By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
We were maybe 18 when A fell skateboarding. After he had his accident a few of us stayed at the hospital. Some stayed to all hours of the night or slept in the hall, flipped coins in the cafeteria, waited, waited. We watched his family get the bad news, then the good news, then the bad news.
After they removed some skull and part of his swelling brain some of us talked to him, went to his hospital room, then to his house when he got out. I didn’t go to his house but B would bring him places I was and I would talk to him. The scales of his affect had become lopsided. He always sounded sarcastic in every interaction. Whether he was or wasn’t, no one knew. He also lost a good deal of his understanding of time. He would call his friends at 3 a.m. asking to play video games or go to the movies.
There is an etiquette we learn as children from getting sent to time-out for laughing in church, or from the bromides in funeral speeches, or the soft lies of remembering out loud. We glean the idea of good taste. But I still remember, years before the accident, the time a group of us were waiting outside Market Basket for T to get off his shift. A crouched between a couple cars and pulled his pants down to his ankles. He strained his face and let something fall onto a Dunkin’ Donuts napkin. It smelled awful. He walked across the parking lot carrying it and everyone followed him and watched as he threw it against the window of the condemned department store. It splattered like mud. Everyone laughed.
If there is remembering, I always think it should be honest to the real why’s and who’s of the thing. Last I heard, A was in an assisted living place off Main Street in the town I grew up in. When I was young there were a lot of people who wandered Main Street. Many were from halfway houses, assisted living spots, living under bridges, former residents of the state hospital. We had names or nicknames for many of them. I liked listening to them talk, the ones that talked. They were as much a part of downtown as the buildings.
One showed me a guitar filled with the pull tabs of aluminum cans, He also wrapped plastic around the strings way up on the neck. It raddled and sounded like old nonsense when he played. He had a bathrobe on, and these shiny leather women’s boots that went to his knees. He wore a leopard print towel on his head. He said the guitar was worth $500 with the alterations he had made. He kept trying to sell it to me. I declined and just sat there in front of the statehouse with him and listened to his stories, watched him smoke cigarettes. I like the way he smoked his cigarettes. Most of the stories walked in and out of plausibility and sense.
There was the guy at the bagel place who would sit with me and tell me about his cure for cancer. There was the one who paced the same ten feet on the same corner all day, every day. He wore a beret and looked like my friend’s dad. There was the one, Cathy, I have written of before who I really liked. She was older, there was a fragility and goodness to her. She deteriorated more and more as time went.
There was one kid I went to high school with who ended up kidnapping my friend’s cat. He would call him and taunt him about it. One day my friend found the cat nailed to a tree near his house. Last I heard the cat-napper was down on Main Street with a sign that said bring me to Africa. I heard he was living under the bridge down by the community college, but I don’t know for sure.
When I was young, even very young, I assumed I would end up being one of them if I didn’t die before it happened. I think a lot of it was luck that kept me from ending up under those bridges, that I’m writing my stories down instead of telling them to teenagers near Bicentennial square. It wasn’t anything I ever romanticized, it’s just the truth of it. The fat lady isn’t singing yet but I have made it this far, so have some of the others I grew up with, but not all of them.