“Answer your father,” blurts a lacerating south Chicago accent. “Right now, or you’re not playing in the game on Saturday.”
Insert b-roll of mushroom cloud explosion.
I had dropped the F bomb at the dinner table for the first time in my life. Nothing quite like the word “fuck” out of a prepubescent mouth. Mom wants to know where I’ve learned it, which I’m not about to reveal, and the consequences are looking catastrophic.
The playoff game is against our grade school nemesis, Greenacres. Nothing to do with the TV show, though unhappy rich people do live there. Their coach is the iconoclastic Mr. Morta.
In late-October, Mr. Morta wears a puffy winter ski jacket zipped to the chin, a dark blue wool-knit cap, and white lifeguard lotion on his nose. He wields a self-made soccer field magnet board long before they’ve been invented.
But what’s most engaging about him is the daffy, often unpredictable outbursts of uncontrollable rage. Though the recipients of his invective are often under five feet tall, it doesn’t seem to inhibit him from addressing them as if they were Stasi officers.
In our last game against The Killer Bees, Coach Morta and Coach Shannon, our fearless leader, came inches from a physical altercation. Red faced, vain popping insults were hoisted across the kick-off circle. Scary personal things parents aren’t supposed to say aloud, much less at the top of their lungs.
It was astonishing to see our coach– a six foot, soft-spoken, Irish church going, volunteer fireman, teddy bear of a husband married to a lass name Eileen— totally lose his goo with Mr. Morta, like Bill Bixby just before he went green.
The truculence stops the game. The magnet board is thrown. Pylon’s kicked onto the field. Ancillary accusations are bandied among assistants and boosters on opposite sides. Older brothers snicker. Wives furrow brows. Mothers slide muffs over their toddler’s ears. Brown-tailed squirrels stop chasing autumn’s abundant acorns, and weep for all mankind.
The referee, a 16 year old attempting to pass off peach fuzz for a mustache, doesn’t stand a chance of reaching détente. Like the rest of the spectators, the sheer velocity of the fracas enrapturs him.
And this is all before Mr. Hafiz gets involved. Hafiz is a vociferous, pit bull of an Iranian, whose mere presence intimidates the opposition. He is less than five feet tall, but his presence is nothing short of Napoleonic. Persian Napoleonic. He bares a tempestuous unibrow, strong yellow teeth and stubble that grows back seconds after shaving.
We thank Allah he’s on our side as he hurls imprecations at the ref. A bad call will provoke multisyllabic Farsi, guttural, searing and near combustion.
Hafiz played professionally in Tehran, and still has an impressive bag of tricks at his feet. While our competition is still learning not to hoard around the ball, Hafiz is teaching the Edgewood Eagles a series of step-overs, faints, and pullbacks. He personally teaches me how to shield the ball from someone twice my size. A skill that will help me through my college years.
The most valuable thing he imbues in us as a team is ferocity. When in doubt, attack with the abandon of tribal looters. Soccer is a game of possession. If you don’t have the ball, you can’t shoot, and if you can’t shoot, you won’t score.
His son, Sadi, was often on the receiving end of his shrill invective. At ten, Sadi is roadrunner fast and can score with both feet. His signature move is to let a pass zoom by him, run around the flatfooted defender, reposes the ball free from contention, and speed toward the goal.
At this juncture, there is only one thing left for Sadi to do, which is shoot. The clarity of the option doesn’t stop his father from screaming SHOOOOOOT dee ball Sadeeee! When Hafiz shouts, both hands make their way to the top of his buttocks in an effort to squeeze every last cubic centimeter of oxygen into the rallying cry. SHOOOOOOOT DEE BALL!
What matters about all this back at the dinner table is the unspoken reality that there was no way in hell my mom is going to bench me for the game.
We’re in first place, I’m team captain, and with the war unfolding between the Edgewood and Greenacres parents, this game extends far beyond good-spirited, grade school competition. Victory here represents nothing less than which village has better parenting skills, raises better children.
Sidelines will be three deep. A photographer from the Scarsdale Inquirer dispatched. Had I not been warming-up an hour before the whistle, the school faculty, the PTA, and every other non-association parent would have intervened. Certainly, Hafiz would have eventually raided our home and pulled me out.
“Where did you learn that word?” Mom spasms.
“Answer your mother,” says my father, demanding an end to the standoff.
“Just tell them,” Blurts my sister.
The family is sitting in the kitchen nook at 29 Woods lane. I am molars’ deep in a corn on the cob, covered in I can’t believe it’s not butter, which I can. It isn’t that far a stretch.
