As I moved through the grades, I paid closer attention to the hippies and the beats, who were ten and twenty years older than I was. I still dug how they got along with each other and stuck their thumbs in the Establishment’s eye. Easy Rider. Harold and Maude. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Hollywood understood. What better excuse to misbehave than social parody as social consciousness? I wasn’t a hippie or a beatnik; I was a product of my own time, but I wasn’t sure what that meant. In the meantime, my chameleon color morphed into shoes with big heels and emerald-colored, felt, flared-leg slacks. Yes, I really wore a polyester shirt with a fantasy scene of birds, butterflies, and mysterious planets on the back as the Bee Gees emerged as a sound at school dances.
My friends were the kind I’d bring home. Every one of them snorted when told to run six miles. “An easy day,” we called it. Although I wasn’t the type to tell Murgatroyd to shut up or take on a dozen drugstore cowboys brandishing tire irons, my heroics were on the clay cross-country courses and the black all-weather tracks. My specialty was the two-mile run. I had my own plan to create a self-legend, so I trained relentlessly and won a bunch of races.
I became Timmy Two-Mile.
Sometimes my name appeared in newspapers and magazines. I cut those out and taped them into a scrapbook. As a teenager, I was determined to bring attention to the sport I loved and, by association, to myself. For decades, I imagined that in the event of a fire, the first thing I’d rescue would be that scrapbook. The attention and approbation made me significant; it meant that I mattered. Today, I’m chagrined that into my thirties, I’d valued that scrapbook as something that made me a more valuable person. Of course, today I realize that it was all only in my own mind the whole time, that others didn’t care if my name was in the newspaper or if I won medals or trophies and other accolades. I guess I knew that at some level; nobody was as impressed with me as I was with myself, and that greatly offended me. But the real problem wasn’t their lack of concern; it was my inability to accept the incredibly transient and stingy nature of people’s attention.
In the meantime, my cross-country brothers and I parked in the east mesa and drank Coors. No Electric Kool-Aid for us; distance runners drank beer as a cultural thing. We justified it by saying that we ran hard and played hard. So I drunkenly perched atop a Buick-sized quartz boulder and observed a light descending the massive, dark face of the Sandia Mountains. Was it a hot-air balloon, someone on horseback or hiking down the La Luz Trail? Why wasn’t it hitting any of the switchbacks? It’d soon reach the foothills and then could cross the mesa and get us. Could it be La Llorona, “the Weeping Woman”? She drowned her children to be with the man she loved, but he wouldn’t have her, so she drowned herself. Heaven wouldn’t take her without her children. So she wandered the earth, searching for children to kidnap, trapped between the living world and the spirit world. I didn’t believe in that ghost story. Still, I felt vulnerable because of the alleged poltergeist in my home at the time. I leaped off the boulder and raced to Antelope Legs’s 1964 Chevelle sedan, and he drove like an Unser boy.
Antelope Legs was the same dude with whom, at fourteen, I first got drunk on screwdrivers nipped from his dad’s liquor cabinet. It was his sister who pulled a knife on me when I pretended that I was going to kiss her (we found out many years later that her father was molesting her). We smoked Tiparillo cigars that we bought at the Circle K, which sometimes hid thugs against whom I later armed myself with steel. We spun doughnuts in the mesa in his car, raising so much dust that visibility was zero, only stopping when the engine caught on fire. I sat shotgun and played air violin to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Eldorado,” and we sneaked into the drive-in movie to catch The Stepford Wives and Young Frankenstein. Afterward, we toilet-papered the houses of people we liked and turned the sprinklers on that toilet paper at the homes of girls who wouldn’t dance with us. One night, we hit the wrong house. An irate neighbor stormed at us and shattered the car window with a rock, and we raced away, blasting through red lights. I’m glad it wasn’t Mr. Abbin hiding in ambush with a shotgun. Another time, Antelope Legs and I drag-raced down Tramway Road at 140 miles per hour in a track buddy’s souped-up pickup truck, blasting BTO’s “Not Fragile.” That pickup had a siren, so I sneaked out Dad’s flashlight with a red flashing light, and we pulled over cars on the freeway and then raced giddily away. Impersonating a police officer could be a felony with penalties of imprisonment up to five years, fines, probation, or a permanent criminal record. Or you could just get away with it. I’ve been in the cross hairs of a deer-hunting rifle when I was mistaken for Peacock Muscles’s big brother, and there were many other events that could’ve ended much worse for me. It makes me wonder about destiny and the concept that I was not only supposed to survive but to thrive. Did I get away with a lot so that I’d eventually offer something better to the world? It seems unfair that I got away with so much. Or maybe it was just my narcissism that figured I should get away with a lot because I had something better to offer than replicating my own cells, so I took stupid chances, and then plain, dumb luck rescued me.
I thought of our youthful hijinks as creating anecdotes because I still wanted to write. But I also knew that they enraged people (did we really run over mailboxes for no reason other than a giggle?), which made it dangerous and exciting, and it made me the kind of teenager I thought I should be. So, I periodically broke up with my girlfriend, who was a really nice girl, and I even took another girl to prom and then dumped her. I was playing with their emotions, which I now regret and feel shame about. I wish that I could undo it all; but no, now I have to live with it. I hope they don’t have to live with it just because I was a chameleon, and I’m sorry. At the time, I thought that being with more girls made me more attractive, and the prettier they were, well, that was a positive narcissistic reflection on me; it made me feel better about myself. Regardless of whom I hung out with, I always wondered how it made me look. I always wondered if there was someone else more popular or cooler or prettier whom I should approach to make myself look better by association. Would others think that I was as good as they were, that I was no longer a despised shithead? That’s another reason it seemed so important to me to wear that wild, teenage color and convince others that it was authentic. Obviously, I was the opposite of grounded, and more guidance from adults would’ve helped me, but realistically, knowing where my head was at the time, I wouldn’t have listened to them; they were old, after all, so how could they know what it was like to be a teenager? I knew that I sometimes did things that were illegal and morally wrong, but it felt so right to be risky, to be bad, and so much more powerful than the victimhood that’d I’d felt before finding my stride in junior high. In fact, I always thought that I should raise more hell than I ever actually did. We know that media role models do influence people to various degrees, and my influences were mostly great writers. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, would raise a cup of “Electric” Kool-Aid and some hell. Writer Charles Bukowski would raise a beer and quote himself: “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” And even F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald would do a martini toast. Remember, I watched myself in the third person and documented my behavior even as far back as sitting on the curb and scratching my initials into the hot tar.
As weird as it sounds, I knew even at the time that I’d grow weary of it all; I saw how older people behaved and assumed I’d become somewhat similar, just not exactly similar—you know, boring similar. What I didn’t know was that not everybody observed himself and others; not everybody was hyperaware that age crept up on us all, and life stages changed things as we raced toward the precipice. But writers did. This awareness at the time helped me lay down many rich memories simply because I paid attention, which was mindful, now that I think about it, and helpful, in a way, now that I wish to drag it all out again. I guess I was kind of strange or at least different. But I liked being different, providing it was a good kind of different.
So, we raced out of the mesa, away from La Llorona. But in the end, the real danger was drinking and driving, because La Llorona was really only the light of the distant tramcar gliding down its cable, a major tourist attraction for our city that we’d forgotten about in our rush to fear.
I’ve thought about that night over the years and how real our fear was, but how unreal the danger was. I wonder how much of our lives we waste fearing things that will never happen. It’s the uncertainty that gets to us. Then I wonder how often we compensate, how we hunker down, cover windows with aluminum foil, pretend strong, smile superficially, and spend our lives on the defensive, wearing masks for no real reason at all.