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.