My education in the arts and sciences of bad behavior was undertaken by a congenial delinquent named Gary Scott. Gary was a Bad Boy, and he embraced his calling with admirable devotion. He would cheerfully lie, cheat, and steal, with a bravado that was breathtaking to witness. If an object was not to be touched, his mission was to break it. If a street was not to be crossed, he would traverse it relentlessly. Any evidence of adult authority was an irresistible invitation to defiance. But Gary was sophisticated enough to understand that with that defiance came the responsibility of escaping consequences. He was a master of subterfuge and obfuscation. No matter what he had done, regardless of the evidence against him, Gary was always ready with a reasonable explanation, or a sincere apology, or both. He could look an angry parent in the eye, and tell the most outrageous story with absolute conviction. He could even muster tears if necessary. In short - he was gifted!
I don’t recall the circumstances of our first meeting, or the formal establishment of my apprenticeship, but I was deeply flattered by his willingness to share his wisdom with me. I was six years old and he was eight, so I naturally bowed to his seniority. We would meander through the neighborhood, exploring the vacant lots and construction sites, and Gary would shine the light of his authority upon the dangers that surrounded us.
I was already aware of the big, ugly Jerusalem crickets, which we called potato bugs. They were rumored to have a ferocious bite. The huge, black, noisy bumblebees, or motor bees, which sometimes dive bombed us on the pool deck, supposedly had a sting like a gunshot. The black widow spiders that we sometimes stumbled across were known to be deadly. Once I even saw a tarantula in our garage, so I knew that I had to be careful. But according to Gary, there were many other, spookier threats out there. For example, there were black panthers hiding in the trees and bushes. This was in 1959, so it’s safe to assume that he was not referring to militant African-Americans, but whatever they were, I sure didn’t want to meet ‘em face to face. Gary would point and whisper, “See - there it is!” And although I sometimes thought I heard the leaves rustle, I never actually saw a panther. I did see the dragonflies, however, and I gave them a wide berth because now I knew that they could zoom in and sew up my mouth. I also stayed away from the deepest and darkest of the vacant lots because, according to Gary, there were Older Boys lurking there, just waiting to capture a young kid like me. They would strip me, tie me to a tree, and write bad words all over my body with lipstick. Even though I took most of this very seriously, I usually felt pretty confident that I could navigate around such perils, except on the days when the Santa Ana winds blew through the neighborhood, sucking all of the moisture out of the air and sending tumbleweeds and dust skittering down the streets. There was something about those winds that made me feel more cautious than usual.
Gary was very generous with his knowledge, but he could be a bit prickly if I asked too many questions. I was pretty sure that he got most of his information from his older brother, Butch, who was a genuine bully, and would never allow a punk like me to interview him. So, although I was sometimes uncertain about the accuracy of Gary’s observations, I held my tongue, for it was a dangerous world and I was very fortunate to have such a benevolent mentor.
Looking back on certain events with an adult awareness, I am stunned by the audacity and cunning that were the hallmarks of Gary’s personality. As a child, however, I was often puzzled by the things that he did. There was a tantalizing quality of perversity that I found fascinating, but I wondered why he took such chances. On one occasion, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my paper and crayons when he arrived. Gary immediately sat down to join me, and as soon as my mom left the room, he proceeded to render an exquisite penis and testicles. This was not a crude, childish drawing – the strokes of the crayon were fluid and graceful. I was astounded not only by the subject, but the finesse of the execution as well. When my unsuspecting mother returned, he casually turned the paper over and started working on a battleship. When she left again, he folded the drawing and put it in his pocket, confident that he could dispose of it at his leisure.
