Despite the fact that we’re supposed to be nostalgic about our youth, the eighties sucked, right down to those stupid billowy pants that I, at least, did not wear, because they looked like pajamas.
I had the fluffy, sky-high mullet with L’Oreal Coloriffic Mousse highlights and a little razor groove over each ear, the Swatch Shields (because glacier glasses made it impossible to drive), the lime green muscle shirt with mesh, grommets, and fake paint splatters, the white seersucker pants, and the Hawaiian-themed Vans with one magenta sock and one teal sock, with two Swatches for accuracy, an ear cuff with a dangly pewter feather because I don’t believe in poking holes in my body, and a little wad of Kennebec Spruce Gum in my mouth at all times in case I was called upon to French (mind you, that’s more of an1880s thing, and I’m not sure why I thought tasting like a pine tree was sexier than mint, but I was the last of the true originals, dig), but those dumb pants?
No way, man.
Now, back then, I also had my briefest career, working as a stripper in a sad little dive that’s now buried under the new ballpark like the Wicked Witch of the East, where the ceiling was so low that you danced between the bar and the grimy, nicotine-tar ceiling like aliens working their way through an air shaft, and a ripped, shiny, shaved physique was not what kept me employed, alas. I got a rep for being “trade” because I looked like the sort of slack straight guys who would do this as a fill-in between selling loveboat, but I envied the muscley dudes and busted my ass on the Soloflex in a vain attempt to move some fast-twitch fiber around in the subcutaneous regions, but as a doe-eyed smalltown kid in the big city, I did not grasp that those bodies come primarily from certain pricey injectables. I was just works-hard-in-shape, not magazine-in-shape, and I had the other crippling eighties social disease of being decidedly alabaster.
Had I spent a week at the tattoo shops, I could have paid my way through college as a scowly, disdainful rough trade dickhead dancing for angel dust money, but again—doe eyed and all that. I did try to counteract the alabaster, however.
No one warned me about QT. I do wish I’d been warned about QT.
I decided I needed to be eighties blond and tan, or something like that, so I picked up a bottle of Titian Gold hair dye and a bottle of QT, and dyed my body and hair a color almost entirely unlike either “titian gold” or tan. As the sun set, I thought I’d sleep on it, and woke up, stood naked in front of the mirror doors of the closet in my crappy little basement room in a group house, and could not quite figure out how I could possibly go out in public again with my carrot orange hair and carrot orange skin and jaundice yellow fingernails that were a side effect of the process of dying my hair carrot orange. I thought if I wore a lot of orange clothing for a while, I could play down the overall effect, but it did not help.
“What the—” was a common refrain. Hair can be redyed or hidden in a hat. Skin dyed carrot orange with a potent lotion of dihydroxyacetone does not fade. Skin dyed this way loses color through sloughing off outer layers, and it does this in blotches, spots, clumps, and other places where things rub up against it. I was the tangerine Elephant Man for a couple weeks, and got a crick in my neck from hanging my head every time I’d step into a 7-11 and hear “what the—”
“Yes, I am AWARE that I am orange,” I once said aloud to a group a tittering teenagers at the 7-11 at Randolph Road and Nicholson. “I made a bad decision with a skin care product and I am orange. Is that okay with you?”
One fine day, when the last of the orange had gone, on a Friday night, I closed the ammonia cylinders on my diazo duplicator, locked up my office, and drove to DC in my Datsun wagon, taking Beach Drive, which is the second most beautiful way to enter the city. I drove through the little shunt that used to let you drive across the old ford in the creek (long closed, alas), stopped the car with water rushing around the wheels, opened the door, and leaned out to wash my hair in the water with apple-scented Suave.
Parked the car in one of the picnic areas, moussed my hair with L’Oreal Coloriffic Mousse in a magenta hue, then lay face-down and spread-eagled on the picnic table with my head dangling over the edge until my hair stopped dripping and dried into a mighty magenta cockscomb. I changed out of my khakis, my horrible work shirt, and my practical underpants and into my night clothes, then drove through the city and through the roundabout way to my familiar haunt.
I managed to get a slot, and stood around pretending to smoke a few Benson and Hedges Menthol Lite 100s (the trick is to just let them burn and tap the ashes as you go), then climbed up onto the bar. The other dancer, as usual, was golden tan, shiny as Christmas morning, shaved clean down to his butthole, and had pecs almost big enough to motorboat, and he peeled off layers of shredded t-shirts like Billy Squier’s career-ending performance and did little twitchy tit-dances to show off every ampule of chemistry and every grunty moment spent clanging around the free weights at Bally’s. I still burned with jealousy, because I’d been orange and now I was alabaster again, and had a body that just looked like a human.
I am ugly, and everyone else is pretty. Sigh.
Other dancer did that body builder thing in which his back flared like a cobra, and I felt deflated. He was compact and built, just short enough that he could stand normally on the bar while I bounced off the ceiling like a pinball, up to my usual dance moves purloined from David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, and Oliver Hardy, and when he started having the sea of old men touch his bicep, I feared my socks would have nothing but my own “starter” buck in there to show for the night. Fortunately, I had a friend behind the bar.
“Hey boys,” shouted my friendly bar-back, “Does anyone hear the choppers comin’?”
He cupped his ear in a standard gesture, then completed the thought.
“I think we have a helicopter comin’ in to land, right here at La Cage!”
And there’s my cue.
Yeah, muscle boy, you may have the body I’d dye myself orange to get, and you may have the triple-white VW Cabriolet with the subwoofer and the auto-reverse tape deck, and you may have the body of an Olympian athlete, but can you do this?
I sneered, I looked as mean and difficult as possible, put on my best Billy Idol disdain-face, and glared at the crowd through narrowed eyes.
“Which one-a you old fags wants to be a landing pad?”
It may not have been a triumphant return, per se, and man, no matter how much I didn’t want to long to be the kind of eighties big man around campus with big muscles and everything just right, I always felt ashamed that I just wasn’t enough of what I was supposed to be for the world. I’d count my money, leave at closing time, and go home and sleep on the mashed-down fold-out foam chair-bed that was my grim pallet in my roachy basement cell in an unpleasant group house of milk stealers with Eno playing me to sleep on my Panasonic, and love and money and success and beauty were all things that people in magazines had in that overlit world of the future that was always twenty minutes ahead of us in the eighties.
As I drifted into the haze of Discreet Music, I finally realized who an oddly familiar face from that night had belonged to. It’s not often that you get to whip the toupee off your high school social studies teacher with your whirling penis, but it was a whole new world.
© 2014 Joe Belknap Wall