The basement was colder than any other room in the house. It was musty and damp most days, but not in an unpleasant way. During the summer, the basement was the best place in the house to sleep. Especially since my parents refused to turn the central air conditioning below 72. Actually, many of the conflicts in my life harken back to air conditioning being set in the 70’s rather than a salaciously 65.
I had just finished my freshman year of college up near Boston and had come home to New Jersey for the summer. It was late June and I had been employed by the public works department for two weeks. Our town had a road and landscaping division staffed with state employees who kept the everything running and looking halfway decent around our little suburban community. During the summer, they hired a few college students to keep up with the grass cutting and weed whacking of the public parks. It was the garden state, after all. Grass grew. We cut it. This was my summer job.
Because of my employment, the basement smelled of grass. You know the smell. That lingering, earthly aroma of freshly cut summer grass. It’s not unpleasant when you smelled it occasionally, but when you spent eight hours a day cutting grass, it left a different mark. It didn’t fade quickly. It lingered, hanging in the musty, damp air of 1702 South Wanamassa Boulevard.
I slept on a squishy, vinyl pleather/orange couch whose cushions had previously provided the walls and ceiling for many a childhood fortress my youth. The basement floor was partially carpeted around the couch area, but rest of the room had a cement floor and walls painted a deep hunter green. The paint would peel around the edges of the room where water would leak in from heavy summer rain storms. I can still see those paint blisters pulling from the wall as moisture seeped in from the dirt surrounding the foundation. The way a blister grows and fills with liquid until it is broken and then leaves this layer of dry skin.
There was a small television on a side table across from the couch. A dart board and pool table were on the other side of the room. An alarm clock sat dutifully on the coffee table between the couch and television. My work clothes were piled on the pool table. A pair of black cargo pants, brown work boots and a black T-shirt. The edges of the pants had grass bits stuck to them from the previous day’s work. A pair of clear plastic eye glasses served as protection from flying bits of dirt, rocks and branches that would inevitably flip up from the parks as we trimmed everything back. The state also provided yellow foam ear plugs for our hearing protection. Several of these littered the pool table.
It was seven-thirty and I woke to the alarm on the coffee table blaring at me. The LED numbers glared at me as time marched onward. I tossed the blanket off and pulled on a pair of sweat pants to go upstairs and grab a quick shower. The work crew expected me at eight o’clock and it was a ten-minute drive. The department of public works was located on the Deal Test Site, a patchwork connection of dirt roads cutting through three miles of fields and trees previously owned by military. I showered and put on my grass stained work clothes. I grabbed a bagel and headed out to my car.
I drove past the old boys club building that had been shut down for years at the entrance of the Deal Test Site. My only memory of this now defunct (and likely ghost-filled) building was getting dropped off there by my parents on a water park field trip day only to realize I had forgotten my permission slip. I had to go to the arcade with the younger kids while my group went off to the water park. My day was spent wishing I had quarters and watching little kids play Pac-Man and Donkey Kong to their heart’s content. I didn’t like the boys club after that.
Glen lead our crew. The director of the public works department wanted one of the full-time employees to ride around and supervise the college kids they had hired for summer employment. I think the plan was for them to teach us how to use the machines and to keep us from goofing off too much. Glen wore a white tea shirt and pair of stained, faded blue jeans. His stomach hung over his jeans and about halfway through the day he would lose the shirt giving us all a grand look at his massive frame. He was married, in his forty’s and spent the entire summer telling us of his affairs with many of the rich, elite women of Ocean Township.
Mike was Glen’s second-in-command. He was a thirty-five-year-old high school kid who never grew up and moved away. Mike made us listen to the AM heavy metal station which seemed to play ACDC’s Back in Black alternated with Led Zeppelin’s Stairway. To me, this summer felt like some kind of anthropological deep-dive into a culture my privileged, suburban, upper middle class self never quite experienced.
