Last chance to make it real

Remembering a great friend who passed due to complications that included COVID-19

The hot Texas night air poured through the open windows of the sparkling red and blue-striped 1977 Chevy Camaro, its new 350-cubic inch, 200-horsepower V-8 engine roaring like a lion on the prowl. Steve shifted the automatic transmission lever to a quicker gear, darting past vehicles, maneuvering like he was at the Indy 500. Springsteen sang about freedom, about following your passion to get to a better place, through the Pioneer stereo system that included an eight-track tape player.

“Take that, you fucking jerks!” Steve vented into the night as teen-age males often do, gulping down the rest of his Coors can in triumph. Then he returned to loudly singing “Born to Run.”

After the song finished, I turned to my friend. “Man, Steve, you’re driving like you’re fucking crazy. It’s fucking great.” At age 18, almost every sentence I said had the f-word in it, even though I could write better than most. But that’s just how my friends and I verbally communicated back then, especially when drinking.

“Damn, right,” he replied. “Just watch out for fucking cops, ok?”

“You mean the ones we left in the dust way back there?”

“What?” he shoved me with a free hand, keeping the other on the wheel. “You’re shitting me.”

I laughed and popped open another can. I had reached 18 a few months before and could finally legally drink. It was my job to hide the empty beer cans we had accumulated under a seat. I’d usually wait until we stopped to deposit them in a trash can. But sometimes, if we did see a cop, I’d callously toss them out the window like Nixon’s plumbers destroying the evidence.

Steve was closer to 19 by then. While I labored playing high school and small college basketball, he collected a paycheck in various jobs through high school into college, including at a bank that hired him full-time after he graduated. He worked and took some college night classes, rather than joining me and others full-time.

That’s how he could afford the new Camaro, and I had to drive a 1972 Dodge Charger, a classic in its own right that I once pushed to 100 miles per hour in the wee morning hours on a deserted LBJ Freeway. The Charger’s 400-cubic inch engine had more horsepower than Steve’s Camaro, but I didn’t like to gun it too often since it consumed gas like we drank beer. A gallon of gas had climbed to 60 cents a gallon by 1977, about $2.55 in 2020 dollars. Steve was the working man, so he had more gas money than me. I usually sprung for at least one of the $2 six-packs of Coors we bought, telling him I’d pay him back one day for my share of the gas. He’d laugh and exclaim, “Yeah, right, you jerk!”

Forest Lane in northwest Dallas was our Main Street, our Indy 500. It was here we ran with the big dogs, the classic hot rods that many James Dean’s had shown off on this strip since the mid-1960s. Some guys had faster cars than ours that they obviously labored on more than we did, installing power boosters such as four-barrel carburetors. But Steve knew how to make up for lesser horsepower with reflexes and daring. We didn’t always win, but we held our own, earning a measure of respect. And that’s what counted most at Life in the Fast Lane on Forest Lane.

Steve’s flashy Camaro attracted female attention, as well. Some nights, we’d end up in the Jack in the Box parking lot, talking trash in drunken bouts, occasionally getting a number that we rarely used but was important to obtain for street cred and our own self-esteem. Without alcohol, we were both on the shy side around women. With it, I was more confident and frank to the point of being obnoxious. Steve, however, didn’t lose much of his shyness around the opposite sex with the beer. He often spent more time cutting down jerks than trying to talk to women, despite my continual advice to focus on the women, not the jerks. While the Catholic in him spoke about seeking commitment and marriage with a “nice girl,” I counseled against doing that too soon. I’d talk about trying out for basketball at Pepperdine or another California university once my two years at Richland College were up, telling him he had to go out there with me.

“We’re young,” I’d say. “We can’t get tied down. We gotta get with the wild girls. We gotta make it out to California. There are chicks all over the place there.”

He’d laugh again. “Chicks all over the place” was one of our drunken catch phrases that always made us laugh. I’d traveled to California my junior year of high school on a school-sponsored, week-long tour. I was impressed with the scenery in more ways than one. I also almost was shipped back to Texas for breaking the tour rule against buying switchblades in Tijuana. In Boy Scouts, I had won the game faster than most, advancing to Eagle by age 14, and I didn’t need another knife. I just hated dumb rules; why the hell couldn’t I have a switchblade if I wanted one? Did they think that I was going to suddenly join a street gang after buying one? I just thought they were cool. So I broke the nonsensical rules regularly in my rebellious late high school and college days. It was another way for me to cement my reputation as someone who tried to stick it to The Man.

