I remember playing baseball in the front of our house on Forest Street. There would usually be six of us, but depending on how many kids from nearby streets we could get to join us, we could get as many as ten. We’d stay out there until dark, or until our parents called us in. And even then we’d wait until there was a certain amount of noticeable hostility in their voices before we actually gave in—red faced, heads down, shoulders slumped, defeated.
I call it baseball because we played by the general guidelines of the game, but it was more like a bastardized version of street ball. Our bat was a whiffle ball bat that had been thickly taped with black electrical tape around the barrel. The balls were tennis balls, as they could be hit the furthest with our make-shift bats. The bases were whatever we could find—cardboard, rugs, broken pieces of wood. But often they turned out to be car door mirrors. This never sat well with the owners. Our home run marker was the line where Forest Street ended and Trask Street began. Our automatic catcher was an old, beat up floor hockey net. The joy we’d get out of hitting those tennis balls in the dying light of our neighborhood was unparalleled. From a safe distance our young, scratched throats could be heard screaming out the various rule violations until the voices of our parents rose, beckoning us back home.
My family moved to Forest Street by way of a trailer. The trailer resided in my uncle’s backyard on Cherry Street, on the opposite side of our fair seaport city. It was the kind of trailer that construction sites typically use for an office. I guess it was cramped, but I never thought twice about the fact that we lived in a trailer. It was all I’d ever known of a home. Somewhere along the line my parents had managed to save some money. This still strikes me as a miraculous feat, given the fact that my father was universally terrible with money. But either way, we were out of the trailer. We had officially moved up in the world. Out of the trailer and into a house! This was quite the luxury for us. I was going to have my own room, but above that, I was going to have a backyard. We’re talking American dream here. The year was 1986. I remember the year vividly. It was the first time I’d learned what real heartbreak was: It was game six of the world series. Red Sox vs. Mets. You might laugh, but I can see it like it was yesterday. I’m watching the game with my father. The sliding glass door left slightly ajar, inviting the quenching breeze to come right up off the ocean, and into our TV room (we actually called it a TV room). My dad is sitting in his ratty, old recliner. I’m sitting dead center on the couch. I loved watching baseball. I was mesmerized by the simplicity, comforted by the sounds of leather and wood, lost in the subtle nuances of a sport that was stealing my heart. And then… just like that, the sport I held so dear had broken my heart like an inside fastball would a bat. Bill Fucking Buckner. That poor bastard let the ball go right through his legs on a routine ground ball. It would take 26 years for Red Sox fans to forgive him for this one mistake. He picked the wrong city for that kind of bush league error. A city that rarely forgets let alone forgives. And here I was sitting there with my old man of whom I’d never seen cry, and all I could do was weep. My six year old heart, shattered by Bill Fucking Buckner.
My family consisted of my mom, dad, brother, and sister. I was the youngest by ten years. I believed from a young age that this one, undeniable fact meant that I was clearly an accident. To this day I believe I have math on my side in making this assumption. We were the only non Italian family on Forest Street. In those days, Gloucester still had a very old world view about it—a divided view. It wasn’t easy for an Irish kid to move to an Italian or Portuguese neighborhood, nor was it easy for an Italian or Portuguese kid to move to an Irish neighborhood. Needless to say, it took a bit of strife for me to settle in to our new surroundings. It took a few scraps, and a lot of creative cultural epithets (for your sake I’ll leave examples out). But when I did settle in I became a part of the crew.
Chris was the oldest, Matt was good at everything, Anthony was almost as good as Matt, Peter was Anthony’s scrawny younger brother, and Joey was always the last picked despite having an off putting sense of self confidence. Then there was Evan. Evan had a speech impediment. Kids are known for their unbridled cruelty, but a speech impediment will take that to the next level, only serving to fan the flames of malignity. We stood up for Evan because he was one of us. Don’t get me wrong, he got a rash of shit from us, but he was off limits to anyone outside of our little crew. This resulted in more than a few of the aforementioned “scraps”. As for myself? I fell somewhere in between. Though not the best at anything—I was certainly not the worst. We were a rag tag bunch, but we were friends.
Chris was the most physically advanced, but had little interest in playing sports. This was a point of endless frustration for us. Especially on the rare occasions when we’d play pick-up games against other neighborhoods. Chris was more into music. He would be the one that would help cultivate my love of heavy metal music. Chris also held the ominous distinction of being the only one of us who had lost a parent—his mother. None of us had any basis of identification with this. He rarely talked of his mother, nor of the loss associated with her. He had a seriousness about his pale, blue eyes. But he was always quick to make a joke, as if in contrast of the apparent weight that he carried.
