Our formative years stick close to our hearts. Things that were important to us then, what we had to figure out, created a learning construct. No wonder the building blocks of nostalgia comprise such an integral part of our persona: who we are, what we are made from.
Odds and ends lodged deep and deeper, hidden in hard-to-access recesses, affect our daily lives, whether or not our conscious thoughts are aware of the connectivity.
The blank slate of a newborn picks up sounds, sights and vibrations as imprints of brand-new experiences. So far, that’s all the little tyke knows. Reactions to new stimuli propel the infancy of memory.
Nostalgia can alter objectivity. How many of you find yourselves humming the lamest tunes of your formative years? Could it be nursery rhymes? “Or would you rather be a fish?”
Do we like rock music? Betcha if you were born after 1945 you do. Maybe not. Some of us were influenced by the music of our parents’ generation: big bands, bebop, country. Perhaps we were lucky enough to be children of parents who had a deep appreciation for classical. Maybe you took classical piano lessons? Your feelings now about the classics may have something to do with how those lessons went. :>) Our tastes can be influenced by what we liked and disliked before we even knew what music was. … Is.
Church choirs often provided a starting place for young musicians who may later carry aspects of that sound into more lively versions. Maybe if I was born into a black congregation with a good choir, I might still be religious.
When we see old friends, we see them, to some extent, as we knew them in their youth. We’ve experienced their countenance as youthful and vibrant, much as we see ourselves in our imagination: as a rambunctious eighteen year-old (of course, reality feels different in me bones). On the other hand, as we age and meet new people, they can only see us in our latest version, and only know us as old. Maybe that’s another reason nostalgia and old friends can be so comforting.
Objects carry nostalgia as well. A book we read as a youngster. The report card we’re proud of. The report card we hid from our parents? Did they find out? It’s all part and parcel of who we are.
Nostalgia is the remembrance of the good times. Even the word itself feels comfortable to the ear, flowing easily off the tongue. Nostalgia is not only for things temporal. We can be nostalgic for a geographic area that brings back memories. Nostalgia for a foreign land, a particular city or familiar part of your country. Perhaps a beach resort, or dance hall comes to mind. Funny, when we go back to these places, it seems the memory is often more pleasant than the actuality of what the places are—or have become. Time has a way of poking its boogery nose into our memory banks, upsetting the works. Better to keep the memories.
Here’s the beginning of my story “Carnival Ride”, now available in its entirety in the current ERWA Gallery. There’s a root of autobiography (and lots of nostalgia) in this.
Every year, St. Mike’s carnival became a multi-faceted boon for local teens. Days before they opened, individual concessions would hire strong young guys to help set up rides and equipment in the church parking lot. Then, if they thought the kids might have some potential, the booth operators would ask them to work the fair itself.
This was the third year in a row Tim had worked for the blonde. He knew it would be his last, even before what happened actually came about. Tim had just turned eighteen and understood he’d have to go out and get a full-time job soon. That two-week summer gig just wouldn’t do.
Of course, the rest of the town’s teenagers would hang around at night, the smells of French fries, corn dogs and cotton candy thick in the air. Dinging bells, sounds of the crowd, looking to get lucky in the balmy evenings.
Lulu ran a ring-toss game; her husband Hoyt manned a booth where foolish marks pitched baseballs at fuzzy dolls, their girlfriends hopeful for a prize. Both scams, really. To win anything at Hoyt’s booth, someone had to knock down three dolls with three throws. Unbeknownst to the pitcher, on his third toss, the operator hit a lever that clicked a steel bar into place behind the dolls.
And sure, at the ring toss, the hoops would actually fit over the wooden cubes with those cheap trinkets on top, but just by a fraction of an inch. Almost impossible, but it took Lulu only a few minutes to show Tim how to hold the ring properly at the precise cant, slipping it easily over a block when a fleeced customer claimed the wooden rings were too small. Every year, Tim could count the winners of anything at all on two hands.
Hoyt appeared much older than his wife. Of course, at Tim’s age it didn’t affect his recurring crush. Practically everyone was older than him, and her relative youth compared to her husband, gave Tim the illusion of camaraderie.
What mattered most to Tim were her fleshy boobs, jiggling within the various low-cut tops she wore—off-the-shoulder boat-necked jerseys, with wide horizontal stripes, calculated to distract the ring-tossers. Every time Lulu bent down to pick up a ring, the blouse would ride up in back, exposing her slim waist. The image of her dimpled summer ass stuffed in short denim shorts, brightened those dark summer nights, alone in bed, guiding Tim’s hand in a loner’s embrace.
Over the years, Hoyt, a gruff and moody sort, never had a kind word for Tim. Of course he saw how deferential the lad acted toward his wife. He must have known how doting teenagers can be.
How Tim ogled her. Unharnessed hormones become a driving force in men that age, and most young guys would fuck a gopher hole if the sun shined there long enough to warm it up. He had a hard-on most nights, working by Lulu’s side.
