It is autumn 1992 and the world is opening up. You slumber out of your bed at 4:30 am every morning, streaking down a.m. arteries of Moss and Sherman Avenues in sweatpants and sneakers, inserting inky headlines into the unsuspecting sleepy screendoor hinges shielding neighborhood door knobs, beneath the pre-dawn buzz and insect whorl of glowering street lights. A bloodshot sun reminiscent of the Japanese flag lumbers heavily in the East and you find yourself toating a brick-heavy backpack across the ammonia-scented tiles of Manual high school, in the south side of Peoria. You stand in front of an faceless jambed sentinel and finger a combination near where his navel might be located. The nasal harsh shrill of the tardy bell escorts flocks of flannel-shirted students into wooden doors. Your day commences early with p.e, followed by algebra, Coach Mannioni's World History (which you excel at), Slacker Thomas's Biology where the acidic and ill smell of formaldehyde is never far from your nostrils. Your favorite class is English, where rubicund-faced Mister Reents (who rumor has it is gay) plays classical music, jazz and opera and brews coffee and sits on the front of his desk jiggling his legs, smiling, relating the antics of Edith Hamilton and classical greek mythology to the pending '92 election, where Ross Perot has just re-entered the race.
Your afternoon consists of one study hall and one French class. You scale the hallways between classes, your shadow looming amidst a sea of bodies and clicks and swirled dialects. You smell the faces of the popular girls, their hair long in back and sprayed into a crimped bow above their foreheads. Their bodies attired in short-skirted cheerleading uniforms on the Friday of football games. They huddle in an amoebic mass, floating, nonchalantly, pass homecoming banners and no-names, into the fleeting confetti of juvenile identity.
The day begins for you at two twenty-five, after your palette has skipped through a verbal-swoop of French conjugates, the final bell of the day alarms your body into motion. You find yourself in the heavy-sour athletic stench of the locker room. You peel off your jeans and unbutton your shirt, conscious not to look at your fellow unclothed athletes, less you be labeled a "fag," although it's hard for you not to stare with open lips the first time you see Joe Lontippi naked. He was born in Europe and is uncircumcised. It looks like there is a deformed clamp dangling between his thighs and for a minute you consider pulling him aside and inquiring if he realizes that his body possesses such a deformity, naive that he uses his gentalia as an optical magnet at the age of sixteen.
The heavy prattle and towel thwaps echo deeply in the din of the lockerroom. There is boisterous chatter about girls. Which cheerleader puts out. Which cheerleaders parents are never home. You step into your shorts and lace your sneakers into double-loops and jump and stretch. You are an athlete, a runner. Last year as an eighth grader you clocked the second fastest mile time for your age category in the state of Illinois, skidding just above the elusive five-minute mile barrier. Now, as a Freshman in high school, you already are the second fastest on a varsity squad consisting of mainly Hispanic and African-American athletes. They give you shit about your age. They tease you about being a virgin. But overall, they give you long-complicated "gangsta" handshakes at the finish line.
You wait for Joe Lontippi, the other white boy, to suit up and the two of you gallop your limbs into a steady jog, gliding behind the football field and the abandoned baseball dugout. With your elbows and forearms indented into geometrical right angles, the two of you mount the "HILL" that separates social and economic classes, arriving at Madison Golf course, where Coach Ricca awaits, along with Jose Munoz, team captain, Randy Peacock; gang-bangers Quaynar Thomas, Leatric Spires and Gabino Martinez. Many of the athletes are on work-study so they get off early in the afternoon. Only yourself and Lontippi will later attend college.
Gabino smiles and makes vulgar gestures during squats. He dates Corinne, a girl who just graduated with you from junior high three months ago. In another month 'Beano will leave her when she tells him that she is five months pregnant, claiming that the child isn't his.
The group of athletes kick down Sterling Avenue, onto Heading, where Coach has instructed the boys into 800 meter drills. They do seven rotation. They sprint in a single-file locomotive burst. Each rotation a different member of the team leads and each rotation is expected to get faster and faster until the last one is an all-out ass-surge. Joe Lontippi leads first, followed by 'Beano. You lead the sixth of seven and by the time your rotation has arrived strips of sweat coat your forehead and back like a shower curtain.
Coach Ricca has just pressed the pause button on the timer. The electronic lashes blink 2:05. The team is worn out. Leg and calf muscles are beginning to gradually stiff. Beano and Laetric fall over at their waist and inhale thick tufts of the early autumnal atmosphere. The group forms a pyramid near St. Josephs grave yard, where two green-tents are pitched in the cememtary today. Across the street is a flower shop, the same flower shop where last summer, you stopped in and purchased a rose of Dawn-Michelle, your girlfriend.
