How did I end up here? So many years spend meandering through paths ,so many detours, and now I sit with a handful of accomplishments that have long ago worn out there welcome and a plethora of stories to tell. Not much else. True every once in a while I get another flicker of brilliance, a new recipe here, a great idea for a short story there, but overall nothing lasting. Now instead of looking to see what’s up ahead in the path I find myself peeking backward noting where I may have chosen a path better to have avoided, or another better to have taken. That’s the lament of aging, reflecting on where we’ve been and where we may have gone, and how we ended up where we are now.
The times I do look in my rearview mirror the most inspiring image I see is two teachers who attempted to direct me along a path they believed not only was I suited for, but a path that was suited for me. During my hours of reflections of my life I often pause and take some time to consider these two women, two adults during my formative years, that were perhaps the only ones who truly believed in me back then. I don’t dwell on what may have been but I do often regret I hadn’t given them as much consideration as they gave me. I can’t go back, no redo, but what I can do is seize the opportunity to give props to two extraordinary teachers. Mrs. Kirshenbaum, and Ms. Kitty Lindsey, though I never showed it you were both a major inspiration to me. This then is for you, with much love from me.
While in the sixth grade my teacher, Mrs. K., told me I had a creative ability and I should consider pursuing a career in writing. But it was sixth grade, I had recently discovered that not only do girls not have cooties, but kissing them was pretty awesome. I had my first steady girlfriend and career was the farthest thing from my mind. Not to be stifled Mrs. K published an essay I wrote in the school paper, The School Bell. The Bell was a four to six sheet newspaper that went to every household. Mrs K. asked the class to write an essay on what we expect of the move from elementary school to junior high school. I titled my essay “Great Expectations”. I hadn’t read the book but saw it in the library and I dug the title. Although filled with misspellings and grammatical miscues it was an intense view of what I expected when we left the confines of elementary school and braved the new world of junior high (middle school to you younger readers) Nothing about Mrs. Habersham, no Pip, that would become required reading much later, but in my Great Expectations I explored the benefits and dangers of going from the comfort of a single classroom to the unknown experiences of numerous teachers in numerous rooms, in a huge school with way too many dark nooks and cranny’s. Not to mention big kids! Mrs. K was blown away, the principal agreed, even Mom liked it, but no one other than Mrs. K mentioned anything about a future associated with writing.
When seventh grade came it was even more of a challenge than I expected and I learned even more about girls which became an obsessive distraction. My writing career was quickly forgotten and remembering locker combinations and girls names became far more important. Halfway into the year I was introduced to another distraction, marijuana. I had been drinking the occasional beer, hanging outside a store until someone of age could be finagled into buying some for beer or Ripple wine for us, but weed opened up a whole new culture. New skills had to be acquired, cleaning the pot, rolling it into joints, getting the red out of our eyes, self control when something seemed so funny I wanted to burst, and maintaining in class. That meant putting my best face forward to look as straight as possible so nary a soul could tell I had smoked weed. Now I had two major forces in my life, girls and weed. Not to brag but I was getting pretty good at both. The school itself performed its expected task, to prepare me for the world I would be thrown into after school is over. They hired guidance counselors to talk to us in 9th grade that would help take our recently shaped minds and steer them towards the area that we were best suited for in “real life”. Good theory, but in practice they met with our parents to discuss where they wanted our fertile minds steered. “He seems to be pretty good in math, maybe a career in the stock market” “Maybe he should take business math, lots of work for accountants.” After tossing around a few ideas they finally asked me what I wanted. By this point I had been smoking weed and was no longer a virgin. I was obsessed with rock and roll, as well as its subculture of Hippiedom. At first I mistakenly believed my parents cared about what I wanted, “Well…..I think joining the Peace Corps would be cool”. The counselor stared blankly, Dad glared angrily, but dear ole Mom was in denial, “Oh he’s just kidding, aren’t you honey? Tell us which of the careers we chose you like the most.” The time had come, “What I want is to choose my own path, not have you guys tell me which way to go. I want to help people, I like being with people and the Peace Corps does great things and helps lots and lots of people. That’s what I want to do. I’ll keep a diary of my travels and maybe someday write a book about it.”
This was the first of a long string of awkward silences I would share with my parents. Finally my Mom laughed, “Oh JT, stop now! That’s not what you really want.” Dad weighed in quickly, “Don’t be a fool JT, there’s no money in the peace corps, just a bunch of dirty hippies, Mr. Gunther has given you some great ideas of what you can do and you’re going to listen to him and decide which one you want!” It was clear I wasn’t needed in the conversation anymore so I just sat there and listened. They proceeded to shape my life for me as I daydreamed, wishing I had a joint in my pocket. When the meeting was over they were all feeling very positive of my future and I had been instructed to read the stock market pages of the newspaper each day. I went back to class discouraged.
