I’d seen her before, but never paid her any mind. My years of paying attention to the high drama of the local teen queens have long since passed me by. My daughter, had she lived, was well past that age as well. However, had my oldest granddaughter survived, she would now be on the threshold of that trying time of life when everything matters. (Right. It was a terrible tragedy. And if I can somehow weave that story into some kind of relevance to the collapse of America, you’ll see the specifics here at some future time. In the meantime, I accept your ain’t-it-awfuls, with grace, humility, and humble thanks. The accident happened quite a while ago, and everybody has moved on to the extent they can. And so must we get back to the business at hand.)
It seems I get more material for this blog on Sunday morning than at any other time of the week. And so it was this past Sunday. I normally go to second service, which starts at 9:30 AM. It allows me enough time to put myself together without ruining the only day I get to sleep in, and still get there early enough to get a good seat. But, on this day, I was late. After a Saturday night of food, fun, and watching Indiana Jones accomplish feats of acrobatics no stunt double for a 65-year-old actor would dream of attempting this side of a Hollywood sound stage, I slept through even my own generous 8:00 AM wake-up call. I felt like Alice’s white rabbit, who pulled his pocket watch out of his red vest and declared himself late, as I rolled out just in time to throw myself together, jump in the car and burn more gasoline than I would dare imagine (at $4.65 a gallon – at least on that morning) while racing up the hill to church.
It was all to no avail. I missed getting my customary seat one row from the back. So, I had to move forward, out of my comfort zone. Normally, I sit in the middle of the row. I’m a solitary worshipper, and I usually get there early. So, what’s the point of sitting on the aisle and forcing annoyed fellow believers to climb over me on their way to the middle – where nobody wants to be. I mean, what great urgency compels me to go thundering out of the sanctuary at the end of the service? I’ve got nowhere to go and nothing to do on Sunday. It’s not as if I have a life. So, I learned to love the middle. And I’ve been sitting there for over fifteen years at various houses of worship.
But, I’m not the only one. Over the years, there has been a group of teenage girls who also sit in the middle. I’ve noticed them from time to time, from when they first graduated from children’s church when I first arrived at this church four years ago, to what now appears for them to be the threshold of high school graduation. About the only distinction they hold is that I’ve never seen so much as a single, solitary parent in their presence for some reason. But they seem to be fairly well-behaved, conducting themselves with a minimum of fidgeting, whispering and giggling that teenage girls are inclined to engage in. At least until recently.
Normally, we’re separated by several rows, since they tend to sit together near the front of the sanctuary and I gravitate toward the back. But they usually make a sufficient production of their arrival for people to sit up and take notice no matter where they end up, so on most weekends, it’s impossible to miss their grand entrance. Last Sunday, however, I got an up close and personal look at the most fascinating high school mini-drama since The OC went off the air.
My young acquaintances had a different version of the same problem I had. Their usual perch in the second row was similarly occupied. So after an appropriate amount of pouting, whining and sighing, they forged their way through a row much further back than they would have preferred and took a seat right in front of me.
It was my first good look at what I’ve come to not-so-affectionately refer to the three weird sisters. Sure enough, they looked to be seventeen or eighteen – probably high school friends who’ve known each other since middle school and have pal-ed around ever since.
Ever meet people from time to time you know you’re never going to exchange more than a casual conversation with? And have any of you – besides me, that is – tried to put a name to the face, based on what they look like and how they carry themselves? I’ve been at this little game of pick-the-name for years now. And if I ever get to meet that person properly, my guess is almost always wrong. Well, this Sunday the game was afoot on in earnest.
As so often happens in this insular community of movers-and-shakers, there is a pecking order to almost every gathering. And social outings, including – perhaps especially – church gatherings, are by no means exempt from this overwhelming drive for dominance. With this trio, it was easy to figure out who was who, and what was what. The queen bee sat in the middle, prominently enthroned between her two adoring admirers. I mean, how can any girl be the center of attention without an entourage, I ask you?
On her left, was a girl I’ll call Jessica. Jess was a few inches shorter than the queen. She was shapely, but just a little too chunky to qualify as a resident hottie. Her attempt to wear her long, chestnut hair halfway down her back didn’t quite work either. Her tresses weren’t exactly straight, and weren’t exactly wavy. They were . . . something else. Altogether, this girl stopped a car-length short of being able to turn heads and stop traffic in the parking lot. She may have figured that hitching her wagon to the star of the local princess would be good for her flagging visual stock. Ever see a trim, yet slightly plump teenage girl of whom you’re just certain there lurks within an enormous fat woman just aching to burst forth? That’s Jessica.
