My Doomsday Diary.
Here's how I spent what was supposed to be our Final Day on Earth. Except for the Happy Ending, I found myself that day fervently hoping the planet would, indeed, split wide open and burn to a cinder. It started with my nephews.
I feel somewhat badly for today's children, mostly because they have been robbed of all the things that I believe should make up childhood.
I've been thinking about this notion this past week because of what happened last Saturday...
I have four nephews, aged 14, 13, 11 and 5. They're great boys, and by that, I mean that I love them very much, not that they're the best behaved. In fact, my nephews have the manners of a pack of wild boars...wild boars with toothaches and hemorrhoids, I mean. They can be a touch ornery and rambunctious, to say the least. Part of this is just The Age; two teenagers, busily exploring the boundaries, pushing every envelope. The two younger ones, naturally, mimic what they've seen the older ones get away with, which is quite a bit as my sister and brother-in-law are a bit lax in the discipline department. When I was their age, if I pulled half the stuff they did -- and got caught -- I'd be on the phone looking for organ donors, just in case I needed them in the aftermath of the truly horrendous beating I was going to get.
Worse, I grew up in a house with my grandparents and my uncle and his family. Stepping out of line -- and getting caught -- meant, potentially, three beatings. Even worse, I went to Catholic school, which meant stepping out of line included a bonus beating from the nuns, then three beatings when you got home. Considering that I was a beastly little swine as a child, I'm amazed that I was able to survive a John McCain-like experience of near-constant physical torture. Fortunately, for me anyway, I seem to have gotten away with just enough to avoid permanent brain damage.
My nephews have, thus far, been spared the experience of a truly epic beating at the hands of their belt-and-wooden-spoon-wielding grandparents, wooden-hanger-wielding mother, and the open-hand buttocks assault of an ex-Marine Uncle, and in today's Catholic schools you couldn't find a Shao-Lin- ruler-wielding nun if your life depended upon it. Besides, they all go to public school, except the oldest, and the Catholic school he attends is generally regarded as 'soft'. I went to grammar school with Dominican Nuns who moonlighted as hand-to-hand combat instructors with the Green Berets, and a high school with Black-belt Christian Brothers, half of whom seemed to be tough Hell's Kitchen Irishmen, and every last one of them claimed to have been a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth.
Suffice to say, short of being raised by the Spanish Inquisition, with alternate weekends at Gestapo Headquarters, very few people know physical discipline like I know physical discipline. Today they'd call this 'child abuse', but back then, it was just what parents did to straighten their kids out when that was necessary.
But, I digress...
Anyways, I had occasion to 'babysit' my nephews, despite the fact that none are babies anymore, but the oldest are certainly too irresponsible to be left to care for the younger two when their parents are away. Their father had pulled a weekend overtime shift. Their mother was dragooned by the Little League they've all played in to do her 'volunteer' service. My mother, a woman whom God certainly sent to annoy the living shit out of every other living being on Planet Earth, came along. Heaven forbid she should have to sit at home and rely upon her own wits to keep herself entertained for a day. It began, predictably enough, with constant complaints about 'the Sciatica', her back hurts, her legs, her knees, her sinuses, and even her fucking ass. It's all an act, by the way, it's all a play for attention because she's sympathy junkie and a drama queen.
This is the First Indication that I'm going to have trouble at some point. But I'll get back to that in a moment. Let's start with the Second Indication that it's going to be One of Those Days.
If there's one thing I really dislike about Modern Kids, it's the silly whining they all engage in about having 'nothing to do.'
Mind you, my nephews live in a house which has FIVE televisions, all with cable access including 150 channels and On-Demand programming up the Wazoo, two DVD players (with an extensive library), a Playstation 3, an X-Box 360, and a Nintendo Wii, each again with an extensive library of games. The garage is simply overflowing with bicycles, skateboards, kick scooters and roller blades, not to mention a bewildering array of portable ramps and rails for them. All my nephews play baseball -- Little League, High School, and Travelling Teams -- so there are enough bats, baseballs, and gloves laying around to equip a Major League Team. The only things missing are Buck and McCarver, chewing tobacco, and Yankee Stadium.
