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Eighth Grade Enigma

Seeking relief from the utter domination I suffered not only at the hands of the women in my family (mother and two sisters) but also at school (for a time the only male teacher was Mr. Bishop); my friends at LeConte Junior High School offered me something that was, for that time, an underdeveloped yet definitely needed male outlet.  Though sometimes relating to other boys took some counterprogramming on my part.

For instance, I had to remember that football players wore uniforms, not ensembles, or that I should root for a team based solely on merit, and not on their color coordination (the Cincinnati Bengals’ new uniform was definitely a thumbs down from the ladies)…… or who had the “cutest” quarterback.

In Junior High School I had a few friends.  They came from differing backgrounds and also represented what I now think of as “friend archetypes.”  There was the Funny Friend (Robin), the Smart Friend (Gilberto, who we called Vein Brain), the Artistic Friend (Sok Jun), and then just the stable, good really; Best Friend (Enrique).

But all through the 7th Grade, there was never anyone I could look up to, unless you could count Commander McBragg from the Bullwinkle reruns I watched in the afternoons.  The kids were definitely all kids, with few, if any, adult impulses.  Smart kid that I WAS, I felt it would be nice to branch out.

Near the end of the 7th Grade I encountered a brand new archetype, the Enigmatic Friend.  This kind of friend, by his very definition, could never be the Best Friend (a little too distant, aloof); could never be the Funny Friend (I took his pronouncements a little too seriously for that).  He couldn’t draw but it was because he didn’t deign to.  That was cool (the only thing better than being able to draw was implying ability but choosing not to).  He was smart but it was an unquantifiable thing that to others may have made little sense, but to my 13-year-old brain was more a kind of genius.

This “enigma” friend turned out to be the perfect peer-role model for a young lad like me looking to squeeze out from under the feminine yoke.   I admired the adult sensibility and stability he seemed to exude, living as I was without a father or even an uncle.  Indeed in later years it was just the kind of personality I was most comfortable with.

Rory was like all of my other friends in that he did not participate in any gangs or clubs.  He instead lived by a “couldn’t be bothered” ethos that was to me a very attractive quality in a friend, especially going into the 8th Grade, when I knew that I too had finally figured out most of what I needed to know in the world.

And most importantly, it was something different.   He was a redheaded six foot two (easily the tallest kid in Junior High) lanky, laconic Irish kid. He had an adult type confidence that led him to the same place my extreme lack of confidence did; that is, to non-attachment to any of the cliques in the school.  We were floaters.  Perhaps that’s how we befriended each other one day in Mr. Kim’s class.

He didn’t have to struggle to fit in with the Surfers or the Nerds or the Preppies or the Tough Guys because he knew who he was, and was very OK with that.  We hung out in the few classes we had together and usually at lunch, when he’d scheduled himself to be around in my area (he always seemed to have a kind of pre-planned itinerary).  You’d never know, you’d see him some days or you wouldn’t.

Tolerant of my propensity to watch sitcoms like “Bosom Buddies “ or “It’s A Living,” he liked what was EASILY the best character in Buck Rogers (Hawk) and suggested I expand my palette by watching cool shows like Magnum PI and The Greatest American Hero.  Our water cooler conversations often involved debating the merits of TC again loaning Thomas money or whether Mr. Hinkley (they later changed his name after the Reagan shooting) was ever going to find his superhero manual.

Gently informing me that my clothes looked like they came from Pancho’s Give-Away (an LA-only public school reference and dis), I started to garb myself (funds permitting) in OP, Kennington and Britannica.  But I wisely resisted wearing the Vans checkerboard shoes; I wasn’t trying to be a surfer, after all.

Unlike any of my other friends, he was political too, he was into the IRA, the idea of Irish independence, and had several harsh comments for the Thatcher government.  He spoke about Irish Nationalism in a way that sounded like a history book, and I really loved history.  He felt that the death of Lord Mountbatten, though a tragedy, came from his being on the wrong side of Irish Freedom.  And though obviously not from Argentina, he called the Falklands the Malvinas Islands during the 1982 war and earnestly rooted for Britain’s comeuppance.

