Monday, May 20, 2013

Day 21: Green bottled beer, a city shuts down and a wayward requiem for a Coach....

Status: 21 days. Longest it has been without pounding an alcoholic beverage of any kind since (well) probably since I turned 21 or since I quit taking communion at Church (bad, I know). If geometrically configured calendar squares were accumulated years I would be standing outside the liquor store on the morning of July 6th 1998, a freshly minted driver’s license in paw, anticipating flashing the gloss of my identification like an FBI agent and a badge the second I stormed the counter with a six pack of Sam Adam’s Boston Lager—my first legally purchased six pack. I had a fake ID that said I was Korean when I was crashing in New York and  was going through an almost inexplicable Heineken, Beck’s, and Rolling Rock phase—if it wasn’t mass marketed in moss-colored bottles with a piquant skunk aftertaste   it wasn’t deemed worthy socially to swig  by a burgeoning Village bohemian such as myself.

I remember standing in line at the liquor store that day cradling the six pack like a car battery under my arm. I remember that the employee manning the register was of Pakistani descent and he probably would not have carded me anyway had I not slapped the identification card down on the counter in beguiling poker-face ‘read-‘em-and’-weep fashion. I remember how the employee held the Drivers’ license up like a film negative and then handed it back to me seemingly failing to notice that, after twenty-one galactic jaunts around the nearest solar orb that is the sun, I was finally  able to legally purchase and consume insane amounts of alcohol.

The histrionic hymen to adulthood was penetrated if not surpassed.

I went home that day, drowned the six-pack into nautical suds, listened to bootleg acoustic Bob Dylan jam session while waiting to go out that night, wondering how life could possibly get any sweeter than this.  

Physiology: Was reminded of my old self today as I  bivouacked sans blessed beer, (everyone should bivouac sans blessed beer at least once in their lifetime) outside the Owl’s Nest  with my cool neighbor Dan and spritely West Peoria volunteer named Jessica watching as runners en masse herded through the arteries of Peoria in the Inaugural River city Marathon.

The heralding hussar of elite athletes arrived in dripping strides down Western Avenue, hitting the 10 mile mark about an hour after the race convened. The city was dotted in continuous light-Brite constellation of orange and neon cones, volunteers clad in bright-green vests reminiscent of the clueless construction clad Doozers off of Fraggle Rock. The city was still life with a bowl of energy bars stagnant. Traffic was thwarted and tortuously detoured, backwash gridlock found in back alleyways, motorists meandering in acrostic passageways fording their own paths. It was beautiful witnessing the siren cavalcade of police motorcycles serve as a harbinger for the arrival of leading athletes, beautiful witnessing how a trickle of tank tops morphs into a jostling rivulet of staggering hoofs morphs into a competitive creek of hydraulic flesh morphs into a stream of joggers, some   scurrying in tutu's and tumbleweed fashion, not yet to the half-way mark of their 26.2 mile jaunt of personal greatness. The grit and tenacity of runners past fifty wending their way through the labyrinth of different neighborhoods, smiling, cheering, clapping, espying my friend and surrogate mom  Diane Hollister  erupting in a flush of applause.

The first half of my life I was an athlete. I ran seventy miles a week, my coltish limbs kicking a blurred cycle of motion beneath my torso as both my arms formed tight right angles gliding into a steady sprint, coursing the curtain call of my puberty and early-adolescence in a weighted series of quickly snapped footsteps and exhaled pants as I jetted across the topography of my youth in a steady gallop of limbs and arms skiing past the grandiose thick eye-lash windexed houses of Moss Avenue, residue from a bootleg era, sprinting around the coiffed perimeter of Madison golf course careful to avoid the lumbering silhouettes of late-middle aged golfers lugging their stalks of clubs like a fresh kill. I ran circles around the affluent timed sprinkler lawns of West Peoria, each street guarded with a sentinel of mini-vans and the chiropractic spines of basketball hoops. I ran through the gangsta-graffiti'd flotsam and jetsam of the south side, unaware that the thirty seconds it took to dip down the hilly gravel slope of either Western or Ligonier served as a sociological fissure, an arbiter of class and status discerning if you would make it in this world or if not. I ran through the leafy foliage of Bradley park, the golden timeless leaves in autumn breezing behind the back heel of my stride in a flurry of wisped crunches, across the Chinese bridge, the cratered amphitheater barren of it's summer stock tent come the genesis of fall, when high-school students don jerseys and flimsy shorts and cleats after class and take to the hard soil of the earth, a herd of athletes all running cross-country, all roving their feet over the scalp of the planet, accumulating the velocity to push harder, to run faster to quash the blinking hyphenated digits of the clock at the finish line: to pour out simply what is inside of you and find out what is left.