The cob is all I have to stall with, to keep me from revealing the name my parents now demand: Stanley Goldberg.
My dad wouldn’t have registered it, but unconsciously, his knees would have jerked. He would press further, like the prosecutor he should have been, and put the pieces together for a clean conviction: Stan Goldberg was my best friend Dave’s uncle.
Dave arrived at Edgewood the year before and a friendship was forged through all varieties of trouble. He was Tom to my Huck. Sam to my Frodo. And as the new tallest kid in our class, a really good goalie.
We’d lost Jan Weiberg, our Swedish international, the season before: a victim of his father’s capricious maritime business. He had moved back to the fjords to run a multinational, and taken his all-star goalie son with him. Dave’s arrival was a sign from Jehovah that this was our year.
But my new, tall Jewish friend and I were on a precipice at the moment. The broken the water pipe in the basement was still fresh, and unlike our previous erratum, this one would could a few thousand to fix.
Our next crisis will lead to a permanent embargo on our friendship. So that’s why I am stalling… As a fourth grader, I was taking the fifth
For many, traumatic events happen in slow motion. For me, it’s the opposite. Heightened moments unfold at lightning speed. I come to after as if breaking the surface of water, gasping for oxygen. Maybe it’s my blood type.
In this particular dinner pastiche, my concentration is focused on re-enacting a famous comedian’s sidesplitting routine for my sister. But in doing so, I have missed my father’s telltale escalation from simmer to hard boil.
The shipping business has gone through some downs as of late, mostly because of a new guild OPEC, and their power guildsignificantly lowering his threshold for my stupidity. Trauma is a syllable away, but I’m too busy entertaining to notice. Until the F bomb drops.
The release of my father’s backhand across a half-eaten skirt stake, long cut fries with Tabasco and steaming mustard greens comes with such rapidity into the meaty part of my cheek that I spit a mouthful of mock-buttered kernels into my mother’s newly hung drapery. I take the blow like a man, which is impressive for a wannabe tweener.
In my mind, I’m sitting on the red concrete floor of Dave’s basement listening to his cooler-than-shit uncle play harmonica like a Delta bluesman and tell jokes neither sets of parents would deem appropriate.
There is an excitement Dave is used to by now, but one that is brand new for me, and it’s akin to being let in on an adult secret. Uncle Stan doesn’t talk to us like kids. He talks to us like we’re members of the band.
Back at the table, I’m being treated like a 6 year old. My parents are still waiting for an answer. And there are repercussions for every second I don’t give one. I wonder where uncle Stan is at this very moment and assume it’s somewhere within the broadcast radius of WPDH’s classic rock radio, if not at its dead center. It’s the part of New York where route 95 becomes infested with buck and doe crossings, and I’d give anything to be there right now.
Stan’s older brother Hank had excelled as a corporate CFO and may have advocated the same for his son. But Dave and I were way more interested in Uncle Stan, who had dedicated his life to rock and roll, and made a living doing so, albeit less luxuriously.
I couldn’t help notice that Hank spoke to Stan like he spoke to Dave and me, which was with a dose of loving condescension. I might have been projecting, but I think Stan gave us a few hints that his brother was square, and even though he made less money, he lived a more alluring life.
That was what I wanted to believe and that Stan could spin yarns about hanging out with Sting before anyone knew who The Police were, trumped any lessen Hank could share about dividends being payments made from stocks or measuring if risk was worth the reward.
As a radio station manager and concert promoter, Stan had several encounters with legends and the details assured me he wasn’t bullshitting. I was an aspiring bullshitter myself and could tell.
That he sipped Wild Turkey with Buddy Guy, and not just “whiskey” was the type of detail that assured me of a story’s authenticity. There were all kinds of names dropped that Dave and I were too young to catch. Passing joints with this brilliant Diva. Blowing the harp with that B3 organ Legend. We listened ad nauseum because it put us two degrees away from the real thing.
The next day on the basketball court, we’d repeat the stories with as much understated coolness as we could muster. I now knew someone who had actually seen the Allman Brothers at the Filmore West, and successfully avoided the brown acid at Woodstock. Who’s better than me?
Uncle Stan’s present raison d’être, it seemed, was to inculcate his nephew with an encyclopedic knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll. He had made and mailed hundreds of mixed tapes to Dave that I would dutifully copy, alphabetize, and wear out.
By the sixth grade, DB and I were fluent in Clapton, Santana, The Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, The Who, James Brown, Jackson Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steely Dan, Hot Tuna, The Eagles, Poco, Albert King, Charlie Daniels, Buddy Guy, and The Doobie Brothers.
