By E.S. White
Everybody knows Central Park, even those who haven’t ever visited New York City. Headhunters in Borneo, Pygmy Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, Aborigines participating in a ritual walkabout around Ayer’s Rock probably know of Central Park. However, it is likely that more than eight billion or so fewer have heard of Manhattan’s Inwood Park. But Inwood Park at the northern tip of Manhattan, the second largest park in Manhattan is a lush green playground with a mountain and a forest and a fabulous panoramic view of the Hudson River and New Jersey on the other side. It is a hidden paradise of a city park. This was the park where Ben Covington had his first clam bake on the only beach in Manhattan courtesy of his friend Ken Carson. The beach resembles a small tennis court of sand fronting the also little known Spuyton Duyvil, a body of water connecting the Harlem and Hudson Rivers and separating Manhattan from the Bronx.
Inwood Park was the site of the first Fire on the Mountain party which was held in the summer of 1984. Ken Carson had graduated from Columbia in 1983 and after that was fortunate enough to find a job as a New York City park ranger. Becoming a Park Ranger in America’s largest urban jungle was such a typical Ken Carson choice of thing to do. Most young men who came to Columbia wanted to finish in four years with a ticket to med school, or law school, or business school. Ken looked down his nose at those career aspirations, just wanting to undertake a life journey on the road less traveled. New York City Park Ranger was a relatively new job and it was a mix between tour guide and information ambassador. It was also relatively well paying for something other than a midtown or downtown office job. It paid well enough for Ken to get his own rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan no less. Ken moved to the Inwood neighborhood of northern Manhattan and found a couple other Columbia grads in need of lodgings, but who didn’t know exactly what they were planning to do next, except that they definitely knew they wanted to stay in New York City if they could afford it.
Even though Inwood Park is the second largest public park in Manhattan, at that time in the 80s it didn’t rate its own contingent of Rangers since only neighborhood people took advantage of it. Therefore, even though Ken lived near the park, Ken still had to commute to Central Park for work five days a week. However, because of his training classes he was taught all the ins and outs of all the parks in Manhattan from the docks of the Staten Island Ferry to the bridge spanning the Spuyten Duyvil.
Ken’s unique training was the reason Ken and Ben could boast about having a clambake on the only beach in Manhattan. And more importantly, that’s how Ken found the perfect clearing in the woods on top of the hills in Inwood to hold a barbecue and beer party with a late-night bonfire to top it all off. What New Yorker could hold an outdoor barbecue party with a large bonfire and coolers full of beer on ice in Manhattan? Ken Carson could and did more than once, and he wasn’t even a New Yorker. His Grateful Dead inspired Fire on the Mountain party was billed as a pagan summer solstice party, but even after the solstice passed, other reasons were discovered to party on the mountain. These parties were held with varying amounts of guests, different food and drink, all depending on the occasion and the time available for planning.
There was a lot of time and effort involved in throwing these shindigs. A lot of manpower was needed to hike up the mountain about half a mile on a winding but paved cobblestone path bordered by a two feet high stone wall on the downhill side. One might think a barbecue grill was required for a Barbecue, but not when you had Ken as the planner. He simply took the wire grills out of his oven and set them up on rocks. But there was still a need for the bag of barbecue briquets, the coolers of iced beer, the food, and the boom box to be hauled to the top. The rocks for the fire pit and the wood for the fire were already on the mountain. And when the party ended the roommates would have to haul out all the garbage and, of course for safety’s sake, make sure the fire was definitely out. Ken was a trained Park Ranger after all. But the mountain could be steep and treacherous in the dark, and the primly paved path with odd sized protruding cobblestones could easily cause a drunken person to stumble, especially if his balance was impaired by physical injury and alcohol abuse. That’s how Ken fell off the only mountain in Manhattan. It’s a modern-day Washington Irving tale of an enchanted night in a New York forest, certainly befitting one of the late twentieth century Sons of Knickerbocker. But first the details.
Don’t’ get the idea that Ken was some kind of fool who was constantly screwing up and hurting himself. Just the opposite. Ken was the guy who knew where all the cool stuff was that the ordinary person just didn’t. He was also physically more capable than most of his friends. He had been a starting forward on the Columbia rugby team, and he ran several times of week just to keep in shape.
Already we know the example of Ken’s esoteric knowledge of the only beach in Manhattan and the highest mountain and deepest forest in the borough. He was certainly one of few who knew how to throw a party unique to the city. He also knew other esoteric city facts like where the nearest pot store was in Harlem. He had majored in urban studies and it was a point of pride with him to be an expert on the neighborhoods of New York. But his knowledge went beyond book learning.
For example, he knew where to get the best fish sandwich in Morningside Heights. He knew that the six-fingered woman at the Latin deli made the best Cuban sandwich Ben had ever tasted. He knew La Bella China had the tastiest takeout black beans and yellow rice that were priced for the community folks and not overpriced for the students. He knew the Irish Bar where you got the fourth Guinness free. He knew where the beer bottle recycle center was, something he had learned from a homeless friend.
