Trying to beat those Wednesday blues? Look no further than Clinton Kelly’s new book, I Hate Everyone, Except You! In this collection of personal essays, Clinton reflects on his experiences from awkward teen to still-sometimes awkward adult, taking apart every moment with frankness, wit, and more than a touch of hilarity. For an excerpt that will have your Wednesday feeling like a Friday, read on! I Hate Everyone, Except You is now available wherever books are sold.
In the spring of 1982, I got it into my head that I needed, more than anything in the whole world, to visit Action Park in New Jersey. The commercials, which played every seven minutes during reruns of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, spoke to the deepest desires of my thirteen-year-old soul.
“There’s nothing in the world like Action Park,” the jingle jangled. Golden-skinned teenagers frolicked in the world’s largest wave pool, flashing their symmetrical white teeth. Others shrieked with glee and unconsciously flexed their abs as they whipped through the turns of a water slide. They seemed to be having the best collective puberty ever, free of pimples, braces, and social awkwardness, all of which plagued me more than I cared to admit.n the spring of 1982, I got it into my head that I needed, more than anything in the whole world, to visit Action Park in New Jersey. The commercials, which played every seven minutes during reruns of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, spoke to the deepest desires of my thirteen-year-old soul.
If I could just break into their social circle, I reasoned, my skin would clear up, my teeth would magically align themselves, and I could be the most popular kid at John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Port Jefferson Station, New York. And maybe, just maybe, I would develop even the slightest hint of muscle tone. Currently, when shirtless, I looked less like a boy than a xylophone, but I would occasionally amuse houseguests by grabbing two spoons and playing “Frère Jacques” on my rib cage.
Mike and Terri must have understood the magical powers of Action Park, because when I asked them at dinner one night to take me, they actually said yes.
“Awesome,” I said. “I need to buy a new bathing suit. I was thinking something white.” (I had recently seen an ad in which a very tan male model wore white Ocean Pacific short shorts. He bore a striking resemblance to me—insofar as he too was bipedal—so obviously we should have identical wardrobes.)
“We’ll shop for summer clothes when school is out,” Terri said. That was the usual routine. On the first weekend after the last day of school, Terri, my mom, would drive my sister Jodi and me to the mall, buy us whatever we needed to get through the summer, and then we’d head to the beach. Though it was never articulated as such, the ritual felt like a reward for surviving yet another year in the public school system. Just the three of us, buying new rubber flip-flops and bathing suits. Jumping waves on Long Island’s south shore. Wolfing down hot dogs with extra sauerkraut from the concessions stand. It was pretty much the best day of the year, every year. The next such outing would be our last, however. Terri was pregnant and due in early August. “Aw, man, I can’t wait that long. I wanna go to Action Park this weekend,” I whined.
Spearing a chicken cutlet with his fork, my stepdad, Mike, said, “It’s mid-May. I doubt Action Park is even open.”
He was right, of course, which filled me with rage.
Mike was a tough-talking, bearded hairstylist who, much to my chagrin at the time, had married Terri the previous fall. He wore black leather jackets. I dreamed of collecting cashmere sweaters. He rode a Harley-Davidson. I prayed nightly for a Volvo. He was a quintessential Long Island Italian. I yearned to convert to any form of Protestantism, not because of a firmly held religious ideology, understand, but just so I could officially call myself a “W.A.S.P.” He and I had absolutely nothing in common, except for an apparent love of my mother.
The first time I’d met Mike, three years earlier, I had been thoroughly appalled. We were living with my mother’s friend Lynn, also recently divorced, and her two kids, Candice and Craig. Another single woman, Heather, and her son, Justin, a year or two older than me, also migrated in and out of the house. Three single women, five kids, three bedrooms. And although everyone knew the arrangement was temporary, it was still pretty weird. And sad. Saturday morning cartoons, for example, are considerably less enjoyable when your mother is asleep under a crocheted afghan on the living room couch.
Mike had stopped by the house one night to pick up Terri for a date. When he arrived, she was still in the bathroom, put- ting the finishing touches on her hair and makeup. She must have seen him pull into the driveway, because she shouted, “Can one of you let Mike in? Tell him I’ll be right out.”
Nobody responded. The house was unusually quiet; the other kids were visiting grandparents or dads for the weekend.
“Clint! Did you hear me?”
