Which ONe Yall

The first inaccuracy in my memories is that during the ten years or so between when we first met in French and when our friendship fractured, Lex and I were inseparable, as close when I was twelve and Lex fourteen, as we were when I was sixteen and Lex eighteen. There was a two-year gap in our ages. I had started school early. There were only a handful of kids in our year younger than me, and Lex had been held back at one point, though I can’t recall the details of why. He was astute, bright. There was never anything I talked about that he didn’t follow. If anything he schooled me on most topics we discussed. We connected in French class, but there wasn’t an immediate inescapable bond, no thunderclap, no coup. Like all relationships of significance, our friendship developed over time. For the first part of the year, I clung to the metal persona I’d developed the previous year with Elton, even if I didn’t associate with Elton much further. I still skated with Jacob DeGeorges, who was probably my closest friend heading into the seventh grade. We spent our weekends, exploring the neighborhoods around us, Glenside, Jenkintown, Elkins Park, looking for gaps or steps to try to ollie over, rails to slide, sidewalks to wax with large hunks of candle we’d stolen from our parents’ cupboards. We watched skate videos, New Deal, Blind. We argued over who were the best skaters in the neighborhood, impressed that Kyle Cantor had ollied the gap at Elkins Park train station—a grassy patch off the platform that was five feet high and eight feet across—and ultimately agreed that he was the best.

Jacob also played guitar. He had a hot pink Fender Strat, and over the summer, my father had bought me a black Ibanez, and we jammed in his basement when we weren’t skating, struggling to piece together Metallica and Megadeth covers. He’d bought a tablature book that had the songs from Peace Sells and So Far, So Good, So What, and we mangled through the intro “In My Darkest Hour” before we gave up in favor of “Anarchy in the U.K.” since it was easier. I often picked songs that were easier, since Jacobs fingers were tight, clumsy. Jacob was rhythm and I was lead. I’d made this decision—in fact, whenever I started a band with anyone I’d usually taken control and asserted these types of things until I joined with Lex—and Jacob didn’t protest, since it was pretty clear that I was the more skilled player. We played in the finished basement in his parents’ house. Wood paneled and carpeted. There was a bar in the back near a closet and above the bar were framed pictures. I didn’t know who most of the people were, but I believe they were newspaper clippings from when his parents had marched in the sixties. They were the right age. Most of the kids I hung out with had parents a decade older than mine, though here my memory might be playing tricks as well. It wasn’t something I’d learned about yet. All I knew was that his father was a towering presence, tall but deep-voiced, usually at work. Whenever he was around, I felt intimidated while Jacob’s mother was kind to me. She checked in on us often, invited me to stay for dinner. We convinced her to take us to the 309 movie theater to see Silence of the Lambs while she and a friend watched Jungle Fever, but when we arrived and she discovered what Lambs was about, she forced us to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves instead.

Jacob had a quarter pipe ramp in his garage, and when we were bored and done playing music for the day, we’d pull it out and try out tricks on it. I could never do more than skate up it, pivot around and come back down. I liked street skating better than ramp skating. There was a lackadaisical quality to street skating. You could take it slow, do a kickflip here or there, ollie onto a curb and grind. Mostly you did a trick nine times and fell, pulled it off on the tenth time, and went back to falling the next go round. Still, when you pulled off something impressive in front of your friends, their reaction made it worth it, especially if you were skating with a group of five of six people, which we sometimes did. They’d cheer you on, shout aloud when you pulled a trick off. It was terribly boring, however, if you weren’t involved. Ramp skating required speed, and I didn’t like going fast unless it was skating downhill, my body crouched low to the board for balance. One day when we pulled the quarter pipe out, some of the kids in his neighborhood gathered to watch us. At first, they seemed content to stand and stare, but then one of them noticed my shoes.

