My Nerdoir

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

Tag: pasadena

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 »

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?

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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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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 5: Mirror, Mirror – The Path to the Nightcage

by Jeff

I move in slow motion, trapped in the crowd after a concert at Music Hall in downtown Houston. My friends, Michael and Steven, slowly move in syncopation as we awkwardly descend the steps of the balcony, taking tiny steps to assure we don’t kick or trip someone else. I am wearing grey parachute pants, a button down paisley shirt, and black lace-up shoes. The crowd is mostly white and dressed in new wave clothes. I am elated after seeing the Psychedelic Furs, and especially after seeing the remarkable opening act, Talk Talk, but I’m also self-conscious since I’ve realized that parachute pants have become passé. Although my friends and I appear to fit in with the crowd of fans who are mostly older than us in their early 20s, I still feel like an imposter. Damn pants. We move along with the crowd as it shuffles through the tight doors of the theater, and all I see are backs of androgynous people, my vision obscured by masses of hair sticking up, mine included. It is August 3, 1984 and in two weeks I will turn 17.

Yours truly, age 16.

Yours truly, age 16.

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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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