What They Call “Normcore” These Days

Luc and I are sitting out on the balcony at work again. The air is full with spring’s tranquil sensation. The day’s overcast but warm. It smells of future rain. Luc’s been telling me more about Leah, the organic hipster girl he met on OkCupid. I’m sure she wouldn’t describe herself that way either. She’s Jewish, never been married and 33, “Which is a little old for me,” Luc jokes, “But we had a great first date. We were supposed to go for a walk over to this garden a friend of hers runs. So I brought us a Frisbee. I figured it would be something fun to do. When I saw her locking up her bike outside the café we were supposed to meet at, I recognized her from her profile pic. So I said, Leah¸catch! And she did.”

But I’m not really paying attention to Luc’s story today. Instead, the intricacies of my own story are on my mind. He senses my distraction and pauses. Luc’s a pretty perceptive guy. I know it’s served him well over the years. It certainly has me. If my mind worked a little differently, Luc and I would have made great friends throughout most of our lives. I’m sure he thinks the same thing. Even though our styles are different by this point in time. Luc still wears the accoutrements of an urban rocker. Whereas I’m deciding I’ve become what my Brooklyn friends are calling “normcore” these days. But now there’s a term for my current fashion theory, I’m thinking it’s time to switch up once more. Besides, I’ve been dressing this way for over four years now. And that’s practically an eternity for me. I recently grew a beard again (something I haven’t had since the last time I was homeless) and stopped tucking in my tee shirts like I’ve been doing recently. I’m even wearing my hair a little longer once more. But that’s not enough.

Still, it’s taken a lot of work for me to make a friend like Luc, and I’m proud of that. Since he’s paused in relating this past weekend’s events, I ask, “Have you heard all this chatter on Facebook about normcore lately?”

He shakes his head, No, and he wonders, “What’s that?”

“Well, I’ve been reading about it, and it’s kinda crazy, but it’s exactly what’s been guiding my fashion choices since I got clean this last time. It’s more or less, like, trying to be completely basic in how you present yourself to others. So nobody can decide on their own what you might be like until after they meet you. The article I was reading said not to be fooled, though, these aren’t people who don’t know how to dress. This is a fashion choice. I was telling Cora about it yesterday, and she panicked. Gabriel, don’t ever let me become normcore, she pleaded. And I told her I’d try, but that, in reality, I was pretty convinced some hipster kid must have seen me walking around Brooklyn right before I left this last time and decided he wanted to adopt my style. She just rolled her eyes and told me not to flatter myself too much, I wasn’t normcore anyways.” Luc and I both laugh at this.

Then, he asks, “So what made you not want people to be able to know about you from your looks?”

“That’s the same thing Cora asked. And I’m sure I had a reason, but honestly, I can’t remember anymore.” Truthfully, though, I know.

But it hasn’t always been this easy.

When I first moved back to DC, I went out to see a coworker’s band with one of those guys ten years younger than me who I started this job with. The band was good. They reminded me a little bit of that old California skate punk sound from the eighties, something like The Descendents, but even more like The Descendents’ nineties incarnation as All. The lead singer for our coworker’s band was an Iraq War vet, wounded in 2004, at the age of 19, somewhere outside Fallujah. He’d spent nine months in Walter Reed Hospital on the edge of DC, recovering from shrapnel shattered his leg, but by the time I saw them, he’d transferred all those raw emotions into a powerful stage presence. Our coworker told us it was a shame we couldn’t understand his singer’s lyrics – they were really good.

The next band to come onstage was a roots revival band – talented kids with an authentic country twang. Talking to them afterwards, I found they’d just come from Nashville. But when Tomas, my newfound friend from the Copywriter Development Program, asked what I thought afterwards, I said, “They were good, but I heard a ton of that stuff when I was living out in Charlottesville.”

