San Francisco Before The Internet

Rough Trade 6th Street

Unrepentant nostalgia can be a hell of a slippery slope. There’s always the temptation to lionize one’s formative years – the ones in which you were younger, more interesting, more open-minded and far better-looking. I try not to stumble down that path too often, but it’s sometimes pretty unavoidable to laser-focus my writing attention on telling stories from those years that spanned from my childhood to young adulthood. I’m sure someday I’ll write a real stemwinder about that time I turned fifty, or that time I missed a property tax payment. 

Speaking of young adulthood, mine could be said to have started around 1989, the year I graduated from college and hightailed it back to the San Francisco Bay Area, the place where I’d grown up. I’d had this notion even back in high school in San Jose, California that the #1 thing I wanted to do upon leaving college was to move to San Francisco. It was probably the sum total of my life goals at that point. What I was going to do with the rest of my life was very much up for debate. My undergraduate English degree was tailor-made for just about any low-paying career option available, and I sampled them all: warehouse worker, parking lot attendant, telemarketer and, eventually, customer service rep.

SF 1990After a lifetime of suburban living, transporting myself to the center of the beating cultural heart of San Francisco – home of dingy punk clubs, record stores, weird cinemas, freaks, bars etc. – was my be-all and end-all, and I committed myself accordingly. Of course, the city’s natural, topographical and architectural beauty was also a huge draw. My family had taken my sister and I there quite frequently while we were growing up nearby in Sacramento and San Jose, and it always gave me a bit of an energy jolt even to look out the window at the various savory & unsavory street scenes in The City as we made our way to Grandma Kay’s house in Sausalito.  

I moved back in with my parents in San Jose for five months & worked to save money to afford the exorbitant $300/month rent to share a San Francisco flat, and to find gainful employment up there. I got to experience the 6.9 magnitude 1989 earthquake at their house, in fact – and yes, I was watching my San Francisco Giants in the World Series at that very moment. I spent several days a week in San Francisco despite living an hour south of it, either interviewing for jobs or, far more likely, seeing local bands like the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, World of Pooh or The Mummies in small clubs, while trying to aggressively shoehorn my way into underground hipster/doofus urbanism.

941 Stanyan

After months of searching for work, I finally landed a role in December 1989 at the South San Francisco company at which I’d spend the next six years, Monster Cable. (You can read all about that here). My pal Uli set me up with some friends of his at 941 Stanyan Street (pictured here) in the Haight-Ashbury/Cole Valley neighborhood who needed a roommate, and in January 1990, I moved in. I was un-hyperbolically delighted to be there. I was like Marlo Thomas in the opening credits to That Girl: ready for all that the world had to offer. Life could now begin.

This was a decidedly different San Francisco than the one I live in now. This whole notion of “San Francisco before the Internet” is not my own; in fact, it’s the secondary title of a documentary film currently in production, one which I’m naturally quite excited to see. Culturally, politically, economically and across countless other dimensions, San Francisco before the tech booms was in many ways a better and in some key ways a worse place than it is today. Rather than enumerate those pros and cons, I thought I’d share my own highly subjective view on what this place was like during the years 1989 to 1993 or so, with the latter year being the one that internet-connected personal computers started showing up in the homes and workplaces of people I knew (with my mom being the earliest adopter of all – go, Mom!). 

First of all, it was cheaper. Back in 1989, San Francisco was only the third or fourth most expensive place in the US to rent a flat or buy a house; when we’d complain about it, we’d say “at least it’s not New York / Boston / Washington DC”. Now their residents say the same thing about us, when they’re not thinking about moving to Portland / Nashville / Atlanta / Chicago. I paid $300 a month in 1989-91 for my own room at 941 Stanyan with three other roommates, and that was affordable enough for me, enough so that many of the freaks and great unwashed punk rock hoards with whom I went to school at UC-Santa Barbara found that they, too, could more or less afford to live in San Francisco.

That continuing surge of weirdo creativity was part & parcel of what had made the city such a longtime haven for hippies, gays, artists, filmmakers and punks – which was then reflected in the sorts of unique businesses and institutions that could be found merely by walking the streets. A few favorites of mine included:

Naked Eye News & Video – 533 Haight Street

Naked eyeA sub-underground VHS video rental store and alternative newsstand. Naked Eye carried music fanzines, far-left wing political agitprop and a wide variety of newspapers and mainstream magazines. As a video store, their focus – at least as reflected in what they’d feature and highlight in the windows – was on the offbeat and bizarre: think Survival Research Laboratories, Russ Meyer titillation movies and Dario Argento Italian horror. At least that’s how I remember it. I know it’s where I rented “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill” for the first, second and third times.

Freedom’s Forum Bookstore – 1800 Market Street

James PeronYou know who willingly settled in San Francisco, because he and his wife loved the city in all its weird, wacky diversity? Milton Friedman, the prototypical Chicago School free-market economist, and the father of “disaster capitalism”, if you believe Naomi Klein. Me, I went through  big post-college “libertarian phase” in my politics, which I very thankfully grew out of. Ground zero for the magazines, pamphlets and free minds/free markets radicalism I used to feed my ideals – such as they were – was Freedom’s Forum Bookstore, in a beautiful and run-down Victorian that now houses the LGBT Center & Museum. 

The two dudes I recall being there every time I went in just happened to be oddballs right out of central casting – always up for a rant about the shackling of capitalism or gun rights or marijuana rights if you so much as touched a publication or book that addressed one of these topics, let alone asked them a question about it. It got to the point where I’d have to quickly leave the store if I merely wanted to buy something and not engage. Oh – and I was always the only person in there whenever I visited. Great memories!

The 6th Street Rendezvous – 60 Sixth Street

6th Street RendezvousThere were a number of long-gone music venues that nurtured my odd tastes during these years before the internet – the Covered Wagon; the Chatterbox/Chameleon; the Nightbreak/Thirsty Swede; the Blue Lamp, I-Beam, VIS Club/Kennel Club, Paradise Lounge, Morty’s and so on. I’ll highlight “Chel’s 6th Street Rendezvous”, a short-lived makeshift club located at the gauntlet-running intersection of 6th and Jessie Alley, between Market and Mission.

A nattily-dressed booker whose name escapes me brought in a variety of lowbrow underground local and touring musical acts to this decrepit bar, owned by “Chel”, an older Filipino man looking to jazz up his revenues on what was easily one of the most unsafe blocks in the entire city. That half-block walk between Market Street – where I’d get off the bus – and the 6th Street Rendezvous doors was a pulse-rushing crucible to not merely be endured, but survived. Between dodging the derelicts trying to sell me either “late-night transfers” (a freshly-stolen MUNI bus ticket that allowed for unlimited nightly rides) or drugs (the hard stuff – not the pedestrian “buds, doses, doses, buds” for sale up on Haight Street), I found myself kicked, insulted and one time even chased off the block (“Get the fuck off my turf!”), simply for the crime of trying to hoof it over to the Rendezvous for a ‘lil goodtime rocknroll music.

Casa Loma Bar – 610 Fillmore Street

Casa LomaThis entry really could have been any of the many bars that Liz B and I used to go to, sometimes six at one go on a Friday or Saturday night, repeated ad nauseum. While she and I weren’t dating, she was my best drinking buddy in 1989-90, and Casa Loma at Fillmore & Fell was one of her favorites. It was on the ground floor of what is still a cheap hotel, walled off from occupants and featuring an ambiance that was a little bit divey, a little bit classy, with a few nascent “microbrews” on tap (I’m talking Red Hook and Anchor Steam). I can’t even remember the layout, but I certainly remember imbibing there a dozen or two times. It’s been gone for decades now.

My favorite at the time was The Uptown, at 200 Capp Street – still there! Honorable mention goes to the now-defunct Lloyd’s at 1099 Mission downtown – “shot and a beer for $1.50” – as well as a multitude of other dive bars that are somehow still standing: the Silver Spur in the Sunset; Murio’s Trophy Room and The Gold Cane in the Haight; The 500 Club in the Mission and Mr. Bing’s and Li Po in North Beach/Chinatown. While the planet surges into AI-powered automated everything, the great San Francisco dive bars remain. 

