Friday, February 21, 2014

A Million Miles Away

It's funny how hearing a song from your past can immediately transport you in time, like when I heard "A Million Miles Away" by the Plimsouls yesterday in a restaurant. I first heard the Peter Case classic in 1983, a 12-month period described by some as "the last great year of pop." My friend Mark -- visiting for the summer from Michigan -- and I were asked to go see "Valley Girl" one night with the cool New Wavers from Dobson High, Mike and Pam. My family had moved from Detroit to Phoenix in 1979, and Mark and I made a pact to take turns visiting each other during breaks from school. He had arrived without incident, but beyond that the only plans I had lined up for us were to sit around the house drinking iced tea and complaining. (It's not like you could go outside when it was 117 degrees.) Neither one of us acknowledged it at the time, but this unexpected invitation was just what our vacation needed.

Mike had actually been my best friend in 8th grade -- our attempts at making a horror movie were legendary -- but we drifted apart for a while, and the next thing I knew he had transformed himself into a cross between two-thirds of Spandau Ballet and David Sylvian of Japan.

 In his suede boots from Judy's (or was it the Wild Pair?), geometrically impossible shirts from Chess King and random pieces of fabric tied wherever the mood struck him, he had become the talk of the school, and I suddenly began to realize how much I missed having him in my life. I don't remember how the movie date came together, but looking back, the two of them -- along with Pam's older boyfriend, Rene -- probably just needed a ride as the midnight showing was only at the AMC Lakes in neighboring Tempe. (Lucky for us, my home-from-college-for-the-summer brother Bill was happy to play chauffeur, our mom's beige, cigarette-infused Pontiac Catalina station wagon serving as our chariot.) But Mark and I were shockingly naive, so when Mike and his new friends pulled out wine coolers for all of us in the darkened theater -- Pam's purse apparently doubled as a Circle K -- the outing quickly became one of the most exciting nights of our young lives. (When the empties began rolling down the floor under the seats toward the screen, we all drunkenly howled at how cool we were.) Everyone loved the movie -- "A Million Miles Away" was just one of a dozen great songs, alongside Bonnie Hayes' "Girls Like Me," Josie's Cotton's "He Could Be the One" and the Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way" -- and I wanted so badly to be Deborah Foreman, whose biggest problem was having a stud like Tommy as her boyfriend. (And could you imagine having E.G. Daily as a friend?!!!) Nicholas Cage even seemed sexy back then. But then the film ended, my brother drove everyone home and we all went our separate ways. Mark and I later tried to capitalize on our newfound bad-ass status by getting "hammered" at my house. But even though my stepfather's wet bar -- a snazzy built-in circa 1979, next to the "conversation pit" (also a built-in) -- was well-stocked, Mark and I made the amateur decision to just pour "a little" of every booze in the cabinet (as to not be detected) into these copper tumblers my mom had in the kitchen -- with no ice -- and the chill one sip sent down our spines immediately had us reverting back to a life of equal parts teetotalism and virginism.

Much to my dismay, "Valley Girl" didn't reignite my friendship with Mike. (That damn Keith Poli was just too fabulously "mod" for me to unseat him by then, with his thrift-store cardigans and bolo ties.) We still said hi in the hallways, but Mike was so busy being cool he rarely made an appearance on campus. The truth was, I had lost many of my closest friends in the tennis team bullying "scandal" the previous year, and I was eager to connect again with someone who got me. But my desperation was as obvious and Nick Rhodes' hairline chicanery, and Mike was only looking forward.

Our only other outing came that fall when I received a day-of invitation to see the Police at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Someone had obviously canceled at the 11th hour, but the Thompson Twins (and Madness) were opening, so I just pretended like he was dying for me to be there all along. It was on the way to the show that I first witnessed people smoking pot, and when it got around to me in the back of his friend's child-molester-friendly van -- handed off by another guy who was hacking up a lung -- I waved it away (secretly terrified) with my patented blase look, which prompted Mike's friend Paula to think (out loud) I was laughing at them for "not even knowing how to smoke a joint." (That look has served me well over the years: I have had homeless people approach every single person in a subway car to ask for money, and then get up to me and decide to not even bother.) As sophomore year got underway, rumors started to swirl that Mike was gay. Although "being gay" was a concept I had only recently wrapped my head around, it wasn't all that hard to imagine. (He had been my best friend, after all.) What was surprising, though, was that Rene seemed especially gay to Mark and me -- in a hot, muscular punker with eyeliner on kind of way -- yet we later learned he had impregnated Pam, who was suddenly nowhere to be found. Months later, however, I did receive a call out of the blue from her -- we had never spoken on the phone prior to this -- and she wasted no time in letting me know that she wasn't calling to catch up. She announced that she KNEW FOR A FACT that I was spreading rumors that Mike was gay and that he wasn't, and that I'd better knock it off or else. (He turned out to be totally gay, but people weren't hearing it from me. Like I'd have ever wanted to get that witch hunt started.) This threat from a girl in trouble wasn't exactly menacing, but then Mike's family up and moved to California without even saying goodbye. The Golden State border is only about 750 miles from Phoenix, but at that moment I felt like any chance of reconciliation was a million miles away.

The Internet helped facilitate a reunion in 2009. Read about it HERE.


Rick Hoyt-McDaniels said...

Ken - Great piece. Thanks for the story.

tatlotu said...

God, this brings back memories. I went to Corona del Sol (Class of '86) so we were going to the same places and doing the same things and dealing with the same stuff around the same time. I have some wistful memories of that time and the music that we listened to. The good old days, a long time past.