Regular readers of this blog know that to illustrate an idea, I usually utilize a comic strip or a brief parable. The beauty of these two types of narratives is that they are short, which nicely fits the expectations of most blog readers. To fully integrate all of the ideas that appear in the blog, I’ve created a trilogy of novels that my students over the years have coined The Cool Steve Stories.
Occasionally, I wish to convey to my blog readers some subtle ideas, and I find that very brief narratives are simply too inadequate for this. A novel is perfect for illustrating subtle ideas but the vast majority of blog readers have no desire to read a post that long. And so, to deal with this challenge, from time to time I post a short story based on a chapter from one of my novels. These stories, such as the one I share with you today, are a little longer than my typical posts, but if you give them a try, I genuinely believe that you will get a lot out of them.
Today’s short story is an edited version of a chapter from the second novel in the trilogy, Fights in the Streets, Tears in the Sand.
How I Met Cool Steve
When I graduated from Boody Junior High back in the sizzling summer of 1965, I had one major problem—every time I tried to get the kids to respect me I ended up making more and more enemies. If you would have asked me back then why respect was important to me, well, I guess I would have muttered a few of my choicest Brooklyn curses and then, well, I guess I would have said, “All I know is that when people treat me with respect it feels good, and when people treat me disrespectfully it feels like I ate something rotten. So there! Ya wanna make somethin’ out of it?!”
* * *
That summer, I moved to a new neighborhood and I was going to start a new school—Lincoln High. I figured no one knows me there, so this is my big chance to turn myself around.
And so, I began summer vacation feeling hopeful, but as the new school year began to close in on me, I started getting pretty nervous. And when the day before school arrived I’m sitting in my room strumming my guitar while thinking about getting real sick for a few years. I wonder how long I could play up that angle to avoid school altogether. My stomach’s been out of whack for the past few days anyway, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to take it up another level.
Each lick of my guitar is a pounding of my old enemies, and then, all of a sudden, notions of respect get thrown in as well, creating a wild, pounding drum beat in sync with my wild, pounding heart. My strumming gets louder.
Hey, maybe I can get some respect for my musical talent.
“Jeff, quiet down in there!” Mom screams. “For crying out loud, you’re giving me a headache!”
“You’re giving me a headache!” I scream back while throwing my guitar down on my bed. I storm out of my apartment and pound the elevator call button. When it arrives, I punch the lobby button and then start kicking the walls.
* * *
Once in the street, I walk aimlessly as steam hisses out of my ears. Along Ocean Parkway I pass Lincoln High and shudder. Under the Belt Parkway overpass I notice pigeons up in the beams hiding in crevices. As I continued on with my walk, slowly I begin to settle down.
* * *
Well, you can kiss that summer vacation goodbye, I say to myself while setting my alarm clock so I won’t be late for my first day at Lincoln. Within minutes of shutting my light, worries begin to invade my mind, buzzing about like flies. Man, school’s gonna suck!
Sleepless minutes go by like hours, and hours stretch out into eternities. I check my alarm clock at midnight, again at one and two.
And then, suddenly, an idea explodes upon me, followed by madly rushing thoughts. That’s it! That’s it! At Lincoln I’ll first play a real quiet type and not reveal anything about myself. And while I do that, I’ll secretly carry out a careful investigation to determine who the kids at Lincoln already respect. By keeping my eyes open and my mouth shut, I bet I can learn something useful before the kids get to know me.
But moments after this plan has rolled in with its initial high hopes, a dark cloud of doubt begins to cast its dismal shadow. Yeah, well if I carry out that stupid plan everyone’s gonna think I’m just copying the guy everyone respects. I’ll be nothing but a rotten copycat.
More tossing and turning. Three o’clock comes and goes.
And then, suddenly I sit up in bed fully awake, and my mind cries out, Wait! There was this director I worked with in a play once and I remember him saying how a great actor takes what he learns from other actors and then brings something of himself to a role, something that makes it fresh and unique. Maybe I can create something new based on someone else. Maybe.
