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Tracked changes



"They got a little place across the track," goes a classic Chris Kenner and Allen Toussaint song. Chris could have been singing about me and my friends when we were kids, except the name of our place was not "I Like it Like That." Someone older than us had named it the Rum Bum. And it was not the place to take Sally or Sue, or to rock away all your blues. In fact, the Rum Bum barely qualified as a place at all: It was simply where the chain link fence bordering one side of the town's tracks veered from its straight path to create a recessed rectangular space hidden from view by the shrubs and bushes that ran along the fence proper.

On a Friday or Saturday night, when there was nothing to do and no one's parents had left long enough to allow for a house party, we would repair to the Rum Bum, a space more than adequate for our purposes. Someone's big brother, or an older kid who could pass for 18, would buy us beer, and down the tracks toting brown-bagged six-packs we'd go. At the appointed spot, we'd crouch down and maneuver through the tangle of shrub to sit in a cramped semicircle in our jean jackets and waffle-stompers, free to drink, smoke, argue, curse and occasionally throw up, beyond the prying eyes of parents and the cops. One night, when I wouldn't hand over one of my beers, "Prune" Merrifield chased me from the Rum Bum all the way into town to the Dairy Queen ...

Every summer, after we drive 456 miles to visit my parents in North Jersey, there inevitably comes a moment when I need to take a walk and clear my head. This time, I stole away around midday while my boys were busy washing Grandma's car. Without formulating a plan, I headed west down Elm Street.

The town seems more scrubbed these days, I noted, with more McMansions and shiny SUVs, fewer weird old houses with untended lawns. But the benignly neglected tracks, the playground, parking lots and brick garden apartments beyond the fence have changed very little. There's a perverse comfort in finding that some aspects of life haven't shifted, even if it's just that people in town still felt free enough to walk down the tracks, dumping a wrapper or a beer bottle without care.

But where I expected the Rum Bum, the fence kept straight. I was practically in town, so it had to be right here. But it wasn't. The powers that be had obviously straightened the fence at some point. Still, something about the confluence of bottles in the vicinity of where I knew it had to be, something about the quality of debris, told me I was in the right place. The brands had changed (who knows how life would have turned out had hard lemonade and Red Bull been available in the '70s), but the tracks still served the community as a place people snuck off to.

Someone had thrown up there quite recently; I was sure of it.

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