Monday, January 6, 2020

Orange Apron Confidential

Snapshots from the Home Depot parking lot.

Let's Get Loaded

Sometimes I wonder if people arrive at HD with any idea of what they'll wind up walking out with. Here's a few of the more unusual load-outs I've seen:

1. A young-ish couple exits the store with a 12-ft long roll of carpeting, about 3 feet in diameter, on two rolling carts. She hangs with us while he goes out to grab their car... we Lot Geeks joke that he'll drive up in a Prius.


Seeing the looks on our faces, she says 'Don't worry... he hauls all kinds of giant stuff in his car. He brought home a huge exercise machine in it last week. He'll make it fit." Sure enough, he pops the hatch, lowers half of the the rear seat back, fully reclines the passenger seat (my idea) and we proceed to insert that carpet roll into the car. It gets shoved up against the windshield with only about two feet hanging out of the rear! We're gobsmacked. We tie down the hatch, she gets into the rear seat and they drive away.

2. I get a radio call from the Garden Center to assist a customer with a load-out. A minute later I'm looking at a cart with 50 concrete pavers that the very nice older lady wants me to load into the back seat of her obviously new White Maserati Ghibli. I ask about the trunk and she says the trunk is full so the pavers gotta go into the back seat.  The Italian luxo-sedan Beige leather back seat, that is.

I rustle up some thick clear plastic sheeting and proceed to line the rear seat back, cushion, door panels and floors with the stuff. I even scrounge up some cardboard to place on the seat back and cushion underneath the plastic sheet. Then... gingerly... I start stacking the pavers first in the footwells, then the seat, making sure they're nested so they don't slide around. I decide to also drape plastic on the backside of the front seats... just in case.

After about 10 minutes of mega-careful stacking, the pavers are loaded and the lady seems happy with the result. She tips me $5, jumps into her White Maser and drives off. I'm a wreck about it but then decide not to worry... I mean, it's HER car, right?

3. I'm shagging carts one evening and see an older guy come out of the store, balancing two long sheets of Masonite on a shopping cart and heading out to his dark Green Camry. I snag some carts from the far side of the lot and bring them to the corral near the Green Camry and notice him still trying to load the Masonite into his car. I ask if he needs some help and he politely declines. As I'm hustling more carts around, I keep an eye on him... he tries the rear seat, front seat and the trunk, no dice... the sheets are too long.

After about 20 minutes, he gets out a flashlight and starts looking around inside the trunk and rear seating area. I finally walk over to him and ask again if I can help, and he says yes. I reach up inside the trunk and pull the rear seat back release, which pops the entire rear seat back down, allowing the Masonite sheets to slide into the trunk and finally fit inside so the trunk lid can be lowered. The man is almost giddy.

He says "I knew there was a way to do that, but I've had this car for almost 10 years and never needed to lower the seat back, so I couldn't figure out how to do it!" I tell him the rear seat back releases are semi-hidden up inside the trunk and are hard to find, even in the daytime, that he was on the right track and would have found the release eventually. He thanks me, shakes my hand vigorously, slowly gets in his car and drives away.

Lost and Found

Here's a partial list of some items I've found discarded in the HD lot:

Giant empty glass bottle of cheap whiskey, tossed into the hedges.

Dozens of mini-plastic booze bottles.

Plastic water bottles filled with urine.

Plastic shopping bag heavy with human feces (trust me, I knew it without even looking inside).

Partially-eaten tamales from Der Wienerschnitzel.

Partially-eaten chicken from Popeye's.

Banana peels... everywhere!

Cigarette butts... everywhere!

Water bottle caps... everywhere!

Dozens and dozens of plastic water bottles and aluminum cans.

USB cords.

Used work gloves.

Used rubber gloves.

A Black two-drawer file cabinet.

A power washer, complete with wand, hose and filled with fuel.

Giant overstuffed bags of garbage.

Three perfectly good ladders.

Two giant dog beds.

Hair scrunchies.

A mini-fridge.

AA batteries, usually flattened

A basket filled with new hand tools still in their packaging, likely pilfered from the store and abandoned.

Miscellaneous trimmings from 2 x 4's, drywall, tile and other building materials that were left after being hacked off of freshly-purchased goods being prepped in the lot before going into the truck and out to the jobsite.

NO DIAPERS... so far.

A small hardened mountain of cement that resembles the Devil's Tower from the movie 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'. Someone had spilled a whole bag of cement onto the lot, didn't clean it up and the ensuing rain turned it into a solid eroded monolith. It's sill there.

The list goes on and on. I guess many customers are OK with dumping their crap out into the lot before they leave.  Who knew?

The Birds

During many of my evening shifts, there are hundreds of crows that fly near the lot on their way to favorite overnight local nesting sites before darkness falls. Last night was different.  At around 4:30pm, I noticed huge flocks (murders?) of crows flying in from all directions and circling directly above the lot, alighting in trees all around the lot and the adjacent greenbelt.

Over the next hour, literally thousands of crows were crowding all the trees, walking on the asphalt lot to pick at food scraps, spinning in the air overhead, lined up on the HD building facade, crowding on top of building roofs across the street... they were everywhere! Even some of the customers would stop to look at the huge cloud of beautiful black birds. The sound of thousands of crows all 'cawing' at the same time was mesmerizing.

I was in heaven, because I love crows.

There was an ebb and flow going on. One minute, the crows would be mostly all stationary, noisily cawing out to each other.  Then all of a sudden, a huge murder would swoop up into the air all at once, boiling out of trees and dive-bombing each other like so many fighter jets.

One hour later, they were all gone.  I cannot WAIT until the next time this happens.

Bitchin' Cars

Here's a partial list of some bitchin' cars I've seen parked in the HD lot:

1969 Corvette LS454, Dark Green with Rallye wheels, totally original.

2019 Ferrari GT Lusso, Dark Gray, brand-spankin' new.

1972 Ford Ranger XLT pick-up, two-tone Silver/Black, giant chrome alloys, totally restored by the son of the original owner.

1974 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon, Light Green with alloys, 45k miles, stainless steel exhaust, perfect interior, gorgeous.

