Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bad with People, part 1

I once heard a song called, “I am Bad with People.” It’s was on some website. I don’t recall who sang it, but it’s a funny song. And it really describes my relationship with the rest of the human race quite accurately.

I am bad with people. I don’t do well in social situations unless I’m with someone I’ve known for a long time and then I just sit and crack inside jokes which cause the other people around some discomfort. I don’t mind if they feel left out. I feel that way most of the time.

I’m especially bad with people of the opposite sex. I always have been, but I don’t know why. Sometimes my interactions with and reactions to the opposite sex have been downright retarded. Actually, I think you could say that’s true of most such experiences.

I’m going to try to keep this chronological, but I’m certain to ramble. The tangents will be made as brief as possible. Please accept my apologies in advance.

My earliest memory of interacting with the opposite sex is, strangely enough, a good one. It’s one of the few good ones. As a very young child, I attended preschool at a local Methodist Church. The church was simply a place which had space. I don’t recall there being any religious aspect of my preschool. What I do remember is that it was called, “Humpty Dumpty School.” It’s still there today.

Humpty Dumpty School did not have a bus since the students were from a large surrounding area. It was the responsibility of parents to get their children to Humpty Dumpty School on time. Again, an anomaly here since I don’t remember being late to Humpty Dumpty School. Starting in 5th grade things would change for the worse in regards to ever being on time for anything.

My parents, through means unknown to me, managed to hook up with another set of parents who lived just up the road from us. One set of parents would take us to Humpty Dumpty School in the morning, the other would pick us up in the afternoon. The child which belonged to this other set of parents was a girl. I think her name was Leigh.

I can recall a cold morning in the backseat of a car. I don’t remember if it was her parents or my parents driving. But as I type that I stumbled upon another memory from that backseat – this one from a warmer day.

At this point in my short life I was able to count to ten. On the warmer of the two days being remembered here, Leigh demonstrated her ability to count to twenty. I quickly learned how to count to twenty with her, but neither of us knew where to go from there. We naturally made it to twenty-nine, which seemed to make whichever parent was driving happy with our reasoning, but after a time or two we kept going, even though we had no idea what was ahead. After twenty-nine came twenty-ten. And twenty-eleven. By twenty-twelve there was laughing from the front seat and the concept of “thirty” was offered to us. Our three-year-old brains were dumbfounded.

On the colder day being remembered here I recall Leigh, in her heavy winter coat, crossing her arms in front of her. This caused her padded coat to puff up.

“See,” she said, “I can make boobies like my mommy has.”

My coat was equally puffy, so I tried it, too. I achieved the same effect, which made her laugh.

I don’t know whatever happened to that little girl. I’m sure we remained friends through the rest of Humpty Dumpty School and we probably started Kindergarten together. But, my family moved a few miles away half-way through my year of Kindergarten. I went from West Side School to Bel-Air School. Not only was that a change in Elementary schools, but it was also a change of school districts. West Side School feeds Braddock Middle School which feeds Allegany High School. Bel-Air kids went to Washington Middle School and then on to Fort Hill High School. The really fucked up part was that I lived in a small area where every other surrounding neighborhood was in the other school district. So we weren’t friends with the kids who lived on the other side of the woods. As we grew up, undoubtedly our friends lived a half-hour across town.

Anyhow, I remember being invited to a birthday party at her house a few years later, but by that point I had a new batch of friends and I really felt like an outsider. I didn’t really remember who she was and I didn’t know any of the other kids, with the exception of Sean C., who would be a sort of in-and-out fixture of my childhood.

It wasn’t until I got to Middle School in the sixth grade that I ran into any of the kids I knew from Humpty Dumpty School. The back of my Humpty Dumpty School class picture shares a few names in common with my high school yearbook -- names like Robbie C., Michelle K., Chi B., and Matt K. There may be more but I don’t immediately recall anyone else.

The next member of the opposite sex to enter into my consciousness was a little blonde girl in my new Kindergarten class. Her name was Alison. Alison was definitely a flirt, as far as a five-year-old girl can be a flirt, and she seemed to genuinely like me. I went to her house for birthday parties or just to play whatever games little kids play.

I fought over the chair next to her at the lunch table with Michael T. blah blah blah .

Michael ended up losing his pear in the fray. It slid off of his tray and splattered on the floor. He raised quite a fuss about it and made one of the teachers go get him a new pear. Toward the end of lunch, the pear was still on his tray.

The teacher who had gotten him a new pear asked him, “Aren’t you going to eat that after I got it for you?”

He replied, “No. I don’t like pears.”

I only have one other concrete memory of Alison. I know there were lots of trips to her house, usually to play with a group of friends from school, but only one really stands out.

