Wednesday, May 25, 2005

My Ghetto Fabulous '80s

Please note, this was written in 2005 and reposted here because it's become, well, relevant to my life again.


When I wrote about these long-lost friends, it opened the floodgates of memories of my sweet, budding adolescence. Also known as the 80s.


First things first. I was born in 1970, so I'm a true product of the '80s. My formative, teenage coming-of-age years were right in the middle of this wacky, complicated decade.

There was the ever-present threat of nuclear war.
The tainted Tylenol bottles. Chernobyl. And many more serious issues.

On the lighter side, we had the big bad hair. The leg warmers. The parachute pants.

But my life was not the stereotypical suburban mall experience popularized by Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Valley Girl. Instead, I grew up in the not so shiny 'hood, in a large city by the Bay. I lived in an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood. I relied on public transportation to take me to and from my crumbling public schools. I was also the child of a working class, single mother who had to put herself into hock just keeping a roof over our head, so lounging at the mall wasn't really part of my life.

Yes, I had a Duran Duran phase. Almost every pair of jeans I wore for a decade had zippers on the ankles. I admit I once wore pink polo shirts with the collars “up,” ass-high denim skirts, neon muscle shirts, stirrup pants, and other fashion abominations.

I remember Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street. And Sarah Jessica Parker as a Square Peg, long before she was having Sex in the City. And gangster rapper Ice T dissing the police long before he ever played one on TV.

When I think of the ‘80s, it all comes back through music. But not the synthesized modern rock or the jarring head-banging metal. I think of old-school rap, hip hop, and R&B. My first school dance exposed me to Prince and Little Red Corvette. I fell hard for Dean slow dancing and kissing to Purple Rain. And we later romanced to ballads like “Secret Lovers” from Atlantic Starr. At school dances, EPMD and NWA boomed in the background as a very mixed group of black, white, Asian, and Latino kids mingled and danced together. Songs like Morris Day and the Time’s “Jungle Love.” There was Whodini’s “Freaks come Out At Night” and “Friends.” Bands like The Sugar Hill Gang, Cameo, Zapp, Lisa Lisa, Prince. Doug E Fresh and his “6 Minutes” and "Lottie Dottie." And Run DMC. And Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. And LL Cool J. And Ice T, before he became a famous actor.

Then there were the cliques—which I've oversimplified here for the sake of illustration. The stoners, with their shearling-lined denim jackets and their black I-got-this-t-shirt-at-the-last-Ozzy-Poison-TwistedSister-ACDC-concert shirts. The cheerleaders in their matching school spirit. The drama crowd with their oddly colored hair. The preppies with their sperry topsiders and their rolled up jeans and polo shirts. The mods in their unusual combinations of vintage clothing. The athlete-gods that got so much preferential treatment by our school’s administration. The gangstas. The surfer-dudes in their Baja ponchos. You name it, we had it. And I had friends in all of those different cliques. which is a nice way of saying I didn’t quite fit in to any specific crowd.

This was also the height of the crack epidemic. There were drive-by shootings on the nightly news. There was gang violence a la "Colors." And huge disparities between the haves and have nots. Yet remarkably, our school was peaceful and cohesive. The kids and the cliques all co-mingled and co-existed, like kids should be able to do in a learning environment. Often at parties or after-school activities, you'd see street thugs and stoners and preppies and mods and athletes—all just chillin' together. Maybe it's because we were all just trying to figure it all out. Or maybe kids in the '80s were more innocent than kids today? Hell, maybe it was all the nicotene. (Yes, can you believe we had a designated smoking section—for minors—back in the day?)

I’m not saying it was chocolate and roses and everyone singing kumbayah. But violence—including today's breed of lone-gunman type school shootings—didn’t spill over into our schools the way it seems to today.

