One morning before home room the perky girls began tacking hand-lettered signs all over the school. Two weeks from Friday we were invited to attend a sock hop in the school gym. It sounded pretty old-timey to me, like something from Happy Days. On the other hand, the girls seemed pretty excited about it, and where there were girls there was the possibility of brushing up against a boob. That was good enough for me. Lee G was excited, too, but for breastless reasons.
“I’m going to put a band together and name it Cotton Candy and we’re going to play the sock hop. Harold is going to play drums, Tracy is going to sing, and I’m going to play guitar.”
“Do you know how to play guitar?”
“No, but I will by next Friday.”
And so it began, every seventh and eighth grader planning and dreaming. What should I wear? Will he ask me? Should I ask her? Every hallway conversation was dance related, but my only concern was shoes; granted, a rather odd concern for a shoeless dance. Having the right shoes was everything, and I didn’t have them. My father was notoriously cheap. I don’t mean frugal – that’s a six letter word. Why spend that extra letter when “cheap” is five letters? Yes, that cheap.
Frugal is buying the department store brand rather than Nikes. Cheap is buying department store factory rejects. I was outfitted for seventh grade basketball tryouts in a three dollar pair of discount sneakers splotched a coppery brown where the gluing machine had gone haywire, and a pair of bright red stretchy nylon shorts so small that my nuts peeked out of the leg hole when I sat on the bench, which was for the overwhelming majority of the tryout. The only time my exposed testicles and I saw any court time was when they put me in for a quick one-on-one with David of “Chuck the Great and David” fame. He crossed over and head faked, spun, shucked, and jived. Point. Point. Point.
“Take it easy, man, it’s just try outs,” I whispered as he blew my doors off. Point. Point. Point.
That was the end of my student athlete career. In retrospect I think the coach put me up against David knowing that he’d make a fool of me, thereby ensuring that he wouldn’t have to spend the season staring at my pubescent teabag in those ridiculous fifty cent shorts.
David in particular used to give me a rash of shit about my clothes. He was the bellwether of adolescent fashion. Whatever David was wearing today the entire school would be wearing in three months. Izod, Calvin Klein, Nikes, Adidas, parachute pants, Members Only jackets, Ocean Pacific and Panama Jack t-shirts, ankle length socks. David always got there first. His only misstep was an ill-advised perm during senior year. With his teenage moustache he looked like a young Alex Trebeck.
Although I have positioned myself as a Levis and black tee-shirt kid by this time, I should clarify. I don’t know how she was dialed into it, but my mother seemed to understand the heckling I would get walking into school in a pair of factory second off-brand jeans with elephant ear bell bottoms. We were on the brink of the futuristic ’80s and my father was demanding that I wear the two dollar waffle jeans he picked up at a flea market. I could count on David to pounce:
“Ooh, Jim, you got you some new jeans! Those are cool!” and everyone would laugh while I acted like I could care less. Maybe it was a sort of sympathetic radar generated partly from maternal love and partly from being the outcast herself as a child; regardless, my mother would take me to the mall for Levis now and then. It remained unspoken that these must enter the house undetected.
As long as I kept ahead of the laundry I didn’t have to wear the three-legged bell bottoms with the fly mistakenly sewn in the ass, and thus didn’t get much grief for my pants. But my glue-splotched shoes were fair game. This being a sock hop it stood to reason that I was going to have to leave my shoes somewhere, and that of course meant that I would need to reclaim them. Not even the possibility of hot elbow on breast action in the punch line was enough to suffer that indignity.
Buying new shoes was out of the question — I’d spent all my money on records and music magazines. My only hope was asking to borrow the leather Brooks running shoes that we bought my father for his birthday. Asking my father for anything was brutal, the responses always a variation on how spoiled I was, what a burden I was, or how much I owed him for this great favor that I didn’t deserve. Still, dealing with that was better than getting clowned about the glue shoes.
The big night finally arrived. Lee G and I handed off our shoes to some kind parent running the shoe check in the lobby and we headed into the gym. The boys were enamored with the effects of tube socks and velocity on a polished hardwood floor. They ran and slid and generally behaved like twelve year-old boys. The girls crowded near the DJ and danced to the same dozen records that must have played at every party that year.