When it didn’t happen he was able to credibly explain the errors of the Argentine Navy and how it could have easily gone the other way.  He took stands that were on the opposite side of apathy and showed me that geopolitical dynamics could be informative and even cool.   He never got too upset over the big events of my LeConte years, the murder of Lennon, the shooting of Reagan.  His detachment gave him a vaguely worldly mien (though I knew he was from LA).

In class we joked around but we never got into trouble. He showed me a cool game called ‘asteroids’ that only required a piece of paper and 2 pens and we’d play during the numerous down times when the teacher was talking.  But again, he never gave me or anybody else too much or too little attention.  He’d sit in the back of the class (like me) but always got good grades (also like me). He was in my drama class and was picked to do some cool things and he was good, even appearing in the play we put on about the Wild West.  But he was never too impressed with what the class had to offer, while I tended to fret in the back row.

He was just free-lancing it and to anyone paying attention, he introduced the idea of effortlessness to the 8th Grade.  And I thought it was awesome.  Rory would present new ideas or suggestions with a “hey, check this out” that was compelling because he never told anybody they HAD to do something or THINK something, in order to be “with it.”  Holding a combination of ardent belief on some subjects and quiet noncommittalism on others only served to make the things he did say weirdly compelling.  Combine all this and you get an air of mystery that I fancied I too must have conveyed.  I never really knew why he was my friend because I never asked, and he and I didn’t talk about stuff like that either, which was always a relief.

We were baffled by the inherent dangers of our neighborhood and of LeConte Junior High itself;  but by keeping it cool we avoided drawing too much attention to ourselves without disappearing altogether down some cesspool of violence.

Rory was an entrepreneur but also the first slacker.  Both of these points may need some clarification.  Though I would sometimes inwardly question his entrepreneurism (he once got in trouble for attempting to sell 00 size gelatin capsules filled with powdered sugar to unsuspecting students), I later concluded the questioning was less about him and probably more about my own emerging disdain for moneymaking.  And he seemed a slacker but not the way people today might see it, he saw to it that he brought out minimal effort without all the drama, yielding the highest rewards.

We hung out several times outside of school, he came over to my street and we met outside; we went roller skating (2 wide not inline) with my sister on the Walk of Fame.  I never asked him to hang out all day because I imagined he had things to do.  One time we went to his street, the name of which even conveyed grown-upness to me, Camino Palmero, unlike mine, Yucca, which to me conveyed silliness (or a stomach illness). We ascended the hill right behind his street.

All the kids in Hollywood knew that when you started to walk up any hill, and anytime the elevation is going higher, that meant all the residents of said higher elevations were in fact celebrities (or, at least, they were in the Business).   The higher the height, the more the money and fame.  By that logic I supposed Spielberg and DePalma were on the very top.

We got a little higher, up a scrabbly trail, skirting fences and back yards, to where we actually had a little bit of a view down to Franklin.  We came upon a fence with a view of a really nice house.  Two dogs came out of nowhere and sprinted up to the other side of the fence, barking their heads off.  I was startled but Rory wasn’t worried.

“Don’t worry, we CAN’T get in trouble because this is Raymond Burr’s house, and as HE is in a wheelchair, HE can’t come out to report us for trespassing!”

“Oh, yeah that’s why he can’t walk in ‘Ironside’!”

Rory knew not only where all the celebrities lived but also apparently their limitations.

We skirted the Burr Estate and made it all the way to the top of the hill that day.

In the time I knew him we visited each other’s residences exactly once; kind of like a diplomatic exchange.  He came over first.  I was proud of The Lido, first because the “the” in it was capitalized so we knew it had to be an important building.  Also, several retired actors lived there.  But to me the best thing was that an old actor had been murdered upstairs a couple of years prior (not a floor I visited much).  This added intrigue to my storytelling.  And as a bonus, The Eagles (another credibility “The”) had taken a picture in our lobby that became the fold out photo inside the album “Hotel California”.  The front cover may have been another place, the Beverly Hills Hotel, but this was still pretty cool.

