Everything Out There Will Kill You

Posted: April 24, 2013 in Life
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

There is an island somewhere in the world called Snake Island. Don’t remember where it is, exactly, but it’s absolutely full of extremely venomous snakes. If it’s on the island, it will pretty much kill you within minutes. When you’re on the island, you’re never more than a foot or two away from certain death. I think that was essentially Mom’s view of the world when I was growing up. I couldn’t go visit my friends at their house (at least 90% of the time) because she was afraid something would go missing and I would get blamed. I wasn’t a thief, by any stretch of the imagination, though I did steal something once when I was about 4 or 5. I kept pestering Mom for a Peppermint Patty – I think they were maybe 5 cents at this diner we were at – and she kept telling me no. Well, when she was paying, I decided I wanted one anyway. So I snatched one from the jar when no one was looking. In the car, Grandpa saw me eating the Peppermint Patty (rule #1 of thievery: don’t flaunt your spoils) and asked Mom what was up. She slammed on the brakes, and interrogated me. I buckled under the pressure and admitted that yes, I did take it. I got a very long lecture about it – one of the few reasonable lectures I ever got from her, actually – and perhaps most importantly, my Grandfather was extremely pissed. That made the biggest impression, because I really looked up to him. They made me go back into the diner with a nickel, admit what I’d done to the manager, and apologize. Mom kept threatening me with jail time on the ride home. I was pale and sweating. That was the beginning and the end of my career as any sort of thief.

Anyway, she knew I wouldn’t steal anything, but I think she had this paranoia that I would get accused and there would be a big problem, and it’d be a black mark on my career. Nowadays, if you steal something, you end up having the opposite problem – media flocks to you and you tend to become more famous (or infamous, as the case may be). Whenever I went to someone’s house, I was always nervous and antsy. I never took anything I was offered – not even water, and not even if I was dying of thirst. I would pretty much sit as still as I could wherever I could find a perch. I was (and still am, unless I know the people in question very well) extremely uncomfortable.

She was afraid to let me ride my bike around the block, or walk to friend’s houses. It was practically a given that I would get hit by a car or snatched by a child molester. We lived on a quiet street that wasn’t exactly frequented by cars. Even then, the speed limit was 25. I think I’ve talked before about being suspicious of almost all food that was put in front of me (potentially poisoned, naturally) and never, ever leaving my drink unattended anywhere (and if I did, just get a new drink – who knows, someone could be trying to drug me). Leaving my backpack out of my sight was also a no-no, because someone could plant drugs or other incriminating evidence on me. If someone spit on me (something which hasn’t ever happened that I recall) I should immediately go to the ER and get tested for AIDS. Unless there was no other option, truck stop restrooms – or really almost any public restroom – was out of the question, no matter how clean. I could easily get diseases from the seat. When I was old enough to drive, I had to fight tooth and nail to get a license. Even then, she refused to let me drive on the highways (I would be killed in a terrible, fiery crash that would be visible from space). When I was in college, she would freak out if I took a class at night. When I asked her why, she told me that I could get attacked by a bum, who would punch me in the throat and I would never be able to sing again. Hoping to assuage her very specific (and very insane) fear, I assured her I would only travel well lit routes and give any deranged bums a wide berth.

She came by these fears honestly – my family, at least on my Mother’s side, were well versed in the art of hysterical paranoia. My Great Grandmother was so afraid something would happen to my Grandmother, she wouldn’t let her go next door to her Aunt’s house. And this was back in like,  the 30’s when crime was a lot less rampant and cars went 15mph. If you left the house, she feared and fretted that something horrible would happen to you. From what I hear, she pretty much paced back and forth until everyone was back in the house and within her line of vision. Hell, she didn’t even let my grandparents date before they were married. Well, they could date, but they could only “date” if Great-Grandma went with them. It wasn’t a propriety thing, at least I don’t think that was all of it. She was honestly paranoid something awful would happen if she wasn’t there. She very reluctantly let them go on their honeymoon alone. Grandma was very similar (though not quite as bad, at least with Tim and I – she had more of a Grandmotherly concern than full on paranoia most of the time).

