I stopped going to church when I was eight. My old man gave me a choice, to show how liberal he was. He said he would take me on Sundays if I wanted to go or I could stay at home instead. It was up to me. Was he kidding? What eight-year-old kid would choose to go to church if he wasn't forced to? You'd have to be a moron or a masochist. I didn't like church in the first place. It was sort of creepy with all those religious icons hanging from the walls and everything. The inside of the building smelled funny and listening to the sermon wasn't exactly a picnic. I could tell nobody was really interested in what the minister was saying. Most of them looked bored and sleepy sitting in the pews, like they were serving a jail sentence or something. The worst part was when everyone pulled out their hymn books and started singing. I never heard so many lousy off-key singing voices all at once. They sounded so awful I always wanted to break out laughing, but I knew that would go over like a fart in an elevator.
My old man had a sneaky reason for letting me decide about church. He knew damn well I would choose to avoid it, which meant he wouldn't have to go himself to take me. I may have been only eight at the time, but I could see right through him. He didn't want to go to church any more than I did. Neither of my parents was very religious, if you want to know the truth. They believed in God and all that, but they weren't exactly pious in the way they lived. Not that I wanted them to be pious. I knew kids who had very religious parents and they were a pain in the ass. Always quoting the Bible and pretending they were better than everyone else. That sort of stuff drove me crazy.
My parents drank and smoked and even swore when they thought I couldn't hear them. I didn't mind any of that. What bothered me was how they felt about themselves. They both had low-paying jobs and no higher education and this gave them an inferiority complex about a mile wide. They worried constantly about what respectable people thought of them. To them respectable meant having a lot of money, living in a big house and driving a fancy car. That's where we parted company. As far as I was concerned, respect had nothing to do with money. I respected people who were intelligent, kind, generous and different than the typical jerks I have to deal with all the time.
But I'm going off on a tangent, which is a bad habit of mine. Every English teacher I ever had practically tore their hair out by the roots trying to follow the compositions I wrote. I start out with the assigned subject like I'm supposed to, but a few sentences later I get bored with that topic and run out of things to say about it. Since there's always a minimum length requirement, I have to keep writing and I begin fooling around and wandering into different topics. I end up writing about my cat or something when the teacher wanted me to write about a grandfather clock and its symbolic meaning. We don't even have a grandfather clock at home, so how the hell can I write three pages about one? First of all I don't think a clock believes in symbolism. As far as I can tell, a clock only worries about keeping time, but English teachers don't seem to understand simple things like that. I could write a whole book about my cat Tiggar and all the crazy stuff he does, unless it was the assigned topic. In that case I would probably get writer's block after two paragraphs and start drifting into some other subject. Being forced to stick to one idea when I'm writing is a real drag. It's more fun to jump around like my mind does.
What I really wanted to tell you about was this extremely unusual Christmas experience I had last year when I was sixteen. Before you read any farther, you should know this isn't a corny Christmas story about Santa Claus or plum pudding or stockings hung with care sort of crap. For one thing it actually happened and I think it was a lot more interesting than normal holiday garbage. I can't stand that kind of phony baloney. If I see "Miracle on 34th Street" one more time on TV, I'm sure I'll upchuck on the floor. I won't be able to stop myself.
It all started when I fell in love for the first time, if you don't count the movie actresses I fell for while I was growing up. I didn't like most new movies, but I was nuts about movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Besides watching them on TV, I went to one theater in town that showed revivals of old movies with actors like Bogart, Cagney and Garfield who were usually chasing actresses like Lana Turner, Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck. My all-time favorite western was "Johnny Guitar." Sterling Hayden was so cool as the guitar-playing gunfighter and I practically swallowed my tongue when Scott Brady got a bullet hole right between the eyes from Mercedes McCambridge. I started walking to the theater alone when I was eight. Years later my mother told me she had followed me the first time I went alone to see if I would pay attention to the traffic lights and cross streets safely. I got a kick out of her explaining how she secretly followed me like that. As if she was my guardian angel or something. My mother has her good points even if we don't always get along.
Anyway, I was in love with a girl named Pauline Lancaster, who was a year younger than me. She was a Catholic girl who transferred to my high school in her freshman year and ended up in my homeroom. At first Pauline was very shy and no one paid much attention to her except me. There was something I liked about her right away, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was. She was sort of cute, but far from the prettiest girl in school. She was almost as tall as me and had a sturdy build with large bones. Don't get me wrong, she wasn't fat at all. I would describe her as athletic looking, like she played a lot of tennis or something. But I think it was her face that fascinated me. Although her hair was kind of ordinary medium-length brown, she had intense dark eyes and pouty full lips. She strongly resembled the actress Vera Miles, which was odd because Vera Miles didn't happen to be one of my favorite stars from the old movies.
