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A Cold, Clear Day

I got up to go to take a shower and go to school; this was one of the rare mornings when the air wasn’t on. Our bedroom had a wall mounted air conditioner that, like all ACs I ever saw in the mid-eighties, looked like it had been installed 15 years before, back when there was a dog track in the neighborhood and people were sweating through their polyester bell-bottoms. By now the unit was sagging, threatening to fall out of the window and drop two stories below on the apartment building’s washing machine. Most other nights (and days) it chugged merrily along, slowly dripping its condensation water onto the worn carpet below. That thing was twenty-four seven before there even was such an expression. It had to be in that city.

I don’t know whether I had breakfast or not, probably not. I do remember this though, it had been pretty cold the previous night, I expected it to stay that way through the morning because South Florida’s usually taciturn weather folk actually had something different to tell us on the previous night’s news. Ann Bishop had gladly given way to the meteorologist for his exciting news of a cold snap in Miami. If I did have breakfast after getting dressed that morning it was a rushed affair. Dalia insisted I eat a good breakfast every day, to not skip it. Like ever. To drive home her point she would ask me rhetorically, “How else are you going to grow into a big man I can show off to my other customers?”  She called my fellow gym-rats ‘customers,’ as if she was selling flowers from some Coral Gables boutique and not coaxing testosterone from weary un-air-conditioned guys like me.  I was 19 years old, still a little thin, but going in the right direction, getting right where Dalia wanted me.

But the whole breakfast thing, man that was tough. I had finally grown out of the Alpha Bits-Lucky Charms rotation of childhood but had yet to find culinary replacements that pleased me. Other than the Rocky Balboa raw egg experiment I had tried a few weeks earlier (gagging and eliciting peals of laughter from my sister Mary) I usually skipped and jammed out of the house, waiting until I got to Miami-Dade North or to the Burger King across 103rd St., right by the school.

Dressed and with my books and Trapper Keeper in hand (I always carried them loose, separately, perhaps cultivating a harried artist vibe), I paused at the closet for a very rare stop. I leafed through a few garments and found my old yellow and brown paneled puffy jacket with the zip-on zip-off sleeves. The sleeves were attached so I had nothing to do but put it on. I knew it was from the early Eighties (purchased at the Montgomery Ward we shopped at in Hollywood California) and it was ugly (I called it the “Piss-Poo”) but who cared. Miamians were and still are known for their patchwork winter preparation. If these items matched, and I mean the whole ensemble of gloves, cap and coat, then it meant you were probably from up north and the subtle implication of this, of course, was that you were not a “real Miamian.” With this jacket, which somehow still fit despite my growth sport from a few years before; I looked the part of a real Miamian and sometimes I even felt it. On the way out I remembered to grab my T-Square.

I was especially glad to not have to wait outside on Pennsylvania and 10th for my friend William to pick me up in his Opel Manta. Just a few weeks before I had given my mom’s boss Sam practically all of my savings (earned from my job at Fedco drugstore) for the rarified pleasure of taking ownership of his battered ’76 Cutlass Salon. It was brown; I noticed it matched my look that day. I still got a thrill striding out to the car and fiddling with my keys in my right hand pocket. It gave me the feeling generally that I was moving on, maybe one day even getting to leave South Florida for who knew what. Many mornings, heading north on I-95, I fantasized about never stopping, just skipping my exit and driving on past West Palm, Cape Kennedy, whatever there was in the north part of Florida, and finally out of the state altogether. It would take a long time and probably a couple of tanks of gas, but the excitement of the uncharted future would make it all worthwhile. But on this particular morning, as I did all other mornings I attended Dade-North, I instead moved over to the right hand lane to take the exit marked NE 103rd St. Miami-Dade Community College. Happy as I was with my first ever car, the days had by then started to blend into the sameness that I could tell afflicted all students, all workers everywhere. Anyone with a regular schedule.

At least this morning I had a little bit of excitement. Right around where MacArthur Causeway merges into the north-bound lanes of 95, I saw Willy’s distinctive Manta motoring along right in front of me. I caught up to him and waved. He smiled his tough guy smile at me and then started gesturing in those little tough guy waves of his. If I knew then that he would become a Miami Beach Police officer several years later I might have realized he was practicing his pull-over command. But he wasn’t waving me over; it was like he wanted something. He leaned over and rolled the passenger window half way down. He finally doffed his shades (all this at 65mph) and stare-looked at my back seat. He wanted something, “Oh wait, he wants the T-Square,” I realized. The one I had only remembered to grab on the way out of the house when Willy called to remind me.

I didn’t mind loaning it to him because I had no art classes on Tuesday, William had almost all art classes. He was always running late and was apparently doing so now; I rolled down my driver’s side window in time to hear him yell out, “Get closer man, I’m not going to the other side of the lot for this!” He was referring to the giant parking lots that surrounded the campus on three sides. Art was in an offshoot building on one side, my core classes were all on the other. Still looking at him I showed doubt. “C’mon man, drop that fucker over, I need it!” I knew he wanted it right then and I laughed. “Hell why not man!” I said. Hey I was 19, it wasn’t like I was going to get into a car accident or anything. I pulled my car closer to his and we were speeding along as if we were jets preparing for a mid-air refueling. I fumbled with my back-stretched right arm for the tool; “there, got it!” He leaned over to his right again and cranked down his passenger side window the rest of the way down and I slipped the T-Square right in there, almost hitting him. I swerved to the right a bit and then peeled off. It didn’t seem like anybody noticed, if they did they didn’t honk or anything. The sameness I felt was everywhere, it existed even before the distractions of cell phones. Later that day, however, all those people I passed on the way to work would be paying attention.

