My Nerdoir

A nerdy, New Wave kid in East Texas during the 1980s.

Tag: 80s

The Naked Time

by Jeff

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,

but not as a nerd.

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.

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The Hunger – Bauhaus and the Endless Void of Teenage Depression

by Jeff

I.

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.

bernie-wrightson-swamp-thing-9

Bernie Wrightson’s cover to Swamp Thing #9, from 1974.

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 »

Summit Bars and Other Strange Things

by Jeff

I was recently digging through a few old storage boxes when I discovered a package I had sealed away in 1983. At the age of 15, inspired by an article about time capsules in the Houston Chronicle, I carefully placed a Summit candy bar into a Ziploc bag, which I then wrapped in a bundle of aluminum foil, followed by Saran Wrap, before gluing the mummified package into a cigar box. To make it official I carefully hand-lettered the box “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL 2013” with a black marker. I loved Summit bars, so when I heard they were being discontinued I decided it was the perfect item to bury into my makeshift capsule.

I was surprised to see that the package survived the rat and roach-infested journey of my life from Texas to New York and then Los Angeles intact. Feeling like an archeologist, I used an X-ACTO knife to surgically pry open the seal on the box and extract the mummified candy from the cardboard sarcophagus. After carefully pulling open the plastic and foil, I was struck by the familiar orange and brown colors of the wrapper, still pristine after 33 years. It is a perfect graphic design from the time, implying a landscape with the “MM” forming a mountain top while the dot on the “I” becomes a sun. Read the rest of this entry »

Episode 11: Shore Leave – Nerdy Spring Breakout

by Jeff

I.

“There’s a call to adventure. It’s something in the inner psyche of humanity…”
Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons

I’m slowly crawling down a dark hallway, flat against the pristine beige carpet while attempting to move silently and hide in the shadows. I hold my breath as I slide towards the door of the master bedroom that rests slightly ajar, like two perfectly poised lips, open and waiting to either kiss you or scream in terror. The bedroom light peeks out through the crack, creeping across the hallway and reflecting twenty years of family photos that line the passage. I imagine the stoic judgment of these frozen witnesses watching a costumed stranger attempt to escape their otherwise ideal home. Two generations perfectly coiffed and documented, proving that within this suburban ranch house resides another upstanding Texas family. As I glide past the off-white bedroom door, I sense movement within, but I’m too afraid to sneak a glance where I might glimpse a strange woman in her early 40s, so similar to my mom as she goes through her nightly ritual applying mysterious lotions and creams before settling down to sleep. I am worried that if I see her, she will sense my glance and look around alarmed.

I remind myself that this suburban Texas ranch house has the customary central air-conditioning blasting throughout, creating both a low ambient roar to help muffle the sounds of my escape, as well as maintaining an artificially stable environment. Like my parent’s giant refrigerator, it is as if everything in the house is organic and fragile, waiting to crumble and rot from the slightest change. If sweating were an Olympic event, I’d easily win the gold medal, so I’m also grateful I won’t nervously drip my makeup off along this journey. I try to resign myself that if I’m caught and arrested, or more likely shot on sight, at least I’ll die looking good. My friend Mike is also there, beside me in the cool darkness as we attempt our great escape. We successfully make our way past the bedroom and continue towards our next challenge: the dark living room, lit up with the bouncing light of a TV being watched from the comfortably clueless, plump suburban dad. How did two nerds looking for spring break excitement end up in this predicament?

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Episode 10: Arena, part 2 – Survival of the Thinnest

by Jeff

New York 2000

I take a cursory glance for stray dogs or people along the dark street as I step out of the warehouse. During the year that I’ve lived in the desolate Brooklyn neighborhood known as Bushwick, I’ve realized that both can be equally dangerous to encounter in the night. My breath is visible in the brisk December air as I increase my pace for the three blocks walk to the subway station. The first street is fairly safe since we have two occupied buildings on this block filled with creative types who’ve decided that it’s worth the hassle and risk of living in illegal, non-residence warehouses in exchange for the extra space. This street ends at the Boar’s Head processing plant, where I take a left and quickly turn right again to walk along what is the most dangerous street in the route because it is dark and its few businesses are always closed at night. My senses are on full alert after living in New York for seven years I’ve developed Spider-Man-like Spider-Sense that alerts me if circumstances are dangerous.

a2spidey sense

If I make it down this block and turn left towards the subway, I’ll be in safe territory, with a fire station located just around the corner. Read the rest of this entry »

Episode 8: The Mallternative Factor – Parachute Pants vs. Capes

by Jeff

FADE IN:

EXT. SHOPPING MALL – DAY
The bland, overbright facade of a mall on the outskirts of Houston, Texas on a hot day with an unbroken, cloudless sky and cars but no people. A seagull slowly circles the lot.

