The initial puncture threw me for a jolt, the right side of the vehicle sinking low onto the road. I was doing 80 in a 65, driving somebody else’s Impala, and I could hear the tiny pebbles turf like rock salt on the guard. I had no money, no means by which to pay for repairs. I had no clue whether there was even a donut in the well. And so I just kept driving, ignoring sparks that burned like embers as they flew into the air.
I had driven from State College all the way to North Philadelphia – 200 miles to take a girl named Shannen, four years my junior, to see The Ghost and the Darkness. Shannen, the blonde, pony-tailed waitress whom I had been flirting with all summer, whom I had kissed during the final week of August, whom I had screwed at Gerry Vessels’ house, whom I had refused to just let be.
The rites of autumn left me empty, drinking hard inside the Wildwood bars. I was still paying rent at State College, and – due to a combination of stupidity and exhaustion – I had mailed my August payment in the form of paltry bills. Come September, I received an invoice for two month’s rent, plus accumulating fees ($2 a day). The setback boxed me in, particularly at a time when there was less work, more drinking, and little savings to be found. I went to my parents for $600. I went to Bill Salerno for more. I began to pay off the balance in dribbles, $2 late fees accumulating one day at a time. My student loans were entering a period of repayment, a dynamic which I ignored for lack of money. I had no phone. I had three addresses (none of which I was calling home). There were collection agencies contacting my parents; urgent notices arriving at school.
The boarding house I had been living in was shutting down toward the end of September. And so I sat one night, and I worked out what I believed to be a viable plan. I would rent a P.O. Box in Wildwood, using the residence on my New Jersey driver’s license (212 East Magnolia) as a reliable proof of address. I would stake my claim for unemployment, enlisting a friend to pick up the checks (before depositing them in my account). I would return to State College, where I would supplement my unemployment writing papers for straight cash. I’d re-enroll, thereby avoiding any delinquency on student loans. I’d use the refund check to stay on-point with all my bills. I would pay back Bill Salerno. I would pay back both my parents. I would lie about my inclination to pay back either one.
Meanwhile, I would continue heaping blame. Upon my parents for pushing me into an engineering major that had nothing to do with my goals. Upon my father, for dismissing – and simultaneously trashing – my ongoing interest in writing. Upon an under-this-roof philosophy that had previously been enlisted to control my education, my vocation, and a student loan that kept on mounting with the meter stuck in spin.
I had little stake in returning to State College. I felt imprisoned by that lease, indebted to a real estate agency that had more than likely stolen one month’s rent. I was broke, living in a town that ran bone-dry on eligible employment. I had debts, and the only way I knew to keep from paying was by extending interest limits while holding creditors at bay.
I harbored no aspirations of becoming someone’s parent, or husband, or cantor, or witness. I had spent 18 years genuflecting before an altar where every word meant staged response, where morbid Godheads ate their young by way of platitudes, where dim-lit thinkers heaped dull nonsense down one’s throat. Literalism, contextualism, mindless blather cast as Dogma? Pedophile priests as vessels of Jesus; strong-minded women given the title of “none”? I had resisted; I had taken my stand, planting my freak flag on a hill. And yet, I could not seem to shake the old world’s traction, bleeding fingers wrapped in tendrils as I fought to gain control.
Rock n roll had saved my life in high school, providing heroes who inspired love and hate and questioning of authority, who sparked synapses that had never felt fresh wood before. Rock n roll pushed open doors that harbored art and myth and cinema, that harbored strength without demanding equal share. Rock n roll preserved ideals that held no sway in oil-barrel America; a place where guts ran wide with flesh and aging skin drooped low as wattle.
The illusion became one of squelching ambition, of convincing average dreamers that their lives were not their own. Small-town heroes earned felt letters for excelling at male sports, speeding long into a world of tending bar, peddling insurance, leasing an office on the second floor of a mall. Conformity became the only currency, a scale upon which mainstream order was controlled. Reasonable prejudice was applauded; county lines ran deep as moats.
To appear un-cog-ly was to welcome scorn, counseling sessions, parent-teacher meetings, whatsoever-will-we-do-with-Kevin? The disease was validation; a supreme level of we’re-all-just-so-OK that swept fresh air out of a room. Strained mortgages, starched collars; entire lives playing out like unconscionable business agreements. What kind of world was that? Forty years worth of Sisyphean discord.
By the age of 18 I had grown restless, displaying early symptoms of a mental illness that would gestate through the years. I was suffering bouts of depression, uncomfortable in social settings to an extent my only inclination was to drink. It had been explained that every impulse I held dear was wrong, that I was a screw-up, a letdown, a cog for which there was no wheel. Meanwhile, I was type-A, at risk, intelligent, innately built to battle hard. And so it came to pass one afternoon, a little over five years removed, I was driving west along the PA Turnpike, heading back toward State College in a broken-down Impala. The front right tire had just given way, causing the CV joint to cave. There were sparks flying and stones glancing and the smell of burning oil bruised the air. The steering column shook just like a jackhammer, several control-panel lights began to flare. And yet I could not seem to lift my foot off of the gas pedal. I was afraid of what might happen if I yield.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)