There are two computers in the house, both with internet access. I know they have internet access because guess who installed the cable modem and Wi-Fi router (that would be...Me)? There is a vast array of computer games available, as well, not to mention two or three Nintendo DS consoles. There are enough Lego bricks (the five year old is a Lego junkie who might soon require methadone treatments to wean him off of them) to build a life-size replica of the Manhattan Skyline.
There is a small library of age-and-theme-appropriate literature, and for good measure my sister has stocked the house with all manner of Art Supplies, colored pencils, sketch pads, crayons, markers, paints, and so forth, that would have made Van Gogh lock himself in her basement, and kept him far too busy with it all to even have time to think of cutting his own ear off.
Oh, and the three Big Ones have cell phones, too, and text message Lord Knows Who constantly. She just might be raising a passel of boys with the strongest thumbs on all of Staten Island.
I can understand the five year old complaining "I have nothing to do", because, well...he's five. Five year olds have attention spans measured in RPM's, although, like I said, he's a Lego junkie and when he's in his zone you don't hear a peep out of him for hours at a time.
And the Swimming Pool hasn't even been opened for the season yet. On a good day, my nephews will protest, loudly and in a manner which reminds me of a menstrual girl, if their mother suggests they go outside to play. They've been known to cry about 'how unfair' that is. Did you ever know kids to complain they're being sent outside to play? They'd rather ride their kick scooters IN THE HOUSE, on her marble-and-ceramic-tile floors, and she lets them get away with it.
So, who has 'nothing to do'? Well, the 13 and 14 year old, naturally. They're the biggest pests of all that way. They decide that since there's 'nothing to do' why not engage in a bit of absolute stupidity and build a tree swing?
Now, about this swing. It's my brother-in-law's fault. He decided one day that it would be a good idea to find himself a length of rope, toss it over a high branch on the tree out front of the house -- over 30 feet in the air -- attach the broken seat from an old office chair to it, and then encourage his children to swing from it. Even the Biggest Doofus. There's just two problems with this swing; the first is that once you're on it and gain any sort of momentum, you're swinging out into the street, and since there's about 20' of rope involved, you're swinging 20' out into the street and into traffic. The second problem is because of the peculiar position of the anchor branch, once you begin your 're-entry' from the street, you're likely to crash headlong into the trunk. If you're, say, 14, and weigh about 150 pounds and gather enough momentum to make the swing worth your while, if you hit that tree you're probably doing 20-25 MPH when you make contact.
Considering that the other three launch the 5-year old with enough force to loft the Space Shuttle, he's probably going to hit it at closer to 30 mph, assuming he manages to keep his grip at all.
For that reason specifically -- the five year old must be kept off of this dangerous contraption -- they are forbidden to do this thing without their father being there to supervise, so that they don't get stupid and carried away, and a 911 call has to be made. This Swing-erecting event also leads to the most inhuman arguing and crying you've ever heard over 'who's turn' it is; it's like listening to sorority sisters argue about who gets to use the Big Mirror, and there's no place for me to plug in my curling iron in the common bathroom with 12 other girls already in it. The whole operation is far more trouble than it's worth, if you ask me.
But this is exactly what they want to do, and they keep insisting they have the right -- and permission -- to do it whenever they fucking want to. Except that I know they fucking don't. So, I tell them; No Swing, find something else to do. This pronouncement gets the expected grousing, and unfortunately, no surprise at all, a lot of cursing.
I would have swatted them good for sassing me, but I'm not allowed to touch my sister's children that way. Consequently, neither does she...not until they've reached the point of being in close-to-riot condition. No wonder they push the envelope; there's no consequence for even having the audacity to dare it. Someone should smack them around. I took things from them I wouldn't take from a grown man without insisting he step outside and defend his honor.
