Long before I understood what it means to be alive, I felt isolated on leafy streets. At the bus stop in the morning, I would stand there calmly: observant and quiet: a kid with nothing to prove lest someone want to start some shit. I was afraid of most people. I was afraid of other boys because many of them seemed to have a violence about them. And with girls, I could see myself in their liquid eyes. The vibrations of their utter disinterest rolled up through me like trash trucks moving slow down the road on a snowy morning. I didn’t need to see them to know they were out there. And they didn’t need to see me to not care I was up there, waking up, teenage morning wood.
It becomes diligent business, all this under the radar living we do. After a time, even children become aware that somehow they have been missed. Not by the family, per se, or the few friends that they may have, but by the world at large. I began to wake up to trash trucks and high school buses as a middle school kid and I could hear the first traces of a symphony coming in through the cracked May windows. Summer was coming, my heart was high, and yet, there was a sadness.
A persistent melancholy that appeared out of some Little League miasma some late spring evening long ago and never left. It didn’t sweep me up or drag me down like a current or a tide. Instead, it rode shotgun.
Against a Cola Slurpee wind, I pedaled the Mongoose into the path of an iron horse I never saw coming. And the name of the beast was Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band.
I have written about Bruce before. The music. My childhood memories of discovering him. Of meeting him through my own band. Of hearing certain tunes on the radio in 1980 and feeling a light flickering on and off inside of me. Like a Poltergeist. Like a Poltergeist bobbing around on a sea of microwave meatballs down in my kid guts.
What comes now is more of the same, perhaps.
I don’t know.
I don’t really plan these things.
Most of who I am now, at 51 years of age, is all esse. I dabble in the fantasy of everything. I close my eyes in crowds and imagine that I am alone, on a windy prairie, and I am surrounded by rattlesnakes. I like it that way. To be somewhat lost in a wild world appeals to my sense of wanting something I cannot put my finger on. A lifelong penchant for being unfulfilled will lead a lad to drinking. Or writing. Or both, if you play your cards just right.
My nerves are shot but here’s the thing. My machine has flipped and I got a new game/ free of charge/ and I don’t know who to thank for that. Or maybe I did it all myself. Maybe with basic survival comes a bit of rebirth? Maybe with each decade floating neatly away from your animated corpse, there is discovery yet. Age is the great equalizer. Living will kill you before too long. Each backyard bbq is just the opening act for chest pains, man.
We are all on a raft floating down a wide, wide river.
But almost everyone is asleep.
So it comes to me every now and then that I ought to hold a candle up to the things that have mattered to me. Before it’s too late. I don’t want to miss anything, but I have missed almost everything so far. It’s just the way life is. The school bell rings one last time and you don’t really clock the sound. Even if you tried so hard to freeze it in your head, to remember it forever/ even if you record it today on your iPhone on your way down the hall/ 18 years old/ bound for glory/ or bound to die in a car crash/ or bound for a nasty divorce and an Oxycontin addiction/ or bound for a great career in law/ or bound for Penn business school/ or bound for making legendary hoagies in a Delco deli/ or bound for 3 marriages/ or bound for 5 kids/ or bound for cancer and then you’ll beat it and then it will come back and then it will destroy you in the prime of your life/ or bound for 96 years old, smiling at imagined squirrels/ or bound for rock-n-roll stardom/ or YouTube fame/ or bound for a slightly blue existence on the edge of recognition/ never fully seen/ never fully felt/ never fully understood/ never fully aware of what was happening or why.
Down the hall and out the door into an early summer afternoon like a muscle car.
Kids on the edge of adulthood.
Adults walking away and forgetting to look back one last time, forgetting to breathe it all in one last time. I remember laying in my room, listening to Racing in the Street. I was about to graduate high school. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. How can anyone ever know such a thing? What kind of torture is that to put a kid through?
I thought maybe I would be a taxidermist.
I thought maybe I would be a game warden.
I thought maybe I could become a western film star, what with my Eastern European average looks and my tendency to put on weight because I like to eat shit foods. I could be the dirty, sweaty gringo who lives in the middle of nowhere with two women, a wife and a daughter, who both cower in my presence until the day Clint Eastwood shows up and asks me for water and then, in the nick of time, understands that I am reaching for a big ol’ motherfucking revolver down behind the well and that I aim to kill him dead. He shoots me between the eyes. I stand there for a moment/ suspended in air/ black blood snake down my cheek/ the wind whistling/ the women covering their mouths in abject horror but also, they are grateful and glad to be free.
They will clean up nicely, the outlaw thinks, as I crumble to the ground.
Or maybe not, I don’t know.
Maybe I would be in a rock-n-roll band.
Maybe I would do something like that. I had no idea how, but it felt right.
Because Racing in the Street, if it never did anything else at all in this mean old world, what it did do was make me aware that there was a voice on the night breeze. And it was a voice talking to regular people, regular stiffs who had no idea that their lives weren’t bound for poetry someday.
The poetry was now. Happening right now. Right here. Laying in my bed. Rubbing my creepy teenage schlong. Hearing the cop cars burning up Fayette Street in the night as my grandfather snored his beers away in the cold blackness of his air-conditioned room down the hall. The same house my mom had grown up in, there I was. Growing up in it too. With the same people. Still alive. Still struggling to be kind to each other despite the love. Unhinged from the very beginning, I flapped like a scrap of siding as every new wind came along. Pap! Pap! Pap! Muted violence in the night heard blocks away by pretty girls with their windows open and their eyes on the lights of Norristown.
I don’t even know what I’m saying.
