The End of Summer
By Brian T. Murphy
Photos by Brian Murphy, Jonathan Marder/Karim Vasquez, Anonymous
OK Soda. Everything is going to be OK.
To this day I receive no quarter when I fondly reminisce about OK Soda, a product marketed back in 1993 by the Coca-Cola company. The can, dressed in purposefully dreary gray, depicted cartoon faces of young adults that appeared bored, weary. Allegedly, one of the cartoonists modeled a face after Charles Manson.
OK Soda was meant to be the mascot of Generation X and mounted a daring anti-marketing, marketing campaign. When you watch the original commercials there was a clear post-modern directive designed to target a group of kids who were fed up with being told how to behave, and rebelled through an assortment of punk and grunge music, purposefully oversized clothing, experimentation with drugs, and an ingrown laissez-faire attitude. OK Soda advertised itself as being unremarkable. Its campaign was pioneering, and destined to fail. The aim was to tap into the disillusionment of Generation X by under-selling its own product. This may have been why I took such a liking to it.
My dad instilled in me a philosophy that persists to this day. Contrary to the world where performative exceptionalism was the currency of not only a successful career, but of defining yourself to your peers, I was taught that one must fight this societal pressure and instead lower expectations of yourself. A responsible parent might think, well, that’s just terrible advice. If not applied with a manipulative precision, it’s likely psychologically self-poisonous. Though critics are not entirely wrong, they miss the simple brilliance of this ethos. Think about it. When expectations are set low, any ordinary act that is performed, to the observer, seems remarkable. This attitude has advanced me to the highest stages of academia over two decades.
So maybe I related to OK Soda because I sought comfort in its narrative. It under-promised deliverables. It tried not to garner attention. It sought refuge in a generation of MTV-watching youth, who were simultaneously lost and leading each other around. It had no earthly idea what it was doing or who it was supposed to be.
OK Soda was released only to select test markets in the summer of 1993. It landed into a fitting cultural backdrop: the FBI raid on David Koresh’s Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas; the unexpected death of Boston Celtic Reggie Lewis; the release of Jurassic Park; Monica Seles stabbed by a Steffi Graf fan at a tennis match in Germany; Michael Jordan’s first retirement; and the release of Nirvana’s hit album In Utero, just months before Kurt Kobain would kill himself. Among this chaos, protected on all sides by water – the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Boston Harbor to the west – was a one square mile town, a suburban pseudo-fishing village named Winthrop. Just a ten minute drive to downtown Boston, this was a part of only two east coast regions selected as test markets for OK Soda.
Life in Winthrop was OK.
I sometimes wonder whether Winthrop’s geographic isolation is an unintended branch point in an otherwise sensible evolutionary tree, a point where most of our species went right, and we broke left. As kids, it took only a few group outings to other schools in our division to notice that our town was different, home to an uncomfortably high concentration of cinema quality characters. Look at a map. There is no passing through Winthrop. Despite proximity to the city, its isolation is striking. It is a critical dead end in the northeast, the plot of land that jettisons into the North Atlantic Ocean, curls around to form Boston Harbor, and protects the city from the punishment of winter storms that blow unrelentingly from an angry, deep grey eastern horizon. Our town’s birthright was to take hits for the greater good.
Winthropites were a cab driver’s nemesis. Our mere presence forced upon them the indignity of making a journey to drop us home after a night of getting hammered in Faneuil. They would resentfully chauffeur us under the harbor, through the Callahan Tunnel, to where they were certain to meet a passenger desert in our town. They hated us, feared us even. We often had to lie to the cabbie just to be granted access to the inside cabin, as they often refused to unlock their doors until we told them our destination. Many a drunken shouting match about our basic rights as humans occurred in those cabs. You couldn’t blame them though, as there was a significant toll waiting for them upon their return via the Sumner Tunnel, charged only to the nearly 17,500 inhabitants in our town. Locals called this “the Winthrop tax.” I suspect this was a single ingredient of many, from a formula long since pulled from the production line, that made people from our town what we are. We had to fight for everything, even the right to go home.
