Episode 8: The Mallternative Factor – Parachute Pants vs. Capes
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.
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.
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.
SIGN ABOVE STORE ENTRANCE
Throbbing fluorescent lights spell out MERRY GO ROUND.
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.
Christ, I hate these commission-based stores… Everyone’s so damn desperate.
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.
Sleeveless, red shirt reveals muscular arms.
Studded belt wrapped twice around his waist.
Pierced left ear.
Hair is longer in back with a rat tail and bleached spiky on top.
JON (enthusiastic with southern drawl)
Welcome, my man! You’re lookin’ rad today, but I bet I can get you lookin’ even better. What kinda girls you like?! Huh? I bet you like blonde chicks! Blonde chicks… Yeah! How about we set you up with some clothes that’ll line up some cute chicklets for ya?!
JEFF (nervously avoiding eye contact)
Uh, I’m just looking for parachute pants.
Oh yeah! Rad choice. Lemme show you what we got as we troop over this way. (Grabs Jeff by shoulder and pushes him towards the back of the store to a rack of parachute pants in a variety of colors. There are a few bored looking customers in the store, but as Jeff and Jon pass another bro-like employee, Jon high-fives him while flashing his too generous smile.)
What color would you like? (Never waiting for an answer) You know what you should do? Get two pair! Mix and match, Mix AAAND match! That way you’ve always got a spare. Whaddayasay? Along with some shirts to go with them! I’ll pick out a few shirts for ya too!
Um, I just want a gray pair. Size 28.
Jon flips through pants on the rack and hands a pair to Jeff just as a new song begins to play in the store. It’s Eye of the Tiger, by Survivor. The song clearly has Jon even more amped up as the staccato opening builds.
Just gimme a few minutes cause I can’t hear this and not jam!
JON rushes over towards a full-length wall mirror; slowing down as he becomes entranced by his reflection and pausing a few feet away. Suddenly he begins to gyrate to the beat look, moving slowly as first, then speeding up, throwing half punches with fists first high and then low.
JEFF (turns to address camera)
Jon’s reaction should have prompted me to walk out and burn the parachute pants I already owned, but like an animal crossing the road at night, I was too dazed to do anything except stand frozen in the headlights.
Jeff watches in horrified awe as camera pans up to hold on a slowly spinning, dusty, mirrored “disco” ball.
A sign on the screen in a rad font reads:
Summer of 1984.
A photograph/postcard of a fake Christmas tree, fully decorated in a suburban living room. Gifts are lined up under the tree. A song from the Bing Crosby Christmas album plays in the background. Lights on tree slowly twinkle.
I didn’t see my Aunt Caroline very often, but she would usually contact my mom just before Christmas and ask about gift recommendations for my sister and I. That year, I had a plan when I announced that I would like a gift certificate from Judy’s, which was another store in Baybrook Mall.
Judy’s was essentially a clothing store for women, but they had a small men’s section buried in the back which carried more unique items. I’d shop there to mix and match new clothes with things found at thrift stores, but more importantly I noticed that Judy’s had begun to carry capes in the women’s department. My plan to fund a cape involved snagging a Christmas gift certificate, then supplement it with money from my after-school job of making deliveries for the local pharmacy.
An image of The Count from Sesame Street wearing a cape.
An image of Superboy model kit, wearing a cape.
An image of Bela Lugosi as Dracula wearing a cape.
Vincent Price in Witchfinder General wearing a cape.
Batman and Robin portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward, both wearing capes.
I waited a week for the post-Christmas crowds to die down before driving back to Baybrook Mall. In contrast to buying parachute pants, I proudly walked into Judy’s to find the cape section had been moved near the front windows by the entrance. I carefully sorted through the capes, cloaking each one around me before trying to make a decision in the mirror. While doing this, I could also see through the store windows into the mall, with shoppers casually roaming by as they headed to check out expensive electronic novelties at the Sharper Image store located next door. I’d get the occasional odd glance from being a guy trying on clothes in the women’s department, but by this point I was accustomed to stares.
