The doorbell shouldn’t have been ringing.
When you are a fat kid, and you have a half-day of school, you go home, you put in Salt’n Pepa’s Blacks’ Magic, and you re-read Danielle Steel’s Fine Things for the fourth time. This is life, and it is glorious.
But then the doorbell rings.
And your mother rushes back to your room.
Through gritted teeth, she tells you to, “Put your hair in a ponytail and go to the door.”
Because even she recognizes a popular kid when she sees one.
And she is sure that today could be your chance.
I had two bikes growing up. Each told me its name immediately.
Huffy, my first, was named for the large letters on its mid-bar that spelled out…“Huffy.”
Shockingly, Murray, my second, was named for the large letters on its mid-bar that spelled out…“Murray.”
Huffy was that quintessential white/pink/purple combination with tasseled handlebars and a flower-basket that said, “It is the 80s, and you probably have a vagina, so this is what your bicycle looks like.”
But Murray–Murray was different. Murray was black with fluorescent purple accents. Murray had hand brakes.
Most importantly, Murray was technically a “boy’s bike”. Like me: a little androgynous, with a puffy tube velcroed protectively around her middle region.
Murray was the bike that wouldn’t let me settle.
When I got to the door, Alyssa John was standing there.
She had a perm, I did not.
Because she was cool, and I was not.
But she was sick of hanging out with the Jaimie Harold, the one other girl who lived in our neighborhood; and I was not Jaimie Harold.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Wanna ride bikes to CVS?”
We rode bikes to CVS.
We ate Snickers.
We drank Pepsi.
We sat on the curb and talked about who was cute and who was hot.
It was great.
It was like that moment in Fine Things when Bernard realizes that he can find love again with Molly, even after the love of his life, Liz, had succumbed to cancer.
(The kind of cancer, it should be noted, that never manages to destroy her alluring beauty.)
Murray and I rode home, grinning across our handlebars.
This ride became a regular thing. It was my first real taste of independence, and it felt perfect. I could just get on a triangle attached to two circles and GO. I could ride anywhere. I could ride to Mexico.
Or at least Taco Bell.
These drugstore adventures with Murray also began my long and tortuous acceptance into the popular crowd at school.
Prior to this, popularity was something I had lusted after and pursued relentlessly with clever strategies, which included but were not limited to:
- Memorizing my dad’s hidden dirty joke books (i.e. “What do you get when you cross a rooster with peanut butter?”),
- Writing the really, really cool girls notes about how really, really cool I thought they were, along with illustrations, and
- Walking slowly past the popular kids’ lunch table on my way back from the cafeteria line, waiting for someone ask me to sit down. (I think they just had really soft voices.)
But with Murray and Alyssa, that began to change.
Alyssa and I hung out every week throughout most of 7th grade. By 8th grade, I was allowed to sit at the lunch table, albeit on the far edge of the bench. By 9th grade, I was a regular part of the group.
I also started exercising, lost most of my excess weight, and started dating the obligatory stoner named “Balls.”
By 10th grade, this was just life.
But unfortunately for my hard-won popularity, Murray’s influence on my independence hadn’t gone away. It just kept evolving. My tassels were long gone, and there was no flower-basket in sight.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, just when I finally had everything exactly as I wanted it, Murray’s whispers of exploration pushed me to go to Washington, D.C. for a weekend of progressive study and teen lobbying.
And that’s where it happened.
Partway through a late-night drum circle of Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine”, I looked down and realized that all of my clothes were from The Gap, which used slave labor.
I realized that my friends were kind of shallow, and wouldn’t be into this. I realized that my primary-colored patchwork button-down shirt was tucked in.
Suddenly, I knew that none of this was okay.
I expressed this epiphany in the way that clearly made the most sense: by embarking on a relentless boycott of PepsiCo and all attached products, in protest of their support of the military junta in Burma. (Teen activists hadn’t gotten the Myanmar memo yet.)
I know. Of course.
I think I had recently read a fact sheet about Burma and Pepsi’s investment in the SLORC military government, and somehow, it flowered in my brain. I decided that this—not movie nights, not choreographing dances to Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love,” not planning my burrito-selling, Phish-tailgating future with Balls–was the thing that would define my life.
I made it my sole mission to get Pepsi to divest from the Burmese government.
