By Max Delgado
For me, Toledo ended at dusk, sometime in the fall of 1995. My friend Jake and I had gotten into the same college, and our families had decided to caravan through the night, leaving from the gravel driveway of his family farm to arrive at Fordham University ten hours later. I was eighteen. And I didn’t know it then, but I’d never live in Ohio again.
Jake and I couldn’t have been more different, but we were good friends and wanted to live together. Packing both of our belongings into his dad’s truck made the move infinitely easier -- we’d cross into New York at dawn, squint at the sunlight together, and then move boxes into our cinderblock dorm room a little after breakfast. More importantly, we’d share a poignant transition together: watching a truck ostensibly stuffed with our childhood belongings turn into a dorm room packed with what would become the first real artifacts of our adulthood.
Jake brought books, a stereo, and his trombone. I brought my Pearl Jam CDs, my VHS collection, and some worn-out trench coats.
I did not bring comic books.
Fordham was in the Bronx and even though I had roots in downtown Toledo, saying I was ready for the Bronx is like saying a goldfish is ready to get tossed into the ocean. It’s probably all different now, but here’s a snapshot of 1995: Go down Arthur Avenue far enough and the chatter turned from Italian to Spanish past the handball court; Puerto-Ricans ran Hughes Avenue; the Albanians had the little strip of E 189th on lockdown. Across Webster Avenue, and down Fordham Road you got reminded that rap was born here. Aspiring musicians sold freshly burned CDs of their homemade rap albums on folding tables they staged along the sidewalk -- it was an impromptu open-air market featuring glossy promotional posters and stacks of Kinko’s business cards.
And it was here, off Fordham Road, that I met Felix.
It was the start of my freshman year. I’d spent my days hanging out with Jake and my nights with my nose pressed against a dorm window, watching kids lurch home drunk.
As far as I know, Felix was not a musician. He just set up shop alongside these guys, maybe hoping for the miracle of herd immunity: the cops seemed to have no problem plucking unlicensed street vendors off one-by-one in other parts of the city, but here, en masse, the vendors operated for hours undisturbed. For a business, Felix wedged himself between two hopeful rappers, dropped three folding tables, and laid out eight longboxes. I was walking to the subway when I first saw his traveling comic shop.
“Look,” he said, patting the boxes. “I got Avengers down to X-Men -- a dollar a book. What you looking for?”
“Nothing,” I said. “But thanks.”
“And it’s all eighties,” he said, smiling. “None of that nineties bullshit.”
Confession: I wanted to be done with comics.
I’d been a super-fanboy for most of my life, and then experienced a bottom moment -- at fifteen I’d saved my restaurant tips for weeks to buy ten polybagged issues of X-Force #1, just to find excess printed copies in the sale-bin two years later. Sure, I might have recovered; chalked it up to the puddle of my greed meeting up against the massive shores of Marvel’s savvy marketing, but then came the Spider-Man Clone Saga and the defamation of Gwen Stacy, which is when I had my total fuck-it moment. Like the girl at the party who finally realizes her boyfriend is a cock, I opted to walk home alone, my heels tucked under my arm, just so I wouldn’t have to spend another moment on variant covers or inflated book events.
“There’s gotta be something you’re looking for,” Felix said.
Sure there was. As a kid I’d always hustled to get my comics and I had huge holes in my continuity. Back in Toledo, in my closet, I had stacks of half-digested stories; singleton issues looking for a run. I knew the rising action to several Wolverine stories, but not the resolution. I knew the climax to a Daredevil arc, but not the setup. Like most kids, I had my entire collection memorized. All it would take to fill some longtime runs was a few a moments, so I took a breath and walked over.
Twenty minutes later I was broke, but had a stack of twenty books I’d wanted since before my balls dropped.
As Felix sorted the comics, I asked: “How much for the Born Again run?”
“Miller and Mazzucchelli?” he asked.
“They weren’t in the Daredevil bin.”
“That’s because they’re special order.”
Something you should know: about once a year, from fifteen on, I’ve re-read Born Again. I found the art pitch perfect; Mazzucchelli had a gift for large panel work - one picture on one page could tell you everything (check out the Murdock / Page reunion shot; it essentially tells whole story). And the mixture of Catholicism and eighties crime; the swirl of heroin and redemption has always spoken to me. I re-read Born Again when we moved out of my grandma’s house, when I failed math tests, when a girl rejected me. It was something I did when I felt lonely, or displaced, or sad, and I’d felt all those things since getting to college. Born Again was a comfort run for me and I’d left my copy in Toledo, in an attempt to evolve past it.
“How much?” I asked.
We negotiated a price: miraculously, the full back issue run would actually cost less than the trade, but I’d have to wait a week to get it. “Come back then. I’ll be somewhere here,” Felix said, gesturing at the sidewalk.
I went back to my new life for a week, which meant I tried to make new friends and kept studying so hard I was killing brain cells. I was a not a natural student, like Jake. A farm boy from rural Pemberville, Jake could fix anything using just a screwdriver, but he was also an accomplished musician who tinkered with computers back when even teachers thought the hobby was for nerds. By contrast, I was a slow reader who accidently broke things, and I’d yet to surf the internet. Despite our differences, our friendship centered on those things we had in common: band, theatre, and the sort-of-miraculous feat of having navigated our entire high school career without ever getting drunk.
But I was curious about drinking.
About a week later, on my way to pick-up the Born Again run, I stopped at a liquor store off the Grand Concourse and bought a small plastic bottle of vodka, the size of my fist. It was the morning. The sun was orange. I found Felix about half-a-block from where we’d first met. He smiled, took my money, and gave me the books. I walked back to my dorm room, my guts twirling with excitement. Jake was gone. I sat at my desk and read, and drank.
It was my first drink ever.
Secretly, I’d never actually felt like things were going to be okay in life, but there was a moment that day, somewhere around issue 228 and nearly three fingers down where I felt like it could actually be beautiful. Years later, at twenty-six, I would have my last drink in circumstances similar to my first: at home, alone, and with a narrowed pool of friends. But that was the end and this was the beginning and it was not loss, or consequences, or crisis yet. It was not my life as it is now either, where there is hope, and family, and fatherhood. This was 1995 and the bottle was pure fireworks. And it would never be that good again.