• By J. Matthew Smith

Of Wind And Erosion

Updated: Dec 26, 2019


EDITOR'S NOTE — Growing up in Buffalo, I attended public school through the eighth grade. But upon entering high school, my parents decided to enroll me in an all-boys Catholic school run by Franciscan friars for the discipline.

“You step outta line there, and they’ll knock you on your ass,” my father said. “It’ll be good for you.”

True enough, I couldn’t tell you how many times I was whacked. Honestly, I lost count after my freshman year. Shit, in Latin class alone I was probably hit in the double-digit range by mid-November of ninth-grade.

Smacking a kid these days, of course, is frowned upon and probably with good reason. But there was a time when this kind of punishment was normal — especially in a blue-collar town like Buffalo. And being a total smartass who was constantly in trouble, each time I got smacked I, without question, brought it upon myself. And in my father’s view, there was absolutely nothing healthier for you in life than being knocked on your ass by someone.

Still, one of the great ironies about the high school I attended was that despite the discipline the friars distributed, the place was an absolute nut house. It was like being locked in a mental hospital for eight hours a day. The place was filled with hundreds of smart-ass kids who, without ever having to worry about putting on errs to impress female classmates, felt liberated to act like total and complete jackasses.

One of my most hilarious memories happened in the school’s cafeteria my senior year. There were maybe eighteen of us sitting at a long, rectangular table, nine to a side. Acting on a dare, and if I remember correctly, a monetary reward of some kind (that as you will soon learn could not possibly have been enough), a classmate agreed to one of the most vile challenges to which I have ever been witness.

Starting at one end of the table, a classmate took a fork, spit a loogie on it and passed it to the kid sitting next to him who then did the same. From kid to kid to kid, the fork was spit upon and then passed along, and once it reached the end of the line, it was then passed across the table to the classmate sitting on the other side, who added his loogie and passed it on to the kid next to him. And so on and so on.

As the fork got closer and closer to the eighteenth and final person, the excitement in the cafeteria went from a crescendo to an absolute fever pitch. Word somehow spread as to what was going on, and those from other tables had by now gathered round to watch what was about to happen. Laughter evolved into cheering, and onlookers began chanting: “Eat! Eat! Eat!”

Sure enough, the fork, now with a large lump of eighteen loogies lying upon it, was handed to the classmate in waiting. His face was beat red, he was laughing uncontrollably and his eyes were filled with tears. He grabbed the fork and brought it toward his lips. His hands shook with nervousness, causing the loogie to begin rolling off the fork. But thanks to the collective pool of phlegm that provided elasticity to the loogie, rather than falling to the floor it hung from the utensil like a long piece of spaghetti. There was complete pandemonium in the cafeteria. Closing his eyes, the kid raised the fork to his mouth, opened wide, shoved it into his pie-hole and pulled it back out. The loogie was gone from the fork, now making its way down my classmate’s throat. The cafeteria exploded like a volcano with applause and laughter. The kid raised his hands in victory and then, within seconds, WHACK! A priest who witnessed the spectacle ran from one end of the cafeteria to the other, and though he was too slow to get there in time to prevent my classmate from swallowing the fork full of phlegm, he brought an abrupt end to the madness and celebration by delivering a roundhouse right to the kid’s face.

Had girls been in the cafeteria that day, this would never have taken place.

I’m so glad they weren’t. And I’m so glad it did.

There was something about that school that fostered a strange bond between the guys in my class, one that’s lasted long after graduation and well into adulthood. It was a weird place — a mad house, a prison and a circus. And whether you were good friends back in the day, or just mere acquaintances, you would forever be connected in some way because of this unique experience. In fact, to this day, I remain closer with many of my high school classmates than those with whom I went to college. The common bond of surviving that Catholic mental ward was far too strong to be eroded by the unrelenting passage of time.

Thus some three decades after graduating, a number of us decided to gather for what was considered an unofficial 30-year reunion.

