When two rites make a wrong

Last week I wrote about the Teen Canteen and claimed my Canteen “career” was unique. I still think that’s true, and until someone refutes it, I’ll stick by my guns.

The Canteen was essentially our youth center from the ’40s to the late ’60s. It was held in the town hall basement on Friday and Saturday nights, from 7:30 to 11.

By the way, that closing time is significant. See, we had a town-ride curfew from Way Back When until the late ’60s. At 9:30 the fire alarm sounded. (Everyone within the village limits heard it because that sucker was so freakishly loud it could’ve properly heralded World War III, if not Armageddon).

At that moment, any kid under 16 wasn’t allowed out in town. And any U-16 who was out was going to be ordered home by any authority figure within shouting distance. Note, I said “authority figure,” not “authority.” Certainly, the cops enforced the curfew, but so did any adult. And it worked. Not only did we not fight the curfew, we did even consider it. I don’t know if I’m proud of that, but I’m sure Pavlov would’ve been.

And what does that have to do with Canteen? A lot, actually. As I said, kids under 16 weren’t allowed on the streets after 9:30. But if you’d been in Canteen and were headed home, it was OK, because it was impossible to get in trouble in Canteen. Plus, you had to sign in and out of Canteen, and once out, you were out for the night. So random wanderers were not tolerated on our downtown streets — even if they’d come from Canteen.

There were three requirements to partake of Canteen’s wonders.

1. You had to be at least 13.

2. You had to have an official membership card.

3. You had to pay membership fee, which was a dollar and which was good for either a year or your lifetime (my source on this, Marsha McDowell Morgan couldn’t remember which). But that wasn’t it for rendering unto Caesar: There was an additional entrance fee for each night — a lordly two bits, cash coin.

Struttin’ in …

As a little kid, to me Canteen was The Promised land, populated by the planet’s coolest creatures

— teenagers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one for what seemed like eternity. So there I was, stuck in the cocoon, a pathetic pupa, while the butterflies were fluttering and flashing about, behind their unbreachable town hall barrier.

When the Blessed Moment of my 13th birthday arrived, my boon companion Ralph Carlson and I made our maiden voyage to Canteen. And when we did, I got a painful lesson about Blessed Moments, namely all too often they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.

In my case, as soon as I walked in, I realized I was completely out of my element. Every kid there was at least 18 … and looked 40. I was still a pathetic pupa, but now with no cocoon between me and The Real World.

It was a trauma that took me years to recover from — four, to be exact. But by my senior year my wounds had healed, my scars had faded, and I was ready to give Canteen the Good Ole High School Try. And this time I was gonna be Ready for Freddy.

I was now 17, wise beyond my years, hip to the haps and smooth in the groove.

I’d read the works of the Beat Generation and could even recite the first four or five lines of Howl. I knew music. Not only was I encyclopedic in my knowledge of rock and roll, I was also a jazz aficionado (or at least I recognized “Take Five” when I heard it). I knew who the Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Bob Dylan were.

Of course my education in the barber shops had exposed me to the finest men’s magazines as well as the odds on all major sports.

So I was completely ready for Teen Canteen. The only question was, would Canteen be ready for me?

… and skulking out

As with my first foray into Canteen, I was accompanied by Ralph. Sophisticates that we were, we met at the town hall at 8:30 — fashionably late.

We started to walk up the steps when Ralph said, “Is that you that smells like a pine tree?”

“Pine tree?” I said. “What’re you talking about?”

He took a couple of sniffs.

“OK, maybe not a pine tree,” he said. “More like pine scent Air Wick.”

I looked at him for a bit and shook my head. It was beneath my dignity to tell him what he smelled was my high-class after-shave — Old Spice. Ralph was a great guy and a great friend, but I worried about his lack of sophistication.

We went in the town hall and down the stairs, where we bought our membership cards from the director, Mona Fobare.

“Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen was playing on the jukebox. All the kids knew that song, but Ralph and I were probably the only ones who knew all its dirty lyrics. Our SQ (Smugness Quotient just ramped up a couple hundred points).

The Kingsmen claimed the lyrics weren’t dirty; in fact, they weren’t even lyrics. They were just making sounds that sounded like words but weren’t. It was all a goof. According to them, if you heard dirty lyrics, you had a dirty mind. Consider it the first rock-n-roll Rorschach test.

I looked at Ralph and nodded, too cool for words.

He gave me a thumbs-up.

And then we walked into the gym, two men of action headed where the action was.

It took my eyes a long moment to get used to the darkness, and when they did, it took only an instant to realize what I was looking at.

“Sweet mother of God!” I snarled.

“The hell!” Ralph sneered.

It was every sophisticated 17-year-old’s worst nightmare — or at least this 17-year-old sophisticate.

The gym was full of kids trying to dance, the oldest of whom looked maybe 13. There was baby fat galore, but not one zit among them.

“Do ya suppose we’ve just landed in ‘The Twilight Zone’?” I said.

“Dunno,” said Ralph. “But wherever this is, they sure ain’t makin’ adolescents like they used to.”

We stood there for a few minutes, checking out the crowd to see if maybe, just maybe, there was someone who was within single digits of hitting puberty. No such luck.

Even worse, the kids were now giving us dirty looks. Some girl whose only curves were her eyeglass frames stuck her tongue out at us. If that wasn’t bad enough, a blubbery boy with Coke-bottle glasses gave us the finger.

Not only were those kids too dumb to appreciate our savoir faire and worldliness, they thought of us as intruders. Interlopers. Hustlers. To them, we weren’t just a couple of dudes on the town; we were two dirty old meu who, rejected by our own age group and now reduced to scoping out virtual infants.

Salvaging what pride we had left (which was damned little), Ralph and I beat a hasty retreat, thus ending my entire Teen Canteen experience. And that’s why I think my Canteen experience was unique: It had the longest duration with the shortest attendance. If I added it up, I’d bet over that four-year period I didn’t spend more than five minutes, total, there.

In spite of that, it taught me something that guided me the rest of my life.

I’d always been told how important it was to know where you belong, which of course is true. But Canteen taught me it’s even more important to know where you don’t belong.


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