68. Chaotically

When nothing else currently rocks my neurons, I look back in history for interesting tidbits. I grew up next door to Richard Allen Cooper, known in junior high as RAC. He was cherubic in looks, curly blonde hair, rosey cheeks, short, a little squeezy, and short. He seemed cute and cuddly and harmless. I knew better.

We were inseparable in elementary school as I recall. I went on a bus to  St. Louis Catholic School about two miles away as memory serves me. He walked one block down our street, Dorset Drive, to the Virginia Hills Elementary School, the public school I longed to attend. Not that I disliked St. Louis; it was fine. But I straddled a unified identity by having a foot in each kid world.  Finally in sixth grade I went to public school, walking the two blocks with a joyous energy that my neighbor friends had lost years before. I was psyched up to put on something other than a white shirt, bow tie, and navy blue pants. I could ride my bike to school, and I didn’t  have to go to Mass every Friday morning. I could finally be in the inner circle of my homeboys.

Sadly, I was underwhelmed by how slow and stupid some of my buddies were. Charlie Young, for instance, was so out of control and dumb that he had to ride a little bus to another school five miles away. He compensated for his academic deficits by being a cool smoker and cusser who had sexy girlfriends all the time. He got a Z-28 in high school that was mesmerizing. You wouldn’t know how dumb he was as he streaked by in a green and white flash. And he lied well about any and all topics. None of this mattered at sixth grade recess as we huddled for touch football or basketball or kickball. How smart or civilized you were in class did not come directly into play out there. Anyway, Timmy O’ Brian had gone to St. Louis before he drove a car into the neighbor’s house in the middle of the night. He was fourteen and drunk. Later he was known as “Cack”. The nickname was amazingly prescient since he acted like a crackhead before the substance “Crack” was even invented. I suspect that a lot of the nightmare kids that grew up in our neighborhood of 300 cookie cutter houses had been badly abused by dads who drank. Charlie and Timmy were only two of dozens.

Richard had a knack of blending in with anyone. His charming appearance was disarming. I hung with him and met a lot of people, mostly pretty girls, that I would not have if left to my own devices. It was with Richard that I was pulled over by a cop and taken to the police station for having most of a case of beer in my car without anyone being of age. Actually it was just Richard and me and the beer. We were 16. My dad came to the police station to vouch for us. He acted very offended, but when we got home Richard and I drank the beer in my front yard. I’m not sure what the lesson was.

As everyone else grew and matured in some way, Richard did not grow much or become academic. (Years later he asked me how to read, like it was something he’d been meaning to get around to but things came up.) He found his thing with drugs, pot in particular. He began selling nickel and dime baggies for his older brother Michael. Then it was ounces, and then pounds. I recall once driving with him across a shopping center parking lot, Rose Hill to be precise, in broad daylight passing off a kilo to a guy in another car like it was a game of tag. Even if a cop had witnessed the activity, I doubt he would have thought anything of it. Who would be so stupid to run a significant drug deal in public like that?

What lingers in my mind, however, is how we parted, the small deaths that killed a childhood friendship.  I recall vividly a scene in Richard’s driveway where he was replacing a mutual friend’s clutch. The fellow trusted Richard with his Volkswagen bug and the main parts for a clutch replacement. However, as Richard and Johnny, the co-mechanic, got into the clutch, throw out bearing, and pressure plate, Richard decided that the pressure plate and throwout bearing were fine. He sent Johnny to the auto parts store to return the unused parts and kept the money. “What he don’t know won’t hurt him, huh,huh, huh.” He reassembled the pieces and collected his fee for “fixing” the clutch.

