Sunday, July 3, 2011

True Friendship: The Story Behind "The Wrong Side of the Tracks"

Readers often tell me that their favorite aspect of my book Wild Child is the incredible loyalty Kyle shows towards Briana.  “It’s refreshing to see such  loyalty between friends," one reader wrote.  "A rare commodity these days."

I'm not sure such loyalty is necessarily rare these days—I think it’s just rare, period.

This theme runs through a lot of my books. 

When I was 12, my parents went through a terrible divorce, and my mother ended up moving me and my 6 year old sister down to Nashville, Tennessee, to be closer to her family.  Talk about culture shock!  We may as well have well landed on the moon. We had been living in a nice, quiet middle-class neighborhood in upstate New York.  I won’t call the place we moved a ghetto, but it wasn’t far from it.  It consisted of a row of cracker-box rental houses that ran so close to a railroad line that your fillings rattled with the trains thundered by.  Alcoholism, drug abuse and prostitution were rampant.  Few people on the street had finished high school, let along college.  Kids hung around on street corners in gangs.

I’ll never forget the look the teenage boys gave me that stifling hot day in August as they watched us drag our furniture in from the U-Haul.  The message was clear:  “We’re going to kick your ass, you little pussy.”

I was afraid to go outside.  Later that evening there was an ominous knock at the door.  My mother answered it and came to me and said, “There’s a boy who wants to talk to you.”

My god, I thought.  They sure don't waste any time.

I went to the door expecting the worst.  Standing outside was a tall, lean boy, barefoot and shirtless.  He wore only a pair of faded jeans. 

“Hey, Mike,” he said, a toothpick between his lips.  “I’d like to show you around the neighborhood.”

He had a rugged, handsome face.  I did not remember seeing him hanging around on the street with the other boys. 

I  looked into his eyes.  He seemed sincere, but it might have been a trick.  I didnt' feel I had any choice—I mustered up the courage to go with him. 

He did exactly what he said he would do—showed me around the neighborhood.  His name was Ben, and he was 16.  It did not take me long to understand that he was the toughest kid around.  Ben came from the worst family imaginable.  His mother was a prostitute, his father a violent drunk who drifted from one construction job to another and often beat Ben senseless just for the hell of it.  Ben’s older brother was on death row for killing a policeman who tried to tow away his car.  The entire family had been petitioned out an even worse neighborhood when Ben’s younger brother, age 9, shot out all the windows with a .22 caliber rifle.

Each time we encountered a new boy, Ben would put his hand on my shoulder and say, “This is my friend, Mike.”  There was a subtle but unmistakable look in his eye.  “You mess with him, you mess with me.”

Ben became one of the most true and loyal friends a person could ever have.  He taught me how protect myself, he taught me about girls, about self-confidence, and about life in general.  

Why Ben decided to take me under his wing and protect me when we moved into that hellhole, I do not know.  Maybe it was because he saw how vulnerable our family was—a mother, a 12 year old boy, and a 6 year old girl.  Maybe he wanted to give to someone else the protection he never got from his own family.  Maybe he simply liked my northern accent—he often told me he did.

Whatever the reason, the experience had such a profound effect on me that I was compelled to write a whole a book about it, The Wrong Side of the Tracks.

Such loyalty and friendship are indeed rare commodities, these days and in all times of living.

Ben, wherever you are, I will never forget what you did for me.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes friends drift in and out of our lives. I have one of those, but every time we reconnect it's like coming home.