Seventeen-year-old boys are idiots. If you’ve never known one, take my word for it. I spent my Junior year of high school in a class full of them.
It wasn’t merely a question of IQ, though – our Chemistry class had more than its fair share of Super-Brains. Many of them received scholarships to the college of their choice without even trying, most of them were perpetually on the High Honor roll and they all were amongst the sharpest knives in the drawer.
But they were all still idiots.
Take for example The Great Transit of Uranus.
Gotta Have It
By 1975, I had achieved the somewhat dubious distinction of always being the first kid in the class to have the newest toy, whether it be a car or a calculator or a TV. For the car bit I had purchased my first car, a Triumph TR-6, a British 2-seater convertible sports car in a dashing deep-blue color. It had a wood dash, REAL wood so that alone gave the illusion that the car had cost far more than what I had actually paid for it. The fact that mechanically it was in questionable – even dangerous – shape didn’t matter – it looked good, sounded good and was sexy.
Same with the time I bought a Texas Instruments scientific calculator, a TI-10 or something like that. It had an LED readout and did square roots, statistics, and other exotic analytical functions. That might not seem terribly impressive now, but back in 1976, it was enough to make boys swoon and girls drop their drawers. That I never used half the functions didn’t matter – again, it was a hot commodity and helped cement my rep as a cutting-edge kinda’ guy.
In my bedroom at home sat a new 27” color Panasonic TV, hooked up to my high-end stereo system so I could blast episodes of Monty Python throughout the neighborhood. My friends were always amazed and intrigued when they visited my room, and I think a lot of them invited themselves over just to see my latest acquisitions.
The Watch of Uranus
But it was the watch that really did me in, really caught up to me and whacked me hard on the back of the head. The watch put me in my place, embarrassed me to no end and set me on the road to questioning the wisdom of being materialistic.
That watch would prove to be my very own albatross, hanging heavily around my neck at least 20 years before Flavor-Flav would make that fashionable. I would grow to hate that watch. It would become the object of the same joke repeated hundreds of times in as many venues, each time causing my face to redden and giving me a violent urge to flee.
All because of my idiot friends.
The watch. That bloody watch. That damned high-tech, solar-powered, first-of-its-kind, LED, gold-toned Uranus watch. To the world, it showed an indifferent blood-red face, as blank as a freshly-erased blackboard, but press the button and the current time and date would appear in magically-glowing LED alpha-numerics! It didn’t use those batteries that powered so many of the commoner’s watches, either – this precision timepiece was powered by the galaxy’s most powerful energy source – the Sun!
That you couldn’t SEE the time or date when you were OUT in the sun didn’t matter – it was still a watch to die for. I know I wanted to, many times.
It all started when I picked up the watch at a bargain price in one of those 42nd Street electronics stores, the stores that sold everything from cameras and televisions to ghetto blasters, pirated VHS tapes and cheap aluminum samurai swords. These stores were ubiquitous around Times Square in 1975, and as my subway ride into the city from Yonkers would always deposit me at the 42nd Street station it was inevitable that I would first window-shop and then muster the courage to actually walk in and buy something. I was earning an impressive amount of money at 17 years of age, teaching private martial arts lessons (I had been training for 5 years at this point), doing some tutoring and, best of all, hanging out with my Grandfather’s old friends in Little Italy.
The Little Italians
The “Little Italians”, as my friends crudely referred to them, were two generations behind me but had accepted me as one of their own ever since Pop – my paternal grandfather – had begun taking me with him on his rounds of the area. I would walk in with him, this little, wide-eyed, innocent 6-year-old, and these dark, scary and hairy men in expensive suits and smoking smelly cigars would tuck $5 and $10 bills in my shirt pockets. Whenever I went with Pop on one of these trips I was sure to make at least $100 – heady stuff for a 6-year-old, to be sure.
After Pop passed away in 1965 I lost touch with my goombahs until I once again began visiting the city, this time under my brother Mickey’s graces, sometime in 1968. This time it was more usual to clear closer to $200 per trip, and as the years went on and I began going to the city by myself around 1972 I was offered the chance to do little odd jobs for “The Boys” – cleaning the bathrooms in the social club, fetching slices of pizza from across the street and I guess just being the token teen, something they seemed to enjoy. They gave me my first drinks, they introduced me to authentic Italian traditions and they spoiled me rotten, always continuing with the ritual of paying me far more than was required for the little I did.
As a result of this treatment, by the time I was 17 I was fairly well-off financially, certainly more so than the majority of my classmates, but I hadn’t yet learned the art of saving all that money, so with a seventeen-year-old’s enthusiasm I went about buying myself toys. Records, videotapes, weed, buying lunch for my friends, you name it – if it had a price tag I would be eying it up.
So when I saw this amazing new watch in Sy’s Electronics Emporium and Bargain Store I was hooked – I had to have it. I thought about how jealous all the guys would be and how I could more easily impress Donna Salerno, the captain of the cheer-leading squad and the love of my juvenile life.