JEFF (Voiceover)
For many suburban teens in the 80s, the mall provided a mini-vacation from the blandness of our well-manicured lawns and idealized home lives. I could briefly escape the watchful eyes of my mom while I searched for anything that stood out as unique or interesting. Most of it was just as bland as our neighborhoods, but at least it offered a glimpse of freedom and provided a place to occasionally meet other outsiders. Mostly, it was just a place away from home to kill time; the ’80s equivalent to our modern coffee shops.

DISSOLVE TO:

INT. SHOPPING MALL WITH VARIOUS STORES FROM 1980s 
For Jeff walks into frame of camera from left to right, and as he reaches the center of frame, the camera tracks him steadily, keeping pace, full figure in frame. Muzak version of Islands in the Stream plays as Jeff walks past people and various stores: Chess King, Spencer’s Gifts, B. Dalton Books, Hickory Farms, ignoring them all until he stops and stoically turns to face one store.

                                                          CUT TO:

SIGN ABOVE STORE ENTRANCE
Throbbing fluorescent lights spell out MERRY GO ROUND.

goround

                                                                                                                   CUT TO:

Closeup of Jeff’s unsmiling face who takes a deep breath as if he’s about to battle a mortal enemy and looks into camera.

JEFF
Christ, I hate these commission-based stores… Everyone’s so damn desperate.

CUT TO:

INT. STORE AS CAMERA MOVES FORWARD POV SHOT
Dark and filled with racks of new wave clothes, mannequins, as well as mirrors covering all available wall space. Everything is lit with tiny spotlights, making it difficult to focus on the clothes in the darkness. Strobe lights and a mirrored ball are positioned around the store, adding to the confusion. Loud, trendy music is blasting from speakers hanging near the ceiling.

JEFF (Voiceover whispered as if under breath)
Please leave me alone. Please leave me alone.

POV SHOT CONTINUED.
On cue, several employees spot Jeff and begin rushing towards him as if on a sports field. From right side of frame closeup enters Jon.
JON, late teens, tan and wearing a thin gold chain. Read the rest of this entry »

Episode 6: Spectre of the Gun – Hunting, Gathering, and Reading

by Jeff

“Rise ahnd shine! Rise…AHND…shine!”
I woke every school morning to my mom’s southern voice abrasively carrying through the house. I dealt with it by imagining her as a Pterodactyl, and I’d mimic her catchphrases with dinosaur screeches as I flapped my arms and ran around the house like a scene in a Ray Harryhausen film.
“RAAAARise RAaaaRR and ShiiiiineRAaaaarr!”

My mom or dad would always make some type of breakfast for my sister and me, before I’d move into the living room to watch The Three Stooges as I dressed for school. Occasionally, when my dad had a few extra minutes, he would join me for the end of an episode where we would laugh together. He’d sometimes thrill me with stories of watching those same film shorts in the theater when he was a kid, along with a featured western, and I’d listen in awe at how ancient that time seemed yet still felt so relatable.

Less relatable were my father’s interests in more traditionally masculine pursuits, like sports and hunting. I played Little League baseball from the age of 6, and after my initial discomfort, I grew to enjoy it until I was 15. My first year of playing T-Ball left me a self-conscious misfit. Even my glove showed that I didn’t belong, since my parents had given me a red leather glove as a gift for Christmas that year. I’d mostly ignoredThe red glove. it until that season began, but couldn’t help but notice that the other boys had regular leather gloves, not something that looked like a bright red toy. Thankfully my parents insisted that I stick it out.

 

My dad became an assistant coach on the team, and continued for most of my baseball experience, since the lead coaches often showed up too drunk to actively conduct practice.

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Episode 4: Amok Time – Triggering my Trekkie Sleeper Cell

by Jeff

“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”
– Spock in Amok Time.

In June of 2001, I lived in a loft space in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Bushwick hadn’t yet become the art and fashion hub that it is today. I often saw junkies slouched inside cars as they tied up their arms for the next fix. When walking to the subway, I’d stay alert to avoid being cornered by the pack of wild dogs that roamed the neighborhood, as well as the groups of bored boys looking for an easy victim to corner. Each week a car would be abandoned on the street and set on fire, the flames just further exposing the cold, hardness of the industrial brick buildings. The bland gentrification that Mayor Giuliani force fed the city during the 1990s wouldn’t reach Bushwick for another decade.

This was an important moment, since everything I’d worked towards during the previous decade had recently aligned. I was represented by a respectable gallery in New York that had held my first solo exhibition, and it was well received and reviewed. Despite this success, I was buried in a debilitating depression unlike anything I’d experienced before. Instead of basking in my newfound freedom by enthusiastically working in my studio, I was avoiding life by sleeping as long as possible, which ideally was 2:00 in the afternoon, when a local channel showed two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d eat a cheap sandwich while watching the shows, staving off my loneliness with the familiar comfort of the characters standing in as a rough approximation of family and friends. For the first time in my life I had no responsibilities aside from my time in the studio, but my freedom paradoxically left me feeling more depressed and trapped than I’d ever been while growing up in Texas.

