Three Summers

As read aloud at Fray Day 7

It�s 10PM on a sultry July night in the Albertson�s parking lot. All is silent, save for the occasional automobile cruising along Ming Avenue to grab a food brick at Naugle�s. If you were a passenger in that car and chanced to look to your right, you would see, dimly, as they passed beneath the overhead lights, two silver rockets on rickety wheels that go every way but straight.
In the abandoned shopping carts, hanging on white-knuckled, sad blind-folded degenerates are screaming in sheer panic and fear as they are being pushed as fast as possible towards they know not what.
Meanwhile, the drivers, similarly blinded, are shoving those carts into those lights, and the speed bumps, and the shopping cart cages, and other shopping carts, and anything else out there on the dark asphalt. Broken bottles. Cardboard boxes. Those big concrete things they put between parking places to stop blindfolded shopping cart drivers from accomplishing their goal without splitting open their elbows and knees and loosing a tooth or two.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Blind Shopping Cart Racing.

When I was but a young man of 20 and still hiding inside a closet of secrets and living a life of horror and heat and still-born passions in Bakersfield, California, I had four constant friends; Brian, my best friend, Willy, who was insane, and Karen and Jennifer, two girls seemingly joined at the hip and not at all interested in any of us guys, even Willy who, we think, was straight.
We were like-minded twenty-somethings stuck in a town we hated with no romantic or sexual adventures going on for one reason or another looking to amuse ourselves through acts of violence, self-mutilation, humiliation and alcohol.
Willy, who was insane, usually introduced the rest of us to the latest form of entertainment. Including Blind Shopping Cart Races.
Two people occupy the shopping carts. Doesn�t matter which two people, or how much they weigh, or if they have an innate sense of balance. Actually, the more awkward and lopsided the body, the better the result. Two people take up position as drivers. That�s four people. We had five, as you know. The fifth person is merely the observer, because without the fifth person, no one would know what was happening.
Because what you do next is blindfold all participants, drivers and passengers. Set up the carts at one end of the parking lot. The object is to get to the other end as fast as you possibly can.
Pain was dolled out in equal proportion to all participants. Otherwise, what was the point? As driver, you were running blindly across what appeared, at first glance, to be a wide-open expanse. But, curiously, blindfolded runners will often trip over their own feet, forcing them headlong into the cart, which then becomes a freewheeling projectile without benefit of brakes.
As passenger, you are safely ensconced inside what amounts to a metal cage. You�re protected on all sides, enjoying the ride, as they say at the roller coaster just before hurling you at 60 MPH over a cliff. But you need to remember that your cage is top-heavy, like an SUV, but your Ford Explorer has no roof when you suddenly find yourself overturned after taking that curve too fast. And did I mention the no brakes thing? And no steering?
The Blind Shopping Cart Races lasted all summer, and by the next year we needed something new to occupy our time. For one thing, finding shopping carts was becoming harder to do. For another, we were running out of clothes because the grunge look wouldn�t be in for years and years, and tattered, blood-stained jeans would have to wait for Xtina Aguilera to discover � just prior to her �I�m-a-big-slutty-whore� phase.
Willy�s next invention was called Suicide Swings. This was a more nuanced and almost artistic manner of violence in comparison to BSCR.
First, it was easy to find all the materials necessary. Second, the action took place in the sylvan surroundings of a public park, and more specifically in the playground � a place, as everyone knows, that reeks with the dirty diaper and vomit scents of panic and terror. Third, you could conceivably come out of the endeavor unscathed, and it was certainly a lot easier on your clothing.
Everyone could participate in Suicide Swings. There was no observer. You needed to stock up on supplies at 7-11 prior to the designated hour of pain, so you had something to soothe yourself with when in recovery mode. Usually, these consisted of Cherry-Coke Slurpees, Haagen Dasz honey vanilla ice cream, a variety of meat snacks but never Slim Jims, and the biggest bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos one can buy.
For those taking notes, Suicide Swings requires only your friends and a large swing set, preferably the kind with the chains that can pinch the skin of your fingers and dig out chunks of flesh as you hang on for dear life. The activity, like Blind Shopping Cart Races, should only be performed at night, when it is dark, and otherwise quiet.
Each of you will occupy a swing, and it�s important that you�re all situated next to each other. Any empty swings should be on the outside, you�ll all be sitting in the middle. You sit alternating back to front, so that when you�re seated, you�re facing the people on either side of you.
Begin to swing. Start out slowly. Enjoy the rush of the wind, relive your youth, remember what it was like to be a child, living a carefree existence without debt or job worries, because just like life, Suicide Swings turns dangerous and unbearable when you least expect it.
When you have reached the highest point that you can swing to, stop pumping your legs and close your eyes. Remain silent, the only sounds being the slight metallic whine of the chains digging into your fingers and the soft sound of your friends� bodies and their cringing intakes of breath as they swing by in the opposite direction on either side of you.
Now, with subtlety and grace, slowly but oh so slowly, begin to twist your swing from side to side.
What begins to happen is that your trajectory begins to alter. You feel your body twisting left and right as you continue to swing back and forth. With your eyes closed, you can no longer see where the others are, but you can feel them. You sense them as large, quickly moving masses that are coming way too close to you. Your adrenaline kicks in as fear grips you. Fear of the unknown, fear of surprise� and pain.
This period can last for minutes � long, tension-filled, agonizing minutes. But eventually someone�s arc will veer a little too wide, and a collision of vast and unwieldy violence will occur. Think of it as a midair collision involving only the bodies.
