I’m sitting up on my hill in the Hudson River Valley on this cold night, vacantly staring out the black window, imagining the river somewhere out there in the middle distance. It’s dark and I’m in the middle of a trying stretch of sobriety that has left me feeling moody and alone. It’s 47 degrees and the cold mist makes it feel like fall for the first time. The view has changed, but it’s still the same river I grew up with. As I do this, somewhere, 120 or so miles upriver, people are gathering at the old high school - a perverse reunion at an abandoned building, to remember the recently deceased principal.
As I was driving home from work tonight, over the Route 9 bridge that arcs over the Thruway, I saw the traffic - a sad procession of brake lights at a standstill, and knew there was no way I would make it as far north as Albany in time to join what would probably be the last true gathering at the old derelict -- as much a final eulogy to the school as to the man, for the two were, for forty years, inexplicably linked and now, forever inseparable. That he should die so soon after the school was shuttered only seems morbidly serendipitous.
Sitting at the desk in my dimly lit studio, I imagine people standing in the old parking lot, or on the old football field, gathered like phantoms out of the past -- some odd, Moonlight Graham moment of re-emergence -- candles for light, the abandoned building rounding out the perfect ambiance of dark demise. People that haven’t been on that field for decades, that haven’t seen one another in as many years. Coming together to remember who we were, and how we got here…
Bishop Maginn High School, around the turn of the last century, was a special time and place to be a part of. The school was small - our graduating class counted around 72 – which meant that there were cliques, to be sure, but not the typical, neat sorting of stereotypes. Friendships and bonds were forged across differences that in other schools would have been insurmountable, that would have kept people divided. Ours was an idealistic mix of nerds, jocks, stoners, and loners. Our group lettered in Football, Baseball, Basketball, Cross Country, Track, Golf, Bowling, and, oddly enough, Cheerleading. We comprised the bulk of the staff of the meager school paper, passing the mantle of Editor-in-Chief down through the years. Straight-laced and Straight Edge, rabble and pothead, salutatorian and down through the ranks to those barely getting by -- Freaks and geeks through and through.
Whenever I need to relate just how deep our geek tendencies ran, I re-tell the story of one particular study hall, in the Computer Room, where we spent the entirety of the period searching for real-world scientific formulas and conversions, doing complex calculations… just so that we could compare the weapons systems of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701, not CVN-65) to those on various ships in the Babylon 5 universe. The results were shocking (the comparison of “lightbulb vs. death ray” comes to mind). We would wax intellectual about Star Wars or Shakespeare. We could spend the nights playing rock shows at bars or playing Risk at someone’s kitchen table or watching our friends on the field in any number of sports. We were, quite literally, all over the map. And it was grand.
The first, and as far as I can remember, only time I was ever in any actual trouble was the day I wore my brand new pair of Chuck Taylors to Senior Dress Up Day. The one ironclad rule – no sneakers. When I explained that they were the nicest pair of shoes I had ever owned, far better than the frayed Payless dress shoes in my locker, the teacher refused to budge. Rather than change, I wore those kick-ass sneakers all day; all the way to detention. I was even among the handful that went to class on Senior Skip Day. For whatever reason.
I’ve spent this week combing through the dustbin of my memories, digging up various tidbits like this, seeking stories of the man so soon laid in the ground.
What I found was this: I don’t have many distinct memories of that man - he wasn’t my coach, he wasn't my mentor, and he wasn’t my father the way he was to both student and teacher.
But there is one memory that leaps out through the time fog of the last 15 years:
However it happened, many of us had taken to wearing suspenders. There hadn’t been a whole lot of thought behind it initially, but it had slowly caught on. Not all of us, but a solid and dedicated handful; I have vague memories of Dan Radigan wearing a pair checkered like a finish line flag. Mine were a deep navy that matched both the required Catholic school sweater and my favorite Star Wars tie. Maybe Greg wore a slender pair that complemented his portly frame in a contradictory fashion. There was always a running joke of wanting bright red ones, like a lumberjack, and someone probably found a pair at some point, but when we discovered that red suspenders were also in fashion with skinheads, the joke kind of died out.