I came back from D.C. with my shirt untucked, talking to anyone who would listen (and most who wouldn’t) about Burma.
I made pins. (“Friends don’t let friends drink Pepsi”)
I made posters. (“Uncle Sam Wants YOU (Pepsi, out of Burma)!”)
I made tee shirts. (FRONT: “Fuck Pepsi…” BACK: “Since that’s what they’re doing to an entire country!”)
Every essay I wrote referenced boycotting PepsiCo and all of its subsidiaries, including Pizza Hut, KFC, and—the ultimate sacrifice for a 15-year-old vegetarian—Taco Bell. Bean Burritos, 7-layers, Choco Tacos–anything I could get without tomatoes–all of them disappeared from my life.
And my hard-won friends were soon to follow.
It was as if my bicycle had conspired with Burmese Independence leader Aung San Suu Kyi herself to destroy every social achievement I had made over the last three years.
My mother was heartbroken when I announced that I didn’t want to hang out with the popular kids anymore.
“Alyssa’s been such a good friend to you,” she whined fearfully, seeing me about to throw away the one dream we’d shared. “And Burma’s not even a country.”
She was right (about Alyssa, not Burma). Minus the usual teenage drama, Alyssa had been a great friend.
“I’m not not going to be her friend. I just need to talk to deeper people too. And it’s like right next to Thailand! Look at a map!”
To my parents’ credit, they rolled their eyes, but agreed to take a stand against global capitalism by buying Coke instead. My father actually got excited, because he felt it “was good to learn the limits of what you can actually affect early on.”
To my popular friends’ credit, they didn’t all ditch me immediately. But we grew apart. And further apart.
And that year, I became a bonafide freak–a free agent in a suburban high school.
Murray and I went on long rides through the hilly neighborhoods of Northeast Pennsylvania, where I would try out boycott pitches for local businesses and rant about my so-called friends into the wind.
How could they not get it? People were suffering, and they were choosing cold sweetness and bubbles over justice.
Murray heard it all, but she was not a fan of whining. She’d hit a pothole or rock mid-lament to remind me that there were bigger things out there than shallow people, unfair groundings, disgusting tomatoes, and Balls’ new girlfriend, Lacey.
Murray would not let me get sidetracked.
Our crusade continued, though Murray hung out inside for the majority of that winter.
But in the spring of my sophomore year, I felt a change. The weather warmed, and Murray started hauling me to new friends’ apartments, to games of D&D at comic book stores, to break into rich peoples’ pools.
And that April, just before I took off on one of these adventures, my perennially calm father came running into my bedroom, repeating, “I don’t believe it. You’re not going to believe this.” He pulled me to the television just in time to hear the news announcer repeat the headline: PepsiCo has pulled out of Burma. The reporter cited the role of activist boycotts as a major reason.
I ran out of the room with my father still muttering, confused, behind me, “That’s not what you’re supposed to learn. That’s not how these things work…”
I immediately dialed my new best friend, shrieking a little like a teenage girl who has just seen the possibilities of her own power, but mostly like a former fat kid who has just found out that she can finally eat Taco Bell again.
It felt incredible.
It felt like that moment in Fine Things when Bernard is reunited with his kidnapped stepdaughter, Jane, and finally promises her that now they’re going to be a real family, forever.
When you are 15, and you realize that you have had this tiny, miniscule, microscopic part in changing something that everyone around you told you was impossible, you run outside to grab your bike, and you whoop as you soar down South Abington Road with your feet steady on the pedals.
And that bicycle—still black and purple, still with that puffy foam around the middle—just smiles to herself, as she speeds you towards your future, with a brief stop for hot sauce, fire sauce, and a 7-layer burrito, no tomatoes.
Stephanie Douglass is a performer, farmer, writer, and trainer. She is a Moth GrandSLAM Champion, and was the head writer for OLN’s “Outside Magazine’s Ultimate Top Ten.” Stephanie is the host and producer of Story Club North Side and cohosts Englewood’s Do Not Submit, a storytelling open mic on Chicago’s south side.
During the week, she serves as the Farm Enterprise Director at Growing Home, growing organic vegetables and training Chicagoans with barriers to employment for placement in permanent jobs. She is also a co-founder of Cyahafi (Cha-HA-fi) Blooms in southwestern Uganda.