I don’t know why, when I turn to my blog, things get dark. I guess it’s my outlet for such things when there’s no other ear. It’s a captive audience. It’s readily-available therapy. It’s the nearest, most-convenient toilet for the contents of my head. It should be filled with humor but instead there’s-
Let’s get away from that for awhile.
I discovered that I could make people laugh about halfway through elementary school. In a predominantly naval neighborhood in the San Diego area that is now probably a huge shithole. Back then — in the mid-’70s — it was- The perfect time to be a kid in Southern California. For me, anyway. I think there were probably a lot of “perfect times” for it, dependent upon who you where and where you were located in SoCal, exactly. I lived there at a time when my age group was probably going through the death throes of that period most people attribute to the ’50s. I’ve said similar of other locales I’d resided in throughout my pre-pubescent youth. It was an attitude. It was a look. It was audible, in the forefront and the background. It was Cub Scouts and Brownies and dime stores with Mantovani piped in through speakers over sections that have no equivalent in today’s retail. Roasted nut-scented and we could still make a candy killing in those days with pocket change as the international oil scene had only begun to squeeze at the American dollar and- It was such a divided time. Short hair. Long hair. I’d never met a black kid until I’d moved to California and into a part of the San Diego area that was known to be rough and without many whites and this was in 2nd Grade. I was one of only two white kids in my class and my non-white classmates would gather around me almost fascinated because they’d never really had much contact with whites and if the world had a recording of our minds, then, and the things going through them and the discoveries we’d made about each other and ourselves. It was beautiful. Little human beings. Tarnished by the one bit of ugliness I’d come across at that school and it was from that one other white kid, who’d leaned in to me, one morning, to confess to me that he was glad that he was born white and wasn’t I glad, too? Wasn’t I, he wanted to know.
In fact, he was one of the few I couldn’t-
And then it becomes clearer in my memory. That the school sat at about the line the separated the black neighborhood to the north of where we lived with the Hispanic neighborhood to the south, in which we lived, and the Hispanics hated us for the most part and it wasn’t being at school that was a problem but getting to school and getting home could be. We were “mugged” our first morning. By a little boy and a little girl who just assumed that white kids would collapse under their Hispanitude — and they were shocked when I refused to hand over my pocket change. I’d never experienced such a thing and I don’t think they had, either. My cousins implored me not to put up a hassle. But I- I refused to- It wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. And I remember the faces on those kids. I don’t think they believed it was happening, either. They shuffled about nervously, seemingly unable to comprehend the situation. Then they left. And we left. I don’t recall ever seeing them again. But other neighborhood kids crossed our lives and not usually well. Our neighbors didn’t seem very keen on our presence, there. I wished we’d found a place north of the school, in a black neighborhood. Where I felt we’d have been- Safer. Because the things I saw in our neighbor’s faces worried me. All because, I believed, we were white.
Such things- Well. It’s the world, trying to be figured-out by a 7-year-old. In changing times. Popular culture, then, was filled with white people. Non-whites were just beginning to come into view and not without a fight. Often, not in flattering ways. “Officially”, there were no gays. America was Suburbia. Middle class. With a laugh track.
That house we’d moved into was a rental. The only one big-enough for us that my uncle could afford. My sister Amy and I had lived with our maternal grandparents until that past summer, when my grandmother had died of cancer at the same age as I am now. 44. I’ll actually be 45 in a week, so I’ve already lived longer than she did. I’ve survived a football-sized tumor in my chest. I’m not nor have I ever been a smoker — but I was, until two years ago at the end of this coming summer, a resident of Nevada and that’s often hazardous to one’s health in and of itself. Anyhow, my grandmother passed and my sister Amy and I went to live with an aunt and uncle in the San Diego area and that was probably beyond their means. A naval man, my uncle — my aunt’s husband — signed up for naval housing and eventually got us an apartment further north and more to the center of town, in the more-peaceful neighborhood of Cabrillo Mesa. Where — upon arriving — I met a black girl I’d thought I’d make friends with, and was beaten the fuck up. Because, white people had been assholes to minorities, it seems, for centuries. And the effects of this treatment trickled down to the personal level, even to that afternoon in early 1976.
