now, the end is near;
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I'll say it clear,
I'll state my case,
of which I'm certain.
The end? The end of what? High School? Finally? Maybe. For 10 years I have worked at changing. There are so many things I didn't do because I was afraid back then. So many things I did do because I didn't have the guts to have handled them better.
I ran into Keith, a comrade of a number of pranks and jokes back then as I checked in. It was a smiling reunion and the first of the evening. Definitely a Rosetta Stone of the psyche for ancient history.
I sat for an hour as I gathered composure in the hotel room before donning my best suit, a nice 3-piece Italian black thang, green shirt, shiny green tie. Hair bleached nearly white. I looked good. Sadly like a hyperactive commercial stereotype of a gen-ex professional.
Two weeks after the reunion I would wear the same suit as I lifted my uncle's coffin from the hearse and said goodbye for the final time. His pain of cancer ended. His strength now reflected in his wonderful children who just lost both parents in the past four months.
I've lived a life that's full.
I've traveled each and ev'ry highway;
But more, much more than this,
I did it my way.
At 7 my date and I slowly made our way to the bar for a little courage before entering the hall. There was already a crowd gathering. Scotch for me and a wine for her. I gave her the rundown, the pre-reunion briefing of who may show, who I was hoping would show, and who I was hoping would not.
I fought some good fights back then. My rebellion was to win the brass ring by doing the opposite of the directions of teachers, clergy, principals, all of them. By earning their prize without conforming to their methods I could prove that conforming to their assumptions of who I should be was not the only way to succeed. That being an individual also had its merits.
The ice hadn't halfway melted before the first pack of reunion goers I would meet also entered the bar. It seems the bar was the only place to smoke. An excuse to break tensions, break away from a conversation, alumni flowed at a steady pace to the bar to light up and catch their breath.
Jeremy, his cousin Bobby, Russ, Andy were the first. The sudden strain of eyes searching to remember names as brows scrunched. I saw none of that from them.
They knew my name immediately. Without a pause.
Jeremy is now an art teacher. A wonderful gentle person. Funny as all hell back then, and now. Bobby, a big bear of a guy with a fun smile, quick with a joke. Andy I didn't recognize. No longer the ultra long-haired Metal Head, a boys room fixture with a cigarette in hand. His was the quintessential 'its cool.' Russ, who I had had some disagreeable run-ins back then was eager to see me as if it was not only all forgotten, but not even worth remembering.
I steered away from the obligatory of what do you do, how's work, all the surface bullshit.
My Uncle was the son of Italian immigrants. A gentle giant of a man in strength of heart, of compassion. Only about 5'9" or so everyone not related simply called him "Big Tony." Hands like catcher's mitts. He loved music, boxing, but most of all family. The strength of his character was such that he worked backbreaking labor for most of his life, yet always made time to help with homework, talk with his kids, and show his wife, my aunt, how much he loved her.
Drinks done, there was nothing left to do but dive into the reunion.
Regrets, I've had a few;
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through
Whoah. I didn't remember half the people. Damn! A sea of faces that were unfamiliar and unrecognizable.
Then it all focused. The key players were there. Holy shit! I was here. The cliques weren't. As we wade through the menagerie hands were extended. My name flowed easily from everyone's lips without difficulty to remember. I had foregone the nametag upon entering. I figured anyone who didn't remember it never had a union to reunion.
We sat and did the buffet. Getting it out of the way. The music from the DJ was hardly creating a reminiscence, but I doubt he even knew who The Misfits, The Smiths, The The, Ministry or any decent band were.
But there was Karaoke. How many times had I made speeches to the community of HS? The social order? Reciting them like mantras when I wanted to give up and take my place in the long grey line that is American manhood. I wanted them to hear. I wanted to scream I won at the room. That I survived, thrived. Not just High School, but every fear that galvanized itself and ruled my regrets for the past ten years.
My companion just looked at me looking at the karaoke mike, leaned and said, "You have to you know."
I planned each charted course;
Each careful step along the byway,
much more than this,
I did it my way.
Sinatra. My Way. A song written by a man who's life was a roller coaster. Who had the world and who's heart broke and lost it, gained it again and never calmed. A fighter from NJ. A crooner who knew how things could be, who knew what he could do so long as the chance presented itself. And he called those chances out like a duelist.
Yes, there were times,
I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall;
And did it my way.
My Way. A song written as an acknowledgment that his life, the height of his fame, his career, were all fading. A song written to be song softly, with more experience than natural talent as the silky voice that made him a god had long since given out.
I never saw Brian, my musical opposite slip out of the room as I began singing. The most naturally brilliant and talented musician I have known. I never was. But we are both remembered for our music. Band teachers tried to show me the folly of pursuing music because I was not as good as him. The arrogant, brilliant prodigy.
I don't know if Big Tony had a college degree. All his kids did. A marvel for backwoods upstate NY. An anomaly. He always asked me about my guitar playing. I was always embarrassed to talk about it as it was often the last notch in my rope and his character was so strong. I didn't know his playing was more than dabbling until the funeral. That when my aunt was out he and my cousins would have singalongs. I will always be sad that I didn't get up to visit one more time and tune his guitar like I said I would.
While others were out partying in H.S. I would work on learning to sing. Make my voice burn to get better. When I wanted to slit my wrists I would lock myself away with the guitar or keyboards and sing, scream, flail, beating the drums with my hands and head, bruising and bloodying myself to get this out. To purge. To give a body to my fight so I could break it.
I never saw him slip out. But he did. I still did music. And goddamn it I can fucking sing with my heart. It was sad really, finding he had gone to the bar to smoke and over-quote Arsenio. We never disliked each other. But damn if trying to talk to him now wasn't painful, watching him unsuccessfully leave a trail of breadcrumbs going into a sentence in hopes he could get himself out of it.