The music just kept coming, sometimes way left of center, like Oingo Boing’s first LP, or The Flying Lyzards, who covered Money, That’s All I Want. Wham UK arrived before anyone had any idea George Michael liked boys, including Uncle Stan. Like a lot of the promos, that tape was stamped with gold block letters declaring ‘Not For Resale’. It made it all the more exclusive.
There were rare bootlegs too, some from roadie cronies behind the soundboard, others from a local venue known as The Chance. The Chance would burn to the ground, be rebuilt, and reopen as The Second Chance where David and I would be third row center for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s maiden show on the In Step tour. The last time either of us would see the Austin legend, thanks to comps from badass uncle Stan.
Those handcrafted mixes endowed DB and me with an enviable cultural capital. Suddenly we were able to relate to older kids. Sports talk on the court would almost always lead to Rock‘n’Roll, and when high school guys tried to dismiss us with a “What d’you know ‘bout Clapton?” we’d rattled off how 461 Ocean Blvd. was our fave ‘cause side one opened with Motherless Children and closed with I Shot The Sheriff, which was a dope Bob Marley cover, duh.
More than once, it led to an invite to the game. But we learned it could also be a threat, like when I delivered the peroration that E.C.’s best work wasn’t until Derek & The Dominoes when Duane Allman on the slide forced him to kick it up a notch. Derek and the who? They wondered, feeling stupid and excluding us. You can be too cool, sometimes.
In addition to Stan’s magical musical tour of contemporary rock, there were frequent pit stops for comedy. About one tape in ten was stand-up. The old timers came first; Myron Cohen, Shelly Berman, Jackie Mason, Lenny Bruce, Brooks & Reiner. Then later, Robert Klein, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, early Dangerfield, early Joan Rivers, Richard Prior and George Carlin. In time, the inexplicably absurd musings of Monty Python, Cheech and Chong, and the venerable wackiness of Fireside Theater.
Dave and I flipped those tapes a zillion times through the night, cackling in unison from the bunk beds in his room at the top of the stairs. We’d have a handful of bits down by morning, repeating them word for word while warming up for the game.
Coach Shannon admonished us to get our heads into the match, which we did when Hafiz passed the eye of Sauron over us. We got into it then for real: Dave saving goals at one end and me netting them on the other. Edgewood was a srious juggernaut, but the moment it was over, we were spewing one-liners at Albanese’s thin crust Pizza to the toothless smiles of our teammates.
It was all about Eddie Murphy for Dave. You couldn’t be a ten year old and not have at least one bit from Delirious at the ready. But Dave had a deeper talent, he could sound just like him. So much so, that he fooled the DJ’s at WPLJ during a call in. They were about to put him on the air when the call got bounced upstairs for FCC vetting.
Dave waited nervously till a deep voice picked up and asked if this was the “real” Eddie, what floor did they work on during Saturday Night Live? Dave guessed four but was off by twenty-six floors. The ruse was over, but it was a compliment nonetheless. It not only validated all the work he’d done memorizing the material; it was a solid manifestation of the possible rewards.
I studied his routines instead of my homework because Carlin was more applicable to life than thing else I was imputing. I studied his delivery, cadence and vocabulary. It influenced the way I spoke.
So the night of the backhand that send the contents of my oral cavity flying, I’m doing a stellar job of making my sister pass liquid through her nose with laughter. Carlin On Campus had premiered on HBO the night before. I watched it on the new Philips TV in the basement, and I am eager to regurgitate it.
Dad had recently splurged on a remodeling of the broken-tiled, mildew plagued rumpus room. Prior to its gentrification, I was permitted to drill hockey pucks off the paneling into the underside of the pool table-come-hockey goal.
Then one day, almost like magic, the tile was replaced by fine smelling carpeting and a Caldor’s one-piece entertainment center. It was a message from the management: you kids are older now, put away the Atari cartridges and start having conversations.
My sister and I were fast to take advantage it. The best part is that it’s a quiet place to tape the HBO comedy specials. The night before I unwrap a 60 minute Maxell gold, slip it into an Emerson boom box, place it six inches from the television and raise the volume just so. I watch without laughing so as not to spoil the recording. Withholding made it all the more uproarious.
The first bit I regurgitate for my sister is the now classic “stuff” routine. Your house is basically a pile of stuff with a cover on it, and every couple of years you have to get a bigger house cause you have… too much stuff.
