" Oh my. This is much too large. I wonder how small they go?"
I didn't say anything. I just stood there in the middle of the aisle, red as raspberry, staring up at my mother who was holding up a double extra large jockstrap for the whole damn world to see. I thought, "Ya fucking think?"
This was when I was twelve years old and on the verge of starting the seventh grade. We had received a letter from school stating that I would need to have jockstrap in my possession before I was allowed to enter the hallowed halls of John Muir Junior High.
I didn't curse much back then. In fact, this might have been one of the first times that I thought that the F word was the only appropriate modifier to describe what was happening.
The jockstrap in question would have worked just fine had I been born with John Holme's DNA or that of a bull elephant, but I was only twelve and a very scrawny twelve at that. I was a late developer so to speak, as were hundreds of boys at that school (I said HUNDREDS, damn it). Besides, in the fifth grade, I contracted a bad case of the mumps and lost a lot of weight when I should have been growing like a weed.
I know for a fact that those people at BIKE valued profit over justice. They made them most of them suckers one size fits all, and the first day of junior high I learned that all boys aren't created equal. Thinking about it now, the things we learned in gym class might actually have been the most important things we learned in our entire life. Yet they always tested us on things like nouns, verbs, tree frogs, and the War of 1812. Go figure.
At that exact moment one of the clerks asked my mother, "Do you need any help, Ma'am?"
"Do you have anything smaller?" The clerk answered by bending over down to where the boxes were stacked below the counter. She went to the very bottom, right hand side and took out a box out from under the rest of the boxes. She handed it to my mother and while my mom opened the box, the lady looked at me. Her glance could only be described as cruel. I thought at the time, that the chance to give that glance was probably the only reason she worked at the store.
I could only look past her, back toward the door.
"This one will do just fine." I looked up and glimpsed at it before she handed it back to the lady. I did the mental calculations quickly. I had about fourteen days to figure out something or else I was going start my path toward adulthood and higher education, standing in gym class, looking like a skinnier, more malnourished version of Mahatma Gandhi.
My life was fixing to get different, a whole helluva lot different, and it worried me. Junior High was coming for me in my dreams, There was this huge entrance, a large plaster construction of a Wild Cat with an opened yawl, and the sidewalk ran right up to and into the entrance, there was a crazy looking clown (is that redundant?) on stilts beckoning me in. An angry looking dwarf clung to its leg, a dwarf who appeared to be the clown's son until he turned around and revealed a mug like Fred Mertz. There was a bike rack decorated with a couple hundred helium balloons.
There were other more realistic portents too, more tangible signs. In my sixth grade year, the two other schools in town had sent basketball teams to play us on our outdoor courts, and we traveled to them to play also. Some of these kids seemed taller and appeared to me somewhat less scruffy than us. Their sneakers (that's what se called them in those days) were pristine and not scuffed with daily wear. Some wore real Converses and not the JC Penny knockoffs which were a few bucks cheaper or not PF Flyer hand-me-downs we got from our older brothers.
Their girls were way cute too. Not that ours weren't, but theirs were novel. And kids love novelty. Hell, people love novelty. That statement is so true that Newton probably came up with it first.
A lot about what I thought then was based on my assumptions, perceptions shaped by a somewhat sheltered existence, and I admit that I have mythologized it some degree to make it fit my narrative. That's one of the purposes of myth after all. I've thought about it a lot, and I now think the difference between those kids from the other schools and us lie with our parents.
Most Mark Twain parents were working class. We were raised around the anxiety of making a paycheck stretch till the next paycheck. It was the reason that our mom's shopped at Kmart and why we didn't wear brands until we got old enough to know that without brands you couldn't be cool, and that's when our adolescence set about in earnest.
A lot of their families had bank accounts and Plan Bs. They went to Disneyland on a yearly basis; we saw it only on TV. I also realized only later that a great many of them were just like me, and the only difference between us was that they had adapted in a different environment.
I also learned later that a lot of the kids who I thought had it so much better dealt with a lot of issues of their own. I remember picking up a friend on the morning bike ride to school and seeing his dad answer the door in his tidy whities, hung over, bleary eyed and screaming at his wife.
There was anxiety in their houses too, different yet the same. And their parent's way to blunt the fear was with strong spirit and not the relatively weak beer that my father drank when he wanted to relax and not think about breaking down Caterpillars.
Us kids were like Vegas then; what happened behind our front doors stayed behind those doors, at least overtly. We were way too young to understand or speak the grown-up language. We tried to hide what we knew underneath our pillows and yet acted it out like mimes in all of our daily actions and whispered when we talked about it at all using the clipped language of wounded birds.
There was a new world beckoning and I knew it; there was a whole shit ton of lessons to be learned, new friends to meet, new juices to savor, new wounds and scars just laying around the corner, new people I needed to learn to avoid, a few new teachers who I needed to listen to, and whole bunch more who would only spur my creative need to draw planes, cars, and shit in the back of class.
It was an alien world. How could it not be? The whole world north of Bainum Avenue was new to me and full of space creatures and unknown forces, a universe of meteors, comets and space debris, a place where the gravitational pull of other planetary objects threatened on a daily basis to pull me into different orbits. And there would be monsters too; Buck Rogers told me so.
And a clown on stilts daring me to enter as his Fred Mertz looking dwarf son called me a chicken and flapped his wings. In anger I retorted, "I am fucking Columbus you rat-face bastards; I petition kings and bow before queens; I will discover many new islands and pathways to China, and I will conquer them and all their peoples in the sacred holy name of individual progress!"
Naw. Just Kidding. Didn't happen like that. I just cinched up my belt and timidly entered the circus grounds proper armed with a new pen set, a couple of new notebooks, an Ian Fleming paperback, and a half empty jock strap.