The agenda included golf, dinner and attending the Bills-Patriots game in Buffalo. And given that one of the guys in our group owned a couple of “gentlemen’s clubs” in the area, those whose wives didn’t mind or whose careers wouldn’t be jeopardized — (i.e. those who weren’t school teachers) — also spent a night at one of the strip joints our classmate owned. I was among them...

***

Now, I’m not a strip club guy. In fact, the only time I ever really patronized those places were during bachelor parties, and even on those occasions I felt like a total creep. Since all my friends had been married for years at this point, it had been ages since I had been to a strip club. And being nearly 50, this time, I felt creepier than ever.

My classmate who owned the club was a great host. He provided lodging for those of us from out of town, used his business connections to secure tickets to the Bills game, and made sure our glasses were kept full while we were at his club. And being the proud owner, he also insisted on giving me a tour of the establishment, which included a visit to the area where his dancers dressed, stretched and prepared themselves for their performances.

What a difference 30 years makes. Had I been given this tour when I was a high school senior in 1985, I would’ve been standing there at full attention in the strippers’ dressing room looking like Bloom County’s Bill the Cat — my eyes bulging out, tongue hanging and hair standing on end. But in 2015, being nearly 50 years old and more than old enough to be the father of 90 percent of these girls, I stood inside the dressing room as if I were standing before an eclipse, trying my damnedest to not look directly into the sun out of fear of going blind, but taking a peek here and there so that I didn’t miss nature’s show. Honestly, I would’ve been more comfortable at a Nation of Islam meeting than I was inside that dressing room.

“Let me introduce you to some of the girls,” said my friend.

Oh God please don’t I thought. But instead, I said:

“That sounds great.”

“This is Karli.”

“Hi, I’m Karli. With a K. It’s very nice to meet you,” she said to me. “Welcome. Is this your first time here?’

“Um, hi, Karli. Yes. Yes this is my first time,” I said sheepishly.

“Well enjoy the show,” said Karli. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going on soon so I need to stretch.”

“Um, yeah, sure, great, no problem,” I replied. “Have fun. Good luck.”

Then, without hesitation, Karli threw her right leg up onto a balance bar that was hanging in front of me on the wall. She wasn’t even on stage yet, but I was getting a show. I looked at the ceiling, then the floor, then back at Karli. I never felt more pervy and could not wait to leave, but my friend was having a discussion with one of his employees about something that was happening in the kitchen. I looked back at Karli and she smiled. I smiled back to be polite, but quickly turned away. As luck would have it, I turned my head straight into the direction of another stripper who was also stretching in advance of her performance. This one, whose name I did not catch, was reaching down and touching her toes, stretching her hamstrings. Her back was facing my way, and — I swear to you and I am not making this up — in large letters running down the back of her left thigh was the word “bad,” and in equally large letters running down the back of her right thigh was the word “girl.” It was so delightfully nasty and funny that I was mesmerized. Seconds later, I noticed she was looking in the mirror that she was facing. She was smiling at me, fully aware that I’ve been checking out her backside. In my defense, I was simply reading, but I knew if I tried to explain the truth would sound like a lie. So, and I still can’t believe I did this, I waved and said “how ya’ doing?” like some total hayseed.

Turning my head again, there was tall blonde dancer preparing her costume. Believe it or not, it was a storm trooper outfit from Star Wars. I’ve never been a sci-fi fan, but I realized at that moment that I would have been more willing to give the entire Star Wars franchise more of a chance if all the villains looked like the storm trooper in front of me. My attention, however, was quickly diverted by what was happening behind her, where a brunette, standing in her G string and leather boots was rubbing glitter all over the back of one her equally scantily clad colleagues.

Feeling like the world’s biggest creep, I grabbed my friend’s shirtsleeve and gave it a tug.

“ Hey, maybe I should get back to the rest of the guys,” I said

“Dude, just a second. You want to meet any other girls?”

“No, really. I feel like a giant pervert. Some of these girls are barely older than my daughter,” who was 18 at the time.

