West Side Story On Ice

The first time I got drunk was during the Cuban missile crisis, when the TV kept telling us nuclear war might break out at any minute.

The prospect of mass incineration added a special edge to everything that week, but it wasn’t why I’d decided to start drinking. I just figured it was time. I was turning 15, after all.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed when President Kennedy announced that the Russians had backed down and the world wasn’t going to end, at least not yet. The prospect of being vaporized by an atomic bomb was the first excitement to come along in a while, and now that I didn’t have that to look forward to, I figured I might as well keep drinking.

Like most things I tried when I was young, I took it too far. At first it was just me and a couple other 10th graders drinking beer behind the school, laughing and being goofy, but then I stole a pint of whiskey and guzzled it all.

I felt great for about five minutes, and that was the last thing I remembered until I woke up the next morning covered in my own puke. Apparently I’d smashed up a laundromat, then staggered out onto the highway stopping traffic in both directions and challenging drivers to a fight. My friends, sick of babysitting me and afraid of what I’d do next, dragged me home, shoved me in the back door, and ran away.

My parents, though they must have known what I’d been up to, never said a word, and just carried on as though it were a normal Saturday. Which meant I had to go help my dad paint a three-story house, despite being as sick as I’d ever been or (hopefully) ever would be. Perched atop a 20-foot ladder, barely able to keep my eyes open, and fearful that the slightest breeze would send me tumbling to my doom, I contemplated the consequences of my foolishness.

All I knew was that I couldn’t wait to do it again.

So it went. Drinking became a vital part of everything I did, and I surrounded myself with friends who felt the same way. One of the guys I fell in was called, not without reason, Mike the Psych. He was older than the rest of us, not 21 yet, but thanks to his looks, able to buy booze without being carded.

When Mike was 16 he had killed a kid while driving drunk. It weighed on his conscience – he might have been crazy, but he wasn’t heartless – and as he told us, “I had to make sure nothing like that ever happened again.”

The way he saw it, that meant either giving up driving or giving up drinking. He decided it was driving that would have to go. From then on, he mostly hung out and drank in his garage, and we kids were welcome to join him as long as we were willing to listen to his stories.

Mike had one other quirk: after he’d had a few – let’s say a dozen – he’d challenge us to punch him as hard as we could in the stomach so we could see how tough he was. If we hesitated, he’d say, “Look, somebody’s gonna get punched. The only question is whether it’s gonna be me or you.”

None of us was strong enough to faze him. “Is that all you got? I didn’t even feel it,” he’d sneer.

One day he came up with the idea with having someone swing from the rafters and kick him full-on in the stomach. The biggest kid among us landed a solid two-footed kick, sending Mike an inch or two back on his heels, but causing no apparent damage. “You kids are a bunch of wimps,” he groused. “I don’t know why I even hang out with you.”

As we began to get driver’s licenses, we spent less time in Mike’s garage, instead cruising around on our own looking for a store that would sell to us. Attitudes toward alcohol were a lot more relaxed in those days. If the cops caught you, regardless of whether you were on foot or behind the wheel, they’d usually just confiscate your booze and tell you to go home.

The closest I came to real trouble was when one busybody cop, after making us pour almost two cases of beer into the gutter, took our phone numbers and said he was going to call our parents. I hoped he was bluffing, but had a bad feeling he wasn’t. “It’ll go easier if you tell them first, before I call,” he advised us.

Hoping against hope that my family might be out for the evening, I went home to find them all sitting around the kitchen coloring Easter eggs. I’d been a keen Easter egg-colorer in my day, and tried to feign an interest in the colors my baby brother was picking out. Then the phone rang.

Like most families at the time, we had only one phone. It was mounted on the wall next to the kitchen table, which didn’t allow a lot of privacy unless you dragged the receiver onto the stairs that led to the attic and shut the door behind you.

“It’s for me,” I grunted, and did just that.

I was never a theater kid, not even close, but I pulled off the acting job of my life that night. “Yes, my son told me what happened, and you can be sure he’ll be very strictly punished,” I told the cop, adding that I was extremely disappointed in my son. “He’s normally not a bad kid. I think he just got in with a bad crowd.”

You’d be very foolish to think that put a damper on our love for driving around drunk and tossing empties at anything or anybody that annoyed us, but as we got older we started ranging farther afield. One of our main destinations was Toledo, just across the state line in Ohio.

Toledo was a good bit livelier then that it is today, but still not exactly Glamour City. What it did have was a different drinking age: if you were 18 you could drink 3.2% beer. And you didn’t really need to be 18, if you could borrow a friend’s draft card, 16 or 17 was more than enough.