He also knew how to barbecue like an experienced pit master. Ben had experienced Ken’s kitchen rack makeshift barbecue skills once before while a freshman at Columbia. Ben and Ken had lived on the same floor in their dorm, and as the cliques began to form, Ken had the great idea of throwing an outdoor barbecue party for a select group of friends in an exclusive location, technically still in the dorm, while still off limits to most students. The exclusive location was high up, with a good view of the Columbia campus, but it wasn’t actually on the roof. The building had twelve floors and on the tenth there were balconies approximately forty feet square, that were supposed to be off limits to the student residents. Only it wasn’t off limits to eighteen-year old young men who were determined to break any rules that they could, that is, without being caught. The fact was that the tenth-floor balconies were only visible from the roof and then only when leaning over the railing. It was the perfect spot for the “flash” barbecue party. It was there that Ken got the idea of raiding the floor oven of its racks, and with an old metal trash can lid to hold the coals and bricks to hold up the racks, the makeshift barbecue pit came to life.
Ken invited Ben Covington and Ben’s next door neighbor in the dorm, Gus Knight, along with two other pot smoking musician friends, “Street” Steinberg and Donny Weinstein, to attend his secret barbecue party. They kept the guest list small because they couldn’t allow the RAs to hear about it in advance and shut it down. Furthermore, they wouldn’t risk the chance that the small barbecue might be crashed by unwanted, but hungry dorm dwellers, who also might not be cool about the pot smoking. Besides, Ken had done the store scouting needed to buy just the right quality and amount of pork ribs and he felt that there was nothing worse than coming away from a barbecue hungry. Especially if the hunger was fueled by the ingestion of cannabis sativa.
Ken was in charge of the food and the cooking. Ben and Gus were to bring a couple cases of beer. Donny and Street were in charge of the drugs. No one worried too much about whether the expenses were shared equally, that would have been a sign of not being cool enough to attend. Every one of them was equally committed to making sure that he was contributing equally to good times, if not always equally at the same good time. They all understood that sometimes anyone of them could be a little short on funds, and when that would happen the communist buried deep within all of them came out to support their comrade.
Ken proposed the barbecue party and was in charge of the cooking because he had barbecue in his veins. His father had been competing in barbecue contests, as well as chili cookoffs as long as Ken could remember. His father had been christened Captain Hickory by his neighbors and friends who attended his many outdoor barbecue parties. It was title that he had earned after long years of practice in the backyard and many rounds of amateur competitions. Years later Ken would invite all of the party invitees over to his house in Evanston Illinois to meet the Captain, and to attend a barbecue ritual. At least once a year for twenty years the Captain had hosted a day long pig party where the pig would be prepared in his family’s basement starting at five in the morning and served some twelve hours later to a passel of drunk Midwesterners, one time supplemented by a few drunken friends from Columbia. But that pig party was not to occur for a few more years.
This dorm balcony barbecue stoked the fires of expectation for a great barbecue party on the mountain. It was only a few years after that 10th floor balcony barbecue when Ken offered Ben a chance to share his new apartment in uptown Manhattan. Ben had taken a year off from Columbia after the balcony barbecue, which he spent in Colorado, and when he returned for his Junior year he shared a cramped SRO apartment with Gus, who had also taken a year off. But in Ben’s belated senior year Ken offered him the chance to have a room of his own in a rent stabilized place at the laughable rent of one hundred and eighty dollars a month, and so Ben couldn’t say yes fast enough. Gus had gotten lucky in the limited room dorm lottery and had decided to return to the convenience of on campus Columbia housing.
During this Senior year, Ben was still living on student loans while Ken was wearing a Park Ranger uniform and working for the city. Ken was flush with money, having such a low rent and bringing home over fifteen hundred dollars a month. He decided he needed to show off his new life as a college graduate with a job and an apartment in Manhattan. He wanted to throw a party and he wanted to do it right. He enlisted Ben to help him, but help meant he had a list of things that had to be done in a certain way with no Covingtonian improvisations. This party would serve as a warm-up event for his brewing plans for the Fire on the Mountain Summer Solstice Party.
Ken chose a day in April hoping that the improving weather of Spring in Manhattan and the advent of a great summer of endless possibilities in “The City” after a miserably cold winter would be attraction enough for his proposed guests. For people in their twenties who still believed New York City was the place to be, the idea of a party in mysterious and quaint uptown Manhattan was a novelty and provided all the enthusiasm and excitement necessary. Positive and effervescent answers guaranteeing attendance came from a wide range of select guests. Ken had connections with all sorts of differing groups of young Manhattanites.
In Columbia Ken had been into alternative music and had attended many small venue performances by both famous musicians and untalented want-to-bes. In other words, he hung out in a lot of seedy places and thus was well-known among a so-called avant garde crowd of kids. Whether or not they were avant garde, maybe they just thought they were, they all shared one sort of esoteric knowledge of the New York underground music scene. Ken’s friends and acquaintances turned out to be an eclectic group of people, a hodge-podge of oddities, ranging from the graduates of the most exclusive Eastern prep schools to a seedy group of offbeat outcasts who looked like they lived only during the night in dark and smoky clubs. Some of these people were going to be lawyers and bankers, and others were destined to be junkies heading for their next OD.