“Well then, do you want to see the kitchen?”

“No. Really… I should get back.”

“Okay, let’s go to the bar. I’ll hook you up with a drink.”

“Yes,” I said. “A drink sounds great right now.”

I spent the remainder of the night sitting by the bar, as far away from the main stage as I possibly could. I am hardly a prude or a choirboy, but as I stated, I have never been a strip club guy. In my mind at least, “strip club guy” lives in the same neighborhood as “70s porn star guy.” They dress badly, spew cheesy lines, wear medallions and sport pathetic caterpillar mustaches. Without question, 70s porn star guy is a total creep. But, he does get to have sex and get paid for it, too. Strip club guy, meanwhile, has to give away his money to the girls to take their tops off for him and then convinces himself the girls actually want him, rather than his cash.

Anyway, my modus operandi that night was to nurse my drinks and bide my time until we decided to call it a night. And central to my plan was to make no eye contact, whatsoever, with any of the dancers who were walking throughout the bar in the hopes of getting patrons to agree to $30 lap dances. No way in hell was I parting with my money. I had two kids in college. And besides, I already paid for HBO, which showed boobs all the time. So, forking my money over to a stripper just seemed redundant.

For more than two hours, I was successful. When a dancer headed my way, I'd look elsewhere. The floor, ceiling, my phone– it didn’t matter. No one was getting my cash. There was a time in my life in which I couldn’t see enough breasts. But now at my age —while I still appreciated a good rack as much as the next red-blooded American male — I appreciate a well performing 401(k) and a diet that would allow me to wean my way off my cholesterol medicine even more.

But shortly after midnight, my plan hit a snag. One of the guys in our group had a little too much to drink. Well, actually, he had way too much to drink and his behavior at the club was beginning to cause problems. As we got deeper into the night, the size of our party winnowed. By now, not counting our classmate who owned the club, there were only three of us left.

Getting our very drunk friend out of the club began to take on urgency.

“I am going to have to make arrangements to get him home,” my friend L— said.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. He’s completely out of control.”

And, so there I was, alone in the club, as my one-remaining sober classmate tended to our very drunk friend. Twenty minutes turned into 40 minutes; 40 minutes turned into an hour; and then, when an hour turned into 75 minutes, which then turned into 90, I began to wonder whether I had now been abandoned. How was I going to get home? Bars in Buffalo stay open until 4 a.m. and I was beginning to worry I’d be stuck there until then. That was another two hours. I didn’t have it in me to make it that long. I didn’t even really want to be there in the first place.

I started getting a bit nervous and began to look around the club. That proved to be a mistake. A dancer who was heading my way saw my head swiveling around. Our eyes met, and so naturally, she thought to herself: That guy must want a lap dance.

She was an attractive young woman, black and almost six feet tall.

“Hi there, how are you doing tonight?”

My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. “Um, hi, how are you?” I said shyly.

“My name is Wind. What’s yours?”

I had to stop myself from laughing. I was uncomfortable and her name was ridiculous.

“My name is Rick,” I lied.

“Hi Rick, how are you tonight?” she asked, throwing her arm around my neck.

Her boobs were a few inches from my face. They were very nice boobs, too. “Don’t stare at her boobs,” I said to myself as I stared at her boobs. I couldn’t help it, her boobs were right there. I was completely embarrassed. I told myself again, “Do not stare at her boobs.”

“Um, I’m doing well. And you?” I asked, now nervously swaying back and forth and looking up toward the ceiling as if I were Rain Man.

“ I don’t recognize you,” Wind said. “You don’t come here very often. A lot of these guys are familiar faces. Not you though.”

“No, no,” I said, still not making eye contact. “First time here.”

“I could tell. You look completely out of your element.”

I let out an embarrassed chuckle. “No, I’m definitely not in my element right now.”

Wind brushed my hair with her hand, not in sexy way, but like how one would pet a dog.