“Yes,” I said and reluctantly got up from the kitchen table, where I had been sitting by myself eating flourescent-orange macaroni and cheese and flipping through the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. I opened the door and Mike entered. He wore black leather boots, faded jeans, and a black button-front shirt open about three-quarters of the way down his slim torso. He sported at least three gold chains, dark aviator-style sunglasses, and feathered black hair. Honestly, I would have been less shocked if a 5-foot-10-inch Coho salmon had stepped into our foyer.
“You must be Clint,” he said. “I’m Mike. Nice to meet you.” He extended his hand to shake mine, but I was so flabbergasted by his appearance I could barely lift my arm. My hand just sort of hung there like a limp cabbage leaf. He shook it delicately, as one might have done upon meeting a fancy Victorian lady.
Jodi came running over. She was a cherubic seven-year-old with a perpetually stained face. One day she might have an orange Hi-C smile that extended well past the boundaries of her mouth. Th next she could have fallen asleep on a lollypop so that it left a semipermanent green kiss on her cheek. Today she appeared to have been lining her lips with chocolate, at least I hoped it was chocolate. I resented her ability to make her Halloween candy last well past Christmas, even into early spring. She ate a half a piece or less of it every day, whereas I ate a pillowcase-worth before November fi A single gob- stopper was a weeklong event for Jodi. Sometimes I’d fi a half-sucked one hiding in the Connect Four box and roll my eyes. If I was particularly desperate for sugar, I’d rinse it off and eat it myself.
“Bye.” She ran off, back to the TV or her Barbies or the Milky Way she’d been sucking face with.
When it struck me that my mother could possibly marry this dark, hairy man—after all, he was standing in our foyer—I decided it was my responsibility to end their budding relationship immediately. Not for any personal reasons. I was just looking out for the best interests of my mother, who at the age of thirty was obviously experiencing some kind of midlife crisis. My biological father might not have been perfect—far from it— but at least he wore a suit to work and shaved every day, like a productive member of society. This degenerate was probably on welfare.
Mike attempted to make small talk. “So, what grade are you—”
“My mom’s dating a lot of guys,” I blurted. “Like, a lot.”
“Really.” He seemed unfazed, but it was hard to get a read through the aviators.
“Yep,” I said. “She told me last night that she doesn’t like any of them.”
Still no reaction. “OK,” he said.
“So, you’re wasting your time with her.” “Am I?”
“For sure. It’s just, you know, I don’t want to see you get hurt or anything.”
“Gotcha,” he said, nodding his head. “I appreciate that.”
Like a cool breeze, Terri rounded the corner to where Mike and I were standing. Most of the time I took her appearance for granted, but she really was quite beautiful. Tall and slim with curves in all the conventionally desirable places. Her shoulder- length black hair was feathered, quite similar to Mike’s, actually, and she had big green eyes that were heavily mascaraed in the style of the time. Her smile always looked the slightest bit mischievous, even when she was wasn’t. Tonight she wore dark jeans, a white blouse, and a black satin bomber jacket. As she kissed him hello on the cheek, they struck me as a very exotic couple, perfectly styled to go to a discotheque or knock over a liquor store.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” my mom said. “I see you’ve met Clint.”
“Yeah,” said Mike. “We were just having a little chat.” “About what?” she asked, looking at me.
“Stuff,” I said.
“What kind of stuff?”
“I was just saying how I got detention this week for running to the school bus,” I said.
“Why’d you tell him that?” I couldn’t tell if Terri was horrified or amused. She explained to Mike that I was having a hard time in this new school district. “That’s his second detention this month. He used to be the perfect student, until recently.”
“He seems pretty perfect to me,” Mike said. If he was being sarcastic, I certainly didn’t know it at the time, because I believed I was indeed as perfect as a ten-year-old could be. And why my mother would choose to go out to dinner with this man rather than stay home with me was beyond my comprehension.
Mike and Terri left on their date, and three years later we were a family of four (plus one in utero) living in a much nicer, less-crowded house and eating a lot of chicken cutlets.
Maybe we could go to Action Park some time in July, they said.
“July? I can’t wait until July! It probably opens Memorial Day weekend! I need to go then!”
My begging and whining did little to convince them that donning a bathing suit in 60-degree temperatures would be a good idea. We would make the drive to Vernon, New Jersey, in July.
