My old friend Russ and I fashioned ourselves in the mode of Neal and Jack, at least sometimes, living a sort of vagabond life of simple ascetic pleasures traveling the world the way the monks of Tibet once famously did.
That meant hitchhiking after school from St. James to Cold Spring Harbor to try on and sometimes buy Hit Em Hard corderoy work pants, baggy the way they wore them back in the depression. If we found a beer or a J to go along with our Camel cigarettes we would enjoy it, and when we got hungry some yoghurt usually did the trick.
Most days we played basketball in Gaynor Park. There was always a game on the single court there, and we’d rotate in and out, playing full court hard, against our high school friends, and Freddy and Jay and others who had cycled back from Vietnam and brought a steely dark humor and cynicism to our lives.
The hoops court at Gaynor Park was the locus for our social life. This is where you went when you wanted to find your friends, who were either jamming on the court or flopped over the concrete pump house on the other side of the unused tennis courts. I didn’t know how all the boys and girls who spent so much time in that strip of tarmac, grass and concrete ended up there, it all seemed magical, but some part of it was because the Eastman clan, Russ and family, lived catty corner across the avenue.
It was there, at Russ’s house, that we hung out at lunch, and on days when school was shortened for testing. It was there we sat in the yard discovering that granny smith apples and Madeira Rainwater were an incredible combo. It was there that we watched Bogart movies, read Tin Tin (Rich, having colored all the dog images in a book with a yellow marker: “Don’t eat the yellow Snowy.”), and learned what Thai stick was (in the garage, in case it was volatile).
Russ and I also spent many weekends hitchhiking around Long Island, setting some goal (Hey, Southhampton!) and often making it there and back. The adventures weren’t usually dramatic. A dip in the ocean, flirting with some girls who droves us two miles, finding somehow some beer. Not exactly Tibetan simplicity, but basic, elemental, life distilled.
We talked to everyone. Drivers who picked us up, of course, but also road workers, and convenience store clerks. The workers in Army Navy stores and wherever we went to buy Dannon yoghurt as a snack. Local gossip, news, the weather, that downhome chatter was part of a package of values that we developed and shared and which I think has endured. In later years, when we were actually in control of the car, we’d stop and help people whose cars had broken down, Russ making them feel safe as we helped or found help for whatever the problem was.
We often found ourselves, because of our long hair and baggy pants, talking to police officers who assumed we took drugs. I remember a number of times that we chatted up those cops, while holding a joint or two, talked seriously about the problems with Nelson Rockefeller’s increasing penalties for pot possession, and managed to save our hides by good grace and luck and maybe a certain amount of innocent guile.
Until we didn’t, at which point our wanderings and self-inventing become more publicly known at home, and lawyers had to be called. We’ll blame Frank Zappa for that. We ate the yellow snow, metaphorically at least.
Through all of this we listened to a lot of music. And the music that we listened to most was the Allman Brothers. When I heard from Russ’s sister that he’d died this past Saturday I thought about his cancer, and the unrelenting beat of disease that transforms a life of love and devotion into an unrelenting agony and violation of all of that. And I ached, for the many years in between those strange halcyon days Russ and I shared figuring out how to live in the world, and these strange days when whatever script we’ve been given makes the ending seem as inevitable as one of those Bogart movies. And much more terrible because it isn’t just a story.
I started thinking about this Allman’s tune today. It’s from their first album, which for some time was underappreciated, though nobody cares anymore from whence the good stuff came. And this is the good stuff.
So sit with Russ and me on the pump house, with our friends, and argue about Jaimo and Butch, and Duane and Dickey, appreciate Berry’s amazing bass line, and think about motorcycles and eerie coincidences and terribly sad moments. And raise a Stegmaier, please, for Russ. And don’t klunk.