We used to walk around the back shore and make jokes about the rich folks. Their big houses and supple green grass. Their tennis courts that had a better view than any of us could dream of having. Their fancy cars that we would make quips about running our keys along. Their everything. It was always us and them. Or was it us versus them? I’m not sure anymore. But for this brief moment in time, I can say with absolute certainty that it was the latter. Growing up in central Gloucester had a way of firmly planting that class chip right on your shoulder. We would head out to the back shore to drink cheap beer on their golf courses, fool around on the rocks beside the ever looming ocean, and in our own way—take a little back.
I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes drive around the back shore when I visit Gloucester. It’s beautiful in its turbulent nature. The merciless ocean, unafraid to reveal itself. The way the land is jagged and seems to invite the water forward, like a weathered boxer, ready for another blow. But I see it from a different view than that of my youth. Back then, in our uneducated minds, it represented the bourgeoisie (think Marxism). I still have the same political desires as I did then, but now I can articulate them. I differ from my teenage self in two profound ways: 1) I know how to pick my battles. 2) I actually know what the word bourgeoisie means.
My group of friends were a touch political. I was on the intense side of our political spectrum. I wanted to hoist a black flag and call it a day on everything that I perceived as oppressive. I thought then, and for the most part still do now, that racism, sexism, hegemony, and homophobia were all oppressive bi-products of capitalism. But I had yet to begin to dig into Chomsky, Kropotkin, or Marx and Engels. In many ways, I had little knowledge to back up my convictions—just a blind sense of rage. It was convenient in that sense. I felt as though the city offered us little to do. I thought it was a city for the old, that had little regard for its youth. In actuality, maybe I was just looking for an excuse to raise a little hell.
Ben had a beat up Volvo that we would drive around in for the better part of our youthful nights. We’d be listening to cassettes, smoking cigarettes, and constantly looking for someone to buy us beer. Ben was the perfect mode of transportation, mostly because he didn’t drink. That was rare in our group of friends. We liked our booze, but we were also well aware of the consequences of drunk driving. Ben was bean pole skinny, with reddish brown hair that came down well past his shoulders. In the warmer months he would always wear the same pair of cut off jean shorts. Hailing from Corpus Christie, Texas—he was a ways from home. He had a sense of humor that cut like a razor and he was older than us. I liked him for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because he was up for almost anything—at any given time. And that was exactly where I was at the moment. It was an in-between time for me; I wanted to drop out of school and work full time, but mostly I wanted my own apartment. I was too young for the apartment, so I was really pulling for the other two.
One memorable night, we “borrowed” a shopping cart from the grocery store in East Gloucester. We proceeded to tie it to the Volvo, by way of a long bungee cord. We set it up in such a way that it was dragging behind the dented blue monster we were cruising in. That night, at around 3am, we dragged that shopping cart all through the rich neighborhoods of the back shore. The sound of the shopping cart shearing through the calm repose of night. Sparks flying in a cavalcade of concrete, steel, and plastic. It was a sight. You could see the lights turning on in each window as we passed. It was harmless (besides the obvious damage to the cart), stupid, and more fun than you would think. I remember one of our friends asking why we would do something like that. The answer was swift: “Because fuck them, that’s why”. That was just who we were; good-timers, wanna- be dropouts, fledgling activists, misfits, and for a fleeting moment—friends.
We were reckless. I wouldn’t dispute that. And in our own way, we were naive. I don’t miss my inexperienced, wayward youth too often. But when I do, It’s usually when I’m pulling memories like Ben and his Volvo out of thin air. Those moments have become apparitions of my past. They come around to visit from time to time, like an old friend that reminds you of an embarrassing moment. And I’m not afraid to say that when they do come around, I smile just as much as cringe.
I was never long for school. Most of the time I would be reading books in class that weren’t the prescribed curriculum. I was once suspended for reading Thoreau when I was supposed to be reading with the rest of the class. To be fair, I’m sure the suspension was partially hinged on my hostility towards the book I was supposed to be reading, which I had already read. I’m sure my general attitude towards the teacher also didn’t help. School was never my thing. I loved learning, but there was something about a controlled environment of predominately useless information that felt senseless to me. Not all of it, but I think we can all agree that the vast majority of what we learned in school was either false, or useless.
I wasn’t a dumb kid, by any means. I could pass any test, and I’m not saying I was some kind of Will Hunting, but that was the easy part for me. School gave me anxiety. The thought of the cafeteria, where to sit, made my head spin. Obviously, I sat with the other freaks with dyed hair and piercings. Where else? We were outcasts, but given the confined populace, we took that as a compliment. The table I sat at during our lunch period was packed with malcontents from all over Gloucester. Their stories were all similar to mine, differing in small ways, but similar just the same. We shared the same loathing of school and its captivity, the same love of sub-cultural music genres, and we all called the crust of a slice of pizza, “the pizza bone”. All of which were very important, at the time.
Skipping school became an art form. I would show up to school just to go to my comparative religions class (by far the most interesting), then I would sneak out in mischievous fashion. Maria was the grounds monitor. A short, red haired, fiery Italian. She spoke English, but when she was yelling at you to stop from exiting the school grounds, she was most certainly swearing in Italian. We would devise distractions so that I could run out the back, past the auto class, and up the short hill to freedom. Emerson Avenue and The Cape Ann Food Co-op resided just over the crest of that short hill. The Co-op, where I also worked part time, would act as my place of refuge until the heat died down and Maria had given chase to some other delinquent trying to play hooky. Maria could give hell as well as she could take it. She would often be waiting for me the next day, grin firmly in place—punishment set to be delivered. I like to think that somewhere deep down, she liked the chase. If not, I guess now would be a bit late for an apology.
