Posts Tagged ‘Shopping’

We were driving in the car with Mom – I think we were coming back from NY or something. I had my book in my lap, my finger in a page. I was terrible at losing bookmarks. It’s funny…I was always so careful with everything else, but I must have had thousands of bookmarks during my lifetime. I read so many books – sometimes several at once – that I’d end up losing them somewhere in the pages (or they’d fall out somewhere, never to be seen again). I had a tradition when I finished a book – I’d take a little while…maybe a few minutes, maybe a day…depending on how the book was – and meditate on it. Just really soak it up. When I was done, I’d turn past the flyleaf and the table of contents and the Author’s Note and stick the book mark in page one. Uncle Richard had book marks too…but he was more prone to mark up his books. He’d underline something interesting, or dog ear a page. I couldn’t bring myself to do that. To mark up a book – any book – would be like defacing a holy site to me. I think I was so protective of them because some part of me knew they were portals to other worlds…a real escape for me, a means of transportation. I took care of my books as well as a car enthusiast would take care of a prized ’65 Mustang. It was a means of travel, but it was special too. I had long talks about this concept with Uncle Richard, who firmly disagreed with my conclusions.

Uncle Richard: I love a messed up book. Creased pages, wear marks on the binding…these are signs of a well loved book. Nothing is more special than that.

Anyway, so I was sitting there taking a break from the book. It must have been good, because I was really dwelling on the characters and the story. I suddenly felt a whap! on my leg. I looked up in shock.

Me: Did you just hit me!?

Mom: You’re damn right I did!

She was pissed – suddenly, and out of nowhere. I had no idea why.

Me: What did I do!?

She turned to me in a fury – it’s a miracle she kept herself on the road.

Mom: Wipe that fucking smirk off your face!

Me: I don’t have a smirk…I’m not smirking!

But now I was starting to. I have a thing…something I always felt was kind of weird…but whenever I’m in a conflict, I have a really hard time suppressing laughter. I don’t know why, it’s just always been that way. I don’t find it particularly funny (though I think people look positively absurd when they’re truly angry). I just can’t help it. It makes the situations much worse, and I know that. I often find myself literally biting the inside of my cheek to keep from grinning like a nut. The worse the conflict, the harder I grin, and the harder it is not to bust out laughing. By now Mom was yelling at me – she had started out pissed and was now even more angry. I was suppressing gales of laughter.

Mom: It’s not FUNNY. Quit LAUGHING. Goddammit quit being SMART!

Each word was punctuated with another closed fist on my knee. It hurt. What actually hurt worse is that I felt Mom and I had a sort of understanding – considering how Dad was, I never thought she’d ever hit me. As hurt as I was, my sides hurt worse from holding in my laughter. I had to close my eyes and think of terrible, horrible, depressing things in order to come back down. Once things had been quiet for a while and I got myself composed, I broached the subject.

Me: What exactly did I do?

Mom: You were being smart.

Me: How?

Mom: You made comments.

Me: I didn’t say a word to you. I was reading.

I gestured to my book – still on my lap with my finger still in it.

Me: What did I supposedly say?

She couldn’t tell me. I knew instantly that she had no idea why she was mad or what exactly I was supposed to have done.

Mom: You were being rebellious.

I raised my eyebrows. I have been many things…but rebellious was never one of them.

Me: I think I deserve to know exactly what I did.

Mom: You know what you did.

Me: No I don’t. And it wasn’t fair of you to hit me.

I had her, and she knew it. She couldn’t explain or describe what I supposedly did. She was full of shit, and we both knew it.

Mom: I’m not going round and round with you, Danny.

She accused me of trying to “outsmart” her by “talking over her head”. She said she “wouldn’t continue a conversation like that”. I dropped it eventually.

