“Our future’s so bright we gotta wear shades.”
— every graduation speaker, ever
Everyone tells stories in high school, about what they do and who they get with. The baseball team at Van Nuys High School, 13000 Oxnard Street, Van Nuys, California, was a great source of these stories. Whether they were true or not — that didn’t matter. They kept our minds from imploding under the weight of Curricular Standards of Achievement.
It was 1985, and we were all just waiting to get out into the world, any world. And when that seemed impossible, or would take too long, we took matters into our own hands. It’s called in Educational Literature “The Creative Relationship to Boredom.”
Where would we be without boredom? Probably still eating raw meat.
There was Toby “the Bat” Bauer, slugger, blond, a man-child who would eventually go bald and who, it seemed, could inspire quite a few of the teachers. Mrs. _________ would drape her legs over the edge of her desk and bob them back and forth when Toby walked in. It wasn’t even his class, he’d just be out roaming the halls the way Seniors could, and she would stop the class for him. Her lecture became less important than the man-body captivating her.
She was powerless. I could completely relate.
Everybody said Toby had sex with every cheerleader on the squad. In truth, he probably hadn’t, as those were the days when schools were experimenting with their own versions of Cheerleader Affirmative Action. They’d take a few dopey, unsophisticated girls and dump them into the teased-hair clique. We could always pick out the Loser, the bulbous placeholder who, curiously, not only gave school administrators something to be proud of, but actually made the other cheerleaders look incredibly hot.
Alyssa was incredibly hot. Babette was incredibly hot. Babette was not a cheerleader, just someone I had a crush on in Physiology; she drove a red ’69 Mustang, had long brown hair, wore old jeans, and I was in love.
And completely out of my league. On the wrong field. Lost.
But back to the cheerleaders: Toby probably never fucked the Loser. While I felt sorry for the butter-girl with all the enthusiasm, he dutifully focused on all of the others. All of them, if the stories could be believed.
And they could be believed. Why? Because school was all about sex. You were either getting it or making excuses for why you weren’t (usually some version of Moral Rectitude). Some had The Gift, and if you were hot enough, oh they shared. Mustache Mark could walk into a room, smile his best Persian Tom Cruise, and we were his. He knew we were his, not because he was arrogant, but because he was experienced. Who knew where that brown, straight-haired yet soft and tickly mustache had been?(Hint: easier to say where it hadn’t.) Mark knew what he was doing, was open to anything, had done everything and was very, very good at what he did. Girls would run to the bathroom as he sauntered by. He was that powerful.
Allan “the Crotch” Haddad’s center of gravity was, well, his crotch. Low-to-the-ground, carried by strong legs. I used to think of him as WalkingDick. He was the team’s catcher, which only now strikes me as particularly inappropriate; he might have received the pitcher’s balls, and his thighs might have said, “Yeah, I know how to ride,” but according to Scripture he was a jackhammer in bed. The Crotch knew where his power was located, and focussed that power to seismic effect. Everyone said so.
At a time when I was trying to figure out what it meant that Michael Atget seemed to be blinking at me across our History class, and thinking there was no way a boy named Shannon, a dancer and choreographer with a blonded streak of hair and an attachment to me — no way he could be gay, even as he brushed up against my arm, my back, my legs as he’d get his books out of our locker — Toby Bauer and his friends were sending grown women into girlish giggling fits as they adjusted their legs to just the right angle, leaving their classes to fend for themselves as they got their fix of The Team.
So of course I wanted my footnote in this unfolding drama to be just-this-side of pornographic. 1980s porn, the stuff of TV movies, take-me-to-the-edge and then close-the-door kind of porn. I wanted Jake the Snake, in a fit of uncontrolled honesty, to focus his animal on me, or Boozer Bozer to make me the object of his affection. Word was, when he got drunk, he got very feely. Why not with me? Everything would have been perfect with just one player. That’s all I needed. Just one, and all the stars align, tumblers click into place. Cory (didn’t even need a nickname; “Cory” was enough) could wait for me after class, ask me for some help with his Trig, walk too close to me down the hall as I explained cosigns. I could smell his Drakkar Noir and SpeedStick deodorant. And then, after walking and walking and walking, he’d lean over — totally against his will — and Cory me. I mean, kiss me.
And then feel guilty.
And then kiss me again.
I would become his safe place, the One Who Knew. And he would let me know in that kiss that I was not alone. That beautiful people have problems, too, even as they seduce teachers.
