Column: And in this corner

Ghost faces

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I was recently digging through a closet looking for wrapping paper and found all my old yearbooks dating back to elementary school. I started flipping through page after page and saw all those young ghost faces staring back at me. Some faces were familiar but there were so many I didn’t recognize, and I started to drift off and wonder who they were, where they went, how they ended up, and how each one of us blended in with the hustle and bustle of life. I thought about how each one of those faces, now in their 50s, has a story to tell.

There was one face that I hadn’t seen in a long time that brought back memories.

Photo courtesy Blair Cohn
I was recently digging through a closet looking for wrapping paper and found all my old yearbooks dating back to elementary school.

In elementary school, she was my first official crush. She looked just like Tatum O’Neal in The Bad News Bears, and I happened to be madly in love with Tatum O’Neal after seeing the movie.

She was the prettiest girl in school and wore all the trendy clothes of the late 1970s. It was the time of the disco satin jackets and shorts. She was California blonde with a sun-kissed nose and the same scratchy voice as Tatum and all the boys loved her. She seemed different than all the other girls– maybe it was her edge like Tatum had in the movie.

Back in the day we were pals and played together on the playground. We shared time on book reports, group study lessons, and other things you do in third and fourth grade, but she was always a bit of a mystery to me. I knew that she lived among the kids who walked to school from the Ranchos, but I never knew what she did in her spare time, if she was into sports or other activities. I also never knew much about her or her family. I had heard her father was killed in Vietnam, but that’s about it. It didn’t really matter to me at the time because it was her looks that hooked me.

So true is the fact that girls mature faster than boys, and me being shy didn’t work in my favor. At that age, boys must dance and prance around to get the attention from the girls. It was the good-looking boys that got that attention. This just translated into their 1970s bowl haircuts balanced out with a good pair of jeans, sneakers, and a willingness to have a fight or two on the playground. That wasn’t me.

Over two or three years, I did my best to impress her by pretending to be Gene Simmons and becoming a member of the KISS Army. I did a lot of that embarrassing prancing to gain her attention, but it fell flat.

I had made many attempts over three years, and as much as we were friends, I couldn’t win her affection. In fact, one Saturday morning I wanted to surprise her with a present, so I took the long walk from home to Palm Tree Liquor to buy a big bottle of Coke and then walk into the Ranchos. And as an act of bravery, or of cowardice, I had that big bottle of Coke delivered to her door by a buddy who I suckered into coming with me. I just couldn’t do it myself. My friend walked down her street while “Love Will Find a Way” by Pablo Cruise played in my head. He rang the bell, she opened the door, he said: “This is from Blair.” She took the bottle and shut the door.

I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting.

Time passed and we went to different junior high schools. Between the ages of 12 and 15 she became a punk rocker and got into drugs, dated a lot of guys, and lost those great looks, though there was still some Tatum O’Neal in her face.

I saw her again in 10th grade at a house party she hosted. My band played in her garage. I was more into the speed, outrageous fashion, and energy of punk rock but she dove deeper than all that and clung to the many dysfunctional latchkey kids from broken homes around the scene. I couldn’t relate so we never really spoke the same language. And although it was great to see her again and get the privilege to play in her garage, I was realistic about any chance of a romantic connection at that point.

To be completely honest, I think I did have one last ounce of hope, but it was soon extinguished when I found out she may have been dating the drummer of the rival band. I was second chair again! This time I was less concerned or jealous. I was content to see her and enjoy her punk-rock bleached blonde hair, black eyeliner and vintage dresses.

The band played our set, packed up and got the hell out of there before the beer and drugs kicked in– and before the cops showed up.

Rumor had it she dropped out of high school that summer.

Fast forward a few years and I was home for the weekend from USC. On a Sunday afternoon, I went to visit my buddy Mike who was working at one of the shops nearby. (Mike was in the band with me that played the garage party.) We were just hanging out and catching up, when out of nowhere, out of a time machine, and maybe just coincidence, she walked up to us. She must have spotted us from across the parking lot as she was headed to Alpha Beta to shop for groceries.

I recognized her immediately. I thought “She’s still in the same scene? Doing the same thing? Dressing the same?” Man, was I was over it. I mean, I was now immersed in the cardinal and gold and in a conservative, preppy environment. I was snobby in Academia. Besides, I had heard all those songs about anarchy and anti-Reagan already. I left punk rock at my high school graduation.

She saw me with Mike and came up to talk. She was friendly enough and very comfortable as if no time had passed. But then in a sarcastic, sardonic post-punk tone she said, “Hey, you’re going to give me and my mom a ride home.” It was like Tatum O’Neal standing right there giving me orders. In a flash I thought about the missed chances, all the time at recess, the times running around the playground and that big bottle of Coke delivery.

I replied with a confused and annoyed grin, “I am?”

She said “Yep. I’ll be right back.”

I watched her walk six doors down and enter Alpha Beta to get her mom.

Then I thought, “Yeah, right.”

I wasn’t going to be a sucker and drive her groceries home. I said no to déjà vu.

Once she was out of sight, I quickly said goodbye to Mike with a bit of a laugh and then raced back up the 110 freeway to school. I remember hopping out of the car, grabbing all my stuff and running into my apartment. I left her, and all that baggage, behind me.

Looking back now I wonder if she sobered up, moved away, settled into a normal suburban life, or became a casualty?

Going through the pages of all my yearbooks, I could write a ton of stories and anecdotes about those smiling faces. And it’s kind of fun to speculate what had happened to whom. But page after page I wonder about the journey and where everyone is now. Where did they disappear to? Are any of them the ones driving by each day? Are they in the supermarkets while we do our shopping? Who came out? Who went on to become teachers, CEOs, accountants, scientists, designers, doctors or politicians? Who fought overseas? Who succeeded and who failed? Who passed away?

All those faces have their own stories to tell. People come and go all through our lives and some leave an indelible mark, and the funny or quirky memories that remain fresh some 40 years later.