And then pour that out too in a draught of sacrifice and sweat.

My father ran for leisure, noncompetively. He ran everyday after standing in front of fourth graders. He boasted a waddle to his run and always ran with a demure smile sketched into his face. When I was real young I would run with my father. I remember my father pretending to have invisible buttons on the top of his curved fist he would press, making jet engine thruster sounds, claiming that they were accelerators and could make him run faster near the end of the finish line. One of the joys of my dad (as my sister Jenn pointed out in his eulogy) was that, near the end of the finish line when we were young and he would run with us, he would always let his young kids take the lead and finish ahead of him.

An emotional memory for me was dad, telling his eight year old son during the half-way point turn around of their four mile route was that, "Every step after this gets you a little bit closer to home, son. Just a little bit closer to home."

Running was deeply seeped in the blood type of our family genes. Our summer weekends were monopolized chartering the family station wagon wending our way through the arteries of Illinois highways hitting up a variety of mid-summer festival road races peppered across the state, accompanied usually with my Aunt and Uncle and their four slim tanned daughters--all boobless and lanky and all runners. My Uncle ran marathons and was a beast in local 5k's. I can remember running my first four mile race when I was in second grade. By the time I was ten I could run a six minute mile. By the time I graduated from eighth grade I was on the verge of breaking the junior high elusive five minute mile and was the second fastest miler in the state for my age.

I played baseball and Tennis during the summer. Laced up cleats and swatted around a soccer ball employing only the symmetry of the lower portion of my body in the spring and fall. Stayed late after school and worked on draining my free throws in the winter. But it was running where I had my gift. It would be the twin stems of my legs that would ferry me into the future as an athlete. The bone and tissue and muscle of my interior leg and thighs served as my promising rod and staff into a heralding future of promise. The crack of my ankles in the early morning--the rote machinery of my torso, the lapsed rhythm of my breath, the feeling of sweat trickling down my brow--the feeling of pushing yourself past a interior-manacled barrier of what you thought was impossible.
I met Coach Ricca the summer of 1992. I had just graduated from eighth grade. My individual mile time averaged out near the low five minute single digit area code. I ran three times a day. A three mile skid in the morning. A vigorous hill workout under the hammer of midday sun at noon. And a pleasant 4-6 mile trod at night. I kept tallies of my daily workout evaluations, performed squats and dips in my bedroom to the music of Guns-n-roses and Nirvana, plastered note cards heralding never give up maxims all over my bedroom wall. I can still remember how the earth felt that summer and spring. Can still remember the grainy taste of caffeine splashed inside my lips, trying to be more adult and not scowl at the then revolting taste. I remember the the cool melody of the sky at 5:30 in the morning when pastel shades of light pink drip into a morning haze of copper in the east when street lamps fizzle into a pre-dawn hush as I kicked my way into the future scaling the latitude and longitude of the city that had reared me for the first decade and a half of my life. It was the summer of the '92 Barcelona Olympics. I pushed myself harder. Poetically plotted how I would seduce fellow precocious Olympian Kim Zemeskal (it was hard to write a poem that rhymes with her last name). I mapped out a trajectory of personal goals set for myself over the next four years; how I would be damned if I wasn't a world class athlete. If I wasn't employing the calcium of my bones to their optimal capacity I simply did not wish to be.

At night I capitulated to the caps of both my knees, the dual bony knobs functioning as joints for the plants of my legs; the vessels that would ferry me in my quest for glory. I prayed with the fervor of saints angels that my own biased waspish variation of a God would assist the fuck out of me.

It was that summer I met Coach Ricca.

Coach Ricca was hollow-cheeked gaunt-eyed with a searing look of a gladiator stowed in the pockets of his eyelids. A buzzed shock of red hair adorned his scalp like a skullcap. He was a vessel of optimal health and a dominating competitor. While in his late-30's he could easily average five minutes per mile over the discourse of a 15k. I had spotted this athletic titan twice, pedaling his arms and legs in inimitable stance, the chug of his elbows in metric tandem with the smooth lapping rhythmic sway of each foot gave him the appearance of a spiky-haired human sail gliding into a dazzled sprint across a cement pond of the earth leading a herd of numerical tank-top frenzied long distant road runners through the shuttle of the finish line. He taught geometry and calculus at the south side high school I was to attend and he coached the sport in which I was expected to excel.

