“Don’tcha Wanna Don’t Worry”
a musical memoir of Bobby McFerrin & Whitney Houston
by William Stephen Davis
The first song I was obsessed with was actually two songs, and I wasn’t obsessed with them, they were obsessed with me.
The year was 1987, we were the Baby Eagles, I was in second grade. My mom, a third grade teacher in the northern part of the county, dropped me off pre-trek and dead center each morning. A half hour drive Wilkes County time is two city hours minimum. Mom added to it by swinging through a fast food window each morning after leaving me in a school cafeteria. Maybe it was to save money, or perhaps the logic of my location provided a sense I was somehow fed through osmosis, which wasn’t the case.
I arrived an hour before the first busloads of students showed up, alone in an l-shaped room, dark and quiet sans the occasional janitor cart passing by. I would otherwise stare at the concrete wall, painted letters filled with children squeezed past physical limitations into shapes spelling out “WILKESBORO” on the wall. This was ground zero for learning.
It came about two weeks into my being there alone. The principal arrived and found me staring at the wall, the late dawn light casting a dim glow across my shoulders. As would anyone with a sharp eye and knowledge of melancholy, she saw the existential paws of a lukewarm life only worth coasting through visibly sinking in.
I was the cog in the wheel, this was the backwards hat predecessor of No Child Left Behind…just one, dropped off early before most kids woke up, save the super rednecks on top of the mountain who had to catch the break-of-dawn bus.
Fearing the worst, the principal found the sole cafeteria worker. Focused and panicked, she was bobble-heading around a new metal device the size of a motel ice machine in the corner of the cafeteria. We were the recent recipient of a brand new orange juice machine, a county-wide contribution to benefit learning from the liquids up.
The glory of the device was it would pass oranges through the front display before squeezing them into the general vicinity of a waffle mix-sized cup for students who could afford the steep one dollar price tag. Seeing as roughly half the school was on free lunch, it stood as a constantly malfunctioning prison for aging citrus that slowly coated the tile floor into a velcro soundscape. Even still, in a land and time of hyper color t-shirts and WWF Wrestling Buddies, this machine was a godsend to everyone, and we knew class when we saw it.
Can’t do anything with him, the cafeteria worker said. Had to get this brand-new contraption ready for the children, she said. It wasn’t as easy as they had said, this new technology.
Exasperated, the principal looked on. The cafeteria worker clearly didn’t understand a golden opportunity for career advancement, even when it landed right at her doorstep. Her position’s immobility matched her entire squad’s fixed positions behind the lunch line as children slid beige, brown and salmon-colored trays ten thousand meals deep over the metal rails, past the ham melts and beans and right into middle school. No sir. She would be here, right here, forever.
Aha, the janitor. There were two of them, always rolling carts of some sort, disappearing behind doorways leading to who knows where storing secrets no one could even begin to comprehend the contents of. If the cafeteria worker wasn’t going to step up to the plate, perhaps this mobile lot would be ready for a responsibility increase. Now mind you, neither of these figures were mind-molders by occupation. These were service providers in niche fields, clearcut positions with lines fading fast towards the direction of more work and less pay just like a neighbor claiming your yard one extra strip at a mowed time.
I watched as the principal and janitor talked in the doorway. Up to this point I hadn’t seen any high-profile crime cases on tv or films where someone comes and saves another person’s life at just the right moment, so it looked exactly like a principal talking to a janitor. Their words were silent riddles, some silhouetted adult tongue boiled down to pantomime like a couple shadowbox puppets.
The principal quickstepped it toward me and hooked a sharp right toward her office like a jet ski splashing someone. Passing by, she spoke as if I did something wrong and she had to correct it. “He’ll get you fixed, I took care of it. You just sit tight.”
The janitor sauntered up and stopped, looking down as he loomed over me. I was a cracker bag of sticks accented by a Trapper Keeper with geometrical shapes galore and an ever-changing series of striped shirts my mom bought in bulk and picked out for me on the daily. He eventually let out a huff and gave it the best he could.
“You like music?”
“All right then.” He turned and strolled out of sight, behind the cafeteria counter. The steel blue light of the dying night was starting to turn, fluorescents still off to keep the the overhead low.
Then, the sound came. A low rumble, notching up and echoing off the walls and drop tiles of the empty cafeteria.
Fwee fwa wa wa wa
Fwa wa wa wa wa wa wa…
Cruising out of the cafeteria, the janitor didn’t even have to look at me. His job was done.
Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note…
God knows how he even managed to pull this music out on such short notice, there was no internet, let alone Pandora or Spotify.