1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air hot rod, street slicks, alloys, hood scoop, flared rear fenders, 'push bar' bumpers front and rear, 4-speed, partially-open headers, nasty and rasty street machine.

1972 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van, Red/White, 100% restored.

1965 Ford Mustang Coupe hot rod, alloys and meats, Bright Yellow with yellow dice hanging from the inside rear-view mirror, 4-speed, muffled headers.

1967 MG MGB GT, British Racing Green, spoke wheels, excellent condition, broken down in the lot, owner waited almost 3 hours for a friend to rescue him.


Although it's only a part-time job, my HD gig gives me much more than the hourly wage. I never thought I'd be thanking HD Founder Bernie Marcus, a hard-core Conservative Republican, for anything... but Thanks, Bernie!

Lead image, Gracias de Google Images; Cake 'Alpha Beta Parking Lot' video, Muchismas Gracias de YouTube.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Stephen Stills Forever

By the time I bought Stephen Stills' first solo LP at Licorice Pizza in Azusa, CA in 1974, it had been in release for over 3 years, had a Billboard Top 100 hit with the opening track 'Love the One You're With' in December 1970, and the album peaked at #3 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart in January 1971.

By the way... I still have that original vinyl, think I paid $2.99 for it.

I was late to the listening party but read reviews in CREEM and ROLLING STONE about some of the amazing artists he drafted for this initial solo foray. It reads like a musical Who's Who: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Booker T. Jones, Ringo Starr, Dallas Taylor, Rita Coolidge, David Crosby, John Sebastian, Cass Elliott, Graham Nash, among many others.


In fact, this LP was the only one to ever feature both Hendrix and Clapton on guitar, and it was dedicated to 'James Marshall Hendrix' who died in September 1970, only two months before the LP arrived in record stores.

R.I.P., Jimi and Cass.

Stephen Stills... founding member of both Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young... also played the memorable guitar on Bill Withers' Grammy-winning monster hit 'Ain't No Sunshine'. 

Wait... WHAT?!

This LP has been a part of my musical lexicon ever since I first spun it, and not just because it contains Superstar DNA. When I played it last year on our new turntable, it proved once again why it has such staying power. Here's a selection of tracks from one of my all-time favorite releases.

"Love The One You're With"

His biggest solo hit, Stephen got the idea for this song from Billy Preston. When Billy said goodbye to someone, he'd add "Well if you can't be with the one you love, just love the one you're with!" Stephen said to him "Hey Billy... do you mind if I use that phrase in a song?" Billy said 'Sure, go ahead!" BOOM... HIT.

Along with Stills, musicians on this excellent pop tune include David Crosby, Graham Nash, Calvin 'Fuzzy' Samuel, Rita Coolidge and John Sebastian.

"Do For The Others"

Written by Stephen for David Crosby about the death of his girlfriend Christine Hinton, this tune spins a melancholy tale of life, death, loss and longing. Sad as the subject matter is, the music is uplifting and beautiful, the harmonies soar and the musicianship is warm and enveloping.

Based on the Personnel breakdown, it seems Stephen played almost all the instruments on this cut. His tool kit includes vocals, guitars, bass, piano, organ, steel drum and percussion. WHEW!

"Old Times Good Times'

There's no mistaking Jimi on guitar as he soars through this cut, with Stephen playing mad keyboards all over the place. The tune drives forward with a speed and style that makes it seem like we're listening in on a private jam session. Knowing Jimi would be gone before the record was released makes it even more heartbreaking to hear him playing so beautifully free.

R.I.P., James Marshall Hendrix.

"Sit Yourself Down"

Based on a gospel-type melody, this tune is about his relationship with Rita Coolidge, who sang back-up on much of this LP. Along with Rita, other back-up singers here include Graham Nash, David Crosby, John Sebastian and Cass Elliott. 

"Go Back Home"

Like Jimi's playing on the previous track, Eric Clapton's signature style on this cut oozes and shreds and cries like no one else. The slow-rolling rhythm of bass and drums propels us towards a crescendo that reverberates long after the tune has ended. Stunning.

"Black Queen"

What can I say? This is simply an amazing display of solo bluesmanship, supposedly recorded while he was 'drunk as a skunk'. Listening to Stephen singing and playing with such abandon, I can totally believe he was blotto but managed to lay down a memorable track anyways.


The Artist and I have a nice collection of combined vinyl, and the fact there are more than a few duplicates means that we were listening to some of the same music at the same time in our lives before we met.

For those of us of a certain age, we can connect ourselves to times and places via the records we bought, took to parties or to friend's houses, or played during make-out sessions.

I recall taking my copy of Santana's 'Abraxas' (1970) all over the place when I first got it, the cover art causing much grief to many of my friend's Moms, some of whom banned it from their homes. Of course they did.

'Frampton Comes Alive' was absolutely required at every party I ever went to in the 1976, even though nobody really knew who the hell he was.

It all went sideways for me the first time I heard The Ramones' debut LP (1976), and I've been going sideways ever since.  HEY, HO... LET'S GO!!!!

Through it all, these slices of licorice pizza have stayed with me through the years, sometimes languishing un-played in boxes in the garage for decades until a wild hair makes me race out there to root out a record and spin it incessantly until The Artist starts rolling her eyes.

'Stephen Stills' is a singular gem of an LP. The lyrics and musicianship are first-rate, that Superstar DNA is undeniable, and the collaborative result is as accessible and contemporary as anyone could want. You know that new turntable I mentioned earlier? It can record vinyl and transfer it into an MP3 or direct to disc.

'Nuff said.

Added Bonus Track, because awesome:

"Ain't No Sunshine" -- Bill Withers

His monster 1971 hit, with Stephen on guitar. Still a benchmark of pop music. He says 'I know' 26 times.


Lead image, Gracias de Google Images; all videos, Gracias de YouTube; Stephen Stills biographical info, Muchismas Gracias de Wikipedia; Long Live Stephen Stills!

