East of Normal
All grown up
I drove up to Bowling Green for a photo shoot the other day, leaves falling all brown and yellow and burnt orange, the low sun casting long shadows. I get weepy whenever I’m up there. I lived there 12 years and spent my second of four childhoods among its leafy languor. I thought I was an adult then, and I had a lot of fun with other people who thought they were adults, too.
East Nashville reminds me of Bowling Green way more than anything on the West Side does. The houses are more real on the East Side. They look real in Bowling Green, too, albeit subdivided into four or five apartments as often as not. Those tiny apartments are because of the college — Western Kentucky University, the Hilltoppers. I graduated in December of ’84, got a job at Famous Recipe Fried Chicken on the 31W Bypass, and formed a band. I was 22 years old, an adult, certainly.
There were a lot of great musicians that came out of Bowling Green in those days: Sam Bush, Byron House, Bill Lloyd, Jonell Mosser. I saw them all play and sing at Picasso’s, downtown off the square that all small towns have. Picasso’s was on 10th Street, I lived on 12th Street. It was impossible to get a DUI. You had to want one to get one in that environment. It was a simple routine: Go to Picasso’s, see a band, spend your life savings on beer, and meander on foot in the vague direction of home. And should you see a party on the way, noise bursting from one of those big, Southern, subdivided houses, you stopped in to investigate it. It didn’t matter. We had no curfews; we were adults.
One night, my bass player in Government Cheese, Billy Mack, left Picasso’s pie-eyed piss drunk and started walking home. He lived a block west of me just past 13th Street. On and on he walked his little piss-drunk way, doubtless whistling a popular hymn. He took no notice of the street signs as they ticked down: Sixth Street, Fifth Street. He walked through the ’hood with none of its hazards troubling him. And it wasn’t until he got to the Barren River that it occurred to him something was amiss. Wait a minute. There’s no bridge on my way home! He did the only thing he could do. He turned around and toddled his way back in the proper direction, back through the ’hood and off to bed. It’s OK, officer. I’m an adult.
Beth and I were living together at 12th and College streets. Neither set of our parents knew. Then one day Beth’s mother let herself in with a key she’d acquired somewhere, and there I was in the living room in my undershorts, my telecaster around my torso, a cig on my lips, a sweating Budweiser on the table next to me, a roach in the ashtray, and R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant blaring on the stereo. It would have been an awkward scene had I been the least bit capable of embarrassment, but, as it was, what could she say? I was an adult!
It’s not that we didn’t think of the future. We did. But it was like a year-end term paper, due the first week of December, and here it was still August; like it was yesterday and will be tomorrow, into perpetuity, August forever.
Whenever I get back to Bowling Green, it all comes flooding back. I wonder where so many of those people are now. For a tiny few that I know of, it’s still August, but most of us are hastily writing that paper. I never leave that town without tooling up College Street, up into the eyes of the Henry Cherry statue at the top of the hill, the eyes that stared a hole in you when you drove up to it stoned. I drive by where Picasso’s once was, where the Alibi disco was, Mariah’s, Mr. C’s, my old jogging route, and all those little touchstones from a time when we all were adults. We could buy beer, live in apartments, and pay the rent. And we hadn’t the faintest clue how young we really were.