Go Through Life With My Glasses Blurred
FIVE SCENES FROM THE OLD SCHOOL
1. March, 1985. I am in my bedroom at my dad’s rented house in Irving, Texas. I have recently acquired Run-D.M.C.’s second album, King of Rock — the album that begins my lifelong obsession with hip-hop. I move the speakers from the living room and hook them up to my undersized boombox, cranking them up to maximum window-rattling volume so I can hear the whole album as loud as possible before my dad gets home from work. I have my head right up to the speakers and am constantly rewinding the cassette so I can write down every lyric, word for word; I have literally never heard music like this in my life, and it’s like discovering a whole new world hidden just behind the real one. As I’m listening so intently, mysterious phantom voices begin to come through the speakers, holding a one-sided conversation that I can’t follow or understand. It turns out that our neighbor’s cordless phone was coming through on the same frequency over the speakers, but for a moment I thought King of Rock had either driven me insane and was making me hear things, or had literally opened my mind to the degree that it was secretly communicating messages to me alone.
2. April, 1985. After having fortuitously won tickets to a Wham! concert and then selling them at a substantial mark-up, I have begun a successful side business of scalping. Most of what I sell are tickets to mainstream pop concerts that the girlfriends of the jocks at Nimitz High School want to see, though I occasionally can score tickets to hard rock gigs for the jocks themselves. None of the bands the heshers I hang out with are popular enough to justify a scalping business, but it still makes money to keep me eating (my dad’s alcoholism often makes him forget to buy groceries for me) with enough left over on the side to support the methamphetamine habit I was developing. At one point, two of the most popular guys on the football team — who would never even acknowledge my existence otherwise — approach me to ask if I can score them tickets to an upcoming Madonna concert. I can’t, but in an attempt to broaden their horizons, I ask if they might be interested in going to see Whodini. When they express ignorance about who that is, I pull out my boombox and play them “Friends” and “Freaks Come Out at Night”. “Jesus, Len,” they respond; “Why do you got to listen to that nigger music?”
3. February, 1986. I’m back at Glendale High School in Arizona, my old campus, as my dad has given up on the idea of forcing me to live with him in Texas. The experience has made me cynical and bitter, but it has also changed me for the better: I’m more forceful, more intent, more confident. Of course, confidence has its limits. One day, I decide to take advantage of the cafeteria’s open stereo and put on the LP of City Life by the Boogie Boys. My love of hip-hop has only gotten greater since the previous year, and, since I went through the trouble of memorizing all the lyrics to the album’s big hit, “A Fly Girl”, I somehow develop the notion that everyone will think I’m cool if I rap along with it as it’s playing. Naturally, this turns out to be a mistaken notion, and the main result is that people throw food at me. Later that day, though, I am approached by Junior, a hulking African-American kid on the football team; he’s not only one of the few black kids at the school, but he’s quite possibly the first openly gay person I have ever met. Junior tells me that he thought it was pretty cool that I rapped like that in front of the entire school. “Oh, yeah?” I ask, hoping I have found a kindred spirit. “Do you like rap?” Junior, as it turns out, hates hip-hop. He listens almost exclusively to the Cure.
4. May, 1986. The end of my time in high school is near. I won’t be graduating with the rest of GHS’ class of ’86 as I’m a half-credit short (another entertaining legacy of my dad forcing me to live in Texas for a year); I will eventually decide to forego summer school and won’t even get my G.E.D. until I’m 30 and need to get a union certification. Regardless, I have decided to at least make an attempt to associate with my fellow students, rather than be the life-hating outcast I have been up until this point: I’ve made a few friends, joined two sports teams, and started behaving like slightly less of a total jackass around girls. The dean of students — formerly the football coach — has noticed me coming out of the suicidally lame shell I was in the previous year and urges me to attend the senior luau, an end-of-year dance usually dominated by the cool kids. I decide to take him up on it, as part of my program to be less of an utter shit. I have a pretty lousy time at first, as the proceedings are dominated by the more hateful jocks and the music is god-awful, but the DJ, inspired by the popularity of Miami Vice, decides to spin Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”, I get up and dance. Everything is going fine, and I have convinced myself that I am the life of the party, until approximately four minutes into the song, when I turn my ankle hard against the concrete surface of the quad and limp home, alone and in agony, with Melle Mel stuttering “D-d-d-dd-d-don’t-don’t do it!” in my head.
4. August, 1986. While trying to decide what cheap, crummy state school will get thousands of my dollars for the next four years, I am invited to a house party at one of Arizona State University’s dormitories. The attendees are mostly freshmen and sophomores listening to the same shitty music my high school senior class listened to two months prior, but I lack the confidence to say anything about it. Finally, a kid who had been a senior the year I was a freshman asks me what I think of the music. Hesitantly, still terrified that admitting I like rap will get me just as ostracized as if I were to tell him that I like to play Dungeons & Dragons, I tell him that I’m really into hip-hop. He pauses for a moment, then beckons me over to a crate of records he has stashed behind the big silver tin can from which everyone is guzzling garbage punch. The first record at the front of the crate is a freshly pressed copy of Oh, My God! by Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew, featuring a brand-new remix of “The Show”. He points at the stereo and says “Put it on.” The party rocks until about the seventh minute, when some people start to bitch and yell “turn it off!”. I don’t care. I’m on top of the world.