Artists’ Television Access – 992 Valencia Street

ATAAn absolutely timeless, frozen-in-amber 1980s San Francisco gem that is still there to this day. ATA was and remains an experimental film venue that showed Super 8 films, strange collages, no-budget feature films, radically queer and leftist performance-art movies and more. There’s no reason why it should still be there, and yet the fact that it is means it’s really the most visible and unchanged link to pre-internet San Francisco’s underground culture.

Record Vault – 2423 Polk Street

Record VaultOnline, this store is lionized as the home den for the Bay Area thrash metal scene that spawned Metallica, Exodus and many others. I don’t remember it that way at all. “Speed metal”, as we called it then, was an unfortunate constant in the 1980s, and if you were out shopping for punk records, metal records were bound to be nearby. So I personally recall Record Vault as a relatively messy and crammed store in a tidy and upwardly-mobile neighborhood – Russian Hill – that was the antithesis of everything this no-morals/no-values store stood for. By way of example, I bought an original copy of the Fuckin’ Flyin’ A-Heads’ “Swiss Cheese Back” here. I was there the day that the poster for Big Black’s San Francisco show was being put up in the window, and everyone in the store was abuzz about it. 

Other top-drawer record stores around this time were Rough Trade (especially the location on 6th Street – it went downhill when it moved to Haight Street); Aquarius Records; Reckless Records; and starting around 1990 or ‘91, Epicenter Zone, run by the folks behind Maximum RocknRoll fanzine. 

9th Avenue Books – 9th Avenue between Irving & Judah

The two great San Francisco bookstores back then were, and remain, Green Apple Books and City Lights. Yet because of where I lived, and due to my lack of a car, I’d instead wander into the pre-global warming Sunset District, which unlike now was almost always blanketed in fog, and go book shopping in the area bounded by 9th Avenue, Judah and Lincoln. I remember four distinct used bookstores in the area, all dead now. The best was 9th Avenue Books, an exceptionally well-stocked emporium that had all the William Faulkner paperbacks I could handle. All but one of the shops went kaput before the launch of Amazon.com, leading to a great deal of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing among residents and self-professed cultural arbiters (Borders and Barnes & Noble were the destroyers of the indie shop, if you’ll recall). 

So what else was going on in 1989-93?

TenderloinI think if you ask most longtime San Franciscans about what the city was like back then, the word “grimier” will come to the surface pretty quickly. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. Sure, neighborhoods like Hayes Valley, SOMA and most of the Mission have been utterly transformed by wealth and development over the last thirty years, but by and large, much of San Francisco remains just as grimy and depressing now as it was then. The Tenderloin, save for a few concessions to modernity, is identical in its druggy squalor and filthy streets as it was to a wide-eyed new arrival like me in 1989. 

You’ll notice that food – something so central to San Francisco’s popular conception of itself – has thus far not been discussed. That’s because the then-staple of my and that of many other struggling twentysomethings’ diets – the cylindrical protein and caloric delivery system known as the “Mission Burrito” – is still as robustly awesome now as it was in 1989. I ate them most frequently then at El Toro in the Mission and Zona Rosa in the Haight, and both taquerias are still around (though are by no means anywhere close to the finest examples of the form). There were then, as now, expensive and lovely high-end restaurants for people of means. The only big difference today at both casual and higher-end San Francisco eating establishments is that annoying line of underpaid delivery drivers waiting to pick up your app-procured food and drive it to your apartment. 

flyersThe printed word was paramount in pre-internet San Francisco. It had to be. There were really only two ways to broadcast one’s predilections & preferences to a larger audience than oneself: create your own publication, or – far easier – post up a flyer about your band’s gig, your event, film, political stance and what have you. Flyers were the social media of their time, especially in large cities like ours. They were vitaly important to musicians, filmmakers, theater production companies, politicians, community organizers and event sponsors. San Francisco telephone poles were literally plastered with them. Record stores and theater lobbies had stacks of them. When I did a radio show on KFJC, I’d make flyers and strategically drop them in stores and at clubs to try and get like-minded folks to give me a listen. I couldn’t think of a better way, short of paying for an advertisement somewhere. Today, the only flyers I see around town are for lost dogs or Spanish tutors. 

SFBGFree weekly newspapers were also a major force at this time. Even well into the 2000s, the big two for entertainment listings & local political coverage were the SF Weekly and SF Bay Guardian (libertarian me severely disliked the latter, and their predictable knee-jerk PC progressivism on every last issue). The gay community had something like five alt-weeklies going at once (Bay Times, Bay Reporter and more). As with flyers, these would all be stacked up in droves just about anywhere interesting that one found oneself. I immersed myself in the Weekly and Guardian each and every week, following every foible of Mayors Art Agnos and Frank Jordan or supervisor/police chief Dick Hongisto, then scouring the entertainment listings for wherever I might be blowing my paycheck next. (I even remember when SF Weekly was called “Music Calendar” in the mid-80s). When Craigslist arrived, it flattened the classified revenues of these papers quite dramatically, and they ceased to be much of a force as the internet took a chokehold on our attention spans. 

ACT UPIt would be criminally negligent to not mention the long shadow that AIDS was casting over the city when I arrived in 1989. The city’s gay population was suffering through an untold number deaths of lovers, friends, shop owners and acquaintances. The guy who trained me at my first job at Monster Cable in 1989, David Poole, would be dead from AIDS by 1992. ACT UP – the protest group that helped shake off straight America’s complacency about the disease – were a real omnipresent force in San Francisco. Flyers, fanzines, benefit concerts and even local riots were part & parcel of the gay community’s reaction to the death and shrugged shoulders that surrounded them. I even recall that “fag bashing” was still something that gays in the Castro District had to be on guard for. I went to my first Gay Pride Parade – that’s what it was called then – in 1990. (Salt Peter from The Dwarves had told me it was a “don’t leave town event”). The tone was more hopeful than was probably merited at the time, but it was a great example of the city I had hoped I’d be moving to: unrepentantly & boisterously free, and uniquely & proudly at odds with the mainstream. 

Of course, any living arrangement is what you bring to it. The well-heeled and physically toned people in San Francisco’s Marina District, to deploy a often-referenced stereotype, were most certainly not proudly at odds with the mainstream in 1990. Yet it was “they” – the creators of capital, the upwardly mobile, the fit and the well-toned – who effectively won the cultural sweepstakes for the dominant story of what San Francisco would evolve into thirty years later. 

No, it’s not like the olde world of 1989 has completely vanished, and I’m certainly no advocate for wishing that it remained as it was. But something about the mass arrival of the internet around 1996-97 really slammed the door shut on that initial era when I attempted to marinate in San Francisco’s low-rent bohemianism. First it disappeared at a trickle, and then vanished with a whoosh in the early 2000s. Then again, that’s when I happened to be personally hitting my mid-thirties, married and with a new kid. I’ve subsequently come to believe that our perceptions are all a cycle-of-life thing, distorted by the ravages of age and heightened by the passage of time. There are new arrivals who are undoubtedly sowing their oats and feeling their way into San Francisco’s dark corners even now, and who’ll be writing pithy purple prose thirty years hence about how cool it all was, and how much they desperately miss it.

Sports-Obsessed in the 1970s

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The author in 1978.

I possess a “feature” lurking either in my DNA or in my nurtured makeup that has both allowed me to be quite accomplishment- and achievement-oriented (great for getting stuff done while working for “the man”), and a total weirdo obsessive about even my most navel-gazing of personal hobbies. It’s the proverbial two sides of the same coin, and this manic, Type A foolishness has been a lifelong constant, annoying me and my loved ones since childhood.

