The end of January, the fourth week into the new year of 2006, and I'm trying to free-associate or something, trying to find match-ups in the fleshy RAM that is my memory, riddled as it is with holes from God-knows-what. I took a lot of God-knows-what in my day, and just living to this certain age will show up the scar tissue, the path that God-knows-what scored through the gray matter over the years. GKW is precisely the stuff Negroes were alleged to be hopped up on in Harlem in the '50s and, ironically, what finally did in Ronald Reagan not long ago. So it is with faulty equipment I am trying to think what it might be that is commonly associated with this time of year: post-holidays, a second semester, downtime in the restaurant business, the calm before the tax storm. What comes to me -- and I don't know why, as I look out my window, down a North Park alley, a palm tree shivering nervously in the bleached and cool sunlight -- is myself, aged 16 and fresh from Brother Justin's office where I had been kicked out of school for having long hair.
Maybe it was something in the weak January sunlight, a stiffening offshore breeze mimicking the legion of gusts off the Illinois plain in a mid-winter false thaw: an Indian Winter day as we called it, and we may have been the only ones.
"We" were a group of "hard-core apathetics," so termed by the Christian Brothers faculty at Saint Joseph's High School in Westchester. The Apathetics were mostly honor students, though I wasn't one of them. I was bright and creative but never living up to my potential. The others were Bardwell Montgomery, "the Bard," Steven "Cosmo" Venn or "Steam Vent," Mark and Peter Daly, Wayne "the Rope" Roper, and Mike "Howdy Doody" Buchanan. Others drifted in and out of the group but fell away inevitably for giving a shit about one thing or another. We posed a problem in that we boosted the curve on grades for the junior class but otherwise set a deplorable example. So it was a day like this one, and if it wasn't a Friday, it certainly serves in memory as one of the great Friday-like days of all time. I took my sweet time getting a haircut.
A city park separated the sizable school property from the downtown area of Libertyville or Westchester's -- I've forgotten -- and I hope it is still there. The center of the park was at the highest point in a slowly rising patch of prairie, and on that morning the wind caught my hair and scarf very poetically at the crest of the -- otherwise flat for miles -- still rural area. I felt incredibly free that day and sensed that it was a fleeting thing.
I made myself certain promises that day, like the one about returning to Podunk, Illinois, and giving a free concert on this very hill with my by-then successful rock band, the Experimental Blues. I had named us after Al Kooper's the Blues Project and everyone called us the Mental Blues or just the Mentals, and once, on a flyer: the Heavy Mental Blues Band. This concert never happened.
Also, I swore not to get a haircut that day, but I did. I promised not to cut my hair for a year but did after getting it caught while drying it in front of a window fan. I swore to myself I would be the world's first rock novelist. I wasn't the first; Leonard Cohen for one, had already done it; Don DeLillo would do it later, among others. I swore I would never marry and decided I was not going to Vietnam. I didn't go to Vietnam.
In general, I promised myself I would do whatever it took to remain feeling the way I did that day for the rest of my life.
That I was in trouble here and would certainly get shit from my father didn't overly concern me. I had been in trouble a week earlier for reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti in class, a poem called "Johnny Nolan Has a Patch on His Ass," I believe, and that was about as obscene as that poem got, unless I missed something. I felt disappointed in my English teacher, a lay teacher I'll just call Bubba because he's still around teaching and lecturing on Dickens. After all, it was Bubba who turned me on to Nathanael West. I remember him leaning over my desk, first period English, flecks of dried Maalox at the corners of his mouth, his breath smelling of gin. "After you read the Dreiser, read West. Consider it my apology for Idylls of the King. Had to do it, you know. Had to do it."
"I liked the Tennyson all right."
"You're a romantic," he said with some disgust and a little too loudly. He might as well have said, "Why, you're a homo, son."
I needn't have got the haircut (a merciful trim from an old timer who was a big-band musician) as my father went to bat for me surprisingly in this case. As an advertising man he knew "a good gimmick" when he saw one, and I was making more money with the Mentals than working at the factory or the frozen-food section of Piggly Wiggly.
In no way have I felt as consistently good as I did on that January day in 1967, but it is far from a discouraging thing to know that a play of light, a breeze, and a fluttering palm might bring it back -- and that it might stay again for a day.