During the summer after eighth grade we spent a week at Disney World in Florida. My father bought some sort of package deal that included a campsite, park tickets, and three meals per day at any restaurant on the Disney property. I wasn’t too keen on living in a pop-up camper for seven days, but three squares made the deal palatable. For the first time ever I could order what I wanted without fear of repercussion. No more worrying about whether I would exceed some sort of arbitrary and unspoken spending limit, thus angering my father and leaving me sputtering apologies and promising to pay the difference — whatever it may be — out of my own pocket.
On the contrary, my father was a man intent on getting his money’s worth so that week was spent in some kind of gustatory frenzy. I crammed as much expensive food down my gullet as I could. Yes, and I jammed as much wholesome Disney fun into my day as I could, too. To miss a minute at the park was to waste money that had already been spent. I awoke each morning well before my family and ran to the ferry that separated the campground from the park, and I closed the joint every night. I wouldn’t leave until the Main Street Electrical Parade flickered out and the last firework faded behind Cinderella’s Castle. Seven days of independence, of solitude but for the tens of thousands of strangers milling about and the nights spent sleeping in a crowded, mildewed camper. One week spent annoying the guides at the Haunted Mansion by parroting their lines along with them; of spotting the service doors in the otherwise seamless It’s A Small World; of praying for white tee-shirts on the water rides. When it was all over I went home with a full belly, a Mickey Mouse tee-shirt, and a taste for autonomy.
Of course I wore the tee-shirt on the first day of the ninth grade. There was an unspoken law among The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam that one must wear his concert tee to school the day after a show. Obviously this policy must extend to the House of the Mouse.
“You went to Disney World?” He was my age but he had a full beard, black hair, heavy-lidded eyes.
“Were you fucked up?”
“I went last year with my Mom and my brother. My brother brought a sheet of Donald Duck acid and we tripped for five days straight.”
“It was cool at first, but then a giant mouse comes at you and you go ‘AHHHH!'”
This was my introduction to Chris, the coolest dude in a black tee-shirt since my sister’s ex-boyfriend, Mike. He played guitar, lived with his college-aged girlfriend, was quite articulate, and high at least fifty percent of the time. Chris would eat any drug that he could get his hands on. His locker was full of baggies.
Later in the day I ran into Dick-In-A-Box Tony. “Look at this queer!” He pointed at me. “He’s wearing a fucking Mickey Mouse shirt!” His little group of friends laughed, yelled “faggot” and otherwise voiced their displeasure at the presence of Uncle Walt’s favorite mouse.
Ninth grade in my world was still junior high school, but it was the year that we were sorted again. Academically we were grouped into “regular kid,” “gifted kid,” and “prevo kid” categories. “Prevo” was short for pre-vocational school. These kids spent the first half of the day in required academic courses — English, math — and then boarded a bus for a special school filled with woodworking and automotive tools bound to leave one short a finger or two.
Socially this created a split in The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam. No longer a unified front, those in Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden tees were shipped off to prevo and those of us who could work, say, April Wine or Triumph into our rotations were outsorted onto the “regular kid” track. (I’ll leave it up to the next edition of Freakonomics to ponder this phenomenon.) This was a bit startling for me, as I was suddenly a “pretty boy” to a bunch of guys who were cool with me for the two prior years. With a single cut of the band saw I was unaffiliated.
Mitch, a red-headed kid who had never spoken to me before, leaned on my desk while Dick-In-A-Box Tony and his friends clowned me. “I hate that motherfucker,” he said.
“He’s just messing around.”
“No he isn’t. He’s a pussy trying to act all bad ass in front of Cale and Cotton. He acts all tough but when his girlfriend dumped him over the summer he called me crying like a little girl.”
I pretended to laugh, but I was nervous.
“Hey, you live down Rainbow Lakes Road, don’t you? I’ve seen you on your bike,” Mitch said.
“Yeah, I live in Timberlake.”
“I live just down from there like you’re going to Highway Eleven. You know where that big house is on the right just past Bellew Town Road? I live down the road just past that. We should hang out. You like Ozzy?”
“Sabbath is cool.”
“Those motherfuckers fired him because Ozzy is crazy. He bit the head off a bird.”
“They showed a picture of that in Creem.”
“Cool. Hey, I have his new album. I’ll bring it over and we’ll jam.”
I gave Mitch directions to my house — directions that only someone familiar with the landmarks could understand — and agreed to hang out around 4:00.