Ken also knew the Park Ranger crowd, having almost completed his first year of service in the Parks Department. These were mostly a wholesome group of people, college graduates with intermediate levels of ambition. They weren’t the kids with pretensions of success and fortune, like so many of the kids who populated Columbia and Barnard on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The ranks of the Rangers were stocked with more normal sorts of New Yorkers and natives of the Tri-State Area who had graduated from public schools and public colleges.
Ken also had many acquaintances with would be street artists and radical political activists. Ken seemed to seek out and collect unordinary people as friends. It was not as if he attracted them naturally with his great personality, they weren’t satellites in orbit around him. Ken’s appeal to these diverse types was that he let them be who they were without a hint of negative judgement. But at the same time he appealed to them because he seemed able to add something positive to any conversation, no matter how strange it would seem to most people. He could say something thoughtful, something that made them think. If there was a gap in his range of friendship it would be a scarcity of actual lawyer and doctor wannabes, whom he deliberately avoided.
When Ken decided to hold his spring soiree he invited over two dozen of these friends and acquaintances, who all answered quickly with positive responses. They knew Ken was not one to throw some boring cocktail party. They were all expecting something interesting and different, as well as something that would more aptly be called a “bash.” Ken knew what was expected of him and was determined to fulfill those expectations. Ken’s friends weren’t just guys either. Nearly half of the attendees would be women, but the women he invited were either people he worked with, or else they were girlfriends of his male friends. In other words, he wasn’t planning to find a friend for the night at this “bash.”
Ken had a girlfriend, but she didn’t go to drinking parties, so her reply was the only “no,” which Ken expected and was happy to hear. It was freeing. Ken had met Sheila at Columbia where she had been a student at the nursing school. She was a local Irish Catholic girl from Brooklyn, but somehow she and Ken hit it off. And it wasn’t just a platonic relationship.
Ken knew she wasn’t showing up because she didn’t think she would have a good time, not because of her polite but lame excuse. Loud people drinking and smoking dope wasn’t something that attracted her in the least. An evening of that was what Ken wanted, but her attendance would have ruined Ken’s hopes for participating in the debauchery. In truth, of course, Ken wasn’t even secretly contemplating looking for a hook up with some new piece of “strange.” He was just looking to get wasted and have a great time talking with a wide variety of interesting people, without having to live up to a girlfriend’s expectations.
Ken was also determined to present his guests with a tasty menu of homemade bar snacks. Ben was to play an important role in this aspect of the party preparations. Ken had an unusual main party snack planned, and that was his Illinois Chili made from his father’s recipe. Captain Hickory had won his share of chili cook offs and being an apprentice chili aficionado was a point of pride with Ken. He had prepared his father’s recipe for his friends before, and Ben had no problem agreeing that it was the most delicious chili he had ever tasted.
Of course, Ben Covington did not have the culinary nor gustatory chops, nor even the indoor diner chili or outdoor cookout chili eating experiences to fall back on as Ken did. Ben’s first chili experiences had been at his small-town Iowa junior high cafeteria. Every other week or so chili was the main dish on the lunch menu and it was quite a favorite with the students. It certainly beat the chipped beef, turkey noodle casserole, or fish stick offerings, although its popularity ranked behind the pizza and tacos, while holding its own or even slightly surpassing the trusty cheeseburger. But Ken’s chili was not school cafeteria chili.
First of all, to begin to explain, one must start from distinguishing it from a popular type of Midwestern chili whose identity-bearing ingredients, besides the meat and beans, are tomato sauce and sugar. This was the easy-to-make and easy-to-get-children to eat chili that was served by school cafeterias and most mothers, at least those who didn’t feel they stooped to make chili, which many thought was a dish unsuitable for their own dinner tables. Chili, for such homemakers, was a dish men made, and then usually only for other men. Chili also had the reputation as the last good hope of the leftover meat. This would be old meat that could constitute a hearty stew, but that would also earn a reputation for heat and spice, perhaps to mask the quality and freshness of its main ingredient. Ken mused to Ben while expounding on chili making culture that one of the most common insults heard at chili cookoff competitions was, “what kind of meat you usin’, roadkill?”
Ken’s chili made from the Carson family legacy recipe was spicy, hot, and hearty, but it was not sugary, nor did it taste anything like spaghetti sauce. Furthermore, although Ken’s chili was spicy, it wasn’t just spicy for the sake of showing how much heat he could endure. Eating it was not meant to be a macho food challenge. Ken used ingredients to elevate the tasting experience. He balked from using cheap ground beef or pork. He bought beefsteak and tenderized it and tediously rubbed spices on it before cutting it into bite sized chunks. He chopped, diced, and minced as was proper, only fresh whole skinned tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers, cayenne peppers, and other spices which he wouldn’t reveal to Ben.