On her right was Carmen – a raven-haired Hispanic beauty. Almost as tall as her majesty, Carmen had all the trappings of a girl whose family had done so well, so quickly, that she was working very hard to dispense with her ethnic heritage altogether. Her goal was to become as white as possible as quickly as possible. She obviously had been accepted into the queen’s inner circle based on whatever criteria teenage royalty deems worthy these days.
And then there was her majesty the queen. In her case, a name didn’t quite fit. Ashley, Amber, Michelle, Jennifer – they all worked, but somehow they didn’t. She was so much a stereotype as to qualify as a caricature.
Tall and tan and young and lovely . . . No tears, no fears, no ruined years, no clocks . . . and of course . . . She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes; she can ruin your faith with her casual lies – This girl has been immortalized in song and verse since before Buddy Holly stumbled over the Big Bopper on his way to that fatal plane crash the day the music died.
So, without a name for this Über-wench, I had to settle for a title – The Icy Blonde Bitch Goddess of San Antonio Heights. Tall, naturally blonde, California-perfect tan with a complexion upon which nary a single bead of perspiration would so much as dare to make an appearance. Zits? Fuggetaboutit. They were outlawed by statute when it came to this girl. Her face was classic, contemporary and perfect – high cheek bones, perfect upturned nose, azure blue eyes, pouting lower lip, and altogether a face that could easily end up on Seventeen Magazine today, and Cosmopolitan tomorrow. (And a body to match, if I do say so myself.) A sullen, dissatisfied demeanor made the image complete.
So there they were – the ice queen and her minions – making their dramatic entrance, and promptly sitting down directly in front of me after the requisite primping and posturing was complete. And so the games commenced.
Sunday was a day of singular frustration for this teen queen. It seems she was about to be consigned to the misery of cruising the Mediterranean with her parents this summer, and considered it a fate worse than death.
“It’s soooooo boring!” She lamented. “I mean . . . like . . . what is there to do on a cruise ship after the first week? I’ll just die out there!!”
It seems her family will be leaving around the first of July and returning a week before Labor Day. Complicating matters further, her majesty’s presence is not optional. The situation was made all the more exasperating considering the rest of her peer group of indulged, pampered poodles will be winging their way to Bora Bora for a summer of surf, sand and merriment, on a nearby private island owned by one of the families.
“It’s sooooo unfair!” She whined.
I just shook my head and thought – It’s a tough old world out there, honey babe. Lots of dirty jobs and somebody’s got to do them.
Sunday was also yet another picture perfect California day. Not too hot, not too cold. Eternal sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. Like everything in the Golden State, it was . . . well . . . perfect. And since our church is consumed with a passion to make sure everybody is happy, all the time, they had the same problem as Hamlet himself – to turn on or not to turn on the A/C? That was the question. They opted not to. So our ice maiden was uncomfortably warm. And she proceeded to engage in a pouting fit to make certain her companions knew she was suffering the torments of hell in this sauna of a worship center.
Now, it was clear from the start who the alpha dog was in this pack of predatory females. But if any doubts remained, they were quickly dispelled when her two adoring admirers proceeded to fan her holiness with their church bulletins. A girl knows she’s reached the top of the food chain when she commands such selfless acts of obedience. Consider it extracting an oath of fealty from her unworthy ladies in waiting, both of whom were eager to scoop up any scraps from the mistress’s table that might land at their feet.
As the worship portion of the service began, an altogether different form of worship was going on right in front of me. This golden goddess whispered something to Jessica and dismissed her with a flick of her regal wrist. Off she went, out the row, down the aisle and out the side door. She returned some five minutes later with an extra large, iced, decaf latté, complete with extra crème, extra sugar, and extra whipped toppings lest her majesty be displeased.
Her royal highness sipped her latté while the rest of us participated in the worship service. She could not deign herself to be bothered to stand up and join in.
When the message began – something about I’m OK, you’re OK, God loves you and what a wonderful world it is – and with her faithful minions fanning away to ease her suffering, the ice princess proceeded to engage in the main activity that, in all likelihood, brought her out so early on a Sunday morning. She proceeded to pin up her shoulder length blonde hair with a plastic clip, let it down a minute later, toss her head like a young goddess, and turn around left and right to check out whoever might be checking her out. It was to her everlasting frustration, I’m sure, that most of what she saw was the face of an aging, gray-bearded, baby-boomer with an annoyed, expression of acute boredom on his face. Said boomer, if he’d had a scissors handy would have gladly taken it to those golden locks, hammer and tong. Harsh measures would be required to stop this exercise in cosmetology. Alas, I was unequipped.
