Friday, February 17, 2006

1981: The Year of the Arcade Cocoon

(*Note: As part of a test of my image server, this is a rebroadcast of an original article aired January 09, 2003)

Ah, before GameBoy and all these other 3D equipped handhelds were a twinkle in a Nintendo eye, us 80s kids had the old LED handheld "electronic games." When I was in 5th Grade (1981), lemme tell ya, these were all the rage. But since the majority of these games used nothing more than LED blips, playing them in bright sunlight was practically impossible. Unless, of course, you spun an Arcade Cocoon. How is this done, you ask? Read on.


First, you needed a fifth grade boy. This was me in the fifth grade. A lil shrimp. You also needed a large jacket or an oversize cotton hoodie (pullover). Either or, but definitely something that stretched and was made of something that blocked the light out well enough. You'll see why later on. For this example, I'll use a cotton hoodie.





Then, you needed to have a handheld game. Folks, this was 1981, ages before the Game Boy. One of my favorites was Mattel™ Basketball. Did it have 3D graphics in color? Hell no! I had red LED blips for my Larry Bird and Julius Irving. Nevertheless, it was addicting as all hell.





Then, most importantly, you had to have a vacant school bench out in the schoolyard, and a sunny day. It had to be sunny, otherwise you wouldn't have had to make an arcade cocoon.

This was especially useful in Spring and the verge of Summer, when the sun was out almost all the time. Plus, we were going to an elementary school which was only two blocks away from the beach. So you know it was sunny almost all the time. Anyways, here's the drill - first, you had to be on that vacant bench, then...



You took your jacket or cotton hoodie and zipped it up to the top. Then you sat on the bench and brought your knees up close, with the handheld game somewhere close. I put mine in my lap. You turned the jacket backwards and started bringing it up and over your head.



You'd fit your head through the jacket and continued pulling it down, being sure to keep your knees up. The world would slowly darken and the schoolyard sounds of fights and dodgeball games would slowly fade as it went over your ears.




You would keep on pulling, stretching it over your knees. This is why it was important that you had either something oversize, or something that stretched. Bringing it over the knees comfortably was the hardest part. By now, the sounds of frolicking kids and bouncing balls became muffled whisps of wind.




Finally, you would bring it as far down as it would go, to ensure total darkness (if the fabric was dense enough). Your whole world was dark now, and that little LED display lit your face in all its glory, the bleeps and blips filling your ears for the whole lunch or recess period until the bell rang.


Where'd everyone go?

Really, alotta kids were doing this daily. There was a whole assortment of games kids had, from Basketball to Football, to Space Invader type games. This handy secluded privacy chamber never really had a name; the "Arcade Cocoon" is something I just thought of now, 'coz sometimes you'd have a bunch of kids cooped up in their jackets/pullovers playing their LED handhelds, and it would look like a bunch of weird cocoons in hibernation. Kinda like Gremlins or Aliens. It made it tough to find your friends sometimes. They all looked like lumps. It was pretty weird. I wish I took a picture of one of those days. Heh, what did I know or even care about photography back then. It was all about playing those games.

What's funny is, since these "cocoons" were so odd and characteristic, eventually the teachers caught onto it. In those days, we weren't allowed to bring toys of any sort to school, so from then on, anyone in a "cocoon" got their game taken away. Only until the end of the day, I think.

This site has a (box) picture of the Mattel™ Basketball game I used to cherish so, plus some other popular handhelds of the time. Unfortunately they aren't divided into chronological order, so there are a few more modern ones in there. But it's still worth a look.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Handball.

1980-82: Of all the sports we used to play at recess, Handball was definitely the most competitive. Played with a big, bouncy, red textured ball, it seemed like a simple schoolyard game, but there was a lot of strategy involved. There were actually names for the different moves one could utilize to outwit his or her opponent, and the allowance and/or prohibition of these moves would be called out in the beginning of the round (usually when recess started). I wonder if elementary school kids today still use the same names. In my day, they were as follows:



Slicies: Named for the "slicing" razor-thin route of the ball in this maneuver, this was the most difficult and challenging move which involved timing the hit precisely so that the ball literally skimmed the surface yet still achieved the mandatory single bounce before hitting the wall. Imagine a pebble skipping swiftly across the surface of a pond. It was a ruthless high-speed move that usually meant instant death to the opponent, unless he/she was prepared for it. They were extremely hard to negotiate and/or return—the ideal Slicies would have the ball skimming as little as two inches above ground. In my 5th-6th Grade class I had two classmates who had this move nailed.