Tomas was commuting from Northern Virginia at the time. He’d just graduated college the year before and wasn’t sure whether or not city life was for him yet. So when he’d started our job, he’d settled for something in between his suburban upbringing outside Philadelphia and DC’s urban lifestyle – the bustling inner suburb of Arlington, which has an aesthetic more like his collegiate experience at that Big 10 school. I respected his decision. He had a couple drinks in him. So when he asked if I knew anywhere we could go out in the city after the show, I told him there was a place on U Street not too far from there I used to hang when I’d come in town in the late nineties. “It might not be there anymore, though. I mean, I haven’t been to this place in over ten years. But back in the day, I definitely dug the atmosphere.”

I took a weekend trip to DC while I was still living in Boston in 1999. My ex-AA sponsor came in town from Annapolis, Maryland to visit me and another friend of ours from collegiate Alcoholics Anonymous who’d relapsed along with me a couple months after I’d graduated. Pete, our mutual friend, had called me up right after I’d moved up to Boston. He said he’d heard through the grapevine I’d started drinking again, and he was wondering how it was going. I told him, “Cool, man. No problems so far.” Pete was teaching English somewhere in the District back then, and he was very unhappy about that. My last memory of Pete is at a bar in New York’s East Village, an empty baggy of cocaine stuck to the tip of his tongue while he’s screaming at me in this streetlight’s glare about how he told me just to take a bump and I snorted the whole fucking thing. Last I heard Pete suffered a vicious drunk driving accident somewhere in Australia. I don’t even know what he was doing down there. Before that, I’d heard he was trying to clean up from heroin once again. I hope he’s still breathing, still walking, but I don’t know. I never have discovered him on Facebook. Pete was the one first took me to that bar I was heading off to with my new colleague, Tomas, on that night after we watched our coworker’s band for the very first time.

It was summertime the night Tomas and I walked over to that bar, and I was wearing a white, V-neck tee shirt tucked into blue jeans, canvas sneakers and a paper boy’s flat cap. My belt was thick, black leather. “What’s that on your neck, Gabriel?” Tomas wondered as we swerved in and out of U Street’s multi-racial crowd, “A tattoo?”

My tee shirt’s neckline must have fallen in the back. In Charlottesville, during my second psychosis, I’d gotten that tattoo placed on me in such a way it should have only been visible above a wife-beater. So I shook my head, and I answered, “Yes. It is.”

“What is it?”

“The name ‘Michael.’ In Hebrew.”

“Really? Why’d you get ‘Michael’ tattooed on you. In Hebrew nonetheless?”

“Long story.”

“Do you have any other tattoos?”

“I do.”

“Where are they?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

The dense, dark bar was exactly as I remembered. A solitary light illuminated the two cramped bartenders handing out the patrons’ poison. No television. In the window up front, the DJ was even still playing the same 1950s rockabilly my dad had played for me during childhood drives from where I lived in Houston back then to where he was at in Dallas. A hectic crowd in jeans and tee shirts were swinging solitary around the dance floor. I don’t know what kind of beer Tomas had to drink, but he grabbed me a ginger ale. That was awfully thoughtful of him. But it was too loud inside to talk. So we headed back to the graffiti encrusted patio where I lit a smoke.

In shorts and flip flops, Tomas cut a different pattern from the rest of the patrons, and he was aware of it. He asked for a cigarette, but it didn’t fit between his fingers. Holding it at a skewed angle, his lips curled too much when taking a drag, and his inhale was forced. “Guess this place must have changed,” he said. “What is it with all these fucking hipsters?”

I looked around. “Actually, it’s exactly the same. Maybe a little more crowded, but that’s about it.”

“So you’re comfortable in a bar like this?”

“Sure. It reminds me of my old neighborhood in New York.”

“I don’t get it.” Tomas said. He mocked, “Look at me… I’m so fucking cool. I’m so fucking different. I’m so fucking special. Let’s ‘occupy’ something… Shut the fuck up.”

I shrugged, “I don’t know. I mean, when we all showed up in Williamsburg…”

“Wait a second. Did you just say ‘we’?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Are you saying you’re a hipster?”

