Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Badlands Story

“No -- one more, one more!” cries Donna, and Tom says, “Yeah, we got time for one more, your train doesn’t leave till ten, right? We’ll get you there by ten. One more song.” And he puts on Badlands, and the three of us spend the next four minutes and one second dancing with each other and screaming the words to the chorus like sinners crying for redemption at a camp meeting.

It’s October 1981 and I am heading down to Washington DC to see (and be part of) an evening of one-act plays I’ve written entitled A Night To Dismember. I’ve checked my luggage at South Station, booked a berth on the sleeper train, and have spent the night partying with my friend Tom Muscarella and his roommate Donna Paradise in their Norwood Ave apartment in Newton. Did we drink like fishes? Oh yeah. Did we go out to dinner? Can’t remember. Did we listen to anything else but Springsteen? Tom might remember but I can’t. All I remember is looking at my watch at about 9:45 and saying, “I think we should get going,” and Donna saying “No –- one more! One more!” And you don’t argue with Donna when she gets into Party Girl Mode. (I’m trying to remember what party it was where I made a dance tape and Donna kept saying after each song ended “Don’t let us down, Matty -- don’t let us down now.” And I was like, oh crap, please don’t let me disappoint this woman and play something she doesn’t want to dance to. Was it your 40th, Tom?)

So now it’s 9:49:01, and Tom says “Okay, let’s go,” and we run downstairs and pile into the Green Shark. Donna calls shotgun and I sit in the back, and I am immediately thrown from one side of the seat to the other as Tom roars around the corner and motors towards the Mass Pike entrance, and it’s 9:51 now and I’m getting a little nervous because Newton is about 15 minutes from South Station via the Mass Pike even when there’s no traffic at all, but Tom is on the case, Tom is gonna get me there on time, Tom is about to defy the laws of physics by breaking every traffic law on the books in eight minutes and thirty seconds.

The radio is cranked to 10 and Donna is singing along to whatever is playing on WBCN and Tom is checking off a mental list of road rules to break. Speed limit? Fuck that –- he drives like he’s doing a time trial for the Indy 500. Traffic signals? It is to laugh –- when the light’s yellow, he speeds up to cross the intersection; when it’s red, he looks both ways before stepping on the gas. I am laughing that wonderful, life-affirming “We’re all gonna die!” laugh that you only get to experience maybe once or twice in your life and live as Tom weaves in and out of traffic on the Pike and zooms towards Boston. Does he even slow down as he hits the toll booths? Hell no –- he just drives right through them, and he’s going so fast that the “Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!” sound you hear when you don’t throw a quarter into the toll takes five seconds to catch up with us, which means that our ground speed is only about ten miles per hour away from breaking the sound barrier.

There’s a stoplight at the end of the Pike where it spills into the lower end of the Combat Zone; Tom runs right through it like it’s tissue paper. I don’t think his foot has touched the brake pedal once in the last eight minutes. Does he head down a one-way street in the opposite direction? If he doesn’t, it’s not for lack of trying. But what he does do is drive the car right up onto the curb in front of the entrance to South Station, and when I say “up on the curb,” I mean he was so close to the door that, if it opened out instead of in, I wouldn’t have been able to squeeze through. “Thanks!” I cry as I dive out of the car and sprint for the door. “Have a great time!” he and Donna yell as I run into the station. I check the board as I head for the luggage check area. My train has NOW BOARDING next to its name and number. I give my ticket to the guy at the check station, grab my suitcase from him, and run to the door of the last car, the sleeper car. Literally five seconds after I put my foot on the top step, the train pulls out and starts heading south.

And the punch line? After breaking every driving rule in the book to get me to my train, Tom obeys every single one of those rules as he drives back to Newton. He slows for yellow lights, he makes sure he’s 5 MPH under the speed limit at all times, he comes to a full stop at STOP signs. And he is one block from his apartment –- one block! –- when a cop pulls him over and gives him a ticket for driving with his headlights off.

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