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Life of the Party

Last Friday I attended a party at a local bar for people who went to high school here. My family moved away midway through my junior year, but someone I knew from the local high school is a friend on Facebook. She invited me and I decided to force myself to get out of the house and go, heat wave or no heat wave.

The bar is on Dickson Street, only a few blocks from where I live. It was somewhat easier to see where I was going with my new glasses, but I took my folded up cane just in case. I was anxious to find out how much better I could navigate a crowded bar—and to see a few people I haven’t seen in 25-30 years.

But they would have to see me first.

The ones I’ve reconnected with on Facebook would probably be able to recognize me from my photo on there. There’s no trace left of the skinny, wide-eyed boy with shaggy, wavy blond hair in the helmet-head style of the late 70s and early 80s. Of course, there would be people from several different eras there, not just my class. It occurred to me that I might be one of the oldest ones there, which might make me feel even older than being there visually impaired with a cane would.

So, I was prepared for the possibility of not knowing most of the others. But, we’d have a bond—we’re “natives” in a booming city where transplants easily outnumber hometown folk. Just having a few dozen of us in one place is noteworthy in itself.

After buying a bottle of Michelob, I made my way to the back patio, where we were supposed to gather. Instantly, my self-confidence vanished. Poof! Just like that. It was gone faster than an ice cube on the hot pavement in front of the bar.

Groups of people laughed and talked in small groups all around me. Now and then, women squealed upon recognizing old classmates. I overheard a cluster of women near me and it turned out they were from the Class of ’75. This bolstered my confidence a bit, knowing I was probably somewhere in the middle, age-wise.

I stood there, looking around and listening intently to more than one conversation at once and hoping someone would recognize me and speak to me. It wasn’t as if they all knew each other. People who graduated in 2008 are old enough to drink now. There could have been at least a forty year span of former FHSers there.

Standing there in the middle of all that social flow, like a rock in a stream, made me self-conscious. I moved to the edge of the crowd and discovered some plastic patio chairs. Perfect. I could sit there, relax, be out of the way, and observe without being too conspicuous. I reminded myself I wasn’t as invisible as I felt and that everyone else could see me better than I could see them—something I’ve grown accustomed to, but may never be entirely comfortable with.

One thing I had to keep in mind was that I only went to school a year and a half with the kids who were from the other junior high across town, which decreased the odds of being recognized. I had four and a half years with kids from my junior high from different elementary schools. That wasn’t a very big window of opportunity.

“You have the right idea,” a female voice said. I followed the direction it came from, not sure if she was talking to me. She must have seen the confused look on my face. “The chair,” she continued.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Pull up a chair.”

Her name was Patty, from the Class of ’77.

“Class of ’82,” I said, not bothering to explain the last part of my high school experience was a few counties away.

“You’re just a baby.”

Sure, I knew better than that, but I liked hearing it. It was nice having someone to chat with. I dropped a few names of older kids from my old neighborhood she might have known. None were familiar to her. It was a fairly large school even back in the 70s.

Now and then, she commented on people around us and I explained I don’t see well. The cane was folded up in my lap, but I leaned over it like it might try to fly away.

“The men just get more handsome with age,” she said. OK, she could keep talking like that and it would suit me just fine. No doubt she was referring mostly to the men she’d known in high school. Or maybe she was referring to men in general.

At one point, she indicated everyone else wore name tags with the school colors of the junior high they’d attended prior to high school.

“Where are they handing them out?” I asked.

She described a woman in the distance, but I couldn’t see her. Maybe a name tag would have helped people recognize me. There just had to be someone else there from “my” era. My beer was almost gone and I wasn’t sure how much longer I was going to stay. The heat had made me sweat it out as fast as I’d been drinking it, so I didn’t get help in the self-assurance department I would have gotten on a cooler day. Because I have a transplanted pancreas, I’m limited to one drink a week.

Patty excused herself and went on her way. Either she was leaving, saw someone she knew, or was totally bored by me. Stop it, Jim! I wish I didn’t beat myself up like that.

I finished my beer and made my way back to the front door. Even though I was headed east, away from the sun, it was harder for me to see than when I’d arrived. Everything was bathed in yellow-orange glare, which made it all look flat and two-dimensional, like a photograph. It’s ironic that the worst time of day for my vision is just before the best time. At dusk, when the sun slips behind the hills, I see with amazing clarity. This time of year, it stays light quite a while after the sun makes an exit. It’s why I gladly endure the heat.

After bumping into a pole just outside the bar, I unfolded the cane and used it to help me get home. People offered help when I crossed a street with a traffic light, thinking I had no vision at all. As much as this town has grown since I went to high school here, it still has the polite feel of a smaller place.

On the way home, I thought of how little credit I’d given the other people at the patio. This was at George’s Majestic Lounge, the oldest—and maybe the friendliest—bar in Arkansas. They would have spoken to me if I’d spoken first, especially if I had remembered to smile.

Then I remembered how much more self-confident I was when I moved back from Florida twenty-four years ago. After being around so many Northeasterners who’d landed there, I had a tougher skin. If I tried to talk to someone at a party or a bar and encountered “attitude,” I almost always let it roll off my back, not letting it affect my evening or how I felt about myself the least bit.

Of course, I could see fine then.

Still, I need to get back to that level of confidence. People can’t just glance at me and have any idea of what I’ve been through. There are few who aren’t fascinated and in awe of it. This isn’t a place where people are callous and rude to strangers, especially the disabled ones.

There may not be a trace of that skinny, wide-eyed high school boy left, but the more athletic, sophisticated one from 1987 is there just beneath the surface—but with more maturity and a story to tell.

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