Wednesday, August 18, 2010
I’ve been called a lot of names in my life, but the worst case happened recently.
In one of his lost columns, my dad wrote about the outrage he endured one morning, crossing the street at an intersection. He was crossing a crosswalk before a impatient right-turning driver who called out to him: “C’mon, grandpa. Move it along.”
My dad was in his late 30’s at the time. Ah, the curse of being prematurely gray.
It’s not unusual for school playmates to name-call in a group in order to feign superiority, nor is it remarkable when siblings do it to each other. I have always had an abnormally large head, and my sister, even today, likes to rib me about that.
When I was in junior high school and got my braces off my teeth, I was shocked at the yellow color of my teeth. This, as I found out years later, was not due to poor hygiene but was the result of large amounts of tetracycline I got shot into my butt during my wonder years.
I tried everything. Baking soda, expensive Pearl Drops tooth “polish,” and even sent away for this tooth paint that used to be in tiny ads in the backs of magazines. There was a picture of a grinning woman holding a Q-tip against her bright, shiny smile. I saved up my allowance and got a money order and sent away for a bottle of it. It turned out to be nothing more than Liquid Paper with a different label. Sure it made your teeth white, but it had a brush-marked matte finish that stuck to the inside of your lips. It also scraped off when you ate. Another failure. Thus, my sister continued to keep referring to me as Chief Yellowteef.
Last week after receiving the slander of a lifetime, I thought back and remembered the second worst name I was ever called. It happened, not surprisingly, in seventh grade.
There was a boy who entered my sixth grade class as The New Kid, a transplant from the hills of a southern state. For want of a better name, let’s call him Andy Taylor.
He turned out to be one of my best friends in sixth grade, and at the beginning of seventh grade I carpooled with him and his little brother to school, and I carpooled home with other friends when school let out.
Andy and I used to go to movies and ride the big toboggan slide that was set up in the Monkey Wards parking lot. One weekend a family friend rented a hotel on the beach, and Andy came with me to spend the day romping in the swimming pool and eating all the free junk food that we could stuff into ourselves. It had been a really fun day.
In junior high, life was hugely different than it had been in elementary school. You were taught by several teachers, not just one. You had to get naked in P.E. and discover that some boys were developing faster than others, and it only served to make those undeveloped, unmuscled, hairless boys without Adam’s apples feel even more inferior about our bodies. Those of us who had slower hormones prayed every night that God would light a fire under our testosterone, or whatever it was that made guys bigger, hairier, and more physically defined than we were.
Over the summer between sixth and seventh grade, I disappeared as I often did to Colorado to be with my favorite aunt. After I got back, it didn’t take long to realize that the entire social structure had changed. Girls, who used to be our enemies, were often given assignments. They asked their girlfriends to ask our friends to ask us if we liked them. This was done by telephone, sometimes from parties, or note-passing or whispering in class. Whenever a friend of mine told me that a girl wanted to know if I liked her, my standard response to deliver third-hand to the girl was, “Yes. As a friend.”
That was the kiss of death for a girl. It would have been an improvement if I had instead said, “Yes, I like her at least as much as I like Hitler.”
Boys were trying to act more grown up. At the one party I was invited to, I was shocked to see boys smoking stolen cigarettes from their parents’ stash. And racy girls carried embezzled alcohol in cleaned-out green squirt bottles of liquid acne soap that they buried in their purses. Couples went to dark corners and kissed!
I was having none of that. I didn’t feel grown up enough to be doing that. Furthermore, I didn’t want to do any of that. My testosterone was still incubating in the tundra of my body.
That kind of attitude got you nowhere in a hurry fast with the people who were drawn into the popularity race. Nothing pushed you to the bottom rung faster than not being interested in girls, or cigarettes or gin.
So it was inevitable that my nouveau-cool friends would turn on me. I was standing at a urinal in the boy’s bathroom at Wilson Junior High School when it happened. The feet-to-chest porcelain fixtures were bizarrely arranged in pairs, flush against each other at 90 degree angles. I was peeing at the one closest to the exit, and no one else was in the room.
Then Andy, who had established himself by then as a jock, walked into the bathroom and stood at the urinal farthest away from me. And he started chanting in a singsong way, “Bill is a pansy. BILL IS A PANSY.”
I couldn’t for the life of me understand the betrayal. He had nothing to gain by doing this, as there were no witnesses who could cheer him on or make note of his superiority. He was saying that because he meant it.
At that time I thought he was right. Maybe because I wasn’t like he was, I was a pansy. I looked down into the urinal while zipping up. I felt tears starting to well up in my eyes, and I bit the inside of my cheek to prevent it. I made a beeline for the door. And the next time I spoke to Andy was just chit-chat, fifteen years later, at our ten-year high school reunion.
I dropped out of both carpools. The school-to-home carpool got to be too much when everyone but I was dropped off at a rich kid’s house to swim and play pool and foosball, and I was left alone in a big station wagon with the driving mother. I never had another guy-friend until four years later. (Behold, little gay one: Meet the high school drama club!)
Yeah, yeah, boo-hoo, Bill. Send yourself some flowers. There probably isn’t a gay man of my generation who didn’t experience something similar to this, usually under worse circumstances with more severe damage. At least I never got beat up.
So THAT was the second-worst sticks-and-stones thing that ever happened to me. Up until last week, at least. If people call me a pansy or a faggot or a homo these days, I immediately grab Other Bill, dip him, and give him a big, sloppy, get-a-room kiss. Even if it’s in the middle of Independence Avenue in Washington, DC. And he is usually happy to play along.
So here’s what happened last week. We were in a thrift store. My back was misbehaving, so I sat down on a sofa for sale, and Other Bill, fresh out of knee surgery, went and stood in the checkout line. I was sitting still on the couch, becoming one with the fumes of used clothing, when a man walked in front of me. I moved my leg out of the way, and he jumped back, put his hand on his heart and had this frightened look on his face. I looked back at him quizzically, and then he said it.
“Mannequin!” he gasped. “I thought you were a mannequin!”
Bill is a mannequin. BILL IS A MANNEQUIN.
Since then I have been thinking and have decided that pansy, big-head, Chief Yellowteef and being called “grandpa” in your thirties by impatient drivers are small potatoes when compared with mannequin. At least the guy didn’t tell me he thought I was a corpse.
Now that would have been insulting.
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