1980s PART ONE — I graduated high school in 1987. I am definitely a child of the 80s, though I’ve really always hated that about myself. As far back as I remember I’ve felt out of place and out of time. Like I was a generation or two too late. Among the many features of the self-loathing I’ve picked up is absolutely hating the popular culture of the 1980s. The movies, shows, and music of the 80s, all flimsy and fake, artificial, as are its sounds produced by early generation synthesizers and other electronic means. None of it sounded or looked real to me back then. And it was full of homophobia and an increasingly toxic masculinity that was palpable then, and positively absurd looking back now.
In September of 1980 I turned 11. I was in 6th grade, it was a year of transitions and new beginnings. My last year at the elementary school. I remember at that age for the first time feeling the largeness, and the interconnectivity of the world. 1980 was the year of the “Miracle on Ice”. The US beating the Soviets in Olympic hockey in what seemed like the most important sporting event of all time. Being from a part of the world where hockey is high on the sports hierarchy, as well as sitting geographically quite close to Lake Placid, where the Olympics were hosted, I felt especially connected to this huge moment. The disproportionate amount of attention and meaning this hockey event took on for non-hockey fans was staggering. My grandparents took me to Lake Placid to see the site of the Olympics. We stood atop the ski jumps and we walked down the bobsled run. We stayed the weekend in the Art Devlin Motor Inn where Olympian Art Devlin’s trophies and colorful memorabilia was displayed prominently, and I thought maybe I should soar through the air like him.
The assassination of John Lennon was another event in 1980 that pulled me out of myself, briefly. I can remember wearing pajamas–a flannel, matching two-piece set I likely got for Christmas the prior year, and laying on the reddish-brown flecked carpet when I heard it read by a newscaster. My house wasn’t particularly musical, and I wasn’t yet very intrigued by music. I knew he was a Beatle, and until about that time I’d thought of the Beatles as an oldies kind of band, if I thought of them at all. I’d have thought of sounds like Love Me Do when I thought of the Beatles back then.
I’d been out with my Aunt and Uncle to a party somewhere. It was people I didn’t know, at a house somewhere out in the country I didn’t recognize. While walking around checking the house out during the party, I found a stack of records including Beatles records, most of which I’d never seen before. Looking back, I know the collection spanned the entire Beatles history, and I remember being especially interested in the cover of Rubber Soul. The foursome’s hair and posture referenced the style of the other records in that stack, the older ones, but this one was different. They were darker and scruffier. I didn’t listen to the records that night. I’m sure it was all Johnny Cash, or maybe Waylon or Willie playing through the stereo. I can remember how weird and different these Beatles records seemed from what I’d thought of them. I never saw them before that night, and then I never saw them again until years later in college when I rediscovered them; I thought they were a dream. Sometimes at night John seemed to look right into me from the shadows of my room. He wasn’t singing Love Me Do.
It wasn’t long after that night John Lennon was shot. Though I’d experienced death at a fairly close perspective already, I had no experience talking about it, or processing the emotions it carried in its current. I took note that I felt affected by his death more than any other person who I’d never actually met. But to be honest, pretty straight away I stopped thinking about it and him altogether. A pattern I recognize still in me. To me, John Lennon’s death is when the 80s began and when I really began the process of choosing what to discuss with whom, and what to do with the various feelings that came into me and filled me to my eyeballs.
The 80s is so tied up in my development as a closeted person I have a hard time with all of it now. That the era has embedded itself so unforgivingly in our culture is something I’ve really struggled with. An awkward side effect of this is that so many of the queer people I meet now, well, before the pandemic that is, so many of them are absolutely driven by the inspiration they found and find in 80s culture, whereas I find the opposite. It all seems associated with the duress I felt. With as open a mind as I can muster I try to find things from back then for me to claim, things to find myself in. I mean, whether I like it or not, those are my roots I suppose. I’ve started with songs, bands, movies, and things I remember having a strong negative reaction to. Fresh eyes, you know. But I typically find that, even in those elements I can get behind ideologically or politically, that I’m too put off by the sounds, or the looks to engage with them. There’s this inescapeable stink of the 80s, I can’t escape it. That over-saturated, high contrast, sharp-shouldered, muscle-flexed, simply fake and phony era full of shame and willful ignorance.
