Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Teenager Years is Life’s Most Difficult Phase

I was an astonishingly strange teenager!
by Charlie Leck

As my kids were growing up, passing through their teenage years, I had a difficult time witnessing and putting up with their teenage behavior. They did these things that were so dumb that they reminded me of myself as a teenager – and I didn’t like that. They struggled with all the same problems with which I had struggled. I had not been successful dealing with them, so I had no magical words of advice for them.

I didn’t grow up in a house. I often wondered, when I visited the lovely homes of most of my friends, what it would like to grow up in a house. I grew up in a store.

My old man called it Leck’s Luncheonette and Confectionary. I’m not too sure what that means. The words are too genteel to describe what the store really was. I remember it as a general store. The building was approximately 150 years old and hadn’t had much modernization and improvement over the years. We sold several dozen different magazines that ranged from the Saturday Evening Post to cheap cheesecake rags that were then called pornographic but would be laughable to the real pornographers of our own age. A glass enclosed counter displayed every kind of candy bar known to any sophisticated kid – from Almond Joy to Zagnut, with things like Milky-Way and Mounds Bars in between. There were stacks of penny candies, too. On shelves behind that candy counter were rows and rows of cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco. A customer could pick up a copy of the New York Times or the Herald Tribune or the Newark Star-Ledger and then ask for a pack of Lucky Strikes, a pound of bologna, a half dozen slices of swiss-cheese and a quart of milk that came in a glass bottle that revealed a healthy head of heavy cream. I learned to use the slicing machine before I was five years old. he same customer might also choose to buy a pair of work gloves, a new flash light and, perhaps, tickets for the donkey-baseball game that was coming into town in the next week.

There were about five luncheon tables, with chairs, scattered about, mainly surrounding a big, coal burning stove that stood in the geographic center of the old place. There was an ice cream fountain and bar where four or five patrons could sit on stools while my old man or his one employee, Blanche, made for them a root beer float or a creamy chocolate malt. They might order a cheeseburger or a Rueben sandwich that would be made from scratch, using totally wholesome and fresh ingredients in the kitchen off ‘the store’ that served also as the culinary preparation area for our home.Well, that creates the setting in which I grew from a little, runny-nose kid into a teenager with massive amounts of acne covering my face. Aren’t memories grand?

One wintry day, when school had been canceled because of the amounts of snow that had fallen, I was sitting at my father’s reserved table in the store. My back was directly behind the big stove and I was warm and cozy as I munched on a big sandwich my mother had made me. The storm had made business slow and my old man was able to sit with me and we chatted about the coming baseball season. Though he’d never come to watch me, he was proud of the way I’d swung the bat in the Babe Ruth League the previous summer. He was wishing I could go out for baseball in high school. He knew I could make the team. Yet, both of us knew that was impossible. Mother insisted that I get right home after classes so I could help around the store. My one sister and my two brothers had all grown up and moved on to their own lives. There was a lot to do around the place and my mother’s health was failing badly and I knew I was needed. I loved baseball, but I knew my days of playing it were over.

A very primly dressed, proper lady – our only customer on that wintry day – had finished her big bowl of my mother’s home-made split pea soup and paid her respects by sticking her head in the kitchen to exclaim how wonderful it had been. We served soup like that with big, puffy homemade dinner rolls that drove diners wild. People all over town knew my mother was the community’s finest cook – by far. My father rose to take the woman’s payment for lunch and to fetch change for her from the huge, clanky, manual cash register behind the candy counter.

She took her change and made to leave, but detoured by my table and slipped me a little note. Off she went – somewhere – into the snowy day.

I held some sort of wondrous mystery in my hands. An older and quite handsome lady had surreptitiously slipped me a note. My heart skipped a beat as I unfolded it.

It began with an apology and an expression of sympathy. Then it detailed a menu – or prescription – containing instructions for treating my explosive case of teenage acne. The ingredients, I remember, included lots of squeezed lemons and a fair amount of salt. The other ingredients’ have flown from my mind even as the years have flown by. The note told me that I would be quite a handsome boy if I would use the treatment.

Of course, I wanted to cry. Jesus, it was tough being a teenager and twice as tough being a teenager with a ghastly case of acne. Messy, pussie pimples riddled my face – all over my chin and cheeks and forehead. I went through many, many bottles of Caladryl lotion, dabbing, with little wads of cotton, that flesh colored lotion all over the motley, red blotches on my face.

Naturally, I remember the details of that day only vaguely, but I remember very clearly that I rose from the table and passed through the kitchen. I handed the note to my mother and turned to the little, creaky staircase that led from the kitchen to the group of five bedrooms on the floor above. I stopped in the strange bathroom at the top of the stairs and peered into the mirror above the little sink. I knew that if I had to look at myself very often, for any sustained period of time, it would make me sick!

I went to my bedroom and flopped on my low, little bed. I was too sad and too depressed to cry. I had been taught not to use any serious obscenities, so I didn’t. I just lay there, as if a character in a Turgenev novel, lost in this place as if it were a giant haystack on the Russian steppes. I heard my mother calling to me. I didn’t answer.

Then I heard her climbing the stairs and then walking down the hallway. I remained motionless in both body and mind. The sickly, weak woman came into my room and sat, with great difficulty, on the very low side of my bed. There were big, watery tears in her eyes and she looked at me sadly. Having been a parent, and having gone through such moments myself, I understand now how much she wanted to perform a miracle and wipe away the ugliness that inhabited my otherwise fairly handsome face.

Why then couldn’t she understand why it was so difficult for me to meet the school bus each morning and go to that place where all those other kids would look so strangely at me and turn away so quickly, before I could see the revulsion in their faces? I hated school so much. I hated looking at kids with soft, milky, clear complexions. I hated it that teachers couldn’t look directly at me because the army of white-headed, red pimples turned their eyes away.

Why couldn’t my mother understand why I spent so much time closed in my room, listening to the tinny, AM radio playing the day’s top popular music hits? I would fantasize that I could sing such songs about my own teenage romances. Of course, I had none.

On ‘picture days,’ when group or individual photographs were supposed to be shot at school, I would stay home by feigning some kind of stomach and intestinal illness.

“This silly woman,” my mother sulked, “is dangerous. She wants you to drink this mixture a few times a day. That’s crazy! She could give a note like this to someone to whom such a recipe would be very dangerous. No one should drink that much lemon juice in a day, with all that salt mixed into it.”

I didn’t realize it then, but one day I would. It is so difficult to be a parent. As awful as it was for me that day, and as sorry as I felt for myself, it was much more painful and difficult for her. She wept sadly and could say no more, but I understand her feelings now. She wanted so to take it all away from me and make me the pretty boy I should be, but she had not the power to do that.

She patted my leg and rose. She pulled the door closed behind her and left me alone there in the ghastly quiet of my room.

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