I understood none of this. It just seemed like I turned 13 and somehow had magically become a horrible teenager. I didn’t think I was acting differently, or doing anything wrong. I mean, I wasn’t shoplifting or drinking or anything like that. But ultimately, it didn’t matter what I was doing – Mom would decide I had done something. I remember there was some sensationalist news story about “huffing“. Supposedly, during the 90’s a lot of kids would inhale spray bottles – cleaner, bug spray…whatever…to get a high. Mom decided I was doing this. I had never gotten high in my life – let alone drunk – and I certainly valued my brain cells more than to try to get a cheap high off of furniture polish.

Mom: We need to talk about something.

Me: Okay.

Mom: I know.

Me: Okay…you know what?

Mom: I know you’ve been…huffing.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it.

Me: Huffing?

Mom: Don’t laugh. This is serious. I know you’ve been doing it. I can tell.

I went from amused to perplexed.

Me: I haven’t been doing any of that. I have no idea what you’re even talking about.

Mom: If I catch you doing it…you’re done.

Me: …okay…

Done meant a lot of things (depending on the subject) – done as in, going to live with my Dad, or her not taking me back and forth to NY anymore, or even kicking me out of the house, I suppose. She was always fantasizing that I was doing something or another wrong – usually drugs. She once went through my entire room, looking for weed. She was kind of pissed when she didn’t find it – she was so sure I was smoking it. I swore up and down that I wasn’t…and as far as I know, I never smelled of weed. Actually, there’s no possible way I could have, because I didn’t have any. One time, when I went away to college, I talked to her over the phone. Within 5 minutes after we hung up, Tim called me.

Tim: Are you high?

I laughed.

Me: Dude, what do you think?

Tim laughed too.

Tim: Mom said “I just got off the phone with your brother, and he was higher than a kite!”

We got a good laugh. At least in college it would have been theoretically possible for me to obtain and use drugs (up to and including anything in mt mother’s fevered imagination). I didn’t, though, but it wouldn’t have mattered – she had decided for whatever reason that I was “bad”. That I was rebelling. That I was a “typical awful teenager”. To be fair, I was probably a bit moody. I was reclusive (from her) and with good reason. But I wasn’t a punk who knocked over liquor stores. I wasn’t stealing the copper pipes in the house to sell for drug money. But I realized that none of that mattered because what happened in Mom’s mind was completely independent of reality. If she were to wake up one day and decide I was a Russian spy, I’d be a fucking Russian spy and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. If I argued with her, I’d be accused of “getting smart”. If I proved her wrong, she’d throw up her hands and end the conversation – she wasn’t going to go “round and round” with me, like a lawyer. The irony of it all was that if I was some kind of drug addled junkie, I wouldn’t have the presence of mind to argue like I did. But, in my mother’s imagination – I did it all. Meth? Yep. Home made drugs? Yep. Pot, of course. Probably over the counter pharmaceuticals, too. Out of nowhere, she’d look at me and yell that I was ruining my life. I had no idea what the fuck she was talking about.

This made it easy to tune her out – to stop taking her seriously. I saw behind the curtain a bit more and realized that if her fears about me were so completely unfounded, there was a good chance she was wrong about everything else. I saw, though, that I would never be able to win her approval. Nothing I did would be good enough, and my behavior could never be compliant enough – she had decided I was a dirtbag teenager. She did (eventually) grow out of accusing me of being on drugs, which I think had more to do with the fact that I got older than anything else. The closer I got to leaving my teenage years, the more quiet her paranoid fantasies about my drug use became. It didn’t stop her from accusing me of other things, though – being lazy and shiftless (despite the fact that I worked hard at my craft and was successful). I think everyone wants at least a nod from their parents. I never got one from my Dad, and likely never will. I may never get one from my Mom either – her perception of reality is just too warped.

Let me leave you with a final thought – a picture of a teenage rebel. Thick glasses, button down shirt, and dorky haircut. A teenager who goes through several books a week and has little time for friends (and few friends, at that). Somewhat of an introvert. A guy who works his ass off writing songs (sometimes 2-3 a day), recording, playing piano, and carving out his acting career. Never done a thing illegal in his life – paranoid, in fact, of getting in trouble in general. Not who you’d picture hanging out at 7-11, smoking cigarettes and committing petty acts of vandalism. But that was me…the rebellious, ungrateful and shiftless youth.