Then he slow-cooked the mixture for hours adding beer as the liquid steamed off and the molten chili cooked down. He avoided adding cornstarch or flour, he felt it was the coward’s way out of slow cooking and watching over the process. He added spices and beer as needed as he stirred and tasted seeking only Carson chili perfection standards. When he was completely satisfied with both the taste and texture, he then packed it up into different units to be used at different times and froze them to be defrosted and reheated just before the party. He declared it a chili chef’s truth that chili always, repeat always, tasted better after being reheated. Dipping bread and hard crackers, along with grated Cheddar Cheese was offered alongside the dark delectable bowl of flavor that you could smell, but Ken actually thought cheese was only for the uneducated chili palette. However, Ken knew that everyone wasn’t a chili connoisseur, and he deigned to show compassion to the chili hoi polloi.
While Ken was in charge of the star party snack, the chili, Ben was tasked with two other side dish party snacks. He was ceremoniously appointed by Ken to be the chef in charge of making the dips. Of course, Ben didn’t have any dip recipes and he didn’t plan to go buy a cook book or to even check one out of the library. Ken had it all planned out in advance anyway. He called up his mother and picked her brain for her dip recipes. Ken’s mom it turned out had quite a reputation in her neighborhood for throwing parties with delicious snacks, and also for bringing over her tasty creations when the neighbors were throwing their parties. The neighbors counted on her. They truly did!
Ken decided on two unusual recipes his mother suggested. He carefully wrote down her instructions in clear and concise narrative detail and handed over the information to Ben. Ben was responsible for chasing down the ingredients, purchasing them, and making the dips just as the recipes instructed. And the next day he set out to do so. The first task was title “Spinach and Artichoke Dip.” When Ben first heard that the main ingredients were spinach and artichokes he was more than a little skeptical, but he was determined to approach the task with an open mind.
Actually, Ben couldn’t recall the last time he had bought spinach to make for himself. Perhaps he never had. Usually when spinach had been on his parents’ supper table he avoided it, but if this proved impossible due to a harsh rebuke from his mother, he hastily took the smallest portion possible so as to avoid further criticism. Needless to say, this was a learned behavior from his childhood and the example of his three older siblings, but it was also possibly indicative of the quality of the vegetables available where he had grown up. The aversion also reflected on the fact that his mother didn’t really know how to make spinach gustatorily attractive to the next generation of youth.
Artichokes, on the other hand, had never even graced his parents’ table and it wasn’t until Ben had arrived at Columbia and had gotten drunk with an artichoke heart fanatic that he first tasted this strange vegetable. But taste it he did, and maybe it was because of the beer and the marijuana, but he found that a jar of artichoke hearts made a perfect late-night snack. Subsequently, every time Ben got wasted with this particular friend they ended up at midnight searching the small late-night Morningside Heights bodega shelves for jars of the tasty treats.
Although he was still wary of the taste of boiled spinach, he found that the addition of the artichokes, plus generous portions of mayonnaise, yogurt, and cream, could actually turn spinach into a tasty green leafy addition. The result was a lusciously tangy and earthy potato chip dip. Ben ended up making a couple quarts of the creamy white and green concoction loaded with nuggets of soft artichoke heart masses, which besides being tasty had the added virtue of giving the viscous mass of green and white a bit more of an interesting texture, making it somewhat solid and chewy. When he made it the dip the night before and tasted it, he declared success and gave Ken a taste. Ken smiled and said it was almost as good as his mother’s, and would be acceptable to offer his party guests.
The second dish Ben was in charge of was titled “Boiled Egg and Chutney Dip.” Again, Ben wondered about the wisdom of combining those two ingredients and calling it a potato chip dip. But again, he reminded himself that he had decided to keep an open mind and trust Ken and his mother’s party food acumen and experience. Of course, Ben had no idea what a chutney was, let alone what kind of super market would be selling it. And even if he figured those things out, then, he was sure, he would have to scour every aisle for any hope of success, having no idea what it would look like, or how it would be packaged. Finally, after mulling the prospect of failure over, he expressed his embarrassment over his international food ignorance and asked Ken what the hell chutney was and where he could buy it. After a quick enlightening conversation, he went to the closest D’Agostino’s, and after scouting out the international food section found an orange looking marmalade like product that he bought two jars of.
He boiled a half a dozen eggs, chopped them up, and added them to the chutney, and he was done. It was so simple it was genius. And it was tasty! Ben didn’t know which one he liked better. Neither did Ken. After gaining Ken’s approval, this transparent gelatinous mass revealing boiled egg chunks as if they were sealed in amber, also went into the refrigerator to wait for tomorrow night when Ben could be showered with acclaim for actually preparing tasty food. So what if these pot heads would be so hungry they would scarf down anything and everything, it actually did taste great. But Ken wasn’t just going to settle for a twenty-something idea of a spectacular snack menu for his party, there was much more party prep to be done.
