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 sacramentobee.com; Mission Viejo house image por El Autor; Suburban Lawns 'Janitor' video, Gracis de youtube.com.

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.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

I'm Only Driving...

I love to drive.

I love to drive for mundane errands, to craft stores with The Artist, to see the In-Laws, to the grocery store, to the DMV (honest!!) or sometimes for no reason whatsoever.

I was hooked on wanting to drive waaaaay before I was old enough to get my license at 16 years old. 

The walls of my boyhood SoCal bedroom were plastered with centerfolds from HOT ROD, CAR CRAFT and POPULAR HOT RODDING magazines... nothing but full-color car porn for this kid growing up at Irwindale Raceway and Riverside Raceway and Ontario International Raceway and the 605 Speedway.

Before I got my license, I took every chance to grab a steering wheel.

At first, I'd sneak out and jump into my Uncle's White '62 Impala whenever he came over, start and rev it so the glass packs rapped, then move it back and forth on the driveway until he pulled me out of it.

Next came the furtive slow drives up and down our street in Mom's cool Dark Green '67 Firebird (manual 3-on-the-floor!) when she'd come over on Sunday mornings to take my younger brother and me out on her visitation days. She didn't seem to mind or be alarmed, prolly because she was already half-gassed heh heh heh.

For several of my teenage Summers, our entire extended family would camp out at the Salton Sea for days on end. While the adults got drunk and played poker, my Uncle Mike would toss me the keys to his most-excellent Silver '67 Buick Skylark GS so I could drive it to the campground General Store and get more ice. I'd pile in as many kids as possible and we'd slowly cruise the 1-mile round trip, windows down and radio blasting. It was AWSUM.

When Dad got his Baby Blue '62 Chevy Carry-All for our Boy Scouting adventures, I'd regularly drive that beast (3-on-the-tree!) around the 'hood, pretending to power-shift for all I was worth. Sometimes the column shifter would get stuck in 2nd gear and there I'd be, stopped by the curb, hood up, frantically trying to untangle the shift rods mounted to the firewall. 

Good times.

I simply COULD NOT WAIT to get my driver's license and my first car and jump into Teenage Nirvana, as related in my essay titled 'Four On The Floor'. For me, driving became an escape, a trip into burgeoning adulthood and all the fantasies and expectations that came with the freedom to disappear into the dust, on the prowl and on my own.

So it was for us yoot in the days before spacephones and Fecesbook and Twatter and the intratubes. You know, The Good Old Days. 

I was lucky and didn't suffer any major crashes or injurious catastrophes caused by youthful indiscretion and/or high-speed antics. That's not to say that I didn't indulge in youthful indiscretion and/or high-speed antics, but I was unusually cautious and didn't want to rack up myself or my bitchin' '57 Chevy... knowwhatImean?

I mostly drove the speed limit and ALWAYS checked my mirrors, used turn signals without fail, looked three-ways (left/right/left) at Stop signs and traffic lights before proceeding, constantly moving my eyes in every direction while in motion so as not to miss a thing, all of it. Passing a high-school based Driver Training class was mandatory to get a license back then and it was drilled into my frontal lobes that paying attention while driving paid dividends.

Would you believe that I still drive that way as a totally crusty curmudgeon?

Don't get me wrong... I'm not one of those Gray Panthers driving 15mph under the limit and holding up entire lanes of traffic. I just use extreme defensive driving to make sure I don't wind up in a needless accident like so many others that I see on the side of the road next to their wadded-up cars, trading info and waiting for John Law to arrive.

In fact, just over a year ago I had an accident in my dirty hippie van that could have been MUCH WORSE if I hadn't been paying attention and reacted almost instantly to an idiot changing lanes without checking to see that traffic was stopping in front of me. He slammed on his brakes right after cutting me off, forcing me to veer onto the center median to avoid smashing into him and causing a 50-mph multi-car banger. I was toast but the line of cars I narrowly missed just disappeared into the night, unscathed and unknowing.

When the local PD arrived and assessed the sitch, they agreed that I was indeed lucky to avoid a nasty incident and had done the right thing.

Thanks, guys.

My quick reaction allowed me to miss the line of cars and skid to a stop without hitting anyone else, resulting in a flattened tire, a damaged alloy wheel and some relatively minor undercarriage damage. Not a bad result, and I actually felt extremely fortunate. I know... I'm weird.

