I went to my 50th high school reunion last night. I had no business being there.
I was not a big man on campus. In fact, few could tolerate me, as I recall. Lacking social standing or a hot girlfriend, I tried to be the class cut up, never convinced my classmates were laughing with me and not at me. I hoped at least a couple of the guys I knew would be there.
Just outside the door of the reunion hall were a few classmates, one a woman who was a looker back then—even in the 7th grade when I first met her. “Met” is an imprecise word. Maybe she granted me a “Hi” once or twice. She was quiet back then—at least toward me. As I introduced myself to the people standing with her, I looked at her name tag. (She may still be considered hot to a 68-year old, but our standards are far lower these days; sentient is all that’s required.)
“I remember you,” I said, hoping that with a few sentences I could double the time I had ever spoken to her in my life. I didn’t quite achieve that, or even recognition.
“Right inside you can check in,” was all she said. It was an ominous start.
I had spent the earlier part of the day visiting my mother’s sister, the last remaining of the previous generation, then the two houses where I lived before going to college.
First was the Northeast Philadelphia row home my parents bought when I was one-year old. The neighborhood showed its age and changing dynamic that apparently didn’t include a working understanding of litter, replacing it with a sense that the sidewalk was a large trash can.
The house itself had been remodeled, with vinyl siding on the upper level replacing the faux Tudor look of the home that costs my parents $7,700. They were proud of their home but, being parsimonious, a trait in the Griendling and Patti blood streams, they wanted to pay the home off early. My mother had examined the amortization table and calculated the interest they were paying. So they added a few dollars to the monthly payment of $24. I remember when I first saw their mortgage documents in the mid 1970’s I thought we’d never see 4% interest rates again.
I walked up the street and then down the back alley where I played all those ball games city kids create—stick ball, half ball, wire ball, hand ball, step ball. I stopped behind my house. A car was parked in front of where the garage was before it was converted into what must be a tiny room.
A man, perhaps in his 20’s, was inside the car so I approached. He rolled down the window. I asked if he lived in my house.
“Uh, yes, sort of,” fumbling with something in his hands.
“I grew up here,” I said.
He perked up. “Really? Cool!” He fumbled with his hands again and looked apologetic. “I’m just rolling joint,” he said.
“That’s OK,” I said. I have a home in Colorado.
He laughed. He may have thought I bought the home so I could freely buy marijuana. We had a connection beyond the row house.
We talked a bit and I got the courage to ask the slightly creepy question, “Do you think your parents would mind if I took a peek inside?” He looked skeptical. “My mother wouldn’t mind at all, but she’s not home. My dad is, but he’s kind of weird and we don’t get along.” At least I tried.
I then drove to the South Jersey suburb where we moved when I was 11. My parents had paid off the row home and now could afford a split level on a cul de sac. They paid cash and never had a mortgage again in their lives. That neighborhood had fared a little better. I then drove by the old high school, which, again, looked pretty good for its 60 years.
It was time to face the music. Would anyone remember me at the reunion? After the ignoble exchange with my past crush, I walked inside and signed in.
“Were you red or blue?” the woman at the registration table asked. Our high school was so overcrowded with other immigrants to suburbia that we had shifts. One went in at 6:45 a.m. and ended at 12:30 p.m. The other started 15 minutes later and was dismissed at 5:45 p.m. One was the red school, the other blue and completely separate. We even played each other in sports.
“I don’t remember. Red I think,” I said. So I got a red star on my ID badge that had my name and my graduation photo. Of course, that photo might not help a lot of folks. It was heavily airbrushed to hide my severe acne. I thought I should dot my face with a red pen to help classmates recall me.
I pinned on the badge, took a deep breath and waded into the crowd. I was immediately greeted by someone who said, “I know this guy,” though he also squinted as he tried to read my name tag. “You looked just like your picture.” The other guys standing with him agreed. OK. That was a small victory to combat the relative anonymity of my high school years. At least I’m as unremarkable as I was then. As we age, we take anything we can get to remind ourselves that we are immortal.
But even that accomplishment soon was diminished by another’s comment. “You look just like an older version of yourself,” she said. I think that was a compliment.
Then it all came crashing down when another classmate later said, “Everybody thinks you dye your hair.” Great. Now I was unremarkably vainglorious—to “everybody.”
As I circulated I was sensing that this wouldn’t be a total waste of airfare or worst, a reaffirmation of my anonymity. I saw two guys I hung out with in high school, when we mostly drank beer in the woods and sang doo-wap songs. We dubbed ourselves The Four Gottens. Now I knew at least there was someone I could latch on as I was ignored by all the women.
Then the girl who lived across the street from me appeared and recognized me. We smiled and hugged and talked about our families. She introduced me to her husband. I then put my arm around here and looked at him. “I had a crush on your wife in high school,” I confessed. He just grinned, probably mentally boasting of his relative virility to mine. She just smiled awkwardly, probably thinking, “Yeah, I know, and it was awkward then, too.”
A woman and I then caught each other’s eye. Hers flew wide open. Mine looked puzzled I’m sure. I looked at her name tag. I remembered her immediately. She also lived on my block. We never had a thing for each other but we were friends from sixth grade on. I played touch football in the streets with her two older brothers. I learned two of them live in Florida with one in Clearwater. Small world.
As we talked a woman whose name or face triggered no recall walked up and smiled. My neighbor knew her. The woman said to my former neighbor, “Remember, you fixed up Bob and me for the 8th grade dance!” She did? We did? This was awkward. I tried to excuse myself by saying that I couldn’t remember breakfast let alone an 8th grade dance. But she did, and probably wasn’t buying my excuse. It did make me feel good. At least I had at least one date in my pubescent years.
While eating the mystery meat we had for dinner I looked across to the next table and saw a pretty blonde who, thanks probably in part to her hair dresser, looked exactly the same. Our eyes locked and I mouthed her name. She smiled and came over to my table.
Things were definitely looking up now. She was considered one of the most elegant in our class, or at least as elegant as a teenager could be. We talked and then I remembered that even back then, while I was not even remotely in her league, she was always nice to me. She said, “You were pretty shy back then.” I admitted to the charge, thinking that’s what severe acne will do to a boy.
As the night wore on, my courage was improving. I walked around the room looking for anyone who I might recognize and say hello to. I found a few, including a woman or two who were probably as nice to me now as they were back then—if I ever could see it past my facial and self-inflicted emotional scars.
The hall thinned out. I said goodbye and walked by the photos of the 80 members of our combined red and blue class of 500 who’ve since died. At least I made it to the reunion. And walked away feeling good about it.