Friday, December 20, 2019

To Tree or Not To Tree

As we hurtle at warp speed towards the Christmas holiday, there seems to be nothing more traditional than a family trip to the tree lot. Oh sure, some of you might wander into the local mountains to snatch a free-range tree, or even find a live tree lot near the homestead so you can enjoy the thrill of hacking a living thing away from its roots and watch it die in your living room. At least it'll look nice until New Years, RIGHT?

For most folks who observe this seasonal bacchanal, the local tree lot is where the holidays REALLY begin. 

The Artist and I rarely host a formerly-live tree in our home, preferring instead to showcase an artistic creation/sculpture/installation of her design. Other than the occasional commentary piece, these 'trees' are a an exercise in pure artistic expression, inspired by how the hell should I know?

For the uninitiated, here's a link to her website that shows almost all the 'trees' she's designed since 1988:

                              Misguided Designs Christmas Trees

                                                   'Mother Nature' -- 2013

Her first creation, 1988's 'Ladder Tree', came about in the aftermath of a horrific auto accident and extended recuperation with the help of a halo brace screwed into her cranium and onto her body for three months. When the halo was finally removed in the Fall of '88, she was in no mood for the upcoming holiday and was inspired by an image in COSMOPOLITAN Magazine of a step ladder decorated for a tiny loft apartment Christmas.

That's how traditions begin, donchaknow?

I mention the tree thingie because, as life can be a convoluted and complex series of events, happenstance finds me working a part-time job evenings and weekends as a Lot Associate at that bastion of DIY-ism, The Home Depot.

Yep, I wear the Orange Apron, wrangle shopping carts and help people load and unload their stuff. Don't judge.

Now, I'm not thrilled at the idea of working a regular 40-hour a week job AND having to spend another 20 hours or so each week shagging carts and loading toilets. The truth is that we need the shekels and I'm grateful that I have the physical stamina and drive to do both gigs without too much fuss, at least for now.

Most of my Orange Apron cohorts at the store are really cool people and appreciate my bent sense of humor and manic energy. The fact that I get to interact with and help people out is a major warm fuzzy, keeping me motivated and upbeat, something my current day job definitely does not do.

And not only that, there's a large Christmas tree lot smack dab in the middle of the parking lot. On most of my shifts this month I've been helping out in the lot by netting trees, handing them out and loading/tying them onto vehicles.

This might seem like drudge work, but surprisingly enough I really LIKE working the tree lot... and not just because some people tip me after I've loaded and tied their tree up for the trip home.

Here's the thing: almost everyone who walks into the tree lot is... HAPPY. They're performing a traditional act that hearkens back to their youth. They're usually sharing this pine-scented task with loved ones... kids, parents, friends, significant others... and the result is walking away with an iconic holiday talisman that signals a benchmark of tradition.

I know... they're just trees, but they MEAN SOMETHING, dammit.

And for me, being in the thrall of double-job 65-hour work weeks and knowing how much The Artist misses me being home evenings and weekends... the Home Depot tree lot has filled me with a surprising amount of Christmas Spirit!

I know many people place heavy religious emphasis on 'The Reason For The Season', but that dogmatic rationale doesn't have any bearing on my love of the holidays. I revel in the idea that at least for a short time at the end of each year, people are generally nicer to each other... more forgiving, more understanding, more empathetic, more compassionate.

I know... they're mostly temporary interpersonal conditions, but they MEAN SOMETHING, dammit!

My Home Depot gig has helped me to feel more connected to people at a time in my life when I really need that kind of positivity, and for THAT I am thankful.

When I take 5 minutes to tie a tree onto the roof of someone's beater Honda or murdered Escalade and they're genuinely grateful and appreciative for my Boy Scout knot-tying skills, it fills me with Stupid Happy.

When an elderly couple holds hands and smile big while I load 10 bags of mulch into the trunk of their Lexus, I'm glad I was the one who got to perform that task.

When I help a carpenter load a full cart of 2 x 4's onto the rack of his truck, maybe saving him 20 minutes on a very long day, I know he'll use those saved minutes to make this country great... and I think you know what I mean.

I also know that when I finally land that far-better full-time day job, I'll most assuredly hang up my Orange Apron, but it will be with no small amount of regret because in just a short time, I've been given so much more than an hourly wage.

And as I joked about back in 2018, when I take my fully-vested retirement in just a couple of years, I will be pleased and proud to un-retire the apron and once again be that HD Lot Geek... the one who sings while pushing around carts and picks up trash and never EVER lets someone load a new toilet by themselves.

I Am That Lot Geek. Don't judge.

The 12 Boy Scout Laws:  A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, Reverent.

Lead image, Gracias de Google Images; 'Mother Nature' tree image, Muchismas Gracias de Misguided Designs; Hoodoo Gurus 'Little Drummer Boy' video, Gracias de You Tube; Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano!!!

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Yardwork Gene

I was talking with Awesome Dad on the phone recently about his upcoming relocation to the wilds of Southwestern Idaho. We got on the subject of yardwork, so I recounted a conversation I'd had with my younger brother Chuck back in 2005, mere months before his passing.

Chuck had taken seriously ill with a failed liver, was fighting a devastating blood infection and in the final throes of his battle with alcohol. He'd recently moved into a small cottage in the city of Paradise, California (same city as Mom and Dad) where he'd lived since 1979, and we were talking about his new pad.

Me: "So, dude... you gonna hire someone to do the yards?"

Him: "Well, I made a deal with the landlord and he agreed to take $100 a month off my rent if I keep the lawns mowed and raked."

Me: "Ummmm... are you sure you're strong enough right now to take on that kind of physical labor?"

Him: "Of course I'm strong enough... I'm not a pussy, you know."

Me:  "But Chuck... you've never done any meaningful yardwork in your entire life."

Him: "Phhhht... it's easy, anyone could do these yards."

Me:  "BUT CHUCK... you don't have The Yardwork Gene like Dad and me, and you know it."

Him:  "Yeah... well... it's no big deal, I'll take care of it."

Upon hearing my story, Dad says "Well, you KNOW who wound up doing his yards, don't you?"

We both laughed at that and the idea of Chuck EVER doing yardwork of any kind, mostly because we miss him so much. And yes, it was Dad that did his yards, because Dad has The Yardwork Gene and Chuck never did.

