I love movies. Many of the milestones in my life are, if not punctuated by, at least marked by movies. Like some people get tattoos to mark those milestones, I remember movies that I was watching, liked or still love. Yes, there are limits. For instance, I don’t mark things like graduation, college, the service, marriage and kids with movies as they stand alone. But I do remember, especially during that in between age, marking my growth by the movies I watched and the music I listened to.
They call them “tweens” now, which I hate. The name almost has some perverse sexual connation I can’t abide. I have kids that age now and they’re not “tween” anything. They’re just who they are at this moment regardless of their chronological age. And I find, looking back, that I was much the same. The label of an age did not have as much impact on me as most think. The teenage years were not the “golden years.” The “tween” years were not so full of wonder and magic as you see in movies. And my childhood years were no mythical kingdom unmolested by the weight of the world as so many Disney movies would have you believe. Don’t get me wrong, I was a happy kid. Based on some of the movies I’ve seen about childhood and adolescence, I had it easy. My parents weren’t scumbags. I wasn’t born into poverty nor the cold climes of affluence. I was a normal kid…Except for turning 13. I think I resisted this transition. Not because I wanted to or because of some trauma. I just don’t think I wanted to be a kid or a teenager. I know I would not have wanted to be a “tween.” I wanted to be the “Phantom of Paradise.”
This was 1979 and my mother had just divorced my step-father a few years ago. We had hung on to the business they owned and the (in my mind) huge house, but the money from my real dad’s death and the cohesion that kept the restaurant my mother and step-dad bought afloat, waned in the face of their split. Despite best intentions, the business flagged and they sold it. They subsequently sold the house and split the proceeds, and we moved into one of those townhouse communities that reminded me of some fungal growth on the underside of a town or city. “Cookie cutter” always seemed like some nicey-nice, real estate terminology to acknowledge the cloned appearance of these townhomes, but I always thought of them as an assembly line in a factory where the upwardly mobile and downwardly mobile were forced to cohabitate. There were a lot of latchkey and “broken home’ kids populating these colonies, and we all had a distinct odor of fear and anxiety. The newcomers, like me and my younger sister, had that fresh stain of tears on our cheeks and made easy targets for the jaded and cynical survivors anxious to relinquish their roles as newbs to us. My sister was spared this because she was eight years younger, had her real dad (who had been my surrogate until the divorce) and her grandparents to lean on. I had mom, and she was “lookin for love.”
So I was left to fend for myself at 13. Junior high looming like impending doom and high school a distant threat of storm-a-comin, I was lucky enough to make friends with a few kids right away. And doubly lucky that one of them had a tough, cigarette-smoking (and I suspected smoker of other substances), older brother who, though outwardly despising all of his younger sibling’s friends, still exuded enough aggression that most of the other, older high school kids left us alone, except for a few, rare incidences. Add to that, I was big enough (fat; let’s say it), but not completely ungainly and made it onto the junior high football team, which gave me a bit of credibility to keep the lamest of bullies at bay, but not enough so I missed that wonderful developmental stage of adolescence; bullying.
It was during this first move to the “crest” that my family was chosen to be a test family for Prism. For the uninitiated, Prism was the first incarnation that I can think of, of premium cable. For the geeks, like me, it’s the old, bolt-laden Ultraman that comes back from planet U37 when Ultraman chest light finally goes full-on red. Prism was Philly based, so it was Phillies, Flyers, 76ers and Eagles games half of the time, porn 25% of the time, and movies the rest of the time. Now, these were rated R, had swearing, sex, violence and nudity; all the things a growing 13 year old craves. The first movies I saw on this godsend of a channel were Ralph Bakshi’s “Wizards” and “The Phantom of Paradise.” Both had huge impacts on me, at the very least culturally, for the rest of my life. Now, some might point the heavy, wagging figure of blame and self-righteousness at my mother and call it neglect, but she was born and raised in the wilds of Ireland, and at the time our “world was more full of weeping than you can understand.” She just didn’t know we had Prism really, or what it was more accurately. She went upon her weary way every day trying to run a business on a sixth-grade, Irish education. Did a pretty good job too, if I remember. And the fault lies with me as I never told her (duh).
