The cool kid at Holden’s Chapel Middle School was Chuck Morris. He had a dirt bike, never took a turn on the twirly slide, and flirted with Lisa’s mother every afternoon when she rolled up in her ’55 Thunderbird. Harold, Chuck, and I were in the smart class together, but Chuck was too cool for everybody but the pretty girls, their mothers, and Brewer. Brewer’s dad owned the local club, and Chuck and he rode dirt bikes together. They walked around the playground at recess, enthusiastically doing nothing and calling each other Bo and Luke.
“Why do you guys call each other Bo and Luke?”
“You know, Duke.”
“Can I be Duke?”
Chuck gave me the “who farted” look. “Duke is their last name.” That was the only conversation I had with Chuck during our entire fifth grade year.
When sixth grade rolled along, though, I had my field jacket and my KISS t-shirt and the implicit (via acknowledgement of my existence) endorsement of Harold the drummer. I was no longer invisible to Chuck the Great; in fact, I was now the guy with whom Chuck spent his recess discussing music, motorcycles, and breasts.
“Where do you get your hair cut?” he asked.
“Gregory’s Barber Shop.”
“That’s for old people! You should go to Jane’s.”
“That’s where my Mom goes!”
“Have you ever seen Jane? She’s a fox. When she cuts the back of your hair she stands in front of you.”
“So her boobs are in your face and she always wears sweaters. I touched one last time I got my haircut.”
Jane administered the rest of my childhood haircuts.
Chuck’s favorite movie was On Any Sunday, Bruce Brown’s now legendary documentary about motorcycle racing, and by extension Chuck’s favorite motorcycle was the Honda Elsinore. My twelfth birthday was coming up, and I wanted an Elsinore and a birthday party.
Birthday parties are a competitive sport now, I think, but I only had two as a kid. My seventh birthday featured a Winnie the Pooh cake and a Mego Batman action figure. Batman quickly lost his life to a garbage bag parachute and a power line. To my knowledge KISS never wrote a song about his untimely electrocution.
That kind of kid stuff wouldn’t play at age twelve. I was best buds with the coolest kid in class. My sister’s boyfriend, Mike, was the epitome of cool — I’d simply use him as a template for my big sleepover. Mike’s room had no toys, just music, weights, and porn. Music and porn! This would be the greatest guy party of all time. And if I needed anymore evidence that the universe was smiling upon me, a film entitled Dirt was in theaters. It wasn’t On Any Sunday, but it was a documentary that featured off-road racing.
I invited every boy in the class, and I greased the tracks with a free movie, the complete KISS collection, and a stack of nudie magazines. Now all I needed to do was screw up the courage to ask Mike for a 24 hour loan of his porn stash. That never happened, but the party did and so did the motorcycle. It wasn’t an Elsinore, but it was a Honda: A 1964 S65. I had a bike and friends – I wasn’t an outsider in South Carolina anymore.
I even had an admirer: Sarina, a newly arrived fellow carpetbagger. She was more of a misfit than I — skinny, loud, freckles, and a stage mom who hyped her daughter’s talents at every opportunity. Sarina could sing and tap dance, act, knew ballet, on and on. She was funny and charming and cute and I didn’t want to have anything to do with her because she was an outcast and for the first time I wasn’t on the Island of Misfit Toys.
So sixth grade ended on a fairly high note. I spent my summer on my little motorcycle or swimming in the pond near our house. Rick would come over and we’d get out the ladder and the baseball bats and air guitar to KISS records. “You’re going to meet them someday,” Rick said. “I just know it.” Some afternoons we’d head into the woods with the neighborhood kids for epic games of Kick the Can. That summer was a bit like a Mark Twain novel but with Atari.
I couldn’t wait for seventh grade to start. Watching a disheveled Jerry Lewis cry on Dino’s shoulder meant the end of summer. Rumor had it that KISS appeared on Jerry’s telethon that year, but they slotted the evil demons so early in the morning that nobody saw them.
Boiling Springs, South Carolina never tore down a high school, they simply repurposed it. The elementary school was the oldest of the decommissioned high schools. Holden’s Chapel, my middle school for the past two years, was the former black high school. The junior high school was the most recent former high school, and as such it was fairly large. It housed grades seven through nine, and in a surprising turn to me was fed not only by my school but another elementary school. This meant a whole new group of kids and their respective cliques to deal with. The pecking order would need to be reestablished as the two schools merged. It was like starting over for me. Fortunately I had my buddy Chuck.
The Hendrix Elementary crowd had their own Chuck. His name was David, and they adored him. The girls fawned over him and the guys jockeyed to be near him. Both simple physics and comic book logic demanded that these two mighty forces either attract or repel each other. There would be no super villains: Chuck and David immediately hit it off. What a stroke of luck for me. Without even trying I was in orbit around the two biggest planets in the junior high solar system. But the trajectory of that orbit degraded fairly quickly. I didn’t have the right clothes, the right shoes, the right friends (other than Chuck). I played baseball not soccer. On and on, always in the form of little jokes punctuated with “I’m just kidding, man. You’re cool.”
One afternoon I caught up with Chuck and David just before math class. They were making a list.
“What are y’all doing?”
“We’re working on our guest list.”
“Y’all are throwing a party?”
“Yeah, at Brewer’s Dad’s club.”
“Next Friday night.”
