Felix In Hollywood

A Blog for the Smart Set

Monday, December 28, 2009

Charlie Waddell, The Man Who Changed Everything...

This is an excerpt of a thing I wrote in my early 20's. The circumstances are all true, and I framed it as a high school diary entry, because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

This is what happens when I'm out of inspiration for new material, I rummage around for old stuff. Boy we're scraping the bottom today folks.

Monday, January 17, 1977.

Dear Diary: I’ve never done this before, and I still think it’s stupid. I mean what’s the point of writing stuff that nobody’s gonna see, but Miss Flemming says it really helps so hear goes. I guess I’d better tell you what’s going on. My name is Philip and I’m a senior in high school. I go to Surrattsville Senior High in Clinton Maryland. We specify the “Senior High” because there’s a Surrattsville Junior High too. They were named after Mary Surratt who has the honor of being the first woman hanged in the United States for being in on Lincoln’s assassination. Turns out that she probably didn’t know a thing about it; more likely than not, she was just some widow running a tavern and boarding house that John Wilkes Boothe came to a couple of times. There was an article last year in Time Magazine that listed the top ten east coast schools with on campus drug problems and Surrattsville was number three. Surratts Junior was number five. It seems like you can get drugs anywhere you want around here. Just go to almost any of the students, half of the teachers, all of the janitors and even a couple of the administration. I’m not talking about the hard stuff. It’s all about refer here. Refer and even more so, refer treated with PCP. Ah, PCP, CP, KW, Killer Weed, or our favorite nickname, Green. See our school colors are green and white, and when those Pep Squad geeks had buttons printed up that said “Mean Green” (referring of course to our loser football team, the Hornets) they were shocked at the overwhelming display of school spirit that produced a complete sellout. And how practically everyone in school, the vast majority of whom weren’t considered the spirited type, were now stumbling through the halls with their bloodshot, half mast eyes, and their spacey grins, sporting their “Mean Green” buttons.


Anyhow, none of that stuff is really for me. There’s nothing particularly glamorous, as far as I’m concerned, about crouching down in the woods or huddling in somebody’s car and smoking a bowl of weed only to go back to class and try to figure out what the hell Shakespeare is talking about, no thanks. Drinking a martini in an elegant New York nightclub wearing an ultrasuede Halston suit is more like it. I don’t know what it is about me, but I’ve always had a thirst for all things sophisticated, and so far it hasn’t been quenched with a coke at the Woolworth’s counter over on Old Branch Avenue. All I know is when I look at the sky at night I don’t see stars, I see the glow of downtown Washington, DC just sixteen miles away and I know I need to be there in the throbbing beat of the city instead of here with the tempo of the grass growing on the corner lot that surrounds our split-level colonial, that happens to look exactly like every other split-level colonial on the block.

Now just because I’m different than most of the kids here in my outlook and interests, doesn’t mean that I don’t have friends that I genuinely care for. See my dad used to be in the army and so for years we would move every time some colonel somewhere remembered to give transfer orders, and I had to learn to be the outgoing new kid. So I’m actually pretty popular here. And the beauty is , I have friends in all the different groups, collegiates, blacks, freaks, rednecks and jocks. And I’m not stuck or pigeonholed into any one of them.

Most of my life, the last couple of years, has been centered around room 109, the music room, and not because I’m a good singer (Jesus, far from it) but because that room is a nest for creativity and self expression. It happens no where else in the school. Not in the drama room, where that old fairy Chester Williams (yes, we call him Esther Williams) is more interested in Cutty Sark than in creative spark. Not in the band room where Dick Holman seems preoccupied with his weekend job at the Post Office. (His picture is gonna wind up on the wall there if they ever find out that it’s not the clarinet he’s teaching the girls how to finger.) And certainly not in the art room, where the poster boy for blotter acid know only as Buzzy thinks the greatest artist in history is the guy who drew the “Keep on Truckin’” poster.

No, it’s all in 109 under the loving and watchful eyes of Charlie Waddell. If it could ever be said about someone as old as 41, Charlie is cute. I’m serious. His light brown hair, mixed with a little grey, always seems to be falling over his eyes and ears. His 5’8” body is that of a former dancer that gravity is just starting to take a hold of, his standard uniform is either a t-shirt or sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, and, except for a few lines around his eyes from smiling, which happens a lot, he has no wrinkles.

I first found Charlie a little over two years ago. I had just started in the school about a month earlier and along with my other classes, I was taking my one required year of Phys Ed. When I was 15 I was 5’3” and 87 lbs. and short of auditioning for the roll of a baseball bat, I had no business in Gym class. To make matters worse, the teacher, Mr. Wycznewski, who seemed to connect great sports ability with upright moral character, had divided the class into three groups based on talent.

Group One was for that select few, the Athletically Gifted. These were the guys who would spend their high school years scoring goals, hitting grand slams, running touchdowns, dating cheerleaders, driving camaros and performing other manly quests to compensate for their underdeveloped genitilia. Then there was Group Two. The sort of average, fit most of the rest of the guys, group. And finally, home sweet home, there was Group Three. My Group. Group Three, it was understood, existed solely to house the fats, fags and cripples.

Now, with this system designed to so praise the top and despise the bottom, a couple of things happened. First, even the nice, decent, Group Two kind of guys felt honor bound to make fun of those at the bottom, and secondly those at the bottom felt, and worse, accepted the failure thrust on us by the system and believed our only possible value was in supplying the fuel for the humor.

