Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Riding in Cars with Boys

One month ago, Little Babe broke his hand in a bit of teenage drama that I will leave for him to tell one day, if he so wishes. This morning, the cast he has worn for the past three weeks came off, together with the metal rod that had been inserted into his hand to allow his metacarpal bone to fuse and heal. Had he not told the orthopedic surgeon at the ER that he was a musician, surgery might not have been recommended. But when the bone didn't set at the hospital, we were referred to a hand surgeon who works with members of the New York Philharmonic.

Because of his injury, HOBB and I have been picking our sixteen-year-old son up from school to spare him the draining bus 'n subway shlep back from SAR High School in Riverdale. As we live just opposite Columbia University on Amsterdam Avenue and W116th Street, this is hardly a major imposition on us. Door-to-door, barring traffic, the journey is typically less than 20 minutes.

Little Babe's easygoing yet wry disposition never fails to make the journey entertaining. Armed with his iPod and the auxiliary cable, our trips home have been somewhat like being inside a DJ's sound booth or what I imagine a date with Fresh Air's Terry Gross to be like. Playing his favorite songs by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, David Bowie, The Talking Heads, Cake, Pink Floyd, the Kinks and a host of other bands whose music I actually like, the time is spent singing, talking and often laughing.

When I picked him up from school last night, I was aware of the completion of this small chapter in our lives wherein our mature and self-reliant youngest child reverted to a state of dependency upon us, for at least his transportation home from school. As we drove down the West Side Highway, Cake's "Wheel" was playing.

"Man, I love these lyrics," Little Babe exclaimed. "They are completely insane! Especially the third verse." I paused to listen:

In a seedy karaoke bar
By the banks of the mighty Bosphorus
Is a Japanese man in a business suit
Singing, smoke gets in your eyes
And the muscular cyborg German dudes
Dance with sexy French-Canadians
While the overweight Americans
Wear their patriotic jumpsuits

I laughed, agreeing that the lyrics were indeed insane.  "Listen to the horns," my son further instructed me.

I listened to the horns. They were great, lending the song a sly Klezmer quality. "Wheel" featured a fusion of cynical and lyrical qualities, rock 'n roll for a cerebral, sophisticated 21st century teen. I could see why he loved the song. The concluding wail, "Why you say you are not in love with me?" repeated over and over, lodged inside my heart.

Passing Fairway's uptown location on 12th Avenue as we eased off the highway "Wheel" gave way to "Comfort Eagle" whose beat can only be described as the percussion equivalent of pure testosterone. I made a note to add the song to my workout playlist; it was funny and irreverent and sharply snide, a critique of the recording industry, it seemed.

"Did you catch that synth?" he asked me, my instructor, my youngest son.

I smiled. Because I was listening with him, there was no chance I would miss the synth.

This morning I drove Little Babe to school after his rod was removed. After the procedure, he had spent not less than 10 minutes scrubbing his hand and arm to rid it of the "cast smell." The car smelled like Axe Shock. Mock-sternly, I told him that the end of the period of his teachers' compassion had arrived; there were assignments to write, tests to take now that he had command of his right hand again. While we spoke, Cake's "Sheep Go to Heaven" was playing. There was something about these days that called for Cake's go-to-hell funk and horn-driven madness.

When we arrived at school, Little Babe pulled his iPod from the auxiliary cable, kicked the front door open with his right foot, grabbed his knapsack from the back seat, shut both doors, bending to give me a salute and a sweet half-smile. It was quiet in the car with him gone. I sat for one minute longer than I needed to, watching my youngest son enter his High School, the period of his broken hand behind him and everything looming ahead.

Then I pulled my own iPod out of my gym bag, plugged it into the auxiliary cable and headed for the West Side Highway with the music of The Red Hot Chili Peppers playing way too loudly for any sane adult, the percussion of "Hump De Bump," acting like sonic testosterone, pumping straight into my bloodstream, the smell of Axe Shock faintly discernible, the memory of these past three weeks lodged inside my heart.

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