In the early to mid-1980s, KOFY TV-20 in San Francisco aired a live teen “Dance Party” with local high school kids. It went like this: a camera moved randomly around a dimly-lit room with flashing lights and a disco ball packed with teenagers dancing to recorded music, dancing in groups like teens tend to do, waving at the camera, smiling, laughing and, at a moment’s notice, pulling out their best moves—popping, locking, the moon walk—when the camera person gave them a solo spotlight.
It all happened in San Francisco, a city fifty miles to the north of the Evergreen area of East San Jose, where I lived at the foot of Mount Hamilton. San Francisco felt out of reach, except for the annual or so excursion in our Trans Van to show relatives and friends Chinatown, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Crookedest Street and the fountain in the Hyatt Regency Hotel near the Embarcadero. I knew a lot more happened in the city than on the wide, freshly-gravelled suburban streets where our tract home stood.
During my freshman year in high school, I’d come straight home from school at 3 p.m., go upstairs to my bedroom and immediately change out of my school clothes and into my favorite jean skirt and a t-shirt. After checking the fridge for a snack, only to find things like leftover adobo trapped in a layer of gelatinous stock and stored in an old butter container, I’d resort to making myself an English muffin or a grilled cheese sandwich. The only items I really knew how to cook at the time, besides rice.
Then I’d turn on TV-20 to watch the Dance Party. Watching Dance Party and exchanging letters in French with my pen pal Claudia in Alessandria, Italy were the highlights of my life. I didn’t have friends at school, except for my two older sisters and their friends. Not only did I not have friends at school, but I had more enemies than I could count. Three Filipino girls from my middle school, with whom I’d once been close but ended up ditching by eighth grade to hang out with another Filipino girl, made it a point to give me hell my freshman year. “She thinks she’s too good for us.” Although I didn’t think that at all. What I didn’t like was how they talked behind each other’s back, only to act friendly when face-to-face. Something I thought unique to our group, but now know this to be a common dynamic in most social circles.
The girls fell in with the San Jose Boys, an all-Filipino gang who wore black, greased their hair back, hung out in the parking lot smoking around their souped-up cars that were slammed to the ground within inches, had dark tinted windows and louvers. Although I couldn’t prove it, the girls vandalized my locker on a weekly basis. Once, it got kicked in, another time they spray-painted “Bitch” on it, and, the most clever form of vandalism was that time they smeared rubber cement all over the combination lock so I could no longer turn it. School janitors got tired of coming around to fix my locker.
One of the girls hit me in the girls’ locker room when I was changing into my workout clothes. I sat on the bench half-naked when I felt a fist strike my left cheek. Not a knuckle punch, but a closed fist from the side, one that had less impact. Even in that moment I thought, ‘At least punch me the right way if you’re gonna punch me.’ I jumped up and started to attack her, my bony arms flailing in all directions, adrenaline so high I felt as if I could rip the bench right from the concrete floor of the locker room. I got on top of her and wanted to kill her, but before I could do any damage, two P.E. teachers grabbed me from each side and lifted me off the ground, all ninety-five pounds of me. Both of us got suspended. When I returned to school the following week, another one of the girls spread a rumor across the whole campus that she was going to kick my ass after school for hurting her friend. The rumor got to me by third period or so, and by the time sixth period ended, hundreds of kids had gathered in the senior quad to watch us fight. She got in my face. She was tougher than me, this girl I’d known since fifth grade. Short like me, but stocky and masculine. And angry. I had no chance. To my surprise, a boy who liked me stood in front of me to protect me from her, and the girl eventually backed away.
So it was during this time that Dance Party became part of my after-school ritual. I had no friends. I sucked at sports. I had no musical talent. There were no after-school activities that interested me, and no one made it a point to let me know that any were available to me. The only thing I wanted to do was to get far away from campus and be in the safety of my home. Safe at least until my dad arrived home from work at 5 p.m. That two-hour window where I knew I wouldn’t get yelled at, screamed at or possibly even hit for doing something I wasn’t supposed to do or not doing something I was supposed to do. Minutes before he’d arrive home, I’d go back upstairs to hide in my bedroom, only to come out again for dinner.
I watched those kids dance around with big smiles on their faces. Wondered what building they were in, what part of the city they were in, how they got on the show. Were they selected at random? Did they put their name on a list? Did they audition? These kids were in high school just like me. But instead of going home after school like me, staring at the bedroom wall, they were on TV having a great time.
These were city kids.
I imagined them riding around in chauffeured limousines, sipping Coke from gold straws in their high-rise apartments. The fifty mile distance between us might as well have been thousands of miles. Might as well have been another country. I knew the chances of me ending up on a show like that were the same as the chances of me ever reconciling with my enemies: zero.
And so for five days a week, over the course of the school year, I gazed at the cool San Francisco kids with their moves and their hair and their flashing earrings. Felt dizzied by the swirling camera, wondered if I’d ever see anyone I knew (even though I didn’t know anyone in San Francisco). Wanted nothing more than to join in, to be a part of their crowd, to have a chance to be seen on television. To escape the empty streets of East San Jose, the tract homes pushed up against each other, the heat, the dry hills with solitary trees struggling to survive. Just keep dancing, I thought. Please keep dancing.
Beverly Parayno is from San Jose, California. Her fiction, memoir excerpts and author interviews have appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Rumpus, Memoir Pool, Huizache, Warscapes and Southword: New Writing from Ireland. A resident of Oakland, she is a grants consultant for social justice nonprofits in the Bay Area.