The Story So Far, In Pictures: No. 1.
1972. (See “Skies of America.”)
The Story So Far, In Pictures: No. 1.
1972. (See “Skies of America.”)
Around the age of eight, friendship becomes a political art. Before then, one falls into, or out of, friendship without much thought or regret; friendship is improvisatory and capricious and a great of it depends on factors not of your devising: who you’re seated next to in class, who lives next door to you, whose parents are friends with your parents (the latter is crucial, as these are the kids with whom you are bundled at interminable adult parties).
I had met Curtis on the first morning of first grade, and 1980 to 1982, second to fourth grade, was the summit of our friendship. We then drifted apart, slowly but inexorably, although we retained a bond from our high season, which meant that we would always find some room for each other. Curtis became a well-loved, sarcastic jock, I became bookish and moderately unpopular, yet the two of us would still eat together on occasion, or we would sit next to each other in class, where sometimes I quietly fed him a joke. As I moved away the summer before we started high school, I never found out whether our alliance—a meager thing held together by a mutual nostalgia, like many marriages—would have still lasted once we reached serious adolescence. It likely wouldn’t have, but as it will always remain an unanswered question, I can pretend otherwise.
In 1980, however, we were great friends, and, better, knew we were great friends. We shared a love of University of Virginia basketball, Mad magazine, Saturday Night Live and rock music (we were the hipsters of our grade, as Curtis had two college-age siblings who brought home with their laundry Elvis Costello, Devo and Cars records).
We had an insider language, a semaphore of raised eyebrows and nods and hand gestures, a few shorthand words. Here’s an example of the latter. A boy named Zennon rode our school bus. He was about six years old and looked younger thanks to his enormous dimpled face which seemed that of a caricatured infant. He was adorable: girls loved him, even the bus driver smiled at him. And each day, after Curtis got off the bus, Zennon smiled and shot him the middle finger. Zennon apparently had no reason to do so—he never talked to Curtis (indeed, being a first-grader, he was a nonentity), Curtis never picked on him, and Curtis was a highly popular figure on the bus who had no enemies or rivals. Yet Zennon, always with a demonically gleeful expression on his face, flipped him off daily. As I sometimes got off the bus with Curtis to spend the afternoon at his house, I remember the grinning face, framed by the bus window, and the middle finger, proudly extended in front of Zennon’s sprig of a nose.
So “Zennon” became our shorthand for any inexplicable fucked-up action. A kid named Eric who had soiled his pants in class but didn’t ask to go to the bathroom until the teacher, catching wind of it, screamed at him to leave—that was “very Zennon.”
In the election of 1980 (the first presidential election that I remember), Curtis backed Ronald Reagan. He could have hardly done otherwise: Curtis’ father—who owned an insurance agency, which Curtis’ elder brother was slated to take over—had been a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Detroit. Curtis began passing on “facts” and complaints and slogans (I recall there was an Oscar Mayer knockoff jingle that ended with “Jimmy Carter has a way/of screwing up the USA”); he was a drainpipe through which his father and his brother’s conversations sluiced.
I had no reason to dislike Jimmy Carter. In fact, my aunt had brought me to see a Carter rally in Roanoke (I recall nothing from it) in the summer of 1980. But Curtis, and soon enough our mutual group of friends, was adamant that Carter was awful, that he was ruining the country, and he needed to get the boot. It wasn’t that Curtis constantly spouted this stuff, it just came out unassumingly, sprinkled into talk about the Dukes of Hazard or the very Zennon situation of an old man in Fincastle who’d been caught stuffing gumballs into people’s gas tanks. I soon converted: Carter was lousy, Carter had made a mess of things, Carter should be gone.
(Once we were talking about presidents, Curtis said, “Abraham Lincoln, he’s the worst one of ‘em all.” Why? I asked. Lincoln was important enough to get his own holiday, so you figure he would’ve merited some praise. “Because he freed the slaves,” Curtis said.)