Even today it’s quite difficult for me to just be a little bit into something. If I’m “getting into” a genre of music, I need to ensure I’m a self-anointed subject-matter expert on every major and minor player who created music in that genre – and that I own virtually all of their cornerstone recordings – within a matter of weeks. If I decide I’m into old 1960s motel signs, I have to collect hundreds of postcards and photo books of them that I buy and stack up around the house (note – this is not really an “if”). For me, there’s generally very little worth doing halfway, unless it’s boring and expensive home maintenance, or something else that offers neither material nor psychic reward.

So it was in late 1970s Sacramento and San Jose, California, where my professional sports obsession was birthed and very rapidly harvested. It started with my dad’s transistor radio and a 1976 San Francisco Giants baseball game on in the backyard of our Sacramento home. I’m not even 9 years old. He’s clearly excited about something. What happened, Dad? Jack Clark just hit a home run. Who’s Jack Clark?, etc. The fabled father-son bond and baseball knowledge transfer was thus kicked off, as was my lifelong baseball obsession.

Two summers later, I’m in the car on a long drive with my grandparents to visit my uncle and his family in British Columbia. Spread out across the backseat where I’m sitting are my well-organized and voluminous baseball cards, the statistics from which I’ve completely memorized to the point where my parents would sometimes trot me out in front of guests for a parlor trick and ask me to reveal, for instance, the number of runs batted in George Foster or Bake McBride or Roger Metzger accumulated last year. I’d dutifully respond with each player’s 1977 batting average / HR / RBI totals to the exact number; gasps would ensure, and I’d trot back to my room extremely pleased with myself.

all-pro baseball starsRight there on the same backseat is my “All-Pro Baseball Stars 1977” book, bought for me by my parents as part of my monthly scholastic book order, and my grandfather has just politely asked me to please take a thirty-minute break between reading him each team’s summary. I’d just spent most of the day’s six-hour drive regaling him and my grandmother with the book’s full prognosis for the 1978 Montreal Expos, the ‘78 San Diego Padres and so forth. I’m hoping that if I’m really good, they’ll take me on the way up to see the brand-new Seattle Mariners’ – whose name I pronounce Mareeners – stadium (they pointed out The Kingdome from the freeway, which was enough for me). I look at my watch, and it appears I’ll be allowed to read the 1978 Pittsburgh Pirates preview at exactly 3:32pm.

Here’s how any given ten-year-old American sports nutball educated himself with the intricacies of baseball at the time. First, there were baseball cards. I bought them by the bushel at my local 7-11 and Quik Stop. Josh Wilker wrote a phenomenally nostalgic and often sad memory-hole book about 1970s baseball card collecting called Cardboard Gods – I highly recommend it. There was near-daily San Francisco Giants baseball on the radio on KSFO with Lon Simmons and Joe Angel (later Lindsay Nelson and Hank Greenwald), and I listened to every game I could.

While I wasn’t an Oakland A’s fan – my dad ensured that I inherited his love of the Giants and the National League, as well as his lifelong hatred of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers – it didn’t matter much that particular year of 1978, because A’s games all spring were broadcast by UC-Berkeley college radio station KALX, whose laughable 10-watt signal didn’t even reach the next-door city of Oakland, let alone our new home in San Jose. The A’s moved to radio station KNEW later in the season, and I couldn’t get their signal in San Jose either.

There was the weekly syndicated highlights show This Week in Baseball; the Saturday morning NBC Game of the Week (which I never missed, including the game in which Dave Kingman bombed three homers); dog-eared copies of Baseball Digest, which I read at the library; and a plethora of borrowed baseball books checked out on mom’s library card – including great kids’ titles like Bud Harrelson: Super Shortstop and not-for-kids classics with sexual situations and curse words, such as Ball Four and The Bronx Zoo.

I really loved everything about baseball, but I especially loved how wonderfully the action on the radio and TV broke down onto paper, and allowed for much more engaged statistical contemplation. I dug deep into box scores and lists of batting averages. I’d mesmerize myself by comparing stolen bases across teams and lineups. I’d sometimes even score games I was listening to at home on homemade scorecards, tallying up my 6-3s, 5-3s, Ks and HRs at the end of each three-hour session. (This is now referred to as a “lost art”).

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I won a KSFO San Francisco Giants “superfan” contest in 1978. As you might imagine, it was the pinnacle moment of my life to that date. Take note of my hero, Jack Clark, on deck for the Giants — as well as the sparse crowd and the outstanding uniforms on the Houston Astros.

Mostly, though, my obsession was focused in and around all things San Francisco Giants. They’d been a bit of of a laughingstock in 1976 and 1977, as my fandom was solidifying. Veteran Willie McCovey and aforementioned power-hitting outfielder (and world-class postgame interview doofus) Jack Clark were my gods. My paternal grandfather – not the maternal one made to suffer on the trip to Canada – took me to my very first Giants game(s) in August 1977, a doubleheader against the “Big Red Machine” world champion Cincinnati Reds.

I remember the blessed event like it was yesterday – coming up the stairs of Candlestick Park and gasping as I caught sight of the field and scoreboard, as well as the monstrous grand slam that future hall of famer Joe Morgan hit to bury us in the second game. (Morgan would later become a Giant, and I would be fortunate to attend at age 14 the legendary 1982 season-ending game in which his home run eliminated the hated Dodgers from the playoff race, the day after they’d eliminated us).

The 1978 Giants, though, were actually good! In fact they spent most of that summer in first place, only to swoon to third at season’s end, and to return to their normal level of awfulness the following year. Yet what an amazing year that was across the board. I got to see Tom Seaver (again of the Reds) throw a 3-hitter against us with nearly 55,000 other fans in the freezing San Francisco fog/cold in a game that, though none of us knew it at the time, had been an early part of Pete Rose’s record 44-game hitting streak. I saw McCovey pinch hit a game-winning home run; I saw my hero Jack Clark up close and personal; I watched the exceptional Giants starting pitchers John “The Count” Montefusco, Vida Blue and Bon Knepper blow through opposing lineups; and I coerced my grandfather to buy me concession stand snacks every two innings, from polish sausages to malt cups to “big cookies”.

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 11.56.55 AMI also got really into APBA baseball, which was sort of the pre-fantasy baseball board game for obsessive dorks like myself. One could hide out in one’s room and recreate, with dice, a spinner and stat cards, an entire mock season of baseball with a team made up of actual players – and oh, I did. I did also play actual little league baseball with real living human beings every year until I was about 14, yet the futility of most late 70s Bay Area sports teams was generally mirrored by my own as a baseball player, perhaps as sort of a unknowing and unspoken tribute to my floundering heroes.

Baseball obsession eventually begat an NBA basketball obsession, which begat an NFL football obsession. My local Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers were as abysmal in 1979 as the Giants and A’s were. The Giants went 71-91 that year; the A’s were an incredible 54-108; the 1979-80 Warriors went 24-58, and the 49ers notched a 2-14 record. These were truly the leanest years among many suffered by Bay Area sports diehards.

I even fell hard for NASL soccer for a while – and we had an actual professional team, the San Jose Earthquakes, right in our provincial little backyard. I’m sure I was probably insufferable on the schoolyard as a fount of would-be sports knowledge and statistical memorization, yet I mostly remember having friends that were just as strangely obsessed and willing to blather on about sports as I was.

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The Bay Area sports radio leader, then as now, was San Francisco’s KNBR, 680 on your AM radio dial. They hadn’t moved to a sports-only format just yet, as they did in the 1980s, yet they had started poaching the local pro sports teams’ broadcasts from other stations, starting with the Giants that magical year of 1978. They also had a great nightly sports call-in show hosted by Ken Dito called Sportsphone 68. I listened religiously as Ken and his callers talked all things pro sports and picked apart the futility of our local teams. One of the most popular pastimes on the show was for a caller to ring up and propose some potential trade to Ken. For instance, some rube would opine that the Giants should trade Jack Clark and a player to be named later to Boston for power-hitting Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice, and then Ken would pick it apart and tell them why it was wrong; or in rare cases, why it was actually a great idea.

