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Innocence and frivolity

All the fun and games started at 43rd and Warwick. The two-bedroom apartment housed three of us—me, a college friend of mine, and former submariner and hopeful radio personality who was into vitamin supplements and Scientology. My roommates took the bedrooms and I made a room of the solarium—a windowed balcony set off the living room.

Gauzy scarf-like saris hung between my makeshift room and the rest of the apartment. House plants of all descriptions in terracotta pots lined the window sills. At the time, I didn’t mind that people could see right through the dark blue and deep red saris. My childhood home provided little privacy and had inured me to shifting boundaries and uncertain spaces.

The apartment was a scene of odd temperaments and interests. My college friend was rarely home. He kept a Chevy Nova parked out front and sometimes rode a small, stubborn Honda motorcycle. I can’t remember whether it was work that occupied him during the long summer days of 1983 or something else. Whatever it was, he left me to the mercies of the disc jockey who roamed the house in his boxers and spent a good deal of time rattling vitamin bottles.

The disc jockey was an early bird who woke me (and whomever I was with) every morning with his vitamin dance. He sang to himself and whistled a lot. I asked him once to settle down and let me sleep. Just take your vitamins like everyone else. Open the bottle, shake a few pills in your hand. Close the bottle. There was no reason to use the bottles as maracas, especially at 6 in the morning. He looked at me strangely and said, “Well, I’ll try but the rattle is part of the fun.”

He never stopped shaking his vitamins like cans of spray paint with the little marble inside. He, like me, had no notion of personal space.

Still, I was in my own place, my first home away from home. I had a 12-inch black-and-white television, a hide-a-bed, and my plants. Rent cost $87.30 a month. There was a swimming pool at the apartments next door with a gate in the privacy fence that let out onto the alley. The gate was never locked and since the summer was one of the hottest ones on record, I used that pool more often than not after a long day.

One time, one of the apartment dwellers called the cops on me, dunking and howling drunk as I was in that little pool at 2 a.m. I heard the siren, ducked into the alley, and stumbled up the stairs to my apartment. This happened numerous times. I never did get caught and never had any idea which of the tenants was responsible for the police.

The apartment also facilitated a new kind of freedom for me. A woman I’d met at my erstwhile workplace, a large former movie theater turned concert venue, was everything I dreamed of. Her name was J.P. and she used to show up at the door at 3 a.m. when she got off work. She always brought gifts—three six packs of Budweiser, a pint of bourbon, and a carton of Marlboros. I was usually boiled already but never minded sitting up late with J.P. for another drunk.

About twice a week for about six months, J.P. and I had a blast, wrestling vigorously in my un-private room and drinking in the dark. In the summer, the temperature in that apartment rose to over 100. The apartment had no air conditioner. J.P. and I used a box fan that blew hot air over us. In the winter, the solarium was freezing, so much so that our breaths hung in there like balloons. Once in a while, when the weather was good, she and I would greet the rising sun as we sat out on the fire escape.

Mornings, she didn’t seem to mind that anyone, particularly the oddball disc jockey, could see through the cloth that separated my room from the living room. She’d wander around the apartment naked, and didn’t mind that the disc jockey was sitting on the couch drinking coffee. I had a great deal of respect for her.

During the school year, she’d drive me to the university with an open beer teetering on the bottom of the steering wheel of her Delta 88. My car sat out front in need of repair. J.P. was immune to hangovers, which amazed me. I was plagued by them. She thought it was funny that I’d come to groaning and figuring out what happened the night before. She told jokes and stories, often making me late to class. But I didn’t mind. It wasn’t like school was a serious thing for me at the time. It was more a place to escape.

I stayed in that apartment for a year. I wore life lightly then. I hadn’t yet come into contact with real, adult issues. I had stayed free of the law. I drank on the cheap, had other relationships like the one I had with J.P., and kept my head above water making pizzas. I even stepped up in the world when I went from slinging pizzas to delivering them. The job came with a regular hourly wage and I made tips on top.

Those were the days of innocence. Nothing serious came from all the fun, though one time I almost got arrested during a blow-out party around the corner.

The only thing that inched in on my good time was Yvette LaRose’s suicide. She was a tiny woman, very much in love with her drug partner and life mate Chuck. Their life together was something out of Drugstore Cowboy, a desperate mingling of deep psychic attachment and drug addiction. They were bad for each other, but neither knew that until Chuck decided he wanted to date other people. He came home one night and Yvette lie on the floor of the living room, blue in the face and quite cold. She’d left a note. Chuck went a little crazy after that. He couldn’t stop crying and berating himself. He wound up dying just a few months later of a heroin overdose. Who knows, it may have been suicide.

But that’s the way things happened then. People came and went. Relationships washed off me like so much sweat. It didn’t seem odd to me that Yvette and Chuck would kill themselves, only sad. I was briefly remorseful. But I never knew them well enough to grieve over their deaths. I was conscious enough, however, to understand that behind all the frivolity and merry-making, life had a serious side. Only, I believed serious happened to other people and not to me.

Looking back on that time, I grow nostalgic. I wouldn’t go back there and don’t want to be young again. But I do want the willing ignorance of life’s gravity. It was, despite all the drugs and alcohol and personal degradation, and except for Yvette and Chuck, a time of complete innocence. Wouldn’t it be great to feel that adult things happened to other people?

What changed? Where did it all go? It would be another decade or so before life became serious business for me, when I decided that I had wasted enough time wallowing in the alleys and side streets of the city. And I didn’t miss the fun and games until I could forget how taxing and tiring it all was.

I remember now. But I still want some of it. Some of the adrenaline and fear, the danger, the risk. The feeling that I am bulletproof and all knowing.

I’m watching my son grow up. He’s 15 and a serious kind of person. I want to tell him, “Lighten up. You’re going to miss the fun.” Then I realize he’s having already having fun, building a life and becoming more mature every day–a whole lot more mature than I was when I was 10 years older than he is now. He’s having a different kind of fun than I did. He does good, wholesome things that were never available to me. Good for him.

I hope he never has an Yvette and Chuck in his life.

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