Friday, June 3, 2011

Benny and the Jets

When I was 16 years old I got my first job as a “pool attendant” at one of the public pools in Denver. It was a big deal at the time. A pool attendant was the grunt person at the pool, responsible for such prestigious chores as cleaning the bathrooms every day, checking baskets of clothing for the good patrons of Berkeley pool, and “guarding” the baby pool for the occasional toddler who fell over while mom was occupied with her Cosmo magazine. My favorite task was using the sophisticated tool necessary for scraping wads of sludge-y hair from the shower drains; we called it “the screwdriver.” That’s because it was – well, a screwdriver. A bitchin’ job that was…

The pool where I worked was nowhere near my house. At least it seemed that way at the time. According to Google maps, a mere 9.7 miles separates the two locales, but at the time, it seemed like about 50. Maybe the distance seemed so immeasurable because I had to take public transportation to work every day. I was forbidden to learn how to drive at the time, because of a few – uh, alcoholic indiscretions, let’s just say. Yes, yes, if you have been following my blog closely, you may detect a theme from my adolescent years. I’ve said it before, I’m not proud.

Anyway, I caught the number 15 bus at Colfax Avenue and Hudson each morning, rode it downtown, transferring to the number 44 bus in front of the old Woolworth’s store (a popular hangout for some of the more upstanding and fresh-smelling Denverites in 1984) and then riding that to a distant corner of the city. Someone who currently lives in Denver could easily come back at me here and tell me how distorted my grasp of the city’s geography is and truly, I would have nothing to say in my defense. Take my word for it, though, on the city bus, it was a long-ass ride.

On the plus side, however, I got to see some colorful characters. Like my good pal, Benny. In the summer of 1984, I had shortish hair, which I was trying to grow out after a failed bid at being a punk rocker. I also had this unfortunate streak of bleached blonde bangs that perpetually hung in my face, unless of course I bobby-pinned them back, which was only slightly preferable to the bangs-in-face look. My hair is naturally brown. Dark brown. So the blonde chunk o’ hair looked… funky, and not in a good way. Also, consider it was about 7am because that’s how early I had to get up to ride all those damn busses out to Berkeley and arrive by 8:30am. And I worked at a pool, so it’s not like I “did” my hair each morning. Ok, the long and the short of it is, in case you haven’t picked up on it, I was looking pretty ragged on that number 15 bus. Plus, I was still sort of hanging on to my boyish appearance, which peaked in 4th grade but was VERY stubborn. However, in spite of all these strikes against me, one morning, about half way to downtown, a man got on the rather sparsely populated bus and chose the empty seat next to mine.

Man was in his early 20s I’d say, dressed in some old, ripped jeans and a well-worn red t-shirt. He didn’t look like a man who had really taken great pains with his appearance. He might have had sunglasses on. He shuffled. Or maybe he ambled. He was not a fancy-looking guy, but my mom always taught me not to judge a book by its cover, so by golly, I welcomed my new seat-mate. Mutely, and with no detectable movement but still, I was mentally welcoming him to sit right down and make himself comfortable in that seat next to me. He said hi. I said hi. He may have asked where I was going. I may have explained. He chatted casually. I responded, real friendly-like. He asked me what my name was. I froze up. “Sally!” It was the only pathetic fake name that came to my desperate mind. “Sally! Say Sally!” my mind screamed. Oh, who was I kidding, that was just lame. I surrendered and said “Christen.” “Like that song, Sister Christian (it was 1984 remember),” was the man’s response. And I thought, “No, no dumbshit, I said Christen, Chris-ten, ten, ten, like the number, ten, not chen,” because I had spent 16 years correcting people on the pronunciation of my oddly-spelled name and I was a little bitter already. Plus I was a bit sensitive about being called what I thought was strictly a boy’s name, Christian. But, of course, not wanting to appear ill-mannered to a total stranger on public transportation, I politely replied, “uh… yeah.” And he said “My name’s Benny. Like that song, Benny and the Jets.” Only it came out more like Binny. Like that song, Binny and the Jets. I nodded my silent “pleased to meet you.”

The next question Benny asked me was clear out of left field, I did not see this one coming, at all. Totally taking me by surprise, Benny asked me, “Do you like to get high?” I was shocked. Did I look like the kind of messy, boyish-looking girl who liked to get high?! Again, hiding my true feelings, I simply said “no.” Which was true, I might add; if you recall, alcohol was really kind of my drug of choice at the tender age of 16. And this was the best part: Benny came back with “neither do I.” Oh yes, Benny, I can see by the way your eyelids droop and your eyeballs are shot through with more red than a fire engine and you have been slurring your words from the get go, I can see that it is totally obvious, you do not like to get high.

Apparently the next stop was Benny’s stop. He shuffled off, not in any hurry, and I rode the last few blocks to my transfer location. I had probably just missed that number 44 bus by about 30 seconds, so I was looking at a good 20-minute wait for the next bus. But maybe I’d meet some more interesting folks. I sure hoped so.

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