Slackjaw: The Pain Amps Reunion


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My old friend and partner in crime, Grinch, hates New York. It wasn't always like that. Time was, he loved it hereloved Show World, loved the crackies who'd cluster and light up at 43rd & 8th in the middle of the day. Grinch is a connoisseur of filth, of all that is wrong and wicked. Which explains why he hates what New York's becomefrom the obese, smiling tourists waving their sad, sad signs outside the Today Show window to the logo-specific box stores where the Harris used to be, to the queasy sense of empty spiritual cleanliness which has settled over Times Square.


That's why, when he's in town, he refuses to spend any more time in midtown than is absolutely necessary. It works out well, though, since I refuse to go to up there myself. Instead, he comes to Brooklyn.


People who've read the old Grinch stories sometimes ask if we stay in touch anymore, and seem surprised to learn that we do. In fact, at this point I think I can safely say that Grinch is my oldest friend. We first met in Madison, so it's been over 20 years now. 


But I hadn't seen Grinch in, what, six or seven years? Last time, I guess, was during a book tour in '99, when I crashed with him and his lovely, funny wife Sarah while passing through Chicago. But we've stayed in touch through a pell-mell of black comedies. Both of our lives have changed radically over the years, but we remain linked by the bad, bad trouble we used to cause, and by the bad, bad ideas we still share, even though he's done quite well for himself in Chicago and I've, well, done this.


Grinch made it back to New York last week, just for a day, and he and Sarah offered to take me out to dinner at one of those high-zoot restaurants my neighborhood now touts. That afternoon Grinch hopped in a cab and came over a few hours early. 


You're showing a lot of gray, there, he said moments after I opened the door to let him in. He wasn't showing any gray himself. He still seemed to be in very good physical shape. In factthis was the weird thingeverything about him seemed exactly the same. It's almost spooky, like there's a picture of him in an attic somewhere. 


He's got a family and a nice house now. He's a big mucky-muck in the wine industry. He carries a cell phone and wears fancy clothes and hobnobs with some of the most respected restaurateurs in the country. Yet he still had the same bob and weave, the same wild gestures when he spoke, the same sharp, electric inflection in his voice, and when we talk, it's as if nothing at all has changed, no time has passed and we're still sitting in that stinking rathole apartment of mine in Madison, plotting the end of the worldor at least that day's pranks. And it can still get pretty loud.


His wife told me once that he only gets that way with me, that I was a bad influence on him. She was half-joking of course, but the funny thing is, my ex-wife said pretty much the same thing in reverse. And she wasn't joking.


After unpacking the four bottles of wine he'd brought, we cracked a couple beers and set to talking. It was straight into the theoreticals: politics, paranoia, drugs, violence, the crippled beast calling itself society, the hopeless, Hobbesian rabble, the silliness of contemporary academia, the sheer comic genius of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.


That was when academia was worthwhile, he said. We were both grad school casualties. Gibbon sitting around with Hume and Adam Smith, getting drunk and fartingSomehow I doubt history will look back so warmly on, you know, the intellectual circle of Slackjaw and Grinch.


Only after a few beers, still waiting for Sarah, did we slip toward adult practicalitieskids, schools, health concerns, neighbors, jobs, football hooliganism. But even those didn't come out the way you'd normally hear in an elevator or on a golf course. 


Still later, at the restaurant and afterwards, after the beer had been replaced with wine, the old stories finally started cropping up, broken apart with eruptions of crude laughter.Transforming mild student protests into riots. Vandalizing professors' offices. Going to the graduation ceremony while tripping. The run-ins with the cops when we were in The Pain Amplifiers. The time we shut down half the town with a rusty old 55-gallon drum and some Danger: Radiation Hazard stickers.


The only explanation to be offered for most of them was, Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.


It went on until about midnight: the talking and the laughing and the drinking. Then I called a car to take them to their hotel. They had things to do the next day, and I had to go into work.


Oh, I know. It's a cliché. Two college buddies get together after many years, toss back a few and begin dusting off the memories. It's easy sitcom fodder, with the long-suffering wife rolling her eyes and the inevitable comic hangover the next morning. It's easy misty-eyed drama material, like That Championship Season or The Big Chill, in which aging friends relive the old days as they come to realize that the old days are all they have left 


And who knows? To an outsider, it may have looked that way with Grinch and me. I, of course, believe differently. It didn't feel like two old friends getting together to hash over the nasty old days one more time. It just felt like two friends.  I wouldn't trade what I have now with Morgan and everything else to go back, but I do have to admit, those old stories, hellthey are pretty fucking good. That Championship Season doesn't have a big arson scene.


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