Our first Toledo adventure – and the first time I ever drank in a bar – was also the first time we ever got a gun pulled on us, thanks to some cranky guy who claimed we were sitting in his seat. Then we discovered the Peppermint Lounge, a nightclub that catered mainly to teenagers. Recently I discovered that it regularly played host to the likes of Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Four Seasons, but I honestly never noticed what was going on up on the stage. I was there to drink.

By the time we were 17-going-on-18, we decided we were getting too old for the nightclub scene, so we’d just drive to Toledo, pick up a few cases of beer, and drink them on the way back.

The expressway was still being built, so we took the Dix-Toledo Highway, just plain Dix as it was known in the neighborhood. Near Lincoln Park High, where most of the MC5 went to school, was the corner of Champaign and Dix, which served as the punchline to an unfortunate, tasteless joke that I’ll let you figure out for yourself.

In good weather we could make it to Toledo and back in two hours, but when we decided to make a late night run in January of 1965, we started out in an ice storm and came back in a blizzard. The trip down wasn’t bad, but the snow really set in as left Ohio, and before we were halfway through Monroe County, the visibility was down to about 25 feet. What did we care, though? We had plenty of beer.

Not surprisingly, we had the highway to ourselves. At times I wondered if we were still even on the highway, as it was almost impossible to tell where the pavement left off and the fields began. So at first I was relieved when a car pulled up alongside us, even when it turned out to be full of teenagers who appeared to be just as drunk and stupid as we were.

They began gesturing and yelling at us, and we returned the unpleasantries. This went on for several miles until it was decided by mutual consent that some asses were going to have to be kicked. I swung the wheel sharply to the right, nearly landing us in a ditch. The other car did likewise, the doors flew open, and a full-fledged brawl broke out in a frozen-over cornfield.

It was ridiculous. The snow was flying so fast and thick that you could hardly tell who was on whose side. What’s more, the snow was so slippery that it was like trying to fight on ice skates. Swing at someone and your feet would go flying in the opposite direction; even if your punch landed, you were just as likely as your opponent to wind up on the ground.

Although I’d been hanging out with a gang for quite a few years, this was my first real rumble. I preferred to stick to tough talking and let other, bigger guys do the actual fighting. But I was drunk enough that all fear left me, and I remember having a moment of clarity in the midst of swinging my fists wildly in every direction.

“This is what I always wanted!” I thought. “It’s like West Side Story, only on ice!”

A word of explanation: seeing West Side Story when I was 13 was what made me want to join a gang, but I’d been disappointed to find that gang life consisted mostly of hanging around on corners looking sullen. I saw virtually none of the singing, dancing, and leaping down fire escapes that had seemed so romantic. There were still no fire escapes, and I was too out of breath to sing, but the fighting, helped along by the ice and snow, was the next best thing to a ballet.

It was hard to tell, but I think we won the fight. Nobody had any serious injuries, and it seemed like the other guys ran away first. Very pleased with ourselves, we drank up the rest of the beer on the way home, and when I stumbled up the stairs into my room at two or three in the morning, I was still buzzing with adrenaline and exhilaration.

As I started getting undressed, I discovered a long diagonal slash across the front of my favorite trench coat, a dark iridescent beauty that, if we’re being honest, was not just my favorite, but the best trench coat that ever existed. A similar slash ran through the sweater I was wearing underneath it, as well as my shirt and undershirt.

Then I got down to bare skin, and while you couldn’t really call it a slash, there shallow but distinct scratch following the same line from my upper left chest to my lower right stomach. Apparently I’d been knifed; if it hadn’t been such a cold night and I hadn’t been wearing so many clothes, it might have been quite a bit worse.

If it hadn’t been for the loss of my beloved trench coat, I would have counted the night as a total success. I couldn’t wait to tell the other guys and maybe go out looking for another rumble. I had no way of knowing that the days of the greaser gangs were already fading away, and that soon I’d have to find whole new ways of getting in trouble.

As far as I can recall, that was our last trip to Toledo. I didn’t come back again until the 21st century, when the Weakerthans were playing a club on a shabby strip not far from the scene of our teenage exploits. Some kids at the show, hearing that I had grown up in Downriver Detroit, asked if they could interview me about it for their zine.

We were sitting on some steps having a good conversation when a barrage of gunfire broke out outside a club down the street. People went running in every direction, but I said there was probably nothing to worry about. “It’s a different club, it’s at least a block and a half away, and look, here come the cops already. Why don’t we just sit here and finish the interview?”

But everybody else seemed to think it was time to move on, and they were probably right.

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