He was Coach.

That summer I continued to push myself into an envelope of sweat and grind. When I formally met Coach (at a cross country picnic in the park that will forever be branded "the woods between the worlds" in the ardor of my poetic psyche) his hand extended in my direction like a military salute. Thin-lipped and sincere. A man of his word and stature, he welcomed me into the cadre of athletes sporting crew cuts and knee-length shorts. There was all-state swimmer and ripped abdomen Joe Lontelli. There was straw-headed lanky strut of Hans Peacock, Gabino Andretti, his Spanish hair matted back a la pompadour sans the resurgence of a scarlet cape or bull as we kicked it before practice in his pimped out ghetto-crafted late seventies Buick, the front of which was rigged so that the hood would nod in thumped syncopation with the massive sub-woofers potted in the trunk. Together we kicked it, blaring the street soliloquies of House of Pain and Cypress Hill, waiting for our fellow teammates to arrive in the copper-haze of dawn when the athletes would form a circle of bodies and perform rote calve and thigh stretches, massaging out the aches and swells of our legs before breaking out into a lithe cantor and then strutting our limbs into a working steady pace, our heads bobbing with sweat and motion like human-sized pistons as we scaled the perimeter of Madison golf course.

There was demure-eyed Jose Martinez, the needled hair Mexican senior captain on the varsity squad whose countenance availed a gentle smile and reassuring nod at the fledgling underclassman pushing themselves through the swelter of a mid-august fifteen K, where Coach Ricca could oft be found running stride per stride with the leaders of our corporeal train of accelerating hoofs and akimbo limbs, glancing down in to the whiteness of his wrist feeding us our mile split, offering insight into the posture of our arms, correcting the rhythmic intonation of our breath, telling us when to conserve our energy and when to kick deep, mining the dregs of tenacity and endurance left inside of your flesh, as both your upper and lower apparatus spume into a windmill accelerating yourself over the wet morning dew of the earth, in search of nothing short of a finish line and a few deep swallowed breaths of stilted air thereafter.

More than any other high school sport, cross-country focuses acutely both on the individual's sole performance as well as the performance of the team overall. Untanned limbs of flesh lined up across the white hyphen of the starting line like a sentence of bodies about ready disarm it’s formation of meaning, splitting into a sprint of individual shaped letters at the sound of the starting gun. The better the performance of the higher ranking of the team, yet of the eight man varsity squad, if one runner has a bad race or is lagging behind, the team as a functioning unit suffers a deduction in points.

Over half my lifetime ago, in the late July, early august sweltering heat of 1992, cross country was my whole life. I sat on the oak canvas of what would two years later serve as the desk where I would compose my first poems looking out the white square of my bedroom window absorbed by the aching shades of copper dwindling into light lavender sprinkled with autumn dusk, contemplating my future, contemplating what lay ahead, listening to the Cure's WISH (wishing impossible things), reflecting on the interior wetness a first kiss yields on the anatomy of an adolescence when your body bends behind the tinty shells of your eyelids as you experience the awkward cut opening of your mouth in hers--if only for a filched second of eternity.

The lazy-eye river town where I have exhaled the bulk of my existence is called Peoria; the genital wart of the Midwest--a discourse in paralysis; a hushed lipped boot-legging hymn to working class stagnation and wizened wished-for dreams. The high school where I attended was less of a melting pot and more of a multicultural mold-inflicted burrito--a few french fries short of an academic happy meal. My sophomore year Manual high boasted the lowest I-SAT scores in the state and the highest teen-age pregnancy rate in the nation. By my senior year they had a "Bring yer kid to school day." No shit.

Looking back fifteen years ago, I realize that the disintegration of our team was spawned by social gravity (thinking of the bleach blond uppity twats from Richwoods high, on the opulent north side of town). That a kid, an athlete, a loner, a drifter, a fucking dreamer, functions differently, sprouts differently, develops differently, grows differently depending on the social-soil from which his seed of individuality has been planted.

I remember Gabino's 14 year old girlfriend coming to me freshman year telling me that she and her boy friend had just broken up and she was three months pregnant and didn't know what to do. There was gang activity, fights in the hallway, manipulation of grades for athletes who played more recognizable sports such as football or basketball. there was our corpulent principal's bobble-headed nod that Manual was the best kept secret in the state and that everything was fine.

