In the 1970s, my divorced dad struggled to make a living as a writer in New York. Luckily, there was rent control for our sprawling classic six-room apartment on the Upper West Side, just two blocks from Zabar’s and H&H Bagels, where he reared my younger brother and me. Luckily, Dad was charming and savvy enough to figure out how to wrangle scholarships for us at The Best Schools. And luckily, in 1979, a diet book he co-wrote would become a New York Times best-seller, affording us the opportunity to move back to our ancestral homelands, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Where we’d have a house! And clean air! And our own rooms!
Even those seductive amenities weren’t enough to convince my 11-year-old self that there would be anything positive about moving away from everything I knew—my friends, my library, even my mother— but still, there we went one August afternoon, in a 22-foot Ryder truck packed with the contents of our old life, straight into the sun setting over New Jersey to our new one.
Our cousins, who lived more than an hour away and went to a completely different school, could provide no social buffering. We knew nobody other than the very warm real estate agent named Penny, who took care of us for a few days when my dad went into Seattle to buy furniture. On our second or third day in our sprawling home overlooking Hood Canal, I dug out a ceramic dish from our kitchen box, picked apples from the tree out back, borrowed sugar from a neighbor, and made an apple pie that turned out to be delicious. My dad loved to tell that story well into my adulthood, for whatever reasons he had; I think about it as a line of demarcation. The point where I stopped becoming a confident, fierce and creatively unbound girl, and became a creature I can only describe as relentlessly unsure, moody, and lost. Like the kind of dog that doesn’t stop sniffing to find its owner, only the owner has died in a war overseas and will never come back.
“Just be yourself, everyone will love you!” my dad told me to help ease my apprehension on the first day of seventh grade in my new, very rural, very small school, which was bordered by cow pastures. On “fertilizer days,” the overwhelming, acrid fumes of manure would keep me indoors, begging off recess, but even walls and windows weren’t enough to keep the stink out.
Clearly, I wasn’t like the others, and nobody liked me as just being myself—I didn’t particularly like this version of me either. My New York school had a uniform, and getting dressed now was like a game of chance—my outfits seemed random, each piece clearly unrelated to any other. I carefully studied the effortless style of Melissa Thacker and Catherine Trafton in their painter’s pants and Nikes and sweet pastel tops, and ordered the closest selections possible from the J.C. Penny catalog (any kind of clothes shopping was a two-hour trip that included a ferry ride) but of course, didn’t come close to how those girls looked. I aspired to Katrina Sullivan’s Farrah Fawcett-style feathered hair. When I’d finally convinced dad to take me to the Hair Port in the nearest town, I described what I wanted to the elderly woman hairdresser, who managed to basically cut one horizontal shelf of hair that curled all the way back on each side of my very wavy auburn mane. No soft, cascading feathers like Katrina, who was half Japanese with very long, straight black tresses. I’d learned too late I went to the wrong salon, and there was no way my dad would pay for a do-over somewhere else. Not like you could fix it anyway.
But beyond the hair and clothes, I was “the girl from New York.” I was separate, a curiosity. I was smart in a school that seemed to value everything but that. I was teased relentlessly by class clowns—who managed to have a willing audience for their cruelty, amplifying my mortification with each reference to anything that was possibly different or wrong or changing on me (I’m thinking specifically, in English, when one of our vocabulary words was “gnarled” and Mike Poole leaned over to me and said, “you have some gnarled titties.” I froze, in shame of my 28AAs, and for the rest of the year wore huge T-shirts to mask any sign of a budding bust. Another time, a kid started teasing me about living with my dad, and I blurted out, “My mom’s dead!” just to make him shut up and feel bad. She is still very much alive, mind you.) After a while, I was allowed in with a tight pack of “nice girls,” who were also smart, but you’d hardly call any of us popular. We were outside, together.
I survived, somehow.
And then, in 1983, when I was a freshman, David Bowie came out with the album, Let’s Dance, which electrified my little, rainy, po-dunk world. By that time I was in high school with those same kids. The song itself became a kind of anthem, a call to action, a freeing of the soul. It didn’t matter, really, who was a jock or a geek or in trouble or drunk or just acting drunk or a virgin or newly pregnant. It didn’t matter if you lived in a cold tin trailer at the side of a creek, or in a house with a view and cathedral ceilings in a subdivision. We just went out there in the middle of the commons, surrounded by lockers, and danced, wildly, together and separately. That song belonged to all of us.