The reason I mention all this is because the image at the top of this essay, of that lovely home surrounded by trees and greenery and verdant lawn... that image was taken by Dad after he'd done his yards for the final time before the new owners would take possession of the house and Mom and Dad would move out and be gone after living there for 35 years.

What's important to note is this house, surrounded by trees and greenery and verdant lawn, is located in Paradise, California. Yes, THAT Paradise, the same city that only last November was devastated by the horrific Camp Fire that destroyed 90% of the homes and 70% of the businesses and resulted in over 80 people losing their lives. The population dropped from 29,000 inhabitants to less than 3,000... you can't buy gasoline anywhere because the stations all burned down... the sound of dump trucks and bulldozers and chainsaws echo up there on the ridge six days a week now... you never even hear a barking dog at night because everyone is gone.

Even though their home was spared and insurance covered the moderate repairs that were needed, Mom and Dad decided to sell because their friends... their community... their way of life... all the things they knew and loved about Paradise are now gone. The city may eventually recover, but they ain't waiting around for it.

For 35 years, Dad was the sole groundskeeper for his acre of nature, dubbed 'Descano (means 'relaxation') Gardens' because they lived on Descanso Lane. Over the decades, he mowed and raked and trimmed and planted and weeded and fertilized and landscaped and trenched and filled and leveled and seeded and raked and raked and raked and... well, you get he idea. The lot was dotted with huge pines and California Redwoods. He dismantled a horse stable, built a stone-lined babbling brook across the rear part of his property, built a greenhouse and workshop, and created an outdoor haven for parties and gatherings that became legendary in that bucolic mountain burg.

He even built a small memorial area off to the side of the property where Chuck's ashes were stashed, a lovely little spot with a small bench under the trees where'd I'd play my guitar for Chuck.

Even now, almost a year after burning to the ground, there are still some properties in Paradise that look like this:

In fact, the image of Dad's (now) former home is misleading, because although the fire leaped over and spared the house and the front yards, it scorched the property out back, taking out his workshop and greenhouse, completely burning down some of the huge trees so badly that the roots burned right out of the ground, leaving giant holes in the dirt.

Dad and I talked about his final day of yardwork on Descanso Lane, and I asked him how he felt about it.  His answer surprised me.

He said "Honestly, Son... I'm actually very relieved. This property has been a lot of work, especially over the last few years, and it's taken a lot to keep up with it. I'm glad to have enjoyed such a beautiful place to live, but I'll be happy never to have to clean up that huge yard again."

Did I mention that Dad will be 84 years old this year?

Dad has The Yardwork Gene... typical Mexican.

Not everyone has The Yardwork Gene, but I'm thankful and grateful that Dad passed it on to me, because I LOVE doing yardwork.

I have The Yardwork Gene. Don't judge.

As a kid growing up in La Puente, my weekly allowance was predicated on the completion of tasks that included washing dishes every night, keeping the house clean, washing Dad's truck every week and (you guessed it) doing the yardwork. I enjoyed it, to be honest... I even rolled the lawnmower up and down our street, offering to mow the neighbors' lawns for a few bucks. It was a natural part of growing up.

I feel like doing the yards is a foundation of my adult-ness.

These days, I usually trim and mow every other weekend, and I find myself getting antsy mid-week and looking forward to opening the garage door on Saturday mornings and spending a couple of hours weeding and trimming and raking and mowing my little patch of greenery. I used to wear my ipod Nano while working but now enjoy the ambient sounds of my labor, feeling more connected to the world around me, smelling the raked gardens and cut grass and wet pavement when I wash everything down.

Once the yards are done, I always have a lookie from across the street because Pride of Ownership, amirite? It's not the largest or fanciest or best landscaped yard on the block, but it's ours and we've loved it for over 27 years. 

Less than a quarter (prolly fewer) of the homeowners in my 'hood do their own yards, opting instead to pay a fleet of Mexican gardeners who descend en masse with their implements of destruction and leave nothing but trimmed edges and hedges and smooth lawns in their wake.

I truly appreciate those Mexican gardeners who work so hard, seven days a week, making our neighborhood beautiful, Making America Great like only hardworking people can (Eat The Rich). I see whole families working those yards, sometimes even with tiny kids dragging a mini-rake or broom around, not really working but pretending to help Mom and Dad earn their keep. Those little kids are the ones who learn early to appreciate their parent's efforts to keep them housed and clothed and fed in a country that needs them to grow up happy, healthy and strong.

Now that Mom and Dad are officially gone from Descanso Lane, I'll miss making the 9-hour drive into Northern California, a drive I've made countless times since 1975.

I'll miss sitting in Chuck's Place, strumming my guitar and thinking about him and how he influenced me in so many ways.

I'll miss hanging outside with Mom and Dad and The Artist, sitting under the shady arbor, talking and laughing and just being together.

I'll miss simply walking around Dad's property, seeing his latest efforts to upgrade or change or just clean up, marveling at his ability to do so much work and keep it all looking so great in a natural, unaffected way.

I hope that I can keep doing my yards with the same joy that I do today. I hope I never get tired or bored with raking and trimming and mowing and sweeping, because when I do all of those things, I feel closer to Awesome Dad.

The guy that gifted me with The Yardwork Gene.

Paradise house image, Gracias de Manuel A. Macias, Jr.; Paradise burned image, Gracias de; Mission Viejo house image por El Autor; Suburban Lawns 'Janitor' video, Gracis de

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Magic Carpet Ride

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware." -- Martin Buber

This is a 100% true story.

The Set-Up

Summer of 1971... Igor Stravinsky and Jim Morrison take the Dirt Nap, the Pentagon Papers are published, and 'Brown Sugar' by The Rolling Stones tops the pop charts.

I was 14 years old.

It was also My Summer of Discovery, a.k.a. when I went on a 3-week cross-country station wagon road trip with two adult driver/chaperones and ten other Boy Scouts, rolling from Pasadena to New York City and back, without my parental unit.

