We huddled outside the North Olmsted recreation center waiting for the rest of the spirit band to arrive. On this cold December night, we were supposed to be energizing high school hockey fans, but when not enough kids showed up, we were presented with a three-hour window to spend the rest of the night. Our foursome included Dan, a junior, cool, laid back (like most trombone players) and the one with the car. There was Mark, a stocky, sophomore coronet player who was the epitome of band geek (really nice guy, though). Mark often wore a t-shirt that asked the question, “Why be normal?” He liked to smoke pot. Jay was a fellow freshman drummer, one of those guys who bled talent, and a close friend at the time. He was an emotional firecracker, calm and fun-loving most of the time and then- BAM! — an explosion of anger. Finally, I rounded out the group, the dorky son of the band director. I wore big ’80s-style glasses, had poofy hair (I’d yet to learn what gel was), and dressed in god-awful sweatpants that covered the knee brace of my right knee, which was recovering from ACL surgery. With nowhere to be and nothing in particular to do, we piled into Dan’s car and drove away.
Cruising through the hometown seems like a time-honored rite of passage for most young men. You get the keys to the car, you don’t want to be stuck at home, so you hit the road and just drive, listening to whatever music is on the radio and killing time until you have to roll into bed and sleep away the weekend. On that night, navigating the slick streets of a Saturday night, with the melted snow sloshing around in the tire wells making that sound like water running, we owned this city. With a swagger you only have as a teenager, we felt like kings, invincible; nothing could hurt us. The neon signs from the fast food joints, the banks and the gas stations beckoned us, but we drove on, searching for what I don’t know. Camaraderie, I suppose. Isn’t that what we all want when we’re trying to figure out who we are?
I was in low mood; my girlfriend had broken up with me the night before. Somehow, even though I’d only spoken to a couple people about the break up, everyone knew. This was my first experience of gossip traveling faster than the tears can hit the pillow. These three guys, boys I hardly hung out with before that night, decided to comfort me in the same manner they knew adults handled pain and loss: by scoring some beer. Meanwhile, the radio dial was tuned to the venerable Cleveland station, WMMS, and their new weekend program, Classic Rock Saturday Night. The deep voice of one of Cleveland’s legendary DJs (I swear it was Len “Boom Boom” Goldberg, but more likely it was the equally great “Spaceman” Scott Hughes) spoke to us through the speakers in Dan’s car, as he introduced music from the early 70s by the artists who had shaped rock and roll. We were a generation raised on new wave and MTV and in 1984 if we’d heard the music of Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Who or Pink Floyd, it was because of our older siblings who had passed the music down. I hadn’t received that passing of the torch, so listening to MMS and the songs they played opened up a new world to me.
In a parking lot behind a second-run movie theater we received our contraband, a 12-pack of Michelob, bought by one of the guys’ older brothers. I look back on what we did next with a sense of fondness, but also a realization of how fucking stupid we were. Back then, when you wanted to discreetly drink and drive, the Valley was the place to go. Our next destination was the Cleveland Metroparks, also known as the Valley because of the steep descent you took getting into the park. An entire night could be spent looping around on the twisting and winding roads that passed through several neighboring cities for over 20 miles. On that night the sky was clear without a moon ad the Valley was pitch black, save for the headlight beams from Dan’s car. Occasionally we passed fellow wanderers or even parked cars with steamed-up windows. Otherwise, we were alone, in a separate universe, with Classic Rock Saturday Night as our soundtrack.
Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” came on, with its dual bass lines, jazzy brushes on the snare, and Reed singing endearingly about the transvestites and drug addicts he knew; we all quieted and listened, letting the music sweep over us. When I tried to explain to Mark that the entire moment felt like a movie and wouldn’t let up about what I was feeling, he nudged me and said, “Shut up and enjoy the movie.” The background singers came in with their “doo da doo da doos” and the four of us began singing, uninhibited, at the top of our lungs, until our laughter was louder than the radio. It was one of those strange, mystical nights that only happens in the movies: Four guys, friends, but not best friends, spend the night driving around talking about the things that only guys talk about. In the course of the evening, they discover that they are not alone. They discover that everyone suffers heartbreak and wants to go out with the pretty girl and wants to get good grades and wants to impress their parents and wants to get a hug from their dad on occasion and wants to be the cool kid in school and wants to have a lot of friends and wants to lose their virginity and just wants to be loved. And they discover that everyone wants to escape from the place where they grew up, at least for a little while.
I’ve often questioned why this particular event in my life has stuck with me. Of all the pointless times aimlessly cruising through the Valley, of all the irresponsible incidents of my adolescence, why does this one event remain so vivid? Perhaps because on that night, free of the pressures and expectations of our peers, the four of us let our guard down and allowed other humans to glimpse at our souls. Or perhaps it was just stupid fun that I was never able to replicate in the remaining four years of high school. Dan, Mark, Jay and I never hung out that way ever again. We remained friendly, but it was like after that night, the universe we lived in realigned and the four of us slipped back into our old selves. Still, there would be times when we saw each other in the hall and a simple nod or knowing smile would draw a laugh and we’d recall our walk on the wild side.