This is the final chapter of my book The Great Hamster Land-Speed Record and Other Tales. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! Watch for my next book …
March 5, 1976 – a day that will live in infamy. The day of the Great 18th Birthday Party.
Despite the opinions you may have formed about me in reading these stories, I was basically a good kid. My folks trusted me to do the right thing, and more often than not – statistics support me here – I rewarded their trust by my good behavior.
But not on my 18th birthday. No, THAT day was fated to be remembered as D-Day, the JFK assassination and The Day The Music Died all rolled into one massive, ugly, soul-destroying mess.
I had always had the usual kid birthday parties – cake, silly hats, those things you blow into and they unroll and make rude noises – that kind of party. It was always just family and a few friends, never exceeding a total attendance of a dozen or so. Presents were given and accepted, maybe a game or two was played, but that was about it.
I wanted something special for the 18th year of my existence on this Earth.
Planning began sometime back in 1975, and immediately there were some disappointments: permits for fireworks displays were almost impossible to procure, I wasn’t old enough to get a firearms license and it turned out that indoor Peruvian midget mud wrestling was an illegal practice in my town.
Good thing I started my planning early.
My father and my sister Susie had passed away five years previously, leaving my mother and two brothers, David and Mickey. Inquiries into their schedules on the party day revealed that Mom and David were flying to Michigan to visit relatives, leaving only Mickey to guard the hallowed halls of the Bonifonte mansion.
Big mistake. BIG mistake.
Mickey made it clear early on that he would be locking himself in his room and, short of an atomic explosion, not coming out for the duration. Great. That he would BREAK that promise just because he heard a few screams and explosions and … well, let’s let the story develop naturally, shall we? No use giving away the juicy parts so early.
Celebrating my 18th birthday had become a quest for me: I wanted it to be the biggest, most memorable party the City of Yonkers ever experienced. I wanted all my friends there, from school and from the neighborhood. Here I should mention that I had lost contact with many of my neighborhood friends, either through their moving away or simply by their going to a different school. It’s amazing what those 7-hours-a-day / 5-day-a-week schedules will do to friendships. I found myself hanging out much more with my school chums than with my life-long buddies from the ‘hood. Go figure.
So I made the list of invitees, and it was a big one. I recall passing the 50 mark half-way through the list-making process, and around that point the little angel on my right shoulder whispered in my ear, “That’s more than enough, Philip – you can’t fit any more into the house!”.
Of course, the little devil on my left shoulder piped up, “Aw, the hell with logistics! C’mon, Phil – you’re only turning 18 once!”
My devil has an enviable winning streak.
Invitations to the Birthday Party
Sixty-five invitations went out either by mail or in person. I wanted to achieve a balance of friends, such that all interest groups would be represented and thus could interact, hopefully produce a few sparks and liven up the party.
The interest groups basically divided up into rockers, stoners, disco freaks, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, future girlfriends, football team members, martial arts sparring partners, fellow magicians, neighborhood chums and strangers that happened to wander in off the street. Of course there were some cross-overs – Charly, for example, was a rocker, a stoner and a neighborhood pal; Mario was a stoner, a disco dancer and a football player.
Since 18 was also the legal age of drinking I had plans to make alcohol a big part of the party. True, I had already been hanging out in bars and taverns for a few years before this momentous occasion, but I did that only because I looked older than I was and they didn’t ask for ID. If I was going to be shopping for the first time in a real liquor store I would need to be able to supply my bonafides, although that hadn’t been a problem for the previous 2 years.
I had been budgeting for The Great Event for the better part of a year, and as a result I had several hundred dollars earmarked for beer and liquor. The list ended up looking like this:
* Two (2) full kegs beer
* Taps, ice and hardware for above
* Five (5) bottles each: Rum (dark and light), vodka, tequila, Scotch (several brands), gin (two brands), bourbon (two brands)
* Mixers: orange juice, Triple Sec, Kahlua, tonic water, cranberry juice, Coke, sweet and sour mix, milk
* Bar: I had converted my childhood science lab-bench into a bar (I know, I know – blasphemy!); as a result we had an 8′-long bar with cabinets that accommodated the two kegs. I had installed a small sink as well, tapping off the laundry sink by running flex plastic lines across the ceiling. Dad’s plumbing training had finally come in handy!
