In the Year of Our Lord, Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty-Six, a grave wrong was visited upon a young man, fifteen years of age. Tall, slender, and pale, the young man had a hawkish nose and bright eyes. He didn’t smile easily or often, but it was worth the wait when he did, because each one was earned. The world was not always a kind place to the young man, since he was above average in intelligence and preferred comic books to sports. Though he was a talented baseball player, his crippling shyness made team tryouts a nonstarter, and most would still have called him nerd—otherwise known by its scientific nomenclature Dorkimus Maximus. And the world is no friend to nerds, as you shall see.
As a result, Dorkimus Maximi (plural) typically travel in packs known as Nerd Herds, which can often be found in long lines ahead of certain movie premiers, at conventions of similar variety, and of course comic book stores. Owing to their rejection by and persecution from the general populace, especially the athletically inclined or otherwise genetically favored of either gender, Nerd Herds are often skittish, insular, and rigidly territorial. They will usually situate themselves on the periphery of gatherings, with clear sightlines both to exits and clusters of pretty girls. The former for obvious reasons, and the latter in the hopes that a female that would otherwise be uninterested might be charmed by some overheard bit of clever repartee or hypnotized by the intensity of the Nerds’ desire.
These tactics virtually never work, of course, and on the rare occasion that they do, the presence of the female will often be a disruption to the cohesiveness of the Herd. The males tend to compete over her attention, which is ultimately the demise of the Herd, even if neither of them wins. And it’s worse if one of them does win. Nonetheless, the prolonged absence of the female can be just as harmful to the health of the Herd—testosterone and involuntary celibacy being what they are—if the group decides that one of its members is responsible for repelling females or otherwise damaging the group’s standing among existing social hierarchies, low as it may be.
At these times, the Herd behaves much like other groups in higher social strata, turning on their own and designating a scapegoat upon which to heap the blame, a lightning rod to absorb all of the self-loathing that society has taught Dorkimus Maximus to feel for himself and his kind. Within the Nerd Herd, this designee is usually the nerd’s nerd, and much like the ‘winner’ in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” they find themselves the victim of the group’s efforts at expiation in order to please some social deity who might look kindly on the propitiation of their sacrifice. Such was the cruel and unjust fate of the young man.
For although he was a bit awkward and ungainly, he was also without artifice or guile. He liked Star Wars, comic books, and Steven Spielberg movies. If he liked or disliked something or someone, he said so, and that was it. He took things and people at face value and would be friendly to anyone that was friendly to him. He was completely himself and was unburdened by ambitions to fit in anywhere other than where he naturally fit. Though there were many that seemed to be above his station in life, there were none that he deemed below him, and though his circle was small, he was a stalwart and true friend. His name was Tim Smith, and for no reason at all, I betrayed him.
I’ve been hearing a lot lately what a great memory I have. I never thought it was especially good myself until I started writing these ad hoc memoirs, spelunking deep in the recesses of dusty archives and discovering some true delights, and not just a few moments that made me cringe with regret. On average, a person remembers a total of about nine days per year. That’s 2.4% of your life, in case you’re wondering. I’m guessing that means I remember maybe thirteen days a year, or 3.6%, which is why people say I have a ‘good’ memory. I wish I could pick and choose what went into that measly 3.6%, because there’s a lot that I’d prefer to put in the trash bin for collection. Things I’ve done that are inexcusably, unequivocally wrong. Not talking about boosting GI Joe figures from Target here, or pilfering quarters from Mom’s purse to buy Slurpees and play Mario Bros. and Yie Ar Kung Fu down at the 7-11. No, I mean the truly dishonorable things that I’ll take to the grave with me.
I’ve discovered that memories are most easily retrieved from the foggy ruins of time when they’re attached to some sort of association, like a song or even a smell. Better still is when they are tagged with a particular emotion. It’s easy to remember when someone embarrassed me or made me angry. Exhilaration and fear are big ones, too. I have vivid snapshots of sitting at the top of a steep hill on my bike at six, mere moments before being hit by a car; of making serious attempts to gain superpowers by way of high voltage. Sharp memories of the first girl that I liked who liked me back, and the fluttering jolt of electrochemical love. A note taped to a cold door that didn’t open when I knocked, explaining why a different girl would not be spending Christmas with me. Of realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to stop in time and feeling the world slide into dreamy slow-motion, as I shouted an expletive before slamming the family Datsun 710 into the rear bumper of a Chrysler New Yorker at sixteen. Moments of absolute panic, when guns came out in anger, or when a ladder gave way and I went two stories down with it. And thousands more, all tagged with some emotion and filed away as important for some reason.
