Personal Essays

Credit: Saad Akhtar

Raisin Hell

Fitting in is hard to do. Left to your own imagination, is it better to be yourself—or be a California Raisin? A tale of fourth-grade woe.

I vividly recall the first time I ever heard a bad name in practical use. And by “bad name,” I’m not referring to G-rated bags like “dork” or “tampon.” I’m talking about the kind of word that would get your card pulled or your teeth cleaned with Lava soap. I’m talking about “asshole.

I was nine. The previous year I had transferred from private to public school, and to say making friends had been difficult would be gross understatement. In private school I’d been surrounded by nerds, forced into groups, inculcated with behavioral etiquette. Needless to say I was unaccustomed to peers who enjoyed hitting me, kicking me, and pulling my pants down.

Eventually, though, I found a friend—my best friend, John Beltzer. John was cool enough by fourth-grade standards to cloak my utter lack of radness. He kicked the kickball really far, could burp the entire alphabet, and had a ridiculous sandy-blond mullet that undulated playfully at a trot but had a marked refinement at a full-out sprint.

The pride John took in his hair ran deep—apparently it was a family thing. Each month, his dad drove him and his brothers, who had similar mullets, 45 minutes each way to Arcadia and back just for haircuts with Sven. Only one man could cut John Beltzer’s hair.

And when the other kids called him “Belcher,” somehow it was a compliment of the highest order.

And on the bottom of his skateboard deck appeared the phrase “Nards Dangle.”

That’s so cool, I remember thinking. What’s a nard?

Anyhow, it was this cool that I sought to achieve on my own somehow. As with most children, my self-esteem rested contingently upon the approbation of peers, and to this point I’d been wildly unsuccessful. I looked for ways to shatter the mold, in the end always finding myself victim once again of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back rule of country-music lore popularized by the Desert Rose Band, whose music I knew all too well; thanks, Mom.

One day, about six weeks into fourth grade with Halloween swiftly nearing, I sat in the brown chair staring blankly at afternoon cartoons. It was the Gummi Bears, DuckTales, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers trifecta on channel nine, a ritual rounded out by my customary combo of crushed ice and Tropical Punch Kool-Aid. A normal day by any nine-year-old’s standards. But the toons weren’t foremost on my mind. Not that day.

That day I was deep in thought, mulling over ideas for a Halloween costume, a fresh, heart-stopping one. Something that had never been done before. Something radical and badical.

Focusing back on the tube, suddenly I witnessed something stupendous. Instantly, any ounce of reason contained in my young mind evaporated.

I saw a California Raisins commercial.

The overdub of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” immediately captured me (the Marvin Gaye version—who could blame me?). That rolling intro groove: duhn, duh-duh-duhnn… All of a sudden, little purple clay figures gyrated before my eyes, performing a funny dance that consisted of just a few simple steps: twirl hands quickly in front while stepping slowly forward; put up hand like turning right on bicycle with index finger pointed toward heaven; alternate sides; repeat.

I imagined the awaiting accolades—high-fiving Marcus Richardson with my big white hand; hearing April Schultz giggle while I did the Raisin Shuffle during the parade. It is hard to describe how the California Raisins looked to me then. Their jagged movements and strange eyes gave them an anesthetized quality, like hepcats that had just woken up from getting their wisdom teeth pulled. Those big, weird white gloves à la Mickey Mouse, but way cooler and—more importantly—way more adult. Unflappable, purple, saxophone-playing, rhythm and blues raisins.

“Mom, I must be a California Raisin for Halloween this year!”

It took little persuading to get her to phone my grandmother, a seamstress of the proper caliber for the undertaking. Grandma happily agreed to begin work on my visual opus and would make everything from scratch, just as she’d done in previous years for costumes such as mummy, army man, and mummy army man. While these had been merely generic ideas, the California Raisin costume would stand alone, I knew—a sloppy but brilliant confection of edginess, innovation, and haunting subliminal imagery. The Best Costume ribbon was as good as mine, and I’d probably steal the parade as well.

I was going to be a big deal.

The two weeks before Halloween crawled by, and my anticipation grew daily. I imagined the awaiting accolades—high-fiving Marcus Richardson with my big white hand; hearing April Schultz giggle while I did the Raisin Shuffle during the parade. Eric’s California Raisin costume is the COOLEST!

