I entered the Teen Arts Festival one year. Unfortunately, somewhere between filling out the entry form and completing my project, I lost interest. I think the festival people even called my house to find out if I’d be sending them some art when I didn’t on the last day of submission. I wasn’t home, so my mother went into my room and just picked out something that was lying around in there. I’m not even sure if it was the piece I’d intended for the Festival. Possibly. I think she chose a picture of an air-brushed glass I started but never finished. I don’t believe my mother realized it wasn’t finished though and just thought the masking tape still adhered to it was part of the design. Even though it wasn’t very good, they still displayed it up with all the really good art anyway. Seeing my piece next to, what I considered, superior art was a real blow to my ego. And while I did receive a plaque for my effort, I didn’t think I deserved even that much. All at once I felt like I was back in the Special Olympics where, everyone, even that kid throwing a fit out in the parking lot, got a medal. Throughout school my parents pushed me to find something that I liked and could do successfully as a possibly career option. My father had an interest in meteorology—that’s the study of weather and the climate. So one summer we went to Two Guys (remember those chain of stores? They sold basically everything there) and picked up a barometer, a thermometer, a weather vane, and bunch of topographical maps. We attached the weather vane to the side of the house and put the barometer in the shed. Using this basic equipment, we attempted to predict the weather together. Part of the experiment entailed us sitting in the backyard drinking sweat tea while watching the fluid in the barometer fall as a storm approached. Sure it was slow—a bit like watching
paint dry actually. But it also gave me a sense of power knowing I could predict the weather before there was even a cloud in the sky. And in the event of Armageddon, I’d be the only source for a reliable weather forecast. I think my parent’s greatest fear was that, if I didn’t figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I’d end up digging ditches. For obvious reason, and after puberty hit, digging ditches just didn’t have the same WOW factor it did back when my father would take me to construction sites and I’d sit in the dirt for hours watching the men work. I guess I thought heavy equipment and dirt was really cool back then. They are kind of cool, actually. Around the same time, I signed up for Saturday acting classes at school. Mr. Schneider, the drama teacher, was the instructor. My mother was happy I enrolled because acting on the stage was always something she wished she could have done as kid. Even though I’d never acted before, I thought maybe it was something I would be good at. I’d always been a real outgoing and gregarious kid such that cracking jokes, and generally acting a fool to entertain family and friends was part of my daily routine. But after just one acting class, I quickly realized the sort of commitment that was involved in becoming a good actor. Apparently being an actor didn’t simply consist of being a goofball. I knew it meant memorizing lines and being on stage, of course. I just thought maybe I’d grow comfortable with the idea at some point. Unfortunately, whether I was on the football field or on the stage, the fear of potential failure loomed large over me. The first day of class we sat in a circle and went around introducing ourselves. Mr. Schneider then went on to explain how we would be selecting a play and, each week, would pick a different character to read for. I guess learning different roles is sort of like learning all parts of a song—harmony, melody and the bass—you’ll know the play that much better if you know all the parts. The last week of class, we would have to audition for a role in the final performance. Auditioning to me at the time seemed like it would be really hard. I could always spontaneously ham it up in front of friends and family, but didn’t think I could endure 6 week hardcore theatrical training followed by a rigorous auditioning process. Well, I’m sure I’m exaggerating. But rather than find out, I faked going to all remaining classes after that first one. My mother would drop me off in front of the school. I’d get
out, go inside and wander the halls for an hour while class was in session. Then I’d reappear out front to be picked up again. I know it seems stupid to think about today, but I felt really bad about deceiving my mother. Not only because I knew she’d be disappointed, but because I disappointed myself by letting fear spoil my success. In the past I had wrestled, boxed, played football—all things I probably had no business doing. And ironically, the one thing I probably could have done with a degree of competence, I didn’t give even reasonable effort. Part of the reason my mother approved of me enrolling in acting classes was the possibility I might meet motivated kids doing interesting things. But I already had met motivated kids. And we were doing interesting things, I thought. For instance, if Chuck, Kevin, Ralph or Mark required an extra person for a game of Manhunt, I would be there. Or if they needed a lookout so they could launch fireworks at oncoming traffic on interstate 78, they could count on me. If Jeff Lambini needed someone to help polish off the last of his father’s beer behind Benham’s Garage & Service Station, he needn’t look any further. Sure my friends might never have aspired to become great thespians, but neither did I it seemed. Besides, who needed a bunch of fake actor friends anyway? My opinion of actors at the time was that they were a bunch of over-stimulated, self-centered, egomaniacs that would eventual leave for Hollywood anyway. Hmmm? Sounds like this guy in the mirror I eventually came to know. Well, at least I had real friends that liked me for who I was, presumably. Jeff Lambini was a tall lanky kid I knew from school that walked a bit like a duck and kept his hand in his front pocket most of the time. One night we met up when I had stopped at Benham’s to put air in the tire of my bike. I think he worked there but can’t be sure. He had a bag in his hand though and asked me if I cared to follow him behind the station to see what was in it. I was curious so I said okay. I followed him to the back but he kept walking and continued on straight into the woods until we reached the train tracks. He put the bag on the ground and pulled out two six packs of beer. I’d never had beer before, or any alcohol for that matter, so I was interested. He immediate grabbed two bottles and opened them. He handed one to me and began drinking the