Over the Rainbows: So called for the wide rainbow-like arc trajectory of the ball, these were the power moves, which involved pure strength. A player would smash his fist into the ball with all his might (sometimes using a double-handed swing for extra umph), preferably at close range to the wall, to send the ball bouncing off the wall flying high and wide, way past the court's painted limit lines. Very difficult to return unless you predicted it and was far down the court to begin with. There were rare lucky ones who were able to run out there to meet the ball, sometimes giving it a blind over the shoulder swing and having it bounce back into the court/wall. Usually, though, Over the Rainbows meant brutal and swift defeat, especially to the girls, most of whom were reluctant to play handball with the boys anyways and didn't try very hard. There was some kinda etiquette with the boys though when it came to this move—normally they wouldn't do Over the Rainbows on girls unless they wanted a quick kill to get to some rival kid that was up next.



Cross-countries: These were equally crafty yet not so difficult to achieve. Cross countries were shots that had the ball travelling across the court as it bounced against the wall. The more acute the angle, the more difficult it was to return. Usually these shots were in slower speed and in close proximity to the wall. The best cross countries had the ball nearly bouncing parallel to the wall, barely skimming the surface to count. You had to hear that ball skin audibly scrub that wall for it to count, I guess.



Tea Parties or Bouncies: I think this was a rule made up by the girls to make handball a more dainty and less-competitive cut-throat sport as the boys took it. Oh lord, when girls got together and played with these rules, the games would last forever. It became like a social thing where the ball bounced so light and carefree that they had enough time to talk about kittens and puppies and horsies between bounces. Heh, hence the title Tea Parties, since that's what the game became.

Anyways. Tea Parties or Bouncies were when someone could set the ball up for an extra bounce before having to hit it to the wall. These worked especially well against Cross Countries and Over the Rainbows, in which one usually didn't have enough time to get in the optimal position to return the ball. With Bouncies you could just tap the ball and let it bounce one more time before you hit it. This used to get the biggest grumbles from the boys, since it totally slowed the pace of the game and defeated the whole cut-throat competitive feel. But sometimes the teacher used to make Bouncies mandatory so that everyone could participate without feeling intimidated by the toughest players.

As stated before, usually these moves were called out in the beginning of the game, by name. Funny, sometimes girls would object to the rules but the boys almost always overrode or ignored their complaints. Here's a sample snippet from a typical 5th-6th grade game:

Tom: (holding the ball, in position) ...Ok! There's cross countries, over the rainbows and slicies.

Natalie: Wait! Aw man, no slicies!

Gina: Yeah! No slicies! Those are too hard! (followed by agreeing hub-bub by other girls)

Peter: What? No way! Yes slicies!

Natalie: Well ok, slicies but then no Over the Rainbows.

Tom: No Over the Rainbows? Then it's too easy! C'mon let's just play, geez.

Natalie: Tsk. Then I'm not playing. C'mon Gina... (they go hand in hand to talk about horsies and kittens, or start their own Tea-Time game on another court)

Peter: Awriiight! Cool, no more girls. Let's go!


Not all the girls were so dainty and intimidated by the boys. There were a couple of girls (one whom I had a huge crush on, btw) who put up their dukes when it came to handball and weren't easily defeated. But all in all, handball was dominated by the ones who could pull off Slicies, Over The Rainbows and Cross-Countries with deadly finesse.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Irving The Punk Rocker

I used to get to school really early in the 5th grade, but that was because we were being bussed from Westchester to Westminster Elementary School in Venice. I learned later that it was all part of this odd plan of integration, in which kids from the upper crust and lower crust would trade places, just to see what it was like on the other side. Back then, I just thought we were being bussed for no reason.

In comparison to the sheltered, well-organized institution of Loyola Elementary in Westchester, Venice's Westminster Elementary sure was a change of pace. There were fights every day, kids talked back to teachers, security seemed to be a distant hope, and we were all pretty much on our own. It was kinda bleak.

There was one classmate, though, who definitely added some interest to an otherwise monotonous existence.

Irving.

