May of 1989 found me unemployed and struggling for income. Returning to school was not an option, I’d successfully burned those bridges. As a result, I was scrambling to figure out what was next.
In order to stem the bleeding I took a job delivering pizzas. A job I would prove to be completely inept at, often forgetting parts of orders, letting the pizza slide off the seat while en route to a delivery, or spilling drinks before delivering. To complicate matters I had a crush on one of my co-workers and would often take her with me on deliveries, which meant I was often late returning to the store.
The upside was that I got fed every day and I made some money to subside on. I supplemented this paltry sum by spinning records on Friday and Saturday at a local bar, the Saloon.
The previous year, the bar’s management had become concerned because their weekends were taking on too much of an urban feel and as a result, there was lots of dancing and not merely as much drinking. Since you couldn’t charge per dance, something had to change. I was their solution, keep them dancing but add a little more rock and top 40. In other words…suburbanize things.
Initially, my talents were not appreciated by the existing clientele. Calls of “Your music sucks!” and “This is crap” were heard with some regularity. Security, who were proud of their reputation as enforcers, viewed my efforts at culture change with some amusement. They especially enjoyed it when a group of 30, or so, people staged their own dance party with a boombox across the street from the entrance in protest. Fun times.
The interesting part was that the more I agitated the regulars the more management seemed to appreciate me. It helped that to me the person standing at the bar taping their one hand to the beat, with a drink in the other hand, was every bit as important as those packing the dance floor. I wasn’t afraid of clearing the dance floor as long as it sent people to the bar. Fortuitously, I was able to strike the proper balance before I suffered any physical violence, but it was touch and go for a while.
The lack of physical violence did not extend past me though, As I previously mentioned, the bouncers at the Saloon were proud of their reputation and were ready to add to it at a moment’s notice. Which came in handy because the place enjoyed a bit of a reputation as a “fight or fuck” bar. In other words, if you weren’t hooking up, you were looking for a fight. Sometimes that even extended to the ladies. What can I say? It was the 80’s, we weren’t woke yet.
On more than one occasion I would experience a fight breaking out reminiscent of a scene from a Hollywood western – glasses and chairs thrown, drinks spilled, blood flying…the whole nine yards. I remember one Sunday night, with 40 people in the room, a fight broke out and within minutes literally, everybody in the bar was fighting. Throughout it all, I kept the music playing.
That night the bouncers came out on the losing end. Being a Sunday night, the B team was on deck and they’d been unable to control things. That did not sit well with the A team once they got wind of what happened, the next 2 weeks saw some heightened activity as they worked overtime to re-establish their reputation.
Despite the marginal amount of danger and animosity, I enjoyed the gig. There was no comparable feeling to stringing records together and sending a massively packed dance floor into a frenzy. There was an equally special satisfaction in getting people to react to music that they might not appreciate. This was the vinyl age and so everything was spun by hand.
One of my go-to mixes was coming out of a slow set with Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy, slamming it into the Romantic’s What I Like About You, into the Cure’s Just Like Heaven, and sliding into Experience Unlimited’s Doing The Butt. A mix the crowd never failed to react positively to.
Some of my best memories of the job was after the doors closed. We’d drink while we cleaned, sharing comical anecdotes of the evening sprinkled, with gossip. One of the doormen had a particularly mean streak towards customers, his actions often supplied fodder for the evening’s tales.
The club was below street level and customers would descend a stairway to enter. Depending on how crowded the club was and how cold it was outside, the doorman would set up at the bottom of the stair checking the ID’s of entrants. If this particular doorman didn’t like your ID, he’d look at you, declare it fake, and toss it up the stairs towards the outer door. That would send you scrambling up the stairs, often crowed with people, to retrieve said ID. The victim would be voicing protests that fell on deaf ears the whole time.
For some reason, stories like this and others never ceased to amuse us at the end of the night over drinks with co-workers.
At that time summers in State College were special. The city, overcrowded during the school year, would empty out and those left behind would band together throughout the summer. Wednesday thru Sunday, after the bars closed, you could readily find an after-hours party hosted by the staff of one of the other bars every night.
To this day, I maintain that the feeling of standing on a rooftop with a drink in you hand, half-buzzed, watching the sunrise on a summer morning is virtually unrivaled.
Grammy winning producer Jay Joyce once said to me after we’d both gotten sober that the thing he missed the most was being able to slide into a bar in the middle of the day and spend hours engaged in meaningless activity, without a responsibility in the world. That’s how I feel about sun rises.