I have to admit, I handled none of this very well. As I grew up, I started exhibiting symptoms of serious OCD. I didn’t know what this was at the time – actually not until my late teens – I just knew that I had rituals that I had to perform and when they got disrupted, I got very very upset. For instance, I carried probably close to a pound of change in my pockets and about $60 in ones in my wallet. I memorized the serial numbers of the bills, and the dates and imperfections of the coins. I determined that this was my “lucky money” and I could not possibly spend it for any reason. When I felt stressed (which was pretty often) I’d play with the coins in my pocket or the bills. It wasn’t very long before the bills were little more than rags. I became convinced that I couldn’t write songs without them, or that I’d not be able to book auditions without them. Once, when Mom needed change for the meter, she asked for a quarter from my pocket.

Me: No, you have to find some other change.

I didn’t tell her no very often, but this was a subject I was passionate about.

Mom: Well, I need a quarter.

Me: Can’t you find something in the ashtray?

Mom: There isn’t any in the ashtray.

Me: Well, break a dollar somewhere then.

Mom was taken aback.

Mom: I’m not going to break a dollar, Danny. Give me some quarters.

I freaked out.

Me: But this is my lucky money! I can’t give it up.

Mom was pissed.

Mom: It’s just a fucking quarter. Now give it to me! I need it for the meter, we’re going to be late!

With a great deal of regret and reluctance, I fished in my pocket. I began studying the coins – deciding which I would be willing to give up. Should I give up the one with the red dye marks, dated 1956? No…I liked that one. What about the one with all the nicks from the ’30s? Or the one that looked like it had been chewed in a shredder? I couldn’t decide, and it didn’t help that I couldn’t calm down. These were my safety net – I realize now I was creating a sense of security for myself. It’s what allowed me to hold it together, at least mostly. When that security was threatened, I lost the capacity to cope with the world and couldn’t handle it. I would give her one of the latter-dated coins, I decided – one that was relatively insignificant to me but had found its way into my pocket somehow and thus became lucky. I handed it over.

As she fed the meter, I opened and closed the car door several times, stuck my foot out and put it back in, and locked and unlocked the doors repeatedly. If Mom noticed, she said nothing. I didn’t have an exact count – it was never really about that, anyway – it was about doing it until I felt better.

I also had a “lucky comb” – how or what caused it to be lucky is completely lost to me now, although it was possibly because I happened to book an audition or write a great song while it was on my person. It was just a typical black comb you’d get at any drug store – probably cost less than a buck. But again, I would take it out and play with the teeth of the comb – running my fingers over it until I was soothed. By the time I threw it away years later – and I do mean years later – many teeth were broken and bent. There was gunk (probably old hair gel) stuck between the teeth. It looked like the grin of a lunatic.

I had a ritual for when I finished writing songs, too. I would open and close the piano lid a certain number of times – again, no specific number but it was usually even and I usually stopped whenever it felt “right” to do so. Then I stood with my hand on the lid for several seconds until the heat from my hand left an imprint on the lid. Then I would arrange the sheet music on the piano just right. Always the same sheet music – Somewhere Over The Rainbow, with Judy Garland‘s face peering out at me, and Harbor Lights. Sometimes Elton John joined them if I was feeling in a particularly light mood. If anyone touched my piano, I freaked the fuck out. If anyone played my piano, God help them. Actually, it was more like God help me. I paced, wrung my hands and was very, very agitated until they were done (if they were a stranger or someone I felt I couldn’t be direct with, at least). If anyone had ever asked me to explain this, I didn’t have the words – one of the few things in my life that I could never clearly communicate. I just would have stammered something about “things need to be this way” and hoped they understood.  The one and only time I completely lost my shit with my brother was when he decided he was going to come up and play my piano. I had finished writing, and my ritual was done. The piano was “closed”, as in it couldn’t be touched again (except by me) until whenever it was I was going to write next. I heard plinking on the keys and became immediately concerned. I rushed down the stairs to find Tim tinkling on the keys. He was old enough by then to know how to play a bit – he had taken some lessons with Russ as well – and there was certainly no reasonable expectation that he would damage it. He knew how to treat an instrument respectfully.