My first class was English; nerd that I was I always showed up early (another reason I was glad to have my own car, Willy’s habitual tardiness was exasperating). As I sat there an employee of the audio visual department rolled a big TV into the room. It sat about five feet off the floor in one of those ubiquitous metal stands we all saw back then (and years before, come to think of it). I vaguely remembered that something was going on that day but couldn’t remember. Probably noticing my look the lady that wheeled in the TV said, “It’s happening soon, but probably not until the second class.” That didn’t jog my memory but I didn’t really care. I didn’t watch the news much, it was just boring Reagan stuff, blah blah blah, and though I found him interesting in my California years, by now he had gotten kind of boring. In my spare time I either did my homework, listened to my Walkman, or watched something else on TV.

After class was over I headed out to the next one downstairs. The walkways were all outside and I noted it was still really cold. The morning was crystal clear too. As a Floridian I had no idea that the high pressure associated with cold fronts usually pushed all of the clouds out of the sky too. In case I haven’t painted an adequate picture for you yet here we didn’t have a lot of that in South Florida. The next class was Geometry 2, when I sat down I saw there was already a medium sized Panasonic sitting on and identical metal shelving roller. I idly imagined what funny movies they would show in math class and then wondered what all the TVs were about. By this point I almost cared.

I got out of math and decided it was time to get a Cherry Coke, I threaded my way through the main floor of the main admin building and out the other side towards the cafeteria. I saw a line of students doing late winter term registration at the bank-telleresque open windows on the left side. On the right side they had wheeled a TV on a sturdy metal rolling stand and it was turned on. Nobody was watching. I couldn’t tell what was on, I didn’t really look. A few minutes later I sat alone in the cafeteria with my Cherry Coke and a chocolate chip cookie. I wouldn’t tell Dalia about my breakfast today. I was young enough to pretty much get to eat what I wanted and still go into her gym on 7th and Washington and lift like a champ. I thought about William and the T-Square and hoped I would never follow my namesakes into an early grave. They had both died in car accidents. Probably not, I decided. I looked around at my fellow students, they seemed to kind of numbly walk to and fro, then suddenly I realized I had to get to History class.

I threaded my way back the way I came through the Admin building and pulled up short. All the kids in registration line were gone. It looked like everyone in the foyer was now grouped in front on the AV department TV. Maybe now I could find out what the hell was going on. Whatever it was must have started. Just then some guy I didn’t know wheeled around, not quite to me but more in general, and said to everyone in the back, “The Space Shuttle just fucking exploded!”

I looked up to the screen and saw a guy holding a mike standing outside, he had a coat on, I guessed he was at Cape Kennedy. Right before they cut to what would become the famous shot of twin forks of smoke curling out into open sky I remembered that the TVs were all rolled into classes because of a teacher who was on board. She was going to teach a class from orbit. But this was the 25th launch of the Space Shuttle (it felt like possibly the 50th) and I didn’t really care. That’s why I couldn’t remember. To me, to many people in Florida and around the country, the launches were like the morning commute. There was a sameness about them, nobody could even recall a close call with the Shuttles, they just landed their pinpoint bulky asses right on the spot at Vandenberg out in California. Until the reporter said “Challenger” I didn’t even remember which one it was. In time I and many others would wonder if the people at NASA were afflicted with the same ennui, the feeling of ‘sameness.’

As I walk-staggered to my next class I could hear the reporters speculating there would be survivors in the ocean. The thought chilled me with a moment of hope before I thought about the curling smoke and the now-detached rockets going this way and that, and I knew there would be no survivors. Looking back at it later I think we all knew. In the next class we just watched TV, there would be no more classes that day. I was numb and getting number. I got in my car and started to drive home, thinking about the astronauts. So was everybody else, every single car had their headlights on as they slowly wound their way back north on 95. It was still cold and clear outside, a very bright day that made the headlights gesture stand out all the more in starkness. Reagan came on TV later that night and I watched. But I had been watching nonstop news coverage all day anyway. Maybe 500 times I saw “Go throttle up,” then Boom! It was as scary on the last viewing as it was the first. I can’t underscore enough how I and everyone I knew were truly shocked by this. I slept a little bit that night.

The next day was Wednesday, the 29th of January, 1986. It was still a little chilly but Florida weather was ready to make a reappearance, I could tell. I left my “Piss-Poo” jacket in the closet. Everybody had their headlights on, even in the bright sunshine; I double checked to make sure mine were on too. I paid a little more attention to my drive; not only on that day but for several days thereafter (though I realized weeks later when I saw the first Challenger license plates I had gone a little back into my ‘sameness’ shell again). I focused on details I hadn’t noticed in a long time. I had no more fantasies for a while, the ones where I’d just drive north until I ran out of fuel. Instead, in those waning days of January I thought about the astronauts somewhere out there in the cold, dark Atlantic.

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Concrete U

All through 1984 and early ’85, I targeted a date on my calendar; it was my graduation from Miami Beach High.  Diligence and aptitude in High School had prepared me for, what?  I wasn’t sure.  There wasn’t anything that really inspired me, so I let the opinions of some that I respected propel me along on my lazy tide.  I just needed more time to think it over, I wished there was a place where I could do this and yet still be counted as a college student.

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