New York – Summer 2008
From every dingy basement on every dingy street
I hear every dragging handclap over every dragging beat
Thats just the beat of time-the beat that must go on
If you been trying for years-then we already heard your song
All these years later, so much has changed. Then I wore an army surplus coat, walked Amsterdam Avenue, and had the local street dealers greet me with a sneering, “Hello, Officer,” a misperception that almost certainly kept me out of trouble, but in those days might well have gotten me shot. Now I wear a suit, walk Fifth Avenue, and there aren’t any locals, just gobs of map-toting tourists taking advantage of the weak dollar and looking for a Hard Rock Café. As the late, great George Carlin put it, “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?”
Back then I listened to the sounds of the street, steam hissing through cracks in unseen pipes, unseen people hissing unintelligibly, a symphony of decay. Now, like every other disconnected transient I swore I’d never be like, I walk the streets with earbuds planted firmly, sliding past rather than wading through, untouching and untouched. So different, but still the same.
The Summer of ’81 saw The Clash descend on New York for three weeks of shows at Bond International Casino. Anyone who cares probably already knows the story, so I won’t belabor it. Suffice to say that the Times Square they came to, saw, and conquered is long gone, conquered yet again by ESPN, M&Ms, and Planet Hollywood, controlled now by the very corporations The Clash railed against. Back then it was controlled by pimps, dealers and hustlers. Then came Giuliani Time, when America’s Mayor swept the squeegee men and other nuisance criminals from the streets of Times Square to make it safe for the Virgin MegaStore. That’s New York. Only the city is constant; the players are ever-changing. Like the Flemish fields of central Europe, battlefield for centuries, where armies fought for fleeting supremacy, held on long enough to heal their wounds, then fell to the next group. Only the blood was constant. The uniforms were ever-changing.
I left the streets of New York for the lawns of suburbia in the winter of ’95, settling in Harrison with a girlfriend and a chocolate lab puppy. Two years later the girlfriend was gone, and another year after that so was I, in the cab of a U-Haul with the lab no longer a puppy and North Carolina in my sights. We drove all night, although I did most of the driving, and arrived just in time for an early morning ice storm to drop a chunk of a long-leaf pine on the leased Jeep Grand Cherokee I had on a trailer. Welcome to North Carolina.
Despite the harsh welcome, I never imagined I’d move back here. I just couldn’t see myself coming back to this life, a life where you have to fight for everything, where everything is a struggle. What I didn’t realize until just recently is there’s something inside me that needs that battle.
I taught high school English in North Carolina for a little over five years, and in five years, I didn’t miss a single day in the classroom. I came early, stayed late, and taught “bell to bell.” I challenged my students and challenged myself, and for a time those challenges were enough. But eventually it started to bother me that so many of my colleagues neither challenged themselves nor their students. They came late, left early, took sick days as quickly as they earned them, and generally did the absolute minimum. Then, at the end of the month, they got the same check I did. Still I battled. I taught a class that had an End-Of-Course test, and when my students were sufficiently prepared I went into other teacher’s classrooms to help prepare their students. And when the scores were high enough to earn us bonus money, the same slackers who surfed the internet while their students slept got the same bonus check I did. I began to feel bitter. I wanted my efforts to be rewarded and their failures to cost them. I wanted my performance to mean something more. I wanted to compete. In effect, I wanted to be on a Flemish battlefield, and watch my lame-ass colleagues have their limbs chopped off. Figuring that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon, I quit. Then I did what I never thought I’d do. I moved back.
It took all of three weeks for me to feel right at home, or at least comfortable enough to cross the street against the light and flip off a honking cab driver without looking at him. The gesture amused the orderly masses gathered on the corner, diligently waiting for the walk signal. “Oh lookie there. A real New Yorker.” Three weeks for my stride to reflect my contempt for anyone who doesn’t walk quickly enough, move purposefully enough, or know enough to rotate their torsos to allow them to slide through the oncoming foot traffic in a crosswalk without breaking stride. Fucking tourists. Three weeks to scrape away ten years of North Carolina, of please and thank you and after you and as you wish and be my guest and not at all and hey. Now, six months later, I can hardly remember what it feels like to smile in public.
I’m not sure it has to be this way, just as I’m not sure that all those years of pounding our opponents into submission while simultaneously trying to humiliate them were entirely necessary. But we did love the battle, and at this point it’s probably safe to say I need it.
So here I am, after all these years, back in New York, walking the streets listening to The Clash on my Blackberry. If that isn’t an oxymoron it ought to be. I used to say I have no regrets, but it’s a lie. I’ve got regrets by the bushel; I just choose to keep them to myself.
Ten years ago, soon after I moved to NC, a couple of young Ring players tried to entice me to join their team, using as bait the chance to keep Boston from equaling New York’s run of five straight titles. Needless to say, it didn’t work. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. We won a bunch. They won a bunch. And now people play Masters and Grandmasters and sit by the phone waiting for the Hall of Fame to call. So much for the battle.
But there is one thing that does get my goat. When I walk the city streets I listen to every song from The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and London Calling. Every song except one. That’s something I don’t forgive them for, and never will.
The Battle Endures.