An hour ago I came across a photo of a guy I used to know in Westfield, New Jersey, a leafy and well-tended middle-class town that I struggled and suffered in for years before we moved to Wilton, Connecticut. And a couple of musty memories began to seep through.
The Westfield guys I hung with were into sociopathic group sadism as a kind of macho-pecking-order thing — a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Somebody was always getting picked on. It was a kind of hazing ritual, the idea being to put someone’s feet to the fire and see how they’d hold up. Or something like that.
I never understood this damn game, but mockery, isolation and occasional de-pantsing (a gang of guys would literally hold a victim down and pull his pants off and leave him to walk home that way) were par for the course.
Anyway, five or six of us were all crashing in a beach house one weekend, sleeping on side-by-side mattresses in an upstairs rec room of some kind. And I recall waking up around 5 am because a couple of guys had slipped a tray or two of ice cubes inside the sleeping bag of another guy, and when he woke up he was so cold his voice was shuddering…he literally couldn’t speak clearly because he couldn’t stop shaking and trembling. He was standing near the foot of my mattress and berating the assholes who had ice-cubed him. Believe it or not but this kind of thing was par for the course.
After a while I went back to sleep. It was around 8 am when I was awakened with a hot foot — two or three large kitchen matches had been placed between my toes as I slept and then lit. I woke up with a shriek. (Or was it a howl?) I literally levitated off the mattress.
Posted on 2.19.18: The Westfield High School climate was hellish, no question. I suppose on some level it sharpened or toughened my game, but I think I suffered from a kind of PTSD for a couple of years after our family moved to Wilton, Connecticut.
In ’06 I passed along a story of drunken teenage vomiting during a long-ago weekend party at a New Jersey shore vacation home. It belonged to the parents of Barry, a nice-enough guy I knew and occasionally hung with during my mid-teen years when I lived in Westfield, New Jersey. A bunch of us had driven down there and partied without anyone’s parents knowing, especially Barry’s. No girls, no music to speak of — just a lot of beer and ale and vodka and everyone stumbling around.
During this weekend a big, dark-haired guy named Richard Harris had been chosen as the latest victim. He had thrown up on the floor of Barry’s beach home, and so he had to be punished. Much later that night (around 1 am) we found a dead mouse in a mouse trap, so we threw the corpse into a pot of boiling water and put it under the sheets of a bed Harris was sleeping in. He woke up five or ten seconds later and bellowed “get the fuck outta here!”
A half-hour later we went outside and shifted Harris’s Chevrolet into neutral and pushed the car down the neighborhood street about three or four blocks. We were all sitting around the next morning. Harris walked in through the pantry door, glaring like a gladiator and saying “where’s my fucking car?”
Harris’s offense had happened around 10 or 11 pm the night before. I remember he was half-sitting and half-lying on the living-room couch and about to throw up from too much vodka. The movie plays in my head whenever I think back. I was coming down the stairs and Harris was suddenly on his feet and making for the bathroom (or at least the kitchen sink), but he wasn’t fast enough. He put his hand in front of his mouth in a futile, almost touching attempt to prevent the inevitable, and I can still see that torrent of chicken-rice puke spewing out of his mouth and cascading off the palm of his right hand and splattering on the floor and into a black grated-iron floor heater.
A hisssss sound resulted as globs of vomit dripped into the coal-burning furnace. The smell of it filled the house. We all moaned and groaned at the aroma and ran outside to escape it, going “aaahh!” and “oh, Jesus”‘ I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life.
“Suffocation of the Soul“, posted in October 2018:
“My childhood was a gulag experience. So were my teens. Things started to get a little better when I began as a film journalist but my life didn’t really pick up until ’80 or thereabouts. And even then it was constant struggle, struggle, toil and trouble. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn may have lived a tough life but so did I.
I started to feel really badly about life’s possibilities when I seven or eight. The misery seemed to intensify when I turned 11 and 12, but the onset of puberty seemed to make things worse in so many ways. I used to argue with myself about which parent I despised more, as they were awful in their own specific ways. My only encounters with happiness, however brief, came from hanging with certain friends and catching new films at my local theatre (the Westfield Rialto) and on WOR’s Million Dollar Movie or the CBS Late Show when I visited my grandmother, who would always let me stay up as late as I wanted.
My home town of Westfield, New Jersey, was a pleasant enough place, but the social aggression and general bullshit in junior high school meant there was always a taunt and a challenge and some kind of shit going on behind your back. A fairly rancid atmosphere. Everything was awkward or tortured or tedious.
My basic response was to say “fuck this concentration camp and the fucking rules you have to live by or live up to,” and to start living in my own realm, which for me meant the universe of cinema. At age 13 or 14 I got into the habit of taking the bus into Manhattan (a secret mission as my parents wouldn’t let me go alone) and just roaming around Times Square and looking at the various marquees and just soaking it all up. I’d take the bus in the late morning, visit Mecca for three or four hours and get back for dinner by 5 or 6 pm. I paid for these trips with my modest weekly allowance plus a little extra lawn-mowing money.
I used to love the smell of bus exhaust inside those Port Authority parking areas. To me those fumes were the city itself — they smelled like oxygen.
During one of my Saturday visits I got hit on by a middle-aged gay guy. I was walking up 42nd Street and this pudgy, poorly dressed twerp bumped into me (I didn’t realize what was happening at first) and copped a super-quick feel. Then it happened again. Wait…was that the same guy? Then I stopped to look at some posters under a theatre marquee and there he was again, smiling sheepishly. I gave him my best “go fuck yourself” look and bolted on down the street…asshole.
I got hit on by at least five or six gay predators over the next six or seven years. It turned me into a homophobe for a while, but then I decided that I identified with gay guys more than my own middle-class whitebread kin because they were outsider types with non-mainstream ways of thinking and living. I identified with their alienation. Same thing with urban Phillip Roth or Lenny Bruce-styled Jews — their anxious, unsettled attitudes were in synch with my own and vice versa.
And that is who and what I am — a non-gay, non-Jewish, formerly alcoholic WASP who gets the whole alienation thing and who nearly died from feelings of failure and general weltschmerz until I finally got rolling as a New York movie journalist, and then the doors slowly began to open, one after another. And then things got a little better and better, and then they really improved when I began writing my online column in ’98 and especially when Hollywood Elsewhere began in ’04.