The first punk I knewIrving was definitely not your average 5th grader. Instead of the all-too-common bowl cut or basic disheveled freeness of Westchester's surfer/BMX pre-teens, he sported a liberty-spiked mohawk. In place of the cool Lightning Bolt®, Op® or Body Glove® gear, he donned an oversized olive drab army coat, torn t-shirts, jeans and combat boots, accessorized with spike bracelets and chains.

In essence, he was the first punk I ever knew.


What the hell kinda kid is this?What made him interesting was not necessarily his mode of dress nor his foot-high spikes. It was more his character and his way of being. He always came up with the most random, intellectual garble that hardly any of us could keep up with. He always had this mischievous smile on his face like he was either thinking of some playful wrongdoing, or cynically analyzing those who sat around him. Yet, as different and outrageous as he appeared, he never got into any fights or confrontations. He could've easily been picked on. He was a tiny guy, barely my height (and I was a shrimp), and had the mousiest, high-pitched accent-tinged voice (Irish? Not sure.). But, I guess even potential 5th grade bullies were dumbfounded by his abstract, random self, and didn't know what to make of him.

Ant Music?I used to run into him in the local public library. Now that's where he really caused a stir amongst the grown-ups. He ignored the stares, but every interaction with the adults automatically got him some confused looks and head-scratching. Then he'd randomly open up to me about Adam And The Ants, or how Johnny Rotten was cooler than Sid Vicious, or how The Exploited was better than Crass, and how anarchy wasn't such a bad idea. These all sounded like the most exotic, outlandish names to a budding Top-40 New Waver like myself, who'd finally memorized the lyrics to Blondie's Rapture and could imitate Hancock's Rockit's scratching to a tee.

The most memorable performance of his, though, was once during class. We were all quietly busy doing an assignment, when out of nowhere I see Irving put his hands to his nose, withdrawing them and seeing that his nose was bleeding.

"Oooh ...I have a nosebleed!
He said, half-surprised and half-fascinated.

The rest of the class heard him and everyone turned. The teacher delegated some students to grab some paper towels and hand them to Irving, whose nose had begun to trickle a consistent rivulet of blood. The brown elementary school towels soaked it up easily, and there he sat, a punker with a nosebleed. The teacher grabbed the chair next to him and told him gently to tilt his head back and pinch his nose, in order to stop the bleeding. Everyone saw this as an opportunity to delay our boring assignment, so all pencils dropped and we all sat, beholding the two.

We heard Irving mutter something underneath all those paper towels.

"What did you say?" The teacher asked.

"I said somphbphb bphbh arr!" Irving requested squeakily.

"I don't understand you, Irving. You'll have to move some of these towels."

And so he did. His little mouth showed, and he spoke clearly.

"Could someone get me a jar? I could really use one," He politely asked.

"A jar? What for," The teacher responded.

"I need a jar, so I could save the blood! I think it'd be cool," He giggled.

"No Irving, I am not going to go get you a jar. Stop thinking of such silly things and hold your nose. A jar. Geez."

Just shut up and bleed"Oh come on? There's got to be a jar around here somewhere," he playfully insisted. "This is a lot of blood! It'd be a shame to waste, wouldn't it?" A perfect, genuine Irvingism. Challenging authority, but not rudely. Rather, testing the teacher's limits with a completely innocent idea.

Yet, the teacher ignored his rambling, and he continued, his requests now sing-song, sometimes muffled under the paper towels, which he couldn't keep still.

"A jar...a jar. Could someone please, please get me a jar? I could use a jar..."

I looked at him curiously, while other students shook their heads and went back to work. Someone said, "What a weirdo. He wants a jar to save his blood?" Another one said, "You're gross. Shut up!" All I could picture was him holding a jar up to his nose and letting the blood flow into it. How much of it would he fill if he did that? I could see it all. What a great thing to bring back home on the bus. Some would bring half-finished lunches. Others, a candy bar for the trip home. But Irving? A jar of coagulating blood.

After 5th grade, I saw him in 7th grade, where we had print shop together. The class was fun and productive, but the teacher was someone Irving did not get along with. At all. They were the quintessential John Hughes rivals. Punk, rebellious, yet insightful kid with a mohawk. Older, tough, hard-ass and uncompromising teacher who tried to make scholastic examples out of the punker.

