My latest for elephantjournal.com, remembering my FiL one year later…
What’s that? Westbye’s back?!? Well, not really, except to promote! First published article at Elephant right here. C’mon over!
Image Source: Secret Boston
I have spent countless hours during lunch and after work in Copley Square, around the corner from the blast sight, malingering on the steps of the Boston Public Library with my journal and smoke perpetually in hand.
I have walked past – and across – the Finish Line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston St. more times than I remember, heart racing with excitement and pride.
I have whiled away many afternoons at the old Samuel Adams Brewpub (oh, don’t go looking for it: it’s not there anymore) in the lobby of the Lenox Hotel, at the finish line, being twenty four and wondering how I would ever earn a living or find a girl.
I have lingered at my bench in the Square, facing the new and old John Hancock towers and H.H. Richardson’s magnificent Trinity Church. This has always been my spot to find tranquility and center myself against the pain in my head.
I have sat at my desk on the 56th floor of the new Hancock Tower during the summer of 1999, when I was working a shitty go-nowhere data entry job, scanning the sweep of Beacon Hill, the dome of the State House – the gold of which was inlayed by Paul Revere himself – and the Harbor, soaking in the history and dreaming of making my own Boston history.
Several nights after the World changed forever for the first time, we walked seven miles from my apartment in Somerville to Copley Square, where we sat by the fountain in front of the church, lit candles and reflected on national tragedy. And we came together as Bostonians, as Americans, and grieved and healed.
Boston made me. Copley Square formed and informed me. My streets, Boylston and Dartmouth, were so tragically scarred forever today.
But there will be healing and rebirth. Boston is great at that.
Image Source: Bite
Carrying on a relationship with somebody you have no business being in a relationship with takes some doing, especially when your “better half” lives two states away. It’s an exercise in low self-esteem, lack of communication skills, apathy, frustration and stupidity. Masochism at its finest. Fortunately, I had practice.
Autumn 1997: I was twenty five and working the graveyard in Maine, having crawled back to my parents briefly, having run out of work and money in Boston. The first time I saw “Carla”, on my first night on the job, I immediately thought of Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) describing second baseman Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanaugh) in A League of Their Own: “You know General Omar Bradley? Well, there’s too strong a resemblance!” At the end of that first shift I discovered, much to my horror that I was making out with Carla/Marla in her car. Once committed, we were now stuck. For the next year and eight months.
Twenty months was also the amount of time I spent with The Psychotic Ex. As I said, I had practice. I didn’t have a girlfriend in high school until my senior year. “Anne” arrived fresh from the Midwest in September, and we got on at first. Then she dumped me for a classmate. Then we got back together. Then she dumped me for aNOTHer classmate. Then finally, over Christmas break, we got together for “real.” She was a total nutter, and I should have pressed charges many times over. Her greatest hits included: breaking into my house and stealing my guitar for ransom, stabbing me in the forearm with a steak knife and multiple instances of almost driving off the road in a “suicide” attempt with me in the car, to say nothing of the daily garden variety emotional blackmail, threats and invitations to join her and her other boyfriend(s) for bowling and pizza. BUT, I didn’t want to hurt her, so I took it. And took it. Until I couldn’t anymore.
At twenty five I found myself straddling an interesting line between extreme lack of self-esteem (hi, Anne!) and extreme self-importance: the kind of polar opposites that only serve to reinforce each other. I inhaled college radio during my high school days in the ‘80s. WRBC Bates and WBOR Bowdoin were lifelines, and I fell in love with indie bands such as The Ramones, Hüsker Dü, Agent Orange, The Smithereens, The Feelies and The Pixies. In college, my love of Beat poets Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg grew, and I discovered Robert Creeley and the brilliant authors Hubert Selby Jr. and Charles Bukowski. Selby’s short-stories resonated, and I could relate to Buke’s drunken madman bum protagonist Henry Chinaski. And nobody else knew of any of my bands and books. At twenty five I figured nobody would want to go out with me, but if anyone ever did, I’d take them to school.
I knew things were doomed with Carla when I saw the Spice Girls poster in her bedroom.
The Spice Girls, fachrissakes?!? I held my tongue at this mainstream outrage, but it was unsettling. Little did I know that this would be the first glimpse of the incompatibility iceberg right ahead. Speaking of which, the next summer we saw Titanic together. She LOVED it, and with that I knew definitively that we had no business being together and that eventually – a year later, as it turns out – I would have to move on.
