Rock Around the Clock
I remember being a kid, sitting Indian-style, as my folks swell the living-room of this aging house with swing-dance, our shiny coffee table, topped with a Lucite grape cluster, slid to the side. A well-worn Bill Haley and His Comets album pleads from the speakers with each spin. Beneath the orange shag carpet, floorboards flex as the duo loses themselves to the moment, eyes closed. Second-guessing a next move, they begin to look out of practice. Our old hound bays and nips, wanting to cut in. Trying again, it’s a distant version of themselves they’re pursuing as they angle their limbs, just so, like on those nights after they’d first met in the Air Force. Partners in rhythm, Dad slides and dips Mom before passing on point for the turn. That they’ll fall out of step and end breathless near the end of the song is the cue for when I should’ve clapped. I could watch this every night.
In twenty-five years, Dad will pass too young. Mom will keep propped against her basement window the door prize they won in a Bicentennial dance-off at the Elks Club. I can eye it from the yard, that tin vanity plate remaining sealed in shrink wrap. In the spirit of the ‘70’s it reads Pittsburgh: Someplace Special, a red, white, and blue rainbow touching down on the city’s Golden Triangle in the kindest of ways. For Mom, it reminds her to remember Dad for being light on his toes. When she shares another story, I can almost see her thinking of how their fingers wove together on the dancefloor, the sounds of a band playing a bubbly “Moon River” propelling them to move as one. That she’ll never date after his death, makes me think of the flora planted on her small property as a stand-in for their life that once flourished together. Strolling the borders of her lawn, I notice a few plastic bags of compost exhaling steam in the early sun. A nest of sparrows’ twitter, while the beebalm, gooseneck and honeysuckle hop with the agile feet of pollinators, looking for food, mates, and a place to shelter.
Turkey in the Straw
It’s a reel we’re practicing while fiddles squeal from the old vinyl, Zip Wilson’s comforting twang guiding our moves through the language of square-dance just before I accidentally Judo-flip my partner in 3rd grade gym class. We had been at it for weeks, a portable record player grinding through 45’s of the Modoc Maniacs or Slim Jackson and The Promenaders. Maybe, it was too much do-si-do and right-hand star, cramming so much harmony into our small corner of the gym, where the bleachers folded and the blazing sodium lamps that hung from the rafters kept buzzing above the basketball court’s gleaming waxed wood. The girl’s hands were sweaty, and even Ms. Gardner, with her whistle at the ready, didn’t punish me over the tumble, as if it were well-deserved for a 9-year old child wanting to twirl like a dervish.
By 9th grade, that girl, a member of the marching band, will thank me after I blast her bully in the nose twice. It’s a year when I’ll begin to sway with the few neighborhood girls I know in that same gym after football games, at Sadie Hawkins and Homecoming, my size twelve shoes barely moving to the slow jams. I am thankful to be so close. I am terrified anything upbeat will expose me for being heavy-footed and ungainly. It’ll be a few years before I manage to get my first kiss. Even longer for me to learn that laughter, music and dance are what make us uniquely human.
It took me until just now to realize, that with my puny pre-teen physique, I embodied the insult pencil-necked geek that wrestling manager, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, would spit at all-comers before Saturday’s televised matches. That’s me, perched in Dad’s recliner, waiting for the wrestling to begin, stoked to see “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka bound from the ring’s top rope, pinning another opponent into unconsciousness. Dad was right when he called the losers cannon-fodder. Watching these choreographed battles became an unspoken rite of masculinity among my peers. We’d mimic the moves often. On the screen of our walnut brown Zenith which Mom dusts each week, Soul Train would be finishing up. As the credits begin to roll, Don Cornelius is wishing the audience peace, love and soul. The camera pans through the mostly brown-skinned crowd, lingering on women in high heels and Afro’s, the men, bearing their chest in striped-shirts, gheri-curled, and high-stepping a groove. Those tunes sounded bolder yet more graceful than any of the guitar-rock bleeding from older boys’ headphones I hear most days on the school bus. To those dudes, dancing was thought of as what chicks did. And while they never seemed to get dates themselves, the fear of being thought feminine by anyone I knew was a conflict I’d struggle to resolve with myself.
When breaking broke, it was presented in pop culture as fad, rather than a pillar of the new art form that was hip-hop. I first learned about it in what-was then a new rag, USA Today. Soon, I’d be sneaking into the movies to see Beat Street before enrolling in a “Basics of Breakdancing” class in the mirrored studio at the local YWCA. The B-boy who taught it was a high school dropout. He looked like he could suit-up to play in the NFL, his body a bulge of muscle as he walked our group through some of the easier moves, “Top rock,” and “6-Step.” Like the others, I had little patience or focus, only wanting to learn flashier stunts I’d seen on screen, though one kid managed to figure out the undulant “Caterpillar.” The best part of the hour-long class was the B-Boy’s boom-box blasting the beatboxing Fat Boys, mesmerizing me with Prince Markie Dee’s Brrr, Stick ’em! rapped as refrain. Finally, tired of our lame sense of rhythm and lack of upper-body strength, the teacher would go through his moves like we were in a “battle,” popping and rocking to rounded beats, his footwork ending with a “windmill” and a “freeze.” I lasted two weeks, though finding myself entranced by watching him work up close made it worth embarrassing myself to admit that I’d ever signed-up.
