In March of 1985, I was living in Toronto. Scarborough, to be exact. We’d been there around three years, having moved there from Edmonton in April of 1982. I was 11 going on 12, and relatively happy with life. I had friends, I had a house I liked in a neighborhood I loved. We even had a swimming pool. Naturally that had to change and it did with the announcement from my parents that we would be moving yet again, this time to a place I’d never even heard of, and to a different country. We would be moving to Greensboro North Carolina.
Up until then, we’d lived in Ottawa, Barrie, Thunder Bay, Mississauga, Vancouver, Edmonton, and now Scarborough. I thought that was just how people lived. The idea of growing up in the same house, going to the same school with the same people for years was as foreign to me as the United States, but we would be making the US our home for the next two years. That was the plan; my dad, an employee of Imperial Oil (that’s Esso in Canada, Exxon in the US) was being loaned out to a company called Gilbarco, a manufacturer of gasoline pumps and dispensers, whose head office was in Greensboro. This assignment was to last two years. At the end of those two years we would be moving back to the same house, to the same neighborhood, and I would be starting High School, picking up where things left off with friends. So I’d be skipping Jr. High in Toronto while attending it in Greensboro. We didn’t even sell our house in Scarborough; we rented it, to the family of one of my classmates. But come Summer 1987 we were going to be back. That was the plan at any rate.
I was actually looking forward to it because of the temporary nature of this move. That it wouldn’t be permanent. My family and I spent our March break that year in Greensboro so my parents could house hunt, and so my sister and I could see the city we would call home for the next two years. It was nice. It was clean, and my parents wisely bribed us with some cool toy purchases, one of which I still have sitting on my office shelf:
But I had made some very good friends in Scarborough, some of whom I’m still friends with 30 years later. In the movie Stand By Me, adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) ends his recollection of that summer of 1959 with the statement that he never had friends like he did when he was 12. That pretty much was the case for me. And when you’re looking down the barrel of 2 years away it seems like a long time. In hindsight not so much; and when you’re in your 30s or 40s, that’s definitely not much time at all. My parents assured me and my sister that the two years would pass before we knew it, and we’d be back in Scarborough before we realized it. That also was the plan.
So I’ll admit once we got to Greensboro I was seduced. The climate was warm, if a little dry, and while we were landlocked our condominium complex had a pool, which made the summer heat easier to handle. I was also getting more into comic books by this point, and the discovery Greensboro had a couple comic shops meant the passage of time would be a little easier to handle. There was also the malls (plentiful), the arcades (ditto) and most importantly the toys. There was a Toy City (think Toys R Us without the Giraffe) in the strip mall a five minute walk from my front door, and the day I walked in there and saw shelves laden with toys I didn’t even know existed, well, I figured Greensboro wasn’t going to be bad after all.
Then school started. And everything came crashing down.
Let me tell you a bit about Charles B. Aycock Middle School.
Short version: I hated it. Long version: I really hated it.
First, it was way on the other side of town. Despite the fact there was a Jr. High close enough to my home in the northern part of town that I could walk to it, being at the tail end of what was known as the Desegregation Bussing era. This meant that kids from the more affluent northern part of town were sent to one of the less affluent schools in the southern part. I absolutely hated this for no other reason that I had to ride the bus there. And for some reason my bus was on a schedule where mine was the last stop to be picked up, and the last one to be dropped off. So in the mornings I had to fight for a seat, afternoons I had to stay on the bus until the very end, and was the last student to be dropped off, close to an hour after school had ended for the day.
[Note that route was the direct one from our house to the school. The route we actually took zigzagged all the way up from the school, though today I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was. It took 45 minutes, that’s all I can remember.]
Second, owing to North Carolina coming in near the bottom of recent national educational standards, the school board decided the best way to correct that was to double down on homework, workload, and classes. We began class at 8:30, and our day was packed. I think we had seven or eight periods, all of which (for me anyway) meant crisscrossing the school, one end to the other. Back and forth, carrying all my books with me because I only had something like 3-4 minutes to get to each class. We got a whopping 30 minutes for lunch, then back into it. As someone who was coming from elementary school in Scarborough where you had one teacher to a Jr. High where you had many, it was like being taught how to swim by being dropped into the deep part of the lake. By 3:15 pm I was exhausted, and still had 7-8 classes worth of homework.
So all of that meant I was not a happy camper. After having what was relative freedom in Canada where I could walk or bike to school – the one close to home – I was bussed across town to a school I hated. And rather than make the best of a bad situation I doubled down on misery. I decided I wasn’t going to make friends, I wasn’t going to join any clubs or extra-curricular activities. What was the point in making friends when we were moving back to Canada, where my real friends were, in a couple years? By age 12 I had gotten tired of saying goodbye to people. Two years is a lifetime to a 12 year-old, but I knew I could do the next two years because I had no choice.
So I got home, got my homework out of the way, and retreated into my comics and toys, and dreaded the next day of school. I lived for weekends because that meant I wasn’t in school. But by Sunday evenings I was back to dreading it. I even had developed something of a nervous condition. That clenching fear you sometime get in your stomach? I haven’t had it since I was maybe 14 but back then I had it all the time, and it all had to do with school.
My parents were worried too. They even talked about pulling me out of school and hiring a tutor, but it was decided that school was just something I would have to endure. And lest it seem like I was living through some Dickensian nightmare, my parents did help by signing me up for karate classes, two nights a week and the occasional Saturday. That went a long way to boosting my overall confidence and helped me work out some aggression at an age when I had a lot of it. They also drove me to the local comic shop once a month so I could buy the latest books, and we went to one of the many local malls once a week or so where I could get a book, see a movie, buy a toy, or just unwind. We also did a lot of weekend excursions to places like Asheville, Winston Salem, Wilmington, and vacationed a bunch of times in Myrtle Beach. Were it not for school I would have to say I really did enjoy North Carolina. But not during school. Never during school.