See, I was a competitive Indian Dancer during my formative Boy Scout years... a Modern Oklahoma Fancy dancer, to be specific. My indoctrination into the Order of the Arrow (OA, a Scouting honor society based on Indian lore) lead to our Tatanka (Buffalo) Lodge starting an Indian dance troupe. As a result of my success in Local, Divisional and Regional competitions, I qualified for the US Indian Dance Finals at the National OA Conference that summer in Champaign, Illinois.

This was a pretty big deal for our Lodge, which had never sent a competitive dancer to Nationals, so a formal road trip was set up for a group of Scouts to attend the Conference. We'd drive to the week-long Conference, over-nighting at military bases, then head East afterwards to spend a few days touristing in New York City and Washington D.C. before making the long trek back to Cali. 

Here are some mental snapshots of that trip that have burned into my memory like a wood-burning tool on a two-by-four. 

The Take-Off

On the morning of departure, everyone gathered at the offices of the Boy Scout's San Gabriel Valley headquarters in Pasadena. The anticipation among us Scouts and our families was high while we waited for the adult driver/chaperones to arrive with their sleds.

The first adult (his name was Gene) rolled up in a Baby Blue '68 Ford Fairlane Wagon, not a bad ride for this journey. It was instantly dubbed The Blue Bomb.

We'd already drawn lots and knew who would be riding in this wagon, so you can guess what the rest of us thought when driver/chaperone/Certified Curmudgeon Leon Tomerin (I will NEVER forget his name) rolled up in his personal car, a worn-out '63 Plymouth Valiant.

This was not the sled that we had in mind! Seems the wagon he was promised for the trip didn't make it to our starting point so we'd have to pile our bodies and gear into his Valiant and hopefully grab the wagon in Las Vegas... IF it was ready and IF the Valiant made it there in one piece. Once the family members heard about Mr. Tomerin's plan and looked closely at his car, one the of Dads stepped up and offered up his car for the trip:

That's right... a beautiful Green 1970 Mercury Grand Marquis wagon, complete with vinyl wood siding, leather interior, a rear-facing jump seat and room to stretch out. Suddenly everything seemed OK and we were all thankful for that Dad's selfless act of support.  We dubbed it The Green Monster... this would be MY Magic Carpet for the entire trip!

Starry Night

The plan was to overnight at military bases during the trip, but by the end of that first travel day we were so late in arriving at our stopover outside of Salt Lake City that the decision was made for us to just pull off the highway and camp out until morning. Hey... we're Boy Scouts, no problem! I don't recall exactly what city's outskirts we stopped at, but we found a small site that perfectly suited our needs, with the lights of the city glittering off in the distance.

It was about midnight when everyone finally crapped out in their sleeping bags, but I lay awake for a long time looking up at the brilliant starry Utah sky. I was overwhelmed by powerful emotions, being away from my family and essentially on my own, beginning a journey of discovery and friendship and adventure. I was awake most of that first night, looking at stars, enthralled by life, breathing it all into my soon-to-be-15-year old soul.

Missouri Breaks

We'd been on the road for a few days by now and were getting punchy, as teenage boys do when caged up in cars on extended road trips. When we reached the outskirts of Joplin, Missouri it was time for another gas station pit stop for fuel, bathroom and snacks... this activity became a running gag during the entire trip because we were always yelling at guys to " HURRY UP AND GET IN THE CAR, MAAAAAN!!!"

While the adults fueled the wagons, we all crowded into the bathroom and discovered (gasp!) CONDOM VENDING MACHINES!!! We'd never seen these before, being from California and all, so naturally we snapped up a bunch of them at $.25 each because... well, who knows why?

Once we'd stocked up on rubbers, sodas and snacks, we were on the road again... but in just a few minutes, we in the Green Monster realized what we MUST do and convinced Mr. Tomerin to pull over and stop, so the Blue Bomb pulled over right behind us. We jumped out of both cars and did the most important thing in the world: took out several rubbers, blew them up and tied them to the car's antennas. 

For the next few hours we rolled Eastward at speed, the condom balloons whipping around on the antennas of both cars while making a loud "WHOMPWHOMPWHOMPWHOMPWHOMP" sound, much to the shock and surprise of every other driver on the road who looked around to see where that unholy noise was coming from. We were laughing hysterically, and to their credit our chaperones were absolutely magnificent by letting us be weirdos. It was a great day.

Conference Confidential

By the time we arrived at at OA Conference, my wagon mate Kurt (his Dad was the one who loaned us the Green Monster) and I had become fast friends and were known for the rest of the trip as 'Duck' and 'Tonto'. He was Duck because his new braces gave him duck lips, and I was Tonto for obvious reasons. We would always room together and stayed friends for several years after this amazing journey.

During the conference we stayed in the empty dormitories at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the dorms were all connected via underground walkways that also featured small cafes, game rooms and laundromats. Each night after our group dinners, dozens of Scouts would gather in the laundromats to engage in 'Dryer Bronco Busting'. A Scout would crawl inside one the the large industrial dryers and, with the temperature turned waaay down, would brace himself inside and try not to throw up once we'd dropped in quarters and started the tumbler spinning. Much laughter and vomiting ensued.

I made it to the Semi-Finals in the Modern Oklahoma Fancy Dance Competition. Even though I was only 14 years old and dancing against Scouts who were older and more seasoned than me, I placed a very respectable 12th Overall. Here's an example of that style of dancing, performed by the Real Thing... the dancer in black & white is amazing:

Dorm room shenanigans were the order of the week for everyone, from short-sheeting beds to noisy late-night room break-ins to drag a naked half-awake Scout into the hall and locking him out. The shower rooms were witness to many vicious towel-snapping incidents, and huge food fights were known to break out in the underground cafes over the smallest incident. It was AWESOME.

Her name was Patti, she was 16 and worked in the underground cafe right below our dorm. She liked my taste in jukebox music (Rod Stewart's 'Maggie May' was my fave), that I was an Indian Dancer, and even came to see me compete. One evening while everyone was out at a stupid bonfire, Patti and I walked around the darkened campus, went up to my dorm room to make out and wound up 'doing it'... my very first time! It was nerve-wracking and crazy, and luckily I still had a Joplin gas station rubber (surprise!) and figured out how to actually use it. I will NEVER forget snuggling with her in that dorm room bed, and we hung out for the rest of the week until the conference ended. We traded a few steamy letters later that summer but eventually lost touch. So it goes.