The memory of how we treated Tim is especially vivid because of the emotion it’s tagged with: shame. More than regret, shame attends the things that I’ve done wrong in life when I knew better ahead of time, and couldn’t blame it on being young or foolish. When there wasn’t a lesson to be learned or good that arose from the wrong that was done. That’s when having a good memory can be a double-edged sword. Because I perfectly remember standing up on the bridge between the Admin and History buildings at Long Beach Poly, looking down on the quad and seeing Tim standing at the flagpole, waiting for us at our usual meeting place. He was checking his watch, looking around in confusion because he didn’t know that we wouldn’t be coming that day, or ever again.
I first met Tim when I was a scared little pencil-necked honky at a rough inner-city school in Long Beach, CA. I was fresh from Naples, Italy and a very civilized DOD school run by the military, only to be dropped into the Darwinian Thunderdome of Washington Jr. High. By the time our paths crossed, my status as star-student and teacher’s pet had gotten me noticed by some pretty scary people, and I’d become a regular target for hazing and abuse. It was as I was taking the long way around campus, through service breezeways and behind buildings—instead of across the quad where I might run into Mike Connelly—that I walked past a group of four Dorkimus Maximi out by the athletic field who were talking about what turned out to be a mutual friend of ours, Matt Murdoch. All I had to do was hear that name come out of their mouths and I was arrested dead in my tracks. If these guys knew that guy, then they were all right with me. Out of simple relief and a sense of recognition of an island of my own kind amidst this sea of chaos, I butted right in on their conversation. Anyone who considered Matt Murdoch a friend was bound to be good people. My kind of people. Because Matt Murdoch is also known as Daredevil, the blind superhero and Patron Saint of lonely nerds everywhere. As Patron Saints go, you could do worse, believe me.
So I jumped right in with those four, and was welcomed with open arms. Tim Smith, Phillip Holliday, Mike Price, Stephen Abatay, and I formed a nerdly cadre that somehow navigated all the treacherous waters around us. Staying the night at each other’s houses for Star Wars trilogy marathons, trips to Richard Kyle books on Friday for new comics and Wester Bacon Cheese Burgers at Carl’s Jr, and using washers to trick dilapidated old pinball games into letting us play for free. We fought and backstabbed, we saw each other through California earthquakes, school violence, first forays into the world of girls, and the beginning of the end of our collective innocence. But eventually, the day came when none of that mattered. Because in the Year of Our Lord, Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty-Six, ‘ghosting’ may not yet have been a term, but it was absolutely a thing.
If you said it to a kid today, they’d know right away that you meant disappearing out of someone’s life without explanation by pressing the right series of buttons on a screen to delete, block, ban, or otherwise unfriend a person. The result being that the victim can’t see you on social media, their emails get delivered straight to the trash, their text messages dissolve into the ether, phone calls go straight to voicemail, and any message they leave is heard only by machines who instantly forget what was said. All without notice or fanfare, all unbeknownst to them. At the touch of a button, they simply fade away like a ghost. Kids these days and their rock n roll music. In my day, we didn’t have machines to do our dirty work. You had to be a coward the old-fashioned way. Right to someone’s face…except, you know, behind their back.
