With November upon us and the skyline a lattice of sticks, I think of The First Third–the posthumously published memoir by Neal Cassady. Cassady was Jack Kerouac’s muse, the Dean Moriarty of his famous novel, On the Road. I read both those books when I was about twenty. Kerouac admired Cassady for his frenetic energy and conman recklessness. We all long to be something we are not, which is to say, we all long to be free.
I’m rather far from twenty now. As for crisscrossing America in a mad quest for chicks and kicks, I have definitely missed my window. Heck, I can’t even drive four hours to visit my mother and eat turkey. Right now I’m 48, which could easily be rounded up to 50. I don’t think I’m being unduly pessimistic when I say it’s basically two-thirds over. I’m living the last third as I contemplate the first.
One kindergarten recess, I was standing atop a piece of equipment dubbed the “high tower.” The next moment I found myself, inexplicably, on my back, gazing up at the blue sky from the hard ground. I could not move and my right leg throbbed in pain. The school bell clanged. I felt a jolt of panic as the crowd of children departed me like an ebbing tide. I struggled to my feet, hobbled two or three steps and then went down again. The teachers were soon standing over me, arguing about the extremity of my injury as if I were unconsciousness. Did I need an ambulance? Was my leg broken? Could I move my toes? The adults were plainly annoyed with me. They were going to call my parents, something I dreaded. I had really fucked up. What the hell had happened? A later X-ray determined that no bones were broken, just a purple bruise running the length of my thigh.
The next year when I was six, my parents purchased me a bike for my birthday. It was a red Schwinn with a banana seat. The first time I rode it to school, a line of children formed at the bike racks to take turns honking the horn my father had purchased. I stood there wishing I could shrink down and hide inside my own shoes. A classmate advised me to take it as a compliment, but my self-esteem was such that I could only interpret their attention as a form of mockery. Try as I might, I could not remain invisible. Things like this would keep happening.
One day at recess there was some kind of horseplay going on. A stout boy named Tony Sullivan jumped on my back. Unable to support his weight with my spindly legs, we both crumpled to the asphalt. A pair of girls came around the corner and saw us.
“Fight, fight!” they shouted, pointing at us before dashing off for a teacher.
We both wound up in the principal’s office with Mr. Richter. He was the only man in the school to wear a suit, blue blazers always with gold buttons. He had these bushy knuckles and long fingers that were always gesticulating. Go over here. Quiet down. That’s enough. Stay put. We obeyed his hand gestures like well-trained dogs, only daring to ridicule him behind his back.
I did all the talking while Tony just grinned. Mr. Richter listened patiently to me articulate my innocence.
“Well,” he said, “once it gets on the ground we bring you in and call the parents.”
I took another look at Tony, the one who started at all, who continued to smirk. I threw his midget ass under the bus. Mr. Richter ate it up. I had a way of speaking, a vocabulary, that could convince adults of anything. Tony Sullivan never spoke to me or jumped on my back again.
A couple grades later, I found myself back inside Mr. Richter’s office. At recess I caught a short touchdown bullet from a grotesquely oversized boy. I remember an uproar of cheering, the pointed end of the leather ball lodged in my solar plexus, and an inability to breathe—a bodily function I had always taken for granted. Everything went black. I came to in the arms, of all people, the janitor as he carried me inside the school. Again, my thought was how the fuck did this happen? My lips felt swollen and I couldn’t breathe through my nose. Looking down, I saw my T-shirt was stained with a shocking amount of blood. Adding to the indignity of being carried like a baby by someone who cleaned toilets, I realized my jeans were warm and wet around the crouch. I had pissed my pants! Deeply concerned, Mr. Richter placed a chair cushion down on the carpeted floor of his office and found me a blanket. He told me my mother was on the way and, with a hairy wag of his index finger, cautioned me not to fall asleep, which, of course, I promptly did. I returned to school the next day feeling fine. I simply had the wind knocked out of me and passed out on my nose. My classmates were genuinely supportive. I did make the game-winning catch after all. To my relief, no one seemed to have noticed that I pissed my pants. Several did inform me that I went into a seizure. But almost immediately afterward, the entire incident was forgotten. It was these schoolyard experiences that mattered most. It was there I learned I could suffer pain and humiliation with little lasting damage. I could break and not be broken.
As I grew older I began to worry more about my standing amongst the other boys. There were certain kids I envied like Jason Davis. He had a swimming pool in his backyard and was the point guard of the Gray Y team that his father coached. In the fourth grade I enthusiastically signed up for basketball. Jason’s father sucked as a coach. He made you second guess your every movement on the court. I recall one incident practicing free throws when he became flustered after two boys consecutively shot airballs.
“All right!” he commanded. “The next kid who shoots an airball does three laps around the gym. We’re not going to win games if you can’t make a basket when nobody’s guarding you!”