Maybe that’s why the more straight-laced Steve put up with me. A part of him admired my rebellious nature. A part of him lived vicariously through me at times. I was usually speaking figuratively in alcohol-aided boasts, but he didn’t always know that. I leaned on him, too, to help keep me grounded and honest. While most other friends would tune out my rantings about various societal ills, Steve at least listened. He thought I was crazy most of the time, but he listened.

Blocking bullies’ shots with authority

‘At night, we ride through mansions of glory
In suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on Highway 9
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin’ out over the line
Oh, baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young’

In my freshman year of that teen-age survival mosh pit known as high school, Steve was one of my few real friends who I could confide in and trust. I was more the quiet, nerdy scholar than rebellious athlete and writer at that stage, as I wouldn’t make the high school hoops team until my junior year. The bullies in our freshman gym class targeted me for being tall and gangly, and Steve as the new guy with wiry hair from Ohio. Naturally, we became friends, plotting revenge against the assholes of our world.

Steve was an excellent baseball player, a fast runner and pretty fair hoops player. When we took up basketball in gym, I’d try extra hard to block the shots of our tormentors. When they shoved me as I hit another shot in their faces, I blocked their shots with authority the next time down the court. I never trash talked opponents, but after a vicious block, I’d turn and nod at Steve, who more often than not, played on my team.

In gym class softball games, Steve hit a home run almost every at bat. The bullies soon picked him more for their team. In our sophomore year, we both ended up playing baseball for our Catholic church team. Steve was the star second baseman and lead-off hitter; I was a backup outfielder. I told him he should try out for the high school team. He’d shake his head and say he had to work.

“Steve, man,” I’d say, “you have the rest of your fucking life to work. Do something fucking big while you can. Do something to make others fucking remember you more.”

He’d ponder what I said for a moment, then shrug. “Aw, I wouldn’t make it. There are too many fucking jerks who have already been on the teams since junior high, playing through the ranks. I just want to play for fun, anyways.”

I’d shake my head and remind him how he was a good athlete in Ohio, playing baseball and basketball for his school team, while also running track [he also then dated a daughter of former Cavaliers coach Bill Fitch]. The move south, for reasons such as having to start over in a new place, ate at him at times. He listened but didn’t pursue the kind of dream I was pursuing with basketball.

In my case, the idiot seventh-grade hoops coach had ignored me in favor of huskier football players. I didn’t like the eighth-grade coach and quit tryouts. And I had declined to tryout in ninth grade. But by tenth grade, I was more mentally ready.

But when I approached the high school hoops junior varsity coach — who happened to be my gym coach my sophomore year — he told me not to try out, that he didn’t think I was good enough. I believed in myself enough to go over his head and ask the varsity coach for a tryout. He granted me that. I made the JV my junior year, who fortunately had acquired a better coach after the varsity coach quit and the asshole was promoted. But in my senior year, I had to play for the asshole. Of course, he would take me out of games soon after I missed a shot or two, or committed a turnover. But there were times when I shined, such as a 20-point, 16-rebound game off the bench to lead a comeback victory. There were moments I blocked the bullies’ shots with authority.

Later, I’d find Steve, one of the few friends who really knew what I had to overcome to get to that point. And we’d get drunk driving down Forest Lane, reliving those moments. We’d continue to plot our revenge against the jerks of the world.

Turning on to Springsteen and more

‘The night’s busting open
These two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting down on the tracks’

Steve was musically gifted, as well. His father was an accomplished piano and organ player, often playing at church and other functions. Steve could have played an instrument if he set his mind to it.

But he was a better music aficionado and critic. He had a subscription to Rolling Stone Magazine and consumed it like I read the sports section and Mad Magazine. Like many, Steve appreciated songs for their catchy tunes and instrumental prowess. But he searched beyond the surface, wanting to know the poetic meanings behind the words. His observations were usually astute, even witty at times.