I mention all of this only because paying attention while driving seems to have become a lost art for a variety of reasons:

1. A Driver Training class is no longer required before taking the tests to get a license. The ignorance of basic driving 'rules of the road' now on daily display is a direct result of non-mandatory high school driver training. I've always been grateful that way back in 1972, I spent the better part of Summer vacation in Driver Training studying the driving manual, thrashing the goofy simulators and tossing around the gigantic Buick LeSabre 4-doors that were in the school fleet for our on-the-road class sessions.

A quick story about high-school Driver's Ed: one of our favorite things to do when driving a car packed with students was to feign ignorance and 'accidentally' speed over the local railroad track crossings at Valley Blvd, which were raised on a hump in the road. The Teach was always caught off-guard, and the sight in the rear-view mirror of the back seat occupants suspended in mid-air as the car lurched over the railroad track hump was simply hilarious.

2.  The aforementioned spacephones and dashboard monitors in most new cars are pulling people's eyes off the road and onto the screens, creating distractions that often results in smashed bumpers and wrinkled sheet metal and the occasional curbside polka. In fact, it was less than twenty years ago that you bought a nasty ticket if the PD stopped you and found any kind of screen or monitor within eyesight of the driver. 

3.  Most new cars have several so-called 'driver-assist' electronic systems that IMHO do not provide assistance but promote even more attention-deficit to the roadways we all share by allowing drivers to assume they don't need to pay attention to the task of driving.

The invasion of driver-assist electronics into modern cars was the reason I decided to write this essay.

Now don't get me wrong... I understand and appreciate how and why the current wave of electronic assistants can make driving a less-intense, more relaxed experience for an ADD-addled driving populace. I just believe that driving is an extremely important task, and anything that so purposefully takes the driver's attention away from this task is a BAD THING.

The list is long and getting longer... lane-assist, brake-assist, back-up-assist, range-assist, steering-assist... it's like the OEMs are already trying to take  responsibility from the driver in preparation for the imminent shift to autonomous vehicles. Also included in this Rogue's Gallery of electronica is anything that makes a car 'connected' to the internet.


Did I mention my firm belief that mobile phones used in cars should only be able to make or receive emergency calls? I didn't? Like I said before... I'm weird.

All of these electronic driver-assist features test really well in OEM focus groups, and dealers love to show them off to prospective buyers as value-added accessories. However, they also multiply a driver's attention deficit which allows them to forget about the seriousness of taking the wheel of a 3000-pound projectile and speeding down the highway alongside other 3000-pound speeding projectiles.

During my twelve years working closely with a certain car maker, I watched year after year as their cars became infested with multiple driver-assist features, each with a unique bell or tone or beep or chime to announce its unique warning. Whenever I'd be moving cars around, my first act would be to turn off every assist so the car would stop the incessant ringing or beeping or chiming as I rolled around so I could, you know... drive.

Here's an example of a conversation I'd have with an employee of this car company:

Me: "Jeez... I'm not crazy about the new (steering/braking/lane/distance) assist feature in the new (redacted)."

Them: "Well, owners really like the idea of not having to concentrate so much on (steering/braking/lane/distance) while they're driving."

Me: "OK, but isn't concentrating while driving extremely important? These aren't autonomous cars, so shouldn't the drivers be paying more attention to steering and braking and lane centering rather than less attention?"

Them: "That's true, but these features are extremely popular and we need to offer them in order to sell more cars. Our competitors do, and it's what the customer wants."

Me: "They may want these features, but it makes me nervous to know that more people are paying less attention to driving than they should while relying on their cars to do it for them. I mean, we share the road with them...doesn't that make you nervous?"

Them: "... er... umm... actually, I never thought about it that way."


As an Official Old, I know there will soon be a time when autonomous cars are gonna be everywhere, and when I lose the physical capabilities to drive I will likely avail myself of that technology. Hopefully, by that time the software and remote digital signals that now connect and control cars will be better than the easily-hacked and error-prone systems now being used.

For the same reason that I refuse to own a smart phone, I'll avoid ownership of any vehicle loaded with ADD-assist features that allows the car to think and act for itself.

I don't and won't think any less of those who choose cars that have these electronic minders because... well, FREEDOM!!!!

I'm an outlier in this regard and I know it, but I have no shame in admitting my disdain for electronic driver-assist features in new cars. As long as I'm able to drive, I'll stay vigilant behind the wheel... moving my eyes from the road ahead to the inside rear-view mirror to the road to the speedo to the road to the outside rear-view mirror and back to the road again, never holding my sight in one place for more than 5 seconds, just like they taught us in high-school Driver Training.

