BELOW THE WATER LINE
Another friend from those days, one of any
number, was a tall, unique fellow named
Mike Bartholomew. I can't say that much
about him - he was a year older than me,
meaning a different group, a different year,
but he was the one person, of some maturity
above me, who carried me in, accepted me
well, treated me equal. I had come from a small,
nowhere place - I carried my Avenel belongings
with me, as a tortoise with a shell upon its back.
Just stuck, and there forever. Part and parcel.
There are certain people, times and places that
you can't hide, or avoid. They are part of one's
character. I knew that when others saw me they
were probably sometimes puzzled : where's this
guy from, how'd he get those oddball ways, that
attitude, that view. Many of these other kids were
monied, way better-bred, reserved, observant,
right, and polite. It showed - all part of upbringing.
There were professional fathers, businessmen and
lawyers and all that. My father came in like a Class
B peasant, by comparison. Same with my mother.
It's a very strange sensation, as a kid, when you
know you have to introduce, or be seen with, your
parents out of their social class. It was tough. Here
comes an eight-year-old car, rattly and dirtied and
dented, up the road, to visit me. Dutiful son. Crazed
homesick moron. Eating potato salad off a paper plate,
while these other families dined in town. Restaurant
fodder, napkins and real food. Money, Suits. Class.
Around me, my little sisters, noisy chatter, active. My
father and my mother, adamant in their perplexity, simply
representing themselves, their authenticity showing all.
Coarse and gruff. Other kids' parents were all reserve
and polish, fancy duds, nice cars, quaint and beautiful
little sisters and daughters you'd just want to hug for all
that beauty and tenderness. That was money. I was jail,
by comparison. I knew it. Two feet tall in a room filled
with six-footers. I don't know if kid-humiliation is the
right term, but it was close. Don't get me wrong, there
were other kids at the bottom end of the scale with me,
but we never shared notes. Never even shared the very
embarrassment we probably all experienced. Our kind,
by contrast, just laid low, and hoped their parents
wouldn't do a really gross goof-up.
At least we had parents who visited - not all kids did.
The 'visiting' days were few and far between, and usually
connected with something else, but when they came all
the people expecting parents would mill around, out front,
on the little hill and bluff above the main, front building
where the cars would park. It was a chance, in a way, to
see how everyone else lived. It was also extremely
poignant, for me, each time. My own parents and family
did not come every time - the skipped visitations were
horrid - an empty space even if it was always an
uncomfortable space. I'd sit around, watching others, and
thinking of myself, my town, my house and family, what
they'd be doing, or what was going on. I was often homesick,
but just enough to be functional in my near-despair. I can
still almost sit here now and start crying about this crap
again. It's always been tough, and it's been like a fire-tattoo
burned into the innards of my gut always. The poor kids
who had no one to visit them, or were from farther
out-of-state places, they be doing other things or sitting
about; whatever it took to get by. Sometimes one family,
I'd see, through friendship or whatever, would sort of
adopt for the day the other kid, the lonely one, the one
without visitors. They'd drive away in a car and come
back hours later. I never knew where anyone went, but
there were towns and places around, nearby enough,
to make an afternoon. Lunch. Walking. Or just a drive.
Pretty tough to be stuck. I'd watch the other families -
see other guys' sisters and stuff. Watch their dads and
moms, see who looked like who, notice mannerisms and
things. Look at license plates and cars. Anything to keep
that sweet-smelling sweat of despair and anxiety away.
I'd walk out to the barn, maybe the pigs, but there were
always families around - little walks and sight-seeing
excursions around the farm. I'd see, again, kids with
sisters. It was real easy to get attracted to something.
I was a real nut-case, a heart-warmed horror, and still
am. Fool for love and all that. Can't be helped; as bad
as it all is, I'm in love with the world, and just want to
carry it, and everyone in it. To be truthful, all those
wasted years taught me that. That's what I took away
from my seminary training.
Mike Bartholomew was a true talent. He had some
work he did in the art-room, a kind of studio out
behind the indoor basketball gymnasium. He took
me there a few times; I'd watch the plaster he worked
with, see the paintbrushes and things around, and
probably got my scrambled start in art-interest right
there. I don't really remember what sort of art he was
doing, but it was there. He was that kind of guy. Or kid,
really; I've overblown this for years. He was a giant, by
comparison. One year I recall we had a talent show of
sorts - up on stage in the auditorium, kids doing what
they thought they did best. (No, I never did anything).