Another contrast with kids today—(I say “kids” like I’m a grandmother, don’t I?)—is the skinny epidemic affecting girls today. Back in the'80s, the benchmark for "thin" was someone around size 6-8, and at a size 10-ish I always felt a little heavy but not terribly large. The "really skinny" girls were a 3-5-7, and they were rare. But today, the ever-growing numbers of anorexic actresses are lowering the bar, and it seems like young people have no idea what a healthy weight is. The funny (or not so funny) thing is that the kids at my high school—even the hard-core thugs—would have been concerned about someone who looked like this and said “Feed that girl!” When I see the emaciated girls that populate my suburban neighbohood today, I realize that there are no more average-sized, healthy teenagers. And the few girls who are of a healthy weight (or even a little overweight) look downright gargantuan standing next to the anorexics. And that’s sad. Makes me wish I had appreciated my curvy, thick little teenage figure as much as the boys did.

Back in the ‘80s, I was a bit of a loudmouth. I know, you’re surprised to hear this. Even though I was a good student, I was sent to the Principal on more than one occasion for disturbing the classroom or mouthing off or passing notes or just being obnoxious. Even then, I was outspoken about my political opinions—but I was lucky that almost everyone I knew was liberal. I didn’t realize—until I got to college—that there were actually Repuglicans in the world.

I was also a bit of a free spirit. Which is a nice way of saying I was two steps away from being a juvenile delinquent. I was given a pretty loose leash by my mom and the man she was dating (now my step dad). I cut school often. Forged my mom's signature. Didn't have a curfew, or at least didn’t stick to one. I'd stay out until 4 am on weekends in my later teen years. I drank far too much than I should have given a family history of alcohol, and made a fool of myself on more than one occasion sobering up. I participated in some nefarious toilet paper incidents that I really do regret. I often went into a neighboring town with friends to sharpen our pool techniques. (One night in that same town, we were escorted to the city limits by the militrooper policemen who didn’t like us inner city hoodlums "kicking it" in their sleepy little enclave.) One of my male friends had a Honda moped and I often went with him on long rides along scenic ridgelines. Occasionally, he'd convince me it was “really liberating” to take my top off. In hindsight, I think he got a really nice show.

I could go on for days remembering the ‘80s, but I admit I’m having a hard time really describing it all. Maybe because it comes in fragments of memories so long ago forgotten. Or maybe because I’m a slacker and so much of the ‘80s has been carefully documented by the cultural anthropologists comic geniuses at I Love the 80s and I Love the 80s Strikes Back.

I’ve long since moved out of the ‘hood and into one of those swanky upscale suburbs that I used to mock and deride and resent so vehemently in my youth. As the child of a renter and a single mom, I never imagined I'd ever own a home, much less be a stay-at-home-mom and wife with a house in the 'burbs.

I guess a lot changes in 20 years.

I just can’t believe it’s been that long.

I'm, like, O-L-D, folks!


Twizzle said...

If you're O-L-D, then I'm frickin' ancient! I was born in 1964 and, while I remember all of the music and references that you mention, I also remember hearing the Doors on the radio when they were still coming out with new albums!

In 1970 I ran around naked in some community park in Isla Vista while some hippie -- who was supposed to be a camp counselor -- sat under a tree smoking pot. I remember tie-dye when it was a new concept.

We've come a long way, Baby!

Jen-Again said...

OK- we might be twins... I was also born in 70, I grew up in San Mateo (which sounds ALOT like your town) had the same 'friends from every group- didn't belong to any specific one myself' high school, only child of a single mom struggling to pay the rent. I met my Mr right a little later, but had a Dean and Max of my own back then. Loved your post, will be back to read again!

Pecos Blue said...

We are not so old, Duran Duran is still making music today--and I still think I can do Madonna's lucky star dance. Thank you for the flash back.

Jen-Again said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Beautiful Day said...

Thank you, THANK YOU on that trip down memory lane! I too remember mixing with all types of crowds- I didn't belong to any one group or stereotype either. The plastic bracelet mention reminded me of my fantastic giant neon green question mark earrings, which I'd wear with the Madonna bow headband and parachute pants. Fashion abominations, but back in the day I was certain I was da bomb.

I love your insight and honesty Kat - you need to write a novel.

chris said...

Ahh, you changed your blog. I like it.

And I'm really old too--December 1964.

I'd write more, but I have to fill out my AARP paperwork.