“No,” said the bus driver, shortly before I burst into tears.
It was Halloween, 2002. Everyone was still feeling very American after September 11th. My family had been ostracized from the neighborhood because we hadn’t put up a flag yet, but we only hadn’t because the local Walmart was sold out.
Having never been popular (I had a rattail), I was stunned when James invited to go trick-or-treating with him. “Really?” I had replied, incredulous as everyone else. He shrugged.
Now I understand that his mother made him invite me. This was an attempt to earn points with my mother, who worked in the same field but in a higher position, and with a different company. In the business world, this is called “strategy.” Elsewhere, they call it “douchebaggery.”
Nonetheless, this was my big break with a more popular crowd. Finally I could stop hanging out with my band of losers, a group that included: me.
I needed a snazzy costume, something cool that didn’t try to hard. (I was in the 6th grade.) Naturally, I went to my father.
My dad went to art school and had long hair, so he was “hip.” Unfortunately, it was 2002, over forty years after the sixties. His first suggestions were as ambitious as they were wrong: Kermit the Frog; a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle; He-Man. Years later, at Barcade in Brooklyn, I told a friend about all these rejected options. “Dude!” he cajoled, stroking his beard. He took an instagram of his reaction, printed it on a totebag and sold it on Etsy. Point being, I turned down all the options of a hipster’s wet dream for something better.
My father and I decided that I would go out as a welcome mat. Because my name is Matt. Get it?
So I went to school in, quite literally, two welcome mats sewn together like a poncho, or a burlap sack. He had spray painted “WELCOME MATT” on one of them to get the point across. When James saw my costume, he said, “Cool,” and went back to not talking to me. I was flattered.
For those of you who aren’t tragic, here’s what happens when you want something good in your life: everything goes wrong. I found out at lunch that to go home with James and his friends, I needed written permission from my parents to take a different bus.
I immediately set to action by forgetting both of my parents cellphone numbers. Scrambling to recover, I dug through my backpack until I found a card with emergency contacts on it. For some reason, it only had my sister’s work number on it. I went to the office, explained my situation, and they dialed the number for me.
As the phone rang, I realized I had forgotten to mention that my sister worked at Philadelphia Gay News. They had the phone on speaker. PGN’s receptionist, Marco, picked up.
There are three things you need to know about Marco. For one, he is a large, muscular, black guy. He has a heart of gold, but on the phone he sounds like he will eat your family. Two, he is a very proud gay man. Three, he is generally in a bad mood when unknown numbers call the office, because kids used to prank call him since his voice didn’t match his opening line.
He picked up. “Thank you,” he bellowed into my elementary school’s main office, “for calling the Philadelphia Gay News, Philly’s proudest newspaper.”
The receptionist immediately laughed, which was rude but understandable.
“Fuck you,” said Marco, hanging up, which was also rude but understandable.
The receptionist sent me back to class, thinking I had pranked her, not listening to my pleas. There was no way I was getting a note to get on that bus.
And indeed, as I piled along with James and his friends towards his bus, the driver took their notes one by one. He came to me. “Where’s your note?”
I began to explain. He stopped me.
“Do you have one?”
“I’m already late.”
“No,” said the bus driver, and I shortly burst into tears.
My dad drove me over to James’ when I got home. They were playing Playstation when I got there, which was new to me. I had always had Nintendo. This immediately made me uncool.
After taking advantage of my inability to figure out button sequences, we went out into the night. It was cold and my legs were trapped up in a very rigid costume. They kept running ahead of me to watch me waddle behind them, a walking pun in awkward rectangular form.
At one point, scrambling ahead of me, James accidentally knocked over a porcelain pumpkin that one woman had put up, too lazy to carve a real jack-o-lantern.
She came out of the house and harangued him. To his credit, he was apologetic and polite. He promised to pay for it. After she left, it was my turn to be cool.
“Screw that lady,” I said, finally caught up with the pack as they walked slowly in shame. “You should just lie and not pay her back.”
“That’s the wrong thing to do,” said James. “I’m responsible for that. I’m gonna make sure it gets fixed.”
He was right, of course, and trying to be cool, I was awkwardly wrong. What I wouldn’t figure out till years later is that being cool just means being a dick to the right people.
Later, back at the house, I asked my dad to pick me up early. And he did. They eyed me as I left, no one saying goodbye, some of them expressing disappointment at losing their punching bag. They went back to playing Spyro, which is a video game about dragons. They were so god damn cool.
Years later, I ran into James’ mother at a dinner party. I mentioned the halloween in question.
She looked at me, baffled. “You knew we were always kind of mean to each other,” I said.
“No, not that,” she replied, “He told me he didn’t break the pumpkin. I got in a huge fight with Mrs. Sanderson over that. We don’t talk anymore.”
What a dick.