‘The Harder they Come,’ and dedicate it to Keith?”
After he made the request, the caller explained that he and his fiancé were visiting his brother Keith in Chicago, and they were driving to a restaurant to celebrate the housewarming of his new apartment. Keith had just moved there from Rock Island. Some young men were driving around stoned on homegrown and god knows what else. They crashed into the caller’s whip. Everyone survived, but Keith was in a coma for five weeks. When he woke up, he had to have his right arm amputated. Oh me, oh life.
A few years later, I found work in a bakery in Lincoln, Nebraska, and volunteered at the city’s literacy center, which was my first teaching job. The owner, Eldonna Hazen, my boss, was one of the most affable women I have ever met. She was married to the assistant coach of the University of Nebraska’s Women’s Volleyball team. The bakery was also a deli-restaurant, where many of the university athletes hung out and ate, especially the volleyball and football players. When I was in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers were at the summit of the college football world; they had won three consecutive National championships. There were several future NFL players on the team, along with seven convicted felons, three of which were found guilty on charges of rape. I knew one of the victims: I almost got fired for refusing to serve her assaulter.
By this time, I had grown a beard. I got my left ear pierced, which made look like a pinned caveman. I fancied myself a one-man fraternity: those were my “defy you” years. A few of the bakery’s customers had kids that hung out with the freckled children of our All-American, clean-cut, young neighbors. The meanest customers in Lincoln, I thought, the nastiest and rudest, the ones who loved Lincoln the most, were the ones who never heard of Walt Whitman or his mall; so much for lilacs blooming in dooryards. Oh me, oh life.
About four months after I called Fleming, I finally went and visited him. This was a few years back, when Jam Master Jay scratched craters and grooves off the moon for the last time. E pluribus Unum. These are the days to hold onto. Your sons and your daughters are laughing at Ben Stiller every time he gets kicked in the crotch.
I still remember the flight back: I was woken up by a lethal combination of the stench of Gerber peas and peanut-sized raindrops pounding the 727 as if it was a funeral drum. I felt as groggy as the speaker of Tomas Tranströmer’s poem, “A Winter Night,” when a storm puts its mouth to a house and blows a note.
I kept thinking about my sister Nicole, who was meeting me at LaGuardia with my brother John; how we’d howl with laughter as we passed the house where John pissed in Nicole’s face, just after he was brought home from the hospital. This has become something of a tradition whenever I go back east: John and Nicole meet me at the airport. Then we drive to our Father’s condominium, and John starts talking about the “shot heard around the L.I.E.,” as it has come to be known. Nicole shakes her head and laughs. She’s such a good sport. I wish I had that quality.
I imagined my father sitting in his big burgundy Lazy-Boy recliner, dozing off to NBC’s “Live at Five” news report with Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons. No doubt he’d wake up
in a panicked frenzy when we got there, beads of sweat blooming on his ruddy face, his scarred mouth apologizing profusely for the “mess:” the past week’s newspapers stacked on the kitchen table, standing as if it were, to use his phrase, “The Tower of Babel.” After some small talk and catching up over a dinner of pizza and calzones, we usually watch at least two of the movies starring the original Star Trek cast, always starting with “The Wrath of Khan;” at 66, it’s still his favorite guilty pleasure: to boldly go where no one cares.
About halfway through the film and after many Seven and Sevens, the muse presents herself to my father. He claims that she’s “hot to trot,” whispering idea after idea in his ear. The problem, however, to paraphrase a Led Zeppelin album title, is that the idea always remains the same: he’ll call my Uncle Michael, his brother. My Aunt Karen always answers the phone, “Hello Bear, he’s right here.” You have to love my Aunt Karen: she calls everyone “Bear,” whether she cares for them or not. More than my Uncle’s second wife, she’s also the mother of two girls, phone call-screener extraordinaire, and my family’s unofficial high priestess of the slant rhyme.
Once Uncle Michael gets on the line, my father will yell “Khan” into the phone, a la William Shatner in “Wrath,” albeit with his ridiculously-nasal Flushing, Queens Accent, for as loud and long as he can. Then he’ll put Uncle Michael on speakerphone, so that he can be assured that his mission to break his balls is complete. At this point, the machine gun of my Uncle Michael’s tongue will fire at will, proclaiming that my father can’t, among other things, “ad-lib a piss after a six pack” before the burnt toast of his voice chars into a dial tone. Tradition; it’s what’s for dessert.
Somehow I fell back asleep. I dreamt that I hit the second fair ball out of the old Yankee Stadium. Josh Gibson and Thurman Munson high-fived me at home plate. Portia de Rossi, Lucy
Liu and Salma Hayek blew kisses to me from the stands. The sky was raining bicentennial quarters as Joan Jett’s rendition of “Love is All Around” blared from the stadium speakers.
Then I was 11 years old again, sitting with my grandfather in his dining room with the yellow and vermilion floral wallpaper. My grandfather took drags of his cigar, grinning, oblivious to the mosquitoes hovering over his skyscraper-thick wrists. I scribbled furiously in my notebook as my mother signed the permission slip for my field trip to the Walt Whitman house, our living room awash in the Tin Pan Alley flair of some scratched Billy Joel album; the Manhattan Skyline lights in the silvery wind, mouthing off to the night as the plane inches closer and closer to LaGuardia’s watery runway.