It was an endless, hour-long ritual – hair pinned up, hair coming down, head toss, turn around and check out whoever’s watching. And it went on, and on, and on. Over and over and over again.
It’s not a new phenomenon. The ice queen is part of every generation. She is eternal for all time. At first glance, she has all the trappings of the good life, and one can safely assume that she will be able to slide through life without so much as a scratch. But such assumptions are specious at best. Oftentimes, life ends up taking its toll on one so pampered in many subtle ways. But as she stands on the threshold of the beginning, and is queen of all she surveys, it’s a tempting conclusion to draw. I only mention her to make a contrast as stark as night and day.
An ancillary development of note that also bears on this tale of life among the elite is that yours truly – after a four year hiatus – is finally back to work. Please, no applause. It’s not exactly the answer to my maidenly prayers. I’m driving a school bus for a local Christian high school. Not bad for someone who once developed state-of-the-art, real-time software for business, industry and government. And, except for the annoying fact that it’s too little, too late, won’t provide even a subsistence living, and the school year just ended, it’s just what the doctor ordered. But, since it was the only door that opened in the last four years, I went through it. And the rest is history.
Actually, if I was comfortably retired, it would be a fun job. I’ve been at it for three weeks. During that time, I’ve had an air brake failure, an alternator crap out on me, a starter die while on a run, an ignition key that broke off in the lock, one high school girl who had a . . . how can I put it delicately . . . an embarrassing accident related to that time of the month, and a grade school girl who came down with an acute case of projectile vomiting. Other than that, everything’s been as dull as dishwater.
However, the experience has not been without its significance. Since the school is private, it is not bound by geographical district lines. They accept students within a twenty-five mile radius. So, the bus service goes out that far, in different directions. Rules for discharging students are strict, ironclad and non-negotiable. No student may be dropped off except into the custody of a parent, guardian or school teacher and/or administrator. There are no exceptions.
So, when a kid begs over and over again for me to let him off at a local Burger King on the way home, the answer is simple: NO! In three weeks, I’ve heard every tall tale there is. And no, I’m not sympathetic to stories of how they haven’t eaten for a month and will die of starvation if they can’t stop and chow down on a Whopper.
But this kid was nothing if not persistent. And so I was treated to a tale of woe that, sad to say, panned out to be true. And that was how I came to be acquainted with Julio.
It seems this sixteen-year-old works at the Burger King in question. Dropping him off there would save him the time and trouble of riding his bike from home back to the restaurant. Of course, before he can do this, he has to ride the bus to the end of the line and get off at the last stop. And so it was about a ten mile ride on his bicycle (one way) to get back to work. Most times it takes one to two hours in heavy traffic, and – during the winter months – encroaching darkness.
Still, the rules were not flexible and neither was I.
It further turns out Julio is the son of Mexican immigrants. His father is a day laborer, and his mother works as a custodian (a polite word for janitor) at the school. She cleans toilets overnight, in exchange for a meager salary. However, the kicker in this deal is that any employee, no matter how unskilled, gets comprehensive, company-paid medical and a full tuition waiver for their school age kids. Between the two, that adds up to a $10,000 annual perk. All things considered, you might be inclined to clean a lot of toilets for that kind of bene.
I learned all this about the time I began my bus driving duties. What I suggested – a little late in the game, considering school is now out for the summer – was for Julio to talk to the school principal and the transportation director to see if it could be arranged for me to drop him off at his job next fall. I didn’t bother to ask if his parents had green cards (turns out they do; the school requires that kind of documentation) or if those cards are legitimate. Such questions are ludicrous, given the mockery of this country’s immigration situation. But there was something about the kid that impressed me.
He’s not the brightest bulb in the drawer. His grades are average, due in part, I’m sure, to the extra hours he has to work to help support the family. And he has no sense of king and country, no interest in history, and no concern beyond the immediacy of the moment. He’s impatient, and has a smart mouth when things don’t happen fast enough to suit him. In this regard, he is, perhaps, no different from the vast majority of teenagers, both past and present. But he does have a sense of obligation, a devotion to family, and a strong work ethic. Necessity appears to be the mother of invention in Julio’s case. The family’s financial straits dictate that the kids in his family grow up hard and fast.
