Sunday, September 4, 2011

Chapter 6 from 'Small Town Politics'

Chapter 6-Daydream Believer and a Homecoming Queen
I was sitting in Mrs. Baily’s Algebra class during a spring day in my Sophomore year of high school, trying to ignore that Alan Kleevack had a boner while standing in front of the class at the chalkboard. He tried to shift from leg to leg creatively, but everyone could see it.
Mrs. Baily however, seemed unaffected, she had probably seen this a million times and a teenager with a hard-on was probably nothing new or spectacular to her. She made him finish the problem, and then he came back to his seat at the desk behind me and tried to solve his other problem.
In my peripherals I could see him shifting and putting books in his lap. Everyone kept looking over at him while doing their work in a mix of awe and confusion. Fourteen is definitely a weird age, there’s just no getting around that.  However, watching him squirm just made me glad I wasn’t a boy. I only had emotional boners to deal with and those could be easily hidden.

The intercom came on and our principal called for the entire sophomore class to meet in the cafeteria to elect their homecoming court. I always hated being forced into being a joiner in things in our school. We had to mandatorily attend pep rallies every Friday afternoon of home football games and applaud the date rapist football players and the mentally unstable girls that cheered them on. We had to gather while the Student Body President droned on about all the great things we were going to do this school year, which oddly enough were the same things they said we were going to do last year, and now we had to elect the girls whose parents were rich enough to foot the bill for the floats in the annual Gulf Breeze Homecoming Parade downtown.
I decided to rebel against this public form of worshipping uncreative people and skipped the election of the Homecoming Court by ducking into the Library to read.

I was in the Library for about an hour when I saw everyone filing out of the cafeteria to go back to class. I jumped back into the flow of students undetected. But something had changed.
People were stealing glances at me and whispering, sometimes laughing or giggling. At first I thought it was just the standard run of the mill hazing I routinely received from the popular girls, but this was different…everyone was doing it.
“There’s Julee Levine, our beauty queen!” someone yelled.
I looked around but couldn’t figure out what that meant.
“What kind of dress are you going to wear?” Shannon Pennington whispered to me in a very weird snide voice as she passed by giggling with her friends.
I went into 6th period and took my seat. Biology, thank goodness, something normal. As I was working on a paper about cells, the intercom came on again. The principal wanted to announce this year’s Homecoming Court.
He announced the freshman girls first, “We are proud to present our Freshman homecoming court Angel King, Kiesha Knight and Michelle Dawson!”
No surprise there, they were poured from the same mold as the rest of them.
He continued, ”And now for our Sophomore Homecoming Court…” here he took an uncomfortable pause. As he did two of the cheerleaders behind me started to laugh, feigning to hold their hands over their mouths as if trying to stifle their laughter.

The principal sounded as if he was covered the mic with his hand and but we could hear his muffled words, “are you sure about this?,” that he asked someone in the room.
He returned, “Our ummm Sophmore Homecoming Court is Eloise Huddlston, Dawn Green and Julee Levine.”
Now, at first I thought that maybe everyone had seen my inner beauty and for about five glorious seconds I didn’t feel like a freak. Being the poor kid in a small affluent southern town is quite a burden to bear. I was always watching my dreams and hopes being lived out by other kids, by kids who lucked out and got rich parents, it had always been a huge burden to carry. For this moment I felt what it was like to feel light and airy. My cares fell and crashed onto the floor.
“This can’t be right,” the principal said again into a badly muffled microphone.
He was right, the three girls elected to the court were all like me. We were all poor, unpopular and treated as if we were ugly. That was why the girl yelled that I was her beauty queen and why the cheerleaders behind me giggled in anticipation. Eloise, Dawn and I were the butt of a hysterical joke pulled off by the entire Sophomore class.
I was glad at that moment that I had skipped the assembly, but now, the entire school had just been pulled into it through the principal’s voice on the intercom. And I was sure that Jim Goodfellow, the senior I had a crush on, would go from not noticing me, to noticing me because I was the girl that the Sophmore class played that joke on.
“Students,” said the principal. “We seem to have a mistake here and will re-elect the school’s homecoming court tomorrow. Please return to your classwork.”

