Forty for Forty – #12. Along Came a Ryder

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Editor’s Note – Here’s  the drill. I turn 40 on June 6, 2012. As a little challenge to myself, I’m spending the next year writing 40 posts that say something about my life. After this, we have 29 more to go in five short months. Now, technically the following piece was published a few years ago (2007 to be precise) but it’s a pivotal moment in my life and I thought it would be silly to start from scratch and write the same damned story all over again. The only thing that would prove is whether my memory has held up. IT HAS!!! Instead, I’ve gone through and rewritten some portions to freshen up the room. But the core tale remains the same – following me and two buddies as we grab our first apartment after college. Enjoy!!!

Like every red-blooded American male who had successfully launched from the nest and landed at college, the return flight back was often colored with genuine homesickness. Several months away from school – and untold meals of Grade-Z gruel – often left one hankering for a hunk of home cooking. So when classes closed and the school shuttered for the semester, it was typically a mad-dash to hit the Mass Pike and make your way homeward bound.

Of course, two minutes in the front door and all I wanted was to be anywhere but here. That’s the problem with college – ya’ get so drunk off freedom and Mad Dog 20-20 that you just can’t every truly go home again. A four day Thanksgiving holiday? A month long winter spell? A slightly longer summer solstice?

All bearable.

But long term living under the old roof with the old rules just doesn’t work. Like a present day sage once famously said, “…some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.

So, it was that familiar itch I felt myself scratching shortly after my graduation from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the Spring of 1994. While I was glad to be home among friends and family, I missed my collegiate clan something fierce. As another wise man once said, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” You speak such truths, Tom Keifer.

 

Thus, a plan was etched. I would gather a small cadre of my cronies and beat the street looking for a place to rest our feet. My wingman Sean was on board – natch – and when word spread westward to Joe, who was at the time cooling his heels in Hicksville USA (a.k.a Granby, MA) – he immediately signed on, provided I found him a place to live, gainful employment, three squares a day and the occasional reach-around.

With paper in hand, Joe and I were on the case. The search was surprisingly brief. We opened the classifieds and two jumped right out at us. A three-bedroom condo in a converted insane asylum or a three-bedroom townhouse built over an Indian Burial Ground. Sold!!! We’ll take the Poltergeist Penthouse.

We dialed the landlord and inked an appointment for later that day. (What was that guy’s name? I can never remember…. Oh yeah, Gary Forget.)

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Joe and I arrived for the walkthrough and found ourselves one of many appointments that evening. We were sweating the competition as we took a shine to the place immediately. Still, the competition was fierce. The sole differentiating factor between us and the huddled masses was we were two dudes looking for a pad (representing our unseen business partner, Keyzer) and the rest all fell into the small family motif (Mom, Dad, two kids). That said, we thought we’d never get the place. We figured Gary would take one look at us and see two twentysomething cats (and an unseen business partner) looking to raise hell. Instead, he saw two twentysomething cats who were not looking to raise hellions – a fact that vaulted us beyond the other potential buyers. We got the call back a day later, dropped off our deposit of first, middle, last and kidney and made plans to procure a moving van for that weekend.

The week passed and we all made preparations for Liberation Day. I quickly went to work packing up all of my worldly possessions. Eight minutes later, I began the long, agonizing wait for the weekend.

Across town, Sean surveyed his surroundings and made the executive decision – why pack at all when you just have to unpack it when you get to the new place. That became his modus operendi for all future moves. With plenty of space now cleared on his calendar, he decided to utilize the time the way he knew best. He’d take that desk he had bought on discount down at the local Caldor and finally begin reinforcing the particle board with a nice 5-Ply layer of Titanium. When there’s no more room in Hell, the Demon Desk will walk the Earth.

