I was waiting for the school bus over at the elementary school. Early in the morning the buses began gathering the out of town kids, all scattered across close to a hundred square miles around my rural hometown. Eventually the buses gathered there within eyeshot of my childhood home at the elementary school, dropping the younger kids off before heading the 8 miles or so west to the high school as we called it, even though grades 7-12 were all housed there. It sat out in the country, midway between my hometown of Clayton, and the neighboring town of Cape Vincent, where buses had also been gathering kids to either drop at their elementary school, or to bring up to the high school, same as where I was headed. I was in 7th grade, my first year going there and meeting all these new kids doing the same.
I remember what I was wearing this day: tan leather hiking boots with bright orange laces; faded Levi’s; a dark blue long sleeve corduroy shirt that I loved for the color and the softness. I saw a Levi’s commercial showing a guy wearing this exact outfit, or as close as I could come to duplicating it. There was something about the graceful way that person moved that struck me, and I knew that if I wore those same clothes, I could be the same and it would feel good. And it did. I also wore my blue and silver varsity letterman style jacket my Aunt had given me. It had come with a Dallas Cowboys logo on the chest I had my mother remove. In its place I wore a button from a Fleetwood Mac concert my dad’s friend Dick gave me. Dick and his family were friends of my parents who we would help move to Memphis on my first big road trip the following summer. The Fleetwood Mac button was silver and in dark block print said HOLD ME next to the image of a can of Schlitz Light beer, the official sponsor of the 1982 Fleetwood Mac Tour which Dick had recently seen.
I’d become aware that I was beginning to feel like I didn’t understand the other kids as a whole. Like with music; they all seemed to always know who was the popular band, and they could sing songs, and talk about albums or cassettes I didn’t know of, and I didn’t understand or even know why I was supposed to understand. I didn’t understand how they found these things out. I watched Solid Gold almost every week just like they did to try to find these things out, but it was no help. I did like watching the Solid Gold Dancers so much. The men and the women both, they were beautiful, especially when they wore their most snug outfits revealing their toned, flexible bodies. I didn’t tell anyone that. And it didn’t make me feel any more clued-in about the other kids. I only felt more and more lost and left out. So I wore this button, and it became one of my very first shields against the world. Against the other kids. I thought this button I wore on my chest of a band I didn’t really know from a real concert somewhere was my proof that I understood what they were all talking about. That I was one of them. This Fleetwood Mac button that said HOLD ME which was nothing more than an advertisement for beer, and yet it seems now all these years later such a clear visual metaphor for my loneliness and fear and shame, someone who didn’t know where to hide except in my own head, and perhaps behind this button. I used it to hide from things like what happened next.
Well, that day I also had my backpack on, which I don’t remember other than it had a zippered pouch on the back that’ll become important to this story in a bit, and it had a larger zippered opening at the top. I’d gotten into line to get on bus 47 which I was sure was the coolest bus of them all. It must have had a better radio. I remember a morning radio campaign involving Chicken Man and some funny voices, and all the kids would want to know what Chicken Man had said that morning, and I’m sure I was trying to find out. One of the Todds was waiting there behind me in line with all these other kids. There were two Todds, both big, both bullies. One meaner than the other.
This is where I’ll let you know that my mother ran a hair salon out of our house. Her clientele was largely the captive audience of the newly constructed assisted-living facility that was built just behind the house I grew up in. But also other people from town including occasionally a kid from school. I spent a lot of time in that salon as a child. The smell of permanent solution is still an odd comfort. When my mom was working after school, I’d go in and out depending on the day or her client. When she wasn’t working, her shop’s floor became a nice surface to race Hotwheels on. Sometimes I’d just sit in there and look through all the magazines and hair color samples and catalogs. I was mesmerized by the variety of pink, blue, and purple hair colors. I couldn’t imagine why they made such colors and who would want them. Light green? I can clearly remember how confusing I found this.
I’ll also let you know I have a little sister, at the time she’d have been about 4 or 5 years old. By this time, she was now the one playing on the floor of my mom’s shop. And she also liked to get into my stuff.
So I’m waiting in line for the bus with all these other kids including at least one of the Todds who is right behind me. I feel Todd start to mess with me and my backpack and I try to ignore him. I don’t know what he’s doing but he’s obviously messing with me and the bus doors are open and I’m just ignoring him as best I can for just a bit here until we can all start moving and climb on the bus. That’s when he starts absolutely cracking up, laughing hilariously. He shoves me. I try to ignore him. Some other kids behind him now too, they start laughing. I can feel he’s actually reached into my backpack. Todd asks out loud if I’m going to do someone’s hair. I turn around to see Todd and a few others holding what I recognize as my mom’s haircurlers from her shop. They were green and textured with tiny loops like velcro. Green and pink. Curlers and clips both, that pouch on my bag was full of them, oh, and hairnets too. Todd the bully was tossing all of this out like parade candy, encouraging everyone to ask if I was a hairdresser. It was really lovely. No, that’s humour to diffuse the situation. It was a combination of frightening and humiliating and angering. Frightening as I thought I might get beat up right there in that moment. I could feel my entire body shrink up, as if trying to disappear. I knew now everyone would make fun of me for years. Humiliating; being seen as effeminate, a sissy, for having these tools of women’s beauty-craft. My homophobia was well established. And angering as I was furious at my little sister, who I assumed was responsible, and was confirmed that afternoon when I returned home. She put me in that situation, and I instantly hated her for it.
That anger I realize now as I write this is still there inside me. I’ve never acknowledged it until just now. That my current relationship with my sister is largely based on this resentment from that day so many years ago. 40-some years ago. I submit that as an example of how shame impacts families and relationships. This is only the 2nd part of an ongoing project, and I look forward to uncovering more hidden truths within me, and sharing them with you.