If you saw the movie "West Side Story" you may remember that one of the plot lines was the friction between two street gangs, The Sharks and The Jets. There were gangs around for sure in the Fifties in our neighborhood, but they couldn't dance like the gangs in this movie! In my neighborhood we saw an interesting phenomenon around the time Pat Boone started to become popular. Up until then, guys tended to dress in regular street clothes, or if they identified with James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" like I did, they wore black leather jackets, dungarees (not jeans) and motorcycle boots. Although I sported the "hood" look, I was a fraud. I was just a regular guy trying to fit in.
When Pat Boone arrived on the scene, I noticed a change in the way guys were dressing. Pat was the personification of the clean-cut kid, the anti-Elvis, and parents and kids alike embraced him. Maybe Pat could help stem the tide of Rock and Roll, the devil's music. Maybe if our kids had someone popular they could emulate, we still had a chance to save their souls. In my high school, black jackets and boots began to disappear as button-down shirts and white bucks or saddle shoes took their place. Long hair with duck-tails got cut and hair was styled more like Pat's, parted neatly and combed to the side. Dungarees were out and chino pants with that little belt across the ass were in. The Preppies were taking on The Hoods and winning.
I resisted, mainly because I thought Pat Boone was not even in the same league as James Dean. He was polite instead of sullen; neatly groomed instead of a slob; and sang songs about lolly pops and moonbeams...I hated him. But soon my friends began to switch sides. I hardly recognized them in their sissy shoes and school sweaters. I held out as long as I could, but as the hood clique faded away like Neanderthal man, I became more and more conspicuous. Nobody wanted to hang out with a hood anymore, even a fake one. Teachers looked on hoods as trouble back in the day when they still had some actual authority to make your life difficult. But the straw that broke the camel's back was when most of the good looking girls moved into the Preppie camp. I had no choice but to cave.
When I asked my mother if I could but some new clothes, she resisted because money was tight. When I told her I wanted to try button-down shirts and chinos however, she muttered her thanks to Our Lady of Mount Carmel and we went to Mays Department Store. Now I show up in school in Preppie garb and I felt like my worlds were colliding. The Preppie crowd was suspicious of my sudden conversion, and my hood friends looked at me like the Benedict Arnold I was. I didn't belong anywhere. Although I still harbored hood sympathies, by sheer strength of will, I out-prepped the Preppies. My acceptance came when I was allowed to sit at her cafeteria table with Sheila, Jewish American Princess and Queen of the Preppies. Ironically, having finally earned my white bucks, it slowly dawned on me that this was really not my crowd. Luckily, graduation day arrived and I went out into the world still not quite sure of who I was.
I guess the person who finally helped me find myself was my wife. After dating on and off for a few years, I realized that what I wanted in life was to spend the rest of it with her. I proposed and gave her an engagement ring while on a carriage ride in Central Park. This move was right out of the manual: "Romantic Gestures for the Clueless". Happily for me she accepted and has helped shape who I am ever since. Any good qualities or instincts I may have probably came from her. My bad points I attribute to the Hood-Preppie conflict that raged in me during those formative teen years. She has been at it for nearly 48 years now and still has work to do. I am very lucky that she never gave up on me. (Originally published 7/11/11)
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