Oh, shit, I thought. They’re coming too. I hadn’t accounted for that possibility. I had figured they would drop me off at the front gate so I could make new and gorgeous friends who loved me for my God-given potential to be cool. But now, Mike and Terri were coming with me and we’d have to walk around a water park together. In bathing suits. With my little sister Jodi in tow. Aw man, my life sucked so much I could barely breathe.
For the next two months I kept Action Park at an emotional distance, the way a kid thinks about Christmas in September or an adult thinks about that STD test they should probably get after a long weekend in Miami. The commercials would play every day, and I had no choice but to regard those wet teenagers as long-lost cousins who didn’t know I existed but who would embrace me as one of their own upon first sight.
July arrived, eventually, and brought with it a heat wave, as is typical of Long Island summers, and—after some gentle reminding on my part—we loaded into the Chevy Blazer destined for New Jersey. Mike drove, as usual, and didn’t seem to mind at all that Jodi and I sang along loudly to Donna Summer’s greatest hits album as it played on the built-in 8-track. He wasn’t a singer, he said, when we tried to cajole him into joining us.
“Mike! ‘Bad Girls’ is next!” Jodi yelled. “You can do the toot toot beep beep part! It doesn’t matter what you sound like! You just say toot toot awwwww beep beep!” He smiled and politely declined. She sang it instead, rocking her head back and forth while she did so. She also squinted her eyes and pouted her lips, in what I assumed was a prepubescent attempt at sexiness. I silently wondered if I should care that my ten-year-old sister was really feeling this song about street-trolling hookers. I didn’t.
Much to my surprise and disappointment, Action Park wasn’t brimming with perfect specimens of American adolescence. Most of the people were either kind of fat, or droopy, or hairy. I mean, really disturbingly hairy. Men sprouted hair out of their lower backs and on their shoulders. Hair grew under their arms, across their bellies, up and down their legs into their groins, necks, knuckles, like mold spreading across a shower curtain. The women provided little respite from the assault on my senses. Some had giant, pendulous breasts and thighs the texture of chicken chow mein. Others looked broken or bowlegged, like life had really knocked the crap out of them.
Of course, I had been to the beaches of Long Island count- less times, so I knew that human bodies came in all different shapes and sizes. But I had never seen so many half-naked people this close-up. They were practically touching me, making me anxious. I wanted to go home, back to our split-level ranch in the suburbs, where everyone was at least moderately attractive. Where skin clung tautly to our frames. Where hair grew in the appropriate places. And where there were no open wounds.
See, Action Park wasn’t comprised solely of water rides. It also featured an attraction called the Alpine Slide, a concrete half-pipe-shaped track that meandered down a mountain. People would sit on little nonmotorized sleds, controlling their speed with a joystick. You could pull the stick closer to you to apply the brake or push it forward and let gravity whisk you along the path.
The Alpine Slide had no seat belts or roll bars, just one built- in, state-of-the-art safety system: your epidermis. If you were to fall out of your sled or jump the track, the only structure that might slow your descent down the mountain was your skin.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that one-quarter of the people mulling around Action Park did so with a moderate to severe case of road rash, which the first-aid team would cover liberally with Mercurochrome, a bright-red antiseptic that made bloody wounds appear even gorier. One might assume the management of Action Park would forbid, or at the very least discourage, people with fresh cuts and scrapes from entering a communal water ride. Nope. They might as well have posted signs reading, SKINNED HALF YOUR ARM? DON’T BE A PUSSY. JUMP RIGHT BACK IN THE POOL WHERE EVEN MORE OF YOUR BODILY FLUIDS CAN MIX FREELY WITH THOSE OF PERFECT STRANGERS. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER!
Another problem with this place was that to ride the Alpine Slide you had to get to the top of the mountain, and the only way to do that was to take a ski lift, which ran above the track itself. Pretty straightforward in its design, sure. Go up ski lift. Go down slide. Now add a few thousand teenage boys to the equation.
See any inherent problem with that? No?
Well, let me help you out. What do teenage boys like to do from high places?
So, as you’re zooming down the Alpine Slide, maneuvering around turns, adjusting your speed accordingly using the hand- held brake-joystick, you must also dodge innumerable loogies hocked by New Jersey’s future rocket scientists.
When I rode the slide, I was lucky enough to be hit with sputum on the back of my left hand. It could have been much worse, but I was still furious. If anyone was going to goober on me, it should be an attractive person, not some greasy-mulleted punk wearing cutoff jean shorts.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the teenage boys tended not to spit on the pretty girls. Instead of mucus, they would hurl compliments, maybe something as subtle as, “Nice tits, blondie!” Or a polite offer to “Sit on my face, bitch!”
