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Burning Down The Complex
[This is an excerpt from something bigger called The Complex. Some references won't be clear because they relate to other content not included here, but the overall feeling will be understood, I'm confident.]
In the 1970s, my family lived in a large apartment complex containing well over a thousand units called Galveston South. These were mainly “townhouses,” in the aspiring middle-class parlance of the day. But actually, they were all just apartments. My mom chafed at where we lived, at our station in life, dividing the tenants into two camps: “respectables” and “shitbags.” To qualify as a “respectable,” one need follow this basic rule: aspire to leave Galveston South for private property. It took us four and a half years to realize my mother’s goal, during which time my childhood was largely defined, and in fact ended, at age ten.
The events that follow occurred when turning ten combined with the realities of life in Galveston South, or “the complex,” as we all called it.
12 & 13
Irene Arnett never cleaned house. That was part of her charm – she just wasn’t hung up on assumed middle class maternal duties like vacuuming, which gave her time to swill roughly fifteen Diet Pepsi's per day. Consequently, the upstairs of the Arnett residence smelled like syrup and urine. The three Arnett boys, aged ten, eight and five, pissed their beds on average respectively four times a week, five times a week, and seven times a week. But they liked the smell of it and found it somehow comforting – that was the word they used. Reeny, as Mrs. Arnett was commonly called, explained with an air of indifference, “Why launder all those sheets when they’ll just wet them again tonight?” Instead, she washed all the bed gear every Sunday while swilling her Pepsi's, chain smoking Virginia Slims, and presumably mulling over the life she could have been leading instead.
The Arnett's dad was a complete maniac. Bill Arnett. I have no idea what he actually did for a living except that he wore a shirt and a tie. Insurance, he said. I couldn't fathom that this thick-accented Bostonian transplant with a hair-trigger temper sold insurance policies by day. I would have sworn he was unemployably violent. Billy and I loved watching football with him. He was extremely volatile and cussed in imaginative and often unintelligible combinations. He said “Rat-bastard-assfucker” at the slightest provocation and he once demolished the family coffee table right in front of me and Billy and all for a very good reason: The Oakland Raiders. They were very successful then and we all despised them. The Raiders were the most aptly named pro sports franchise ever. (And Oakland? A complete shit-hole.) The Raiders wore black and silver and the team was comprised of reprobates and parolees. Their roster was dotted with evocative names like Gene Upshaw, Art Shell, Phil Banaszak and Jim Otto. They had jittery cocaine addicts for running backs, Hell’s Angels for linemen, and hookers and strippers for cheerleaders. The Raiders receivers used copious amounts of the thick, tan glue, called “Stickum,” on their hands that has since been outlawed by the NFL. Their linemen shot steroids and cortisone and maybe even heroin in the locker room as a normal pre-game ritual. The team’s penicillin bill for syphilis was reportedly legion. The Raiders star wide receiver, a slimy bastard with the first mullet I ever saw - of the lank, greasy blond variety - was named Fred Bilitnikoff and he was the filthiest player in the NFL; kicking, judo chopping, and eye gouging his way toward each reception. Yes, the complex truly abhorred the Oakland Raiders but William Arnett hated them with a near-murderous rage because they kept winning games in late, dramatic come-from-behind fashion, costing him a small fortune in gambling wagers. Mr. Arnett’s view was that the Raiders won only with the aid of rat-fucking, on-the-take referees who allowed them to steal victories week after week. It was after three straight such Sundays of of cardiac-impeding heartbreak and subsequent financial loss that Mr. Arnett turned reddish-orange in the face and stomped the family’s weather-beaten coffee table into kindling. The table had almost no intrinsic value – it wouldn’t have fetched three dollars at a garage sale. I had until then never seen an adult demolish anything bigger than an ashtray and it was completely repugnant. Billy Arnett and I ran out of his apartment screaming for our lives. Reeny Arnett shrieked vainly for her husband to stop battering the blameless table for the sins of the Oakland Raiders.