After the Catholic school that I attended went under, I joined the Winthrop Public School system in the third grade. This was a traumatizing change for me. Catholic school was ordered. It was cruel as hell, but it was ordered. Show up to school on time. Wear a uniform. Look like everyone else. Think like everyone else. Love God. Smile. Talk out of turn, get physically beaten by a nun. Repeat. The day I transitioned to the Arthur W. Dalrymple public school in Winthrop, I knew I was entering the wild west. There I met a group of friends who were willing to assist me with my transition from regiment to raucous, and I would adhere to this group for many years. It was at the Dalrymple School that I met Jonathan Seth Marder.
Marder was an oddball, so I took a liking to him right away. He was a fearless samaritan, a worshiper of pranks, and a kid who seemed to have two left feet. His voice was somehow both deep and scratchy. He moved slow. He knew exactly how people wanted to be treated, and he was the Jose Canseco of making others feel comfortable (at the time Jose Canseco was a legend home run hitter and base stealer for the Oakland Athletics, achieving an astounding 40 homeruns and 40 stolen bases in a single season, and he was one of our favorite baseball players). I don’t necessarily think Marder always intended to seek adventure. I just think he was a kid who simply found solace in the successful execution of a plan.
Marder (left) and me with dueling Bart Simpson t-shirts.
Marder always had some kind of a hobby or scheme, and in those days, I often followed along, terrified. After fifth grade we spent an entire summer on bikes, riding the streets of Winthrop to see who could collect the most chrome caps from car tires. It was no contest. He exploited his status as a minor to out-scam Columbia House and BMG during their “8 CDs for a penny” campaign and built a renowned collection of music. He pioneered expeditions into Boston’s North End so we could purchase illegal fireworks from mid-level Italian thugs outside the Old North Church, from which hung the two lanterns that signaled Paul Revere to embark on his famed midnight ride. He started and ended my career in betting as I waged, and lost, $20 on the Buffalo Bills in each of their four consecutive Super Bowl losses between 1990 and 1993. He was the nicest kid I knew.
Marder was the reason I was able to skip school on Jewish holidays. He was Jewish and I was confident that knowing a Jew afforded me the right to miss school and celebrate. He was there when I took the first drag of a cigarette, the first time I experimented with alcohol in sixth grade, and the first time I put a can of spray paint to a wall in seventh grade. When we were younger we were caught ripping pages out of Playboy and stuffing them into our pockets at Barnes & Noble. We frequented John’s Dugout looking for the best deal in baseball and basketball cards from which we could use to gamble with other friends at hopes of depriving them of their Shaquille O’Neal rookie cards. We briefly dabbled in comics, and by the end of 1994 we started a legendary career routinely breaking into the Boston Garden to watch the Bruins and Celtics play. In this pursuit, we amassed an autograph collection that is worthy of private exhibition, as we hunted athletes down as they made the journey from hotel to locker room, and often back again.
Marder had a knack for putting himself in the wrong place at the right time and cashing in on it. His instinct allowed him to transcend probability. He was a true escape artist, a breed that due to rapid technological advances and accessibility of information, is no longer possible to engineer. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this friendship would ultimately provide me a foundation from which my future self would stand.
Shortly after its release, OK Soda was discontinued.
Between 1994 and 1995, our freshman year in high school, OK Soda was pulled from the shelves after a dismal performance in test markets. A strong case can be made that it was a poor idea for Coca-Cola to micro-target a small, disgruntled group of adolescents with no money, whose core principle was their distrust for the mainstream. This likely played a role, though I would be remiss to mention the second reason that is often discussed in the same breath as its demise: its taste.
OK Soda shared striking parallels to what kids referred to at the time as a “suicide.” A suicide is only possible at a self-service soda fountain, and is realized when the customer fills their cup with equal portions of every soda on the assembly line: Coke, Sprite, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper, Root Beer, Pepsi, Orange soda, even Grape if it’s available. The resulting mixture was a deep brown cocktail, incidentally, the same color as OK soda.