Most of my afternoons, when I skipped school, were spent at George’s Coffee Shop. I’d get grief from the owner, Fast Eddie, but mostly he would let me sit there and drink endless coffee while reading from whatever books I had tucked away in my backpack. Fast Eddie was a rough and tumble looking fellow with a thick northeastern accent. His nose was pointed and beak-like, further lending to his direct, ominous nature. We called him “Fast Eddie” because he would brush through general conversation like rapid fire. You couldn’t get a word in edge wise. There would be a 50/50 chance of actually understanding what he was saying to you. It felt like you needed an interpreter just to navigate what would normally be an easy exchange. Therefore, Fast Eddie and methamphetamine’s became synonymous. Hey, kids are cruel.
George’s was also our morning spot, where we would meet up and grab coffee and breakfast before school. But it was the afternoons that I really enjoyed. Fast Eddie would start off treating me like I had done something wrong, and if skipping school was wrong, I certainly had. He would warm up after a bit and offer me endless coffee and leftover home fries—the best home fries in town. I still think about those home fries. I wonder if Fast Eddie skipped school. I’d put good money down on that bet.
As you may have guessed, I didn’t last long at Gloucester High School. I know that I disappointed people, but I would have disappointed myself if I had stuck it out. It all seemed like time wasted. I felt as though I was getting very little out of it. In my experience, though I certainly wouldn’t advocate that everyone dropout, I would say that school can become a setback for some. It was for me. But I see education and time spent in school as being two very different things. Maybe that’s my Gloucester attitude shining through. Or maybe, and I’m just saying maybe, it’s the truth.
My personal experience of schooling wasn’t all bad. I had a few teachers that literally changed my life, despite the curriculum of Gloucester public schools at the time. Let’s face it, Gloucester doesn’t exactly churn out brilliance on a conveyor belt of molded intellect. My moments of breakthrough with teachers were spawned from unlikely moments. The last thing I want is to demonize teachers. The drastically underpaid, incredibly noble people that would dare to take hundreds, if not thousands of peoples children under their careful tutelage. I don’t. But it’s a grave miscalculation to not come to the conclusion that the very spirit of learning is unique, and subject to one’s desires. A brain does not deserve a cell anymore than a a bird does a cage. The cold persistence of hand me down education is as much to blame for class division as the almighty dollar itself. It ensures that each generation is doomed to repeat the falsehoods of the last (end rant).
I had very few teachers along the way that really inspired me. But I could fill up page after page for those that did. I was a difficult kid to reach. I desired to be treated like an adult at such an age that it was inconceivable for the vast majority of adults to do so. I was sarcastic and held the belief that everyone shared my sense of humor—which was often fraught with trenchant attitude. In reality, a precious few actually shared and understood my sarcasm. Essentially, I was the joke that everyone listened to eagerly, only to find out, disappointedly, that they didn’t get the punchline. Leaving myself to take on the form of the actual punchline. One of the few that really understood me and inspired me was my second grade teacher. He’s another person that randomly makes his way into my thoughts. If he were alive today; I would very much want to know what became of his life.
Mr. Ritondo had a flamboyant nature about him. In the very least, you could call him effeminate. He was my second grade teacher. He painstakingly taught a group of flippant Gloucester kids their times tables. I was always good with math, as was my friend, Strider Kolodzik. We were the first in our class to learn our multiplications tables through the 9’s. I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal now, but trust me, it was at the time. Mr. Ritondo took us both out for ice cream at Friendly’s to celebrate our accomplishment. Most of the kids made fun of Mr. Ritondo. It was obvious why, even though putting a name on it was a bit out of grasp for us second graders. I was really fond of him. He was kind, he let me read Stephen King books (as long as I gave him a book report), and most of all—he listened to every word that was said to him. He literally clung to every word. He had a way of making those around him feel important.
Kids are barbarous by their very nature. They assiduously seek out all the differences, no matter how small. Mr. Ritondo didn’t seem to mind the way the kids would whisper about him. I don’t think any of us had met a man that openly displayed his femininity. I know I hadn’t. But in all probability, if it wasn’t his effeminate attributes, it would have been something else that the kids would have found to exploit. When you’re young you tend to make fun of what you don’t understand. It’s the very definition of savagery.
I can’t remember exactly when I heard that Mr. Ritondo had died. It was a few years after I moved on from his class. But I do remember that I had since learned the words that the kids in my class had been grasping at to draw blood. He may have been unlike the men we were accustomed to, but still, he was undeserving of the cruel children that he was carefully teaching the mechanics of life to. When I think of Mr. Ritondo, I don’t think of the name calling, or the blood thirsty ignorance. What I choose to remember is that triumphant ice cream at Friendly’s with Strider Kolodzik , my multiplication tables, and my mentor.
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 memoir.
One thought on “Of Cavalcades and Dropouts- Essay by Jeff Rowe”
Jeff, incredible writing…totally loved loved loved it. Sent it to Strider. Keep writing. You have a great voice and it flows..
Donna (Strider’s Mom)