Why you should care

There’s a thin line between fun and felony.

It was all there in that small, sleepy town with not a whole lot to do other than the summer jobs that drew us there. The choice had been that or head off to Wyoming to be a gandy dancer — which is to say, laying train tracks in the American West. And here? In a town in upstate New York, make sure city kids didn’t drown themselves. I was a lifeguard and a swim instructor.

The more macho alternative paid better, but in the days before email they just didn’t say hey in time, so north I went. To Beacon, New York, specifically. A town and a camp ruled by the iron fist of folkie icon Pete Seeger. Actually, less an iron fist and more in keeping with the general tone and timbre of the town — much more a pillow fist. Seeger was as sweet and as gentle as Beacon, but hot day after hot day, for the camp staff, after bedtime, there was little else to do.

Like an incident at a local watering hole that included having our table surrounded by coked-up Marines who asked as nicely as possible if we wanted our Black asses kicked. Which was funny since two of us were white, one was Panamanian, one was Puerto Rican and only two of us were Black. But I was 16, it should be noted. And all of 160 pounds. So: No. Not then.

They say youth is wasted on the young, but you never hear about how the young almost get wasted by youth.

This left RJs, a Black juke joint that played disco, had dancing and served me drinks at a time when the drinking age in New York was 18 and I looked “old enough.” So we’d go out, throw our hands in the air and party hard like we just didn’t care. The toughest was being hungover for the 7 a.m. swim class when, in the spirit of showing the kids that the unheated pool was not cold, my boss said, “Get in there and show them it’s not cold.”

Except it was and now so was I. Cold and just a little less hungover.

But even the most fun hang has costs that go beyond hangovers. Mostly: costs. We made $150 for the entire summer, and even in the late 1970s this wasn’t much. Not complaining. Just explaining how it was that we found ourselves out one night without the means to entertain.

“You wanna go to RJs?” D-Man asked. Tall, thin and pale white with fire-engine-red hair and chain-smoking Salems. Today we’d call him an enabler, and I loved him like a brother.

“Nah. No money.” Chico, from Cuba, rarely came out to RJs with us. He didn’t drink. But he’d hang like a champ. They turned to me and I shrugged and turned my head and they followed my gaze. Which had landed on a rusty old pickup truck left listing on a hillside near some converted bunkhouse.

“Now if we only had the keys to that …” I said. “But how hard could it be to hot-wire something?” The question was rhetorical. Sort of. And definitely not when you find yourself walking toward it. “And why would you need to hot-wire it if someone left the keys inside?”

Sometimes the universe just begs you to use it, and within minutes there we were, cruising down a country lane in an old pickup truck. We took turns driving. I’d been driving since I was 13 but was unlicensed. Chico, a few years older, drove in Cuba but was also unlicensed. D-Man, a year older than me but also unlicensed.

The night rushed by with the trees bowered overhead, and when Chico took the wheel, I decided I needed to turn things up a bit.

“What are you doing?”

“Keep driving!” I pulled myself out of the passenger-side window and climbed onto the hood of the truck.

“MOVE YOUR LEGS! I CAN’T SEE!” Chico was getting a little exercised, so I shifted my legs so he could see.

But something about the truck’s hood ornament called to me. And so I stood. Like a surfer on the truck’s hood. My arms raised like I was preparing to shoot an arrow from a bow. A living hood ornament.

I stood like this, communing with nature and the spirits of my ancestors and feeling like Superman. Until Superman had a sudden urge to run as well, and when they slowed down to switch drivers I jumped from the hood and ran down the middle of the street. Legs pumping like pistons. I think it is safe to say I was high on LIFE.

Life and a sense that I was being followed. Turning around, I saw both D-Man and Chico running behind me. Real animal panic on their faces.

“What the hell are you doing? What’s wrong? Why’d you leave the truck?” The truck sat in the middle of the street, the doors flung open. Idling.

“Why did YOU leave the truck?!?!” They looked at me like I was crazy. Which I guess I kind of was.

“Man … I just felt like running!”

“Oh. We thought someone was chasing us,” D-Man said, fishing for a cigarette.

“If someone WAS chasing us, why would you think it’d be faster to run than to drive?”

He drew on his cigarette as we walked, winded, back to the truck. “I guess I didn’t think about that.”

We took the truck back. Spent. Even put gas in it. And promised to speak to no one about this. Ever. Until I did, just now.

They say youth is wasted on the young but you never hear about how the young almost get wasted by youth. Maybe this is why.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.