Born to Run (2016)





My showmanship skills developed early. Seasoned by the Zerilli blood that flowed through my veins, I was born 100 percent grade A ham. So to grab the spotlight before I could play, I DANCED! … somewhat. The main thing was I was willing to risk the ridicule of half of the neighborhood’s population (the male half) because I’d found out that the other half found a guy who would dance with them to something other than a bone-grinding slow song enthralling.

Bimonthly on Friday nights, St. Rose of Lima would open up its basement cafeteria and host a heavily chaperoned Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) dance for its wild-hormoned teens. On the dance floor I already had a head start. I’d been pulled out onto the living room rug at family gatherings to Twist with my mom ever since Chubby Checker smashed the hit parade to bits with “The Twist.” (My mom even took us to the Atlantic City Steel Pier to see Chubby “live” as he lip-synched to his hits. Then we went across the boardwalk and caught Anita Bryant on the same sun-filled summer afternoon.) Also I’d been going over to the YMCA Friday night canteen, just fifty steps from the door of my South Street home. This was absolutely forbidden territory by nuns’ decree, and you would be racked and tortured in front of the smugly satisfied class of eighth graders on Monday morning if word leaked out that you’d joined the heathen class and their satanic Friday night rituals.

It was here, high in the shadowy bleachers, that I experienced my first kiss (Maria Espinosa!), my first dance floor hard-on (unknown, but could as well have been a wet mop) and the atmosphere of a basketball gym, lights seductively lowered and transformed into a greasy hardwood-floored wonderland. Before I’d stand on these same boards, strapped with my sky blue Epiphone guitar in my first band, the Castiles, I’d dance with anyone who’d have me. Often, still horribly insecure, I’d have to wait for the last few desperate records to get up the guts to cross the no-man’s-land between the camps of the boys and girls and pop the question. But on a good night I’d spend the evening dancing with strangers from St. Rose’s crosstown rival, the intermediate (gasp, public!) school. Who were these tight-skirted, smoky-eyed young girls, unfettered by the green St. Rose’s jumper that tapped down the budding womanhood of my school’s female population? Here were girls in their dimly lit, scented glory, gathered in small hushed circles that suddenly erupted into soft giggles as they eyed the guys across the room culling the herd. I was a complete outcast. I didn’t really know the guys who were cloistered into their cliques, and there were only a few other eighth-grade Catholic school students who braved the Young Men’s Christian Association soirees. I’d been lured to the Y by a secular neighborhood pal for after-school hoops and the pool table in the musty basement. But once I’d gotten the smell of the canteen (some mixture of leftover basketball sweat and dance-floor sex) in my self-consciously Roman nose, there was no going back.

Here I danced for the first time in public and limped those fifty steps back home, blue-balled after some close encounter with a woolen skirt. The chaperones sat up in the bleachers, armed with a flashlight that they flickered on you during the slow dances if things were looking a little hot and tight. Still there was only so much they could do. They were trying to stop a millennia of sexual hunger, and for that job a flashlight just wasn’t going to cut it. At the end of the night, by the time Paul and Paula’s “Hey Paula” was spun on the decidedly lo-fi gym sound system, every man and woman alike was throwing themselves onto the dance floor just to feel a body, almost any body, up against theirs. There in those death-defying clinches lay the promise of things to come.

By the time I got to the CYO dance at my own alma mater, I had some rudimentary skills. The poor souls who comprised most of my Catholic male colleagues didn’t yet realize that GIRLS LOVE TO DANCE! So much so that they’ll get on the dance floor with just about any geek who’s got a few moves. That geek was ME! I had a ridiculous assortment of gyrations copped and exaggerated from the dances of the day. The Monkey, the Twist, the Swim, the Jerk, the Pony, the Mashed Potato—I mixed them all up into a stew of my own that occasionally got me on the floor with some of the finest women in town. This shocked my classmates, who’d only known me as the poor soul at the rear corner desk in class. I’d hear, “Hey, Springy, where’d you learn that?” Well, I’d practiced and practiced hard. Not just with my mom and at the Y but heavily in front of the full-length mirror tacked up to the back of my door in my bedroom. Way before I played broomstick guitar in front of it, me and that mirror spent hours together in a sweat-soaked frenzy, moving to the latest records of the day. I had a small suitcase stereo with a 45 adapter that held me in good stead, and I’d Frug and Twist and Jerk my way to a soggy T-shirt that wouldn’t be rivaled ’til many years later in the midst of a fevered “Devil with a Blue Dress On” in front of a cavernous hall of twenty thousand screaming rock fans.

Then … come Friday, I’d slip on my tightest black stovepipe jeans, a red button-down shirt, matching red socks and black winklepicker shoes. I’d previously stolen some of my mother’s hairpins, pinned my bangs down tight and slept on them so they’d come out as straight as Brian Jones’s. I’d comb them out, then sit under a ten-dollar sunlamp my mother had gotten at the corner drugstore to try and combat some of my fiercest acne. I squeezed a half tube of Clearasil on the rest and stepped out of my bedroom, down the stairs, out the front door and onto the street. Show me the dance floor.