I used to think the guy who owned the baseball card store was Chinese. Only now do I second-guess it. Now I wonder if maybe he was Korean.
I never asked him.
He was tall, hair slicked in a side-parting with thick glasses. He wore pale blue or white button down shirtsleeves. Around his considerable girth stretched a gun belt, and attached hung a holster of pale leather. The gun was always polished, shining. Not foreboding gun-metal, but instead almost silver; nickel-plated perhaps. He had two guns: an automatic, possibly a .45, and a short-barreled .357 Magnum revolver. He only wore one at a time. I don't know how he decided, each morning, which to wear. Which to arm himself with for the day.
I remember asking if they were real. His answer was curt, impatient.
'Yes, they're real.'
And then he went back to whatever he was doing.
I would stand in fear and fascination, curious as to the hidden violence within the collector trade. I remember his most expensive card at the time was Babe Ruth, valued at $5000. I can't remember what year it was. I wondered if he'd shoot someone over a $5000 baseball card.
It never occurred to me that the cards had nothing to do with the guns.
I wore stonewashed jeans and a denim jacket, high-tops (pre-Jordan) and my 'Sweet Sixteen for the Green Machine' 1986 NBA Championship t-shirt. I fought my first pimples. I tried in vain to make my hair 80's, though it curled too naturally and refused attempts to tame it. I would go on my first date that Spring.
I was young and jumped off the 'T' a stop early to go look for cards to add to my collection. Canseco, Boggs, Clemens, Bonds, Jackson, they were prizes to be hoarded. Sometimes I even chewed the gum. That was a mistake. I pestered the poor guy for hours, and when I got a choice card out of a pack he'd look up and, for a split-second, seem less than bored.
I don't even know if he liked baseball.
I loved baseball. Wade Boggs was my hero at the time: my generation's great Red Sox hitter. I had his rookie card - a 1983 Topps. I probably still have it somewhere. The guy gave me one of those less-than-bored looks when I pulled it out of a six-year-old pack I'd just bought from him.
After the card shop, trying in vain to chew the awful gum, I'd cross the street to Jack's Joke Shop. The baseball card shop was just the baseball card shop, but the joke shop was Jack's. I don't know if there really was a Jack, but there were guys behind the counter whose boredom lessened with the knowledge that whatever my friends and I bought in there would get us into trouble.
Sometimes lots of trouble.
I bought cigarette loads.
My mother smoked and I loathed it. Loathed the smell, loathed the notes she gave me to show the guy at the drug store, telling him to give me two packs of her brand (Merit Ultra Light 100s), even though I was only 10, 11 or 12. Loathed how angry she got if I complained about it.
I used to hide them. Sometimes I'd simply destroy a pack or two. It enraged her. She probably smoked more because of it. In the constant wars between a parent and a child on the verge of their teens, my mother's cigarettes played the role of hostage, battlefield and ammunition all at once.
Cigarette loads were my form of escalation. They were about quarter the length of a matchstick and half the width, sharpened at both ends. With great care, you inserted them deep into the tobacco of the target. When it caught light, it would explode. With a loud fucking bang. It would echo through the apartment followed immediately by my mother shrieking my name and a litany of profanities. I would hide in my room, laughing and petrified, hoping that when it all blew over I could see the tattered remains of the booby-trapped cig. They split from the end in all directions, just like a cartoon. Sometimes I was in the room when it happened.
I had to run fast those times.
My mother got very good at spotting tampered cigarettes.
I got even better at tampering with them, leaving no trace.
The loads came in five-packs. I would only use two or three per pack of Merits. I tried to space them, make sure there weren't two together. Occasionally it would be the very first and very last cigarettes in the pack. Those were the best, the most unexpected, the most likely to enrage. Especially if the last blew after the drug store closed for the night.
The explosions petrified my mother's pet lovebird. This was an added bonus. The cat didn't like them either, but then the cat didn't like much.
I never apologised. I never capitulated. I knew, in a strange way, that what I was doing was right. I still believe that. My mother knew it too. Aside from ruining the enjoyment of her vice, that's what pissed her off so much. That what I was doing was, in a gleefully mischievous way, the right thing to do.
It never made her quit. That came later, and without explosives.
And I started. Four or five years later, I started smoking. Marlboro Lights. I don't really analyse it too much, but to note the chasm between me at 12 and me at 16. It coincided with starting to drink on a regular basis. I preferred drinking to smoking. The latter always left a twist of pitted guilt in my stomach. Moments and mornings of reflection, waking in a stinging haze and not wanting to taste my mouth. Feeling my lungs and wanting new ones. Hangovers felt like life had been temporarily removed, dripping in both physical pain and some manner of spiritual remorse. Showers and clean clothes didn't help, the miasma clung and lingered and before long I sparked my first of the day.
I'm pretty sure I'd started smoking when I found out Wade Boggs was playing for the Yankees.
I don't think I was meant to smoke. I think those memories of delicately sabotaging my mother's cigarettes lay too deep in my mind to shake. The echoes of our shouting matches shuddered too long in my head.
So I quit. I run and keep in decent shape. I feel healthier. The hangovers aren't quite as painful.
And I don't really care too much anymore that Boggs went to the Yankees for a few years.
I miss sabotaging the cigarettes. I miss the joke shop. I still wonder about those guns, and whether he'd shoot me over a $5,000 baseball card.
I kind of think he would.