The other thing about him is that he’s thinking ahead. He’s already looked into joining the Marine Corps when he graduates – mostly for the benefits – and knows full well that, as a regular Marine, he’ll run the risk of a combat tour somewhere. Afghanistan, Iraq, possibly Iran looms in his future if he goes down that road. But he has (correctly) identified that he’s currently not college material, would, at best, have to spend a couple of years in a two-year school – they call them junior colleges out here – and failing that, resign himself to a life of double-sizing orders of fries while wearing those cute, little Burger King hats.
Julio is ambitious, after a fashion. And he’s realistic enough to know that whatever path he takes, the road will be long and hard. But he’s young, works hard, and harbors vast reservoirs of energy tempered with a distinctive sense of sobriety young people who find themselves on the bottom rung of the ladder, looking up seem to possess.
Personally, I hope he doesn’t draw a house spin in the great roulette wheel of combat arms, if it comes to that.
The last run of the year found Julio as the only student on an empty bus trundling down the road to the last stop. Most of his upscale friends have gotten cars for their ensuing senior years. So he was riding alone this day. Julio, who will begin his junior year next fall, and thus, is a year away from enjoying full driving privileges in this state, will be riding the bus, along with his bicycle, for another year. After that, maybe he can scrape together enough money to scrounge up some clunker to park in the student lot next to the Bemers, AMGs and Porsches.
As we pulled up to the last stop, I wished him a pleasant summer, and gave him my phone number. I told him if he was ever hard up for a ride to work to give me a call. It was strictly against the rules, but I did it anyway. It’s a forty mile round trip from where I live to Julio’s neighborhood, but I’m prepared to make it, despite the $4.65/gallon gasoline prices.
Everybody deserves a leg up sometime.
So there you have it. The yin and the yang of life among the current crop of gen-Y slacker/patriots. Two very different sides of the same coin. What do these two disparate young people have in common? Nothing. And that’s the point. Will Julio ever encounter the ice maiden? Unlikely. Unless he has the misfortune to end up doing the landscaping at her palatial estate.
Meanwhile, back at church, the resident Rhine maiden departed the worship center that Sunday morning to face a day as golden as her picture perfect persona. Like Yertle The Turtle, she was queen of all she could see. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. What stretched before her was a life in which she can safely fret and wonder and worry about nothing but years of herself. And as she left, I wondered just what lay in store for this future trophy wife.
No doubt, the Icy Blonde Bitch Goddess will comfortably morph into a high-maintenance super bitch with an acute case of gimme-get-me-I-want, and a terminal Daddy complex. She has the look of a lawyer’s wife. And I mused about just how long it would take – after her fast track husband makes partner – before he will notice that his hot, young 20-something law clerk looks better to him than his pouty, shrewish, and (every so often) heavily pregnant 30-something wife.
Then there remains the ravages of the artillery of time. Just how will she cope when the first crow’s feet appear in the mirror, along with the first gray hairs, love handles, and the inevitable devastation of gravity? How will she react when, after the latest baby, the Size 8 becomes a Size 10, never to return? Teen queens may hold court over all they survey, it’s true. But time is a ruthless taskmaster, and life after thirty can be harsh and unforgiving. Try as she might, she cannot beat the clock.
As for Julio, his future is a little more obscure. Will he serve a tour in the Corps and take advantage of their generous educational benefits? And what will come of that? Will he serve his time in the penitentiary of the global economy, bouncing from one anonymous cubicle to another, until his grateful corporate handlers find someone in Sarawak willing to do his job cheaper than him? Or maybe he will prove to be one of the innovators. Maybe he’ll have the vision to see the needs of future generations and move to fill them. Maybe he’ll be richly rewarded for his efforts. Perhaps he’ll end up a career Marine. There are worse fates. Then again, could be his number will come up in some third world sewer and he will come home in a flag-draped coffin.
It would seem that a long hard climb awaits this frustrated boy, no matter what course he charts. It would further seem that the ice goddess holds all the cards, enjoys all the perks, enters in through all the open doors. And for the moment, she does.
But Jim Morrison made a very astute comment in one of his more razor’s-edged musical compositions from the tense and turbulent 1960s – “They got the guns, but we got the numbers.”
To paraphrase that incisive observation, the ice queen may have all the advantages, but Julio has the drive, the ambition and the need. He too, has overwhelming numbers on his side, as any Sunday drive around the local neighborhoods can attest. He also has two other qualities going for him, and they are crucial.
His people are stronger. And they want it more.