Thirtyist: 4. Mardi Gras

Mardi-Gras-Beads

To seek celebration through suffering is the essence of a life well-lived.

Only those who have the stones, the moxie, those who dare to scale the rocky terrain of accomplishment, connection and bonding can truly suffer, for they are the ones who endure the mountainous road, and those who grieve the loss of what they’ve earned.

Few endeavors in life are as physically and metaphorically synonymous with both suffering and accomplishment as distance running. It’s the most concrete (pardon the pun) example of inflicting taxing pain upon the body for the sake of the journey, and gets plenty of mileage in stories of conquest and hope – hell, even in this series.

So on a steamy July morning in 2004, I set off on another meager 9.3-mile journey through the cozy Upstate enclave of Utica, a road race that draws 20,000 gluttons for physical punishment and a communal celebration of those who dare to tackle the trek.

Those who are determined to stave off the suffering and soldier through the streets are rewarded at their destination – with live music, free beer and legions of well-wishers laughing and launching congratulatory projectiles at everyone pegged with a bib number. But I’m impatient, and slow, and choose not to wait so long to party.

I’d turned the city streets into my own personal block party before: in 1999, I sat in with a roadside band to cover The Rolling Stones along the route, in 2000, I ran the length of the race dribbling a basketball. In 2002, I dropped Ecstasy and hugged as many onlookers as possible, and each year I made it a point to dump cups of water all over my family, who volunteered at the Mile 8 Water Station in front of my father’s factory.

Celebrate your suffering, for it means you are truly alive.

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My dad and I always shared those tense moments before the race start, knowing full well those would be the precious final seconds we’d spend together before we’d meet again at the finish. I knew I’d never beat my father at running – he’s 6′ tall, lanky and runs with impeccable form, I’m 5’7″, stocky and run like an octopus flailing on the hood of a Corolla. We said good luck, parted ways and I headed to the back of the ocean of runners, so I could selfishly and smugly say “See all those people I passed?” upon reaching the finish.

Upon leaving the company of my pops, I pulled out my secret weapon in my shorts pocket – several strands of Mardi Gras beads. The celebration continues, suffering be damned. I would wear them and lasso random spectators with them, to keep the atmosphere festive and my own spirits high. One foot in front of the other; beads are like milestones.

Some 3 miles into the arduous, sweaty jaunt, I came upon a young girl struggling to find her way to the finish. Her body seemed fit, but her gait was ragged. I approached her to find her face beat red and the rest of her body decked in an assortment of colors – golds and purples and blues and greens. Shades of beads. Mardi Gras beads.

For the life of me, I cannot remember our opening dialogue. I can’t even paraphrase it. But we instantly bonded over our beads, and from her repeated recounts of our first encounter, she knew I was packing a party from the crescendoing jingle encroaching behind her back.

She wanted to quit. But I wouldn’t let her. It was too coincidental that we met by chance. We had to finish together. We needed to celebrate our suffering.

And after a few minutes of walking with her, coaching her (I ain’t no athlete, so I’m pretty sure my coaching amounted to “Shit, if I can make it, I know you can!”), refueling with water, we picked up and ran again, to the delirious delight of the parade of spectators.

“Hey! Mardi Gras!” The shouts erupted from afar. We struck up a frenetic dialogue, (a running relationship?), told each other stories and made each other laugh to keep us from noticing how totally freaking draining running through 4 towns can be.

And I continued to celebrate through huffs and puffs, passing beads to strangers and cracking wise at the distance and how the Kenyans had already finished the race before I even got my warm-up laps in. Hell yeah, we brought the party. And ain’t no party like a Mardi Gras party, cuz a Mardi Gras party don’t stop … till the kegs have been tapped and the tape has been broken.

Now, I didn’t finish the race with superhuman verve, there came a time toward the end where I, exhausted, felt compelled to walk. “Don’t walk!” She told me. “Keep going!” And when a charming young lady in Mardi Gras beads tells you to keep up, goddammit, you do that.

Some 95 minutes after the starting gun went off, the two of us finished the race. Together. And congratulatory fiends addressed the two of us as a tandem, a pair of pals united in a quest to turn Utica into New Orleans over the course of an early morning stroll. I sought out my family. She sought out hers. Off we went. Fade to black. Roll credits. Show’s over.

Except that it wasn’t.

