Wednesday, November 30, 2016

I Now Know Why Salmon Swim Upstream

by G. Jack Urso

My dad pulled his rally-red 1973 Plymouth Satellite station wagon to the curb of our home at 42 Norwood Avenue. He checked the odometer and got out.

“Point six of a mile,” he said with a quizzical look. “It’s point six of a mile around the block. How many times do you run around it?”

“Five on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,” I replied. “Ten laps on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

That meant five times around the block was three miles and ten times was six miles.

My dad looked at me with a mix of amazement and mystery, and wondered what was driving me. I was all of 13 years old. It was the summer of 1978.

The Slow Reveal

The old homestead:
42 Norwood Ave. (2011)
Starting off the New Year in 1978, I was a short, chubby, introverted kid. As my parents’ marriage began to implode violently, I found solace in food. While I enjoyed schoolyard games, I wasn’t particularly athletic or particularly intelligent. Looking over my report cards years later, the portrait of a lazy slacker who strove to underachieve emerges. I suppose my one redeeming quality was that I almost never got in fights. At St. Teresa’s, where I attended school, I was too stupid for the smart kids and too smart for the really stupid kids, so I hung out somewhere in-between the mundane and the mediocre. Catholics call it purgatory; everyone else calls it middle school.

The mounting pressures resulted in my failing and having to repeat seventh grade. A humiliating experience magnified by the fact I was the only one to do so in my little school of approximately 150 or so students. There were two sixth, two seventh, and two eighth grade classes, so there was no escaping my failure by being just another face in the crowd.

Nevertheless, after an uneasy start, I fell into a crowd of similar geeks and freaks: Paul, my big nosed Italian gumba; Eugene, the well-off, skinny, blond bespectacled nerd who somehow scored a girlfriend before any of us; Shams, a quiet Indian boy with a wickedly perverted sense of humor; and then Howard and Bernie, a Laurel and Hardy duo who were inseparable.

Once I got over the initial embarrassment, I actually began to excel. Sister Kelly, the kindly reading teacher, let me work on my own in the back left corner of the class. I plowed through the entire year’s curriculum by January so she let me read any of the paperback novels stashed in a bookcase right behind my desk. I spent the next six months reading Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and Verne. My mind exploded with new ideas and I began my first tenuous forays into writing short stories and poems. With my parent's impending divorce, and the misery it was spreading through our family, it provided me with a positive outlet for my angst.

That fall, I also scored in the 98th percentile on a national science exam. It was the highest mark in the school, much to the consternation of my arch-enemy and science teacher Mrs. Stahlman who had written me off as a stupid little kid in remedial reading with absolutely no aptitude for science. I scored better than all her carefully groomed A-list students. The principle announced it over the loud speaker and one could hear the surprise in her voice as she spoke.
Fall 1977 SRA test results: 98th percentile in science.
Yeah, that's right. Suck it Mrs. Stahlman.
Yet, although I was caught up with my own family dysfunction, I became more keenly aware of the travails of my teenage companions. Chubby as I was, Bernie outweighed me by close to 50 pounds. One day, after weathering a withering onslaught of insults about his weight in gym class, I found Bernie crying softly on the bleachers. I didn’t know what to do, so I put my hand on his shoulder for an awkward moment to comfort him. I said nothing. I endured my own share of insults and bullying, as well as the humiliation of my father’s open philandering and my mother’s epic Sicilian meltdowns. The world was too big for us. 

Christmas Break, 1977. This is the picture that inspired me to start jogging.
In January, my dad showed me a picture he took that Christmas  break of 1977. I never really thought about my weight until I saw that picture double chin and a small, but growing, gut. Frankly, I was grossed out. I was about 5 foot 3 inches tall and weighed at least 135 pounds of pure flab. I had no control over my dad’s predilection for cheating on my mom. I had no control over my mother’s hurricane-worthy Sicilian temper. If I had control over anything, however, it was my own body, and this I could control. That evening I went down into the basement family room, dug up my brother’s weights, and began to put together a workout: 200 sit-ups, 100 push-ups, running in place for thirty minutes, and various types of curls and presses with the weights. I had an 8-track of the Kiss album Destroyer, which became the soundtrack to my workout its high-energy beats gave an impetus to my life, at least for the 34-minute running time.

I coupled my workouts with long walks around the neighborhood, ritually pacing up and down the streets in the cold weather. Fifteen-minute walks turned into thirty minutes, then an hour. As my walks grew longer, I began to run into schoolmates I had never hung out with before you know, the cool kids who surprised me by being generally more welcoming than I thought they would be. This included the lovely dark-haired twins, Melissa and Mathia, who, to my adolescent mind, looked like Jacklyn Smith and Kate Jackson in the then-current Charlie’s Angels. Needless to say, my desire to lose weight suddenly developed new goals.

