Few people realize that puny, brown, not particularly cute girls from dull Midwestern towns can morph into Sandra Dee-like bombshells by watching Grease throughout their adolescence. At least, that’s what I believed when I was a child. As a second grader in Ohio, creative stimulation was kinda hard to come by. My neighbors’ folksy blandness barely piqued my curiosity. The monotonous pace and flatness of the region was a lousy canvas on which to unfurl my imagination. The only other student “of color” in my class was Chinese while I was black with a picked out ‘fro. Thus, I was considered an outsider and a bit of a freak. All I had to look forward to was cattle tipping in high school.
Small town kids inevitably come to one of two realizations; either you know you’ll escape one day because you’re destined for fabulous things, like becoming Madonna, or you say to yourself, ‘this is where life ends so get used to the cows.’ Grease led me toward fabulous, proving the world was bigger and more colorful than life in Ohio. Until seeing the flick, I assumed adulthood in the rust belt would mean working at a gas station and gorging on Cheez Whiz sandwiches like my friends’ moms.
I was eight when I saw the movie. My single mother was working the night shift so her younger siblings brought me to the cinema. I expected Disney and a bucket of popcorn. Instead, I got Pink Ladies and T-Birds, cheeky one-liners and loads of sass. Every inch of the screen had something to ogle; butter-colored costumes and blue cotton candy bouffants, boys shaking their hips against Greased Lightnin’ and a gymnasium crammed with hand jivers. Rydell High was full of sunshine and dancing, it was opulent with color and life. Even sad moments were filled with song. So giddy and overwhelmed was I while watching the flick, you’d have thought Santa Claus had landed in a UFO on my front lawn.
At the center of all this wonder was Olivia Newton-John, the goody-two-shoes country singer turned pop star who played Sandy. To this day, I wonder why I became so enamored of her. Maybe I assumed little, brown girls like me would always fade into the woodwork while shiny, golden stars like Olivia got noticed, especially in yawny old Ohio. If I could be like Olivia, my friends, my day-to-day, my entire life would shimmer.
After seeing the movie, I made my mom enroll me in acting lessons and started teaching myself to dance, using the numbers from Grease as guides. I was too young to realize Australian stiffy Olivia wasn’t the best dance teacher (and also too young to recognize the tragedy of a black girl longing to be white). By fifth grade, when I rewrote the movie’s script and begged my friends to perform it with me, I could out Sandra Dee my heroine. What followed were arts classes, piano lessons, ravenous book reading and a spell in a performing arts high school. With college, I finally got out of Ohio.
And by golly, what a life it’s been since! I’ve had the ordinary – marriage, divorce, nine-to-five rat race. I’ve also come into contact with the extraordinary. I did Manhattan for a few years, lived in three foreign countries, traveled into some juicy corners of the world, survived two terrorist attacks (in New York and Madrid), and spent a lifetime following my dreams of literary stardom. Though I haven’t lived with the maximum amount of carpe diem day seizing I dreamt of in my youth, and have yet to become a literary star, I doubt my life would’ve looked anything like this had I stayed in Ohio.
But here’s the kicker. At the tail end of my thirties, I find myself missing the relative calm of my childhood, even missing Ohio. There was a genuineness there, a kindness I’ve had trouble finding elsewhere. Maybe the crux of the matter is I’ve arrived at that late thirties crossroads where you’re asking yourself what it’s all about. Regrets start haunting you, disappointments leave permanent scars. My career isn’t where I want it to be, my relationships could use help, the gap between reality and my dreams stands wide as the ocean. So life isn’t really making me sing, “shoo bop shoo wadda wadda yipitty boom de boom.”
Maybe I’ve just been disappointed to find adult life isn’t as friendly or exciting as I’d fantasized while watching Grease. Challenging times and triumphant moments aren’t commemorated with musical numbers. Days can be dreary and lovers don’t float into the sky in’48 Fords. So while I still think of the movie as the slingshot propelling me into a meatier existence, I wish I’d been more realistic in my expectations. Though I suppose things could be worse.
I could be realizing this in a gas station in Cleveland.
[Image from http://www.wallpaper-s.org]