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I’d like to point out two borderline-savant qualities I possess here:

1. I’m stubborn as hell and when I see a future narrative playing out in my head, I make damn sure it comes to fruition.

2. I’m really, really good with numbers.

I left my father and ventured into the flood of post-race partiers to find the beaded beauty who accompanied me and spent a solid amount of time scouring the backlot for her. I guess that’s stalker-ish. I’m not sure what was going through my head at that time. I guess I’m just a sucker for continuing great stories for as long as I hold the pen in my hand.

When I happened upon her, we exchanged final pleasantries and I asked her, “May I have your number?” She went through the spiel about, “Oh, I have a boyfriend,” and I was all, “Oh, that’s fine, I’m not interested like that”, and she was all, “You live in Buffalo., I live in Utica,” and I was all, “I come back and visit often!” and she was all, “I’m leaving for Aruba and won’t be back for a week,” and I was all, “Yeah, that’s okay,” and she was all, “You don’t have a pen or paper,” and I was all, “Just give it to me, it’s cool. I’ll remember.” [And you were all, “dude, really? That paragraph was a graduate-level clinic on how to never EVER transcribe a verbal exchange. The fuck am I reading this for, anyway?]

She was probably thinking to herself, “Yeah. Whatever. I’ll give you this number. You’ll never use it in your life.”

A week later, while I was in Florida and after I assumed she’d returned from Aruba, I recalled the 10 digits and dialed her up. I credit her not only for picking up, but for not calling the police or, even worse, MENSA. Like I said, I’m freaky good with numbers.

*************************************

One day on the phone she was asking me to choose between Niagara, Geneseo and Canisius as her college choices. As the unofficial hype-man for my hometown of Niagara Falls, I spat out a host of silly reasons to pick the school, like “You can see Canada across the gorge from your dorms!” (What up, Sarah Palin.) I guess that sold her. She arrived in the 716 in the Autumn of 2005, right around the time I was starting my 30-month jail senten– rehab sti–, ahem, relationship with a girl who wasn’t really too keen on me engaging with anyone socially she didn’t pre-approve. Fade to black, roll credits. Show’s over. For now …

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Did I mention I was freaky good with numbers? In the summer of 2007, while driving from Buffalo to Utica, I had a revelation. Hey! You know who I would love to catch up with? And who’s probably home in Utica on school break? Man … what was her NUMBER?

I spent a few minutes deliberating and drew up my cell phone and dialed 10 digits again. Total guesswork on my part. But it was a damn good guess.

“Hi there, you’ve reached ____________ I can’t come to the phone right now, but leave me a message. Bye.”

I left the most deliriously insane and incomprehensible message known to man, a mixture of Gus Johnson at the end of Gonzaga-UCLA and, well, more Gus Johnson at the end of Xavier-Kansas State. I had found her again. And so I celebrated.

She must’ve found my demented ecstasy charming, because we fast became friends again and partied like it was … ahem … Mardi Gras.

****************************************************

Maybe you’ve heard I like to write songs. Well, in the Spring of ’08, it had been some time since I’d been a real musician, but this girl worked at a beautiful bar and grille up in Lewiston and between her and her boyfriend (another fantastic person with whom I could run through a laundry list of enjoyable memories and back-stories) they secured me my first musical show in 3 years at her place of employment.

I trucked up as many of my other friends as possible to the show, and an army of people from everywhere I’d been in my life – elementary school, high school, my various colleges, Buffalo, Utica, etc, etc – arrived to greet my return to form. I drowned myself in scotch and breezed through 12 songs the only way I knew how: By turning a man and an acoustic guitar into a balls-to-the-wall breakout bash. It was the beginning of an impressive 30 month run of concerts, laughs, stories, inside jokes, drinks, fights, daytrips, randomness, dreams and passionate fury with the people I knew best and grew to love most.

In retrospect, beads would have been a charming touch.

*************************************************

On December 17, 2010, I played my very last show in Buffalo before moving here to Austin. I had convinced a friend of mine (who is a superbly-talented musician, and one whose career I suppose I had an unwitting hand in kickstarting, since I inspired his big brother to pick up the guitar over a decade earlier, and I suppose big bro passed his passion down to his little bro) to let me intrude and carve two hours of his set and make it my goodbye show.

It’s overwhelming to see pieces of your past and present mingle, your closest friends, family and neighbors from all walks of life together, and it’s made all the more incalculable when you’re all very much aware this will be the last time it will probably happen … ever.

There’s my brother, who drove in from Syracuse.

There’s my high school friend from Utica’s little brother (who is now much taller than me), playing along side me.