After months of listening to callers pontificate, wheel and deal, I got it in my 11-year-old head that I needed to stop passively listening and start participating in the grand conversation. At Dito’s urging, I dialed up Sportsphone 68 one night from my parents’ bedroom, was placed in the queue by a KNBR operator, and waited for Ken to take my call, listening from the bedroom’s clock radio all the while.

I really had a doozy of a basketball trade for him: ship out the Golden State Warriors’ top scorer, Robert Parrish (later to be a superstar in Boston, alongside Larry Bird), to the San Diego Clippers for the NBA’s then-leading rebounder, a big lunky Dutchman named Swen Nater. Dito jumped on the phone far faster than I was ready for him – “Sportsphone 68, you’re on the air”. Out of the clock radio, four seconds later, I heard Ken’s exact words pour out: “Sportsphone 68, you’re on the air, we have Jay from San Jose and he has a trade for us”. I was totally baffled and discombobulated, as everything he and I would say came out of the radio a few seconds later, and in that moment, I couldn’t tell my ass from my elbow.

“Uh….Ken…..um….uh….I’ve got a trade for you…..uh….Robert Parrish….uh, hello?….uh….for Swen Nater.”. Ken’s immediate and precise words were seared into my brain for eternity: “Now son, why would you want to do THAT? Thanks for calling – and turn off your radio next time you call”. Happily for KNBR listeners, there would be no next time.

In no way was that very public misfire the end of my sports obsession, but as I headed into my teens and the 1980s, I found new ways to fill my mental space, mostly by discovering punk and post-punk music, and the related unrefined thrill of record collecting. It took me until my late 30s to regain some of that same strange accumulative behavior with regard to sports – at times going through my obsessive motions with NHL hockey, at times with English Premier League soccer, and always with major league and San Francisco Giants baseball.

Today I work it all around my other, more important life obligations, and am better able to let it ebb and flow in a somewhat managed and non-off-putting manner. I let the internet shuttle much of the information I need directly to me in the form of podcasts, video clips and email newsletters, and though I recognize that my attention span is shortening and my intelligence is likely plummeting, I do appreciate that I can now dip in & dip out of Fulham or Warriors or Sharks or Giants mania at will.

That said, I possess the same sort of perverse pride many modern adults feel about their pre-internet-era childhood obsessions. We had to work at it all so much harder than these kids do today. Perhaps that actually deepened my love for the game. I’m not sure if I could have psychically handled having every 1978 MLB game instantly streamable on TV or my phone; every baseball book instantly deliverable to a Kindle; every argument-settling stat able to be called up at will from Baseball Reference.

I certainly recognize the ultimate frivolity of all this leisure-time onanism, both then and now, yet then I call up with clarity my memorized .306 / 25 / 98 Jack Clark 1978 stat line, and remember that I still know one thing – something very, very special – that only Clark, Mrs. Clark, about ten thousand other 70s baseball dorks and I know.

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The 1978 Oak Grove Little League Jaguars of San Jose, California. I’m on the bottom row, third from the left.

Ham-Handed Management 101: My Year of Failure at Cellular One

“Your employees — they just don’t like you” — Melanie Coyle, Cellular One Customer Service Director, to me in 1995

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The author in 1996, in the Fraud Resolution “supervisor pod” at Cellular One, South San Francisco, CA.

No, I wasn’t always the sure-footed, wizened, mentor-to-many corporate leader and in-demand management guru that I am today. In fact, my first real job as a “manager” began as something of a train wreck. Cellular One in 1995 almost broke my spirit, sapped my will to live and nearly got me sent packing for the high crime of being a nervous-Nellie, fumble-footed, greenhorn manager.

My adventures in the nascent world of cellular telephony started in the Fall of that year, when I exited after six years at Monster Cable (more on thatexperience here) and excitedly joined South San Francisco’s Cellular One as a Customer Service Supervisor. This was a pretty heady and massively profitable time for that industry, although the “mobile landscape” looks amazingly quaint by today’s standards.

Back then every market in the United States had only two cellular network carriers — an “A” carrier and a “B” carrier. Most of us didn’t have cell phones yet. “Car phones”, installed on the floorboards of an automobile, were actually still a thing. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the two mobile operators were GTE and Cellular One, the latter of which was a joint venture between AirTouch Cellular and AT&T Wireless. Down in Los Angeles, those two actually competed against each other, with the “A” carrier being L.A. Cellular (AT&T) and the “B” carrier being AirTouch. Confusing, sure, but nothing like it later became with the arrival of Sprint and many others. Competition was minimal, in other words.

Cellular One really had two problems at that point: counting all of the piled-up money they were making from the exploding mobile phone industry, and something called cloning fraud. This is how I came into the story.

First, a little bit about cloning fraud, which, again, sounds totally ridiculous in the 21st century. Anyone’s analog phone signal back then could be “cloned” by dastardly tricksters and malicious thieves. These guys waited by roadsides and at intersections with “cloning devices” that eavesdropped on signals and could easily capture a phone’s unique information, which could then be quickly reprogrammed into a new phone. Seriously! Now said phone number would be associated with two devices, and unbeknownst to the legitimate bill-paying Cellular One customer, the other phone would then go off and place calls to Mexico, Canada and Timbuktu. All of these calls, local and otherwise, would show up as massive (and very expensive) surprises on the monthly bill. This would, of course, immediately prompt a fretful and angry call into Cellular One from the legitimate bill-holder.

After my initial company training, I was told that I would be leading 8 call center representatives on the “Reactive Fraud” team. We would “react” to people whose phones had been cloned. I’d sit in a cubicle with my reps — later this became a pod-like “hub” in the center, with all of the reps in a circle at smaller desks around me — and I would intelligently coach them on bettering their craft, using my accumulated six years of wisdom from answering phones at Monster Cable. I was also warned that my job had very nearly been given to Kathryn, who was the team’s “Lead” (sort of an associate manager or the team’s Vice-President), and that she was none-too-happy for having lost out on a promotion to the job in favor of this new guy from outside the organization. As I came to find out, neither was my new team.

So here’s what I walked into. Cloning fraud was totally out of control, and angry bill-receivers were calling up en masse to scream at us — “I didn’t make these calls to Mexico!!!” etc. We had eight reps answering calls, but when those reps were all on the phone, calls into our “queue” would stack up, while callers listened to inane hold music. When there were ten calls in queue, a scary red light on the wall would light up, and someone would have to mute their line and yell “ten calls in queue!”, just in case there might be someone available, eating a snack or otherwise ignoring the tense pandemonium of the Reactive Fraud call center.

The Cellular One building, South San Francisco, CA.

Like a doofus, I saw my main job as hustling these reticent phone-answerers into their headsets as fast as I could. My secondary job, green and inexperienced as I was, was to “listen in” on their calls, then coach them during quiet periods on what they might have done better to resolve the customer’s concerns, or how they might have shaved a few seconds off of the call in order to more rapidly answer another one. I decided that the Cellular One Reactive Fraud Supervisor would need to be friendly but tough, a straight-shooting customer and company advocate with a smiling face. Even as I eavesdropped on your every word, then gingerly picked apart your faults, I’d be your friend — your buddy — the best goddamn supervisor you’d ever had.

Yet what I didn’t do was answer calls, even when the light glowed hot red and bedlam ensued. I totally talked the talk without walking the walk. Why not? I guess I felt at the time that it was “below” my lofty perch as a newly-minted supervisor. I not only wouldn’t walk even a millimeter in their proverbial moccasins, I also had something of a fussy, perfectionist orientation at work back then that almost certainly rubbed some people the wrong way. I had even taken a work-administered personality test that flat-out called me a “perfectionist”, and it wasn’t described as being a desirable trait. This, I’m certain, came off in how I coached and managed the team.

