On Friday July 27, 1984 my family started a one-week camping trip just down the road not even ten miles away from home. It was a sort of getaway without the hassle of getting away, I suppose. I don’t know what prompted my parents to do this odd but fun little adventure. I’m pretty sure they don’t know it affected me the way in which it did.
That first morning was the first day of the 1984 LA Olympics which I knew I wouldn’t be able to see. It also turned out to be the morning after a very bad car crash, just a few miles further down the road from our campground. Just past midnight a drunk driver had plowed through a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road and the group of kids who stood amongst them, killing 5 of those I had come to think of as amongst the coolest in school. I was 14. I didn’t really know any of them, they were between 16 and 18. But they were the ones who, on the outside anyway, I thought looked like they had it together and were sure of themselves and confident. Things I hadn’t really felt in a while, a couple years at least. The previous school year was the one which started with watching the kid with the mohawk get singled out and beat. Now, a week or two after the last day of the school year, this.
I saw a lot of violence that year in school, the 1983-84 school year. The two biggest, toughest guys in the school went at it one day after lunch as we all gathered around them in the hall just outside of the school’s main office. They squared off, Jeff and Doug, and there were a couple good hits by each, jabs, then they moved in close, holding each other like boxers against the ropes for a moment, each trying to overpower the other. I thought Doug would win. I thought he was the scariest guy I’d ever imagined. A quick struggle against the lockers, then Jeff freed himself, punched Doug hard, squarely in the nose, stunning him. Then he grabbed Doug by his mullet and in one swift motion smashed his face into the louvered top of the lockers opposite them, spectacularly, like from a movie. Or a pro wrestling match. Jeff then simply walked away through the parting crowd of us. Doug had his hands to his face, blood ran down his face, neck, his hands, his arms. He had on a white and blue checkered shirt. That was just one of many fights I saw that year alone.
I was in 2 fights myself that year. Each stupider than the other. Both because I was too timid to simply walk away from someone or a situation. The first fight I was in was really weird. It was a bus ride home from school like any other. I was sitting next to a kid in my grade I thought was pretty cool, Brian. Behind us were older kids I didn’t know. They kept messing with us the whole ride. Hitting us and our stuff, pushing, calling names. Not enough to hurt or anything, but enough to scare me. Finally the bus got to the stop where we would all go our separate ways. Exiting the bus the older kids kept shoving Brian and me into each other, telling us we were going to fight. They kept saying come on, hit him, he can’t take you, don’t let him hit you, are you gonna take that, fight him, fight him. They just kept shoving us and tripping us, and finally Brian and I ended up on the ground. And then he had me in a headlock and then I punched him once in the nose drawing blood. I felt bad. Everyone left, I don’t think Brian or I really understood what happened. I certainly didn’t. We eventually talked about it, but only many years later. I felt shame at being bullied so hard that I hit someone I liked. Other than Brian, I never told anyone about that.
The second fight started at the school lunch table. I responded to this kid calling me a fag by saying something brilliant along the lines of no, you’re the fag. His name was Mark. I don’t remember why he called me a fag, I thought it more of an offhand insult, the way boys do, not an accusation, and I flung the insult back at him. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. But Mark didn’t like being called that. One period later as I left english class Mark was waiting for me, and he suckerpunched me in the nose as I walked through the door into the hallway. I’d never been hit like that before. After he hit me he told me he was going to beat me up the next day right after homeroom. I was stunned both physically and emotionally. Over the next approximately 18 hours I actually quaked with anxiety, waiting to get beat up. I didn’t know how to fight or how to defend myself. I was athletic in a way, but what I was gifted at was escaping tight situations. I was good at not getting tackled, at not getting hit by a dodgeball, not getting tagged. I was quick and squirrely, but I was not a fighter. I wasn’t a wrestler, a rough-houser, or intimidating at all. I was an escape artist, if anything. Something I think has remained true most of my life.
For those 18 hours though, I saw no escape. All I could think about was the inevitability of getting beat up by this guy. I didn’t sleep that night, I certainly never mentioned word number one about it to anyone for the shame I felt at being afraid. I must have sat through dinner and whatever else I did until bed, but I was a million miles away, trying to find someplace to hide, but never looking outside of my own mind. I finally made it to school the next morning, to homeroom, and ultimately to the hallway outside of homeroom where he stood waiting for me right next to my own locker. Kids formed a circle around us. I put my fists in front of me, and then he began hitting me. I don’t know how many times he hit me, but at least three or four, maybe a dozen. I don’t know. Right in the head. I just stood there. I know this because afterward, Christine told me so. You just stood there without moving, and he just hit you, she said. And she was right. I can still remember, everytime he hit me it felt like my head changed shape a bit. A history teacher finally stopped him hitting me. I kind of remember her asking me why I was in a fight, like, why are YOU in a fight? I remember one of the Todds, the scarier one, following me to where I had retreated to be alone and recover, like an injured cat under the bed, and I think he tried to comfort me in some bizarre way as if I had just passed through an initiation that he acknowledged, yet I was completely unaware of. I felt shame and I didn’t want him or anyone near me. I felt shame over being scared, being hit, not being able to defend myself. I’d also like to point out that no one, including that teacher made sure I was ok, took me to the nurse, or offered to. Other than Todd, which itself confused and scared me, and to be honest I still don’t understand.