* * *
I arrive on my first day at Lincoln at seven-twenty a.m., with a pencil, a loose-leaf notebook, and a sensationally queasy stomach. Out front students are gathered together in clusters. So far I don’t see anyone I know. Good.
Most students are dressed in outfits that appear more freshly bought than what is seen by mid-school year. The stores offering back to school sales must have had a banner year.
The first bell rings and resonates deep in my unsettled bowels. In unison, students head for their homeroom. I look down at my class schedule that I received in the mail a few weeks ago. It indicates in distinct black typewriter letters that I have to go first to HOMEROOM 324. Okay, I guess that means I better find a stairway up to the third floor. Man, I thought my junior high had big crowded hallways. They were minor league compared to this!
Here’s an up-stairway. As I traipse along, I try to listen to the conversations going on around me to see if I can find some clue about who the kids respect. There are a couple of cute girls in front of me.
“Who do you like better, John Lennon or Mick Jagger?”
“Oh, John’s my dreamboat!”
“Don’t you think Mick’s cuter?”
It looks like the ladies go for rockers, I think to myself. Maybe I ought to start practicing guitar more.
* * *
A couple of periods later, I’m heading to biology and some guy behind me says to someone next to him, “Hey, Cool Steve’s in my health class!”
“Cool Steve! Really?!
“Yeah! He sat right next to me.”
“Damn! Hey, tell him I say hi.”
There’s an excitement that accompanies this dialogue that somehow has me going, hmmm.
* * *
Lunchtime. I’m not really hungry, but my schedule says that’s where me and hoards of others are supposed to go so we find the down stairwell and dutifully march along.
Where should I sit? Remember to keep a quiet profile. There are some cool looking kids at this table. I start to sit down.
“Sorry, we’re saving these seats for some friends,” says one of the guys.
I nod and move on. Man, I hate school.
A few tables away, I spot an open seat next to a kid reading a story in Sports Illustrated with a great shot of Mickey Mantle. The Mick’s neck and forearms are bulging as he’s clobbering a monster home run.
“Anybody got this seat?” I ask while preparing myself for another rejection.
Looking up from his magazine, the guy looks me over for a couple of seconds, and then replies, “Sit down. I’m Cliff Schweitzer.”
“Hi Cliff, thanks. I’m Jeff Star.”
“Hi, Jeff. Say, who do you have for history?”
After checking my schedule card, I answer, “Mr. Lofton.”
“Is he any good?”
“I don’t know. I have him for the first time in a couple of periods from now.”
“I got stuck with Mr. Putzmeister,” Cliff says mournfully.
“Putzmeister!” I reply with a smile. “That his real name?”
“Yeah, and never was there a more fitting name for a teacher. I got to get out of there. He is so boring!”
“Well, it’s history, Cliff. How interesting can it be?”
“History is my favorite class, Jeff. My dad’s a history professor at New York University so that’s what we both love. And now to get stuck with Mr. Putzmeister!” This kid, Cliff, is digging his fingernails into his forehead like he’s getting ready to commit suicide.
“Try talking ta someone in the office. All you’re interested in is history?”
“Well, to me, a branch of history is ‘The world of sports,’ and I love sports. In fact, I’m writing a column for the school newspaper. It’s called the ‘Sports Scene.’ The first issue comes out on Friday. Check it out. Let me know what you think.”
I turn to Cliff. “That’s the second time I heard this name, Cool Steve. You wouldn’t happen ta know him?”
“Yeah, from Cunningham,” he answers, referring to one of the junior high schools that feed into Lincoln. “I guess most of the kids who know him, know him from there.”
“There seems to be some kind of respect thing connected to him.”
“Respect? Steve? Well, yeah.”
“You respect him?”