The taste in music I’ve ended up with is rooted in my private life in my bedroom in the 80s. I didn’t listen to the radio much, we had few stations to choose from, and they were top-40 or country, neither of which I liked. I found a very few particular albums, or 8-tracks rather, that did cement themselves into my soul early on through sheer repetition, there in my room lying in bed with headphones on, night after night. These spoke to me like none other.
Willie Nelson’s Stardust. I think it must have been my parents’ copy that I took and kept in my room. If you are unfamiliar, and I suppose it’s possible, Willie Nelson is an American outlaw country icon who walks the line between old-school country, and old-school rock and roll. And then, Stardust is his album of sincerely played jazz standards. It’s rich with that type of nostalgic, grieving melancholy that jazz does best, but done with Willie’s sharp tenor sung like a man talking straight to me, and me alone, there as a, what, twelve year old? It makes as much sense to me as any part of my life, so there you go.
ABBA’s Greatest Hits. In Dancing Queen I was both the observer and the subject, the dancing queen. I was both at once. I didn’t think about it, it just made sense when I sang along. I wanted her, I was her. It didn’t mean anything to me, it didn’t make me question anything, it just felt good every time I played it which was frequently. The entire album. Opposite the grief I could experience with Willie, I felt something akin to joy when I sang along with ABBA, so many nights alone in bed.
AC/DC Back in Black. I can still remember the first time I became aware of this music. I was in 7th grade, it was the end of the school day and all us kids were filing out of classrooms, filling halls and stairwells, a flash flood of kids moving toward the main exit in unison, released by the three o’clock bell. As I turned into the stairwell, I could see the toughest kid in school, coming up the steps in the opposite direction; the only obstacle in the otherwise orderly channeled flow of students. He was head and shoulders above us, and he had a large silver boombox on his shoulder as he made his way against traffic, it pulsed green LEDs in time as it indeed boomed against the block walls of the stairwell the opening chords to Back in Black. It was the coolest moment in junior high school. I got the 8-track. I was convinced.
The movie experience then wasn’t what it is today. A lot of people only saw their favorite movie once or a few times in their whole lives. At some point in the mid 80s cable came to our town, and we got access in my house to HBO, among a few other exotic channels, though not including MTV, which I’d seen in Memphis when we visited. I reacted similarly to movies as I did to music. Few popular movies interested me. Revenge of the Nerds and Stripes both did, and I watched them on repeat, not only for the quick glimpse of a neud breast, but certainly aware each time. I watched two movies more than any other once I had access to HBO. Escape From Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood, and Midnight Express starring Brad Davis. Two prison movies. Two escapes. I have a hard time thinking in any terms other than the obvious here. In Midnight Express especially I found an emotional arc and a cathartic moment I could appreciate like in few other movies I’d ever seen. A young man is arrested smuggling hash out of Turkey. He spends years in a dark Turkish prison, abused routinely. He eventually kills his main abuser and escapes, dressed in the dead guard’s uniform. I was drawn to the cathartic moment of escape that was only possible to feel having watched all of the darkness leading up to it. I watched it over and over.
I have a few cultural items to call my own from the 80s, but mostly when I look back at the era, I see things I hated, things I was afraid of, things I kept distant so as to keep from ever possibly revealing my true inner self to anyone. And this is one of those moments where I can see the hypocrisy within myself clearly. I believe in a lesson I learned from mountain biking. Focus your eyes where you want to go. If you focus on an obstacle, you will ride into it. Focus on your line, where you want to go. The things in life I’ve accomplished, I’ve done by following this simple advice. Projects, events, racing, gardening, whatever, this lesson is part of me. But when I look back on my life, I don’t see someone who has focused on where he wants to go, I see someone focused on hiding. On subterfuge, on passing. Someone focused on the obstacle. Editing themself instead of nurturing curiosity about themself. Shrinking instead of growing.
1980s PART TWO — The summer of 1983 was remarkable to me for a number of reasons, some of which I’ve already mentioned in previous sections of this Coming Out series. It was also my first summer of BMX and of the pack of boys I’d ride with for the next couple of summers, after both 8th and 9th grades. Among the very few things in my life I allowed to consume me, and through which I allowed myself a lot of personal freedom was bicycle riding. In the summer of 1983 that meant BMX. I’d first been intrigued by BMX earlier that summer down in Tennessee. Back home I noticed a group of boys in town who had BMX bikes. I’d seen them down at the sandlot making and riding big jumps and I wanted some of that adrenaline. I was already a veteran at making jumps over at my end of town, but on my banana-seat Huffy. I was flying high and landing fast, but not on a BMX bike. So I sank all my paper route money into a brand new BMX bike, the most beautiful one in the shop, that was the only thing I knew about judging bikes. Of course I remember wanting to look at all the bikes, and to learn about them, but I didn’t know how to do that, so I just chose the pretty blue one. Fairly quickly I was adopted into the little gang because I could ride and jump and trick better than most. In that little crowd at that time, it’s all that mattered then.
