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  • It was nearly sundown on a warm June Friday evening. Nearly Shabbos and my dad was driving me to a party I’d been invited to, lips as tight as his grip on the wheel. He didn’t like that I was going to miss Shabbos dinner for a party, but insisted he drive me to see where I’d be. As an 8th grader, I’d been given more freedom to move beyond the old borders. Instead of walking with my dad to the synagogue on Saturday mornings, I played on the school basketball team - riding my bike to games. Thank goodness my mom had taken my side on that one.

    We drove in his Olds across Knoxville Ave, where the kids attended a different grade school. I’d met Ann D. a couple of weeks before at a Bat Mitzvah dance. She was one of the many non-Jewish classmates of the Bat Mitzvah girl who came to our town’s only synagogue to party. Every Bar and Bat Mitzvah party featured the same deejay from our local top-40 station, WIRL, balloons, cake and ice cream. She pressed close while we slow danced and we made our way to the empty Junior Congregation room where we made out in a pew. One of us drooled a bit because we felt the wet when we rubbed our cheeks against each other in the dark…..totally exciting.

    Ann greeted me when I got out of the car and led me to the backyard where her friends were gathered round a barbeque. We went for a walk and made out in an alleyway behind a garage before returning to the party. Suddenly someone exclaimed that Kenny J. was out front and Ann grabbed my hand as we followed along. Kenny was behind the wheel of a blue Ford Fairlane and sitting next to him was Sue G.

    There are only a handful of kids who are known across the different grade schools. Either they are the best athletes, the notorious hoods, or they are beautiful girls who have gone to the bases the rest of us have only fantasized about. The myths were transmitted on phone calls, walking home in groups after school, over fries at the A&W, in the pre-internet oral tradition. Kenny J. and Sue G. were talked about even though we had never laid eyes on either one.

    Ann pulled me into the back seat and a second couple squeezed in next to us. Kenny pulled back into the street and we were driving. First thought,,,,,how amazing, I am literally hanging out with these Olympian characters. I can actually SMELL the Brylcream laquering down Kenny’s shiny black hair and I’m only two feet plus a 16th inch of pink t-shirt threads away from Sue’s monumental endowments. Secondly…… some rapid mental calculations about Kenny’s age. Maybe he’d been held back a couple of times while attending to more pressing duties like stuffing dorks into their lockers or shoplifting at department stores. Or maybe I had it wrong and he wasn’t an 8th grader at all. Maybe he was actually in high school taking all those shop and car mechanics classes and he completed his drivers’ ed course with flying colors. Then the other guy in the back asked Kenny, “where’d you get this ride?”

    Kenny guffawed in a deep throated (post voice-change), self satisfied chord, as he turned his head to the back seat. He winked, and said that he’d gotten it just three blocks away. “Some dipshit left his keys in the car and I helped myself.” He threw his muscular left arm around Sue as she leaned into him. I noted that he smoked Camels, the package folded neatly into his short sleeve T-shirt. We drove further into this neighborhood I knew not at all. I imagined stern Midwestern faces looking out from many of the darkened windows . I slowly covered my window-side profile with my hand.

    Realization…….HE STOLE THIS CAR!

    This could only end badly. The astonished car owner probably called the police and at this point we are minutes away from getting stopped and arrested. The shame and terror of an evening in jail would be eclipsed only by my parents having to drive down there (wherever “there” is) to bail me out on Shabbos! I’d be grounded throughout all of high school. Little consolation that I might be mentioned from time to time as an accomplice of Kenny J. by some fries-munching 8th graders at A&W stands throughout Peoria.

    The guy in the back seat said to Kenny. “Hey Buddy, you better let us off around here and drive it back before it turns into a shitstorm.” With Herculean effort I kept my head from nodding “YES” up and down at warp speed. But that’s what I felt. Kenny replied, “Okay, I’ll let you chickenshits out here. Sue and I are going to go for a little spin down Knoxville.” He pulled over and as I stepped back onto safe, stable land, trying to look as natural as my bone-white face allowed, I nodded and smiled at Kenny and stumbled over the word “cool.” Relief shot out from my brain like it was Mount Vesuvius blowing its top. I took a last look at the legendary hood.

    At first I thought I’d escaped any negative fallout and giddy with relief, I even got in some more necking and canoodling under the Friday night stars. When I got home, everyone was asleep. In retrospect I realized that while I was jockeying my racing hormones, my parents were discussing my future. A few days later, I was told I’d be attending an Orthodox Yeshiva for high school, living in a dorm full of religious boys, so that I could see for myself what I’d been missing growing up in Peoria. I argued that I didn’t feel anything was missing, but I lost that one.

    Eight weeks later I was sharing a room with three others. We were shaken awake at 7 each morning for prayers and I was breaking my teeth on two new alphabets used to study Talmud. It couldn’t’ have gone worse if it had been my Dad’s Olds that Kenny drove us in. I’d crossed a border when I went to Kenny and Sue’s turf on the other side of Knoxville Ave, but my parents blasted me off to a whole new planet that did not appear to support teen-ager life forms.


    photo is by Kevin Reese on Flickr.
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