I try to replace that feeling by going for early morning runs, and to some extent that works. But ultimately, the sense of purpose ruins it. Coming on the heels of a late-night party gives the moment a sense of frivolousness, as you watch the rest of the world prepare to get things done, you’re just enjoying the moment. Adulthood has a tendency to steal these moments from us, but we should fight to reclaim them when possible.
Between the two jobs, I was maintaining, but I needed something more. Adding to my impetus to get out of State College was my growing collection of city-issued parking tickets. The town was as strict on enforcement as I was laissez-faire on adherence. It didn’t help that across the street from my apartment was a doctor’s office with ample parking. If you parked there outside of business hours they normally wouldn’t give you anything but a warning. Despite the warnings I would park there, forgetting to move my car before they arrived in the morning, resulting in yet another ticket.
By the time I left State College, I racked up around $1500 in parking tickets. It was issue that my father would eventually be forced to address after I left town, but that’s a story for another day.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share a couple more stories from that period – one amusing, the other not so much.
The house I lived in was a three-story building with one apartment on the first floor, and 4 rental rooms on each of the upper two floors. Each room was occupied by one tenet, with a bathroom and a kitchen on each floor and a TV room on the second where we would gather. There were 6 girls living there along with me and another guy.
The girls were all attractive, so my living situation was the envy of many of my friends, who visioned it as a smaller more decrepit version of the Playboy Mansion. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as all us remained on a strictly platonic level throughout my time living there. The reality is nothing removes the mystery of the feminine myth like sharing a living space with 6 of women.
One of my roommates dated Penn State Football players exclusively and that spring she was dating a senior defensive back. This DB was in possession of the rare large screen television, but, since he was preparing for the upcoming NFL draft, he had no need of it, and so he was willing to offer it to us for our TV room with a payment plan of $50 a month for 9 months.
By my calculations, that was an affordable rate and I added into my calculations the factor that he would soon be drafted by an NFL team and as a result, would sign a contract of such enormity that my 50 bucks would be considered immaterial and forgiven. I agreed to the arrangement, paid the first installment, and prepared for the draft.
My prayers were answered when he was drafted in the 6th round by the Cleveland Browns. Not as high as I would have liked, but he was on a team. Things were progressing as planned. I paid him the second installment and wished him luck, confident in my strategy.
Four weeks later he was back in town, having been cut by the Browns. I hadn’t planned for that contingency. I suffered under the illusion that everyone who got drafted made the team. Fortunately for both of us, he managed to latch on with the Colts, surely they wouldn’t cut him. Considering this just a minor setback, I scrapped together another installment and again wished him luck.
I was foiled again, as three weeks later the Colts cut him. I paid another $50 and was buoyed to find out that he’d been offered a spot with a Canadian Football team. At this point I had little faith in my plan and had begun formulating my own plans to beat a hasty retreat.
As a happy ending, he did manage to stick with the CFL team and played with them until 1995. I’d consider that a successful career.
My second story is a little more harrowing.
Through my job at the radio station, I met a guy, we’ll call him Joey, who was slightly older than me and earned his living through the sale of illegal narcotics. We became fast friends due to my love of said narcotics, his generosity, and him being a genuinely good guy.
Despite his chosen profession, he genuinely tried to look out for me in his own way. I remember him asking me one time if I’d ever freebased. Recoiling in horror I answered with an emphatic, “No!”.
“Well let me tell you.” he threateningly told me over a pile of powdered cocaine, “Don’t let me ever hear of you doing such a thing or I’ll beat your ass. I’m serious about this. No matter where you are I will come beat your ass.”
His warning, despite its ironic setting, served to put the fear of God in me. He was a spark plug of a man who’s social awkwardness gave rise to a hair-trigger temper. He never lost his temper with me, but I’d seen it enough with others to know to take him at his word.
As a result, I never once freebased or smoked crack. For that, I owe him a debt of gratitude. His threats stayed with me long after I left State College and throughout the following decade. If I had, I envision him appearing mystically like a degenerate brother of Beetlejuice, prepared to deliver on his promise.
I ignored a lot of advice that was given to me back then, but I forever heeded his words. That didn’t everything with him was benign.