So after a few weeks I had had enough of that and decided it was time for a showdown with Wycznewski. Now to say that he and I didn’t like each other doesn’t really paint a complete picture. See my lack of sports ability combined with the fact that I’m basically a lot smarter than him seemed to indicate, I don’t know, communist leanings on my part, and so I guess you could say he was also wary of me.

“Listen,” I said to him, “if you fail me, you’re just gonna have to see me for three years instead of one.” The look on his face said I had his attention. “But, if I walk away right now and you keep giving me ‘Cs’ we’ll never have to deal with each other again.” He looked at me with a mixture of relief that the solution was so simple, and disgust that there was actually something in the world that could bring us together in agreement. He looked down at his clipboard and muttered, “Just get outta here.” Amen. I gave him a proper salute followed by a pivot turn and then skipped across the gym floor and out the door. The clang of the big double doors behind me sounded just like freedom ringing.

Just as my concerns were turning to what I was going to do to kill the next 35 minutes until third period, like a disco crossfade, the volume was being pulled down on the kids counting off jumping jacks as the decibels were increasing on…no it couldn’t be…Billie Holiday singing “Nice work if you can get it”. I followed it to the small corridor that went off the right of the lobby. Where was it coming from? The only things down this hall were the cafeteria, the band room, the chorus room and the janitor’s room. Where the cafeteria workers listening to Billie? Naw, they’d never let themselves have that much fun, it might make the food taste good. It couldn’t be the band room cause that was soundproofed. It was either the music room or, more likely, the janitor’s room which was exactly where I was headed. At least I knew that Rasheed and Mr. Johnson would have a bottle of Old Crow and I could talk them out of a drink.

I stopped in my tracks outside of 109 because the door was slightly ajar and from inside Billie was beckoning me with the musical question, “who could ask for anything more?”. ‘Well not me sister’, I thought as I flung open the door. And there was Charlie, between the risers and the piano, sitting cross legged on the floor. He didn’t see me come in as he was in a cloud of cigarette smoke, but the breeze generated by the door opening blew a piece of sheet music off the piano which, when it crossed his vision, startled him and he spilled his coffee all over the photos of nineteenth century farmhouses that were spread out on the floor.

“Well fuck me Mary!”, he blurted out. I had never heard that phrase in my life, but it seemed so perfect for his situation that I burst out laughing. Startled again, he whipped his head around to me, “Well now who the hell are you?” “I’m Philip. Here, let me help you wipe that up.” I said, grabbing a crumpled rag off his desk. “Hey, I was about to change into that.” I held it up. It was a t-shirt from the National Organization of Women and on the front it said, ‘A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle’. “Oh sorry” I answered. He got a rag from an open cabinet and started mopping up the floor. “So what brings you here?” he asked. “The Billie Holiday,” I confessed. “No, I mean where are you supposed to be right now.” “Oh, well I ah, I had some spare time and ah….”
“I see. Listen, you made me spill my coffee, if you really want to help me, get over there and make me another cup.” “Oh sure,” I took his cup to the cabinet where he had gotten the rag and saw a little electric pot to heat water, and a jar of Nescafe instant. “There’s another cup in there if you want some,” he said. “Thanks. Where’s the cream and sugar,” I asked. “Now don’t get prissy with me, if you’re gonna drink coffee in here, you’re gonna drink it black.” “ok,” I said.
“So you like Billie Holiday?” “Yeah,” I answered, “But I’ve heard this record before, and she loses the guy in the next song.” He laughed as I pulled out a cigarette. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing,” he demanded. “Well?” I said, pointing to his that was burning away in an ashtray that had once been a tuna fish can in it’s former life. “You left the door open, fool. Close it first.”

We talked nonstop for the next half hour. I told him about gym class. He asked me what I was going to do during second period for the next eight and a half months. I allowed that I hadn’t thought that far yet, but I imagined I would go out to the woods where there was always a group of freaks getting high and spend it with them. He said that while he absolutely did not condone what I had done, rather than seeing me become a worthless pothead, I could come to his room everyday. It was his planning period, he had no students, it would be our secret, and I could help him with things. He told me that every year he directed the big spring musical and the farm pictures were research for this years production of “Oklahoma!”. He told me I could be in the play as a dancer and chorus member and that in this case my size would be an asset because he needed a little guy for the other dancers to throw around in the big production numbers. I said that I thought I could probably dance, but I knew I couldn’t sing. He said that most of the kids in it could sing but they couldn’t dance for shit and I would be providing balance. About that time the bell rang, and Charlie’s final instructions were, “Be good. Stop causing trouble, and come back tomorrow.”

I did and blessed mother of Billie Holiday, my life changed.


normadesmond said...

very, very sweet.

a halston ultrasuede suit, my oh my.

The Mistress said...

the poster boy for blotter acid know only as Buzzy thinks the greatest artist in history is the guy who drew the “Keep on Truckin’” poster.

Well? Isn’t he?

*waves Cheap Thrills album in air and takes another hit of acid*

Philip Mershon said...

I stand corrected. Touche.

normadesmond said...

yes mj, r.crumb is certainly fabulous..i recently saw highlights from his illustrated version of the old testament...almost made me go out & buy a second set of dishes.

The Mistress said...

I read Crumb's "Genesis" recently too.

If they'd handed that out to me years ago, I might not have kicked and screamed about going to Sunday School.

jason said...


and "more interested in Cutty Sark than in creative spark"

I gotta use that one day.