I couldn’t understand it. I was 7. I was still processing a wicked amount of bad shit that was laid on me that past summer. Death. Loss. Relocation. A new way of life. A new culture, really. And subcultures I’d never known before.
That girl got hold of my hair and twirled me around like a fucking tetherball. I can still feel the follicles being separated from my scalp. And the look on her face, which was somewhere between hatred and joy.
She was mean. Angry. I’ll never know her story. But she was full of viciousness. Not just toward me, but toward almost anyone who neared her.
I learned to stay away and was relieved to find out that she was moving out of the housing complex into the spring.
I’m smiling an odd smile, right now. Thinking about- Where this post is taking me. It’s become a lot longer and traipsed into places I’d not intended it to. I’d wanted to get into how I’d discovered the joys of being able to make people laugh. That I could. To do so gave me a bit of “celebrity” status at school and opened social doors for me. But I was fast becoming not- Not all that social.
It wasn’t sudden. It began soon after we’d moved into that bad neighborhood to the south. And it had little to do with that neighborhood, really. It was the loss I was trying to navigate through. My grandmother had been the only real mother I’d ever had. My mother came and went and was less a presence in my life than my aunts were and two of my sister who she’d kept with her were less close to me than any of my cousins. My dad was off living his life. I’d only recalled meeting him once in my seven years and that was a few months before. In a fleeting way. For an afternoon. He’d come to town, taken me to the drugstore, bought me a watch, and was gone. I still have the watch, actually. I’ve never been able to misplace that watch for long; it always turns up. Even after my move from Nevada to Idaho. At the bottom of a dozen boxes, there it was. It still works. Needs a new band. It’s too small for an adult. But that old Timex still works. And it’s been through a helluva lot since 1975.
I’d separate myself from everyone. Spend time at the side of the house. Up the mango tree in the backyard. In my bedroom. Alone. Listening to the radio. My grandmother’s radio. With its cassette player. I’d listen to her cassettes, too. Country music. Then-contemporary stuff. Some “oldies”.
I was combative with everyone around me. My aunt and uncle, my cousins, my sister. Anyone who came around. In a slightly toned-down manner from the night I was told my grandmother died, but pretty much constantly since. I had my good days. I was better at school. But there were times I’d withdraw from others — even from friends.
One afternoon, a bigger kid found me moping around and invited me over to his place. He had this toy or that toy and I wanted to check that shit out. Before I knew it, he was on me. I couldn’t stop him. I was able to get free and get to the door, but he beat me to it and held it shut. His mother heard the commotion and forced the door open and I shot out and ran and I ran through the housing and across streets and through parking lots and over lawns and I didn’t stop running until I ran into our building and up the stairs and into our house and into my room and if I could’ve ran after I’d made it into there and bed, beneath my blanket and through my tears, I would’ve.
I was probably a month away from my eighth birthday. To this day, I can’t easily let another person touch me in an intimate manner. And I remain single.
Within the next year and a half, I’d started to withdraw from schoolwork. And from dreams. The dreams I had for my life were fading. I’d sit in class, ignoring my studies, feeling- Empty. The further I’d get behind, the more lost I became. The emptier I became.
Two things saved me. First was the discovery that I could joke my way through pain. With the side-effect that my fellow students — and at least one of my teachers — found me gad-damned hilarious. While under its anesthetic, I was almost passively soaking up information. Sometimes beyond the level of my classmates. Sometimes approaching an understanding of things indicative of an adult. But I’d become violent, too. Since being raped. Defensively so. I was a little guy and well-aware that my size contributed to my not having been able to protect myself from harm in the past. One afternoon as school was getting out, a kid a grade ahead of me began to make threats against me. I mouthed-off at him, gambling that he was a shit-talker. He wasn’t. He and some of his buddies followed me off school grounds and across the street into naval housing but most of a block away from my place and he threw. His friends got behind me and tripped me while I tried frantically to fight back. A short time later, an elderly woman interceded and sent the kid and his friends away. I ran off down the alley behind the housing units toward my place so no one would see me crying. My lip was busted open. By the time I got home, I was in hysterics. I closed myself inside my room and refused to come out.
