Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Story of My Life or at Least Part of It.

What if we could look back at a part of our lives and have everything revealed with one simple trigger?  Sure we can see a singular event and have a flood of memories flood us but what if everything that happened was like walking back in the same footsteps in an ordinary day of our lives?  What if that one ordinary day really had no significance and it really was only just a standard day in our life but its meaning was everything we ever had or wanted?  This sounds complex, isn't this entire blog about music and not a jaunt down memory lane?

What seems like a millennia ago to me was the time I spent living in a city in Northern Illinois called Rockford.  Rockford has a rich history that is as convoluted as it is fascinating and although the last thirty years or so haven't been its best days, there was a hot minute when I was actually part of that history no matter how far in passing it was.  Following the time I graduated from college, I took a position working for a civil and structural engineering firm in Rockford but made a small daily commute from a small town a few miles west of the city.

The trip from Pecatonica to Rockford which I made for about a year was always uneventful, Highway 20 was a bumptastic good time and the 1976 Buick Regal that I owned with the 350 motor really made for some Daytona 500 worthy trips each day.  That was probably the favorite car I ever bought to be honest, it was big, fast and it was built like a granite mountain, you simply couldn't kill the thing.  Seriously I was hit by a smaller car one time which put a small dent behind the headlight / fender connection on the passenger side of my Regal which caused nothing more than a story for me BUT it totaled the car that hit me.  Another time I hit a deer and the deer landed on the hood of the car, stood up and much like Speedy Gonzalez of "Looney Toons" fame it began to spin its feet as it tried to run off of the hood with barely a scratch to the paint.

The car is significant because as I traveled down E. State Street each day from Highway 20 I was driving through a part of the city that many refused to.  It never bothered me, yes it was one of the hardest hit economically parts of the city and the crime rate was higher in that area but I knew that beast of a car would protect me like a mother pitbull would her pups.  That car went everywhere in Rockford with me and my daily, mundane commute consisted of getting to and from work every day and little more.  As mundane travel goes I drove past the courthouse, police station, city hall, bus terminal, restaurants, bars, strip joints, tattoo parlors, a gorgeous theater and the mother of all flophouses, an old rundown, hotel that faced our parking lot; the Inn Town.

The Inn Town was a scary little place, with a police presence always there and its clientele might have been best described as "sketchy" if I'm being honest.  Sketchy wasn't how you would describe the hotel though, I would describe it as bed bug infestation meets the Devil's Playground and that might not be nearly enough.  Bad things man, bad things might do the description justice actually but the one thing that had was the view of our parking lot.  Every day I pulled into that lot with some type of music playing, usually metal or punk which meant Social Distortion.

We all have that one band in our lives that we can point to and see ourselves as well as our lives shaped by with Social Distortion being mine.  The lyrics and music that lies under the surface of every SD song is the soul of Mike Ness, the band's founder.  Ness is gritty, with a dark past, a razors edge of insanity and baggage that is befitting our (and his) darkest thoughts and emotions.  SD and Ness are the epitome of American Punk Rock and they are part and parcel the backbone of that movement worldwide.  Looking across the hood of that Buick at The Inn Town I could see the underbelly of grit and misery which is similar to what many believe to be the cornerstone of punk rock.  Hearing Ness belt out those vocals, The Inn Town seemed just as misunderstood as Social Distortion, Ness himself and Rockford too for that matter.

I suppose that Buick and the music that poured out from its speakers was a microcosm for my world one of which has slowly revealed itself into one of the most important parts of my life.  So too was a little restaurant just a block or so away from the front door of my office, a white clad former drive-in with blue trim and the best damned gyros I have ever eaten: Uncle Nick's.  Nick's would fit into a Social Distortion song like a plug that didn't need a ground adapter, it was identical to everything around it but it's core, it's food was the greatest attribute of the neighborhood.

Many days were spent getting lunch from Nick's (a gyro plain with ONLY mozzarella cheese, an order of fries and a soda) and then taking the same order home the same night.  Nick's was something I craved all of the time when I was there, maybe it was the ambiance, the neighborhood, the parallels to punk rock or hell maybe even the ambiance of being in the presence of chaos of the Inn Town and the professional side of engineering all woven into the same fabric.  It didn't matter really, Nick's was an institution then and now.

