Here in my car I feel safest of all: I can lock all my doors; it’s the only way to live.

When Joyce married Jerome in 1980, we got a slew of new step-cousins that we knew just about as well as the cousins that were blood relations.   Most of the new cousins lived in the Anamoose/Harvey/Fessenden area of ND. Jerome had 3 living sisters and they all had kids. One sister lived with her husband on a dairy farm with their six kids. Their oldest were four daughters right around the age of Tonia and me: Bea was 2 years older than me, Ella was a year older. Essie was right between us and Tee was a year younger than Tonia.  The sons were Ron and Ken, one Sean’s age and one 2 years younger. 

When we’d visit Jerome’s sister on the dairy farm, Ella, Essie, and Tee would take us out with them on their weekend activities. The big thing to do in Harvey at that time was to get in your car and ‘Drag Main.’ The main street in Harvey, actually NOT named Main Street, is literally 4 blocks long with a little park to turn around in at the north end and a nice wide avenue to make a U-turn on at the other.

To ‘Drag Main,’ you and a group of friends load up in a car and head to the street which has been designated as the main drag. As the sun goes down, you drive slowly up and down this road, sometimes stopping in the middle of the street to have a conversation with a group of friends in another car. These middle-of-the-street conversations are usually short; just long enough to either say ‘hey’ or ask where the party is, or agree to meet at a certain location along the drag to have a longer chat. The people in the cars honk and shout at the people who have no cars and can only walk or ride bikes to Drag Main. Each clique has its own designated hangout spot, so you don’t just drive up and down all night; you can go to your group’s spot and sit or lean on car hoods and tailgates as you chat, gossip, smoke, and/or make out. The point is to see and be seen. If it’s a lucky night, there’s someone at a secret location selling booze and there’s word of a party somewhere that everyone can retire to once they’ve been seen on Main.

Bea had gotten married the same year Joyce and Jerome had, so she no longer Dragged Main. But Ella had inherited her car: a ‘69 Buick Lesabre, 4-doored and tan, a gargantuan land-yacht Jerome’s brother-in-law had bought at an auction and passed from kid-to-kid as they learned to drive. Since the car didn’t have a single owner and the kids had plenty of cows to name, the car had no name other than The Buick. The Buick could carry Ella, Essie, Tee, Tonia, and me, as well as the girls’ three best friends in warm comfort. It guzzled gas, so everyone was required to put in $5 for the privilege of Draggin Main in its warm tan interior.

I think I went to Drag Main in Harvey twice, but I was not impressed. I thought maybe it was because I knew absolutely no one we stopped to talk to and was far too shy to strike up friendships on the spot. The car was pulled over so people, especially boys, could meet Tonia and talk to Ella, but not for anyone to talk to me or Essie. Essie and I were both outshone by our sisters who were beautiful, extroverted, and friendly. Still, Essie had friends she would find and take off with, while I was just bored, driving up and down four blocks all evening. I finally just stayed at the farm reading my step-grandmother’s true crime and true romance magazines while the other girls went out Draggin Main.

I guess Dragging Main is an honored, age-old ritual in rural towns across the US, where there’s nothing to do if you’re still too young to get into a bar and there’s no hangout for teens.  In Minot, it was called ‘Cruisin Broadway’, because Broadway is the main road through Minot, running about 4 miles long–although the course for Cruising is only about 2.5 miles. I had a friend named Sandra and we made hazy plans to hang out one night. She didn’t have a car, but I had my old reliable John Lemmon. When Sue, Trish, and I picked Sandra up and asked what she wanted to do, she wanted to Cruise Broadway. I made about 2 passes and left her with some friends at the Town and Country Shopping Center parking lot, while me, Trish and Sue made our way to the Skatium. I’d found Cruisin Broadway in Minot to be just as boring as Draggin Main in Harvey, but more nerve-wracking, because I was the driver and too busy concentrating on the road to pay attention to honks and hollers from other cars and parking lots.

My skinny, sun-burned, stringy-haired little sister Tonia had grown into a beautiful and fashionable teenager when she’d lived alone with Joyce and Jerome. When we started high school in Minot, Tonia tried to drag me along into fashionable beauty. She taught me how to put on makeup and style my hair, although I refused to dye it or cut off the length. She helped me pick out fashionable spectacles and took me shopping for clothes and shoes and taught me how to walk in heels. Tonia had excellent taste–she should’ve been born into more money. 

