This is your brain on drugs. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America must have thought themselves quite clever with that public service video from the 1980’s, yet all it looked like to us was a delicious egg frying in a pan. We didn’t make the connection. In fact, their efforts had an adverse effect, inspiring us to smoke more pot, which gave us the munchies and the raging desire for late-night greasy spoon antics and the satisfying comfort of an egg plate or an egg-related dish. The US Poultry and Egg Association must have enjoyed skyrocketing sales in the aftermath of that ad.
I’m not ashamed to admit that my little cluster of teenage misfits, in our seemingly insignificant sector of the cosmos, may have been a minor impetus for that anti-drug campaign, because that slogan has never seemed as appropriate as when we were that young, that carefree, that reckless.
A dog-eared envelope, yellowed with age, reveals itself amidst a box of photos wrapped in Fotomat-processed jackets, replete with a musty odor from a setting that time neglected. With a mix of curiosity and apprehension, I inspect the few pictures inside and consider one with an unusual composition, throwing me into a tailspin of reluctant retrospection.
Muted browns pervade the space; the sullied walls of the Fulco sisters’ stale basement contained possibilities for the sort of tomfoolery that typical fifteen year old city-suburban outliers find in the wake of apathy or in the name of creative synthesis, sometimes both. That we found ourselves subterranean one year before we would be barking the words to the Ramones “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” serves as a fitting prequel to the story. This is only one of the few times we were sent underground to get lost, out of some adult’s hair. Or maybe it was one of the more rational decisions we made as a group of deviants: seeking shelter from the bitter winds of winter’s wrath.
Whatever we could get our hands on — in this case, the sisters’ umbrella and a Kodak Instamatic camera — became our muse. In the snapshot, my new high school buddy, Jay, is especially dressed for a different occasion, like a night at the punk club CBGB on New York’s gritty Lower East Side to see a new wave act. His skinny black tie, tight jeans and checkered collared shirt indicate a clear disruption of norms; nobody within rock throwing distance of this place would be caught dead or alive wearing such genre-defining garb. Behind the camera, I follow suit; we were quite a pair. In fact, there were a few nights before this one when we were particularly brazen, heading to the local roller rink just to loiter at the entrance and parade our wares, hoping a pair of young derby queens would regard us in all our fringe glory; maybe our pit stop at the Fulco’s sat right before our night of male harlotry.
Anna and Regina are less risque in their approach; their fashion acumen exemplify the times, replete with cuffed velour blouses in plaids and solids, the type that cats love to rub against and knead. Along with the smooth, feathered hair we all flaunted — their father routinely sculpted styles like this for a living in his shop on the other side of the wall — as well as our disparate facial expressions, which I examine as I gawk at the forty year old snapshot, we seem poised for misadventure within the confines of the space’s cramped walls.
Huddled under the umbrella, my three comrades consider me curiously. Regina is most forthright in expression; her wide cheshire grin indicates genuine playfulness, communicating a readiness for merrymaking. She is direct and unabashed, with the same constitution that informs her walking to school fresh from the shower stall during the winter months, her hair still damp, tiny icicles forming at the tips of curly locks. Jay, flanked to her immediate right, is more deliberate; a come-hither half-grin — the type worn by heart-pumping idols in Seventeen magazine spreads, along with a cocksure hand-in-pocket, cross-legged stance — suggests confidence if not outright exhibition. This is especially fitting given his propensity to “do the worm” on an empty dance floor during our maiden voyage in the world of nightclubbing, a faux safety pin secured in his cheek as he writhed to the Sex Pistols while we eventually parroted his slinky moves and audacity. He’s also outfitted the umbrella’s handle with his left Capezio shoe.
Across from him, Anna — with whom I am hopelessly smitten — eyes me with devilish trepidation, revealing her disdain for this photographer’s study. She’s holding the prop, head sloped to the side, her characteristic bangs that predate Chrissie Hynde’s by a year conceal one eye; I probably cajoled her a bit too much. Or perhaps she’s giving me a signal to advance, at a time I sensed her interest in me but so mired in self-loathing and insecurity that I couldn’t recognize it.