A team that was already peeved that Kathryn wasn’t their leader now found an instant way to dislike me, and rightly so. I divined a chilliness bordering on hostility from most of them even after only a couple of weeks, and this truly pained me, so I made more than a few ham-handed attempts at “team building” to overcompensate. These mostly went nowhere, and likely made things worse. They ranged from forced “Hey, how was your weekend?” talks to morose team lunches that I tried to liven up with jokery and witty banter. I wore my weakness and nervousness on my sleeve, and even I was very aware of it at the time.

I never really figured out if Kathryn helped to rally the troops against me, but I do know that 3 employees, led by a rep of mine named Ann, went to my boss’s office to tell her just how awful I was. This then resulted in a “performance talk” between me and my boss. Ann — wow. She really, really hated me, and absolutely dripped contempt every time we talked. Was it unfair? I certainly thought so at the time — but I’m not so certain of that now.

I struggled with maintaining my serious I’m-here-to-coach-and-develop-you job role with my more natural state, which is to want to get along swimmingly with everyone. I tried to raise the meek defense to Stephanie, my manager, that at least some of my 8 employees liked me — Wayne did! Amy did! I was told, with regard to Amy, that “everybody already knows she’s your favorite”, which I had no intelligent retort for, because this was in fact true.

Very quickly, after another complaint from an employee, I was put on an “action plan”, the failure of which to fulfill would result in my termination. This was devastating. The job not only paid well, it was in one of the hottest industries on the planet, and I’d just gotten serious with a new girlfriend (now my wife). We were looking into moving in together and building a life together, as one does. I’d been, if not a “rock star” in my six years at Monster Cable, a highly-regarded employee who got really good performance reviews and had almost no friction with anyone, neither bosses nor co-workers. To now be called out as a “bad manager” was dumbfounding.

Worse, my eight reps were about to become twelve reps. My reactive fraud team soothed angry bill-receivers down by explaining cloning fraud to them, then “writing off” (zeroing out) their entire bill, rather than have them pick through the bill line-by-line saying “this one’s mine; this one’s not mine” and so on. Yet there was also a Proactive Fraud team on a different floor. These 4 reps were led by a cowboy boot-wearin’, pickup-truck drivin’ dude named Tim, whom they all adored. These reps had a magic terminal that they used to look into call activity as it was happening. They’d pick out those numbers that were spiking with calls to Mexico and elsewhere, then proactively call the customer to let them know they’d need to change their phone numbers. Back then, that really was the only way to stop it — change the number, which is what my reactive fraud team did as required.

I was informed that the Proactive Fraud team would now be mine as well, and that they were moving to our floor to sit with my other reps. You can imagine that this went over like a fart in church when Tim had to break it to them. At least two of the new women on my team, Julie and Rhonda, were vocally clear about how displeased they were to have to work for me.

Thankfully by this time, in early 1996, I had gathered my wits somewhat and returned some small semblance of pride. I was now personally answering calls, sometimes when there were even less than ten sitting in queue. I was able to share and revel in the lunchtime tales of some of the morons who called us, such as the reactive fraud call I once took in which the caller, whose bill I refused the write off in full, prodded me with “The fact that I have an MBA doesn’t impress you? The fact that I have a juris doctorate doesn’t mean anything to you??”.

Most importantly, I was off of my action plan, having successfully “resolved my issues”. It wasn’t easy, and it stressed me out no end to have to win over the reactive team while integrating the highly resistant proactive team. I wasn’t sleeping well. Julie, in particular, was consistently “snippy” and overtly hostile with me, but now that I finally had a little wind at my back, I was able to authoritatively remind her what her job was and what was expected of her, without having to worry about it boomeranging back on me. Somehow, just as the management books said it would, this approach worked.

The 1996 Fraud Resolution team, in happier times.

As 1996 rolled on, the job actually became something approximating what I’d hoped it might be. We changed our name to the Fraud Resolution Team(we made it up ourselves), and the team continued to expand with the further snowballing of cloning fraud. I became somewhat proficient in providing constructive call feedback and performance appraisals to my team, even at the cost of having to silently listen into their calls via my on-desk monitoring device or in a special “call monitoring room” that the company provided. I twice caught one female employee engaging in exceptionally filthy sex talk with a boyfriend on the phone, talk so over-the-top that I decided it better to just pretend it never happened and to refrain from bringing it up.

Another employee of mine was more problematic. While he could be outwardly charming and fun, he often brought a massive chip on his shoulder to work, which then infected his calls. I’d listen in to him actively arguing with customers for no good reason, or ignoring their concerns by changing the subject — even going so far as to flat-out hang up on them during difficult calls. Now it was time for me to put together an “action plan”, which I sweated and agonized over because it was likely to lead to my having to fire him. We endured this sort of tense tête-à-tête with each other for about a month, and somehow I got out of canning the guy by quietly pawning him off on another department by arranging for a transfer (!). I still feel a little guilty about that one.

After my abysmal start in 1995, the comparatively better 1996 gave way to 1997, when I announced to my boss that I’d be leaving Cellular One in the late summer to get my MBA at the University of Washington in Seattle. I’d talked with some of the happy marketing people upstairs, and found out that they were doing much more creative & interesting work than I was, and were simultaneously making a great deal more money. They told me that an abrupt career change at that point in my life, aged 29, could be smoothed out by possession of an MBA, and while I’d much rather have gone back to school to study global literature, journalism or political science — really, just about anything other than business — I’d felt my path had already been set, and my risk-averse nature pushed me out the door toward my fate.

I never picked up a phone in a call center again, nor told anyone else how they might do it better. I never again found myself shamed and stained by an action plan. I learned a few things about what not to do as a newly-hired manager, which came in handy later on, particularly on one relatively recent occasion in which I again stepped in to lead an existing team of ten people.

Cloning fraud itself began to fade as new digital technologies were adopted both in the network and in handsets themselves, and as I was leaving Cellular One, the world was agog about the runaway success of the most advanced phone to date — the Motorola StarTAC, a flip phone with limited “SMS” capabilities. I cut virtually all ties with anyone and everyone at Cellular One, as I still held onto residual paranoia about what I envisioned was a widespread perception of my managerial incompetence, something that I’m now pretty certain I was merely imagining.

The whole experience seems to have been one of those trial-by-fire toughening events that make a life what it is. In the grander sweep of things, it was a decidedly minor bump in the road that I reckon I’m glad happened when it did, even if I’m still totally pissed at myself for not grabbing that tenth call in queue, thereby maybe avoiding the whole fiasco in the first place.

Dogging It In The 1980s: My Year at Wienerschnitzel

Der Wiener Dog, the lovable 1980s mascot for “The World’s Largest Hot Dog Chain”, along with a friend (not me).
Fast food employment for menial wages is a time-honored teenage rite of passage, and my early career proved to be no exception. I spent an entire year during high school, circa 1984–85, scooping fries, pouring Cokes, cleaning grease traps and counting out correct change for thousands of the hot dog-lovin’ customers of San Jose, CA’s Wienerschnitzel “restaurant”.
$3.35 per hour was the wage I extracted for my toil. If take-home pay ended up being a bit wanting, there were ultimately some good stories smuggled home that perhaps made my efforts worthwhile.

Admittedly, my first choice for fast food work in 1984 was at the Princeton Plaza branch of McDonald’s, also for $3.35 an hour, which was the era’s bottom-floor minimum wage. After straight-up hiring me during my initial interview — warm, pimple-pocked bodies always welcome — McD’s, alas, only gave me three hours of work per week for my initial month. My weekly gross of $10.05 just wasn’t going to cut it, even in that Reagan era of low taxes and high margins, so I quit McDonald’s before I’d even scraped my first grill or wrapped my first Filet-o-Fish.

Wienerschnitzel were more than happy to bring me aboard the team, however, and they threw me as many evening and weekend hours as I could handle. The chain, some of you may remember, was once called Der Wienerschnitzel. This is the place my dad used to take us to in the 1970s in Sacramento, a hot dog palace with a massive triangle-awning design (much like the old International House of Pancakes) and yellow-and-red color motif (representing mustard and ketchup, one presumes). The company did away with the “Der” in 1977, it is said, because their German conjugation was stupefyingly incorrect; it would have been rightly called Das Wienerschnitzel, but the place I toiled at seven years later was merely christened “Wienerschnitzel”, as it is to this day.

chili cheese dog
The Chili Cheese Dog.

