Before the Forties
They were bored, I think. Bored with a bygone summer, the days building
up longer and longer and each one with less to do to pass the time. I
think it was Jeff’s idea; he’s the one that usually comes
up with the crazy schemes; whether we should survive the dangerous streets
of Chicago (he called them “Shootables”) or drive around picking
up cardboard boxes to make robot armor, his ideas largely went only half
fulfilled. I don’t know why we decided to go along with his newest
scheme that Saturday night. I suppose we got tired of going to the same
bar or checking out terrible summer movies, and that’s really all
we do during the summer. Jeff got bored of the same old, so he decided
we should drink forties and walk up and down the railroad tracks.
I laughed. That was absurd; we would get in trouble for sure. But he said, “No man. It’ll be like we’re channeling the bums from the 1920s. It’ll be crazy.” He always said stuff would be crazy, and a lot of the times he was right. But to me, crazy doesn’t mean good, and too much crazy can take its toll on me. I told him as much and he said,
“Life is about experiences. You especially should be doing crazy
shit all the time. You’re the writer, aren’t you?”
I knew it too, that crazy meant it would be a story to tell, and I suppose
that’s what it has become. I just chalked it up to what Jeff said,
it’s all about life experiences, and I kept telling myself that
in five, ten, twenty years from now, or tomorrow, I would regret if I
didn’t at least go along for the ride.
So that’s how Jeff, Phil, Brett and I ended up on the railroad
tracks with forties that summer night.
There was more lead up to this; perhaps it had been brewing since the beginning of summer. Jeff, returning to his home in the Southside suburbs of Chicago from school in California, said that this summer would be known as
“The Summer of No Fear.” Things started off poorly in that
regard. Let’s just say they involved a trespassing on government
property incident. The fallout led us to our limited choice in activities,
and the monotony just built up until my friends all bought forties of
Steel Reserve and hit the tracks.
They were Metra tracks that ran southwest from Union Station in Chicago
to God knows where. At points they pass through residential neighborhoods
and commercial areas. My three friends left the gas station with forties
in paper bags and we began walking down the tracks. The sun was going
down with us, tingeing the sky red, but soon it would be dark.
It was awkward at first. The initial thrill was over. We were no longer
invincible 22 year old kids; now we were a group of douche bags with forties.
But we went with it anyway.
Half Done With One
In order to spare myself as much jail time as possible, I didn’t
buy any beer, but by the time their forties were half gone, their movement
was looser and their voices louder. “How far do you guys wanna go?”
I asked, feeling as though I was the only sane person in the group.
“Till we die,” Jeff said. “Or pass out. Both are fine.”
I remember thinking, how is this ever gonna help my writing? I think
the experience was all about Jeff’s character. Because if you knew
him, you’d know that little of the crazy things he talks about ever
comes to fruition. He was just as surprised as any of us that we were
actually out there doing what he said we should do. And he didn’t
know what to do after that. Stop? That’s not good enough; not for
the The Summer of No Fear. But it would end more befitting of that moniker
than Jeff or I would have liked, because deep down we both knew this was
a bad idea.
If you know Steel Reserve, then you know it doesn’t take long to
get drunk from it. As we walked, they grew louder, their comments more
obnoxious and their footsteps more clumsy. As day turned to night, we
started talking about music. I don’t remember what we said, but
it ended in Phil saying, “Yeah, we could make our own songs!”
And that’s how they started singing songs about some girl I don’t
know, and hitting sticks against fences to produce the music. I think
they called the song “Kristen is a Garbage Bag.”
“That’s kind of a mean thing to say,” I said.
Brett came up with the name and it was he who responded, “It’s
not my fault she looked like a garbage bag when I saw her.”
There was something about this senseless noise that I found relaxing
though. I wasn’t worried about getting caught anymore; it was just
like drinking in a bar, but this time we brought the bar onto the railroad
tracks with us. We made the suburbs a beer garden. But this beer tasted
like steel and blood, and the bartender was an unsuspecting convenience
So they’d finished one whole forty each, and I got to taste some
of it. I mean that literally and figuratively. I couldn’t keep up
with their drunken ranting, Brett especially. He’d long ago decided
that he wasn’t going to talk anymore. Instead everything that escaped
from his lips was yelled.
As luck would have it, the tracks came upon another store. This one had
some sixteen-year-old kids standing out front, and this is where I mention
that I’m not happy with what happened next and you might not be
either. But it was all part of the experience, man, just go with it. The
conversation went from, “Hey let’s get more forties,”
to Phil walking right up to those kids and saying, “You guys want
cigarettes and beer?”