“The Phantom of Paradise” (let’s go TPOP cause that’s getting old to type every time) was a rip-off of the “Phantom of the Opera” ( I was going to go all POTO on you, but I doubt I’ll bring this up much), starring Paul Williams as the evil record producer, sucking the talent and souls out of the young and up and coming stars of the 70’s. Our “hero” (cause, c’mon, the guys a douche bag until he puts on the leather outfit and silver helmet), is a poor singer/songwriter who falls for a gorgeous ingénue (actress here). Unfortunately for the “hero,” PW has his eye on her and his songs and hilarity ensues.
I guess I just loved the whole revenge thing? I was coming into my own sexually, and thought the actress was angelic and wanted to save her too? And that frigging suit and cape was boss. I immediately identified with the “hero” and loved the music. Granted, my taste was pretty much confined to Beatles, Elvis and Blondie at the time, with some Who and Zeppelin growing on me, but the idea of a rock opera version of POTO, was almost too much for my brain to bear. I was rapt.
And it was after just one viewing of this, and believe me there were hundreds of opportunities for it to burrow like that worm thing in Wrath of Khan, into my brain, the idea hatched in my brain. I wanted to be a phantom. Who wouldn’t? But there’s a distinct line between wanting to be a character in a movie, as a young and impressionable 13-year old boy, and actually doing it. My mother had black satin sheets. I cringe at the thought of my mother every putting those sheets on her bed, and I never saw them, but there they were collecting dust in our linen closet. They called to me in the scarred whisper of the Phantom and the idea formed in my head. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford or find a silver motorcycle helmet, because life is unfair for 13-year old boys, but the sheets were a perfect cape. Along with my darkest clothes and a ski-mask, I transformed in the course of one night, when mom was working late, into the Phantom of Briarcrest.
Now, I didn’t want to hurt anyone, rob anyone, or otherwise fight crime. I had, frankly, no idea what a Phantom does when there is no damsel in distress or no immediate bad guy to protect her from. So I basically ran around the development like a lunatic, hiding behind trees and around the corners of the privacy-fenced courtyards of the townhouse community. I kept to the common areas (which were just fields of grass bordered on all sides by rows of homes), but had to stealthily scramble from one common area to another without getting caught. I did this late enough at night that my mother was not home yet, but not too late as to get caught, dressed like a freak, sneaking into the house. Such is the life of the bored and imaginative, latch-key kid.
It was on one of my “outings” that I first met Wade. Wade is the guy with the cooler older brother, and I neglected to properly introduce him, as he comes in where the Phantom went out. Apparently, his window overlooked the same common area mine did, and though, at the time, I had seen him enough to give the “guy nod” to, (“sup?”; “sup.”), I had never actually “met” Wade. So there I was, trying to haunt our little quad, and about the make the risky move from one to the other, when around the corner comes a blinding light! “What the hell’s goin on here?” the voice boomed, at which I fell on my ass and darn near peed my pants. “Er, nothing sir. I was just playing.” “Playing?” the voice responded, “what are you, some kinda retard?” “No,” I said, annoyed, but still petrified, ”I’m just messin around. Who are you?” “I’ll ask the questions here, freak” and there was a crack in the voice, and I at once recognized the smell of prank in the air. I stood up, and realized that despite the person holding the flashlight above their head, I was still taller than the light. I snatched it quickly from the hand. “Hey?!” a teenage voice said, “give it back.” I shined the light on Wade and immediately recognized him. Despite being annoyed I took his flashlight, he still had laughter in his eyes. “No. You’re ruining my stealth mode, dick.”
Wade laughed an infectious laugh that I would turn out to be my goal in life for the next year. We had a good laugh as I explained what I was doing, and he actually thought it was pretty cool, being a test kid for Prism himself, and also digging the movie.
There’s a certain camaraderie in entering adolescence, and I will always remember Wade for making the transition much more bearable for a new kid at the “crest.” We spent all that year as friends and into the summer, but then my family moved to another town where I would go to high school and lose touch with Wade. Before we left, though, I remember one last touch football game out in the quad on a cold autumn day that killed the Phantom forever. When we played touch football (often with a heavy hand), the rusher had to count to 10 before he could rush the quarterback, as there were so few of us there was no real “line” to speak of. I had always used “One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi…” until Wade made a remark, being irked that I had sacked him. “Only little kids say ‘Mississippi,’ douche. Say ‘one-one thousand.’” I stood there for a second, the breath coming out of me like a pale ghost ascending to the heavens and it hit me; we really weren’t “little” any more. Yeah, we weren’t big either, but we would never be “little” again. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three.