Step right up, son! Image Source: Jacksonville Business Journal
This week I will be returning to northern Florida for the first time since September 12, 1986, my 14th birthday and the day we moved back home to Maine. What do I remember over the last quarter century? What is going through my mind? Let’s find out…
In 1984, in Jacksonville, FL, USA, I was bussed. After two years at Beauclerc Elementary, which was in my neighborhood, I was bussed completely across Jacksonville, largest city in the country in terms of square mileage, to a predominantly black school in a predominantly black neighborhood.
I walked into this situation without a hint of prejudice, and today I tell the tale without a hint of prejudice. Race has nothing to do with my thoughts then or now, and if I bandy about keywords that are racially charged in 2012, well, that was just what we knew in 1984.
But Goddamn, it was a weird situation.
I mean, bussing happened in Boston in the ‘70s, right? We were over that shit by ’84, right?
I’m not sure why I was bussed. Maybe some pencil-pusher in the Duval County School District dropped a cigarette ash on a demographic report and missed a figure. Maybe they just threw a dart or played eenie-meenie. Who knows how bureaucracy really works? But so it was determined that I would be bussed, 45 minutes each way, for sixth grade.
I was joined by a few friends from Beauclerc, so I had some solidarity. And the bus ride, if long, was pleasurable. The driver always played the radio loud, so my commute was filled with Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You” and Diana Ross’s “I’m Missing You” and Don Henley’s “Sunset Grill” and U.T.F.O.’s “The Real Roxanne” (yes, it was played on commercial radio).
Crossing the Mathews Bridge and taking the Arlington Expressway meant plenty of bumps, and I always sat in the back hoping to hit the ceiling. I think it actually happened once, although I don’t quite remember (maybe there is a correlation here).
And when we finally arrived, the school had its moments. I remember getting together an air-band performance of Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages” for a talent show. I had warning track power at recess, and I pulled off a few nifty doubles. And at some point the school day ended every day.
But I remember “my man” Cedric and my “friend” Chad most.
I often “loaned” Cedric my lunch money, and once loaned him my new Casio computer watch. I would get that one back in pieces and – you won’t believe this – I would never get my lunch loans back. But Cedric had a way of smoothing things over. “We tight!” he would say, and I would believe it. “You mah man!” Cedric would tell me, and I’d buy it. I heard him call me a “dumbass honky motherfucker” behind my back a few times, but no matter: we tight! Right?
Chad was a pure St. John’s River redneck, well-versed in Hank Jr. and Charlie Daniels lyrics and the content of Guns & Ammo and Field & Stream. We were never all that tight, and even less so after the day he produced a pair of handcuffs on the bus, hooked my right arm up to a seat and punched me until my arm was completely numb and lifeless. Why did he do that? Who the hell knows. The bus driver actually saw this attack and let Chad off the bus early – somewhere in ghetto downtown Jacksonville. I have no idea what happened to him from there, but the way my arm was feeling, I didn’t much care.
1984 was the year of George Orwell, Reagan’s trouncing of Mondale, Ethiopian famine, Maine Girl Joan Benoit ruling the LA Olympics, Bhopal, Bernie Goetz, the launch of the CD player, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, the last Van Halen album, the rise of Mötley Crüe and hints and intimations from major underground bands such as The Dead Kennedys and R.E.M. It was also the year I was bussed, and the year I really learned all about what it meant to trust another human, no matter their color.