Matt and I were struggling with the same problems. They are what brought us together; it’s what made us so tight. We just couldn’t articulate it then. We did not fit the prefabricated, proscribed racial scripts for who and what we were. But what were we? I don’t think we knew, we just knew that we were suffering so for being ourselves. We had a choice: be what society said you had to be, or go your own way. It was more important to us to live as we saw fit, and we were catching hell for it. We felt we had no choice. Finally, we live in a very individualistic society. Why was it so wrong to be ourselves?
We were in distress, and we used drugs and alcohol to cope. Before I started partying heavily with Matt, his reputation was that he could “hold his liquor”; that he could drink prodigious amounts of beer. He could. Several times I saw him drink half a case of beer and make it home safely. But the more I was around him I noticed that he was getting torched every weekend, all weekend. At the beginning of evenings he was lively and verbose. By the end, he stumbled, slurred his speech, had foggy eyes, and got quiet. He would sit and stare into space. He would obliviate himself.
This was my model. I didn’t say to myself, This is how you do it, I said, This feels good. Let’s do it again. Let’s do it together. Let’s get obliviated together.
We understood what each other was going through. We understood each other implicitly. We didn’t have to discuss it, we just enjoyed each other as much as two fucked up teenagers could.
I felt I was the original “Voodoo Chile”, from Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix, the left-hander who the critics said was too white for black audiences, and too black for white audiences, was my musical idol when I met Matt. I would tell Matt about Hendrix, and he would tell me about George Benson. I already knew about and liked George Benson, but that’s what he liked to play. “Breezin'”. Matt liked that smoothed-out shit, while I liked it rougher. When Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five came out with “The Message” in 1982, I was anticipating it. I knew it was coming.
They had just elected Ronald Reagan. I was too young to vote in 1980. Our family did not like Reagan. We were hearing about “welfare queens” and the “New Federalism”, which was code for letting states do whatever the fuck they wanted. All of it racism.
Matt and I figured we’ll finish school, get out, do whatever we want, and we’ll be left alone. NO! Not in America, and certainly not in St. Louis at the dawn of the 1980’s. There was tremendous pressure to conform to preconceived notions about how one should conduct oneself based on looks. Doesn’t that sound ludicrous? Matt was as light as I was, but he looked like a Mandingo. He liked white girls and he wanted to play hockey. That’s it. He was catching big time heat for it. I was a plain Anglo kid, who was the downest muhfucker you were ever gonna meet. I liked black girls, and I wasn’t a racist, and I went around challenging people when I heard racism. I was a freak in St. Louis then. As far as thinking about bias, dealing with bias, and worrying about bias, I was light years ahead of anyone I knew. Eons. I was from the motherfucking future, and there was no reconciling it.
I get worked up when I think about this stuff.
My senior year I was on my own. Sandra and Matt were out of the picture. Besides my anger and abuse of substances, things were set to be great. It all came back to haunt me.
My AP European History teacher sponsored me for Social Studies Student of the Year. They told me I got it in the middle of the year. I had dreams of playing major league baseball, and as spring approached everyone knew I was the best player on the team. I had been the only sophomore on the varsity team in baseball, and the only guy we had like that in school besides me was Alvin Miller, who played varsity football as a tenth grader. He was a year behind me. He was the Parade magazine national football player of the year in 1983. He didn’t like me at the time because I smoked weed. We’re cool now. He sells cigarettes for a living.
Anyway, when the season started I was our #1 pitcher, and I played first base and batted cleanup. For three years our baseball field, from home plate, faced southeast, like at the old Busch Stadium. We had no fence. If somebody hit one far, you had to go chase it across the football practice fields. In 1982, Kirkwood moved the field to the eastern corner, and now it faced southwest. They added fencing. It was snowing one day when I hit the first Kirkwood home run over the fence. I was starting to prove to everyone that I knew what I was doing, and that I was the shit.
I had a friend on the team, a white guy named Steve Sisco. I won’t say much about Steve, other than that the first time I met him he lied to me.
In those days, 18-year-old seniors could sign themselves out at the office if they missed less than half a day. One spring day, right after the homer, we signed ourselves out and ran all the way back to my house to get high. It was about two and a half miles. We laughed on the way.
We got back to campus late. We walked into the locker room for an away game, and Head Coach Lou Diaz asked us where we had been. He said we couldn’t make the trip, and that he wanted to talk to us later. We didn’t have a chance to get our stories straight.
I called Steve later to get our lies together. I knew what was at stake. No smartphones; no texting then. I’m talking hardline phones with no “call waiting”. The line was busy. I couldn’t reach Steve.
Mr. Diaz called me over to his house first. He said, “Bobby, your eyes were red today. Were you smoking pot?” For the first time in my life, I lied. I said, “No. I have bad allergies and my eyes have really been bothering me.” “You weren’t smoking pot today?” “No.” “OK, I’ll see you tomorrow at practice.” I went home, trembling.
Sisco came over after me. He just assumed that I had told the truth to Mr. Diaz, and that there was no way out of it. For the first time in his life, he told the truth. We were off the baseball team. My award was stripped.
Mr. Diaz was standing outside my math class the next morning. When the bell rang, he said, “Come with me.” I swear we strolled halfway around the Kirkwood High campus in silence. I saw him working his jaw. Finally, he turns to me and says, “You lied to me last night, Bobby. I’m going to have to remove you from the team.”
How would I explain this when I got home? That’s the cloud I was under when I entered Washington University in St. Louis to play baseball in the fall of 1982.