Four o’clock came and went, 4:15, 4:30. Around 5:00 Mitch knocked on the door, clothes ripped and bloodied.
“You didn’t tell me about the German shepherds at the Brady Bunch house. Those motherfuckers are fast. They chased me until I lost them going down that big hill, but I wiped out at the bottom. I saved the records, though.” He handed me a blood-stained copy of Blizzard Of Ozz that was missing a corner, and the new Kinks album, Give the People What They Want.
“Hey, that album kicks ass. Have you heard ‘Destroyer’?”
This really didn’t make any sense. Mitch was a prevo kid. Prevo kids liked Maiden and Sabbath and called their friends pussies for crying over a girl. They weren’t into The Kinks. Neither was I. I knew who The Kinks were, obviously. They were a British Invasion-era band. They were responsible for “You Really Got Me,” which Van Halen covered on their first album. They were the guys behind “Lola,” the live version from One For the Road joining The Beatles’ “A Day In the Life” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” among others as songs that would stop time and send me running for the radio’s volume knob.
But The Kinks were old and irrelevant. They meant as much to The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam as Paul Revere and the Raiders or The Dave Clark Five. My confusion must have been obvious. “That album kicks ass,” Mitch repeated. I cued it up and dropped the needle.
He was right. This wasn’t old-timey British Invasion pop. Album opener “Around the Dial” had the energy of punk and New Wave, but mixed with Dave Davies’s big power chords and his brother Ray’s too-smart-for-me eccentric, almost spoken word lyrics.
Title track “Give the People What They Want” picked up right where “Around the Dial” left off, and then the first of Ray’s odd characters made his appearance in “Killer’s Eyes.” The album’s other creepy deviant pled his case in the eponymous “Art Lover”:
Sunday afternoon there’s something special
It’s just like another world
Jogging in the park is my excuse
To look at all the little girls
I’m not a flasher in a rain coat
I’m not a dirty old man
I’m not gonna snatch you from your mother
I’m an art lover come to daddy
Creepy, disturbing. Pop music as James Mason character. Unlike Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” or The Who’s “Fiddle About” there was no menace in the music. It was quiet, gentle. And unlike the school teacher in The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” this particular Humbert wasn’t struggling with his desire. “Art Lover” is easily the most disturbing song ever written from the point of view of a pedophile. On the other hand, it sent me on a search for what “a Degas ballerina” meant much in the same way that Sting introduced me to Vladimir Nabokov.
But the high point of Give the People What They Want was the self referential “Destroyer,” where we meet up with Lo-lo-lo-la-Lola again, and The Kinks callback the big riffs that made them a Brit Invasion monster in the first place.
That morning I’d never spoken to Mitch. He was just another prevo kid — another guy in the background who could kick my ass. A pothead, a dead-ender. Now he was sitting in my bedroom after donating some skin to get there, turning me onto new music and through no fault of his own making me feel like a judgemental asshole.
Next we put on Blizzard Of Ozz. Similar to The Kinks, I was sure that I knew what to expect. I knew Black Sabbath: the dark lyrics, the heavy riffs, the gloom and doom tempos. I loved Sabbath in all their evil glory. But the new Ozz was something else. It wasn’t soot-covered Birmingham; it was sunny Southern California. Blizzard was more akin to Van Halen, Quiet Riot, and Motley Crue than Judas Priest or Iron Maiden. Of course this had everything to do with Randy Rhoads, but I didn’t know that at the time. I just knew that the new Ozzy kicked ass. The only real nod to Ozzy’s dark roots was the Halloween-cheesy “Mr. Crowley,” which of course we played five times in a row.
For the rest of the school year Mitch and I enjoyed an after school friendship rooted in music and geographical proximity, and Mitch kept surprising me by defying the prevo stereotypes that Dick-In-A-Box Tony and his buddies revelled in.
“You know Brian Hanson?” Mitch asked me.
“A bunch of us were at Pizza Inn on Sunday and he was being a dick. He kept combing his hair with a fork trying to be funny and when nobody laughed he started making jokes about me being queer. I waited for him outside and as soon as he stepped into the parking lot I hauled back to punch him and he said ‘Jesus loves you’ and I just couldn’t do it.”
“You should’ve hit him just for saying that.”
“Nah, man. I can’t hit somebody when they’re talking about Jesus. Not even that motherfucker.”
