Purple Crayons


I loved purple crayons when I was a kid. Loved every shade of them. Loved the way they smelled, even though all crayons smell the same. My brother and I colored pictures in the living room. He made sure to use all of the crayons evenly so one wouldn’t wear out more than the others. I just covered everything in purple. All of the purple crayons were down to nubs, the wrappers peeling off. So I resorted to shading things by brushing the sides of each purple crayon inside the images. I tried to stay inside the lines but couldn’t.

It seemed like every time we colored pictures, “I’m Leavin’ On a Jet Plane” was playing on the radio. Vietnam was on TV. And rock stars were overdosing like crazy. Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix. Mom would’ve never wanted them to die, but she’ll be the first to admit that they ruined rock and roll for her. Bring back Dion and the Belmonts — and that Fabian guy who was always showing up on Bandstand. That was music! Dad, he just liked Elvis. In 7 years Elvis, too, would be dead.

We colored through Watergate. Long-haired people, buzz-cut people. Spiro T. Agnew. Adults were always talking about long lines at the gas pump. The Indians were bad, really bad. But man that Oscar Gamble had some fro.

Happy Days made me forget about purple crayons for a while. Mom and Dad bought me a Fonzie t-shirt and Fonzie boots (mid-rise pleather black shoes with zippers that no one could see because they were covered by bellbottoms). Dad got mad at me when we took family pictures because everyone else was smiling normal, and there’s me at the end of the line with my thumbs up in the air saying “AAAYYY!”

We played baseball in the cul-de-sac when the sun came out. Then we ran to the woods for cowboys and Indians at noon, then back to the cul-de-sac for more baseball. When the moon came out, we’d run into the house to get jars for collecting lightning bugs. An hour later, we’d have more mosquito bites than lightning bugs. But what a spectacle seeing all those bugs light up the sky, their green lights signaling lost ships from faraway places.

We’d hear crickets making music, wishing we had their power to stay up long after that last light on the block went out and everyone drifted off to sleep. Sometimes the boys on the street camped out in tents or teepees near the foot of the woods. Neil, the cool kid up the street, had a whoopee cushion. If we didn’t have enough gas to make homemade farts, we could always rely on Neil’s whoopee cushion for entertainment.

We arose to the smell of bacon and eggs coming from some house on the street the next morning. Neil set off his whoopee cushion one more time, but it seemed to have lost its luster from the previous night. Funny sounds are not as funny when your mind’s on filling your stomach.

One day, we left that house at the foot of the woods and moved to Cleveland. To a working class neighborhood where everyone else had last names like ours. Slovenian, Polish, Hungarian. There were also Germans, Italians and Irish.

There was Catholic school. Nuns with rulers. One of them was pretty nice, the rest had rulers. And the teachers who weren’t nuns were just as angry. I became an altar boy. A few times a week I traded in my shirt and tie for a cassock and stood up there on the altar looking pious. They promised us free Cavaliers tickets for joining, although I only remember going to one game. My dad let a friend tag along, but got mad at him because he brought a bag filled with a suspicious looking powder. It was laundry detergent, he thought he’d throw off security with his fake cocaine, but Dad made him empty it in a trash can before going in. “What’s wrong with that kid?” he said.

Recess was funny. Just a stark naked parking lot where young men and women congregated in threes and fours, but never with each other. I knew some of us wanted to talk to the creatures in plaid skirts, but the nuns preferred we stay with our own, at least until puberty was over. Getting out of line was punishable by up to one week of standing in isolation against the chain link fence at the far end of campus during recess. It was quite emasculating. The only thing missing was a scarlet letter. I ran with Covelli and Karpinski but we never got caught for misbehaving. All three of us altar boys, all three of us as capable of committing petty sins as the next. Climbing out of the bathroom windows and leaving school early. Talking when we thought the teachers weren’t listening. Laughing during Mass. “That Slovic boy seems like a nice young man, but he’s hanging around with the wrong crowd. Maybe he’ll shape up in high school.”

In 1980 the US put a dent in the Cold War when the hockey team won the Olympics. A year later the Reagans moved into the White House and I made it to high school. There were still nuns at the high school, but only one of them, make that two, had enough misplaced energy to punch you through a wall. I kept my nose clean. I listened to The Police, Bruce Springsteen and Duran Duran. All the greats! Mom said they were no better than the crap they played in the 60s. Back before lightning bugs and Fonzie. Back when I colored everything in purple.

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