That fall, I had become friends with a boy named Patrick. He came from a distinguished rural family, the sort that had produced a cast of dozens of aunts and uncles and siblings, all handsome and faintly regal, all seemingly having descended from some colossal backwoods sire like Andrew Jackson. Patrick backed Jimmy Carter. His family had voted Democratic since before the Civil War, and they saw no need to change now, especially as there was a Christian man from Georgia in the White House.
But thanks in part to Curtis’ lobbying, Patrick was greatly in the minority for our class. We had one of those mock elections that newspapers like to write about, a bunch of ignorant eight-year-olds voting for president, and Reagan swamped the field; the Carter votes numbered perhaps a half-dozen. For Curtis, this was just as good as the actual election, so he rested from his labors. I, turned fanatic, stayed caught up in it. And it seemed in that last week before the election that everyone was caught up in it: there was a buzz of anxiety, of irritation, a vaguely-sensed convulsion that I intimated from newscasts and Time magazine covers and half-heard slices of conversation from farmers settling their bills at Nanny’s Market down the road from my house.
On a brisk sunny morning, a few days before the election, Patrick and I were walking from the recess yard back into school. I needled him with some slogan, and Patrick snapped back that he was tired of it, that didn’t I know that all people wanted was a change, they didn’t care what it was, they didn’t know what it was, and it wouldn’t even be a change, really, but even if it was, it would just be for the worse.
I paused, tried to calibrate, had nothing. I had reached the limit of a child’s capacity to understand another person. “Well, you can go to hell,” I said. He stared at me. “You’re telling me to go to hell? You can go to hell!” There was a thin vein of anger in his voice. He tramped off. Reagan won, of course; Patrick and I never spoke again.
“How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?,” Brother D with Collective Effort, single, 1980.
In the summer of 1979, my parents and I moved into what, in retrospect, I would call “Home.” Home was a white-washed ranch house on a one-acre property in Botetourt (pronounced “BOT-uh-TOT” by locals) County, Virginia. Its notable feature was a wrap-around, two-storied porch built of grey slate, over which, every summer, teeming generations of black ants would traverse. I was a gleefully homicidal boy, as most boys are, so I devised various ways to dispatch the ants. The most effective method, as well as the most fun, was to take a volleyball (likely stolen from my mother’s classroom—-she coached volleyball for a time) and bounce it against an unsuspecting ant, its flattened self clinging to the surface of the ball as it sailed upward to my grip. A good bounce would take out four or five at once, the ball pocked with ant bodies.
The Jesuits once devised memory palaces for the mind, with the recollected inventory of a particular castle or monastery serving as the blueprint for a treasure house of memory (read J. Spence). “Home” is my weak equivalent, as the inventory of this house, which I can still recall vividly, is overstuffed with memories. The front door let onto the living room, with its dark-brass wood stove (a babysitter of mine, a neighborhood boy named Tommy Duffy, once spent the evening slumbering behind the stove. I would check up on him every half-hour, to make sure he was all right, then went back to my reading); this was the room in which I first heard Sgt. Pepper and Hot Rocks and Endless Summer, sitting in an overstuffed black armchair wearing a pair of enormous Yamaha headphones whose earpieces, made of vinyl, were slightly fraying. It was also the room in which a traveling Christian encyclopedia salesman guilted my mother into buying a book called Bible Stories That Live for her inadvertently irreligious child (this was a blue hardcover that reeked of something cloying—-camphor or peppermint—-and had dippy illustrations of smiling hippie Christs and immaculately bearded patriarchs. The illustration of Christ cleansing the temple, my favorite moment of righteous anger for Christ, looked like a Bee Gees LP cover.)
The living room gave onto a long hallway, off of which were three rooms: my parents’ (always out of bounds, though once, when I was sick during the summer, my father carried me to the room, lay me on the enormous bed and turned on the air conditioner—-I felt like a dauphin), my own, and a room between them, painted bright yellow, which we called the “sewing room.” My mother did actually sew in it, for a year or two. There was a secret passage (well, a closet) between it and my room, which delighted me, as I was Narnia-obsessed at the time.
