I first met Mani A. a few months after my father died when I was fifteen. He appeared from around a blind corner where Wong-Su restaurant and Teddy’s Tavern meet like a knife’s edge. He was a restless, sinewy, no-nonsense blond wearing his older-brother’s-hand-me-downs. I apologized and excused myself immediately, but he roared to life like a freshly started chainsaw and lunged at me with a ferocious diatribe about a blokes right-of-way and his unalienable rights, to which I chimed in, “But you are an alien!” He paused, his idling mind wafting the blue smoke of burning oil, when suddenly he hit the throttle baring his teeth and chortled that he wasn’t a bloody martian, see, so piss off with the alien bullocks; crikey, he has the right to use public property as a thoroughfare without being gobsmacked by some daft wanker! until, I think, he heard himself running-on about some kind of whack job hyper-speech at which time he slowed, eventually landing softly on a patch of green grass. I sat next to Mani A. who opened up like a teenagers compact, and divulged his personal life in Peckham, England (just outside of London), which, by the way he described it, was a tortuous place; a hometown without a home, a chilling place that nobody admitted coming from, everybody just shows up one day, street-smart and dodgy, showed up-growed up because nobody ever had a childhood. You were either born a teen-ager or plain old smeg. Nobody was ever just a kid; and nobody ever saw a kid. We were around the same age and dreamt of similar things, but whereas I knew mine were silly fantasies, Mani A. was certain that whatever he wanted he could have. No kidding. Without the slightest doubt or reservation, whatever Mani A. wanted, Mani A. could get. Period. Mani A. had balls. Whether Peckham beat them into him or he developed that confidence on his own, the strength of his conviction, no matter the degree of unlikelihood, you had to think, hey, it just might happen. I’ve never met anyone in my entire life that expressed the depth of fortitude that Mani A. did. I said my life must seem like a cartoon compared to yours: I was two-steps west of being white trash, and while our home lives seemed oddly similar, I never learned how to survive; I just wait. For what, he asked leaning his elbow onto the grass. For anything. Anything besides this shit hole I can’t get myself out from. At which Mani A. leapt to his feet, extended his hand and said, come on mate, I’ll show you the dog’s dinner that’ll make your life now look like a wee bit of the hard lines. Your going to get a crash course in Peckham Survival Know-How. First, you learn about being borne: In Peckham you didn’t cut your teeth; you growled and snapped! We learn to bite before there’s anything to bite. Being ahead, that’s tickety-boo; getting ahead never happens, especially in Peckham. And so started six months of juvenile delinquency including assault (knife-school-teacher), battery (brother), truancy, and one stern lecture from a juvenile judge away from living in a home for dangerous boys.
It wasn’t until Mani A. left town did I get my head screwed back on tight. I toed the line, straightened out school, became popular, played sports each season, acted, sang, even led student government. Counselor’s referred to me as the idyllic example of reform. But in the back of my head I could still hear Mani and all the things he said and showed and prompted me to do. Being “ways” by choice, not by reaction. Mani didn’t show me how to live, Mani showed me how to survive. Mani and I have maintained our friendship for over forty years. One of the things I admired about Mani was his bond of friendship. Or should I say degree of bond of friendship. Whenever he helped take care of something cagey, I’d ask him why he’d get involved? His answer has always been the same: friendship. He said all other relationships have their own bloody baggage and demands and expectations, and ways to screw you in the end. But friends are simply friends. Easy, like looking in the mirror. I see a wee bit of my bloody self in you.
Mani continued to visit at irregular intervals, all of which were concurrent with troubling, impossible, or unavoidable circumstances. For example, he swung into town when my junior year in high school devolved into adolescent chaos: ducking senior hazing, sidestepping discussions highlighting my grim blue-collared, unionized, married and fatherly fate; derailing any parochial collision between varsity lettermen and my shadowy shine for Mitchell, an underclassman; and my obesity targeted by jeering and loathsome bullies. He arrived shortly after Stokowski and I went to Union Drop Forge hoping to snag summer work which leads to full time after graduation. Our bus drove through the “Blue Mile,” a one mile corridor of heavy, eye-reddening, cough-inducing, toxin-saturated manufacturing exhaust. We nicknamed that part of town the “Blue Mile” because of that solar eclipsing blue haze belched from fifty-foot smoke stacks every minute of every day. I took my application home where it still remains blank. I wanted my future to be unexpected. To be a lifetime removed from the cadence of the dead-end-man: a union job, a wife, a stuffy upper flat, kids we can’t afford, dependence on two incomes, kids dumped with objecting in-laws, hate and regret pitched at the other, and some place my hope tumbled out of my greasy coveralls pocket while reaching for my lighter which I never missed until I reached for it, right after she left with the kids flanked by her objectionable parents. That tableau was the only life option offered to kids like me. It was expected, and you were expected to follow the guy ahead of you. But I dreamt of the unexpected, the unpredictable chaos of life beyond the “Blue Mile.” College required good grades, but demanded money. The costs were way beyond my family’s reach; so far afield that going to college became a family gag. And then, when my avenues and alleyways around the tuition hurdle went bust Mani stopped by on his way back to Peckham. His first words were, You look like a sorry sod, chum! causing me to expunge my year of hopelessness and depression. He waited until I stopped crying before he said, Sometimes you’ve got to be bonkers, your mates marching to a paycheck will call you a mug, but remember life is horses for courses! And you’ve got to be bold! You’ve got to be; because being bold and senseless and relentless are the only way out. Back in Peckham if you’re pegged a nesh or are sussed acting naff the rest of life in Peckham is going to be piss poor. You and your chums go about blagging tough, and sometimes it goes fist-to-cuffs. In Peckham it ain’t about violence because violence there is like your factory here. In Peckham it’s about surviving life, about tomorrow.
In 2008 Mani broke all the rules. Rather than subtle clues that he’s a stones throw away, he decided that my end game was near, so he ruptured my barrier of sanity, perforated my character, elbowed out reality, and declared autonomy. Mani was finally emancipated; freed from the crushing compliance of decency and propriety, he ignored laws, took chilling risks, discovered a steady stream of opiates which he washed down with lethal liters of alcohol, ignored vows, ruined friendships, tossed out of jobs, denied benefits, and finally barricaded himself in the office of a psychiatrist who eventually evicted him, and reinstated my authority over the dominion of my life.
I’ve never faulted Mani for his insurgency. He was simply providing the bravado to traverse the craggy cliffs of life, and of which I was ill-prepared to navigate. But as Mani A. learned, freedom from consequence isn’t freedom at all. It’s destruction, it’s disregard, it’s vengeful and dangerous and hateful and lethal But Mani did have a knack for getting the job done which he introduced, tutored, and polished in me, providing the backbone for a career. I think that’s how he survived: Mani and I got hired by gentlemen to take care of things quietly and cleanly. Not that we ever broke the law, but we definitely broke the rules. Mani recited many adages over the years, but the single-most poignant he shared with me was: You can’t quit; every bloody cry-baby “says” they want “it,” but quit the second they’ve got to act like a chancer. There are just two times you can quit: when you take the biscuit or hop the twig.