Mike had a music group - electric guitar, bass drums,
all that. Just like a garage band, I guess. It was all new
stuff to me, and it was just about the time of the Beatles
breakout - which I knew nothing off, in any way, until
one day a guy named Joe Vouglas, in the library, saw me,
with fluffy, shower-hair, just dried outside in the air, and
said I looked like one of those 'Beatles guys.' I said 'huh?'
not knowing. And he pulled out a Life or Look Magazine
and showed me some picture, cover photo or whatever. I
shrugged, 'yeah, I guess.' That was the end of that. Anyway,
Mike had this little band - he called it, by name,
'Laissez Faire' - which meant 'hands-off' in French, he said.
And it sort of did, when I checked, but it was also more
of an economics policy still under some discussion and
assault within the American system. Economics, unfettered
by Government interference. Yeah, good luck with that.
I forget if there was a 'The' in front of the name, like 'The
Laissez Faire', but it didn't matter. Mike's thing, and his
band's, which was a real catch-fire idea, was not just to
roundly play other people's tunes or songs, things you'd
recognize that way - mainly because they stunk, those
tunes. What Mike and his guys would do, and it was kind
of magical - as I remember vividly - was to take an ordinary,
everyday tune - even a jingle or an old song, which he'd
announce by name, or explain ('this is from a butter
commercial', for instance), and they'd then play this souped
up, rock and roll version of it. He had a perfect knack for taking
anything, even 'Rock A Bye Baby', or 'Old MacDonald' and
transforming it into the basic three-chord mad-dash schema of
an early version rock song, 1963 style anyway. He'd whiz his
electric guitar, playing pretty madly, and transform anything
into some crazy-startling listenable and recognizable new song.
I loved it. It was brash and in your face - just like him. At the
other extreme, this same year, we had a kid named, I think,
Paul Mosca, and he, by contrast, sang the most horrible,
drawn-out, over-emoted, endless bullshit version of 'You'll
Never Walk Alone' that I'd ever heard or wish to hear. He was
a short, little kid, way Italian style, a real emoter - and I think
he only lasted one year, and had an older brother in there
with him too. He sang like Paul Anka or someone like that,
on drugs - way drawn out, emotional, filled with cliches of
voice and mannerisms that you just knew he'd practiced
probably a million times at home in front of a mirror or in
front of his own fool family - who probably applauded for a
month straight when Little Pauly was done. The cruddy guy
really thought he was gold. To make matters worse, he got
enough applause somehow to do it all again - a second play
of the same cheap crap! Gag me with a freaking crucifix.
Mike and I would go into one of the sitting rooms - there
was a string of them in a hallway behind the theater
and stage area, and each year-class, Seniors, juniors, etc., had
one of those rooms assigned to their class as a lounge. It was
pretty dopey, and really only the losers went there steadily,
to watch TV no less. That's the extent of leisure afforded.
Phones, remember, still had cords attached, television was
pretty infantile (Hello? And now?), cell phones and computers
didn't exist. Face it, life was dull, except for Fractured Fairy
Tales, and maybe Bullwinkle and Rocky - or Rocket J.
Squirrel, as he was better known. There was an extra room,
for theater stuff, behind the stage, and there was a record
player in there. Mike had a good selection of real jazz
records - John Coltrane, Theolonius Monk, Miles Davis.
The Modern Jazz Quartet. Pretty heady stuff. We'd listen
endlessly on our off-time. At first, truth be told, I hated jazz -
still do to some extent except for the six or eight pieces I
really know. The rest seems aimless, self-indulgent
and often just nervously noisy and without purpose - but
over time this listening and these listening sessions worked it
out for me. There was also a piano in like the atrium of the
connecting passage between the stage and the hallway, I'd
occasionally go plink away at that - but the atrium thing
there was mostly all greenish glass, and the sun beat in always
to make it like a billion degrees, even in Winter. It was really
uncomfortable. But, anyway I felt free. Free enough to move
around. We probably weren't supposed to be doing that stuff,
and some jackass priest or somebody could probably have
bagged us for not praying or moping around, but, hey, what's
the holy life for if not the living, you know?
The other cool thing about Mike, amid all the rest, was that he
always carried around with him, I mean always, in all these
off-hours, a cup of black coffee. He always had, in fact, black
coffee breath, and you feel it and sense it when he talked into
your face, which he most often did. Mike was a good talker.
You could learn just by listening. I don't know how all that
happened, how old he was, or even where he ended up, but he
was really something special to me, and he probably didn't
even know it. He represented the possible 'modern' world,
the one outside, the real place I wanted to dwell. I'm actually
pretty sure, eventually, that I did beat him at that game. I
doubt that he could have outdid me in the eventual approach
and interaction I had with the world around me : urban, NYC,
rich, spoiled, poor, destitute, whatever. I walked it all. One
year Mike had a lead role in a staged version of Huck Finn.