“Well, I guess for me it’s got something to do with the fact that he’s the best athlete I’ve ever personally known. In baseball he’s got explosive power and a rocket arm, and in football he’s got lightning speed and incredible hands. He’s… he’s history in the making. He’s just incredible, I mean incredible! But, um… I got a feeling people would respect Steve even if he wasn’t so great in sports.” Then Cliff’s voice kind of trails off and he looks like he’s searching for a more complete answer, but before he gets to it, a guy sitting beside him asks to borrow his Sports Illustrated.
“Let me just finish this story,” Cliff responds, and he quickly buries his nose in his magazine.
* * *
After school lets out, I walk to Rocco’s Pizzeria over on Brighton Beach Avenue. Rocco is fixing up a new pie. I take in deeply the familiar aroma of baking dough, oregano, cheese, and Rocco’s underarms.
With two slices in hand, I discover none of the tables are empty. At one of them is this guy Brainy George sitting by himself with his blond hair looking like it hasn’t been combed in months. I had met him earlier in the day in my gym class and noticed he sat at the same lunch table as Cliff Schweitzer, the sports writer. “How come they call him Brainy George?” I had asked one of the guys in gym.
“Da guy’s a freakin’ genius,” came the reply.
With nowhere else to sit, I ask if he’d mind if I sat across from him.
He looks up with these large thick glasses and nods his okay. “You were in gym today,” he says as I sit down.
“I hate gym.”
“Can’t stand it—all the idiots trying to prove they’re Mr. Atlas.”
“Hmmmm.” Personally, to me gym is a whole lot better than the rest of the garbage we gotta take at school. Rather than saying this I maintain my quiet portrayal. The pizza is still a bit hot so I blow on it and take my first bite. Mmmmm! “What junior high did you go to?” I ask.
“That’s the same junior high as this kid Cool Steve. I guess ya think he’s an idiot since he’s into sports.”
“Steve? Naaa. Steve’s different than the guys I’m talking about.”
“Yeah. I like Steve because, well first of all, he’s not one of those idiots who pick on me because I can’t run as fast as the other guys. And I like the way Steve’s gutsy. He’s not afraid to stand up for what he believes in. And it’s the way he carries himself… the way he moves. I don’t know… I… I just have a lot of respect for Steve.”
There’s that word again—‘respect.’ Well, being gutsy shouldn’t be too hard, I think to myself. Hell, I was gutsy enough to get into lots of fights in my old school. But I don’t quite know what to make of this stuff about the way Steve moves.
* * *
My second day at Lincoln—the wide-eyed exuberance of students on day one has turned into a ‘Do I really have to be here?’ look.
After finishing my lunch, I go sit on the steps of Lincoln’s main entrance. It’s warm and the sun is shining. Several students including Cliff Schweitzer, the sports writer, and Brainy George, the genius, come by and sit down next to me. With them are these two attractive girls.
I find myself magnetically pulled toward the girls. How can I get introduced? Be careful. You don’t want to blow the quiet image.
I nudge George and conspicuously look at each of the girls.
First, he points to the one closest to him, “She’s Sandy.” Sandy’s cute, with apricot-tan shoulders, a peachy complexion, and long, wavy, sandy-blond hair. She glances at me and smiles.
Then George, he points to the girl sitting next to Sandy. “That’s Mysterious Jane.”
“Mysterious Jane?” I ask.
“Well, they call Mysterious Jane, Mysterious Jane, because she’s strange,” George explains.
She might be strange, I think to myself, but she’s gorgeous. She has long, straight, glossy black hair that slightly covers her prominent cheekbones, and falls freely upon her voluptuous shoulders and breasts. Her green, almond shaped eyes have a thin line of black mascara and perhaps within these glimmering eyes there is a hint of some sort of mysteriousness.
Jane looks at me, gives me a slight nod, and resumes a conversation that she is having with George.
All of a sudden something catches Sandy’s attention and she cries, “Who’s that gorgeous guy?”