I was drawn to its awkward taste. To this day I have a soft spot for liquids that touch the palate as gauche. Fernet. Malort. The brine of fermented vegetables. Thinking back, I was typically the more experimentally averse of my friend group (i.e., chicken-shit), and in a deeply veiled manner this may have been my attempt to be the interesting one for a change. Because around Marder, I was seldom the interesting one.
The infamous Green Day concert at the Hatch Shell.
The anticipation that spread through mid-90s suburban youth was palpable when Green Day announced a spontaneous free concert at the Esplanade, the outdoor venue commonly known as “The Hatch Shell” off the Charles River in Boston. Among the musicians that provided an outlet to hordes of teenagers yearning for understanding, this band produced a masterpiece album, one that materialized our feeling of displacement and ambivalence, one that we played start to finish. The album was Dookie.
Marder and I were brothers in arms as freshmen on the JV soccer team at Winthrop High School. It was the Fall of 1994. My coaches had yet to realize my stardom and so I was relegated to play with the JV squad on a field of rock and grass, which partly overlapped with the shortstop’s dirt territory of our school’s baseball diamond. Onlookers sat on consecutive one-foot-high four-foot-long slabs of cement, linked clumsily together, that barricaded the length of the field from a ten car parking lot.
(Left) I delicately observe a soccer ball at an away match in Lynn, while Marder slowly jogs to my assistance. (Right) The JV soccer field in Winthrop shared a home with our high school team's baseball diamond.
The concert was sponsored by local radio station WFNX. Marder and a few other guys from the team were set to go to the show and as usual, he was intent on making sure I experienced this. Truth be told, I was scared. You see, free concerts at the Hatch Shell aren’t like your typical experience at a stadium. Having to pay for a ticket is usually the mechanism by which a show safeguards its wealthier, more mature patrons from the unbridled incivility that gripped Boston’s surrounding neighborhoods in the mid-90s. But when Green Day announced a last minute free concert in the heart of Boston, this was an invitation to any miscreant that lay within striking distance by train. These are the neighborhoods and suburbs to which outsiders harbor little understanding when they brazenly claim they have “been to” or “lived in” Boston. Saugus, Revere, Jamaica Plain, Summerville, Dorchester, Southie, Eastie, Lynn, Chelsea, and yes, Winthrop. Many of these neighborhoods have since been gentrified, casting their low/middle-income inhabitants farther away from the city, from opportunity. Today some bear no resemblance to that past life of fighting street to street, the code that bound them and the price that was demanded of its children who were often left to roam free.
Our JV game came to an end. I’m pretty certain we didn’t win, though this match was the birth of a legend that our opponents would come to know as “The Gipper”, an upperclassman who had no real interest in soccer and was seemingly playing on the team as a form of community service. Gipper wasn’t interested in scoring, playing defense, or adhering to regulations. No. He was there, in shaven head, running full speed in every direction all the time in order to foment havoc. The following year Gipper quit the team and we shaved the head of one of our other teammates and called him “Gipper” in an attempt to psychologically dismantle our opponents in warm-ups, though this instantly backfired when the game began and the player operated soundly within the confine of the rules.
I, along with Marder and the boys gathered midfield after the game to discuss plans to venture into Boston to see the show. My sister, who was a Junior at the time and quite popular, caught word that I was planning to go and ratted me out to my grandparents, who watched every game from the parking lot. I was promptly jailed from seeing my first live show and Marder further solidified his status as an explorer by venturing into what was by all accounts the next day, a legendary concert that is still heralded by locals more than two decades later.
Green Day didn’t even finish their set. A crowd of over 50,000 youth overcame authorities and took down barriers meant to prevent them from rushing the stage, which some did. Snapple sponsored the event and handed out samples of their product before the show. Bostonians loved Green Day so much that we hurled glass Snapple bottles at the stage by the dozens mid-set. As I grew older and gained experiences in other parts of the country, it became clear to me that violence and disorder was not a true expression of love, as it regularly was for us when we expelled tea into the Harbor, or the night the Red Sox won their first World Series after an 86-year drought. Revolution, and thus violence, is in our blood. More than 60 people were arrested after the show as fans spilled into downtown Boston to riot. A man who worked the show was later interviewed to describe his experience at the concert: “There’s a calculus textbook and somebody’s prosthetic limb lying on the grass in front of the stage…and we’re like, that was awesome.” A fan interviewed during the show noted “I have no motivation [Longview] is the best song, you know it sums it up for all of us.”