They were, and remain, “The World’s Largest Hot Dog Chain”. While they kept several varieties of hamburger on the menu, including a rye-bread-meat-&-cheese delicacy known as the “Patty Melt”, Wienerschnitzel was all about the dogs, and for what it’s worth, those dogs were fairly tasty, as harmful calories go. There were 5 core dogs during my day: the simple “Mustard Dog”, as no-frills as you’d imagine; the “Kraut Dog”, a nod perhaps to the company’s mangled faux-German ancestry; the “Chili Dog”; the extremely popular “Chili Cheese Dog”; and my hands-down favorite, the relatively healthful “Deluxe Dog”, which included mustard, onions, two tomato slices and a bun-length dill pickle tucked behind the meat. We had fries, we had drinks, and that was about it, save for a gross batter-dipped “corn dog” on a stick that only a handful of children very rarely ordered.

My first exciting day on the job — on any job — nearly got me canned before my 4-hour shift was even done. I was shown how to man the “french fry station”, in which my responsibilities were to pour frozen potatoes from a plain brown bag into a basket, then drop the basket into a fryer for two minutes, then salt the resulting fries profusely once cooked. More importantly, I had to listen to the audible orders called out by the cashier (“Three chili-cheese, two large fries, one patty melt”) for my lone cue word — fries — then scoop them into either a large cardboard holder (you know the kind) or a flimsy paper bag.

fry scoopAs you’ll see from the image to your left, french-fry scooping is totally and unfairly a right-hander’s game. I happen to be left-handed, and I’m embarrassingly uncoordinated with my right. Within minutes I was slowing down orders and angering customers as I fell way behind in my scooping, prompting the mealy-mouthed boss, a balding, middle-aged nincompoop named Dave, to patronizingly swoop in to “school” me on how to properly shovel french fries into a bag. I was trying to do everything with my left hand, and it wasn’t happening. “Is this even going to work??”, an exasperated Dave asked, rhetorically. Luckily mercy — or the pain of having to fire and hire yet another teenaged moron — intervened, and Dave hrumphed and mumbled his way into an immediate “lateral transfer” of me over to the drink station, which is where I wanted to be anyway.

Ah, drinks. Working the soda machine was home for my first 4–6 months at Wienerschnitzel, and it was glorious. I stood immediately to the cashier’s left. She’d slide over the paper receipt, I’d eyeball the various requested sizes of Dr. Pepper or Coke or Sprite, and I’d then position the appropriate cup under the nozzle after filling it halfway with ice. That’s it. Self-serve drink stations hadn’t been invented yet, or rather, were only situated at places like 7–11. It was way better than working “in the back”, flipping burgers or squirting mustard on hot dogs. I got to interact with the customers, too, and it turned out I kinda liked that.

Granted, my interactions with the hoi polloi were usually of the “a little less ice/a little more ice” variety. San Jose has a heavy Mexican immigrant population, and one time a young Mexican guy came in and looked me dead in the eyes & said with the utmost gravity, “Give me lots of ice”. I duly responded, yet when I handed him over his cup he retorted, “I said lots of ice, homey — I don’t want no snow cone”. Still one of my favorite customers of that or any other era.

w
The Wienerschnitzel that I worked in, 1984–85, as it looks today.

We moved a great deal of high-fat caloric product, especially during meal times. Wienerschnitzel’s “rush” was an all-out war to quickly feed legions of people, and it could get really stressful. Thus, those of us who “closed” — working until the store shut down at 11pm, plus another hour to clean up — relished the relatively peaceful late nights for all sorts of hijinks and shenanigans. There was a oafish guy whom we worked with named Ralph who told the assembled crew one night that he’d actually drink the grease trap — the accumulation of hamburger drippings and fat runoff — on a dare. Not for money, merely on a dare. I believe I actually made the initial dare, which was rapidly seconded by all 4 of my remaining co-workers, at which point he loosened the metal contraption from beneath the grill, hauled it outside behind the store, tipped the contents into his mouth, made one swallow, and promptly barfed. And yes, his name was Ralph.

Late nights were also when the drunk-driving customers would stagger in. One night the cashier position was being womaned by a sassy Latina named Deena, and I was again working to her left, pouring drinks/snow cones. Two disheveled alcoholics shuffled in, and one proceeded to order, “One cheeseburger, dropped on the floor”. We both engaged in some customer-friendly double-takes and polite clarifications — “Sir, can you please repeat your order”; “Sir, that’s not something that we serve here”; “Sir, are you sure that that’s what you’d like” and so on. Once he’d confirmed his demand, we were absolutely going to ensure that supply kept up; or rather, Deena was, as she first loudly announced the exact order on her microphone to the entire staff and all Wienerschnitzel patrons, then proclaimed “I’m going to make this motherfucker myself”. She then strolled back to the hamburger station, grabbed a waiting cheeseburger with the flipper, lifted it high above her head, and slapped it down hard onto the disgusting tile floor, the same floor that Ralph, myself and others had been striding across all night. After putting it on a bun and dressing it just so, she then delivered it directly to his table, rather than calling him to the counter, which was truly customer relations above and beyond the norm.

I, like Deena, used my burgeoning skills to eventually graduate to direct customer relations, and for a time I was the only male cashier on the Branham Plaza Wienerschnitzel staff. My winning personality and customer-centric charm may have been a factor; more likely, I had not yet succumbed to any graft nor embezzlement outside of the odd Deluxe Dog, and therefore could be trusted handling small bills. I had a high school friend also named Dave who’d come in after football practice, and he would routinely proceed to order (and eat!) 2 hamburgers and 3 hot dogs in one sitting. I may have occasionally cut him a deal or two on that extra chili-cheese dog, but I think manager Dave found me to mostly be “on the level”, even if I couldn’t scoop a fry to save my life.

dwI bungled the biggest opportunity presented to me, however, and it’s something I deeply regret to this day. As McDonald’s had its clown and Burger King its king, so Wienerschnitzel too had its mascot — “Der Wiener Dog”. One Saturday it was announced by our new manager Kim that Der Wiener Dog himself was going to be spending the day waving at cars on the corner of Pearl & Branham in San Jose, which meant that an employee of Wienerschnitzel at Pearl & Branham was going to be spending his or her day holed up in the Der Wiener Dog costume.

The only criteria for the role was that you had to fit into the thing, and as it turned out I fit into it perfectly. Immediately overcome with a rash of hormone-surging teenage embarrassment — “this is so lame” etc. — I announced that I wouldn’t do it, no way. Thankfully, my co-worker Debra was another person whose shape filled out the costume as remarkably as mine did, but I proceeded to watch her with envy from my cashier station all day as she handed out lollipops, danced with children, and flagged down Camaros to pull into the parking lot for 2-for-1 chili cheese dogs. I was so instantly filled with regret for passing up this golden opportunity to break from the norm that for years I told a “white lie” (OK, a bald-faced, straight-up lie) to friends that I, indeed, had been the Der Wiener Dog for one unforgettable day. But no.

Around the time I was going to the Valley Christian High School Senior Ball with my co-worker Cheri (more about that here), I came upon my one year anniversary as a Wienerschnitzel employee in good standing. My reward for my year of service was a raise — a whopping ten-cent raise from $3.35 to $3.45 per hour. As would become my annoying stock in trade in subsequent jobs, I immediately argued to Kim that my immense contributions to the firm were outsized relative to those of my slothful co-workers, and that I deserved at least a twenty-cent boost in my hourly enumeration. Rebuffed, I quit Wienerschnitzel without so much as two weeks’ notice, choosing to meekly call in my resignation from the comfort of my familial home rather than bombastically give it face-to-face to my exploitative corporate overlords.

