January 30, 2011

Why We Didn’t Die, I Can’t Exactly Say


In the years that bridged the end of junior high and the beginning of high school, before I simultaneously fell in with the geek and punk rock crowds (neither of whom seemed to like me very much), the only friend I remember was a kid named Danny Danby. It was a ridiculous name. I always thought “Daniel Danby” sounded better, but he pointed out that on his birth certificate, his parents—cruel fuckers—had legally named him “Danny.” So “Danny Danby” it was, and ever would be.

            He was a strange, mousy little fellow. Bright, but no genius. He didn’t seem to have any particular interest in sports, or sex, or drugs like most kids his age. He read a lot, but most of what he read was crap. He liked movies okay, but anything that wasn’t an action-adventure film with a recognizable hero struck him as “stupid” and “weird.” (Because of this, we went to see every Chuck Norris film that came out, but I went to see The Tin Drum alone.) He taught me how to play chess, but wasn’t a great player. He didn’t really seem to excel at anything or stand out in any way. He got decent grades, but was just a face in the hallway to most people. He was neither outgoing nor an introvert. Mostly he was just there. And like me, he didn’t seem to have any other friends. I can’t say for sure when or why we started talking.

            He came from the west side of town, an area populated mostly by factory workers and future factory workers. It was considered a rough neighborhood in local terms, but that’s just because it was lower middle class bordering on poor. The actual crimes that took place on the west side never got much beyond beer-related scuffles and the occasional wife-beating.

            In a way, Danny’s family fit the pattern. His father worked in one of the local mills, his mother at a neighborhood beauty parlor. Their small clapboard house was in the middle of a non-descript stretch of nearly identical small, clapboard houses. The interior was shabby and cluttered, and always smelled vaguely of stale dog shit. The fridge was stocked with soda and cheap beer, the cupboards packed with Cheez Doodles, Pop-Tarts, and Cap’n Crunch. All their meals I ever witnessed consisted of nothing but snacks, and their teeth showed it. But they were all extremely nice, personable people who joked around a lot and had clear affection for each other.

            Here’s the weird thing, though. Along with the torn carpeting, the collapsing furniture and the garbage on the floor, their house was also filled with every new high-tech gadget available on the market. They had an early generation big screen TV, one of the first VCRs, a cordless phone, hand-held video games and a home computer. They would all be considered primitive by contemporary standards, but at the time they were pretty amazing. I didn’t know anyone else who had any of these things, let alone all of them. They also had a swimming pool out back, and everyone in the family had both a waterbed and a fancy stereo system. They all seemed to take it for granted, these pointless luxuries. The pool was filled with algae and no one used the computer. But every time a new gizmo came out, they had to have it, whether or not they had the slightest use or interest in it.

            As this all started to add up, I began to wonder how they could drop money on crap like that when all their teeth were falling out and the house was a shambles. Wouldn’t they have been better served with a new vacuum cleaner and a few trips to the dentist? Probably, but I was in no position to suggest such a thing.

            (As for where all the money came from, I learned years later that Danny’s parents were quite a team when it came to obsessively filing frivolous lawsuits.)

            On top of all the other crap—the waterbeds and the videogames—Danny got a car the day he received his driver’s license. Not a new or terribly fancy car, but it ran. It was a ’71 Chevy, that much I know, but I couldn’t tell you the make or even the color. It was a long and heavy four-door sedan, and it rattled. The doors were dented and didn’t quite close completely. There were large rust patches on the side panels and the windows wouldn’t go completely up or down. But as seemed to be the family tradition, instead of getting those things fixed Danny installed a 1,300 dollar stereo system so he could blast Rush, Ozzy, and REO Speedwagon on his way to school.

            Danny—this quiet, low-profile kid who neither bothered nor was bothered by anyone—transformed into a complete maniac behind the wheel (and usually when I was in the passenger seat). This is why I wonder how it was we didn’t die.

            Early one cool Saturday morning in October, we found ourselves on an unusually empty stretch of Highway 41 linking the towns of Bellevue and Allouez. It was a three mile, two-lane straightaway with empty fields on either side until we crossed a narrow bridge over an inlet of the Fox River. On the other side of the bridge was a pleasant and quiet residential neighborhood. Danny slowed the car to a crawl, surveying the empty road ahead.

            “I wanna see what she can do,” he said. With “Crazy Train” blaring from the massive speakers mounted in the back window, he slammed his foot on the gas and I flew back in my seat as the battered old car took off. I fumbled for my seatbelt, but remembered there were no seatbelts. I braced one hand against the dashboard, and held my door closed with the other.

            “Um,” I said, then started to laugh.

            Danny’s eyes, which should have probably been on the road, were fixed on the speedometer. “Eighty,” he said. “Eighty-five . . . ”

            I still don’t understand this, but when we hit a hundred and six miles an hour, the gas gauge began sliding away from empty, back toward full.

            I watched the bridge approaching faster than it should ever be approaching, knowing I was going to die. There was no escape that wouldn’t likewise end in death, so I stayed put, bracing hopelessly for impact.

            When he hit the bridge at one ten, the car flew. When we crunched and bounced to a landing, Danny took his foot off the gas and gently applied the brake. There were houses and yards and parked cars to deal with. Danny was smiling, and I was still wondering what had happened, feeling invincible all the same.

            That was just the beginning. Get him outside of the car, and he was still the bright nice kid who liked cheap action novels. Put the key in the ignition of that deathtrap, and he became a madman. I didn’t really mind, I just never knew what to expect. There were drag races down dirt roads that cut through corn fields. We bounced over pits in the road and off the car we were racing but still charged ahead.

            I recall in horror the winter afternoon when, for reasons I didn’t understand then and don’t now, Danny decided it would be fun to go screaming onto an ice rink to do some cheerios.

            Cheerios on the ice is one thing. I can understand that. But normally the people who do this wait until later, after all the skaters have gone home. Danny didn’t feel like waiting. He turned off the road in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, hit the gas, charged through a small clump of trees, over a snow embankment, and onto the ice. Parents and children and couples screamed and scattered as fast as they could on their skates as Danny careened over the ice, hitting the brake and turning the wheel hard until the car went into a slide and slammed into another snow embankment. I wasn’t so much concerned about my own life at this point, but I was wondering if there were two or three people crushed at that moment between Danny’s car and the snow.

            “Wow,” he said. “That was awesome!”

            He pulled away from the embankment, spun a few cheerios in the middle of the rink, then hit the gas and sped away—but only half a block or so. He turned the car around, aimed for that same clump of trees and that same snow bank, and hit the gas. Again the skaters—apparently they thought the danger was gone—screamed and scattered, and again we slid sideways until we hit the snow.

            Then he did it a third time.

After that we decided it would probably be best to move on, given that we’d likely be looking at jail time if we didn’t.

            Why nobody called the police, I don’t know. These were the days before cell phones, but the ice rink was surrounded by suburban homes. Some of those people must have seen us. It’s quite possible they did, but simply figured that it was Wisconsin, and that’s what people with cars did in the winter.

            In the years that followed Danny and I fell out of touch, and I came to accept that Wisconsin might help explain his split personality. Wisconsin does things to people—especially people with cars and guns. Of course it might’ve been all those action movies, or all those sugary snacks eating away at his brain. Or maybe it was just a quiet, mostly ignored kid’s desire to taste a little power and death.

            These days I hate cars, and avoid them at all costs. But I must admit, I kind of miss Danny’s.


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