Thursday, March 18, 2010

Aimless Reading: The G's, Part 7.1 (Merrill Gilfillan)


Satin Street
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Gilfillan, Merrill
Satin Street


I think I bought this at Talking Leaves...Books, but I am not sure.

Back to mornings...

Mornings during my high school years we a little like what Catholics call hell. As I noted yesterday, my mornings began with a ritual confrontation with my parents about getting out of bed. After I had been dragged off of bed by my father who, you'll recall, was singing O what a beautiful morning, I'd throw on some clothes. I don't think I showered everyday, as I was always getting up so late.

Breakfast during these years consisted of 2-4 slices of heavily buttered wheat toast, cut in half and dunked, one after the other in large mug of coffee with milk and three heaping teaspoons of sugar.

After breakfast came the long drive to school. Some background.

From third grade, when we moved to Virginia, to eighth grade, my parents sent me to public schools. The area had an excellent public school system, so I got a fine education. Beginning in seventh grade, however, my grades began to suffer. This was due at first to my inability to adjust to the physical changes that were taking places in my body and to the social changes that were taking place within the network of my peers, and later to the fact that in eighth grade I began responding to these changes by trying to numb them with pot, speed, alcohol and whatever else came to hand.

Thus, my parents decided to send me to a Catholic high school. I was given a choice between the co-ed school in the suburbs, where they wore a typical Catholic school uniform, including a tie, or the all boys Jesuit school in the middle of an urban ghetto in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol in DC. I chose the latter. Why? Because they didn't make you where a tie. Such was my logic at the time.

Going to a school in the city meant that there was no school bus, so for most of the four years I was in high school, I rode into the city in the morning with my father, who had an office at 15th and K. Vienna is only about ten miles outside the city, and without traffic it takes 15-20 minutes to get to town. Morning traffic added forty-five to ninety minutes to the morning commute. This meant I had to spend forty-five to ninety minutes each morning stuck in traffic. In a car. With my father.

Our relationship throughout this period was contentious, to say the least, and these morning rides only exacerbated the situation. There were basically two routes into the city -- 66 or the George Washington Parkway. The entrance to 66 was nearby our house. It had an HOV-4 lane that was unavailable to the two of us, so we had to ride in traffic and watch all of the carpoolers speed past in the empty lane. We had to take 123 through Vienna, Tyson's Corner and McLean to get to the GW, which is a gorgeous little parkway along the Potomac River.

If we left the house at 6:00 AM, we could get to the city by 6:30. If we left after that, it took a full hour or more. School didn't start until 8 AM, so either way I arrived a little early. On some days, my father would drop me off at the Farragut North Station, where I would catch the red line to Union Station, which was a couple of blocks from the school. Other days he would take me over the 14th St. Bridge and drop me off right at the school.

There were basically two modes to the morning commute: silence and arguing. My general approach to these rides was to say nothing in the hopes that my father would say nothing in return. I would lean my head against the window and either fall asleep or stare vacantly at the passing scenery outside. If I couldn't sleep, we were almost sure to enter the second mode. The main argument concerned control of the car stereo. I wanted to listen to loud music from one of the rock stations or from a cassette tape. My father wanted to listen to the news.

We eventually devised a time-share plan. Half-way we'd listen to rock music, but not loud. The other half we'd listen to the news. Every other day we alternated who listened to what first on the way in. Within this seemingly rational framework lay two major points of contention: the conflict between the temporal and spatial dimensions of the term "half" and the nature and meaning of the word "volume."

It was agreed that the only logical way to determine the halfway point between home and school was to do so geographically. As we took the GW Parkway most days, we determined that the first half of the ride lasted from our house to the entrance of the parkway and that the second half continued from the parkway to wherever my father dropped my off. We considered this split fair: fifty-fifty. However, time often intervened to upset this balance. Some days there was no traffic at all between our home and the entrance to parkway, which meant we got there in 8-10 minutes. However, once we reached the parkway, we would find ourselves stuck in traffic for the next forty five minutes.

On days when I had the second half of the ride, I would argue that we had made a deal and that halfway meant geographically and therefore I got to listen to what I wanted all the way to school, even if it meant an 80-20 temporal split. On days when I got the first half, I would make the argument that the only true measure of fairness was to gauge the midway point by the severity of the traffic and to change the station only when we had a good idea of how long it would take to get to school.

This same form of argument prevailed in our discussions over the volume. My father did not like most rock music, and he pretended to hate it more than he did because he feared it may have been having an unduly negative impact on my behavior and attitudes. It was agreed that I would not raise the volume above a certain low number on the dial -- say a 3 or 4.

However, I would often augment this by raising the treble and volume to their maximum levels. My father would yell, Turn that shit down! And I would say, innocently, Dad, look, the VOLUME is at 4. It is down! And he would yell, I don't give a shit what it says, you made it louder somehow and now turn it down or I will turn it off.

On one occasion I made him so angry he actually tore the volume switch off the radio.

I remember him once getting very angry about the lyrics to the song, "Hello," by Pink Floyd, which he claimed were pornographic.

I remember him liking the song, "That's All," by Genesis.

The worst commutes took place on days when I had gotten in trouble at school or in the neighborhood or at home or when my report cards had come home with C's and D's on them. On these days, there was no sleeping and no radio and there was always a lecture of some kind. Often there was yelling and on occasion my father would reach over and swat me in the back of the head.

I remember getting caught smoking and receiving a lecture all the way into school which ended with: "You know, President Johnson died from smoking. It will kill you, too."

Often there were threats to send me to rehab or military school if my behavior didn't improve or if I got caught doing drugs again.

I think I developed road rage on these trips. All I wanted to do was get out of the car and get to school, but the traffic kept me locked in my little prison with an angry father. One time I started cursing at the traffic under my breath and my father stuck his head out the window and started yelling, Get out of the way, my son needs to get to school an hour early so he can smoke a half pack of cigarettes before the bell rings.

He had a sense of humor, even if I often didn't.

Ok, enough for today...

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