My friend Alan and I agreed. Greenview Junior High School had a great cafeteria. We adored the establishment’s bill of fare. These hair-netted gals made big sheets of square thick-crust pizza, more a zesty than a sweet sauce, though somehow that’s the only entrée I remember. I remember the desserts quite well. There was pecan pie, which was new to me: a mixture of crunch and gooey teeth-aching sweetness. And oh, the little egg custards in a cup! Once, with someone timing me, I slurped one down in eight seconds. I never tried to secure the recognition of The Guinness Book of World Records, but that should be in there.
Alan wasn’t my only friend. There was Mike, of course, may he rest in peace. When I moved from Cleveland to South Euclid, Mike sponsored me in suburban society.
One of the kids Mike introduced me to was Peter, an anomalous Italian among the Jewish population of the neighborhood, who joined our knockabout tackle football games at Bexley Park. He was into athletics, fitness challenges. He once approached me as I sat on the bleachers during noon rec and said he could do 75 pushups, then dropped and did them. Good ones. Didn’t even seem winded when he sprang back up. Built like a Greek god.
Somehow I recall “having lunch fourth.” That was the earliest period you could have it. There was also fifth and, I think, sixth. I was sitting in social studies or math or English dreaming about lunch. When the bell rang I banged out the classroom door and went running – not walking, running – down the hall to be ahead of everybody. I shot down the stairs, barely holding onto the rail to correct for the centrifugal swing. I hit the bottom of the stairs to make my final turn and head into the home stretch to the chow line. Only trouble was, it had been raining, the tiles were slick, and I slipped and fell on my ass.
That would be bad enough, but I saw out of the corner of my eye, coming down from the top of the stairs, none other than Peter.
I was crimson with shame, and am sure I loaded my tray with a compromised élan that day.
Peter was pretty nice, and I wonder if he felt for me, felt my embarrassment, because it wasn’t long after that, during study hall, that he sat down across from me and engaged me in a real guy conversation, about, oh, among other things, whether I’d discovered playing with myself. I guess he just wanted me to know animal urges were normal. Not to impute adult foresight and guidance to this fun, blonde-haired moppet of a kid, but I did feel the presence of a gesture intended to mollify my little social agony and shame.
He revealed something about himself.
“You know what I love?” he said. “My mom makes it for me. You take chocolate cake and pour milk over it and it gets real soft, like mush . . . and then I eat it. That’s real good.”
You look at this kid with his rock chest and arms and shoulders and washboard belly – nobody looked like that at this age – and found it odd, and touching, to hear him talk about something so . . . private and comfort producing. So Pillsbury dough boy. He seemed made of iron.
I wanted to be made of iron too, but I had many guises, all competing for primacy during this period. I was figuring out who I was. There were a lot of Bob Gitlins.
I was athletic and loved not only the tackle football games but what we called “chicken fights.” One kid got on the shoulders of another and tried to claw down the rider of another team. Peter and I were a good team.
I played tennis. A kid named Artie once beat me two sets to one in ninety-degree heat at Bexley Park and though I lost I would always remember with a glow such an epic fight.
I hated Little League because I didn’t want to be there and performed sluggishly. I fell in love with Cap’n Crunch, precipitating a chubby phase that warred with the athleticism.
That war is still on. It’s why I still work out at the gym three days a week and put up with a manual labor job that would fell lesser sorts. I’m 67 and I still care about muscle and fitness. I wonder if it was Peter’s influence. I’ve lost touch with him.
My therapist says I have to be kinder to myself. There’s a happy medium between self-punishment and self-indulgence.
I told her she reminded me of my mother, who used to say you had to be your own best friend.
“You think there was wisdom in that?”
“Yes I do,” said my therapist, and she smiled.