By the end of winter, the needle on the family scale had barely moved down a few pounds, but my drive and determination only grew.

Point Six

I admit, the possibility of running into the twins, who lived in my neighborhood, drew me out on my long walks, but with my weight barely changing I knew more drastic measures had to be taken so I abandoned my long perambulations in favor of jogging. “In favor of” is perhaps not the right word for there is absolutely nothing about jogging that I like. The sweat, the burning lungs, the boredom nothing about the experience I find pleasurable and my first attempts were humiliating.

I recalled a few years previous seeing Joey Allegretti, the college-aged son of our family friends down the street, jogging around the block. Joey always had a few extra pounds packed on, so I figured if he could do it, so could I. I ran the same circuit he did: down Norwood Avenue to Woodlawn Avenue, take a right, run about 200 yards, turn right onto Ontario Street and past my grandparent’s apartment up to the corner where the bank with the digital clock stood, turn right onto New Scotland Avenue for a couple hundred yards then back down Norwood and home. According to my dad, who paced it out with the family station wagon, it was one-sixth of a mile.
My jogging route in the Summer of 1978.
My first attempts were absolutely pitiful. I could barely make it from our house in the middle of the street down to the corner without my lungs nearly bursting from the effort. I would pace around for a few minutes and then run over to the corner of Woodlawn and Ontario to again pace around a few minutes to catch my breath. Then up half the long stretch of Ontario to stop in front of my grandparent’s place, pace around, etc. It took me forever to complete once round the block at that pace.

Eventually, I built up my endurance to do two sides of the circuit around my block before stopping for a breather. Then, one day, fed up with my slow progress, I said “fuck it” and went around the whole block once . . . twice . . . three times . . . and then four until I stopped at five laps! According to the bank’s clock, I ran a lap in about five and a half minutes, and three miles in a little under 35 minutes a snail’s pace, but it was mine, all mine.

My feet pounded mile after mile into the sidewalk that summer. Eventually, I built up my endurance so I could do ten times around the block, a full six miles, in about an hour. My slow, yet determined pace started at 4 pm and ticked away like clockwork. My mother, the Allegrettis, and my grandparents timed my laps and noted with amusement how they all came up with nearly the same times independently. I developed a fan base with the young guys who lived in the apartment on the corner of Woodlawn and Ontario who marveled at how little I sweated in the hot sun, or the boyfriend of the girl who sat out in her bikini and who urged me to play back songs in my head like the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” or the theme from Stars Wars, which he said always helped him keep his own pace up.

That summer, I spent the mornings helping out at a special education program and had a paper route in the afternoon followed my workout and run, so I was busy. Combined with the embarrassment of my family’s very public disintegration, I had good reason to avoid what few friends I had left and generally just disappeared off everyone’s radar.

It was just as well.

And The Hits Just Keep On Coming!

By the time summer was in full swing, I had drawn entirely into myself and my workouts. As the volume of my parent’s arguments increased, I grew more and more silent and barely uttered a word unless I was spoken to. In an effort to increase my weight loss, I began to drastically cut down my daily intake of food to just some toast, diet soda, and a piece of fruit. I immersed myself in my studies, pouring through our set of World Book encyclopedias, continuing my readings in science fiction by raiding my sister’s paperback collection, and getting back issues of Starlog. Joey Allegretti, whose run around the block inspired my own efforts, noted my interest in cosmology and gave me his freshman college astronomy textbook with the solemn promise I would return it. Assuring him I would, I then kept it for over two decades, carrying it with me through high school, college, and apartment after apartment before returning it in near-mint condition in 2001.

As my world seemed to be spinning out of control, I sought more control over myself.

I later learned I was in a full-blown attack of anorexia, an eating disorder where someone continually reduces their food intake, usually in an effort to conform themselves to an impossible to maintain physical standard. In January, I was 135 pounds. By May I was 125 pounds, by June I was 115, and by August 1 I was down to 100 pounds. The weight was practically melting off me during that long, hot summer.

In the midst of all this was my parent’s ongoing divorce war. They finally split up in June with my father moving out to seedy attic apartment. I like to think that his serial adultery was just a mid-life crisis, but if so then he must have been middle-aged for the past 20 years. He was generally a kind-hearted man, but was also quite focused only on his own needs. My mother was a hot-blooded Italian immigrant whose education only went as far as the sixth grade and was terrified of the prospect of having to take care of three kids on her own. They made an intermittent effort to hide their arguments, but it finally came to a head that July. While my dad was visiting, my mother went off on him about his affairs, releasing a string of vulgar invectives. In a furious culmination of the events, my mother ripped open my dad’s shirt, exposing his chest filled with hickey marks a gift from his married girlfriend.