I think he was Jim; Injun Jim, Nigger Jim; I don't know what
they wound up calling him for that role - the usual interdiction
of censorship and fear stepped in and, as with all of this Mark
Twain drivel, took away the real name given and just instead
portrayed this runaway slave guy named Jim, taking care of
Huck, as a sentimental stage fop. But playing Huck, that year,
with Mike as Jim, was another grand and wonderful young-kid
friend of mine, and a real pal for a time. Kirk Hallett. There
wasn't anybody like Kirk at about that time. He was like an
angel, of sorts. Petite, light, small, sweet. He had these really
cool teeth and this hayseed kind of winsome smile and being.
it was pretty captivating, and we got on good. I don't really
remember much else - I guess we shared the same dormitory
in those first two years, maybe not, I can't recall - but I
remember being around with him a lot. Then, once he got
involved in this stage stuff, I lost him. I guess he'd been
picked especially just for the perfect Huck character he
already was. I don't know if he tried out for it, in tandem
with Mike, separate, or whatever. Somehow, that year, I
had absolutely no dealings with the Drama Dept. - which
that year was still fairly traditional. Huck Finn was a
big success, and Kirk was perfect. You wanted to take
that raft ride along with him and Mike (Jim), just to be
witness. Incredible ease and a real open feel of drift. It
was magic. But, for me, that was pretty much the end
of my real specific contact with each of them, sadly.
Mike moved on. And then Kirk moved on, or I did. I
really don't remember. The next year, for myself, I got
involved first with the stage-crew stuff - all those lights
and rigging, and then eventually found myself trying out
for roles. I was Walsingham in one of the silly Shakespeare
'King' plays - Joe Vouglas by that time had played Henry
the something, or the number. Then I got involved with
that John Banko guy - he played the music accompaniment
to some of the plays on the Hammond organ we had in
front of the stage. As 'Accompaniest Understudy', that Fall
I had to sit next to him on the bench and act as the page
turner for the music we read along together, and I was
supposed to be ready to fill in for him if he got sick or
got hit by a truck out front or something. Never happened.
I just sat there turning pages. Boring expectation. Anyway,
if I ever really did have to play for him publicly and in
his stead, I'd have shit my pants. I was truly incompetent.
He was good. More on him later. It's not a good story.
If I had to say what I was doing, in all this, I'd have to
announce that I was living my own 'free' life, or trying
like hell to do so - in the confines. It was like being in
prison but having the mental acuity to say it wasn't and
to see past it all and break out. I absorbed every damn
thing I could, like a mouse raiding cheese. No body really
ever bothered me - there was a 'Vocational Counselor', a
Father Carlton or somebody, I don't remember. He was
always somehow up to ripping me down - talking me
to shreds, sort of disrobing my intentions to show what a
sham they were and I'd become. I knew I didn't want to
be him, that was for sure. It got so bad that (forgive me)
even now I probably get all the names wrong, simply
because they were all the one wrong beast to me. I don't
distinguish too well between beasts, see. Names here
wouldn't matter anyway. One of them, I can't remember
who, one night in the post-dinner two-hour study period
where we were kept in classrooms to study, work, and
read, whoever it was as hall monitor or whatever they
called that police-state ringleader stuff, saw me talking
or something, came in, flopped me over on the desk, and
started flailing away at me with those big chain-beads these
guys wore around their waists as belts and prayer beads,
the part hanging all the way down to their shoes on the
side. They were a good whip-like thing. It may have
even been the same guy I was just talking about. I don't
know. Anyway, I got my whipping in front of everyone.
The stupid fool didn't even actually address what the
fuck was underway, just took whatever was eating at his
pansy ass out on me. I had a notion to kill him, and could
have, if I had an Avenel tool handy, but I didn't. That was
about the last straw for me - I know I was done and
headed way in the other direction. They could have their
Mother of the Savior crap on a platter. Get over it early.
Anybody who'd believe that stuff anyway had to be a
crudball. I would have been their perfect candidate.
Oh yeah. It, after a while, just became a contest of wills.
I almost just stayed around reading Sartre to bug them.
That really got their gourd. This was all going on while
I was still fulfilling the 'role' of dutiful enough seminarian:
going to mass, praying, doing my appointed tasks, staying
nice. And, at the same time, curiously and without anyone
really noticing, I was clawing my way up the ranks of the
little Drama Department too - it was the only place that
made any real sense. They had just gotten in some new
drama coach guy, I forget, might have been Father
Alexander Korff, or something like that - it doesn't
matter. I don't know anything about him except we
clicked. he was kind of New York, kind of Drama-Gay,
in the usual off-broadway manner of things; a wee bit
flamboyant, energetic, brash, willing to turn things over,
run some newer, modern ideas of plays and scenes. Re-wrote
portions of the Passion Play, in which I'd finally landed a
prestigious role. I worked hard at it. It was my ticket out.