By THOM HAWKINS
My last semester in college, in 1998, I grew anxious about my future. The question wasn't so much what I was going to do with my life--that implied some sort of control I didn't believe I had--but "what would life be like?"
Every night, I time-traveled. From 8:30pm until 2am, I watched Nick at Nite from when it went on the air to when it went off, looking for answers in what I considered at the time to be "reality TV." The Mary Tyler Moore Show--could I, would I work at a news station? Would I have awkward parties at my apartment with co-workers and neighbors? Green Acres--could I, would I work on a farm? (I ultimately would, but it was more Real World than Green Acres.) Was I the Oliver Wendell Douglas type, or the Mr. Haney? The Brady Bunch--could I, would I find myself behind the wheel of a large automobile? In a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife? How would I get there?
The show I identified with the most didn't answer any questions about the future, though I asked plenty. Ultimately, Happy Days seemed the most realistic of the shows--not because of its signature character, Arthur Fonzarelli, but because of its trio of awkward teens, Richie Cunningham, Potsie Weber, and Ralph Malph. In one episode, Potsie hears that the way to turn a woman on is by blowing on her ear, which he tries, rather forcefully, as if he's trying to force out some dust blocked in her ear canal, or explaining a hurricane to her brain. It was Happy Days' genius that the punchline was obvious, but Potsie's earnestness made you look forward to it anyway, for his sake, because he didn't see it coming. And even if blowing in a woman's ear seems far-fetched to me now as a married man, at that time in my life, I would have thought it was worth a try.
In another episode, the three are in the men's room at Arnold's--they've attached a bra to the radiator and are practicing removing it, but they're undone by its fiendish clasp. The punchline was given to the Fonz, who has merely to touch the clasp for it to fly open. The Fonz's trick was an anticlimax for me, who wanted to see how Richie, Potsie, and Ralph Malph would ultimately fare had they continued their quest. They could have devoted the entire episode to that one problem and I would have watched, because even at the age I was watching, almost a college graduate, a bra clasp was still mysterious. I had and still would endure the same trial, even once or twice spending several minutes fumbling around on the back of a bra, only to be told that this particular bra opened in the front. Opened in the front? They can do that? And if so, why didn't they always? (Young gentlemen working your way to second base, ask your lady friend to explain the mechanics of her bra--she'll be happy to remove it and show you its parts ... along with hers.)
I didn't have a leather jacket, or even blue jeans, but I began dressing like a Happy Days extra--or at least like I was Jailhouse Rock Elvis for Halloween--in black jeans, a black denim jacket, and white t-shirt. My friend wore roughly the same gear, but I had to loan him the pants--and shoes, too. (He must have gotten awfully cold in the winters before he started hanging around with me.) In the absence of Arnold's, we took our meals at a local diner (which anachronistically hadn't opened until 1964). We played songs from three discs on the jukebox--Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Patsy Cline. Elvis and Sinatra were discs 8 and 9 in the jukebox, and we always left the table with the juke opened to the songlistings for those discs. My girlfriend in that era, the one with the front-opening bra, expressed delight once at sitting down with her friends and finding the juke opened the way I left it, knowing that I had warmed the seat for her (she hoped it was me, and not my pantsless friend).
Leather Tuscadero, played by Suzi Quatro, was a revelation for me in one motion. She greeted by slapping twice on her thigh and then pointing, as if with a gun. It gave her the air of a hip, confident gunslinger, who knew that she faced someone with no bullets, and was in no hurry to kill. For at least six months, and even occasionally ten years thereafter, I greeted people the same way. And this marked my entrance into the post-college world, after hours of nightly research, I greeted the dusk of the twentieth century dressed as a character from a show made in the 1970s and 80s about the 1950s and 60s. I shed these trappings gradually, falling away due to economics or the effects of age on my waistline--but the one thing that has yet to abandon me is the feeling that I am Potsie Weber, blowing into a young woman's ear.