The Law has been laid down. No Swing. I go back into the house. The The First Indication is now heard from, and you would think the Gates of Hell had just burst open and poured forth a vast horde of soul-stealing demons, red in tooth and claw, fire and brimstone flowing from their flared nostrils.
A bit about my Mother, first, so that you can get some idea of what's about to happen when I continue this story. My Mother is, without a doubt, the most disagreeable person in this Solar System. She's not a bad woman, she just has some rather strange ideas and an overly-inflated opinion of herself which is totally detached from reality. The first problem she has is that whenever she says something, no matter how stupid, how inane, how inappropriate, how non-topical, insulting, no matter how unasked for, she believes it should be treated as if Moses carried the decree down from the Mountaintop engraved in stone. As soon as the words are uttered, she either expects whatever it she wants to be done right this very second, or that it is to be regarded with the same reverence and respect that we have for the law, worthy of immediate attention and action, and we should all fall to our fucking knees and thank the shit out of her for having graced us with her words of wisdom.
I beg to differ. She was a rotten mother who offered no real guidance, and who's children suffered for her poor choices in husbands, and the bad decisions she made that ruined her life. These required her children to pick up the pieces for her, because that would require effort, and then support her for the last 25 years of her life. She's fortunate that we haven't taken her out into the woods, slathered her in animal fat, and left her there to face the grizzlies alone, or just tossed her off a convenient pier in cinderblock underwear, already.
As if this wasn't annoying enough, this distasteful personality trait is attached to a woman with an anxiety complex so monumental, and a variety of other mental issues of the Poor-Me type (the very worst), that it has kept the best therapist on Staten Island busy for 25 years...with no improvement to date, whatsoever. Which leads me to the question; just who the fuck was it who said she was the best in the first place? Because she's convinced that her every word should be an Imperial command, and because every second that passes between command and action builds up the cycle of anxiety and impatience, and because it all plays into this martyr complex of hers, nothing is ever simple. Everything is a fucking imperative, Earth-shattering emergency that is accompanied by That Sound.
That Sound. Look up the word 'cacophony' in the dictionary. Doesn't even come close to describing it. Imagine it like this: the sound of 4,000 cats being castrated simultaneously with a rusty, unsharpened garden scythe, set against the background noise of a pack of constipated wolves baying at the moon whilst being serenaded by some great locomotive that hasn't had it's moving parts oiled in a couple of centuries moving at high speed, which then tries to come to a screeching halt upon a dime.
That's almost it. But still not quite. You also have to imagine someone pouring table salt into your eyes when you're hearing it.
It's a terrible sound. Hearing it gives one the impression of great shards of jagged glass and ten-penny nails being pounded into your skull. The sweat breaks out on your spine. Your teeth are set on edge as if someone just slit your asshole with a razor blade and then poured lemon juice and Liquid Plumber into the open wound. You'd rather be sucked into a jet engine -- and survive -- than to hear that sound. You'd rather have someone open an umbrella up your ass repeatedly than to listen to it. You'd rather be the sex slave of some Al'Qada dude with a sandpaper and blowtorch fetish. It's a sound I've heard -- even in my sleep -- almost every day of my life for the last 44 years, and the amazing part of it all is that I haven't killed her yet.
MAAAATTTTYYYYYY! Come up here...NOW! Ohmygodohmygodohmygod....Look what that LUNATIC is DOING! STOP THEM!
The Swing is being set up. They can't even get the rope over the branch, and already, it's as if someone has just been struck by lightning, run down by a garbage truck and shot eleven times...all at once. And I absolutely HATE being called "Matty". I'm not a seven year old in short pants and knee fucking socks.
So, I tell them. No swing. Now knock it off. "But we have nothing to do." Bullshit, find something else.
Ten minutes later:
MAAAAATTTTTYYYYYY! LOOK WHAT THESE KIDS ARE DOING! Gooutthereandbreakhisass, goddammit!