I had everything set up in our spacious basement a week before the actual party – I wanted to leave time for modifications and additions. Shown below is the basic set-up – keep in mind that our basement measured approx. 40′ x 40′, had a nice 7′ ceiling and several windows sprinkled around the perimeter, in addition to its own half-bath and two spacious closets, the one under the stairs having Dutch doors.
As you can also see, I had devoted several areas to specific pursuits: a magic-show area, a wrestling / boxing area, a slot-car racing track and of course, due to the basement’s unique lay-out, a roller-skating rink. Roller skating in the basement was a time-honored tradition at 245 Woodland Avenue: we used the old clamp-on style of skates, the ones you tightened onto your sneakers, and propelled ourselves around the basement at dizzying speeds by grabbing the posts, stair handrails, tables and whatever or whomever came within reach and pulling / pushing ourselves with all our strength.
Add a lot of teenagers, loud music, alcohol and a little weed and you can imagine the spectacle.
The Setup Continues
As the days counted down I added a killer sound system, utilizing the four floor-standing speakers David had given to me when he upgraded his system. Each speaker was fully capable of pumping out the combined live performances of The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and the brass section of Chicago, so four of them placed at strategic locations in the basement ensured we wouldn’t be going without music – sweet, sweet, ear-shattering music. The fact that they were designed to stand on the floor didn’t phase me one bit – I proceeded to suspend them from the ceiling with ropes and chains.
I still had a few of my lab animals – fish tanks, hamsters, chameleon, etc. – and they were in their cages and tanks eagerly anticipating the big event. Dad’s old shop had a big OFF LIMITS !!! DANGER !!! DO NOT ENTER !!! sign on the door to dissuade casual trespassers, the half-bathroom next to the shop had plenty of toilet paper and towels and first-aid supplies, and the closets had been cleaned out.
I had even washed and waxed the hard linoleum floor until it shined, cleaned the windows of their accumulated spider webs and generally slaved like a dog every spare moment I had. I like to think that my guests appreciated it.
And appreciate it they did. Party day, March 5th, dawned bright and early, and I was up taking care of last-minute preparations and running a few errands, like getting extra toilet paper and a back-up supply of munchies. Those munchies included just about every type of chip, pretzel, mini hot dog and cookie imaginable, along with all of their associated dips. I had previously stocked our kitchen with enough sandwich meats, hamburger meat, hot dogs, cheeses and boxes of pasta to feed an army, on the odd chance that someone would NOT want to partake of the supply-train of pizzas that would be arriving throughout the evening.
There was also my room to be prepared on the second floor, but that wasn’t as much of a chore as it wasn’t shared space like the basement; it was my domain and mine alone, and had morphed into a true reflection of my interests and personalities over the years.
Here’s the basic layout and some of the highlights …
The bed was a queen-sized 4-poster that I had built out of 2×4’s upon which I had hung black material in a juvenile attempt to mimic a Medieval bed. I was heavily into playing self-taught keyboards, so I had several – an electric piano, an organ and few synthesizers – set up in a U-shape. Two desks for school and personal writing, a set of shelves with all my finished models on them, a large TV and stereo set-up finished the essentials. Books, of course, filled in every available nook and cranny; since this was 1976 PC (pre-computers) there was of course no Internet, so books were the reigning tools of information.
The party’s official start-time was 4pm, but as with all soon-to-be-legendary events people were arriving several hours ahead of time, some offering to help with the preparations but most of them just wanting to get first dibs on the booze. I told them firmly that the bar was not opening until 4pm, and they consoled themselves with Cokes and tokes.
It was now high noon, the sun nicely warming up the day and the sky a beautiful shade of periwinkle blue.
Disaster lay only four hours away.
The early arrivals made their birthday wishes and offered the King his due, then ambled off to find either food or drink and something to occupy their time and remove their boredom. Small groups of two and three began to form, wandering around the basement, peering at the critters, trying their hand at slot cars and starting impromptu card games (for money, of course). I had gone up to my master suite to relax a bit with my gal-pal before the official start of the festivities, so that when I returned to the basement at 3pm I had a glow from several sources evident on my face. My more in-the-know friends jabbed me playfully in the ribs and gave surreptitious thumbs-up signs, and I, being the grinning fool I was at that point, just thumbed back.
