I was a lounge-singing weirdo in rainbow clothes, accidentally placed in a family of geniuses: that is how I explain my entire childhood to the people I meet as an adult in New York.
My father’s hobbies included turning lights off and extolling the benefits of turning lights off to others; he was a software engineer by trade and a “mathemagician” by night. One weekend when I was in high school he carefully re-covered my remedial math book in clean brown paper and titled it, in his trademark, all-capitals handwriting, “MATHEMAGICS.” I was seventeen years old, I was learning to divide, there was nothing magic about the math in my life. The man suffered from delusions.
It was the 1990s. My classmates’ mothers sold Mary Kay makeup, went on group mall walks for exercise, and started books clubs where they drank wine and pretended to read novels with titles like Love and Murder on Nantucket. My mother, on the other hand, got social one summer by hosting a pig roast where, as a sort of grand finale, she buried the skull of the animal in our backyard, once most of the guests had departed. After all, as she asked us, shovel in hand, ‘Who throws away such an interesting thing?’ A few months later she retrieved it to use as a teaching aid. Many of my brother’s animals met the same fate: come spring thaw, my mother would grab a shovel and pace about the yard, trying to remember where all of her graves were.
By the time I was twelve years old both my little sister and brother could effortlessly eclipse me in the fields of science, math, history, and politics. While they excelled at school, I spent my free time following the career of Bette Midler, something I did with all the constraint and appropriateness of an accomplished serial killer. I used magazine articles and television interviews to try and imagine her every thought, triangulate her location, and decide on what wording in my latest fan letter would unlock the treasure chest of our friendship. I had other celebrity interests — mostly Midler peers, female performers from the 1970s — but Bette, to me, was the reason that the world woke up in the morning.
Even though I possessed the interests of a 55-year old, I still had the sway of an eldest sibling, so when I started talking about a secret project my brother and sister wanted in on the plan. My motive was purely to construct a world in which I was popular and my interests were lauded, but to my siblings I simply said that the three of us were going to build a town out of Legos and then play with it, together, all summer long. Cheerfully, my brother and sister got on board.
Lego Town took a month to construct, and when we were finished the village traversed an entire coffee table. I taught my siblings that in Lego Town, just like in Walt Disney World, if you could dream it, you could do it. Want a gas station in the center of Main Street next to the tree park? Grab some bricks, stack them into a hollow square and make it happen: my sister Ann did just that in 1997 and she has never been the same since. A space station? We had two. A Medieval parallel universe for weekends and birthday parties? Of course. A river with fish and a dock? That’s impossible. Everyone knows that rivers always look stupid in Legos, even if you use all the clear bricks.
The deal with playing in our Lego Town once it was constructed was that I pretended to be the various celebrities that I admired, most frequently Bette Midler, and my siblings portrayed the normal American people whose lives were blessed by proximity to the famous. For weeks my sister Annie dutifully feigned admiration, and in return for her loyalty I eventually permitted her to prosper, looking over her own grocery store, gas station, and multiple-room family home on Main Street. My little brother Robbie’s Lego family lived in abject poverty on the outskirts of Main Street, at the very edge of the plywood coffee table next to a small but permanent stain made out of dog vomit. Rob’s family was called the Kabobs. Rob’s Kabobs. They were a collection of unemployed vagrants who existed mainly for the purpose of being beat up. On their best days, they filled out the crowds at Bette Midler performances.
As the summer wore on it became tiresome for my siblings to live among my Lego celebrities, especially Lego Bette Midler, who almost never paid her bills at my sister’s grocery store and once refused to visit the gas station for weeks while claiming that her motorcycle “didn’t need gas.” The day that things really came to a halt was the the day that I announced Lego Town would soon be closing all businesses for the afternoon, in order to celebrate Lego Bette Midler’s birthday.
“Rob! Get the Windex. Clean the whole town, especially my buildings. Don’t stop until you can see your reflection in the bricks!”
“Will Rob and I get birthday parties for our Lego people,” my sister softly asked me as the preparations began. “Probably not,” I said. “This is Bette’s day. Stop making it about you.” My sister dutifully ruined three perfectly good Hanes tee shirts by writing “Happy Birthday, Bette” in permanent marker across their fronts and poured glasses of diluted orange juice for everyone. In preparation for Lego Bette’s party I put on my mom’s powder blue junior prom dress and selected special outfits for both of my siblings from the costume trunk, as well. Our family golden retriever wore two sets of human shoes and a blue faux fur scarf.
