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Hot Pink

May 1, 2016


In the August of 1969 a boy 14 and his brother, 19, moved into an empty house at 70 North Pearl Street, in the Allentown section of downtown Buffalo, New York. It was a 3 story Mansard-roofed early Victorian town house, with a driveway, a backyard, and its stout brick walls and round-top windows were in good repair – however the roof’s built-in “Yankee Gutters” were in full failure mode with rot taking full advantage of the sodden eaves.

In 1969 Buffalo was in full “White Flight” cascade. The middle class who populated the non-posh parts of the city were dead running away from the city via the new national highway system to suburbs north, south and east (only Lake Erie held back the suburban-seeking hordes escaping “urban renewal”.) Nationwide demographic flows had brought many people up from southerly climes into the city’s 1950’s housing projects, and those highways pointed the way out for a white population rapidly becoming outnumbered by people that did not look like them.

The first rounds of industrial abandonment were also in the air. A city born of lake and canal transit, then sustained by rail, was falling victim to the large order Rust Belt Realities that there were cheaper places to forge steel and make cars. The city had come close to a million occupants at the turn of the century, it was just a tick over 500,000 in 1969.

Almost no one wanted “in” when the stakeholders in the city were fleeing “out”. So the home we bought was dirt cheap. My dim memory was the purchase of our new/old home was somehow financed by the sale of a “vacation” home on Candlewood Lake in Connecticut that was purchased as a sweet heart deal from one of my father’s clients (then doubled in size at my mother’s design).

The ability to dabble in real estate came courtesy of the Mid Century Ivy white male system that rewarded WASP ability and drive with unquestioned status and money – my parents were of that era, though my dad was the first in his family to go to college, let alone law school. But ecstatic realities of Jazz, alcohol and disposable income before World War 2 were supplanted post war by suburbia, kids, and the desperate use of alcohol as a hopeful trigger of old joys, – that now seemed forever missing from my parents’ lives. My family was feeling the final implications of a post war reality – just like Buffalo – unchartered territory for both.

What remained in our family real estate portfolio was the relatively large home in Westchester County. When the idea of a flat-roofed addition was rejected as proffered by an ultimately unpaid architect, a better venue for my father’s income as a lawyer was deemed to be the “second home” in Aqua Vista, on the Lake the sale of which ultimately leveraged the expansion of family venue to Buffalo.

The house in Buffalo was a classic 1870’s noble remnant – its front porch long ago stripped from its brick box. The home had not been touched since the 1930’s, a faint dust of oil soot permanently hung in the air from its huge forced air heating plant’s many leaky connections.

No furniture was there for the new occupants save a table and chairs, mattresses and a dresser or two. No drapes, no carpets, no art on the walls save the 19 year old’s Playboy pin-ups. There were bare bulb center-ceiling lights in the bedrooms, and a couple of lamps. Personal belongings were either brought up in a packed Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, or bought at Sears up Main Street.

My brother, the 19 year old, and my 14 year old self had no clue why we were there, or what it ultimately meant. As usual we were in the wake of a marriage coping with dire issues with flailing activity in lieu of thought, self-awareness or a perspective beyond getting through the next day until 5pm could beg questions with scotch.

As a building this sad but regal place was a perfectly blank slate for my mother to devote the next few years as Decorator (or as she adamantly preferred “Designer”.) Ultimately recreated as a 2 family with new kitchen, bathrooms, heating plant and resurfaced surfaces, what my brother and I moved into was 2 bedrooms on the second floor, a classic 1930’s master bath and the old kitchen in the rear wing, complete with free-standing metal cabinets with linoleum countertops and a single center light fixture – and the aforementioned table.

It was camping out. I faintly remember going to a laundromat the first year, and a dishwasher was not even a thought. The fun of a camp-out was not a thought either as my father was not on board with our insinuation and my and my Buffalo State College-attending brother’s relocation, but the die was cast.

