I am writing this on my birthday. My wife Maggie and children bring me hand-painted birthday cards in bed, the squeals and screeches bouncing off walls, and my eldest leading the way, a long-haired pied piper blowing sweet random notes on a recorder. Maggie places a hot-cooked breakfast on the bedspread over my lap.
Nothing in the world could be more beautiful. Nothing.
The flu (and lingering long COVID-19) has invaded my body the last several weeks, exasperating the usual sadnesses. Spent the last days in feverish recall, curled in darkness, of scenes I’d forgotten growing up on Tucson’s east side.
Seventh grade, the kid I called Five Eye because he wore the thickest damn glasses, and because he pushed the heavy frames up, a perpetual welt appeared at the top of his nose that never healed. I forgot his actual name, but Five Eye stuck.
Five Eye was one the first kids I’d ever met who didn’t have a father, none anywhere. The sharp-limbed boy with short bushy hair was probably the smartest kid in school, looked the part, so boredom wired his brain to reckless impulse. To most he was a wise-ass little punk, but he was my friend. He taught me how to ditch school, how to call in like a parent. He suffered teacher heat daily. One day he’d plug sinks and flood the girl’s bathroom, another figured how to pick locks and break into lockers. Got caught sneaking money from a teacher’s purse. Once he broke into the school’s administration office, rifled through the student records in cabinets and lifted mine and his. These files contained our academic history, the important tests and teacher comments all through our school years up to 7th grade. In the desert beyond the schoolyard fence, we rifled through them, laughed and tossed them all to the desert, score by score, sheet by sheet. I remember my heart hurting secretly, my third-grade writing and math scrawls blown into the creosote and prickly pear, scraps meant for a system, but not my eyes. I would walk that way to school daily, and see pieces of those files stuck along the desert path until they were yellowed and faded and, finally, gone. A history already streaked with sadness, assuring only uncensored emotions. Turned out the academic records were hardly needed.
Five Eye didn’t last long, vanished during middle school. That day he cleaned out his locker was the only time I ever saw him ruffled, the only time he didn’t wear the shit-eating grin. The skin around his eyes crimson from crying, and his luck had run out. His disconsolate mother waiting several feet away alongside the school principal. He was gone, down some juvi rabbit hole, a place far more disciplined, and sad. You don’t stay in touch with friends at that age, you are unable to articulate a sense of loss in the moment; you experience the aching but act with a reasoning you’ll likely never understand. Man, I saw Five Eye today, I’d tell him he deserved better, a chance to lift himself up and out.
On my racing bike at 6 a.m., still dark outside, 50 miles, maybe a ride up Mount Lemmon before 8th-grade homeroom, for which I’d show up late, always, floating on some high I couldn’t name. Endorphins were my first drug. Sometimes I’d train in groups of racers or with my older brother Barry and our bud Alan “Box” Fischer, the two who got me into road bike racing when I was 11. I once got hit by a car in front of the middle-school during an hour when I should’ve been inside that school. I came to in the nurse’s office, her hazy face looking down on mine. My concussion turned parental wrath into a rare show of sympathy.
By 8th grade I’d think, dream, fantasize bicycle racing. I was always the youngest kid on a racing bike, armed with a mad capacity to suffer. By 15 I was dropping 25-year-olds in races up and down mountains, winning in California, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, Texas and even Mexico.
You could get beat up for certain things then. Fellow students just seemed malicious, others were bullies keen to rip out hearts. Some kids discovered I shaved my legs (for cycling), or my punk rock, so school was a smorgasbord of negatives and abject friendlessness. I resigned myself to the opinions of others. Another easy laughingstock, like the kid who still pissed his pants.
One time I ran away from home, took my bike and hitchhiked up to Phoenix to stay with an older bike-racing friend. I only wanted to race. It was traumatic for any number of reasons, but mostly because I got picked up by an old guy with a paternal face driving a camper pickup. Felt safe, but creepiness soon rose: In the cab he kept a stack of porn mags, not Penthouse, but queasy hardcore insertion shit I’d never seen before. He kept a toothpick balanced in his disgusting mouth. As he drove up from Tucson to Phoenix, he queried me about fucking, slowly got around to his interest in girls and boys. He dumped me off untouched with my bag and bike beyond Phoenix, beyond where I asked to be dropped, and I was terrified. Nowhere near a phone booth, and I thank the universe now I was tall and male and could get away. I rode my custom-made Gilmore pro racing bike along the I-10 freeway, balancing my one bag in an arm, screaming and weeping at the world. (You have no idea the challenge of balancing a bike on an interstate, the speeding truckers, and shock of cars, the whipping wind, flying rocks, the humiliation).
Got to a phone and my friend in Tempe, and his mother called my parents, told them where I was.