I finally left Rockford in 1995, leaving behind my apartment (I actually moved into Rockford in 1994 I think it was), my career, my friends, my life and honestly a wonderful time of being a citizen of Rockford.  I loved the city but I met my wife in my hometown, we began to date, I stopped drinking and we started planning our future.  The last day I worked at Hanson Engineers my friends took me to Uncle Nick's one last time, I had the same order and I knew I would be back one day to see them AND Nick's again.  I talked about the city and Nick's for years and my wife and I always talked about a day-trip to visit but it just never materialized.  Life happens and simple plans disappear making way for family plans but it was always still in the back of my mind to make the trek again.

I have been back to Rockford or just "through" Rockford too for that matter but we have either been on a tight schedule or plans really didn't allow for just a day-trip.  As we looked for a simple, no plans kind of weekend my wife and I decided to drive down one Saturday, August 5th, 2017 actually and see my "past life" I would call it.

As I traveled left onto East State Street in Rockford from Highway 20 a semblance of calm and a small smile began to take shape.  It would be easy to say that I went into "tour guide" mode with my wife I think because I began to talk about the things I saw every day on that commute, the mundane stuff.  I pointed out an "ancient" site of a drive-in movie theater, and a gas station not that far from coming into town where one day I got gas and driving home that night I saw police cars and yellow tape outlining that same gas station.  You see the young man that I paid for my gas earlier in the day was robbed and murdered.  He was such I nice kid and it couldn't have happened long after I left that day.

I pointed out a restaurant that I delivered equipment to before I lived there and I told my wife the story about the owner that called me "white boy" over and over which prompted his grandson (who was helping us unload) to apologize to me because his grandfather was a little "racist" and that he was only doing it because it would bother me.  I assured him that it didn't because many people called me that, "White boy" because my last name is "White" and he told me laughing not to tell granddad that because he would come up with something worse to call me.  I never took offense by it but it was a great anecdote to my life.

Weaving our way through an area where the City of Rockford really made a huge impact with State Street by removing so many old decrepit houses and buildings and routing the street about I told Sara about an old motorcycle club that was on a corner 'just about here" because I couldn't remember exactly where it was since it was removed in those improvements.  I told her about driving through the day after the abomination that was the verdict in the Rodney King beating case and seeing an entire neighborhood become so tense it was ready to explode.

I pointed out the City Commuter Bus Terminal that my old company designed, and the old store that is long gone but had in its window a jar with a giant snake inside of it filled with some type of liquid and how I saw it every day at the same stop light.  I pointed out where we used to get pizzas for company lunches, and City Hall where I first did some materials testing when they renovated it and then there was that beautiful old Midway Theater just doors from my office.  Then there was The Inn Town, or rather the large grass lot that became The Inn Town and my old office which is now a market and HOLY CRAP UNCLE NICK'S!!!

There it stood, in its white clad glory, blue trim gleaming in the sun but we had to drive past because we had to go to the bathroom so we would venture further to accomplish that task first.  As I remembered it Nick's didn't have public bathrooms or seating so venturing past made sense.  I showed her the "limits" of walking for lunch for us because of time constraints and the apartment of an old co-worker but we kept driving and that smile stayed there on my face.  Memory Lane became the name for State Street for that Saturday and the old haunts kept coming by.  There was the "Happy Wok" I would eat at sometimes, and there was the restaurant we had a going away party one night (but I couldn't remember the name since it was long closed).  There was the old gym I went to, and the old area (but the building was long gone) where we used to buy our CAD software, it was all there.

As the need to use the facilities waned (thanks to a well placed McDonald's) we decided to eat and there it was another beacon of food bliss, HOLY CRAP ANOTHER UNCLE NICK'S!  I used to eat at that location as well, it was always good but was it as good as the original?  There was really only one way to know so we entered the establishment, placed our order and waited.  The thought of a gyro was maddening to me, my belly hadn't been well but I had to have one and when I got it I was floored because it was everything I remembered, it was truly Nirvana (no not the band, I hated them)!  It had been 22 years since my last visit to any Uncle Nick's and I was blown away by it all and even if the day ended right then it was made just because I got to share Nick's with my wife.