Between my high school senior year and college junior year, Steve not only pushed to attend sporting events like NBA games in San Antonio and Houston a couple years before Dallas attracted a team. But he turned me on to live concerts of Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jackson Browne, Queen, Linda Ronstadt, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Aerosmith, Styx. He stood in line for several hours to get us floor seats to the Doobie Brothers. We viewed AC/DC in their early years at the Electric Ballroom before they were popular. We saw the Pretenders, the Ramones, Todd Rundgren at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles.

The latter concert occurred in the midst of a trip we made to California our college freshman year through an independent tour company, as my advocacy to check out Cali paid off. During the Rundgren concert, we met some women there who led us on a guided tour of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We were among the studio audience of a live Dinah Shore show at CBS. We smoked pot with some California girls on the beach. We were stopped by women who asked us if we wanted to “smoke a bowl of hash” in Haight-Ashbury. We befriended some young French women on the tour who made me want to go to France.

While drinking something on the plane ride back to Texas, I turned to Steve and said, “See, was I wrong? There are chicks all over the place in California.”

Steve laughed. “Yeah, you’re right. And most of them want to be in fucking movies and on TV.” He got more serious. “I don’t think they are my type, though I think you would do well out here.”

“But that’s not the fucking point, Steve. The point is you came out here and saw new possibilities. You never fucking know what will happen if you put yourself in a new situation.”

After one 1978 Springsteen concert in Dallas,we waited outside the arena near the roadie trucks. We were shocked when Springsteen himself walked by with a couple of his roadies. While others clamored for the rock star’s autograph, Steve merely wanted to shake his hand. He did right before Springsteen climbed into the cab of a truck — no celebrity entourage and limousines for him. “How you doin’?” Springsteen greeted Steve in his Jersey accent as they shook hands. To Steve, that was better than an autograph. We kidded him about never washing his hand again. But that perhaps best showed what he was about; Steve wanted an authentic experience to recall someone, not some memento. He wanted something real.

While many teens jumped on the disco Saturday Night Fever craze in the late ’70s, Steve resisted, seeking out rock ’n’ roll concerts and clubs. I sported a leisure suit and gold chains, and he eventually broke down to buy some disco clothes, including platform shoes, which I certainly didn’t need. We often ended up at a northwest Dallas disco called After the Gold Rush, which Steve referred to as “After the Gold Fuck.” While I was playing the phone number game, Steve would rant about jerks, sometimes leaving to sit in the car and listen to a basketball or baseball game, or a rock band. But he’d always be there as I finally left the disco, and we’d cruise Forest Lane, reminiscing about exploits.

As punk rock became more popular in 1980, I joined Steve’s rebellion against disco. One night, I convinced him and another friend named Dean to attend a punk film. Dean and I dressed in punk style with sports jackets that had rolled-up sleeves, sneakers, and shades. Steve declined. “I don’t want people to think I’m a fucking weirdo,” he said.

After another drunken evening, Steve dared me to call in to a national radio show whose host had a weird voice that always made him laugh. I had no choice but to accept the dare, waiting on his phone in a little private booth near his room for more than an hour before finally getting through. I hammed it up as best I could, loudly telling the host I was “The Doc” in reference to a sports column I wrote for the Richland College newspaper, and detailing some of our exploits in bars that evening.

“Well, you have to get out and kick up your heels every now and then,” the host stated, as Steve rolled on the floor in laughter.

There was a different side to Steve. After our drunken night bouts wore off, he would often try to get me to go to Catholic Mass with him, I guess as a sort of penance. I sometimes went but often made an excuse like I needed to take a nap. “Okay, jerk, you’re going to burn in Hell,” he’d say, half-joking, half-serious.

“That’s fine because Hell is where most of my friends will be,” I’d say, half-joking, half-serious.

Even during drinking bouts, Steve, like me, never used the n-word, as some white teen-age males in Texas did during the 1970s. While working at a restaurant, he befriended one of the few African-Americans on the high school basketball team who also happened to bus tables there.

