Do you have photos of moments in your life that make you cringe? I have a handful of them, particularly from my early 20s, when I was searching for a path out of Texas. I had moved beyond my flashy New Wave days of makeup and big hair into a strange hybrid uniform of 1940s suit vests, cardigan sweaters, giant t-shirts, over-sized jeans, white boxer shorts, and black wingtip shoes. In 1993, my last year in Houston, the real crime was my goofy Roman haircut. I’m not sure why I thought I could make such an unflattering style into something cool.
This can work if you’re rugged,
or a rock star,
My fashion faux pas was a personal line in the sand against the rise of grunge and its impact on the local art and bar scene. After graduating from high school, I had no trouble meeting interesting, attractive girls from the art and new wave scene, but my artsy friends and I saw ourselves as perpetual outsiders, happy to avoid trendy clichés. What we didn’t realize was that by identifying ourselves as outsiders, we were fulfilling another artistic stereotype. At least this stance offered us a small sense of self-worth and dignity in an environment that felt increasingly static. The Houston nightlife included the new bar Emo’s, which catered to the trendy grungy/alternative music scene that was rising at that time in which the standard patron was an avowed fan of Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. On a typical night, the bartenders usually ignored me and my nerdy, un-inked friends, while the regular patrons were quickly served — reinforcing the message that we didn’t belong. This left us feeling invisible to anyone outside of our artsy circle, but it fueled our self-righteous resolve to reach escape velocity from the endless orbit of Texas.
Midway through the wonderful song, “The Cutter,” by Echo and the Bunnymen, an amazing drone roars to life, filling the air and never failing to raise chills on my skin. I always thought it was distorted bagpipes, but today I discovered that it is actually an eastern violin played by Lakshminarayana Shankar.
I love that sound – the same roar of cicadas on a sweltering Texas afternoon, rising and falling in accompaniment to the landscape shimmering through the waves of heat.
I tried to write today, but I was feeling low and nothing was happening so I headed to a thrift store on Pico. After surveying the block, I discovered a small store I had never noticed before, which had several racks of men’s suits in the back.
I was combing through them when the owner approached – an older gentleman with a long white beard and yarmulke, but not dressed traditionally. The soft spoken man began to talk earnestly about his business, which supports hundreds of families who have no other means to survive. He said that most of his items were donations from families in Beverly Hills, and based on the suits, that appeared true.
We talked for about 10 minutes, discussing our place in the world as humans, as well as our responsibilities to ourselves and the planet. His belief in god peppered many of his ideas, but in spite of that difference, we agreed on how we are supposed to live our lives. It was so simple, and even though I have no religious belief, it was easy to say, “Yes, this is how we should try to live: Don’t be a selfish jerk. Understand that ownership doesn’t last forever, because everything is fleeting. The only things we genuinely have are a mind and body, and even those die off. Help anyone that you can while you have time and health. Be responsible and leave the world better than you found it.”
Then I told him that I’d gone to the theater last night to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and since it was a pristine digital print, for the first time I noticed the sign under the portrait of George Bailey’s dad in the Building and Loan office – “All that you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
I peer into the depths of a black tarp, loosely stapled across a makeshift wall. There is a constant hustle of people shuffling past as they rush to cobble together a haunted house for this elementary school carnival within 24 hours. By my side is David Johnson, a great neighborhood friend. I’d invited him to help paint this mural because I envy his casual confidence when we collaborate on our knock-off Garfield comic strips. We stand transfixed, staring into the endless void of black as the heavy, plastic scent of the tarp fills the air. In the background, the creepy noises from a sound effects album swirl around us as a plaintive dog howls in the distance, glass breaks and a wind storm pushes past.
I abruptly pull a comic book out of a manila envelope to use as a source, then grab a medium-sized paint brush, open a quart of dark purple latex paint and start roughly painting the outlines of a huge swamp monster emerging from the black screen. This is the creature known as Swamp Thing. David opens a bright green quart of paint and begins filling in the forms of the monster. It is 1980 in Texas, only a few days before Halloween and I am 12 years old.
Several years later I’m sitting in an R-rated movie that I’ve snuck into with two of my nerdy best friends, David Gregg and Mike. We sit transfixed, staring into the endless void of black as the heavy, buttery popcorn scent fills the air. In the background, the rhythm of brisk staccato drumming swirls around us as the title The Hunger flies out from the darkness and floats on the screen. Soon we are entranced by the appearance of an unearthly, ghostly thin singer encased in a wire cage. Read the rest of this entry »
I didn’t realize that I would have a problem when I wore the dead man’s shirt to the goth club.
When I first saw it at the estate sale, the black button-down was perfectly folded and stored in a withered dry cleaning bag, with the ancient identification tag looped through a starched buttonhole. Lifting it from the closet shelf, I guessed that it hadn’t been worn for 20 years.
The house had a musty odor that followed closely as I explored the rooms. Had the deceased owner been a former smoker? Considering the lingering scent, I sniffed the shirt and thought, “Does it smell like the house?”
It was only $1, so I brought it home and tossed it into the dryer for 10 minutes. It had no odor afterwards, so it hung forgotten in the closet until I needed a black shirt for the goth club.
At first everything was fine – I arrived at the club, enjoyed a drink, and moved onto the dance floor. Soon enough, the problem began. I was wearing a black jacket over the shirt, as well as black pants and a silk scarf tied as an ascot. As the night progressed and I continued dancing, my body temperature rose. After an hour of bopping around, I was feeling great and in touch with the music when I suddenly realized, “Wait…what’s that smell?!” I casually sniffed the air as I kept dancing, looking for a source when I realized that it was me! The air was filled with the unmistakable odor of the dusty house, wafting off me like a gruesome cologne of decay. That stench had been embedded dormant in the shirt, but was triggered by my body heat!
I kept to myself after that, which isn’t tough to do when you go dancing alone at a goth club.
When people ask if I believe in ghosts, I respond that I’m fascinated, but that I don’t believe. However in this case, the owner of that house was reluctant to let his shirt go. He had haunted me with his dusty stench, tagging along for a ride. It reminded me of the Disneyland warning: “Beware of hitchhiking ghosts.”
On a recent trip to Texas, I returned with a suitcase overflowing with Super 8 films from my childhood. Most of this footage ranges from the late 1960s through the 1970s. My goal is to regularly post about a random film, along with related memories prior to watching it. I will follow this with my response after the viewing.
October 1972 Halloween party at 2702 Sweetgum St., Pasadena Texas
Everything is blurry, maybe from my poor vision and the mask I wore, but possibly from my hazy memories. My parents put together a Halloween party for my sister Michaelle and I one night in October 1972, when I would have recently turned 5 years old and Michaelle 7. My cousin Angela, who was my age, probably came along too. Read the rest of this entry »