One of the things I liked about high school was that I had much more of a choice in what classes I could take. Unlike junior high, where I was bound by the prerequisites of history, math, English, and so on, there was a lot more leeway here. I took to that quickly and sighed up for the classes I knew I’d enjoy, like computer programming (using brand new Apple IIc’s!) and, believe it or not, typing. I was a two-finger typist like my dad, but without the speed or agility.
I bring this up because this is where I met Eric. He was our school’s exchange student that year, coming from the UK. We shared that typing class together and proceeded to cause all kinds of trouble. We moved to the back of the room where the higher end electric typewriters were stationed, and we would often use our in-class practice time trying to corpse each other with silly notes and other bits of ridiculousness. We were both fans of Monty Python and our humor usually leaned towards that kind of absurdist irreverence. (I remember I’d planned out my first meeting with him so I wouldn’t come off like an idiot: I’d told him I was a huge Python fan and that it was part of MTV’s late night line up, but also that I was an even huger fan of British rock. He proceeded to introduce me to a number of great bands worth looking out for, many of which ended up in my collection.)
That was the class where I reconnected with Kris as well. I’d known her since elementary school and had her dad as my fourth grade teacher, though we’d drifted into separate social circles over the years. She became a part of the back-row hooligans. I’d run into her now and again in during meetings for the school paper, but it was here that we’d reconnected on a musical level; she and I were both fans of pretty much any band currently playing on 120 Minutes.
Over the course of a few months, the jokey notes Eric and I shared morphed into what ended up as a very weird and hilarious game of Exquisite Corpse, and soon included Chris and the rest of the gang I was hanging with. We referred to them only as “the books”, but they were less a straight plot than an ongoing riff on our Python-soaked senses of humor. There were only three rules to writing in these books: write something that would make the reader giggle during class or study period, leave it on a cliffhanger, and thrust it to the next person saying ‘here, your turn’ and running way with an evil laugh.* By the time the gang graduated in May of 1988, we had six books’ worth of bizarre nonsensical prose, bizarre titles (Sonny Bono and Pudgy the Penguin Go Snorkeling, for instance), running jokes, and an unofficial name for our own group: The Vanishing Misfits. I still have nearly all of them (one was misplaced and has never been found, sadly) and do plan on scanning them to pdf form for the Misfit gang sometime soon.
We had a blast that year, both in school and outside of it. We’d meet up at someone’s house and watch cartoons or movies (or one of my many taped episodes of 120). Eric and I had a Python marathon in which we’d watched numerous episodes, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and most of the Young Ones episodes that lasted nine hours. A bunch of us would drive to one of the malls and hang out.
At one point Chris started a Sniper game where we’d be assigned someone to shoot with a completely harmless weapon (usually a water gun, a wad of paper shot by a rubber band, or something similar). I’d missed the first run of that game but made it a few days into the second, when one of the guys went so far as to wear camo, sneak into my house, and scare the bejeezus out of my mom before shooting a rubber band at me. Suffice it to say we figured it was time to shut that game down for the time being. Heh.
We were taking road trips down to the Amherst/Northampton area, which would become one of our favorite places to hang out. Even the drive was one of our favorites: to head down to Amherst from Athol, we’d take Daniel Shays Highway (Route 202) down to Pelham and take a side road into Amherst center, but more often we’d turn earlier on Shutesbury Road. That would take us through the forested hills, down a very winding road, and eventually into the north of Amherst and onto the UMass campus. And our soundtracks were one of two things: either WAMH, or whatever cassettes I happened to bring with me.
Sometimes we’d head to one of the Hadley malls (Mountain Farms, aka ‘the dead mall’, known for being completely shuttered except for the AMC Theater and the Papa Gino’s, or the newer Hampshire Mall across the highway) to do some shopping or see a movie. At some point we’d end up on North Pleasant Street in downtown Amherst, eating Chinese at Panda East** and spending time at Al Bum’s nearby while some of the other non-musically inclined of us would hang out at the ‘hippie stores’ down the road. We’d often finish our night, especially after movies, with a late night snack and soda at Bonducci’s Café overlooking the Common***. In Northampton, we’d hang out at Faces, a trendy fashion shop aimed at the college crowd which sold all kinds of fun and quirky things from dorm furniture to posters to clothes (oh, the dayglo!!) to whoopee cushions and the silly pins I’d amassed over my high school years. We’d also head across the street to Thorne’s Marketplace, a giant former department store turned mini-mall full of small shops for books, clothes and more.
But our primary destination in Northampton was always Main Street Music. I was already familiar with its collection, but once I started heading here with the Misfit gang, it became a ritual. We had to head there, even if we hardly had the money for it. The music they played over the speakers was the music we loved hearing on WMUA and WAMH. The selection was absolutely phenomenal, even better than Al Bum’s, and a million times better than any chain store at any of the malls. Tapes, vinyl, posters, pins, blank tapes, tee-shirts…what did it not have that I wished I had enough money for? And imports! This store was firmly aimed not at the passive listener but the avid obsessive collector and the intelligent punk.
And for us, it was absolute heaven. At least for me, at any rate.
I truly looked forward to our weekend road trips down to the Pioneer Valley. Did we go anywhere else? Oh, sure…but not as often. We just loved the vibe down there. The best atmosphere, the best stores, the best college radio stations.
* – In true Python form, while writing this very sentence, I’d originally started with one rule, changed it to two, forgot something and made it three, just like the Spanish Inquisition sketch. I was sorely tempted to write it flat out without edits and end with “I’m sorry, I’ll come in again.”
** – No one remembers when this restaurant opened, but it was there when we hung out in the late 80s, and it’s still there today. This was where I had my first Chinese food, in which I nearly always ordered the sweet and sour chicken.
*** – Sadly long gone, it now houses a Mexican restaurant. This was often our last stop before we had to head back home. They had huge pastries, tasty coffee, and New York Seltzer sodas — I’d always get the vanilla creme with a chocolate chip cookie. Decades later while shopping at a World Market here in the Bay Area, to my complete surprise I found that NYS sodas still existed, still with the styrofoam label (or something like it now). I bought the same exact thing that day, just for old times’ sake.