 

 

 

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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.

I had a dream last night about Uncle Richard, as I often do these days. It put me in a mood to talk about him, but also reminded me of a conversation we had once.

Uncle Richard: If you ever tell people about me, tell them everything.

I looked at him curiously.

Uncle Richard: Oliver Cromwell said it to a painter. The idea at the time was for painters to flatter their subjects…making large kings look thin and so forth. He asked the man doing his portrait to paint him warts and all. So, that’s what I’m saying. Tell them the good things, and the bad things. I don’t need to be lionized.
So here goes.

Sometime early in my time with him, he introduced me to Sharon. Initially, he put her forth as one of his students (which she probably was, at least to a degree), but she was around a lot. And as I grew older, I began to see more and more of her. Uncle Richard had a wife, Mary, who I didn’t know very well. She was a sweetheart though, and was always offering tea or cookies or something, or inviting us up to the house (the studio was separate from the house, but you could see it from the windows). Anyway, I remember Uncle Richard calling Mom into his studio at one point and them having a very serious discussion while I waited outside. I was fairly curious and tired of waiting outside, so I wandered to the door and tried the knob. It was unlocked and I cautiously opened the door. Uncle Richard and Mom stopped their conversation. Mom looked kinda pissed, but Uncle Richard waved me in.

Uncle Richard: Come on in. Can you keep a secret?

Me: I guess so.

And he told me. He didn’t sugar coat it or tell me that Sharon was a “special friend” or anything, he straight up told me he was having an affair – he knew I’d know what that meant. He asked me to keep it secret and not tell anyone – especially Mary. I agreed. Sharon was a bit younger than Uncle Richard, at least by my estimation. She didn’t have silver hair like he did, and her skin was much more youthful. I couldn’t put an age to it, because I’m terrible at guessing people’s ages, but I’d guess she was a little more than have his age. She was pretty, I guess, but I found her to be much more austere than anything else. I took piano lessons from her for a while (Uncle Richard thought we should get to know her) and didn’t really care for it. She was strict, and hated anything but classical music. For fun, I rearranged classical songs into rock songs – I showed her what I had done, and she wasn’t terribly impressed.

Sharon: That is not Beethoven’s 5th.

She complained my “rock and roll” was giving her a headache, and I was bored with classical. I quit only a few lessons in. Plus, her place smelled like cats – she had about half a dozen milling around. Not that I don’t like cats – I do, I even have two myself – but there comes a point where you just have too many.

Nobody – myself included – understood why Uncle Richard even bothered with her. The only thing I can say is that possibly she spoke to a youthful side of him that Mary couldn’t. He was old and wise, but also vibrant and young at the same time. He admitted to me later – much later – that he was afraid of his own mortality. I think that seeing his wife age reminded him that he, too, was getting old. And he, too, would have to walk the same mysterious path that many others did before him – the one that meant the end of his life.

Anyway. I kept his secrets, and never told a soul. Over the years, it became more and more of an “open secret” – he’d go out with Sharon and his friends would ask where Mary was. I remember once he had a birthday party – his parties were always very nice. He usually held them at a country club, and we’d have to dress in khakis and sport coats (which annoyed me, because I hated dressing up – but I did it for Uncle Richard). He’d have sing alongs or read from plays or read poetry. It was actually pretty cool. Anyway, almost always, Sharon was at these things. After a few times of her being there instead of Mary, everyone knew what was going on. It was just too obvious. She got up to make a toast to Uncle Richard, among some of his oldest friends. I don’t remember everything she said, but one key phrase sticks out.