On the ride ahead of me was a reasonably attractive red- headed girl of about sixteen. Some boys on the ski lift yelled, “Suck my dick!” and so she flipped them off with both hands. A dumb rookie move. She let go of the brake while taking a turn and flew off the track. There was really no winning when it came to the Alpine Slide, unless you held stock in Mercurochrome.
Between the hairy men, the loogie-spitting boys, and the open wounds, this day trip was turning into a disaster, and it was all my fault. Terri was eight months pregnant and waddling around uncomfortably in shorts and a maternity top. Mike wouldn’t go on any of the rides because he didn’t want to leave my mother alone in her condition. At least that’s what he said. Th meant I had to supervise Jodi, who wanted to do things that prepubescent girls do, like splash around the shallow end of the wave pool and scream in a pitch that could shatter Austrian crystal.
Usually Mike was a big proponent of “getting our money’s worth.” That is, arriving at dawn and staying until forcibly removed. But by two in the afternoon everyone was ready to leave Action Park. Even Jodi casually remarked, “Let’s go now to avoid rush hour.” You know your whole family is having a crappy time when the ten-year-old feigns concern over the traf- fic patterns on the Long Island Expressway. But it was Saturday, and the rest of us knew that if we left at 2 p.m., traffic would actually be worse because of the beachgoers. Nevertheless, we all jumped right on Jodi’s bandwagon.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!”
As we started to leave, though, I was overcome by the feeling that the day was incomplete. I had been deceived by the ad executives who produced the commercials for this place. I had not made any new beautiful, good-natured friends, because there were none to be found. “There’s nothing in the world like Action Park,” the commercials said. Indeed. There was nothing in the world like this place—if you wanted a staph infection.
I knew what had to be done. I could save this day. By riding Kamikaze.
Kamikaze, suspiciously absent from the TV commercials, was a waterslide conceived by someone with little regard for human life. Shaped like a giant curved L, the slide required its rider to climb a one-hundred-foot tower and, once at the top, enter a cage and cross his arms. The ride operator would then press a button, releasing the floor of the cage and dropping the rider into a free fall. Because the slide is completely vertical at first, the rider’s body does not touch the slide until it bends to 90 degrees and enters a series of shallow hills and approximately six inches of water.
“I’m going to ride that,” I said.
“What?” said Terri. She wasn’t incredulous; she couldn’t hear me because I was whispering. The words had slipped out of my mouth before I could suck them back in. Even with what little life experience I had, I knew Kamikaze was designed for grown men with diminished mental capacity, sort of an experiment in natural selection.
“He said he wants to ride that!” Jodi yapped.
“Absolutely not,” Terri said. “You’ll kill yourself. Let’s go home. Remember, it’s rush hour.”
“C’mon, Ter,” Mike said. “Let him ride it if he wants.” Great. Now Mike was involved. I really couldn’t tell if he was defending my budding manhood or if he finally saw his opportunity to destroy me and get my mother to himself.
Mom asked, “Do you really think it’s safe?”
“Take a look,” he answered. “Nobody’s been carried off on a stretcher yet.”
It was true. Grown men were indeed walking away after rid- ing Kamikaze, but most of them stumbled as though they were recovering from a frying pan to the frontal cortex.
“OK. Just be careful,” Terri said.
“Yes,” Mike said, “be careful.” He was smiling the same smile he had when dropping Jodi and me off at our grandparents’ house for the weekend, except this time it was bigger, like he expected me to be gone for more than two days.
I started off to the steps of Kamikaze and heard Jodi call after me: “Don’t die!” Sweet kid.
I climbed the metal stairs, occasionally pausing to see if my family was looking. They were. I could see my mother holding her round belly with one hand and shielding her eyes from the sun with the other. Jodi was holding Mike’s hand.
Because so few people wanted to ride Kamikaze, there was no wait when I reached the top. A kid barely older than me told me to step into the cage and cross my arms. His name tag read KEVIN. “You’ll probably want to keep your legs together,” Kevin said with- out looking at me. He was reading a magazine about dirt bikes.
