Joyride

The “Smiley Face” Barn.

An April Friday, my Sophomore year at Marquette: I had no classes that day and I’d opted to spend a long weekend at home twenty minutes away instead of on campus in my dorm room. My mom had evening plans to attend a going-away party for a co-worker. She was even getting a ride from someone, so I had her car all to myself.  She was a bit fanatical over that white four-door Pontiac Grand Am. I never had much of a curfew as a teen unless I borrowed her car.

Coincidentally, I also had a party to attend that evening; it was being thrown by my English Lit professor, a thirtysomething redhead who once began a lecture by saying to us, somewhat sheepishly, “Would you guys feel at all cheated out of your tuition if we didn’t have class today?” She lived across town in the tony suburb of Shorewood, and my original intent was to stop by. I’d know some people there, including a girl I’d recently, rather unsuccessfully tried to date (I was still a few years away from coming out)—not an emboldening reason for me to attend.

An evening before me with a car in my possession and absolutely nothing better to do, I left our South Side bungalow a little after 6:00 and got on the freeway in the direction of Shorewood. When I reached Downtown, however, I impulsively turned onto the West exit ramp. As I left Milwaukee County, I felt a little rush. When I passed the yellow barn with the giant smiley face painted on it at the Highway 83 exit, it suddenly was possible that I could keep going and going, another sixty or so miles all the way to Madison. I could make it there and back without Mom ever finding out. I often spent afternoons and evenings driving all over Milwaukee, putting mileage on the Grand Am but usually remembering to fill up the tank. I had more than enough cash on me for gas and food.

Crossing over from Waukesha to Jefferson County, I started picking up Madison radio stations (much to my chagrin, Mom would never splurge to install a tape deck or a CD player in her car.) I found a channel that only played hits of the 1970s, something of a novelty in the mid-90s. Passing through the flat terrain typical of Southeastern Wisconsin, all cornfields and the very occasional leafy tree, the sweet disco groove of Tavares’ “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel (Part 1)” filled the vehicle and I was positively giddy—I was drivin’ all the way to Madison by myself!

I arrived in in less than an hour and a half. After passing through a succession of strip malls, chain restaurants and freeway exits with unfamiliar names (“Fish Hatchery Road” always stood out—did it, in fact, lead to the titular destination?), I left the interstate and headed directly towards the sprawling UW-Madison Campus. I found a parking spot a few blocks away from Sellery Hall, a typical 1960s-built ten story cinder-block accented dorm; this was where two of my high school friends now lived.

I walked up to Sellery’s lobby and rang Ewa’s buzzer, but she wasn’t in. I left a message and tried ringing Sam; he wasn’t in either. Where were my friends? Didn’t they appreciate me driving all the way up there, unannounced, just to see them?

I thought of another high school classmate I knew, Aimee (who happened to be Sam’s ex-girlfriend); she lived in the all-girls dorm Chadbourne (which Sam crudely dubbed “Chastity Chad”.) Luckily, she answered her phone. A petite, blonde Biology major, Aimee was ecstatic to see me although I’m sure she sensed she wasn’t the first person I tried contacting, given how close I was with her ex. We sat and chatted in her cramped room, complete with loft beds and plastic milk crates full of boxes of Cheerios and store-brand pasta. Using Aimee’s land line, I left additional voicemail messages for Ewa and Sam.

After 15 minutes, we had to get outside. It was unseasonably warm for April and not yet dark. With a comfortable breeze in the air, we walked a few blocks to State Street, a mile-long stretch of restaurants, bars, used record and clothing stores, and the occasional apartment complex. It was closed off to vehicular traffic apart from city buses and led towards Madison’s epicenter, the mighty, imposing State Capitol building.

We stopped at Steep and Brew for some herbal tea and caught up on how we were each doing in school. At the time, unhappy at Marquette, I was considering transferring to Madison, but did not disclose this information to Aimee. In retrospect, I probably should have uprooted the comfortable life I was used to in my hometown, though if I did, I might not have had the gumption to move out to Boston for grad school two years later, which was the best choice I ended up making—to leave Wisconsin and escape my comfort zone for something entirely new, to truly be on my own.

As things stood at the time, I was afraid of change, of even moving less than one hundred miles away. An hour-and-a-half joyride was all I could handle.

Aimee and I finished our tea and we walked toward the student union, where the setting sun rippled over Lake Mendota. We stood for a minute on the vast patio dotted by ‘70s-vintage yellow and orange canvased umbrellas and lights. I found a pay phone and tried Ewa again; this time, success! She was purposely waiting for me to call back.  “Chris – WHERE ARE YOU???,” she yelled.

Within ten minutes, Ewa joined Aimee and I on the student union patio. As we hugged hello, I noticed her brown hair had grown out a bit since the last time I saw her (at a They Might Be Giants concert in Madison five weeks before), but she still wore her standard outfit of jeans, flannel shirt and dark green Chuck Taylor hi-tops. I’d known her for nearly five years; we’d met in a theology class Sophomore year at our Catholic high school. On the first day, we were required to introduce ourselves by listing some of our hobbies. Before the beginning of the next class, she came up to me and said, “So, you play guitar? That’s cool, I’ve been wanting to learn.” We were pals from then on; our friendship just developed naturally, never requiring any effort—we just had an instant rapport, one that felt like it had always been there.

The three of us strolled down State Street as the sky gradually changed from orange pink to dark blue. We browsed in a used CD store, briefly looked over the previously worn wares at Ragstock, and picked up some takeout at one of the numerous cheap Chinese joints littered up and down the thoroughfare. Aimee, having eaten at the dining hall earlier, said she had to go back to her dorm to study; we hugged goodbye and Ewa and I continued walking towards Sellery carrying bags of takeout cartons brimming with Sweet and Sour Pork, Chicken Lo Mein, Spring Rolls and White Rice. Ewa’s roommate had gone home for the weekend, so we had plenty of room to spread out our cheap, mostly fried bounty.

I tried calling Sam again and got his voicemail. It was a recording of Barry Williams as Greg Brady, excitedly talking about The Brady Kids, the band he and his siblings were part of and how excited they were to record their brand-new album. Sam’s own voice was nowhere to be heard on the message, which is how he preferred it. Even today, he eschews social media—my only contact with him in the past two decades has been through our Spotify accounts, which should tell you how much we’ve actually kept in touch since I moved to Boston.

As was our tradition, Ewa brought out a package of clove cigarettes, and we smoked a few. I then called home and left a voicemail for Mom, notifying her that I was “staying at the party late.” We listened to Rubber Soul three times in a row and chatted about our classes, our jobs, what new music each of us was listening to. She mentioned her upcoming summer trip to Poland (where she and her family emigrated from to the States when she was a young child), while I told her my plan to get a summer job on campus as a residence hall desk receptionist.

I felt more at ease sitting and chatting with Ewa in her room at Sellery than at home or even in my Marquette dorm, where I spent very little time. I had a packed schedule that semester, with most of my days and nights hunkered down in the library or the photography lab, and I went home most weekends to work a part-time retail job in the suburbs. I didn’t have a roommate, and I didn’t make much of an effort to hang out with the other guys on my floor. I’d moved on campus that year because I hated commuting from home, which during my Freshman year had the effect of college feeling like a supersized version of high school.

Living on campus didn’t magically solve all of my problems like I hoped it would. I’d later realize that the problem was me and my unwillingness to reveal much of myself to other people. I was deep in the closet and not yet ready to deal with or admit to myself whom I actually, honestly was. Hanging out with an old friend in Madison didn’t exactly bring me any closer to working through this issue, but it made me feel temporarily good, uplifted by spending time with someone I knew well.

11:00 PM turned into Midnight, and the next time I looked at my dark tan leather-banded Fossil watch, it was almost 1:00 AM. I’d given up on the possibility of Sam calling me back; later, I’d find out he was at his girlfriend Beth’s dorm room the entire evening. When I next glanced at my watch, it was nearly 2:00 AM. I knew what I had to do—get the car back home before sunrise and get some sleep before I had to go to work. Dragging my feet from the floor, I said my goodbyes to Ewa and headed out of Sellery over to where I parked the car. Thankfully, it was still there—no tickets or attempted break-ins. I pulled out of the UW-Madison campus and headed for the highway.

Driving on I-94 in the middle of the night, there were few other cars. Everything seemed much darker than usual, although it was probably no different than if I’d been driving at Midnight like I should have. I was completely sober (I was not a drinker yet) but miserably tired. I had the volume on the radio turned up loud to keep me awake.