Guys, I said Knock It Off. No Swing. Do us all a favor, and don't give that pain in the behind inside another reason to start wailing. I don't want to hear it, and it's pissing me off. Just shut her up and stop, or I'm taking this crap away from you.
Not two minutes later, it starts all over again:
So, I take the rope, the seat, and the garden tools they're using trying to get the damned thing over a 30' high branch. Find something else to do, fellas, because if I have to listen to that woman one more time, someone's getting killed, and it might not be just her.
At this point, the little guys want to go to the schoolyard and ride their scooters. Of course they do; it's only a mile walk, and naturally, the Big Ones don't want to go. I can only imagine what I'm coming back to when these two, naturally, resume their stupidity behind my back and Ye Old Nervous Windbag inside has several hours to witness and endure their nonsense and get progressively more aggravated, frustrated -- and even shriller -- because they ignore her repeated commands to stop it.
I take the Little Guys to the schoolyard, and we have some fun. They get to ride their scooters, they jump around on the playground, we play with a football they've found...and I get hit on by a chick. There's two scifoozas that we run into on the street nearby who talk as if they were taught to whisper in a sawmill, and use language that's...well... 'salty' is an inadequate description. It's even worse than mine.
Scifooza Number One can't stop talking about her boobs. In front of my two young nephews. She's telling Scifooza Number Two that as soon as she gets her "chemical balls" (admission: I have never heard this term before) she's going to get "my tits done", and "finally fucking get myself a fucking husband because all they want is fucking D-cups". Sciffoza One apologizes profusely for using such language in front of My Sons. There not my Sons, they're my Nephews, but it's okay. I'll just tell them to ignore you.
"Do you think my tits are alright, or should I get 'em bigger?" Sciffooza One asks. Scifooza Number Two feigns being flabbergasted. One gets the impression that Number One asks every random man she meets this question, and Number Two is obliged to pretend to be embarrassed, even though she's probably shown her tits to twice as many random men. And she might get paid to do it, too.
"Nah, nothing wrong with what you got. They're just fine."
"You boys are soooo lucky! Your father is such a nice man..."
"He's not my father, he's my uncle."
"He's soooo nice!" I'm now having my shoulders and biceps felt up and pinched as if she were looking for a ripe cantaloupe in the supermarket. She apparently likes my hair, too. I'm about to smack this bitch.
"I'm not married, you know...", She says.
"No? You? Can't imagine why not..."
"You have beautiful sons. I wish I had a son...."
"They're my nephews."
"Really? I thought they were your kids..."
"If you could shut up about your tits for three seconds you would have realized you were told otherwise three times. Maybe that's why you're not married: you can't shut up about your tits, you're pushy, and you don't listen very well."
Number Two finds this uproariously funny. We leave. If I ever wanted the local equivalent of Trailer Trash, I now know exactly where to find it. I wouldn't marry this chick for a Green Card and a mention in her father's will. It took near an hour to reach the schoolyard, if only because the five year old has little legs that don't carry him so fast. Twenty-five minutes after we get there they want to go home. Another hour back. And...
There's the FUCKING SWING...naturally. And a crowd of neighborhood kids all waiting for their turn. Mommy Dearest is apoplectic, and on the verge of having puppies. I figure if she does manage this astounding feat, it ought to look like something out of Aliens, only with fireworks and more gunfire. It's now all my fault that this happened because I was away for three hours doing GOD-KNOWS-WHAT-STUPID-SHIT-YOUR-BROTHER-IN-LAW-IS-AN-ASSHOLE-FOR-SHOWING-THEM-THIS-SHIT-GODDAMMIT-WHERE-IS-YOUR-SISTER-THAT-INCONSIDERATE-BITCH-THEY'RE-DRIVING-ME-INSANE.
And people wonder why I am the way I am? If you had my life...
Anyways, here's what I mean by 'losing their childhood".