At 3:15pm I figured what the hell and opened the bar. The Great Gold Rush had nothing on the press of bodies that surrounded my makeshift bar, and for half an hour I played guest bartender, pouring light portions in hopes of keeping my guests sober long enough to at least get to the cake-cutting ceremony.
Food consumption ran pretty much as expected: the snacks and chips and dips were the kick-off, followed by the more serious munchers beginning a concerted attack upon the mini hot-dogs and the “start-up” pizzas. At this point there were, at a quick count, 20 guests. A few had wandered up to the main floor of the house which was off-limits to unescorted guests. This brought Mickey’s head into view at the top of the stairs, issuing a warning about strangers invading his domain. I gave the obligatory speech to my friends about keeping their butts on the bottom level, there was general agreement and life went on.
Life Goes On
The slot-car racing was the first activity to show the effects of drinking and driving. I’d be talking with someone over near the outside entrance and one of my prized HO-scale slot cars would go sailing past me, the victim of too much acceleration and not enough braking after the first long straight run. Following would be laughs and entreaties to “Do it again!”, said requests being quickly squelched by myself and my more sober guests. The fact that George, my golden hamster, was happily running around the track wasn’t as alarming, as he had become used to that particular activity over the last few months.
The roller-skating started up, and let me tell you this: if you’re ever bored and your house seems too quiet, invite a couple of buzzed, hyperactive teenagers into your basement and give them all roller-skates. I had 4 pairs of the old-fashioned clamp-on skates, the kind you put on over your sneakers, and they were quickly grabbed by four of my adventurous and death-wish-holding friends. A few guests, in response to my invitations, had brought their own skates and were busy putting them on and joining the roller derby.
That’s what it turned into. It started off as a pleasant, polite, slow-speed skate-stroll around the basement, pausing to have a drink or a bite of pizza. The skaters were careful not to run into any pedestrians or crash into any walls.
That changed after approximately 10 minutes. It was the age-old story of battle: someone pushed someone else, somebody bragged that they were in the lead and that no one could catch them.
The skaters began speeding up, grabbing the support columns and whipping themselves into ever-increasing velocities. One skater slipped and fell; another rammed full-tilt into the wood-paneled wall, leaving a cartoonish outline of their body in the wood. My one magician friend was setting up his props in the Magic Show area, which unfortunately wasn’t protected from invasion by manic eight-wheeled monsters. An out-of-control skater made a beeline for the stage and, in the ensuing carnage, 13 doves and 2 rabbits achieved their freedom.
A few of my more hyperactive guests started up an impromptu boxing and wrestling match in the designated area, an area which was unfortunately directly in the path of the speed-skaters. They worked out the timing so that after every 2 punches or 1 grapple, they would leap back to allow the relentless flow of skaters to pass by. This made for some interesting martial techniques, but everyone was still in a good mood so it worked out pretty well.
One of our more amorous couples discovered the big, dark closet with the Dutch doors that was situated beneath the stairs and claimed it as their own, steaming up the cedar linings with their passions and at one point winning the evening’s “Best Accident So Far” award by leaning against the Dutch doors while making out, not knowing that only the bottom half was bolted shut, thus swinging the top half into the path of one of the rapidly-moving skaters and catching him square in the face. It’s hard to believe that people can be laid out horizontally like in the cartoons, but I’m here to say that it is indeed possible.
I had a few Scotch-and-waters to stave off my impending headache, grabbed a slice of pizza and tried to calm things down a bit by playing DJ, figuring that if I played one of the more symphonic concept albums popular at the time – Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd – it would soothe all those savage breasts. I spun up Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and sat back, expecting to see a gradual shift toward normalcy in the crowd.
What I saw was my more stonerish friends sitting down on the floor, their eyes glazing over with the phantasmagorical trip they were embarking on.
Unfortunately, it was a trip that was grounded in reality, and that reality was situated directly in the path of the skaters.