To date I have avoided generic lists in my little story. Lists are easy to find, you don’t need my help. But in the course of trying to jog my memory of what songs may have been playing in Boiling Springs Junior High’s gym that evening, I was a bit surprised at the Billboard Top 40 for 1979. Virtually this entire list is still in rotation, either on radio and television, in grocery stores and dentist offices, or at that gay bar that you went to once just as a joke, really. Even if you’re not old enough to remember them when they were new, I’m willing to bet you know most of these:
1. My Sharona, The Knack
2. Bad Girls, Donna Summer
3. Le Freak, Chic
4. Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?, Rod Stewart
5. Reunited, Peaches and Herb
6. I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor
7. Hot Stuff, Donna Summer
8. Y.M.C.A., Village People
9. Ring My Bell, Anita Ward
10. Sad Eyes, Robert John
11. Too Much Heaven, Bee Gees
12. MacArthur Park, Donna Summer
13. When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman, Dr. Hook
14. Makin’ It, David Naughton
15. Fire, Pointer Sisters
16. Tragedy, Bee Gees
17. A Little More Love, Olivia Newton-John
18. Heart of Glass, Blondie
19. What a Fool Believes, Doobie Brothers
20. Good Times, Chic
21. You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond
22. Knock On Wood, Amii Stewart
23. Stumblin’ In, Suzi Quatro and Chris Norman
24. Lead Me On, Maxine Nightingale
25. Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground), Jacksons
26. Don’t Cry Out Loud, Melissa Manchester
27. The Logical Song, Supertramp
28. My Life, Billy Joel
29. Just When I Needed You Most, Randy Vanwarmer
30. You Can’t Change That, Raydio
31. Shake Your Groove Thing, Peaches and Herb
32. I’ll Never Love This Way Again, Dionne Warwick
33. Love You Inside Out, Bee Gees
34. I Want You to Want Me, Cheap Trick
35. The Main Event (Fight), Barbra Streisand
36. Mama Can’t Buy You Love, Elton John
37. I Was Made for Dancin’, Leif Garrett
38. After The Love Has Gone, Earth, Wind and Fire
39. Heaven Knows, Donna Summer and Brooklyn Dreams
40. The Gambler, Kenny Rogers
Anyway, back to the gym: The chaperones huddled around the snack table. I don’t remember much in the way of streamers, lights, mirror balls and balloons, but this gym is awfully bare now so let’s say that all were there in abundance. Let’s toss in a hand-lettered banner, too — perhaps with “I’ve Got the Chance I’m Takin’ It!” emblazoned in sparkly block letters, a callback to David Naughton’s #14 smash.
The bleachers were pushed flat against the gym walls like filing cabinets but for a single section. Presumably these seats were available for the youngsters who needed a break from dancing to their rock and roll music, but they had been overrun by young couples making out. Occasionally a chaperone would wander over from the French onion dip and make some sort of compulsory effort to stop them, but the call of the chips was too great for any truly diligent chaperoning.
Lee G took off and joined the dancers. He always managed to play the “aren’t I adorable” card that works with older girls. I couldn’t get away with that — too tall, skinny, and goofy looking — and I didn’t want to dance anyway. I certainly didn’t want to hang out with the sock-sliding idiots, the teachers were bogarting the food, and there was no way I was going to those bleachers. There was no place for me, no dark corner to sit alone.
“My Sharona” came on, and I felt a hand on my wrist.
“Come dance with me.” Holly the eighth grader with her big brown eyes and her bigger smile.
She tugged harder. “Come on! You can’t just stand here all night!”
“Nah, I don’t dance.”
“You don’t have to — just jump up and down.”
She was so pretty, but for whatever reason she wasn’t certified as one of The Untouchables, the attractive elite who floated through the halls. I assume that these days she looks like Mary-Louise Parker. She did then, too, but no one knew it. The perfect smile – the one you’d like to think that you have – that was Holly’s. I couldn’t resist it, and I couldn’t resist an eighth grader’s generous act of charity. So we pogoed to “My Sharona.” I muddled through a few more fast songs the best that I could, but Holly didn’t seem to mind; in fact, she seemed to be having a good time.
Now it’s important to remember that arbitrary mirror ball that we hung from the rafters a few paragraphs back, because in my version of this memory the lights dimmed, the reflections danced off of the mirror ball like snowflakes, and the DJ fired up “Sail On” by The Commodores. The Commodores still had a bit of cred then. They were no longer the funky “Brick House” Commodores, but the Lionel Richification hadn’t hit “Dancing On The Ceiling” proportions yet. Come to think of it, even “Night Shift” was pretty cool. Okay, I’ll give you The Commodores but Lionel Richie? No, never.
But that really isn’t the point. What really matters is that Holly closed the distance between us and wrapped her arms around my waist. I put my hands on her shoulders. She grabbed them and moved them to her waist, then pressed her head against my chest. I looked past her, to the boys sock sliding beneath the basket.
She smelled good. She felt good. She wasn’t just an eighth grader ensuring that I didn’t perch in the eaves like an owl this evening. She wanted me there. She wanted to be with me.
The song ended. I’m pretty sure it was only eleven seconds long. The magic spell was broken and now it was time again to dance poorly to “We Are Family.” She didn’t let go of my waist, just tilted her face toward mine.
“Do you want to sit down for a little bit?”
We climbed to the top of the bleachers, sat next to Tracy and her tenth grade boyfriend. They looked like a pair of octopi in a death match. Holly smiled again, grabbed my hand, and for one shoeless night I belonged.
I have come back to this one so many times, and keep getting lost.
After finishing, my mind wanders again over to that one kid in eighth grade who was really nice to me and I cannot remember his name, and worse, I cannot remember if I was as nice to him.
OR cringing when I think about how I tried to copy the cool girls look and tucked my pants into a pain of knee high boots and the pants simply would not stay in the boots very well, and yes, the inevitable, “Cool Boots (not)”, is tossed my way…I don’t know. Wrong pants? Wrong boots? Wrong person?
To get away from that I then wander over to Google pictures of Mary-Louise Parker, or I just stare at the air, smelling the hallways of St Augustine, remembering that I was so certain that once this ‘school’ business was finished, life was going to be so much easier and fun to navigate.
Let’s just say I am still surprised at how off the mark I was on that one.
It’s kind of funny how universal personal experiences are, isn’t it?