Mysterious Jane turns with her large green eyes in the direction that Sandy is looking—down the steps and off to the right. She lets out a long sigh. “Oh, that’s Cool Steve.”
“Ain’t he built!” Sandy squeals. “You know him?”
“Yeah, from Cunningham,” Jane replies. “All the girls were nuts about him because, well, a lot of the girls say it’s because he’s so cute. And he is cute, especially his eyes. I l-o-o-v-e his eyes.” This is followed by a moan and she then drifts off into another dimension.
Sandy pokes Mysterious Jane, returning her back to Earth. Jane looks over to Sandy, lowers her voice to an eerie whisper and says, “If you want to know the truth, the real reason all the girls are crazy about Steve is because he moves with the grace and power of a large panther, but he has far more power than any panther you’ve ever seen.”
I think to myself, that Mysterious Jane, she’s strange!
Watching Steve down the steps, I can’t notice him moving in any special way. I do notice that he’s tall with dark eyes and hair, like me. But compared to me, Steve is broader and has more of a Paul Newman nose.
Well, I refuse to get my nose fixed, but if I put on a few pounds and start lifting weights, I bet it might help. I’m way too skinny.
“Aaaaa, he’s nothing special,” I declare, feeling a little jealous of the way the girls are looking at him.
“All of the students sitting on the steps turn to me. “Nothing special,” says Mysterious Jane with a smile, and with that, everyone around me laughs.
* * *
A couple of hours later I’m walking out the south side exit of Lincoln heading home for the day. Man, I’m pissed! I can’t believe how much homework that stupid biology teacher gave me! Suddenly I hear, “Hey, Jeff Star!”
I turn to my left and spot Cliff calling after me. “Jeff, that guy Steve you were asking about,” Cliff calls out, “well, here he is.”
There, standing by Cliff is Cool Steve with a smile on his face. As I walk over, I’m feeling a completely unfamiliar nervousness. What’s he smiling about? I think to myself. Cool Steve! Cool Idiot if you ask me. And then, when I open my mouth, I find myself saying in a loud tough voice, “So you’re Steve. I’ve been hearing about you. The word is you’re a Jerk!”
As I glare at Steve, with his Mack Truck shoulders, my heart pounds furiously. From the corner of my eye I notice Steve’s friend, Cliff, watching on, his mouth closed so tight he seems to have no lips. His words from yesterday come to mind—“Steve’s the best athlete I’ve ever personally known.”
Big deal! I’m ready to go at him.
I’m waiting for an angry come on, or a quick jab from his right. My muscles are as tight as a hangman’s noose.
I notice several students who were walking home from school have put on their brakes, and their eyes are flashing back and forth between me and Steve.
Steve’s eyes lower, his forehead creases. Then his eyes look into mine and I see, instead of fury, sadness. “I guess,” he begins to say haltingly, “well… I was hoping… you know… starting a new school here… well, I was hoping the guys would like me.”
Those dark, glimmering eyes of his….
“Jeff,” says Cliff, “why did you say that?”
My eyes dart to him and back to Steve. Cold perspiration beads up on my forehead. The students looking on are almost drooling. What should I do?
Uncomfortably, I find myself shifting my stance as I look into Steve’s eyes…the sadness there…eyebrows down. They look like they are on the verge of becoming watery as he looks directly into my eyes, then down, and then back up into mine. My fury begins to turn into a feeling of downright stupidity. “Listen Steve, I… I don’t know why I said that… everyone I talked wit’ said you were okay.” I take a quick glance at Cliff and the other students watching on…and then hurry away.
* * *
A few minutes later, I’m pushing the elevator button in my apartment lobby. Jeez, I just made a great impression, I think to myself, a wonderful great impression. Steve’s eyes… man, who is this guy?
In junior high, whenever I started to put someone down, I got returned insults and fistfights. Such reactions would turn me into a raving lunatic. Now, with the way Steve acted, I don’t know how to respond to his quiet sadness.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.