On June 11th, 1980, at approximately 10:00 p.m. (with the voices of Channel 11’s Action News Team, Bill Jorgensen and Pat Harper, chatting in the background) just one day into my summer vacation from Paramus Catholic Girls Regional High School, my parents grounded me for the summer. The Whole Entire Summer!
In retrospect, leading your friends past your house while one of them (Wally W., are you reading this?) is swinging a six-pack of Michelob Light in each hand and E.L.O.’s Greatest Hits is blasting from Sue’s boom box was probably a really boneheaded thing to do. I tried to convince my parents that I was only months away from the legal drinking age—albeit, 36 months, but still, come on! I even fessed up that the primary reason attendance was high for Holy Trinity’s evening Teen mass was because wine was offered with communion, turning mass into an under-aged Holy Happy Hour. We stood, chaperone-less, encircling Father Donald on the altar as the golden chalice of wine was passed hand-to-eager-hand and liberally refilled by the altar boys because Father Donald could never quite remember where the circle began or ended.
I was confident that I could successfully grieve my situation to my union president father. After all, he was a fair man who had a great deal of respect for, and knowledge of, the process of law. However, in my case, the legal process was suspended and all petitions for writs of Habeas Corpus were denied—my parents were in full “possession of the body.” Yet, there was a stipulation to the ruling; I was eligible for work-release and, when not working, I had full library privileges.
By the next day I had secured three jobs, and settled myself into the Fort Lee Library. I never thought of not following my parent’s rules. Remember, there was no DYFUS back then; fear had a lot of mileage because every threat had follow-through attached to it.
I walked through the double doors of the library and meandered down the ordered rows as the sound of the boys from Madonna pitching coins against the wall outside floated in through the windows. I occasionally paused to inhale the musty mélange of glue, leather and the indelible scent of the passage of time. All was quiet and peaceful until my senses were abruptly disturbed by the compositioned floral powders of Chanel No. 5. Walking towards me was the blond coutured Reference Librarian. She pointedly inquired what I was looking for.
“My old life,” I replied. I explained that I was going to spend my summer honing my writing skills at the library because I was going to be a great writer.
She let her designer bifocals slip down the bridge of her nose and replied, “If you want to be a great writer you must first be a great reader. Follow me. Take notes.” She handed me her pad of yellow-lined paper and a pencil and guided me on a literary tour of every aisle in the library.
“If you want to learn point-of-view read Henry James; if you want to learn irony read Jane Austen; if you want to learn what Hell smells like read John Milton; if you want to understand the importance of using punctuation read Virginia Woolf—she wouldn’t know a period if it got up and introduced itself to her; if you want to live among the wealthy in old Manhattan read Edith Wharton; if you want to learn how timeless are the problems we mortals face read Shakespeare; if you want adventure read The Odyssey; if you want to write history, read history. The New York Times Book Review will make you a master of all subjects; The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly will introduce you to the best living writers; and mastering the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle will give you a near perfect SAT score.
“What if I want to learn about sex?” I queried in an effort to crack her composition.
“How about starting with Moby Dick?” she offered without effect.
“Call me Ishmael,” I replied. And with that, my sentence began.
Part Two: My Three Jobs (Spoiler Alert: I’m still grounded.)