On Oct. 30, the costume was unveiled. Grandma had truly made this one tops, strictly adhering to the aesthetics of the commercial image. The plush purple outer shell fit entirely over my head with two holes provided for my arms and was accompanied by soft white gloves to adorn each hand. The face was designed after that of the “Head Raisin,” as I had thought of him, with huge stony eyes above a gigantic pearly smile made of white mesh material. The mesh, which possessed a sort of one-way mirror effect, served as the means of sight from within, while the eyes and upper part of the raisin’s head towered a good foot and a half above where mine ended. When Grandma presented it, pulling it slowly from a black 30-gallon trash bag, I was dumb with glee.

“Try it on,” she instructed.

A minute later, I stood before her and my mother. Proud. Purple.

“You look magnificent!” my grandmother announced. “Just wonderful!”

In retrospect, her approval should have served as something of a final warning, but did I listen?


* * *

On Halloween morning, I was eager to face the world dressed like a California Raisin. My mother, aware of the minimal visibility offered by the costume, made me promise not to get into it until I got to class. Reluctantly I agreed, grabbing my stuff and taking off out the door, huge purple pillow under my arm.

The first order of the day was the parade. All the kids lined up at the sound of the morning bell. I scoped my competition upon arrival: ninja, mummy, another ninja, He-Man. They had nothing on me.

I then spotted John, clad in a black karate gi, red belt, and red headband, holding a toy light saber.

“Hey, John, what are you, dude?”

“I’m Star Wars,” he answered stupidly. God, did I feel bad for him. “What’s that purple thing, dude?”

“You’ve never seen that commercial? Man, don’t you watch afternoon toons?” “You’ll see. I’m going to change right now!”

A couple minutes later, fully suited, I cruised nonchalantly out of the classroom and back outside to the parade line. With some squinting and shifting of the costume to adjust my parallax I was able to relocate John, who had saved my place in line. Glad that I’d be marching next to my best buddy, I walked up coolly and confidently, the hippest raisin the world had ever seen.

“Hey, dude!” I kept it succinct. Further words were unnecessary. A California Raisin costume speaks for itself.

And it did. Big time. No more than five seconds later, I heard six words that would change my life forever. My best friend in the entire world, John Beltzer, mullet-rocking kickball star who’d gone as Star Wars for Halloween that year, looked me dead in the teeth and said:

“Eric, you look like an asshole.”

I was paralyzed in my raisin. Words formulated in my head to rebut, but my vocal chords wouldn’t follow their lead: No, John, I look like a CALIFORNIA RAISIN, see? Big white hands, super-cool hundred-yard stare and all. You’ve never seen that commercial? Man, don’t you watch afternoon toons?

After a few very long seconds of silence on my part, he chuckled derisively, then, matter-of-factly, reiterated, “Really, dude. You do.”

Tears began to form in my eyes, and while the raisin’s countenance should have remained unchanged, should have protected me in my moment of vulnerability, it, too, seemed suddenly to indicate a certain weakness. Jeers and comments quickly became audible, even through the thick walls of the raisin head, and it was soon obvious that I was going to be the target of a seven-hour teasing blitzkrieg.

To aggravate the ordeal, I couldn’t just take the damn thing off, either. My tears would further have opened me up to ridicule. I could only hold on for the duration of the school day, smiling on the outside, like a California Raisin does.

The day’s events dragged on and broke me in the end. Missing the mark entirely in my effort to transcend terminal nerdiness, I reaffirmed it tenfold. And to have it pointed out by my utterly cool best friend, to be referred to as asshole—a profanity, a word from a world which I was not part of, could feel no part of—created an explosive formula of shame, alienation, and resentment. Introspectively speaking, it was one of the worst moments of my young life. Outrospectively speaking, it blew dong.

That night at home, my mother could tell that I’d not had the best of days. Approaching me gently, she wanted to know how the parade had gone, how Grandma’s costume had gone over with the other kids, if I’d won any ribbons, all that. I sat silently, sad, but she kept pressing me.

“Eric, please! Tell me what’s wrong. I’m concerned. Grandma’s concerned!”

It was all I could think to say at the moment, and I really didn’t mean it, but it made me feel good:

“Mom, Grandma’s an asshole.”

I had learned a valuable new word that day. That and the lingering flavor of a bar of soap.