“Not dying young can be a real dilemma…”

…wrote Jim Carroll in his follow-up to The Basketball Diaries, Forced Entries. For whatever reason I’ve picked this book up again after having read it during the long summer of ’07, when I was sad about having graduated and afraid of where my life was going to go. At the time I was living the bizarre Vampiric life of an employee at a night club in Northern New Jersey. I would work from 6 pm to 4 am around four days a week and then sleep all day before going back to work. I was staying with my good friend Kevin who managed the bar and had an extra bedroom in his apartment that he let me crash in. His apartment was hardly furnished as he had just moved in. After sharing his full sized bed for a week or so we brought up a spare twin bed from his downstairs neighbors, plopped it on the ground in the extra bedroom and eventually found some sheets. I had no more than a duffle bag’s worth of clothes but that was okay. I didn’t really need anything besides black slacks, black dress shoes and a black dress shirt for work. Otherwise we mostly just lounged about in basketball shorts and tee shirts, chain smoking joints and cigarettes, while rinking gallons of Snapple, ordering pie after pie of pizza and watching cable television incessantly before cleaning up, sobering up and then heading back to the club for another long night.

I would spend Sunday through Tuesday at my mother’s apartment, which was about 45 minutes southwest of Kevin’s apartment and the club. We would drive down together Sunday night. He would head to his folks place after dropping me off in front of the increasingly dingy apartment complex I had grown up in. I would sleep late, watch television, walk my dog and then hang out with my mother when she returned from work before driving back up to North Jersey with Kevin on Tuesday. I made absurd amounts of money. Sometimes I would leave the bar with 400 dollars. After a month at the club, despite our sometimes wanton disregard for anything approaching fiscal responsibility in our consumerism, I had a wad of almost two thousand dollars in my makeshift bedroom, which I kept hidden in the closet underneath a pile of dirty laundry. We would sometimes steal liquor from the club’s liquor closet and invite our coworkers over to party on our off nights. Because the only furniture we had in the four room apartment was Kevin’s bed, my bed and a chair we would sit around in a circle in the dining room, drinking vodka out of plastic cups and passing around blunts rolled in the leaves of cheap cigars. Usually we ended the evening crammed into Kevin’s room watching one of his dozens of DVDs or playing XBOX. Sometimes I would go pass out in my room so Kevin could snog whichever one of the girls was over that night. Being the general manager of a fairly successful night club staffed and populated by single women who love power in any form certainly had its benefits, although, to be honest, Kevin wasn’t nearly as sleazy as he or I might’ve been.

At that stage in my life Jim Carroll’s stories and memoirs took on real, deep meaning to me. Fresh off my own early-20s addictions I imagined we were kindred spirits. I would sit in on my bed under the open, curtainless windows while Kevin was off performing managerial duties, drink can after can of Diet Coke, smoke Camel Filters and pour through books I brought up from my mother’s house, one of which was Forced Entries. I truly felt as if I was on the cusp of something awful at some points, but I also reached an amazing inner peace on some of those warm afternoons. No one looks forward to life after 22 but time seemed to slow for periods of time. Though every birthday after 21 just feels like one more benchmark as you inch toward your inevitable death, I felt somewhat reinvigorated. It seemed that Jim was asking important and fundamental questions of me. Whether death might occur when you are 36 from a bout with incurable cancer or at the age of 98 because your heart has basically pumped all it can pump, it feels more real if you have the time to think about it and maybe lament long lost adolescence. It lurks. As your youth rapidly recedes into fuzzy half truths your mortality advances almost gleefully in the form of long lasting back pain, nastier hangovers than you can ever remember having before and an evaporating libido. Your parents rocket closer toward being ‘elderly’. High school kids are born in the decade that followed the one you almost remember. All of a sudden fear becomes something much more tangible and real. In most cases we self-medicate through legal and extralegal means. We smoke pot, snort coke and slam whiskey. We elevate ourselves artificially to places of youthful but transient euphoria, only to feel far worse in the morning than we did twelve hours beforehand. Empty, anonymous sexual encounters become even more normalized and less occasional than they were in college. Jim Beam plays Cupid with unpredictable results.

Jim Carroll lived exuberantly whether he was on a nod or not. He lived that bohemian life of the late 60s and early 70s that many in my generation continue to idealize and romanticize. He did not, amazingly, die of a heroin overdose. But he lived hard and lived brilliantly. He sacrificed [or wasted] a promising basketball career to spend his prime years ensconced in a social network of artists, junkies, dilettantes and everything in between, while he wrote poetry, kept a diary, slept around and played music. By the time he turned 25 [my age] he had published three books of poetry but had also prostituted himself to pay for his heroin habit. What I wonder is if when he was dying at the age 61 last year  he looked back and would have done anything differently. Because certainly he lost something of himself in those wild years. Something was dying within him even as he was giving life to words and music. As I pose here listlessly and sleeplessly, I feel ever distant from the grim but vital life Jim lived. I feel bored and disappointed in myself for my conventionality. It all seems quite ethereal but utterly demystified, as if there really isn’t anything more to ‘get’ besides figuring out how to arrive permanently at some pleasant, sustainable neutrality, and that might be the saddest but sanest thing of all.

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