Halfway home, I stopped at a Mobil to fill up the tank. Back on the expressway, I could sense my eyelids getting heavier by the minute. I switched from New Rock 102.1 to Classic Rock Station WKLH and cranked up the volume further. “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” came on and I began singing along. I wasn’t the world’s biggest Billy Joel fan; at my auto parts store job (yes, really), someone put a copy of the entire Piano Man album into one of the display auto cassette players and we listened to it on an endless loop—it was a perpetual hell of people putting bread in jars and microphones that smelled like beers, but still preferable to the country/western station one manager liked.

I still believe Billy Joel saved my life that night—singing along to his punchy, sarcastic, faux-rockabilly/faux new-wave number one hit from the Glass Houses album kept me awake and sharpened my focus. “HOT FUNK, COOL PUNK, EEE-VEN IF IT’S OLD JUNK!,” I shouted along, keeping my eyes as wide open as I could, never daring to take them off the road. The song ended with its jazzy final chord, and orange sodium lamps began dotting the expressway again. I was nearly in Milwaukee County and almost home.

I pulled into our alley around 3:45 AM, drove up to our garage, put the car in park, got out and turned my key in the garage door, slowly lifting it up and trying not to make too much noise (we didn’t have an automatic opener.) I eased the car inside, got out and pulled down the garage door as gently as I could. I opened the back door to my parent’s house in a similar manner, nearly walking on my tiptoes as I stumbled into my bedroom, took off my shoes and jeans and plopped into my childhood bed. As usual, I could faintly make out my dad’s snoring from the other bedroom. As far as I knew, I’d managed not to awaken either him or Mom.

I never told my parents about my joyride, and they never asked. Given what a goody-two-shoes I was all through high school, I felt a slight thrill at having gotten away with something forbidden, unexpected, a little gutsy. In a way, I was a step closer to being an adult, to making my own decisions and facing the consequences (I sure was tired at work that next day.) I’m not saying a joyride never hurt anybody, but for me, it pointed the way towards a road I desperately needed to take.

Stung

“BZZT!”

A sound immediately followed by a sharp pain at tip of my left index finger. I had opened the screen to my tent and placed my hand on my sleeping bag. It was the last night of a week of Boy Scout camp in the middle of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Northeastern Wisconsin.

I never actually saw the bee, or fully determined how it invaded my tent; it probably snuck in earlier in the day when Dan or I had opened the screen (which might’ve had a hole in it.) However, the quick procession of buzz-then-sting confirmed it. Thirteen years old, and one of my worst fears had finally come true.

I knelt there for a few seconds, a little dumbstruck. My tentmate was a few yards away, helping to put out the campfire along with Mr. Runkle, father to Bill Runkle, a scrawny eleven-year-old who had joined our Troop last year. His dad was one of four who’d come along on the trip to supervise us dozen Scouts.

I walked over to Dan and Mr. Runkle. “I think I got stung by a bee,” I announced.

Mr. Runkle asked, “Has this ever happened to you before?”

“Nope”, I replied.

“How are you feeling? I don’t see any hives or puffiness.”

“I think I’m fine,” I said. “It just hurts.”

“Well, you need to go to the infirmary. We don’t know if you’re allergic or not.”

An allergy to beestings had never occurred to me; however, given my long-festering hatred of the insect, I wasn’t all that surprised one existed.

Mr. Runkle grabbed his flashlight and ordered me to fetch mine. It was after 10:00 PM, and we were off to the camp’s infirmary. At least half a foot taller than me, broad shouldered and sporting a walrus mustache, Mr. Runkle in his lumberjack red flannel shirt led the way through the woods along a series of paths I barely recognized in the dark. As a city kid, the forest always seemed immense to me—you looked up and all you saw were impossibly tall, towering trees in every direction. If a clearing was anywhere near, you couldn’t sense it.

My finger throbbed a bit, the pain still present but contained, not necessarily getting any worse. As we walked for ten, fifteen minutes, I thought about my long-standing fear of getting stung. Ever since a bee flew into our dining room one summer when I was four or five, I’d been deathly afraid of them. Much of that had to do with the buzzing noise—like the roar of the titular weapon in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, just the sound indicated the possibility of something going horribly wrong. From an early age, I was taught by my mom to stay away from them. For years at my pediatrician’s office, the waiting room, amongst all the wrinkled back issues of Highlights, there was kind of a faux Golden Book with a story where some kids got into trouble for poking a beehive. One illustration portrayed them running away from the swarm, their faces covered in welts and sores as the bees followed, their stingers pointed directly at them. That would never be me, no sir.

Blame Fear of the Unknown: as a kid, you’re told not to mess with bees because they’ll sting you and it’ll hurt. I suppose some kids take that information in stride, not actively seeking out a swarm of bees to mess with but not caring much about encountering the insect either; I did not fall into that category—the possibility of suddenly getting stung was for me a phobia right up there with fire alarms, angry barking dogs and neighborhood bullies.

Thus, when this first bee sting finally arrived, so quick and finite, it almost felt anticlimactic. Sure, it hurt, but not nearly as much as the horsefly bite I’d received on the back of my neck two summers before. As I did my best to keep up with Mr. Runkle in the woods that night, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s it? This is what I was afraid of?”

By the time we reached the infirmary, the pain in my finger had lessened considerably. Mr. Runkle rang the doorbell and the Camp Medic, a wispy, white-haired man let us in. I followed him into an examination room towards the back of the cabin while Mr. Runkle waited in the entryway. From a large metal cabinet lined with rows and rows of pill bottles, the Medic selected one and from it gave me a capsule to swallow, along with a glass of water. “This is for just in case you’re allergic,” he instructed.

I don’t remember exactly what I was given, only that it was *enormous*, much larger than anything I’d ever been told to swallow before. It easily could’ve been a Horse-Sized Pill, although I didn’t yet have the language to describe it as such. Swallowing this behemoth capsule took some effort; it felt as if I were consuming a pinky finger (even though it couldn’t have been that big.)

Having downed the pill and the entire glass of water, Mr. Runkle and I said Goodnight to the Medic and made our way back to our campground. Everyone was in their tents, asleep or feigning sleep by then. I thanked Mr. Runkle for taking me to the infirmary and he responded, “You’re welcome; just let one of the dads know if you feel sick during the night.” The pain in my finger had pretty much disappeared, replaced by a nagging itch that would stay with me all the way home to Milwaukee the next day.

After my first bee sting, I still steadfastly avoided the insect but no longer feared it. I now considered them a mere annoyance more than the Insect Antichrist I’d previously made them out to be(e). I’d get stung again in my early thirties after trying to move a large opened bag of apparently bee-infected potting soil that had been left on the ground for hours. It happened as rapidly and unexpectedly as when I reached for my sleeping bag two decades before. It hurt like a motherfucker, but the pain gradually lessened and once again, I survived.

Oh, Tannenbaum…

The Tree, a few years later. Note the garlands!

When I was young, I loved browsing through the elaborate, backroom display of colorfully glowing, completely trimmed artificial Christmas trees at Stein’s Garden Center and Gifts. However, to actually bring one of those imposters into our home was entirely out of the question—we required the vigorous smell of pine wafting through the air, a splintery trunk dabbed with sticky sap and a ring of fallen, brown needles gradually accumulating all over the vintage Lionel train set I’d inherited from my Great Uncle Eugene. A real tree was as essential a Kriofske Holiday Tradition as iced and decorated sugar cookies in dozens of shapes, strings of multicolored lights criss-crossing the front windows looking out on 12th Street, or even presents from Santa on Christmas morning.

During the first or second week of December, usually on a early weekend afternoon, my parents and I would drive to a nursery or garden center—not local chain Stein’s, but usually somewhere out in the boonies to look for and bring home the Perfect Christmas Tree. Often these places would crank up the charm to justify their lofty prices. You’d walk in the front door and be gobsmacked with the smell of cinnamon and spice and the sound of carols and hymns; within seconds, you’d spot a dispenser of free hot cider to sip out of tiny styrofoam cups. I recall one place even had a real life nativity out back: a wooden enclosure housing a donkey, a foal and perhaps a Saint Bernard or a Golden Lab one could pet, pose and take photos with on a bed of hay.

Eventually, my father had it all figured out: the best tree to get was a Fraser Fir. It appeared full and robust, but its chief attribute was its most practical: firm but not too stiff, it had branches practically tailor-made for hanging ornaments onto them. Every year after our first Fraser Fir, we settled for nothing less. It cost more than the average balsam or spruce you could pick up at one of those parking lot tree emporiums that seemed to pop up all over town every November, but such durability and dependability was worth the extra scratch.

