The Quest For Coolness: A Story of Three Schoolmates

About two years had passed since the mystery of the dark tunnels had been solved. Brother and I were more mature now, but we still had tons of growing up to do. But, mind you, things were changing. For one, the old tree house gang had moved away, prompting us to make new friends in the neighborhood. I was now about to go into my first year of junior high school, and I had by then run into a number of new friends.


There was Chris. I met him at school in the sixth grade. Chris was a combative, angry boy who constantly got in fights at and after school, and suffered terrible abuse at home. In the most relaxed of settings, Chris had trouble socializing. He had been held back a grade, and so he was a year older than me, and 4 years older than my brother and some of our other friends. He was also a stark-raving pervert who taught us sheltered, innocent little kids about sex, short-temperedness, and petty theft. But everyone could see that the disorderly things he said and did were done out of pain and his own inveterate unhappiness with life.

Once, when my younger cousins were staying the night, facing us all, he pulled his ass cheeks apart and held them that way while singing: “The worm’s coming out of his apple, the worm’s coming out of his apple...” He warped us, mom and dad would say, and they were right, it’s fair to say. He did get us into a plenteous amount of trouble at school. He got us into rap, as well as rock music (which mom automatically thought was Satanic), and the need to fight and rebel. I still remember some of the dirty jokes he taught us. They ranked among some of the raunchiest I would hear in my whole life! He encouraged us to do mischievous things even when he stayed over at our house on Saturdays and went to church with us on Sundays, like stuff the toilet tissue down into the toilet bowls and stomp them in real good. He was truly a rotten kid.

But Chris’ reign of terror soon came to its end. He had a destiny to fulfill in boarding school. And before we knew it, he was gone just as the summer was ending. We never saw him again. Brother and I were left alone to do our own rebel-rousing now, but not for long!


Then came Mike. He lived right up the street from us and seemed to be a good friend. He seemed to look out for my brother and I. He wore glasses and had short hair with merely average clothes, but he was muscularly built with the most impressive set of Popeye forearms we’d ever seen. We got on the same bus, he and I, and we were in the same grade.

One hot June day, just after the end of my sixth grade school year, my brother and I found ourselves with Mike huddled behind a dumpster. We were working out a strategy to swipe some goods from the local Mr. M corner store. “No, stupid! You don’t just go in there and take stuff! You buy something to keep down the suspicion!” Like Chris, Mike was always good at ripping off stuff, especially Playboys like we loved to do, and he would give us tips on how to do it best. The vast majority of missions accomplished we had him to thank for. He’d done this a while and taught us the basics of how not to get caught.

So, we went inside the store. Brother purchased a Snickers bar and pocketed a Kit-Kat. I bought an RC and was lookout. Mike would use that purposely-worn oversized t-shirt to hide the June 1987 issue of Hustler Magazine, which he placed down the front of his pants and under his shirt. We’d done it again—thanks to Mike!

But Mike’s luck soon ran out. He got busted trying to rip off some other store and his mom bitched him out. Long story short, he bitched back, got kicked out of the house, and lived homeless for a week. Before we knew it, he was gone just like Chris. We later learned that he tried to go back home to mom and work things out, but was sent back to Colorado to live with his real dad who “won’t put up with that shit!” We wouldn’t hear from him again for over a year.


Brother and I were again experiencing a void of mischief in our lives just as before. We never had the balls to steal anything ourselves, at least not very often. But loser magnets still attract losers, and soon to gravitate toward us was an even bigger loser than both Chris and Mike. His name was Philip Stanley. No, I make no bones about using the guy’s real name either! I will never forget any of these guys as long as I live, but even more so can this be said of Philip. I came to call him my best friend all during my seventh grade year. He befriended my brother as well.

Mind you, just about all those we called friends were not good people. Chris and Mike both had criminal records for shoplifting, as did Phillip. But Phillip was the scary one. He had an extensive history of mental instability, though we didn’t know it yet. We were young, stupid, and as is to be expected, naïve as hell. These were the defining years of our lives.

Mike was a cool guy. He was more laid back than Chris had been. He could fight when he needed to—and man, could he ever lay into that punching bad! But he wouldn’t exactly go out and look for trouble. Both Chris and Mike were petty thieves and vandals, but nothing more. Not so with Philip. This guy Philip was amazing! He stole not just sodas, candy bars, and Playboys, but jewelry from Kmart and all sorts of fancy watches and goods from department stores!

My friendship with Philip began when bored out of my mind, I got off at his bus stop one day, and we got to talking. From there, we passed the time in, well, a less than constructive way! Soon, he was over at my house and hitting it off with my brother, and from there, he was telling us of the purses he’d snatched from old ladies, along with their expensive jewelry, car keys, driver’s licenses, and an assortment of so many other things, like people’s pictures and key chains. This guy was serious business!