We were all shocked, the kids included (maybe even Phil), but of course
they said yes. I shot a look at Jeff and he just shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s part of the experience, Adam,” he said, as if
that made this legal. And it was part of the experience. It’s the
part that should be left on the cutting room floor. It’s the part
that you may think, they wouldn’t have done that. They’re
all responsible adults. But it happened, man. Just go with it.
The kids were in high school, but I don’t remember which one. The
three of them, Dan, Tim, and Ryan drank forties of Corona, but we were
cooler than them, so we continued with our Steel Reserves. And they did
think we were the coolest cats on the planet. Tim is the only one of them
I really remember, and he said, “If you guys need a place to crash
tonight, you can stay with me and my sisters.” I think we might’ve
thought that could work, that hey, maybe his sisters are hot, but then
again, maybe he would kill us in our sleep too.
These kids, they joined in the loud singing and after that we told them
how the music their generation listens to is unfocused and will never
be as good as our music. They argued back, and then broke into a fake
wrestling match on the Metra tracks. While that went on, I stood to the
side with Jeff.
“I don’t like this,” I said. “Drinking on the
tracks is one thing, but buying liquor for kids is a little different.”
“Adam,” he said, his voice sounding frustrated instead of
reassuring. “You won’t even get in trouble if the cops come.
There’s no proof that we bought them alcohol, and if there was,
Phil would be the one to go down for it. And look at him, he’s not
No he wasn’t. He was too busy fighting drunk sixteen-year-olds
to be worried, but what Jeff didn’t understand was my moral objections.
Sure, it was all part of the experience. You can’t have an experience
if there are no emotions involved, but it’s completely different
when you feel outnumbered by your own friends.
One and a Half
It was around 1 AM now, and the kids were still with us. It took until
late July, but The Summer of No Fear was finally upon us. We didn’t
care what we did.
We saw in the distance a small four car parking garage attached to an
apartment complex, and Jeff thought it would be fun to revisit our youth.
Back in our own high school days, climbing to the top of a parking garage
at night was exhilarating, so why wouldn’t it be now five years
later. Plus most of us were drunk, so that always makes things more fun,
It was only one story tall and we had to climb on boxes and dumpsters
to get to the top. Before we all had our feet on the roof, Phil threw
his forty off into the driveway below. It shattered magnificently sending
shards of glass and the remainder of his beer in all directions, and sent
us laughing at the randomness of his act. Jeff came up to me and said,
“See Phil? He makes mini experiences out of bigger ones.”
I don’t know if Jeff was going to say anything else to me, but
Tim came up to him and pointed at someone’s backyard. “Those
chairs look like they belong in that pool,” he said. Before the
smile even spread across his entire face, Jeff and Tim were off.
I watched them from the top of the garage. Tim hopped the fence into
the backyard, followed by Jeff. From my bird’s eye view, I saw them
both, and I think I saw Jeff hesitate for the first time that night. When
Tim flung a chair into the pool, Jeff picked another one and just stood
with it for a moment. He threw it in, he had to, cause after all, we’re
much cooler than any high school kids, but after that he hopped the fence
again and left Tim. I never told Jeff that I saw him hesitate, that maybe
he might think the experience was getting out of hand too. If he started
having doubts, then who knew what I would start thinking.
Before Jeff and Tim came back to us, I started to smell smoke and I didn’t
see Brett anywhere. I asked Phil, but he only shrugged, so I started looking
around for smoke and was afraid of what I might find. I guess I shouldn’t
have been surprised; when you smell smoke, there’s usually a fire.
In the alley behind the garage sat a garbage can with flames shooting
out of it turning the night orange. At the same time, Jeff and Tim were
climbing back onto the roof, Brett right behind them, and when Brett climbed
up all he said was, “Hey guys, I started a fire.”
We all stood on the edge of the roof looking at Brett’s work of
art. “You should put that out,” Phil said. But no one did
Two Down and None to Go
They threw their forties down into the parking lot next to Phil’s.
A symphony of breaking glass joined the crackling of the fire, and the
parking lot below became a graveyard of shattered bottles of beer.
We talked on the garage for a while, not about anything important, and while we talked, the teenagers left. We’d never see them again, but we knew that they would tell their friends how they met the coolest college kids ever and had a blast with them.
“We have to get back to the tracks, guys,” Jeff said. “This
night is supposed to be about the tracks.”
The experience definitely left an impression on me by that point. The
most I was used to was trespassing, and usually just at a cemetery at
night. Now I was able to add public intoxication (I exaggerate, I was
barely even drinking), vandalism, supplying alcohol to a minor, and disturbing
the peace to that list. All in one night, no less. And it was awesome.
