There were classes I wanted to take during the school year that my parents wouldn’t agree to, but if I really wanted, I could enroll for them during summer school. I really, really wanted to take them, so I went to summer school every summer until graduation. As a result, instead of the 17.5 credit hours necessary to graduate, I ended up earning 25.
Although I feel sure my parents believed they did the right thing by forcing me to take summer classes for my electives, what they didn’t realize was the influence and the type of students I associated with at summer school. I would never have been exposed to the drugs and alternative lifestyles had I not attended summer school. I spent that summer hanging out on the front steps of Watts Elementary with a group of new friends that I met at summer school.
We smoked pot and talked about life, school, each other. The older guys raced motorcycles from one end of Costello to the other, always heading west toward Watts Street. The street was narrow, two lanes only, and one was always filled with parked cars so in actuality there was only the one open lane. It was suicidal, really, to hit the speeds these guys hit each and every time. Can you guess how fast they went? It wasn’t unusual for them to top 100 mph. If a car had turned onto Costello from Watts, someone would have been killed.
There were swing sets on the campus, but the Board of Education took the swings down when school let out, and there was nothing for kids to do. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, as they say, and we kept busy breaking out windows by throwing rocks. It wasn’t random vandalism. Not at all. We carefully chose, identified, made sure everyone knew exactly which window was to be broken, and then we took turns lobbing rocks from the playground until someone shattered the glass.
Nearby beside a graveyard down on Beech Avenue was a house of students – guys from Thailand who went to Morris Harvey, a private college in town. They always had the best hash and pot. The inside of the house was a living Black Sabbath poster. It was dark, the only illumination black lights. Neon colored black velvet art posters decorated the walls. Music blared from the open windows and wafted up the street at least a block in every direction. When we ran out of pot, a couple of us girls would sashay down to the Thai guys’ house and bum some. They were always generous with us as long as we sat and got high with them for a little while.
That summer, Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” played on the radio, and I didn’t understand what it meant. Tommy explained that the guy in the song dressed up as a woman. I’d never heard of that before, except in Vaudeville acts. He explained this was not like that, but didn’t go into detail. I had no idea what it meant to lose your head while you were giving head, or any of the sexual references whatsoever. Tommy did explain what “Valium would have helped that batch” meant. Sometimes whoever “cooked” the mix added Valium to a batch of speed in order to help with the sudden drop in energy as the drug began to wear off. Drugs, I was coming to understand pretty well, even though my experience was limited to smoking pot or hash.
So the group of teens hung out in front of the school all day that summer, listening to someone’s hand-held transistor radio, talking, sometimes throwing rocks, watching the motorcycle races, generally being bored and hot but it beat sitting at home. This was a new world for me, who’d always been an Upstanding Model Citizen – this world of vandalism and pot smoking, knowing the secret meanings of “then he was a she” and the other code language of rock songs.
One day, someone said it was Tommy’s birthday. I was surprised; I hadn’t known. I asked him about it, and he assured me it wasn’t true. I didn’t believe him. Come to find out years later, his birthday was the end of October so he had told me the truth. But at the time, I thought that day was his birthday, and since I had no money and nothing to give him, I decided I would surprise him later on by hiding in one of the guys’ vans and jumping out to wish him happy birthday. I was pleased with myself to think of it.
So later that afternoon, Tommy sat on the sidewalk and strapped on ankle weights before going someplace for a while. I slipped into the van behind a homemade curtain that separated the front seat from the cargo section, and hid. The driver didn’t know I was there, and neither did Tommy.
Tommy hopped up into the van and away we went. The driver careened at top speed around the hill. I sensed the hard ninety-degree turn onto Watts, then the sharp left onto Price Street. We plummeted down Price past Taylor’s Grocery and I was slung against the side of the van as we turned left on Greendale. It was like riding a roller coaster blindfolded. I loved every minute.
The driver and Tommy made small talk for a few minutes then the conversation turned chilling. He asked where Tommy wanted dropped off, and Tommy said to leave him out at a girl’s house we went to school with. They both laughed in a way that made me feel uncomfortable.
“Is she gonna give you your birthday present?” the driver leered.
“She sure is,” Tommy replied.
The conversation got worse, more graphic, and I had to hold my hands over my mouth to keep from shouting out how angry I was. I was also embarrassed, and hurt, and wished I could just disappear. I could hardly believe my ears, that my sweet boyfriend who never ever stepped out of line, who always respected me and treated me like a queen, could be so disrespectful and think much less speak out loud the words he used to describe this girl and what he planned to do with her.
There was a tiny crack at the top of the curtain, and when the van stopped at a traffic light on Washington Street, I realized it would be stationary for a few moments. I opened the door, jumped out, and ran as fast as I could away from the vehicle. It took the guys a minute to realize what had happened, and by the time it sank in, the light had changed. Drivers in the cars behind the van honked their horns, and the van pulled away.
I ran all the way up the hill till I was almost home. I ended up stopping at my friend Fred’s house, and he immediately invited me inside his basement when he saw my red swollen eyes and face. Fred held me while I cried, and we listened to Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water” album until I eventually drifted off into a troubled sleep.
I never spoke to Tommy Watts again. I can’t remember but I feel sure he called me – he may have even come to my house to try and make amends – but I would have no part of it. Some damage is repairable; some is not. For me, where I was at that point in time, I could no more have forgiven him – or understood – than I could have flown to the moon.
Tommy Watts died at age 47, as I understand it, of a sudden stroke. Rest in peace, Tommy. I do forgive you. I’m not even sure you ever did anything wrong to me, really. So it goes.~~GH
[Tomorrow: The Baptist Preacher, Part One]