We ran around the neighborhood and found abandoned buildings, like the old Boysville facility in Live Oak just before it was torn down. We made what we could of it into a fort, though we never frequented it that often. It was just he and I at first, and then brother began to join us in our own little westward expansion. The old Boysville facility was trashed almost completely by the time we got to it. Every windowpane was broken out, and even the air conditioning units had been knocked out of the windows and lay rusting in mud and tall grass, smashed and robbed of their freon. It was fun to explore, but there really wasn’t that much left to trash!

Much to the disapproval of our parents, we traveled far from our houses with bags of tools, like mallets and sledgehammers, and after we got through making mischief at the old Boysville, we went back to an old stomping ground we had in the form of a small, abandoned lodge. It too was a condemned building we played in, but we went back and “renovated” it, tearing out as many walls as we could and setting poorly constructed traps for other kids. These traps comically consisted of string being used as trigger mechanisms to cause boards with nails in them to swing towards the doors (I seriously doubted they would ever work, but we still subconsciously thought we were The Goonies!) In the course of our work, Philip looked at me – and with a ball-peen hammer still in hand, as he was smashing up the walls of a hot water heater room – he said to me: “I like you. You’ll be a king. And I like your brother. He’ll be a king also.”

Philip and I were best friends, but something about that statement was wrong. For one, is he supposed to have the power to make me a king? What about my power to make him a king? Or better yet, how about as best friends for life, we both decide mutually who is to be king? But Philip had a dark look in his eyes when he said it. It creped me out. This was the first of many subtle eye-openers as to what Philip was. He seemed to be the best friend I’d ever had, and yet there was something…off…about the guy—in addition to the weird fact that he spent time staring at the personal photos he’d stolen from others.

Yes, Philip very easily could have been called a “dark soul.” His mischief, even when it only paralleled the lesser level of mischief of my former troublemaking friend’s conduct, was different. For starters, when my old friends went to steal or to vandalize, they were on edge. They knew they were on dangerous ground and were doing something wrong. But Philip was as calm and collected when stealing as could be. It was as if he was doing nothing more serious than opening a can of soda. There was this relaxed look in his eyes when he told us of how he had robbed and scared women. When the rest of us kids did wrong, we at least knew it was wrong. We just did it because of peer pressure and the sickeningly immature desire to be “cool,” but not Philip. He had no soul, just an appetite for causing chaos.

And Philip was a quiet kid at school. Unlike my other friends, he didn’t get into too much trouble, at least not at first. He would never get noticeably mad, but he would get even! Kids who picked on him wound up in trouble for things they didn’t do. If he encountered them after school, they’d come back to school afraid to death of him. I never knew what he did to them exactly (yet), but he managed to scare them pretty badly. And when pet body parts started showing up in people’s yards, he would turn out to be the number one suspect in the eyes of all the neighbors. He was just bent enough to go through with the task! Philip always remembered those who crossed him. He was always thinking of himself, creating for himself an endgame that was to his advantage. He could know no love or friendship. And we were about to find that out the hard way!

The Betrayal

It was just another lazy summer day. We sat at my house, playing Double Dragon and eating Dutch Chocolate Blue Bell Ice Cream, when I saw our next-door neighbor standing at the side of his house. I still don’t know who that big, tall, fat, white man next to my neighbor was or why he was there, but I’m sure he had a reason to be there. Maybe he was a contractor and was planning to do some work on the house? I don’t know, but when I mentioned not recognizing him, Philip got up and watched the man a while. Soon, Philip’s demeanor changed completely. Within just a few minutes, he went from being jovial and carefree to obsessive and worrisome. And this wasn’t like Philip. He never cared about anything, not even being caught by the police! Why was he suddenly so emotional?

“Guys, we got to get out of here! That fucking ugly guy is a police detective! They found our traps at the lodge! They’re looking for us! We may have to stay the night away from your house! He’s coming for us! I’m going to grab some tools and stuff. Wait outside for me.” We believed him. Eric and I went outside and hid behind some bushes in the backyard. We figured that if the cop was planning on asking us to let him in so he could ask us some questions, it’d be better if we weren’t there.

I guess Eric and I just assumed that since Philip had a criminal record, he recognized the man to be a cop. We didn’t think he’d lie to us or betray us. But that was exactly what Philip did. He lied to us, he betrayed us, and he stole from us. He found an excuse to leave the house and told us he’d catch up with us later. He jumped our backyard fence and took the drainage ditches home. When we saw the white-haired man leave our neighbor’s house, we went back inside. Now we were suspicious; why would Philip just up and leave like that? Why was he so emotional? Eric went into his room, and on a hunch, checked the envelope where his money was stored. It was gone—all $65 of it! And hey, $65 is a lot of money to a jobless kid with only dad’s allowance to build off of.