I was a little gun-shy around girls, especially the few I liked, because my dating history was nothing to brag about. I rarely go on dates because I don't have a car or much spending money. Most girls won't go out with you unless you can impress the hell out of them with nice-looking wheels and money to burn. I know this is true since I've been shot down more times than a Jap Zero in a World War II movie. And it isn't because of my looks. I'm not exactly handsome, but I'm a lot better looking than some of the rich dorks who get dates all the time. My first date was with Pam Riberdy when I was twelve. Pam wore these large-rimmed glasses that made her look somewhat ugly, but when she took them off, she was actually sort of cute. Anyway, I took her bowling if you can believe it. Like I said, I was only twelve and I didn't know which end was up when it came to girls. My old man practically ruined the date by giving me a lecture right in front of Pam. He told me to take her straight home after the bowling alley with no stops along the way to neck or fool around. As if I might drag her into an alley and start humping her or something. I could see my old man scared the crap out of Pam. I was convinced she thought I was a sex maniac, so I didn't lay a hand on her all night. You can imagine how much fun that date was.
In high school I've been on dates with two girls, but I didn't hit it off with either one. They weren't my type, if you know what I mean. One girl kept snapping her chewing gum, which irritated the hell out of me for some reason. I took the other girl to a movie theater and she wouldn't shut up while I tried to watch the film. She jabbered away like she was doing a running commentary on the plot and she laughed at the wrong times. I only went on those dates to have something different to do. To be honest, I don't think I'm cut out for the dating game in high school. The whole thing is so phony it's kind of depressing. I wouldn't mind getting to know a girl if she was interesting, but you can't do that on a date. Both people on a date are acting like they think they're supposed to instead of just being themselves. It's like a ritual of shallow bullshit and they never even see each other the way they really are.
I hope dating is different when I get older. Otherwise, I could end up as a monk or something and I'd like to avoid that if possible. I've known guys who lived their whole lives without women and they all look the same. Sort of creepy with pale faces and hollow eyes, like they were dead or close to it. You can tell they're definitely not happy campers. I don't pretend to be an expert or anything, but I think men and women sort of need each other to feel good about themselves. It's too bad we don't get along any better than most examples I've seen so far.
Anyway, I admired Pauline from afar in the beginning. After all, she was a freshman while I was a sophomore and I didn't want to look like I was trying to rob the cradle or anything. Also I knew practically nothing about Catholicism. Some guys made jokes about Catholic girls, how they didn't believe in birth control and wanted to get pregnant so they could trap a guy into marriage and so forth. I didn't believe any of that applied to Pauline. She was only fourteen, for Chrissakes.
I felt sorry for Pauline, being a new student in a school where she didn't know anyone. To make a long story short, I started calling her at home after school. But here's how I did it: I didn't tell her who I was. I just said I was a fellow student and I wanted to talk to her anonymously, if she didn't think it was too weird. Amazingly, she went along with the idea. I guess she was lonely and needed someone to talk to.
Sometimes we stayed on the phone for hours, talking about school, movies, books, music, philosophy — anything and everything that popped into our crazy heads. It was great. Pauline was very sweet and never pressured me to tell her who I was. I found out she was smarter than I was, which didn't bother me like I expected. In fact it was kind of fun trying to keep up with her. She also had a fantastic sense of humor. She talked a lot about her older sister, Sue, who was a senior in our high school. When I told her I was an only child, she said: "Didn't you ever want to have a brother or sister?"
"Not really. I like being the center of attention."
"You're terrible," she laughed.
"You can be my sister."
"My long-lost sister. We were separated at birth and raised by different families."
"Sounds like a soap opera."
"You haven't heard the worst of it yet. Our real father was a famous gangster."
"Does he have to be a gangster?"
"Hey, who's inventing this story?"
"Sorry. Is the FBI keeping track of us?"
"Maximum surveillance. They hope we will lead them to the old man, who is still on the lam."
"Where do you get these wild ideas?"
"I watch a lot of old movies. I wish I could live in one."
"Things are much better in old movies."
"But they're not real life."
"I know, that's what makes them so great."
"You're very strange."
I laughed like a mad scientist. "You don't know the half of it, my dear."
Pauline got a kick out of me clowning around like that. I once told her about this theory I have that it's much more fun to watch movies than to make them. When you see a really good film, you feel awestruck and inspired and all. When the director and actors see a film they made, I'll bet they mostly remember all the crap that went wrong while it was being shot. In a way they get cheated out of the real value of the movie by making it. It doesn't seem fair, but if directors and actors didn't spoil it for themselves, the rest of us wouldn't have any movies to enjoy. It's one of those crazy contradictions I keep running across in life: to create something worthwhile, you have to cheat yourself out of appreciating it fully. A guy who builds cars on an assembly line probably isn't thrilled about driving his own car home after work.