But I could never learn to walk in high heels without straps, so lots of my heels ended up on Tonia’s side of the closet. She was also more bosomy and curvier than I was, so her pastel ruffled shirts overwhelmed me and hid what little chest I had, while pants that clung to Tonia in all the right places kind of collapsed and laid in wrinkles on me. I also wasn’t fond of the 80s pastels or the hot pink and turquoise that Tonia favored. So we developed my own style, because Tonia wasn’t going to let me go back to my T-shirts and flannels and become a high-school outcast. 

I tended toward fewer ruffles and shoulder pads, instead liking metallic threads and shiny fabrics. Tonia wore mini skirts while I wore midi skirts. She wore pedal-pushers and lots of slouchy socks, while I wore unadorned slacks that were long and sleek and required heels to keep the hems from dragging–only my heels weren’t stilettos and they were always secure on my feet. (I STILL can’t walk in strapless heels.) Tonia wore dainty strappy and strapless heels  and wedges while I wore high-heeled western boots with leggings. She had colorful pink, purple and blue makeup and I wore browns and golds and coppers. She taught me to feather my hair but I refused to wear lip gloss.

North Dakota is absolutely frigid in the winter, with ice and snow on the ground from October to April, pretty much the entire school year. Does that mean high school and college girls in North Dakota wear sensible winter boots, coats, and snowpants to school and work? NEVER. You may find those in the back seats of our cars, in the bottom of our bags, or stuffed in the bottoms of our lockers. What we do instead is learn to negotiate ice in heels and ignore the cold on our legs and feet. It’s crazy, but one should never choose comfort over style. At least not until one realizes comfort matters more and there’s really no graceful way to fall on ice. It also hurts. 

I started 11th grade the same year Tonia started 9th grade. She was already very beautiful and made sure I was as fashionable as she could make me. We rode the city bus to school together. She got off at Central Campus and I transferred to another bus to continue to Magic City Campus. The bus was not a fun place to be. The ‘cool’ girls at the back of the bus called Tonia names and bullied her until she lost her outgoing personality and came up front to sit with me, Nancy, and Babette, and be protected by me. 

I had ‘bus friends’: a group of us ‘not-cool’ kids who knew we weren’t cool and weren’t bothered by it. We gladly sat up front to stay away from the kids in the back, the ‘heads’ and jocks who loved to remind us that we weren’t cool and generally make our lives miserable. I particularly remember two sets of siblings, sisters Katie and Kristie, and brothers Mark and Mike. When Tonia joined me, Nancy, and Babette up front, that made 4 sets of siblings riding together for protection in a foursquare of seats. Tonia was the only one of us who’d had a chance to be one of the popular kids–until she got too pretty and too confident and got her arm broken for her trouble. 

Riding the bus to school in the mornings was a cold and dark experience, but at least everyone got a seat. Since we rode City buses that were open to public riders, afternoon rides home could get crowded and we spent a lot of rides home standing in the aisle, swaying without a hand hold and waiting for a seat up front to clear. My bus friends and I would sit 4 to a seat rather than take an empty seat in the back or a single seat alone away from our group. 

It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint why some kids are considered cool in high school and others are not. Sometimes money or looks can be the deciding factor but sometimes poor kids got admission to the in crowd, sometimes people with unconventional looks were admitted. A person could become an outcast for stupid things like being too short or too quiet (me) or too tall (Nancy) or too talkative (Babette).  Mark was very tall, very thin, very smart, and very effeminate, so he was outcast. I think his brother Mike could’ve gotten into a group higher up on the coolness scale than the outcasts, but he refused to hang with people who wouldn’t hang with his brother. Tonia had been in a higher clique but was shoved down. 

Katie and Kristie’s parents were short, stout, plain-looking people and Kristie looked like them. That was enough to cast her out. Poor Katie had inherited the worst features of both of her parents, along with bad eyesight leading to spectacles and bad teeth leading to braces. She also won the recessive gene lottery and got bright red hair and a full face of freckles and was the same height as me. Katie was one of the nicest and smartest people I’ve ever known and she was bullied relentlessly for her looks. 

There were other outcasts that sat near us on the bus and there were seating tiers that were strictly adhered to: at the front of the bus were us outcasts. Behind us were the regular kids, a mix of several cliques made up of those that weren’t ‘too’: not too smart or too dumb or too ugly or too pretty or too athletic or too graceless. Next came the eggheads, the really smart people who were above caring where they sat and so got used as a demarcation line between the regular kids and the popular kids: the jocks and homecoming royalty, the elite and beautiful people. At the back of the bus were the ‘heads: ‘bad’ kids who smoked and drank and did drugs and broke rules. They needed to be at the back so they could do their thing away from the driver, and the popular kids weren’t afraid of them. 

