My Nerdoir

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

Tag: memoir

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 »

Estate Sales – Where the Dead Can Dance

by Jeff

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.”

img_6600

Super 8 Home Movies Project #2

by Jeff

After 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.

June 1973 – Camping at Garner State Park, Texas

fullsizerender

BEFORE

Why do kids love to feed animals? Seeing this box triggered a pleasant memory of my family driving to a cabin for a weekend stay in the forest at the edge of a lake in East Texas. Along the drive through the low-lying forests on the outskirts of Houston, my sister and I were endlessly repeating the annoying “Are we there yet?” thing that kids do. We arrived in the slightly overcast late afternoon with the sun hanging on the tree tops as I went outside, overjoyed to see ducks and geese at the edge of the water. I ran back to the cabin, grabbed several pieces of white bread, then charged outside calling to the animals. Instantly I was surrounded by a sea of birds, all flapping, quacking and honking in unison. Read the rest of this entry »

Super 8 Home Movies Project #1

by Jeff

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

fullsizerender

BEFORE

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 »

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?

Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

The Devil in the Dark – The Story of David Gregg, part 1

by Jeff

After brushing my teeth, I walk out of the bathroom and cautiously peer down the dark hallway. Peeking out from around the corner, I see a huge butcher knife, gleaming in the darkness. A hand wearing a black glove holds the weapon tightly aloft, slowly twisting the knife so I will see the glimmer in the reflected light. I catch my breath and step into the hall, but before I can act I hear a maniacal laugh freezing me in my steps. A voice echoes through the rooms of the house as it creaks, “You’re going to diiiie tonight!”
I nervously attempt to short circuit the game, “Okay, David… enough already.”

Fighting skelton from Ray Harryhausen's, Jason and the Argonauts.

Fighting skelton from Ray Harryhausen’s, Jason and the Argonauts.

But it doesn’t work…it never works.

The game will continue until he gets bored and we decide to flip through our old comics again, see what late-night movie is on TV, or settle down to work on our own drawings. It is a game where I am terrified, not that I’d die, because that wasn’t his goal, but that one of us would end up genuinely hurt. That danger is part of the game. It’s an adrenaline rush that David will be seeking for the next 25 years.

Long before then I had realized that the worst thing I could do was panic. David would feed off of any fear; increasing his intensity as his tall, skeletal frame chased me through his house. Spending the night at a friend’s house was always fraught with both tension and adventure, but none of my other friends pretended to be a psycho; chasing me through their homes while their parents peacefully slumbered away.

Later in my life, I’d hear stories of similar games between brothers and sisters. Stories where kids would end up hurt, sometimes being rushed to the hospital, but nothing ever fatal aside from scars.

Faces of Death #1: RUNNING WITH A SHARP OBJECT,  FALLING AND DYING

My sister and I didn’t play such games. We were raised in a climate where we understood that the possible repercussions weren’t worth the risk. These reservations both helped and hindered me later in life. My mom attempted to ingrain a respect for limitations by warning us about the perils of strangers, unrestricted horseplay, venturing out of the neighborhood, promiscuity, and untamed wildlife. These lessons were often accompanied by stories where the inevitable result was death or permanent disability. I’d lay awake at night, tempted like most kids to break the rules, but also terrified that I might end up as another example on the list.

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 »

We Are Spock – Remembering Leonard Nimoy

by Jeff

“Spock: Do you believe in the concept of service to mankind?

Nimoy: I think so.

Spock: Then perhaps you are here to be of service.”

————————————————————————————————

“The show has certainly given me a sense of self-worth and particularly the relationship with the character of Mr. Spock has given me a constant guideline for a dignified approach to life as a human being.”
Leonard Nimoy – I am not SPOCK

Spock has been with me for as long as I can remember. Unlike other characters from movies or comics, Spock was someone I identified with from my first encounter, and that impact has never faded. Throughout my childhood, Spock set the standard for how to remain calm in a moment of crisis, especially for an overly sensitive kid. But foremost, he taught me to control my emotions when life seemed overwhelming. To maintain an ability to step back and survey the situation from afar, allowing for a more reasonable judgment. He was also the quintessential outsider, being half Vulcan and half human, never fitting in with his home world, and yet also being an alien on the Enterprise.

I was a sensitive kid in Texas, raised to hunt and kill animals as a rite of passage, so I identified with his struggle. The contrast of growing up obsessed with Disney movies of anthropomorphized animals, yet having to hunt them in real life, was a conflict I could never resolve. Spock at least provided a role model, which was far better than the “pray about it” resolution I was taught at First Baptist Church.

This weekend, on the passing of Leonard Nimoy, I read numerous eulogies, most stating the same thing: that in spite of Spock’s emotional distance, his character was the true heart of Star Trek. I fully agree.

My friend Arlene Martel, the wonderful actress who played Spock's wife T'Pring, gave me this great photo of her leaving the studios where she ran into Nimoy and someone took this great photo.

My friend Arlene Martel, the wonderful actress who played Spock’s wife T’Pring, gave me this great photo of her leaving the studios where she ran into Nimoy.

It’s strange to feel moved by the death of a celebrity. The Spock side of me says, “But Jeff, you didn’t even know Leonard Nimoy. Sure, you have read his memoirs, and you even came close to meeting him, but you didn’t actually know him. Your emotions aren’t logical.” Yet I can’t shake the malaise that has lingered since I woke on Friday with the news of his death. Unlike most celebrities, Leonard Nimoy and Spock are inseparable. He not only played the role, but he also helped develop it over the course of the series. Read the rest of this entry »