New York/DC Shuffle

During our time in New York, we stayed at the Fort Wadsworth Army Base, located on Staten Island directly below the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. We ate at the base Mess most mornings and evenings and even bought snacks and souvenirs in the PX. One evening we went to the Base theater to see the film 'Woodstock', which was in theaters all over the country. We sat there watching this really cool film and then began to smell something.  After a few minutes, we realized the theater was filling up with pot smoke... ON AN ARMY BASE. I don't remember if we got a contact high, but it was still an amazing thing to experience... ON AN ARMY BASE.

While taking one of our many rides on the Staten Island Ferry, we were all sitting on an upper-deck bench watching the glorious sunset when a very attractive woman sat down next to Mr. Tomerin.  At first we just ignored it until we realized... SHE WAS A HOOKER. She tried for about 5 minutes to get him to go below-deck with her (heh heh heh), and we were loudly egging him on to go for it! He was so nervous and flustered that while he was stammering a refusal to her offer, his dentures fell out of his mouth and right into his lap. Much howling laughter ensued, the hooker split and we all congratulated him for being such a hunky target.

I'd been looking forward to visiting Ellis Island and especially the Statue of Liberty, which I'd been told was a pretty amazing place. I wanted to climb up into her head, grab a snack and a souvenir up there and look out over the New York skyline.  It was a stifling hot day when we started climbing the steep spiral stairway inside the Statue, and the going was tedious and slow because tourists. After what seemed like an eternity, we made it up to her head... but I was shocked to see how tiny the space inside was! There was only one platform to view out of the ports in her crown, and because of the lineup of people behind us, we had to keep moving.  We were in her head all of maybe 2 or 3 minutes before we started the long downward climb. There was no restaurant or gift shop in Lady Liberty's head. I'd been HAD.

Our stay in Washington D.C. was filled with visits to the National Mall, the Capitol and all the museums, including a full day at the Smithsonian which was incredible. The place that really stood out for me was the U.S. Mint, where the tour included a glassed-in walkway directly above an open area where they were printing paper currency. I was amazed at what I saw right below me: a huge rectangular stack of freshly-printed $20 bills, easily 5 feet high and 20 feet long. They were in giant sheets that were waiting to be cut and I was speechless at the sight of all that money, right there, less than 20 feet away from me. The image of that stack of money is still vivid in my ancient hard drive.

Homeward Bound

After an event and memory-filled trip from West to East Coast, the roll back to Cali was blur of highway travel with stopovers only for fuel, food and sleep. For some reason, we cruised on I-80 back through Chicagoland and the states of Iowa and Nebraska, maybe due to weather issues as we had a deadline for our return to Pasadena.

The only vivid memory I have of the ride home was that the entire time we rolled through Iowa and Nebraska, all we saw were miles and miles and miles of cornfields.  Coupled with the hot and humid weather, the heavy aroma of fresh corn filled every square inch of The Green Monster.  Unfortunately, my buddy Duck was allergic to corn and was horribly ill during our transit of those two corn-filled states. He was puking and shitting like crazy, which caused us several unplanned stops for emergency cleanups, for which he felt doubly-awful. Once we left Nebraska and the Cornfields of Death, Duck came around and The Green Monster stopped smelling like an outhouse. WHEW.

Why This Matters

This past summer, my 17-year-old Grandson Ben embarked on a 6-week musical adventure, playing the Contrabass tuba for the Jersey Surf Marching Band in the 2019 DCI Drum Corps and Marching Band Competition Series. It was his first extended time being away from home, and while he was on the road all over the Eastern and Southern US, I told his Mom that Ben would come back changed in ways seen and unseen. The visible changes he experienced are obvious in the image below... the left side when he arrived at Band Camp, the right side near the end of the competition journey:

That right there is one hell of a visible change, and I'm so damned proud of him!! Naturally, his mental and emotional changes were less noticeable upon his return home but his Mom knew right away when those changes manifested themselves in words and deeds that were... different.

Ben's Big Adventure was a catalyst for this essay about one of my youthful Big Adventures, one that (obviously!) saw me return home as a wholly different person. Although I'd had the chance to spend many weeks at Boy Scout summer camps, that trip to New York and back... that one was special for a lot of different reasons.

I'd already been a pretty responsible teenager to that point, mostly staying out of trouble and earning my weekly $5 allowance by washing dishes, cleaning house, mowing the yards and washing Dad's truck. This New York trip forced me to draw on the tools Dad had burned into my head and behave like (gasp!) a responsible adult. I kept myself and my clothes clean and neat, helped the drivers out at pit stops all the time, mediated personality clashes that happened during those loooooong highway jaunts, and generally did everything I could to enjoy this singular adventure without muss or fuss. 

Initially, several of the other Scouts struggled with the personal responsibility an extended road trip without parental units requires, and we saw more than a few emotional breakdowns, jags of open hostility and the need for adult disciplinary measures that were embarrassing but warranted and necessary. However, by the end of the trip we were all Road Warriors -- self-sufficient, congenial and adherents to pretty much all twelve of The Scout Laws.

Thanks to my love of science fiction, the summer of 1970 was an introduction to a more expansive universal understanding than my Catholic upbringing could ever have accomplished. Thanks to Boy Scouting and my Awesome Dad, the summer of 1971 was a first peek into the World of Responsibility, regardless of how it may have seemed at the time. I learned a lot about myself, about other guys my age and how adults can interact with teenagers without losing their shit every 5 minutes. 

I also learned how a condom works, so there's that.

I can only imagine the fun-yet-shall-never-be-spoken-of adventures that happened during Ben's Big Musical Adventure, and maybe someday he'll be willing and able to share some stories with me. I know he's created memories that will last a lifetime, and has already stated his intention to re-join his Jersey Surf band mates in the summer of 2020 for another Summer of Discovery.

