In 1988, when Sean Metcalfe turned fourteen and his brother left home for the Army, home was a four-bedroom, two-bath house in Orange County, California, protected from the traffic noise outside by a sound wall as tall as the basketball hoop hanging over the garage door. The whole neighborhood was lined with sound walls, as if what was outside and inside was not the same thing.
In the early days, shortly after the family got a mortgage and moved in, Metcalfe’s father built a ceiling-to-floor bookshelf that divided the living room—another sound wall, more or less—and on one side of the bookshelf was the television set and a stereo and the sofa where the kids sprawled, and on the other side was a more formal-looking room, where Metcalfe’s father went when he got home, and everyone—even Metcalfe’s mother—knew to leave him alone. Metcalfe’s father worked long days, often coming home 12 or more hours after he'd departed. He had a college degree in English and worked as a sales rep for a glass company for all of his adult life. This room was also used occasionally when the folks hosted Bible study meetings with like-minded members of the Methodist church, and still is, as far as Metcalfe knows. The boys were brought up as Methodists, but even now, as grown men, they are unsure what it means to be a Methodist to begin with.
So Dad worked selling windows and Mom was a tidy, Republican housewife, ran her own daycare center and ran the house, and everybody inside. It is possible dad never knew who was in charge. Mom spoke softly, as the good Roosevelt used to say—Teddy, not FDR—and in his life Metcalfe has still never heard his mother utter a vulgarity. In any case, as in so many households, the big stick was dad, who received her reports of the boys’ misconduct at night, along with whatever threats or promises she’d issued earlier in the day, and had the boys whacked accordingly. Dad had a flash temper, but mostly he just wanted to rest.
Luckily, Metcalfe’s parents stopped whacking Metcalfe before it came to a showdown. At 14, Metcalfe was already his father’s size, and growing, and had taken to whacking himself privately anyhow. For discipline, Mom now turned to parenting magazines and women’s magazines and popular psychology books, and whatever she read, she tried.
But what was the problem with Metcalfe? The main problem with Metcalfe was that once his brother was in the custody of the Armed Services of the United States, there was more time for Metcalfe’s mother to watch Metcalfe, and what she saw frightened her. Not just his hair, which was greasy and long—a constant threat to his dad, whose livelihood depended on a conservative, neat appearance. And not just his room, which was a mess. More than that, the walls were covered with posters of heavy metal bands – Iron Maiden, Metallica, Slayer, and even the dreaded Alice Cooper, whose reputation preceded himself when it came to Metcalfe's mother. These pictures, and therefore the room itself, was adorned with pentagrams and skulls, symbols that still aren't regarded as hokey as they actually are, even today.
The bands were all men, all of them looking pretty much like escaped convicts. Which Metcalfe—who has forgotten more about world of heavy metal than you and I will ever know—tells me was the goal, artistically. In any case, the goal was not world peace, or free love, or trashing the likes of President Reagan (slagging the GOP would come later when Metcalfe took up with some older boys in town and learned to play rhythm guitar in a band they called Barbara's Bush). The goal was to reach across the country, the world, and root out all the parents like Metcalfe’s and scare them shitless.
Metcalfe’s mother received all of this as a threat. These people on the posters were definitely not Orange County people. She said, “Oh, my.” To Metcalfe’s certain knowledge, this was as close as she ever came to Oh, fuck. The room was messy but that wasn’t really what was bothering her.
More, all the posters were of men. Metcalfe’s mother hinted around the subject. When they were somewhere together she would point out a pretty girl on the street and say, “She’s pretty, isn’t she?”
Or models in magazines, she would show him a Victoria’s Secret catalog and ask which model he thought was prettiest. And movies. And she would glance to see his reaction, and he would ask himself what it was that this crazy woman wanted now.
The hints got broader. She would sometimes bring up Metcalfe’s older brother, how she missed having him around even with those Sports Illustrated calendars he was always hanging in his room.
On and on, and Metcalfe could not bring himself to tell her that he was not gay and she could not bring herself to ask.
Then one day Metcalfe came home and the door to his room was gone. Some new disciplinary measure she’d read about in one of her magazines. Whatever she didn’t like—and Metcalfe can’t remember now what he’d done this time, only that he was too old for a spanking—to punish him she was taking away his privacy. The irony was not lost of Metcalfe, even then, that the family lived in a kingdom of walls and only his had been razed.
The following day Metcalfe went to a mall, to a chain store called Spencer’s Gifts that sells whoopee cushions and other signs that America is never as smart as it looks, and picked out a poster of a young blond girl named Traci Lords, who Metcalfe had never heard of but as it happened had become famous for starring in films like “New Wave Hookers” and “Talk Dirty To Me, Part III” and “Those Young Girls.” As it developed, she’d starred in these films—having sex with 35 and 40-year old men—when Ms. Lords was 16 years old.
Which breaks about 7,000 laws even in Hollywood and the judgments against the producers and companies ran into millions and millions of dollars, and she became famous.
Metcalfe cleared a space on his wall, over near the window, and hung Traci Lords, solely for his mother's edification. But unlike Metcalfe, his mother, reader of magazines, knew who Traci Lords was.
She said, “Oh, my.”
But not wanting to discourage his heterosexual—read normal—appetites, mom and Metcalfe struck a deal. Metcalfe got his door back, and Traci Lords was pinned to the inside, where no one passing by his room might notice it was there.
Behind the sound walls of Orange County, 1988.