When I was in 7th and 8th grades, I lived in South Korea. My dad was stationed in Korea, at Osan Air Base, and since this was before Osan became a place that people often took their families, I had to attend school in Seoul, at the Army base there. It was an American High School run by the Department of Defense, and had grades 7-12 all in one gigantic complex at Yongsan Army Base...I'm sure it's probably still there.
Anyway, it was a looooooooooong drive every day from Osan to Seoul, about 2 hours each way. Our buses left around 5am, and we often got home around 6pm. I don't remember how many buses went up every day when I was in 7th grade, but I remember in 8th grade it was 5 buses. The buses were modern for the time (late 1980's), and they had a tape player controlled generally by a vicious bus driver, but no videos or anything else that would make spending four hours a day in them even remotely bearable.
Just in case any of you were in doubt, let me explain my agonizing existence in 1988. In 1988, girls were wearing tight Guess jeans, pastel sweatshirts with belts slung carefully casually about the waist, white Ked's, and pale pink lipstick. In 1988, E. Spat was chubby, with glasses, bad skin, a spiral perm, and no Guess jeans because they didn't fit me, and although I would try to squeeze into them, they just looked so awful you wouldn't even believe it. I embraced the oversize sweatshirt look, but only succeeded in making myself look even chubbier than I already was. I did have Ked's, but mainly because you could get them in Korea for like $3 a pair, a price my mom was willing to pay to get me off her ass about it.
1988 was painful for me. 1988 was the year a boy named Ryan asked me to "go out" with him, and then I found out it was joke and he and all his friends were laughing about it and telling everyone how stupid and gullible I was. 1988 was the year that I realized that no matter how cool I was on the inside, it totally didn't matter if it didn't come in a skinny, Guess jean-ed package. 1988 was the year that showed me that there will always be a girl (in my case, Theresa) in a blue London Fog trench coat that perfectly showcased her slender figure, with highlights in her hair and perfect skin and long fingernails and a Walkman with a tape player AND a radio, who will scream at you across the hallway in front of all her beautiful friends "HEY, NICE JEANS, WHERE'S THE FLOOD?? HAHAHAHAHA." 1988 was the year I discovered the spiral perm, dying my own hair, lighting my black eyeliner to get it to go on thicker, shaving my legs, wearing glitter eye shadow, eating candy in secret, and hurting myself in various and sundry ways to try to relieve the pain of being.
But, I digress.
In 1988, while I was riding the bus four hours a day to get to and from school, through two toll booths surrounded by rabid anti-American demonstrators waving signs reading "Yankee go home" and throwing Molotov cocktails, I was listening to music. EVERYONE had a Walkman. It was Korea, and you could get one for practically nothing. And if you were really lucky your dad would go TDY (like a military business trip) to Japan and bring you back a really cool one. With interchangeable color faceplates. Or one that would automatically flip the tape. Oooooooooooooh. So, everyone on the bus had a Walkman, and everyone on the bus had tapes.
Here's how the bus hierarchy worked. The back row of seats went all the way across...so five seats. In the five back seats sat the most popular of all the popular kids. Thin, beautiful, graceful girls in expensive clothes, and tan, muscular, skateboarding guys with devil-may-care attitudes and soulful eyes. Then, the bus was divided, roughly, by grade and popularity. The higher grade kids sat in the back, moving forward to the 7th and 8th graders who sat at the front. BUT, if you were a 10th grader with bad skin, or you were fat, or somehow undesirable in any other way, you got relegated to the front of the bus. Being a 7th grader who was fat AND had bad skin meant I got a cush seat right in front next to the driver and the girl who got bus sick once a week. If there'd been a way to sit outside the bus, say on the front bumper, that's where I would have been sent.
So, the Backseat Five had one of the most special of all special privileges. They got to control the tape player on the bus. There was absolutely no input allowed from anyone else on the bus, including the driver, and God help the lowly non-back-seater who dared to speak up against the choice. And I remember, at the time, thinking these kids were SO COOL. I wanted to BE the skinny girl in tight jeans and an off the shoulder sweatshirt and white Ked's that never seemed to get dirty. The girl who could fold her notes into special shapes, and got to be in charge of the Slam Book, and always got roses and balloons delivered to homeroom on Valentine's Day when the student government would sell them to raise money. In fact, I would eventually spend most of my life wanting to be those girls. I watched them, tried to emulate them, would lay in bed at night promising God that if He would just let me wake up thin and beautiful I would do ANYTHING, anything, anything.
Korea, at that time, was the land of bootleg tapes. You could get any tape for a couple of bucks, or less. So, when the Backseat Five would play tapes on the bus, whatever they played automatically went on my "must purchase" list. And what was so great, so wonderful, so absolutely spectacularly fabulous that I would squirrel away all my precious allowance that wasn't being spent on secret candy bars and glitter eyeliner to buy it?
Bobby Brown. Yeah, you heard me. Bobby Brown. Don't Be Cruel.
Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam
Miami Sound Machine
Rick Motherf*cking Astley.
We just got this new radio station here in the TVPNM and it plays ALL these songs, and I know EVERY WORD to EVERY SONG. Today on the way to school I sang Don't Be Cruel and I knew every word, every pause, every spoken part. All of it.
And I got to thinking about it, and I thought these people were the coolest of the cool, these people were who I would have given ANYTHING to be. And they listed to Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam! They idolized Gloria freaking Estafan!
On my own little Walkman I was listening to music that I would have rather died than have anyone find out about. INXS. U2. REM. They Might Be Giants. Skinny Puppy. The Smiths (I think). Erasure (I know). Depeche Mode. Midnight Oil (how CAN we sleep when the beds are burning?).
Oh my God, I was totally cool. I mean, maybe Erasure wasn't cool, but I was definitely hip for the time, especially considering my fairly limited circumstances. I mean, we didn't even get real TV or movies. The soldiers who were coming over, and the kids who were just arriving from the States, were bringing new music all the time, and I was keeping up with it. Unfortunately, the kids who liked REM and Depeche Mode were dressed all in black and wearing "weird" clothes and dying their hair black...all things I would embrace at different times in my adolescence, but I was still too enamored with what I thought I needed to be. And, I guess I would say that even when I dyed my hair black and wore combat boots and thigh-high black fishnets, I might have been convinced I was fooling people into thinking I didn't care, but looking back I doubt very seriously anyone was really all that bamboozled.
I was cool. I mean, by my own subjective criteria now, I was cool. That's quite a revelation. I wish I had all those years of wanting to be a skinny Theresa in Guess jeans and a London Fog trench and perfectly highlighted hair back. I mean, I know listening to one band or another doesn't make anyone cool or not cool, but I heard Don't Be Cruel this morning and all of the sudden I thought back to 1988 me, and a lot of weird things in my life made sense. Something to think about.