Keep my legs together? Why the hell was I doing this? To prove something to myself? To Mike? To my mother? My heart was pounding through my emaciated chest. I wondered if Kevin could see it vibrating like a berserk squirrel trapped behind my sternum. I could die right now or become paralyzed, I knew, and yet to climb back down those steps, with half of New Jersey watching, would have been more humiliating than to live the rest of my life with a torn spinal cord and the mental capacity of a parsnip.
I glanced at Kevin, who had raised his head from his magazine to make sure I was standing as instructed. I wondered what kind of family Kevin came from, whether his parents were proud that he had a job at Action Park. He looked a little dead in the eyes, so I concluded that he came from a home in which his father drank too much beer and his mother smoked cigarettes at the kitchen table while wearing a floral housecoat. Would Kevin cry if I died? Or would he brag to his dirt-bike-loving friends that he helped kill a skinny kid who was probably a fag? Most likely the latter.
Kevin pressed a button and the floor dropped from beneath me, sending the Human Xylophone plummeting to earth, clad in nothing but a white bathing suit at least two sizes too big. (Terri and I hadn’t been able to find the coveted white trunks in the boys’ department, so I convinced her to buy me a men’s small. Look, Mom, I can tie the drawstring really tight! They’re not too big! To give you a little perspective: My waist at the time was about 26 inches. A men’s small is 30. Those extra four inches will prove important in just a minute.)
I free-fell for less than a second before my body made con- tact with the slide, which came as sweet relief, and before I knew it I had begun the turn from vertical to horizontal. I cascaded over a few small humps and continued down the chute to where the deeper water slowed me to a complete stop.
Unfortunately, that deeper water, combined with my high speed of travel, spread my spindly legs apart and jerked my too- big bathing suit severely to the right and halfway up my torso. Upon realizing that my barely teenage privates were now on dis- play for a small but significant fraction of New Jersey to see, I yanked the suit back down to cover myself before anyone could notice.
I stood up, a little shaky but in one piece. Stumbling back to my family, I was greeted like a soldier returning from war. Or a dog that ran away for a couple of hours.
“That was crazy,” Mike said with a laugh. “I’m really impressed.”
Terri added, “You were definitely the youngest guy to go on that thing.”
“I’m glad you’re not dead,” Jodi said.
I mumbled some thanks to the three of them and assumed the funny feeling in my pelvis was because I had just cheated death.
“OK, let’s hit the road,” Mike said. “Does anyone need to use the bathroom? It’s a long ride home.”
Jodi said she didn’t, which was unusual because she had a strange affinity for public restrooms. Clearly, she had peed in the wave pool until her bladder was empty.
“I guess I’ll go,” I said.
Th men’s room at Action Park was one of those places where you never want to fi yourself. I mean, if some sort of sadistic genie ever forces you to choose between spending time in a Ugandan prison or a similar amount of time in the Action Park men’s room during a heat wave, choose the men’s room. Otherwise, avoid it at all cost. There are just too many wet, hairy guys in drippy suits and bare feet mingling with all the smells of humanity.
Back in 1982, there weren’t dividers between urinals. If you had to pee, you would do it shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger, in this case a shirtless stranger. I chose the far-right urinal, so there was a wall to my right and a man to my left. Men’s room etiquette dictates that you don’t look too closely at other men, but I could tell he was a big-boned, New Jersey dad type.
So, I get ready to pee, but before anything comes out, I realize I have to . . . well . . . fart. So, I fart.
Except this fart doesn’t make the usual pfft sound. It makes a splash on the concrete floor.
I stood frozen in pure terror. Looking straight ahead at the wall, I could see with my peripheral vision that the man next to me has glanced down at the floor and now he was staring at me. I turned my head slowly to the left and upward to meet his gaze.
We were two strangers looking into each other’s eyes in a hot, wet men’s room. This man, with the bulbous nose and a smattering of acne scars across his cheeks, has the power to make this the worst day of my life or to provide a glimmer of sympathy. I steeled myself for a laugh or a snide remark, but mostly I was hoping for a kind word or two. Say it, buddy. Whatever you’re going to say, say it now.
Without the slightest change in his facial expression—not even a raised eyebrow—he turned to face forward and continued his pee. He said nothing. Nothing.
I looked down to the small, thankfully clear, puddle between my feet. I felt like something needed to be said, if only to prove this was actually happening. To prove that I am in this men’s room right now, that I haven’t died on the waterslide and my soul isn’t floating aimlessly from urinal to urinal in search of The Light.
“Kamikaze,” I whispered.
Still expressionless, he flushed and left. I would never see him again.