Sharon: …and as the man in my life…

A dozen people immediately got up and left. Mary was a sweet woman, and those that knew her were deeply offended on her behalf. For my part, I kept my mouth shut. It wasn’t my place to judge – particularly when it came to a man I respected so greatly. The only thing I wasn’t terribly thrilled about is that Sharon was in the studio increasingly often, making her and Uncle Richard sort of a package deal. I began to think of her like those nasty strawberry nougat chocolates you get in those boxes of candy. The rest is fine – great even – but you endured the ones that didn’t taste as good because the box overall was pretty damn great. And that’s about the worst thing I can tell you about Uncle Richard.

I was sitting in Uncle Richard’s studio one night, smelling the kerosene that came from the heater. There is nothing quite like the smell of kerosene and books – I have never smelled it elsewhere, and to this day when I smell something similar I am immediately transported to his little studio surrounded by oak trees. We had been discussing some project or another – he and I were always working on something. It might have been a musical (I started several, which I never finished) or a book (I have 1st, 2nd, and 3rd chapters of hundreds), or who knows what. We even worked on comic books. He was always encouraging me to stretch myself farther, to push the limits of my creativity.

Uncle Richard: You are a multifaceted individual. Do you know what that means?

Me: Like, a lot of interests?

Uncle Richard: Yes. A lot of abilities in different areas. You have a responsibility to each of those areas, to cultivate them. I don’t want to ever see you give up on yourself.

I nodded, and he settled further into his chair.

Uncle Richard: Do you know why I come here, to my studio?

I shook my head, but whether I answered or not would have made no difference – he was deep in thought. Ruminating.

Uncle Richard: I come here to get away from myself. And I can’t. I take me with me everywhere I go.

I chuckled, but his eyes flashed.

Uncle Richard: I’m quite serious.

Me: You don’t like yourself?

He thoughtfully shook his head. I could not believe it. This was the coolest person I knew – comfortable in any situation. If I ever had to be an adult, I wanted to grow up like him. Hell, he could have been introduced at Buckingham Palace and charmed the pants off the Royal Family. A guy who came up from nothing – literally – and had that amount of class and charisma remains impressive to me. I think he must have seen some of this on my face, because he looked dismayed.

Uncle Richard: Don’t look up to me.

But I did. I do. I can’t help it.

Me: Why shouldn’t I?

Uncle Richard: Because I am a coward.

He was growing morose – when he turned his eyes inward and started boxing with himself it was somewhat upsetting to watch. It was like Muhammad Ali vs Muhammad Ali – nobody won, but there was a lot of blood. I wasn’t sure what to say – he was smarter than I was, and anything I said he could counteract with an intellectual left hook. Besides, something was clearly bothering him. I was a skilled field surgeon in the area of the psyche by then – I was constantly picking out shrapnel from my Mom, myself, or my brother. This was one person I never expected to need my help – and in fact he probably didn’t. He was just licking old wounds. Every part of me wanted to help him, to say something as wise and witty as he always did, but I didn’t know how. I just sat there. He finally looked up.

Uncle Richard: You, though. You I admire.

I blinked.

Uncle Richard: You are fearless.

He put a hand on my head, a weary fighter taking a break in the corner of the ring.

Uncle Richard: Fearless. And don’t you forget it.

If only he knew.

 

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The doors at Colony Records – I always thought they were pretty cool.

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Colony Records, NYC, circa 1980

I just got news that an old friend has passed. It may be unusual to think of a store as a friend, but it was a big part of my childhood during that time in NYC. For those that don’t know, Colony Records was a huge music store in NYC – one of a kind. It had records, cassettes, CDs, sheet music, and books. It was the size of a city block, and it was THE go-to place if you were auditioning for a musical and needed some new songs. I feel like Mom and I were there often – navigating the narrow aisles of tapes and music books. During my time as a musician, I’ve amassed a fairly significant number of music books and sheet music – probably in the hundreds. 3/4 of that was probably bought at the Colony. What made the place unique – aside from the fact that it was freaking huge – was that you could get anything you wanted there. If they didn’t have it, it didn’t exist. Looking for an obscure song from a forgotten 1800’s opera? They probably had it. Hell, they might have even had the original manuscript (I joke…mostly). Whenever I had an audition for a show, or when my voice teacher would inevitably give me a new song – they’d say “Run down to the Colony and pick it up. I’m sure they have it.”

