Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ladies and Gents, Mr. Clayton has left the building!

Mister Billy Clayton died on December 8th, 2011, at the age of fifty-seven. His burial was yesterday, December 17th.

You didn’t know him and neither did I, but he was a pillar of his community. At Toms River North High School, in New Jersey, Billy was a straight A student. He played ball, was a musician, and loved to read.

According to the story by Catherine Galioto in our local “Patch” online newspaper, everyone loved Billy Clayton. People often bought him a coffee at the local 7-11, and very frequently treated him to breakfast or lunch, where he would regale them with his stories. The townsfolk did it not because he was rich (he wasn’t) and they wanted to pump up their own self-worth by hanging out with someone influential, but rather just because he was Billy Clayton, because he was a tradition, and he was theirs. Old or young, it didn’t matter; everyone in the area knew Billy Clayton, and by most accounts, liked him. It wasn’t unusual to see people wave to him from their cars as they sped down busy Hooper Avenue
to their next ‘must be there’ appointment. What a guy.

To an outsider, Billy might have appeared odd. See, he lived for years at his camp in the local woods. During the Great Depression, Billy might have been considered a hobo. Today, many would say he was homeless, and I guess technically he was. But for him, home was the Silverton section of Toms River. His “family”, the people from the area, who bought him coffee and took him to eat, were there too. Whatever his reasons for living the life he did, he seemed to be content. He did it on his own terms.

Billy Clayton’s story got me to thinking, which can sometimes be a dangerous thing. I have rarely ever met a person who didn’t have something in the back of his or her mind that they wished they had done differently with their life. Oh sure, they will look back at their family, their kids, their home and their money and smile contentedly. They will say to themselves I did the right thing by not becoming a _____________. But always...ALWAYS there will be that little nagging voice that continues to ask, But what if I had? What if I’d done a Billy Clayton and followed my bliss?

Most people can tuck that voice back into a little soundproof mental box to keep the volume down while life is going on and time is whizzing by. They will use the material and familial successes of their life as a salve to keep the irritation of it at bay. Every once in a while though, they will bring it out, usually on special occasions, like their birthday, when reflection upon one’s life is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

 And then there are some who just cannot keep it down and that feeling of discontent over what could have been, howls like a wild dog chained to a tree.  No matter how hard they try, that Voice of the Unfulfilled continually grows louder and louder inside them with each passing day until eventually, it screams so loud and is so voracious in its appetite for regret that it begins to eat away at their heart and soul. Finally, it will infect every cell in their body with anger and sadness until the pain becomes so intolerable that they start seeking artificial ways to alleviate it. My father, Vinnie, was one of those folks.

Born in the Bronx to immigrant parents ten years before the Great Depression, my father had to leave school in the eighth grade to go to work. He never returned. During his youth, he was a truck driver and eventually became a butcher, a profession he worked at with pride until his alcoholism killed him at the young age of seventy.

My father spoke wistfully many times of how he wished he had been able to fulfill his dream of being in show business. He loved to dance (and was very good at it too. Just ask my mother, his ex-wife). Oh wait, she’s dead too. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

He would love to tell his story of the time he played bugle in a marching band down Fifth Avenue for a St. Patrick’s parade (yes, he was Italian, but fair-skinned with blue eyes. He could pass).  The story always ended something like, “and that’s the time I played for Mayor La Guardia, that son of a bitch.” Everyone was a son of a bitch to my father, but he was able to work the inflection just right, so that the phrase ran the gamut from a greeting,  “Hey Sharkey, how the hell are ya, ya son-of-a-bitch?” to anger. You knew he was angry because he would always add the adjective dirty at the beginning and the noun bastard at the end, e.g., “.That dirty son-of-a-bitch bastard owes me ten bucks, that son-of-a-bitch bastard!” Thus Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was indeed a son of a bitch but he was also a hero to every Italian-American in the tri-state, greater New York metropolitan area. No bastard was he.

Publicly, my father was everyone’s “good friend”, at least in his own mind. He was a natural entertainer and when he and his brothers got together at my grandmother’s apartment in the Bronx for Sunday dinner, there were ALWAYS loud raucous arguments and non-stop laughter at the same time. Privately, there was a lot of other dark things going on

Vinnie loved the allure of gangster life. It made him feel important even though he was only peripherally involved. He made book from his little butcher shop in North Jersey. As he told the story, he was fond of putting the betting slips “in the ass of the chickens”, and when the runner came by to pick up the slips and the money, he’d shove it all up into the chicken’s body cavity and wrap the whole thing in that familiar, beige, butcher paper.  See, he, like Billy Clayton, also loved to tell his stories, but usually over scotch and gin instead of coffee and breakfast and always with a melancholy chaser.

 I believe that as the years went on, his Voice of the Unfulfilled knew that he was ripe for the picking and devoured his spirit. Eventually, the alcohol ate his brain and he forgot not only his stories, but who he was, and who my sister and I were as well. That’s what not following your bliss will do.

My Dad wasn’t around much in my early life, and certainly not in my later life. I often wonder how he would have reacted to my change from his son to his daughter. My sister says he wouldn’t have accepted me, but I say he would. Because any time I made a decision that others in my family thought foolish, his response was always the same; “Does it make you happy? Because that’s all that matters.” And really, he’s right. Billy Clayton knew it and chose his bliss. Vinnie knew it too, but gave up. I do know that he was proud that I became a comic and to some degree, I think he lived his life vicariously through my career.

There is a saying that reads “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I have had many teachers appear in my life so far, but probably none more effective than my Father, because his teachings were his legacy to me.  I can remember being very young and vowing that I would never, EVER, do something in my life that would inhibit my bliss. I have been broke, and briefly homeless in my journey, but I have also achieved almost everything I ever set out to do. And in that sense, I am more like Billy than Vinnie. But I am what I am because of Vinnie, not in spite of him.

And so, I thought I’d present two sides of the Life coin tonight. What sparked this diatribe in my head was a comment that an old friend made to me online after she’d read some of this blog. I guess she didn’t know that I was working (or worming?) my way back. Essentially, she jokingly questioned my sanity in my decision get back into this crazy business after all I’d been through, and really, all I could think of, was Vinnie. There is no other answer other than, how could I not?

So to Billy Clayton, nice to meet you. And to my Dad, you taught me well. Wherever you two sons-of-bitches are, I hope you are both happy and at peace; I know that I am. You should be too. Follow your bliss, dammit!



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