If my mom ever suggested, “Bob, maybe we should spend less on The Tree this time?”, my father would only have to remind her of the Christmas when I was in third grade. I have many fond memories of this year: I still sincerely believed in Santa, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aired on ABC for the first time and A Christmas Story had premiered in theaters (to a generally muted response, but after that first viewing, my parents and I thought it was the Best (and funniest) Christmas Movie Ever.)

Still, not everything that year was as magical as fresh fallen snow or piping hot mugs of cocoa teeming with mini-marshmallows. For one thing, we’d waited a little longer than usual to pick up The Tree. Christmas was less than two weeks away and rather than make the trek out to one of our preferred places, my parents opted for a nursery closer to home. It was altogether fine for tree-shopping, cider and carols intact (but no living nativity); their selection might’ve been sparser than usual, but I can’t entirely blame that for what we picked out; I can only assume my parents wanted to get a tree right there, right then and not spend a fortune on it.

Nothing about The Tree we purchased looked especially askew in the nursery’s outdoor lot; it was only after we brought it into our home that we noticed something was off. Sure, it was slightly crooked, but my dad could easily fix that by sawing a little off the top or bottom. Only in the artificial light of our living room (extensively rearranged, by the way, so we could make space for it) did we notice The Tree seemed a little… barren. Not a pathetic “Charlie Brown Tree” by any means, but certainly something less hardy than we were used to.

“Maybe that’s just the bad side,” my mom suggested. “Let’s turn it around.”

If anything, the other side was even worse, with wide gapping spaces fully noticeable throughout the towering, triangle-shaped conifer before us. Undeterred, my dad turned it back around again and with my mom’s assistance, began stringing the lights—an annual ritual I knew to stay away from. As they wrapped each subsequent string around The Tree, my parents’ frustration with each other would mount and seethe until one of them would verbally explode at the other; from there, the arguing would persist until the last string was strung.

Hundreds of multicolored lights improved the tree somewhat but any sense of satisfaction dissipated upon the hanging of the ornaments, for this is where we discovered this tree’s fatal flaw: with such weak and flouncy branches, the heavier ornaments just slid right off. You’d put one of the wooden Three Wise Men or a miniature picture frame enclosing one of my baby photos on a branch and could practically hear the descending slide whistle sound as it immediately fell off and onto the floor.

We exhausted the ornaments small and light enough to remain hung in no time at all. Even with these and all the lights, the tree seemed only slightly less barren than when it was unadorned. Fortunately, my mom knew more than one way to decorate or fill out a tree, having crafted a majority of our ornaments herself. The answer that year was GARLANDS. Not strings of popcorn, as she had tried the year before, her fingers left pricked and raw by the laborious process of threading one piece after another with a needle and a string; no, something simpler and more colorful.

Armed with abundant rectangles of shiny paper probably purchased from LeeWards, she strung together one looped garland after another, always alternating green and red, green and red ad infinitum. So easy to make, she even recruited me to help out. We wrapped them round and round the tree and made so many we even had a few leftover. We proceeded to put them up all over the house: along the front windows, over the archway separating the living room from the entryway, around the latter’s sole stained-glass window. Practically everywhere one looked, red and green chains accented the interior of our South Side Milwaukee bungalow.

So much red and green, it brought to mind colors from the Mexican flag—at least it did for my father. When he first saw all the garlands that had materialized, he couldn’t help but start singing the chorus of the ubiquitous Jose Feliciano standard “Feliz Navidad”. It became a running joke up through and long past Christmas Day: years later, whenever the song appeared on the radio, in a TV commercial or in a store, we still associated it with those plentiful, chintzy-but-admittedly-festive green and red chains.

***

The Tree might’ve been that year’s definitive Christmas memory if not for what happened on the holiday itself. Rather than getting together with my aunts, uncles and cousins, the three of us elected to spend that Christmas Day with only my Grandma Clara. Rather than cook a big meal, my parents decided we would eat at their favorite restaurant, Jake’s, a steakhouse across town they had frequented since before I was born. With its elegant but homey atmosphere, baked potatoes accompanied by a Lazy Susan brimming with chives, sour cream and real bacon bits, scrumptious piles of onion strings (not rings – you could order a “Hill” or a “Mountain” of ’em) and divine Shirley Temples (we always called them Kiddie Cocktails), Jake’s was one of my favorite restaurants as well.

The previous Christmas, the temperature in Wisconsin somehow reached an abnormal 65 degrees; this year’s frigid, windy, well-below-zero weather was clearly payback for that rare, good fortune. The four of us piled into the ol’ Mercury Monarch, wrapped in layers of sweaters, coats, scarves and earmuffs and around 5:30 arrived at an unexpectedly empty, darkened Jake’s. Somehow, my dad had not thought to make reservations, or even call to see if the restaurant was in fact going to be open on the biggest holiday of the year.

As we sat in the car, dumbfounded, we had to think of a plan B: if Jake’s was closed today, what fine dining establishment might actually be open? Unlike Ralphie’s family in A Christmas Story, Chinese food was not an option for us as my dad refused to eat Asian cuisine of any kind after serving in the Army in South Korea in the late ’60s and having gone through an apparently traumatic kimchee mishap.

Mentally running through a list of reputable places likely to be serving Christmas dinner to the public, my parents came up with the Hoffman House, a restaurant inside the Best Western Midway Motor Lodge up on Highway 100. We’d had Sunday brunch there before, and it was surely open for business today, being inside a hotel and all. In about twenty minutes, we arrived to a packed parking lot, which should’ve tipped us off to the harsh reality that, without a reservation, there was up to a two-hour wait for a table for four.

We all got back into the car and onto the nearby expressway, driving to the other Best Western with a Hoffman House, this one five miles away in Brookfield; sadly, the wait there was no shorter.

Cold, hungry and getting desperate, we returned to the expressway in the opposite direction towards home. On the radio, EZ 104 played the umpteenth version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” we’d heard that year, its numerous mentions of “a partridge in a pear tree” and “five golden rings” (onion strings!) not doing much to curb our appetites. Nearing the airport, we swung by Country Gardens, a picturesque little supper club on the off-chance that they might be open, but no dice. Having exhausted a short list of desirable options, including a home-cooked meal (far too late for that), it was time to be sensible and succumb to whatever was available and close.

With resignation but also a hint of relief, my father pulled into Denny’s parking lot.

My dad tends to revisit the same four or five restaurants again and again (a proclivity I increasingly recognize in myself as I age.) For awhile, Denny’s was one of them, the place we usually dined at after church on Sunday morning (and plenty of Saturday mornings as well.) Earlier that year, en route to said restaurant in the backseat of our car, I once complained, “Argh, we always go to Denny’s for breakfast; Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, DENNY’S!!!” Back then, my parents soundly ignored my rant; now, we were having our Christmas Dinner there. Given how hungry we all were, I knew to keep my mouth shut.

I no longer recall exactly what I ate at Denny’s that Christmas. I imagine my dad, sensing the utter disappointment in my face, told me to order whatever I wanted on the menu, so I probably had the Fried Shrimp (as fancy as the restaurant chain got.) I’m sure someone at the table ordered a Turkey Dinner and perhaps slices of Pumpkin Pie with whipped topping for dessert. The four of us sat in our circular, olive-vinyl seated booth overlooking Mitchell Field, the icy wind howling outside as yet another version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (this one instrumental!) played overhead, occasionally interrupted by the resounding Ding! of a sign dotted with lit-up numbers, notifying waitstaff whenever an order was ready.

We didn’t dare try to eat out on Christmas Day again until my parents visited me in Boston decades later (and you can bet we made reservations well in advance.) We still reminisce over the year we had a crummy tree and dinner at Denny’s and yet—like all the Christmases of my youth, we were together and in the end, we didn’t go hungry. This particular Christmas was far from perfect, but in retrospect, it was still pretty great.

Drinking Triptych

One

Save a few coveted sips of my dad’s beer and the occasional glass of wine doled out on Thanksgiving or Christmas, I did not consume much alcohol as a teenager. I didn’t exactly hang out with a drinking crowd at school; in fact, I sincerely believed getting drunk led to nothing but getting sick. At 17, I witnessed one whole side of my extended family get plastered at a relative’s 50th birthday party held at a local tavern. I was fascinated and more than a little amused by this mass-inebriation—at one point, my much older cousin Denise (she babysat me often in my youth) stood before me next to the bar, sloshed and repeatedly uttering, “I love you Christopher” in a zonked but still empathetic voice—but I had little desire to participate in it.