Pauline understood what I meant right away. I didn't have to elaborate or backtrack or anything with her. It's like we were on the same wavelength or something. She knew I was different than most kids, but it didn't scare her at all. I think she found it downright charismatic. I normally hate the word charismatic because it's always used to describe people like politicians, military leaders and business tycoons. What's so goddamn attractive about a guy like Donald Trump? Every time he gets in front of a camera he acts like a conceited asshole. He looks like a circus freak because his head is too big for his body. If he didn't have all that money, nobody would pay the slightest bit of attention to him. What really slays me is when he is referred to as The Donald, like he was some sort of weird royalty or something. He should be called Donald The Duck if you ask me. Pillars of the community make me want to vomit. They think they have the right to tell everyone else how to live, as if they were born with special privileges directly from God. They don't know their ass from a hole in the ground as far as I'm concerned. If they all disappeared overnight, the world would turn into a goddamn paradise. I really believe that with all my heart.
Getting back to Pauline, I think I fell in love with her on the phone. As unbelievable as this may sound, sex had very little if anything to do with it. All those nights while we were talking on the phone I never once pictured her naked or anything like that. I know boys my age are supposed to have sex on the brain 24 hours a day, and usually I do, but not with Pauline for some reason. I don't really know why because she was definitely sexy in her own way. She had this super healthy appearance like she was built to crank out lots of babies some day. She was very feminine with a soft voice and bedroom eyes. I was crazy about her, but I didn't necessarily want to jump her bones all the time.
Most of my sexual fantasies involved Lori Sandusky, whose old man owned a greasy spoon cafe downtown. Lori was so blatantly sexy she made guys drool at the sight of her. I used to go to the restaurant just to see her wiggle her ass in that cute little waitress uniform. I also slobbered over the photos in every old Playboy Magazine I could get my hands on. I'm telling you all this in case you wondered if I was fairy or something. I'm not, but I did know a fairy from school. He was a fat kid named Bernard Reston. He didn't sashay around with limp wrists or wear dresses or anything like that, but everyone knew he was a fairy. He wouldn't let anyone call him Bernie, it had to be Bernard. That killed me. He was a quiet kid who kept to himself and I didn't care if he was a fairy because he never tried to seduce me. If you want to know the truth, I felt kind of sorry for him. I think it was tough for him knowing the other students considered him a pervert. Some guys even made fun of him in school and he didn't get mad about it or anything. He just ignored them, but I know it must have hurt his feelings.
Bernard was in my history class and during our junior year he committed suicide. One night when his parents were at a party he ran a hose from the tail pipe of his car into the back seat and rolled up all the windows. Then he started the engine and sat behind the wheel until he croaked from carbon monoxide. He left a suicide note, but his parents wouldn't let anyone except the cops read it. I think he killed himself because he was afraid his parents would find out he was a fairy. They were both very religious and they would have freaked out if they had known the truth. I don't understand why parents can't accept their kids the way they are. It would make things a lot easier for everyone.
I haven't exactly gotten laid yet, but I came close a couple times. Believe it or not, the first time was with a woman who works with my mother. Nora was only a few years older than me, nineteen or twenty I think, and one day I found her crying in the back room of the laundry. My mother and her worked in this Chinese laundry and that night the whole place was empty when I showed up. Nora was bawling like a baby until she spotted me watching her. Then she dried her eyes and pretended everything was all right, like females always do when they have a nervous breakdown. I didn't know why she was upset and I put my hand on her shoulder to sort of comfort her. She lifted my hand to her cheek and before I knew what was happening she was kissing me all over the face. I didn't know what to do except kiss her back. In the meantime Nora unzipped my pants and reached right in there to fondle me. This made me very nervous, but I decided it was too late to turn back. I was pulling my pants down when Ju walked in.
Ju was the middle-aged son of the laundry owner and he had gold fillings in his teeth. Those fillings almost blinded me when his mouth opened into the widest smile I ever saw. I jerked up my pants as Nora took off through the back door. Jesus, was I embarrassed. I started babbling to Ju, begging him not to tell anyone, but he just kept smiling for the longest time. Finally, he said: "Don't worry. I keep a secret."
I always liked Ju, but after he said that, I would have fallen on a hand grenade for him. He was an interesting man who had done all this crazy stuff to get to the U.S. He fled Communist China and swam across a river to Hong Kong, where he had to wait years for a visa. He wasn't really the son of the laundry owner. They only had the same last name because they came from the same village in China. Apparently, it was common for Chinese people to have the same last name if they lived in a particular town. It know it sounds absurd, but that's the way they did it over there in the old days.
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