If I had to come up with a single word or phrase to describe the tilted little house I grew up in, it would be tight-lipped. It was like a house of Shakers. Of Grant Woods gothics. It was grudging and austere. It was lugubrious and dark. It was like a detention room in a strict high school. The loudest sound the buzz of fluorescence. It’s not that there wasn’t talking, it’s that any sort of noise, and human contact was discouraged.
My father was the only one who could break this mood but only if it suited him. If he was feeling rich and expansive, the lights were on and jazz was playing on his old RCA Victrola hi-fi. Living there was I think what it might be like to be soda in a shaken-up bottle. Once in a while you could burst out, but most of the time the cap was on and you were trapped, seething. You were closed inside the walls and even when you were out in the world, your sense of freedom was inhibited because you knew that re-incarceration would quickly follow.
When I was 11, my parents decided that I should go to summer camp in New Hampshire. I should get out of our decaying Yonkers neighborhood and play ball and swim in a real lake with other kids. I had never been away from home before and knew no one else who was going off to this camp. The night before I was to head over to the Adventurer’s Restaurant, a big, sprawling neon hamburger place in the Cross County Shopping Center just about a mile or so from my parents’ house and get the chartered bus to camp, my father came into the room I shared with my older brother. He sat down on my brothers’ bed, the lower bunk.
In those days, a kids’ knowledge of girls and sex was much more limited than it is today. This is before the airwaves and the internet and even retail stores were inundated with sexuality. Language also was less liberal than today. I had never heard my parents curse, even when they fought, and though I had a working cursing lexicon, I was far from fluent.
“Listen,” he said, “you’re going away tomorrow. Don’t be wild, ok?”
Years later, I realized this was my father’s sex talk with me. He had reduced the stuff of so many sitcoms, of so many fatherly chats, in a brilliance of economy, to just four words. Don’t be wild, ok?
As a consequence of this quiet din, I learned to handle issues in my life above my shoulders. That is, when I was troubled I would shut down my mouth, make blind my eyes and deafen my ears and draw upon the experiences I never had to solve, or attempt to solve what was bothering me. Doing so I found was better than the alternative.
Somehow, when I was just 14, for instance, I had made my high school’s varsity baseball team and was named, as a freshman, starting third baseman. This was a team full of cagey Hispanic kids who were lithe and fast and it consistently finished as one of the top squads in the county. After I played one or two rotten games at the start of the season, I was sure I was going to be relegated to the bench. I don’t know what came over me, I guess a nostalgia for something I never knew, but I told my father about it. He thought for a moment and then quoted Shakespeare, "Henry IV" to be exact. “Uneasy,” he said, “lies the head that wears a crown.” “Thanks, Dad,” I said. And I left the room.
Now it was a couple years later and I was going to my first high school dance. I left the house in a hurry. I wanted no advice, Shakespearean or otherwise, no matter how much I needed and I didn’t want anyone to catch me and give me some. Of course, I left the house nervous as well. There were two girls I liked and I wasn’t sure if they liked me back. It was my first dance and every bit as daunting as your first parachute jump into enemy territory.
I don’t remember much about the dance. I suppose I had a moderately lousy time, like pretty much everyone else did. There’s a type of kid who has a good time at dances, a good time at parties and I wasn’t one of them and never would be.
When I got home that evening my father was still awake. He wasn’t waiting up for me. He just hadn’t gone to sleep as yet. Maybe the ballgame had gone into extra innings or something. I sat down on the ottoman that went with his chair. He slid his bare feet over for me.
“How was the dance,” he asked me.
“It was ok.”
“Did you get drunk?”
“Did you get laid?”
“Then what the fuck did you go for?”