I saw my dad at a bike race the following weekend. He came to pick me up and I went home with him. He didn’t scream at me. It was difficult silence, his thick hair on his strong arms catching the sun, talk radio masking any inability to say anything. Only many years later could I even imagine the kind of quiet pain festering inside his heart.
At home my parents took a different tact, and it sounded like someone else’s advice. There was no screaming, no hitting. They said I could do what I want, quit high school even. I was shocked. As a parent now, I am still shocked. Soon they separated.
I got named to the Junior National Cycling Team, lived on and off at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Streaked hallways of women’s dorms with a future Tour De France winner. Got called punk-rock jerk by the older Olympian dudes. It was Bad News Bears. I got booted from the training center with my older teammate pal, Alexi Grewal, the lithesome son of a crazed Punjabi immigrant. But we were too good, we had to be asked back in, to stay in line. Alexi in many ways reminded me of Five Eye, that abandon, how he just went for it. He drove the two of us around the country, hitting races and staying in crappy motels, crashing with relatives, or in sleeping bags on roadsides while begging our team sponsor for food money. In a few years Alexi would win the Olympic gold in road racing.
Midway through tenth grade I got my drop-out slip and walked around my high school to collect my teacher’s signatures. Whatever elation I thought I’d feel was replaced with absolute fear. They each shook their heads, the same scary judge-y looks — my hair, my clothes — now frozen in pity. Except the guy who taught writing and lit, the one teacher I liked, and he said, “Good luck, man. If I had to do it all over I’d be right there with you. Keep reading, and go to libraries.” The only helpful advice I ever got in school.
I never told a soul at high school I was a national-class athlete in an obscure sport, resting heartrate 32. It wasn’t baseball or football so it didn’t count. My Russian-born national coach, we called him Eddie B., already had to write a letter to the high school to get me out of PE. He wanted me out of high school altogether, I was destined for the Olympics and the pros, man. Anyway, I was already skipping half my classes for 70-mile training rides on Sonoran roads outside Tucson, fueled by some kind of pain-tolerating unconsciousness, and a beauty of silence. Songs of secluded, otherworldly deserts and sweet Palo Verde blooms mixed with the whirr of a machine powered on heartbeats. Absolute serenity. Even then I knew it far more holy than anything Father O’Leary and his altar boy body-and-soul cleanliness had to offer. I knew about every crack in the road, east, west, south and north of Tucson. In the late 1970s you could own those roads, which took me from the wrecking ball of an unhappy, doomed household, which fueled the bike. Sometimes I’d hit the wall on my own, miles from home, no food, body completely depleted, barely making the last miles in agony, skin burned red.
In pre-internet days it was hard to find music considered subversive, or anything written about it and tender-aged radar must’ve been up for truths in music and life. You had to be vigilant, earn the music you could hold in your hand. How sad Journey ruled radio at an age when music is everything. Punk rock frightened then, from inverted Christian symbols to Gabba Gabba Hey! Five Eye would’ve loved it. It unlocked me, led to books, ideas, other music and worlds, that sort of thing.
Back at the Training Center I’d pack up my bike and my future, sell off my spare equipment for a plane ticket back to Tucson. Called a cab and quit cycling, just like that it became a past life. I wanted music. Grewal said, “Aw, you’ll be back in three months.” I remember my young body and brain taking weeks to decompress; the physical output, the thousands of calories burned daily, the endorphin rushes, the obsession, all gone, replaced with apprehension, depression, and soon other pain killers. I was no longer a rising little bike racing star. I had to negotiate the idea of being a teenage failure.
At 16 my first love was a 28-year-old woman I’d met through my big brother, and when I returned home she took me in, my records and few clothes. She drove me around. She had a genuine kindness and teacherly aptitude, a responsible adult, didn’t see me as a disappointment, and I am grateful to her now. Surprised my parents didn’t call the cops on her. She worked as a door greeter at an upscale Tucson steakhouse and got me a job washing dishes.
I walked into a record store one day, met a junky bass player from New York named Jeff. He mumbled he dug my spiked hair and a conversation about music ensued. That’s how bands started then. He wore biker leather in sweltering summer and a dirty road of Dee Dee Ramone seemed to lead him around. He was in his 20s, and I thought him ancient. Five Eye could have been him a decade on, unruled by the universe and wholly misplaced. A ghost. Already a remnant. Through him, I was fronting a punk band within a week or two, and the external-world bullying continued, like the schoolyard, the occasional fist-to-face, even at the bus stop. But I heard a noise. I hear it still, materializing and dematerializing, but it is now altogether different. No, it is not the Buzzcocks ‘“16 Again.” It is a hum, the ever-calming voice of my wife whispering birthday wishes into my ear.
Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now worldwide on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave. You can also pickup his collection of short stories, Spent Saints (Ridgeway Press).