I nail the delivery, because my sister giggles hard enough to elicit one of Dad’s notorious Sssfts! It means you’re an inch from my last nerve, put a lid on it. But the show’s too fresh to contain: a whole hour of new material.
I continue, provoking more laugher and a second Sssft! The third Sssft will be accompanied by him skidding his chair back from the table readying for any number of moves; a finger in the face, a yank from the table. The shutter from stoppers on the linoleum is enough startle anyone.
But I only have two strikes against me, and the last one probably only counted for a half. I’m still in the game.
I’ve moved on to describing the animated sections Carlin used to bookend the show. It is years before The Simpson’s but that’s what they resemble.
The section I recant is called “Universe of Sports”. The last joke is a new hobby invented in California: an image pairs two naked bodies in a sixty-nine, wearing roller-skates, and spinning downhill like a human wheel. Carlin’s brash voice over names it, “Roller Fucking!”
It made me burst out laughing on the recording in the basement. Couldn’t hold it in. But as it flies out of my mouth at the dinner table, laughter is not quite the reaction.
Two details stand out prior to the blow: my sister’s bouncing eyebrows; amazement at what she’s just heard, and my mother’s profound non-reaction, amazed at what she’s just heard.
I do not have time to see my father’s expression, and I doubt he has time to make one. His patriarchal hand is in swift motion, saster than I’m able to through up a block. Pins and needles shoot through my cheek. I don’t cry. It hasn’t hit me I’ve been hit.
My father is no villain. But he has a fascist’s penchant for propriety. Physical contact only comes when he’s lost all reason, which is once every three hundred months. This blow is the last I remember in my youth.
“What did you just say?” I am paralyzed for an answer. “Where on God’s green Earth did you get that from?”
I’m Catch 22’d no matter how I answer. The literal response, George Carlin’s special, will lead to the prohibition or cancellation of HBO. I cant begin to imagne life without it. My Tutor is on a heavy rotation this month, and this being thirty years before internet porn, the nudity is far too valuable.
My thoughts race to a second answer, which is genealogically accurate, Uncle Stan. Stan is where I learned about all great comedians. But this response will lead to a call to the Goldberg residence, and the betrayal of my only really cool adult friend.
If one thing is true in grade school, it’s that best friends are for blaming shit on. I have a mutual understanding with Dave: blame me for whatever happens when you need to, reciprocity is the foundation of all great alliances, just try and make sure your mom doesn’t tell my mom. Let’s pray the shop at different supermarkets.
Dave doesn’t need the out as often as I do, his mother has terrified him into better behavior. What I am deducing at the moment, is if the blame shit on your pal rule extends to uncle Stan, via the Goldberg bloodline.
I am simultaneously amazed that my parents expect an answer to the question. DO they really think I’m gonna just spill my guts? Is that the child they raised? I so want to retort, what’s done is done; does a more accurate accountability really do anything for anyone?
I sit there, castigated, half hoping my sister will throw me a life line like she’s done so consistently in the past. Like when I put the car in reverse and ended up on the front lawn, or set the den’s recliner on fire trying to light one of dad’s off limits pipes.
But there is only silence. And then her stunning betrayal: “Just tell them.”
My mind slithers out from under the dinner table and glides back to the first time Dave slid a Carlin tape into his stereo in the house on Madison. The cassette wheels spin, pulling the magnetized tape from left to right through 45 minutes of Uncle Stan’s hand selected bits. The first is from Carlin’s FM/AM: “It’s 5am in Bangkok. It’s 12pm in Washington. In Baltimore, it’s 6:42. Time for the 7 o’clock report.”
Thinking about it nearly makes me laugh again, which will be the end. I will have to turn the other cheek.
But for some reason, like a midnight reprieve, my mother orders me to my room, no stereo!
I skulk upstairs and fall onto my New York Cosmos comforter. I have weekend homework, but no motivation. I stare at the fly carcasses in the glass dish beneath the overhead light. Then gaze down, underneath the bookshelves that hold the traded soccer patches, spiraling first place trophies, and the icon of Saint Alexandros.
There, stacked like bricks in a great artistic wall, are my alphabetized cassettes. I haven’t counted them in a while, but my guestimation is well over two hundred. It is an impressive collection for a kid my age. And every one of them means something to me.
In that dark hour, the one awaiting sentencing, what each of those tapes hold is solace enough. Especially scanning the C’s and seeing four hours of the comedian I just took a beating for. Carlin at Carnegie, Carlin on Campus, Class Clown, AM/FM… I’m forbidden from playing any of them at present, but that’s perfectly fine with me. I already know them all by heart.