My fellow observers were Keith and Jay, making up the three college kids hired for the summer. Keith went to the University of Vermont and lived one town over from me in Oakhurst. Jay just graduated high school in Red Bank and was heading to Brookdale Community College in the fall. Jay was skinny and tall without much direction in his life. Keith was the ultimate surfer boy, going to school up in Vermont, a landlocked state that had no access to the ocean. He had bleached blonde hair and now that he was back at the beach when he wasn’t surfing after work he was talking about going surfing.
“You should have seen the piece of ass I got into last night, Whoo-eee.” Glen greeted me from his truck as I pulled up next to him. Jay and Mike were both standing around his truck. Mike wore a Metallic T-shirt and Jay wore shorts. We weren’t supposed to wear shorts because of the weed whackers and flying rocks. Jay didn’t like using the weed whackers so he wore shorts.
“It was a sweet piece of pussy.” Glen said and climbed out of his truck. He gave his hand a wide-arced smack out in front of him on her where her imaginary backside was.
“Yeah? Who was it?” Jay asked.
“Carol this time. They love the fuck-machine” Glen said, gesturing two thumbs back to himself, as if any of us were unsure of who the fuck-machine was. He shut the truck door and gave a good final push for good measure with his hips.
Glen was a connoisseur of cursing like other people were connoisseurs of fine wine and cheeses. He single-handily undid all nineteen years of my parent’s careful Christian upbringing with his stories and Buddha-like belly. Before this, life was like watching a baseball game on the television. I saw it and enjoyed it. That summer was like the first time I went to a live baseball game. It was still the same general concept, but man, was it different. There was the smell of the stadium and hot dogs and the collective cheering. You were all part of something bigger. What that summer did, was make it hard to think about going back to watching baseball on TV again. It opened my eyes to what was behind the curtain.
Glen kept a few different women on the line at once. Most were divorced woman looking for what they lost in their marriages. Some were still married and looking for what they were missing. According to Glen, as long as they still looked good, then he was on the prowl. It amazed me that women went for him. He was fat, not all that great looking and married. Glen had this confidence, though. Like this self-assured way of walking through the world like he was untouchable. There was something charismatic in that way of being.
“Where are we going today?” I asked the group. We all hung out by the two trucks at the start of the day to get our assignments for the day.
“Allenhurst park, the library and then around the lake.” Mike said. Glen nodded in agreement like a general surveying his troops.
Keith pulled up in his Volkswagen convertible. His surf board was in the back seat and the tail had sand on it fresh from the beach. The end of the Violent Femmes Blister in the Sun blared out of his car radio.
“How are the waves?” Mike asked, in his on-going attempt to get on Keith’s good side. This was always unsuccessful since Keith thought Mike was an idiot. This, of course, made Mike try all the harder to get Keith to like him. And this, in turn, made Mike seem more desperate and made Keith dislike him more. Jay and I watched the two of them go at it.
“Wet.” He said shortly and walked over to Jay and I. Mike laughed, but it was that kind of pressured laugh that you knew covered the hurt inside.
Glen took the stage and started in on his story again for Keith. “You should have seen the piece of ass I fucked last night. Swwweeeet.”
He drew out the last word like he was a southern country boy. He grew up in Newark. Glen mimed a slapping motion on an imaginary woman’s ass in front of him and said “Swwwweeeet” again. He added a head toss and a great big smile. While he didn’t say “yee-haw!”, it was implied.
“Yeah?” Keith said.
“Fine blonde pussy. Got her in every hole. And I mean every hole.” He winked as he said ‘every’ and gave another slap to the imaginary buttocks in front of him.
I was studying psychology up at school near Boston. My first year was ok, but I found myself most comfortable being on the outside some, the periphery. I’d watch people and follow their stories. Glen and our crew was like an IMAX compared to my time at college; a larger-than-life experience. I can’t imagine what I would have missed if I had opted to lifeguard again that summer. Thank God, I went for cutting grass at $8.95 an hour. I mean sure, my tan wouldn’t be as good, but Glen was like a walking and talking Moses bringing the tablets down the mountain.