“Yo, check his shoes,” I heard. I was wearing my Airwalks, skater sneaks. I’d begged my mom to buy them and she had, but when I’d worn a hole in them after a month of skating, she’d refused to get me a new pair. “Shoes should last longer than two months,” she’d said. “Think I’m made of money?” So I’d wrapped them in silver duct tape. “He’s got tape on his shoes! Look, he got tape on his shoes! Yo, your mama too poor to buy you shoes?” I kept on skating. I knew they were talking about me, but I’d been so used to being picked on in elementary school, I’d learned to tune it out. After a while though, they came closer, taunting. Jacob and I stopped and stared back. “Man, and where’d you’d get your shoes,” Jacob fired back. “Kmart? Those look like some bobos.” But the kids kept in on me. “What? You poor? Your mama can’t afford new sneaks? I’m sorry, man. Yo, he’s poor!” I couldn’t pinpoint any ringleader. They’d amassed and circled around. Usually I’d just leave when that happened. It was better to leave before they got going, before the insults compounded and the taunts became shoves and the shoves became a fight. But we were already in Jacob’s driveway. There was nowhere to go.

I think I felt his presence before I saw him. Either that or his presence simply looms in the background of this memory and I’m placing him there like a force of nature, a storm cloud, the way adults sometimes seemed to slide in beneath the stratosphere. One moment, we were standing alone. Jacob and I to one side, the kids taunting me on the other. Then Jacob’s father was there. He’d come out of the door that led from the hallway to the garage. He was standing next to their powder blue Cadillac. He didn’t raise his voice, but I picture the other kids backing off. “How would you feel,” he said, “if someone did that to you? What if I made fun of your haircut?” He nodded to one kid. “Or your clothes?” He gestured toward another. His tone was conversational, gentle but instructive. The act of putting it on the page doesn’t do it justice. He was intimidating, but it was a peacemaking intimidation. His presence and tone commanded respect. The other kids watched him in silence. They shrugged. They gave me a look like I wasn’t worth it. The joy they’d taken was over. Jacob’s father hadn’t said much. I think he left it at that. These two lines. The “do unto others” message. Coming from another man, the same words might have inspired derision. The kids might have run off, making fun of him. But no one did. They simply dispersed, and Jacob and I went back to skating. I appreciated what his father had done, but I wasn’t upset, just a bit embarrassed because the reason my mom hadn’t bought me new shoes was money, so there was some truth to their taunts. Still, I’d been a target so long, I accepted this as a matter of course. The attention didn’t faze me.

It had started in first grade. We’d moved from Willow Grove mid-year, and I’d started a new school and things had been fine. For a time I’d fit in. Then one day, standing near the bike racks at Glenside Elementary, I’d showed a couple kids a trick my uncle Garret taught me. I bent my index finger back and placed the nub in my nostril.

“Look, I’m picking my nose,” I said.

What a colossal mistake! I’d meant it as a joke. When my uncle showed me I’d laughed. But when I did it, Nick Reagan turned around and called out, “Jason picks his nose!”

“No,” I tried to protest, “I don’t. See, it’s a joke. I’m not doing it! My finger’s not up there!”

But it was too late. An afternoon on the playground, a misstep, and I was cast out. It strikes me as ludicrous this one gesture would follow me the next four years. But that’s what happened. There were taunts. No one wanted to sit near me in class, much less at lunch. There were further embellishments inspired by the juvenile tendency toward one-upsmanship. That I ate them. That I feasted upon them. That I smeared them on my desk and chair. Having endured this for a year, I obliged one afternoon and became the thing they wanted me to be. I stuck the eraser end of a yellow number two pencil up my nose and held it out toward the students around me and watched their desks clear out like magnets facing a similar pole in Mrs. Tiller’s second grade classroom. After a year, I was resigned to my fate, so it didn’t much matter either way. This particular instance couldn’t have made things any worse. I found solace outside of school.  The street where I lived was populated with kids my age who didn’t go to Glenside, who went to Catholic school or special schools for behavioral problems. They didn’t know this about me, that I wasn’t wanted, and I was foolish enough to try Uncle Garret’s trick with them.