Don’t worry, be happy…
CDs had only been invented the year prior and 8-tracks were out, so proper deduction revealed a cassette as the logical answer. Only the next track seemed to betray that logic.
The silence broke with a plinking drum beat, followed by a woman moaning. Soon after, her ecstasy turned to confident iterations, like a catcall to the sky.
Clock strikes upon the hour
And the sun begins to fade…
It was getting light out and the lyrics were getting ready for the night. Everything was opposite of my life experience up to that point, down to the hour.
Still enough time to figure out
How to chase my blues away…
So here I was, left alone in the cafeteria, music blaring for me and me only. The crescendo hits.
Oh, I wanna dance with somebody
I wanna feel the heat with somebody…
While we regularly jump-roped to provocative songs in physical education class, I can say with great conviction there’s nothing quite like the sensation you get from hearing Bobby McFerrin and Whitney Houston singing songs to ward off the darkness by yourself in a lonely cafeteria chamber. But this is about obsession, and as stated before, the obsession was not mine to share, but one that was delivered unto me.
At the end of Whitney’s song, all the notes were hit, jubilation exploded past its crescendo, only to be tamed through a slow, painful fadeout as many a feral song were abused with during this era.
Then, it happened.
Fwee fwa wa wa wa…
Like clockwork, Mr. McFerrin’s song started up again. And then Whitney was back on, immediately after. And Bobby. And Whitney. Ad infinitum.
Either the janitor was a bonafide psycho who made a never-ending mixtape of just two songs over and over, or there was some deep, dark magic at play in Wilkesboro Elementary School.
The music always turned off prior to the other students’ arrival, an evil trick by the musical forces, to be sure. My new task, to communicate with other human beings, proved problematic as my exposure to two intense messages too early in the day and at too young an age. Normal banter was an impossibility. I had flown too close to the sun for too long, and there was no coming back.
As expected, I walked to class with a strange swirl of love and happiness in the face of loneliness and losing one’s house reverberating to jovial tones inside my head. My school memories for the rest of the year are scant: teachers rotated our second-third split class two times that year. I didn’t think anything of it then. As a part-time teacher, I now know all those motherfuckers quit.
As for me, the cafeteria was my morning holding cell. The first hour a sound prison, the second hour a cacophony of student tribes. The orange juice machine remained a hot topic, conversations mostly revolving around student politics and the have-nots found themselves associating with near-friends who had the extra dollar to splurge, just to have a chance to watch the machine do its slave labor alongside their fiscal sponsor.
The first hour, though, was always Bobby McFerrin and Whitney Houston. Back-to-back, one hit each only, same song every time. I never saw anyone start the music again, it simply automated whenever I arrived in the lunchroom. Sometimes it would start a few minutes late, giving me false hope in a promise for room tone until Bobby’s doo-wops sashayed their way into my ears once more.
It’s no surprise my mom was called in for a parent-teacher conference due to my noisemaking in class. They were all convinced it was due to my parent’s recent divorce. Everyone was so worried, they said. I would be alright, though, they said. It was hard, they knew, and I was taking it so well. It was impossible to not take it well, you see, because anything you did was the right thing to do when you’re sad, at least for a little while.
But I wasn’t sad, I didn’t have the option to be. Whenever I worried, Bobby forced to be happy. So that I could find the heat with somebody. With somebody who loves me.
And then others would roll in, one busload at a time. the music always off before their entrance. This was the Stanford Prison Experiment with no guards. They never heard the songs…they were my songs only. I was Jack Torrance in the Overlook Hotel.
And the songs, they continued to be my songs, one hour every morning for three more years, second through fifth grade. Do the math on that shit.
So here I am today, actually not happy. And I hate dancing. Both things put me in a mood and make me generally skeptical. My wife says I listen to sad bastard music, and she’s right. Because I’ve experienced the other side, I’ve faced happiness dead-on, and I’ve had my fill. That shit’s too weird, too quick, too energetic and too relentless in its evangelical quest for followers. Plain and simple, I just don’t trust it.
You can find me in the back of the bar, drinking room temperature beer and scowling at the fair-faced revelers moving in unison like a pack of dumb animals pre-slaughter. Me, I like long, slow, painful songs that blur together until you don’t remember where or when they started, or if they’ll ever finish. Just like Bobby and Whitney taught me.
About the Author:
William Stephen Davis was born in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina. He was selected as a Sundance Screenwriters Lab Fellow in Charlotte in 2016 where he also writes and directs films for his visual marketing firm, Small Creatures.