See, Irving wasn't the kind to back down to authority. He wasn't big nor threatening, but his trademark way of challenging authority and pushing teacher's limits really pissed our print shop professor off. So much so, that one day the teacher cracked and called him "a goddamn faggot."

Day of ReckoningGoddamn faggot? The class went dead silent; even the ancient printing presses seemed to suddenly halt it's gears. I don't think anyone in the class had heard any teacher use that word before. Sure, we'd hear it on the P.E. field, but we knew it was a bad word. So when the teacher said it? We were shocked. And Irving? We all looked at him to see what he would do. In that oversized army coat and imposing spiked accoutrements, he looked like he would raise hell like Taxi Driver. Instead, he smiled and took his stuff with him as the teacher ordered him out. Despite the preconceived notion that punkers were pissed off at society, Irving never scowled, never whined. In fact, he always seemed to be either happy, daydreaming, or with something up his sleeve. That day, he left, smiling but speechless.

And not too long after that, our print shop teacher was gone.

No more teach!Apparently, his words cut like a knife, yet they couldn't cut the noose that admin put on him as soon as they found out. That's what they say, anyways. It was all over the school, and many students rejoiced, telling "I remember when" tales like WWII veterans. Irving was some kinda hero.

Yet, he always kept that low-pro, high-pro mohawk character, and eventually just faded away, like many of the memorable kids that I met in my youth.

Ah, those were the days.

Man. I feel like that Stand By Me dood. And I'm on a computer, too. Weird. I'll see you guys later.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Pencil Fights: Warriors of Wood and Lead


(Timeline: 1980-82) Despite the action, camaraderie, and thrill of many of the schoolyard games of the '80s… kickball, dodgeball and handball–none of them matched the subtle strategy and pre-pubescent intensity of one particular game, which had garnered quite a following amongst the 4th- thru 6th-graders of my time:

Pencil Fights.

Now don't get me wrong—this game wasn't about sharpening pencils and attempting to stab each other in the abdomen while others watched in excitement/horror. No, it was more about one's strength and the keen ability to split another one's pencil with his own.


As shown at left, two players would participate at a time: One to hold his pencil and the other to attack. The attack was executed by a particular flicking motion which involved flexing the pencil back (often nearly to the point of breakage), then releasing it forth, smashing it down upon the opponent's—much like a black belt in Karate would chop at a stack of wood.

The object was simple…defeat your opponent by splitting his pencil in half. In most fights, this wouldn't happen immediately, and players would dent each other's sticks until an inevitable breakage. But on rare occasions, a victorious, resounding wood- and heart-splitting "CRACK!"—the result of a seemingly delicate balance of strength, angle of attack, and the type of pencil one was using…spelled a deadly bisection on first strike, to the amazement of all.

Pencil fights were our own innocent delinquent distraction…a way to pass time before school, after school, even during boring class lessons and schoolwork. That was one of the best things about this game…its simplicity and portability. As long as you had a pencil, you were ready to fight. Perhaps, subliminally, the appeal to us boys laid in the duel itself; as in swordfights, it was the gallant test of boyhood strength and skill, to the "death."

For most of us, the satisfaction lay in that victory. There was nothing better than splintering your opponent's pencil in half as your peers looked on, shards of milled wood and lead bits falling to your Vans™-clad feet. It was a destructive, dime-store dominance that had the victor's friends reveling in mocking yet playful laughter. Breaking pencils was a simple childish defiance of the system, but also an establishment of the wrecking order.

Yet, for one particular student, Pencil Fights became much more than just a game. He would stop at nothing to sharpen his skills and become the ultimate warrior of wood and lead.

His name was Jeffrey.

There wasn't any real reason why he became so deeply involved. He just was. He was absolutely dedicated to finding the super-secret formula that would make him champion. This included investigating different flick techniques, angles of attack, and, most importantly, the type of pencil used. And he loved to declare his latest discoveries and findings to the rest of us at his table…especially to me, since I was the only one who really paid attention to his progress.


"Check this out, Greg," he said one day, fetching something from his backpack.

"Whatcha got?"

Jeffrey pulled out a bright and shiny yellow pencil, newly sharpened and beaming in the fluorescent light. "Ti-con-de-ro-ga." He pronounced each syllable slowly and lovingly as he turned the pencil in his hand. I looked over, and Ticonderoga was stamped into the barrel. "These suckers are strong."

