Searching for lost innocence |

Searching for lost innocence

Tony Vagneur

Janie Johnson and I were the best of friends, politically incorrect enough to spend days – and nights – at each other’s houses, sleeping in the same bed, eating at the same table. Never mind that it all began when we were 5 years old – I couldn’t imagine a future without her.She and her mother, Vera, a stunning woman, lived in the old barn wood-clad house on East Bleeker that recently fell to Obermeyer Place. On the “Edge of the East End,” as everyone called it. As we made our rounds through the neighborhood, old Italians would come to the yard fences surrounding their tiny Victorian houses and talk to us, so openly, without teasing, genuinely concerned with how our day was going. Alex Betemps sometimes gave us mint from his prodigious garden, located between the street and his house, and Janie and I would hurry home to her place and lie next to the backyard lilac tree, eating mint and swearing an oath that when we grew up and lived together, we’d have mint in our garden.Ah, yes, back in the idyllic ’50s of Aspen’s early fame, a time many purport to covet, with its freedom, its vitality, its open view toward the world. Or so we believe as we chase our tails, wondering where the Aspen we loved has disappeared to.Mentioning how good the mint was, in a miscalculated moment of exuberance to the wrong person, brought forth the statement that, “You kids better stay away from those damned Dagos (poetic!) or they’ll poison you.” We ignored the advice, but in retrospect, it cast a pall over the innocence with which we looked at Janie’s neighborhood.Of course, we eventually went to school and I was almost immediately referred to by some as “the Wop kid from Woody Creek.” I never cared (then) to find out what Wop meant as it didn’t seem to have any particular bearing on me as a person, I didn’t think, other than to bless me with a nickname, something which some of those other, and I have to say it – rather dull – kids didn’t have. “Who makes the best wine? Those Wops in Woody Creek!” You know, our surname isn’t even Italian, but that is putting too fine a point on the ignorance of others.Janie and her mother moved away and other faults of mine began to surface, such as I wasn’t Catholic, but nothing insurmountable arose, and in what was to me, at the time, an astonishing display of common sense and strung together words, I verbally backed the bullies down and carved my niche a little bigger.The summer after high school graduation, the beginning of my inexorably decadent years, Janie Johnson came back from the West Coast for a visit. I was ready for her, I thought, but as it invariably must be, the dreams of children are sometimes better left as the memories of adults.Shortly thereafter, a big-toothed kid, sitting in Pinocchio’s and aware of my relationship with Janie, started going on with his friends about the “slut” from California, just to make me squirm. Waiting for better odds, I finally cornered him behind the Prince Albert building and with a fire in my heart, learned the satisfaction that comes with creating mortal fear in the eyes of someone who truly deserves it.I never saw Janie, who tragically died several years ago from the big C, again, but there’ll be no forgetting her.No one has called me a Wop or a Dago (or a heathen) for a very long time now, but just the other day a guy on a mountain bike told me he’d, “just about had ‘it’ with you mother f—kers.” Apparently, I’m once again in a class of people not readily accepted by the self-appointed mainstream.Tony Vagneur writes here every Saturday, wonders what “it” is, and welcomes your comments at

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