As for the apartment decorations, the rooms were already done up in the twenty-year old thrift store hand-me-down furniture style. The walls needed paint and the floors needed waxing, but that was part of the Manhattan classic old apartment feel required by twenty-something Woody Allen movie fans. The walls had little to no decoration, but that was also part of the bachelor pad feel, which by the way, did nothing to attract young women. The most interesting and unique item on display was a newspaper clipping display featuring a Topps’ baseball card shrine to Tim Teufel, Mets second baseman. Tim Teufel was probably the least exciting of the up and coming talent on the Mets’ roster that year, but an ironic sports page headline had inspired Ben to construct a small shrine in tribute to him. The newspaper headline above the baseball card he had framed within a gold crayon cardboard border then tacked to the wall read, “A TEAM TOO TEUFEL TO DIE!” It seems Tim Teufel had become an unlikely hero on a lineup of stars, for one game at least. Most of the offbeat young New York males were Mets’ fans, out a sense of outsider elitism. The Yankees were gauche. They were the darlings of the working class New Yorker, the readers of the New York Post, which ironically was the newspaper from which Ben had clipped the Tim Teuful headline.
Ken’s apartment was actually envied, mostly due to the rent stabilized price, by most of the party guests. They all lived in the city, but not in this strange northern oasis of relative safety in Manhattan. Most of the affordable neighborhoods where the party guests lived in were in the more crime infested parts of Manhattan, far far south of Inwood. Even the Columbia Morningside Heights neighborhood was more dangerous after dark than Inwood was. This approximately twenty-five square block part of town still had remnants of Irish-American families and had bars with working class customers inside almost every night past midnight. This meant that not only did this area have vigilant ears and vigilante drunks, it also lacked the financial means to attract muggers in search of crack money. Given that party decoration was not in any of the young tenants wheelhouse, so to speak, they knew that doing as little as possible to the dingy looking apartment would be more than impressive enough, given its price, location, and size.
The next bit of preparation was considered by Ken to be as important as the food preparation. The night before the party he sorted through his vinyl album collection, of which he was quite proud, due mainly to his possession of punk and new wave music that was only popular among an elitist group of a certain upper middle-class cross-section of white boys and girls. However, Ken was also a rock and roll “classicist,” and ahead of his time by already being carefully politically correct in his choice of LP purchases. That is to say, although he had a good collection of sixties rock and roll, he also had Motown and Blues records, particularly Chicago Blues, along with soon to be Jamaican reggae classics. Anyway, that night Ken made two ninety-minute cassette tapes meant to be played from about nine to midnight when the party would be at its liveliest.
The party was to be on a Friday night, which meant that Ken would be putting in a nine hour 8 AM to 5 PM work day. He would be returning by subway sometime before six. He would then have something for dinner, put on his party clothes, and then put the finishing touches on all the preparations. This included inspecting Ben’s work and making sure Ben had taken care of the final, and perhaps most important task he was assigned to perform during that Friday afternoon. Ben was free that day because although he was still in school, his last semester, he certainly wasn’t required to attend any classes on Friday. He hadn’t had any Friday classes since wising up second semester of Freshman year, as had almost all Freshman who weren’t pre-meds.
Ben’s final task was to pick up a keg of Michelob beer, along with a couple cases of imported beers. He was also tasked with picking up plastic cups for the keg drinkers, Styrofoam bowl and plastic spoons for the chili tasters, and the chips for the dip eaters. Not having a car, and given the weight of his beer purchases, this was going to take time and manpower. At least three separate trips would be required. It was a lot of responsibility, but Ken was learning to trust in Ben’s reliability. Ken had recently even given Ben a rent extension, kind of a loan, and Ben had proven that he could be trusted to meet that repayment deadline. It was risky, of course, for friends to loan and borrow money, but in this case, it had worked out. The risk actually rewarded them with greater trust in each other’s sincerity, and a new feeling of a closer and deeper level of friendship. They were more than mere apartment mates, they were drinking buddies – partners in debauchery.
Ken, being again in the know of New York esoterica, at least it was esoterica to Ben, had recently shown Ben a beer wholesale warehouse only about half an hour away on foot from their apartment. It was actually across the Harlem river, so technically in the Bronx, but just barely. But Ben looked forward to saying that he had walked to the Bronx and lugged back a hundred pounds of beer just for this party. Ken had access to the building super’s hand truck so Ben could load the keg and beers on that and roll the suds back to the apartment.
Still, their apartment was on the third floor and from the front stoop on success depended upon Ben Covington. It was a contest pitting the piss and vinegar of youth versus gravity. Gravity lost that day, but Ben had to reward himself to a couple of the nicer brews in bottles before he went out to the D’Agostino’s again to buy the chips, and disposable utensils. He got the job done and then went out again to buy the ice for the keg. After which, he rewarded himself with a hot meatball parmesan sandwich, which he enjoyed with lukewarm Michelob just after he iced the keg and tapped it.