I can recall sitting in Mr. Grasso’s office with several friends, officially as a representative of the newspaper, but also, in what was a clear conflict of interest, as one of the slighted and aggrieved party, listening to his official explanation of why suspenders were suddenly and completely banned in the halls of Bishop Maginn.
My clear memories of this are the explanation – that our reasons for wearing them were unclear to the administration, that it seemed organized in some way, like it had become our gang sign.
Principal Grasso clearly hadn’t thought out his reasoning, and while he had expected some blowback, he was unprepared for the calculated response we confronted him with.
I incredulously repeated the explanation back to him.
“I just want to make sure I get this right – you are telling us we can’t wear suspenders… because you think it’s our gang sign?”
I don’t remember, but I can imagine that even Joe Grasso, pillar of sternness and disciple that he was, had to hold back a smirk at the ridiculousness of that statement.
Still though, he held firm.
I pulled out the student handbook, pointed out that while there were ample words on what we could wear and how we could wear it, there was not a single mention of suspenders, for or against. Or belts for that matter – it seemed a given that waist accoutrements were widely accepted. I was confident because I had the law on my side.
Still, he refused to budge.
I was as normal and geeky and harmless and anyone, and still I found myself, sitting in the principal's office, stifled. I was frustrated - constrained for reasons beyond my control. It didn't make sense to me. I couldn't understand it.
There was nothing to argue.
The suspenders had to go.
The suspenders had to go.
It was a distinct feeling – I, we, weren’t being punished so much as we were being restricted in what we could and could not do, based on the baseless whims of an authoritarian figure whose agenda was so clearly just to fuck with us. Maybe it was because Mr. Grasso had it out for Dan. Maybe it was to prevent us from feeling too united, or from thinking at that young and confident age that we had any control over our own lives. Maybe it was just amusing to watch us helplessly squirm against the thumb of the law.
I have no idea the reasons behind it.
But 17 years later, it stays with me, because there was a part of me, buried deep, that was uncovered that day. It was a shift in my thinking; a revelation: power not for safety or well-being, as I had always seen in adults and authority figures, but power for power's sake; to exert control. It was a pithy kind of authoritarian control, and one that would dog me all through my academic life.
And were it not for Joe Grasso, I might never have realized it.
In college, when the RD discovered a keg in the dorm bathroom, I was one of those pressed to rat out the guilty. I had been out of town at the time - on Long Island for my cousin’s wedding - but I was picked because I was the geek, the low-hanging fruit. They tried to get neighbor to turn on neighbor, but surprisingly, I didn't cave - I took my misplaced punishment along with everyone else, penning a sternly worded letter to the school paper that was printed but never came to anything.
In grad school, it would be a library fine for books destroyed along with my roof in a hurricane. The explanation didn’t matter; there was no compassion. The ensuing argument led to a standstill that resulted in a hold on my diploma.
Fuck the man.
Rat on your neighbor or suffer the children.
Fuck the man.
Diploma with your name in escrow on account of Irene.
Fuck the man. Keep your paper.
Yes. Suspender gangs.
Fuck the Man.
I didn’t agree with it then, and I could care less now, but it’s those little throw away moments that make us who we are, and our disdain for authority has spread around the globe. San Fransisco. New York City. Tokyo. And me here in Rockland.
The dark night has been cause to drag out a dusty box of photos from under the bed: prom, summer jobs, missed loves and board games of global domination. A cause to reconnect with people I rarely speak to anymore, with people I should talk to more. A cause to reflect less on a life that has ended and more on a life still going.
Unlike so many others, I didn’t light a candle for Joe Grasso tonight, but, being as I work for a candle company, there are several wicks around me right now, flaming out into oblivion. Regardless, however you or I feel about the man, we are who we are, even in the smallest part, because of people like Joe Grasso.
For whatever that’s worth…
I’m going to take a long walk now, down the hill and into town, sit at my favorite bar, and not drink, and reflect less on the man and more on the people who stayed with me through the years.
And of course, I’ll be wearing a pair of suspenders.
Because: Fuck the man.