State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
So I get a message from my pal Eddie. Our high school reunion is coming up in October. Did I get the e-mail announcement? No, I did not. I’m sure it was an oversight. Do I wanna go? Yes. Yes I do. Let’s do this. We’ll drive across the desert, to Arizona of all places. Phoenix. Arcadia High School? Jeff Wing is coming home, biatches. JEFF WING WILL BE IN DA HOUSEYPOO, BABY! (is that how one makes that exclamation?…) The head of Pinrail for the best g*******d high school production of Oklahoma EVER? He’s a-headin’ your way!
I read Eddie’s e-mail message again, this time with soap operatic depth of feeling. High School! HIGH SCHOOL, I SAY! The old gang! Fast Times at Baskin Robbins! The crazed, hormonal flirtation with madness and danger! The unbridled recitation of Monty Python skits by lamplight at a downtown business park in the wee hours! THE WILD YEARS! Memories may be beautiful. And yet—
I look slowly away from my computer screen, my slightly crossed eyes clouded by a faraway look as muted violins swell in the background. I gaze unblinking into the swirling recesses of my past, fall headlong into that deep Proustian reverie whose reward is self-knowledge, and, in one memorable instance, 3000 pages of navel-gazing launched by a cookie dipped in tea.
Here comes my own grand mal dream sequence, filmed through a tasteful scrim of edge-softening Vaseline. High school is, as a Victorian writer with a terrible comb-over once wrote, both the best and worst of times. But I think it’s more useful to think of it as a lump of ore from which a kid can extract all the precious metals one needs.
Zippers, Puka, Tetracycline
What was I in high school? A winning smartass beloved by teachers and admin alike for my good-natured, happy-go-lucky wit and insouciance? No. A panting parking lot Romeo with sleeve-challenging biceps, sideburns like decals and a crotch-centric swagger? [Um…wait, I got this] NO. Captain of the football team? I was more likely to become the school’s Principal than its Football Captain. Was I one of the strutting, slow motion Campus Coolios with feathered-back hair and a big ol’ plastic Clairol comb sticking stylishly out of the back pocket of my tiny cutoffs? Nope.
I was a singular figure. An acne-riddled scarecrow with a lopsided ‘fro and bad case of interiority, I would stumble into first period biology every day having evidently been dressed by Miss Helen Keller. Add to that fashion plate the thin limbs and torso of Gumby [and something of his castrata vocal pitch], and a head made large by a fuzzy storm cloud of curls like rice noodles exploding out of hot oil.
But I found exaltation at Arcadia High School, and my bearings. I was a “Theater Geek” to use the charitable term. I loved the theater, loved drawing, loved writing — I was enamored of any practice or discipline that promised future penury, a humanities freak headed for that welcoming iceberg at full speed. I appeared in the play Picnic, William Inge’s psychologically complex small town drama about a guy with a pencil neck and the beefy sex yeti who steals his gal. Guess which role I played. I did get to kiss the girl; Arcadia High School’s lovely Claire Zinser, but in front of an audience, which one night included my mom and sister. Over the course of three performances I nearly lost my lunch thrice anxiously anticipating that fleeting lip-lock under the proscenium. In front of all those people!
Mostly I worked tech crew in Arcadia’s productions. I was one of the Morlocks in the wings making all the stuff work so the attractive and magnetic kids on stage could move about with confidence. I was striking sets during the blackout between scenes, helping to run the light board or oversee the props, and at my high school musical zenith, I was managing fellow theater outcasts on the elevated catwalk, stage left, called the Pinrail — the thicket of weighted ropes and pulleys whose coordinated manipulation result in huge sets dropped whisperingly down onto the stage from the upper shadows of the auditorium’s loft.
My crowning high school glory was not a broad-shouldered, tide-turning intercepted pass during the state championship ball game, but the flying in of frontier scenery in Arcadia High School’s no-holds-barred production of Oklahoma!, the show that in its debut on Broadway in 1943 reinvented the stage musical, and in its Arcadia H.S. incarnation reinvented me.