One day during this gainfully unemployed time, he stopped by the house to let me know that he was heading to Philadelphia in the morning to make a pickup and that if I had nothing planned, he’d appreciate my company. Since my calendar was free, I said, “sure”, envisioning a pleasant ride to the city. Little did I know what I was getting into.
When we arrived in Philly, we headed to the non-tourist section of town. It was a section of town that was so poverty and crime-riddled that the police didn’t even venture into, preferring to police from the perimeter.
The distribution method was structured as such, you drove your car down the street populated by pre-teen black males busy advertising and selling their product. When signaled over, a young man would come up to the window and the transaction would take place. It was by nature a chaotic scene – the young men would be openly competing to retain repeat customers while securing new ones – with the number one rules seeming to be, keep moving and don’t get out of the car.
It was terrifying and about to get even more terrifying. I hadn’t been given the full picture of what was about to transpire. We were there to pick up 2 ounces of cocaine, and to discuss the shortage from the last pick up. When our young salesman approached the window, he was given our order and informed that we needed to discuss the previous shortage. He noncommittally motioned us to the curb and headed over to meet us. This did not feel like a positive development to me.
As the negotiations began, I clearly heard my friend tell the young man, “We need to fix this. You want to deal with me and you definitely don’t want Jimmy coming down here over this.”
Nope, things were not developing in a positive direction. Visions of me gunned down in the streets of Philadelphia began to enter my head.
As the young man and my friend conducted their business, I sat in the passenger seat staring directly ahead in abject fear. It’d been a hot day and as a result, the window on my side was down. I nearly jumped out my skin when I heard a “How ya doing”, through the open window.
Slowly turning my head I took in a young wiry black man around 13 years old, he was shirtless, wearing only a pair of baggy jeans with a large revolver stuck in the waistband. He pulled down his mirrored sunglasses revealing what I would call tombstone eyes. I instantly realized that if it came to it, he would just as soon shoot me as talk to me and neither action would leave a lasting impression on him.
“I said how you doing?” he repeated.
Slowly nodding, I responded, “Good. Good. Just out for a drive.”
A response that drew a slight smile from him. He remained kneeling and watching, his hand resting on the window, while my friend and his partner discussed their business. While the tones never elevated to a level where I could hear what was being said, the sense of foreboding never left the air. Those visions of death were coming more and more into focus.
The kid at my window attempted to make awkward small talk, either out of kindness or as a distraction from the ongoing conversation. The small talk was non-threatening but only served to instill in me more fear than if threats had been made. I mean what do you talk about with a gun-carrying half-dressed dope slinger in the middle of a combat zone, while your partner discusses past business discrepancies? The weather felt like inadequate an inadequate subject, and I certainly didn’t want to bring up politics.
After what seemed like an hour, but was probably closer to a couple minutes, the two adjourned their negotiations, both seemly pleased with the outcome. We left with what we came for plus the earlier shortage. As we exited the street, we passed a patrol car parked at the head. Visions of death were now supplemented by visions of prison. In our possession was enough cocaine to earn a multi-year sentence and we still had to get back to State College.
The ride from Philadelphia to State College is about 3 hours – 3 long hours. During that time I saw a trooper behind every curve and each of them was capable of x-ray vision. To me, it felt like we were traveling down the road with one of those popular diamond-shaped signs that read baby on board – except ours read something different.
Of course my fear didn’t keep me from agreeing to sample some of our cargo. One not smart decision compounded by another not smart decision. Miraculously – at least to me, to him, probably old hat – we made it back to town without ending up in the back seat of a state trooper.
That trip left me with a sense of clarity. It was time to get out of dodge and Nashville was looking more and more like the prefered destination.
I heard years later that Joey had gotten caught by the police and as a result, served several years in the penitentiary. It’s a shame, despite his questionable occupation, he was a good guy and a loyal friend.
One time early in our friendship he’d tried to retire from his chosen profession only to be dragged back in because, as he told me with a wry laugh, “Without cocaine he wasn’t quite as handsome to the ladies and his jokes weren’t quite as funny to the fellas.”
We like to pretend that we all have choices and that those choices are all between good and bad. Life has taught me different. For some – due to lack of education, genetics, or birth among other things – the decisions are only between bad and worse.
You may disagree with me, but early lessons like this have instilled in me a there-by-the-grace-of-god-go-I mentality and I never forget how fortunate I have been. As my continuing story will illustrate, things could have always turned out worse then they did. Some weren’t as fortunate.