In the living room of her boyfriend’s house, she’s charming me with that smile, this girl I’ve just met, who I’ll one day marry. Neither of us knew then that, in a few weeks, an underground rave would be our first date, where a thousand heads would be swimming with a bevy of chemical compounds. That night, she sat on my lap at the edge of the strobes where everything felt both sped up and slowed down. In that warehouse, I can feel the bass pounding my belly, the distinct face of William S. Burroughs projected onto a screen, superimposed atop a flapping American flag. A regiment of baggy-jeaned dancers boogie to a breakbeat or channel a twirling hippy caper beneath the lasers bouncing off walls. One raver brought orange-coned flashlights as a prop, waving some unseen plane in for an hours-long landing. Another looked like a switchboard operator plugging in to so much weirdness. Between the music’s uncoiling, unstoppable energy and watching the crowd move as both separate but one, was to wrap myself in the pulsing beat conducted by another turntable hero. Too self-conscious to dance much, I was happy to listen and watch it all unfold from my place against the wall. Yet that scene, edgy and new at that age, would come to define so many in my orbit, a relic now looked upon wistfully when we sometimes cross paths with those who were there, as if we were survivors of the friendships and fun that followed.
I was the one who found it in the back of the Pitt News, and was the only name signed to the lease. 133 Chesterfield Road became ground zero for those in the know. It was a duplex among duplicate homes, all of them stacked along a lumpy brick road steep as a ski jump, its gutters filled with litter. The tiny front yards were a clutter of broken furniture, tireless bikes, and weathered toys. In our house, no one ever went barefoot on muddied and chilly hardwood floors. The front room was a mishmash of chairs, full ashtrays and 40-ounce bottles of malt. Drunk and high, we laughed and shouted above even louder turntable bass being spit from vinyl grooves, the DJ’s always practicing their scratching or making mixtapes. Party people Party people Can y’all get funky? Afrika Bambaataa’s song became our anthem. The utilities were never paid, and the rent was always late. This madness stuck on repeat at all hours for every day of that year. Our immigrant neighbors hated us. The gang bangers thought we were nuts. Flashing red lights regularly crawled by our door, never stopping. Only when gunshots rang out nearby, did the dancing and music stop, and by then, we knew it was time to get down low.
You’re All I Need to Get By
Restless after another busy dinner shift of waiting tables at TGIFriday’s that kept us hustling well past midnight, we’re lounging in our living room by the light of the TV. Nearing sunrise, I find myself compelled by some sudden urge deep inside me to ask that brown-haired girl who’s been by my side for so long to marry me. I have no ring and no plan. I’m as surprised by my words as she is. We set the date to make it almost ten years since that first party which marks our beginning. On that late summer day, we’ll both say “I do” to every vow we agreed upon. After the outdoor ceremony, we arrive at the reception hall which smells of roast beef and baked ziti. On the tables and mantles burns hundreds of pillar candles she’s poured by hand. By then, we’d lost touch with our Chesterfield crew and the DJ we hired will play “The Electric Slide” and “We Are Family” instead of the funky deep house set we once imagined it’d be. Also, we’ll be compelled to perform our newlywed couple dance in front of a few hundred friends and family. Luckily, a bridesmaid teaches at Arthur Murray and agrees to help. In the weeks leading up to the big day, after a few vodka and tonics, we’ll be shown the basics of a waltz’s box step. Forward-side-together, then backwards-side-together. Those nights of practice, we find our feet move well on the kitchen tile though we seem to wrestle with who gets to lead. When the moment arrives and the spotlight finally shines on us, I hold my new bride firm around the waist, the fingers of our free hand interlaced. We stumble a few times with our timing, but most wouldn’t know otherwise as we look deep into the other’s eyes, share an inside joke and smile while Marvin and Tammi sing, I know you can make a man out of a soul that didn’t have a goal / Cause we, we got the right foundation.
For our wax anniversary, we’ll find ourselves hopped on espresso in a Brooklyn warehouse at 3AM, a favorite DJ, Mark Farina, spinning a jazzy set to wind down the night. The crowd is half our age, vaping and whooping it up as they pogo, shimmy and twirl to the old school tracks we know by heart. Finishing our last drink, she pulls me out near the stage where we find our space, each of us clapping to the beat, my feet finding the memory of those steps I once learned next to my refrigerator, the nearby crowd giving us a full-throated cheer. None of us knows that in a few months, all of this will change. Live music and gatherings will be ruled off limits, the news of underground dance parties being busted will have me cheering for the rebellious impulse to dance. It’ll also sadden me to feel torn over this recklessness I once would’ve been down with. And so, these days, we find what nourishes us in the streaming sounds of hours long sets once spun at parties that ended years ago. It allows me to remember being a kid in my parent’s kitchen, Mom making dinner while Dad drinks a beer. We’re listening to golden oldies on 3WS when Dad recalls a high school sock hop and Mom tells of the time her father rolled up their living room carpet to teach her a few Zydeco steps. Meanwhile, I’m keeping time on the countertop to “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” tapping away to a rhythm I hear like a pair of open, welcoming arms. This is my first lesson: that when the music calls, it’s impossible to turn away.
About the Author
Fred Shaw was named Emerging Poet Laureate Finalist for Allegheny County in 2020. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, and Carlow University, where he received his MFA. He teaches writing and literature at Point Park University and Carlow University. His first collection. Scraping Away, was recently published by CavanKerry Press. A book reviewer and Poetry Editor for Pittsburgh Quarterly, his poem, “Argot,” is featured in the 2018 full-length documentary, Eating & Working & Eating & Working. The film focuses on the lives of local service-industry workers. His poem “Scraping Away” was selected for the PA Public Poetry Project in 2017. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and rescued hound dogs.