About this time, a police car pulls out in front. No doubt this was in response to a call from one of our neighbors and I can’t say that I blamed them. Growing up on that quiet little street, the only adults I ever heard arguing were my own. My parents were too wrapped up in their own fight to even notice, so I took it upon myself to go out and talk with them. Me, all of 13 years old, was at that moment the most mature person in the room.

I calmly walked out to the cop car and explained that my parents were arguing over my dad’s affairs.

The cops eyed me suspiciously, looking me over from head to toe.

“Hey kid, have they been beating you?” Cop 1, the one sitting closest to me, asked.

“What? No, no of course not,” I protested.

“Take off your shirt,” Cop 1 instructed.

All the neighbors were looking out of their windows at this point. All of them.

“Right here?” I was confused.

“Right here. Go on.” Cop 2 instructed.

It was a hot July day and I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I really didn’t know my rights, so I complied.

“Turn around,” they asked, so they could see if I had strap marks on my back. They found nothing, of course.

Anorexic as I was, I was embarrassed to expose my body like this, but in some strange sense of twisted pride, despite the circumstances, I straightened up. I tightened up my abs and flexed a bit just to be a wise ass to the cops a comic sight considering I had the physique of a stick insect. Hey, if everyone wanted a show, give them a show I thought.

Throughout all of this, shouts from inside the house continued to echo into the street.

“Do you want to talk to them?” I asked, referring to my parents, in a desperate attempt to shift the responsibility for this situation back onto the shoulders of adults.

The cops looked past me towards the chaotic turmoil taking place inside.

“Uh, no thanks. Just tell them to keep it down,” Cop 1 said.

“Yeah, good luck kid,” said Cop 2, and with that they drove off.

Looking back, I realize neither one of them got out of the police car during the entire exchange.

I put my shirt back on and returned to the house just in time to see my mother unleash a barrage of slaps and punches on my dad that drove him from the house backwards as he protected himself from her blows. He then tripped and fell through the plate glass of the outside door on the front porch. He received a cut just above his right kidney and began bleeding profusely.

My sister, only 16 herself, drove my dad to the emergency room, where, in classic dad style, he took the car keys and left her there while he went to see his girlfriend the one he had been cheating with on my mom. I hasten to add that my dad later reformed his ways, settled down, and turned out to be a kind father and good friend. Nevertheless, during the 1970s he was a total dog.

After dad was off to the hospital with my sister, my mother’s mania continued to boil until she exploded. Grabbing a large cleaver, she threatened to kill herself.

Up until this time, my reaction to my parent’s dysfunction was increasing silence and flat emotional responses. Finally, after all this, I showed some emotion. I grabbed the cleaver, slapped my mother, and told her to knock the shit off.

That slap seemed to snap her back to reality. I wish someone would have done the same to me.

Going . . . going . . . gone . . .

By August my weight was down to about 100 pounds. My sister Annmarie, who heretofore had noted my progress with the same kind of detachment most 16 year old girls give their 13 year old brothers, dragged me up to the bathroom and weighed me. Our scale was about five-plus pounds off, so when I weighed in at 105 my sister knew I must have been close to 100.

“Jesus, Jack, you seriously need to eat,” she said with such real concern I was taken aback.

After my parents big blow out, people began to connect my weight loss with the household dysfunction. My grandmother, my father’s mother, busy taking care of my dying grandfather, pulled herself away long enough to notice how she could count my ribs and then took the opportunity to remind my mother at every opportunity that she wasn’t doing a good job. The Allegrettis spoke to my mom, expressing their concern. My parents implored me to stop, but I was unmovable in my conviction.
My father and myself in Lake George, NY, circa August 1978.
Just eight months since that picture from Christmas 1977, my body radically changed.
Finally, my dad spoke to the family doctor who said I was too thin and should I start eating immediately and for some reason that was the trigger. After so many months of hard work I simply stopped running. I began eating with a vengeance and within two weeks I gained about 14 pounds. My mother took me shopping for more modern clothes befitting an American 13 year old. My father took me to his hair stylist who parted my hair in the middle, showed me how to comb and style it, and encouraged my dad to let me start growing it out a little instead of the usual short back and sides. My father also got me new eyeglasses with aviator shaped lenses that turned blue when exposed to the sun classic groovin’ 70’s style.