Philip had been in our house a while before this. We showed him where we keep our money and so many other things our family valued. He was our friend, we thought, but he valued not even a hundred dollars over almost a year’s worth of friendship. He knew no loyalty, only sabotage. He was gone, just like that! We were furious beyond words. We knew where he lived, so we decided to pay him a little visit. We went to his house later that night and no one was there, and so we returned the next night. I was carrying a five-foot log to beat him with. It must have been amusing to see me and my brother—me barely able to hold the damn thing, and my brother, carrying his nunchucks! We didn’t care about our inexperience with the weapons, nor did we care about the grave embarrassment of openly walking down the street with them held aloft like idiots for the whole 3 blocks! We were psyched up and ready to put this guy in the hospital!

We arrived at his house for the second time. We could tell someone was there this time. An Asian woman could be seen through the blinds. Philip’s mother was Korean and his father white American. They met each other in the service, Philip had said, and he brought her back to America. They had one child and got married. She was made a citizen and a deviant son was raised. We knocked on the door intent on doing our worst, having sworn not to back down. The door opened quickly. Philip’s father stood at the door. He was about 6’2 and very fat, wearing a wife-beater, with a navy blue pair of casual shorts, and still with black dress socks on from work. With melting ice clanking around in the Mason jar he drank from, he got up from watching TV with his wife, slipped on some flip-flops, and stepped outside to talk to us.

We told him why we were there, and we weren’t nice about it, as I recall. We told him that one way or another, we were intent on getting our money back. There was a heavy look in his eyes, a sad look. He didn’t judge us for coming to his home with weapons a- blazin’. He sympathized with us completely. He was so nice, so respectful…

“Kids, I’m so, so sorry about what Philip did to you. I believe you. Our son has some real problems. Last night, he was taken to the State Hospital. We don’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s always been this way, getting in trouble like that. We didn’t raise him that way…So many people are coming to us and wanting their money back, but we don’t have that much money. There’s no way we could ever pay back all that he took. I’m so sorry. He wronged a lot of people and a lot of people want to hurt him. I don’t blame you. I would too!”

Philip’s dad continued for about 25 minutes, telling us of the horrible things Philip had done (some of them we’d heard already from Philip himself). It didn’t surprise us to learn that unlike some of our bragging buddies, Philip was not all talk about the bad things he said he did! By the end of that conversation, we didn’t feel like fighting anymore. We felt downright sorry for what his parents had been through. Almost speechless, we said goodnight and walked home, taking comfort in the fact that although we wouldn’t be getting our money back, Philip was at least locked up now.

One Year Later

A year soon passed. It was mid-term in my eighth-grade year when a familiar face was seen—Mike was back! I couldn’t believe my eyes! There he was, standing with his hands in his pockets at the bus stop on a cold January morning. I could see his breath freezing as I approached. He had grown his hair out now. It was down to his lower back. He’d been through a lot, he recounted. Served two weeks in juvenile hall and then went to live with dad in Colorado where he had been all this time. We hit it off okay. He was a lot rougher looking than before, though his mom made him cut his long hair the very next day of school. Hanging out was still fun. We relived some good times, but not near as much as I would have liked.

It wasn’t long until Mike started running around with a new crowd of people. They were older than he was, and they would make frequent trips to his house after school when his mother was still at work. Also, he would meet people at lunch break at school. They’d hand stuff off to each other and then leave. This kept happening through the end of the eighth grade school year. The net result was, he was spending a lot less time with me. I started to believe that Mike was going to pop back into his old self when his first run-in with the law occurred since he’d been back. He told me about his court date for lying to a police officer, but he wouldn’t tell me the circumstances behind how he got it. A disappointing, uneventful summer drifted by, and Mike and I began to drift apart.

High School Commences

The next school year promised to be different. This was my first year of high school. I begged mom to buy me a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt just for the occasion. Judson High School was where I went for my first year, and I had no idea what I was in for! The very first day of school proved to be a shock like I thought I couldn’t begin to handle. I stepped onto the bus that morning, glancing over the seats all the way to the back to see what kind of crowd I’d be dealing with this year, and to my utter shock was…Philip! I didn’t even need to take a second look. I knew it was him, with that mostly Asian look, mixed with a good portion of Caucasian.

He probably noticed me, but he didn’t show it if he did. He was just staring straight ahead, no emotion or reaction of any kind. Yep, that was Philip! I just found a place to sit down and thought to myself what I should do. I had butterflies in my stomach. I couldn’t think of how to react. It had been so long. I thought I’d never see the guy again. What was I to do? Just go up to him and smack him now? He still wouldn’t have the money. I went home and told my brother and mom and dad, but after thinking it through, we knew there was nothing we could do about it.