Still, my first act of alcohol transgression occurred not long thereafter. One afternoon, out of immense frustration at my parents for some injustice I can no longer recall, I stormed down to our basement where we kept an old fridge almost exclusively packed with beverages. Beyond twelve ounce cans of caffeine-free Diet Pepsi and assorted fruity flavors of Jolly Good and Graf’s soda (both regional generic brands) sat tall amber glass bottles of my dad’s beloved Michelob. I reached for one before realizing I had nothing nearby to open it with. I then spotted two lonely aluminum cans of Miller Lite sitting at the back of the shelf, which my parents must have purchased for guests (or perhaps a guest had brought them to us.) I hastily grabbed one, locked myself in an adjacent junk room, sat down amongst mildewy cardboard boxes packed with elementary school homework and art projects and, yearning to rebel and defy, began to chug.

As I mentioned, it wasn’t my first taste of the stuff, but I could sense my face twisting into shock at the relative sourness of so much beer at once. I kept swallowing it down, convincing myself it tasted great! I was practically an adult, after all! Of course, it was actually pathetic—I couldn’t even finish the whole can. I didn’t know where to dispose of it: my mom was too close by, just up the stairs, in the kitchen on the other side of the hallway door. My dad, meanwhile, was out mowing the lawn, so I couldn’t walk right past him back to the alley to drop the can into the big blue recycling bin near the garage. Besides, where would I dump the remaining brew I could not bear to finish?

I ended up just leaving it in the junk room, hidden behind the dust-coated, lower partitioned shelf of a round wooden table that once sat in our living room. Neither of my parents ever frequented the aptly-named junk room, which primarily housed my childhood detritus. This plan worked—later that week, when no one else was home, I poured the now-warm liquid left in the can down the kitchen sink, crushed the can by stomping on it and discarded it in that recycling bin, strategically placing it underneath an empty container of Grape Hi-C. I had pushed the desire to clandestinely drink a beer entirely out of my system (at least until I was legally old enough to do so.)

Two

Six months before turning 21, I got no-holds-barred, shitfaced drunk for the first time. I had come back from a late summer road trip from Milwaukee to Minneapolis with two friends, John and Joe. We had driven up there to visit Sara, another high school friend who was attending the University of Minnesota. It had been a somewhat contentious few days, getting caught in a violent rainstorm on the way up, having difficulty finding Sara’s apartment (mixing up the city’s numbered streets and avenues) and just generally getting sick of each other’s company after having spent so much time together in close quarters.

The trip’s best part was when Sara got into a fight with her boyfriend, giving the three of us, along with Sara’s laid-back, Beatles-loving roommate Dea (we quickly bonded over a mutual affection for Abbey Road) an excuse to get out of their shoebox apartment. None of us were of legal drinking age or possessed fake IDs, so we walked over to Joe’s tan Nissan, parked blocks away in a public lot and drank equal parts Captain Morgan’s Rum and Coca-Cola out of a Thermos. After roughly the equivalent of two cocktails, we all felt much, much better. Collectively sucking the Thermos dry, we stayed up late into the night, stumbling all over the massive and seemingly never ending U of M campus.

In the light of day, visiting the Mall of America and slumming around student ghetto Dinkytown didn’t carry the same otherworldly appeal, so the three of us headed back to Milwaukee a little early. Upon our arrival that night, John proposed we stay over at his house, as his parents and younger sister were all out of town and we’d have the place to ourselves. Furthermore, he claimed we could partake of *all* the alcohol in the house, as his parents had supposedly “stopped drinking” and certainly weren’t going to ever touch all this leftover booze. Why, it’d just go to waste! Obviously, it sounded too good to be true but as a naive young adult, I thought, “Well, if John says it’s okay to drink his parent’s stash, then it must be all right!” It’s also likely the rarity of FREE BOOZE clouded my judgement a bit.

We kicked off the evening sipping Captain’s and Cokes while watching Pump Up The Volume, the first of three videos we had rented from the neighborhood Blockbuster. After running out of rum, we switched to Jack Daniels for a bit before downing shots of a sickeningly sweet, strawberry-flavored malt beverage called Tequila Rose. Popping Killing Zoe into the VCR, I could barely follow along with this grim, violent thriller, but it didn’t matter because the three of us were so pleasantly bombed. We’d take frequent breaks from the movie, standing around the kitchen table, John incessantly pouring the thick, pink, mucus-like liquid into three shot glasses. We’d raise them up and toast to ourselves, to our friendship, and to liquor itself!

Killing Zoe having ended, John brought out a half-chilled champagne bottle he had secretly stuck in the back of the fridge earlier. We were about to pop the cork right there in the kitchen until Joe raised his hand and, in a brief moment of clarity, suggested we’d better do it outside in the backyard so that it wouldn’t hit anything important (including ourselves.) We happily shambled outside and, with a faded yellow dishtowel in hand, John aimed the bottle towards the neighbor’s yard. On the count of a three, a large POP! and our drunken cheers filled the 2:00 AM air, the cork flying off over a chain-linked fence into oblivion, never to be seen again.

We began our third movie, the surreal, hyperactive comic book adaptation Tank Girl, which was entirely fitting ’cause by then, we were all pretty tanked. The three of us sat next to each other on the living room floor, Lori Petty and a pre-fame Naomi Watts in front of us, an overstuffed couch at our backs, and passed the champagne bottle back and forth rather than pouring it into glasses. We came up with a game we thought to be ingenuous: each time a character in the movie drank something, we’d each have to take a swig out of the bottle ourselves. After four or five swigs a piece, this rapidly devolved into “Each time any character does anything, we all have to take a drink.” I don’t remember if we finished the bottle, but I do believe that all three of us passed out before the closing credits.

The next morning, we all had severe hangovers, but amazingly, no one had gotten physically sick. John never mentioned if he ever got into trouble for raiding his parents’ liquor cabinet, and I never thought to ask him about it. However, later that day, still considerably hungover, my mom and I were in the car on the way to the supermarket when we passed a ginormous billboard for Tequila Rose, of all things. “What’s wrong with you?,” mom asked as I audibly groaned at sight of the ad. I couldn’t tell if she knew what I had been up to the night before; I just glumly replied, “Nothing; I have a headache.”

Three

That I was able to feel so (temporarily) good without puking my brains out held a certain appeal; also, I could easily handle a headache. Throughout my remaining college years, I drank like this only a handful of times. I never really set out to get bombed; it’d usually happen whenever booze was available, like the house party my roommates had the weekend before the start of senior year—they insisted on purchasing a keg of Busch Light, and since I was paying for 25% of it, I figured why not partake. It was putrid stuff, only a fraction better than Milwaukee’s Best (aka “The Beast”) but as with most alcohol (particularly the cheapest stuff), it really wasn’t all that bad after the sixth or seventh plastic cup of it.

This sort of thing would happen maybe twice a year, and I was proud of being fully able to hold my booze. I kept this (no matter how dubious) streak going until after I moved to Boston for grad school. My first year there on the last weekend in March, temperatures suddenly spiked into the low ’80s—surreal for sure, made even more so since apparently there had been a freak April Fool’s Day blizzard the year before. One of my classmates threw a party at her place, a sprawling complex near Brookline Village. Until that point, Winter had stubbornly lingered as it tends to do in New England. I’d spent far too much time holed up in either my Allston bedroom or BU’s Mugar Library and I was ready to let off some steam, wanting to embrace this sudden good fortune of Summer-like weather without a care of any potential consequences.

My fatal flaw was not necessarily in how much I drank, but in what I all consumed. In the song “Tubthumping” an unlikely hit that previous fall by the Anarchist Britpop collective Chumbawumba, there’s a part where a chipper male vocalist tauntingly half sings/half raps,

“He drinks a Whiskey drink, he drinks a Vodka drink
He drinks a Lager drink, he drinks a Cider drink!”

This is more or less what I did that night, perhaps substituting rum for the whiskey. Also, you know that old saying, “Liquor before beer, never fear; beer before liquor, never sicker”? Well, at that point, tragically, I had not. I may have begun with a Woodchuck hard cider as we all hung out in the courtyard, taking advantage of the comfortable temperatures. After some neighbors complained about the noise, we moved inside where I may have moved on to my beloved Captain’s and Coke, or maybe a Cape Codder (vodka with cranberry juice to you non New-Englanders) or even a glass of cheap red wine.

I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but somewhere deep into the night, in the middle of a crowded living room surrounded by fellow partygoers, I suddenly began vomiting all over myself onto the floor, hopefully not onto other people (although the odds were likely not in my favor.) Some shadowy figures quickly guided me into the bathroom, where for what felt like hours, I continued unceremoniously emitting everything I had consumed over the past few hours into the toilet, occasionally pausing to rest my head against the cool, white ceramic tank.