I never worked in food service again. Perhaps Kim blackballed me. More likely, once I graduated to lucrative $4 per hour phone soliciting jobs, there was no looking back. Wienerschnitzel, including the location at the corner of Pearl & Branham in San Jose, survives to this day, although as a lesser light in the pantheon of American fast food. I dropped by there a couple of years ago for old times’ sake (and because I was hungry as hell) after visiting my parents. They still have all the same hot dogs, and a whole lot more. They’ll now even put chili on your french fries — something we didn’t have the gastronomic foresight to even suggest to management! I excitedly told the young man at the drink station that I’d once held his job, over 30 years ago (!), in this exact same location, in that exact same spot, doing the exact same thing behind the same Wienerschnitzel counter…!

He told me “that’s cool”.

My Freshman Year Roommate

San Nicolas Dorm UCSB

In September 1985 my dad parked his car on the lawn of the San Nicolas dormitory at the University of California — Santa Barbara, then loaded in my stuff, and drove back up to San Jose. I was a mere three days away from starting my first year of college, and essentially had a three-day weekend to get my bearings and meet the people I’d be living in close proximity to for the next nine months. I was excitedly anxious, as one might imagine.

Several months before this, I’d filled out a form indicating my preferences for a roommate. I don’t remember precisely what I said, but having been an absurdly music- and record-obsessed high school student, it was probably something about alternative music, post-punk, punk, new wave — whatever. As long as my roommate could tolerate my music, and I his, I truly didn’t care about much else. I waited in the microscopic 15’x15’ dorm room for a couple of hours, carefully arranging my side of the room, in anticipation of who’d be showing up that afternoon. As it turned out, it was Mark — and he ended up being a human being more than “interesting” enough to merit his own story some 30+ years later. He was also a certified nutball. Allow me to continue.

UCSB ended up matching us up pretty well on the surface — two 18-year-olds, both with blonde hair & blue eyes, and both totally into “alternative/indie” music. After some initial awkwardness, Mark and I hoofed it in his car to the McDonald’s in Goleta for dinner, which I remember vividly as my “first meal on my own”. A big deal!

I liked him instantly. Totally funny, charismatic and cool, with an impish smile and a great transgressive sense of humor. More myopically importantly for me in 1985, his favorite bands were The Dream Syndicate, Black Flag, The Minutemen and the Velvet Underground. He was quite a bit more clued-in than I was. (Mine were, at the time, The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Cramps, Simple Minds and Siouxsie and the Banshees). He played guitar, he skateboarded, & he was a clean-cut, all-American kid with a hefty dose of strange that I very much gravitated toward.

That night, during our baptism into college partying, Mark ended up sleeping with the only female on the floor that had her own room. This totally discombobulated me, and not simply with jealousy; was I going to have to spend nights sleeping in the dorm’s hallway all year because he had a girl over? Turned out, he didn’t even care about her, actively disliked her even, and the two of them barely spoke again the whole year. Turned out as well that everyone on our floor was starting to hate Mark by mid-October, about six weeks after we all got there.

san-miguel-dblThe second floor of the San Nicolas dorm from 1985–86 was an incredibly close-knit group — except for Mark. He showed his true colors that very first week, when we all learned that there was an open and proud homosexual male on our wing of the floor. Such openness was unusual for an 18-year-old; in fact, two of our closeted brethren on the floor, one of whom I did a radio show with that year, only came out as gay later on during the 80s. Mark crudely wrote up a “No fags use this stall — I don’t want AIDS” sign, and taped it to one of the communal bathroom doors. That would be a hanging offense now, but regrettably in 1985 it just made a few people temporarily mad. A harbinger, however.

Mark was funny, after all, and more than a little weird. He’d play the Velvet Underground’s “European Son” at lethal volume, so you could even hear it on the girls’ wing of the dorm, and during the chair dragging/feedback portion of the song, he’d screech an ear-deafening “Whooooo!!!!” at the top of his lungs, deliberately out the door so everyone could hear. He’d repeatedly do the same with “The Black Angel’s Death Song” during the day when people were studying. Whatever would get a negative reaction from the neighbors, he’d do it.

Richard NixonMark had an irony-laden obsession with Richard Nixon, and, trying to curry favor with this guy whom I thought I probably should be friends with, I ripped out a full-page Nixon headshot from a priceless two-volume “Presidents of the United States” encyclopedia set my parents had bought me when I was 9 and gave it to him. My folks still have this set, and I’m going to give it my own son in the next couple of years — and I’m totally pissed at myself that the Nixon page is gone. Mark used to ask that we call him “Milhouse”, and this was long before The Simpsons had aired an episode.

He also had a set of slang that he claimed he & his buddies used back in Ridgewood, CA — a tiny mountain town out near San Bernardino. A hot girl was called “scrut”, as in That girl is total scrut. An unattractive girl was “shul”. Dude, what are you thinking, she’s totally shuuuul. This and other language mystified most of us, and he upped the usage of it during those first months to be deliberately oppositional. It worked.

Those early weeks of everyone eating together at communal tables in the dining hall quickly morphed into everyone still eating together — and Mark eating by himself. Yet he was still my roommate, and I had to be with the guy every day. I asked him to join us, but he told me that everyone on our floor was lame, that all the girls were lame, and that he had started to go to parties near Santa Barbara High School because he “felt more comfortable” with high school girls.

One time I had a cold, with a runny nose and all, and he absolutely flipped out. I couldn’t play my records on his stereo, the only music playback device we had — which was tantamount to torture for me. He actually threatened to fistfight me because I wouldn’t agree to open and close our door by putting my hand inside the bottom of my shirt, and twisting the knob that way (to keep germs off the doorknob, you see). Had I been a slob or a nose-dribbling pig, I’d admit it to you & the world — but then, and now, I was/am the sort of neat & tidy weirdo whom you’d almost certainly give the benefit of the doubt to.

liquid_paperBy January, Mark and his Ridgewood high school pal Ron were spending Friday & Saturday nights getting wasted on whatever they could find, and as far away from us in the dorm as possible. One night, after bragging about it all day, they poured multiple bottles of liquid paper into a paper bag to huff it. (You suck the chemical-laden air out of the bag, in and out, really fast until you fall over — or so I learned from them). Over a beer, I and some others tried to talk them out of their plan to no avail. I distinctly remember Ron, his eyes watering as his upper torso weaved, grabbing me on the shoulders after a big huff & sincerely telling me, “Thank you man, wow, thank you — you’re so cool — wow, I really appreciate how much you care, thank you”. Later that night, around 4am, Mark burst into our room and told me his Dad was outside with the car: “Don’t come down, there’s one angry asshole down there”. Campus police had stopped Mark as he was doing something stupid — tipping garbage cans or something — and called his parents back in Ridgewood, who then had to come get him & take him home for a talking-to that weekend.

The rest of 1986, I barely remember interacting with the guy and did whatever I could to not have to talk to him. I did most of my studying — such that it was! — in the library, and spent the rest of my time at the radio station or in other people’s dorm rooms. The rest of my time at school, up through 1989, I only remember two interactions — one, bumping into him on campus, to tell him he might like the rock bands Soul Asylum and Squirrel Bait (he did — we both did), and another awkward time in an Upland, CA parking lot, when we were both there to see Soul Asylum live. We never spoke again. I don’t even know if he graduated. The only thing that endured from my brief time with him was the word “scrut”, which my radio station pals & I would use in jest from time to time.

The thing about college that’s striking is, for all the talk about it being “the best years of your life”, it’s only true for some people. I had a great time in college, but some of my friends and acquaintances were absolutely miserable. The jarring adjustment away from the protective home/womb of mom & dad and the forced transition to adulthood is too much for many kids to take in that first year, and there’s no doubt that many of them just aren’t ready for the oppositional forces of “You’re a responsible adult now, here to learn” and “Let’s party — there are no adults around!”.

Mark had a much worse time than most. I hope for his sake, and for the sake of the teenage girls of Santa Barbara High, that he figured it out shortly after our nine acrimonious months together.