I pretty much only saw Philip in the lunchroom in passing and on the bus rides to and from school. I tried to avoid him, but the bus rides were becoming increasingly disappointing experiences. Not only did they put us in close proximity to each other, but also Mike had changed. He wouldn’t even get off at our bus stop anymore. His eyes were different too, always glazed over. Everything was funny to him now, and he was dirty and would wear the same clothes to school two days in a row sometimes. If he didn’t ride an altogether different bus home and stay at some thug’s house, he’d get off at the bus stop of one of the older junkie kids in the back. By now, it was obvious what he was doing. My friend had become a bona fide druggie. But that wasn’t the surprise. That was still to come.

I start talking to Mike at lunch one day and asking him what he’d been up to. He tells me in a not-so-subtle way that he has buddies who provide him drugs and he sells them. He told me how he was close to one of the bigger dealers who would check his cocaine with a razor to make sure it was pure. Part of Mike’s story checked out and the other part didn’t; his disassociation with old friends and his unkempt, scruffy appearance said that he was telling the truth, but then he had no throw-around money except what he needed for lunch, and sometimes he still borrowed from others. If he was a pack mule for these druggies he supposedly sold for, he wasn’t being well-compensated for it, which told me that he’s probably just a customer himself, a drug-user, a wannabe high-roller junkie.

But that wasn’t the surprise. Mike said he was going to re-introduce me to a guy who played lookout for him for the last month, a guy I knew. Lo and behold, Philip brought his lunch tray and sat down right next to him. Mike faced me as Philip was sitting down and said, “I know you remember Philip.” Philip looked at me, his empty and distant eyes still glaring into mine, and he said, “Hey, Joe.” Then he kept staring. We all three made small talk for a while until I decided it was enough. I told Philip, “Listen, you son-of-a-bitch! You owe my brother $65.” And without missing a beat, with an increasingly menacing look in his eyes, he said to me, “And you owe me a life!” I just walked away, scared and disturbed.

The next day, I found myself leaving fifth period class. I turned a corner around a hallway when someone came up behind me. I felt a piercing point pressing against my ribs. Philip grabbed me across the chest and said, “I have a knife. It can be over right now.” He held me there for a second. I was speechless, couldn’t believe what was going on. Then, he let me go. I turned around to face him and he smirked as he walked off. On the bus ride home, as I got off at my stop, he held up the knife against the window and smiled, nodding his head, as if to say, “Yep, and it’s going to happen again!” It was impossible not to see how much of a thrill he got from causing fear.

I told my mother what had happened. She reported it to the principal. Lacking proof of the incident, Stanley wasn’t prosecuted or expelled, but the principal didn’t doubt what I alleged. He forbade Philip from coming anywhere near me. Stanley kept his distance for a while, and just before anything could happen, he was expelled and went back to the mental institution after distantly tagging along like an omega wolf with Mike and the druggie crowd for a while, and doing who knows what to get himself into trouble with the law again. Mike got his ass kicked by another druggie he crossed and ended up with his head “thudding” a tree and collapsing into a drug-accompanied unconsciousness. The end result was, everyone went his own way, for truly “there is no honor among thieves.”

Lessons Learned

Freshmen year ended with me learning a valuable moral lesson—the quality of people you hang around with will affect your quality of life! It’s a stupid idea to get close to those who will wrong others for the kicks for the simple fact that they will one day turn around and wrong you! It should be common sense, but it’s not, especially not to clueless kids. It’s a lesson that is often learned the hard way. Hate clichés all you want, but in the end, what goes around does indeed come around! That realization keeps society going too, being the moral foundation for every human relationship.

It’s not about religion; it’s not about having connections with certain people. It’s about principle; it’s about honor; it’s about basic human integrity. It’s about realizing that those closest to us can hurt us the most, and that we have very few true friends in life, but many acquaintances. If one has five good friends, then that person is doing quite well. Those selected by us as friends should have a number of lustily ingrained qualities, like honesty and a natural concern for others of their species. The quest to be accepted requires a certain disposition of the heart, a certain respect for the territories and innate rites of others. Without these things, there can be no acceptance; there can be no trust or unity.

But it’s interesting how styles and languages change, and yet the term “cool” has remained popular. That can be said of very few terms. The term has stayed around no doubt because of its meaning—to be “cool” means to be accepted by the inner-most respected members of the pack, the members within the inner-circle, the group within the group. No one loves being average, but everyone wants to be a part of the inner-circle. Hence, the quest for coolness is a universal one. But what makes children children is that they mimic adults without understanding what all is involved or how a thing is done. We are each clueless until age moves us up in the caste system to a point where we can rationally think through our decisions and mind what is important in the long run. What is “cool” in our child years may be completely stupid in our adult years. But in the end, it’s all the same quest. Adults want in on it just the same.


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