I waited in line as one boy’s shot rimmed out and the next missed everything. His face flushed with humiliation, he started his laps. The ball in my hands, I stared defiantly at Jason’s dad. I had this figured out. Rather than try and make the shot, I just chucked it hard at the backboard. He looked at me in disbelief but didn’t say anything. I shrugged and went to the back of the line.
“Hey, that was smart,” a teammate whispered.
I had always been a literal kind of guy.
The first game was, not surprisingly, a disaster. The other team trusted their instincts and just played while we ran the same stupid play over and over. I was supposed to set a screen. This was the only thing I was allowed to do. But every time I got there late and the ref would blow the whistle when the kid I was screening bumped into me. The foul was always on me. I couldn’t get it right. I was probably the least physically aggressive player to ever foul out of a game. Once I somehow got the ball and started dribbling it up the court. The coach started screaming at me to pass the ball to his son as if something absolutely terrible was about to happen as I neared half-court. My own father was in the stands watching. Reluctantly, I did as I was instructed, passing the ball across the court to Jason. I really wasn’t that bad and I wondered what I could have accomplished if my father had been the coach.
Probably, not much. Probably, I would have killed myself.
After that first game, each member of the team was given a box of chocolate bars to sell. I showed them to my father.
“Why are they making you sell candy bars?” he asked. “I signed you up to play basketball!”
I stared at the box of chocolate wishing I had never joined the team. “I guess for fundraising. The uniforms and stuff.”
He didn’t answer right away. I could tell he was getting angry by the way his brow creased and his ears turned red. “We don’t know anybody who’s going to pay ten dollars for a candy bar. I’m sure as hell not.”
“I could knock on doors,” I said.
“By yourself? You’ll get molested! Just forget about it! I’ll have a word with that coach.”
He took the box and the sales form from me. This was embarrassing too, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about selling candy bars. I really wasn’t cut out to be a salesman.
One evening I waited outside the school for my father to pick me up from practice. There were a few kids with me. One by one they got picked up. The last kid’s mother offered me a ride but I refused it.
“My dad is picking me up,” I said.
I waited and waited some more. I kept checking my watch in frustration. The asshole was over a half-hour late and it was getting dark. I considered walking home, but what if my father finally did show up and I wasn’t there. He would be furious. I just kept waiting on the concrete stoop of the brick school–no children or teachers inside and all the doors locked. It was getting cold. I wished I were home under the covers in bed. I stared off into the gloam of a neighboring gravel pit. In the distance I could see a yellow light moving like a lantern and an odd clanking noise. I imagined some gravel pit weirdo out there who only left his shack at night. The yellow light seemed to be getting closer. How long was I really going to fucking wait? Another ten minutes, I kept telling myself. I felt lonely as hell and my ass was getting sore from sitting so long. I began to get angry. I wished I could live out in the gravel pit instead of with my parents. My father was now one hour and twenty-seven minutes late. My patience exhausted and my stomach grumbling, I decided to hoof it. I would take the back way through the neighborhoods, the same route I biked to school. That would be safer than walking along the highway, although my father would miss me then if he did come to pick me up. But to hell with him, I thought. Just then his car pulled into the parking lot and stopped in front of me. The passenger door swung open. I only felt relief as I climbed inside the warm car beside him.
“Thank God you’re still here,” he said. “I completely forgot about you.”
No shit, I thought. He apologized a couple more times as we drove home together. I just stared out the window at the dark houses. The next time he was more than twenty minutes late I would just walk home by myself. There was nothing to be afraid of. I could have been home already and I knew the way. I was mad at him for spacing off my existence, but more than that, I was mad at myself for sitting there all that time just to please him. I should have told my mother, but that would only have caused more trouble.
I learned an important lesson that day. That I could only count on myself. Right now my children are locked out of their own schools. My oldest understands what is happening and is learning a similar lesson.
When news of the coronavirus broke, no one knew how dangerous it might be–who it might kill or how it might spread. I overcame my fear and went to work. If I had stayed home instead–spent ten hours a day on a computer, only leaving the house to stroll in parks and buy food—my worldview would probably be very different. But I’ve exhausted my capacity for anger because it does little good. And I’d rather have my kids at home than have them placed in plexiglass cages anyway. Descended from apes and raised by apps, it’s a brave new world they are becoming.
So with a vaccine on the horizon, I think of Neal Cassady and that America when the sun goes down. That lonely and limitless America we can’t see anymore. That America before the interstates and before television. That America when everyone drove automobiles made in our own factories and weren’t afraid to pick up hitchhikers. I think of Neal Cassady at the wheel of the bus that takes my kids to school–a wry, sideways grin on his rugged face.
Neal Cassady died a long time ago, thinking of his father probably, before he perished of hypothermia along the railroad tracks in the cold, Mexican night. As for that America he grew up in and wrote about, it’s gone too. Like the vitality of my youth, that bird has flown.