Yet, the Arnett’s decided lack of social polish, status-consciousness, and even basic hygiene, explains why their residence held such magnetic force, pulling in kids from all over the complex. We created an ersatz “Putt-Putt” golf course in their front yard, digging out the holes with spoons and while my parents would have had thrown a considerable fit, the Arnetts congratulated us on our enterprising spirit and Reeny even played yard golf with us. We played spin the bottle on their front porch, gambled on Hot Wheels races in their back patio and ogled centerfolds from Mr. Arnett’s Penthouse magazines upstairs. There it is in a nutshell – Mr. Arnett didn’t have respectable, suburban Playboys like my step-dad or Paxton’s dad, but instead had a stash of good old raunchy, Oakland Raider-esque Penthouses.
Flames engulfed the apartment building and Kenny Buchanan was the only kid in sight not excited about the conflagration. Seventy-five people had congregated, gazing at the spectacle. Maybe it was Nathan Scalfe and bus-rock incident, but I instinctively felt that Buchanan was somehow behind this fire. Flames were literally licking the sky, climbing out of the window that had once been his bedroom. His two older brothers fled the townhouse upon smelling smoke, and nobody in the ten-unit building was endangered by the mini-inferno. Three different townhouses –the two on either side of Kenny’s – were consumed in the “Buchanan fire,” as it came to be called. Firefighters were dowsing the flames with endless barrages of water to no avail. It raged on. Kenny Buchanan was a well-spoken, good-looking blond kid. If we’d had a fourth grade class president, he would have been it. People were telling him that it was all right and his safety was all that mattered. His mom hugged him. An employee from the complex then assured her that the family would be moved into a new townhouse that very evening. Kenny wore a blanket like a shawl and looked wide-eyed, teeth chattering, while he quietly watched the blaze. I walked over to him and whispered, “You started this didn’t you?” He whispered back, “I was smoking in bed and fell asleep. I hope the firemen don’t find the cigarettes.” I told Buchanan exactly what he wanted to hear. “That’ll all burn up in the fire. You’re off scott free.” We weren’t dealing with CSI caliber fire fighters in the 1970s. Kenny Buchanan smiled and became his old self immediately. No one ever found out.
Billy Arnett, Amon Price, and myself were perpetually involved in a two-against-one 'frienemy' triangle which revolved like the seasons. It was stupid but it was what we knew so we went with it. Two of us would ally and gang up against the other, generally by just ignoring “the unchosen one.” It was during this same time where I eschewed them both in a boldly pre-emptive move, having decided to “buddy up” with the most unlikely sources, a second grader named Gary Paxton. Second graders weren’t yet preoccupied by sex, thank Christ, because Sexton was weird enough without that added trauma. If Billy Arnett tried to dry hump me, I’d hate to think what kind of twisted shit Paxton would have gone for. Mainly, he was full of contempt for humanity, which isn’t typical eight-year-old behavior, but Paxton had grown up in suburban New York City on Long Island and was thoroughly jaded by the time I met him. While I had no misgivings about hanging out with him and lighting the contents of garbage dumpsters on fire – our main pursuit – his amoral tones did concern me. Paxton tried to convince me that stealing was never wrong and that if someone “let you” steal from them, they deserved to be stolen from. His dad was at the kitchen sink at the time, listening while washing a spatula, and he nodded in agreement. Now I knew why this kid was so messed up. His mom and dad probably went to those car-key partner-swap parties in Long Island to swing and steal for kicks. Suburban decadence has always bored me, but Gary Paxton was captive in its grip. Ultimately, I found Paxton like a force of nature that couldn’t be ignored: unpleasant, even abhorrent, but demanding of my full attention.
One day Paxton stood on his family’s midnight blue Renault – then the epitome of suburban class-consciousness - and repeatedly screamed “P-i-s-s!” at maximum volume, his face contorted in an anguished purple shade. He obviously harbored some exceedingly deep emotional pain. I tried at first to quiet him out of my own embarrassed notions of what was and was not proper in the Galveston South complex, but then just sat on the ground and watched him in detached awe. I was wide-eyed, smiling, while Gary Paxton was completely melting down and baring his raw, tormented soul. Somewhere between the casually permissive parents and the serial dumpster arson, Gary Paxton had come unhinged. As he screamed, I decided he was my best friend. People like him, and Nathan Scalfe on the day his brother died, were real. Real damaged, that is. And wounded people apparently were my favorite kind. However, my generosity of spirit knew some definite bounds.
