Friday, August 28, 2015

Unsafe at Any Speed


Most days we'd ride our bikes the few miles down the road to Johnny Machado's house as there were few other places to go within striking distance and Johnny, a couple of critical years older, was always up to something. Past the relentless, summer-roasted carnage of bloated possum roadkill and flattened corn-snakes pressed into the blistering blacktop, past the German Shepherd at the corner of the Shun Pike who had himself managed to avoid this fate despite a ravenous appetite for fleeting fenders and children on bicycles. Finally, we'd put on extra speed to race past the endless stretch of pasture where Billy Hitchcock experimented with raising emaciated cattle on a diet of factory-second Snickers Bars and Lucky Charms, closing our noses to the stench, risking a mouthful of bluebottles, or just clamping down and holding our breath for the last few hundred yards. In a year or so, Billy Hitchcock would invite Timothy Leary to come live at the estate, which would open an entirely new realm of possibilities for us, but for now, and until the epic, Biafran swarms of blow flies drove the Machados to greener pastures, we were content to while away the long afternoons watching skinny, spavined steers in back-lit silhouette tip over and die from starvation and neglect.

Johnny had a Corvair and a girlfriend, donned the first bandana and enjoyed the admiration of most of the kids we knew. As the Leary era took hold it was Johnny who organized unsuccessful infiltrations onto the grounds in search of Roger McGuinn, Jim Morrison or the host of other demigods and culture heroes rumored to be living there. Legend has it he actually made it in himself at least once, spending a night chewing blotter with the Byrds, and we soon gave up gawking at cows to hang around the Hitchcock gate-house where such celebrities might be shaken down in passing by the local constabulary – or Pigs, as we'd come to call them – and frequent, dramatic raids were staged by a man named G.Gordon Liddy, an assistant DA who would later become known more broadly for his own transgressions.

The night that Johnny's status rose from mere approbation to flirt with the heroic was a Friday, the start of a three-day party he'd organized while his parents were in Puerto Rico.  Muffin was coming in on the Trailways, so we piled into the Fairlane wagon sometime after dark and headed in to town to pick him up. In those days the bus stopped at the Millbrook Diner and, as Johnny lurched to a sloppy stop before the plate-glass window, stumbled out and set his wine glass on the roof, I may have been the only one among us sober enough to notice the row of  Sheriff's Deputies and Staties seated at the counter who swiveled in unison to gaze in awe at our arrival. Stuffing Muffin and his bedroll in the back we set off down the deserted street, weaving in and out beneath the lamplights as the main drag gave way to a pitch-black country road.

The strobes and sirens caught up with us within a half a mile and, in the giddy confusion of our revelry, it took Johnny a few hundred yards and the deployment of the cruiser's loudspeaker to finally pull over and come to a stop. I'm not sure what substances beyond Cold Duck and Mateus were on board, but under the glare of his high-beams a half a dozen of us emerged like Bozos from the clown car to be baton-prodded and poked into position along the flanks and hood of the Fairlane. Few of us had identification - my junior membership card from The Museum of Modern Art seemed to provoke rather than mollify the cop – and, after warning us all not to move a muscle, the deputy searched the car and gave the rest of us a cursory pat-down before turning his full attention to Johnny.

While we sat, despairing, in the wagon, the cop grabbed Johnny by the collar of his one-piece, Army-surplus flight suit and threw him, spread-eagle, across the hood before us. Gripping him from behind in an awkward bear-hug, he then began the process of thrusting his hands into each of the suit's many flaps and pockets, starting at the epaulets and working his way down. We could hear Johnny trying to warn him about something, but the cop just told him to shut up and kept working his way, roughly and with prejudice, down the torso to the two, zippered side pockets at Johnny's waist. These, it seems, were not pockets at all, but openings designed to allow access to one's trouser pockets, assuming one was wearing trousers which, sadly, Johnny was not. With one last, dramatic flourish and thrust, the cop had plunged both hands up to the forearms into Johnny's unswaddled loins, resulting in an horrific dance under the headlights as the two of them, locked together, prodigious belly to back, careened about the road shoulder, snorting and howling like a pair of mating beasts.

Eventually uncoupled, the cop, red-faced, chagrined and furious, slapped the cuffs on Johnny Machado and threw him in the back of the cruiser, instructing Muffin, the only other one with a driver's license, to proceed ahead with the rest of us back to town. There we waited in the courtroom while the sole village judge was awoken from his slumber to arraign Johnny on charges of driving under the influence and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. “I imagine I'll be speaking with your father about this, Johnny.” Said the judge. “ I imagine I'll be speaking with him, too.” Replied Johnny, flashing us that wonderful, indomitable grin.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


         About a week after I began stealing chocolate Easter-eggs at the Five and Dime on Lexington they sprung their trap and nailed me. I'd been stopping by every afternoon on my walk home from the bus-stop and thought I'd had the con pretty well in hand; moseying down the Easter aisle with my book-bag open, assuming a casual air of innocence and indifference while idly sweeping the colorful bags of chocolates into the gaping satchel with all the apathy of a midnight croupier raking in the chips. I'm not sure why I wasted my larcenous adventures on something so petty and pointless as these generic, waxy candies, but, like the magpie, I was compelled as much by the colorful foil as the imitation chocolate flavor and found them irresistible and addictive. Having taken my limit, I'd saunter through Toys and Stationary just for the effect, pausing to consider a fountain pen or model airplane on my way back to the front of the store. Confident I'd gone undetected, I stepped out that afternoon into the crushing horde emerging from the Bloomingdale's subway stop and let the massive flow carry me upstream.

