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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Rusty Firebirds, Serious Girlfriends and Christopher Cross

By P.M. Wortham

The late 70’s started out as a major bummer for me. My father had decided on his own, or perhaps with the help of his bowling buddies, that the best high school option for me was a Parochial College Prep school on the border of Detroit that I’ll just call “Prison”. Prison was much like other high schools, that is if you liked dudes, because no girls were allowed to enroll and the place was run by Franciscan Monks. The dress code was suits and ties while the “Dean of Men”, a former Marine Drill Instructor, would walk the halls with a rusty pair of scissors making damn sure your hair length was well off the collar.

 It was a party to be sure.Thankfully, those girlfriend-less years grounded to a halt in 1978, when I broke out of Prison. I like how bad-ass that last sentence sounded, even though it only meant that I graduated from Parochial hell, while wearing a new powder blue Leisure Suit and wide collared satin shirt in the process. Over the coat collar of course.

College was a fresh start and thankfully some confidence had started to grow. A new job at a local Hilton hotel put me in the union and the wages were pretty nice for a part time worker and college student. My grades were excellent, a by product of having to pay for classes myself, and I made some actual friends that weren’t bastards. Everything about the late 70’s was new and positive and welcome.

In 1979 I decided to pay a visit to one of my buddies who was away at college a couple hundred miles to the north. Before the actual trip I had called the guy a few times to catch up, talk sports and of course, girls. Before getting connected to his actual dorm room, calls were routed through the campus switchboard. Somewhere between the second and third call to my friend, I noticed that I had gotten connected to the same girl at the switchboard. I recognized her voice. I liked her voice. It was friendly and intelligent and playful. Her name was Janet. On my fourth call, Janet and I talked for more than an hour. On my fifth call, just before the actual trip to visit my buddy Tim, I asked if she would like to meet.

She was tentative but curious. Thanks to the Hilton and another line chef job I’d held before that, I had learned how to cook. I offered to come over and cook Steak Diane, double baked potato, broccoli with Hollandaise and chocolate mousse for dessert. I think I had convinced her at the “offering to cook” part.
The meeting was filled with anticipation and the hope that we would not repulse each other. Funny thing about blind dates in the 70’s, there was no Internet or camera phone to share pictures. The date was truly blind.

I drove up in my rusty Firebird with groceries and sauté pans in tow and found her apartment easily enough. Janet greeted me at the door with a smile and she got a big one back. Pictures weren’t needed. She was as attractive as her voice suggested; something I would learn to be the exception rather than the rule. I mean, have you seen pictures of your favorite radio DJ’s? Gives me the shivers.

I wound up making dinner for Janet and her roommate, something I had not expected but went along with. I figured that it was in my best interest to make friends with both of them and so I did. I was sure that the conversation about me would be fast and furious after I left for the evening so I decided to be the perfect gentleman. I would learn later that Janet had arranged some sort of signal with her roommate to be used if I turned out to be OK. That was the roommate’s cue that it was safe for Janet to be left alone with the strange guy. Apparently Janet had determined that I was in fact a decent guy but the roommate wouldn't leave. Janet told me months later that as soon as I started unpacking the food, the roommate had decided it would be three for dinner. The Steak Diane by the way, kicked ass.

We dated for months albeit long distance. I would drive up most weekends and stay at my buddy’s place or at her parent’s house which was pretty progressive in those days. Her father never seemed to mind. He was a pretty cool dude, actually. But, all things eventually come to an end and so did this relationship. It had been more than 8 months and I had started to fall in what I thought was love, but pieces and parts of the relationship had started to get weird and unexplainable.

It was the summer of 1980 and Janet had taken a temporary job near her home for extra cash. During our calls she would continue to bring up the name of a co-worker when talking about anything. “Dan” said this, and “Dan” said that. Dan? Really? Wow, Dan sounds like a great guy. Dan was also my first experience with a poacher. Dan was good at asking Janet things like, “Does he do this particular thing for you? Well, if you were my girlfriend I would do this for you every day”. Dan made a living out of picking on the fact that I lived hours away. Bastard.

On my last trip to see her that summer, Janet began to tell me about some trip that Dan was planning overseas and how she was thinking about going too. That was the end. For weeks she had been trying to tell me it was over, but with a concrete block for a head, I wasn’t hearing the message. Hey, you only have to tell me four or five times. I pick right up on those nuances.

It was a sad last day as I packed my car for the moonless ride back to Detroit. She waved, and I drove on. I remember a series of songs that played across the magic of FM radio and all of them were sappy love songs. Why is that cliché so true? One in particular seemed to have been written just for me. It was Christopher Cross and the song titled “Ride like the Wind”. All of it seemed to fit me perfectly as I drove south on I-75. “It is the night, my body’s weak. I’m on the run, no time for sleep. I’ve got to ride, ride like the wind, to be free again”.

Of course the song lyrics and my girlfriend situation parted ways as soon as we got to the part of the song that took me to the border of Mexico, but you get the idea. It was a long and painful ride home.
Doors have a way of closing and opening. The Janet door left a scar for a while but another door eventually opened. I had made enough money at the hotel to take college classes full time but then needed some sort of holiday employment for Christmas cash. I wound taking a minimum wage job at a large shopping mall selling cheese for a company called Swiss Colony. Yes, the actual low point of my entire working history. Did you know that one of our daily activities was removing the moldy cheese and scraping off the green stuff for re-wrapping? Did you know that the crust on Brie is actually hair-like mold that some farmer mashes down with his bare fist before packaging? I am a wealth of useless cheese trivia, but I’ve clearly digressed.

I was one of two guys working with a staff of women at this place, the Y chromosomes presumably hired to help unload the trucks as they came in, and of course scrape mold off the cheese. Three of the employees at the time happened to be sisters. On one slow Saturday afternoon, a cute little girl in nicely fitting jeans had come in to talk with what seemed like two of the three sisters. A friend I thought. As it turns out, the visit was staged because all three sisters had identified me as an available target for sister number four.

A few years later, after plenty of dating, graduation and acceptance of my first real job, I happily married sister number four. I recall Christopher Cross songs remaining popular all through the early 80’s and sad memories from “Ride Like the Wind” were replaced with fresh and happy ones. Sister number four was a keeper. I also remember thinking that for a guy with a great voice and lyrics, Christopher Cross was one ugly dude. I guess the old MTV adage is true, video did kill the radio star. On a similar closing note, I’m not quite sure what or who eventually killed the leisure suit, but thank you just the same.

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