Out West, Joe bid his kinfolk a long, sad goodbye. That night, the whole town gathered ’round to bid their favorite son a fond adieu. As the Granby Fiddler Corps #32 supplied soundtrack to the festivities, a lone tear moistened his Mom’s cheek and gave life to her fears of what horrors awaited Lil’ Joe in the Big City. If the sites and stories she had picked up in the ‘talkies’ that ran down at The Granby Cinemateque, Movietorium and Laundromat were to be believed, the Big City was nothing more than a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy.’ Then again, maybe Joe’s move would be good for the village. Maybe, there in the Big City, Joe would fulfill the Prophecy. Maybe he would bring fire to Granby. At last.

Finally, the magic hour arrived. The Drawing of the Three had begun. The rental truck was loaded up and the three amigos began their trek to Mansfield, MA.

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In retrospect, we should have known we were in for it when we pulled the Ryder in tight with the complex Dumpster and were greeted by the East Street Irregulars. No sooner did Sean kill the engine, did the various hatches and lids on the Dumpster spring open and spew forth a gaggle of little rascals, all ambling for their first peak at the new boys in the hood. If we could offer our new neighbors (or more specifically their single parents) a word of advice it’s, “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be trash men.”

That said, these little hobbits did come in handy. After plying them with stale baseball card bubble gum and the promise of a genuine Phil Plantier rookie card (thanks to my Grandpa for buying sheets of them when it appeared Plantier would be the next Nick Esasky. – Oops, on both counts!!!), we were able to get the kids to watch the truck. Between the enchantment of finally arriving at our very own pad (a magical place) and the legions of little people flitting around through the parking lot, it’s no wonder we didn’t feel like we were in Kansas anymore. Of course, the image was imprinted the moment the evil witch strode on the scene. The illusion was shattered. These kids weren’t the Lollipop Guild. They were her flying monkeys.

Actually it wasn’t a witch per se, but an evil clown. Grandma Clown actually. Ya see, every story has that one miserable wretch of a woman whose sole reason for being is to sit sentient on some faded folding chair and comment upon all that crosses her gaze. The Greeks had Medusa. Shakespeare had his three witches. We had Grandma Clown (so named because she resembled the love child of Estelle Getty and Stephen King’s Pennywise the Clown.) Actually, in retrospect, she closely resembled Mama from Goonies and Throw Mama from the Train – but I for one, was not gonna’ call her Mama for fear that she would spank me.

Our first run-in with Grandma Clown came early on. One day, as Sean and I were cruising the Mansfield strip, we returned home to grab some grub. As Sean pulled his new Jeep into the parking lot – we incited the ire of GC. Ya’ see, apparently Sean was driving a little too swiftly for her dried orbs to keep up with, thus she deduced with her internal radar that he was driving too fast. Bear in mind, this woman didn’t have sense enough to trust a mirror (how else do you explain leaving the house each day looking the way she did) yet she somehow could quickly calculate the effects of velocity times mass. So swift was she with the mental gymnastics that it’s a wonder she lacked the grasp of American driving conventions. See – I exited from the passenger side; Sean from the driver’s side – yet GC approached me to lecture me on my driving habits. Me!!! The guy who just got out of the right side door – not the driver’s side door; at least not on this side o’ the pond. Oh well, I figured I’d humor her so I apologized, did a little curtsey and then in my best Cockney exited with a “Right then, old chap. Cheerio!

Of course, this isn’t the chronicle of Grandma Clown. She was merely a minor blight on the great experience we had living together. The good times were plenty.

Take the first big party we threw – our first Christmas Party which has now stretched decades. We had a great turnout, people seemed to have a wonderful time and the cops showed up. All hallmarks of a very successful affair. Of course, the cops came because our house DJ, Joe, thought it might make for better acoustics if he lay his speaker face down on his bedroom floor. While the music was drowned out, the rhythmic thumping of Ace of Base or whatever mid-90’s disco he was spinning, was working wonders in keeping los ninos that lived below from sleeping, thus inciting their parents to action. By the time the cops arrived, I was lounging beneath the Christmas tree trying to drain the stand of its water (after the beers I had imbibed, I needed to rehydrate by any means necessary). Sean was also out for the count as were the majority of our party guests. The one sober resident – Joe – was the one guy who answered the door. So who does he turn to, to address Officer Friendly? Me.