I became closest with Chris. He liked to stay up late, eat cool ranch Doritos, and watch Headbangers Ball. And that was good enough for me. Chris stayed at our house more often than he would stay at his father’s house, down the road. His father was not at all a bad father, but he wore the scars of his life for all to see, and that scared some people. He had a hell of a time with the death of his wife, and understandably he wound up turning to the bottle for solace, rarely looking back to see what was being left behind.
One afternoon, we went to Chris’s house for lunch. A pretty rare event at the time. When we got to the front door we could hear Tom Petty playing loudly on the stereo, but the door was locked, and the house seemed vacant. We tried the back door as well but to no avail. Just the sounds of sweet Tom singing to us—singing at us. We decided to give up and head to my house for lunch. A not so rare event. Later that night, we learned that Chris’s father was actually inside the house when we were knocking. He was dead of a drug overdose.
Chris’s dad would be the first of many people I would come to know in my life to die like this. I remember the look on my mother’s face when she told me what had happened. The shelter had been compromised, the true cold of the world was leaking in. She looked helpless. In some ways I think it was better for me to get to the hard stuff early, but not for Chris. No, definitely not for him. In one fleeting moment, Chris had no parents. He was an orphan. In a matter of days he was off to Florida to live with an Aunt. I lost my best friend. There would be no more late nights of Headbangers Ball, no more dreaming of starting the best metal band since Metallica, no more long arguments trying to convince him to play ball with us, no more Forest Street. Though I felt a deep sadness over losing my friend, I mostly thought of how lonely he must have felt right then—how lonely I felt for him. Chris leaving town was one of many changes that would take place within our crew of street ball obsessed miscreants.
As the years went on our little gang drifted further apart. It’s an old, familiar story. The games that had once raced the falling sun had become less and less. Our interactions became strained. We were shedding our first skin. In some ways we were trading it for a tougher coat. One that would hopefully endure what was to come. We had unknowingly, or blatantly, grown out of each other. And the only thing harder than becoming a friend, is becoming a stranger. It matters little how things change—just that they do.
Matt earned himself some level of popularity in school. He had started running with a different crowd, you know, the popular kids. Therefore, he could no longer hang out with the long haired kid that was prone to wearing torn, oversized shirts that read such socially unacceptable slogans as Metal up your ass!. It was certainly not cool for someone like him to be spending time with the slovenly metal head I’d become. Not cool at all. At one point we may have shared a street, but now we were on different plains of social existence.
Anthony and Peter went to a private school a few blocks away. A few blocks away may as well have been another world to us. Looking back, in actuality, we only spent time with them during our games. Their parents were never fond of them hanging out with the rest of us. Maybe they feared our foul language and predilection for sports would bring about some uncouth character traits. Either way, they both wound up becoming lawyers. Maybe their parents were on to something. Joey remained a fuck up with an inflated sense of self confidence. So much so, that he must have believed that girls wanted him to leer through their windows when they took showers. I never much liked Joey. I hate to say it, but I did feel a warming sense of satisfaction when I heard that he was locked up. For some reason, Joey being designated a sex offender, just suited him.
Evan stuck around Forest Street longer than any of us. I always liked Evan, he had an honest way about him. He seemed to only exist within the bounds of truth. I’m certain that he couldn’t tell a lie if his life depended on it. Luckily for him, he had grown heavy over the years, and learned how to carry himself. Less fights were picked with him due to the speech impediment. I still keep in touch with Evan from time to time. His impediment is gone, but I fear the years of coping with it have left him woefully anti-social. I can’t blame him for that.
As for me… I wound up immersing myself in music and books. I could get lost in a book, forget where I was, or forget what was going on around me. I still have a bit of an escapist quality. I’ve tried hard to suppress it—selecting reality over escape. I’ve found life to be short and fragile. I feel myself not wanting to miss the intricacy of the passing moment. What was in the past and what will become the future is projected in front of me, as if they are one in the same. It sounds crazy, but some moments can be held for a lifetime. I feel a part of me is still playing a bastardized version of street ball on cracked pavement in Gloucester, still a part of that rag tag crew, still so sheltered from the hardness of the world, still knocking on Chris’s door while Tom Petty created a soundtrack to tragedy, still on Forest Street, in 1986.
Jeff Rowe lives on Winter Hill, in Somerville. He grew up in Gloucester and has since traveled the world playing music and collecting memories. He is a brewer by trade and is now in the process of writing a collection of short stories/memoirs of his childhood in Gloucester.