Local television station WBZ brought in a middle-aged pop culture analyst to interpret the actions of what they depicted as an alien culture, and to describe a band that spoke on behalf of this species. She fashioned a black blouse and blazer, and was put together with makeup and dangling earrings. “This is what I can tell you. They have been called punk rock’s hyperactive problem children…The hallmark of this group is that they like to act up on stage, and they’re given to sort of crude antics like spitting and throwing stuff around.” This glaring disconnect was the perfect distillation of an older generation trying desperately to understand their own offspring, whose morale was in the process of being cauterized with ten years of punk and grunge anthems.
When the dust settled, Marder was set free to bond with upper classmen in seas of sweat and liberation, while I went home to play Rummy 500 with my grandmother Mabel. He returned with tales of human carnage – bodies being forced onto giant blankets, as tens of burly, shirtless punk fans pulled hard to extend the blanket to its limit, hurling the human carcass 20 feet in the air without regard for direction or a safe landing pad.
Marder experienced crowd surfing, mosh pits, and comradery. And as usual, he was tasked with teaching all of it to me afterward. This was the norm in our relationship, the continuation of a pattern that began in third grade as a series of life lessons of how to survive as a kid swept up in a current that tried desperately to pull away from suburban life. You can’t see the forces that carry you, that shape your character. But one day you jump in a river because your friends are there and you need to see what it’s like, and when you exit, those forces have moved you and them to a different place.
The quest for a source of OK Soda.
Heading toward the end of our freshman year in the Spring of 1995, Coca-Cola abandoned the sale of OK Soda. This posed a problem for me. OK Soda was my handle, it was one of the few quirks other than pints of Goldschlager and Peppermint Schnapps that distinguished a funny but otherwise unremarkable kid from his peers. Of course, I didn’t think that deeply about it at the time, as I’m certain no one, not even Marder, noticed. But summertime as an adolescent was home to a freedom that most of us will never again experience. This freedom allowed me to search for the soda across a vast city landscape.
Enduring summer just outside of a major city in 1995 was different. As kids, we didn’t have access to Google maps, YouTube, or Yelp. We had to work for information. Phonebooks. Maps. We heavily relied on word of mouth. Most of all, the only way to see what a neighborhood was all about was to navigate our way there and experience it for ourselves, blindly. One of the staples that bound my friendship with Marder was our daily trips into Boston. We had been doing this since middle school. We would get dropped off at the Orient Heights station on the Blue line in East Boston. This was our home base. From there, we would explore a different area of Boston with each passing summer day. The Galleria Mall. Faneuil Hall. Harvard Square. Fenway. But of all the destinations, Newbury Street was one of our most frequented.
Newbury Street was a posh area of Boston, lined with hotels and boutiques, and was clearly constructed later in the city’s history. It boasted a remedial grid layout that was a response to adjacent areas whose nonsensical collection of one-way roads dated back to times when revolutionaries roamed the streets in search of a tavern and an ear. This stretch was home to our medicine man, our soul food, the very fuel that gave us reason to wake up every morning and give the world another try – Newberry Comics.
It was here that Marder and I would spend hours taking shelter from the city’s offensive humidity. Newbury Comics, an off-color music shop whose employees dressed as if they were roadies for Alice in Chains, was crammed with counter-culture paraphernalia and stood as a response to the spotless, all-American music shop Sam Goody, who stored all CDs in theft-proof cases, sold albums for nearly $20 each, and whose employees were prisoners condemned to serve in shopping malls from coast to coast.