But no, that is not the way it happened. No soft-core, no team, no fade-to-black.
My stage was beer. Illegal, underage, unChristian beer.
In my car with Jack.
It was dark except for the blinding Vegas-lights of the Dales Jr. Liquor Store, where Jack and I sat scoping patrons.
We were waiting for someone old enough to buy us beer. Or, more honest, Jack was waiting for someone to buy him beer. Jack didn’t go to Van Nuys High. He was the “troubled one,” probably going to drop out, et cetera. Rumor had it that he had a huge coke habit, or a heroin problem, or an alcohol problem. His parents were shit, so the stories said; dad couldn’t be found and his mom, well, she gave him the coke habit. Jack and I worked at McDonald’s together; and before anyone jumps to conclusions — McDonald’s? What. A. Shit. Job — I learned most of what I know about real-life before I turned 17. From McDonald’s.
Not in class.
Not in school.
I learned that it doesn’t matter how smart or how right you are when a lying bitch of a customer decides she’s going to sell her integrity for a filet-o-fish. The customer is always right, and that sometimes means you lose $1.35 and your ego replacing a half-eaten, now-cold sandwich
“But she’s been gnawing on it for half-an-hour!” you protest. In front of her. Before you’re dragged back to the manager’s office by the arm, loudly scolded, put on display for all the other employees, written up, and all for what?
“It’s called word-of-mouth!” the manager screams.
“I don’t want her friends coming in!” I yell back.
I was sixteen and had a mouth.
“That’s it! Punch out!”
Terrible truth: those with money get to talk.
But I also learned that the harder you work, the more you are scheduled. True fact: I became less lazy so I could pull California-maximum hours per week.
I learned that managers are not always intelligent, and their advice is sometimes more to make them feel useful than, well, intelligent, but the mark of a strong person is helping someone who is stupid make less-stupid mistakes.
Jack was a whiz on the grill. He could do a twelve-double-turn so fast his spatula shone. He was all energy and always working, always, sometimes doing closing shifts even though he was a teenager because he needed the money and Tamara knew Jack needed the money. She used him like a whore. Nothing was ever good enough, nothing was ever right. Tamara knew she had him.
One of the worst things I learned working fast-food was also one of the truest: your boss is not your friend.
I was the nice guy. The one everybody thought was naive. Go figure.
Virginal. Unacquainted with life. Different.
Maybe it was the way I walked and talked, or the fact I was in honors classes in high school, or maybe they just saw right through me. I don’t know. I didn’t want coke, and that made them suspicious. But I did drink — not a lot, which they thought was cute. Feminine. Our course, if I had wanted drugs, I could’ve gotten drugs. It was the Eighties. Kids were clicking their blades against mirrors in the school bathrooms. Everybody was on something. I remember Claudette the Cheerleader’s eyes one day during French — she couldn’t focus, and no one said anything about it. She just sat there for fifty-five minutes, trying to focus her eyes, amused that she couldn’t, rubbing her eyeliner into little circles.
The people at work knew I was innocent. Harmless.
And Jack knew I was gay.
“Hey, Beck-y, you want to watch me change?” he asked as he walked into the closet-sized changing suite off the crew area. He took off his shirt. Skinny, but cute.
I looked away. “No,” I lied.
He pulled me through the door and teasingly pulled down his pants. “Yeah you do.”
I didn’t look down. “Come on, Jack,” I said. “Stop it.”
He opened the door, and I walked out, hard.
Jack knew I wanted anything I could get. He could feel what I was missing — everyone could. When I think back on it, I realize everybody knew. And everybody was okay with knowing. And not caring, as in too absorbed in their own shit to focus on mine. It wasn’t like they were going to stop inviting me to their parties. Or stop me from trying to date Hannah, who dumped me after two sex-less dates.
They just didn’t care, in that benign way not-caring can be. Freeing.
Fast-food lessons, I guess.
So Jack and I are sitting in front of Dales Jr., waiting for someone old enough to buy a kid some alcohol. Back then, it wasn’t so much of a deal — you found a guy, gave him enough to get a sixer himself, and out he’d come with yours.
I was afraid to go up to anyone, so I became The Money.
Jack was afraid of no one. They said he was beat by his mom, maybe her boyfriend, but his lack of fear meant he learned who would buy and who wouldn’t.
“You need someone who wants to be cool.”
Within minutes, Jack was out of the car, talking to a young almost-hot guy about to go into the store, giving the guy my money, and three minutes later we had a six-pack.