In my day, if we were told 'you can't do that', we simply found something else to do. And since we didn't have a billion beeping-and-bright-lights-electronic geegaws, we had to make due with whatever was at hand, and somehow manage to have fun with it. Worse, I grew up in Brooklyn, and there wasn't a front lawn, an open field for miles, or a swimming pool in the back yard. We didn't even have a back yard worth the appellation. In those days, we played a lot of wiffle ball (no one plays wiffle ball anymore), and a ton of stickball. These were games that were pretty cheap, and in which you could improvise equipment if you didn't have any, and play for hours. In winter, we played tackle football -- in the street -- and during the fall, we played tackle football...on the concrete in the schoolyard. Hockey was played year-round, either road hockey or roller hockey, ice hockey being something extremely rare: skates were super expensive (your parents might blow a week's salary on skates then), and the only ice was at Coney Island, which required a death-defying trip on the B or D train, dodging muggers and streakers. We used a roll of electrical tape worn smooth on the sidewalk for a puck. It works remarkably well on the well-worn blacktop of a city street.
Protective equipment, if you could find any, usually consisted of a mish-mash of catcher's gear, baseball gloves, football helmets and shoulder pads, and the simple expedient of stuffing magazines into your socks to serve as shin guards. A hockey stick in those days cost about $10, and that was a ton of money, so no one took slap shots -- the best and easiest way to break a stick on blacktop.
There were exactly seven television channels -- and one of them was PBS. Video games consisted of Pong, and if your family could afford it, you might get lucky and have an Intellivision, Atari -- or the Cadillac of them all -- a Commodore 64 with something like 3 really crappy games. Otherwise, you needed to scrounge quarters to go to the local candy store to play pinball, or maybe Space Invaders or Asteroids. When PacMan came around, kids seriously considered taking up a life of crime to support their habit. You dreamed of the days when you had enough quarters to just play a few games of PacMan AND get an Egg Cream. That was like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to us.
We played a lot of common childhood games: Johnny-on-the-Pony, Red Rover, Stoopball (kind of like baseball, only with 'phantom' runners, where you tossed the rubber ball with all your might against your front steps when you were 'up'). We played handball and basketball in the schoolyard, boxball on the sidewalk (like tennis, using the square sections of the sidewalk as a court). When your rubber Spaulding ball split at the seams (they always did) from all that stick- and boxball, you simply took the two halves and played Halfball (a variant of baseball, played with the half a ball and a short length of thick rubber hose).
When you didn't even have a ball, you played Skelly. In this game, you shoot bottlecaps that have been filled with melted wax around a square 'board' drawn on the sidewalk or street in chalk. If you were really serious about your Skelly, you carved your Skelly Board into the hot asphalt of the street in summer with a screwdriver. Kids got very creative with their carved Skelly boards. Some were really intricate and quite challenging.
We didn't have trees to climb, so we climbed fire escapes and 'laundry ladders'. These were skinny, metal ladders, often 30' or more in height -- and not always anchored very well -- that one found behind most houses or apartment buildings, and to which tenants attached clotheslines from their back windows. Climbing a laundry ladder was usually something you did when playing 'War', in which we ran around the streets and the back-alleys in mock combat with toy guns. Try that today, and the local authorities will drag your kids off to a mental institution, just in case they want to grow up to shoot a Democrat. Any fence was like an open invitation to 'come climb me', and it didn't matter if there was barbed wire or razor wire, or even if it was rusty; we climbed them, especially if there was something 'cool' on the other side...like access to Tar Beach (the roof of an apartment building from where one could launch water balloons, or watch the local girls sunbathe).
Bikes and skateboards were rarities. In the Brooklyn of that time these things were likely to get stolen. At knifepoint. I was mugged at knifepoint, twice, before my thirteenth birthday. Nowadays in Brooklyn, they definitely would be stolen, only you'll receive multiple gunshot wounds and might get your house burnt down just so there's no witnesses to the crime for good measure.
