My Nerdoir

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

Tag: memoir

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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Always.

by Jeff

Odo – When you return to The Link, what will become of the entity I’m talking to right now?
Changeling – The drop becomes the ocean.
Odo – And if you choose to take solid form again?
Changeling – The ocean becomes a drop.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Behind the Lines”

I.

I fell asleep while watching TV, but woke just before dawn to see this scene lighting up my room. Through the dreamy haze, I jumped up to film it with my phone, realizing that it was too beautiful to pass up. The clip is a detail from the opening credits of the late 1960s Lassie TV series.

The Lassie shows always intrigued me with their melancholy theme songs providing an underlying sense of longing and despair.

Each episode usually featured a formulaic conflict, followed by an unrealistic resolution. Lassie personified the dream that even though circumstances might look grim, any obstacle could be overcome through perseverance – and the assistance of a brilliant dog. Sitting in front of the TV during my summer mornings, Lassie’s super-heroic actions provided me with a daily lesson that alpha canine is superior to homo sapiens. This dream was juxtaposed with the lie hiding underneath – hard work and prayer don’t provide any genuine resolution. No god will intervene at the last minute, the way the god-dog Lassie miraculously appears to always save the day.

II.

During several times in my life, I have experienced moments of pure relaxation, which I equate to the serenity of a peaceful death. In those moments I’ve been able to let go of everything – thoughts, emotions, surroundings – and float in a pure, ego-less bliss. Occasionally, I have experienced a work of art which gives me the same tranquil feeling. It seldom occurs anymore with paintings, but I can still occasionally attain it with abstract music and film. Read the rest of this entry »

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.”

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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

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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

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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?

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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 »

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.

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