“The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence.”
— Bruce Springsteen
In the darkness of Ridge Avenue, I would stand there like a rube and let it float up to me, and then through me, like a ghost or the wind or a bullet. The edge of the city early in the morning, the other people huddled there under old blankets, like homeless, sucking the last lame hits out of tiny roaches, I was buzzed on the rare danger of it all: The unusualness of such a 6am street in a neighborhood far from my own. I was a kid. 15.
The recollections have blurred now. They always do. Sometimes it was my mom dropping us off, sometimes it was my friend John’s dad. Sometimes it was my grandfather. Sometimes it became us driving ourselves when 16 came along and the world opened up with the first driver’s license in our crew. However, I believe in the power of closing my eyes even now. That hardscrabble attempt at remembering the way something smelled/ the rims of my nose jammed up with the barrel of a gun/ of the hard metal air of some winter night creeping into dawn, that is something I refuse to let go of.
I don’t care if the memories are accurate. Fuck it. You’ll never know and neither will I. The fact of the matter is that the lay of the land is what I say it was. That’s why I write. To tap into the rotten summer tang of some city trash can I simply walked past once upon a time.
It’s as simple as that.
The years have stolen from me, same as you. But they will cough up a lot of what they’ve taken if you are merciless with your attack. Jack it up against the alley wall. Push its face with your shaking fingers so that you can feel the blood vessels under its eyes pulsating/ ready to pop if you go a little deeper. Mug the mugger, you babies. Take the past and reclaim it as you own, truth be damned.
We are piecing together a lifetime in full retreat here. It’s absurd and horrifying and relentlessly cruel. But also it is gorgeous. And worth its weight in bone and blood let alone the gold most suckers chase.
What I’m telling you here is that I used to stand out there on Ridge Ave. in the early morning, minutes after we had emerged out of some drop-off car, and I was bewitched by the place. By the scene, by the city, by the sense that I could die, violently, with a screwdriver in my neck. Which is bullshit. Looking back now, there were always others. And although they were stoned or maybe drunk or sometimes weighted down with the Dunkin’ Donuts missing from the big box tucked under the lawn chairs they sat in, they were also comrades in a strange unspoken way. In line for concert tickets, waiting for the sun to rise up over the row houses and the diner up the block, we were loosely connected, I think. Or I thought. If someone had slipped out of the Roxborough to take money meant for John Fogerty or Stevie Ray Vaughan from any of us/ I always imagined that the rest would have stood up to the crime. Fat stoners and ratty rockers and cigarette-y moms with barroom tats on their upper tits would unite to protect some long-haired high school punk from certain injustice, wouldn’t they?
I don’t know. I admit that now. I just don’t know. But back then I believed in such things. Back then, I was young and green and I thought that if people liked the same music, the same bands, that if they liked the same legends or the same unknowns, it would surely manifest itself- if pushed in that direction- into taking a goddamn brave stand against even the hardest ruffian, all in the name of rock-n-fucking-roll, man.
I know that was dumb of me to think, let alone expect. My money was probably actually more fair game than I can possibly understand even now. White kid with disposable cash waiting around on the desolate street where the cops couldn’t give a shit if I got in the first ten rows for The Cure or if I got my head blown to sauce by a sawed-off shotgun. In a lot of ways, I was asking for it. The danger was real. The risk was understood even when it wasn’t.
Or was it?
I can’t say.
It’s fuzzy now. But it still feels so thrilling. Climbing out of the warm car, out onto the sidewalk. Breathing it in/ the raw shavings/ the lung-cut air/ my beating heart/ Tunnel of Love tour/ 17 people already in line/ at 5am/ my god.
I light a smoke to look tough. I’m 16 this morning. Or almost. I let Philadelphia come/ I let her move up on me like a night stalker from the gas station lights. Shadows and pockets of absolute blackness. I let Philadelphia come up behind me on a summer morning when I can smell the construction workers unwrapping their lunches/ unwrapping their Italian hoagies in the hot-ass sun/ the radio playing loud/ Thorogood/ Foreigner/ the djs voices: familiar all, like people we know and not just hear.