"Really? How do you know?"

"Just watch."

Not long after, a challenge would ensue, and the tell-tale "Snap!" of defeat rang down the hallway. Jeffrey had, sure enough, beat someone with the Ticonderoga. He was quick to share the results with me.


"What'd I tell you? Told you I'd win." He smiled a metal, brace-faced grin and leaned back into his chair, content. It was hard not to share his victory, as his smile was that of a genuine winner whose dedication indeed paid off.

Jeffrey was just that type of kid, who found something he liked and dedicated himself to it. Unfortunately, his dedication would usually be towards anything but classwork, so often times he'd get a scolding from the teacher. He was, basically, the class clown, but Pencil Fights was something he took really seriously.

After awhile, being his only star witness had me caught up in the world of wood. I'd basically memorized his weapons of choice because he'd talked about them so much.


There was the Dixon Ticonderoga, of course. This was the all-time classic for him. Something about their construction made them more resistant to breakage than other pencils. These apparently weren't so easy to come by, so he held onto each one like a knight to his sword.

Then there was the Flex, so named for its flexing quality. These were extremely rare, and almost always stirred controversy for their nearly unfair advantage. They withstood strikes like you wouldn't believe…but their flexibility was also a disadvantage, as the rubbery wood was too soft to generate any snapping power and impact on the offensive. Still, Jeffrey used to love to flex these things with his thumbs, seeing how far he could bend them until they snapped. I can still see his braces reflecting the fluorescent 4th-grade lights as he delighted in their unusual qualities.



Then there were the Venus Naturals, which were a startling new design innovation for us kids (look ma, no yellow paint!). Jeffrey was quick to get a handful of these, and he was impressed by their initial performance. For some time, he swore on these and didn't use anything else (yes, not even Ticonderogas). Then, out of nowhere, he experienced a huge losing streak, and proclaimed them absolutely useless. By this time, he'd considered pencils nothing more than weapons, so his discards became my surplus. Needless to say, I didn't have to ask my mom for pencils for quite some time.



The ultimate, but ultimately disqualifying pencils were these huge navy blue ones that only 2nd and 3rd–graders used. The stamped white words on the barrel said it all: "Big Blue." These things were nearly twice the diameter of any ordinary pencil, since they were meant for small, learning hands. They were beginners' pencils, but lethal weapons in the hands of an expert. But, these were so big and impervious to damage that they actually took away from the challenge of the game. Their strength, ironically, became their greatest weakness. Not only that, but they were extremely hard to come by, unless we snuck into the 2nd or 3rd grade classrooms and routed through desks, which we weren't that desperate to do.

Eventually though, Jeffrey had grown bored with his arsenal and seemingly lost his strategic inspiration…until one day, as I worked in focused silence on our daily vocabulary lesson. I heard a gnawing, chewing noise from next to me. I looked over, and there was Jason, chewing on the metal encased eraser end of a pencil. At first I thought it was simply a nervous or unconscious habit, but as the chewing continued, I noticed a certain look of determination in his eyes. He spit out small, wet , orange eraser crumbles and beamed that distinctive smile of achievement.

"Check it out, Greg." He held up his pencil, eraser (what was left of it) end up. "The Axe."


I looked, and sure enough, he'd transformed the metal casing into a battle axe shape from all the chewing and sculpting with his molars. The eraser nub had been completely obliterated, what little remains scattered like pebbles on the carpeted floor. The newly-forged axe glistened with 15 minutes worth of pre-teen saliva and smelled of school lunch with white milk. It was disgusting, but I couldn't take my eyes off it. It was so outlandish, morbid, and, most of all, dangerous. I couldn't wait to see it in action. He wiped the spit off of it and saved it for recess.

Yet that day, recess came and went without a single fight. Why? Despite its glorious, medieval appeal, The Axe proved to be too intimidating for other kids. We had to face it - this was only a game, a silly sport– but Jason, in all his obsessive nature, had added a new level of excitement to the melee that some kids simply weren't prepared for. Just the mere sight of it had some kids backing away and making excuses to play kickball or use the bathroom, and often Jeffrey found himself with no contenders.