It was a beautiful summer day. We had played outside and made a fort, and we had played some games inside. As the day wore long, the group of friends dwindled to the point where I was the only boy left. The only other girl was named Tracy. We played a game of “Ditch Tracy” for a little while and somehow I ended up hiding with Alison in the downstairs bathroom.

She said she had to pee and told me I could watch but only if I sat under the sink. When she was finished she told me she knew that boys and girls were different but she wanted to see how. I found myself right in the middle of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours. So we did. Tracy eventually figured out where we were and was outside the bathroom pounding on the door but we didn’t let it interrupt us.

I showed her mine and even let her watch it work as I made my own pee to mix with hers. I didn’t realize until years later that I got gypped when all she showed me was a bare patch of skin with no sign of the inner workings.

I never saw her again without her pants on, and I didn’t see her much at all after that. Soon after, she transferred to private school. The next time I heard her name was when someone mentioned she was dating one of the guys in my first band. They broke up before I got a chance to see her again.

In third grade, I met Cara. Cara was a cute little red-haired girl and I was hooked on her from the get-go. Cara lived in a big house on the other side of the neighborhood. It wasn’t all that far from my house – maybe a mile or two, but to an eight-year-old with a BMX bike from K-Mart it might as well have been a hundred miles.

Cara was friendly with me in school, but there was no real sense of boyfriend/girlfriend in third grade. You liked somebody and maybe they tolerated you or even sat with you and read a book, but that was about the extent of elementary school relationships. The only time you said you had a girlfriend was when your grandfather asked you, point-blank, “So, who’s your girlfriend?”

It was obvious to me that you –HAD- to have a girlfriend by the way I was constantly asked this question, so when I liked a girl I would give her name as my response.

Something inside me, however, told me there was supposed to be more to it. I had no idea what there could be, but I decided to ride my bike to Cara’s house one weekend.

I recall that my first attempt was unsuccessful. This was not due to any lack of trying on my part. I got on my bike. I think I had a backpack with some snacks and a drink for the long trip ahead. I made it to the end of my street, which was more like a bend and a name-change than an actual “end.” I made the mistake of pedaling up Michael T.’s driveway so that I could get a gravity-boost for the big hill which was the next obstacle on my journey.

As I reached the top of the driveway, my brother came out of our house, a mere two doors down the hill, and informed me that my dad was looking for me. I don’t remember why he was looking for me, but I do remember that it wasn’t good. I went back home to see what he wanted and found myself at the bad end of a beating. I don’t recall if I had lost his screwdrivers or if I had left a hammer on the floor or if I simply hadn’t cleaned up some toys. Whatever the case, I was done for the day. I was sent to my room, crying, and probably had as much idea why it happened then as I do now.

Either the next day or the next weekend, I resumed my task. I hopped on my bike early and took off without a look back. I didn’t try to double back for any speed boosts, I just made sure to get beyond the sight-boundary of our house as fast as I could.

This particular trip was unlike that you hear most people tell of their childhood. I did not have to go uphill both ways. I did have to go uphill half-way, however. It was about the time I reached the apogee of my journey that I had my first doubt. As I sat at the top of the hill, I knew the rest of the trip to Cara’s house was downhill. I also knew that if I turned around and went home that I was in for a tremendous downhill run. In that moment I realized that if I continued on, I would have to face the road from her house back to this point coming home, and that part of the trip would be uphill. I had never ridden my bike on that part of the road before. I knew the general elevation of it, but I didn’t know how steep, or how bad, it would be. After all, even at eight I realized that what you see and experience on a bike is far removed from what you see speeding by in a car.

I also didn’t even know if she would be home. My visit was a surprise. I suppose I hoped she would think it somehow gallant that I rode my bike all the way to her house. I’m so far removed from the child I was that I can’t really be sure of the thought process that lead to this endeavor. But I do remember how good I felt when I came to the decision to do it, even if I didn’t know how to get there until my mom helped me with the neighborhood map from little community phone directory.

I sat at that point for a minute or two. Maybe I drank a Pepsi or a Capri Sun. Maybe I ate a Swiss Cake Roll. But I knew in my heart what I had to do, so I let my bike roll down the hill away from my house and onto uncharted roads.

I passed places I had been driven by car and realized how far I had come. I passed the road which lead to Blair S.'s house. At the same point was Andy W.’s house. I had been driven to both of those places for birthday parties and to play with my friends and both of them seemed so far from home.

I made the turn down the gently winding road to Cara’s house and I didn’t have to pedal at all. The hill was long and it carried me swiftly to her door. I knocked, not knowing what to expect.