Those mornings have stayed, you see. They have remained with me. They are plunged deeply into my very existence, I suspect, on the tip of the Rambo knife that never ever came. No mugger ever showed up. No street hustler ever fucked with me beyond the usual shit.
I need 56 cents to get a bus ticket to Camden because my baby is sick there, help me out?
What concert are y’all buying for?
Keith Richards. From The Rolling Stones.
Oh shit. The Rolling Stones? Okay. Alright. Okay. Shit. The Rolling Stones. Big time money. Alright. Yeah.
Then he walks away without saying anything else. Walks up the block away from Camden with the lone dollar I gave him that I pulled out of my Ocean Pacific wallet when no one else gave him anything because everyone ignored him. Walks off into the same humid mystery that I’d watched him come out of not three minutes ago.
Philadelphia coming down like a jet crashing into the houses, tearing apart block after block, ripping people’s heads off their necks as they lay there sleeping right before their alarm clocks go off, the slow crushing flamethrower engines of a novel being written by the invisible stars in this thick summer baby being born everywhere at once.
Philly wrapping her ever-loving arms around me. White boy kid. Her garbage breath in my ear, making me hard for the possibilities of what the city could ever mean. Me standing there smoking a cigarette that my mom had no idea about. Me looking at my friend, looking at my younger brother, as we all watch the dollar bill move away from us forever.
Keith Richards asleep in his bed somewhere out there. I didn’t know where. I still don’t.
The lights changed up by the diner even though there were barely any cars.
I smelled the toasted drift of a stranger’s pot smoke.
It had been in their body just a few seconds ago, swirling around down in their chest, inches from their heart, looking out at the machinery/ at the veins and the muscles and the tendons hanging there in the strange, strange dark.
Now it was up in my face.
Fuck, I thought to myself. I have only just begun to live.
The sun cut itself on a row house rain gutter and the light started bleeding down on us in random slashes of shine and 10am came along after what felt like years and there we were, standing in our funny little line hoping against hope that we could get front row while the dude in the travel agency pumped out the best tickets that he would scalp for cold cash and tucked them away into his briefcase and he was a short dude with a porn mustache and platform boots like a pizza place coke dealer and then, he let us in to sell us shit seats, he would move to the glass door of Andorra Travel with the Visa Card sticker on it and the TWA Airline sticker on it and the Ticketmaster sticker on it and we would shift and fold chairs and jitter and giggle and clear our throats, nervously, awash in the Saturday morning city and it was pure even though we were fucked and that’s how life goes and so we reveled in it all because we were all kinds of young and dumb and high and sleepy and jammed up with doughnuts and it was freezing or it was hot as hell and someone had a boombox and they were playing Tumblin’ Dice as that motherfucker spun the CLOSED sign around to OPEN and unlocked the door and told us to come in one at a time as if he owned the world.
Or maybe he didn’t.
I don’t fucking know anymore.
The other week I go the Verified Fan email for Springsteen tickets. But by then it didn’t matter. I’d heard the stories of the people on the internet. The nightmare scenarios that came up out of the unexpected. Tickets were going for a lot of money. And the process of getting them was chaotic and random and dredged in heartbreak more than hope.
Longtime fans felt gutted.
Longtime fans felt mad.
It was all a lot to process. I still don’t know much about what really went on. I mean, in the end, me and Arle/ we talked about it/ and then we figured out that there was only one possible way to get through this freshly bombed-out city unscathed.
We don’t even try.
So we didn’t. 10am on the morning of the sales for the shows we wanted, it came and went and we weren’t even online. I think I was cutting firewood, sweating burning bug spray from my forehead down into my eyes, when other people/ certain people/ lucky people, maybe/ who also love Bruce and his music were somehow landing the tickets in the pit so they could maybe get up front/ or the seats in the rafters/ or the seats in the back, I guess. Behind the stage. He’ll come back there. He’ll wave at you guys and you will roar. It gives me goosebumps for you.
But fuck you too.
You know what I mean?
It’s nothing personal. Haha.
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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattling around his noggin. Once in a blue Muskie Moon, he backs away from the computer, straps on a guitar and plays some rock ’n’ roll with his brother Dave and their bandmates in Marah.