The silence was deafening. I had nowhere to hide. I was exposed and alone out in the middle of the classroom with all the people who had been in on the joke. My teacher looked at me with pity and I just sat there staring at my desk trying not to cry. I hadn’t asked for this. It was not my fault that my mom was crazy and my dad was an alcoholic.  I didn’t sit up in heaven biding my time with the angels until I could be put into the belly of a schizophrenic, agoraphobic, alcoholic mommy who would mentally and physical abuse me…mmm sounds like a challenge, I’ll take one of those God.

I am still not sure how, but I managed to keep myself from dissolving and class went back to business as usual until the bell rang.
I walked the halls, went to my locker and rode the bus home in a daze. It was almost as if it was all too overwhelming and my emotions temporarily shut off. The comments, the random insults and pieces of paper that were thrown at me as I walked by seemed as if they were part of a movie that I was choosing not to watch. Maybe this was just the survivor instinct that kicked in from years of living with abusive parents; I had done it at home all the time. But, for the first time I had to use it at school. For the first time my school life was as painful as my home life. I had nowhere that was safe now.
I got home and my mom was sitting naked in an easyboy chair watching the Price is Right. She never wore clothes at home.
“How wzzz yer day Mizzz Julee?” She slurred, not moving her eyes from the TV.
“Good, I learned a lot,” I said, which was very far from a lie.
I got a bowl of cereal, half-heartedly did my homework, went for a run and went to bed. The normal thoughts that gave me comfort each night until I fell asleep weren’t working . I could not be distracted by my dreams this time; neither waking ones nor sleeping ones.

I woke up the next day and thought about the Homecoming Court incident. I started to feel bad for Eloise and Dawn too  because I knew just how they were feeling. No one should feel that way. I thought about all the high schools and all the popular girls who teased those that were victims of their circumstances and said shame on them in my head. I looked in the mirror to brush my hair and looked upon a pretty girl who just didn’t have the resources. I felt a little better.
At school the next day the principal announced the real homecoming court and it was all the “right” girls. The teasing continued for a bit, but everyone started getting swept up in the excitement of homecoming and forgot about me.
The night of homecoming I watched Night Flight on TBS and ate a whole box of Count Chocula while my parents drank in the living room. It may have been one of the most peaceful nights I had in a long time.

Over the next few months I made a point to look as good as I could for school. I just wanted to hold my head high.
Later that year I saw a sign on the bulletin board for the Miss Gulf Breeze Pageant. All the homecoming court girls were atwitter with the prospect of a real pageant and the sign-up sheet filled quickly. During the break between lunch and 4th period, I walked through the people in the hall, went to the bulletin board and in front of everyone, put my name on the list to be Miss Gulf Breeze.

This was a game changer in my high school life. Guys started to notice me and girls started to hate me. Before it was just typical, uncreative high school teasing. This was something different. I was confronted by the Homecoming Queens everywhere I went. They wanted to know who my sponsors were, where I was getting my dress, what was my talent. The looked at me as if they were entitled to answers, like I had stepped on their turf. I would just smile with my messed up teeth and say, I am still working on it, and walk away.

They gossiped about me, complained to pageant officials and parents ultimately got involved. They tried to convince the pageant board that I would be a disgrace to the Miss Gulf Breeze title, but to no avail. Anyone who was interested could compete, those were the rules.

