This week, David Bowie died, and that led to me writing on Facebook about an encounter with the man from my childhood.
When I was a teenager, my family lived in Lausanne, Switzerland for a year, circa 1981-2. Bowie’s most recent album at the time was Scary Monsters, which my sister had purchased on release (maybe in Europe? I do not recall, and she is more than 25 years gone, so I can’t ask).
My father’s gig came with school for the kids, either an English-language expat school based in Geneva (about 45 minutes away) or a French-immersion school in Lausanne. Some kids of one of my dad’s colleagues (people with a famous family member as well and thus here anonymous) had chosen to attend the Geneva school, which for some reason I recall as ending in 8th grade. I find this memory suspect, however, as I was offered the chance to attend an English-language school in Geneva which I have long thought to be this school but I would have been in 10th grade in that year, and so I must state that my recollections are suspect, distorted, and based on the viewpoint of a child.
We, as it happened, chose the Lausanne school, primarily because we did not have to board at the school.
That said, the school my father’s colleague’s kids attended was also said to be attended by the children of various wealthy notables of the era, only one of whom I recall: David Bowie.
So the kids of my father’s colleague were most assertive in letting us (and presumably other peers) know that they were attending the same school as Bowie’s son. I have no recollection of anyone telling me his name, but it certainly appears to have been “Moon” director Duncan Jones.
That year, my parents dragged us from one end of Europe to the other and more intensively from one end of Switzerland to the other. The Swiss-based forced marches of course included mountain sports, hiking and skiing and so forth. Hiking was fine with me, I knew how to walk aready.
Skiing was some fucking daglo puffysuit bourgeois bullshit though, and I was having none of it. I mean, not that I knew how to ski. But that there leather jacket (that is, the one I was wearing, having worked out some sort of scam to score enough cash to buy a leather motorcycle jacket in fucking Switzerland) was *deeply unsuited* to falling down in the fucking snow over and over again in front of rich motherfuckers.
I’ll cut myself some slack here as a 14 year old, OK? You might differ, but I’ll appreciate it if you will too.
Anyway, so we went skiing – just once, I suspect due to my loud disdain for the experience. I’m pretty sure the location was Chamonix, which is relatively accessible for both Lausanne and Geneva.
I had the largely terrible time I had concocted for myself, attempting to ski in total ignorance of the activity while wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket blazoned in carefully stenciled white and red spray paint with the Dead Kennedys logo and other trenchant ephemera of 1982.
I fell down a lot, and was cold, and I was wet, and I was hostile, and actually had a great time.
Eventually I found my sister at the foot of a hill and we sought the funicular to the top of the hill. Unwinding this memory now I think that my father’s colleague’s daughters were there too, which implies their father and mother as well. At any rate we kids, no parents, piled into the pendulous cable car. One adult, a male, adorned in colorful polyfill skiwear, also boarded. I paid him no mind.
Either my sister on her own or the girls that we were with made a determination to which I was not privy. The more I think about this, the more certain I am that the other girls were there, because I was looking out the window of the car, not at the other occupants. Someone poked me and hissed, not quite pointing: “That’s David Bowie!”
I was skeptical and wanted to know how they could tell. After all, the skier was nearly five feet away and wearing a puffy suit. “His eyes,” they hissed. I turned to look.
Bowie was looking at us and grinning like a loon. The girls elbowed me to go say something, to go be a fan, or to get an autograph. In my nearly-new and sopping wet Dead Kennedys leather jacket. Without a single Bowie badge or button. Jim Morrison, sure. Jimi Hendrix, yes. Sex Pistols, of course. But Bowie? Nope. Scary Monsters was just not as good as whatever it was I had heard before (on this week’s reflection, likely Changes One), too weird and ethereal, and what’s this stuff about Major Tom, a hero of the space age, being a junkie anyway?
What was I supposed to do, tell him his recent work sucked but that he should hook up with Jello Biafra and go hardcore?
In hindsight, of course, yes, obviously. That is precisely what I should have done. Instead, I was shy, as a fourteen year old may be, and turned away, shushing the girls. I turned back to the majestic geography out the window, sneaking a glance shortly thereafter. Bowie had turned to the window as well and the moment had passed.
I have reflected on this non-event over the years and have come to appreciate the inviting and open face that he showed us in that cable car that day. He was clearly welcoming us to make social contact with him as teenage fans and I, I chose not to act and influenced my cohort to maintain social distance as well.
I, I could be you. And you, you could be me. Nothing could bring us together, not for one day.
And that is the first time I have ever even tried to write that story down. It may bear some expansion and rework. I sincerely regret my inaction and reticence. I suppose it may have later influenced my choices later in life to self-consciously select for action instead of inaction, as a regret for an action taken is less bitter than a regret for an action left unrealized.