Dawn-Michelle was a reigning State Speech champion. She was a senior and attended Richwoods High, by far the most opulent and academic-oriented of the four public high schools in Peoria. You met Dawn last summer, doing community theatre. You had the part of Charlie the anvil salesman in THE MUSIC MAN. Dawn was involved behind the scenes, doing make-up. The first time you sat in front of her blonde hair her entire face squinted in a puzzle.
"You know who you look like?" She said, to your dismay.
"That guy off of Blossom. Not Joey Lawrence. The other guy. Blossom's older brother. The alcoholic."
You look back at her wondering what she has just smoked. It's not been the first time someone has made this comparison. Later in the year in Chicago, when a "fan" accosts you on State, you will learn to smile and say "Thanks for watching." But for now, your attention has averted totally to the short haired blond who wears cool hats and pantyhose underneath her jean shorts. She listens to the Cure and Concrete Blond and only dances at Stage Two when they have retro night and play "Just Can't Get Enough" by Depeche Mode. She sounds like a harp every time she speaks; the acoustic of her mouth rivaling that of a European concert hall.
"Ready," You look at Jose and Joe and Justin on Heading Avenue. It is your turn to step ahead of the locomotive burst. It is your turn to lead.
Looking back, you think the early 90's was the greatest time ever for music in your life. In the summer of 1992, Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, U2's Auctung Baby, GNR's Use Your Illusion's and Metallica's "Black" album were each under a year old. You have a copy of a little known pianist named Tori Amos album called "Little Earthquakes" in your CD player and feel emotional riveted and sentimentally flushed everytime you listen to a song called "Winter." You first bonded with Dawn Michelle with enya's "Shepard Moons" tingling falsetto organic chimes in the background.
"She has the most beautiful voice," Dawn Michelle said to you, in between button kisses at Nortwoods Mall.
Your play was directed by a feisty, smooth skin African-angel named Pam. Pam never called you David. She only knew you as Charlie, the part you played on stage.
"CHARLIE." Pam would screech. "Sugah, baby. You've gotta give the audience a lil' sugah. Give 'em a little something sweet!"
Pam never disses you when you stutter across your lines. She never chides you. She encourages you to be crazy. She encourages you to let loose. In the big scene where Marilyn, the Madame Librarian flirts and kisses you so that the antagonistic Charlie doesn't sully and trump the antics of Harold Hill, the musical's hero, Pam interrupts you on the dress rehearsal.
"Cut!!!!" She screams. "Charlie. QUIT LOOKING AT HER BUTT!!!!!"
The cast and company immediately erupts in sprinkled giggles.
"But I'm suppose to be checking her out." You say, very honestly, propping up the scrolled annotated script from your back pocket and pointing. There is more laughter.
"Yes," Pam cackles. "Your absolutely right. If this was a solely adult production it would be different. But this is a CHILDREN's production and the park district might not be too happy if we're portraying leerers and oglers on stage."
More laughter. You remember the meeting when rehearsals were going late. The set seemed to be crumpling. Before you met Dawn Michelle you were in love Amanda Haste who was grounded for staying out late in a parked Chevy driven by Harold Hill himself.
"Why do people come to the theatre?" Pam asks the question. There is a gravid pause. The husked-dusty smell backstage props mingles with the intermittent still-life buzz of stage lights. There is silence.
"People come to the theatre to escape." She says. " You all might not realize it now, and I hope you never fully do, but it's a HARD world out there. A hard world. People come tot the theatre to be entertained and to escape. Escape the harsh drudgery and sadness of their lives."
Pam says, before going over notes, not realizing that she has formed what will later in life be your literary aesthetic.
That summer Pam instructed a poetry class at the high school where you will attend earlier in the fall. The high school where you are expected to be a top athlete. Ironically, Dawn Michelle was in that poetry class.
"Poetry, I hate poetry." You say. "Hate everything about it."
"Someday you might not say that," Dawn says to you, pushing up her glasses as she thumbs through a copy of Leaves Of Grass."
"Let me see that," You say, snatching the tattered sleeves away from her light grasp. You adjust your voice to a high-pitch squeal and begin to read."
"I celebrate myself and sing myself,
And what I assume you must assume
That every atom belonging to me
as good belongs to you."
"Don't you feel it?" Dawn Michelle tells you. "Don't you feel what the poet is trying to say to you. Can't you hear it in his voice what the poet is trying to say to you; to your soul?"
Being a smart-ass, you lift the collected volume of Whitman's life works to your left earlobes and pretend to be listening attentively.
"What the hell are you doing?" Dawn says.