Everyone played with matches. Everyone played with magnifying glasses and anthills. Everyone played with magnifying glasses, anthills, model glue and a can of hairspray. You circled the anthill with the glue, set fire to it with paper and magnifying glass, and when the ants came up to escape, you used the hairspray can like a flamethrower. We knew how to make slingshots, and makeshift crossbows with a piece of two-by-four, a thick rubber band, wood staple and a clothespin.
Disputes between kids were always settled with fisticuffs, or a wrestling match, and three minutes after someone got his ass kicked everyone was friends again. We collected comic books, baseball cards, bottlecaps and Matchbox Cars. We 'flipped' baseball cards, we pitched pennies, we played a lot of catch, Tag, Dodgeball (or a rougher variant, Kill the Man With the Ball), Red Light-Green Light, Ringolerio and Bulldog. We built model airplanes and ships. We knew how to build and repair our own toys, or adapt them to other uses. We did it in the CITY, too, with a lack of open spaces and grass, and with what nowadays would be considered Third-World-level disposable incomes.
In short, we knew how to be BOYS. We never had 'NOTHING TO DO'.
My nephews, for all the love I have for them, would have been lost in that world. They would have been constantly bored because no one would be giving them anything. As it is, they get so bored despite all they have, that they become single-minded of purpose when it comes to a tree swing that even in my day would have given Evel Knievel second thoughts. Now, granted, there's some creativity and a sense of danger involved in that swing, but the point is if we were told 'don't do that', we found something else to do, and we had enough of a store of made-up/improvised games/activities at our disposal that it wasn't difficult.
Nowadays, kids seem incapable of doing this. Try to teach these things to them, and they look at you as if you've just emerged from a spacecraft with three heads, green skin, and antennae. They aren't interested unless there's a flashing light, a large price tag, a beeping sound, or a degree of extraordinary, bound-to-end-in-the-emergency-room danger -- they call these things Extreme Sports nowadays, but in my day, they were simply the things The Stupid Kid Who Always Had a Broken Bone did.
There was a degree of danger in what we did, too, but it was always a calculated danger (kids were smarter then, I think). We knew the limits. An equivalent to this swinging between traffic and a great fucking tree trunk in my day was called 'Skitching'. In Skitching, one either wore roller skates, or did it in winter when the streets would be full of packed snow that you could slide on. You simply grabbed onto the back of a stopped bus or truck, and got low where the driver might not be able to see you easily, and got yourself pulled along as if water skiing. At least until the vehicle stopped, and you didn't...you usually only stopped when you got a face full of back bumper. The worst cases saw the Skitcher eat the bumper and then slide under the now-stopped vehicle, and being too stunned to move, get trapped under a wheel to get themselves run the fuck over. Never did it myself, never wanted to. It was just too stupid and dangerous.
But such was the life -- and the joys -- of a city boy in the 1970's, and amazingly, we did these things with no adult supervision, whatsoever. Makes you wonder just what the hell happened to the world and what happened to the Spirit of Boyhood. These kids today are such pampered, spoiled, over-supervised, whining little pansies who don't get beaten on a regular basis for their misbehavior, and who don't know how -- and who can't be trusted -- to play on their own. And who suffered for it all this fine day? Why... I did.
I'm not even their parent, either.
I had to listen to a Screaming Banshee who turns my insides into a knotted mass, and who could curdle used motor oil with her voice alone. I had to hike two hours to and from a schoolyard I didn't want to go to, and we barely stayed. I was nearly sexually assaulted on the street by a bimbo I wouldn't screw with a stolen penis, and who didn't even have the courtesy to offer me a drink before putting her hands on me. I had my nephews actually tell me to do something anatomically impossible -- twice -- and I'm not allowed to feed them their teeth. When my sister finally gets home, she wants to know why I 'didn't do anything to stop those kids from putting up the swing' and has the nerve to ask me if I'll watch them again the following day.
It's a good thing it was supposed to be Doomsday, and there was a 'We Didn't Die' party later that evening. I managed to play a few other games that night that also don't require flashing lights and electronics, or adult supervision...only adult participation.
That was something else we learned to do in the schoolyard, too.