But that last year turned out differently. In 1963 the Pennsylvania legislature outlawed any game offering prizes that were impossible to win. Consequently, this year, Lulu’s husband was working another carnival in the next state.
Over in Wilmington, Hoyt was applying for a temporary concessionaire’s permit.
“Well, Mr. Hobarth,” said the librarian-type behind the counter “what kind of business?”
“A ball toss, ma’am,” said Hoyt.
“Ones with the fuzzy dolls?” said the official. “The ones with the bar in back?”
“Err… No, ma’am,” said Hoyt. Damn. Too late to go back to Pennsy, back with his wife. Besides, he’d already paid for the space, a non-refundable $300. Hoyt couldn’t afford to go to Pennsylvania. He’d have to figure something out. Fuck them, he thought.
Back at St. Mike’s on set-up day, Tim and Lulu were forming a corner of the booth by securing a wing-nut to a bolt shoved through two pre-cut two-by-fours. “So where is he again?” Tim asked, shirtless in the noonday sun.
“In Delaware,” said Lulu, pronouncing it ‘Delawayahh’.
“Doing the doll booth?”
“Yeah. Some ol’ city lot down there.”
“The whole two weeks?” Tim asked, lump in his young throat, fantasies gathering in his hormone-whacked teenage imagination as Lulu peered deep into his eyes. In his innocence, Tim thought he saw hurt in those baby-blues. Often back then, alone, he dreamed of fantastic scenarios. Lulu in distress. Lulu kidnapped. Coming to her rescue like a chivalrous knight of old.
“We’re not getting along lately,” she said. “Me an’ Hoyt. It’s hard in a carnival. Hard to keep a good relationship going.”
“What’s wrong?” Tim asked.
“Nothing you should concern yourself with, fella. He’s not here, that’s all that matters.”
That hurt Tim. He wasn’t a child. Not any more.
“Can I help?” he asked.
“Naw, sonny. You sweet, but you can't help. Not what I got.”
“Oh my god,” he said. “Are you okay? Are you sick?”
“Nah. Not like you think, hon. Don’t you worry yourself none about me. You got your own life to live, Timmy.”
“I’m not no boy!” he boasted. “I’m ready to move out of the house. Gonna make my own way. Get a job at the mill.”
Lulu made a mental note to never call him “Timmy” again. She changed the subject, “You got a girlfriend?”
“Uh… yeah. I see one girl a lot. Name’s Sue.”
“How come I never met her? Will she come down and visit you some night?”
“I doubt it. We just started going out a few months ago. Her family owns the restaurant over in the shopping center. She has to waitress for her old man all the time.”
“Be good to her, sweetie. Don’t be slapping her around.”
“I’d never hit a girl.”
“You’re a good boy, Tim. Stay that sweet all your life and you’ll be okay.”
“I’m not always good,” he blurted with the cockiness of an ego too big for his age, “but I’d never hit a chick.”
“Is that how you think of me? A chick?”
“Well, yeah. You’re sure not a guy!” Tim blushed. Little did she know he thought of her as Venus herself, rising straight from the greasy banks of the Schuylkill river.
“Stay sweet, hon,” she said. “Don’t let things get to you.”
All that night, Tim thought Lulu seemed changed from the previous years. Tired, he thought. Distracted. Maybe getting over some illness. He stuck around, nervous, while she counted the receipts after closing at midnight. Nobody had won anything.
“Does he hit you?” he blurted out, surprising himself that he’d actually said what he’d imagined so many times.
“Don’t you worry, Tim. I’ll be fine,” she said, stashing two twenties in a compartment in her wallet, then putting the rest in a tin strongbox.
In the past Hoyt would take it all.
“How’d we do?”
“Always good opening night,” she replied. “It usually gets less, after they see they ain’t gonna win anything. Embarrasses ‘em to lose.”
“Does it bother you, Lulu? Ripping people off all the time?”
“Nah. See how they flock in? Every friggin’year. Year in, year out, they come to get took. These hot summer nights—like the moths flittin around them lights, Tim—all they think about is gettin’ drunk and gettin’ laid.”
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “That’s the way it is for guys, for sure.”
“The girls are lookin’ for it too, honey,” she pointed across the dusty lot. “Still a few floatin’ around. There’s a couple of cuties over on that last Ferris wheel ride, son. You’s off work now. Go hang by the gate where they get off.”
“I’d just as soon talk to you.”
“Aww, you sure are a good one, Tim. You want a cold beer? I got some over in the trailer.”
“I’ll follow you,” he said hopefully.
“Nope. You better stay here,” she winked. “No telling who’s watching. Don’t want no rumors gettin’ back to ol’ Hoyt.”
While Lulu sashayed to her trailer, Tim waited alone at the booth, watching her illuminated figure slink into the humid black void surrounding the strings of harsh bulbs. Thinking how he could get her somewhere. Somewhere alone.
You can find the rest in the current ERWA Gallery-
Here’s wishing you good memories.