I've loved, I've laughed and cried.
I've had my fill;
my share of losing.
And now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing.
"My Way. My Fucking Way." I crooned to the room through Frank's words. My meaning as close to the surface as beautiful sharks circling a life raft. And just as mesmerizing. And twice as confident.
"I hate you all. I miss you all terribly. This is my way goddamn it! I have a fantastic life the peaks and valleys at times make me weep. I am mortal I will die, but I am an individual. I have broken my own heart with cowardice a million times. I have gained clarity by more than once letting my own foolishness and stupidity brush me close enough to death to smell his cologne." I sang it all
I worked the room. Almost everyone remembered my name. Those that did remembered my music. I had sung my peace.
There were still the pretty people. If I didn't talk to them all night I didn't care. Having the nerve to approach them now would not have been any type of victory. My victory was looking at them. I wasn't afraid to go over to them, and I had nothing to say really, so I didn't. But they came to me. They came over to my way. The stars aligned and a unique thing happened.
"You may not have been wrong with your way." my heart was saying throughout my karaoke-croon. "But I was right with my way. My Fucking way was right. You hated me for having my own way. But here I am. My Way motherfuckers."
I knew I was equal. Now I knew that they acknowledged it. They came to me. For my company if only for a moment. But in that moment I suddenly felt vindicated and foolish. Confidence, pure and simple was all that was ever needed.
Maybe the fights over the value of My Way was to convince myself more than anyone. I wonder if Tony ever dealt with that. I don't know the stories, but I do know he battled polio and won, he battled cancer and chemo for two and a half years before going to have Christmas with his wife.
To think I did all that;
And may I say - not in a shy way,
"No, oh no not me,
I did it my way."
In the end I was remembered for precisely the same thing I was embattled with. My assertion of individuality. My reaction to the xenophobic force of H.S. by becoming less unnoticeable through hair and clothes. Daring the society to break me.
They didn't make H.S. They didn't make the social classes. H.S. made them. And H.S. made me. We had all reacted to it. We all had our roles. For whatever reason we fit our molds. And there will always be those like me, will always detest the idea of a mold and do whatever they can to not be molded, to be the embodiment of anti-mold. To detest those that welcome, or worse yet, seek to play the roles. I worked so hard to assert that I had value outside what the society said was pretty or rewardable. I was mostly asserting it to myself. The ugly skinny hyper kid.
For four years, ending 10 years ago last June, I was, to many, a second class citizen. I had a chip on my shoulder with neon billboards pointing it out. Always seeking the fight that would validate my self-indulgent struggle. Then too afraid of losing to step in the ring when the moments came about.
My problem was that I gave a shit. So afraid of stepping on some social landmine, knowing that things may be bad but they could be a million times worse. High School was bad, but I knew it could easily be a million times worse. It can be absolute daily torment mentally and physically. The daily beatings and terrorism What I survived prior to H.S. had made me a little crazy. Made me a fighter, which helped. Knowing how bad it could be I played it safe in some ways, and far too reckless in others.
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels;
And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows -
And did it my way!
We played our roles back then. And now, ten years later, without pep rallies, without the rape-conditioning relationship that is the Cheerleader-Football Player social makeup of H.S, they remember me. Admire me openly because they couldn't do so then. I can care actually.
The society seemed to say to me, "Either fall in line or become invisible or things will be hard on you."
My response was to paint a target on myself and vow to not go down.
Its nice to know that the same strengths that saw me through H.S., are the same strengths that carry me through now. I am still me. Better at it, enjoying it a whole lot more. I did not peak. I did not give in and take the easy path. And when I left H.S. it was easy because I was not leaving anything that gave me my identity, unlike others.
So now what? Its just gonna keep getting better, because my doubts are gone whether I am good enough. If my fights were worth it. If I am attractive, sought out, wanted. I won them over. My Way.
Uncle Tony was a fan of Sinatra. And when I looked at him lying in peace, as I watched them close the casket, I became embarrassed. When Sinatra penned 'My Way' was he as accusational or angry as I was when I sang it?
Or was it that he had outlived his selfish battles and now was singing softly to the fighter in him that could now rest. Was it singing to his friends to try to explain why he was who he was. Or was he writing an epitaph for his life, and his health, for his tenderness, loves, and lost opportunities, recognizing that his time to do so was growing short. That he will not always have life, or health.
My Way though? What is that? I have fought with myself to accept good things in my life. Made it 5 times harder for myself to prove something. Always thinking I was beating the world. What a joke. I was putting myself in a position to fail, to taint any accomplishment. Living life with that attitude that a bridge that burned wasn't worth having.
Accepting love, living life, and figuring out what is right and simply doing it. That's life. That's the way. That was Uncle Tony's way. He was honest. His heart was huge. And if his heart ever wavered I don't know anyone who'd admit they ever saw it happen.
14 years too late to have had a reunion I wouldn't have dreaded.
I'm gonna try to do things that way. Because living my life as a reaction to others, to the world, is a joke. High School is long over. I survived it. Hell, I survived myself.
My dad intimated that, "When you walked into the funeral you stood out like a sore thumb." With bleached hair and tinted glasses I may have blended into a swank cocktail bar in the Village, but among my family I was alien. "But in a good way." he said. "You walked in and paid your respects. There is no substitute for class." I think we were there to say goodbye to one of the classiest and most graceful acts we've known.
I think Sinatra sang My Way because Tony was too humble to sing it for himself.
If I sing it again I'm singing it for Big Tone.
Hugs and Smooches!,
The Mean Little Man on 12-22-2000.
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