Every now and again, I like to examine some of the nuggets of memory I have of the last century, such as the days when I lived in a rooming house (okay, an apartment) in Brighton, MA with a bunch of other newly minted college grads. Every month, we'd have to scrape together rent money, and if we didn't pay on time our landlords would come to our apartment with thugs to beat us mercilessly.
My apartment mates were some of the genuine good guys of the 1980s. There was Guillermo, who came from New York City and had played baseball at Brandeis. There was Ted, who convinced his parents to let him attend the University of Hawaii. (The University of Hawaii! Why hadn't I thought of that?) Ted rode a Harley and famously left it with a custom paint shop, which held onto the bike from January (off season) well into the summer (peak season). It wasn't easy to anger Ted, and this was about as close as I had ever seen to him being genuinely ticked off.
Then there was Huatsu.
As far as I can intermingle confirmable facts with my memory of the 1980s, Huatsu came to us when Brian, one of the original four tenants, got engaged and moved out. I don't remember much about Brian except that he wore slippers in the apartment and slid along the floor when moving from room to room, which I found mildly irritating. Brian's departure caused Guillermo to vacate the smallest room in the apartment and move into the largest, leaving the smallest room to our new apartment-mate, Huatsu.
I have all kinds of fond memories of that pre-cellphone and pre-GPS era, when the back seats of cars contained spiral-bound regional maps showing every street in metro Boston, which were indispensable for getting you to a keg party in an unfamiliar neighborhood. One memory I have was of a keg party that we threw in our Murdock Street digs. Huatsu, from Taiwan, had quickly and seamlessly integrated himself into our group and was far more popular among my college friends than I was. While we Americans went out and got potato chips and Doritos for our tipsy guests, Huatsu drove into Chinatown in his cranky little deathtrap of car and returned with things like crunchy bits of dried octopus, and preserved duck eggs. Whut? The duck eggs – dark, translucent, gelatinous – were like something from another universe, odder than sushi, which to my mind was off limits. (A writer for the then-Boston Phoenix said to me one day, "Pat, we Irish may not be the smartest people in the world, but we know enough to cook our fucking fish.") Odder still, when I finally mustered up the courage to take a bite of one of the preserved duck eggs, it tasted not unlike your average hard-boiled hen egg.
But I may be wrong about this, as it turns out that my memory of that era isn't perfect.
In 1991 I had near-death experience when a window blew out of an apartment in Allston during the run-up to Hurricane Bob's arrival and struck my calf, nearly shearing my lower leg clear off the rest of me and creating a harrowing, bloody mess on the street. I had already decided not to sign another lease for the Murdock Street apartment so that my girlfriend and I could backpack around Europe, and now that trip was canceled and we were homeless. A friend told a colleague about our plight and this woman kindly offered us an apartment to use while I recuperated. These facts are indisputable. However, I recall very clearly that when friends kindly gathered to move us from Murdock Street, Huatsu was among the helpers. And, further, that he had brought one of the last of my possessions down to his car to transport to the new apartment – my cockatiel, whose name I cannot remember. Little did Huatsu know that the top of the birdcage had been removed so that the bird could fly around the apartment and poop wherever he pleased. My lasting memory is of the cockatiel discovering the sky above, and flying straight up into the sunlit afternoon, where no doubt he was destined to become a snack for a local raptor.
Huatsu recently contacted me, decades after we had parted ways, and when we dug into our past it turns out that he probably didn't help with that move. He had spoken to his wife and confirmed that he had moved out of the Murdock Street apartment by 1989, two years before Hurricane Bob. For him to have helped would have required someone to contact him. Remember, this was pre-cellphone, and mostly pre-email. He had left our apartment when his wife and son joined him from Taiwan, at which point he disappeared into another world, as we all tend to do. If I know my friends from that era, no one would have had his contact information.
Huatsu doesn't remember helping and doesn't remember the bird flying up and away with a piercing whistle of excitement. My friend Dave, known at the time as "Chowder," doesn't remember Huatsu being there either. It seems that some other friend had brought down the cockatiel – maybe Ted, or someone else entirely.