The interior of the stop light green Ford Gran Torino — it’s side pipes rusted and brittle — is filled with the sweet, earthy scent of marijuana; we barely recognize each other through the haze of thick air. My cohorts and I are stuffed in there like hot peppers, huddled and cruising through town, a favorite endeavor on a Friday night. As with each romp, there is an accompanying soundtrack, typically bleeding through our transport’s cheap stock speakers or the slightly upgraded ones adorning my silver-plated boom box, in tow on every jaunt. Tonight, amidst uproarious cackles and the ensuing respiratory lurches from ill-cleaned pot, we listen intently to WNEW, a local radio station that features new music by up-and-coming artists. Tonight, we anticipate getting pummeled by the third single from The Cars’ latest full length Panorama, “Gimme Some Slack”. This is especially fitting given our trajectory; our intention is to disrupt the city where our school friend — who just happens to be Regina’s recent crush, Dave Slack — resides.
Eventually, we perceive the cold, metallic opening drum pattern; a 1/32 high hat pattern only interrupted by seven snare cracks, resulting in an urgent fill that spills into a galloping rhythm guitar alongside smart lead guitar accents, anchored by a sure-footed bass lick and peppered with some interesting, atonal keyboard fills. All of this coalesces with an attitude-drenched opening line, “I wanna shake like LaGuardia, magic mouth in the sun,” aligned with singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek’s propensity toward figurative lyrical content. A bold progression for the band, it reads like a glorious off-kilter spaghetti western score-cum-Berlin period David Bowie collision.
Of course, these details are lost on most of us, who just want to get to the chorus so we can scream into the chilled air, “Just gimme some SLAAAACK!” as if this act of sheer silliness would somehow summon our friend from the comfort of his parents’ home — wherever he lived in this sizable town — to our motorized den of iniquity, replete with five teenage idiots.
I’m dressed in a haphazard combination of call girl-cum-ballerina garb that eludes even me, more at home in a brothel or an asylum than the local White Castle Hamburger joint, where we are loading up on sacks of greasy sliders and fries. Deciding that Halloween was an opportune night to flaunt my audacious side, I piece together this outlandish outfit by invading my mother’s closet when she and my dad were out doing who-knows-what in the cold morning light, as well as borrowing trinkets from Anna. Having performed my patchwork, I gawk in the mirror and deem myself a visionary for my efforts: sunny smeared makeup, black camisole top and long, opera-length gloves, ripped fishnet stockings, white converse hi-tops and — the pièce de résistance of this mixed mass of mayhem — a candy apple red ballerina tutu. I think to myself, No self-respecting woman would be found within spitting distance of me after seeing this; only the very weird would. This fills me with great satisfaction.
We make our way to the Route 46 Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, where — with a deepened phone voice to disguise our pubescence — we’ve secured a room for our Hallow’s Night debauchery (as if my friend Jack and I wouldn’t be caught upon check-in, our tender never-shaven, stray-whiskered faces giving us away. Surprisingly, we weren’t). After finding our room and setting up, Jack fussily inspects the bag of burgers for his carefully-instructed patties with no cheese or ketchup. Discovering that I messed up the order, he whips his head around at me and barks, “Where are my fucking burgers?” Never one to let criticism land well, I retort, “Fuck you, order it yourself next time!” This immediately decomposes into an ensuing shouting match at which time Jack decides to whip a burger at me, as I haphazardly gather the disassembled parts and in a fit of rage, hurl it back at him. This goes on for a few rounds, until half the sack is depleted. The chaos incites the characteristic gut cackling of a perpetually-stoned Regina and sets off waves of hilarity at the likes of me, earnestly attempting to prove my point while dressed like a dime store streetwalker. How I long for the days when cheese and ketchup-on-burgers was the cause for such petty disagreements.
The night ensues in a cauldron of cheap beer, skunk weed, loud music and an attempt to toss a recliner into the empty swimming pool two stories below. I’m not sure how, but the festivities eventually collapse into a low rumble, as do I into a light slumber, probably because we ran out of mind-altering agents. Upon waking, I sense some movement in the bed adjacent to me and squint to discover Anna and best friend Jack cuddled into each other. This crushes me. Fills me with regret. I don’t tell anyone for thirty years. Maybe it was the tutu.
I return to the box of photos and notice other details. A sink, sizable floor fan, buckets, cleaning agents, loosely strewn cables and various towels stuffed in the corner infer that the basement room had a singular purpose. At least, until we commandeered it. For that moment, though, it was our creative playground, our refuge, our sanctuary from the you can’ts, you shouldn’ts, you won’ts, our asylum from cutting winds and benumbed desperation. For that moment, we were underground oddities just looking for something to do.