I’m not going to pretend I liked being bullied. I’m not so impish a masochist. But there were benefits. It was an education in human nature. There were certain kids like Jeffrey Roseman who played with me outside of school and invited me to his house but shunned me while we were there. He was another kid my mother dubbed a little shit without even knowing the specifics. Others like Martin Grossman called me “Boogs” without malice and talked about video games with me as though I weren’t an outcast. But mostly my experience showed me how quickly the average person falls in line with consensus at the least suggestion. Nick Reagan was stronger than most of the other kids in our grade, tougher, and that gave him a status of authority I could never figure out because he wasn’t very bright or personable. He wielded his strength rather with all the cunning of Cro-Magnon man. What he dictated on the playground was followed without any question as to whether it was true or even if nose-picking was sufficient grounds for the treatment I received.

Obviously, it hurt. I experienced shame and embarrassment. If my parents came to school to pick me up, I tried to meet them out front. If they came for a school show, a choir concert say, I’d do my best to steer them away from other students for fear they’d hear about the incident and my nickname and discover that I wasn’t liked. It went beyond the name calling. My anxiety stemmed from the possibility of this revelation:  that I was so socially inept that I not only couldn’t blend in like your average run-of-the-mill student, but that I’d been so inept as to draw negative attention to myself, and it was all my fault. Instead of trying to stand out and make a joke, I should have kept my head down. But this was never me. I’d make this mistake again and again, drawing attention to myself, until I recognized the problem wasn’t me.

Later, when looking at one of my school IDs, Lex would comment, “You always look like you don’t trust the system. In your pictures I mean.”

To which I replied, “I don’t.”

And yet, I wanted to. I struggled to fit in the way most kids struggle to be different. Of course, most of the time that desire to be different is fueled by wanting to fit in while my fitting in was hard because I couldn’t fall in line and  go along with trends without questioning the social order with its strange, illogical hierarchies. And this all stems back to one pseudo-nose picking incident.

That summer between sixth and seventh grades when I wasn’t skating with Jacob, I was with my friends from the neighborhood, the ones I’d made during my outcast years at Glenside. I’d been starting bands since before I’d inherited the acoustic with the high action from my dad, since before I could even play an instrument, and my first efforts were with Rick Willis and Drew Schiff, who both lived across the street from me. They didn’t play instruments either. We’ pretend to play, act like one day we were going to get the instruments we pretended to play, but I was the only one who ever did. Drew’s cousin Tony P. had a guitar though, a guitar and a Peavey amp with two input jacks, and we’d set up on Drew’s concrete porch across the street from the Renninger baseball field and play “War Pigs.” Tony P. had a crisp nasally singing voice and could emulate Ozzy Osbourne. But the best cover we did was Faith No More’s “Epic.” I could play a passable imitation the solo while he kept up rhythm guitar, and he nailed the clipped inflection of Mike Patton’s rap-rock singing. These were my first public performances. People stopped by not to listen, not just other kids but neighbors. The lemony lady two doors down who was a former friend’s mom, complained. Our set list was always the same, capped off with a ten-minute rendition of “Wild Thing” with its easy infectious riff. A neighbor a few doors down used to play guitar on his porch for us when we were younger in the halcyon hair-metal days of the late ’80s, mostly Skid Row’s “18 and Life,” and he’d see us now and wave as he went in and out on errands and give us the thumbs up as though we were carrying the torch of front porch rock ‘n’ roll music.