There’s my ex, still on good terms with me, telling me (after years of deploring my playing) how much she missed watching me sing.

There’s that failed relationship that turned into a friendship.

There are those friendships that turned into blood brothers.

There’s that chick I used to work with. There’s that dude I play darts with. There’s my cousin who had me over for Thanksgiving. There’s that kid I randomly ran into at a festival who likes the same beer as me. There’s my high school friend who’s in town for the night. There’s my lifelong friend from forever who somehow hasn’t grown sick of me yet.

Man, I remember when they weren’t married. I remember when we used to stay up all night blowing lines off my coffee table. I remember when we found out she was pregnant. I remember our Super Bowl parties, and getting kicked out of concerts, and sitting on press row at basketball games when I had no business being there, and being young and wild and free and wondering how we ever grew so old and responsible and how this whole crazy mess of human hodgepodge started in the first place. I remember how they met and inexplicably became friends on their own. I remember the Mardi Gras girl falling for an intelligent, gold-hearted gentleman I gave a hard time about, because, well, I’m just big crazy brother bear (I hope he knows how highly I regard him, because I kinda suck at verbalizing nice things). I remember losing my mind, and everyone helping me to get it back. I remember.

And here’s that younger sister of that kid I went to elementary school with, who managed to shove her way on stage and SING HER FACE OFF to the final song, a cover of – appropriately enough for a man about to skip town forever – “Send Me On My Way,” with me and the younger brother of that kid I went to high school with, and there’s the two of them who are now friends on their own, play duets and full concerts together and are far more successful musicians in Buffalo than I ever was or could be.

And that younger sister of that kid I went to elementary school with … the one who I met at parties hosted by that girl I met three miles in to a forever-long road race, forever-long ago in a place we both sorta called home, on a day that her, I, her family, her friends, my family and my friends affectionately call “Mardi Gras.” Which, in Catholic lore, is appropriately a day devoted to the celebration of looming suffering and sacrifice.

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And to think, just the very next night, the girl (along with a couple other fellas who you’ll get to know more as this series rolls on) had a hand in performing the greatest surprise prank that’s ever been pulled on me by bringing the entire crew back for one final, non-musical sendoff celebration.

Every emotionally exhausting sensation that sprang forth the night before was multiplied by about 70 billion on that final day. They somehow arranged a deliriously entertaining and shocking series of curtain calls from the principal players that formed the backbone of my being and the source of all I find faith and happiness in until that point. And when the Mardi Gras girl from the race some six years before knew the run had come to a close, she stepped up, embraced me for what felt like hours, and cried her goodbyes.

She said, (and I’m translating, because I’m not sure it was perfect English) “You can’t leave me! Everyone leaves! You’re my big brother! What will I do?”

*********************************************

What will I do. Well, it’s a question we all ask ourselves sometimes when we’re struggling. When we’re suffering. When it hurts too much to move forward, to move away or to move on. What will I do.

Everyone leaves. This much is true. There’s as much permanence in our lives as there is in a lit match in a hurricane. People pinball in and out of our lives like strangers in a sea of nameless, faceless runners all blazing down the streets trying to get to the free beer at the end of the race. We all suffer anonymously, our rumble through countless days and years and miles as uniquely our own as the circumstances which preclude and follow them. Everyone … everything … changes. And no two journeys are alike.

But while grief, loss and pain are unpleasant byproducts of a life spent going full-throttle and forging meaningful kinship with those you might meet, they serendipitously exist to remind ourselves that what we had, what we currently have and what we long for are truly worthwhile and worth our daily battles, no matter what the cost or how inconvenient the timing.

When my dad and I used to run together, he would often tell me, “Keep going. Pain is temporary. Pride is forever.” And that’s pretty close. For it is pain through which we either gain what we earn, or by which we’re reminded of what we were lucky enough to lose. And pride in that painful journey of suffering, whether you’re on the way up, down, away or through, can never be taken away – and is something worth celebrating.

So party up. Invite everyone to share your journey and run the race with you, give out an open bar of smiles and laughs, and people will take notice.

In fact, you’ll be surprised at how long the right people will be willing to run along with you.

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Thirtyist is a series of 30 tales of the 30 people, places, ideas and events that shaped the last 30 years of the life of someone of no particular importance – told in no particular order. To read them all, click on the post tag, “Thirtyist” or on the links below.*

1. How I Found God

2. My Iron Lungs

3. The Joshua Tree

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6 thoughts on “Thirtyist: 4. Mardi Gras

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