Previous to this move I had attended a tiny private day school from kindergarten through 8th grade. It had 2 classes to a room. I had elevated to be the Big Guppy in a vernal pool of private education. I was going to another very small school that had been attended by my cousin a decade earlier. My aunt was living at the other end of Allentown, and my grandmother was a ways north – but the plan was to split residency every six weeks with my mother returning to the home she had spent 15 years renovating in Westchester – from which my father continued to commute to Wall Street Law from.

The scenario was a challenge for a cloistered 14 year old, but in full ignorance I upgraded difficult into freakish terror as I desperately wanted to play football. I now know that innocently insane desire would have been easier had the school been larger with a subgroup of freshman who could share incompetence away from upperclassmen, or if the program was worse: but it was a tiny team whose core performers were scholarship athletes from the inner city – most living a few blocks east of our new/old home – the other side of the Great Wall of Main Street that separated white from black.

I had never done any organized athletics of any kind and was thrown immediately into summer 3 hour practices with athletes who had played for years – many were 18 to my newly minted 14. When I arrived to the empty house, I thought I knew what was coming, so in the week before practice began I pathetically ran “laps” inside the empty home – a ridiculous hidden simulation of athletic activity as proven by the complete humiliation I experienced once practices began.

Summer football hurts more for everyone involved than the fall version – even experienced bodies are softer after 9 months without contact, and after initial soreness the contact comes to toughen the skin, inuring it to the shock of tissue trauma. When no part of a body has ever been exerted to exhaustion, or has been hit to hematoma or bloodied by violence, its tenderness is uniquely traumatized. After a few days I was a broken mess.

Knowing nothing except desire, I was the perfect punching bag for those who had become men and had muscle mass. I was a sad bag of fat, moving only slightly faster than the static blocking dummies trashed by the angry young men of the Park School Pioneer Football team that was on its way to another undefeated tiny private school league championship season.

That long term record of success, helping ghetto kids getting to college came from an intensely focused, funny and devoted coach who made all of us ashamed of any indifference: going at it full bore was the way he had created extreme success in a minuscule school, and it was the ethic of a team that was undefeated in league play most years. Work meant full contact practices as soon as everyone knew the plays. It was 1969 – so there weren’t that many plays: hitting happened early and often. No water was to be had, but salt pills were a plenty. Breaks did not happen. I had instantly gone from a 24/7 resting state to extreme physical expression and impact.

The results were devastating to a body new to 14 years and late to puberty.

After daily deep bruising, bloodied nose and ego, the 45 minute bus ride home from the suburban school with the scholarship kids was an aching respite. Getting off the bus felt like I was walking with broken pieces and shredded tissue, hobbling home meant I just focused on the next set of steps, as beyond that was not possible in the moment.

Upon arrival I immediately went to the time-frozen 1935 master bath: its curled black linoleum floor and wainscoting and hot pink porcelain fixtures with chromed highlights in happy remembrance of pre-war glory – much like my parents’s displaced perspective.

In those early weeks post-practice meant I filled the very pink tub with extremely hot water – and I slipped in, the initial shock and pain upon the light scalding gave way to relief from some of the stiffness.

When the water cooled enough where its therapeutic effect was gone, I pulled my still puffy, but now multicolored, body out of the pinkness to another 1960’s state-of-the-art athletic training mechanism: Absorbine Junior. It was liniment with a foam cap dispenser – 90% alcohol, the rest smell. I am not sure what it did except to make every new breech in my skin scream in even greater pain. Being fat and tender those breeches included the “Crotch Rot” that had violently emerged, – logically enough in my crotch.

That extreme pain focused me away from the reality of living in an empty house in Buffalo – especially when my mother absented herself to return to my father in Westchester in late September. Her first 6 or 7 hour car ride back, alone, must have been a new experience for her.

What was she leaving? What was she going to?

In a few years my crotch rot was gone, muscles replaced most of the fat, and that hot pink fixtured bathroom was fully transformed.

We had both survived.

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