Rick was never around in the summer, since he stayed with his dad in Texas that time of year. But I’d met Rick first among my neighborhood friends. Goofy, friendly Rick. Doomed Rick, who’d die of a gunshot to the back of his head in an Old City apartment in his early thirties. He’d approached me without guile in the summer before second grade, and as simply as possible, asked if I wanted to play. I can still see that boy in all his awkward glory as he approached with the utmost confidence or obliviousness or a mixture of both. We were out front of JB Machine Works. One of his legs was a bit longer than the other requiring lifts on his shoes. Resilient Rick, who we picked on with love in our hearts and who we defended whenever an outsider dared to try and do the same, since the same love wasn’t fueling it. Rick, the original lead singer of our ill-formed band without instruments to whom we’d given the gig partly because he wasn’t good at sports, being slower than the rest of us and likely to trip over his own two feet, and partly because he could imitate Axl Rose’s slinky side-to-side strut from the “Welcome to the Jungle” video. After we played together that day, Rick introduced me to Drew and Bruce Herndon, who both went to St. Luke’s, the Catholic school. Bruce Herndon was another one of those kids my mother had deemed a little shit. He continually tried turning Rick and Drew against me, and I told off him that summer before he moved. I told him that he was a little shit, co-opting my mother’s term. I told him that none of us actually liked him but were all just pretending to. I told him his mother looked like she sucked lemons. I took all the cruelty I’d absorbed over the years when he’d tried turning Rick and Drew against me and fired it back on him, and he stopped coming around. Still, for the longest time, it had been the four of us and sometimes Drew’s cousin Tony P. And we stood in contention with the Paxson Ave. crew fronted by Sonny Ford, the other group of kids around our age in the neighborhood.

Sonny was big and strong. He had a lot of weight on him and knew how to throw it around. I once watched him arrive, challenged to fight at Renninger playground by Donald Price who showed up wearing his karate outfit and sporting a yellow belt like he was Ralph Macchio. I’m not sure if this was meant to intimidate Sonny, but it didn’t. Mid-fight, waging a losing battle, Donald had grabbed a broomstick from his brother and swung it at Sonny. It broke across Sonny’s back, but Sonny stood unfazed. If anything, it only made him angrier, and we watched as he proceeded to kick the shit out of Donald Price. Sonny had bullied his way through most of the neighborhood until Drew, who was half his size, stood up to him. He didn’t challenge him to fight, as Donald Price had, but simply stood up to him after Sonny pushed him down the hill next to the Glenside pool. “I’m not afraid of you,” he said, defiantly, and this had made Sonny smile. They shook hands, and we started to hang out with Sonny’s crew on Paxson too. Sonny had egged Rick’s house before this, and his mother hadn’t bothered to wash off the stain of white and yolk, and for years, I saw this, the amorphous off-color shape of the remaining stain’s outline, as a testament to the way people can change, the way we weren’t friends with Sonny and then one day we were.

We divided our time between Drew’s porch and Sonny’s porch that summer, mostly due to lack of supervision at Sonny’s. Sonny’s mom stayed confined to her bedroom watching daytime TV while his father was either at the shop the family ran or out jogging around. While there, at Sonny’s porch, Tony P. mooned over the girl across the street, Natasha Tate. Natasha was popular at school, pretty, and she’d developed breasts before most of the other girls in her year, leading the neighborhood’s creative geniuses to swap her last name with that particular feature of the female form.

We rode our bikes when we weren’t on skateboards, and Tony hovered before the house most days waiting to see her. Me and his cousin Drew would be along too, and while Tony talked to Natasha on the porch, Drew and I stood at the end of the sidewalk leading up to her house, chatting with Natasha’s cousin Hailey. Slumped over our handlebars, we wiled away the afternoons. I had a blue Columbia BMX 9.5 Freestyle bike that I rode everywhere, and I was usually sitting on that. It had double pegs on the front, and the frame was built to do framestands, something Drew and I competed in after we saw the movie Rad. I liked talking to Hailey. I felt as if I were getting the hang of talking to girls.

Elton and Jennifer Mills had broken up at the end of sixth grade, which meant she’d be free next year and I might have a chance, but in the meantime, I set my sights on Hailey. Why not? I could talk to her, which was something I’d had trouble doing with Jennifer. Yet, Hailey was interested in Drew, and since my crush was self-imposed, not the result of irrational impulses, I didn’t care too much. It was something to do for the summer. I kept on with the crush, figuring if Drew didn’t show an interest, she might come around, and I’d get to kiss a girl, but it never happened. Tony wasn’t having any luck either. But I envied the way he let Natasha know that he liked her. Even when she wouldn’t give him an answer either way, he hung in there. Whenever we visited, Natasha would sit up on her porch and play the Bryan Adam’s song, “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” which had been released in June, through the window on her living room stereo on repeat, and they spent the afternoon engaged in conversation. As Extreme’s “More Than Words” replaced Bryan Adams and they continued to talk and Tony showed more and more of an interest in her, she didn’t laugh in his face, which was what I’d always feared girls would do to me. But then, he had something I didn’t: development, musculature. I’d hit puberty that summer. My voice was changing, but my body hadn’t filled out. I was tall but slim, easily pushed around. This would have made me more of a target if I weren’t friends with Sonny. But I was, so the kids who’d formerly come after me left me alone.