It wasn’t all bad. I returned to Boston in February 1998, and with that Carla came down usually every other weekend. We took long walks all over town, ate and drank and hung out with my roommates. We both knew that we were completely incompatible, but neither of us knew how to pull the trigger and admit it. So we continued on as…friends with occasional benefits? A couple by default? Other? Something like that.
I never took any steps to find something else, despite the distance. But we both felt the distance. By the summer of 1999, Carla admitted she was feeling a bit restless, and that she sometimes felt bisexual urges.
My self-importance kicked into high gear, and I channeled George Costanza of Seinfeld fame. “Wow, babe,” I said over the phone in my most benevolent encouraging voice. “Maybe that’s something you should look into. I mean, I wouldn’t want to hold you back from being you.” Nope. No, I wouldn’t. We had a trip planned: I was FINALLY going to Cooperstown, NY, and the Baseball Hall of Fame. A trip I had been waiting for my entire life. We talked about the trip and her nascent curiosity and hung up, and for the first time in a loooong time I went to bed optimistic.
The morning of the trip finally arrived, and Carla took Trailways down to Boston. I could tell right away that something was off. She was even more distant than usual, and more emotional. We had a few stress factors that morning. Typical stuff for irresponsible mid 20-somethings: my paycheck was delayed, leaving us short of funds, and there was an issue picking up our rental car. Eventually it all became too much, and the truth came out: Carla started crying like mad and confessed that she couldn’t decide between me, her girlfriend or her other boyfriend.
WOW! What a trifecta! I was GIDDY inside!
We sat under a tree by, I think, the old Bread & Circus store on Westland Ave, and hugged and talked. And we agreed to give it a rest so she could figure things out. I assured Carla I wasn’t mad at her, and I understood and didn’t want to get in the way. (True enough) And she got back on Trailways to Portland.
I picked up a 12-Pack of Samuel Adams and headed back to my apartment to mourn the loss of a trip to Cooperstown and to celebrate the easiest, most gutless breakup of my life and the beginning of the next chapter.
Image Source: The Edmontonian
I love winter, and I embrace it. I can’t afford to go skiing anymore, but even so I love all the outdoor fun that comes from a good, deep blanket of New England snow and sharp cold: tobogganing, ice fishing, pond hockey, you name it. As a Maine man, I also love the romance of winter and the pride of merely surviving day-to-day in extreme conditions.
From November on, I love the absence of light. The sun leaves the sky by 4:00 PM and to me there is nothing cozier than returning home and settling into the night immediately. The back roads are covered in a fog of wood smoke, the most intoxicating smell in the world. These are the days of stews and pies and baked bean suppers, and finding comfort wherever we can. When the snow flies, we Mainers fly into action, and shoveling and plowing snow and sawing and stacking wood become activities ingrained into motor memory. It takes a special character to survive and thrive in a Maine winter, and we pride ourselves on having this fortitude of spirit and intestine.
One of the most critical aspects of surviving a Maine winter is dressing for the occasion, and that means layering. From November through April, my standard wardrobe is t-shirt and a sweater, or t-shirt and a flannel, and often I go t-shirt, long-sleeve Henley and flannel. And frequently I throw on a pair of Long Johns for extra warmth below the equator.
Layering is a time-honored Maine winter tradition. Ironically, I learned the lesson in Florida on a day of national tragedy.
January 28, 1986: I was in seventh grade at Hendricks Methodist in Jacksonville. I was not Methodist, nor anything else: my family went to church as often as we flew first class, which is to say never. I had run into some major bullying issues in public school during my first three years in Jax (as we saw in the five-part series that started here), so my parents thought private school might be a good fit. Good idea, not so great results. But I digress.
Eight days earlier, my science class, led by Ms. Harm, had taken a field trip to Kennedy Space Center in anticipation of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the First Teacher in Space, New Hampshire’s own Christa McAuliffe. It was a brilliant, chilly day, and I had Led Zeppelin IV for my Walkman. We devoured all the exhibits and went crazy in the gift shop, and as we were herded back to the bus, there it was. The great ship was on the giant transport tractor, making the slow journey to the launch pad. Challenger and her booster rockets practically glowed against the brown/orange of the fuel tank. It was a magnificent site, and we all felt a sense of pride in the upcoming mission.
Eight days later, as the Challenger launched on her doomed flight, one of my “chums” spilled a full carton of chocolate milk all over my lap. The humiliation of my entire table laughing at me as my crotch and legs were doused was bad enough, but there was also a practical problem: my jeans were soaked and it was literally freezing out. What the hell was I going to do to stay warm?
