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Chapter 3 — Starting a business at the age of nine to sell D&D books
An Ordinary Disaster — chapter 03 — North Dallas Forty
I was in fourth grade in 1979 when North Dallas Forty came out. At that stage in life I hadn’t quite yet begun to distance myself from anything that seemed popular with others, and so while I’m not sure why my best friend Zack's parents thought it would be a good idea for us to see an R-rated film about a fictionalized version of the Cowboys popping pills, hooking up with fans, and bashing each other to bloody bits on and off the field, I certainly thought it was cool of them to take us.
This was during the last of a three-year stretch during which my parents were able to afford to send me to a private school south of San Francisco, an imposing and elegant gold-rush banker’s mansion of square-edged white marble stairways and ornate balconies surrounded by eucalyptus and oaks. I felt special being there in that monument to Crocker’s wealth, repurposed as a playground for the sons and daughters of the early Silicon Valley elite. I was a Frisco kid, but at school I felt something larger—a sense of this place called California.
As for the film, the football wasn’t as interesting as the bits of adult sex, casual drug use, and raw physicality of the athletes, all of which became more real, normal, and possible by way of seeing them acted out on the big theater screen.
Not long after that movie night, I was over at Zack’s place again and his parents left us on our own while they went out to dinner. At first we were satisfied playing games on his beige-bodied Apple II, the primitive, blocky graphics crawling slowly across the screen along with bleeps and bloops of synthesized sound, but I had the feeling that there was an opportunity to get up to something more out of the ordinary while his parents were away.
As the last of the evening light on the pool deck of their San Mateo Eichler faded into darkness, I turned my attention from the screen towards the rest of the house and ventured to my young friend, “Let’s see if there’s anything to drink.” Looking up from the keyboard, Zack kind of squirmed as he replied, “I think there’s some wine in the kitchen.” After a quick search that involved climbing up on the counter to reach a higher cabinet, I hit the jackpot.
Back at ground level, we found a corkscrew and opened one of the clear, tapered bottles. Feeling myself duplicate something I’d seen many adults do already, I filled a wine glass with the viscous liquid, taking in the color and the dusty, sweet smell of what must have been some sort of kosher wine. I lifted the glass to my lips and drank. The wine went down easily, and from the first moment I felt a warm glow growing in my belly, somehow both electrifying and deeply relaxing. My heart rate increased and the colors around me seemed to brighten. I felt like my body was taking on a new shape, larger, more powerful, and more alive.
It felt like we’d found some sort of golden treasure. I quickly necked one glass, and a second, and then, like the thief that I often played in Dungeons & Dragons, I took the bottle by its neck and carried it back to the other room as booty.
What I recall of the rest of the evening is that Zack puked himself and passed out in the mess while I sat contentedly sipping wine and playing Breakout and Hammurabi until his parents came home, at which point I helped them clean up and get his sheets into the laundry. I felt fine—in fact, I felt better than ever. I felt like I’d passed a test. I felt more solid, and less like the low, grey, drifting fog of San Francisco. I felt like I had a story to tell.
That same year, Zack and I started a legally registered, tax-paying business that had us filling orders from our little classmates for the rulebooks and multi-colored polyhedrahal dice used to play D&D. At some point that year Zack and I were interviewed on a local TV program called Evening Magazine. I wore what was my favorite shirt at the time, an orange-and-black #34 football jersey, and proudly told the story of how we’d negotiated a wholesale account with the distributor by sending them a letter—probably printed out on my dad’s dot-matrix printer so as not to make it so obvious that we were just kids.
I was happy to tell this story too, and it felt good to be doing something so far ahead of the curve, but it also set us apart from our classmates, especially me, with my purple skateboard and my hair already starting to grow out longer.
All of these things—feeling alone and apart, earning my own money, and drinking—became part of me from then onwards. The feeling of alcohol was a powerful secret that took up residence in my body. It made itself at home there, and I was happy to have this new ally all to myself.
Thanks for reading, and for being part of this journey.
This is part of AN ORDINARY DISASTER, the book-length memoir about a man learning to listen to himself, and the price I paid until I learned how to do that, serialized right here on Substack with a new chapter published every week.
You can find everything from the memoir that I’ve published so far right here.
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