“I wouldn’t really describe myself that way, but I was in Williamsburg in the early 2000s…”

“Wow… never thought I’d be hanging out with a hipster. Oh well, cheers!” His beer can clinked my ginger ale, and as Tomas wiped the suds from his lips, he asked, “So tell me, hipster, do you shower?”

I smiled.

Tomas and I continued talking as the evening wore down and the sky above our patio turned into a humid summer’s late night darkness. Two women in their early thirties sat down on the bench beside us. One was blonde, the other brunette, but there was nothing particularly striking about either of them. I don’t remember what prompted Tomas’ interruption of their conversation. It was probably alcohol.

“So how do you two know each other?” the blonde one leaned forward and asked us.

“We work together,” I quickly pointed out.

“Oh,” she went on, “That’s why you look so normal. While you… Why are you wearing that hat anyways? Are you going bald?”

“No,” I said. “It’s just a hat.”

The blonde girl laughed while her friend said, “Figures. DC hipster. Should have known… You probably live on H Street, don’t you?”

I was surprised, but I shook my head, “No. Columbia Heights.”

The two women made fun of my outfit for a little while. They laughed about what they assumed my lifestyle to be. I discovered one of them worked in construction. I told her I used to do the same, but she didn’t believe me. Eventually, they decided they wanted to head back inside and dance now that Prince was on. They were bored making fun of me.

One of Cora’s and my first dates was to a midnight showing of Prince’s Purple Rain. They’re screening it a lot this year at E Street Cinema since 2014 is the 30th anniversary of the film’s release. I’d never actually seen the movie before, but it’s a classic from Cora’s household. Prince is her mother’s favorite artist. My mother’s favorite artists are The Beatles. That’s a definite generation gap between us. I’ve certainly seen A Hard Day’s Night. My dad made sure I saw it when I was still in middle school.

I remember staying up late one night in secondgrade to watch a special on Prince. I didn’t know who he was at the time. Instead, I thought the television was telling me a story about Michael Jackson, my favorite artist of the era. I was a child. Once I figured out my mistake, I raved about Prince to all my classmates as if I were the one in the know about something they had never heard about.

When I finally saw Purple Rain, I loved the control Prince exerted over it. I loved how he took a semi-autobiographical story and turned it into semi-religious art. That was the second midnight movie of Cora’s and my relationship. Our first was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Cora had never seen it before. I didn’t think it was actually all that important to me. Even though, I remembered watching it a lot in high school. For a few months during junior year, every day after school, I went with the rest of the punk rockers over to a friend of ours place to watch it. I wanted to be Frank N. Furter.

After seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show again this year, I realized it was one of the most influential pieces of cinematographic art I’ve ever experienced. Its lyrics consistently ring through my mind. I remember one night in New York… Its rose-tinted vision colored so much of my world. I refuse to agree with the commentary the actors from this production made at the beginning. Where they listed it as the second worst film ever made. Plan 9 from Outer Space being the absolute worst. Even though that’s an outdated ranking. The contemporary consensus seems to be the worst movie ever made is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

That was the last midnight movie Cora and I went to see. Cora loved it so much she ordered a copy on DVD. That’s when I realized she was the girl for me. Now, I won’t deny The Room is horribly executed. But at the same time, it’s a masterpiece of personal vision. Tremendously flawed, but stupendous in its expression of one individual’s conceptual suffering. Tommy Wiseau is a true auteur acting outside the movie industry’s usual constraints of plotline, character building and story arc. Now, that may not sound like a positive experience to you, but to me, it’s the only way an art form can grow. Maybe The Room is something like what this project you’re reading right now will turn out to be. I don’t know. I’d prefer to create Purple Rain.

As soon as those girls were gone, Tomas said, “Man, those girls sure didn’t like you.” I shrugged and stood up. He asked me, “Where are you going?”

“To dance with those girls,” I said.

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