For me Senior High started in tenth grade. After three years of building schoolyard creds and being king shits, we were thrown back at the bottom to be tortured and humiliated by the juniors and seniors. Even the janitors picked on us. I learned quickly that my skill of acquiring weed was a fantastic equalizer, and within a month I was accepted into the fold of the older kids who bought weed from me. Also in tenth grade I met the one teacher who, had I allowed her, would have hand led me down a path of writing. In her English class she had us write a short story without boundaries, whatever turned us on. I had two idea’s I wanted to do so I handed both stories to her. The first was a kind of science fantasy, in which the biggest traffic jam in history caused a dome of carbon monoxide killing near everyone. A post apocalyptic before I had a clue what that meant. The second was a tragic love story, kind of my hip version of Bonnie and Clyde that starts out with a young couple in love waking up after a night of heavy LSD tripping outside a stolen cop car. They wake up confused and still stoned at a reservoir that supplies the town below with water and planned a scheme to fill it with liquid LSD. I then went into a few households and described the effects of tripping It was crudely written with not much finesse but jam packed full of twisted imagination. I had drawn on my recent experiments with LSD which at that time had amounted to a half dozen trips. I wrote it in a somewhat rebellious attitude. Mrs. Lindsey, or “Kitty” as she had her students call her asked me to stay behind after reading it.
My original fear was she would chastise me or turn me in for writing about drugs, but to my pleasant surprise she praised the concept and creative spirit and implored me to sign up for her creative writing course. The second influential person in my life assured me I had a talent. I was pretty blown away, I have a warped imagination, but that’s not a talent, that’s a personality trait. Regardless, Kitty felt if I was given instruction I could write, all I needed was to learn sentence structure and grammar, and for someone to unleash my creativity. I thought it was worth a shot so I promised to sign up. Writing was the one thing I had always enjoyed. I had a spiral notebook of poems, observations, and story concepts I titled “Ramblings.” I never let anyone read the notebook because I had the self esteem of an earthworm. Still, I couldn’t wait to get home and give Mom and Dad the good news.
One persons good news is another’s persons complete waste of time. “What the Hell do you mean become a writer? Writing isn’t a real job, you want a real job.” “Dad, you have no idea what I want because you never listen to me. I hate the godamn stock market, I hate business, and I am never going to be an accountant, that’s not what I want.” Mom just cried but Dad wasn’t finished, “I know exactly what you want JT, you want to sit around on your lazy ass all day and watch TV. You think anyone will pay you to do that? No! I’m telling you what you’re gonna be and you will listen young man. You WILL read the stock market everyday, and you Will take business math. I don’t care what this teacher of yours says you do not have any talent and even if you did you’ll never make a living from it. You can tell this Mrs. Lindsey of yours you won’t be in creative writing you’ll be in business math. Kitty! What the hell is this teacher doing having her student call her by a nickname anyway, what the hell are we paying taxes for, for your teacher to be your friend? You will take business math and get this writing crap out of your head now!” That discussion would define my relationship with my father for the next 30 years. After that day I didn’t miss any opportunity to piss him off. I grew my hair, I wore an American flag bandana, I bought red whit and blue sneakers, I spoke of protests and rallies, signed petitions, attended sit ins, and let him know where I was during those anti American moments. I read very profound books, Aldous Huxley, Herman Hesse, Ayn Raynd, Kurt Vonnegut. I read political and hip books by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Jack Kerouk, Tom Robbins. I defiantly took creative writing and went to class high.
A little too high, with an imagination that did not connect with any of my classmates. I was too “out there” for them, they wanted to be serious writers, Steinbecks or Dickens, and resented me an everything I stood for. I was in a class loaded with hitters, or straits, kids who followed every rule, seldom took a chance, and only saw the principals office on official business, never for disciplinary action which was what I went there for on a weekly basis. I was alienated and withdrawn in class, then started cutting. First a day here or there, then a few in a row, until I stopped attending altogether.
From there I took a myriad of path turns, none of which involved writing. I went from pot sink suds buster extraordinaire at a local restaurant, to line cook at Windows On The World, worked my way up to a B level chef in NYC, then ultimately a chef/owner. I left my dreams of writing packed away in an obscure box gathering dust in the attics of my youth. Until now! I have literally turned a page and gone head first into writing, a blog here, a published story there, an hopefully before my flame of creative energy gets to too dim will have a collection of short stories or perhaps that great American novel that has been hiding out for so long. Never give up on a dream, don’t let other people define your limits. Your imagination never rests and loves exercise, so exercise it daily. No matter what you enjoy pursue it before it passes by you. I work every day now on writing something, an I truly believe I have at least one good novel in me to finish. If I do, I know exactly who will be in the dedication, my two teachers.