The morning after we graduated high school, Jarod and I mounted our bicycles and headed for Myrtle Beach. For me this was the second time crossing South Carolina via pedal power, but for Jarod this was his first. Not only that, it was no more than eight months since the motorcycle accident that crushed his throat and nearly killed him.
I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to write the story of that trip, and I keep coming up empty. The word count is there, but the story isn’t. I burned 22 days before I realized what likely occurred to you immediately: I can’t write it because it isn’t my story to tell.
But I can tell you this: Watching my buddy, who just a few months earlier looked like a potato clock in an ICU bed, tear up when he reached the beach makes my list of top five greatest moments ever. Hopefully someday he’ll write his own “Reach the Beach” story. His puts mine to shame.
We grew very close over our last year of high school, and that closeness spilled over into our newly-minted adult lives. When we returned from our beach trip we rented the first floor of an old farmhouse on Alabama Street in downtown Spartanburg: three rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. We recruited our friend, Calhoun, for the third room and split the rent three ways.
That was a whopping 67 bucks each, but getting by wasn’t too difficult. We didn’t bother turning on the gas, opting instead to work up a sweat shooting hoops at the church up the block before hitting the cold shower. For food we went Wednesdays to the $2.99 all you can eat spaghetti feed at the restaurant down the street and spent maybe twenty bucks for the rest of the week’s groceries.
The Alabama Street place was a dump, but it was cool. The stove and refrigerator were eight inches apart at the bottom and two at the top, and the ground’s red clay was clearly visible in the gaps between the kitchen floorboards. Positioning the front door so that it would latch was more art than science.
The joint’s most notable feature was that it was a whorehouse before we moved in, so we received free porn in the mail and knocks on the door from the occasional confused visitor. We didn’t have a phone for quite a while, so our friends were just as likely as a paying customer to knock at one a.m. Answering the door was like playing a demented game of Mystery Date.
I did my part to uphold Alabama Street’s whorehouse tradition. My room was no more than a mattress, my stereo and records, and an over-sized blue light bulb. I made my own love grotto mix tape, guaranteed to seduce visiting lady friends. Why do all that work when paid professionals had done so already? There are probably songs missing, but here’s what I remember:
- “Moments In Love,” The Art Of Noise
- “The Seduction,” David Sanborn
- “Condition of the Heart,” Prince
- “The Power of Love,” Frankie Goes To Hollywood
- “I Believe,” Tears For Fears
Perhaps I should take a moment and apologize to any young lady I forced to listen to this heady brew while she was defiled, and let me add that if I had it to do over again I’d spring for cable, or at the very least a reading light. Also, I’m sorry that my mix tape l’amour was only fifteen minutes long.
Our telephone was in a booth down on Main Street Mall, which was Spartanburg’s attempt at bringing foot traffic back downtown during the shopping mall boom. It didn’t work. Main Street Mall was nothing more than a rundown Woolworth’s, a shuttered movie theater from the segregation era, two abandoned flophouse hotels, and a couple of shops with pimp suits in the windows.
I rode my bicycle up to the phone booth one night, legs rested and springy after Jarod’s and my recent beach ride. We joked that 100 of my 138 pounds was my legs. “They’re not even muscle anymore,” Jarod said, pointing at my quads. “It’s more like scar tissue.”
Anyway, I peddled over one evening to make a call, took care of my business, and puttered down the pedestrian mall with only one foot in the toe clips. Across the street, on the corner in front of the pimp suit store, loitered a group of guys, one of whom was on a bicycle.
“Hey boy, where you get that bike?” one of them shouted. I felt like I was in an S.E. Hinton novel, but I was definitely a Johnny rather than a Motorcycle Boy. Yes, Mr. Helper, I know that those characters are from two different books. The point is that there were six of them and one of me, and the corollary to the “100 pounds of legs” joke was “38 pounds of upper body.”
So I did what for some reason I thought would defuse the situation: I shouted “What?” in my best Eddie-Murphy-Pretending-To-Be-A-Scary-Black-Man voice.
“Get him, Scoop!” somebody yelled, and the dude on the bicycle made his move. I flipped my loose foot into its toe clip, dropped my Pinarello into its biggest gear, and cranked as hard as I could for maybe thirty seconds. When I turned around Scoop was nowhere to be seen. Thank you Pinny, thank you scar tissue.
Back at the whorehouse my roommates and I had great fun shouting, “Get him, Scoop!” Calhoun in particular got a kick out of this. He was a fun kid who loved to laugh and act goofy. Oddly, he was a huge Depeche Mode fan. So much for goth stereotypes. “Get him, Scoop” was a great punchline, but the incident shook me up. I started carrying a chain and a straight razor around town after dark.
Jarod, Calhoun, and I killed a lot of time bumming around town, entertaining ourselves. We tried to jump onto passing boxcars, climbed the under construction water tower, explored the abandoned flophouses. Our favorite spot was “The Black and White Zone,” a parking garage with strange, yellow lights that washed the color from everything.
One evening after our $2.99 spaghetti feed, my roommates and I decided to walk over to the parking garage. It was late for downtown Spartanburg, 10:00 or so, so the streets were nearly empty. A single car idled at the intersection where we crossed. We were almost across the street when the light changed, maybe two steps from the curb. Someone in the packed car yelled, “Get the fuck out of the street!”
