May 20, 2007

A Blast (of Something Fetid) From the Past


“I hope this is the right number...I’m trying to reach the Jim Knipfel who used to live in Green Bay . . . ”

      The messages are always the same. Only the names and occupations change. The people who leave them all go to great lengths to remind me that we were great friends back in high school. Then they inform me that they’re coming to New York for a big dry cleaners conference, or to “have a face-to-face with a major distributor,” or some other such nonsense, and they figured that while they were in town it might be “fun” to get together and “reminisce about the good ol’ days.”

      These messages have been appearing on my answering machine with an unpleasant frequency in recent months. If I were to actually pick up the phone and speak with any of these people, I would have to ask them two very simple questions:

      “Who are you?” and “which ‘good ol’ days,’ exactly, are you referring to?”

      Because that’s the weird thing. I had friends in high school—not many, but a few—but they aren’t the ones who call. I’m hearing from old enemies. People who wanted nothing to do with me in high school, unless it was to harass me in some way.

      I have to wonder what these people are thinking. Do they have some kind of a problem? Aphasia, maybe, or early-onset Alzheimer’s? I may romanticize my childhood to a certain degree, but I am not so deluded that I have invented imaginary friendships with these people. I hated them in high school, and see no reason to change my mind on the subject a quarter century after the fact simply because they now happen to own and operate three successful barber shops in Waukesha. What do they think we would talk about—all those high-spirited times they knocked my books out of my hands or tried to cheat off my tests?

      Some years back, my parents forwarded along an invitation to my tenth class reunion. I had never gone to one before, and don’t intend to in the future—especially after looking at the list of classmates who couldn’t be located. The list consisted of most of the people I ever found even slightly interesting when I was in school. Way they were headed back in the early eighties, I have to assume they’re now either dead or in prison, so what would be the point of going?

      Unfortunately I haven’t always had such an easy choice when it came to dealing with former classmates.

      I was doing a radio call-in show in Wisconsin back in 1999 when a woman called in and introduced herself.

      “You probably don’t remember me from school,” she said.

      I had to admit I didn’t recognize the name, but that nasal buzzsaw voice was unmistakable.

      “Oh, yeah, I remember you,” I said—though I stopped myself out of sheer politeness from adding “you were that fat, stupid, arrogant bitch who always used to look down your nose at me, right?”

      It’s not, I should clarify here, that I have anything against these people nowadays. Carrying some kind of twenty-five year old grudge might well be taken as symptomatic of a deep and twisted psychological problem. No, the fact is for the most part they ignored me back then, and I ignored them. As much as I could, anyway. It was fairly simple, and I don’t see any reason now to complicate matters by pretending we had some sort of connection simply because we spent three uncomfortable years in the same building.

      People who cling to their high school years well into their forties have always made me sad. It’s a clear signal that they’re admitting to themselves that their lives haven’t become any more interesting since they were eighteen.

      So I ignore them now, same way I did then, and everything’s fine. I can’t even begin to imagine how unpleasant it would be to get together and try to pretend.

      “So . . . you’re an assistant project manager now, you say?”

      I don’t even want to think about what sorts of awful things might start coming out of my mouth after the fifth pint kicked in. That was a problem I ran into the one and only time I made the mistake of actually meeting up with a friend from high school. This was around 1990, shortly after I moved to New York. Seeing him for dinner was bad enough—but then as soon as he returned to Wisconsin—dig this—he called my folks and told them that I had a “drinking problem.”

      Yes, well. That’s what I get, I suppose.

      Now here comes the ironic part.

      A few days ago, I was listening to a couple of albums by that nineties punk rock sensation, Boris the Sprinkler. The band was fronted by a pointy, frenetic fellow known as “Reverend Norb.” The good reverend himself is a legendary figure in punk rock circles.

      I went to school with Norb from first grade through graduation, and while nowadays he’s considered mostly a goofball, a living cartoon, a machine gun encyclopedia of trashy pop cultural minutiae, I remember him as fairly quiet (at least until high school), and one of the most frighteningly brilliant people I’ve ever known. I still have no clue how he knew some of the things he knew. He intimidated me a bit that way, though through no fault of his own. He was also pretty much the only classmate for whom I had a real respect.

      We were never bestest buddies, Norb and me, but we were in a small school in a small town and we were both considered weirdo geeks. As a result, we traveled in a lot of the same circles. He introduced me to punk rock, and together with a mutual friend named Gary, he formed Green Bay’s first hardcore band, Suburban Mutilation (they were known as Public Nuisance before that, and The Rat Eaters before that, and The Rippers before that).

      He put out a remarkable little ‘zine called Sick Teen, and adopted the nom de plume Rev. Norb (or, more completely, The Reverend Norbert Elmo Ugly LXIX) while in high school.

      Unlike most people I went to school with, he did something interesting with himself after graduation. And unlike most people who got involved in punk rock back then, it really worked for Norb, and he’s still at it nowadays.

      So anyway, see, I’m listening to these Boris the Sprinkler albums. And what’s the first thing that comes to mind? “Gee—I haven’t talked to Norb in about ten years . . . I should send him a note and find out what he’s up to!”

      Fortunately, I was smart (or perhaps just sober) enough to stop myself.


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