When I was a kid, I used to draw superheroes. Not just Superman and Batman but ones of my own I made up. Usually, these were pretty lame. I mean, I started doing this when I was real little and not terribly clever. My superheroes tended to be born from some tragic event. Like Lightening Man, who gained superpowers after being struck by lightening. Like I said, not terribly clever. I had a whole cache of them, sheafs and sheafs of papers with my superheroes and their magic bows and costumes, drawn by little kid hands.
A few years back, after my mom and dad died, I stumbled across some of these. One was of my favorite original superhero: Electric Man (not to be confused with LM). He wore all black and his arm glowed green. Because, you know, he'd been electrocuted, which is what gave him his superpowers, namely being superstrong. He also had a beard. And looking at this drawing a while, I realized something: all those years I'd been drawing my father.
As a kid, I was a smart-ass, a skinny-necked little shit, who could be quick with his tongue and mean as a rattler. Not always. Often in new social settings, I could be just as shy and wallflower in the corner. But in my element, with my friends, on my street, I could get pretty brazen and snarky.
When I was around 7 or 8, my parents got divorced (for the first time), and my mom, my brother, and I moved to other side of the tracks in Berlin, which in our hometown simply meant renting instead of owning, and having to share a park instead of having your own 2-acre backyard. But there was definitely a rougher element. It seems silly now to write about a "rougher" element, especially knowing where my life would wind up, sharing rooms with legitimate murderers and ex-convicts. But for an 8-year-old boy, Fairview Drive was pretty rough. There were kids who smoked cigarettes and hung out behind the liquor store; you couldn't be around the park after dark because hooligans did drugs (which was probably, in retrospect, smoking more cigarettes, drinking beer, with the occasional joint); and there were fistfights.
Basically, Fairview Drive was home to a lot of single moms, where broken families went, or where the poorer families dwelled (and, again, "poor" for Berlin would probably be considered "well-off" in most other towns).
So I'd gone from the safe confines of the hills, down to the ghetto, taking my smart ass with me. Which is where I encountered Jeff Pignatella.
I quickly made friends in the neighborhood--Peter Veleas, who was Rich Rice's cousin (the same Rich Rice who followed me out to SF twenty years ago, and who is Holden's godfather and will be best man at the wedding), and there was Steve, and Bob and Mike, both of whom were a little tougher than Pete or Rich or Steve, but we were all friends. I was not friends with Jeff Pignatella.
Jeff Pignatella was a lot older than we were. He rode a bicycle, so he couldn't have been 16 yet. He had curly red hair, with crossed eyes and thick glasses, a pug nose, an ugly motherfucker. You know the kind. He's always the one who winds up telling you there's no Santa Claus on the back of the bus or shows you torn pages from a Hustler in the boy's locker room. And he smoked Marlboro Reds.
It's hard to say I "picked on" Jeff Pignatella, since he was much older, and a lot bigger. But standing behind the park fence with my friends, I could get pretty obnoxious, calling him names and making fun of what an ugly mutherfucker he was. I mean, I was a kid. And I always did my smart-ass thing from afar, leaving plenty of time to run away should Jeff Pignatella come chasing. By the time he'd catch up with me, I'd be safely behind the glass in my living room, making pig faces and gesturing what an ugly mutherfucker he was.
In my own way, I guess you could say I was a bully.
Have you ever seen the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse? That's pretty much the way childhood (and the world) works: the stronger pick on the weak. We all know that. But then the weak in turn will pick on the weaker. Which is what I did. I had a pretty good life, as far as money and stuff was concerned, so I'm not going to make my childhood sound like David Copperfield and all that crap. But your basic personality is formed by age 5, and by age 5 my father had thrown my mother down a flight of stairs, and there were bad fights, and I lived with my alcoholic grandmother in cheap motels a lot, and well, that's that. I got picked on. I picked on others. It's the Trickle Down effect.
After a few months (a year?) of living apart, my parents decided to get back together, and while my dad (who made the money) was having a new house built back in the good part of town, he moved in with us on Fairview Drive.
I had gone down to the corner store on Farmington Avenue to buy some candy. It was probably a weekend, and Peter and the rest were off somewhere. Walking along the side of the road in the dirt, eating my candy by myself, I heard someone call out from behind the Laundromat. I turned to find Jeff Pignatella and a bunch of his friends. They quickly surrounded me, knocked the candy out of my hands, and began shoving me back and forth, saying stuff, like, "Not such a smart ass now, are you, hotshot?" And I remember smelling the nicotine and beer, and then someone punched me in the back of the head hard, and I fell, and I was genuinely scared.
A truck skidded along side us, and everyone stopped shoving me around, and I looked up and saw my father's pale blue truck. My father shouted at Jeff Pignatella and his friends, who quickly cleared, and opened the passenger's side of his truck for me to get in.
We drove back to our apartment, in momentary silence. He looked gigantic behind the wheel, blocks of muscle in a tight tee shirt, smokes rolled up, staring straight ahead with a nasty sneer. I sat there, feeling relieved, and though my father and I weren't close, even then, I felt like I should say something, if only thank you. But I couldn't get the words out.
"I should've let them kick your ass," my father said. "Serve you right for being such a smart ass little shit."