“See that?” Carl asked me. “Whaddya think about THAT?”
He stared six feet to our left and waited for me to answer. As if to show me what he thought, he spit a long brown stream of tobacco juice onto the pavement. It was a hard spit, the kind that served to both express his disgust and clear his mouth—THAWCK!
“Ain’t no sense in that,” he said.
The object of Carl’s animus happened to be the teenager who had pulled his very small but very loud car up to the gas pump beside us. The car had idled a bit—I assumed it was so the boy could enjoy the last few BummBumBUMs that thumped from his speakers—and then he got out. Sixteen, seventeen at the most. Complete with white T shirt, gold chain, cockeyed hat, and jeans that seemed to be swallowing him whole.
The boy flipped on the gas pump and looked at us—“’Sup?”
Carl and I nodded.
“Hear that?” he asked me. “‘’Sup?” What the heck’s that supposed to even mean?”
“Think he was just sayin’ hi,” I told him.
Carl hitched up his overalls (which I thought was at once impossible and unnecessary) and spit again—THWACK!
“Idiot,” he said. “Back in my day, no one’d act like that.”
Carl’s favorite saying—Back in my day.
Which, as far as I can tell, was sometimes between 1810 and 1950. It’s hard to pinpoint that exactly. Carl won’t admit to his age and I won’t dare ask, so I’m left to guess.
“Lemme tell you what’s wrong with this country,” he tells me. “People don’t care anymore. They got no respect, no dignity. Back in my day, things weren’t so. People respected each other. Might not get along, mind you, but they respected each other. Talked to each other. Nowadays people talk at instead’a with. Know what I mean?”
“Things were simpler back then. Wanna hear some music, you go outside and listen to the birds. Now everybody’s got those dad-blamed earphones in their heads. Talkin’ on their cell phones. Back in my day, you wanna talk to someone, you write ’em a letter or you go see ’em. Know what I mean?
“Simpler times, Billy,” he said. “I miss those days. Feel sorry for you, too. You don’t have those memories. You were born when things were already messed up.”
Carl slapped me on the back then and eased his body back into his old truck—“They don’t make trucks like this anymore,” he’d say—and pulled away. He passed by the teenager beside us, who lifted his chin in a sort of silent ’Sup. Carl gave the boy a wave of pity. I had to smile at both of them. And I had to wonder, too.
Because as I looked over at the teenaged boy beside me, I could almost see myself once upon a time. Instead of oversized jeans and a white T shirt, I had jeans with shredded holes and a Motley Crue shirt. His hat was cockeyed. Mine was turn backwards. His was the BummBumBUM bass, mine was the ear-shattering electric guitar.
We were the same, he and I. Just twenty years apart.
Even so, I can already feel parts of me turning into Carl. I catch myself at times thinking that things were a lot better when I was a child. Safer. Simpler. The problems we have now were things unheard of back then.
Back in my day.
Time has a way of blunting the sharp edges of experience, doesn’t it? Of smoothing over the roughness of our pasts and leaving a sheen of comfort. I think we all long for the days gone by at some point, if only because they’re gone. Our yesterdays contain no questions or What ifs. No surprises. Not like the now, when things can seem dark and scary.
We fool ourselves into thinking that life was easier at some point. It wasn’t. The world has had no youth, no golden age. It has instead always been stuck in middle-aged groaning and lurches and fits. Life has always been complicated and always will be.
That’s a fact.
This, too: I’ll likely still be Carl one day, at least in thinking. And chances are the boy beside me will one day be Carl, too.