"Shhhhhhh." You respond back to her in a whisper, your ear pressed against the tome. "I'm trying to listen to the poet speaking to my soul."
"Give me that," Dawn says, snatching the book from the side of your face before she swats the book in your direction.
"You men have no culture whatsoever."
"What's that honey," You say, as she flaps the book open. "I was just going over baseball stats in my head."
"Pmfdffffff." Is Dawn's reply, wiggling her chin in contempt.
Coach Ricca sets the timer and presses the plastic nub. It is your turn to lead the runners down Heading Avenue. The group bunches up close. As was expected, Peacock ran the last rotation too fast and the troops are exhausted.
"Suck it up boy!" Leatric yells from behind. " Man, suck that shit up."
At the corner of Heading and Waverly, Beano and Quaynar begin to drag behind followed closely by Poynter. The men are slowly being sliced apart from the boys.
"Fifty-seven" Poynter yells out, reaffirming the 400 split before falling behind even more. You lead the group in a steady gallop. Munoz and Peacock seem to be riding your shoulders. Lontippi lags not far behind.
"Come on, bro. " Munoz says. "Suck it up."
The world around you, that golden habitual place where you have spent fourteen previous autumns elevates past you in a tugged blur. You can feel your chest and lungs begin to burn. Your limbs continue to excel, continue to thrust.
"Almost there yo!" Peacock hammers out. Lontippi lags further back. You can feel Jose, the team captain, continue to push.
"Don't worry about the split just focus on running through the finish line. Just focus on breaking through that."
At the corner of Heading and Sterling there is a gated fence of a house you will one day live inside of and there is Coach Ricca, blinking at a timer in his palm. With forty meters less it is just yourself and Jose, stretching out the legs, headed through the finish line."
"Damn." Coach said, clicking the top of the stop watch with his thumb. "You really butchered that split, didn't you."
"The harder I train, the better I run coach." You say not looking your coach directly in the face before hawking and then allowing a loogie to fly. You see the tail end of your fellow teammates scrabble across the finish line. Beano is last, walking, holding his side claiming to have a cramp.
There is a hard slap on your sweaty back. It is Jose. He is up next, It is his turn to lead.
"One more gentleman." The coach says, clearing the digits on his stop watch. "Just one more round and then we can all go home."
"And do what, Coach" Quaynar says, " Die in our sleep?"
About an hour before the first production of Music Man Pam shepherds the entire cast and chorus (about seventy kids, ages 8-19) into a giant circle backstage.
"Now is time for us all to take a deep breath and just relax. " Pam says. Everyone in the circle grasp hands and squeezes.
"Clear your mind." says Pam. "Clear out everything that's in your mind and just focus and relax." Pam says, her eyed welded shut. See seems to be breathing on a very metronmic caliber.
There is silence. The entire cast of your production looks like a crop circle from overhead. You are flanked between mayor Shinn and a Townsperson and the next thing you know Pam is praying.
"Hello God." Pam says, with her brown eyes still melted into their respected sockets. She prays. She asks God "The fingertips guiding the artist's touch."
"No matter what denomination you are from. No matter where you are on the planet. No matter what you have been through or what name you address it--everyone, at some point in their lives, believes in a greater being. In a force greater than themselves as individuals. To this force we pray."
Pam continues to pray. He face glows. there is an electric current that swooshed between the clasped limbs of the cast and the chorus.
The first night of the play went smoothly and we received a standing ovation. The next day all the kids formed a circle but were not allowed to pray. Word had gotton around via a 'concerened' parent and protestant mother called and complained that she didn't want any New Age crap to interfere with her child's notion of faith.
That was the last year ever Pam conducted the summer musical for Children's Community Theatre.
As you get older you realize that Peoria is the type of town that slowly masticates dreams prior to swallowing youthful ambitions. Two weeks after coach lines you up on Heading Avenue Jose, your team captain, would be kicked off the team and would later drop out of school.
"I gotts myself a family," He says. "My girls pregnant. I gots to work, yo."
Slowly your teammates would gradually dissipate. A ziplock bacg of cocaine would be found in Quaynar's locker; Peacock would get in trouble after school for slapping a kid with the bill of their baseball cap switched to the wrong direction. At the end, only you and Lontippi, the kid with the fleshy anchor between his legs, would be the only to members left from the original squad.
At the end of the season, Lontippi comes up to you and shakes you hand.
"You know Dave," He says, in his towel. "Even though a lot of shit has happened and we didn't make it as far as we thought we would as a team this year and everything, it still hasn't been that bad. The two of us still have had a pretty good season."
"Yes," You say, nodding your head one time in an empty locker room that smells like old socks.
"It hasn't been that bad at all."
It is autumn 1992 and you are fifteen years of age.