Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Year of Living Dangerously

On my eighteenth birthday, my sister brought my mother over to the house to try and normalize relations. My present was a blue jeans get-up that had elephant bells, a tight fit around the ass, and a vest to match. They brought a cake. We had a family moment amid the empty beer cans.

After that, I wore the new outfit constantly. My hair grew out. I was finally cool.

Meanwhile, life at the party house was becoming untenable. Mike was a nasty drunk, and it was taking less and less to get him there. By the time I left, he was down to an hour from first beer to belligerent dick. The parties were getting larger and more out of control, and police were showing up regularly to close us down.

I moved in with a friend I didn't like all that much to share an attic room in a house that had been partitioned all to shit. The landlord was a morbidly obese middle-aged Pepsi addict who worked at a tire shop. His name was Bob and he was a friend of Mike's. Saturday mornings we'd get high and watch cartoons. As landlords of shit housing go, he was a pretty decent guy. He got cheap rent to deal with the rest of us.

On the first floor, next to Bob's place, lived Cliff and Daisy. They were 40 going on 60 and usually drunk by three in the afternoon. Cliff and Daisy were talkers, and while I'd try to avoid them as I came and went, it wasn't always easy. Evenings at home basically meant hanging out in my attic cubby hole or getting loose with the neighbors. One night, Daisy sat close to me on the stairwell and asked if I believed in free love.

I said no.

Later, I would sell my dilapidated Country Squire station wagon to Cliff for $75. When we went to the DMV to transfer the registration his hands were shaking so badly he could barely sign his name. We stopped at a drive thru on the way home for a pint of White Port.

For a while, I drove this car with the gas line unhooked from its rear wheel well grommets and run up the side and through the back window into a two gallon can perched on the seat. I smoked. I knew this was dangerous, but, like all eighteen year olds, assumed immortality.

My mom saw it and wailed that this was "a time bomb." I told her not to worry.

The house with Mike was only three blocks away and I still hung out with them. Pat took over my room when I left, and Mike's underage girlfriend had gotten sick of his shit and moved her cute little ass into Pat's room. Now Mike was wasted pretty much all the time and stumbled around in a wounded fog. The large nightly parties continued.

A friend and I had left one of these to get cigarettes, and when we returned, there were eight police cars parked in a broad semi-circle, shining their floods on the house. Several of the cops had taken firing stances behind their open car doors. Pat came out with a rifle cracked open at the bolt held high above his head. The police rushed to take his weapon and took him down in cuffs.

Pat had told some kid to leave who didn't feel like it, and pulled out a rifle to make his point. The kid was a jerk and called the cops. In the end, no charges were filed, but it was a wake-up call for Mike. He moved back home with his mom, joined AA, and became a huge fan of the PTL club. This, for him, was all a step in the right direction. He'd always been a wiz with small electronics, and soon found happiness fixing toasters and stuff at the downtown Goodwill.

Meanwhile I moved several more times and worked as I could. The summer job at Augustana was soon over. I lied about my ability to drive a standard to get a landscaping job and managed to fake my way through. This was back breaking work and I quit in less than a month. It was a frigid morning, and I was on my hands and knees in front of a Burger King planting what seemed like hundreds of evenly spaced three inch seedlings. I decided it wasn't worth it and wandered off without a word.

They tried to stiff me on the final paycheck, but I went to some hole in the wall legal aid outfit and they heard me out and wrote a letter. The check was ready within days.

I spent a few weeks digging ditches in hard red clay with a jack hammer, did a bit of farm labor, and worked for several months in a potato chip factory. This involved driving an elevated tractor — called a Spudnik — that was outfitted with a conveyor belt shovel blade into semis filled with potatoes. The spuds would run down the belt and up a chute to drop onto a 10-foot brown mountain. We'd walk around on top and spread them about with big push brooms.

For a few months I lived in a nice rooming house, but it was more than I could afford. There were a couple of different roadside motels that charged weekly rent. When coming up with a month's rent no longer worked, these were a good fall back. I was always on the lookout for a cheaper place. The last four or five months I lived in Sioux Falls I was in a room above the Arrow Bar and across from the Nashville Club. Out my window, I'd see the regulars wait on the sidewalk for the doors to re-open at seven.

By then I'd found full-time work at Component Manufacturing, a light assembly operation that made mobile home rafters. In Sioux Falls, there was plenty of work if you were eighteen and willing to accept minimum wage and no benefits. The good union jobs were all in meatpacking, and although these were dangerous and had dismal work conditions, everyone wanted in.

I was hanging with some pretty rough people, and they didn't always like me. There were a few different girlfriends at that time, and there were hard feelings around one named Lisa whose last boyfriend was less than resigned. I pulled her out of a fight one night when she got jumped at a party, and that pissed some people off. Her nose had been bitten up, but not badly enough to need stitches.

A few weeks later, I was hitching my way downtown and hopped into the back of a pick-up. My body tensed, but I didn't pay attention. The truck sped out of town. I didn't have the guts to jump. It took dirt roads off the highway to a wooded area. When the truck stopped, I was alone with three enemies. One was the girl who had jumped Lisa, and there were two big guys as well. She held the knife.

"Take off your clothes," she ordered. I looked at the knife. "Why?" "I'm not going to cut it off," she laughed. "Just do it." There was a kick from behind. "Now." I did it.

I was forced to roll in the mud. They kicked me a few more times, took my clothes, and left. I made my way through the woods to a small lake, and there were people and cars. I called out from the bushes. Some guy brought me a blanket and gave me a ride to my place above the Arrow.

I wrapped a steel chin-up bar with friction tape to offer a better grip and tracked them down. A party was happening. They were expected. I went there.

A friend's step mom who was maybe thirty-five and had known me since I was fifteen caught wind of my plan and showed up to intervene. She pulled me out of the house to talk underneath a fire escape. I'd go to prison, she said. It wasn't worth it. Our faces were close. She kissed me on the lips.

We got high and the adrenaline slowly drained away. I took my taped bar and left. She dropped me off downtown and we never spoke again of what had happened.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

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