One of my best moves in showing up to a new elementary school (something I had done seven or eight times by sixth grade) was challenging the cool kids to smoke a cigarette or some other deviant act. It was a tactic that delivered numerous strategic benefits. Would-be bullies are taken off their game by upping the antisocial ante in such a bold fashion. It also created an aura of potential danger that was next to impossible to achieve when you are the smallest kid in class and wear fairly thick glasses to boot. Oddly enough, I found an adult equivalent decades later in “intellectual” gamesmanship and binge drinking.
I was lucky this year because I knew a couple of guys from the hockey league that played across school boundaries where I had developed into a pretty solid center for a number of different teams as I moved from hood to hood to hood. They were jocks and delinquents, so it turned out well for me on both fronts given my own predilections. The one wrinkle was the Gifted & Talented class I attended to address my “behavior” problems, but I would find a way out of that soon enough in yet another biting off of my crooked nose to spite my slightly skewed face.
Mom moved with Abby and Jon to a suburb of Denver named Edgewater to live in an apartment at my grandma’s complex. I stayed behind for some reason when pops moved into the house on I Street as his third marriage ended in divorce. The room I shared with my sister was all mine now, and dad was in the room next door where we looted fifteen grand the summer before. Our exploits had taken on legendary status by then and I started sixth grade as well positioned as I ever would be to achieve the popularity that alluded me in all the years to come no matter how hard I towed the company line. No matter how many peers I allowed to pressure me into bad ideas with unpredictable outcomes and dire consequences.
What I remember most about the first half of sixth grade was notching up experimentation with mind-altering substances with my small group of friends. In and around the neighborhoods surrounding Inlet View Elementary School, we took every liberty we could with the freedom we enjoyed. It started off huffing gas or rubber cement and playing video games in one friend’s basement and moved to smoking the weed I stole from my dad’s stash in the living room closet. When not partaking in youthful indulgences, we would devour the city streets on our bicycles or tear it up on the skating rinks at the school once the weather turned cold.
Hockey remains the lingering counterpoint to everything that was cool about growing up in Alaska. Pick-up games were the best I could do that year since mom had left for Colorado and my dad never could afford the season fees and mom wasn’t around to pick up the bill. I remember one particular game where our fearsome foursome broke into pairs and played head-to-head for the better part of three hours. The match ended when I stepped on a puck during a fast break and went careening into the boards head-first sans helmet. I can close my eyes and still see the stars the exploded as a result of that collision. Proof positive of my hard head.
Halfway through an awesome school year that found its culmination in two popular Talent Show acts – one mimicking Joan Jett & The Blackhearts “I love rock and roll” as an air guitarist on a plywood axe and the other an “Ebony & Ivory” duet with the one black kid in school – my dad got fucked up one night and sent my life shooting off in a new direction. If I remember the sequence of events correctly, the old man went on an epic bender that found him in the hospital and his now ex-wife calling me to report his location when she was woken at 3am by the police who responded to his exploits. The way I heard it, dad spent the day downing gin and tonics at his favorite bar up the street from our house before passing out inside a car that wasn’t his own. For some reason, the owner of the car beat him senseless instead of simply pulling him out and left him in the parking lot for retrieval by the proper authorities.
The upshot for me was leaving the safe confines of downtown Anchorage for the wild, wild west of the Denver suburbs. I still don’t know what happened that last half of sixth grade in a brand new school ripe with possibilities and still high off a great start to the year in Anchorage. Abby had been at Edgewater Elementary for most of the year and had settled in with a new crowd, so it should have been a no brainer for me to hit the ground running. Instead, I ended up in the loser role without knowing how or why. The first symptom of my new status was my own fault, actually, as I thought an old-school leather briefcase mom found in a second-hand store would be a cool way to tote my extensive collection of (stolen) colored pens and pencils even though I rarely drew on the mostly empty sketchpad tucked inside with (stolen) candy and more illicit fare. If my Edgar Allen Poe satchel wasn’t a hit, my new habit of raising my hand to answer whatever question the teacher asked was even less popular.
Despite my entrepreneurial efforts at selling Atomic Fireballs, Jolly Ranchers and Lucky Strikes, I must have been corrupted by the Gifted & Talented program, because I displayed my brains in a way I never had before and met disastrous results in return. It would be a long time before I allowed myself to be smart again. The rest of the school year was spent getting my ass kicked on a fairly frequent basis before I pleaded with my mom as summer started to send me back to Alaska to live with my newly-mended father in his newly-acquired apartment. She eventually relented but it wouldn’t be long before I was back in Denver to hang out with the same kids who tortured me and step up my deviant game in all kinds of dangerous new ways.