Before the first song was over the body count was horrendous. Skaters had first attempted to circumvent this newest obstacle, only to crash helter-skelter into the slot-car table or the big portable closet-on-wheels tucked into the south-east corner. Stoners with wheels tracks on their faces stumbled into the bathroom seeking medical attention, while the skaters, being of somewhat hardier stock, brushed themselves off, applied tourniquets where needed and continued on their grim way.
Mickey’s head once again appeared at the top of the stairs, opened its mouth, took one look around, shook itself and withdrew back into the relative sanity of the main floor.
6pm. 43 bodies present and somewhat accounted for. Several guests had found their way through the forbidden main floor and on up to my room, a fact I had discovered when I was heading up there myself with my gal-pal for a brief refresher. Three bodies were sprawled out on my bed watching some sit-com; several were crowded around my keyboards busily producing weird sounds from my synthesizers, and two were reenacting World War II with my fleet of model planes, tanks and ships.
I tried the “good host” approach and silently picked the half-full glasses and ashtrays off the bed, placing them on the nightstands where they belonged. I turned the Master Volume controls down on the synths and I begged the war-gamers to exercise care in their handling of my models, as I had spent untold hours of work in their creation.
Everyone was cool.
Back to the basement. My gal-pal took a detour into the kitchen and submitted to the call of her Italian heritage, starting up a huge pot of spaghetti.
I made a quick check of the basement activities: magic show going okay, skaters taking a breather, boxing and wrestling going slow but steady, slot-car racers racing. It seemed very quiet, the lull before the storm. I had a sudden flash of insight and walked outside to check the driveway and yard.
Bad. Never pay attention to your insights.
A dozen or so guests were lounging on my Triumph TR-6, a British sports car that was my one true baby. I shooed them off and guided them back into the basement where the nosy neighbor wouldn’t see or hear them. I knew Mrs. Williams, our next-door neighbor, was in my Mom’s employ as a spy, and even as I finished herding the errant car-sitters back into Club Phillipe I could see Mrs. Williams peering out from between the slats of her Venetian blinds. I decided to make another policing run of the outside property line, and it’s a good thing that I did. I found several inebriated guests attempting to climb the sheer rock wall that formed the front of our property and which was directly exposed to street traffic, so that passing motorists could gaze in wonder at the stumbling, vomiting teens trying their best to scale Mount Bonifonte.
I gathered the flock together and gently pushed them back into the confines of what was rapidly becoming a subterranean Hell. 53 guests I counted at this point, one of the kegs had already kicked, the pizza was all gone, necessitating the first of many delivery calls to Guido’s Pizza, and a few bodies were comatose in the various nooks and crannies of the basement.
I thrashed my way back upstairs to check on my gal-pal, who had assigned herself kitchen duties for the night – guys, whenever possible, get an Italian girlfriend! The aromas were enticing several of the guests to lounge around the kitchen in hopes of being tossed a meatball or two, and even Mickey had come out of his monk cell to inhale the heady scent.
We sat down and finished off the first of what would prove to be several dinners. I gorged myself on spaghetti, meatballs, and tomato sauce, as did everyone else, but refrained from asking for seconds. I knew I had miles to go before I slept.
Screams in the Basement
A few screams issued from the basement, so I figured it was time to play host again. Someone had removed Andy (Andy the Anole) from his terrarium and was terrorizing some of the girls with him, placing him unannounced on their shoulders or on top of their heads. Poor Andy didn’t know what was going on and only wanted a few mealworms, as would any sane chameleon in a world of insanity. I managed to save him and place him back in his house, sending one of my guests up to the kitchen refrigerator to get some mealworms for Andy’s dinner.
I should have sent a more sober guest, because half an hour later I happened to pass Andy as he was sitting on top of a large meatball. To give credit where it’s due he seemed to be enjoying himself, although he did have a rather puzzled look on his face.
The boxers were boxing, the wrestlers wrestling and another magic show going full tilt. There were one or two desultory roller skaters slowly making their way through the crowd, but their hearts were clearly not in it. The music was blasting now, someone having appointed themselves as DJ. Good. It would cover the screams and the overly-loud laughter and hopefully buy some time before Mrs. Williams called the cops.