I must have thought of my days tobogganing at the farm and my trusty Long Johns, because I went to my locker, grabbed my gym sweats and put them on, then pulled my jeans back on. I reeked like stale chocolate milk and humiliation. But I was warm.
The layout of Hendricks was definitely unconventional. There were rows of classroom buildings, almost like cabanas or military barracks, with outdoor paths in between wending through palm trees and evergreens with Spanish moss. I remember sitting in Ms. Harm’s science class, warm with my sweats on under my jeans, when she said, “The Challenger has exploded, and there were no survivors.” My class gasped and cried, and we all went outside. And 160 miles to the south, we saw the smoke in the sky: the Y-shaped cloud of death with the huge ball of fire in the middle where the shuttle blew up and the rockets separated. I stood there in the cold, stinking like sour chocolate milk, but layered in warmth, gazing at the smoke in the sky and realizing that the world had just changed inalterably forever.
Later at home I watched President Reagan’s “Touch the Face of God” speech in a fresh pair of pants. I remember the sky outside the Oval Office and how much it reminded me of winter sunsets in Maine (as we’ve seen here, this was a common occurrence for me back then). In spite of the horrors of the day, I remember dreaming of being back at the farm, back home in Maine. I dreamed of those 4:00 PM sunsets and cozy early evenings and wood smoke and sitting by the wood stove, safe and warm, and playing in the snow in the glorious winter cold.
And I remember thinking that when we moved back home, whenever that was, I would spend the rest of my winters layered and happy.
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Image Source: The Bad Chemicals
We moved to Florida a few months before I turned ten in 1982. Before that I was enrolled at Jordan Acres Elementary, Brunswick, ME, and inundated with tiny niggling fears.
Just across from the school playground was a street with a few low-slung brick buildings and an overpass. We walked under the overpass to get to the corner variety store for Slush Puppies, Reggie Bars and candy cigarettes. The buildings were nondescript, and could have been either residential or commercial at one point. Now they were abandoned, with the windows on the upper floors boarded up. I was convinced that this was a hideout for robbers, and I was sure that there was a hostage inside trussed up on a meat hook. And I was convinced that if the robbers ever walked out of one of the buildings while I was passing, I would be grabbed and trussed up, never to see my mom and dad again. It was certainly a frightening way to get a Slush Puppy.
On my road I had to watch out for the hippies. I have no idea who called them the hippies or why, nor how many there were. But I knew they had to be dangerous. I only ran afoul of them once, but it was terrifying. I remember there were two of them on one motorcycle, and they rode after me for a little bit. Probably just revved their engine, really, but that was enough. I remember hearing the engine gunning, seeing red and black plaid flannel and long hair and hearing a laugh which, over the years, has turned into a maniacal cackle. I remember screaming and running like hell for the house, and the sickening feeling that I might…not…make…it… My mom was probably home, and she probably hugged it all better. And I don’t remember ever seeing the hippies again. But they have remained in my brain ever since.
One time we returned from a vacation at Disney World to discover that our lock had been picked. Nothing was missing from the house, and no arrests were ever made. Who knows what that was about? But I remember the sense of violation from a robber (one from the building with the meat hooks?) being in the house, and the fear that they could come back. That they would come back, while we were home, and my dad would have to fight them all off…
On the bus to Jordan Acers we drove by the end of the runway of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. At the time BNAS was home to several squadrons of sub hunters, who flew P3 Orions over the North Atlantic searching for enemy submarines. We lived about two miles away from the base, and the sound of the propellers and the sight of the planes flying low and turning in graceful arcs toward or away from the runway was a perpetual background loop. On the bus, as we passed the runway, or parked at the Dairy Joy or Fat Boy Drive-in, I often had an image in my head of a P3 careening nose-first into the ground and exploding into a fireball. I could see the pilot frantically pulling the stick back through the cockpit window as the plane plummeted, to no avail. It never happened, but the image was frequent and extremely vivid.
Fire was a constant fear. I saw the episode of Little House on the Prairie where Albert accidentally burns down the church by leaving a lit pipe in the basement at too young an age, and the trauma settled in. Every clap of thunder, I was sure, brought with it the bolt of lightning that would hit the house and destroy my teddy bear and burn our cats alive. I remember my dad counting the seconds between thunderclaps to prove that a storm was moving away, and just reassuring me in general when a storm approached.
But the fear was real, and it came from experience.
