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Subterranean Homesick Blues

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

TMNT

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My New England hometown was no place for pariahs. That’s not to say that it was conservative. The local population tilted heavily "enlightened liberal" — NPR-listening, Subaru-driving Democrats who encouraged their kids to be iconoclastic, if not rebellious, within certain socially acceptable boundaries. Smoke a little pot, earn a bachelor’s in environmental science and then help build a village or two in Malaysia. Eventually move to New York, get a job at a high-profile non-profit and conceive (adopt!) a nice, intelligent child and raise it without God.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t iconoclastic in any sort of appealing way. At thirteen, I decided that instead of eating lunch in the cafeteria, I’d eat my tuna-on-Wonder alone in the hall. On the bus ride home, I’d squat low and be quiet. Weekends were spent playing Nintendo, or riding my bike around the state park, where no one but retirees feeding Chex Mix to the squirrels would see me. My uncle joked that the yellow "Children at Play"

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traffic sign near our house should be changed to "Children Sitting Alone in Their Rooms."

The problem was puberty, accompanied by an intensifying attraction to boys. Convinced I’d be ostracized when found out, I pre-emptively ostracized myself. Like an FBI agent going undercover, I squeegee’d my persona clear until it was as discreet and forgettable as wall-to-wall carpeting.

This was 1990, the same year the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie was released. I’d never read the comics, but the film was a phenomenon, the talk of the junior-high hallways. We could sense even then that we were witnessing a cultural flashpoint: this was our Godfather. For teenage boys everywhere, TMNT represented a fantasy New York lifestyle, electrifying and raucous. By the tens of thousands, they made the pilgrimage to the wailing-wall multiplex to shout "cowabunga" at the screen. I did the same, taking along my little brother.

For those who aren’t familiar, the Turtles are a quartet of human-sized reptiles who got that way after coming into contact with a primordial toxic ooze. Each is named for a classical European painter. Forced into hiding by their abnormality, they live the New York City sewer system, eating pizza and fighting crime with historically East-Asian weaponry. Aside from a rat and a TV news reporter, their only friends are each other.

Like a million other teenagers, I could relate to Raphael.

Studies have shown that a group of four creates the ideal environment for social interaction. In trios, two tend to bond and alienate the third; with five or more, the group fabric is stretched tenuously thin. And two is a different thing entirely — that’s a pair of BFFs. But four can create a microcosmic society, with each member equally supporting and being supported by the others.

The Turtles complimented each other this way endearingly well. Though technically nonhierarchical, Leonardo was the born leader; you sensed he was the glue that provided group cohesion. Donatello was, for lack of a better word, the cool geek before geeky was cool. Michelangelo was appealingly unencumbered and giddy, and Raphael was just the opposite — introverted, self-isolating and unhappy. Like a million other teenagers, I could relate to Raphael.

In fact, I related to him more strongly than I ever had to any human movie character. To me, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seemed more genuinely teenage than those Breakfast Club kids. That whole crew just never rang true to me. I didn’t believe that the jocks had a bottled-up emo kid inside them, or that Judd Nelson’s character existed anywhere but in the minds of adults like John Hughes. Despite their summary memo to Mr. Vernon, most kids aren’t really an athlete-princess-criminal-brain. Most kids I knew, myself included, were simpler than that.

Watching TMNT, I knew instantly that my dissatisfied, isolated existence had been handed the fantasy that I could cling to until school was over — a fantasy I could follow to New York. Except that my fantasy wasn’t about fighting an arch-enemy in a metal mask. Mine was that I would move to New York and find three others like me — three other shut-ins who were quite happy to disappear from life. We would form a bond of soul-mate potency, act as each other’s therapists and muses, rent a four-bedroom apartment together and crack jokes over pizza all night long.

     

  

 PERSONAL ESSAYS

  

     

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Well, maybe a three-bedroom. This wasn’t a sex fantasy at all, but it was confusing. Any gay boy can tell you about the blurry line that separates platonic and sexual attraction when negotiating friendship with a group of boys in grade school, especially when those boys shun you either way. In the end, it’s really about longing for inclusion and a chance to be one of the guys.

So I felt a bit Raphaelish, though without any of his tough-guy angst. And being the angsty one, I naturally fell for Donatello, the least threatening of the other three. (I might have gone for gregarious Michelangelo, but I assumed he was out of my league.) I figured that, as a nerd — and a far more convincing one than Anthony Michael Hall — Donatello must feel sort of marginalized too, and that he’d be a great boyfriend who could regale me with interesting facts about solar winds and deep-sea ecosystems. With time, I would come to see him not as a nerd, but as a passionate surveyor of the world’s molecular magic, and he’d begin to see me not as a weird recluse, but as an old soul misunderstood by his myopic, suffocating little high school.


Today, bored suburban kids — girls, mostly, but also certain boys — have a similar gang of four to lead them toward a fantasy life in Sex and the City. I’d bet there are just as many friendless girls out there who aren’t fantasizing about the velvet-ropes and twelve-dollar mojitos as much as they’re simply dreaming about having their own group of four. Because in the end, all of the lip-biting questions stored on Carrie’s iBook can basically be boiled down to one:

Do we need others to make us whole, or can we be happy alone?

She may have been talking about men, but Sex and the City inadvertently broadens the question with its strange group dynamic: four friends-to-the-end, none of whom seem to have — or care about having — any other friends at all. This sort of scenario was custom-made for me. I yearned for a small core of total stability — four people who were emotionally available to each other twenty-four hours a day. We’d insulate ourselves from the turbulence of the outside world by not letting anyone else in.

I’d bet there are just as many friendless girls out there dreaming of their own group of four.

TMNT was originally created as a parody of comics that over-utilize mutants and toxic waste as plot points, and that fetishize adolescent ostracism. X-Men played out these themes most blatantly, but X-Men wasn’t what I needed. I wanted no part of a grand society of outcasts. What I wanted was a small, quiet circle. I haven’t seen the TMNT movie in years, and I understand there’s a new one in the works. But I have seen Sex and the City, probably every episode, and I still find it soothing to this day. Not because of the clubs or the drinks or the men that flit in and out of their lives, all of whom I find abhorrent, but because they’re basically living in their own more glamorous sewer system, obsessed mainly with each other.  

  

     

©2007 Will Doig and Nerve.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Will Doig writes for all sorts of fabulous and exciting magazines. He was
raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Today he lives in Brooklyn.