After we fantasized about what posters would go up on our walls – when we owned walls – we would browse through thousands of plastic CD cases, organized meticulously by artist. Thinking back I can still smell the must of flannel and unwashed floor, and hear the sound of plastic stacking atop one another, my middle finger toggling cases toward me as if desperately skimming pages of a book. I showcased my humor as I rapped every Beastie Boys song, channeled anger with each Metallica guitar solo, discovered a darker side of myself with Tool’s Undertow, and found vulnerability in Pearl Jam’s words of love and loss. Marder preferred the raw melodies of Soundgarden and Nirvana. At the time neither of us would have viewed it this way. But in reality the store was merely an entry point, and music was part of that current.
Importantly, early that summer I made a discovery that would demand my continuous return to Newbury Street. After spending hours browsing CDs, we would be desperate for cheap food and drink. By happenstance, we stumbled upon a nearby pizza parlor, just five minutes away. In the back of this parlor was a soda machine, and at the very bottom was a button that was lacking a proper label. To the best of my knowledge, which extended to copious back alley neighborhoods of Boston, this was the last known location that sold OK Soda, probably in the world. At this moment in time, OK Soda was no longer found in stores. This machine had been stocked at a time when the soda shined with potential, a time when it had yet to break its promises. Now, here it lay, abandoned, forgotten in a place that already separately sold soda from a fountain, and for reasons that at the time smelled of destiny, was tucked in a refrigerated machine hidden in the back of this obscure pizza parlor, just waiting.
I had a personal supply of OK Soda. Everything was exactly where it was supposed to be. We were knocking on the door of adulthood, yet still free from responsibility, free to explore the music that defined us, free to act as we pleased without the constraint of boundaries that we hardly acknowledged. In the years and months before these trips to Newbury Street, Marder taught me to relinquish these when we went through arguably the most bizarre phases of our adolescence: autograph collecting.
Autograph collecting and the Gilligan’s Island hat.
Just after our Freshman year in high school I could confidently say that I met nearly half of the players in NBA and NHL. For reasons that are not clear to me to this day, a few autograph hunting veterans at Winthrop High took me under their wing and blew my worldview open to a life moonlighting as a sports superfan who broke into the Boston Garden at will, both to watch games and stalk players as they left the locker room, hiding out in a mostly abandoned, dimly lit Garden long after the game ended.
Maybe it was because I was funny and good company, or maybe I was simply one of the few kids who had absolutely no curfew, bedtime, and was free to disappear from my home for amber alert windows of time. How else could I have explored empty Garden locker rooms after players cleared out, or tracked the Charlotte Hornets bus to chase Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning to a New Hampshire airfield at 2 AM on a school night? Realistically, it was that level of freedom that made me among the only candidates for this specific companionship.
There was no other venue like the Boston Garden. This is not hyperbole, I speak those words from deep within my core. A venue like that – which actually prided itself on putting seats directly behind two-foot wide steel support beams, and whose balcony actually hung low enough to block the view of the seats below it, will never be designed again, should never be designed again. It should never have been designed in the first place. But that stadium personified Bostonians as a whole, a group of mostly working class n-generation immigrants whose collective philosophy was instilled in all of its children, as it was in our building, “just fucking deal with it.”
This was the view from lower level seats in the Boston Garden, your view blocked by those sitting above you in the cheaper seats.
For once, I learned the ropes before Marder. I had the unique experience of showing him how things operated, like how to wait for a noisy train to arrive to force open an unlabeled, black iron door on Causeway Street just across from North Station, a door behind which a long, inclined and winding ramp led directly into the lodge level of the Garden where we could lose ourselves amongst the passing crowd heading toward their seats. Or the two other weak-link gateways that were our points of entry in an otherwise formidable suit of armor. Of course, it didn’t take Marder long to study our beautiful creation and do what he did best: brazenly manufacture opportunity. And it wasn’t long after he joined the team that he was leading us, victoriously, in an ongoing cat and mouse series with Garden security. We were the reason they sealed the seldom used exit near the commuter rail, the reason they shifted guard duty to cover the long ramp (which still didn’t stop us since we figured out that if we teamed up with a parallel group of autograph collectors from East Boston and all rushed up the ramp at once, they could only catch one of us), and finally the reason they installed an actual alarm on the Garden doors. That was us.
