The Summer of '62: Episode 51
As one might guess Johnny Slick was not his real name.
A mystery surrounded Johnny Slick and Rich wanted to know. Rich was curious by nature; he seldom stopped until he found reasons or answers. Unknowns plagued him like flies on a screen door.
Johnny's real name was Elbert Percival and his hood friends called him Elbert. One might think that they might call him Bert or get creative and call him El Bert. The jocks and the ‘in crowd’ called him Percy behind his back, but in Rich's mind he was Johnny Slick. It was more of an attitude – the turned up collar, toothpick dangling from the mouth, and he never showed fear or surprise.
At lunch period one day he and about a half dozen of his hood friends tried to sneak a smoke outside the boiler room. Mr. Hatton, the Dean of Boys, strolled around the corner and caught them. Everybody scattered like roaches when the lights come on, except for Elbert. He leaned against the building James Dean-ish and talked to Mr. Hatton like they were fraternity brothers. Mr. Hatton, who was also Rich's Uncle, told Rich later, “I ask him why he didn’t run like the rest of them?” “I just can’t run Mr. Hatton. I wouldn’t get anywhere. I’m so slick I would just slide.” Thus Rich began, in my mind, calling him Johnny Slick.
Johnny Slick rode Rich's bus. He always picked an empty seat. The only time Rich remembered him speaking on the bus was to him. His name was always on the honor roll. No hood ever was on the honor roll. Rich leaned over the seat and said to him, “Congratulations for getting on the honor roll.” When the bus dropped them off at school he came up from behind Rich and said with a slight grin, “Hey kid, congratulations.” “For what?” “Sometimes it is good to hear it even when you don’t do anything special, but you just joined the human race, so congratulations.” He walked away and Rich never talked to him again and never heard him speak again or do anything again except to hang out with the hoods.
About mid summer after the weeding and bailing the first cut, Rich rode his bike down the road that Johnny Slick lived. There were many houses on the road. They weren’t farm houses, but houses belonging to people who worked in the city and didn’t want to live there.
Johnny Slick’s house was a white cape cod with an attached garage.
Johnny Slick saw Rich peddle his bike up the driveway from the rear view mirror of a blue ‘59 MG, but he continued cleaning the dash board. Even when Rich stood beside the car he didn’t look up at him.
“What do you want?” Elbert said.
“Just stopped by to say ‘congratulations,’ Rich said.
A smile slowly unfurled on his face. “For what?” Elbert said.
“The human race, it looks like you’ve evolved beyond the human race – homo automobilus.” Rich ran his hand along the smooth blue wax job and said, “This is cool, really cool.”
“Park the bike beside the garage and I’ll take you for a spin around the block,” Elbert said.
Rich did what he said. While hurrying to return to the car he tripped over the downspout at the corner of the house. Embarrassed he scrambled to reattach it.
“We’ll get it when we come back,” Elbert said.
Rich slid into the car and Elbert started it up. He moved cautiously on to the road. The engine purred and rumbled as he shifted through the gears smoothly.
Rich had never been that close to the road in a moving vehicle. The slightest speed was exhilarating. It moved like a water bug skimming across a smooth surface of water on a pond taking corners with only a slight lean or sway.
“Is this yours,” Rich said.
“Yeah,” Elbert said. “I had some money saved and I got graduation money.”
“It rides neat,” Rich said raising his head above the windshield to catch the breeze.
“A lot of people don’t like them because you feel too much of the road, but part of life is feeling the bumps,” Elbert said as the car jarred from a bump in the road. He smiled.
It was not a long ride. It was around the block which is about four miles in the country. They pulled into the driveway with a bounce and he turned off the car.
“Thanks for the ride,” Rich said and got out of the car.
“No sweat. Do you want to come up for a coke,” Elbert said pointing above the garage.
“Sure,” Rich said and followed him into the garage. Rich ran over to the dislodged downspout and attached it. Elbert waited for him and they walked up a stairway that was in the rear of the garage.
Above the garage was a bedroom. It was small with pitched ceiling following the angel of the roof. There was a neatly made single bed. He had a hi fi with a row of record albums about three feet in length and a two shelves of books about six feet in length. He had a desk with a typewriter and radio. Next to the desk was a small refrigerator.
“You want a Coke?” Elbert ask and pointed to a chair and said, “Have a seat.”
“Yeah,” Rich said.
“Want a glass?” Elbert ask.
“Bottle’s fine,” Rich said.
Elbert leaned down, looked into the refrigerator, and said, “Out of Coke, how about a Pepsi?”
“That’s fine,” Rich said.
His manner surprised Rich. He was cordial and polite. He had an air of sophistication not what Rich expected from a hood. Rich looked at his closet. It was neat and well arranged. He saw the bathroom, everything was in place, like a picture in a health book. He expected a room full of comics, brass knuckles, daggers, and guns.
Elbert handed Rich the bottle of Pepsi, pulled the chair out from his desk and sat down facing Rich. Elbert took a drink from his Pepsi and so did Rich.
His eyes continued to scan the room and marvel. Elbert watched Rich and sat the bottle on the desk.
He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “You were probably expecting a room full of beer bottles, right,” Elbert smiled.
“Yeah, kind of,” Rich confessed.
Elbert playfully slapped Rich's knee and Rich smiled.
“So why did you drive by?” Elbert said.
“I’ve never ridden my bike down here. Only been down this way in a car or the bus,” Rich said.
“What grade will you be in this year?” Elbert said.
“Freshman,” Rich said.
“You going to college or you got a job?” Rich ask.
“I’m enrolled at Bowling Green, but I got a few dollars set back and I thought about taking my MG on a trip and coming back in January and starting college then. I also thought about enlisting in the Army first. The trip seems most likely.”
“I can’t wait till I’m out,” Rich said. “I got to get away.”
“What do you mean by get away?” Elbert asked and took another drink.
Rich took a drink and let the liquid slide slowly down his throat. “I got trouble at home.”
“Like what?” Elbert said and placed the bottle back on the desk and leaned forward again.
Rich smiled uncomfortably feeling he said too much and said, “I really can’t talk about it.”
“That means it’s serious,” Elbert said.
The response seemed sincere and Rich relaxed. “My parents argue a lot. I mean a lot and they blame me. That’s all I can say,” Rich said looking directly in Elbert's eyes.
“I’d take you with me, kid, but my passenger seat is going to be full of stuff,” Elbert said.
“Thanks, but that’s not the answer.” Rich said.
“Than you tell me,” Elbert said. “That’s why I live above the garage. If it weren’t for the garage I’d been in California a long time ago.”
“This is neat. Can I have your room when you leave?” Rich joked.
“Rich, can I tell you something that will remain between man and you?” Elbert said.
“Sure,” Rich said. “I got plenty of secrets that nobody knows. So you can trust me.”