But back to July 28, 1984 where I’m walking across the lawn separating the campground part of the park where we’re camping from the day-use part of the park where the beach and the facilities are. This man walked toward me, heading toward the beach as I headed away. I think he was likely in his late 20s, but I was a kid and everyone over 17 looked the same to me in a sense, though he stood out. He was a white guy, shirt off, cut off jeans and black army boots. He was freckly-tan and well toned like someone who works out. He was clean-shaven bald, which was unusual in and of itself at the time, and he had two pierced nipples. Two gleaming gold hoops, one in each nipple. He smiled and said hi as he strode past me. I was struck. He had freaking earrings through his nipples! He walked like a rock star, like he owned the park, this unusual looking man. He was amazing. It blew my mind, the pierced nipples and his shaved head. I really didn’t know what to do with that information at the time, and so I filed it away until really, about 30 years later when I got my nipple pierced. Nipple. Just one. Super painful!
I hadn’t really thought about getting my nipple pierced. It was just that image from June 28, 1984, it would pop into my head from time to time. That shirtless, buff man walking past me with his nipples pierced. And there, just a block from my apartment as I was once more struggling with whether or not I might be gay, I found myself outside a piercing studio and I wandered in about 30 years later.
He was a big, tall guy, Jamie, the man who pierced me. He looked like a biker. Jeans, chains, boots, tattoos. Long dark hair and beard. Sort of rough around the edges. But in contrast he had a very soft manner, and moved gracefully and gently, speaking with a high pitched quiet voice, almost a falsetto. He brought me to his table, and had me lay down on my back as he prepared his tools, deliberately. There was a routine, I could see. I asked if a nipple piercing was painful, any more than getting your ear pierced. That’s the only thing I’d ever had pierced yet. I laugh just thinking about that now. Oh, he said, raising an eyebrow. Then very serenely, Yes, this is going to be quite a bit more painful than that. Oh really, I thought. I somehow hadn’t considered exactly how painful this might be. He came to me with a very large curved needle, and the jewelry and told me to slide my hands under my butt as I lay there on my back. He was standing next to the table at my side and had made a couple marks on my nipple with what looked like a sharpie. Why’s that? I asked, having now pinned my hands under my butt. It’ll keep you from reacting as I pierce you. Otherwise you might hit me in the balls as a reaction to the sudden pain. And with that he pretty quickly and smoothly took my right nipple and gave it a couple flicks, pinched it, he told me to take a deep breath and exhale, then all at once he did it, he pierced it and I was blinded by an intense bright light and a searing pain that came and went like a camera flash. It was probably the most intense physical sensation I’ve ever experienced. I don’t quite remember what happened immediately after that. I fairly quickly was overcome with a feeling of being super duper high. Super, duper, fucking grade-A high. I hadn’t had a drink or a drug in years then. But man, the rest of that day right up until bedtime I was flying, every step I took was like a moonwalk. I was exempt from gravity, it seemed. I was like the headlight on a freight train, like an anthem being sung by a choir, like a kite at the end of a taught string in a windstorm.
I thought about that bald headed freckly guy walking across the grass toward me with his two gleaming nipple rings as I lay there with my anticipation, and again as I floated out of the piercing studio. I remembered I was on my way to what was like a community building for the park. There were a brother and sister there, my age, and I ended up hanging around with them a bit as they had a TV in their parent’s pop-up camper and we could catch up on the Olympics. I don’t remember their names, they were both blonde. He had a small boombox, and a cassette of Eddie Murphy’s Delirious album. If you are unfamiiar, it starts off right out of the gate with some classic homophobic jokes that became part of my own repertoire as a teenager. The only relationship to gay or queer culture I allowed myself was to use it as the butt of a joke if I thought it would get me a laugh. I remember listening to that cassette over and over to remember the jokes. Getting my Mr T and Ralph Cramsden voices just so. The following summer when I would work at my first real job, those jokes would come in super handy, and endear me to both my fellow dishwasher and his friends who would later provide the space for me to start my drinking career proper.
Out of curiosity recently I decided to find out what day I might have seen that man with the pierced nipples, based on those other things I know happened while on that trip. Then, I decided to find out what day I got that nipple piercing. I’m sort of a packrat with paperwork, and after some effort, I was finally able to find a card with that piercer’s info and a handwritten follow-up date to get the piercing checked. To the best of my knowledge, I was pierced on July 29, 2014. 30 years and 1 day after I’m sure I saw that man on that camping trip after that awful car crash where I learned some of my first fag jokes.