When Ken returned at about six that evening he was raring to go. As expected, he inspected Ben’s work and was well pleased. He was so pleased with the results and so hyped up with anticipation of becoming a New York party icon that he was inspired to lavish thanks and praise upon Ben for all of his efforts in assisting him in attaining such great status among his peers. The next two hours were devoted to the details of the final party set up. The chili was reheated, and the dips were brought of the refrigerator so they could be served at room temperature. The chips were placed in bowls. A bong was broken out, doobies were rolled. And the pre-partying party began.
At about eight o’clock, a few close friends arrived to get the good stuff before the hoi polloi arrived. The close friends included Mike and Ruth, and also Gus Knight. They all praised the chili, and both dips, and they all had bottles of the Irish Harp Lager Ben had purchased and lugged home from the beer wholesale store. Later when taste no longer mattered, they would happily drink Michelob from the keg. The bong was loaded and fired up and passed around. Everything was moving along smoothly.
Everything continued to go smoothly, even when the first guests started arriving a little after nine. It didn’t just go smoothly, it went great, getter better by the hour. Ken’s older brother Reese brought his cooler than shit friends, and their chic-er than shit girlfriends in their I’m a new wave version of Audrey Hepburn clothes, hair, and make-up. The dumpy apartment looked like the ultimate place to be for Ivy League hipsters in the early eighties in New York. The homemade chili and dips passed through the lips of the ultra-elite unknown alternative crowd to their pleasure and with the greatest appreciation. The beer and the pot kicked in and the party tapes guaranteed hours of dancing and grinding. Ken Carson had confirmed to one and all that he knew how to throw a great party in the coolest town in the world.
Sure, the neighbors came knocking on the door at midnight and at 12:30 AM the cops knocked loudly and obnoxiously, and the party was broken up. But this didn’t discourage Ken, in fact, he loudly declared that you really know you’ve had fun when you’ve been arrested for it. He wasn’t quite arrested, but the cops were surly and threatening. Ken also didn’t earn any friendship points with his working-class neighbors either.
Because of this spring success, when Ken decided to throw his solstice celebrating New York park summer Fire on the Mountain Party, he did it in the sincerest spirit of overconfidence. The only thing lacking would be the Grateful Dead playing Fire on the Mountain live. The song would play on the party tape he would make, and at the precise time the fire was lit. Just as before with the party in April, Ken apportioned the party prep tasks to his closest friends, Mike, Gus, and Ben in particular, and all the preparations were in place and the barbecue and beer fun was carried out almost without a hitch.
There was some embarrassment for Ben when an old girlfriend showed up with Mike and Ruth. She was Mike’s little sister after all, which didn’t seem to bother Mike, but still made Ben squirm because he felt he might have crossed a friendship line somewhere there. There was also a little social discomfort for Ken because his Ranger friends by that summer had a sense of comradery and shared hardship and fun, and so did his Columbia friends, but not with each other. That put Ken in the middle of two groups with differing expectations of his reactions to both groups jokes and anecdotes. He felt that each group was watching how he interacted with the other group, and probably critically judging the extent of the unwanted and unexpected changes. This discomfort might have been what spurred Ken on to new heights of beer drinking. But Ken didn’t often need much encouragement to test the limits of his beer drinking capacity. Anyway, that night he proceeded to test his prowess once again, and to set a new drinking benchmark.
At 10 o’clock that night the delicious barbecued food had all been devoured at least two hours earlier. There were still eight or ten beers floating in the coolers that no longer had ice, but instead were now filled with very cold ice melt water. The bonfire that had been lit two hours earlier when the sun set, had burned down to glowing ashes. Part of the clean-up would be to pour the water in the coolers on the embers to ensure they would not get blown up and out starting a real fire on the mountain.
Most of the crowd had already wandered down the hill for further fun, leaving the remaining stalwart crew consisting of five drunken young men. This was the designated clean-up crew and they had been explained their duties by Ken before they were drunk, even before the party started. They were all in a delighted haze of too much alcohol, too much dope, and too much barbecue. They were sated mostly with the satisfaction of a smashing success of a bonfire barbecue party thrown on the highest mountain and in the deepest woods of Manhattan. One of the five was a lot more sated than the other four. The drunkest of all award that night went to Ken Carson.
Everyone except Ken started realizing it was getting on time to leave, but they were in no hurry. The consensus was that it would be easier to drink the last few beers instead of carrying them down the mountain. Drinking one apiece would still leave three or four, but that leftover amount would be just right for a night cap or two for Ben back at the apartment after the bar. When Mike finished his beer, he picked up a garbage bag full of bones and wrappers and beer cans. He left first to haul them to his nearby apartment and throw them out in his building’s dumpster.
Gus had a similar job of taking care of the heavier returnable bottles. He would drop them off at the Isham Street apartment, and then head over to McTavish’s Irish Pub to wait for Ben and Ken. Another friend of Ken’s from Columbia, who went by the fitting moniker, Lanky Franky, had offered to help with the clean-up and maybe meet them for another drink afterwards. He offered to carry the cooler with the oven racks and the grilling tools inside. Ben had the other cooler with what little was left, like the last two beers, in one hand, and the boom box in his other hand.