The door opened and Cara’s mom invited me in. I spent the whole day there, but I can’t remember what happened. I vaguely remember board games and Strawberry Shortcake dolls. I distinctly remember her father’s remote-controlled R2-D2 and I remember that his HBO box was mounted next to his recliner, within easy reach, rather than on top of the TV like ours. For those who never had one, an HBO box was the very earliest cable converter. If you set the knob in the middle, you could watch your regular TV channels. If you put it on channel three and turned the knob to the right, you got HBO. If you turned the knob to the left you got Superstation TBS. If you left it turned to the left and turned your TV to channel 2 you got WBFF from Baltimore, which had Captain Chesapeake. Captain Chesapeake played Speed Racer cartoons, so he was alright in my book.

Eventually, I went home. Someone may have come to pick me up, or maybe I rode my bike back home, I don’t recall. Sometime after that, I gave Cara a flower. Or maybe more than one flower. In return she gave me a Stomper™. Any girl who buys you a Stomper™ must really like you.

Not too long after this, Cara’s parents moved across town. She ended up in the other school district. I didn’t see her again until my senior year of high school. She played the flute in a small specialty orchestra which was made up of players from both high schools. Either she didn’t remember me or she ignored me on purpose. Despite several weeks of rehearsals and many performances I never got the nerve to talk to her and ask if she remembered me.

Cara moved away and my dad moved out right around the same time in my childhood. I’ve always wondered if I would have developed more confidence with girls if my dad had stuck around, but even before he split he wasn’t around much. And when he was home he tended to get pissed about something and send us to bed crying. But, as I lay this out for whatever reason, I’m confronted by the fact that up until this point my boy-girl relationships were healthy and about as successful as you could expect for a couple of little kids.

Fifth grade brought a lot of changes. I got to meet with a counselor who determined that I was mad at my mom because all she did was sit around and cry all day long. The counselor was the father of one of my friends, but I always felt comfortable talking to him. He pulled me out of class two or three times and I certainly recall feeling much better about myself after we talked.

When I was in fourth grade, the elementary school went up to sixth grade. That changed my fifth grade year. I was part of the first fifth-grade class which would graduate and go on to Middle School.

Also, for most of my fifth grade year I had the same teacher for every class. That teacher happened to be married to the counselor who had helped sort out my family issues. I was part of the “smart group” of kids in all of my classes, but fifth grade is when I started to falter. The disruptions at home affected my ability to concentrate in school and I took very little interest in math. I remember on one test I altered all of the division symbols to appear as plus signs and I completed the problems as if they were simple addition. I had no idea how to do short division.

During one math class, I was scolded for drawing race cars. I had perfected a three-quarter perspective view on stock cars and this particular masterpiece had two cars going into a turn and even had blurry lines on the track. This drawing was confiscated and I was told I needed to work on my math. Not allowed to draw, I concentrated on the only other thing in the room which interested me – a girl named Rebecca.

Rebecca had long, thick dark blonde hair. I can still picture it to this day. She had a delightful smile and I tried my best to figure out how to go on a date with her, but it’s just not something that happens in fifth grade.

I sent her Valentine gifts, called her incessantly to ask her to go to a movie, but the best I ever got from her was a sour face one day when I turned up at school with a cold sore.

The woman who taught all of my fifth grade classes that year was a terrific teacher. In one of our units we learned about student government and within the span of a single class period our newly formed student body had unanimously decreed that fifth graders should have access to the new playground equipment which had thus far been only a temptation on the other side of the glass doors. As a class we elected to go from zero play periods to a half-hour in the afternoon on the new playground.

She had a natural ability to get every one of us to grasp the information she was teaching, despite that we all learned at slightly different speeds. The only thing she couldn’t conquer was my utter lack of interest in math. If I had shown the slightest inclination I’m sure I would have done much better. After all, I never studied much at all though school. I was content to absorb what was thrown at me and, for the most part, it worked out just fine. The only problem was when I was switched off and ignorant to everything around me. There was no way to absorb any information in that state.

She also had an uncanny insight, which I still do not understand to this day. I had tried to play the trombone in the school band in fourth grade. I never practiced the trombone so that didn’t last long. In fifth grade I was given the opportunity to play the cello in the school orchestra. Since this one didn’t cost my mother any money she had nothing to lose by saying, “O.K.”

The orchestra seemed to do the trick. I guess it was the strings – something just felt right about playing a stringed instrument. I took to the cello very quickly and was soon teaching myself through the back of the book while the other kids were still stuck on the first three songs.

At the end of the year, we had an orchestra concert. There may have also been a chorus concert on the same program, but that could have been a different night. I performed in both and I remember when the show started I was standing in the front row with a huge fucking grin on my face. I was trying to sing around it, and trying desperately to –NOT- smile, but I knew in that instant that what I was doing was magical. I’m sure it sounded terrible. I’ve been to enough school concerts to know that fifth graders have no sense of intonation. But I felt a sense of being in the right place that I had never felt before.