I won’t go into how the place succumbed to the inevitable advances of technology – about how people began buying songs and music through digital downloads. Or about how music stores in general have bravely stood against the rising tide, facing a sad, inevitable end. Just suffice it to say that when I was a kid, and I had time to kill, I was at a record store or a book store (and those won’t be here much longer either – don’t delude yourself).

New York in the 80’s and 90’s was a place of filth and wonder. As someone fairly sheltered, I saw some real eye openers there. I was eating pancakes in a diner when I saw a biker get into a fight with a cabbie. The biker pulled a chain from his backpack, the cabbie had a crowbar. I think the argument was over the fact that the bike tried to pass the cab while it was turning right, but really…does road rage ever have a good reason? I saw a homeless woman with a babydoll in a carriage, asking for help to feed her kid. People gave her money, not realizing the baby wasn’t real. I saw hookers wearing next to nothing trotting up and down the street. We were attacked by what Mom used to call The Squeegees – they used to stand outside the entrances to the Lincoln or Holland Tunnels and assail your windshield with squeegees. After they cleaned your window, they’d ask for money. Psychologically, this worked phenomenally better than straight up begging – people felt guilted into giving them at least a buck or two usually. Sometimes they’d wash the window and Mom wouldn’t have any change to give them. I remember one bearded and disheveled looking gent screaming at Mom and beating on the car door as she drove away.

One day, I came out of the Colony clutching a newly acquired book – the Complete Hits of Irving Berlin. I had heard of some of his music, and thought it’d be fun to learn to play it. On the way out the door, I was heard a voice mumble something barely intelligible.

Man: EES A FEET. A FEET.

I was perplexed, wondering if there was something wrong with my feet or his. Mom was straggling, making her way out of the building, so I stopped.

Me: What?

The man barely had any teeth, which is probably why I couldn’t understand him. His level of sobriety probably wasn’t doing much to help the situation either – I could smell his breath from 3 feet away. He was holding a very nice, but worn looking violin, however, and I pegged him as someone who probably wasn’t a threat. Street musicians were sometimes crazy – sometimes even crazy talented – but usually harmless as far as I knew. Besides, we were both musicians – members of the same tribe. The man angrily pointed to my book and enunciated.

Man: Irving Berlin. He’s a thief. A thief.

Me: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.

Man: He stole EVERY ONE OF HIS SONGS.

The guy was getting really worked up. I wondered if he knew Irving Berlin personally, or maybe had one of his songs stolen. He began gesticulating wildly, his violin in one hand and his other waving in the air.

Man: He’s a con man. Ask anybody. Fuckin’ thief. Fucking JEW THIEF.

Mom had come out at this point, and grabbed me by the elbow.

Mom: Lets go.

We walked quickly to our car – we had found a good parking place on the same block as the store. The man didn’t try to follow us, but he screamed invectives against Irving Berlin until we were out of earshot.

We learned very quickly not to acknowledge anything on the street but what was right in front of us. Ignore the people – especially if they seemed crazy – walk fast, and don’t gawk at the scenery. Keep up with the crowd.  If someone spoke to you or asked you for help, pretend you didn’t hear. I hear a lot of people talk about how New Yorkers are cold or indifferent – they’re not, it’s just how you survive in the city.

I think I still even have some of that sheet music in bags from the Colony. Heh. I still remember the logo – it was a drawing of a girl, perhaps from the 40’s, jumping in the air and holding a record. In script below, it said: “I found it! at the Colony” (the grammar mistake always irked me a little).

My kids – and maybe yours – won’t know what the hell a record store even is, probably. That makes me said. Like Uncle Richard once told me, though…time is a son of a bitch.