For all my vaunted memory, I wish I could recall the specific event that lead to our decision to “ghost” Tim. I’m certain that it centered around a girl, as every teenaged boy’s problems do. I can see a parade of faces from the myriad girls that I wished would have liked me the way that I liked them: Ylani, Julie, Norma, Juvy, Luz, Gloria, Anna, Rosie. The list is endless, because it’s made up of pretty much any girl that I’d ever exchanged more than ten words with outside of class. At some point, one of them approached me out on the quad for some reason—maybe socially, or more likely some help with school work—and got a gander of me in my native habitat, amongst my Nerd Herd. I could practically see the gears turning in her head as she reassessed her impression of me and beat feet for the hills. Unlike Tim, I wasn’t content to just be myself, to accept my station in life. So instead of disregarding someone like that for their shallow judgment of us (or me, specifically), I took it as a perilous loss of status that I couldn’t afford if I was ever going to escape exile in Dorkdom. That had to be somebody’s fault…
There is no measure for how absolutely desperate I was not to be labelled a nerd, dork, geek, spaz, egghead, poindexter, neo-maxie-zoom-dweebie loser. Not again. Not after the nightmare of Washington Jr. High and Gladiator Academy. No matter what, I couldn’t let that cling to me at another school. So over the next couple of weeks, as the dust began to settle on the initial chaos and uncertainty of our Sophomore year, and our reputation as the Dorks Who Met At The Flagpole was firming up into a fact, the wheels were turning as to who was to blame for that assignation and how we might shed the taint of their presence. Looking around, the group began to triangulate on Tim as the nerd’s nerd, a lightning rod to absorb all of the self-loathing that we’d been taught to feel for ourselves. Our scapegoat.
And like the scapegoat of old, we cast him into the wilderness alone to bear our shame, starting first thing one random Monday morning. No preamble, no explanation, we just stopped showing up. So, at fifteen, Tim went from having a group of faithful friends on one day, to having literally no friends at all the next. Poof! Ghosted. All because we were callow and stupid enough to believe that with him gone, our status would surely rise of its own accord. But of course it didn’t. Over a few short weeks it became clear that Tim’s absence hadn’t changed a blessed thing. How could it? After all, I still had the same off-brand fashion sense, goofy Donny Osmond haircut, dumbass sense of humor, and anorexic Gumby-like physique that I’d always had. Still, it was easier to imagine that Tim was somehow uncool, than to admit that I was. That, as a scrawny, sycophantic little know-it-all dork, I could repel girls just fine on my own, solely by virtue of my personality and appearance. That all things being equal, we were exactly where Darwinian forces would have us be in the social hierarchy. But rather than come to our senses and admit it, we stayed the course.
Of the four remaining members of our original Herd, only Mike Price had the humility and character to see that what we were doing was pointless and cruel. After a few days, he went and mended fences with Tim and made things right between them. That should have been enough to break the spell of self-delusion we were under, but rather than admit what shitty assholes we were, we doubled down on our assholery, finding ways to taunt Tim and flaunt our shunning of him. It was as if, by piling up enmity and derision on him, we could cover over our bizarre and inexcusable behavior. Looking back, I’m glad Tim had Mike to stand with him, because Mike was a big guy, strong as an ox, and he had a punch like a pile-driver. Not only did he teach our little pack of hyena-like cowards to keep a respectable distance, but he went on the offensive to get back at us in a variety cunning ways. Until that moment, Mike had kind of been the troublemaker of our group, the ruffian shoplifter and foul-mouthed oaf. But when the chips were down, and I was the villain instead, he was a loyal guy who stood up and did the right thing.
That year passed into the next as they are wont to do, and by then we were moving in different circles and mysteriously never had one class with Tim, or saw him in the halls, at the mall, or the movie theater. It was as if we were living in parallel dimensions, existing at the same time and place, but somehow removed and unaware of the other’s existence. We didn’t necessarily escape the dreaded label of nerd, or dork—or whatever it was we were so terrified of—but we did learn to live with it and accept ourselves and who were with a little bit of grace. Over the course of our High School career, we began to look back on what we’d done like it was from a fever dream, or something done by other people. Disassociated, as though it were too shameful to have been done by what were otherwise terrific guys like us.
Even after I’d graduated, I kept the story in my back pocket, carrying it with me everywhere I went. Every now and then, when I’d get into a deep conversation or truth-or-dare type of game—like you do when you’re of a certain age or have been drinking—and people would ask what the worst, most embarrassing thing I’d ever done was, the Ballad of Tim Smith always came to mind and then inevitably came tumbling haplessly out of my mouth. No matter what anyone else had to say, my story always topped theirs. I’d get these looks of shock or mild horror, as though they were reassessing me as someone capable of things that even an animal wouldn’t do. Well…not the cute ones anyway, like badgers and wolverines. To this day, my wife and closest friend all know the name Tim Smith. Such is level of remorse that I’ve felt ever since, that it’s become a permanent part of my biography.