At the time, however, I kept my distance from Sonny. I’d become part of his circle, but he was still a bully in my eyes, and I avoided as much as I could being alone with him. If I went to Paxson, and it was just him sitting on his porch and he hadn’t spotted me yet, I’d turn around and go home. There had to be at least two other people as buffers. One alone, and he’d use that one person as an audience to pick on me himself. Danny O’Hare, who lived on Glenside Avenue but was part of the Paxson crew, had two sets of boxing gloves, and Sonny arranged matches between us. Matches I always bailed out of. Matches I refused to participate in. It was almost always one of our crew against one of his, as we hadn’t fully assimilated. He’d match Drew with Danny for the pleasure of seeing one knock the other down. Whenever I heard that there was a match coming, I made myself scarce, but Sonny found me anyway and egged me on to fight one of them in the street, bare-knuckled.

When it came to fighting I had one tactic. I’d stand back and wait for the other boy to advance. When he did, I’d use my height and sidestep and trip him. Once he was on the ground, I’d jump on top of him, pin his arms with my knees, and punch him in the face until he cried. It worked really well. I never lost a fight that summer. I just hated to do it. Even as I won, even as the others cheered me on. Even as I got off of Danny O’Hare and watched his face go red, watched him hide his tears with a hand, heard his voice quiver, I felt sick to my stomach. I channeled the rage of being picked on all those years. I refused to let myself be their victim, but even as I did, I hated the necessity for violence. I hated how they urged it out of me, brought it up to the surface.

Up until that summer, no one expected this ferocity from me. I didn’t even expect it from myself. Yet, my punches were half-hearted, more like taps. I never put any weight into them. It was more the humiliation of being pinned and slapped around by me that made the other boys give up. More surprising was that I kept winning even though I did the same move every time. Danny O’Hare, in particular, took it hard. “It’s not a fair fight,” he protested. “Let’s get him in the boxing ring. I’d beat him there.” But I refused to box. Why would I give up my advantage and go to a place where he was so sure he could win? Every time I fought I feared that my mom would hear about it and be disappointed in me, so I avoided it. And then, shortly after seventh grade started, Clive Drummond started in on me.

In front of Cedarbrook Junior High, there were two circles of blacktop for the buses to pick the kids up. One was elevated, outside the front doors. The other was down a flight of stairs and a hill. In the center of this strip was a circular plot of grass, ornamented with oak trees where we’d wage battles, hurling the acorns at one another. I suppose this was a pastime initiated by incoming seventh graders every year. A pastime the administration quickly put a stop to after a couple injuries were reported and the disciplinarian came on the loudspeaker and threatened suspension to anyone caught throwing them. Once this happened, we settled into the mundane activities of twelve and thirteen year olds. Someone would bring a Nerf football, and we’d get up a touch game on one of the circles, or we’d drift away from supervision and play tackle until someone noticed and told us to stop. I played in these games with Lex and Reed Foley, one of Sonny Ford’s Paxson crew I’d become friends with over the summer. Or we’d sit on the railings next to those front steps and talk to girls like Elisa, who both Lex and Reed were showing an interest in.

When Clive started in on me, neither Lex nor Reed were around. We were in the lower circle. It had rained the night before and some of the kids were messing around, trying to throw each other in the mud. I was standing by a tree, leaning against it, when Clive passed. I moved a bit to get out of his way, and as I did, he stopped. “Yo, you got mud on my shoes,” he said. There was mud all around, of course. We were standing in a grassy patch. It had rained the night before. But I knew it was pointless to mention this. I’d seen enough situations start this way. I kept my silence and tried to ignore him. I didn’t apologize. I knew it wouldn’t do any good. We all had mud on our shoes. It went with walking on the grass. But as I tried to escape, he blocked my path. “Yo, you got mud on my shoes, you deaf?”