Ken had drunk enough to disqualify himself for being responsible for any of the clean-up. He was tottering and weaving noticeably and uncontrollably. Just after Mike left, Gus noticed that Ken was standing in his stocking feet. He glanced down at what little he could see in the darkness surrounding them and saw no sign of any errant and lonely shoes.
“Ken! Getting comfortable? Feet hurting ya? ….Where are your shoes?” Gus asked as he started laughing.
Ken looked startled, checked out his feet, slowly spun around spying what little was visible, then and said in a huff, “OK guys. Where are my shoes? Who took them?”
The three remaining guys looked at each other quizzically and all shrugged their shoulders.
“We’ll all help you look. OK?” Ben said trying to comfort Ken while also trying hard not to laugh.
Gus and Ben whipped out a couple of small pocket flashlights, because the fading glow of the embers only slightly enabled them to see dark figures of each other in that pitch-black darkness that had descended on the clearing.
“Ken, when did you last have them on?” Ben asked.
“I dun noh,” he slurred.
“Well, this is hopeless in this darkness. Let’s just get down that hill and put you to bed, and we’ll come back and look tomorrow. How about that?” Ben suggested.
“I need my shoes man!”
“Well, we can’t find them now. If you don’t know where they are then we have no way of finding them in this darkness!” Ben answered forcefully, acting as if he suddenly was very reasonable and not a bit drunk.
“Come on, we’ll find them tomorrow,” Ben suggested, this time a little more gently. The way he thought it was best to try and convince a drunk friend.
“Alright Ben if you say so,” Ken replied sounding a little defeated, but mostly just downright tired.
Then all of a sudden Ken lurched forward and stepped into the firepit and on the hot embers in his stockinged feet. He was too shocked to say anything as he staggered through the firepit to the other side where he plopped down onto the grass. The flashlights turned toward him sitting on the ground slapping hot ashes off of his now hole-ridden smoking socks.
“Are you OK, Ken? You just walked over hot coals like some Indian Yogi or something!” Ben said this with concern in his voice, but he was also inclined to start laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Ken stopped brushing off his socks and stood up and took of few trial steps. He could walk. The problem wasn’t his hot feet, it was his beer-soaked brain.
Everyone else just wanted to get down the mountain and out of there before more of this type of craziness broke out. Ben drowned the glowing embers with the cold water from the beer coolers and was satisfied that there was no fire hazard. He immediately wished he had done this five minutes sooner, before Yogi Ken performed the fire walking challenge. But he hadn’t, and he suddenly felt defensively determined not to take the blame for Ken’s smoking feet.
Gus had the heaviest load of beer bottles and so he took off first. Ben and Lanky Franky, who were in charge of carrying the coolers, boombox, and various and assorted tools and what not, were now also in charge of shepherding sore-footed, drunk staggering Ken shoeless down the mountain on the uneven cobblestone pathway with one flashlight in the black of night. It seemed to them like there could be trouble, and they were right.
The clearing on the top of mountain where they had the barbecue was accessed by a dirt path that was relatively easy to navigate in the dark, even without shoes. Once that dirt path turned into the cobblestone paved winding path with the two-foot stone railing, walking downhill in the dark became difficult for all three young men. But, it was especially hard for sore, stocking-footed, drunken, staggering Ken. Lanky Franky had both hands on the large cooler handles carrying it in front of him. Ben held a flashlight and boombox in one hand and the other hand held a cooler handle. He was trying to illuminate the path lying ahead of the group, but the flashlight wasn’t powerful enough to show much more than a stretch of path ten feet in front of them. The cobblestones were stubbing a lot of toes and causing some stumbling for all three of them, but they were wreaking havoc on staggering Ken.
He fell down twice in the first hundred yards. It looked like he fell hard, but as is often a blessing for drunks in accidents, they are so limber that they don’t resist the impact. They seem to flex with it, absorbing the blows, bending not breaking. This doesn’t mean they don’t bruise, only that they don’t break. Ken got up easily both times saying he was OK. He was still aware enough to try to put on a show of bravado, pretending that he was not really as drunk as he was. He been brought slightly back to reality by the two falls, and miraculously made the next few hundred yards downhill safely. Three hundred more yards and one hairpin curve later and they would be out of the steep downhill section, with only a quarter mile over a flat grassy area to the park entrance, and then two more blocks to their apartment.
With a little luck they would all be home in less than fifteen minutes and Ben and Lanky Franky would be heading to McTavish’s pub to have another couple beers with Gus. No way Ken was coming with them. However, as it turned out, they didn’t get that little bit of luck. The three were walking slowly side by side according to Ben’s plan until shoeless Ken stubbed his toe, tripped, and then lurched forward as he had when he performed his fire walk. The fact that he prevented himself from falling only added to his acceleration down the hill. He was quickly over ten feet in front of the other guys and almost beyond the illumination of the flashlight. Ben could still see a dark figure careening left very fast. As Ben adjusted the beam of flashlight further ahead and to the left he saw Ken’s left leg slam into the two-foot wall just ahead of the hairpin curve, sending Ken into a header over the wall, disappearing from sight.