(this piece was originally published on my blog The Hedonist Jive in 2012. I’ve made a few edits here and there in order to publish it again)

Senior Ball

Dawn CollinsI didn’t even want to go to my high school’s “Senior Ball”, but I ended up going to two of them — mine, plus a bizarre, Christian-themed non-dance at Valley Christian High that turned out to be even more demoralizing than my own.

These blessed events occurred during the Reagan-era 1980s, somewhat after the values of traditional male/female courtship had started to crumble, even while the codified rituals of mating remained. I had totally bailed on attending my end-of-year Junior Prom the year before, in 1984. I told myself at the time that this was because I was too much of a self-identified “outsider” to actually care about what the normal kids thought was important. Perhaps there’s even a bit of truth there, yet it’s much more likely that I either couldn’t identify a likely date, or I was too chicken to ask one to accompany me.

What I mostly remember about the Spring of 1985 was how much I thirsted, yearned for high school to be over with. Matriculating from San Jose, California’s Gunderson High and getting the hell out of town and high-tailing it to college had reached a fever pitch, yet there was the informal yet significant pressure of the vaunted “Senior Ball” to contend with. Alas, I didn’t have a girlfriend, nor any likely candidate to become one at that juncture, and this caused me much internal consternation, frustration and even embarrassment. Perhaps college might bequeath the debut of my inner lothario, as I was mere months away from embarking on a move to Santa Barbara to attend the University of California (spoiler alert: it mostly didn’t).

As Gunderson’s Senior Ball approached, I contended with some very gentle parental pressure to attend (“It’s your last year — why not attend? It’s a tradition” etc.), which my internal teenage guilt and shame thereby magnified into some pretty intense pathos, forcing me into a tortured corner of my own making. I was going to have to do this thing, because damn it, I’m worth it. I’m a totally normal late-adolescent. Totally normal. I can take a foxy girl on a fabulous dress-up date. Oh, but girls mostly ignore me. I’ll probably be laughed at when I ask someone. Wait — what if I’m mocked by dudes for whom I’ve chosen as my date? Then what?

This sort of ping-ponging internal monologue was a shining hallmark of my adolescence. With hindsight, I’ve learned that this certainly was in no way unique to me. By the time I actually gathered the gumption to ask someone out, the 12th grade gossip mill had already churned out many of the names of whom was taking whom. Like a baseball draft, we were already down to the 42nd round. Virtually every girl I personally knew was “taken”, and those who remained either couldn’t hit the fastball, only had three of the five tools, or were too frequently fooled by the off-speed pitch. Or I was too lame and superficial to see the “lady” hiding inside of the girl.

But wait! Dawn Collins. Dawn was a junior (i.e. an 11th grader), the sister of a classmate and sort-of-friend of mine, Brian Collins. At this writing both reside in the where-are-they-now files, and appear to be completely unfindable on social media or the internet writ large (I tried really hard, for about five minutes). In 1985, Dawn Collins was an out-of-my-league beauty who, unlike most 16–17 year-olds, actually smiled at me in the halls and laughed at my rare and feeble attempts at humor in the infrequent moments that the two of us socialized.

I grappled with a massive bout of nervousness regarding how I might be perceived for inviting a mere junior, let alone Dawn Collins, to go with me, which reflected the tyranny of small differences in numeric age that are endemic to young people in my culture. Overcoming this, I somehow phoned to ask her to accompany me to the 1985 Gunderson High School Senior Ball, and to my delight and terror, she politely and immediately said yes.

Honestly, that’s pretty much the high point of this part of the story. Any ideas I had at all about what I was supposed to do in this scenario — the boutonniere, the suit, the etiquette of appearing at Dawn’s house and meeting her parents — all came via careful coaching from my parents. All I remember is the tension. Dawn and I pretty much ran out of things to talk about during the 20-minute drive it took to get to the hotel where this thing was being held, yet she was extremely gracious and cool in the face of what was clearly not destined to be the proverbial Night To Remember for either of us. The theme of the dance, in fact, was “One More Night”, after the recent Phil Collins hit of the same name. Indeed it was merely one more night.

There was some awkward 80s dancing, some fancy food on my plate that I didn’t eat, and this lone picture that you see at the top of this page. I recall sitting at a circular table with fellow students who weren’t my friends or even acquaintances. One of Gunderson’s few African-American students, a funny dude named Derek, broke a Hoover Dam-sized wall of tension by loudly complaining to a waiter about the rare meat he’d been served by proclaiming “This thing is still mooin’!”. Those seconds were the first, and possibly only, time I actually felt comfortable the entire night.

If Dawn and I talked again during my last two weeks at school outside of brief pleasantries, I really don’t remember it. There was no after-party, no chugging wine coolers in the parking lot, no rented limo to take her down to Santa Cruz to make out on the beach, nothing like that. My lasting impression of her was that she was a hell of a “good sport” for accompanying me to something I had no business attending, nor any true desire to attend.

CheriHowever, there was yet a second Senior Ball to take part in! In the week before mine, I was demurely asked by my Wienerschnitzel co-worker, Cheri, to accompany her to hers. Cheri — whose last name I’m sure I knew at the time, but don’t recall now — had the stones to actually ask me to my face, unlike me, who resorted to nervously calling Dawn, despite seeing her repeatedly at school every day.

Now I don’t pretend to know how it really all went down, but given the lateness of her invitation — the Valley Christian Senior Ball was only two weeks away — I got the sense that this time it was me who was the godforsaken 47th-round draft pick. Never mind asking out a junior, how about the dorky guy not from your school, from the greasy fast-food restaurant you worked at – a guy whom you’d never even flirted with before? Cheri was a shy, pretty, sweet and very Christian girl, and I have to believe that she too was suffering from the same internal torture/pressure I had.

I liked Cheri, I really did, but I was thrown totally off guard by her invite — which I of course accepted immediately (hey, I’m not a total heel). Perhaps I didn’t spring into action right away, or maybe it was her fault for asking me so late, but by the time I made it to the rented-suit store to grab something to wear, the only thing left was a foul, loud burgundy suit. Ashamed, I rented it nonetheless, hoping against hope that others might show up at Valley Christian’s soiree with the same color suit. (One other doofus did, but everyone else kept to smart & classy gray or black suits).

I’m able to call up even less about this event than my own, save for one jolting surprise. After the initial hors d’oeuvres were served, my extensive Senior Ball experience had trained me to expect that this was when we’d begin our dancing, likely to the Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Eurythmics hits of the era. I hated (um, hate) dancing, but you know — at least I had a little bit of recent background in Senior Ball dancin’.

Instead, a motivational speaker climbed up to the podium, and proceeded to deliver a stem-windingly unbearable thirty-minute speech about accepting Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior Into Our Hearts. As if these poor urchins weren’t suffering enough! Having been an atheist from the age of five, albeit a terribly naive one who didn’t expect such a performance at the Valley Christian High School Senior Ball, I quickly lodged a muffled complaint with Cheri about this turn of events. She didn’t exactly scowl at me, but she was decidedly less than pleased. I was not the Dawn to her Jay. I was, unfortunately, the Jay to her Cheri.

There was a dinner, I believe, and then a disturbingly quiet car ride home. Cheri never talked to me again at work (sensing a trend here?) aside from grunts of begrudging recognition, and then the summer was upon us. We both quit Wienerschnitzel right after the Ball and got on with real life, getting ready for college or to better ourselves with one last summer job.

I’d have passed on both of these things had I foreseen both my eventual discomfort and the anticlimactic nature of these Balls. I hold few regrets from this time, aside from wholly normal longings of the “if only I knew then what I know now” variety. I’d have brimmed with self-confidence, charm and outstanding sartorial choices. I’d have rejected the dog and pony show of the Senior Ball, and invited Dawn Collins — and hell, probably Cheri too — to drink Rolling Rocks behind the Oakridge Mall with me instead.

Maybe if they ever turn up on the internet, someday I will.

Graduation 1985
Gunderson High School Graduation, 1985 – San Jose, CA