When it was time for the festivities to begin, the three of us ate a whole box of Andes Mints while I, as Lego Bette Midler, performed all of the songs from the soundtrack of the movie “Beaches.” When I got to “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” the number foreshadowing Barbara Hershey’s immanent, gray-faced collapse, my little brother began to cry in earnest. Beaten, weary and probably high on ammonia, he’d reached a breaking point. His head held in his bony arms, he sobbed in gulps, asking my sister and me why he had to play Lego Bette Midler Birthday Party when he “didn’t even like Bette Midler at all.” Still in costume, our golden retriever clumsily made her way over to Robbie’s side, curious to see if he was crying because he’d just dropped some food on the floor. Finding nothing she sighed out her nose with a “Phffff” and stared at me, disenchanted, as if to say some party.
After Bette’s birthday my siblings sought more rewarding friendships in the real world, with other human beings, and I was left to play Legos by myself. After a few weeks of abject boredom my father introduced the family to a new idea one night at dinner: The Internet. At the time “The Internet” was dominated by the walled gardens of Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online. With his 26-pound laptop in tow, my dad tried to find a reason for each of us to love this slow-moving, practically colorless thing.
Normally one to hate the things my father grandly introduced to the family (Camping! Robotics! Fix the roof!) what I ultimately took away from the conversation was that on this Internet thing, I might be able to express my opinions of Bette Midler in a medium other than Legos. Three hours later I was armed with my first ever email address, Frederica2@aol.com, and I had located dozens of people who referred to themselves as members of the Official Bette Midler Online Internet Fan Club.
I was saved.
At this point in history the Internet was a perfectly functioning electromagnet for weirdos. Among the regular contributors to the Bette Midler message boards were a couple of frazzled moms in dire need of an outlet, a whole heap of unspecific males, several 30-something misfits who lived either off the grid or at home, and a shit ton of hairdressers who collected dolls and dried potpourri on their porches. All of us loved Bette an equal amount — way too much — and all of us were beside ourselves at the prospect of having friends, a first for almost everyone.
Over the message boards we discussed every aspect of Bette’s life, from her days as a pineapple packer in Hawaii to her more recent charity work in New York. Sometimes we organized Bette Midler chats at intervals when we all knew that we’d be without social obligations, like eight PM on a Friday night. Early on I would learn that it was not wise to enter AOL chat rooms without the planned Private Chat setup agreed by my online friends; not every citizen in our rudimentarily animated, digital stand-in for America was as high-minded as the lovers of Bette Midler. “A/S/L?” A man named SickTaco58 asked me when I entered my very first public chat room one day after school. Why yes, I do know some American Sign Language, I thought to myself, I’m a Girl Scout. And shouldn’t everyone know at least a little ASL, in case they had to meet a friend’s special aunt without warning, or something like that? Twenty-three seconds later I learned that SickTaco had very different questions for me than the ones I’d imagined answering. I left that chat room and returned to the safety of the Bette Midler message boards.
These message boards were not a place for people who had other time commitments. If you had children, it was part of your unwritten contract to thoroughly neglect them, which several of our members did. When Bette pursued a television career via a sitcom based closely on her real life (CBS’s short-lived “Bette!”), I stayed home from school for three days in order to write messages on the boards and monitor the situation.
As Bette took risks with her career we felt that it was important that her Internet fan board remain ever-vigilant; we held a rarely discussed belief that Bette simply had to, on some occasions, check her Internet fan boards and see what the most important people in her life thought of her choices. Our support was especially critical in times of change, as we wanted her to stumble upon nothing but one-sided, hyper-literate praise of her work. I saw myself as the unofficial police of the group, making certain that all contributors always has positive things to say about Bette. When things got out of line I sent quiet, respectfully worded email interventions to the individuals whose words were in question, and posts were then removed.
For these noble gifts to my community, I was not only given friends, but social status. “Jess is the only one around here with any integrity!!! It’s so easy for us to forget what being on the Bette Midler Fan Message Board is all about!!!!!!” wrote in a board member who identified as SpinninDelores41. I didn’t ever ask for specifics about my friends’ lives (age, occupation, length of incarceration), but after two hundred emails or so I was beginning to suspect that I had a pen pal who was actually born in 1941.
Eventually, somewhere around year four, we tired of talking only about Bette Midler. When every era of her life had been well-traversed in Friday night private chat room sessions and we found ourselves turning to talking about ourselves. My Midler friends, in emails, started opening up about their own problems, which were weighty to a 14-year old. This was before one could just Google their way out of ignorance’s cave — if I wanted to write a sympathetic email to an acquaintance with a problem and thirty years on me, I had to get my information from the only Google I had: my parents.
