Fourth Street Positively –

By the summer of 1968, smoking marijuana with my friends had become a tired ritual. Each hot and empty night followed the previous one in an endless cycle of semi-suburban tedium. First, my fifteen year old girlfriends and I would gather on the corner of Darlington and Flagstaff in our Pine Valleyneighborhood. Then we’d  wait for one of the older boys to drive up in his father’s Dodge Valiant or Chevy Malibu after scoring a couple of nickel bags from the local dealer in the parking lot of the Thriftway Super Market. We’d pile into his car and he’d chauffeur us to the house of whomever’s parents either weren’t home or were so clueless that they would barely shift their gaze from the hypnotic light flickering from the television set in the center of the living room as the five or more of us dull eyed teenagers made our way past them to their child’s bedroom or their finished basement.
That sweltering July night we ended up at Steve’s family’s apartment. That at least was a little break from the tired routine. Steve’s family lived in an apartment building, unlike the rest of us whose families inhabited small split level boxes with red roofs, white aluminum siding and black shutters. Evergreen Towers was the only luxury apartment in Northeast Philadelphia in the 1960’s and just entering the elegant building and smiling innocently at the security guard at the night desk added a tinge of daring to our otherwise predictable escapade.
At sixteen, Steve was the youngest of three. His siblings were both grown men in their late twenties and his parents were considerably older than most of ours. They were also richer, or at least appeared to be by their lavish life style and expensive furniture. Steve was a bit indulged too – he had two cars at his disposal – a brand new Chevy Impala and a vintage green MG convertible.  He had his own room at the end of a long hallway and that was where we gathered to smoke pot and listen to music on Steve’s brand new and top of the line stereo player.
I was fifteen at the time and crazy in love with Steve’s best friend Dock. I had been in love with him for almost two years and during that time my love had become somewhat of an obsession. I thought about him day in and day out. How he felt about me was always a mystery to me. He came in and out of my life at will and would go from confiding his deepest secrets and desires in me to ignoring me for weeks on end.  And while I was more than a little happy to see him sitting on Steve’s bed, propped up against the wall and rolling a joint, I was also wary.
I never really enjoyed being high. I was the kind of person who was always worried about getting caught. So I was totally paranoid all of the time. Being high also exaggerated all of my feelings of self consciousness and I spent a good part of the time that I was high worried about how I looked, how I was sitting, how my voice sounded whether I was sitting too close to someone, whether I was making a stupid face. All of this worrying took an awful lot of work. I tried mightily not to be noticed — not to look stupid – not to laugh at the wrong time, not the say the wrong thing. Looking back,  it was more like torture than pleasure.  Just what a totally insecure adolescent self conscious girl  needed – a drug to increase her self consciousness. 
I was just getting to the part of my high where I was almost comfortable with myself  — the part where I could feel safe enough to go sit alone in a corner on the floor and indulge in my favorite marijuana induced activity – imagining that I was on a very slow moving and erotic ferris wheel. Just when I was settling in a pleasing rhythm, Steve’s voice jolted me to attention.
He was standing above his stereo with a record in his hand. “You’ve got to hear this,” he said. “It will blow your mind.”
         