“So, where are you from?” I asked.

“Amherst,” she said, referring to the Buffalo suburb in the northern part of the city.” I graduated from Sweet Home (High School) in 2012.”

“Really?” I asked in shock.” That makes you 21! Holy crap!”

“How old are you?” Wind asked with a flirtatious smile.

“I’m 48,” I answered, disgusted by my own age, embarrassed by hers and wondering why I didn’t lie.

“No way!” Wind said, no doubt feigning her surprise in hopes of a cash reward. “I would’ve pegged you for about thirty four.”

“Nope… nope… I’m old enough to be your dad. In fact, my son lives right near the high school you went to. He’s a junior at the University of Buffalo. He’s your age. You guys could date.”

Why I said that last part I will never know. Yes, my wife would just love for my son to bring home a stripper. But, I was nervous and just kept yapping like some senile old fart. Still, rather than shutting up, I continued to talk. Awkward silence always made me nervous and often caused me to say really stupid things just to fill the void.

“So, um, do you like your job?”

“It’s okay,” she said. “But I know there’s more out there for me than this. Hopefully by the time I’m 25, I’ll have a full-time office job someplace with health insurance and a 401(k).”

Maybe it was my fatherly instinct, but I was pleased to hear this. And so right there in the strip club, even though I was not qualified to do so under any circumstance, whatsoever, I began to give her investment advice and spoke to her about the importance of diversifying her assets. After all, it was the fatherly thing to do.

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m not sure what any of that means. But, would you like to see me dance now?”

“Um… yeah… sure… I guess. I mean, yes,” I said, not wanting to be rude.

She made her way to a small round bar area just off to the side of the main stage. For a second, I thought about taking off as she turned her back to walk toward the stripper pole that ran from the floor to the ceiling in the center of the small bar area. But again, after all, I didn’t want to be rude. Wind told me to take a seat in front of the pole. I did as I was told, grabbing a chair among the handful of other creeps already sitting there. Wind stepped on the bar, grabbed the pole and jumped, using her hands to pull herself to the top. She then arched her back and took her hands off the pole, hanging upside down by her legs. The guys sitting next to me looked at one another and smiled, and then began to stuff dollar bills into Wind’s G-string. Sure, I enjoyed her athleticism and agility, but thinking too about the $4,000 I had to pay in college tuition that month, I gave her nothing.

Wind lowered herself to the ground, and stepped away from the pole to allow another dancer on. The new stripper used her hands to scoot up the pole and when she reached the top, she slowly reversed course, turning herself upside down. I’m not exactly sure what she planned next, but suddenly, she lost her grip. And, with her ankles crossed around the pole above her, she was unable to keep herself suspended and quickly and violently crashed straight into the floor face first. How she did not break her neck is beyond me.

What I saw next astounded me. I don’t know whether it was some sort of “stripper code” or what, but within seconds of this dancer smashing violently to the floor, a swarm of fellow strippers ran to the area where their colleague lay on the ground writhing in pain. Then, in unison, the dancers began to applaud, not in a mocking way, but in a large-scale show of support for their fallen comrade. It was almost beautiful. And as part of that support, a handful of the strippers who had rushed to the scene grabbed fistfuls of dollars they had themselves earned and tossed them into the air so that their money would “rain” down upon the injured dancer. Many of these dollars missed their mark, and as they floated toward the floor, they landed everyplace– including in front of me.

The injured stripper — the trooper that she was — was helped off the floor by her colleagues. She flashed an embarrassed smile, and, as she fought back tears, she shook her head in the affirmative to let us know she would be okay. Safe in the knowledge that her companion was not injured seriously, Wind jumped back up on the pole. She briefly set her feet on the small circular bar and took a quick jog around. Then she launched herself into the air, and with her hands gripping the pole tightly, she spun her legs in a complete 360. Now, as I mentioned at the outset, my dear young Wind was 6 feet tall. Apparently, too, she was unaware of just how long her legs were. As she whipped around, her legs akimbo, her feet struck my brand-new vodka grapefruit, lifting the glass off the bar and spilling the drink all over me. To say I was drenched was an understatement. I looked as though I had just taken the ice bucket challenge with a bucket full of vodka. Booze and juice dropped off my head like rain. My shirt was soaked. I did not want to make a scene nor did I want to embarrass Wind, so I simply sat there and watched the rest of her routine.