After selecting my cape, I took a final pass by the mirror. Gazing at my reflection, I felt empowered as I imagined that I was a new superhero or relative of Dracula. It was a childhood dream finally fulfilled. Suddenly I noticed a quick movement through the windows. Wearing the cape and glancing out, I saw a hand frantically waving as I recognized my younger teenage cousin, Erica, smiling and running towards the door to say hi. As she approached, she paused and said, “I wondered if I’d see you here with Mom’s gift certificate.” At that point she noticed the cape and, looking confused, said, “Um, what ARE you getting?!” Refusing to be embarrassed, I proudly replied, “I’m finally getting a cape!” Erica slowly backed away through the doors and into the mall, uncertain how to respond. I just laughed as I made my way to the register.
A few months later, my friends Michael, Steve, David Gregg and I were driving around Pasadena, bored and hungry. We finally agreed on Kip’s Big Boy for dinner, which was located in the center of Pasadena, next door to the Parkview Theater, where my parents had taken me to see my first film, Disney’s Song of the South. I’d been going to Kip’s with my family since I was a kid, most often with my Papaw after my Mamaw had passed away. For me, it was memorable for those free, weird comic books, crayons and the ubiquitous fiberglass sculpture of Big Boy standing proudly in his denim overalls while holding his burger aloft. In my later teen years, I liked to imagine that stocky figure as a white trash version of a classical sculpture, like the iconic Discus Thrower, frozen in time along Spencer Highway in Pasadena, Texas.
From the darkness of the parking lot I could see that the bright glow inside the restaurant revealed a crowd of locals ranging from retired couples, refinery workers, families with kids; the usual assortment at a family restaurant like Kip’s. We walked past the full length windows, not considering that this was the time when my friends and I were regularly dressing in a new wave style. After seeing myself in the mirror every day, I no longer felt surprised by the changes in my appearance.
As we walked in and approached the hostess, I sensed the curiosity of our fellow diners, as heads turned followed by solemn ominous glares. This type of stare was something my friends and I had grown used to that year, but if we ignored it, the faces would usually turn away. The hostess led us over to a table in the middle of the restaurant, with more patrons sitting in the booths turning to look as they sat reflected in the mirrored wall. Attempting to focus on our menus, I realized that the crowd wasn’t returning to their burgers and chicken strips. Rather, the gazes were becoming looks of hatred and disgust, as if we were an open threat to their well-being. I had experienced hostility before in school, but this was different, since it was coming from adults. Under the shield of our tall plastic menus, we quickly agreed that the best course of action was to ignore it, hoping that they would grow bored. Looking over to see the staff gathered, staring from behind the counter, we realized that a waitress was not going to take our order, while we also began to hear occasional voices half yelling, “Faggots!” and “Get out!”
The situation was growing dangerous as the diners began to bond over their hatred of us, feeding off of each other’s anger. It was then that crayons began flying across the restaurant, bouncing off of our table. In spite of not wanting to give in, we knew that we needed to leave before the situation escalated, since one word or glance from us would have triggered a full fight. As we stood to walk out, someone began clapping and whooping, to which the entire restaurant erupted into applause and laughter. We walked stoically towards the door, furious as crayons continued to pelt us.
As I’d grown up, I felt increasingly like an outsider in my hometown of Pasadena, but this incident cemented my need to leave, as well as my resolve to not give in to the pressure to conform to someone else’s ideals. My friends and I were just trying to find a way out, searching for an undefined path on the way to becoming adults.
As we walked through the dark parking lot to Steve’s car, we paused and decided that we needed to do something, anything to express our anger. The full length windows of Kip’s looked out onto the parking lot, so Steve started his car as Michael, David and I ran up to the windows next to a booth where the diners had already returned to their burgers. We all three pounded our fists on the window, then dropped our pants, pressing our asses against the cold glass before turning and flipping everyone off. We dove into the car, breaking into laughter as we raced into the winding darkness of the neighborhood near the high school football field.
Or maybe that didn’t happen at all. I like to imagine that we fought back, resolutely holding our own against the indignities of the small-town mentality. Instead, we may have simply discussed our options and driven away into the night, angry and defeated. I honestly don’t remember. We did many things that year, some of which I recall in vivid detail, while others are hazy and seem to exist in a cloud. My need to escape even affected my memory. I was convinced that I had to find a way out or I’d die. I couldn’t give in and follow the traditional path to marriage, kids and boring job; I needed something different. Several of us eventually made it out, but sadly, David Gregg never escaped.