As it turned out, no. Not by a long shot. Why not?
Because the name of the watch was “Uranus”.
Yes, it was just a name, a name associated with a mysterious planet on the far edge of our galaxy, but also, to the seventeen-year-old mind, a complete, in-the-box, no-instructions-required dirty joke.
I had picked the watch up on a Saturday and couldn’t wait until Monday when I could show off my latest and greatest acquisition. When I pressed that button boys would want to be like me and girls would want to be with me, there was no doubt about that.
That February Monday morning burst forth cold and clear, with 20-degree temperatures predicted for the highs and with a strong sun shining down upon me, the Gifted Child of Saunders Trades and Technical High School. I strode up the stairs to homeroom, my sleeves artfully rolled up to mid-forearm so as to show off my wealth. I even found excuses to constantly raise my left arm up, ostensibly to brush back my hair or touch my Roy Clark sideburns but of course really to draw attention to my watch.
All went well on the trip down the hall to homeroom. Donna Salerno’s pupils dilated, a sure sign that I had captured her heart; Gwen became so excited she touched my arm, fueling my fantasies of a near-future menage-a-trois; George, Myro, Matt, all my homeroom fellows congratulated me and expressed the proper amount of fascination and envy. It was all going according to my Master Plan.
… until Tom Evans walked in.
We Chemistry boys all had our own distinct personalities, and although we blended well together, for the most part, we still retained those unique, quirky little personality traits that differentiated us. Myro was the brain, George was the studious.
When it came to Tom Evans, he was The Royal Court Jester. My piddling attempts at humor were as nothing compared to when Tom started up his exploits.
So it was just a matter of time until he strolled over to see why everyone was gathered in a huddle around Phil. He listened to the story, made the appropriate “oohs” and “aahs” when I pressed the magic button, and then with the comedic timing of a Groucho Marx he pointed out the name inscribed on the face of the watch, a name that all the others that day had either missed or purposely ignored. Just one word came out of Tom’s mouth.
Followed by a massive eruption of laughter, screams, and floor-rolling, eye-watering jocularity, all at my expense. Tom pulled himself back up from the floor, stood with his shock of golden hair all askew and, in the best tradition of stand-up comedians gave forth with a serious question, voiced in the most serious manner he could muster:
“What kind of watch is that, young man?”
With just the right amount of comedic timing, he answered his own question in what he thought was a decent imitation of my own voice.
“Uranus”. Pronounced, of course, “Yer Anus”.
Yet more peals of laughter, notebooks falling to the floor, kids smashing into laboratory apparatus in their failed attempts to remain upright. Mr. Ferraiola, our Chemistry teacher and Homeroom monitor, came in just then, saw the usual hijinks and just shook his head sadly.
I took my seat, face fully flushed and my right hand attempting to cover the face of the watch on my left wrist.
Lunchtime with Uranus
I managed to survive the rest of the morning, but then it was lunch time. A group of us headed down to Getty Square, a ten-minute walk, to grab some lunch. The group split up, some going to the hot dog stand, others heading to the pancake place.
Tom Evans decided, like me, to go to W. T. Grant’s Department Store. Grant’s had a wonderful old-fashioned lunch counter where you could get a burger, a BLT, a milkshake or just a cup of coffee while planning your shopping expedition through the store. Their food was better than most, and the ladies (they were all female) that ran the counter were motherly, sweet and helpful, the last people in the world you would want to piss off.
To Tom, they appeared more like lambs waiting to be led to the slaughter.
We ordered our burgers and Cokes, wolfed them down and, the morning’s embarrassment already forgotten, I offered to pay for both of us. I got to the cash register, presented the bill to the sweet lady who had served us and began to dig my money from my right-hand pants pocket. Until that moment I hadn’t noticed that Tom was standing uncomfortably close to me, and just as my right hand was sunk in the depths of my jeans he grabbed my left hand, shoved it toward the lady and asked her “Isn’t that a cool watch?!?”
I swore under my breath and tried to pull my left arm back, but Tom had the mechanical advantage on me and clamped down with an iron grip, keeping the watch in full view. I knew what was coming and I wished I were anywhere else then there at that moment.
“Yes, that’s certainly a beautiful watch! I’ve never seen one like that before. What brand is it?”
Time stopped. I was counting the microseconds along with Tom, waiting for that perfect moment to give the answer, the answer that I knew would get us ejected from the store and perhaps arrested.
It came. I couldn’t stop it. It was like a train running full-bore into a tanker truck stuck at the crossing. It was a massive wreck in the making and all I could do was watch.
The time had come. It was now or never.
Tom stumbled into the counter, knocking over a sugar bowl and a pepper shaker. The lady reeled back, not sure that she had heard what she thought she heard. I stood there melting from the heat generated by my face, cemented into place by fear and stupidity. An eternity passed.
Tom and I finally regained enough use of our bodies to bolt out the door and run all the way back to Saunders, hearing muffled screams from the W.T. Grant’s lunch counter all the way.
Seventeen-year-olds can be SUCH idiots.