Although I have been known to forget my own brother’s birthday (he knows I love him anyway), some birthdays are forged into my memory from that particular quasi-adolescent, pre-drugs-and-alcohol time of life when my mind was a sponge for numbers. Not numbers that would help me in math class, mind you, but birthdays, phone numbers, zip codes, street addresses, and combination locks like the one I still use every day, which I bought when I was 14.
When I was in seventh grade, I loved Joey with an everlasting love. I always knew it wasn’t reciprocated but a girl can dream, right? And dream I did, with a far-fetched fantasy life worthy of the overdeveloped twelve-year-old I was. I know I wasn’t alone (some of you might even be reading this post). Girls, and probably a few boys, adored Joey, with his designer clothes, perfect hair, smooth jump shot and aloof manner that seemed–at least to me and probably to my lovesick peers–to hide a deeply complicated and troubled soul.
We led a charmed life, our gang of friends, roaming Greenwich Village, where we all lived, and beyond, park to park, walking that fine city-kid line between staying out of trouble and looking for trouble.
Midway through eighth grade I moved away from New York, and kept in touch with my gang through old-fashioned mail, the occasional outrageously expensive phone call, and regular visits. My everlasting love for Joey faded to an enduring sense of connection.
The last time I saw Joey, I was probably sixteen or seventeen. It was a cold, gunmetal grey afternoon in January or February, and the park was empty except for a few drug dealers, a die-hard pair of chess players, and Joey and his frisbee friends. By that time I knew I could always find him there: he’d traded basketball for freestyle frisbee and spent all day, every day, in Washington Square Park. Somewhere along the way he’d dropped out of high school. I watched him for a while, just like I used to watch him play basketball every day after school when we were twelve. He took a break and I went over to where he was.
“What are you going to do?” I asked him. It was so cold I couldn’t sit down on the bench next to him, but hopped on one foot and then the other to stay warm. “Don’t you know that if you don’t go to high school you can’t go to college?”
“I don’t need to go to high school and I don’t need to go to college. I can’t learn what I need to learn there.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just you wait and see,” he said, tucking his hands between the bib of his overalls and the Irish knit sweater underneath it. “I’m going to become freestyle champion of the world.”
That was probably in 1975, maybe 1976. I didn’t believe him, of course. I’d heard Joey say those things before. Back in junior high he promised to break all of Wilt Chamberlain’s records in his rookie season with the NBA. Never happened, and I didn’t expect this latest dream to happen, either.
But the thing is….he did it. I found that out a few years ago, doing the kind of random-web-surfing-for-childhood-friends that I rarely do. Sitting around after dinner with my husband and a friend looking at all of Joey’s wikipedia listings, and watching a video, we marveled, not so much at Joey’s great prowess as a freestyle player (that, too), but at the idea that someone actually achieved the kind of outlandish goal that kids say all the time. You can look it up.
Joey didn’t show up at a huge reunion we Village kids had in 2009, the summer of our fiftieth year. I don’t know much, except that he plays the guitar, doesn’t use email or facebook, and still has a following of adoring fans, especially now that freestyle frisbee seems to be making a comback.
Around the time of my everlasting love, Natalie Cole came out with a song called “Joey,” and the refrain went like this:
Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey
Hoo, don’t you hear me calling to you, Joey, Joey, Joey
Happy birthday, Joey, wherever you are.