My goal in high school was to be the ultimate alternateen. It was the early 1990s, and grunge music had crept out of the damp garages of
My path to becoming an alternateen was paved with some obstacles. The first was friends, or my serious lack of them. The people that I wanted to hang out with, the ones going to Soundgarden concerts and starting their own bands, intimidated me. I didn’t feel cool enough to even talk to them. Instead, I ate lunch with girls who listened to Top 40 radio and shopped at Deb. They were nice enough, but I didn’t feel like I was friends with any of them. I felt like they tolerated my presence but secretly thought I was a total weirdo. Which I was.
Another issue was my budget. I made minimum wage ($4.25) frying chicken and washing dishes at the supermarket deli, and most of my earnings were poured down the gas tank of my trusty 1974 Dodge Dart. I couldn’t afford the wardrobe staple of alternateens everywhere: Doc Marten boots. All I had were my stupid fake leather Doc knockoffs from Payless, which made my feet sweat like nobody’s business. Spending a day in those boots was like throwing my feet into one of the deepest pits of hell, so I rarely wore them.
What I could afford were t-shirts. The best ones, of course, could only be obtained at concerts, and I was not allowed to drive to
Two weeks later, a manila envelope arrived in my mailbox. Yes! I ripped it open and unfolded the shirt. Here is what I saw:
I’d seen one of the long-haired alternaboys (my would-be boyfriends) wearing this shirt around school, and I was pleased. I’d never heard Dinosaur Jr’s music, but that didn’t matter in the least. I was certain that this t-shirt was the ticket to all my dreams. It would transform me from nerdy freak to alternateen.
The next morning, I put on my new t-shirt, feeling instantly cooler. I threw on my rattiest pair of jeans and (ugh) the fake Doc Martens. I walked downstairs to have breakfast, throwing my shoulders back, certain that this was going to be the best day of my life.
My mother was in the kitchen making pancakes. She glanced up from the griddle, and her eyes grew wide.
“What are you wearing?”
“I can see that. Why are you wearing a shirt that shows a little girl smoking a cigarette?”
“I like the band.” A lie, but what did my mother know?
“You can’t wear that to school.”
“Why?” I knew why.
“You know why.”
My grandfather had died the previous summer of lung cancer, and my mom was working on an anti-tobacco campaign for the state. I was as against smoking as she was, but couldn’t she see that the shirt was a joke?
“I want to wear it.”
“Well, then you’ll have to cover up the cigarette somehow.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Then go find a different shirt.”
This was unbelievable. Did my mother realize that she was shattering my dreams and ruining my life? Obviously not. I stomped upstairs to my mother’s sewing corner and rummaged through her supplies. I found a patch of the American flag. I carefully ironed it on to my t-shirt so that it was hanging off the end of the cigarette. Now it looked like the girl was hanging out a Fourth of July parade.
“Happy?” I asked my mom, modeling my modified t-shirt.
She smiled faintly. “Not really, but it’s an improvement. Go ahead and wear it if you want.”
That day at school, a bunch of people asked me why I had a patch on my t-shirt. I explained that I’d bought the shirt this way at a concert, but I don’t think anybody bought my story. I was a fraud, and everybody knew it.
I couldn’t wait for the day to end, and I bolted from my seat as the bell rang at the end of eighth period. As I race to my locker, I noticed the long-haired boys standing in a cluster by the water fountain. The cutest one smiled when he saw me, and nudged his friends. This was it. I was officially a joke.
Then they all started clapping and shouting, “Yeah!”
Were they serious? It looked like it.
I smiled a little and continued walking. After I passed them, a huge grin broke out on my face. They thought my shirt was cool, even with the dumb flag patch. Maybe there was hope for me after all.
I never wore that t-shirt again, but I did eventually buy the Green Mind album, whose cover features the smoking girl. It’s good. I wish I’d heard it before I put on that t-shirt. The title track would have provided me with some much-needed perspective:
I've been bouncing off the walls
I can’t hang with them for long
They’re cool, but I need you
On a certain level I think they’re great
But on another I can’t relate
To anything they do
Thanks, Sarah, for this great guest blog!