“This is going to be awesome! I’ll bring some jams!”
David wrote my name on the guest list.
Friday rolled around. Mike had taken lately to wearing a straw cowboy hat, its brim tightly creased. It looked really cool on him, so I asked to borrow it. Hat, Levis, black t-shirt with a half buttoned flannel over it and Nikes — I was styling. I grabbed my KISS albums and waited for a ride from my mother.
The party was packed, the dance floor jammed with girls shaking their developing butts to Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire, and The Sugarhill Gang. “Rapper’s Delight” was huge at the time, one of those monster hits that comes along every few years. The boys crowded the soda fountain at the waitress station mixing suicides – the deadly mix of all available carbonated beverages. I thought that the boys were idiots. Who cares whether you mixed Coke with Cheerwine? You made Cherry Coke — congratulations. But I liked watching them entertain each other, and I really liked watching the girls. I liked their monogrammed sweaters and their add-a-bead necklaces; I liked watching their Jordaches, Calvins, and Gloria Vanderbilts move. I couldn’t dance, though; besides, they were dancing with each other. There wasn’t a guy within ten feet of the dance floor. I grabbed a table near the dance floor, pulled down the brim of my loaner cowboy hat, and ogled as subtly as I could.
Ogling quickly turned into observing. I can’t very well liken it to an out-of-body experience, but it was the first out of room experience that I can remember. Almost thirty-five years later those moments persist. I’m seated at the back of a restaurant as I write this, as far to the back as I can possibly be. Behind me is the door to the office. I chose this seat. From here I can see the whole dining room like the set of an elaborate play, and I’m the only audience member. Waiters call this table a deuce, or table for two. My companions are this notepad, a Jim Thompson novel, and a sketchbook.
Life is going on around me. A Mexican couple is on a date at the next deuce, as is a handsome middle-aged couple sharing a pitcher of sangria. To my right is a four-top filled with Baby Boomers sounding off on the sorry state of the Nation.
“February 3, 1967. I didn’t take another sick day until 2003.”
“I told him I saw him. I liked it much better back then.”
The restaurant is loud. The voices blend into a drone. Occasionally one voice rises about the din and the dialogue bleeds into my scribbling.
“The point is I learned….”
“Anyway, there’s several options….”
I’m not here, not in this room. I’m in this notebook, in these ears, these eyes, watching. I like it here. And I liked it there, next to the dance floor with my stack of KISS records on the table beside me and my underdeveloped mind trying to sort out why the boys huddled together while the girls danced. I liked watching Sarina dominate the dance floor with her years of lessons, those hours paid for by a dutiful stage mom coming back threefold here among the kids who shunned her daughter daily. Eventually the other girls sat down but Sarina kept dancing. Chuck threw on his current favorite, Jay Ferguson’s “Shakedown Cruise,” in an attempt to shut her down. Sarina kept dancing.
“You can’t dance to that!” Chuck yelled.
“I can dance to anything!” she yelled back and never stopped moving.
Chuck ran to my table. It was the first time he’d talked to me all night. “Give me your hardest song,” he said. I handed him Destroyer.
“‘Detroit Rock City’,” I said. “She can’t dance to that.” Chuck tucked it under his arm and ran back to the DJ booth. The song’s opening montage filled the room: The rattling of breakfast dishes; a car door; an engine sparking to life; the tinny sound of an AM radio.
“What is this?” Sarina asked.
Chuck pointed and laughed. “I thought you could dance to anything!” The other guys started laughing, too. Even the girls — the good little Southern Baptist girls — snickered behind their hands while Sarina stood alone on the dance floor. Then Ace’s guitar faded in like some sort of 4/4 alarm: na nah na nah na nah na nah na nah na nah. Peter’s drums came in with the classic rock beat: boom bap boom boom bap / boom bap boom boom bap. Sarina was off, hitting it every bit as hard as if “Detroit Rock City” was “Le Freak.” That girl shook the swan off her Gloria Vanderbilts. The other girls remained seated, but the boys flooded the dance floor. They struck their best air guitar poses, sang along with Paul, stuck their tongues out like Gene, flew their devil horns.
I wish I could say that I realized at that moment the lie that Sarina inadvertently exposed. I wish I was hip enough then to realize that rock and roll was simply black music in white face, that rhythm was rhythm, that if there was a backbeat you could use it. That epiphany would take a few more years, though. For tonight I was satisfied with my newfound admiration for Sarina, the girl whose crush I denied because she wasn’t part of the in crowd but was actually cooler than all of us put together. She moved away not too long after that. I don’t know what became of her. My guess is that we’re all probably working for her.
My other great epiphany of that evening was that I belonged on the periphery, that I enjoyed the role of observer. No, not enjoyed: I was an observer. If felt right sitting there alone watching the evening unfold. It was pleasurable, interesting, satisfying. I had no business in a cowboy hat – I wasn’t a cool kid. That suit of clothes simply didn’t fit me. I was the camera eye, the secret recorder. I was the owl haunting the eaves.
“Having fun?” Chuck sat down across from me, pulling me out of the eaves and back to the table.
“Yeah, this is a great party.”
Chuck looked at me, looked through me. “You know nobody wanted you here. You invited yourself.” He tossed Destroyer onto my stack of records and walked away. I sat there for another twenty minutes waiting for my mother to arrive, very much in the room, very much alone.