We would rummage around a lifeless, dark Garden after games under the simple principle that if you hid long enough, the people who worked there would leave. First the fans, then the vendors, then eventually most of the security. All that was left was players, a locker room, one or two security personnel, who depending on the night, we were able to bribe, and a long walk across the concrete Garden tunnels to the team bus. Here is where we shook down select stars, being careful not to blow our cover for second tier players. For instance, I was willing to be busted to shakedown John Starks or Patrick Ewing, but not quite for Charles Oakley or Anthony Mason, and certainly not for Hubert Davis. On select few occasions we were lucky to hang around long enough, undetected, to roam an eerily empty Garden by ourselves.
But the Garden was only Part-One of an elaborate operation. The real art of autograph collecting, which even the “Eastie” kids weren’t willing to commit themselves to, happened where players were most vulnerable, at their hotels. There was a shortlist of hotels under which professional teams stayed in the 1990s: the Marriott Copley, the adjacent Westin, the Sheraton, and occasionally the Marriott Long Wharf. Figuring out which one housed each visiting team was a delicate task. It required a phone call to this shortlist that went something like this, in what I envisioned at the time to be a deep adult voice:
Me: Hello, yes, can you please connect me to the room of [insert most obscure player on the team, for example, Vinny Del Negro of the San Antonio Spurs]?
Hotel receptionist: “Sure one moment…”.
Me: [immediately hang up]
Good friends step to the plate when you need them. David Robinson, The Admiral, was my favorite basketball player. Like my grandfather, he was in the Navy. He is one of the few players in NBA history to record a quadruple double, and nearly achieved a quintuple double. He was born on August 6, 1965. I thought about him every day. Also, I must mention an equally important part of our autograph team - "Rim" - who was with us through it all, and is worthy of tales told in his honor. So who took this photo when I was meeting my hero at this pinnacle moment of adolescence? Honestly, I don't remember. But it was either Marder or Rim, and these photos are merely two in a stack spanning at least 30 professional sports teams. The significance: they were taking the picture (left) instead of trying to get Robinson's autograph. And a little icing on the cake: they snapped one of me posing with Spurs point guard Vinny Del Negro, or as we called at the time, "Vinny Del White Guy."
Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Mario Lemieux. These men would never stay under their real names. The shittiest player on the team however, needed not a clever alias. While their more talented teammates were mobbed with fans, they could walk uninterrupted to any destination they chose. They had no reason to mask their identity. And this is why Marder, always a step ahead, was a genius. I was cowardly. I hung up the phone before the receptionist could connect me. Not Marder. That kid stayed on the phone. Every time. He sensed this dynamic that played out through the season, John Paxton’s girlfriend pestering him as to when she could be introduced to Michael Jordan, or Dwayne Schintzius constantly having to field questions from his kids about the locker room habits of Reggie Miller. These men would slowly internalize a wall of resentment over the course of the season. Weeks, maybe even years of resentment.
Marder knew this, and he made any third string shooting guard feel like an emperor. I recall times where he had up to five minute phone conversations with players. Think about that from the player’s perspective. Years of being ignored, and then you get a call in your Boston hotel room from a kid asking if you would meet him at the hotel for an autograph before you boarded the team bus. The flattery. Who in that circumstance could say no? And every call ended with Marder saying the same thing: “…look for me, I’ll be the kid in the Gilligan’s Island hat.”
Marder was like the slogan for the company BASF. He didn’t make a lot of the products you buy. He made a lot of the products you buy, better. And you might be wondering, why would he put all that effort in to get the autograph of a shitty player, when our mantra was to only burn your position for stars? It was because as always, he was thinking bigger than us. When the conversation went the right way, he went for the grail: “…thank you so much Mr. Schintzius, oh, also, do you think I could get your sneakers after the game?”