Nick's isn't fine dining, but it was something I was never able to do with my wife before and it felt as if I was doing something that we should have done while we were dating 22 years earlier.  The smile kept its pace on my face and we decided to visit some family so I asked Sara to put into the GPS the location of a restaurant so we could get to where they were at and my whirlwind continued.  There was the Logli where I would get groceries oh and this left we are taking takes us down Mulford and there is my old apartment I told Sara.

"After this Logli moved" I told Sara, "I used to shop at another grocery store but I can't remember its name but I think it was right THERE" I pointed to her right.  Something wild happened literally after I said that, a song came on my satellite radio "Story of My Life" by Social Distortion and a flood of emotions came over me.

I saw many of my old friends pop into my head, some I haven't seen since 1995, some that have passed away (God Bless you and Rest In Peace Larry "Bud," Carol and Dutch), some of those places and old haunts and those things I did while I was there.  I love the song to begin with but each word made its impact as all of that stuff began to flow through.

I heard the words: "Life goes by so fast, you only wanna do what you think is right, close your eyes and it passed.  Story of My Life." and the warmth of all of that stuff just overwhelmed me.

I thought of our old Hanson "5:01 Club" where we would go to a bar on a Friday night from time-to-time and just unwind, it was just down the street from the office and right across the street from UNCLE NICK'S and I wondered what it is now because it wasn't there when we drove by earlier.  Ness made it back into my head with the line "And I went down to my old neighborhood, the faces have all changed, there's no one left to talk to" and that was true.  There were no familiar faces, most of the places I went to were gone and it struck a chord with me.

I soon realized that in a city of any size faces changes, places change but as the city size increases so does that loss.  Life is full of that loss, and time doesn't stop for us to catch up.  I was reminded of that fact as Ness sang the words: "Good times come and good times go, I only wish the good times would last a little longer, I think about the good times we had and why they had to end."  It's true isn't it?  Don't we really have to look at why "they had to end?"  I started to do that, and so understood why.

From the time I left MIT (yes I attended MIT, Morrison Institute of Technology duh) until 1995 I had everything figured out or so I thought.  I realized as the song wound down that I didn't have the "story of my life" until after I left Rockford.  I was 27 years old, I had life experiences and I had ideas of what I wanted to do with my life, big plans if you will, but I don't think that the parts of my life that have made me happen if I stayed in Rockford actually would have.  I had so many memories that came from that time frame that it was always one of the most special times of my life.  Here's a neat little factoid that could have changed everything had I not done one simple thing, I came home for the 4th of July in 1995.

Had I not come home for the 4th I would have never gone to a gas station in Galena to visit a friend of mine.  I would have never been introduced to her friend, and she would have never gone to the City of Dubuque Fireworks with me.  Had that not happened I would have never met my wife Sara, we wouldn't have had two of the greatest children I could have ever hoped for.  I would have never approached struggles, problems, failures and losses the same way without Sara in my life.  I would have never been with the one person that can define everything with just a simple look.  I would have never fallen in love with the most important person in my life (apart from our children of course).

I wouldn't have faced the things that define me here because I would have never been here in the first place.  I get it now, I see it now.  Just like staring out the windshield of my car at The Inn Town each work day, I wouldn't have seen the grit and the mundane but I also wouldn't have seen past all of that and gotten past the stereotype of what it could be.  I got to live that story my way while understanding that there are always curveballs we will face.  I soon realized that in the "Story of My Life" I wouldn't change a chapter, a page or a line, not a single one.  I realized that the subjects that I visited in that story defined me.  It not only defined me but it made me, it is MY story.  My story has everything I need it to have, it has intrigue, beautiful women, danger, music and the greatest gyros in the history of the world.  It's all we can ask for in life it really is.

To think that one simple, overdue day-trip brought it all back in black and white:  The Story of My Life.

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