          By the time the first song had finished playing, the night had changed – it was no longer just another night in a string of meaningless nights – This was the night when I heard Bob Dylan for the first time. And what a great person to listen to when you are high.  “No body feeeeeeeeeeeels any pain” was the first line I heard sung by a plaintive voice which drew out the syllables and teased and tantalized the listener, bringing me to the brink of release.
“Marsha,”  I thought I heard Dock say through the haze.
“Yo Marsh,” he said again , because I guess I was too paranoid to acknowledge him the first time just in case he hadn’t been talking to me.
“I want you to listen closely to this next song. It reminds me of you,” he said in the prolonged silence between songs.
His words had put all of my senses on alert. I leaned forward and felt my blood begin to pulsate through my veins as a cascade of electric sound poured out of Steve’s stereo.  
The first words of the song grabbed me by the throat.
Yoooooooou’ve got a lot of neeeeeeerve to say you are my frieeeeeeeeeeeend.
When I was doooooooown you just stood there griiiiiiiining.
Yooooo’ve got a lot of neeeeerve to say you’ve got a  helping haaaandto lend
You just waaaaant to be on the side that’s wiiiiiiiiiiiiniing.
The rest of the song slammed me into the wall repeatedly until by the final verse all I could do was sit numbly and dumbly accepting the final blow.
I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
Yooooou’d know what a draaaaaaaaag it is to seeeeeeee yooooooooooou
By the time the electric tidal wave of sound retreated I was devastated. To this day, I can hardly hear this song without feeling the acute meanness of the words and the sadistic glee with which they were sung. Someone else may have been the target of Dylan’s wrath and disdain, but Dock had harnessed it for himself and redirected it at me  — barrels blazing. 
Maybe even at that time, there was a part of me that knew I didn’t deserve this attack. Maybe, a tiny voice inside my head was trying to tell me that this had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him and how he felt about himself. All I had been guilty of after all was loving him far more that I ever should have and believing in him when he hadn’t believed in himself. Once during one of our telephone conversations that would sometimes last all night long, he told me that he wanted to be a lawyer one day. The next day,  I searched the Yellow Pages for a trophy store that I could get to by bus and with forty of the seventy-five dollars I had earned for a whole summer as a camp counselor, I bought him a custom made name plate for his future legal desk. It read “Alan Dockler, Esquire.”  
            I can’t remember what he said after I gave it to him or even if he said anything. I can’t even guess what he thought about my incredibly naive gift or if he was thinking about all that when he told me to listen to that song.. What I do remember is that when I finally got up the nerve to look at him after the song had ended, he wasn’t looking at me at all. Instead, he was sitting in the same position, staring straight ahead with an empty look in his eyes.
That night, I had no way of knowing that the boredom would soon give way to increasingly dangerous behavior and by next summer – the summer of 69 — the summer of Woodstock and peace and love, these middle class white boys would already be addicted to heroin. Nor could I know that I would soon stop getting high altogether but I wouldn’t stop accompanying Steve and Dock and their friends as they scored and shot scag in the same bedrooms and basements where we had once smoked pot.
In the psycho jargon of today, I became an enabler. By the time they picked up the needle, I had forsaken the joint. Someone had to remain alert as they drifted into their ecstatic oblivion. Someone had to hide the burnt spoons and throw away the bloody balls of cotton. And someone had to be there when Dock outstretched his arms to me. 
Despite his disdain for me, or perhaps because of it, my love for Dock was a constant that he could rely on for years. Things would change: national leaders would be assassinated, men would walk on the moon, his father would get fired from his job, his grandmother would die, he would get thrown out of high school, he would discover heroin and his best friend Steve would die of an overdose and we’d go to his funeral instead of Woodstock.  I’d go to college, discover the women’s movement, have my consciousness raised and one day in a righteous rage, send him a letter with the lyrics to Positively Fourth Street addressed directly to him.
            I wish this is where the story ends. I wish I could tell you that I sent this essay to the New York Times and it was published in the “Modern Love” section and that Dock read the essay, emailed me, arranged to meet, and we shared our life stories, embraced and forgave ourselves for hurting ourselves and each other in the past.
            I wish that is what happened. But it’s not. After I finished writing this, I decided to “google” Alan Dockler. I hadn’t done that in a really long time. The last time I had looked him up, I learned that he was married and living in Florida.  This time I typed his name into the search engine and found the MySpace page of a young man who called himself DJ Dockler. And in a tiny line in the space marked “heroes” was written R.I.P.  Alan Docker 12-28-51 – 10/7/02.
            He had died four years before and I hadn’t known. His surviving son’s name was Steven.
            Sometimes life just ends that way like this story – with no closure, only questions and regrets for missed opportunities.  And a burning need to know more. 

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  1. Summer of '69, Atlantic City, Texas and Pacific Aves. Beat up old Victorian home, missing the top step of the tall staircase into the house, third floor, crummy apartment, gorgeous surfer dude, Marty King, whom I met because he was surfing just outside the boardwalk arcade where I worked selling popcorn and slush. He said, "Listen to this. It's the best album ever recorded," and played the 9-minute, "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" from "Blonde on Blonde."I closed my eyes to listen and my musical life changed forever as I learned what it felt like to be transformed by poetic lyrics with mesmerizing melody. Marty didn't talk much but we stayed up all night, that night and many to follow, culminating each with a 5AM trip to the AC Doughnut Shop to eat what they would bring out each day to get rid of when the fresh ones were ready. I would go home and sleep 'til 11 when I'd hit the beach before reporting to work at 4. Marty never seemed to sleep. It wasn't until a year later that I found out he was speeding daily that summer. I was just high on life, lust and music. Surfer dude is long gone. Dylan has stayed with me.

  2. I loved reading this piece, Marsha! I remember the first time I heard Dylan too and the major impact it made on me. My late Sixties weren't quite as extreme as yours, but enough to want to write about them some day too. Your style and openness definitely brought it all back home and made me want to read more!

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