When she finished, she made her way over to me.

“So, did you enjoy that?”

“Oh, yeah, it was nice.”

“My God, you are soaked,” she then said, surprised. “What happened?”

“Um, you sort of kicked my drink in my face when you spun around on the pole. You have long legs.”

“Oh my God! I’m so sorry!” she said, her hand covering her mouth in embarrassment.

“That’s okay,” I said, almost ashamed that I told her.

I reach my hand into my shirt pocket and pulled out a five dollar bill that I had picked up off the floor when some of the other dancers were “making it rain” in wake of their colleague’s spectacular fall from grace. I folded the bill, which was soaking wet, and stuck it under the shoulder strap on Wind’s bedazzled bra.

“Here ya go,” I said.

“Oh thank you very much, darling,” Wind replied.” You have a nice night now. I’m sorry about your drink.”

“That’s okay. Every guy here tonight will end up getting soaked one way or another.”

Wind smiled, touched my face and then walked away.

The conversation you have with your friends when you’re 48 isn’t nearly the same conversation you have with your friends at age 18. That said, it is not entirely different either. Men, like boys, are idiots, and as such there is no shortage of dick jokes and relentless mocking. But what is different is the talk about who’s dead, what became of those still alive and the vast array of health issues from which one another is suffering.

As we sat aboard the limo bus we rented to take us to the Bills game the morning after — complete with more booze stocked inside it than a Las Vegas nightclub — the discussion amongst our group was in many ways depressing. There was talk of cholesterol medicine, debilitating back pain, weight gain, knee and joint problems, high blood pressure, vertigo, and open-heart surgery. We were far removed from those wild days of high school. We were middle aged. We were officially halfway between homeroom and the nursing home; somewhere between cradle and grave.

When it came time to leave the strip club the night before, the only ones left were my friend L— and myself. We were not in any shape to drive, so we called the shuttle service from the hotel where L— was staying, which was just around the corner from the club. I was staying further up the road, closer to the airport.

When the shuttle pulled up, we climbed aboard. And for some unknown reason, I felt the need to explain to the driver why we needed to be picked up at three in the morning from a strip club — as if he gave a shit.

“I don’t usually hang out at places like this,” I said for no good reason whatsoever. “But me and a bunch of friends are getting together for our 30th high school reunion this weekend and one of our classmates owns this place, so we decided to spend the night on the town here.”

The driver, who appeared to be in his mid-20s, shook his head in a manner that let us know he understood but didn’t care.

“Yeah, I don’t really hang out at these kind of places,” I said again, full of vodka and shame. “Sorry you had to come get us.”

“Really, I don’t mind,” he said. “Besides, it gets me out of the hotel. I pick people up here all the time.”

Since L—’s hotel was closer, we dropped him off first, even though that was the hotel where our driver worked.

“I’ll take you to your hotel afterward,” he said. “I don’t mind. It’ll let me stay out a little longer.”

“Cool,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”

As we got closer to where I was staying, the driver asked what high school my friends and I attended. I told him, and he reacted with surprise.

“Really? Did you know a guy named D— by any chance?”

I thought for a moment. Yeah, sure, I knew that name.

“Absolutely,” I said. “I think he was a few years behind me.”

“That’s my dad.”

“Holy shit! Small world. Hey, what’s he doing now?”

“He’s dead.”

Goddamn, we aren’t young anymore.

On our way to the Bills game the next morning, as we traveled inside the limo bus discussing who was still alive and who was dead, I had one more name to add to the list.

#middleage #essay #humor #memoir

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