I remember walking through the woods one winter afternoon and seeing The Thompsons house burn to the ground. I don’t remember The Thompsons, but I’ll never forget the sight and sounds, and especially the feel, of seeing their house burning down, and the charred smoldering wreckage after the fact. I remember this was the first time I ever heard of anyone having a “Saltbox House”: we had a Ranch, and most of my friends had Ranches or Split-Levels or Trailers. To this day, whenever I drive by or see or hear mentioned a Saltbox, I immediately see The Thompsons Saltbox house fully engulfed in the cold woods of my youth.
It happened to The Thompsons, I remember thinking. It’s going to happen to us too!
Retrospect, I can see that this is where the narrative thread of my life started to emerge. This was not just the slightly overactive imagination of a kid who may have watched a bit too much TV. This is where my OCD really started to present itself. The obsession, the rumination and the spirals…it all makes total sense to me now.
I don’t recall any rituals or number obsessions or any other coping mechanisims I may have used back then, but I find it very comforting somehow to see that my OCD clearly goes back this far. It explains a lot. And it makes me feel a lot (okay, a bit) more normal. One of the most dominant traits of my internal wiring was right there all along, screaming for attention and being unintentionally ignored.
One thing about death: it really illuminates life.
Experiencing death far before its time really makes one realize how much life means – the life of the deceased, the impact they had, our lives and our place in it. The things that matter and the things that don’t. Death makes life completely relevant and meaningful, and all we can hope to do is heed the lessons and live our life like we mean it.
So, Tony and Rick Cimato. Tony and I were classmates from eight grade through high school. We were in band and jazz band together (see here and here for horror stories), and because my psychotic girlfriend-at-the-time dated him in fourth grade or something, she dumped me for Tony before dumping him for me. Rick was a few years behind.
Tony and I were friends, but not super close. Nothing personal at all; that’s just how it was. We hung out after school a few times, but we weren’t best friends for life. We graduated in 1991. I couldn’t get away from high school fast enough, so I settled into college and moved the hell on. Twenty years passed and I started reconsidering and reconnecting with old classmates on Facebook, including Tony.
As of 2011 at least, Tony was in the hospital with a degenerative neurological condition. I felt horrible about his situation, but it was great reconnecting with him over our virtual backyards, and I know that we both had some big laughs catching up and looking back.
I kind of remembered Rick, but I got to know him a bit better when he friended me a few months ago, and I was really happy to see that he had landed in a great place: tending bar in Manhattan, in a band that was getting some buzz, awesome looking girlfriend…Rick looked real happy, and that’s all you can hope for old friends.
On the Sunday before Christmas, Rick posted that he, his girlfriend Ashley and brother Nick were in Freeport sucking down oysters and bloodys and partaking in Christmas merriment. On the day after Christmas the news slowly spread like a horrible rumor over Facebook: in the early hours of that day, on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Connecticut – a road I know very well from my own childhood – a 22-year-old driving north in the southbound lane hit Rick head-on. Rick Cimato, age 37, was killed, as was the other driver. Ashley and Nick survived with injuries.
Somewhere in the background, like another horrible rumor, it was learned that Tony was in ICU. But it didn’t really register: the horror, pain and disbelief that overcame our town – our community – at the news of Rick’s senseless death was all-prevalent and all-consuming.
Two days after the passing of Rick Cimato, on the morning of Friday the 28th, the news slowly spread like a horrible rumor over Facebook: Tony Cimato, age 38, succumbed after his long battle.
Two brothers dead in two days. Two friends. Too much to handle.
In the aftermath, memories of Tony and Rick came in great loving floods. Both brothers had Facebook Memorial Pages set up (Tony and Rick), and our community came together to laugh, love and heal together. I was able to relive Tony’s Madonna obsession, his killer dance in the 1990 Spring Fling Talent Show and his infectious laugh and spirit. I got to see what a huge heart Rick had, how far he had come (his band, Thinning the Heard, had an album produced by Steve Albini! The same guy who produced The Pixies, The Breeders and Nirvana, fachrissakes!) and how far he had left to go. I went to the memorial service last Wednesday, and although it was brutally hard emotionally, it was also incredibly comforting and healing to see so many people and such an outpouring of love. Death illuminates life, and the lives of Tony and Rick Cimato left an incredible impression.
I never visited Tony: not because I was unwilling, but just because that’s how it ended up. Day job, commute, domestic maintenance, trying to find time to write…the vicissitudes of life and all. Still, they were both my friends, and their losses have shocked me to the core.
This isn’t supposed to happen.
Classmates – kids my age – aren’t supposed to die. Twenty years passed before I had any contact with anyone I went to high school with. All my old classmates are supposed to exist in a vacuum. We’re all supposed to have full 80s hair, bad acne, no kids or careers, and we’re all supposed to be interested in little beyond finding someone to buy a couple of 40s for us so we can head to the gravel pit. We’re not supposed to have bad backs, male-pattern baldness, kids in high school and positions of importance in the school administration.