No doubt I have forgotten much more about that era than I remember, but it's dismaying to have had such a clear memory for so long about something that turns out to be inaccurate. What other inaccurate memories do I possess? How do I figure into other people's inaccurate memories? Maybe people from high school recall me as a tremendous student-athlete who could dead-lift huge weights. Despite the facts, I may never shake from my memory the sight of my forlorn-looking friend Huatsu staring up into the afternoon sky, watching as my pet bird whistles excitedly before disappearing over the trees, never to be seen again.
Word on the street is that I don’t know how to tell a real emergency from yet more fake emergencies, but the truth is that I was directly involved in many an emergency over the course of my checkered health past. Did you know that I hang glided into a wall of rocks and broke ribs?
No, sorry, it was my cousin’s ex-boyfriend who did that. I’m much less clumsy than that guy! I’ve almost never broken ribs. Only in car accidents, beer-league softball games and via falling off bikes. It’s much less sexy to break your ribs falling off a bike that you shouldn’t have been on in the first place (icy roads) than by hang gliding. It’s like snapping a tendon in your left middle finger while trying to remove a sock. Who does that? (I did, but only once).
However, my most consistent exposure to emergency situations was provided by network tv in the 1970s via the aptly-named program Emergency! Each week, paramedics Roy DeSoto and John Gage were faced with several riveting emergencies. Choking victims; heart attacks; scorpions hitch-hiking back in luggage from exotic destinations, and so forth. One time, there was a construction worker whose leg was irrevocably wedged between collapsing beams in a building, and the whole shebang was about to come down upon him, his co-workers and our heros Gage and DeSoto. This called for the white-haired Doctor (Joe Early, according an Emergency episode I just watched on youtube) to come and do a quick amputation. He arrived with his kit bag (do they really have amputation tools in those?) but the team managed to extricate the victim and his numb leg before we could see the bloody details.
My favorite weekly Emergency! treat was to see the obligatory cardiac arrest, which required one of our paramedic heroes to karate-chop the dying patient in the chest in order to break ribs and facilitate chest compressions. That was always followed by defibrillator usage. “Clear!”
Now that it’s the future, we have learned that CPR can be done without karate-chopping, but it was so fun to see that back in the 1970s.
I don’t remember any episode involving an emergency wall being built, but maybe I just don’t remember all the episodes.
In the 1990s, I lived very close to the Forest Hills cemetery in Jamaica Plain, MA. I mean I practically lived in the damned cemetery on a semi-private road a few hundred feet from the entrance. There were more dead people around me than living ones, by far.
On the other hand, the house was just a stone’s throw (well, a very impressive throw of a stone) from the end of the Orange Line, with easy access to the city where a lot of alive people were crowding together, as they do in cities. To have access to hordes of alive people via the subway and almost as many dead ones via my own two feet, including Eugene O’Neill and E. E. Cummings (not to mention the restauranteur Jacob Wirth), tells you just how versatile my living situation was.
If you must know, I had a girlfriend back in those days, as was expected of young men of my social stature and careful breeding, and it goes without saying that I had a very high level of emotional maturity, which required that I have an equally emotionally mature girlfriend. Sometimes, though, two emotionally mature adults cancel each other’s maturity out, and you end up with an emotionally exhausted couple who go dancing on graves.
Human beings have been dancing on graves ever since dancing and graves were invented. The caveman Oog is credited with dancing the first jig, which he did on the grave of his late rival Boog. But once people started freaking out about the possibility of ghosts, they stopped dancing on the graves of their dead rivals, lest they get visited by poltergeists in the middle of the night.
Which brings me to some dusky evening 25 or so years ago in the Forest Hills cemetery, when, during a tipsy group amble, my girlfriend dared me and others to dance on a grave. Which we did.
I don’t know whose grave I danced on, but suffice it to say that the person buried there was emotionally mature enough in the afterlife not to come to my apartment and rattle chains outside my bedroom door.
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