I'd forgotten Movies was today's topic, and had prepared today's discussion on one D. Barnes, of my small-town North Carolina Junior High School of the early 1980s. I had the idea to touch on something about violence, being a loner, ritual, class, self-perception; I don't know, it's too late now. Like every conversation I've ever had, this conversation will turn to movies. Movies, of course, the cultural soup we all swim in, and movies can address anything.
But first, let me tell you, D. and I weren't friends, but I remember him well, for reasons obvious to me now, that I never would have guessed at then. I was a grade or so ahead, although I'm sure our ages were not far apart, as he'd been left back. He was a wiseass, I guess, what the teachers would call a smart-alec to embarrass him if he mouthed-off in class, and they may have called him a troubled fuck-up in whispered tones in the teacher's lounge. Assuming he was destined to drop out and disappear into the back of a greasy kitchen or a dusty warehouse or jail cell after he turned 16.
D. walked everywhere he went in our little town, outside of school. Always alone. You'd see him kicking up the grasshoppers in the weedy median off highway 64, or in the wet ditch on the south side of Old Lexington road. I never once saw him in a car. He was easy to recognize, because he wore the exact same outfit every day; it consisted of his football practice-jersey from before he was kicked off the team, a pair of stringy cutoff shorts in the warm weather, and one of those plastic Goody combs stuck in the thick black hair above the back of his neckline. His countenance was always one of amusement mixed with contempt.
A new kid showed late in the fall of my last year in Junior High. From some urban somewhere. (The new kid is always the focus of attention in tween movies.) This new kid had an extremely cared for jeri-curl, was muscular and athletic, and wore fanciful martial arts clothing, including his Dad's Vietnam-Era jacket, which had a roaring, long-clawed tiger painted on the back. Everybody was flush with the news that New Kid was a karate master or judo or some secret discipline of inflicting harm, plus he was from the city. This last fact possessing the glittering sheen of worldliness. I have forgotten which city and also, New Kid's name. However, it was a real East Coast industrial city, not one of the large Southern towns we called cities then. So, here was the New Kid from Big City. The girls swooned.
Not two days after the New Kid's arrival, D. Barnes and he had an argument. I was playing basketball and about five feet away. What their argument concerned is lost, and was never clear to begin with. Probably, for D., it was rooted in the knowledge that he was D. Barnes and not the New Kid. Or possibly D.'s curiosity about the New Kid's hidden and secret martial art of fighting could not be quenched. Obviously it could have been over the attentions of a girl, simple jealousy, or all of the above.
Their preliminary to the blows had the makings of a sideshow. Lots of mooning and banty rooster crowing and tromping about as the crowd gathered. Then New Kid did something that surprised us all.
He took off his shoes.
After his shoes were placed softly and evenly on the ground, the New Kid slid off his jacket, carefully folded it into a square and placed it atop his shoes. A murmur went through the crowd akin to He's about to unleash the kung fu. This was something none of us had ever seen before. A hint of fear flashed across D.'s eyes, as if he wasn't sure what his mouth had, again, gotten him into.
Then, New Kid unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his stylish jeans. He was taking off his pants!
At this--D. Barnes, mostly friendless, futureless, wiseass, with hardly anything to hold onto other than his practice jersey and his Goody comb--saw an opportunity, and as New Kid had his pants down around his thighs, D. jumped on him and punched New Kid in the head again and again with a giddy and ruthless effectiveness, his top teeth biting his lower lip in a determined, concentrated scowl, as he pummeled him, until New Kid screamed out for mercy and "get him off me!" until we obliged, and pulled D. off.
For all I know, that was the only victory D. had his entire life. I do know this--New Kid went on to be the New Kid somewhere else, for after he was suspended for fighting, he never came back to our school.
The next year I bought my first VCR with the meager earnings at the record/video store I worked at. It was the cheapest VCR in the store, with an embarrassing remote control that actually was tethered to the machine with a thin, twelve-foot cable. It would have been as effective to poke the buttons with a very long stick. Yet, in anticipation of my huge purchase of this cutting-edge technology, I dubbed a half dozen movies on my weekend shifts. Elia Kazan's underrated A Face in the Crowd, starring my pal Andy Griffith; Birdy, which, at the time was the obligatory movie for introspective teens; Pink Floyd's The Wall, which I'd already seen a dozen times at the Midnite Movies at Carolina Circle Mall, and would watch it two dozen more times, (and no one intervened or sought help for me in any way); all three James Dean films, East of Eden, Giant and Rebel without a Cause, which had the misfortunate results of my receiving too many James Dean posters from kind and well-meaning friends, and probably made my Mom suspect I was gay, and A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, which I still love, and it steered me toward noir that same year, and convinced my Mom I was gay.
What my homophobic Mom didn't understand was, I was drawn to those films because they concerned outsiders. (If I'd listed the film The Outsiders, well, that film is about outsiders too.) It's why I still remember D. Barnes, and probably the reason he fought the New Kid, as there was no room in D.'s world for another outsider--he was already playing that role.