It was the Fall of 1976, and I was a freshman in elementary school.
I had my own style.
I liked my hair a little greasy. It showed off my cowlick and accented my freckles.
I liked my clothes a bit on the suburban cowboy side. Check it out.
My everyday casual wear consisted of a plaid Wrangler long sleeve shirt and bright blue Levi's. They were held up with a macrame belt and my own girth. I often times sported a maroon leather vest, and finished it off with a pair of white Pro-Keds with my name written on the insides. Accessories: An unbreakable black comb in my back pocket and a Happy Days lunch box as heavy as a tabby cat, clasped in my chubby, reddish hands.
A real bad ass.
Frederick Alexander Johnson. Mrs. Johnson's boy from 1073 Bedford Street; right across from Marcucci's Bakery.
Our modest, 2 family house sat close to the bottom of an urban valley. The busy street sloped up on either side of Columbus Park, which was across the street to the left. To my right, if you looked all the way up, you could see a Mobil gas station. That would be the launch pad for my very first moving vehicle accident at age 8 on my yellow Huffy with the black banana-seat. But, unlike my chin flying towards the bumper of that unfortunately parked gray '72 Lincoln, I'm going to try not to get ahead of myself.
To my left, on my side of the street, you could see Graham's Hot Dogs. The best damn dogs in the world. My world. Coney Island sauce and chopped onions. I can picture sitting in that dark shop with the big ceiling fan and the aluminum foil covered grill loaded twenty dogs deep in the bay window. It's like I was there an hour ago, eating one there and getting a few to go. And hot-stepping it all the way back to 1073 Bedford.
Damn those were good dogs.
For a time Graham's was as far as I was allowed to walk down Bedford St. It was admittedly a rough street filled with bars, junkies, pimps, and whores (not that I really knew what any of those things were). Part of me wanted a glimpse of that world because, of course, it was forbidden. You definitely did not want to get lost at the other end of Bedford St. So Graham's was my line in the sand.
My elementary school was what seemed like a mile away although I'm sure it wasn't even a quarter of that. I liked school. It gave me my first taste of banal observations ie: girls give you cooties. Sage advice handed down over the ages, peer-to-peer, and verified with painstaking avoidance.
By the time I started elementary school I had some street smarts. I had some experience with hard living. I had some cred.
I remember my very first drink. I was 5.
My family and I were attending a gathering in Taunton where many of my relatives lived, and still do. I was enjoying a cold Pepsi. Unlike most times, this cold Pepsi was not in a can with a straw; it was in a Styrofoam cup.
My Mom was drinking some dark red wine also in a Styrofoam cup. This was the 70's, and almost everything was eaten or drunk from a Styrofoam surface.
I was playing 'throw the rock at your cousin' due to most of the grown-ups being drunk and unobservant. Mischief will make a boy quite thirsty. Needless to say, I ran to that Styrofoam cup with the cold Pepsi in it. I grabbed it with two dirty, chubby reddish hands and put it to my lips and gulped.
It was not Pepsi.
It was wine.
It was gross.
It had begun.
I didn't like the taste and I didn't get a buzz (later to re-occur with a liter of Smirnoff daily) but I was told I had done something wrong. I was told I did something only grownups should do, and even at that I probably shouldn't do it. And I'll always remember that strange feeling of exclusion.
My Pepsi in the Styrofoam didn't taste quite the same after that. It still doesn't.
That's probably why I drink Coke.
I'm drinking one right now as I type. And I didn't have to buy it out of a vending machine. I don't have to finish it before I leave the rec room.
Because, I am home.
I returned only a few hours ago from a two week stay at a place where I was told I shouldn't do certain things. They hammered into my head that my problems will bite me in the ass and land me in jail if I continue to abuse drugs and alcohol. And all I wanted to do was everything I wasn't supposed to. I know I wasn't the only one.
In recovery you hear a lot of analogies.
I have heard it said that when you begin on the path of addiction, it is like taking a long walk into the forest. You start your journey at the edge where it is safe and sane and you are drawn in by the unfamiliar and forbidden. You traipse and trudge along through the darkest, dankest muck disregarding all sense of direction. You continue on, long after dark and into territory that you never thought you'd ever see, let alone become abandoned in.
And then, if you want to live, you have to turn around and you have to walk out. And it is going to take you just as long to get back home as it did to get lost. But you can't slow down or rest, because this forest is a dangerous place. It doesn't want you to leave. It doesn't want you to live. It doesn't want to be alone. It doesn't want to give you up, and it knows all your weaknesses.
Looks like I made it to the end of Bedford St.
The end I was supposed to stay away from.
The end I'm returning from. Slowly.
But it's my street; and I made it to the end and god help me I'm still alive.
I'll make it home eventually.
But before I do, I'm going have to find that line in the sand; the point I wasn't supposed to cross. And I'm going to get some Coney Island dogs to go.
And I'm going to hot-step it all the way back to 1073 Bedford.
I can hardly wait.
Thanks for reading,
PS-A big thank you to Paul "Muskrat Flats" Brown for transcribing my chicken scratch while I was away at camp. Check him out at http://www.muskratflats.blogspot.com/ and show some love.