The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a film production student’s big black minivan, holding a large black trash bag in front of me, giving the driver directions on how to get back to my apartment. Pulling up to my place, I thanked him profusely and stumbled into the building, waking up my roommate Miles (who used the living room as his bedroom, turning a two-bedroom unit into three) and flopping down on my mattress, which, further disorienting me, was right on my bedroom’s floor—I had disassembled my bed frame earlier in the week to make room for some classmates to come over and watch a movie. I passed out almost instantly, my gas permeable hard contact lenses still in my eyes.

I woke up the next afternoon with a hangover worse than the one at John’s house three years before. My left contact was still in my eye; the right one had fallen out and seemingly vanished into thin air. I eventually pulled myself together and in the still unseasonably warm weather, rode my bike down to the Esplanade. I sat on a bench overlooking the Charles River for an hour or so, feeling disheveled and ashamed. Turns out, my actions from the night before did have consequences, and I’d have to face them. I’d later call up the party’s host, leaving a message on her answering machine, sheepishly apologizing for puking all over her apartment. That Monday at school, when I passed a classmate in the hall who had also attended the party, he immediately shunned his face from mine rather than return my friendly greeting, as if he could no longer associate with me, the Drunken, Vomiting Pariah in public.

However, I’d come to learn that what I did wasn’t so unusual or especially shameful. Within a few days, the shunning classmate returned my hello again as if nothing ever happened. I’d see others get shitfaced drunk in public all the time and chuckle to myself but also understand this is simply a Thing That Happens—obviously not good if it happens all the time, mind you, but I no longer needed to fear it: I literally partied ’til I puked, and I had survived. Of course, that wasn’t my last time ever getting shitfaced drunk; admittedly, it wasn’t even the last time I ever puked in public. Still, these days, like most responsible, non-alcoholic adults, I prefer the drowsy buzz of a well-crafted cocktail or two over drinking just to get drunk. Although I wince a little whenever I think back to that time I was the life (and death) of a party, I’m mostly thankful I had that experience. It was a foolish act, for sure, but also strangely liberating, all at once throwing caution to the wind, even if I ended up also being gloriously three sheets to it.

Up North!

Every summer, my family vacationed in Minocqua, Wisconsin. A five-hour drive from our home in Milwaukee, we didn’t even have to leave the state! Throughout the ’80s into the early ’90s, my parents and I would pack up our aging navy blue Mercury Monarch on a designated Saturday morning either right before or not long after the Fourth of July and head straight for Route 41 North. Following a carefully planned trajectory of state and county highways, we’d bypass smaller metropolises like Fond Du Lac, Oshkosh and Wausau until leafy trees gave way to endless rows of towering pines. The expressway would abruptly end, turning into a two-lane blacktop and by mid-afternoon, we were finally “Up North!” (as I first learned to call it at age seven.)

For years, we also didn’t have to pay for lodging. Actually, we initially made the trip only because of an invitation from longtime friends of my parents. Another couple with two sons near my age, they had relatives who owned a small cabin that they’d let family and friends use throughout the year. A modern, compact, one-story, two-bedroom rectangle of a house, it had a deck that overlooked some woods leading down to a small lake. To reach the cabin, one had to turn onto a little road off the highway whose intersection was flanked by a small, decades-old shop with a green sign plainly labeled BAIT. It was our tradition to stop there and pick up a week’s worth of worms wriggling around in a Styrofoam container of soil and other various fishing supplies before taking the narrow, winding road two miles up through the woods up to our long-awaited destination.

The seven of us would spend a week huddled in this cozy space, the three boys taking one bedroom and the two sets of parents alternating between the other bedroom and a camper van parked outside. From Saturday to Saturday, we fished, suntanned, swam, hiked and passed the time playing endless rounds of Uno and other card and board games. We also made runs into town to play rounds of miniature golf, pick up supplies at the Save More Supermarket and walk along Minocqua’s charming main street, which was strewn with taverns and tchotchke shoppes, but also places that sold books, toys, ice cream and fudge.

By the time us three boys reached our teens, the little cabin began feeling a tad cramped. My parents decided time had come for the three of us to rent our own place for the week. My fifteen-year-old self pictured we’d find another, near-identical version of the place we had stayed at all these years, or better yet, a rustic but charming, spacious house like the one in the movie The Great Outdoors. I imagined all the amenities and luxuries of a Best Western or a Holiday Inn, transported to a beautiful spot on a quiet, picturesque, crystal-clear lake.

We ended up renting a cottage at the Lazy L Campground and Resort. Upon hearing its name for the first time, I wasn’t too keen on the campground part—I had slept outdoors in a tent many times as a Boy Scout and knew very well neither my mom nor dad would be up for doing so for an entire week—but the word resort held some promise. Presumably, in addition to an eat-in-kitchen and two bedrooms, we’d have a patio and our own yard, plus proximity to and views of Squirrel Lake (which was more than five times the size of the lake we usually stayed at.)

The road to Lazy L from the highway was much longer and narrower than the one by the BAIT shop. It seemed to go on indefinitely, each curve burrowing deeper into an endless woods and further away from civilization. After what felt like fifteen, possibly thirty minutes, we finally saw an old wooden sign with two giant L’s painted on it, not far off from the ones Laverne DeFazio embroidered on all her outfits.

We turned onto a dirt driveway, passing through yet more woods until reaching a partial clearing. A small, clapboard building served as an office, and there were four other cottages plus a larger house situated further back in the woods. To the left were signs pointing towards the campground. Ahead of us, partially hidden through some tall trees sat Squirrel Lake, so immense one had to squint to make out the other side.

Marcel, the establishment’s owner, exited the office and greeted us with a warm “Howdy!” Balding, flannel clad and pushing sixty, he ambled over to us and shook my father’s hand. He then led us over to what would be our home for the next seven nights. Our two-bedroom cabin, called the Edgewater, wasn’t much smaller than what we were used to, but it was far more rustic, probably built when my parents were little kids, possibly earlier than that. Although it was clean and didn’t smell like mildew, my spirit sank as I gazed upon the kitchen/living room. Most of the furniture, while in reasonably good shape, was a few decades old, from a tan couch with an exposed wooden frame to a white electric stove so narrow one couldn’t even fit a Thanksgiving turkey in it. I wasn’t yet at an age where I could appreciate now-trendy vintage items such as the pristine, 1950s red-and-white Formica kitchen table; at 15, I just found it dated and depressing.

Sensing my disappointment, my mom said to me, “You know, Chris, it’s not like we’re staying at a fancy, modern hotel; this place is perfectly fine. And it’s just for one week!” I let out an exaggerated sigh like any good snotty teen and slouched off to my new bedroom. I sprawled across the full-sized bed where I noticeably sensed a layer of squishy plastic under the pale green linen sheets. I turned up my Sony Walkman, seeking out whatever local top 40 station I could find.

Over the course of that week, I grew to tolerate our cottage at the Lazy L to the point where I actually kind of enjoyed it. We had planned our trip for the same week as our friends/former roomies, and we spent most evenings at each other’s places, partaking in all the fun stuff we did in years past. By week’s end, my dad told Marcel we’d probably return next summer. While part of me secretly hoped we’d look for a new place to stay, I decided I’d be open to more time on Squirrel Lake.

Sure enough, exactly fifty-one Saturdays later, we were back at the Lazy L, checking into the Edgewater for another week. This time, my father wanted to rent a motorboat—why, we’d be able to do our own fishing and exploring without always having to go across town to our friends (once again at their usual place.)

Marcel was happy to oblige. “Now Bob, I have this boat here that I’m gonna let you rent,” he said. “The motor is a little too powerful and complicated for the older couple staying at the cottage next to yours, but I bet you can handle it.”

I’m not sure what inspired Marcel’s confidence in my father apart from his relative youth. I’d seen him work a boat motor before; it didn’t appear too difficult a thing to do—just pull the rip cord and steer in the direction you wanted to go. How hard could that be?

Now that we had our own vessel for the week, my parents took it out fishing nearly every morning, while I joined them in the afternoons and evenings for rides around the lake. In general, it was another pleasant, tranquil Minocqua vacation—a brief but necessary respite from urban life and the daily grind. I’d begun my own first part-time job that summer, scooping ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins, so this rest and relaxation seemed sweeter than it had back when I was an unemployed youth. The Lazy L definitely lived up to its name.