The closest I get to those halcyon teenage driving days is when we're streaking along in our tC at 85mph on Interstate-5, heading North through the San Joaquin Valley, The Artist beautifully reclined in the passenger seat and the tunes wafting through the car's interior.

At times like that, I can touch the heady freedom of driving, yet still keep all my senses 100% engaged and focused to make sure we don't go flipping off into the weeds because I wasn't paying attention.

Our 2011 Scion tC is totally devoid of driver-assist electronics, and it's a bitchin' little sled.

Driving is serious business.

That's why I love to drive.

"Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel!" 
                                          -- Jim Morrison, 'Roadhouse Blues'

Car images, Gracias de Google Images except '57 Chevy image, Gracias de mi Padre; Pearl Harbor & The Explosions 'Drivin' video, Muchismas Gracias de Youtube.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Color of Money

Because reasons, recent life changes have found me between jobs for the first time in twelve years. While I embarked on a search for a suitable new full-time gig, I decided to sign up with a local temporary employment agency to make sure I was bringing in some shekels so The Artist wouldn't kick me out on my skinny ass. She's funny about things like that.

After some time rolling through the Intratubes, I lucked into an agency that was looking for a weirdo like me with a wide-ranging resume'. Within a day or so, they had me booked for a month-long gig running a CNC machine in a small shop only 3 miles from my home. Although I hadn't worked in a machine shop since the 1970's, it sounded like a great way to resolve the immediate need, so I was all in.

Now, it's important to note that while I'm no newcomer to what is traditionally considered a 'blue-collar' job, the majority of my employment during the last 30 years has been in the 'white-collar' division of the automotive industry. I've been extremely fortunate to have worked in the performance-oriented areas of tires, spark plugs, suspension, event operations and client services, so it would be correct to say that I've been wearing a white shirt with a blue collar, or perhaps a blue-and white striped collar. Thousands of hours flying a desk, with lots of outside work at race tracks, shops, event sites, warehouses and client locations.

My first day at the machine shop was pretty much as I expected -- place parts into a CNC machine tool, run them through a couple of automated cycles, then remove them... typical production machining. The owner's son gave me a brief rundown of the process, showed me how to set up the parts correctly in the tooling jig, and then let me start machining. I was a bit shaky for the first hour or so but soon enough found a rhythm with the process and eventually was able to obliterate the previous operator's hourly completed piece count.

Between myself and another temp on the project, we burned through the raw parts inventory and finished the job in only seven working days, even though they had planned for us to be there almost a month. The owners gave big props and thanked us for the great work. Nailed it!

The surprising thing about this type of work is that while you might think it's an easy task that requires no real focus or concentration, that's most definitely NOT the case. More than a few times in the first two days I scrapped some parts because I lost focus, got distracted or tried to push the completed parts count too high too fast. I found myself having to concentrate far more than I'd expected for a repetitive-motion task like this, and at the end of each shift I was mentally exhausted.

I also had some clarifying moments during the countless machining cycles that got me thinking about blue-collar work in a larger context.

1. Hourly workers are typically allowed two 15-minute breaks per shift, one each in the morning and afternoon. These breaks are actually so short that it's impossible to rest. When the break would start, I'd head to the bathroom and then out to my dirty hippie van for a quick nosh, check my text messages and before long it was time to head back in. The actual break time was closer to 10 minutes.

2. Also typical for hourly workers is a 30-minute lunch, which turns out to be something like only 24 minutes of actual lunching. This time goes by like lightning when you're trying to scarf down snackie cakes and cheesie poofs. I found myself rushing to eat -- not optimum for anyone's digestion, especially if you have to wait for a microwave while someone else heats up their entrail stew (NOM!).

3. It's very easy to feel like a mindless drone while doing repetitive production work, but I couldn't be a mindless drone or else I'd screw up and scrap out parts, which I HATED to do. It felt like a personal failure to show the owner a part that I had mistakenly put in wrong or out of sequence, even though he just laughed it off and said "No biggie, just keep going". Thankfully, it rarely happened.

4. I was earning $15 an hour for this work, and while there's a push in this country to make that a national minimum 'living wage', there's no guarantee it'll ever happen. My Dad mentioned that where he lives in Northern California, most folks would love to have a job paying that much, but here in The OC it would be nearly impossible to survive making $28,800 a year as a primary income amount... BEFORE taxes. 

5. This type of hourly-wage blue-collar work is derided and disparaged by many here behind The Orange Curtain. They consider it work for 'those people', as if honest work and efforts to help businesses stay afloat is unseemly, lowbrow and non-important. I'd reckon those who've never worked in blue-collar jobs feel this way too, regardless of where they live. It's almost as if there's a de facto caste system in our country when it comes to employment. 