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues
To the song they're playin' on the radio
While color lights up your face
Sway through the crowd to an empty space
China Girl sounded naughty and sexy and menacing in a way I couldn’t clearly identify. I learned from this song that by singing something so dark and specific, you bring it to the light, you give it life. Even now, to anyone who might be around, I’ll quickly put my index finger to their lips during the “shhhhhhhh” part, which I always hope will be a hilarious kind of pressure-release valve to the inherent scariness of the song.
I stumble into town just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
Plans for everyone
It's in the whites of my eyes
Modern Love, the perfect pop song, mirrored my contradictory self, a girl neither belonging to city nor country, a straight-A student prone to drinking beer in cars with inappropriate companions, a girl so attached to her dad, and so easily enraged by him.
(Modern love) walks beside me
(Modern love) walks on by
(Modern love) gets me to the church on time
(Church on time) terrifies me
(Church on time) makes me party
(Church on time) puts my trust in God and man
(God and man) no confessions
(God and man) no religion
(God and man) don't believe in modern love
David Bowie was the first person who made me realize that I could be different, and it might be OK. Better than, OK, actually. Cool. A man in makeup and a body stocking with the most on-point hair possible was absolutely 100 percent his own freaky self. He’d somehow smashed through some normcore barrier, and brought me along with him. I got what I thought would be a good “New Wave” ‘do, the right side cut short, gradually angling across my back, to long hair on the left side. Once again, I had the absolute wrong kind of hair for such a cut, but I didn’t care. I rocked it big. I tried out for the our school’s production of The Pajama Game and beat out the girl most likely to get the lead, a senior with a sweet singing voice named RaeAnn, who got cast in the chorus and after that tried to kill me via death vision every chance she got. I didn’t care. I bought a gold pleather miniskirt and wore it everywhere I went. Bowie had ushered in a sanctioning of shininess and stars and lasers and I embraced them all.
By my junior year, it wasn’t working out with my dad. He didn’t trust me and became overly strict about my comings and goings, so I went to New York for Christmas break and didn’t come back. I moved in with my mother, enrolled in high school, met a boy a year older, and by my senior year, the boyfriend and I were living together in a small apartment in New Jersey, eking out a living working in a bakery after school. We were so young and optimistic and in no way thought this a terrible idea.
I also didn’t fit into this new school, coming in halfway thorough the year and missing so many years of city living and critical social connections. The place I did feel at home was Chorus class, where the teacher was bubbly and warm and encouraging, and it felt, in a way, that she really loved us.
One day, I walked into class early to find Diane Dunning, a year ahead of me, sitting on a stool, dwarfed by a big guitar. She was practicing a song for our recital. Quietly I watched, mesmerized by her confident, makeup-free beauty, boyish blond hair and extreme ease of being. She sang slowly, perfectly, the vocal equivalent of potato-leek soup, if you can imagine such a thing, to nobody in particular:
I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day
Diane’s version of Heroes haunts me to this day, it’s stillness and purity and aching. I’ve not seen her since graduation day. I doubt she would even remember who I am.
Of course, things happened. The boyfriend and I imploded. I’d move back and forth to Washington a couple times over the next couple decades, trying to swim in the right pond. My dad died in 2003. In 2010, I married a man who sang a spot-on rendition of Ziggy Stardust, and divorced him three years later.
And last night, David Bowie died. I crumbled in shock, as did so many others. I can think of celebrity deaths that were sad but somehow made a kind of sense. Yes, Leonard Nimoy was very old. Oh, was Omar Sharif still alive even? A shame.
I wasn’t an uberfan. I’d never seen him live, and I wasn’t completely cognizant of albums before and after the ‘80s. But the loss of Bowie feels like an orphaning of sorts, a guidepost gone missing, a flame doused. You always hope that by the end of the song, Major Tom will figure out how to get home, but each time, he doesn’t.
For fuck’s sake, let’s dance.
Vanessa McGrady is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles. She loves stories about how women make, keep and spend money. She has somehow had the great fortune to become a mom to a magical, funny, astoundingly smart little girl. She would enjoy your company over at Twitter (@VanessaMcGrady) and on her blog (vanessamcgrady.com/swerve). Her pictures on Instagram are mostly of breakfast. Come by and say hi!
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