Ben and Lanky Franky trotted as fast as they could around the hairpin to find Ken. Ben flashed the beam where Ken should have landed and illuminated a pathetic looking but lucky Ken held up about two feet off the ground on a row of bushes that had been planted all along the opposite side of the stone fence. He had destroyed four feet or so of shrubbery, but in their death throws they had also exacted some revenge on Ken’s exposed skin and clothing.
Ben and Franky dropped their coolers and helped Ken off the bush. He seemed a bit surprised to find himself in a bush, but nothing on his body that was working before wasn’t working now. He started walking without saying a word and Ben and Lanky Franky quickly picked up their loads, and Ben concentrated on trying to send the flashlight beam just ahead of where Ken was walking. They made it down the mountain without another fall, and the stagger back to the Isham Street apartment was made successfully.
The bag of empty recyclable bottles Gus had carried down was by the stoop of their apartment building meaning that Gus would be at McTavish’s already. Lanky Franky helped Ken up the two flights of stairs and Ben made sure Ken was on his bed before he and Lanky Franky headed out again. Ben, Lanky Franky, and Gus had some great laughs talking about fire walking and diving over walls into bushes. After a couple pints of Guinness it was time to declare the Fire on the Mountain party a thing of the past, and they all went home.
About noon the next day Ben was watching TV in the living room when Ken came out looking very sad and serious. He said,
“Ben, why do I have blisters on my feet and why are my arms and face all scratched up?”
“You don’t remember?” Ben asked.
Ken shrugged and looked at Ben as if he was disgusted with him. Just then, Ben knew he was going to be blamed for this.
“Look man. You walked across hot coals wearing socks, and then you fell over the wall on the way down into a bush.”
“Where are my shoes?”
“I don’t know.”
Ken put his hands on his hips and glared at Ben for a second, and then spun on his heel as he huffed out an exhale of disgust and limped back into his room slamming the door. Ben could have predicted that Ken’s healthy self-opinion of his own competence and superior abilities wouldn’t allow him to accept the blame for this fall, and his many injuries. He imagined Ken thinking to himself, “I would never have let Ben fall off the mountain like that. And after all, I did throw a one of kind, first of its kind party, and it had been great! Fire on the Mountain would happen again, but Ben was questionable, not really to be trusted.” At least that was what Ben imagined Ken was thinking.
Ben thought to himself, “Wait a minute, my hands were full carrying stuff, while Ken was careening down the slope and taking a header over the stone wall at least ten yards ahead of me!” He kept his mouth shut, but his opinion of know-it-all, competent in everything Ken was also beginning to change. He smiled to himself, glad that he wasn’t the idiot who had walked on hot coals in his stocking feet and then launched himself over a fence in a ten foot drop into a prickly hedge.
Ben went out to buy a six pack of beer and hot meatball hero to comfort himself after his awkward encounter with Ken. He had finished the sandwich and was on his third Meisterbrau when Ken came out again. This time he was a lot less shocked at his condition, and a little more contrite when he talked to Ben.
“Ben, I’m sorry I slammed the door and acted so huffy. I guess I should thank you for getting me home. I don’t remember what happened after we started drinking. I have flashes of images, but that’s it. I guess I drank too much. And by the way, do you know where my shoes are?”
“Forget about it.” Ben said, and he meant it. “Have a beer.” Everything suddenly went back to the way it had been. Maybe Ken wasn’t a narcissistic prick after all. Time to get over myself and help the poor scratched up guy find his shoes.
“Your shoes are somewhere up on the mountain. You must have taken them off sometime last night, and it got so dark, no one could find them. We looked with flashlights, but no luck. When you finish that beer we’ll go back and look for them.”
They looked for those shoes for an hour that afternoon, but they never found them. They settled for the raincheck beers at McTavish’s that Ken had missed the night before. They figured some neighborhood kid had come along, and either decided they knew someone who could use the shoes, or else the shoe laces would be tied together and they would be thrown up like a bolo to hang on a telephone wire. Most likely the latter option. Ben had always wondered whose shoes were hanging from the phone and power lines in the poorer neighborhoods of New York City.
At the bar that night he discovered that he had gained a new understanding into how the more mundane details of life in the city worked. He had gained this insight into the inner city, once again guided by the unique experiences of Ken Carson, Urban Studies Major, Central Park Ranger. Ken always said he knew how to throw a party, and Ben had gained a small satori experience illuminating the suffering in the pursuit of that rare knowledge.
As for Ken Carson, for Ben, Ken had entered the ranks of another esoteric and select group of the urban jungle. As Ben had often heard repeated on TV a decade or so earlier during a childhood of watching reruns, and now working on his fourth Guinness applying it to Ken Carson, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” Ken fire-walking and falling off the mountain in Inwood Hill Park was now that special one of the eight million that would live forever in his memory of a misspent youth.