The last night of the week, our friends came over for a Friday Fish Fry, a tradition most sacred in predominantly Catholic regions, but particularly in Wisconsin. We delved into our coolers full of fresh fish from the week that we had caught and filleted, breading and frying up somewhere between a dozen or two on that little but resilient white stove, saving the rest to bring back home. Once there, they’d take up room in the freezer indefinitely, allowing us to replicate the experience the best we could on a few cherished occasions during the rest of the year.

After dinner, our friends headed back to their place—no more fishing that evening for any of us, as we were all driving back to Milwaukee early the next morning. As their white SUV pulled away from the Lazy L, we still had about two hours of sunlight left.

“Hey, let’s take one last ride around the lake,” my dad buoyantly suggests.

This idea of “one last ride around the lake” is romantic and idyllic: What better way to cap off the best time of the year in the upper Midwest—a week blessed by ample sun, piercing blue skies and perfectly comfortable temperatures?

My parents and I approach our pier which is splattered with dried-up shit from all of the ducks that had taken up residency there at intervals throughout the week. Incidentally, we’d grow fond of this waterfowl, repeatedly spotting them via our kitchen window—going so far as to name one “Crazy Louie” for his tendency to stubbornly isolate himself from the rest of the flock. I see a pale orange sun reflecting on the crystalline lake ahead of us. The gleaming white metal of our small, rented motorboat also catches my eye. We wave hello to the elderly couple fishing off the next pier—they’re the ones Marcel perceived as too weak to handle our boat’s supposedly robust motor.

We enter the small craft one by one. First, my mom, who sits in the middle. I warn her, somewhat snarkily, not to fall off her seat as she had done on our last ride. Then, it’s my turn to get in. I sit in front (or the bow) as my dad takes the stern in back to work the motor.

Once everyone’s settled, sitting on overstuffed blue life-preserver cushions, I untie the rope connecting us to the pier. We row away for a bit, the stern pointing away from the shore. As my dad tries starting the motor, nothing happens. After a few more attempts, still nothing. My upbeat mood takes a turn: Is the motor broken? Are we out of gas?

Fortunately, after another attempt, a loud, raucous WHIR-R-R-L-LLL appears and we’re moving. Hooray! I’m ready to enjoy the scenery and maybe even see a few perch or some turtles pop their heads up above the deep, voluminous fresh water surrounding us.

The objects one views in a boat backing away from the shore are supposed to get smaller, not larger. It takes a few seconds for this to sink in. When I become fully aware of our situation, I shout out, “Dad, we’re going the wrong way!”

Over the motor’s immense roar, I can barely make out him saying, “I can’t find the gear, I can’t get it into gear!”

My mom sits still as if in a state of suspended animation, quiet but perplexed, unable to do much of anything. She cautiously questions, “Bob…?”

Speed. We are picking up on it as we head perilously closer to shore. I don’t look back at my dad or question why he can’t change direction. I just look ahead at the other boats we could potentially hit.

The words, “I can’t get it into gear!” echo in my head. We’re getting perilously closer to the neighboring pier. All at once, I feel as if I’m in a fever dream, or watching myself on TV—this can’t really be happening! How could we be going the wrong way?

I shout, “WHAT are you DOING?”

The next few seconds are a blur. I close my eyes. Someone (maybe it was me?) barks out, “We’re headed right straight for the…”

THOINK!

A loud crashing sound both heard and felt. I might’ve let out a “WHOAH!” right before we made impact, but I’ve blocked most of those few seconds out. I recall opening my eyes, noticing that our boat had stopped and was somehow halfway up the neighbor’s pier and halfway in the lake. Although I’m on the tippy-top, I’ve somehow managed to hold on to my seat. My mother has fallen off hers (despite my warning!); my dad’s at the bottom, his shoes drenched in water that has infiltrated the stern.

The elderly couple stands before us, speechless, staring open-mouthed. Once my shock subsides, I start to laugh, queasily. My mom later recalls that as we were on a collision course with the pier, she kept thinking of an old Woody Woodpecker cartoon that had a boat literally tearing through a wooden pier as if it were a buzz saw.

Miraculously, the vehicle’s still in one piece. I hop onto the pier and pull my mom, then my dad out of the boat. We slide it back into the water—apart from a few noticeable scratches around and under the bow, the boat’s perfectly fine. Marcel, thank god, is nowhere to be seen.

After all this, most people would just walk away and call it a night, but not my father. He was determined to get that last ride in, dammit. We all got back into the boat, he started up the motor and this time, we made it out onto the lake successfully. Still, my mom and I held on extra tight to our seat cushions, barely speaking a word to each other. As much as we wanted to enjoy this “one last ride around the lake”, the recent memory of having unceremoniously gone up a pier couldn’t help but dampen our moods.

We left for home early the next morning, never to return to the Lazy L, embarrassed to face Marcel again after scratching up his boat. I’d return to Minocqua the next summer on my own, staying with our friends for a few days, but my parents and I never set foot there together again. I began feeling too old, too much of an adult to spend a weeklong vacation with them. I’ve thought about going back to Minocqua again as an adult out of nostalgia for a place I once knew, but fear I’d only set myself up for disappointment. I prefer to simply remember and cherish all the fun I had there in my youth—my parents and I literally going up a pier in a motorboat remains a one-of-a-kind experience I could never, ever hope to replicate or surpass.

My Father, The Navigator.

Ice Cream Man

The summer I turned sixteen, my parents informed me I was to get a part-time job. No longer could I spend all my days watching three-hour blocks of I Love Lucy reruns or setting off on rambling, endless bike rides all over town. Time had come for me to make a living, or at least earn some spending money beyond a weekly chore allowance (and the very occasional babysitting gig.)

Luckily, I had plenty of entry-level employment options within walking distance from home. I could stock shelves at Sav-U supermarket or Payless Shoes Source, bus tables at B&B Lounge, expose myself to a variety of chemicals at Wolf’s Dry Cleaners—there was even a fish market I could work at, although it emitted an odor one could smell from up to a block away.

Such potential first jobs barely crossed my mind, however, for I was fortunate enough to live close to both a frozen custard stand (for the unfamiliar, frozen custard is richer, fattier ice cream freakishly more popular in Milwaukee than most other cities) and a Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors. The former, named General Custard’s (“Food Good Enough to Make a Stand For!”) was a block closer, but also a burger joint. Not wanting to return home reeking of grilled onions and meat every night, I gravitated towards the Baskin-Robbins, which had been in its long, narrow storefront location since before I was born. In addition to loving the stuff (oh how I would anticipate what each Flavor of the Month would be when I was a tyke!), scooping ice cream was also something I knew I could probably do, even with my total lack of experience.

The last week of May, I walked the two-and-a-half blocks over there to ask if they were hiring. Stan, the ancient, white-haired man behind the counter whom I’d later find out had owned and operated the franchise for over 25 years, handed me an application. I could have filled it out at one of the three tables (all of them encrusted with traces of sugar, butter and cone) to the right of the gleaming display freezers stacked with nearly forty different three-gallon ice cream tubs; instead, I took it home, completed it very carefully and brought it back the next day. Stan was still there, tallying up the afternoon’s sales, printing an almost comically long receipt from the cash register. He browsed over the application, and asked when I’d like to work my first shift. I told him I’d be out of school next week. “Come in Wednesday at 3:00 PM,” he responded in a guttural smoker’s rasp I’d soon know very well.

I had done it! I was going to scoop ice cream and furthermore, make money doing so! How cool was that? Apart from my folks, I told no one else of my summer plans; I didn’t want to jinx my good fortune. Of course, being a newbie to the workforce, I had no clue what to expect, but I didn’t care—I found a job right near my house, and I suspected I’d be able to eat a lot of free ice cream there too.

That following Wednesday, I made sure I arrived at the shop minutes before 3:00. As I opened the door, Stan looked up from behind the counter and regarded me as if I was merely another customer, asking, “Whadda you want?”

Caught off guard, I hesitated, “Uhh, it’s me. Chris… your new employee?”

“Ach! Come on back,” he grumbled. I followed him behind the counter and into a rear room partially concealed from the public via two swinging half-doors not dissimilar from those separating the kitchen and dining room in my Aunt Judy’s suburban ranch home, only these were painted the color of Pepto Bismo. Beyond them sat shelves haphazardly stacked with all the crap Stan never threw away: piles of old promotional banners, faded flavor labels, assorted paper and plastic goods like napkins and straws and a somewhat tarnished array of ice cream cake decorations, from frostings and sprinkles to a rainbow of sugars. Along one wall sat a couple of upright and top-opening white freezers populated with brand-new ice cream tubs waiting to take the place of those sitting in the display cases out front after their depletion.