“Man, fuck you,” Calhoun shot back, and that was the end of that. We walked another block and hit the parking garage.
“Black and White Zone!” I said.
“Black and White Zone!” Calhoun said.
“Black and White Zone!” Jarod’s broken throat whispered.
We fucked around in this strange corner of the universe devoid of color, pretending we were in a black and white movie.
“Wait, do you hear that?” Jarod said, dead still, ear cocked.
“It’s probably that escaped maniac with the hook hand,” Calhoun said, and then we realized that Jarod wasn’t joking. Slipping over the cement walls and dropping as quietly to the floor as possible were the “fuck you” guys from the car. They dropped in from all sides, surrounding us. I was in another S.E. Hinton novel and there was no sprinting away this time.
They closed quickly. “What you doing in my parking garage, motherfuckers,” one said, and Calhoun cracked him in the jaw. The wet cement pop of knuckles on flesh was like a starter gun.
These guys were experienced. You know in movies when the three friends stand back to back to fend off the marauders? They broke that shit down in about two seconds, spacing the three of us apart into one-on-one fights.
Time skews in a fight. We may have been at it a few seconds or a few minutes, I don’t know. It felt like forever. I was doing okay with my guy — good enough that I had a moment to think, why are we fighting one on one when there are five of them and three of us? At that moment my guy stopped swinging and shoved hard, palms planted on my bony chest. I tumbled over guy #4, who positioned himself on hands and knees behind me solely for that purpose. Clever.
Immediately my guy lunged to close the distance. Jarod came out of nowhere and kicked the dude hard in his left knee. The guy folded, falling toward me.
Suddenly I had the advantage. Lying on my back, my hundred pounds of cycling legs were in play. I stomped upward, feet landing squarely and the air whooshing from his compressed ribs. He flew backward almost comically, like a stuntman in a bad movie fight.
I scrambled to my feet and we squared off again. We both were timid now, cautious dogs circling each other.
“What do you motherfuckers want?” I said.
“Give me your necklace,” he said, and he motioned to the graduation gift my sister gave me just a few weeks earlier.
“You ain’t getting my necklace.”
He stepped toward me. “Give me the necklace.”
He stepped again and reached into his pocket. “Motherfucker, give me the necklace.”
I reached into my own pocket and grabbed my straight razor. Even in the moment I know that this was a tipping point, that one of us was about to bleed and life was never going to be the same.
“We got one!” The shout came from deep inside the Black and White Zone, and like a game buzzer it was over. Our five attackers scrambled back over the concrete walls and vanished. I ran around the garage, looking for my roommates. Finally I found them laid out like a pieta, Calhoun’s unconscious head in Jarod’s lap. He was bleeding and his eyes were rolled back.
“Go get help,” Jarod said.
I jumped the wall and ran through the darkened, quiet streets of downtown Spartanburg. A fiftyish woman in a sedan stopped at the traffic light.
“I need help,” I yelled. “My friend is hurt.”
She avoided eye contact while I pleaded with her through the closed window. When the light changed she drove away.
The story repeated with the next two cars. I was eighteen years old, and I still naively believed that real life worked like the movies; that when someone yells “break it up” the fight is over, or that strangers stop to help. I used to imagine terrible things happening — getting chased for example — and I’d think run to a church. Nobody will hurt you in a church. Or knock on a door. The people on the other side will help.
But they won’t. When it’s dark and you’re alone and a wild-eyed teenager with a bad haircut is screaming through your window you’ll likely drive away. I guess now you might call for help, but that wasn’t an option back then.
The fourth car was a four-door sedan holding three Bubbas — white, middle-aged rednecks. If I couldn’t appeal to compassion maybe I could appeal to hate. Desperate times and all that stuff.
“Hey, roll down your window.”
“What you want, boy?”
“We got attacked by some black dudes over at the parking garage. My buddy is hurt bad.”
“Five of them.”
I climbed into the back seat. The driver grabbed a red light and stuck it to the dashboard. My stomach iced over. I was sitting in the back seat of an unmarked police car with a chain and a straight razor in my pockets.
“What you boys doing down to the parking garage this time of night?”
“We were just hanging out. The lights in there make everything look black and white.”
They smirked. “I’d imagine you can find something better to do next time.”
We drove slowly through the garage. Finally Jarod emerged from behind a car and led the cops to where Calhoun hid. Moments later an ambulance arrived and took him away.
“You boys go on home or go on with your friend, but this ain’t no playground,” one of the cops told us.
Calhoun was never quite the same after that night. If he heard voices out on Alabama Street he’d rack his shotgun and bolt onto the patio. A couple of months later he enlisted in the Marines.
That was our last visit to the Black and White Zone. A couple of days afterward I saw a guy clad only in a pair of shorts hobbling down the street. His knee was bandaged and so were his ribs. I’ve always wondered if that was the same dude, and if another thirty seconds passed that night whether one of us would’ve bled out and the other would’ve wasted the last 28 years behind bars.
And all over a “fuck you” at a cross walk.