Then a small kitchen; a living room with the television, which only got two channels; a stairwell to the basement, lined with shelves on which my mother stored canned zucchini and tomatoes (another short-lived project, as with the sewing); the basement itself, a room the size of a ship’s galley, with a washer/dryer and a stack of newspapers, which I would dig through at the end of every August, so as to catch up on a summer’s worth of comics when I came back home. There was a larger basement room, separated from the proper one by a metal door; it had an earthen floor and seemed like a place where one could be imprisoned. It troubled me that my parents had this option, though they never had cause to use it.
Our house was on a slight slope, separated from the road by a small creek and a bridge, over which one night our neighbor’s daughter, Kelly, drove her car. It was late, she was drunk. The car, taking the turn too sharply, sailed through the air, landing on the far side of the creek. She pulled herself out from the car, bleeding from a dozen scratches, and crawled and staggered up to our house, waking up my father and begging him not to tell her father what had happened. My father tried to tell her that this would be difficult, as the car was lying in a heap, its engine still turning, in his creek, and that already lights were on in the Peters house. But it has always stayed with me that she went to us first, and I remember her sitting in a heap in the living room in her crumpled party dress, crying, her face smeared with blood. She was a terrifying incarnation of teenage drunken consequence, and poor Kelly is likely why I was essentially straight-edge until I went off to college.
Personal Canon: Doctor Who, “City of Death,” 1979. (Primarily written by Douglas Adams and Graham Williams).
“Let them GAWP…let them GAPE, what do I care?….is that all you can say, ‘no eyebrows’?”
Fleetwood Mac, “I Know I’m Not Wrong” Tusk, 1979.
This is the original mix on the LP, replaced on later CD reissues by an inferior (IMO) mix.
Personal Canon: Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978).
I am the product of public school, from grades one to twelve. This was in part because my mother was a public school teacher and she lacked both the means and the hypocrisy to send me to a private one, but also because there seemed no need for an alternative. Whenever I read one of the countless NY Times articles in which parents of my generation and of my relative social class flagellate themselves about getting their kids into the right Pre-K school, as leverage to get into the right K-6 school, which is a ramp to get into the right high school, which is a passkey to get into HarvardYaleBrownUPenn (when does it end for these kids? when they create Facebook?), I am grateful that in September 1978 I started going to Breckenridge Elementary School, in Fincastle, Virginia.
This will sound strange in our increasingly class-bifurcated country, but I simply went to “school.” One of the richest boys in the county, who I later became friends with, whose parents owned a horse farm and lived in a decaying Faulknerian mansion, went to my school. As did the various Dunkers and Mennonites. As did the farm boys who came to school after having spent the dawn hours in the fields, with their shoes and jeans streaked with mud and sometimes manure. As did the kids who came from families entrenched in rural poverty, who lived in houses with dirt floors, who still used outhouses. (My mother once recalled the matriarch of such a clan being taken to a supermarket in the nearby city of Roanoke—-it was the most exciting adventure of her life. She was stunned by Kroger, it was the physical embodiment of every dream of luxury she’d ever allowed herself to have). The population of my school was 50% black, 50% white. It was the most egalitarian society that I have ever been part of in my life. I’m sure if I went back there today, it will have changed, for the worse.
I recall that first school morning in September, as it was when I met Curtis, who would be my best friend for years. He was mocking a McDonald’s commercial that I also hated (we shared a dislike for Grimace), we fell into mocking it together: such is the simple alchemy of six-year-old boys’ alliances. Other minor characters of my school years made their first appearances—-one boy, Metheny, was wailing and clinging to his mother, begging her to take him home. This performance colored my view of him: years later, I still had a vague dislike of Metheny for being a coward and a whiner, in part because of the memories of that morning, in part because he had fully grown into my initial perception of him.
For the six or so people following this thing, there should finally be some new entries this week. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t write anything else (non-paying writing, that is) until I had finished a draft of a chapter for my David Bowie book, so this tumblr has suffered a bit.
But we should finally get into the Eighties soon. Excitement awaits.
Television, “Glory,” Adventure, 1978.