Each clique was allowed to pick on any group seated in front of them, but you weren’t allowed to pick on groups behind you and thus higher in the social hierarchy. These unofficial seating charts and unspoken rules led to a movie moment on our bus one afternoon. It was a sunny day with warm temperatures and the after school bus was somewhat crowded. Tonia, Nancy, Babette, and I were crowded into one seat–we were all pretty thin and could manage if one of us sat with their feet in the aisle. Across the aisle from us, Mark, Mike and Kristie were sharing a seat. But because Mike was broad shouldered and Kristie was chubby, Katie couldn’t fit on the seat so she was standing in the aisle between the two seats. Kristie and I had ended up on the end of the seats with our feet in the aisle, facing Katie. 

The kids in the back decided to take offense at Katie’s existence. They started making nasty comments about her hair and freckles, her specs and braces, her height and weight. Katie had learned long ago to ignore these assholes and was doing that, talking to Kristie and me. Until someone scooped up a handful of muddy slush from the floor and threw it into her hair. She refused to turn around or acknowledge them, but I saw her eyes filling up with tears. My trigger is injustice and it outraged me that my smart, gentle friend had been brought to tears by a bunch of assholes who didn’t possess half the humanity Katie did. 

I leaped to my feet and shouted to the back of the bus, “What the hell is your problem? You need to pick on someone who has never done a single thing to you? Knock it off, assholes.”  A voice shouted back, “Mind your own business or I’ll come up there and shut your mouth!” I said one word: “Come.” The voice said, “Come get me.” I rolled my eyes. “You said you were coming up here. Whatsamatter? Afraid?” Some dude in the back stood up, saying, “You aren’t big enough to back up your mouth.”

Mark stood up and said, “I’m big enough.” The bus driver started yelling at everyone to sit down and shut up. Kristie flipped him off and stood up beside me, as Mark, Nancy, Tonia, and Babette all stood up and faced the back of the bus. Katie turned around to face the bullies in the back. The kids in the seats nearest the eight of us stood up and turned around. My heart soared and I tried not to laugh–a movie cliche was playing out right here on our bus! The same thought must have occurred to all the standing outcasts, because no one looked scared. We all looked kinda happy. And maybe a little hopeful? We all stood there in silence looking at the bullies in the back of the bus. 

The dude sat down.  The bus was silent. 

Then the bus driver started grumbling: “All right, all right; you made your point. Everyone sit down now.”

I gave Katie my seat and squished in with the people in the seat behind her. All the outcasts sat down. 

And we were never bullied again.

HA! Of course the bullying continued. One instance of the outcasts breaking the social rules didn’t change anything really. Except no one ever threw mud at any of us again.

The Minot City public/school buses also were responsible for me getting high the first time in my life. We got really bad weather and school was canceled in the middle of the day. City bus service was also canceled, stranding students who didn’t have their own cars or parents who could come pick them up. In the rush and madness of leaving school, I found myself alone, unable to find Nancy, Sue, Trish, or even Sandra. I was standing in the locker bay, wondering what to do, when Vickie and her friends came strolling by on their way to the parking lot. 

Vickie and her friends were part of the group of ‘heads that rode in the back of the bus. We weren’t friends, but we weren’t enemies either. We were just in different social castes. Bad weather makes interesting friends. Vicki asked me if I had a ride home. I did not. She said her older brother was coming to pick them up and they could give me a ride if I wanted. I accepted.

As soon as we got in the car, Vickie’s brother lit up a joint and started passing it around. They offered me a hit and I told them thanks, but I didn’t smoke. They were more than happy to have my share. It was like another movie moment: the car was so full of pot smoke, I didn’t know how the brother could see out to drive.  It was like sitting inside a hookah. I was stoned by the time I got home.  That’s how I discovered weed relaxes me to the point of falling asleep.

Burt the flirt rode the bus with us. He was one of the ‘not too’ kids and if we ended up sitting close enough to each other, he’d pick up one of my feet and examine my shoes. Burt was already closing in on 6 feet at seventeen. I think my size 4 shoes amazed him. He’d joke that it took two mouse-skins to make a pair of shoes for me. His favorite shoes were my favorite too: a pair of leather high-heeled clogs. They fit perfectly under my pant hems, making my legs look longer and adding a whole three inches to my height. Burt claimed that since only the uppers were leather and the soles were wood, only one mouse skin was needed to make the pair. 

