Rite of Passage
Rite of Passage
On December 9, 1978 I was served liquor for the first time. I was in fifteen years old, in tenth grade. It was my first year of high school. I just joined the stage crew after finishing football season with the team. The stage crew was an eclectic mix of unique personalities. I was working on the stage crew as the curtain puller for my first play, "The Christmas Carol." My grade school classmate Shim Wagner had the lead in the play. The play started at 7pm and ended by 830pm. Russ, Paul, Rob, and I went to my house to get a bucket for the beer for the cast party. Next, we drove to The Watering Hole on Richie Highway in Pasadena. The liquor store/bar combination had a reputation as an easy place to get served.
I was fifteen, but was tall and had a blonde red mustache and a full head of bushy hair. The gravel parking lot was bright and lit up. I was nervous as a minnow in a shark tank. The guys gave me a pep talk as we sat in the parking lot in Paul's 1969 two-door red beat-up Plymouth barracuda convertible with a patchwork of convertible top patches.
Russ said, "Walk confidently, get the beer like you've been there before, and look the clerk in the eye when you pay. Russ was captain suave with his curly afro, tight pants, and disco shirt with the top three buttons unbuttoned.
Paul said, "Don't make a lot of small talk. That will make you appear nervous." Paul always dressed the same with his well worn jeans, topsiders, and blue long sleeved oxford.
They gave me a wad of money for a case of Michelob bottled beer. I got out of the car and headed into the liquor store like a soldier entering battle. I was nervous. My belly was full of butterflies. I thought about what would happen if I got caught. I would get sent to juvenile hall, I would get community service, or worse. I opened the front door and the bells on the door handle jingled. I felt like I was going to my execution until I touched the door.
I touched the door and thought of John Wayne in Rio Lobo. I strolled in like I owned the place with a big stride like I was John Wayne. I felt like I was walking in slow motion like in a dream. I made eye contact with the clerk as I gave him a head nod like we were old war buddies. I spotted the Michelob and grabbed a case of the beer. I slung the box of beer over my shoulder like a hunter grabbing his kill.
The voice in my head said, “Play it cool and don't sour the deal.”
I pivoted towards the counter and greeted the clerk with a, “Hey.”
My heart was beating loud enough I could feel the beat in my temples. The clerk was a squinty eyed old guy smoking a cigarette in a cloud of smoke. The old veteran had Navy anchor tattoos on both forearms visible from his rolled up sleeves of his blue chambray shirt. He was so stooped over you could not determine his true height. I pulled out my wad of bills and paid the man as I suddenly imagined the money was counterfeit.
The old guy counted my money as he asked, "How about them Colts losing to the Jets, huh?"
I said, "Yeah, hopefully they'll do better tomorrow?"
He gave me my change and said "Yeah maybe, have a good night."
I gave him the final head nod and smile as I walked out of the door with my prize. I exited the liquor store two feet taller than when I went in. I carried the beer like it was the Holy Grail. The boys watched from the car with smiles and excited thumbs up. I knew I had passed a rite of passage. Russ opened the car and door and climbed in the back.
Russ said, "Congratulations, you get to sit up front my son, you've earned shotgun. You passed your initiation into the stage crew."
I knew things were going to be much different in my high school life to come.