I know the chorus concert was first. Whether it was the same night or not is irrelevant. I do know that when it came time to play my cello, which included a solo called “Pizzicato March” (think the meow-meow-meow-meow Cat Chow commercial song) I was not nervous at all.

After the concert, my teacher came up to me and congratulated me, then she pulled me aside. I don’t know what she saw, and I don’t even know if she saw it that night, but she took me aside and made me promise to her that I would not let music rule my life. I didn’t understand what she meant since I had just done a good job playing music, so she clarified that what I had done for school was good but that I shouldn’t get involved with rock bands and popular music. She explained to me (and this was something I did not understand, or even remotely fathom until I was about to graduate high school) that music is fine to listen to but that I should not let it dictate who or what I am.

As I look back, I recognize that she may have been reacting to my ability to write, from memory, the lyrics to Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys” for anyone who requested a copy, yet I couldn’t figure out what the fuck nine divided by three was supposed to equal. I distinctly recall her blowing up at me the next week in school when I showed up wearing a Duran Duran headband I had gotten from my friend Patrick.

I was safe for the moment. It would take another year and half before I let music completely take over my life.

Sixth grade was an eye-opening experience. I was tossed into Middle School with tons of kids I never met before. My first day, I found myself in my homeroom – room 113 down at the end of the hall by the auditorium. For some reason Gary B. was also in room 113. All the other kids from our “smart kids” fifth grade class were here with me, along with a bunch of people I didn’t know. Gary B. was the only kid from Bel Air School who was not from the “smart kids” group. Gary B. was, first and foremost, a troublemaker. And, true to form, he started off the day picking on me. I didn’t back down, and had not yet learned that some things are better unsaid when there are girls present. Maybe that is another factor in my inability to relate to any girls in middle school. Then again, maybe not.

Eventually, Gary B. was dragged off to whatever hole he was supposed to be in and things slowly got underway. We were in a new school with a new schedule and something called “sections.” Like golf, the lower your section number the higher the quality of your classmates. I was in 6-1. I liked being in 6-1. Everything was on the fast track. There was no waiting up for stragglers who didn’t grasp the concepts we were being taught. Those who lagged too far behind got dropped a section. And, for some odd reason, the sections dropped in pairs. Odd numbers always stayed odd. Even numbers always stayed even. They said this was because 6-2 was basically the same as 6-1 but they had to split the group up because it was too large. But we all knew better.

In sixth grade I was reintroduced to some old acquaintances. Robbie C. and Matt K. from Humpty Dumpty School were banging around somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-3. Michelle K., also from Humpty Dumpty and who is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, was designated as the school slut. Hindsight tells me this is most likely due to her specifically refusing to do the things she was “heard” to have done.

In Mr. King’s science class, I also got to know a little pipsqueak of a kid who had skipped a few grades. He liked to go out on the playground after lunch and eat wild onions. That he chose to swivel around in his chair in front of me and blow onion breath in my face did not make for the best of introductions. Somehow, however, he is the closest friend I have today.

I didn’t really fall for any girls in sixth grade. A girl named Nicole, who bantered with me in the hallways a few times in the first weeks of school, comes to mind. I believe it was Mike T. who told her I liked her. I had never even met the girl before, it was just one of those tormenting kinds of things that he was good for. I remember she was tall, and her dark hair was pulled back with two barrettes which had her name on them. She was in a different section so I didn’t see her very much.

But, as I type this I am reminded of two girls from the school bus. Both of them were older. One of them had something about her which drew me in like a magnet. I think her name was Jennifer. She was in eighth grade. This time I made the mistake of telling Mike T. I liked her. All of the other kids tormented me about it for weeks. They pushed me to sit with her, or to try to talk to her. I would freeze and not know what to do.

One afternoon on the ride home, she came to my seat and sat down next to me. She said she was sorry that the other kids bothered me so much. Then, without warning, she kissed me on the cheek. This lead to a lot of hooting and hollering from the back of the bus amidst calls of “check to see if he has a boner!” I weathered this torment as I did all the other shit. Jennifer, if that was even her name, didn’t ride my bus any more after that year. Last I recall, she got pregnant in high school.

I think it was just after the kiss that Beth L., another eighth-grade girl from the bus, asked me to dance with her at a school dance. I obliged her and we did our awkward adolescent circle-walk to a slow song. Since she was part of the group at the back of the bus which tormented me I never trusted that she was seriously interested in me. She did sit next to me on the bus a few times, but I determined that I wanted nothing to do with her if she hung out with people who were mean to me.

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