During my time in Gulf Breeze, I had worked at a couple of buffet restaurants in the area and a lot of the older folks in town liked me. I liked them too. I had many friends that were on social security or owned their own businesses and just talked to me as if I were a normal kid, which I really appreciated.
These were the first people I asked to sponsor me. After getting enough money from my older friends to buy a nice dress, I started to work my way down the rest of my list. I had Mearle Norman sponsor my make-up, a local hairdresser sponsored my locks, a local shoe store sponsored my foot wear and so on. By the end I had about 42 local sponsors in a town of 30,000.
A week before the pageant, when I turned in my sponsor list, the officials had a meeting. Normally sponsors are parents or a local business, this was new to them. They ultimately had to create an extra page in the program to mention all my sponsors.
During the actual pageant, I showed up all ready to go since my hair and make-up had been done in the after noon by my sponsers and I watched all the girl’s mothers aggressively trying to make them look prettier. Everyone was nervous, argumentative and walked around practicing their answer or their talent.
I was calm. I was actually looking forward to the pageant. It seemed like a fun experience. When nothing is expected of you, you can’t really fail.
When we were all lined up on stage for the first time they announced my name. I started with the customary walk, making sure to keep good posture and a big smile. As I worked my way around the stage the announcer said who I was, what my hobbies were. Then he started to read who I was sponsored by. Well, no one had warned him about my list. We had been instructed to walk the stage and stay on our mark till he was done and my list seemed to go on forever. He took dramatic pauses and laughed nervously at a few points and I just stood there while he read, on and on. I stood still and smiled. I was enjoying that I had the support of so many people and that no matter how this turned out, the girls on that stage knew that it wasn’t just my parents or my daddy’s car dealership that believed in me, it was enough people to fill a whole page in the pageant program.

When the announcer was finally done, he announced the next girl’s name. It had seemed like she was only on the stage for a moment compared to the time my introduction took. That was enough for me, I already felt like I had won.
In the end I did place well in the pageant, but declined the title and let it go to the runner up. I would have to make personal appearances in malls, show up for radio remotes from the state fair and ride on the float at the annual Fourth of July parade. I knew my parent’s various mental illnesses and love of the scotch wouldn’t support that kind of schedule.
Those girls never made fun of me again. They still talked about me hatefully, but since I was a good student, not a slut and had kicked most of their assets in a silly beauty contest, there was really nothing for them to say. They shunned me, along with my Algebra teacher Mrs. Baily who was the cheerleading coach, and for the most part, kept out of my way for the rest of high school. Mrs. Baily is the only disappointing part of this paragraph. It’s disappointing when an adult can’t leave the high school mentality behind. But maybe they mentally stay there because that’s where they felt most powerful and accepted.
One of my sponsors, Mrs. Haven who was about 62-years-old, said that she had a friend who had a daughter that was on the pageant committee. She told me that she overheard this friend’s daughter saying that her daughter was denied a place on the court because I cheated by getting so many sponsors. Then this woman confronted Mrs. Haven about being a sponsor of mine and asked her how she could help “a girl like that”, meaning me.
“But Mrs. Haven,” I said as I cleared her buffet plates, “I defaulted to the runner up, her daughter didn’t place anyway. That had nothing to do with me,” I protested.
“Julee,” Mrs. Haven said in her thick southern accent, ”People always need someone to blame. It’s how they avoid takin’ a good look at themselves. And I tell you this, if they did take a better look at their own lives, this world just might be a better place. You did good darlin.’ I am proud of you, I will be your sponsor anytime.”
I remembered Mrs. Haven as I stood waiting to march in the 2010 Flag Day parade in Three Oaks.  I looked around at the massive amounts of campaign buttons, campaign t-shirts, campaign signs, beads with candidates’ names on them, flags with all the area candidates’ logos and the litany of volunteers that Proos, Upton, Pscholka and Tyler, the cat lady that was running against Cindy Ellis, had on location to pass out all this campaign paraphernalia. It made me think one thing, I’m gonna have to go get more sponsors.

Hurricane Mom

My siblings and I only feel true comfort, while watching hurricane coverage on The Weather Channel. As children living on a small peninsula on the Alabama, Florida border, a good hurricane somehow provided relief from the anxiety of our daily routine. It was one of the only things that could truly bring us together as a family. Maybe it’s because of all the emotional, financial and physical disasters our family endured, a good old-fashioned hurricane was one we truly couldn’t control.