A few days later, we were sitting on the curb in front of my house, drinking Seven-ups. My father had already admonished us to be careful with the bottles. This was a standard parental dictum, as soda bottles were then made of glass rather than plastic. They were breakable, but they were also refundable. Once Gary and I had quenched our respective thirsts with a whole seven ounce serving of Seven-up, we could count on trading in the bottles at Paul’s Market for three cents each - candy money. Gary had other ideas, however. He took both of the empties, placed one on the curb, and smashed it with the other. He then began carefully picking up the bright green shards and casually tossing them into the street.
I was immediately gripped by several emotions simultaneously – disappointment at the loss of potential revenue, astonishment at Gary’s audacity, and fear of what might lie ahead. As I attempted to regain my composure, I heard our front door slam, and turned around to see my father heading in our direction. Evidently, some unidentified blip had cropped up on his parental radar screen, and investigation was in order. This was going to be dicey.
Gary didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, hi Dr. Fogg. We had an accident. I was trying to throw the pieces into the ivy here, but some of them went into the street. I’ll go get ‘em.”
“Well . . . I think you two better go inside and get the dustpan and broom.” Clearly not satisfied, yet unwilling to pounce on such a cheerfully polite young man who exhibited not the slightest trace of guilt, my father surveyed the perimeter of his domain, his eyes darting back and forth between the pile of shattered glass on the curb and the scattered pieces gleaming like emeralds on the asphalt. He stood there for what seemed like several minutes, certain that we had been up to no good, but unable to establish our guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then trudged back into the house with an air of defeat. It was a typical adult response to such brilliant deceitfulness.
My father had an ambivalent attitude regarding Gary. Earlier that year, Gary had traded a bag of stale Halloween candy for my toy rifle. It had seemed like a good deal to me - I liked candy, and I didn’t use the rifle very often. When he saw me with the bag of candy, my father was curious, but when I told him the circumstances of its acquisition, he was outraged. He took the bag and went to Gary’s house, returning with the rifle, and the familiar admonition that I should have known better. He knew that Gary was a devious little con artist, and yet was still willing to have a pleasant conversation with him as to whether The Time Machine was a movie worth seeing. If he had known the depth of Gary’s commitment to malfeasance, I doubt that he would have let him anywhere near me.
Just a few days after the Seven-up incident, Gary and I were hanging around the kitchen as my mother was beginning to plan dinner. She also had some reservations about Gary, and pointedly told me not to “spoil my appetite” by eating candy. She was looking directly at him as she said this, and as a result Gary immediately decided that we should take a little walk. The walk took us to Paul’s Market, a small corner grocery store several blocks away. When we arrived, Gary handed me a dime and told me to buy two candy bars, preferably Three Musketeers, as they were the biggest. I bought them, and shortly thereafter was surreptitiously chowing down while hidden in a nearby lot. Although I loved candy, two Three Musketeers bars were almost more than I could handle. But I didn’t want to let Gary down – after all, he had invested a whole dime of his own money in the project, and a dime was major coin for any kid at that time. I was close to gagging, but I had to admire Gary’s commitment to sabotage. It was always beautifully orchestrated, the obvious manifestation of a deeply felt personal philosophy. I never ate another Three Musketeers bar, though.
One of the hallmarks of Gary’s academic program was instruction in the proper pronunciation and application of bad words. Some, like “hell” and “damn,” were pretty easy to remember, and were frequently and inadvertently reviewed for me by my father, especially when he was driving. But there were other words that were more sophisticated and sinister, with implications of devilish magic about them. These were the words that the Big Boys used on the playground to establish their power and authority, and I was about to enter their ranks.
“You need to learn this one – it’s really bad!”
“OK,” I replied.
“OK, this is really bad!”
Gary scoured the area in just the same way the soldiers in the movies we watched searched the trees for snipers, assuring himself that what he was about to say would not be overheard. He paused for a second, letting the drama build, then leaned in close to my ear.
“Bastard,” he whispered, “Now you say it.”
“Bastard . . . bastard.” I savored it – solid, pronounceable, two whole syllables. And it really sounded bad. Cool!
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“It’s really bad.”
“Just be careful, OK?”