Excerpt from Sweet Tea Existentialism: Pedaling The Backwoods Bayous and Rebel Roads Of The South

Frankie Says Relax
By Joe Kurmaskie

Excerpt from Sweet Tea Existentialism: Pedaling The Backwoods Bayous and Rebel Roads Of The South

By the Spring of 1985 I’d become a cartoon character. This was painfully clear to everyone but me.

The damning evidence:

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1. A foreign sports car complete with racing stripes I had to fold myself into. It featured a useless spoiler on the trunk and took 40 percent of my income to own and operate. This explains why it remained parked, on average, two weeks of every month.

images-42. A thick gold neck chain, presumably obtained during a nighttime jewelry store robbery in which the thieves closed their eyes and pawed at stuff, a bad pawn trade, or taken off the body of a retired Jersey hit man. I wore it in and out of the vehicle, in any weather. It was a curious time in my life, one that saw me abandoning my rock roots and punk anthems in favor of one word bands; Wham, Aha and Alphaville.

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3. Parachute pants, loafers without socks, humming Phil Collins tracks in the shower, an extensive collection of tanning oils, which, I shit you not, I wore on a Leatherman’s tool belt and put to use around the pool of my singles apartment – a place which took the remainder of my income. 

90382417_xs4. A thick, wide, sweat stained weightlifting belt, never out of arm’s reach, and more often left on but loosened between workouts. In size it rivaled those awarded to heavyweight champs, a necessity for my thrice daily workouts. It could be argued that amount of weight lifting robbed my brain of oxygen, common sense, fashion sense or any sense of proportion by pumping nearly all the blood directly to my muscles. It would clear up how I managed to construct a body best suited for the gravity of Jupiter, hold down two jobs and attend college, but avoided a single moment of self-awareness.

e713073f9682b4b9cec1e659bb216c255. My favorite movie that year was Scarface. I overused the phrase, “Say hello to my little friend!” until it was both meaningless AND incredibly annoying. I believed it charming and frisky. Opening the pizza box, “Say hello to my little friend.”  Someone inadvertently opening my bathroom door, “Say hello to…”

In my defense; Tampa, Florida.

If you’re waiting for me to expand or clarify that last statement, I won’t. Spend a few weeks there and get back to me.

It was the bicycle that saved me, and not for the last time.

How did I acquire my two wheeled savior for use during car rationing weeks – when I’d forsaken cycling, vowing to put away childish things at the curb of the car lot? The bicycle (I’m told I could be spotted riding it through campus on Spring mornings, shirtless, thick chain bedazzled, singing Madonna’s Holiday as I went – I have no memory of this, but don’t doubt its veracity) became mine because one of my roommates went to prison.137516-137692

We’d been calling him No Brow Charlie for months by the time the SWAT unit surrounded our off campus apartment complex at 3am. Seems No Brow Charlie, a pre-med student working part-time at the Lions Eye Bank had fallen in with a crime ring stealing eyeballs and smuggling them to buyers in Saudi Arabia. It was all in the papers after the fact, but our neighbor and fellow gym rat, Kentucky Greg picked up on it first.

“Something’s seriously wrong with that dude,” he said. We were walking by as Charlie, sprawled across the couch, snored and pulled out his eyebrows.

Most afternoons No Brow Charlie would drift off to Judge Judy, and before opening statements his left hand would crawl up to his face and begin pulling. Over the course of a semester coinciding with his participation in the eyeball smuggling scam, he went from a man with adequate brows to a modern day Icarus who’d ventured too close to the coals during the lighting of the apartment’s BBQ grill. Of course none of us mentioned this mutilation of his face to his face. We simply handed him a nickname behind his back and moved on; standard college boy mob asshole behavior.

When we were bored or broke, we’d bring folks in and encourage them to gawk and giggle at the afternoon freak show sleeping through televised freak shows. We thought that the sexy, older woman with a real job and a Jetta from 3A would be impressed by our skinny pre-med student, a spilled bowl of popcorn across his lap, snoring and pulling out his eyebrows.

This was a significant miscalculation.

She left abruptly, only to return moments later. We perked up.  I swung the door back open. “Say Hello to my little friend!”

She did not.

Instead, she hissed, “And stop inviting me to your inane Sunday night house parties. Some of us work.” Adding as she walked away, “Bunch of fools. Childish fools.”

I slept through the police raid but heard it was spectacular. The broken lock hanging by a few splintered wood shards certainly spoke of fury and greatness but a body engaged in thrice daily workouts and consuming 4,000 calories when conscious will sleep through nearly anything, even a police raid just down the hall.