The constant fear of getting caught was exhilarating, and I knew that
it would be a story to tell. And in the end, life is just a series of
stories that you tell.
Now we walked down the tracks, douche bags without forties, and we were
just drunk. I mean sputtering, stupid, and belligerent drunk. Brett and
Phil tripped over each other and mumbled things when they tried to speak.
Jeff was only buzzed, and that’s because he drank much less than
he let on. The forty that he threw off the parking garage had more beer
in it than glass, and that was probably for the best. It made me feel
like I was on the same page as someone. For as much talk as Jeff gave
me about going with the experience, I knew that he had reservations too,
that he knew when enough was enough and maybe he just didn’t care.
That’s what I was searching for too, I just wanted not to care.
So what if we’re arrested and spend a night in jail? So what if
we’re fined a few hundred dollars? So what? Life is about the experiences
you have, about the stories you tell, and I wanted to stop being afraid
of just going with it.
“How’re you doing, man?” I asked Jeff as we made our
way down the tracks.
“Great,” he said. His faux enthusiasm helped me realize that we were now worried about the same thing.
We weren’t stopping until Brett and Phil passed out. How the hell were we gonna get them back to the car?
Disregarding that thought, he said, “So how do you feel about tonight?”
How did I feel? I felt like we did a lot of stupid shit that we should’ve
gotten caught for. I felt relieved that we didn’t, and I figured
that’s because the cops had something better to do like take down
murderers and drug dealers. But I also felt like the night was worth the
fear. That being caught would’ve just added to the experience. It
felt good to feel that. “I’m glad I came along,” I said.
Since I view life as a series of stories, I feel like the only point
of life is to find those stories. The railroad tracks that night helped
me find a story, a story that isn’t finished quite yet, but this
is the reflection part. The part right before the climax that involves
vomit and cops and the culmination of fear and anxiety. I think what happened
next both proves and disproves every feeling I had about going into that
trek. What happened next made that night epic on a small scale.
We stumbled off the tracks. But to be clear, I should say only Brett
and Phil stumbled. Jeff and I walked behind them down a residential street.
The street lights shone down adding a ghostly glow to their already pale
white faces. I knew it was coming soon and wasn’t surprised at all
when Brett clung to a “For Sale By Owner” sign and chucked
all over some stranger’s lawn. Maybe seeing this accelerated the
process in Phil, but he knelt down on the ground on the other side of
the “For Sale” sign and let loose as well. They both sat now
on all fours on either side of this sign mumbling nonsense between epic
bouts of vomiting.
“They’re not making it back to the car,” I said.
“I know, I’m gonna call for a ride.”
It was past 3 in the morning, but Jeff had no problems waking our friend
Craig up and asking for a favor. Jeff had to explain the situation, but
Craig agreed to come pick us up.
Moans came from the “For Sale” sign and I looked over and
saw the two of them still dry heaving. Luckily none of the noise attracted
the attention of the home owner, but the sight caught the interest of
a passing cop.
The police car pulled over next to us and the officer shined his light
in Phil and Brett’s direction. Then, looking at Jeff and me, he
said, “Are those guys gonna be okay?”
Jeff answered him, “Yeah, we just came from Jack Desmond’s
and they had a little too much to drink.”
“I didn’t ask where you came from,” he said, his light
on us now, “I asked if they’re gonna be okay.”
“Yeah, they’ll be fine. I just called for a ride.”
“Alright,” the cop said and he drove off.
We were both holding our breath as the cop drove away. I think as soon
as the squad car pulled up, Jeff and I both thought that we’d be
spending at least the rest of the night in jail. The fear I had of getting
caught had become reality, but we were set free. I didn’t really
know what to think of it then, and to be honest I still don’t.
When he was out of sight, Jeff and I sat on the curb and waited for our
ride. After a few minutes, Brett and Phil settled down and fell asleep
in the lawn, and when Craig finally arrived, they needed to be carried
into his car. By the time everyone was driven home, it was a quarter past
4 in the morning and I couldn’t wait to lie in bed and sleep until
4 in the evening.
So in the end I went with it, if only a little bit. Maybe next time,
I’d be the one throwing up in a stranger’s yard, but for now
this was good enough for me. I didn’t regret what we did that night;
in fact, I wished there were more nights like that. That there were more
stories to tell.
And in the spirit of conclusiveness, it should be known that Brett and
Phil had a 40 hour hangover. I don’t think they’d approve
of this narrative if I didn’t make that clear.