There was watching Hans Peacock get booted from the team for attending a local protest. The sad sighting of Jose, the former captain, in early February, overweight and with dreadlocks, dropping out of school, informing me that his high school girlfriend was pregnant and that he was working full time shit jobs to support her.

Coach Ricca never lost his equipoise, his expectations, his resilience or his underlying adamant belief in his students that they could make something of themselves. His belief in his athletes to overcome, to achieve, to give what they could of their bodies, both mentally and physically of themselves for the body of the team, for the colors of the Institution they represented.

There was my own inner demons and foibles flooded with typical teen angst riddled attention salivating late-night masochism. The interior of my rattled nervous system was coursing with more anti-depressant pills than the mawkish-eyed audience at a Morrissey convert. There was introspection and solipsism and the salty taste of tears skiing down the contours of your face at night, wondering if perhaps, the experiment of my adolescence and of my life was botched from the outset and that I had somehow failed.

(Too many kids deal with this shit, and where do they go, when they are naked and drunk and can't find someone to hold them?)


In running too, I felt like a failure. Despite achieving respectable times, I slogged through Freshman year on a stress fracture inflicted on my right leg. Sophomore year the bone-fissure appeared on the opposite left leg. A year later I bowed out of the thrice a day routine work-outs hoping that lighter workouts would mean less injuries. I completed the season without the breach in my femur but sadly my times remained stagnant, unchanged. The inability to watch my dreams of being an accomplished long-distance athlete timely actuate themselves during the static discourse of those four post-pubescent emotionally addled years of high school, where so my individual development somehow gestates, creating the present day creature you become.

There was my father not knowing what to do with his beret-wearing clove cigarette dangling son, a copy of ON the Road or LEAVES OF GRASS perennially tucked under the pit of my arm like a fallen army flag cosigning parental defeat.

Gradually the realization that I wouldn't get any faster. Gradually the realization that running would not be in my future and that I had failed. By senior year, despite coach Ricca's one-on-one's and his encouragement, his stops at the house to talk to me and his unflinching belief that if I chose so, this would be my year, despite the fact that it would be my third year in a row of being captain of the Varsity squad, I didn't even go out for the team.

My career and dreams of becoming an athlete had completely calloused my ability that I would ever make anything of myself. Sporadically I started scraping up the white sand of the page at night with little inky-tears, hoping that maybe, through scribbling and shoveling around the dunes of my emotional mitigating self-worth viable human archeology, I would unearth just what was inside of me and somehow (hopefully) understand the perpetual pain and joys of the ever pulsating world around me.

It's been about 13 years and every time I pick up that shovel and start scribbling out what's left inside of me, I'm astounded as fuck by what (and more imperatively who) I find deeply stowed beneath the porcelain flesh of the page.

My late father taught me a lot about sports. In baseball he taught me never to strike out without first swinging the bat as hard as I fucking could. To never "strike out looking." In running ( and in life) he taught me to always cross the finish line with my head down as if in prayer and with my body astride in full sprint. Regardless of any sport I would play, regardless if the season was seeped in the caterwaul of glory or dotted in a string of agony and ill-timed losses my father vehemently insisted that after the last game of every season--after the final strike was called and the last time out transpired, Dad would tell me to simply go up to the coach, extend my palm and thank him for his time and mentorship.

My cross country career was punctuated in cowardice. I never thanked Coach for the hours we spent together, a galloping rehearsal of my pending road race through the sometimes lonely cross-country hills and arduous up-hill mile-splits of life. I never thanked him for the constant reassurances and gruff chin nods and attaboys. The shrill of the bell senior year was accompanied by interior psychiatric drug-hazed musings on how I might reach the next classroom without skirting past coach Ricca in the hallway.

Well Mr. Ricca, it's been well over a decade but here's me stretching out my appreciative palm teeming with nothing short of life changing gratitude and thanks in your direction.

The author, far right, w. Coach, circa '95 w. the body I'll get back after all these beers...

Thank you


After watching the marathon Sunday morning I went home cuddled up in the A/c while reading my New York Times. I crashed for about three hours and found myself awake, doffing a pair of shorts, inexplicably knotting up a pair of sneakers taking off from the port of my back steps in long calculated strides, not sure exactly where it was I going, just knowing, after all this time, I needed to run again.

I ran past the cemetary where the cops found me passed out two years' past. I ran through Bradley park and past Sully's grave in St. Josephs. I felt like a waddling Clydesdale but I didn't care. I continued to put one foot in front of the other in tandem tempo occasaionally thinking about my late-father's mantra, how every step sometimes brings you closer to home.

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