Burt got off the bus before our stop; in fact, Tonia, Nancy, Babette, and I were usually the last kids left on the bus at the end of the day. But Nancy got  pregnant and got married in December and didn’t come back to school, and Babette got a boyfriend and started riding home from school in his car. That left Tonia and I getting off the bus alone one day in late winter. The bus driver dropped us at the mailboxes so we could check the mail and drove off. We made our way carefully to the mailbox; I was wearing my favorite ‘one-mouse’ clogs, so I was more stable on the frozen slush ruts near the mailboxes than Tonia was in her strappy stiletto heels.

As Tonia and I walked from the mailbox, a tan older model car drove past us very slowly. It continued to move toward the main road and I noticed it because it was moving so slowly. It turned around in the vet parking lot and came back toward us, making the turn onto our street about the same time Tonia and I did. It stopped a few feet ahead of us and as we passed it, the driver beckoned us over. The window on the passenger side, nearest us, was rolled down. I thought the driver must be lost; it was too cold to be driving with the window down and he was driving at a snail’s pace.

We stepped closer to the car, expecting to tell the driver to go back out the way he’d been going and he’d hit the main road that would eventually take him to Broadway. But before I got to within an arm’s length of the passenger door, I stopped because I could see inside the car and my brain couldn’t parse what I was seeing. I heard Tonia gasp behind me and felt her back away, trying to pull me with her. But I was rooted to the spot with a hiccuping brain.

The man in the car was young, and probably an airman, judging by his haircut. He was wearing a tan ‘Members Only’-type jacket and jeans that were unzipped and pushed down to his knees. He had one hand on the wheel and his other hand was in his lap, holding something that took far too long for me to figure out what it was. When my brain finally rebooted, I stepped backwards, away from the car and the man growled at me to get in the car. Instead, I whirled around and started running for home. I caught up to Tonia in just a few steps; she was floundering, trying to run on the ice in her skinny-heeled shoes. As I ran past, I put my arm around her waist and she put her arm around mine. Four-legged, we propped each other up as we slipped and slid home, not daring to look back to see if we were being followed. At the door of our house–which was hidden from the road–I had another movie moment as Tonia fumbled with her key and jittered it all around the lock before finally finding the keyhole. We got inside, slammed and locked the lean-to door, slammed and locked the house door and shouted for Bonnie and the boys to turn off the lights and close the curtains.

Tonia called Joyce at work and Joyce said to call the police and she and Jerome were coming home immediately. The police and the parents arrived at roughly the same time. The whole family went down to the police station where Tonia and I gave statements and individually described the creep to an officer with an identikit, then together improved the sketch of the perpetrator. The sketch was released on that evening’s news with a plea to identify the man who exposed himself to two minors. I assure you he did more than ‘expose himself.’

There was a breakdown in communication at the cop shop when we were asked to describe the car. Neither Tonia nor I were gearheads. I usually have no idea what type of car I’m looking at. Today I can identify maybe five cars at a glance: the Ford Mustang, the iconic muscle car born the same year I was; the Dodge SuperBee, because that’s what ran over Tonia; the Delorean, the time-traveling car from Back to the Future; the VW Bug, that’s what Herbie the LoveBug is/was; and the ’67 Chevy Impala, because that’s Dean Winchester’s Baby. When asked to describe the car, I looked at my parents and told them the car was light colored; it looked like The Buick.

And this is why you should name your car. I was referencing my step-cousins Ella and Essie’s car, The Buick. My parents and the cops heard me say the creep was driving a Buick. All I meant was it looked similar to Ella and Essie’s car, but then I was asked what model of Buick, what year. If I’d said the car looked like John Lemmon, my family and friends would’ve understood it looked like a yellow 1976 AMC Hornet, and I could have clarified that it wasn’t a Hornet, or it wasn’t yellow. But if I said it looked like an AMC, this suggests some knowledge of cars and questions of model and year follow. Once I said ‘Buick’, the creep’s car was a Buick and there was nothing I could say to change that perception.

ANYway. 

The man was never caught. We never were accosted like that again. I was once again accused of panicking even though Tonia took off running first. Jerome bought me John Lemmon and we never rode the city bus again. 

So the moral of the story is: Name your car. Every car I’ve owned ever since has had a name: John Lemmon, Shoebox, Angie, BabyCar, Myra, POS, MaryKay, Svoo, Grandpa, Edna, Hazel, B’ruQ, Valkris…

Or maybe the moral of the story is: don’t wear ridiculous shoes in the snow.

Actually, the moral of the story is: WTAF, men? Control yourselves and your penii. Seriously. Why ARE men, anyway?

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