"Earth Angel," by Jesse Belvin's Penguins, offered, or seemed at the time to offer, a succinct and accurate distillation of relations between the sexes. The song appeared in 1954, when I was a vulnerable 15-year-old, and was a monster hit, perhaps because of its ideological clarity. "Earth Angel" is of the genre that has lately come to be called "doo-wop"; in the P. S. 217 schoolyard, we just called it "juke-box music." Here's a pithy stanza: "Earth angel, earth angel, will you be mine/ My darling dear, love you all the time./ I'm just a fool, a fool in love with you." The heart of the matter, and the essence of life as we knew it -- the simple-minded, retro-Victorian doctrine that girls are angels, boys are fools.
Looking back, I have no doubt that such an oppressive formula was painful for girls. It must have been hard for young women who knew themselves to be flesh and blood to pretend to be angelic. But I didn't concern myself with the effect of the song on them -- girls were clearly and obviously different from us. Not that I knew anything at all about female culture; the world in which I lived was rigidly segregated by gender. I didn't have sisters and while the guys talked obsessively and ignorantly about girls, we almost never talked with them. Even in the high school lunchroom, girls sat to one side, boys the other. On the stoop, and In the schoolyard and the drugstore, we talked baseball, flipped cards, played softball and basketball and stickball, and practiced spitting for distance. I didn't have a clue what girls were doing -- probably at home starching their crinolines. It was therefore easy to believe what "literature" told us: girls were or should be beautiful, aloof, distant, polite, ethereal, sugar and spice and everything nice, and certainly not sexual -- in short, angels. Boys, on the other hand, were not just nasty and foul-mouthed, as we knew from first hand experience, but also pathetic, filled with longings that they gratified imperfectly several times a day, fumbling, awkward, big-eared, pimpled, and sloppy. The girls were all Bettys and Veronicas -- desirable but unattainable. Perhaps in better neighborhoods there was an occasional Archy, but at the corner of Newkirk and Coney Island, there were only Jugheads. We were, in brief, exactly what "Earth Angel" had described: anguished adolescent fools.
The notion that girls were unburdened by the flesh took a big hit when I found myself in one of those lower-level high school English classes where the disorder was such that weeks would go by without the teacher attempting a single lesson. Two very young but very tough girls (huge hair, pounds of makeup, stiletto heels, and bras so pointy that they could a bore a hole in the chest of any guy brave enough to risk an embrace) were discussing a "health" class in which chastity had been advocated by one of the maiden-lady teachers. One of the girls whispered: "She should take up a candle and see how it feels." Whoa, daddy! And then, a few days after I arrived at college, on a dark, moonless night, I overheard one "older" undergraduate woman say to another, "there must be a mile of cock on this campus and I can't get six inches." At the sound of those words, "angels" all over America plunged to earth.
And a few months afterwards, "fool," too, gave up the ghost.