We used a Kryptonite lock to secure the front door, attaching it to a rod iron chaise lounge on the breezeway. That arrangement, like my life at the time, couldn’t hold for long. My days sort of spiraled out of control after that. With alarming frequency I found myself in situations ranging from the ridiculous to the down right dangerous, and still I wandered through them like a fashion impaired, swollen up boisterous observer of my own folly filled life.

All that changed the night I competed in the Mr. USF bodybuilding competition.

I’d never thought about competing. What started as a way to avoid being the thinnest kid in the class grew, literally, out of control. I had the genes for it and once the mirror showed results, narcissism and club music took over. But get on stage and flex for the crowds and cameras? Can I wear my gold chain?

We’d wrapped up the third work out of the day when some newbie at the dip rack asked me if I was Mr. USF?

images-5 I hit a few poses and the idea got trapped between my impeccable lats. Several of my biggest boosters at the gym egged me on. I forgot about it until one of them brought in a completed registration that the gym owner had already put down cash money to sponsor.  I never thought I’d go through with it, even as I dieted, and tailored my work outs, and got coaching from the owner… and selected pose down music.  I’m not denying that version of me loved the idea, but I was so obliviously living in the unexamined present that I couldn’t fathom the day ever arriving.

Something else I was oblivious to; the lyrics of the song I’d selected as my posing soundtrack. How was I to know Frank Goes To Hollywood were the gay Beatles of Europe, and that Relax was a bathhouse anthem. I just liked the beat for posing and the way I could go from a back lat flare to front double biceps, then into the archer flex and point pose (made famous by Arnold) all in the span of the line:

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Live those dreams

Scheme those schemes

Got to hit me

Hit me

Hit me with those laser beams!

And so it came to pass that I was greased up backstage of a university lecture hall in a pastel blue speedo, Kentucky Greg by my side, moments away from flexing to said bathhouse anthem, realizing a better song selection might have been Talking Heads, Once In A Lifetime.

And you may find yourself

Living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself

In another part of the world

And you may find yourself

Behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house

With a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself, well

How did I get here?

“These boys seem angry to me,” noted Kentucky Greg.

Looking around backstage there were a lot of constipated faces, clenching and glaring between push ups accompanied by barks and grunts and general menace. I would learn this is to be expected on steroids. I was not on steroids. And while I had lost much of myself in that first year after high school I maintained my generally joyful enthusiasm for life, and an esprit de corps for my fellow travelers encountered along the way. Which is why it hurt, slap in the face when you don’t see it coming hurt, when I asked to borrow one of the curl bars for a few sets only to be told to take my Dolph Lundgren looking ass and fuck off back to Norway.

Norway?  I think he’s Russian?!

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That’s when my ears popped and I could hear myself again, really hear myself, for the first time in ages.

I know how it feels to come to one’s senses months after joining a cult and helping build the compound.

Kentucky Greg could see something was amiss.

“Don’t go letting this these boys get under your skin. They’re porch hounds. You’re the dog that can hunt here.”

“No. I think I’ve made a huge mistake.” I turned away from the curtain.

“You worrying you should have worked the legs a little more?” he said. “Cause that’s bullshit. You got the symmetry.”

I shook my head, unclipped the thick gold chain and handed it to him. My name came over the PA system. Cheers erupted. Kentucky Greg spritzed me with one more sheen of baby oil for luck –  and that’s when I decided to push down everything I only just then knew to be true so I could go out and hit them, hit them with my laser beams.

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It does not matter that I placed higher than 19 juiced up men to miss the podium by one spot, what matters is that before I said goodbye to that version of myself, I sent him off in style. Monday morning would find me in jeans and a Tom Petty t-shirt selling a certain piece of jewelry, and making all manner of changes in my life, but that Saturday evening I embraced the routine and the crowd so much that a shocking fact didn’t occur to me until months later. It showed itself somewhere on a backroad in North Carolina during my first bike adventure.  The front three rows of the audience were all guys, many dressed like members of Culture Club, I saw a lot of WHAM And Joy Division Ts. They cheered and yelped with abandonment and danced in the aisles to my routine. No other competitor that night got the same reception.  By the third verse the entire hall was singing the chorus as I hit my marks, but those rowdy boys up front were leading the charge with style to burn. Truth be told they put me in the finals. That night, I was a gay icon…  and completely unaware.   

Somewhere on a quiet country lane in the Smokey Mountains, decades removed, if you listen real close, you can still hear the echo of my laughter.

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Picture of the author today – 30 years later. I still work out, but not for imagined greatness, rather, for health and to able celebrate more seasons of mobility and friendship with my family and friends. The muscle that needs the most exercise are our hearts – the physical ones of course but the metaphoric ones  that’s what I’m talking about – 15 reps  3 sets of kindness each day!

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