But everything that I have known, most of it paled in comparison to Bruce.
And not just Bruce, the guy from Jersey. But Bruce the idea. The notion. Bruce, the ether. Bruce, the cologne. Bruce, the poetry teacher who talks to people in their bedrooms at night. Bruce made out of boardwalk pizza crust. Bruce made out of Philadelphia hoagie wax paper. Bruce standing on a pile of your deepest desires and staring, slack-eyed, into your face and through your face and through all the faces around you as you close your eyes and ignore the arena and the crushing cheers and imagine yourself alone on the prairie surrounded by snakes.
Bruce in 1984. Whispering in the dark. Talking to a teenage kid whose body was boiling with lust and who knew he was invisible. I knew I was blue. I knew I was husky. I knew I could be anything I wanted in life, just as long as I also knew that I could never be that thing for real.
“Hey little girl is your daddy home, did you he go and leave you all alone…”
None of this has ever left me.
I am intertwined with a rock star from a thousand galaxies away.
This idea that I would try to see my life as poetry, or an indie film, or a Springsteen song, as I live it in true, real time, it is, in essence, something ancient, I guess. Mindfulness has been a concept for a jillion years from what I understand, but I can’t be fucked to go Google its origins. It doesn’t really matter either way I guess. Someone somewhere along the line had similar notions to what I have had over the past few years. Notions that propelled me, repeatedly, towards a deeper pondering of consciousness. Not in the name of some kind of patchouli scented long strange trip, mind you, but rather as a vessel for floating down the river of my days.
Instead of the raft in the middle of all the other rafts, most of them occupied by single sleeping human beings, the Walkman at night, back when I was a zitty horndog amateur western movie star laying in my bed, it was an entirely different, and better, way to float downstream, towards whatever ending awaited me.
Understanding that Bruce Springsteen was singing, pretty clearly from Born to Run forward, that our own lives are absolute magnificence in all of their tragic heartbreaking splendor, it didn’t come to me easily at first. But it did come. Night after night. Cassette after cassette.
Tougher Than the Rest.
The Fever from a bootleg from Plastic Fantastic in Ardmore.
Backstreets from Live 1975-85.
These weren’t just songs. These weren’t just words and music swirled up for radio. I mean, they were that, obviously, and they found their audience because they were good at being that. But they were also something more. Something that is rare, I think. Something transcendent, something, dare I say, magical. For in each of the goose-bump moments I began to experience alone in my bottom bunk, from the time I was 11 or 12 and onward, I was being introduced to a much more complex and worthy way of living my life.
Bruce, in his own indirect way, via the song, via the show and the standards to which he held himself, or at least appeared to hold himself to a teenager in the Philly suburbs before the internet. Before the world was cracked open and the yolk of mystery ran out all over the goddamn streets like dead dog’s blood. Before we knew too much, we never knew enough. And down in that hunger, down in that intense desire to understand how something so illuminating could possibly exist, my burning need to press my face hard into the tiny intricate liner notes of my Sam Goody cassette copy of Born in the USA and to feel the cool paper give way to a closeness, to a momentary connection with not just the man himself/ the rock-n-roll star I knew I would never meet/ but also to the magnificence of the realization that I wasn’t just listening to good music anymore.
This was bigger than that.
More monumentally profound, even when other people didn’t get it to the point of making fun of his voice or whatever. Fuck those people. I cut off their heads with swords when I sleep.
Because it was Bruce who showed me, never telling me/ forever showing me (remember that!) that my single mom crying in the car in the mall parking lot because she was so tired from life was directly connected to my baseball coach smoking Kools and never talking about Vietnam (I found out long after) which was directly connected to me and my friends playing baseball with dirty shit gear on broken glass basketball courts which was directly connected to the lonesome anger in my English teacher’s eyes/ the vision of my drunken father who had disappeared one night and never returned/ the girl on the school bus whose basic movements even made me feel like weeping or hurting someone to show her I exist/ the first stage I ever played on, no one in the crowd, a promoter paying us with a case of Budweiser/ the people on the sidewalk when I was up on the El/ the people in their living rooms when I was walking home from the park at dusk/ the lust in my groin/ the empathy in my chest/ the disbelief in my brain/ and the fear running down my skin like summer rain, a kid so scared of life and yet so sure that it was all meant to be so promising, so intended for me somehow.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped my moves and allowed myself to stand and contemplate my own unnoticed reflection. There, in the faces and the names of the stars of the narratives Bruce wrote, I plucked a life force spider thread stretching from the distant sweaty epiphany nights that he and his band became famous for. They were nights I had yet to experience in person, but somewhere out in the middle of all of that, a heavy-set kid from Conshohocken/ a living breathing unhandsome, average child known as Serge Bielanko found himself standing in the gales of a choice.
You can see your life like this, Bruce said to me, or you can forgetabout it and move on, kid. See your life like everyone else. Spend your time longing for the very poetry you were born surrounded by.
The night was so dark. The mosquitos were tapping at the screen. I heard a motorcycle tear up Fayette Street. I heard my own mom laughing at the TV through the downstairs window screens. I pushed play on the Walkman.
I reached out my finger to the night floating by outside.
Bruce stepped out of the darkness on our front porch roof, moved his finger towards mine.
I heard a different woman laughing up the street behind the tap room.
It sounded like she was drunk.
It sounded like all space and time.
Me and Bruce touched fingers and it was just like ET.
Then he turned and flew away, off my roof, into the impenetrable sky, off into the weak light sauce above the Acme, disappearing into nothingness above the Casmar Cafe.
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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 rattlling 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.