Stan handed me a polo shirt the same color as the swinging doors and an outsized thick plastic binder that was the Baskin-Robbins employee handbook. He ordered me to put the shirt on, sit down at the desk next to the cake decorations and read the book. He then returned to the front of the store to wait on customers, tally up sales and whatever else it was he did all day. I dutifully sat there, scanning the handbook cover-to-cover, learning everything one could possibly know about scooping ice cream and exhibiting good customer service.

At least thirty minutes passed before Stan came back through the swinging doors and bellowed, “What, are you sleeping?” He gestured me to follow him out front, where he showed me how to use the ice cream scooper, craft such delicacies as a fudge brownie sundae or a banana split, run the cash register and use a waffle iron and a spherical wooden tool that formed the freshly made waffles into cones.

Within an hour, one of my co-workers arrived, also named Chris and also Stan’s grandson. Two years older than me, this other Chris had worked there for some time; as Stan left to go home for dinner (he also lived in the neighborhood), his grandson would continue my training. The other Chris was fun because he was a smartass and a co-conspirator. That first evening, when it came time to get ready for closing, he showed me the bathroom in the back where I’d prepare the mop to clean the store’s tiled floors. Next to a rusting sink and a mirror desperately in need of a streak of Windex was a slightly cracked sign from the Milwaukee Health Department: in funky, early ‘70s-style lettering, it said “Wash Your Hands,” the words actually rendered within the shape of a hand. Directly underneath it, a plastic shelf held a yellowed, dusty bar of soap.

“You know, the soap’s older than that sign,” the other Chris remarked. I nearly believed him.

In those hours when it was just us two Chris’s at work, we had a blast—especially in the colder months as up to an hour would often pass by without a single customer. We’d hang out in the back room, rummaging through piles of old stuff such as a poster for “Monte Carlo Stripe” (a flavor inspired by the long-forgotten 1977 flick Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo), making note of such peculiar stock as a cardboard box of Maple Nut topping stamped with a then-six-year-old expiration date. Whenever the front door opened, the other Chris would suddenly snap to attention and proclaim, “INCOMING!” (a M*A*S*H reference), our cue to emerge from the back room and actually do some work.

I certainly enjoyed working with him far more than my other co-workers, two guys both my age. Frank, who wasn’t much for conversation, had started working there only weeks earlier but never failed to lord this sort of dubiously-won authority over me. When not telling me what to do, he sat next to the rear counter, doodling in a well-worn spiral notebook. Joe, on the other hand, might’ve been less friendly than the other Chris, but I appreciated his droll demeanor. A regular customer who lived three doors down would come in at least once a week and always order the same thing: two scoops of chocolate chip topped with hot fudge. During one of his visits, Joe said to me, quietly and pointedly, “I’ll take care of Monty Clift over there.” At the time, I had no idea who that was; in retrospect, Joe’s assessment of this handsome, if somewhat creepy guy was spot-on.

Joe could be a co-conspirator as well. Once, we were in the store alone together when an obscenely large, hairy, yellow-brownish rat emerged from under the rear counter. I quickly ran into the back and grabbed a broom, but before I could return to the front, we suddenly had customers (INCOMING!) whom thankfully did not see the rat behind the display cases. Joe quickly put his hands up in a “NO! NO!” sort-of-way at me to prevent the customers from witnessing me running out with a broom in hand (was I planning on sweeping the rat away?) Luckily, the vermin soon disappeared back under the counter and we never saw it again.

I can only imagine what one of our customers would’ve done upon seeing a rodent in the store, for many of them were nuttier than the massive plastic container of macadamias we had for a special Hawaiian-themed sundae. Baskin-Robbins was where I learned the actual cardinal rule of working in retail or food service: contrary to popular belief, the customer is hardly ever right, but it’s polite and often expected to let them think they are. The mother and daughter who sample a dozen different flavors and then leave without buying anything? The middle-aged man who asks for a scoop of “Blue Chocolate Chip” (meaning our most popular flavor Mint Chocolate Chip, of course) two minutes before closing on a Saturday night, the floors all mopped and chairs upside down on the table tops? The wispy young couple whom, upon inquiring how long we’ll have Bubblegum ice cream and, after being told just for the next two months, whining, “For the whole year???” All of ‘em wrong to various degrees, but not yelled at, turned away or (openly) made fun of by me and my fellow scoopers.

A few customers made this exceedingly difficult. I’m thinking of the clueless woman who asked me, “Is this your first day?” as I stood there, the only employee at the store, my right hand bleeding profusely from a mishap with our nefarious cake-cutter as I could not help but betray my impatience with her ninety-nine questions about the display freezer full of prepackaged ice cream quarts and pints. Even better was the lady to whom I accidentally served a scoop of Fudge Brownie when she had asked for Chocolate Almond (they looked almost identical.) Whereas you or I would likely just say, ‘Hey idiot, this is the wrong flavor,” she took a seat at a table, ate her ice cream cone and spat out all of the brownie pieces into a napkin. She then left this napkin full of masticated food bits on top of the counter right under my nose and said, “I don’t remember these being in Chocolate Almond,” and left. I believe I was literally speechless for the first time in my young life.

I suspect Stan had seen it all. I didn’t know much about his past, although the other Chris once disclosed he had worked as an ambulance driver (!) before he bought the franchise. Stan was a constant presence, opening and closing the store every day and night, usually handing off the reins to his young male scoopers for hours in between. His equally ancient wife Adeline would occasionally come in to help decorate ice cream cakes. She was quiet but nice enough, her most distinguishing feature being her two-toned hair (as my mother described it), probably due to a messy dye job. Although he was a crotchety old fart, Stan knew what he was doing as a manager—he would have had to, given that he’d been running this franchise and presumably turning a profit for nearly three decades.

Still, Stan had his own share of quirks. Every night, he’d prepare a sink full of soapy water to prep rags for wiping down all the counters and tables. The water was always SCALDING HOT, as I discovered the first time I stuck my hand in it. In time, I’d come to prep it exactly that way, with the other Chris once reaching in for a rag and exclaiming, “Hey, that’s STAN hot!” He also loved contemporary country music (he was of the age where you’d expect him to be more into big-band oldies or polkas) and regularly used such dated colloquialisms as “darn-tootin’” and “cotton-pickin’”.

Stan once even ended up on the 5:00 news: that first Christmas Eve I worked there, I was home in my bedroom when my mom called out, “Hey Chris, your boss is on TV!” Running over to the living room, I learned from our television that some guy had taken a massive cement truck for a joyride and ended up crashing into Stan’s garage, mere blocks away from my own house. Adeline showed up at the store days later, a few yellowed bruises on her face. “I guess you heard we had a dramatic holiday this year!” she remarked with folksy understatement of the sort one often encounters in the Upper Midwest.

As the lowest on the store’s totem pole, I must have worked those first ten or fifteen Saturday nights in a row before I finally asked Stan if I could have the next one off. He gave it to me, but he also occasionally gave me a rough time. More than once, he pulled me aside and said, “Y’know, I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why doesn’t that young man of yours ever smile?’”, insinuating I was the sullenest of his four teenaged scoopers. The accusation always maddened me because I suspected it was the dour Frank they were talking about, but I wasn’t comfortable shifting the blame over to him, which would be akin to tattling. It bugged me, but I learned to put it aside. Initially, the job’s benefits far outweighed any of these frustrations: free ice cream, for sure, but also a lot of autonomy—particularly on winter weeknights, when I’d be the only person at the store. I’d sit in the back, do my homework, and occasionally watch a 13” black-and-white TV while my mom would swing by with TV dinners and fast-food takeout, since my usual shift would go from 4:00 to 10:00 PM, not allowing me to leave for a meal break.

However, little things began gnawing away at me. The other Chris left for a stint in the Army (INCOMING!) and Stan never replaced him, resulting in more work for all, but also additional shifts spent in close quarters with no one to talk to but Frank. I remained the new guy more than eighteen months after I started; I was also getting paid less than minimum wage, which I was too green and meek to do anything about. When I once asked the other Chris how come we were paid so low, he said, “Oh, that’s because the job is agricultural,” some hot garbage I could never confirm or deny given this was the age before Wikipedia (or the Internet, even.)

As the next summer came and went and I entered my senior year of high school, I grew to loathe those six-hour weeknight shifts, the measly pay, the same three co-workers in different permutations, the waffle cone maker that never failed to burn my fingers, the endless parade of customers asking to taste this flavor and that flavor on the little pink sampling spoons we had in abundance. I had particular contempt for the plastic cutout of a giant, grinning anthropomorphic pink spoon hanging over the doorway to the back of the store—Baskin-Robbins’ half-baked idea of an unnamed cartoon mascot (Spoony? Scoopy?) I’d look up at it and think, “What are you so happy about?” and picture it accidentally falling off the wall, hitting Frank in the head.

