My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. By the time I was 13, my mom and I had lived in 6 different places. Some houses, some apartments. Sometimes with my father or my stepdad, sometimes not. Sometimes with a grand mom and some aunts and uncles, sometimes just the 2 of us. Always in the great city of Philadelphia. Over the years, I got pretty good at being the new kid on a block. What would usually happen was, I’d meet the sports kids first. They were the ones that were always in the streets or in a driveway playing some game. They’d be playing some basketball, or hockey, or wire ball or suicide (or homocide depending on the neighborhood). They were easy to spot. They were the dominant youth culture on any given street. They were usually also a bunch of fuckin assholes. I’d wander up to them, introduce myself and tell them that I’d just moved into the neighborhood. They’d be sort of welcoming, invite me to play whatever sport they were doing at the moment. Over the next couple of weeks, I’d come to understand the pecking order, who was who, and who thought they were in charge of what. I was lousy at sports, but I was always big for my age. So, even though I ended up being pretty much worthless to their clique, I’d be spared the outright bullying that other, smaller, just as unsporty kids had to endure. Eventually, I’d just drift off. This cycle repeated itself consistently, without fail in every neighborhood I passed through.
Over the approximately 5-8 weeks that it took, another thing always happened. There would always be some wretched kid passing by in the background. Some kid that had lived there all his life, but was not accepted by the jitbags in the sports crew. Everybody knew him, but he was not a part of the main group. Someone who had had been around so long, that nobody even bothered to harass him anymore. What it always meant for me was that I just met my “new best friend”.
During the time I lived in Castor Gardens, on Kerper st., that kid was Todd Toner. Todd was a blonde haired hessian with a greasy face. 90% of the time, he appeared in double denim. Everybody called him “Stoner” because it rhymed with Toner, and he had perfected that dissociated, high, vacant facial expression even though I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t start smoking weed for another few years. They also called him “Boner” because of course they did. Todd lived with his mom and his older brother, exactly 1 block down the street from us. The father was gone. I think he left them several years before I came around and never visited or paid any support. In fact, I think he might have started a whole new family and pretended his old one didn’t exist. As a result, their mother worked almost all the time and the brothers seemed to deal with their grief and sadness by vacuuming obsessively and torturing one another. Honestly, their house was one of the saddest, darkest, cleanest places I have ever been.
Todd and I started to watch a lot of ninja movies together. Ninja 3: The Domination had just been released. It starred Sho Kosugi who had appeared in Enter The Ninja and Revenge Of The Ninja. We were huge fans. It also starred Lucinda Dickey, from Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. She was sexy as fuck. The plot is this: A powerful ninja is killed by local police at a golf course while attempting to assassinate some millionaire. The Ninja’s ghost then possesses the body of a sultry aerobics instructor, and continues on a wholesale killing rampage. Something for everybody! We also got deep into the books of Steven K. Hayes, at the time, the world’s most well known practitioner of Ninjitsu. I think Todd was studying Tae Kwon Do at some local dojo. Northeast Philly was full of them. I wasn’t studying shit. Todd got his mother to buy him a ninja costume from a store called Asian World Of Martial Arts, sort of a Kung fu Home Depot. I got a look at his, and wanted one of my own, but I figured instead of asking my mom to buy me one, I’d just dress in all black clothes and tie a black t-shirt around my face. Todd and I would put our ninja costumes on at night at his house when his mom and brother weren’t around, which was like, always. We’d then stalk out his back door and slink through the whole neighborhood undetected like assassins in the night. The idea was to try to get as close to people as we could without being spotted. It was thrilling and perverse. We also did more normal stuff like riding bikes and skateboards. We listened to metal and club and rap. We most definitely break danced.
Of course, eventually we moved to a new house in a new neighborhood. We always did. However, I had gotten pretty good at seeing all of my old friends by visiting my former neighborhoods on my bike. I could hang with any number of old best friends by just hopping on the bike and going back to Harrowgate, or Port Richmond, or the placid Castor Gardens. On one of my visits a year or 2 later, I found out that Todd and I were at about the same point in our guitar education. He had acquired a guitar just like the D’Agostino in the picture above, except his was black and gold instead of blue and wood. Also, his had a tremolo bar. He didn’t have an amplifier. I thought that was kind of weird. He was just playing this solid body electric guitar unplugged. You could barely hear it. Like, wouldn’t you just want to have an acoustic guitar if you didn’t have an amp? Maybe he was saving for one. Though, I don’t know what he’d be saving. I was usually the only one of my friends who ever worked. I’ve hung with a lot of bums. He told me he was taking lessons at a shop called Jerry’s, up in Rhawnhurst, a short bus ride away. I knew about the place. I’d seen it from the outside, but had never been there. He said I should come to his lesson with him. I was like, “Ok”.
We rode the bus up with his guitar in the case. We got there and it was pretty cool! Not that big, but with a solid inventory of sweet electric guitars and basses as well as some amps, keyboards and acoustic guitars. It wasn’t all dark and overwhelming like Cintioli’s. It was bright and adequately stocked. It was the late 80s, so there were lots of stupid shaped guitars with overly intricate floating tremolo systems and pick ups that needed batteries. Still, I was digging’ all the eye candy. I couldn’t play well enough to want to try anything, but it was fun to look around.
Todd & I headed back into the little room for his lesson. His guitar teacher, some grouchy Italian-American with a beard pointed at me like, “He can’t come back. He’s not takin’ a lesson, is he?” I was pretty pissed at the time, like, what an asshole! However, thinking about it now, I’m like, why the hell would I think I’d be allowed to sit in on somebody’s guitar lesson? Goofy ass kid. So I just continued to hang around the store. checking out all the gear. Muffled, I could hear Todd and his teacher playing Iron Man and Purple Haze in the back room. Totally cool! You could just learn Purple Haze if you wanted to. You didn’t have to read music and play a bunch of bullshit that you hated. Todd never had to learn Hot Cross Buns! Maybe I should take guitar lessons, I thought. That could be cool!
A few months later, Todd bought an Ibanez X series. You know, a goofy shaped heavy metal looking guitar with an overly complex floating tremolo? I ended up buying the D’Agostino from him. I still don’t think he had an amp.