Wednesday, March 31, 2021


One weekend night in May of 1984 my buddies and I jumped the fence of a private pool in Kemp Mill, a neighborhood a mile or so from my house. We were drunk—surprise—and had triggered a silent alarm. As we idiotically splashed around in our clothes, the police arrived stealthily. When their cars' siren lights cut through the darkness, we variously scattered, and tried to hide, my friends in the bushes, me behind a Coke machine. Needless to say, I was easily discoverable. I'd just turned eighteen, the oldest of our crew, and as the rest of them were let off with stern warnings, I was arrested for criminal trespassing.

A few months later, under an agreement reached with the county, I entered a diversion program to expunge my record. Each Saturday in the month of September I awoke painfully at dawn, drove to a MDOT in Rockville, and gathered with a bunch of surly, generally silent guys who'd each been arrested for petty stuff (although a couple weeks in I was to discover during our lunch hour that one guy had been busted for bringing a shotgun back to a dive and shooting out the bottles behind the bar). The work was tedious; what I recall mostly is, orange-vested, cutting through overgrowth to pick up garbage along the sides of roads, including, once, an ancient, anciently-heavy refrigerator filled with putrid rainwater, and a particularly dire day spent under high sun at a suburban intersection somewhere moving an enormous pile of gravel from one corner to the opposite corner. That took the better part of an afternoon. My family were members of the pool I'd trespassed, which only compounded my embarrassment. My dad, to his immense credit, understood the nature of all things adolescent, and assured me that the work might, at least, build character.

For that month of character building I bought these boots. I still own them, and wear them nearly every day when I'm working in the yard. The tread's completely worn, the tongues have given up, and the laces have long atrophied, yet the boots have held up remarkably well over thirty-plus years. They've lasted several moves, eight presidential terms, and more music fads than I can count. They slide on like slippers yet still stubbornly beat back the water when I splash through puddles. Three decades in, there's barely a tear. Apart from a handful of records and books, I count this pair of boots as among my oldest possessions. They've lasted, against all odds. There's much of me now that bears little resemblance to 18-year-old me, and yet there's also plenty that still does. These pair of modest boots have served that long continuum of selves.


Two more memories from that month of labor: a few weeks later I ran into one of my fellow scofflaws on campus. He seemed to be a cool dude, played in a local band with llamas in the name, I think, and looked the part now, in fringe and boots. We'd only hung a bit while working to pay pack our debt, yet when we ran into each other he acted as if we were long-lost buddies. I knew what was coming; sure enough, he hit me up for some cash, "just to make it through the day, man." As a freshman in college I had little to no money to "lend" to anyone, and at any rate the memory ends with his request. I don't think that I slid him anything; his desperate, fake bro-ness felt lame and kind of creepy to me. 

And this: I was idling in my car one morning during the last precious minutes before I had to report for work, trying to stay awake while listening to WHFS, the great progressive music station out of Annapolis. Whatever DJ it was who was spinning at 6 or so in the morning played the Who's "I Can't Reach You" followed by the Spongetones' "Now You're Gone," from their just-released Torn Apart EP. The pairing was sublime, and moving, and it scored the rest of that day for me, casting the exhausting, menial work and my own deep misgivings and regrets in a softer, more forgiving hue. I needed to hear the melancholy yet sweet vibe in each song that day. Many times over the next coming years I'd play those two songs back-to-back on my radio show at WMUC, smiling silently at the memory, and now whenever I pull on my old boots, that pairing comes back to me, and without really realizing it I'm humming for the next hour or so, glad at my fates and the silly and profound places they've brought me.

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