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Bellbottom Blues

My father owned a bowling alley for pretty much my whole life, and, because of that, people have always expected me to be a great bowler. I wasn’t. The bowling alley (or “the place,” as we in my family called it) was in Massapequa Park, which was 25 miles away from our home in Little Neck, so we rarely got to go.

When we did go there, it was a real treat. When I was young, between third and sixth grades, I probably got to go at least twice a year. I could choose a friend, we would pick her up really early on Saturday morning, about 7:30, and we’d drive to Massapequa Park in my dad’s Volvo.

My dad loved owning a Volvo. He owned many of them. He was very proud of those cars. He would tell us that there’s no car as good or as safe as a Volvo. He would extol its virtues, all the while laying out the rules of what we were permitted touch in the Volvo and what we needed to completely avoid going anywhere near. One of the big verboten items was the delicate fabric over our heads that lined the interior roof of the car. It was called “the headliner” – different from the headliner that I would later become – and my dad would yell at us constantly: “Hey, look out! I told you to be careful of the headliner! You know you’re not supposed to touch the headliner! If you tear that, it can’t be fixed! It costs $150 to replace!” (Oh my god, the fucking headliner again)! I could easily shift his attention by asking him to demonstrate the seatbelts for us. They were the kind that would help you to stop short if the car had to come to a sudden stop. I forget what that feature is called, but, in the ‘60’s, that was a pretty rare option on a car, and my dad loved to demonstrate its effectiveness by wearing the seatbelt and then pulling on it very suddenly to make it stop. “See? See? See how it stops?” he said as he jerked at it five or ten times. Of course I saw it. You’ve shown me a million times, I thought. But I just nodded and smiled.

When we arrived at the place, there was plenty to do for the ten hours that we’d be there, and it was all fun. My friend and I helped to rent out shoes and assign lanes to customers. We worked behind the food counter, and we could serve ourselves whatever we wanted. (Soda on tap)! My dad would make us lunch, usually with an egg cream or a malted, and we would eat it in the empty bar and watch the color TV, which was especially a big treat because we didn’t have a color TV at home yet, not for many years thereafter. We got to bowl a couple of games ourselves, and towards the end of the day, my dad would open the vending machine and let us take out a free snack. I always went for the barbecue potato chips or, as I called them, “bad breath potato chips.”

At some point in the late afternoon, I would observe my father did something which initially filled me with awe, but soon came back to bite me in the ass. He would walk up to a group of teenagers, who were generally smoking cigarettes, while just sitting at a table. My dad had a certain swagger of self-confidence as he approached, and I knew what was coming.

“Excuse me, are you bowling here?” my dad asked, already knowing the answer.

One of the kids replied, “No, we’re just, you know, hanging out.”

And my dad said, “We don’t allow hanging out here. You going to have to leave.” And he would verbally usher them towards the entrance/exit.

Part of me was impressed with my dad’s confidence, and also with his ability to keep his business running the way he wanted it to. He took a lot of pride in everything he did and touched. There was nothing random about my dad.

But I also soon learned how this would impact me as I approached my teenage years. My dad said that he didn’t like “that element” at the place and that he found “those kids” to be “arrogant.” It was clear from hearing him retell more events like this one that he didn’t like teenagers. He said so, in so many words. There was not one positive adjective that my dad ever used to describe teenagers. And the more he encountered them at the bowling alley, the more determined he was that I not follow in those arrogant footsteps.

That’s what he always said. “Arrogant.” That was the catchall adjective that he used for teenagers. And, as a result, I was prevented from doing a lot of things with my friends.

Sometimes my friends would go to the candy store at the bottom of the hill to “hang out.” Well, forget that. Once it was clear to my father that the main goal of the activity was “hanging out,” there was to be none of that. Sometimes my friends were going to the Italian restaurant a couple of doors down from candy store. It was called Fra Diavolo, or, as we kids called it, “Fra.” It was out of the question for me to go there. Why? I’m not quite sure. One time I referred to the restaurant as “Fra” when I was talking to my parents, and my father exploded. “Don’t you call it that! Don’t say ‘Fra!’ Say the whole name! How are we supposed to know what you’re talking about? It’s arrogant!”