The next afternoon, the same thing. Only this time, a group of kids followed us from the school, chanting “Fight! Fight!” and when we got to the same spot of naval housing yard as we’d found ourselves the afternoon before, I didn’t wait; I hit him first. “Dennis” was his name. His friends tried to trip me, but other kids shouted at them to stay out of it. Older kids came out of the housing units to watch. We fought until it was broken up again. I can’t recall by whom. All I know is that I again hurried home via the alley and locked myself in my room. As if Dennis was after me.
Then came the third day. The group of chanting kids following us had grown. And just so we’re clear, I’d really hoped to avoid a fight on each of the three instances. It just somehow came to be that I was stopped at the same spot each time — presumably by Dennis, who’d decided on that first afternoon that he’d hated me because of the shirt I was wearing. A generic maroon sports jersey with the number “88” silk-screened onto it in yellow. Before that afternoon, I don’t remember him. Suddenly, I’m his worst enemy. But that afternoon — the third afternoon — it was different. There was another vibe in the air. By this time, there was a certain underlying desire to see me — a much littler kid — beat the fuck out of this bully, who was now coming across as somewhat nervous. Kids chanting my name as well as desires to “Kick his ass!” filled the air, while it was like- Like Dennis was starting to want to back out of it but determined to go on out of pride. But his aura wasn’t what it was. There was unease about him. And when we stopped, it was more like him suggesting that this is where we should go ahead and get it over with.
His buddies again attempted to interfere. On that day, however, they were promptly checked by the older boys from the naval housing behind us who’d looked on the day before. A friend of mine would later say that they’d actually cheered me on the day before after asking what my name was, cheering me on to stand up to the bully. I hadn’t heard this. On this day — the third day — however, I heard. They were right there, threatening to beat the shit out of his buddies if they messed with me, then cheering me on in the fight.
I punched Dennis. He began to cry.
I don’t remember how it went after that. It ended quickly. Dennis left. The older kids came up to me and congratulated me, saying I’d “won”.
“You made him cry!”
I smiled. Yet, after it was all over, I again sneaked down the alley and to my place and into my room to sob.
There became a- A- I dunno. A “thing”. Something about me at the school. A legend? A myth. About me being “tough”. Because I’d survived Dennis for a week. Less than a week. He never bothered me again. But neither did anyone else. Until, at the beginning of 4th Grade, I got angry at my best friend — a truly fabled kid around the school named “Yogi” — who was known to be a “rough and tumble” guy, and I busted his mouth open. It shattered Yogi’s persona of being tough and, thinking back, I never knew him to have ever been in a fight. But after I’d hit him, every asshole for five square miles was coming for me and life for me became a whole lot of scared.
I eschewed violence after that. Two weeks later, my mom came from Nevada and took my sister Amy and I back with her, her boyfriend, and my sister Trish. My sister Wendi had been sent to live with her father. And life began anew. There was no more punching on my part — but I would let others, including kids younger and smaller than I, punch me. Quite badly. But I continued to hide behind laughter. I began to hide behind books, too. Documentary films. Knowledge. Although certain subjects at school suffered due to lack of interest. And old-fashioned laziness. I just didn’t feel it, sometimes, and couldn’t be bothered. But my grades were better than I feared. Even in spite of very stupid errors and occasional bad behavior in class in the form of clowning about.
I suppose I hid behind books before I left San Diego. By the time I got into junior high, books were where I went to escape bad situations at school, in my social life, and at home. The county library was a second home. But I’d still attempt humor. By then, I’d almost completely withdrawn. From everything, everyone. I’d wonder where I’d be if I hadn’t left California. If I’d have fallen through some crack. In spite of anything, I did better in school in Nevada. And, after some intense soul-searching one summer, I returned to school with a desire to focus on leaping out of my shell. Which I did. Using humor as a major tool in doing so. And it worked. I graduated high school among the top students of my class while- While being among friends.
I left high school happy and with the feeling that I’d accomplished something. That I’d beaten something that had been out to destroy me for no particular reason other than a shrug and a “why not”.
I- Uh… I probably didn’t manage to be true — ever — to what I’d originally meant to discuss, tonight. But I think it’s probably a good story for me to read to myself. To remind myself, in times of strife, that I’ve beaten far worse before now. If I’m battling whatever. Something good to remember. When I lose faith. When I retreat. From battle.
Not a masterpiece. But- I can rest well, having written it.