When I returned to school that fall, my school mates found that chubby old dull-witted Jack was gone. In his place was a thinner, fitter, more confident, and more athletic version of my old self. Even the twins, Melissa and Mathia, took notice. My buddy Paul hooked me up with my first real date a sweet, dark-haired Irish cutie named Caitlin. I joined the school newspaper, which also published my first few attempts at poetry. I became more involved in the Boy Scouts by serving in some minor leadership positions. My dad got me a telescope that Christmas and my obsession with the stars was now complete. 

While the worst was over, I continued to ritually count calorie intake and burn off for years to come. The summer of 1978 sucked, I nearly ran myself to death, but I emerged a survivor and proved my doubters wrong.

I Now Know Why Salmon Swim Upstream

Years later, through high school, college, and my early career, I always found a reason to tramp back to my old stomping grounds. In 1990, a couple years after I graduated college, I moved just two blocks away onto Grove Avenue. I might enjoy a bit of lunch in the park on the upper part of Norwood, or shout a hello to old friends like the Allegrettis or Ashely Bryan (see The Last Conversation). I tried to recreate my epic run from that summer of my youth. I made one lap around, coughed up my lungs, and decided that at 13 years old I must have been either insane or superhuman. 

Even when I moved away, if I found myself driving anywhere remotely near the street, I would divert my journey to go down it.

When I took care of my mother in her final years, I occasionally drove us down the street. A couple times we stopped and walked around a bit. We never spoke about that summer of 1978, my obsessive running, or indeed any of the bad times. We reminisced about the annual Fourth of July picnics or Christmas parties we hosted, the pets we owned, the garden, the tool shed that her father built before he returned to Sicily and was no longer there. We were remembering absences and dreams and hopes unfulfilled.

In the late summer of 2014, just a few days after my mother died, I returned to Norwood Avenue. It was 35 years after my long summer run. I was shocked to see a construction crew milling about newly laid concrete sidewalks all of them on both sides of the street had been replaced. They widened the street by taking off about a foot in diameter around the park. Gone were the handprints of Benji Wright and his sisters which they put in the cement their dad laid down in 1971. Gone were Billy Dober's initials on the walk outside his house. Gone were the last lingering remnants of the peace sign Mary Ann Mazzarella etched into the sidewalk her father laid out in front of their home in 1969 . . . and gone were the sidewalks I pounded mile after mile of frustration and anger into. Gone. All gone. I felt like a veteran who returned to see an old battlefield torn up and replaced with a convenience store. I owned those sidewalks. I earned them through countless hours and effort, and now they were just debris in the landfill.
Over four decades later, despite the sidewalks on Norwood Avenue having been replaced, a careful eye can still find Billy Dober’s initials elsewhere in the neighborhood. Here, on nearby Grove Avenue.
As I ambled around a bit stunned at the loss of “my sidewalks,” I ran into Mr. Allegretti who was washing down his driveway. He and Mrs. Allegretti were now both in their nineties. He struggled for a moment to place my face long hair replaced by a bald pate and a beard nearly all gray.

“Jackie!” He shouted as a flood of memories came back to him.

“Janet! Janet!” He called out to Mrs. Allegretti, bidding her to join us.

We spent about twenty minutes getting caught up. My mother’s passing saddened them, of course. She was yet another old friend they outlived. Their home changed little, and despite the last of their four kids having moved out three decades ago, as well as their advancing years, they had no plans on moving to a smaller, more manageable place.

As I looked at the Allegrettis and their home, I realized what my parent’s divorce cost us all an undercurrent of consistency in an ever-changing world, a chance to build something precious with someone that is all yours.

We spoke about that summer of 1978 and Mr. Allegretti readily remembered my runs around the block and how he timed me. I revealed how watching Joey run around the block inspired me to do the same. Mr. Allegretti took a brief moment to remember and laughed, “That was probably the only time he ever jogged!”

So, one of the great achievements and miseries of my life was inspired by a one-off run. Fuck.

Of my old middle school companions, Paul is now a computer programmer, Eugene went into pharmaceutical sales and died young at 38, Shams became a medical doctor, Howard is now a groundskeeper at a local hospital, and short, fat Bernie grew taller, lost weight, and got his pilot’s license. The twins, I understand, went on to have families of their own. I actually ran into Melissa just a few years ago. I was standing behind her in line while checking out at a supermarket. I hadn’t seen her in decades and wasn’t sure if it was really her I was seeing in profile. She turned, caught my eye, and shared a brief, awkward smile.

I'm sure she had no idea who I was.