He was a skinny kid who wore thick horn-rimmed glasses. I was a skinny kid, too, and George and I were best friends. We lived in the same neighborhood, walked home from junior high together and both liked collecting baseball cards. That's all we needed to be best friends.
One day, George and I decided we wanted to have leather motorcycle hats, the kind that Marlon Brando wore in "The Wild Ones." We saved our allowance for months, then walked down to the Penn campus to a store that sold them. It was very exciting. I bought the traditional black hat, but George decided to buy a red leather one. When we walked out of the store with our hats proudly on our heads, a flock of pigeons flew overhead. Each and every one of those damn birds dropped a glob of gooey white birdshit right on top of George's new red hat. Not one of them shit on me.
George was an awful mess, white goo in his hair and running onto his face. I started to laugh until I saw that George was crying. I tried then to help him clean up, but there wasn't much I could do. On the way home, I told George he could have my hat. He thought about it, then said that, no, he didn't want it. And "Who needs a damn motorcycle hat anyway?" I didn't say anything else because I could tell George didn't really want to talk about it.
When I got back to my house, I wanted to show off the new hat to my brother and sister, and my parents, so I kept it on my head and swaggered on into our living room. It was right before dinner, so Linda, my sister, and Paulie, my younger brother, were watching TV. Dad was trying to read his newspaper. They looked up when I came in, but then turned back to what they were doing. I was disappointed, of course.
"Hey," I said, "What's everybody doing?"
Nobody answered because I guess the answer was obvious. They were doing what they were doing. After another minute, Dad dropped the paper into his lap and stared at me. "What the hell is that?" he said.
I was taken aback by his tone, but still pleased in some odd way that he was finally noticing me. "It's a motorcycle hat," I said, and took the hat off my head to point to the emblem of a wheel with wings above the bill.
"Why do you need a motorcycle hat?" Dad asked.
"Well, I don't need it," I said, still not understanding why he sounded angry. "I just wanted it." I took a breath, but when no one said anything, I stumbled on. "George got one too. A red one. But then the pigeons pooped on it and he had to throw it away."
Paulie started laughing. Dad went back to his newspaper.
"It's not funny," I yelled. "We saved up a long time."
"You and your friend are ridiculous," Linda piped up. She was older than me by three years and always acted like she knew everything. "That hat looks dumb on you."
"How come the pigeons didn't get you?" Paulie asked. I could tell he wasn't being mean like Linda. He just wanted to know.
"Maybe they were aiming at the red," I said. "It's easier to see."
"You really are an idiot," Linda said. "You think pigeons make group decisions?"
"Shut up, pimple face," I yelled at her.
"That's enough," Dad commanded. "Be quiet. All of you."
"I thought you'd like it," I said. I wasn't even sure who I was talking to. I heard Linda snicker.
"Just go get ready for dinner now," Dad said to me, pointing me up the stairs to the bedroom I shared with my brother. "And leave that hat up there. We don't wear hats in the house."
I didn't say anything else. I knew I had lost another battle. I felt angry and mixed up as I made my way up the stairs. Paulie followed me up to our room. I still had the hat on my head. I stared at myself in the mirror that was above the chest of drawers my brother and I kept our clothes in. My sister was right, damn her. I did look silly. Like a little boy playing dress-up. I took the hat off and threw it against the wall.
"Don't do that," Paulie said, and ran across the room to pick it up. "I think it's a really cool hat. I wish I had one."
"Yeah? You can have it."
"Sure. Why not."
Paul put the hat on his head. Then walked over and looked in the mirror at himself and smiled. "I love this," he said, "but you need to keep it. It's your hat." He took it off and placed it carefully on top of the dresser. "You saved up for it and all."
"I don't want it," I said again. And then didn't say anything else. Just let the leather hat sit there.
Later that night, I called George up on the phone to see how he was doing, but his mother said he couldn't talk then. When I saw him the next day in school, he didn't say anything about the red hat and I didn't say anything about mine.
Just a few months later, George got hit by a car and killed. It was the first time anybody I knew had died. I didn't know how to feel. I guess I was mostly just shocked. It was not something I ever imagined could happen. But then I never imagined that the pigeons would shit on his hat either. Why George instead of me? Why I couldn't talk to my parents? The whole damn thing was a mystery to me. And I sure never wore the motorcycle hat again.