A rough count at this time showed 67 guests, only half of whom I recognized. Not too shoddy.
TR-6 – Destroyed
I suddenly started feeling a bit queasy, so I slipped outside for some air. After a few lungfuls I felt better, but still didn’t quite have my sea-legs, so I sat down in my prize Triumph TR-6, the periwinkle blue one with the faux fur carpeting and seat covers.
Yeah, I pimped my Brit ride.
The waves of nausea started deep in my belly and rapidly made their way up to my throat. I couldn’t move, couldn’t get out of the car in time.
I barfed in my baby.
Luckily no one was close enough to notice. I grabbed a rag from the console and tried to hide the evidence of my inebriation as best I could.
Back to the party, feeling better now. I heard the table saw going in the shop and jogged over to see what was going on.
Calvin was cutting up all the 2×12 boards my father had stored in the shop. Dad had been saving them for shelving but had passed away without ever realizing the completion of that project. They had just been sitting there for the intervening 6 years.
And now they were being cut into little pieces.
I quickly threw the switch on the table saw and growled at Cal to get the hell out of the shop. He grinned a goofy grin and ambled out. I followed, locking the door from the inside. I’d figure out how to gain entry in the morning.
7:30pm. The party is getting its second wind. The impromptu baseball game in the backyard is winding down. Bodies are continuing to accumulate in the dark corners of the house. Mickey pokes his head through the door again, quickly withdraws it. My gal-pal informs me that supper is once again ready. A few of us go upstairs to sample more of her spaghetti and meatballs – delicious as usual. I wolf down two platefuls and go up to my room to check things out there.
There’s a bigger party going on here than downstairs! Unfortunately, Mickey’s room is directly below the Western half of my room, so he’s being subjected to more loud music, thumps, falls and crashes, whining synthesizers and various and sundry screams. I manage to get control of the situation, quieting everyone down to a dull roar, and head back downstairs.
74 guests – the high point of the evening. I got this number by adding the 12 in my room, the 8 in the kitchen, 5 in the living room, 6 in the backyard, 12 scattered around the outside of the house in various places and, in the Grand Subterranean Ballroom, 31 souls. Not a bad distribution.
I engaged in a few slot-car battles and had a drink. Tried my hand at roller-skating and had a toke. Fought a few bouts in the boxing ring and had another drink. Watched a magic show and kept yelling out “IT’S UP HIS SLEEVE!”. Had another drink, this time at the bar, and I would swear I watched Andy the Anole running the obstacle course of bottles and glasses on the bar-top as Rufus the hamster chased him. Everyone else seemed cool about it, so I didn’t raise a ruckus, and anyway Andy and Rufus seemed to be having fun.
I made out with my gal-pal in my brother David’s room (sorry, Dave) then once again checked on my own room. People had crashed all around the room and were watching some weird cartoon on TV. I decided to crash there for a while and, shoving a few bodies aside, claimed a spot on my bed.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
10pm. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was on the TV. Her face was going in and out of focus and spinning around. I started dry-heaving, trying to get out of the bed and into the bathroom. My “friends” were laughing their heads off and imitating my spasms.
I finally made it to the bathroom just in time to fall to my knees and make an offering to the Porcelain God. Sweating and trembling, I became aware of Mickey standing next to me.
A lone voice spoke – “Today’s he’s a man!”
Mickey said “Yeah” with that sarcastic tone the Bonifonte’s are famous for, and promptly informed everyone the party was over.
Mom and David got back from Michigan a day later, when my hangover had almost disappeared. I had worked out a deal with Mickey not to rat on me, and I would be busy the next several months cleaning his room and doing his laundry.
My friends were still talking about the party, how epic it was and wondering when the next one would be.
Everything was copacetic except for Mrs. Williams. I KNEW she’d blow it. When she got into one of her usual driveway conversations with my Mom she spilled the beans, telling her about the bodies laying on the front wall and the loud music and people wandering all over our property, about the cars parked all the way down the street and the various disrobed people she had glimpsed from between the slats of her Venetian blinds.
When questioned by Mom I maintained that it was just a quiet little party with a few friends.