Note: This post is part of the Donna G Project. This is written to and for my boys.
My social life starts, ends, and centers on one thing: the Chief. So naturally, it is here where our story begins.
We met in 2nd grade. I remember running into his mother in the grocery store and her telling us that they were moving in around the corner. Chief was peeking out from behind her legs. Almost immediately, we become inseparable. We shared a bond of laughing, creativity, and food.
We shared so many fun times. Textbook kid memories. We would ride our bikes around the neighborhood and try and run over caterpillars in just the right way so their heads would spurt off. We would walk the entire length of Old Vestal Road to get to the Grand Union. I’d buy a box of Fruity Pebbles, he would buy Apple Jacks, we would walk home and eat both boxes in their entirety. We spent hours making comic books. I’d come up with entire superhero teams and awesome villians and then Chief would draw them. We’d staple the sheets of paper together and display them with pride in our rooms.
Or we’d just walk around the neighborhood and laugh. I don’t even know what about, but GOD would we laugh our faces off. We must have looked like drunken fools. I can even remember laughing about jokes kids had made behind my back about the way I said potato (“bu-day-duh”). Chief told me all about what they were saying and I laughed just the same. I guess nothing was funny to him unless we’d both laughed about it.
His parents were so incredibly welcoming to me. If I was there at 6:00, I’d sit right down to dinner without a second thought. Mrs. Flesher had a shelf in the laundry room reserved for clothes of mine that ended up in her laundry. We slept over at each other’s houses constantly. Whole weekends would go by where we were never apart.
This was my person. My guy.
Fast-forward to 10th grade.
As we entered our sophomore year, we found ourselves the two coolest kids in a group of choir singers, theatre club members, swimmers, and Risk players. As freshmen, our lockers were assigned alphabetically. But in 10th grade, we were allowed to choose our own spots. As Chief and I headed up to select our lockers, Bryan Brick called out to us.
“Hey – why don’t you guys put your lockers over here with us? You don’t want to be with those guys.”
And just like that, Chief and I had made a social leap. Bryan’s group was of higher social status than our current group. But beyond that, Bryan’s group had 2 distinct appeals:
- Bryan Brick was the toughest kid in our school. It made anyone in his group immune to any threat. All you had to do was invoke Bryan’s name and you were safe.
- Bryan Brick’s group included a pack of hot 9th grade girls. Girls who were farther along the scale than the girls we hung out with. They weren’t full-on sexually active, but they were headed in that direction a hell of a lot faster than the girls in our old crew.
So this became our social life. This was life with cool kids. Weekend nights were spent like this:
- We would gather at someone’s house
- Bryan would pick on the girls and they would giggle
- All the guys would maneuver around Bryan like his hyena pack, lunging for Bryan’s favor. Each seeking an opening to crack a joke at one of the other hyenas. If Bryan found your joke funny, he’d lead all the hyenas and hot girls in a laugh at the victim of your joke.
And while Chief and I were the coolest kids in our old group, we were at the bottom of this new group. We quickly joined the hyena battle – and both of us went after the weakest member of the pack: each other. It was a battle for who would be 2nd to last in the pecking order and who would be last.
The master stroke came when Chief drew caricatures of everyone in the group and presented it to Bryan. Bryan LOVED it. He taped it inside his locker and brought all the girls up to see it. Chief would stand by, basking in the glow. (I don’t have to tell you that Bryan’s caricature was huge and handsome. My caricature was dumpy and small.)
I tried to counter using my own special skills. I made up superhero identities and powers for everyone in the group. Bryan was The Smasher, with superhuman strength. It was awesome.
But Chief had me. I presented my work to Bryan, who liked the idea, but when I suggested that I was going to get Chief to draw them, Chief scoffed.
“I’m not drawing those,” he said like I was trying to hand him a dead fish.
With that, it was over. I was last hyena. I settled into the role of “good sport” and permanent butt of jokes for the group. I became sort of a jester and I pretended to like it.
But a few weeks later, an opening presented itself. After school, Chief and I were out with Bryan at the local Burger King. Bryan started poking fun at a group of girls in the next booth. After 10 minutes of flirting, we left and headed back to school to catch the late bus. At the far end of the parking lot, Bryan stopped.
“Think they’re still there?” he asked us.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged.
“Go find out,” he ordered Chief.
“What? Go back?” Chief asked.
“Yeah. Run back there and see if they’re still there,” Bryan commanded.
“OK!” Chief nodded and off he ran.
I stood there with Bryan, side by side. I saw that my moment had come.
“I can’t believe he agreed to do that,” I said. I snickered at Chief’s obedience and weakness. Bryan and me, we didn’t take orders. Bryan nodded along with me.
“I own him,” he snorted smugly.
I stood there next to him and I felt those words go right up my spine.
Maybe it was all the sleepovers. Maybe it was the way Chief’s family has treated me. Somewhere in me there was still a last shred of decency and self-respect. It rose up and shook me to my senses. In his nasaly, trumpety voice, Bryan Brick had just announced that he owned my best friend. Screw him. Screw this.
And that was the end. It was that easy. There was no confrontation. I never said anything to Bryan or anyone in the group. We didn’t stop being friends. I just drifted away. Just like that, I was out.
I rejoined my old group of friends and they took me back without a word. There was an empty locker over by them that didn’t lock, and I moved my stuff into it.
Weekends became fun again. We’d hang out and watch movies. We’d sleepover in someone’s basement and play Risk late into the night, drinking Jolt soda. We’d play manhunt at the playground or sneak out at night to play caraphobia. I went back to girls who were in the slow lane – which was the lane I was comfortable in. Everyone was nice to each other. When someone made a joke at your expense, the laughter made you feel accepted not put down. In short, it was a group of kids that made me feel good about myself.
I was done with Bryan Brick and the cool kids. And while it may have been a short-term loss in status, it turned out to be one of the best long-term decisions of my life. Because I’m sure you boys have figured out by now that the group of friends I’m talking about is the same group of friends you see all the time on camping trips and when we get together for the premiere of superhero movies. We have been groomsmen in each other’s weddings and godfathers to each other’s kids. Not a week goes by when we don’t talk to each other.
In fact…here’s a photo of us in high school. (Hmm…makes me think we might have been more popular if we dressed better.)
And here’s a photo of us 20 years later headed out on a camping trip.
When you’re in a diner and there’s that table in the back full of guys who are laughing so loud the whole restaurant can hear them? That’s was us then and it’s still us now.
And the Chief? What ever happened to him? I’ll answer that with some photos.
The first photo is Chief standing up as the best man in my wedding. The second photo is Chief getting married a few years later. I got to stand up and be his best man.
Chief didn’t last much longer as a cool kid. I think he probably went to one more dreadful hyena/hot chick gathering after I left the group. Within a week his stuff started showing up in my new locker. Soon he moved in full time and we spent the remainder of our sophomore year sharing a locker that didn’t lock – but we were used to being in each other’s space.
I guess Bryan Brick didn’t own him after all.
So…I’ll end with my advice to you boys on being popularity:
- If your goal is to be popular, you define yourself by other people’s opinion – which means you have no power over your own life.
- The coolest thing in the world is to be nice to people and to be yourself.
- Popular kids are boring. Don’t waste your time.
One thought on “On Popularity”
Thanks for reminding me how really cool you guys were and still are. It just takes a little while to feel comfortable in your own skin. Your boys are so fortunate to have you as a father. Linda Eichengreen