The final straw came in January. One otherwise unremarkable evening when I was in the back searching for a new tub of Jamoca Almond Fudge, I heard a sudden THUMP. Looking out, I saw that Stan had accidentally dropped an opened, full tub of Cookies N’ Cream face down on the floor behind the counter. He proceeded to pick it up and place it back in the display case without so much as wiping any residue from the exposed surface. Once again, I was speechless. When he wasn’t looking, I examined the tub for hints of dirt or crumbs or other floor particles but couldn’t detect any (of course, Cookies N’ Cream can conceivably mask such stuff.)

That night, I decided I’d give Stan my two-week notice. I didn’t want to work there anymore and the Cookies N’ Cream fiasco was only part of it. I had four months left of high school and was just beginning to open myself up to the world. Over the past year, I’d discovered how much fun it was to hang out with friends and have a social life instead of watching TV every night. The idea of spending most of my evenings and weekends sequestered in a half-dead ice cream parlor for four bucks an hour was none too appealing; I estimated I wouldn’t be giving up much in terms of spending money. I’d worked my first real job, but it was time to move on and enjoy my newfound social life—I could always look for another job come summer.

When I told Stan of my plans, he didn’t say anything, just a near-quiet harrumph as he continued refilling the hot fudge dispenser. My last day ended up being the last day of January with just Stan and myself at the store. We had no tearful goodbyes or any goodbyes at all, period—after mopping the floor and wiping down the counters and tables, I hung up my pink polo shirt for the last time, and walked out into the chilly air, taking the five-minute route back home I had walked hundreds of times over the past two years.

Exactly two weeks later, whizzing past the store with a buddy on our way to the movies (see, I was socializing!), he remarked, “Hey, this morning in church, they said that the ice cream guy died.” Upon hearing this, I’d like to think I turned as bright white as the painted exterior of my mother’s Grand Am that I was driving.

“WHAT?!”, I responded, “You mean STAN?!!”

“Yeah, you know… the ice cream guy!,” he replied, not knowing I’d worked for the man until very recently. Somehow I managed to maintain control of the car, not pulling off to the side of the road as we headed to the Skyway Cinema to see Groundhog Day. The next morning, I phoned St. Helen’s rectory and the secretary confirmed that Stan’s funeral was scheduled for noon that day. I didn’t ask about the cause of death and never found out, too embarrassed to call up the store, much less inquire in person. I assumed it was something like a heart attack or a stroke—the man was in his late ’70s, after all. Even though I rationally knew I didn’t cause Stan’s death by quitting, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly guilty at the unfortunate timing.

I happened to have off from school that day, President’s Day. My mom and I talked about attending the funeral but I decided I’d rather not have to face Stan’s family or my ex-co-workers. She said to me, “Can you imagine if that big pink spoon hanging over the doorway had shown up at church? He’d probably wave and say, ‘Bye, Stan! I’ll miss ya!’” I could always count on her to lighten the mood.

Stan’s family kept the franchise running for a few more years; it was a pizzeria after that for some time. It currently houses a tortilleria, or tortilla factory, reflecting the steady influx of Latinx people over the past two decades into this formerly overwhelmingly white neighborhood. That summer after finishing high school, I worked the first of a series of entry-level retail jobs that paid marginally better than Stan did, but I never liked any of them as much. I now know I left Baskin-Robbins a little hastily—I could’ve easily stuck it out for another six or seven months before beginning college (I commuted downtown to Marquette University that first year, so I could’ve stayed even longer.) Still, I acquired my first taste of what it was like to have a job. As with that infamous mother-and-daughter duo who tried a dozen different flavors without buying a single thing, I just had to sample other jobs and find out what type of work I was and wasn’t suited for; in the latter category, that was my next job, a first (and to date, last) foray into real food service, bussing tables at a chain buffet joint.

Stan was far from the best boss I ever had, but with decades of work experience behind me now, I can at least appreciate what the ice cream man accomplished. Yes, his franchise was part of a massive international chain, but by the time I arrived there, Stan’s constant, long-term presence had turned it into something more like a neighborhood institution. On those rare occasions when I get a scoop at a Baskin-Robbins (there aren’t too many in New England, where I now live), I always tip my pink plastic spoon to him.

Formerly, Stan’s Baskin-Robbins. RIP.

Bruce

I met Bruce Kingsley in 2004 when he joined Chlotrudis, my film group. We first bonded over our shared love of movies, of course, particularly when we both attended the Toronto Film Festival the following year. However, as I began making periodic visits to see him in New York (where he’d put me up at his West Village condo), we discovered a mutual love of music as well.

In time (about mid-2006), Bruce asked me to make a mix CD for him. He had been a big music fan in the ’80s, but lost touch since then. He was intrigued by our conversations about music and wanted to hear some of the current stuff I’d been listening to. In typically exhaustive Bruce fashion, he sent me a lengthy email detailing all the music he liked, listing not just artists and albums but individual song after song, including a handful even I had never heard of.

The first mix you ever make for someone is always the most fun because you have seemingly infinite options—the ability to delve deep into your entire library and select the twenty or so beloved songs you most want the recipient to hear. Given Bruce’s edict for new music, I mostly picked songs from the past five years, including a few by artists I first encountered while writing for a now-defunct music website (Tompaulin, Marit Bergman), some of my all-time favorites (Belle and Sebastian, Saint Etienne), new, if somewhat obscure singers I thought he’d be receptive to (Nellie McKay, Stew), a few faves from 2005-06 (Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, The New Pornographers) and, for good measure, two tracks from the ’90s I thought he ought to hear (Ivy, Jen Trynin). Its title, “I’ve Never Been Wrong… I Used To Work At A Record Store” came from the LCD Soundsystem track, which I think summed up the music-geek nature of the selections well.

No matter how diligent you are in crafting a first mix so that the recipient will like it, you always run the risk of not quite clinching it. Fortunately, I need not have worried, for Bruce loved it. His favorite track was the Belle and Sebastian one, which was actually a last-minute addition on my part. He’d play the whole thing for various friends whom, when I was introduced to them in New York, would say to me, “Oh, you’re the one who made The Mix!

In retrospect, I think this mix conveyed how much our friendship had solidified. If we hadn’t connected so well, I’m not sure it would’ve resonated with Bruce as strongly. But then again, Bruce was an easy person to befriend. Intelligent, charismatic, kind and generous, he lit up every room or space he inhabited without dominating it or being overbearing. He was also highly opinionated and often a little snarky, but never, ever off-putting or cruel. Given our 30+ year age difference, he often felt like a mentor to me, not in the professional sense but as someone with a history and wisdom far, far beyond my own, a person who had lived a very full life, the kind of life one aspires to.

He has been on my mind extensively since his sudden passing in June at the Provincetown Film Festival, where he suffered a heart attack in between screenings (while at a restaurant called Cafe Heaven, of all places.) Attending a celebration of his life in New York last weekend, I saw so many photos of him from many eras of his life (projected in a slideshow) that I hadn’t seen before, and heard so many loving, moving testimonials from family and friends. I’ve already said this many times, but it’s still hard to believe he is gone.

I made Bruce a few more mixes over the years, but this first one remains my favorite; I have to believe it was his as well, going back to that notion that the first mix you make for someone is the most fun for the maker, but also the most special for the recipient. Below is the track listing and a link to a re-creation of most of it on Spotify. Rest in peace, my dear friend.

Go here to listen to “I’ve Never Been Wrong… I Used To Work At A Record Store”

  1. Tompaulin, “Slender”
  2. Ivy, “Get Out of the City”
  3. Jen Trynin, “Better than Nothing”
  4. Black Box Recorder, “The Facts of Life”
  5. Nellie McKay, “Ding Dong”
  6. Stew, “Giselle”*
  7. Sufjan Stevens, “Chicago”
  8. The Shins, “Saint Simon”
  9. Weakerthans, “One Great City!”
  10. Marit Bergman, “Tomorrow is Today”
  11. Andrew Bird, “Fake Palindromes”
  12. Belle and Sebastian, “Dress Up in You”
  13. Sam Phillips, “I Wanted to Be Alone”
  14. TV On the Radio, “Young Liars”
  15. LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge”
  16. Goldfrapp, “Number 1”
  17. The New Pornographers, “The Bleeding Heart Show”
  18. Saint Etienne, “Teenage Winter”
  19. The Futureheads, “Hounds of Love”

*Not on Spotify as this writing