Over the years, I added a couple of other whoppers to the resume of regret that I left in my wake. Things that, in spite of the years of drug addiction, small-time dealing, and money laundering etc., still stand out as the worst things I’ve ever done, and which make up a special trifecta of regret that I’ll take to my grave. Since I turned 40 (cliché as that is), I’ve been on a low-key mission to rebuild friendships and make amends—or at least apologies—for long-term sins, wrongs, and general douchebaggery that I engaged in over the course of my life. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would, because people are busy and our lives are complicated, and you can’t just show up on somebody’s doorstep out of nowhere and, apropos of nothing, blurt out how sorry you are for being a jerk.
What I couldn’t have guessed at the outset of my “mission,” was how pivotal these stories would turn out to be in helping me to connect with people. Not only resurrecting old friendships I thought were lost to the sands of time, but for creating opportunities to have conversations I would never have been able to even begin otherwise. Phillip and I got back in touch in 2012 and have dinner a couple of times a year these days. At some point during those long and boozy conversations, we inevitably return to Tim and the indelible sense of remorse that we’ve carried with us, always. I guess there are just some things in life you never get over. Still, the outcomes have otherwise been so gratifying that I started telling all the stories that I had in me. By way of all this bloviating, I’ve managed, incredibly, over the course of the last six years, to find redemption and even restoration with virtually all of my beloved old friends that I’d so grievously wronged. Everyone except Tim Smith.
That is until the morning of June 6th, 2018.
On that fine morning, an otherwise nondescript Wednesday, I checked the blog and noticed a spike of unusual activity in the analytics. I poked around and found that someone had left a new comment on a three year old story, “Whitey Sings the Blues.” The comment began this way: “Jerk, asshole, tormentor? Yes to all three.” I recognized my own words from that selfsame story being spit back at me in pain and discovered that they had been written by none other than Tim Smith himself. Through a series of unknown connections and coincidences, he’d somehow found the story—in which he is briefly mentioned by name—and left a lengthy reply. http://scratchedinthesand.blogspot.com/2015/01/whitey-sings-blues.html
In it, he confirmed all of the things I’d felt about myself for the past three decades and described in some detail the injury he’d suffered more than half our lifetime ago. It was exactly as painful an experience for him as I'd feared, and more besides. I read it over and over again, until it was like a silent bomb had gone off inside. When I finished picking my jaw up off the floor, I immediately reached out to Phillip, and so began many hours-worth of soul searching. Long discussions about what we should say and how to say it. Reminding each other of details we’d forgotten, debating the timeline and our motivations. More than a few tears were shed in fresh anguish, and yet somehow there was still this air of…possibility.
So I sat down and began writing the single-biggest apology I’ve ever owed in my life. Inflation adjusted for 1986.
“Whitey Sings the Blues” is a story about bullying, and about how even a Dorkimus Maximus like me had found people lower in the social hierarchy, and saw fit to keep the same shit I received rolling downhill to them. That being a victim of bullying doesn’t indemnify you from being a bully yourself. About how we find ways to pass on our pain, and that my regret for that is why I tell all these tales in the first place. The closing words of the story are these: “I write these rambling, oblique apologies for the way that I was; these huge love letters to friendship and days gone by; thank you notes to the Grace that has planted itself at the corners of my life as a bulwark against my own stupidity… Try not be too big of a dick, Whitey. It’s a helluva vig when it comes due.”
Well, after thirty-two years, the vig has indeed finally come due. But rather than an unpayable debt, it somehow feels like a gift. It’s hard to say where this will lead, because thirty-two years is a long time. A lot of years, a lot of miles, a lot of hard feelings. Still, difficult and candid conversations have begun between Tim, Phillip, and me at long last. Reflections on pain and rejection; meditations on the vulnerable, confusing years of high school, and how life has turned out for us in the wake of it all. Looking back on the best of times and the worst of time. And maybe a bit forward as well...so who knows?
Of this I’m certain, even an inch down Redemption Road is worth a million miles anywhere else.