That’s right. Jonathan Marder amassed a collection of game-used, professional basketball sneakers, most signed by the player himself, who remembered to carry them back to the kid in the Gilligan’s Island hat at the hotel after playing in front of a crowd of nearly 15,000 people. Marder actually gave me a signed pair of shoes out of pity once because he knew I never had the courage or skills to get it for myself. My best NBA relics were a crumpled up play drawn by Pat Riley on a piece of blue construction paper and Xavier McDaniel’s wristband. He was getting autographed, game-used sneakers. The kid was a true savant.
Now to the hat. You’re probably thinking that he simply picked the weirdest hat so that he would be recognizable to the player. Maybe. He had a knack for weird and clever. But he also really loved Gilligan’s Island. It used to run several episodes in a row on
These are the the autographed sneakers Marder gave me. I don't remember who the player was. I don't even remember the team. I just remember an incredibly kind gesture. Foul ball hit by Oakland A's catcher Scott Hemond for scale.
a local TV station, so when we would be deciding our fate each summer morning, or more often than not, waiting for his mother to return home from grocery shopping so we could pillage his cabinets for the Hershey’s Symphony bar that she always purchased, we would kill time with back-to-back reruns of that show, watching Gilligan botch escape attempts off the island, every time, one misadventure after the next. Marder was the real life Gilligan, only he managed to get off the island every time, often with autographed sneakers.
Midway through the summer of ’95 I realized this just might be the last source of OK Soda on the planet.
Autograph season was long over and we had shifted focus back to our Newbury Comics and pizza parlor runs. We never were able to integrate ourselves into autograph season in the summer for baseball, as Fenway Park was one of the few targets that we were unable to crack. The security was impenetrable and despite many attempts, we were unable to find a single chink in the armor. And those days, we could sneak into anything. Marder snuck me into a Star Trek convention when I was in the prime of my Next Generation days. He didn’t even watch the show, but he couldn’t resist a challenge and the opportunity to do something nice for a friend.
At this point in summer, we had settled into somewhat of a comfortable routine, part of which was lunchtime at the pizza joint with my favorite beverage. It was like returning to the slot machine knowing that you’ll get a winner on your first pull. When I approached the machine, which at the time hovered a few feet over me, I could feel the low-frequency hum of the refrigeration unit. The routine was simple. Insert 75 cents and press the button. Then a few second delay after the button is pressed. Silence. Then, from this silence arose three consecutive mechanical squeals, followed by the tumbling of a heavy aluminum can ricocheting carelessly off walls – dud-dud…dud-dud…thud – down the shoot to lay at rest in the shin-height metal tray.
Before the midsummer turning point, my pursuit of OK Soda was somewhat of a game. The summer moved on past the late stages of July. By then, Boston’s humidity is suffocating. It drags your body behind its shadow. Maybe it was the heat, or maybe I was growing skeptical of the comfort in our routine, but approaching the machine became more serious. The ritual had lost its sense of permanence. I carried with me a subtle nervousness that I laughed off at the time, but deep down I knew that one day things would change. One day luck would run out.
You’re forced to grow up in high school. Marder and I, we grew apart.
1995 marked the final season of the Boston Garden. Fans across Boston mourned it like it was a dying relative, and in some ways, it was. Years later I look back at my time growing up in Boston and realize that the Garden was the temple that housed our very culture. Just like your first Sox game was an equally important benchmark as your First Communion, the first time you stepped foot in that Garden, you were baptized. You felt the rumbling of a chorus of boozed up, working class Bostonians springing to their feet in angst, howling murder at the referee. It was a frenzy of nonsensical complaining, delicately balanced by an immediate, counter-reactive collective expression of calm. That dichotomy, which I realized over the years is specific to persons from the northeast, still centers me to this very day. It provides me with comfort, with a sense of home, and is among the most difficult traits to explain to someone who isn’t from there. How you can yell at your friend, call him an asshole, and move on with life seconds later, laughing with one another as if the exchange never happened. The Bruins and Celtics played their last games in the Garden, followed by the final Bean Pot. Marder and I were there for all of it, what locals called “The Last Hurrah.” They tore the Garden down three years later, just before we graduated high school.