The History of Mystery
The high school musical! The vibe of that time can be recalled with almost knee-weakening force. Our production of Oklahoma! would open with a lone, brilliant spot on the tall and lanky future power attorney Rod Jarvis, dressed on this occasion in his cowboy duds, standing on the stage apron and singing like an angel to the darkened house of hushed grown-ups and the cast members’ little brothers and sisters. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” Rod’s opening number stunned me with wonder every night.
Meanwhile, under my confident supervision the Pinrail crew seamlessly managed Oklahoma’s gazillion set changes without a hitch, these blushing, conversationally stilted theater kids taking my cues and hauling rope like stevedores. Most significantly, my future songwriting partner and best friend, Eddie Baum, another tech crew denizen and a full time eccentric with frizzy blond problem hair to equal my own, could be found every spare minute during rehearsals playing the shit out of the upright piano in the darkened Arcadia High School orchestra pit. That production, those evenings, all the scurrying backstage, and love and terror and colored stage lights and the oddball pianist in the pit. It was a happy crucible
Ed was and is a piece of work. At the local diner we would group-frequent, Ed would order a bowl of whipped cream and a knife, and on its delivery would boggle the waiter by applying the former to his face and shaving it off with the latter. Eddie and I fell in together during Oklahoma!, found a common rainbow whose pot of gold is the laptop on which I’m presently tapping past deadline. I’d been writing short stories for years, and under the spell of another gifted chum named Pete, a precocious and brilliant teen poet, I’d begun to dabble in verse, too. Eddie and I became lifelong buddies and songwriters and travelers. And we could harmonically whistle “The History of Mystery” by Deutsch electro-rockers Triumvirat like nobody’s business. We’ll show you sometime.
I entered Arcadia H.S. a terrified and unfocused sophomore transfer student from Boulder, and left it an artist in waiting. In between, I ate more Hostess products for lunch than should be legal, I terrified my chronically hoarse Driver’s Ed teacher, poor Mr. Amerson, by attempting a left turn on a red light, I developed a mad crush on Carol Crutchfield (who literally struck me dumb by addressing me directly in health class once), shot endless night-hoop with the wise, funny, and huge-hearted giant Tim Kern (RIP), laughed asses off with the charmingly bashful Rich Fahy, marveled at the cheeky innocence and artistry of Dan Seibert, and got to know and love Eddie’s quietly complex little brother Dave. Earnest, lovable and wise Jeff Witzeman prayed with me in his VW van, Bill Huff taught me the meaning of laid back cool, and the absolutely inimitable (and possibly inter-dimensional) Hoyt Carter taught me that life is not a box of chocolates, but a vibrantly weird, shape-shifting parallelogram. It was Hoyt who handed me the phone that night my little brother’s life was hijacked by a car wreck. I learned the earthbound limits of faith and love.
A Bright Golden Haze
Tim is gone now. He married an amazing and beautiful brainiac/athlete, moved to Seattle and raised two gorgeous daughters, and one day a couple years ago sat down at his work and didn’t get up again. Tim’s sudden leave-taking put a heartbreaking fine point on that chapter. The whole H.S. epoch seems longer ago now than the Trojan War. Did all that really happen? How do unformed kids become fully formed adults? And how on Earth did Hostess come up with so many variations on the Twinkie?
That was then, and always will be. But this is Now. Dear conflicted High School kids. Whatever you are going through now, pay close attention to these days, hours and moments. Your face is going to change, your hair is going to change, the way you walk will change, the things that dominate your hourly thinking; it’s all gonna change. It gets weird. Houses, cars, promises to keep, and file cabinets stuffed to the gills with absolute gibberish. The hours, days, months and years fly away and seem to take something with them.
But that’s an illusion. You will always be you, tethered to that kid you vaguely recall. Kiddos, your future daydream of a magical and many-splendored teen past is your clarion High School Present Moment. Stare hard. Hang onto these days as you would a talisman— a good luck charm.
The talisman I periodically drag out and stare at is that internal film clip of tall teen songbird Rod Jarvis warbling his heart out in a darkened high school auditorium a million years ago. There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow. And that’s all there is to it.