Adapted from “The Girl in the Yellow Poncho.”
We were at the food truck at Bancroft Junior High, where kids smoked cigarettes between classes. Steven Adler, who played drums, was flirting with my cousin Lisa, 13, who was a year older than me. Steven was asking if she was going to the beach that weekend, but she wasn’t interested. She had her eye on a red-haired dude who hung out with the vatos.
As for me, I fell for a boy who was like us: neither black nor white, but somewhere in between. Saul Hudson had another thing going for him, too. He was a real guitarist. Before long, he would transform himself into “Slash” of Guns N’ Roses, with Steven Adler as his drummer. Just a few years out of high school, he would achieve global fame as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, his signature black top hat and dark sunglasses recognized by adoring audiences around the world.
Saul’s rock & roll persona appealed to me infinitely, since Lisa and I already fashioned ourselves into miniature groupies. We spent our teenaged years in an apartment building on Hollywood Boulevard, between Martel Avenue and Vista Street, where we sometimes ran into Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s, who lived in our building, as did Charlene Tilton from “Dallas.” That was the Hollywood of my youth — aspiring rockers carting their guitars up and down Sunset Boulevard and wannabe starlets living in dumpy apartments, waiting for their big break.
Saul was painfully shy, with thick, curly hair that covered his forehead and eyes as if he wanted to hide. Since I was also shy — not to mention deeply insecure — there wasn’t much to our conversations.
“I like your hair,” I offered during recess.
“I like yours too.”
“Well. See you.” I blushed.
“Yeah. See you.”
“He likes you.” Lisa noted as we turned to leave.
I let out a giddy, nervous laugh. “No, he doesn’t.”
“Yes, he does. He gets all googly-eyed whenever you’re around.”
I hoped and prayed she was right. In my imagination, Saul and I were the perfect match. Both of us biracial. Both with black moms. And he was a genuine rocker too?! What more could a girl ask for? It was still too early for Prince or Lenny Kravitz, and we weren’t sophisticated enough to know about Jimi Hendrix. So there we were: two biracial teens embracing a nearly all-white rock and roll universe at the end of the 1970s.
This led to some awkward encounters to say the least.
Like the time we rushed over to Peaches Records on Hollywood Boulevard, hoping for a signed copy of Ted Nugent’s new album and to meet “the Nuge” in person. When we finally made it to the front of the line, hours later, “Terrible Ted” stunned me by planting a kiss squarely on my lips. He kissed Lisa too, which sent her shrieking down the aisles with joy.
Of course, we knew nothing about his racist beliefs back then. It would be years before Nugent would be widely lambasted for his comments about slain teenager Trayvon Martin, in addition to a slew of other disturbing remarks about Black people. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were isolated, barely-there teenagers living between worlds, and something about rock and roll culture attracted us. Already, we’d amassed a drawerful of concert stubs: The Cars, The Babys, the Who, the Boomtown Rats, Aerosmith and Tom Petty, although we couldn’t help but notice the scant number of black people at these venues, which we registered in a kind of sideways peripheral vision. Of course, it needled us when the white girls bent over and flipped their long hair and when they laughed in that carefree way they had.
We never would have seen it at the time, but we were clearly outsiders in this terrain.
Years later, I watched a documentary about Lynyrd Skynyrd and wondered: Did we even notice they flew the Confederate flag as we belted out the lyrics to “Freebird?” In retrospect, I still couldn’t help but marvel at their artistic brilliance — how they holed up at that cabin, fishing at the lake and coming up with lyrical gems. It was impossible not to admire their genius. And what about Tom Petty, whom I adored as a teenager? We saw him live, again and again, and yet were blissfully unaware that he, too, displayed that hateful symbol at his concerts, an action that Petty himself would later describe as “downright stupid.”
We placed ourselves dead center in hostile territory without even knowing it, embracing those who hated us or, at the very least, who thought less of us than we deserved. Still, what was the alternative as mixed-race girls at a time when there was still not a single commercial or advertisement depicting mixed race couples? Where were we to go with our budding yearnings and desires for shared community?
The answer to my question came in a single word: Saul. I pictured us traveling the world together, letting our wild hair fly free and rocking out. That is, until he dropped a bomb on me.
One morning in homeroom, he flashed a woeful glance in my direction, slinking into the seat in front of me without saying a word.
I leaned forward. “What’s wrong?”
“What is it?” I repeated.
“Saul’s bugging me,” I complained to my journal later that day. “He never talks. He’s just always giving me these ‘Feel sorry for me’ looks. Don’t ask me why.” Even after studying the magazines Mom left on the tank of the toilet (Cosmopolitan, New Woman), it was impossible for me to make out what the other half was thinking. Until I saw them together — Saul and Melissa. Then, I understood.
It was the end of the school day, and they were on the lawn where the school buses lined up. She sat on his lap, French-kissing him. They came up for air, laughing and holding hands. Melissa was blond and vivacious with full breasts. Unlike me, she was the chatty type — thrusting her chest out and tossing her hair. She embodied everything I longed to be but was not: sexy, fun, outgoing. In a word: white. To my mind, my skinny frame and wild hair were neither cute nor sexy. Not in the way that Melissa was. Certainly not like any of the other flirty white girls the boys always seemed to fall for.
Years later, standing in the memoir aisle of a New York City Barnes & Noble, I read that Melissa’s mother allowed Saul to sleep over in her room when they were teenagers and even supplied the young couple with drugs or marijuana, I can’t remember which. Not exactly my speed at age 13. My black mother and grandmother — who raised both Lisa and me together — would have been appalled.
Still, I felt like a fool. What had I been thinking? Saul probably never even noticed me, I realized. Not like that.
I got my consolation prize at the end of the school year though, when, to my amazement, Saul and I were voted “Best Looking” by the graduating class. Even today, parents of biracial children are often told how much more “beautiful” their children are than single-raced babies — especially back then. In those days, biracial kids were beyond exotic. We were fantastic, otherworldly creatures that caused people’s jaws to drop. Of course, this perception is deeply-rooted in racism. It’s the age-old belief that having light-skin and some kind of “mix” is better and more beautiful than being dark-skinned. It didn’t really matter what you looked like.
Not that I’m complaining. Being voted “Best Looking” meant I would have one last chance to impress Saul (who really was best looking) since we now had to take a picture together for the class yearbook. Maybe he wasn’t that into Melissa, I convinced myself, smoothing my hair down and praying it wouldn’t frizz.
The sun shone brightly as we arranged ourselves into a pose, with Saul draping a casual arm across my shoulder. That photo is still out there in someone’s yearbook, although those middle school journalists weren’t much good at fact-checking. My name was misspelled, and Saul and I both appeared mistakenly under the heading “Most Popular,” which, shy as we were, couldn’t have been further from the truth. One thing they got right, though. Saul was also voted “Most Likely to Become a Famous Guitarist.” Of course he was.
The future Slash carted his guitar everywhere he went, as if it and nothing else mattered. Years later, I watched from a distance as critics castigated Guns N’ Roses’ lead singer, Axl Rose, for writing racist lyrics. Saul remained mostly silent about it, focusing on his music and refusing to address the matter publicly. I admired his ability to tune it all out. We were different in that way. In contrast, I would grow up to become someone who cared very much what people — especially Black people— thought about me.
The yearbook photographer collected his equipment and turned to go.
I nodded. “See you around.”
“OK. Yeah. See you around.”
Kristal Brent Zook is an award-winning journalist, author, and professor of journalism at Hofstra University in New York. Her writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post among others. Go to The Girl in the Yellow Poncho and follow her on Medium for updates.