We headed up to my family’s apartment, on the way I pointed out the hardwood floors (mostly covered by carpet) and the really cool twisty stairway leading up, with its curved railing.  As I already knew Rory was a lot older than me (3 months) I knew he wouldn’t be interested in any stories about my little sister and I playing “war” (with rolled up socks) or of us running up and down the hallways at breakneck speed (I actually disassociated myself from brother-sister stories).

….Or that I still liked to go “rrrrrr” while slowly rolling my Hot Wheels cars down the stairway railing, or that I sometimes ran away from our elevator like it was the one in “The Shining.” I kept it professional, part Architectural Digest but with a little dash of National Enquirer thrown in (remember the upstairs guy).  I was relieved when neither my mom nor my sisters said anything that could have been a source of embarrassment for me later, though he’d probably never make light of it anyway.

Overall, Rory was not demonstratively attentive but I knew he was wordlessly impressed.

Sometime later I visited his place on Camino Palmero.  I liked the building already because, unlike mine, it didn’t have “cholitos” spray painted on the outside wall.  He had a balcony but we had a pool.  His building was new and on a nice street.  Plus it was right next to that hill we’d hiked up once.  My neighbors were retired actors but his were still in the biz!  Cool!  I said hello to his mom and tried to check out the tzochkes.   His family seemed to have no money but yet a lot of money at the same time.  There was no ostentatious display but also nothing there that looked like a commitment. Nothing really stood out, and to me this just appropriately added to the mystery of my friend in general.

Neither of our visits lasted long, it was honestly more of a meet and greet, and as I left his place I kind of wondered if he might have come away with the same impression of me as I did him.

That summer, attempting to glean some clue about him, I cracked open my 8th Grade Savant.  Far from the ubiquitous ‘have a bitchin’ summer K.I.T.’ Rory had written this: “Billy,  (and then, instead of words, just 4 wavy horizontal lines), Rory.”  Typical.

The next year we had a class or 2 together, he was starting to learn to surf; this was something I decided I wanted to learn too but I had to get in with a couple of his other friends.  His other friends were separated from me and even OTHER friends he had; in what we nowadays call “compartmentalization.”  We still occasionally played asteroids and busted on Mr. Cadorna but I saw him less and less.  And then suddenly, right after we “graduated” Junior High School, my family and I moved to Florida!

We fell out of touch right at that point and I never saw him again.

This story of an uncommon friendship had a pretty common ending (I was to find out years later); soon thereafter I moved on and made other friends.  But I noticed I always liked the people who did more with less, who just seemed capable yet aloof, people you couldn’t pin anything on.  Who gave off the vibe (as Rory did) of daring to do the things that I never would.

I’d found a new type of friend, and it was a type I’d seek out again and again with Erik in Florida, Stuart in New York, and Joe out in Seattle.

What became of him, you might wonder?   Well……I could tell you that after decades of being completely out of touch, I may, or I may not,  have gotten back in touch with him again.   You may wonder if, as an adult, he is now actually doing those things that I would never dream of?  Mmmm, who knows?  But if I was feeling really garrulous I might tell you that he is alive and well and that he bears more than a passing similarity to the famed Commander McBragg.

But you’ll never hear another word from me on this subject, about him, the kind of person he may or may not have grown into. Because, frankly, I still don’t know either.  And that is as it should be, for the main component of the “enigma” friend type is that there is a requirement of an element of mystery. Isn’t it better, really, that we just leave it at that?

1 reply
  1. Mary
    Mary says:

    Nicely written. I especially liked the last paragraph. It’s interesting to hear your thoughts about what it was like growing up with chicks. The male prospective…. Very interesting. Thankfully, we were not portrayed as Joan Crawford types, or “Baby Jane” (Betty Davis) types. Not yet anyway!
    Love you!


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