You know when you hit puberty and your body’s growing asymmetrically, like when Bruce Banner is only 15% of the way to full Hulk, and you have big feet and reckless limbs and a gelatinous softness that’s similar to baby fat but creepier since you aren’t a baby anymore, and your athletic peers are able to convert their explosive growth into muscle and skill and awesomeness, and the rest of us look like teenage versions of middle-aged office workers, with bad skin and slumped shoulders and a perpetual look of bodily defeat?
I remember standing in my underwear (tighty whities, FYI) in front of the mirror at home and here’s what I saw: a pale kid with zits, a potbelly due to poor posture, and an expression of fascinated disappointment. No strength, no definition… no wonder I looked so awkward in a stonewashed denim jacket and floral Jams. I ate whatever I wanted–Pizza Hut, WWF ice cream sandwiches, microwaveable anything–and although I had tried a number of sports over the years (baseball, basketball, soccer, karate, tennis, skateboarding), I had become sedentary in early high school and it showed.
My father used to be a high-school basketball star and the guy was always in shape. In adulthood, he took up running. Every day, without miss, without stretching, regardless of the weather, he ran six miles around the neighborhood and loved every minute. Half-foot of snow? Off he went in his regular sneakers. Freezing rain? Home he came with little sweatcicles dangling off his ears (no joke). He also lifted weights with a barbell set in the basement. Sometime during my junior year, I picked up one of his weight-lifting books and learned the basics: bench press, squat, dead lift. It was a great book that covered the fundamentals and had black-and-white photos of each lift, performed by muscular guys with 70s hair styles and tube socks pulled all the way up to their knees. And three times a week I went downstairs after school and pumped iron.
I made good progress. Anyone who starts a strength-training program sees the best results early on, when the body’s getting shocked out its doldrums, and of course a teenager responds faster than anyone to exercise. I didn’t get huge or ripped, and I couldn’t compete with athletes who worked out harder and more regularly, but I lost that adolescent baby fat and felt good. I was fit and more confident. And as with any success, it encouraged me to grow in other areas of my life.
The next big change was a job at the local ice cream joint, The Snowman. My uncle had worked there as a teenager and introduced me to the boss–a tiny, hyperactive ex-Marine we called Bake, who smoked two packs of Marlboros a day, drank way too much coffee and Molson Golden, slept four hours a night, worked harder than anyone I’ve ever met, and was as liable to fly into a comic rage as he was to goof off in the most spectacular, juvenile ways. He hired me on the spot. Best boss I ever had.
He gave me a work ethic I rely on to this day. In addition to scooping the hard ice cream and mastering the tall, sculptured spirals of the soft, we did all the arithmetic, including taxes, in our heads or with a pencil and rang people up on a great old million-lbs. register with really satisfying buttons. We scrubbed counters, swapped out empty ice-cream tubs, refilled the milk dispenser, mopped the floor, and picked up trash and cigarette butts in the parking lot. And after hours of a long summer night with hundreds of customers, the place looked brand new for the following day and it felt good, excellently good, to sit in the back with coworkers and relax.
It was hard work with a wonderful crew. Slackers tended to quit of their own accord because the rest of the gang had a natural team mentality and liked each other; you either busted ass like the rest of us or you didn’t belong there. Which is not to say I was constantly a World Class Soda Jerk. I wasted plenty of time on rainy or otherwise sluggish days. I did my homework there, and wrote bad poetry, and read a lot, and that became part of my work ethic, too. If everything was clean and there weren’t any customers to serve, I filled the hours with my own activities. I took this approach, as you’ll see in a later installment, into the corporate world of midtown Manhattan, where it worked as well as it had at The Snowman. But for now, suffice it to say that I was learning to work like a grownup and handle responsibility, be part of a team, and appreciate the kind of pure, full job that’s tough to come across these days.
By “full job” I mean it was all contained in that one tiny building. We often helped to make the ice cream right there on the premises, scooped the finished product onto a cone, watched a person eat it, and collected the money that would ultimately yield our hourly wage. In most other jobs, you do one segment of a larger whole: data entry, or phonecalls, or a tiny little thing that matters, in some mysterious way, to a company you’re never quite invested in and therefore struggle to care about. But I cared about The Snowman because it was right there in front of me. Those cigarette butts strewn around the parking lot were messing up my place of employment, and I came to take a strange pride in cleaning them up and attending to other duties, big and small, in most of my shifts. I got good at turning triple-scoop cones upsidedown into the chocolate dip without the whole thing falling on the floor. I still get huffy when I’m served a crooked soft serve.
As I was learning at the time, pride in one’s work is a great thing, and the best jobs are the ones where you’re directly responsible for as much of the process as possible. These were all lessons I’d eventually take to writing, a job where people might offer you encouragement or advice, but where it’s finally up to you and requires the half-military, half-childlike enthusiasm so perfectly represented by our boss at The Snowman. I’ve written at least two characters, both of them heroes, that drew heavily on his vibe. And although it would take a long time for me to fully apply that Snowman work ethic to my creative life, it eventually made novel-writing one of the few activities that satisfied me as much as working at an ice cream parlor.