It didn’t matter that I was one of the nerdy kids at school, separated out into accelerated classes. Or that the bullies in school included me in their fag trolling from time to time. Over the summer I was one of these BMX kids. Until about 5th grade, socializing was natural. Now into 7th grade and beyond, it was a struggle. I trusted fewer and fewer people as I withdrew more and more into a private life that only existed inside myself, and a public life that was a mask I was always trying to make fit the situation. Two of these BMX guys in particular became my closer friends, and when I upgraded my bike fairly quickly to an even prettier, all chrome frame, they came over to my house to help me assemble the new bike from the old.
We did this up in my bedroom, a big room with sloped ceilings, and a lot of floor space for my rather massive Lego city I’d been building for years. It hadn’t occurred to me to move it, there was enough room to spread out the bike parts and work even with the Lego city there, and I mean it was always there, so why would I? But when they came up to my room where they’d never been before it was a surprise for them to see the Lego city, and they laughed and teased me the entire time we were up there about having toys in my room. I was absolutely mortified, and removed the entire city the moment they left and never reassembled it. I also rarely invited them back up into my room. Or almost anybody for that matter. This room had been the last place that was safe. Where I was absolutely free. And now that didn’t feel the same any longer either, as I was concerned that toys were for sissies maybe, so I edited that out.
At this point in my young pubescent life, there in my room I was doing all the things with myself that I was sure were either wrong, evil, or suspicious; things I was certain were proof I was gay, things I knew I was not supposed to want to do, yet couldn’t keep myself from wanting to do because they felt so good and so right. Things few people actually talked about in the open, if ever, or if they did they took the form of jokes and insults. Alone in my room was the only place I got to let my guard down and be free. So long as I was alone, and so long as the door was closed. And so long as absolutely no one ever knew. So my room became mine and mine alone, and I let very few people ever into it, just like the rest of my life. I had some friends, and I’d go to their house if possible.
Before the BMX boys, I had another friend, perhaps the only friend I could have ever confided in as a youngster as all this was developing. I knew him from 1st grade on and looking back, I think it’s possible I had a crush on him. Most of the friends I had were of convenience (our parents were friends), or we shared an activity, like throwing the football, or riding bikes. Mike wasn’t like that. We hung out just to hang out, even from the earliest days I can remember. We both just wanted to imagine things together. We’d recreate scenes from the Muppet Show, we’d dress each other in funny costumes, we were fascinated with Star Wars and Star Wars action figures, we’d lip sync songs together and create little theater productions. We had a whole routine to The Coward of the County where we would take turns being the main character, the Coward, acting out the whole story that plays out in that Kenny Rogers pop country song. I think he was my best friend. He was my favorite friend. Then once we got into 7th and 8th grades, we weren’t quite as close. Mainly I think, because I just felt so awkward around everybody. I think I was withdrawing in general. And then he died suddenly.
In fact it was the same weekend as my own first-ever overnight in the hospital. I’d been experiencing some bad stomach pains, and it got to be a concern I might have appendicitis. So I was taken to the ER where they kept me overnight. Turned out to only be a virus of some kind, so I returned home fine the next day, but to the awful news that Mike was dead. It was sudden like my rush to the ER. But his wasn’t an overnight like mine, he was gone. I did go to the funeral, I remember sitting in the back of the foreign-to-me Methodist church, but I didn’t speak to Mike’s parents as I had no idea what to say, and I wasn’t mature enough to know that simply being there with them to acknowledge Mike’s passing would have been enough, or at least something. But I never saw them again, and Mike was really never talked about again. Like the other deaths of my childhood..
Now, I don’t have any inkling whatsoever over whether Mike had any feelings like I had, but what I know is he was a friend unlike any friend I’d ever had before, or since. A friend who could match me and inspire me, and be as goofy as me, and feel as deeply as me. He was the only one like that I remember.