And we’re NOT supposed to die in car accidents or have ultimately fatal neurological conditions.
I am well-versed in horribly premature death (as we’ve seen here and here). I understand the grieving and healing process all too well. But it’s entirely different when there is a quarter-century of collective history involved.
In the picture above of the 1989/1990 Lisbon ME High School Jazz Band, alto-sax player Tony Cimato, drummer Tarsha Ramich and myself are, for whatever reason, holding a rock in our mulletastic rocker glory. Seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess. Earlier this year, I got the word that Tarsha had passed away in Florida. I grieved and grappled with the same issues – we weren’t close and had only recently reconnected on Facebook as well, but I still mourned and grieved. Now Tony is gone, and I am the last one holding the rock.
I’m not quite channeling Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison and mumbling to myself how these things always come in threes. But I am more than a bit freaked out and much more aware of the fragility of life.
I ache for the Cimato family. I ache for life, and two lives ended far too early. And all I can do is carry on and live my life like I mean it. Because it’s all I have.
Image Source: geektress.com
Bill Cosby robbed my mommy.
Okay, the Cos’ didn’t travel to Maine and ransack our Brunswick home, or pull a strong-arm hold-up on my mom on the street. But still, Bill Cosby took money away from my dear hard-working stay-at-home mom.
I am still, to this day, waiting for my Picture Pages puzzle booklets and Mortimer Ichabod marker.
Remember Captain Kangaroo? Of course you do. Then you also remember Picture Pages with Bill Cosby, which was a regular feature on the show. I still know the theme song by heart:
Time to get your Picture Pages!
Time to get your crayons and your pencils!
Open up your Picture Pages!
Time to watch Bill Cosby do a Picture Page with you!
Yeah, it would have been time to watch Bill Cosby do a Picture Page with me, if he had ever sent me my goddamn Picture Pages puzzle booklets and Mortimer Ichabod marker. But he never did.
Thirty-odd years later, I have no idea what happened. My mom sent in our order (I’m pretty sure), having carefully filled in the order blank (I’m pretty sure). Our order blank went out in the mail (of course!), and…
All I know is that I spent many an afternoon hearing the voice of Bill Cosby and the robotic squeaks of Mortimer Ichabod on my TV as I stared out my living room window, hoping to see the mailman pull up with the coveted package: a squeaking Mortimer Ichabod marker of my own. And I spent many an afternoon being comforted by my mom after the mailman failed to deliver.
I’m sure Bill Cosby himself had little if anything to do with this malfeasance. (I can imagine the Cos’ mirroring Krusty the Klown’s mea culpa about putting his name on the disaster that was Kamp Krusty: “They drove a dump truck full of money up to my house! I’m not made of stone!”) I’m sure he was preoccupied and totally unaware.
Still, it was Picture Pages with Bill Cosby, not Picture Pages with Some Nameless Schlub Who Likes to Steal Money From Stay-at-Home Moms.
Image Source: Boston Real Estate Observer
Late afternoon summer sun fights through the gray, the beams landing on the garbage bags that hold my possessions and clothes on the floor. Clouds of nicotine float across the room, desperate to waft out of the open screen and into the courtyard. The landlord is in her basement apartment, and she has no idea that I’m home: if she did, there would be trouble, since I bounced my last $300 rent check for the sublet.
I’m 24 and living in Apartment 3, 39 Rutland Square, Boston. My roommate is a Swede studying in Malmö for the summer, so the place is mine. Mine alone.
It’s a typical Saturday. I’ve called in “sick” at the call center (“food poisoning”: better be careful and stick to that story if I call in on Monday), and am in bed working on a 12-Pack of Rolling Rock and two packs of Marlboro Mediums. Depression is taking a major toll, on finances and general quality of life. But at age 24, I don’t know its depression, and I have no idea what kind of resources might exist, if any. All I can do is sit around and wonder what is wrong with me.
I stare blankly at a Sox game on the tube. The sun pours in and diminishes, and the Sox game gives way to COPS reruns. I fade out, nap for a bit. The twilight slides into dark. I wake up, recover my bearings, crack another beer, light another smoke.
I know that I’m looking at another all-nighter of coffee, cigarettes, writing and trying to get my life in order. This is my life. I’m 24, and I have no idea what is wrong with me or how to fix it.
All I can do is write in my journal and tell myself that it will get better…