One of my coworkers was a guy a year behind me in high school. I’d gone to grammar school with him, too, and had always known him without really knowing him. Suddenly there we were, slinging ice cream and joining the cross country team at the same time, and right from the start our interests clicked and, probably more importantly, we laughed at the same things–often wordlessly–in the manner of very old friends. He came from one of those old-school Roman Catholic families with a hundred siblings. His father taught Latin and his mother was a homemaker, and they were one of the kindest, most nourishing families I’ve ever known. They were all readers, too. They didn’t just have books in the bathrooms; they had bookcases.
I considered him my best friend almost immediately. I can’t imagine such a thing happening now. The older I get, the longer it takes to form new friendships, since I’m inclined to stick with family and current friends. There’s a reticence about me that I can’t entirely explain… a wariness of starting something as profound as genuine friendship. But yes: he was a great friend, and I still consider him so, even though we talk only a few times a year, and only over the phone, because we each have families and live hundreds of miles apart. We have our own daily work and busyness to deal with now, but back then, in high school, we knew all the same people and liked the same things and talked every day.
He was already reading the usual literary guy stuff like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and with all of his brothers around, there was always some album to discover by Dylan or Springsteen or R.E.M. Achtung Baby! was released around then and changed the way I thought about music. Twins Peaks changed the way I thought about TV, and stories, and coffee. Our minds were opening up a full year before college, which is traditionally when that type of awakening occurs. It was thrilling. I was building an identity on purpose for the first time in my life, and even though it was mostly posturing and pretension, there was real change going on and the world was full of possibility.
We started hanging out a lot, Dead Poets style, of course, convinced that we were remarkable young men, ready to challenge the status quo and become the next Raymond Carver. We wound up winning 2nd and 3rd prizes in a local poetry contest (a poem about graffiti won 1st) and received autographed copies of a book by the award-winning author Alice Fulton, who signed mine: “Dennis–Poetry Is the Blood Jet.” I had no idea Ms. Fulton was referencing Sylvia Plath, and the blood-jet was excellently creepy to a couple of sixteen-year-olds, especially since my friend’s inscription was more along the lines of “Congratulations! Keep Writing.”
If you haven’t read the previous installment of this series, do so now, because you need to see exactly how atrocious my teenage writing was. When I unearthed that notebook of early poetry and started to read, I found it so appalling that I actually felt my blood pressure rise. And then I noticed a telling characteristic of the poems: they’re all written longhand, and dated, with virtually no alterations. I occasionally struck-out something like “clothes” in favor of “garments”, presumably because garments was more poetic. But none of them were ever revised. I’d have set them in type, or stone, or stamped them onto the brains of unwary readers without hesitation because I believed, and continued to believe for a very long time, in the natural genius of quality writers. The Great Ones, I was certain, tapped into the universe and, through mystic revelation, wrote what lesser writers failed to discover due to lack of vision, or sensitivity, or whatever the hell I was so convinced I had.
I was coughing up Brilliant Poems by the hour. There was a girl I wound up dating who had tons of these things slipped into her locker between classes. I must have written her half-a-dozen a week, and she was apparently flattered enough to keep them all, even after she dumped me, and has since mock-threatened to reveal them to the world if I ever become a famous writer.
My memory of meeting her is hazy. She was already pals with my friend from The Snowman and we all started spending time together. I never understood why the two of them didn’t get together, but I knew better than to press the issue because I wanted to date her. She was thoroughly my type: out of my league. She had a boyfriend in another school. There were a lot of those faceless troublemakers back in the day, as if competing with my own classmates hadn’t been difficult enough. I don’t remember much about him except that I classed him in the jock/enemy camp and saw a golden opportunity. All of my sensitive guy training, all of my 20th-century fiction references, all of my exercise and pretense had led to this… and so I waited, like a literary mountain lion, ready to pounce the moment her boyfriend acted like a jerk.
Which didn’t strictly happen. They just kind of broke up, and I didn’t leap boldly into action, and it finally came down to her flirting with me before I had enough confidence to ask her out. Even then I had to verify her subtle hints (which were probably glaring) by asking my friend to ask her, et cetera, and once I knew that suggesting a date would be a slam-dunk, I went for it, still terrified of rejection and undoubtedly showing lots of unmanly relief when she said yes.
She was my first real kiss. This is senior year, remember. Most other people had been kissing since grammar school. Talk about a confidence boost. Everything I’d bet on, everything I’d worked for, had yielded something much more inspiring than 2nd Place in a local poetry contest. A year earlier, I would have had no business dating this girl. She was smart (3rd in her graduating class) and attractive and fun. She thought I was smart, too–I had totally fooled her–and we dated for half a year and went to the prom. And then she broke up with me over the summer. I was going to college and she was a year behind me, so splitting up made sense. But I think she must grown weary of my intensity: the constant romantic gestures, the flowers, the sunsets, the mixtapes, the poems.
I was devastated when it happened–completely caught off guard–but in retrospect even that was a great experience. Nothing says young writer like unrequited love, and I milked that broken heart down to its last quivering drop. I was pretty much over the whole thing by the middle of freshman year, when I majored in English, and kept on writing, and started falling in love with other girls who didn’t love me back.
I’d come a long way and hit the college ground running. I was only months away from writing my first novel, and a lot of my posturing was turning, for better or worse, into bona fide personality traits. But that’s another story…
Check back again (or subscribe to this blog in the righthand column) for Part 3 of How I Became a Writer: “The Most Valuable Useless Degree in the World”.