Knees into backs, heads against heads, you�re twisted and flailing and smashing into someone next to you, and your swings entangle and your new, bigger, more destructive bulk careens into the next swing over. Someone is ejected, their wind knocked from their body when they crash into the sand, kicked in the head, knocked forward.
And then it�s over. Time for ice cream!
Suicide Swings is not for the timid. I would also advise that if you�re tempted to try it, do not drink alcoholic beverages until you are done. Violence and vomit are a bad combination, particularly when you are riding in a swing, in an uncontrolled twirling motion, surrounded by your best friends.
After two summers of madness involving being beaten, scarred and blinded, we all needed a break. The final summer of our discontent, the summer before Willy became engaged and Jennifer got pregnant and Brian came out of his own closet, the girls came up with our final stab at amusing ourselves to death. Though this project had no official name, I like to call it The Homecoming.
Girls and Boys are different creatures altogether. To illustrate the point, let�s contrast Blind Shopping Cart Races and Suicide Swings with the premise of The Homecoming. For one thing, The Homecoming takes a lot of preparation.
You can�t do The Homecoming on a whim, like passing an empty parking lot may invite the idea of hopping into abandoned shopping carts and causing damage to property and oneself. For The Homecoming, you need costumes, you need travel time, and you need willing participants who possess more diverse talents than the ability to man a swing set.
First, visit a Thrift Store. I do not recommend hitting the big names like Salvation Army or Goodwill. Seek out the smaller, dirtier, sadder places. St. Vincent DePaul, for example. Or the Cancer Society usually has some little hole-in-the-wall stocked with the saddest assortment of loud plaid pants imaginable. Someplace not so picked through that all you can find are white shirts and stacks of plastic dishes.
Creativity is called for, because you�re assembling an outfit out of which your character can grow. I found that it was best not to plan ahead, let the clothing speak for itself.
Also, funny glasses.
Once you�ve got your wardrobe, you and your cohorts assemble at a pre-determined place to get into character. Willy used to pick me up in his faded yellow Olds Delta 88 and drive all the way to Karen�s house in Stockdale Estates with the horn blowing, explaining to whomever pulled alongside that �it just won�t stop!� with a shrug and a smile.
At the prep area, it would be the first time you�ve seen what everyone else has come up with and vice versa. Each time you perform The Homecoming, you assemble a new outfit. You become someone else within the family, for that is the structure of the group. You�re a family.
And as a family, you climb into a car together and set out for the largest nearby airport. From Bakersfield, that meant LAX. It was a two-hour drive, so we would stop off in Valencia on the way, because as soon as you get into character, you stay in character. At every rest stop. At every gas station. Anywhere you go during the period of time � which may be days � during which The Homecoming occurs.
Once you reach your destination, all you have to do is wander the airport aimlessly and continually ask whomever you encounter for directions to the flight from Nashville.
I�m sad to say that in today�s terrorist-ridden environment, a performance of The Homecoming would likely end in a prison term or even death, because we would wander literally everywhere we could conceivably go. We would try to go into doors that clearly stated we could not go behind them. We wandered into traffic and stood dumbfounded as they honked at us. We would rent luggage carts, dozens of them, or pick them up curbside and push them around in long trains because we were worried there would be a lot of baggage once we located the incoming flight and our cousins from Nashville.
What was amazing to us, no matter how often we did it, was how helpful people were. Only a few times did anyone ask us �what are you dressed up for?� or �is this some kind of joke?� Much more often, people would attempt to honestly help us out, showing us the incoming flight monitors, and we would stare at it and frown and look perplexed and they�d point at the Nashville flight, and point in the direction of the gate, and be as helpful as can be.
It was really weird. Because we were dressed, I think the term is, like retarded people. Underwear on the outside. Hair shellacked into palm-tree-like effigies. Half out of our shoes. Stains of undetermined origin, usually applied with liberal amounts of ketchup packets at McDonald�s, as if our internal organs were bursting through the skin under our Chevron service station shirts.
The girls would find old square dancing dresses and wind their pigtails around clothing hangers like some insane Pippi Longstocking, assuming that Pippi herself could be considered sane. And we would address each other in the worst imaginable sort of pidgin English, a politically incorrect affront to every stereotype we could muster. Eyes crossed, lips pulled back, fingers thrust full and deep into nostrils, we would stand there, straight-faced, and ask, �Excuse me, can you help tell me whar the plane a�comin� in from Nashville might perchance to be a goin� to?�
Evil, certainly. Distasteful? I think that�s understating it a tad. Fun?
Oh, hell, yes!
But like all good things, it could not last. Endings come before you know it, and sometimes without warning. College, marriage, drug abuse, alcoholism, wild sex, HIV, depression, Jesus Christ, children, abortions, careers and petty jealousies would shortly challenge the bonds we forged over the years and leave each of us different people. Some few friendships are made to survive those small curve balls that life tosses at us. Some, no matter what we do, are not.
Having friends is one of the most important things in life. They help you accomplish the dreams you have and discover new talents. They inspire you to shoot for the stars and help you out when you�re in trouble.
And they will also, if you�re very lucky, shove you headlong into a retaining wall with such force that you�re ejected from your shopping cart and land some distance away in a puddle of something brown, thick and disgusting.
And they will gather your other friends to come over and look at you as you lie there, in the parking lot, bleeding from the head, and laugh at you, for fifteen minutes, non-stop.

October 6, 2003

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