Clive was much bigger than me, filled out. I didn’t want trouble, but he seemed ready to force it on me. “My bad,” I said. I hoped that by saying, “My bad” instead of “I’m sorry,” I’d seem nonchalant, cooler. And if I were cooler maybe he’d leave me alone. But it didn’t work.

“Man, wipe it off,” he commanded.

At this point, I was getting scared. It was one thing to fight on the street, in the playground, outside of school hours. Another entirely to fight in school. I could avoid having my parents hear about the little tussles at Renninger field that Sonny had pressed me into. But they’d hear about this one. Still, I wasn’t backing off.

“No man, I ain’t gonna wipe your shoes,” I said. “There’s mud all around here. I didn’t get mud on your shoes. You did that yourself.” Clive wore glasses, but to me, he looked like Steve Urkel on steroids. Right then his nostrils flared. His eyes grew wide.

“What you say?”

“I said I’m not wiping it off.”

I turned and tried to go, but he grabbed me. He clutched my collarbone with both hands and forced me back against the tree. I grabbed him the same way, and we slid out onto the grass, grappling, trying not to fall. He was hurting me, and I closed my eyes and strained against him. I knew why he’d started with me. I was smaller than he was. I was a good kid. He knew that he could intimidate me. Yet, none of that mattered. His legs were spread wide to keep from falling. I thought about kicking him in his nuts. I’d fall in the mud, but this would put him down and he wouldn’t mess with me again. Yet, it also might get me suspended. So far, nothing of great consequence had occurred. We were wrestling. But my grip was slipping. He was going to throw me down. Then I heard someone yell, “Hey Clive!” He let go, and we both turned toward the steps. Lex was jogging down the staircase with Reed close behind.

“You want to try me?” Lex said.

Clive looked around at the group of kids who’d gathered to watch us. Lex was his size. Clive backed away.

“You know that when you’re messing with him, you’re messing with me, right?”

Lex came forward and grabbed Clive, and Clive had no choice but to grab him back. It lasted only a few seconds. Lex reached out with his leg and undercut Clive, and Clive tumbled into the mud, sliding across the ground. Clive was wearing red track pants, and there was a long large smear of brown across his legs. Lex hadn’t the reservations about fighting that I had. His parents were both a bit less stringent about that. I’d learn this after I met them. If he had to stand up to a bully, that’s what he’d do, and they’d be all right with that. He wasn’t worried about them finding out and punishing him. He’d seen what was happening when he came out the doors and decided to intervene. At the end of the day, and we walked home together, Lex and me and Reed. To some extent, I was embarrassed that I couldn’t handle it myself. But overall, I was grateful. He’d looked out for me like a brother would. Clive turned his attention elsewhere. He never bothered me again. This wasn’t Lex’s first overture of friendship toward me, but it was the most important in bringing us together. Messing with me meant messing with Lex, and for years to come, that was the way it would be.



on June 6, 2016, 11:33 am

While the first 2 sections brought back some crazy memories, this entry really resonates with me since it’s about the neighborhood and the Paxson crew! Love it! I’m going to have to read it a few more times to get my brain working, as I have vague recollections of some of the instances mentioned in here, but character name wise, I’m fairly certain on a good share of them. Fantastic stuff again Jason.



on June 8, 2016, 9:45 am

Lol..Natasha. “Hailey” was my sister. She passed away three years ago. Never knew you were crushing on her like that. 🙂 Goddamn, the memories of that summer..I smoked them away my first year at CHS. Man, I have no memory of cranking Bryan Adams on repeat. Thank god!!



on June 8, 2016, 9:47 am

Your sister, that’s right. Because “Tony P” liked you and “Hailey” liked “Drew” my memory probably imposed their relationship on you and her. In any case, I’m really sorry to hear that she passed away. She was always really nice to me that summer.


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