   Within a dozen yards my progress was impeded by a man in janitorial gray, arms folded across his chest, who seemed determined to bar my way. I feinted right, then left, to no avail. Finally I looked up, past the muscled forearms, past the red-stitched pocket patch that read “Manny”, to a swarthy, scowling face and the first indication that something in my plan may just have gone awry. “Whatcha got in that bag, kid?” Manny barked, grabbing the brief-case and wrenching it open. My stomach rose in my throat, my ears began to ring and a cold sweat broke across my forehead. My first thought, of course, was to play dumb and, by way of diversion I trotted out a meaningless melange of the French and Latin they'd just started us on in that fourth-grade year at school. “Pardon?” I asked. “Quo vadis?” If I'd imagined that dealing with this foreign boy might prove too complex for Manny, my hopes were quickly dashed as he demanded, “You got a receipt for that?” Pedestrians had begun to collect; a bit of gawking had commenced around this tiny, urban drama. I looked back down at the sidewalk, casting about for an answer. “I ... threw it away?” I ventured, indicating the trash-can some twenty feet behind us that we both knew I'd never gotten close to. Manny grabbed my elbow, “You're coming with me.” He said, dragging me through the parting crowd and back into the store.

   “We've been watching you all week.” The manager told me. I sat in the hard wooden chair next to the desk he'd emptied my loot out on to. I needed to pee; my mouth was dry, my legs had lost all feeling. “What's your name, Slick?” Nothing came to mind; I drew a blank. Suddenly recalling the marquee of the movie house up the block on Third, I blurted out triumphantly, “Tom Jones!”  in what would become the first alias in a cat-and-mouse game that would go on between us for the next hour or more. I'm not sure what I expected when he lifted the phone, dialed the bogus number I'd given and said, “Good evening. Am I speaking with Mrs. Jones?” Suffice to say, though, that just coming upon that first handy moniker opened the creative floodgates and there followed a veritable who's-who of random surnames stretching from the obvious, Smith, through such paragons of popular culture as Don Knotts, Fess Parker and even Johnny Mathis. It's entirely possible that this man had never heard of any of these people, as he dutifully dialed each of the fabricated phone numbers I offered before finally losing his cool. “You think this is funny? You think this is a game, wise-ass? This is your last chance; you give me your real name and number or I'm calling the cops and you're going downtown!” I didn't believe him. I took one last stab at it, as if I thought I could wear him down through attrition. It was nearly five; they'd have to close up soon and let me go. “ Tom Jones.” I said again. He called the cops.

   The squad car showed up with siren blaring and lights flashing. In the time it took the patrolmen to reach the office at the back of the store I'd panicked, of course, and spilled the beans. They put the cuffs on and one of them led me out through the gauntlet of lingering customers and sympathetic shop-girls in powder blue smocks who cooed and simpered solicitously at this poor child's rough treatment. I sat in the back of the car as the nausea set in. “Now you've done it, kid; we gotta take you downtown.” The cop said while we waited for his partner. And they did take me downtown, for about ten terrifying blocks before turning east, circling back uptown and pulling to a stop in front of our house. My mother was waiting at the door. “Just you wait until your father gets home!” She said.

    Years later, in the midst of a raging winter storm on a night I'd have been well advised to spend at home, I found myself trudging up College Hill to catch a glimpse of a former girlfriend who was passing through town with the boyfriend from back home. He and I had never met and, in the delirium induced by unrequited love, I'd convinced myself that it would be perfectly reasonable to show up, assume an alias and share a few beers. By the time I'd reached Brown Street the snow was waist deep and I presented myself, exhausted, drenched in sweat and caked in ice at the apartment where they were staying. If her girlfriends were surprised to see me in their foyer, they stifled their horror long enough to lead me to the kitchen where a shocked and speechless Jenny rose stammering from the table, struggling in a futile effort to come up with something to say by way of an introduction to her boyfriend. “Oh, my,” she choked. “This...This is...I'd like you to meet...”

    “Tom Jones.” I offered, extending a hand towards my rival. It was the first thing that popped into my head and, were it not for the sudden uncomfortable hush, the wide eyes and ashen complexions of the girls now backed up in confusion against the kitchen walls, I might have pulled it off. As it was, we managed maybe ten minutes worth of small talk before Jenny and her man left the room to engage in a heated discussion around this sudden turn of events. I opted for the kitchen window, crawling out onto the fire escape, sliding down the icy ladder and hanging there - buffeted by the strobes and rotor wash of the choppers landing the 10th Mountain Division on the Hope High football field -  before dropping into the soft, frigid drifts of the Blizzard of '78.