I know this much: the searing memories of our youth are the ones that add context and contrast to the rest of our lives. We never really know which ones will be the stickiest, which will evaporate forever into the cerebral ether, or which will jump into conscious thought keyed only by a word, a song, a story... or a Grandson.

"Life isn't about the number of breaths you take... it's about the moments that take your breath away." -- George Carlin

Post Script: Awesome Dad recently informed me he has boxes filled with 35mm slides of photos that I took during this trip, stashed somewhere in his pile of belongings now being moved to his new home in Emmett, Idaho. You can bet your ass that I'll get my paws on those slides and do the Time Warp... Again.

Lead and station wagon images, Gracias de Google Images; 'Mens Fancy Dance Suite' and Steppenwolf 'Magic Carpet Ride' videos, Gracias de Youtube; Awesome Ben Before and After image, Muchismas Gracias de Rebecca Loren Macias

Thursday, May 9, 2019

South El Monte Confidential

The memories are from a distant past... a lifetime ago, circa 1961-62. 

Mom and Dad divorced when I was around 5 years old, and Mom got custody of younger brother Chuck and me for a while before we went to live with other relatives. 

The memories of those early days living with Mom in our tiny South El Monte duplex have always been apparitions... screenshots... disjointed 8mm snippets that float in the cranial ether.

But they are memories that have stayed with me to this day.

Marybeth Avenue

We lived in a one-bedroom flat, the third small unit at the end of the long driveway behind the main house. Chuck and I shared the bedroom and a bunk bed (me on the top bunk), with Mom sleeping on a fold-out sofa bed in the tiny living room. I remember the place always being kind of dark and barely lit, maybe because we were usually only there from early evening until early morning.

Marybeth Avenue dead-ended at a corrugated metal fence that bordered The Starlight Drive-In Theater. I remember being a small kid on a bike, sitting with some other kids on bikes in the early evening watching the movie screen that towered over the fence, the sound from hundreds of pole-mounted metal speakers echoing in the distance. 

There was an older kid that lived across the street who I called Boss, and we rode our bikes up and down the street together a lot. One day we found a large Black Widow in a web on the side of the duplex's garage, so Boss got some matches and (on his recommendation) I grabbed a can of Mom's Aqua Net hairspray from the bathroom. Boss lit and held the match, I pointed the can at the spider and pressed the spray head and WHOOSH a huge hairspray flame shot out and torched the spider, reducing it to a crispy bit.

It was awesome, and I don't recall any injuries. Mom came out and yelled at us and Boss ran home and I was dragged away from the carnage.

One night I rolled off the top bunk and crashed onto the floor, knocking my head on the bed frame and making a huge racket in the process. Mom raced in to see what happened and I remember her being naked, something I'd never seen before. She brought me into the kitchen to put some ice on my head and I noticed a guy in Mom's bed, watching us. "Don't worry, honey", Mom said... "It's only Uncle Dophy." I didn't think anything about it because I was still half-asleep... but I never forgot the initial shock of seeing Mom naked.

Is that weird?

The Laundry Room

I was in First Grade and Chuck was still a toddler, so Mom needed someone to babysit Chuck during the days and a place for me stay before and after school. That turned out to be a house down at the end of the street that we knew as 'Aunt Rosie's house'. I never knew if we were actually related.

Rosie had three kids, and they didn't like having other kids in their house and made sure we knew it. I was always getting in fights with the oldest kid named Glenn (maybe 9 years old) and his younger sister.  In fact, one fight ended with Glen biting my upper right arm so hard he bit off a chunk of skin and I bled all over the place, with me jumping around and yelling "HE BIT MY MEAT... HE BIT MY MEAT!!!!"

I survived.

Mom's job in downtown Los Angeles required long daily bus rides, so she had to leave pretty early each morning.  She'd get us both up, fed and dressed, and the three of us would walk up the street in the early morning dawn to Rosie's house.

We'd walk up the house's driveway to the back door that lead to the rear porch laundry room, left unlocked for us. The thing is, everyone in the house was still asleep and we weren't allowed inside the house until they woke, so Mom sat me and Chuck together on a small bench inside the laundry room, next to the locked door leading into the kitchen. 

I remember her fussing with Chuck's hat and buttoning up our jackets, telling us "Make sure you stay really quiet and sit still until Aunt Rosie wakes up, OK?". She'd kiss and hug us both before locking the back door behind her and heading to the bus stop a block away on Garvey Avenue.

And then we were alone.

We sat there inside the locked laundry room, two little kids, heads down, waiting... waiting. Chuck was still a toddler but he was amazingly calm, rarely fidgeting around. When he did, I'd just shush him and he'd stop. Thanks, Chuck.

We sat there in the locked laundry room, our short legs dangling off the bench, waiting for someone inside to wake up and notice that we were out there, waiting to come inside the warm kitchen.

Sometimes it seemed to take forever.

I'd sit there, worrying that Chuck would start crying (he never did) or that they'd forget we were out there (they never did) or that somehow we'd have to sit in that locked laundry room all day. I'd look up and around the room, at the tall shelves that held soap and bleach and other stuff, at the dark open broom closet, at the giant sink next to me that was next to the wringer washer, or through the locked door glass and into the still-dark kitchen.

I'd sit there, wondering if I'd get in another fight with Glen or if I'd get in trouble at school for peeing my pants in class like that little girl did yesterday or if Mom might forget to pick us up after work and we'd have to stay at Rosie's house forever.

We NEVER EVER left that bench until the kitchen door unlocked and we were allowed to go inside. We knew how bad it would be if we made any noise and woke up the people sleeping inside... at least I knew it. Who knows what Chuck thought.

It was a daily test of will to behave, to stay quiet, to stay put, to act 100% unlike the way two small kids are supposed to act when left by themselves.

I don't know how long we endured that daily ritual before me and Chuck were whisked away to live with Aunt Peggy and Uncle Tony (another strange story), but I will never forget feeling lonely and afraid and forgotten inside that locked laundry room.

But I know we did what Mom told us to do.