26 & 27
I had a mad crush on my 17-year-old babysitter, Maggie. She was a perfectly flawed, rough-edged white trash goddess. Thin, with badly dyed blonde hair and pale blue eyes, she chain-smoked, sporting flared jeans with a green football jersey (#17) tied in a bow at her stomach in a classic girl-reveals-midriff move. Few heterosexually oriented ten-year-old boys could resist such a lurid charm offensive. Normally, I would have complained about having a sitter at age ten as an insult to my very existence, but all such appeals ceased once Maggie was brought on board. I began encouraging my parents to go out more often.
Problem: Maggie had a sleazy paramour whom everyone called “Sanguillen” (pronounced San-gee-un), after Manny Sanguillen, a catcher of some repute for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time. My romantic nemesis for Maggie’s affections featured himself a star on the softball diamond, hence his nickname. In retrospect, Sanguillen looked remarkably like a dissipated Kid Rock and wore an army jacket with an upside down American flag featured prominently on the back. I never asked him why he wore the upside down flag and I still wonder about it. Sanguillen didn’t seem the type prone to deep political statements. Instead, he concentrated his efforts on the more immediately hedonistic pursuits of smoking dope, hitting softballs, and fucking my white-trash goddess of a babysitter upstairs in my parents' bedroom.
That’s right. They got busy on my parents’ bed and while I could never fathom getting naked on any object that my step-dad Marvin had gotten naked on, Sanguillen and Maggie didn’t seem to have any such qualms. They locked the door, but I remained on watch outside, both vigilant and forlorn. Maggie deserved better than Sanguillen. Would you want the girl you had a crush on to fuck a skeezy Kid Rock look-alike with the cerebral range of a toucan? I didn’t. And certainly not on my parents’ bed.
I pounded on the door. “Maggie I’m hungry for dinner!” “Maggie, the TV isn’t working!” And then, opting for the ‘Hail Mary,’ “Maggie, I think I overflowed the toilet!” If I couldn’t rouse her from the bedroom, I might at least kill the mood, I thought.
Sanguillen matched my crude efforts with some of his own.
“Shut the fuck up you little turd!” And later, “Get lost, motherfucker!”
I stayed at my post throughout, however. Their humping and moaning failed to dissuade my determined mission. Soon they emerged, thoroughly disheveled. Sanguillen mussed my hair with a shit-eating grin like all was well. As if he was suddenly my “Uncle Sanguillen,” who just came over to get laid and hang out. Maggie was a little sheepish, but she too tried to make it up to me by asking what I wanted for dinner.
“Nothing now!” I pouted. Sanguillen, haven gotten what he came for, left the premises whistling a happy tune.
That night I told my parents what had transpired in their bedroom. I was hoping it would get Sanguillen barred from our townhouse for life. It did, but only because they fired Maggie.
Stupid Sanguillen. He ruined everything.
I’d spent the night at the Arnett compound. Fun and games only marred slightly by the urine soaked smell of their bedroom. I came downstairs to get breakfast and froze. Reeny Arnett couldn’t quit crying. She was beyond realizing or caring if anyone noticed. She was beyond consoling, beyond being reached. Unable to catch her breath, she was lost, sobbing and gasping. I felt like an intruder and simply wanted to disappear. Then she saw me and said in her broken, whispery way, “Never get married.” I would have given ten years of my life to be able to offer her anything she could have used at that moment. I tiptoed out of their kitchen, out their front door, and home in my pajamas.
The most absurdly misguided thought I had at age ten had nothing to do with sex, science, religion, or romance. The thing I believed deeply, that I felt most certain about, was that adults had figured out life and the meaning thereof. I just thought it was like sex: they wouldn’t let us in on all the secrets till we were older. I seriously thought adults knew what life was all about. I watched them do amazing things, like figure their taxes or change the oil in cars and I thought it meant they knew how to do everything. Reeny Arnett’s breakdown was but a small hint that this might not be so. The suicide of Scalfe’s brother might have been another hint. His parents couldn’t prevent it. And neither Cookie nor Paxton's parents seemed to exactly have their shit together either. Yet, I still believed. When I became an adult, I laughed hard remembering that notion.