One day out in the woods behind his house goofing around, we bagan throwing stones at each other in a sort of how-close-can-you-get-to-me sort of way. Not trying to hurt each other, just being dumb kids. (We sometimes did it with our bows and arrows too.) I guess I turned away as he lobbed a good sized rock, which hit me pretty squarely in the back of my head. I had to go get stitches, that was a first. I don’t remember how much it hurt, I mostly remember how badly Mike felt after. He locked himself in his room, and his mom had to call later that day to get me on the phone so Mike would know I was okay and come out of his room for dinner. I’ll obviously never know anything beyond the memories I have, but I’m sure that at some point during those young days as I struggled with all of those new and suspicious feelings, if I had felt secure enough to voice any of what I was going through to anyone, it would have been him, my friend Mike. But he was gone.
A couple summers after BMX summer, I had my first non-paper route job, washing dishes and making pizza at a restaurant owned by one of my BMX friend’s parents. (As a historical footnote, I made $2.75 an hour at this job which I thought was plenty, even with taxes removed from it.) The BMX dudes were summer friends, during the school year we really didn’t socialize much at all. I didn’t really understand how cliques and friend groups worked, but the BMX dudes were part of the stoner crowd I suppose. I was part of the nerd crowd, if anything I guess. I honestly don’t know. I was clueless, and our town was really small. I knew the BMXers smoked pot and drank alcohol, which I was super interested in, but they never asked me to join or offered me any, and I never asked them for any, even if they smoked it right in front of me. Why I don’t know. I was afraid to ask for some reason. That is, until that next summer when I began working in the restaurant with one of them. On day one he asked me if I wanted to smoke some weed with him, and that was that.
That whole summer we’d get stoned during the day while we washed dishes, then we’d close the place, being the de facto custodial crew, and the BMX guys and sometimes their older friends too, would arrive and we’d sit at the bar and drink beers or booze and get loaded. I was sort of afraid of many of these guys. A couple times, the older boys who made me and my friend Brian fight each other were there. But I quickly learned that if I drank enough, nothing bothered or worried me. And apparently I was kind of funny. And that began my drinking career which would last until I was 36 years old.
I finished out high school by assimilating into a crowd of hard drinking straight boys. I didn’t consciously plan it out, but looking back I can see how I did it. I was drawn to keep drinking once I discovered the relief it offered. When I was drunk, none of the things I worried about bothered me. Sure, the guys I drank with were homophobes. The way they talked about girls and sex made me uncomfortable, but I went along with it. They were the crowd that wanted to drink the way I wanted to, and despite the endless fag jokes, and AIDS jokes, I had place were I could stay as checked out as I wanted. I blended right in with the straight guys, and I didn’t draw any attention, I actually was more of the comedian of the crowd always using humour to deflect, to pick on someone else, to keep them strung along. To keep myself strung along. Staying drunk was good relief, I was able to hide from myself and pretend that none of these stirrings inside me were real, that none of the grief I needed to express for my brother or for Mike was really there. I was just another straight boy trying to bang as many girls as I could to prove how straight I was, to who I didn’t really know at the time.
And what follows is about 20 years of alcoholism that doesn’t need to be chronicled. Suffice to say, for about 20 years I lived the same day over and over and over again. Scenery changed, people came and went, but the gist of that 20 years is I stayed nice and drunk to not have to think about or deal with any of this stuff I’ve gone into. All of the fear and confusion and anger and grief, it all got drowned in booze, and so many people besides me have suffered for it. And so much of it is tied to not allowing myself to share who I really am. It’s so puzzling.
Years later, after getting sober and learning how to function without booze in a day to day way with people, I can see I developed a new way of hiding. If asked about myself from someone I trusted enough, I might share about myself, in fact, with the right person in the right setting, I’ll go on and on and bore the hell out of them. But I don’t volunteer information, ever, to anyone. Unless asked. I’m not referring to being queer or coming out, I’m talking any info in general. My thoughts and interests and opinions. And those people, the ones who ask, some of those people like me enough or are persistent enough that they become my friends over time. I suppose this is fine. But I also suppose that another way to make friends is to seek out people who share some sort of overlap with me, in interests or opinions or background. This is not something I’ve ever done, and it seems absurd for me now at 52 years old to admit that to myself, that it’s simply not occurred to me. That I don’t know how to do it because I spent so much of my younger life practicing the opposite, and worrying about all of this bullshit I can’t stop writing about apparently.