Me: What are you doing?

Tim: I’m just fooling around.

Me: Well don’t.

Tim saw I was quite serious. I was on the balls of my feet and my hands were in my pockets, jingling my lucky change.

Tim: Why not?

Me: Because I have a system, and you’re ruining it.

He laughed. I think he thought I was joking.

Me: It’s not funny. Get the hell out of here.

The change was jingling faster now, and I was sweating.

Tim: What’s your deal, dude?

Me: I don’t have a deal. Don’t ever touch this again. You’re not allowed.

He got up, then, a question on his lips. It never reached them, because I shoved him away from the piano – one of the only times I’ve ever actually laid a hand on him.

Me: I play piano. Not you. Buzz off. Never touch it again.

He left, and I went immediately into my ritual – with a few elaborations to make up for the “impurity” of someone else having soiled the keys. It was a long time before I felt settled, but when I did, I finished up and went to bed. I added a new ritual after that night – checking the piano to make sure nothing was disturbed. I did this several times a day, maybe more. I would be in another room, and start to panic that something had been moved – despite the fact that I heard no one playing. I would drop what I was doing, run upstairs and double check. Once relief washed over me, I could return to whatever I had been doing.

There was a time in my life when I was a complete nutcase, at least in private. I’m not happy about it. In fact, I’m rather ashamed of it. But it’s part of the story, and so it goes in here. I always felt bad about what happened – Tim never touched the piano again, at least not when I was around. He fiddled with playing guitar and even played drums for a bit. But once I came to my senses a bit more (many years and therapy sessions later) I came to realize I was a pretty freaking horrible older brother, at least in this incident. My therapist would tell me that I was just a kid, that I was trying to cope too. She may have a point, but I should have known better. I should have risen above the situation – I was smart enough to do that, even if I was just a kid. But I didn’t, and there it is.

The change and money that I felt was so lucky eventually got put away. After the day with the meter, and a couple other close calls where Mom needed to borrow some cash, I became too paranoid about keeping it on me. I worried that she would need it, or it would get spent accidentally by me (there was exactly zero chance of that happening, because I was way too attached). I ended up shoving them in pirate treasure chest I had gotten – it ended up being a sort of catch-all for random stuff that was important to me. A pair of cufflinks from a tux I wore on TV once, a mini troll doll, some Mardi Gras beads someone had given me backstage, a Chinese coin I picked up somewhere. And of course, the lucky money. I ran across it recently when I was going through the pirate chest – they bills were barely discernible as cash at all. George Washington’s austere gaze had faded so much that he could barely be made out. They almost looked like tattered grey strips of napkin. The coins – with only a couple of exceptions – were indistinguishable from any ordinary, garden variety quarters. I remember looking down at them as an adult and asking myself “Why in the hell did I save these? Why were they so important?” In the end, there’s only one real answer that makes sense: because I needed them.

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Comments
  1. dustandsoul says:

    You are… an utterly fantastic writer. I could read a whole book about your life. An entire 400-pager. One day, I hope I can. (Working on that?)

    I relate to this in some strange, deep way I can’t quite explain — probably because I come from a neurotic family who mollycoddled me, too. As a child, I once stole a whole bag of penny sweets. The shopkeeper called my parents, furious, but I managed to convince Mom and Dad that he was accusing me of lying merely because he had it in for our family.

    Anyway, this was an exceptional piece of writing.

    • Thanks so much! Yes, I’m hoping the blog will get turned into a book at some point. If it does, I’ll send you a copy. =)

      That’s a pretty good story – you must have been pretty intelligent to spin a lie like that to your parents.

  2. […] Everything Out There Will Kill You by Six String Samurai […]

  3. dustandsoul says:

    This post featured in my weekly best blog round-up, Praise Sunday: http://dustandsoul.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/praise-sunday-april-28/ 🙂

  4. Yes, quite readable indeed!

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