, September 2023

Carl had not once in his life thought about his wardrobe until the first day of fifth grade, when he walked into the classroom of his new school, Birch Lane Elementary in Massapequa, NY, a hamlet that, until a month ago, he’d never set foot in, and had only known as one of the stops on the Babylon branch of the Long Island Rail Road, which had the green timetables. Most of his new classmates were wearing Ocean Pacific—”OP”—designer shirts, windbreakers, tanks, sweatshirts, all with silkscreened images of surfboards and beach life, stylish apparel of the like he’d never seen back in West Hempstead. Some were wearing “parachute pants” with zippers all over them, while he was clad in a pair of brown Toughskins jeans from Sears, the same brand he’d been wearing since kindergarten, and a Bob’s Auto Body t-shirt from the man the kids in his old neighborhood knew as “Bobo”, who gave the shirts away to anyone who asked, even if he’d given you one the day before.

By the end of fourth grade, heading into the summer of 1983, his freshly divorced mother’s affair with his soon-to-be “stepfather”, Rick—the suburban cowboy with Burt Reynolds mustache, custom van, and country music, a stark contrast to his government employee “father” with the petal-pusher, the VW Bug, and the oldies-station—was no longer an “affair”, but an “engagement”, the wedding to take place in late autumn. She had not, though, said anything about moving away from West Hempstead until August, blindsiding Carl, who, until then, had no idea he was about to be taken from his life and his friends forever, many of whom he’d known since Happy Time Nursery School, and begin an entirely different life in a faraway place with this scary man. It made no sense that they would move fifteen miles out to Massapequa, almost Suffolk, when Rick’s kids would still live in West Hempstead with his now ex-wife, and Carl’s father was already long gone, having moved back into the basement of “Big Grandma’s” house, his childhood home in Lynbrook. The lovers could have just bought a nicer house in a different part of town, but, islands in the stream they were, they longed to begin anew in exotic Biltmore Shores, two blocks from the legendary Biltmore Beach Club, where, back in the day, Long Island underworld figures would mingle with aging stars of stage and screen, fringe Rat Packers, Brill Building songwriters, female impersonators, and South Shore socialites. Like Carl’s rich cousins up in Old Greenwich with their “Yacht Club”, the whole household would become members, including his soon-to-be “stepbrothers”.

They were all staring. Carl had never been a “new kid”, and he’d always felt bad for them, outsiders for at least a couple of grades before the “new kid” label finally started to wear off. But this was even worse than he’d imagined, worse than his parents screaming at each other every night, worse than the day his father moved out—

The teacher, Mrs. Simons, and the class, reading from the chalkboard, mumbled, “Welcome to Birch Lane, Carl.”

Mrs. Simons then asked him to tell everyone where he was from and a little about himself, which was one of the things he was afraid would happen on the first day. A few gasped when he said he was from West Hempstead, the Massapequan children thinking the new kid was ripe from “the ghetto”, but safe now in these greener, whiter, waterfront pastures—

Carl ate lunch by himself at the end of his class’s long picnic-style cafeteria table. Down towards the middle were two girls sitting near but not with each other, neither wearing “OP”, one a skinny girl clad in kid clothes from Sears—Carl realizing he must look like the boy version of her—and a girl with a Simon Le Bon haircut with her head buried in her arms on the table. Down at the opposite end, beyond the rest of the nobodies and marginally cool, the popular surfer kids were talking and laughing like they’d known each other their whole lives, which they probably had, the way Carl had known his old friends, who said they’d come visit, but he already knew they never would.

Across the aisle, at the end of another class’s table, sat alone a kid in a blue and white-striped short-sleeve shirt exactly like one he had at home, also from Sears, and a pair of Toughskins, but a louder, mismatched alpine green.

That afternoon, Mrs. Simons gave the class 45 minutes of free time. Since no homework had been assigned, Carl browsed the meager selection on the classroom bookshelf—no Choose Your Own Adventure, no Hardy Boys, not even any Nancy Drew or Archie comics. He eventually settled on Aesop’s Fables, which he brought back to his desk and opened to “The Cock and The Pearl”. He got about halfway through it before Zack—who referred to himself as “Zaxxon”, and was not clad in “OP” but in an Ozzy Osbourne Diary of a Madman t-shirt with the sleeves torn off—snuck up on him from behind and slapped him hard on the back, partially knocking the wind out of him—

“Welcome, new kid!” he said with a big smile, which, at first, Carl thought was a show of kindness from a fellow outcast. Then a really tanned girl named Randi, puka beads around her neck and a hot pink “OP” long sleeve tee with distressed white print graphic of an old school longboard draped in Hawaiian leis, said, “Hey, new kid, come over here—”

She was pretty. Most of the girls were pretty, but there was a group of five surfer girls who were really hot and well-tanned after an endless summer of boogie-boarding at Gilgo. Carl put the Aesop’s Fables face down on his desk so he wouldn’t lose his place, which Zaxxon swiped to the floor, laughing derisively. When Carl bent over to pick up the book, one of the hot girls gave him a swift kick in the ass, then another one kicked him, and everywhere he moved there was another hot girl waiting, the hotter she was, the harder she kicked, until the “KICK ME” sign fell to the floor at his feet—

He picked it up and crumpled it, dropping it coolly into the wastepaper basket next to Mrs. Simons’ desk, struggling not to betray that he was on the verge of crying, and asked for a pass to the bathroom.

He ignored their snickering as he headed towards the classroom door, and felt better in the dim quiet of the corridor. The boys’ room was two doors down, and, to his relief, empty.

After splashing cold water on his face, he stood in front of the sink for several minutes trying not to look in the mirror, until the door opened, and in walked the kid from the cafeteria with the green Toughskins—

“Hey,” the kid said.

“Hey,” Carl said.

“Uh, you’re new here.”


“Why did you move here?”

“My parents got divorced and we moved here.”

“That sucks.”


“This place sucks.”

“Yeah, I noticed.”

“You’ll have to spend the next seven years working on getting out of here by going to a college far away. Like UCLA.”

“Or Hawaii.”

“Yeah, like Magnum, P.I.


“I’m Eric.”

“I’m Carl.”

“Well, uh, later.”

“Yeah, later.” ▪