Toward the end of the school year Mitch rolled up one afternoon not on his bicycle but in a baby blue Volkswagen Beetle.
“Whose car?” I asked.
“Mine. I bought it for a hundred bucks. Can you believe it?”
Yes, yes I could. “No way! This is a cool car!” It was dented and rusty and the interior was in tatters, but it was Mitch’s own car. That made it the coolest car I had ever seen.
“You want to take it for a drive? You do know how to drive a stick, don’t you?”
Now, I’d been riding motorcycles for a few years so I had the basic gist of motorized transportation, but a 125cc Honda is not an automobile. My only experience with driving a car was on the Pole Position machine at The Pantry.
“Yeah, I can drive a stick.” We piled into Mitch’s new ride and I puttered around Timberlake, stalling on the many hills and declaring each time that his Bug was different from the many other standard transmissions I’d driven.
The arrival of the automobile means death to friendships of proximity. Mitch could get to his real friends now. I don’t remember ever seeing him during high school, probably because he spent half the day at the vocational school and I spent equally as much time being sullen in the supply room of the art class. But that story is still a few years away.
I did see Mitch once more, though. It was toward the end of our senior year. I stopped at The Pantry on my way home from school for peanuts and a Coke. I strutted across the parking lot in my eyeliner and asymmetrical haircut, my Capezios and Firenzas and dog collar, my earrings and my tank top, all the while enjoying the usual taunts of “Faggot,” “I’ll kick your ass,” etc. I was walking in just as Mitch was walking out. He looked at me, looked at the rednecks pointing and laughing at me just as they had done that first day of the ninth grade. Mitch was wearing black slacks and a tuxedo shirt.
“Hey man, how you been?” I said.
“Why you all dressed up?”
“Oh, I got a job at the country club. I’m on my way to work.”
“Cool. Hey, we should hang out sometime.”
“Yeah,” Mitch said, never taking his eyes off his buddies, never looking at me. “I’ll see you.”
I felt terrible when he drove away, not because he shunned me but because I put him in such an awkward situation. To this day I have dreams that I run into Mitch somewhere, approach him with the enthusiasm of one who has just found a long-lost friend. In the dream his face always turns a whiter shade of pale and he scrambles to get away from me, and I always wake up feeling like I’m standing at the front door of The Pantry.
Other “Why It Matters” pieces related to this one:
I feel like I was there. I feel like it is only now, a gazillion years later, that I look back and wonder at how any number of friendships from that age ended rather abruptly with changing circumstances or shifts in crowd affiliations. At the time, I took it in stride…now I am filled with awe at how it all happened so quickly.
And you thought that those friendships would last forever 🙂
I turned forty-nine the day you have this published. I spent a good chunk of my birthday just sitting quietly with a glass or three of wine, thinking about birthdays and people from years ago, what we bonded over, how we drifted. My memory is nowhere near as sharp as your, however, the stand out ones never fail to start massaging my curiosity, and with this intergoogletubeweb we all have at our beck and call, I start searching.
I don’t really like it when I start searching, because if I cannot find the person, it seems weird – everyone is on the damned Internet in one form or another, aren’t they? But if I do find them, I hesitate about saying hello and reconnecting. I usually wind up not sending a message or an e-mail, I just lapse back into the memory. Even in the safety of my own chair behind my computer screen, along with the memory rides sidecar the anxiety of being brushed off and ignored.
I wish, at forty-nine years old I could say I have outgrown a certain sweaty, stammering embarrassment, but it’s days like August 15th that remind me I have not.
But, like Mitch, they pop up in my dreams, and the outcome is always the same nervous shuffle underneath the relentlessly sunny Los Angeles sky.
You know, I think that those people live in the past for a reason. The intergooglewebtubes have flattened time out in a strange way, allowed us to become people hoarders. As much as I’d like to say hi to Mitch I also like not being able to say hello to him, because this way I can keep my memories intact.
‘flattened time out’ is perfect. I keep trying to figure out why “reconnecting” often makes me uneasy. It feels like I am mucking around with both my memories and with time, and maybe both of them should be left alone. It’s like the personal equivalent of a song remake – you might strike gold, but odds are it’s going to pale in comparison to the original.
Spending time collecting people from the past while living in the present feels like such a strange way to…. spend time.
But…..that little niggle of curiosity often demands to be satisfied, even when it knows it will probably not be satisfying.