Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Spin the Bottle

Boys of the Algonquin Indian Tribe of Quebec were brought to a secluded area, often caged, and then given an intoxicating medicine known as wysoccan, an extremely dangerous hallucinogen that is said to be 100 times more powerful than LSD. The intention of the ritual was to force any memories of being a child out of the boy’s mind. Unfortunately some boys also suffer memory loss to the extent that they lose memory of their family, their identity, and even the ability to speak. Some boys who still remembered events from their childhood after returning to the village were then taken back and given a second dose, and forced to attempt to cheat death a second time.  In Brooklyn, we also had our rites of passage, but they were far more civilized.

Maybe the first baby step to manhood was crossing the street alone. As a boy, if you wanted to get to the other side of the street, you tugged on the sleeve of some total stranger and said these words: "Mister, can you cross me?" If your parents were easygoing, they might let an older kid cross you. At some point your parents gave you permission to cross alone, admonishing you to always look both ways. You acted like you were grateful, not having the heart to tell them that you had already been crossing solo for the past two years. Being short of toys, we would play a game to see who could let a passing car get closest to his body. Sometimes we would slap the back fender and fall down as if the driver had struck us. When the poor trembling sap got out of the car, we would tear off howling with laughter. As I said, no toys. 

Another step to manhood involved a feat so dangerous, that in looking back, I shudder to think how stupid we were to try it. The elevated train ran along Fulton Street on its journey out to Jamaica, Queens. I've written before about how we would squeeze through the bars at the unattended end of platform to save the nickel fare. Another way of getting a free ride usually followed a "dare". Accomplishing this feat marked you as fitting material for tribal leadership...if you lived. There was a metal canopy over the stairs leading up to the elevated train station. We would boost ourselves onto this canopy and, like a cat burglar, walk up to where the canopy met the roof of the platform, maybe 40 feet above the street. Scrambling up another level onto the roof, we would carefully lower ourselves down to the platform and wait for the train. As you risked life and limb, your friends would stand down in the street heckling to see if you chickened out. If you made it they called you crazy, an epithet we wore like a badge of honor.

A tougher test had to do with something that we as boys had avoided like the plague up to now...girls. Maybe around fifth or sixth grade, boys come to the realization that those soft, sissy beings that couldn't hit a ball or make a death-defying climb had other things going for them. Suddenly we were acting all goofy around them, desperately wanting their attention and approval for reasons that were as yet unclear to us. Of course this was the first step in the great mating dance between men and women, a dance whose outcome is preordained, but the testosterone raging in our blood prevented us from seeing the end-game. We had feelings and stirrings we didn't understand; we just knew that we wanted these girls to like us, and would violate every rule in the Boys Handbook to get a smile or (rapture) a giggle. 

Having no instruction manual on "Getting to First Base", we would have been helpless had it not been for a game called "Spin the Bottle." The game was played at birthday parties in someone's finished basement that had been decorated with balloons and crepe paper streamers. Boys and girls would gather in a circle, and an empty soda bottle would be spun in the middle of the circle. When the bottle stopped spinning, the boy and girl closest to where the neck and base of the bottle pointed had to go into the next room and kiss. The duration and passion of the kiss usually depended on the girl; the guys were more afraid of this encounter than climbing up to the train platform. "The Kiss" ranged from a chaste peck on the cheek to a gum-swapping grope fest that caused blood to flow to places it had never been before.

We were really innocent in the 1950s and in some ways grew up very slowly compared to how quickly kids mature today. Guys stumbled and lurched into manhood, guided only by the tales told by the older boys on the block. Schools wouldn't dare talk about things like s-e-x, and our parents certainly had no stomach for that conversation. Somehow we figured it out though, due in no small part to Spin the Bottle, a game invented by an unsung, social networking genius.


Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

OK Jim, I just got over your next to last paragraph, but please don't tell me those older guys were lying when they told us what they did!

Jim Pantaleno said...


The Whiner said...

And you were worried because I accidentally lit my hair on fire in high school...hmmmm...