It didn’t stop there. Jack drank the beer — I had one — and then got more money for the Bartles&Jayme’s wine-coolers that were only the most popular drink of the Valley right then.
Wine-coolers. As a chaser.
But Jack drank them down.
Then he wanted to go driving. So I drove. All around North Hollywood. Up and down Whitsett, Laurel Canyon, Coldwater.
He wanted to park in the alley behind his house.
That’s when I heard Jack’s story. That’s when I knew that everything that had been rumored was false because the reality was much worse.
I learned what Jack would do for money, and suddenly knew that what had happened in the changing room at work was not special — it was special, because Jack didn’t do it for money, but not special, because Jack did people for money.
I learned that Jack hustled, that I was being nicely hustled because he needed the wine-coolers to get through the night. While I would go home and try to keep my one-beer-breath away from my Vietnam Vet dad, Jack would work his skinny body on Sepulveda, getting guys off after they rolled down their windows and picked him up.
He knew who to trust and who not to trust.
“The good ones? They’re not in a hurry. They got nothing to hide. It’s the ones who are in a hurry that got something to hide — they’re looking for drugs or something, scared.”
“You can’t get into a car with someone scared,” he said. “You wake up dead.”
He’d blow all night. That’s all anyone wanted him to do, the skinny boy with a dick down his throat. He said it must be a turn-on, pointing to his skinny neck.
I didn’t think I’d get it, but I did.
“Where’s your mom?” I asked.
“Who the fuck knows? Left with some bitch.”
“A woman?” I asked, actually shocked.
He looked at me like I was stupid.
He pointed to the house. “In there. Fuck him.”
He didn’t yell, or scream, or start to cry. There was no external sign that he was having a moment, or coming to a realization, or sharing something that he’d never shared with anyone else.
Truth doesn’t have stupid signs. It doesn’t yell. Or announce itself as important. It’s quiet, and doesn’t care if you listen.
I put my hand on his shoulder as he stared at the back of his house. I would tell people later, in my own stories, sitting with friends in dorm rooms or Seattle bars, that it was all I could think to do, putting my hand on his shoulder. That I wanted to comfort him in some way.
The truth is slightly more complicated. I think you know what I wanted. And I think you know that I was using the moment to make a play for his pants.
I was a dick. Trying to work a need into a moment. Doing to him what had been done to him. Trying to.
He shrugged it off anyway, the way real people do. “I’m no fag, okay?”
The funny thing was that he wasn’t angry, or mean. He was Jack. He knew where I was coming from, knew what I was trying to do, and stopping me. Plain and simple.
That night, I learned. I learned Jack gave the money from working cars to his dad who would beat him up if he didn’t bring in enough. Or sometimes just beat him. I learned he once made Jack sleep out in the garage, no reason given. When he said he’d just go to a friend’s, his dad said fine, if he didn’t mind the pictures being shared.
I learned dads could be pimps, and that I didn’t have any answers. I was a kid whose dad went to work, re-lived a war, and then went back to work. I was a baby. I was a baby wanting to help adults with real problems. But there was nothing I could say to help him feel better, or help him out, or change anything. Of course I wanted him away from his father. I wanted him to turn his dad in. But I knew he would not, and I knew there was nothing I could say to change his mind. And I didn’t even know if the cops would listen. Why would they? He was a drunk kid who probably did coke, not someone like me, someone who could be trusted.
Not someone who tried to parlay sensitivity into a blow job.
The way the story works, Jack was clean, much cleaner than me. Honest. He was real, and I was a fraud. Am a fraud. But the world works differently. I would suffer the rewards it heaps on people like me. I would be the one to go to college, get the fuck out of Van Nuys, travel to Paris, take a MLB center-fielder of uncommon dimension as our Eurostar snaked under the Channel. Get rich.
I would get away from The Bat and Claudette the Cheerleader, leave those fantasies behind and give some of the best sex imaginable. Over and over. A life of, as I say, uncommon dimension.
Jack? Well, I don’t really know what happened to BackAlley Jack.
Just as I was about to sink into my own darkness, I realized he was still in my car. Still sitting there, telling me his life. Jack trusted me. Even though he knew I was making a play for him.
So I wasn’t all-bad, either.
“Hey,” he said, “thanks for the beer.”
“And wine-coolers,” I said.
“Yeah, those too.” He opened the door. “You can watch me change anytime. Just try not to get too hard.”