Following two years at Richland, the California dream faded. My parents divorced, money became tight, and I ended up finishing my final two years at the University of North Texas. Steve decided to enroll full-time at UNT as well, and we became dorm roommates for a year. He was also one of the most honest critics of the articles and columns I wrote for the UNT newspaper, pointing out messed-up details and holes that needed filling.

One of the most compelling memories was driving a Winnebago some 1,000 miles to South Padre Island and back for spring break with four other dorm friends. Steve talked about that trip long after we left college.

Drifting apart

‘Now I been out in the desert, just doin’ my time
Searchin’ through the dust, lookin’ for a sign
If there’s a light up ahead, well brother I don’t know’

By the mid-1990s, Forest Lane had become a ghost town, done in by gang activity and police crackdowns. As young professionals, we traveled a few more times, including to New Mexico with numerous other friends. Steve and Mary found each other, while I married Michelle. Our visits became less frequent, competing with family life, kids, work, home projects and more.

In 2003, I moved with Michelle and our two kids to the Washington, D.C., area and divorced three years later. The distance made it more difficult to stay in touch with Steve, though Facebook helped. We had reunions, including a 50-year birthday party at a Dallas pub, but they dwindled in number. We never made it out to California again after that 1978 journey, but I went several times with my family.

In the mid-2010s, Steve accepted a buyout from the bank where he worked as an accountant and financial analyst for 23 years. He and Mary became deeply involved with the Greyhound Adoption League of Texas, adopting some dogs and helping more find homes. He and Mary traveled to many places, including Europe. He continued to attend concerts with other great friends, another named Steve, as well as Mike and Jeff. At a free Springsteen show at Dallas Reunion Park in 2014 in conjunction with March Madness, he and Jeff pushed their way to the front of the stage. They were close enough to touch Springsteen, as Steve did almost 40 years earlier.

Sadly, Steve’s health deteriorated. He was diagnosed with diabetes and then NPH, leading to problems walking. In mid-2020, as the coronavirus struck millions worldwide, he fell and broke his shoulder. He had to go to a hospital, where further complications befell him.

While there, he contracted COVID-19, eventually succumbing in early August about two months before his 62nd birthday. Like most of the other roughly 170,000 U.S. victims [750,000 worldwide] of this viral pandemic, he couldn’t be seen directly by family and friends in the hospital. They communicated through video chats. It didn’t seem fair, but as almost a million worldwide families have found out so far this year, fairness has nothing to do with this pandemic.

Since March, I’ve spent considerable hours posting stories, research, article links and more in hopes of getting more people to take this virus seriously, to do the little things like wear masks around others and keep a distance. I don’t want to spend much time on that here, except to say wear a mask when outside around others. And distance yourself from others when out.

And when you have a chance to reach out to an old friend or relative, do it, before that moment fades away. And maybe try to really listen to others, try to be more civil.

This piece is to commemorate a great friend, to try to explain what he was about, what he meant. But as I wound down the story, I learned that my ex’s mother passed away of complications that included COVID-19 in a Pennsylvania hospital about a week after Steve. She was a loving and doting grandmother to our kids, both of whom sounded devastated on the phone. She had a tough life at times, raising three kids alone in a public housing project. But she carried herself with grace and exhibited a youthful, warm exuberance.

Sadness overwhelms me, almost making me numb. But we can’t succumb to numbness about this pandemic. We can’t tune it out. We can’t ever get used to and accept hundreds of people dying of this disease each day in the U.S.

I don’t want to hear the excuses. I’m sick of arguing with people over this, but I will continue because it’s important. The pandemic hitting home in two awful instances in the past week or so only escalates my passion. We have to do more. What we are doing now is not good enough.

Somewhere, perhaps in an alternative universe, the road opens up before us. Springsteen is blaring on a Pioneer stereo. Steve is racing down the strip in a Camaro, Coors can in hand. I’m next to him, trying to figure out our next move. We sing loudly and half-drunkenly to those songs we know by heart, evading the cops, waving at girls, laughing at dust-eating jerks — who could be similar to us, for all we know.

We have our whole lives ahead of us, and the possibilities are endless.

‘One sunny morning we’ll rise I know
And I’ll meet you further on up the road’

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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