One of the first things I bought with my own money was a boombox with a dual cassette deck and a small volume indicator that lit up tiny red squares to the pulse of the music or voice of the DJ. On Saturdays, Sundays if I missed Saturday, I’d lie in front of the radio with my box fan pointed at me and listen to the top 40, writing down the entire thing on a legal pad I stole from my father’s desk. I think I got a lot of names wrong. I know this is true because in the summer of 1985 (I was 9 years old and didn’t yet understand the appeal of David Bowie, perhaps because that was the summer of his duet with Mick Jagger, “Dancing in the Street”) I won a copy of Night Ranger’s 1985 album by being the ninth caller to Z104 and naming the number one song, which I incorrectly identified as “Saint Elbow’s Fire.” I thought it strange that my mother automatically knew the term as it only existed for me as a Night Ranger song, something they probably invented in their genius. I believe the cover had the band in a WWII airplane. There were marks on the front where somebody, possibly Kemosabe Joe, had made indents with his long greasy fingernails. Kemosabe ws the morning zoo type guy. A hero for all. Z104 played rock but that also meant they played Thriller and even one time while we waited for Mommy in the car with the radio on outside the building with the dentist, they played “PYT,” which stood for Pretty Young Thing, though nobody knew just quite what that meant back then. There was a part of the song where Mick told PYT to repeat after him and there was some suggestive huffing and puffing, fine if I’m at home writing down the band and song names in my best handwriting, but embarrassing if I’m with my mom and sisters in the car.
It was like that Frankie Goes to Hollywood song. I never quite understood the meaning of that one because of the shirts that went with it. “FRANKIE SAYS RELAX–DON’T DO IT.” I kind of wanted one of those shirts but couldn’t figure out where the shirts supporting Frankie were, as though they were instructing people NOT to do what Frankie says. They were pro-tension shirts, obviously and Frankie was in the camp that advised a slight delay before you “come,” whatever that meant. I grew up in a house of three females and me. Every other weekend at my father’s house, it was my two older sisters, my two older stepsisters and my stepmother and my father and me. The only thing I had in common with dad was the pages with the mutual fund quotes. I was going to be a right business master until I decided it was cooler to be a drug addict who sometimes engaged the world of the arts.
Yes, Frankie advised all to “relax, don’t do it, when you want to come.” Also he warned, “But shoot it in the right direction, make making it your only intention, ohh, yeah…” The whole song was about jizzing but it was so obvious I didn’t know and could sing along if we were the kind of people who did that. Instead, we were the kind of people who lip synched at church. My mom actually sang and was in the choir sometimes.
My dad arrived in the middle of the service and brought us kids packets of Life Savors. Who knows what he was getting up to but that was the summer he bought a green Karmen Ghia convertible that had enough room for two and a large towel for when it rained. That was the last summer my parents were together. anybody could’ve seen that one coming. Weeks later , he moved out of the country and our private wooded six acres and brand new two story round house to his own apartment in the city because it was too damn noisy at home for him.
I wanted to tell him to relax, especially when there was a line at McDonald’s and he became vicious. He was the guy who yelled at the slowness of the line as though McDonald’s was funded by taxpayers.
He was in the army before college or after college, not sure, but he used the army to pay for college and got lucky as he was too young by five or seven years for Korea and Vietnam wasn’t a huge thing yet. Besides as my parents were fond of saying, he was too short to hold a gun so he typed while he was in the army. I still can’t imagine him obeying anybody’s orders. He had a friend from the army named Herdon. Right after Herndon came to visit with his 20 year old Asian bride, my father started listening to Kool and the Gang and Billy Joel, especially the song “The Longest Time” and that gave him the courage he needed in his convictions he needed, that entire album really, to leave my mother and file for divorce. That summer we took a trip to Ohio to visit his mom. He was an only child and hand his aunt had passed and left him like $65,000. That gave him even more courage to leave us. Especially when my mother didn’t ask for half of the money and said she didn’t want it. Her conviction that she didn’t want any of his money sabotaged our lives until I was 18, as she didn’t ask for spousal support, just a bit of money for the kids, which was almost enough to buy food for our family for the month. She went out and took a job that made her work all kinds of crazy hours and so I never saw either of my parents much at all ever again really. I was home and when I was home I was home. I started going to the drug store and spending $20 a day on sweets. I’d buy all kinds of candy bars and other pure sugar treats. I started to get fat that summer but I was still young enough that it didn’t really catch on that quickly.
Dad was dating my oldest sister’s friend Sandra’s mom because she was the answer to all of Billy Joel’s questions on that album. He only lived alone in that apartment for a few months and suddenly they were married after a trip to City Hall for which I got out of school early one day. My mother had to write that note and she didn’t like doing it. Obviously. She dated some characters only out of a kind of spite that was supposed to show how much she valued my dad and how he could be fully replaced with, say, the completely paralyzed guy she dated first. His buddy drove him up in a van and carried him up the stairs to the second story deck off the kitchen and set him down on the couch. I watched them make out for a while and felt sick and went to my room, closed the door and didn’t really come out ever again. Not for another 10 years at least. I still go to my room, close the door and lock it. Every bad habit I got I picked up because I refused to allow my true feelings of anger and frustration to surface and that dad still wanted to even be a part of my life. He didn’t care about mom anymore. If I screwed up too then he;d be gone from my life, too. We didn’t have a really understanding relationship. He wasn’t a coach, he was a judge. An official who disqualified me at swim meets. The umpire who called me out looking at baseball games.
Even now, writing this makes me feel so uncomfortable that I want to go to my room, close the door, just practice feeling safe under the covers.
Right now I’m feeling the same misery and sense of lonely loss in my life. I’m scared. Terrified again. And now I’m 40 years old. the same age as he was when we sat around watching Real People and That’s Incredible with Sarah Purcell, and memorably, the 1984 Winter Olympics from Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. I enjoyed the ice events. The bobsled, especially. I snuck a bowl of water outside, took a shovel and attempted to build my own bobsled track. The water sadly sunk into the dirt. It wasn’t anything close to what I’d hoped would happen. So I got on the Texas Instruments TI994A computer we got free with the house full of beige carpet and I write a program in BASIC called Star Car. I got to the point where it asked you to name your Star Cr and there was maybe a word that moved up the screen when you type run but that’s all. My best friend Jonathan had Macs and Apples at his house and we’d play on the computer for hours. Our favorite after Jawbreaker was this game that let you buy and sell stocks.
Once I slept over and woke up to snow. I think I stayed the next night over, too. After that, I started missing my mom too much and had to go home even though it was treacherous to drive and she preferred not to.
In hated my childhood then but now when I remember it I feel as though I had a lot of things I could rely on that I will never ever again be able to rely on. That has made me incredibly sad and now I want to go hide somewhere and press the restart button. How growing up with a restart button had affected my generation has not been minor. Before you didn’t restart a game of Monopoly if it didn’t go well and before you needed a friend to play a game with you. Now you could play 1P.
Now you don’t even need that.
Saying that makes me sound like a bitter out of touch old man. That I probably am.