There was never a falling out, never a fight, and certainly no dramatic parting of ways. Marder and I simply grew apart. By the Fall of 1995, my time was dedicated to playing sports, and with that came a separate group of friends. Marder left the soccer team after our freshman year and joined the drama club, also accessorizing himself with a non-overlapping social circle. I washed ashore and stumbled from one raging current into an entirely different set of forces that would govern the next phase of my life. My friend remained in the water.
Friendships work themselves out in funny ways. I practically lived at his house in the summertime, ate his food, and spend nearly every waking summer moment with him for almost six years. His family – the most perfect mother a son could want, a quietly funny father, a younger brother who was often the victim of his loving pranks, and a brilliant sister – welcomed me into a warm, picturesque home environment. And then one day you wake up and it’s just over. No more calls to make plans, no more adventures into town to chase the next sports team, no more days adrift in a city that molded us with forces that were entirely out of our control. We entered high school and were compartmentalized into separate units. At the time, those units just made sense. They were engineered into the very structure of high school. I was sports, he was art. And our paths seemed decided. Past an occasional laugh about old times as we passed in the hallway, our story had seemingly come to an end.
About seven years later I found myself on the phone with Marder. I was in Blacksburg, Virginia at the time studying to be a chemist. I had found a large part of my identity, and shed the shyness that restrained me in my early years in Winthrop, still unaware that I was talking to one of its core liberators.
Hearing his voice was comforting. He sounded like the same kid I remembered, the same person I shared a large part of my adolescence with, the one I looked up to and who taught me to be brave, to be bold. His voice was a vehicle for my memories – how he made me laugh so differently by doing weird shit that allowed me to experience humor from a different angle. How he was always willing to push the boundaries of comfort and to take risks, and was generous enough to drag me with him. How he provided me with refuge from a broken home. We sometimes require a storm of retrospect to realize the extent to which someone may have shaped our lives. Those qualities within that you were certain were self-realized, were actually planted there long ago by someone who wore a fucking Gilligan’s Island hat. Hearing his voice was comforting.
He praised me for leaving Winthrop to pursue something I was passionate about. His voice over the phone that day is implanted in my memory. It was genuinely caring. But that was Marder. He was delicate. He was daring. He actually gave a damn. And he talked to me that day because he wanted me to know it.
We talked of a future where the two of us would rekindle our friendship. We would meet up the next time I was home, stay in frequent contact. But as life progresses, it gets more complicated. Well, truthfully, we complicate it. My plans with Marder never quite materialized. A year later I was working in lab when I got a phone call. It was my buddy Tim. “You know Jonathan Marder died, right?” Marder died of an overdose. He was 26 years old.
“No. No, I didn’t.”
The machine was empty. It was the end of summer.
It was a sweltering day at the end of summer after our first full year of high school. The sun dominated the Boston sky as Marder and I hitched a ride to the train. Per our usual routine, we took the blue line from Orient Heights into Government Center, then switched to the green line to Copley, the stop that housed Newbury Street. We exited the station adjacent to the Marriot where we stalked hundreds of professional athletes. We forged through the heat past the boutiques, in and out of shops whose goods we had no intention of buying. We browsed through hundreds of plastic CD cases at Newberry Comics, as we always did. As I debated the merits of Check Your Head versus Ill Communication, he foraged through a collection of Nirvana EPs. We moved to get a slice and a soda, because that’s what we did. Everything was exactly where it was supposed to be.
I approached the machine, parted with my 75 cent offering and pressed the rectangular button, the foggy lens of which held a piece of white torn paper that read “OK Soda.” Their slogan was “Everything is going to be OK.” I waited the obligatory three seconds for the machine to free the prize that I traveled afar for, and to which I had grown accustomed. A small, circular light glowed red next to the haze of the button.
We would enter our Sophomore year of high school in a few weeks, and that would mark the period where Marder and I grew apart. As we left downtown and took the train home together, I had no idea what lay ahead for us. Neither of us did. But we assumed things would be ok. It was a day, just like every other day we spent together. But I suppose that’s what the precipice of change feels like, that stretch of pavement just before the fork in the road that will never rejoin. It’s monotony. It’s unremarkable, but so important. And it’s incredibly temporary.