Think being a restaurant server, auto detailer or machine shop worker is a lowly, unskilled, easy job? 


For a large number of American workers, the color of money is BLUE.

Regarding the need for a national minimum living wage of $15 an hour...

When I started my first job in the Fall of 1972, the minimum wage was $1.65 an hour and if I worked a bunch of after-school and weekend hours, I might see a stratospheric paycheck of $60 for the week! This was a huge sum for a high-school Junior and allowed me to spend money on my '57 Chevy and take girls out on dates and even buy my own clothes, mostly second-hand jeans and flannel shirts (from Funky & Damned-Near New), white Penny's Towncraft t-shirts and sneakers. Dad required my self-purchased clothes since I was earning my own money, although he popped for socks and underwear like a good parental unit.

Adults were NEVER expected to live on that kind of hourly wage... at the time the adult average salary was just over $7,000 a year. Gasoline was $.25 a gallon, a new vinyl record was $1.99, and you could buy a burger,fries and small Coke from McDonald's for 99 cents. In general, although being poor back then was no less devastating, life was far more affordable and would allow a working adult a chance to earn a living with (GASP!) a pension and do pretty much OK.

In 1972, the US minimum wage of $1.65 an hour was paid for entry-level part-time work. Anyone working a full-time job for that wage would earn $3,168 a year before taxes. The average adult yearly salary was $7,000, which equates to $3.65 an hour and was considered a decent living wage at the time. That's a 55 per cent difference between the minimum and living hourly wages.

In 2018, when half of all workers earning the current minimum wage of $7.25 were adults, they earned $13,920 a year. The average adult salary was $56,516, which equates to $29 an hour. That's a 75 per cent difference between the two.

Think about those numbers.

Half of all workers earning the US minimum wage of $7.25 an hour are adults. The minimum wage has not been increased since 2009.

Imagine yourself earning $14,000 a year while trying to survive at the same time. If you're married and your spouse is also earning minimum wage, your household brings in $28,000 a year before taxes, and then you have to figure out housing and food and utilities and all the other costs associated with modern life. Then toss in some kids and the notion of healthcare for your family... it becomes a daunting proposition.

It cracks me up to hear the business world complain when the subject of raising the current minimum wage to a minimum living wage of $15 an hour is brought up. 

"We'll have to raise our prices if we pay our employees a higher minimum wage!!!" they bleat, grasping their stock portfolios to their thumping chests. There's even a large segment of a certain political ideology that thinks the minimum wage should be totally eliminated... which would increase their profits, of course.

That same ideology resents the notion of helping minimum wage workers towards gaining access to affordable healthcare or housing or food stamps, things they consider undeserved socialist 'entitlements' which costs the business world more of their precious, precious money. 

Many American business interests want to continue to pay slave wages wherever possible, refuse to offer or support affordable healthcare benefits, reject the notion of paying higher taxes, and think nothing about their low-paid employees needing federal and state support to survive while also fighting against those social benefits so their own profits can keep growing while they pay lower and lower taxes.

That's what some of us lefty pinko commie bastards refer to as corporate welfare. 


For an increasingly greedy number of moneyed US interests, the color of money is GREEN.

Our current POTUS has been preening his feathers over a recent report that says 300,000 new jobs were created as a result of his most-excellent Big Brain. What he doesn't say is that most of those jobs were in the lower-wage service sector, where many people are forced to work multiple jobs in order to survive. He too rejects the idea that working-class Americans need... DESERVE... higher wages and affordable healthcare and housing and food and child care and... well, you know.

The struggle for American survival continues... round and round it goes, and where it stops -- nobody knows.

My current temp job in senior community transportation is thankfully paying more than the machine shop gig, and there are indications they may want to hire me full-time. It would be a substantial salary decrease from my last job, but given my age and lack of a college degree, coupled with the amazing level of satisfaction and warm fuzzy I get from helping the Gray Panthers to attend church, see their doctors and shop at Big Lots, it may just be the right gig for this rapidly-aging, semi-sane Orange County weirdo.

I'll keep you posted.

I always like to end my essays with a thematically-related tune.  This one was playing on a loop in my head for most of the time I was standing in front of that CNC machine tool, feeding it parts, wondering how strange life's twists and turns can be and trying hard not to fuck up another part. Plus, yodeling!

The color of money is Red, White and Blue.

Lead image, gracias de Google images; The Vogues 'Five O'Clock World' video, muchismas gracias de Youtube; Welcome to the working week!