I spent 5 Years at Shawshank before being released on good behavior. You never forget that first night. The taunting cries of FRESH FISH!!!

Then there was the time Joe decided to spruce up our sparse white surroundings by adding some color to the place. Of course, little did we know he would take crayon to walls and exact his revenge for all those years his Mom warned him against such behavior. All right, so maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, although to Gary Forget, the shock and awe he must have felt when he first walked into our place and saw a mammoth wall mural of a graveyard at midnight had to have been gutt-punching. Of course, the mural was painted on a bed sheet – just a prop from our recent Halloween party – but to a landlord; seeing those ghouls reach through the grey Earth into the living room – HIS LIVING ROOM – draws a scream that will wake the dead. Fortunately I was standing close by, saw the mounting horror in his eyes and was able to chase his fear away before that itchy trigger finger could reach his massive superintendent key ring and lay the whip-smacking beating upon our starving artist friend, Joe.

But that’s the beauty of carving a slice of your lifetime to bunk with your buds. The memories of it all. That particular blend of ‘nothing but good times’ that you don’t know you’ve got ’til their gone.

If there’s one precious moment that stands tall among them all, it’s the day of our first snowfall. That day also happens to coincide with the aforementioned Christmas party. As the streets of Mansfield were painted a pristine ivory, Joe and I bound from our doorstep and headed down to the town common to purchase a Christmas tree from the local Boy Scout troop. This town green was ripped from the pages of the Saturday Evening Post and our journey through the snow – over hill and dale – there and back again with a mammoth evergreen strung between us was as Rockwellian as I’ve ever lived it. As we were walking back to our place, we passed a guy walking with his kids. One glance in our direction and the guy’s eyes lit up. He looked us square in the eye and proclaimed, “That does it – We’re getting a tree too!!!” Like those quasi-punk Waitresses had sung so many years before, our Christmas cheer had brought their tale to a very happy ending.

From that one day, sprouted a tradition that joined my future family with Joe’s. Arriving home with the tree, we realized we didn’t have many ornaments. So, we checked the malls for the proper tools to deck our halls. Lights! Ornaments!! Polar bears to top the tree?!?!? That was a little audible we called when we each received a free stuffed polar bear at Macy’s as part of that One-Day Sale they seemingly run every day of the calendar year. The little white bears were adorned in wool hats and scarves – perfect little holiday baubles. We decided that in lieu of a star, we’d send that ‘Polar’ express to the top. Years later, when we each went our separate ways – we carried on the tradition. First indoctrinating our better halves – later, our children. And now – each year, each household has to recount the tale of why Daddy puts a Polar Bear on the top of the tree all of these years later whenever any new guests spy that northern neighbor looking down from up high.

Of course, all good times come to an end. When you are living with roomies, time flies a bit too swiftly with all the fun you’re having. Before we knew it, life had intruded and we were moving on. I was the first to jet from the nest (as I headed off to begin my life with Andi). Joe and Sean hung tough for another year or so before Joe accepted a job down South and moved to Atlanta, GA. This left Sean to relocate to Newburyport – where he lived for awhile before the feds caught up with him and he relocated further South. Eventually we all ended up in the same state – the right proximity for our monthly Guy’s Night Outs.

Despite the fact that our glory days as a gang have ended, we all remain in each other’s lives. We had a good run even if it did come to a conclusion much sooner than any of us would have liked.

In that parallel universe, all guys wish they could run with their buddies for infinity. Of course, we also wish for wives and families and homes and great jobs and puppies and the list goes on. The proverbial ‘best of both worlds’ always remains just out of reach. So while we mature and move one, we do reach back and catch hold of those memories from time to time to remind ourselves what a rich, full life we truly lead, when we realize how all the elements come together and compliment each other.

Friends, in deed.

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