“Mom, what happens if you miss your fifth car payment?” I’d ask casually, as an all-organic dinner was being prepared.
“You know, if your,” (I was now struggling to look at the notes on my hand), “If your Western Union didn’t come and you miss your fifth car payment. That.”
I can’t even explain how badly a question like this went over in the Kimball house. Kimball rules dictated that you bought an 8 to 10-year-old Volvo at exactly its Blue Book value and then you drove it until it had a bird’s nest in the engine. There was no car payment of any sort to be discussed. That was not how my parents operated.
“Why are you asking me that?”
“I’m doing research for a paper on car payments,” I’d try. “For economics.”
“You don’t take economics.”
“It’s the economics section of my drama class.”
I don’t know what I was actually like to talk to as a twelve year old, but I know that I thought I was doing a pretty good job of earning and keeping the trust of my grownup online friends. I didn’t outwardly lie to them about my own situation, I just didn’t mention any of the things in my life that weren’t things we had in common, like overbearing scientist parents, or piano lessons, or anything except for Bette Midler. I was endlessly interested and sympathetic; I was always available. These were the first friends I had who didn’t have yellow, detachable heads. This was what being online on a message board was before the year 2000: it was a place for people who needed to create their own private universes but didn’t have the intellectual fortitude to learn how to play Dungeons and Dragons. Living in the online world meant that I had nothing to do with the real one. I didn’t care about school dances or couples. When I was at school I spent my time wondering whether my inbox would be sad, blue and silent, or bright, yellow and affirming, with a clearly enunciated “You’ve got mail!” by a non-threatening man.
Eventually, at eighteen, I decided to do the reasonable thing: I saved up all of my money, bought a plane ticket, and headed out to Oklahoma to meet up with some of my absolutely favorite Internet friend, BathhouseBette4928. I carefully planned my outfit (Abercrombie + Fitch tee shirt reading ‘I Could Be Your Worst Mistake’, cropped enough to reveal my soft belly; Abercrombie bellbottoms; gigantic, wooden-looking sandals) and took off, on my first flight alone. I remember the distinct sensation that someone should be stopping me. I remember feeling really cool. I remember finding my way to the mall where we were going to hang out, go shopping, eat lunch, and talk about Bette, and then I remember being stood up. After that I became much more cautious. I started asking people what their name was, first and last, in the real world.
When I was a senior in high school something truly unexpected happened: one day I met an actual, normal person on the Bette Midler message boards, someone who wasn’t trying to mask his identity in a cloak of question marks, who wasn’t hiding an epic weight problem or a noted status as a tax evader. He was a Bette fan because he’d collaborated with Bette for years. He’d stumbled upon our world of broken toys and managed to find it sweet, if a little overzealous. He told me that cool people liked Bette Midler. He also told me that there was a place just like the Internet out there in the real world, where people could be interested in very specific things and even thrive because of said interests, and that this place was called New York. I was accepted to NYU later that year. I deleted my email account. I made friends with everyone on my dorm room floor and then fought with everyone on my dorm room floor and then made friends with them again, as one does at eighteen years old.
After college, ironically, I ended up working for a pair of married celebrities, absurdly nice people who taught me how to bowl a strike and cook pasta. One night they even invited me to tag along with them at a Golden Globes viewing party. At the time, the wife in my celebrity couple was arguably one of the most famous women on earth, though she’d have rather eaten nails than think or talk of herself in such a way. This Golden Globes party’s attendees were all comedy legends from various decades: everyone in the room, aside from myself, would have qualified as a Very Famous person, and there was nothing passive about their presence in a room. You invite these people to a party and you get a performance.
“Oh, man, I hope I can keep up with this group,” my boss whispered. She was huddled next to me on the couch. I was on her left, we were sharing a large plate of food. She gestured to her right. “I’m seated next to Bette Midler!”
For that evening, we became friends in the most wonderful, ethereal, New York City sense of the word. I laughed at her jokes, and, when I dared to make a joke of my own she laughed generously back. At the end of the night she and I said goodbye to each other in the polite tone where we might see each other again but probably wouldn’t. Still, who knows, I thought, it’s New York — maybe, someday, we would.
Jess Kimball Leslie is a trend spotter in New York. She is working on a collection of essays about the Internet called “Great Textpectations.” You can read her rants about media and technology here.