When I was nineteen years old, I vacationed in Los Angeles and won a car on "The Price is Right."
I have a video of the entire episode and it gets trotted out and viewed from time to time. On the tape I'm impossibly cute -- it was 1980, mind you -- with a tall lean body and a freckled face. There is bright orange hair on my head, blown dry to late-70's perfection and parted in the middle between two feathered, astoundingly symmetrical sides.
Portions of my Price is Right Story are deeply ingrained from repeated tellings, as frozen in my delivery as they are on that old Betamax video tape. Hearing Johnny Olsen shouting "Mark S. King! Come on down!" and galloping down the ramp to bidding stations in front of the stage, jumping up and down, my sprayed hair jolted above me in two clumps, floating back down to my head like snapping an orange sheet over a bed and watching it descend.
Or when I won the very first prize that came up for bids -- an Amana Range. "And to the winner of that range goes," I can hear Johnny Olsen saying, "Kentucky Fried Chicken in an insulated tote bag. It's so nice to feel so good about a meal!"
"And the original retail price of that range is ... six hundred and eighty nine dollars and Mark, you've won it! Come on up here!" Bob Barker declares, and I scramble up for a chat with Bob before playing the game. Bob asks me where I'm from and I tell him I'm a college student. Really? What year? he asks. I say I'm a senior -- a lie, I was a sophomore, but couldn't have told you my middle name at that point -- and say that I'll go "right on to graduate school to get a masters in Arts Management."
Today when I see the tape, I want to wipe the idyllic grin off that skinny boy's face and correct the error I made sixteen years ago. I had it all wrong. "Well Bob," I would say instead, "I'll move here to Los Angeles and fail as an actor while working for a heroin-addicted mail order sleaze bag. Then I hope to make it big as a phone sex artist for a few years." "That's marvelous!" Bob would then reply. "There's even more, Bob. I'll go on to watch some friends die horribly of a disease we haven't even heard of yet, fight my drug addiction, and then spend years searching for life's greater meaning. You have anything up for bids that might help me with that?"
But back to reality -- or, at least, "The Price is Right."
Johnny Olsen announces what I just might win -- a shiny new Pontiac Coupe! The audience absolutely screeches, and the camera flashes to my lover Charley whistling with his fingers in his mouth, wearing the same jeans and t-shirt as myself. We were in that early, wearing-matching-outfits stage of our relationship. Every choice I pondered during the game would feature a shot of Charley squirming in his seat, fraught with excitement and looking every bit the handsome husband.
On stage, Bob inspected the car with me. "Just look at these wire wheel covers here, Mark. Say tell me, "he asked as he put the microphone to my lips, "do you have a girlfriend back home?" No, Bob. But your camera man must adore my homosexual lover because he's given him every reaction shot since I stepped up here.
"Aw, several!" I offered with a laugh and an adorable but practiced shrug.
"Well, you'll have several more if you win this car!" Bob said.
The game was something called "Lucky Seven" and Charley screamed out every last thing for me to say and do. After going step by step through the game, with tension building and Bob reminding me how close I was to winning every three seconds, I get to the last question. After Charley's prompting I give the winning answer, the audience goes nuts, and the camera man goes to Charley as he explodes from his chair and dances about. "You've won that car!" Bob shouts. If I had won a fur coat Charley would've jumped to the stage and thrown it on, so help me.
I sold the car to my sister and the Amana Range went to my brother. I kept the insulated Kentucky Fried Chicken tote bag -- my lone trophy from the event -- and store it in the laundry room. It's nearby if there's a showing of the video -- it makes a great prop during the viewing.
"Mark at Nineteen" is what I should call it. Within a few short years of Coming On Down, there would be enormous differences between that video boy and myself, shaped by life events that would throw a wet blanket on my aw shucks optimism. I've tried to recover from them, to regain the hopeful, expectant glimmer found in the eyes of the kid from "The Price is Right," with mixed success.
He was fearless, I have reservations. He believed, I suspect. Sixteen years in the life of a gay man living at the dusk of the sexual revolution and during the dawn of a terrible disease does manage to bring about some striking changes.
I have a few stories about those times, too. Some of them aren't very attractive, and I definitely haven't shared them at parties. I wonder if they have any value, if they define something more than myself, if they sound familiar. I've spent a lot of time trying to decide if that which came before actually has helped me, if it "made me a better person," if it was, in fact, a gift.
And wondering, of course, if the price was right.
Mark S. King is Director of Education for AID Atlanta, the largest AIDS service agency in the southeast United States, and also serves as Chair of the Mayor's AIDS Advisory Board. He is currently completing his first book, A Place Like This, about his experiences as an HIV positive gay man.