He’d lost track but one day an old pal challenged him to count them up.
There were more than he remembered, and he felt a secret thrill as he tallied them up… but as the scribbled list grew, there were more and more question marks for last names, and more than a few forgotten first names, as well.
And as the list grew, so too did his increasing sense that there was something ultimately pathetic about the list. There were a lot of flings, of course, a handful of one night stands, a little cheatin’, a little slippin’ around…
But there were some relationships he really tried at… or at least that’s what he’d told himself at the time. But every time a love affair or relationship went down in flames, he consoled himself with the promise of adventure and new romance.
And after a while he began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t just adventure and romance that he was seeking. Maybe the hard work of building a relationship — as more than a couple of girls had phrased it — maybe that was just too much work.
Adventure, romance, sex… that was the easy part...
How many of us have the kind of memories we thought we’d have, growing up?
I remember the day I decided, once and for all, to find the malt shop. On bus trips and car trips through downtown, I’d kept my eyes peeled, convinced that I’d find that centerpiece of teen culture (that I saw on TV, in the movies, even in comics) among the other one-off exotica (a bookstore, a music store with sheet music, a fancy men’s store with elevators… the height of the urban sophistication in a county that had gone from farms and orange groves to suburban tracts almost overnight in the postwar boom… sure there was a single elevator far in a corner of the new Sears, there seemingly for the panic-stricken escalator-phobes who would freeze in panic in front of the then-new-fangled electric stairways).
Surely, there must be a malt shop full of bobby-soxed and pony-tailed teen girls with their pompadoured boyfriends.
I spent most of a day riding my bicycle up one urban street after another. There may have only been two business drags downtown in those days (still are, come to think of it) but there were a slug of side streets, at least five or six with fingers of business running off toward the old, 20’s and 30’s housing tracts that trailed off toward the eastern hills. I went up one, down the other, peering into every storefront.
Several times I thought I’d scored.
There was an old fashioned pharmacy with a short counter. Not a teenager in sight. I stuck my head in anyway to ask if they had malts. No, came the answer. But the pharmacist might remember how to make a cherry phosphate. It sounded like medicine to me, so I moved on.
There was an ice cream parlor… part of what would later become a massive chain. And they did have milkshakes. They also had a no loitering policy aimed squarely at the very teen scene I sought.
I never found that malt shop.
But I kept looking for it and other iconic cultural landmarks I thought were my birthright.
Even after I was deep in my teens and knew full well that I was chasing fantasies, I kept looking. Getting a car in that long ago era when gas was cheap (a car with virtually no backseat, frustrating yet another teen fantasy, but one with, for the era, great mileage) meant I could extend that search out over wider and wider geographic areas.
I found myself driving for… sorry my environmental brothers and sisters… the hell of it, often deep through the night, crossing counties, driving ever eastward into the hills, then through them into the inland empire that lay between and beyond our low coastal mountains.
Eventually I found myself late one evening in San Bernardino… San Berdoo as it was more often known. It was a Saturday night. By then I had long hair and looked like the other body surfers I hung out with… torn jeans, faded flannel shirt, hiking boots.
So when I pulled into a drive-in truck stop diner with sullen, beehive haired waitresses teetering out to rows of parked cars on red high heels, thick hose disappearing into particularly unsexy red shorts (with matching vests) I felt like I’d finally found the space and time warp that would take me to lost but not forgotten dreams of my youth.
And, yes, there were teens.
Pompadored dudes, complete with cigarette packs rolled in left sleeves of sharp white T’s and tight, pressed jeans, and pointed toe shoes. No lie.
The girls were… not the girls of my dreams. Instead of pony tails and poodle skirts they had thick masks of makeup, vampire eyes, and stiff, elaborate stacks of teased and ratted hair. When they’d get out of their boyfriend’s lowered Chevies, it became apparent that few of them would soon be recruited as runway models. Too many malts, was my guess.
But I see the Rose of this song more as a girl from my earlier dreams… a pretty little thing just a few months shy of adulthood, her dark eyes filled with both love and passion, her small hands holding her boyfriend tight, her trembling lips seeking his.
And I see that boyfriend — the singer of this song, if you will — filled with passion of his own… longing — and a primal, terrifying fear of the fiery love in this young girl’s eyes.