Geez. I’m thinking, “If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then how did you know there was more to the name than Fra?” Of course, I would never have dared to say this out loud to my father. That would have been suicide, or invited homicide. But to my father, it all fell under the same umbrella, as “arrogant.”

I really think he just did not want me to be a teenager, to be allowed any sort of self-expression, which is what being a teenager is all about. To stumble and fall and grope and hit and miss. He wouldn’t allow me to close my bedroom door. He threatened to take it off the hinges. Crazy. Ridiculous. There are so many examples of this and, honestly, many of them have faded away from my memory. But a few remain fresh and acute. In fact, they almost still sting, even at my age, now 57. Does this speak to my inability to let go and move on? Yes. Very possibly. It’s admittedly not my area of strength. But I think that it also speaks to how an incident from childhood can be so damaging and even irreversible.

When I was in junior high/high school, I was about 13/14, I started to wear some make up. Not a lot. I wasn’t that type. Yardley of London was THE brand to wear. It was the age of Twiggy, and the style for eye make-up was to wear this product called Glimmerick. It came in a round pan of pressed powdered color, white, yellow or pale blue. You’d wet an eyeliner brush and get some Glimmerick on the brush, and then line your top lid, in a thick line, from the lash line, up. Then, line the lid in black or dark brown, very thinly, just at the lash line. Then, when the Glimmerick was dry, I would take a dry Q-Tip and brush some of the color away so that it was a subtler look. It was all about application and finesse and fine-tuning.

And, of course, I was wearing bell-bottoms. Big bells, elephant bells, we called them. The style was to wear them really long, so that they were dragging on the ground. Eventually, they would just tear off at the bottom. You never shortened blue jean/dungaree bellbottoms; you eroded them to the perfect length. My father hated this, too. Lucky for me he usually wasn’t around when I was leaving for school, but there were occasional times that he was. I would try to surreptitiously leave the house, but he was too sharp. First he demanded that I step outside, into the sunlight, so that he could examine my eye makeup. “Wash that stuff off! You’re not going out looking like that!”

Then he would demand that I stand on the top step of the stairs that separated the living room level and the bedroom level in our split-level home. So I did, of course, because he was really scary, and if my bells touched the floor, he would make me change my clothes. And he would let loose a few times with the word “arrogant” during his angry tirade. I would always do my best to squeeze my upper thighs together so that I could hike my pants up slightly higher, but it didn’t always work. If he saw my bells touching the floor, I would then have to change into something less offending. And there was nothing worse for a girl my age than having bells that were too short.

Yes, that was life throughout high school for me. I don’t recall going to parties, going out with friends, or even having friends. I went through high school with my eyes to the ground and doing well in my studies. Not brilliantly, but very well.

When I heard that it was possible to graduate in January as opposed to June, I immediately jumped on it. I spoke to my mom about it, and she didn’t like the idea. I was already young, having an October birthday and having entered kindergarten when I was four. Then I took the two-year SP (“special progress”) in junior high, so I was fifteen in most of 11th grade. I begged her to let me do it, and she knew how difficult it had been for me to be under my father’s rule.

She finally acquiesced. I set the wheels in motion, and I graduated high school in January of ’72 when I was barely 16. I finished high school on a Friday, and I went up to Albany, N.Y. on a Monday to begin college. There were only two days between the two, but the difference in my life was astronomical. I was finally on my own, making my own decisions, beginning to carve out my own destiny. Not all of it turned out great, but does it ever all turn out great? It began to shape me with love instead of fear, attraction rather than avoidance, and never a pair of short bellbottoms ever again.

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