Growing up, I had a piano teacher named Carol, a neighbor who could play the piano who babysat me here and there when my parents were out. Carol was old school San Fransisco and had lived in the Bay since long before the hippies moved in and she was not having it. She thought women belonged in the home, gay was a choice that could be ignored, and good literature could only be found in the classics. She owned a three-plex building in which my parents rented the bottom level for a couple of years and while she certainly disagreed with everything they stood for, she just couldn’t resist having a kid come over looking for structure, lessons, guidance, and some sneaky indoctrination.
While my parents would tell me about freedom and non-conformity and pressure and the power of choice, Carol told me about finding a man, settling down, leaving this life behind. She would also tell me how much she loved the gentrification of the neighborhood as it paid her entire mortgage that her now-dead husband took out on the building fourteen years prior.
For so many people, it was the exact opposite: parents and other adult role models teach a child about structure and goals and planning, one valuable adult (usually a “cool uncle” or a “cool aunt” or a “my mom’s cool lady friend who just never settled down”) teaches the value in chaos, in choices and non-conformity. The value that so many of my adult friends have assigned to their childhood chaos role model is the same value I’ve assigned to Carol. What we all seem attracted to is that one adult who teaches us what no other adult does.
I wanted to play Neil Young songs and Queen operas, she wanted me to play Beethoven. I wanted to read leaflets and poems from the book shop, she wanted me to read the Bible. And if you’ve never learned Beethoven or the Bible at home, it doesn’t have the same boredom-inducing rebellious qualities. It’s just awesome, beautiful music and crazy, fantastical stories! Coming home talking to my parents about the Bible was on par with the average kid coming home to his Christian parents to tell them about his new love for the shitty disco outfit KISS.
Carol died alone in her apartment; she fell in the bathtub. I came home from school to find my apartment door locked, which usually meant my parents were out and I should go to Carols. I went downstairs and knocked for several minutes. When I didn’t receive an answer after ten minutes, I just let myself in knowing she would leave her door unlocked for me. It took me about thirty seconds to find her and call 911.
I sat alone in her empty apartment after the ambulance took her away waiting for my parents to get home and I ended up sleeping on Carol’s couch and awaking to the sound of my parents singing David Bowie’s Heroes in the hallway.
I’m (hopefully) the only living formerly cool American kid who can’t stand to hear the song Heroes.