Eventually though, some braver kids stepped forward to take on The Axe…and they quickly realized that, despite its intimidating, razor sharp edge, The Axe was really more bark than bite. As the word spread, The Axe soon became a folly, and kids eventually mocked this extravagant but impractical contraption. But Jeffrey was convinced that this was his one and only Excalibur, bestowed upon him by the gods, and he fought with it gallantly…until its bitter, broken end. Jason had reached the end of his reign.

The invention of The Axe inevitably spelled doom for both Jason and, soon after, Pencil Fights themselves. Our teacher, upon hearing all the hub-bub over Jason's Axe, reprimanded him and banned Pencil Fights from the schoolyard. So it was a rare thing, afterwards, to hear that distinctive snap of pencil on pencil reverberating down the corridor. But it really didn't matter. We were growing up swiftly, and by the time we'd reached the 6th grade, girls had become a growing interest. But that, my friends, is another story.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

1981: The Day Sarah Spoke

Our Lips Are Sealed

Redheaded Wendy was probably the cheeriest, funniest girl in the 5th grade. She spent her recesses skipping along, belting out the lyrics to the Go-Gos "Our Lips Are Sealed," with her two best friends. She cracked dirty jokes, was a smart ass, and invited all of us boys over to her house in the summer, for everything from hot dog lunches to water balloon fights, or lazy hang-outs in the living room watching the newest sensation, MTV.

Her chipper, gleaming personality was in stark contrast to that of her older sister, whom I happened to see once, for a brief moment, at her house. We were watching MTV when I saw a dark, ominous slender shape drift across the hall, from one room to another.

"Who is that?" I asked, somewhat startled by the sight.

"Oh. That's my stupid sister Sarah," Wendy said. "Don't pay attention to her."

"Oh."


Sarah said nothing I later got a chance to see her up close, as she eventually came out into the open to grab something from the kitchen. She donned a black trenchcoat, red plaid pants with zippers all over them, combat boots and a white t-shirt with a huge Dead Kennedys logo. Her hair was a disheveled, spiky mess of black thorns, and her eyes glowed under heavy, heavy eyeliner.

It was plain to see these two had nearly nothing in common, aside from the fact that they were sisters. Wendy, as trendy and New Wave as she was, and Sarah, who simmered in gloom, despair, and non-conformity. Their conversations were an even brighter reflection, a far cry from the bubbly and cheerful Wendy I'd see on the playground.

"What are you doing out here, bitch? Go back to your cave," Wendy spat.

"Shut up, trendy fuck," Sarah retorted, her eyes flashing from their black pits as she fixed herself a hastily-spread peanut butter sandwich. She put a boot on the table and scanned the room, her eyes squinting as they alighted on me. Ah, a visitor. She studied me, noticing I was one of Wendy's friends. I didn't know what to do...I probably looked like a "trendy fuck" to her myself. Our eyes met, and she held no reaction, aside from biting into her sandwich.

"God, you are so lame. Go eat somewhere else!" Wendy threw her arms up in the air, disgusted. The volume increased.

"Oh, kiss my ass!" Sarah fired, her mouth half full. "It's my house too!" Sarah wiped a bit of stray peanut butter from the corner of her lip. She rolled her eyes.

That's the way it was—that's the way it always was—when they saw each other. Two complete opposites—from sunny and warm to dark and cold, from red and freckled to black and pale. There was never a friendly moment between them. From my juvenile perspective, I liked Wendy for her sunny personality, but something about Sarah intrigued me, even though she represented everything that Wendy was not.

Did they sing about sex? From that point on, everytime I went to Wendy's house, my curiosity with her sister grew. Sarah usually wasn't around; she was either gone or isolated in her room, blaring her music. But she left traces of herself and her life around the house. Once I found a bright, pink album on top of their dining table. On it read:

Never Mind The Bollocks - Here's the SEX PISTOLS

It was so completely foreign to me; the language, the colors, the unusual mitch-matched letters of the logo and the crude appearance. But most of all, the spray-painted words Sex Pistols stuck out like a taboo, an odd alliteration that I couldn't imagine my fifth-grade mouth saying out loud to anyone. Wendy saw me holding it in my hands.

"That's my sister's album, whatever the hell it is. I don't listen to that shit," Wendy waved it off with her hand. "Pssh. The Sex Pistols," she said mockingly. "Whatever!"