“Got something for you guys today. You’ve been working hard this week, so you get a little reward.” Glen announced, apparently in a good mood from last night’s adventures. I’m pretty sure this job of supervising us was the highlight of his year. This public works lifer was given dominion over three impressionable college students for a summer. He took to this job like a fox being put in charge of the hen house. Well, more like an older, seedier fox teaching some younger foxes how to watch a hen house.
Glen opened a cooler in the back of his truck to reveal a three six packs of Coors light. Despite my being at college for a year already, my alcohol experience was fairly limited. A few of my floormates talked a senior into buying us a bottle of red wine to drink on a Friday night in the middle of the semester. Lame, I know. And then was Huck from Alabama who snuck a bottle of Bacardi 151 up with him to our alcohol-free Christian campus. Between the rum and the fireworks Huck smuggled up, he was very popular in our close-knit floor of Ferrin Hall men. But there was not a lot of opportunities for drinking at our school.
Glen was the first to crack open the beer and Mike, Jay, Keith and I followed suit. It was the first beer I had had in my life and I took a deep swig. It was already hot out, even at this early hour of the morning. The beer was cold and went down smooth. Within a half hour, each of us were three or four beers in and starting to feel pretty good about our lawn mowing tasks for the day.
Glen held court with us that day with us. Regaling us with his stories of fucking, like some big stray tom-cat traipsing about town. He talked about how his wife only cared if about how many handles of vodka were in the pantry and what was on TV at night. He shared stories of his drinking days on the job when he was our age. He let us know what he thought about a college education, the government and then surprised us with a fairly conservative stance on God and the church.
“The way I see it,” Glen said, “the Catholics got it dialed in just right. You go to church, you ask forgiveness for your wrongs and it’s like the big G hits the cosmic reset button on your sins and what not.” Glen took another long pull off his beer for emphasis.
It would be another decade before I saw The Big Lebowski. But when I saw Jeff Bridges playing the dude, I thought immediately about Glen. That slacker prophet who lived mindfulness with every breath. There was something kismet between the dude and Glen, they would have had a beer. I found this same feeling again the first time I saw New Orleans. Something messy and magical, but above all, something true.
In the end, the grass grew and we cut it. Glen bought us beers and we were his acolytes. We listened to his stories and took in those assorted bits of wisdom he shared about his life. I know its cliché, to have this ‘becoming a man’ moment housed amongst his expressions of misogyny, hedonism and attempts at fostering youthful alcoholism, but there was something that happened that summer for me. A transition beyond what was expected, structured and organized. It was a glimpse into humanity; a part I hadn’t seen before. I had been told about it. I had been warned away from it, but I didn’t understand it. It was why Adam bit the apple. It was why Eve handed it to him.
And when all is said and done, that summer was my coming of age moment. Where I began to see things more fully. Seeing things as they are and not just as they are supposed to be. It was a time when I first had a sense of free will in my choices and a chance to explore the boundaries of what it meant to be alive, apart from what we should or ‘ought’ to do.
And make no mistake, Glen was certainly a hot mess. He wasn’t someone I idolized for his behaviors, but rather someone who lived his life in a very human way. He made mistakes, but also touched happiness and sorrow more than most. He rejected the status quo, walked a path unique to his own internal drummer (probably Rick Allen from Def Leppard).
Glen was one of my firsts glimpses into someone who seemed to be content even though he did all the things I was taught would lead to discontentment. He was a riddle in my mind, an enigma, an important puzzle piece. There wasn’t anything untrue about Glen, he was congruent and authentic in a way that I would increasingly not see from people around me at college and in my studies as a therapist. There was a simplicity to him that resonated with me. Granted, his simplicity was a walking Freudian Id, but still, he was human in a way I’ve come to admire in people.
To this day, I still I think about that summer every time I have a Coors Light or I smell fresh mowed grass. And I think about Glen. I wonder if he is still out there somewhere, wandering about New Jersey, chasing some tail and giving the man the finger.