I’ll never forget the look on Dwight’s face when he tore into Richard’s driveway in that same Volkswagen a week later. He was animated and hyper with anger. He confronted Richard and told him how his clutch had burned up. How he had it towed to a real mechanic who did what Richard lied about doing. And then he said something like “Tell me why I shouldn’t pound your face in, you lyin’ thief!”  The next line is what began the process of friendship unwinding and yieilding to truth. Richard looked at Dwight and said very earnestly, “Man, I didn’t want to, ya know, but Johnny said to do it.” My guts turned sour. The adrenaline of the implied violence turned to apple cider vinegar pudding in my stomach. I couldn’t believe that he lied on our mutual friend, who was pretty much a follower.

Off flew Dwight to cofront a mostly innocent Johnny. I went  inside to reconsider my parents’ condemnations of my bosom buddy as a “slippery lying bastard”.  Oh, there were more days ahead certainly. But that day was the beginning of the end. Eventually the cord that held all the happy memory beads in place broke and the many memories bounced chaotically all over. And I could see the dark sides to many of the funny, cool, popular moments that smelled of summer nights and stolen strawberries, snowball fights, and forts in the autumn woods. They no longer connected in any sort of order.

67. Raptorously

The pigeons are swooping in a feathering arc above the church spire, a green copper blade jutting into the belly of impossibly blue skies. It’s warm but later in the day than it seems. What do they know, these stupid birds, that makes them fly so high this morning? There is the tiniest hint of fall in the morning light and crisp shadows, in the low humidity, in the lack of summer noises. My body picks up on nature’s subtle cues as surely as the pigeons. A double urge brews in me– to speed up my consumption of these intoxicating days or to methodically prepare for the cold ahead. It’s a push/pull. I’m no pigeon…I think. I think, therefore I am not a pigeon, coursing high this morning like a raptor only to descend on familiar ground to live like a winged rodent.

Rodents thrive on scavenging scraps left behind by other animals. Raptors ravage the skies and fields. Though I  have no desire to lay waste to anything or anyone, I feel the pull to fly higher and higher, not to follow or scavenge or live parasitically. Raptors seize their live prey through power and speed and skill. And yet I have witnessed teams of sparrows and blackbirds chase a large hawk away by pestering the hunter off its perch and out of their neighborhood through relentless pecks. There is a pathetic sort of justice in such a scene. Hawks will eat other birds that do not band together.

Many folks live like rodents, scurrying about, beady-eyed, furtive. They live close to the ground, underneath a layer of protection. Opportunity, which is food, supplies their direction. Opportunity seizes them rather than the other way around. Out they dart for the remains of a Happy Meal in a dumpster. Now raptors (the name comes from the Latin for “seized”) seize opportunity as it hops across a cornfield or unwinds in the grass. It is a majestic sight to see a raptor rise up to the cell tower top and shred its catch in one steel talon while balancing on the other. The vantage of his view matches his magnificent vision. Seems like an obvious choice to me: hawk or pigeon, which is nothing  more than a mouse with wings? “The unexamined life”, so the saying goes, “is not worth living”. How can you examine what you cannot see?  To a mouse, a lost golfball in the weeds can appear colossal. Not so for the hawk.

I watched a kid, maybe 11 years old, go into the convenience store yesterday as I pumped gas. Fat and slumpy he slouched into the joint. I predicted correctly that he would exit with a sugar product of some size. Out he came in a few minutes with a 32 ounce supersized frozen cola slurp. He held it awkwardly against  his chubby cheek as he bit the paper cover off a plastic straw. The kid triumphantly blew the remaining paper sleeve off the straw and walked on, sucking his chilled empty calories. The breakfast of champions. A pigeon, another pigeon! In a few more years he will be even fatter, need even bigger sugar hits, and leave even more trash in his wake. He will need to live near a sugar, fat, salt supplier so that he can scurry or roll back and forth. It’s maddening and sad at the same time. This kid is morphing into an unhealthy creature in front of his family and friends, and no one seems to think anything is wrong. Pigeons!

What’s the bother? Why not live and let live? But the kid is dying along with half of our country, killed not by invaders from beyond our borders but from an army of  indulgence welling up in his belly. He will swell until he is defenseless, like a puffed up clucking pigeon. His empty calorie life will be of no consequence.