other. I took a sip and made the kind of face one might expect one to make when first trying the bitter stuff. Jeff, on the other hand, drank it like an old pro; even lighting up a cigarette at one point. I continued to nurse the beer until he told me to pick up the pace because he needed to get back. I wondered if he meant back to work. Not wanting to appear like prude, I ignored the taste and started taking much healthier gulps of beer. I quickly finished the one in my hand and asked for another. Jeff obliged by reaching into the bag and handing it to me. Again, I drank it with fervor, finishing it at about the same time Jeff was finishing his second. This went on until we’d finished both six packs. I’d probably achieved the level of being buzzed by the second beer and was completely bombed by the forth. After the fifth I’d reached a whole new level of intoxication which left my legs almost completely inoperable. The sixth beer wasn’t even close to ingested, missing my mouth by a wide margin and ending up all over my face and shoulders. Given Jeff’s comfort-level with the stuff from the beginning, it came to no surprise that he appeared to be completely fine. Meanwhile I was rolling around on the ground like an animal. Jeff really wasn’t kidding when he said he had to get back but was kind enough to wait until I vomited at least once before leading us back out of the woods. When we got back to the station Jeff stood in front of me for a second, looked me up and down once; and after asking me if I was okay, thanked me for my company and left me to my devices. At this point I was covered from head to toe with dirt and mud and clearly in no shape to be even in public much less about to be getting on a bicycle to ride home. I gathered myself together anyway and attempted the tricky ride. However, I quickly realized that riding the bike would be out of the question after swerving into traffic a few times before slamming into the curb. So instead of tempting fate I opted to walk it the rest of the way. When I finally got home I was still pretty drunk though and now had to negotiate my father who was sitting on the couch in the living room. And with no good way to practice acting sober beforehand, I just had to wing it.
It was unlike my father to ever not greet anyone ever coming into the house by looking them straight in the face and then asking them to ‘come over here for a second and say hi’. My only hoped was that he’d be too tired for formalities, give me a quick ‘hello’ before letting me pass in peace. Luckily he did that. And after saying hello back, quickly made my way to my room where I collapsed in a heap of filth on the bed. When I wasn’t experimenting with alcohol, I was rolling dice in someone’s kitchen. No, not craps. What do you take me for anyway, a degenerate? I was a teenager. And bunch of us would gather together to play Dungeons & Dragons. Playing with Chuck, Ralph, Kevin and I, was also Mike Vascito and Chris Del Lese. Chris was a huge kid; probably 6’ 3”, 270 pounds and who always seemed to wear the same heavy metal t-shirt to school every day. He’d sometimes do these wild dances by the lockers where his head and body would swing wildly around, letting his long, greasy hair slap hard against anyone standing nearby. And if you took a direct hit to the face, the greasecongealed hair could sting like a cat of nine tails. I think he liked to do it when he thought no one was paying attention. How convenient. Incidentally, I went to my senior prom with Chris’s sister. She had far less grease in her hair. Chuck and I were once detained by the police after convincing Chris to drive us over to the Watchung Reservation in his parent’s car so we could terrorize a group of camping Boy Scout with fireworks we bought in China Town. Even though Chris was basically harmless, his huge size, long hair and generally menacing-looking leather apparel, prompted the cops to pull us all from the car. I’m not sure what Chis said to the officers, but it wasn’t too long before they had him leaning against the car in handcuffs. Mike Vascito would usually be Dungeon Master for our games. I must say, Mike made the perfect dungeon master because he was loud, opinionated and disliked playing with Kevin a good deal. Mike would try to dissuade Kevin from using his Asian warrior characters for his Medieval, English-style missions by killing them off every time he used one—which was generally every time. Everyone knew it was coming. You could just see the frustration on Mike’s face as Kevin rolled the dice to see how much damage a samurai sword would do.
I don’t think Kevin fully appreciated why his characters irritated Mike as they did, because he fought with him over the tiniest things. Like the time our characters were all in the tavern and Kevin made it a point of telling the bar wench that his character didn’t much care for gruel and Ale but rather preferred a helping of General Tso’s chicken and rice instead. Actually, that may have been me that said that during one of our games. In any event, Kevin just wasn’t looking at the big picture. And would unwittingly antagonize Mike every time it was his turn by insisting that his character should have the advantage in that particular battle for x, y, and z reasons. It was rather amusing to hear Kevin go through all the trouble of trying to explain, in great detail, his superior Asian weapons, armor and special fight skills only to be killed in that very same round because Mike simply didn’t give a shit. Eventually everyone would get involved in the dispute and a group fight would start. I really shouldn’t heap all the blame on Kevin for our failures to complete a game without fighting. Because it’s possible I tried to sneak my Hulk character from the Marvel Universe in a few times. But Mike liked playing with me; well, more than he liked playing with Kevin anyway; so he would temporarily suspend judgment of my new addition. But it was inevitable that his steadfast dedication for the rules would ultimately override his generosity such that I’d be violently ejected from the game by a dark elf.