I grew up in a small town/city in upstate New York with my mom and brother. In my 16th year my dad invited me to spend the summer with him in Maryland. What conversations took place between my parents to set this up, I don’t know. Maybe it was because I was 16. Maybe he just missed me. Maybe they thought it would be good for me. I’m not sure. Thankfully, while my parents were divorced it was not due to addiction or abuse or any of that stuff. So we were all sure that I would be safe with nothing but potential good times with a familiar face in a new locale. The stories started at the airport and didn’t let up until I was back to New York. We’ve all watched teen movies over the years showing the importance of summer camps, family trips, vacations, adventures galore. And I have those stories too (which will be posts eventually I’m sure). But this is about the summer of 1994 when I discovered a lot about the world.
The story begins upon boarding the first flight. I looked out the window from the airport in Syracuse and saw this tiny plane that may have held about twenty people. The kind of plane that needs every passenger to disclose their weight so it can be balanced. I remember my mom with a bit of fear in her eyes. Seeing her baby get on this less than stellar looking flight. I don’t know if it was ignorance or excitement, but I got right on the flight and headed to one of the New York airports. My flight landed without a hitch. Unfortunately, my connecting flight was already in the air. Here I am, a sixteen-year-old child hick to be rude and blunt to myself. Alone in the biggest city in the world pre-cell phones, internet, and other things that would make this easier today.
My best guess is I had a moment of great clarity and realization. No one is coming to help. I’m by myself. Time to be an adult. What can I do to solve this situation? I went right up to the counter for the airline I was flying and explained what happened. They booked me on another flight, bumped me up to first class, and called the DC airport paging “my party” to inform them I would be arriving later. This is the first day and I’ve already had an adventure.
Safely in the DC area, I met up with my dad and went to get something to eat. At the most disgusting KFC I’ve ever been into in my life. This was so horrible I didn’t eat KFC again for 20 years. And only then because my wife informed me that there isn’t a chance that anything – the employees, food, even the buildings – are the same 20 years later. They had an hour wait on rotisserie. The tables were permanently wet. My dad came out of the bathroom with the family classic line, “let me roll around in the grass to get clean”. It was a so horrible it’s treasured family memory.
That evening he took me to the indoor soccer league for DC. It’s not a sport, it’s professional physics. Indoor soccer was something else entirely. Using the boundary walls of the field to kick at crazy angles. Part football, part billiards. I read comics, I’m not a sports guy. But I would watch this sport again any day at any time still.
Speaking of comics, this summer led to my first big city comic book store. Some days when my dad worked in Bethesda, Maryland I would ride in with him and spend the day exploring the DC Metro. I’ve already conquered the air, time to conquer the underground. Bethesda has one strip with everything on it. Huge stores, theaters, restaurants, everything. Then two blocks down a side street there is nothing but quiet. It’s very surreal. Not as surreal as walking into Big Planet Comics (and that name is from memory) at least once a week all summer long. Comics I had only heard about that had to be “special ordered” in my home town were there in abundance. I’m in a new place, trying new things, and that extended to the comics. I bought so many comics that summer when I went back home I needed another suitcase just for them. Of course, I needed money for these.
My dad had hooked me up with a job at the local grocery store. As I was just 16 all I did was bag groceries, collect carts, little things like that. Something to get me out of the house, teach me some responsibility, and earn some money. The store was so close to the Chesapeake Beach I could smell it. It also brought in a large cross section of people. The haves with their boats docked outside and the have not support staff. I met so many diverse people. Including the type of people who can’t be bothered to carry their own groceries but if you’re willing to bring them out to the car, there might be a couple of bucks in it for you. The more pleasant, conversational, maybe even funny I could be – the higher the tip. I learned quickly how to read people and fake a conversation at their level. There were a lot of people in Maryland who thought the local bag boy was an expert on current sports goings-on.
The best conversation though was with the cashier I usually teamed up with. Older than me but not by much. She had that indie rock look before I knew what that was. Turns out after my first week she saw me at the local music shop buying some cassettes and thought I had good taste. We worked together, took breaks together. She complained to me about her boyfriend and “if you were older”. I was in the friend zone before I knew what that was. The customers taught me how to talk, but she taught me how to listen. Not well enough though. While I can remember the name of the comic shop 25 years later I can’t remember her name. One of those names in all of our pasts that we look up on Facebook thinking “I wonder what happened to so-and-so.” Forever a mystery.
Much like the mystery of getting around in the area. On days when my dad and I both worked I still had to get there. I’ve already found ways out of tough situations this summer, what’s one more? So I walked. Everywhere. Walked to and from work. Walked around DC. Got lost in Bethesda and ended up in (yes this is the real name of the place) Chevy Chase. Through all of it, my attitude was as long as I’m okay, I can figure this out.
Maybe that attitude was due to the high quantity of US military and government in the area. These men and women have to make life and death decisions every day, as part of their job. It isn’t a variable or an oddity. It’s an expectation. So having to leave for work an hour early to walk there in time or finding my way back to somewhere familiar based off of landmarks is not a big deal. I’m alive, I’m okay. I can get through this.
The summer continues with tons of new experiences. Exploring all of Washington DC’s monuments and museums. Water parks and pools. So much seafood. So much. And for the first time just sitting and talking with my dad. Time didn’t feel rushed, so we could have pointless conversations. The trip wasn’t ending tomorrow, or next week, so not everything had to ‘matter’. But having those seemingly meaningless conversations mattered more. Stories from his childhood. Talking favorite movies and music. Sharing really deep thoughts that wouldn’t have come up otherwise. If I was old enough to crack open a beer, we would have.
I went back home in late August, just a week before school started. My first night back I learned my grade school best friend had died. At just 15. We were inseparable then, before he was in a different grade and the main connection broken. My mind that spring may have thought, we were so similar if he could do this does that mean I can too? By the end of that summer though I knew. As long as I’m okay, I can figure this out.
Thanks for sharing. It’s always great seeing the similarities and differences in people’s coming of age stories. I feel for you in having to deal with tragedy after you experienced such a high in personal triumphs.
This sort of assumes that the reader knows what happened to cause the death of the friend, and we don’t. The “if he could do this” implies a deliberate act, or suicide, to be blunt. If that’s the case, I say write it, and include the National suicide prevention helpline phone number, which I would provide here but I think it might make me look like a bot and block the comment.
Wow, what a summer! Great storytelling as usual, too! Sorry about your friend.