A Dead Dog

One day after school, we were playing in back yard at Rosie's house, running around and screaming and just being stupid noisy little kids. I don't think Glen was there because he and I always wound up in a fight, and I'm sure Chuck was inside with Rosie.

We were playing hide-and-seek and I was 'it' and the other kids were doing their best to disappear. After counting to 20, I started my mad search looking high and low because I didn't want to be 'it' again.

After spending a minute searching the yard, I ran through the side gate and into the detached garage because I knew it was a good place to hide. As soon as I stepped into the garage, I stopped in my tracks.

Laying there on its side on the floor, right inside the open door, was Rosie's dog (whose name escapes me so many eons later). I looked down at it, the garage dark except for the light coming in through the open door. It was a small short-haired dog, white with large tan spots, it's legs out straight and mouth open and eyes wide, unmoving.

I knew it was dead, although I'm unsure how or why I knew that. I couldn't stop staring at the open eyes... the open mouth... the stiff outstretched legs. After a few moments, I sat down and poked it with my foot to see what would happen. The stiff dog did a half-spin, as if I'd kicked a piece of wood.

I was fascinated.

I sat there wondering how long the dog had been dead, wondering why the dog had died, wondering how old the dog was. I sat there for several minutes in the middle of playing hide-and-seek, thinking (maybe for the first time) about death and dying. It didn't scare me to think about it, because here was death laying on its side at my feet, mouth and eyes wide-open, a stiff.

And soon enough, in came Aunt Rosie who grabbed me by the arm and dragged me away from death and back into the sunny back yard.

And then I wasn't 'it' any more.

The Alley

An alley ran alongside Aunt Rosie's house that ended in a driveway next to a liquor store on Garvey Avenue. It was long and narrow, bordered by rear-yard fencing on both sides that gave way to parking lots behind the stores facing Garvey.

For some reason, that alley was a center of much activity and youthful indiscretion. 

It was the route we used on Sundays to walk and have lunch at The (original) Hat on the corner of Garvey and Rosemead Boulevard. We'd sit on the counter stools that surrounded the outside of The Hat, munching away while traffic buzzed along behind us in that busy intersection. The stools were too tall for my feet to touch the ground, so I kneeled on the upholstered seat pad to reach my food on the counter.

Us kids used the alley a lot to go buy candy and sodas at the liquor store that we'd bring back to Rosie's back yard and scarf down while sitting on the sunny grass. It was also the perfect place to ride our bikes super-fast back and forth without having to worry about cars hitting us.

One day we were throwing gravel from the alley onto the street (who knows why?) and didn't see a car coming by, so it got pelted with gravel. The car screeched to a stop and we knew right away that we'd get in big trouble so we scrambled out of the alley and into Rosie's back yard, hiding along the inside of the fence,  The car's driver ran into the alley screaming bloody murder but he didn't find us there, right on the other side of the fence, hidden and shaking with fear. He walked away just in time for Rosie to come out and start smacking us because she knew EXACTLY what had happened.

Yes, we got in trouble.... lots of spankings and indoor quiet time, no playing allowed.

Leaving South El Monte

Soon enough, Mom lost custody of us, so we left Mom and South El Monte to live with Aunt Peggy and Uncle Tony in La Puente.

Based on conversations I've had with Mom (R.I.P.) and Dad, Mom was taken to court and found to be an unfit Mother, so custody was awarded to Dad. Since Dad didn't have a place of his own yet, it was decided me and Chuck would live with Peggy and Tony until Dad's situation became more stable. We lived with them for several years until we moved into our Grandma Silva's La Puente house where Dad had landed.

It wasn't until years later that I learned Grandma Silva was in fact my Grandpa's Mother-in-law, and not really my Grandma at all. Mexican families are weird.

I have very fond memories of living with Peggy and Tony, and of the many wonderful things that Peggy did and the care and love she showed us. There were also things that happened in that house which were awful and terrible and should never have taken place. I've dealt with those awful and terrible things and have cast them aside, but I'm not sure if Chuck (R.I.P.) was able to do the same because I'm certain those same awful and terrible things happened to him as well.

So it goes.

Why This Matters

Childhood stories like these aren't rare and I'm unsure how many people either can't, don't or won't recall them with the same kind of intensity that I do.

These early memories are seared into my brain and are the very first events that had an impact on my young self. I knew me and Boss would get in trouble for torching that spider. I knew I wasn't supposed to see Mom naked with some strange guy. I knew I wasn't supposed to throw rocks at cars.

I also knew what happened to me at Peggy and Tony's house wasn't right.

I don't know how I knew, but I knew. 

All of these things were original building blocks of me, and I'm glad I haven't shed them from my soft hard drive.  They are reflecting windows into my soul, my past, the beginnings of ME. The bad and good that happened helped write the earliest chapters in my life's novel, just like my fractured youth and horrific first marriage and blissful second marriage have generated a lot of content for chapters that followed.

We write our own novels every single day. Our minds may do a bit of strategic editing which allows us to avoid the hurtful or troubled paragraphs and chapters, but editing too much out can leave a stilted narrative that is without continuity or context.

On the other hand, obsessing over and/or refusing to deal with the worst paragraphs or chapters, especially the ones that happen in our youth, can send us into a tailspin of regret, anxiety and dysfunction which can have a lasting negative impact on our lives. If you've ever seen an episode of 'Intervention', you know what I mean.

Like every good novel, sometimes the story line can be exhilarating or boring, captivating or repulsive, a page-turning barn-burner or an exercise in tedium and banality. The secret is to write your own story... push the narrative you want... change the context if it doesn't work for you.

Your novel is your life. Learn from the bad parts and revel in the good parts.

I wonder how many people have these kinds of early rooty-root memories floating in their cranial ether, or can close their eyes and watch that grainy 8mm film run in their head. Until I started to write this essay, that's where the memories lived, always slightly other-worldly... out of reach. Now they exist in the here and now, and I'm finally able to make them real.

Keep reading... keep writing... keep remembering. I know I will.

Lead image, gracias de google images; Rosie and The Originals 'Angel Baby' and Santo & Johnny 'Sleepwalk' videos, muchismas gracias de youtube; P13 por vida.