We spent our childhood in a run-down house in Gulf Breeze, FL; part of an area now aptly tagged,  Redneck Riviera. We used to watch the weather reports anxiously from June 1 to November 30 hoping that a churning tropical storm would turn into a full blown hurricane. For my family a hurricane provided an odd hope. My dad said that if a hurricane destroyed our house we could get insurance money, and we could start over.

In 1985 our fixation of Hurricane season paid off when Hurricane Kate came to Thanksgiving dinner. I was in high school, but unable to flee my moms physical and emotional abuse because I was under 18, which my mother reminded me of every chance she had. She said that if I ever ran away the police would come find me and if I thought I had it bad before, when I got back, it would be worse. Makes one only imagine what she may have gone through herself as a child. But as Kate churned up into the gulf the alpha-female battle between my mom and I started to fade and we started making plans. Nothing brings people together like a common enemy, and that enemy was Kate.

Here we were, less than two weeks from Thanksgiving and a Hurricane threatened everything we owned.  And although we really didn’t have that much, the excitement felt good. We were now all a dither with taping up windows, making plans for our evacuation and trying to figure out what we would do with our three very large, and very unkempt standard poodles. An eccentric breed for a poor family, but what we lacked in money, we made up for in taste; or at least that's what my mother said.

Hurricane Kate got so powerful that we ended up having to evacuate to a hotel in Mobile, Alabama. We knew my dad couldn’t afford a hotel, but the police came and enforced a mandatory evacuation. I felt bad for my dad, but was eccstatic. Going to a hotel meant a pool, clean sheets and hot food. We loaded up the three dogs, five kids and two parents into our wood paneled station wagon and made the ninety minute drive over the bridge in Pensacola Bay in heavy traffic and driving rain. No family could have been happier than we were in that moment.

We drove and drove until we finally found a hotel with a vacancy. Score, a Holidome! We checked in, snuck the dogs into the room, got our swimsuits on and swam in the indoor pool. We felt rich; I had never been in an indoor pool before. I thought I was in Heaven. I made a mental note that if I ever got rich, I would have a pool in my house. I am still working on that one.

After dinner, which we ate in a real dining room with nice silverware and cloth napkins, we played with the other kids in the hotel. For the first time in a long time, we weren’t the poor kids; we were just kids and had a whole bunch of new hotel friends. Nothing levels the small town feudal system like a mandatory evacuation. We ran rampant through the halls with our new friends, assuredly annoying the adults who just wanted quiet in their rooms.

Mom sat in the lobby telling stories of the past to anyone who would listen and to the kids who would take a break to catch their breath. On normal days mom was agoraphobic, but she somehow managed this new found freedom by taking up residency in the lobby with a “what the h-e-double hockey sticks, my home may be destroyed tonight” attitude and held her Johnny Walker Red on the rocks high as she slurred each and every word.

Worn out with joy we stayed up all night watching the hotel TV, eating vending machine snacks and secretly hoping that the hurricane would barrel down on our little town destroying everything in its path. We fell asleep at some point in the middle of the night, all crammed into two queen beds with just the glow from the turning hurricane graphic on the news as our nightlight.

As morning light hit my eyes, I heard the low sound of the television anchorman talking about the devastation. As I came to I heard the words Panama City. Panama City! My stomach sank. Kate had missed us, Panama City was so lucky, they always get hit. There would be no hurricane devastation in our little town of Gulf Breeze, Florida; or at my home at 111 Norwich Drive.

Slowly, the sickening realization came that we would have to go back to reality today. And that our house would be there, waiting; waiting with its smell, its mice and its despair. There would be no more tropical depression, just the run of the mill, standard depression that hung over our house like the cloud in a Paxil commercial. There would be no starting over; no insurance money. Our problems would be there waiting for us, tapping their feet anxiously as we pulled into the drive. And with the liquor wearing off, we were in for a hellacious morning with the folks.

Oh well I sighed hopefully, there’s always next Hurricane season.