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Episode 3: The Space Seed – Uncharted Paths Away From Home

by Jeff

“It is better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
Captain Kirk quoting Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The opening phrase: “Space, the final frontier,” introduced me to the mission of the starship Enterprise, to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before. This phrase, known as “The Captain’s Oath,” introduced the show by summarizing just what would occur during the following hour. It was a bold adventure I obsessed over during my youth, and by the time I graduated from high school, I’d decided that my life should also be an adventure.

Me on the Bridge in the Captain's Chair

Me on the Bridge in the Captain’s Chair

In the Houston area in the 1970s, NASA was everywhere. When I was born, my mom worked as a secretary at NASA during the height of the Apollo missions. My earliest memory of watching television is seeing the Apollo 11 moon landing with my parents when I was only about 2. The details are faint, just like the grainy images relayed from space. As I grew older, I had friends whose parents worked at NASA in specialized jobs as engineers, or astronaut training. In school, astronauts would occasionally visit as special guests, bringing beautifully detailed models of rockets to explain the fundamentals of a moon landing. From my young perspective, it was a perfect era of hope, when the world seemed to be coming together, and space exploration was a part of my daily life. This was also a time when my parents, attempting to surround me with their idea of suburban utopia, protected me from news about the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, or anything they deemed too upsetting. Like most sheltered kids, I only experienced a small, idealized selection of a much larger, more nuanced picture, but thankfully, outer space exploration always played a key role.

After school every day, I’d watch two back-to-back episodes of Star Trek, which transported me to exotic worlds far removed from Pasadena Texas. Later I realized how much those shows informed my morals, philosophy, and sexuality, as well as provided a framework to understand the importance of teamwork and leadership. At this time I still didn’t know there was anything Trek aside from the original TV series and the fascinating but clumsy animated series, though I was familiar with a few related toys. For my 8th birthday, my aunt Carolyn gave me a paperback set of the Alan Dean Foster stories from the animated series, and the first model kit I ever built was the phaser, communicator, and tricorder combination package known as the “Exploration Set.”$_57 (1)

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Episode 2: The Changeling – Y’all Hallows’ Eve

by Jeff

I have photos from childhood Halloweens of my sister Michaelle and I wearing standard store-bought costumes that I have no memory of. There is one of me dressed as a race car driver, which must have been bought by my parents since I never cared about race car drivers, unless they were the doe-eyed, anime type like Speed Racer or his moody brother Racer X.

Thankfully, I did experience a few Halloweens that provided me with unforgettable memories: roaming door-to-door through the dark neighborhood with my family while scores of kids dressed as all sorts of shadowy creatures or bright cartoon characters paraded past under the streetlights. My memories of those muggy Texas nights trigger an indelible feeling within me. There was something unique about wearing those thin plastic masks as a part of the community of kids cutting across a well-manicured lawn, crossing the threshold onto the porch of a stranger, knocking on an unfamiliar door, and summoning up a strange voice to ask for a trick or a treat. Although I don’t remember the details of the sweaty, vinyl costumes, I remember the experiences, and thankfully I was always fortunate enough to receive treats, not tricks. Other kids in my town didn’t fare so well.

Halloween 1974 in East Texas became memorable for unfortunate reasons. I was seven years old, and my mom had taken me to Ray’s Dime Store, where in a moment of independence I selected a costume on my own. This wasn’t a premade costume in a box, but rather a variety of creepy parts and garish makeup that I planned to combine into something unknown: an unusual and grotesque monster-man. I was thrilled to finally choose my own costume, something that made sense to me only, that wasn’t simply a plastic mask and ill-fitting vinyl romper.

Batman costume sold by Ben Cooper Costumes.

Batman costume sold by Ben Cooper Costumes.

As the sun settled down that Halloween, a rainstorm swept through our town, keeping me indoors even though I begged my parents to let me out. The rain continued at a steady pace through the night, spoiling my plans for my first unique, costumed experience. The next day we heard the horrifying story of Timothy O’Bryan, a local 8-year-old who’d gone trick-or-treating with his family and friends in the rain. He died on Halloween night from eating Pixy Stix candy laced with cyanide. As the search for the killer made it to the national media, Timothy’s father, an optician named Ronald Clark O’Bryan was eventually convicted of the crime. He had poisoned his own son in an attempt to collect on Timothy’s life insurance policy. Soon afterwards, Ronald O’Bryan was nicknamed The Candy Man (incidentally, not the first child killer in Pasadena with that nickname) and sentenced to death. Aside from a few rigidly moderated church events, Halloween ceased to exist in Pasadena, Texas after the nightmare of 1974.

candyman001_38041a

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