I put it down gingerly and imagined the vinyl inside. What would a band called "The Sex Pistols" even sound like? Was it perverted music? Did they sing about sex? It was like something from another world. I couldn't picture my parents even letting me have anything like that laying around my house. It was something so wrong, yet fascinating.

Knowing this was Sarah's music piqued my curiosity. And eventually, all I did when I went to Wendy's house was try to catch a glimpse of the dark and secret life of her sister. I was tired of MTV's colorful, toasted, videos, tired of Go-Go lyrics and how many pairs of Vans Wendy had. Instead, I wanted to see what Sarah was up to. But she was so darn scarce and absent.

Until one day, when she appeared, this time at the dining table, with a big white t-shirt spread-eagled before her, on the wooden surface. She had a few markers, and she hunched over the shirt, busy drawing something on it.

"Hi, stupid," Wendy said coldly as she walked by her.

Sarah said nothing this time. She was concentrating, deeply involved with her art, paying close attention to her strokes. Not wanting to bother her, I edged in quietly, peering over her shoulder from a distance, for a closer look.

She drew two feminine hands...one holding a bloody, dripping razor and the other with a gaping red slash in the wrist.

Simply morbidThey were so well rendered yet simple, perhaps like a 50s dishwashing liquid magazine ad. Soft, feminine hands with well-manicured nails, mannequin-like, yet symbolic of death and doom. I couldn't take my eyes off of that blood, which she had painstakingly rendered in red marker, down to the last drop. It was so horridly depressing, so morbid and so macabre...and...I liked it. A lot. In fact, I think that one image began my whole fascination with the macabre. Because it was just that—a gruesome, compelling mystery, a question of our existence and the afterlife. I was seeing an expression that not many kids saw nor contemplated on at such an early age.


Yet, as my fascination with Sarah grew, the more distant she became. She remained a slender, quiet mystery, one that lurked in the halls and kept behind locked, punk band-stickered, anarchy-symbol laden doors, whose only voice sounded in the brief, bitter insults she hurled at her sister. My best friend once asked me, "Dood, have you met Wendy's sister? Man, she's weiirrrrrrd." That's what she was. A dark secret, the town rebel, the outcast. Nobody seemed to care. I wished I could talk to her, just once, to see what made her tick, instead of shunning her like everyone else seemed to do. But it was impossible. She was quite a few years older than us, and she and Wendy simply could not co-exist in peace.

One afternoon marked the one, and only, conversation we had...through glances, if not through words. I was alone in their living room. Sarah once again sat at the dining table, with her boot propped on it. We were both silent and bored. I looked over and studied her for some time, as she sat toying with an anonymous object. There was a beauty to her, in her steel blue eyes racooned by eyeliner, her black painted lips and pale, ivory skin, but a sadness, anger and longing as well.

Hi She looked over and caught my glance...she blinked, and the slightest, miniscule upending of a sincere grin appeared in the corner of her mouth. "Hi," she said, and she reached for a pack of cigarettes and lit up. As Wendy reappeared, they once again exchanged their vulgar greetings, and Sarah got up, her chains and zippers clinking and swaying, and walked out the door.

The dark, brooding figure made its way across the lawn, into the street...never looking back, her boots thudding softly on the pavement. Where she was going, I would never know.

Because she never returned.

Sarah died not long after, of a drug overdose. But even this remained secret and not so publicized...it was as cold and uninviting as the closed, punk band-stickered door, and as ominous and foreboding as the two feminine, delicate hands whose wrists were being slashed.

As silent and mysterious as she was, our last brief encounter had said it all. There was sadness in her face, anger as she battled with her sister, and a longing, in that slightest inkling of a grin, that "Hi" she emitted before retrieving that cigarette. It was like pieces in a puzzle. But now the silence and mystery was gone, only to be washed away in a barrage of water balloon fights, dissolved in the millions of colors in the visor of the MTV astronaut, and wisped into the air from freshly-grilled hot dogs.

The only remaining thread of connection were those feminine suicidal hands, which I had begun to draw myself, trying to imitate the pristine rendering and simplistic nature of morbid elegance. Once, my mother saw me drawing them, and her eyes went wide with horror. "Why are you drawing that? Is something wrong with you?"

"No mom, nothing's wrong," I said, not looking up from the paper. "I just like it, that's all."

Who was the "outcast" in your town? What made them different? Did he / she influence you? How?