I also had the radio. I began listening to it obsessively. It was your typical Top 40 radio. That meant Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News, Bruce Springsteen, Duran Duran (who I was already familiar with), and the occasional David Bowie and Simple Minds tracks. It was all pretty generic; you were guaranteed to hear a particular popular song once or twice a day, but as this was before the era of Clear Channel there was just enough eccentric stuff that slipped over the corporate wall to make things interesting like Paul Hardcastle’s “19” which was, well … this:
So, I had comic books, I had music, and if you know me or my work at all, you can see this as something of an origin story. And hindsight being what it is that’s a pretty accurate assessment, especially when I think of one song, and one person in particular.
3:15 pm Monday to Friday was the happiest moment of the week (doubly so on Friday, quadruple so on long weekends and Thanksgiving and Christmas and March Break). That was when the dismissal bell would finally ring, that’s when we’d run to our lockers to drop off what books we wouldn’t need for homework, and that’s when we beat feet to the fleet of busses parked out back waiting to usher us home (in my case 45 minutes later). Our bus driver was a 20-something named Roger. He had a deep southern accent, and referred to everyone – boy and girl – as “Dude”. “Hey dude, what’s up dude, good day dude?” He also had a boom box parked beside him. Monday thru Thursday he’d have it tuned to one of the Top 40 stations because he wisely knew that music would keep the kids on the bus relatively under control. But on Fridays, he’d play some of his favorite tunes to gear us and him up for the weekend. That means I heard this song once a week, every week, from September thru May 1986 when classes ended for the summer.
Now I mentioned the strip mall earlier. The one with the Toy City? That mall also had a movie theater. Not a first run, but not a rep either. Basically once a movie’s shelf life ended, before it was whisked away back to the studio vaults and eventual home video release 9 months later, it stopped in one of those theaters (the other being on the other side of town). Shows were only a dollar, so on many weekends I would go there on a Saturday afternoon, pay my dollar, and go watch a movie. The Goonies, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Back to the Future, Young Sherlock Holmes, Weird Science, Commando – they’d play for weeks, if not months; as long as people kept coming to see them they’d stay – I think I saw BTTF a total of five times before it left that theater.
Anyway sometime in April of 1986, the movie of the week was Pretty In Pink. Like most 13 year old boys I harbored a crush on Molly Ringwald.
So I went, down the street, to the theater, armed with my dollar, on a Saturday afternoon. I paid, took my seat and watched the movie. I wasn’t too conscious of how many people were in the theater but there was a relatively sizeable group. Anyway after the movie I went outside, and who did I see standing there, also having exited the theater, bur Bus Driver Roger? He was there with what must have been his girlfriend, and she was talking with one of her friends but he saw me and I saw them and I said “Hey Roger.” Hey Dude, was his answer. I went on to tell him I rode his bus and he said “Yeah, dude, you’re the last one to be dropped off. Bummer, huh?” I don’t remember much else of what we said, but I had to ask him and I did.
“Hey Roger, that song you play every Friday when we leave school? What’s it called?”
“That’s Ready Steady Go” by Generation X, dude.”
I told him I liked it a lot, but I never heard it on the radio.
“Then you need to listen to better radio, dude. Not the top 40 crap from Greensboro, but the station from Chapel Hill, dude. WXYC 89.3. Signal is way weak in the daytime but at night it comes in a lot clearer, dude.”
I muttered something like “Yeah, I’ll do that”. Roger left with his girlfriend, I left for home, got to my bedroom, closed the door, turned on my radio and began searching on the FM dial. I landed at 89.3 or thereabouts and could hear some music, but it was faint, with a lot of static. I raised the antenna and it came in a little bit clearer, but nothing great. After dinner I think my parents must have rented a movie because around 10pm I went to my room to read, and listen to music. By now night had fallen and when I turned on the radio the music came in nice and clear. And that was my introduction to the music found Left of the Dial. Bands like The Replacements, REM, Talking Heads, U2, The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division. Thing is I didn’t know their names at the time; just the songs, and over the years (and in some cases decades) that followed I would rediscover them. on Much Music, on CFNY, on MTV, on Spotify. Even recently I’ve found songs I heard 30 years ago but lost, finally unleashing the power of the internet to rediscover them.
That was April 1986. Around the same time my dad came home with a surprise. We were moving back to Canada a year ahead of schedule, having just been offered the job of President of Gilbarco Canada. But we would not be moving back to Scarborough; instead we were bound for a town called Brockville that my dad claimed was “near Toronto” (but was in fact 3 hours east of there). Once I finished Grade 7 at Aycock I wouldn’t have to go back there again ever. And when we moved in August that was the last time I set foot anywhere near Greensboro NC. Things changed. Plans changed. But after having survived Greensboro I was better equipped to manage the little curve balls life throws your way.
As for Roger and that bus, the only thing else that stands out was the last trip I took on it. It was the last day of school, we had early dismissal, and I knew it would be my last time taking that ride and that route. With each stop, with each group of kids who god off, I knew that was the last time I was ever going to see them. As we neared the home stretch, and it was just me and Roger I made a request; “Ready Steady Go. Can you play it again?”
And Roger grinned: “Any time, Dude.”
That was the last time I saw Roger, and the last time I rode that bus. 30 years on I do think about those years with a little more nostalgia than I did at the time (the blessing and curse of advancing age I guess). I did hate being there, but in the end it, like most negative experiences, ended up being good for me. And I even managed to make some friends at Aycock. Unfortunately, I can’t remember their names. My time there was too brief, and the span of years since then has grown long.
But Roger? I’m never going to forget that dude, or that song.