“You don’t have to suffer to be a poet. Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.” John Ciardi
My last few trips to the village of Mendocino have coincided with the lunchtime release of the children from the high school on the hill—dozens of young ones wandering singly and in groups down into the miniature commercial district to buy food and drink and to escape the air of confinement and regimentation that is so antithetical to the spirit of the young.
Some of the kids wander as far as Big River Beach to smoke pot or sunbathe or commingle with scruffy older boys and girls, some of whom are homeless, some simply at loose ends as they haunt the beach and headlands, waiting for Godot. But most of the high school kids go straight to their chosen food sources—Mendocino Market & Deli (across the street from the post office), Harvest Market, Frankie’s, the bakery, Moody’s, Mendo Burgers—purchase their goodies and boomerang back to campus where they scarf their food and socialize until the bell tolls for them to resume what we hope is meaningful education but fear is mind-numbing incarceration.
Watching this lunchtime parade of teens often puts me in mind of my own time in high school (1963-1967), a death-defying adventure in communal insanity, the insanity of puberty in America and the desperate search for a workable way to survive the frightening world of our parents and their fellow adult imbeciles who seemed hell bent on destroying the planet before we had a chance to write a good song or get laid.
I think it must be the costumes the Mendocino teens are trying on these days that most remind me of my own high school experience—that search for the perfect apparel to capture the essence of who we hope to be. Look! Here are three lovely young women walking shoulder to shoulder, each clutching a cell phone—a full-blown hippy, a quintessential geek, a scantily clad prostitute.
Hippy: So is your mom picking you up after school today?
Prostitute: Yeah, I have to get my fucking braces tightened.
Geek: I totally hate dentists.
Hippy: Can I like…get a ride with you?
Prostitute: If there’s room in the car, but she’ll probably have my sister with her cello and my brother with his trumpet and probably the dogs.
Hippy: Forget it.
When I went to high school, girls were not allowed to wear pants or shorts or short skirts or lingerie or sexy stockings, nor would they have been allowed to wear belly shirts had such things existed in those days—all of which the Mendocino girls are fond of wearing. But girls in my day were allowed to wear long skirts and fanciful blouses, the myriad forms and combinations of which ultimately became the signature attire of female hippies. Indeed, the rebellion against boring and constrictive clothing was a large part of the creative expression that defined the Sixties; and if clothes make the person, then hippies were certainly made, at least in part, by their looser and more colorful clothes.
“Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find a face of his own.” Logan Pearsall Smith
When I was sixteen I was on the basketball and soccer teams, and I was also in plays and hung out with artists and musicians and poets, many of whom were among the first hippies, which meant I was a jock artist thespian hippy, though my standard mode of dress gave no hint of these affiliations. I wore blue jeans and mono-colored T-shirts and dirty white tennis shoes and a dull gray plasticized rain jacket; and I gave little thought to my appearance until one day I was having lunch with a bunch of gorgeously attired girls and boys of the artist musician poetry drama crowd, and Mona, who could (and often did) give me an erection with the merest glance, said, “Dear Mr. Odd, why so persistently dun? Wouldn’t you like to be just a little more peacock? Hmm? Please? For Mona’s happiness?”
Mona’s words struck deep (and that’s really how she talked, being one of the first truly gone potheads of my generation). I wanted to please her and I very much wanted to be more peacock than dun. Thus I was distracted for the rest of the day thinking about clothing, missed easy lay-ups during basketball practice, and was off my feed at supper, consuming a mere four thousand calories instead of my usual six thousand. I eschewed my homework for rummaging around in my closet, and finding nothing there I snuck into my parents’ bedroom and rummaged around in my father’s closet, something I had never done before.
To my surprise and amazement, at the end of a long line of conservative suits and ties, I came upon an old suede fawn-colored jacket with leather buttons and big pockets. I took it off the hanger, put it on, and felt embraced by angels. Wow! How had this amazing garment come to be among my father’s possessions, being so unlike anything I had ever seen my father wear?
“Hey, Dad?” I called, carrying my prize through the house. “Where are you?”
“He’s in the garage,” said my mother, transfixed by Perry Mason.
I opened the heavy gray door leading from the kitchen into the garage, a place of chaos and danger and probable tetanus where my father was standing amidst the rubble, soldering something.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, always more than a little afraid of him, “is this yours?”
He turned to me and his scowl gave way to a sheepish smile. “Oh, that old thing. That was my father’s smoking jacket. From the 1930’s. I had it cleaned, but…I never wore it. You want it?”
“Yes,” I said, wanting that jacket more than I had ever wanted anything since I’d wanted a bow and arrows (with real steel tips) when I was ten.
And the next day when I wore that old suede jacket over one of my father’s faintly pink dress shirts, I felt properly attired for the first time in my almost-an-adult life. I felt suave and creative and on my way to where I was supposed to be going, though I had no idea where that was. I felt strong and sexy and daring and unique, and less afraid than I usually felt. To my surprise, boys rather than the girls were the most overtly complimentary and envious, several asking me where I had purchased such a groovy thing, because they wanted one, too.
But the crowning moment came when I presented myself to Mona at lunch and she put down her Anais Nin (Delta of Venus) and took off her big red-framed glasses and wrapped her arms around me and gave me a phantasmagoric open-mouthed kiss and whispered, “Imagine such bed sheets.”
“I never expected to see the day when girls would get sunburned in the places they do now.” Will Rogers
Teenage boys need little (or nothing) to arouse them, sexually speaking. When I was in high school one of my greatest challenges was getting from one class to the next without revealing my persistent erection. This, I think, was the real purpose of binders, shields to be held over our midsections as we moved along the crowded halls to that next desk under which we could conceal our tumescence. For as I said, a mere glance from Mona, or from any number of other young lovelies, would render me brain dead and ready to procreate; and that was in an era when school rules severely restricted the amount of flesh a young woman’s outfit might reveal.
Today there are numerous young women patrolling the streets of our hamlet who, with only the slightest alterations to their ensembles, might easily be mistaken for escapees from a Victoria’s Secret bra and panties photo shoot, which displays of pulchritude, for an old fart like me, are simply wonderful to behold and make me smile and sigh, innocently, of course, in much the same way I smile and sigh when I espy an osprey winging by overhead with a fat fish clutched in her talons or when I catch a glimpse of a mint condition 1956 turquoise Thunderbird or…that sort of thing.
And for those teenaged boys who must survive their long and tedious high school days sitting and standing in such close proximity to such generous displays of so much luscious female flesh, my sympathies run as deep as the deep blue sea.
Tags: Adolescence, Anderson Valley Advertiser, costumes, high school, Inventing Ourselves, John Ciardi, Logan Pearsall Smith, Mendocino, poets, sex, suede jacket, suffering, Todd Walton, Under the Table Books, Will Rogers, youth