I was born in 1979 in Cleveland, Ohio. I don’t remember it at all because my parents moved to El Cajon, California, when I was two, and I didn’t return to Cleveland for 25 years. A few years after I moved back to Ohio – the first person in my family to ever return – my mother visited me, and we went on a one-day road trip to Lorain, where we had lived. She remembered all the streets, and we drove past the house where I’d spent my first days. To me, right now, Lorain is dull brown, like there’s a Sepia filter on my memory, and I imagine that’s what it was like for my parents, too. My mother said that one day, my father came home from work, and she said to him, “You know, I wouldn’t mind if we moved,” and the next day they were in the process of selling their house, and we went out to California and they almost never looked back.
California in the 1980s was a wonderful place to grow up; every time I see that Lenny Kravitz video “California,” I watch the whole thing through, smiling, because except for the music it’s exactly what I remember of my youth.
We lived in El Cajon, where my father was a pediatrician; he worked down the street, and my mom helped him in his office, managing the nurses and staff. My sister and I worked stuffing envelopes with bills to send to his patients, which earned us tiny amounts of money and also meant that we could watch television while we worked; otherwise, our TV allowance was pretty small, limited to a few Nickelodeon shows and PBS. My parents said that the early years were difficult as the office was getting established; they didn’t have much money, and budgets were stretched thin, but I don’t remember that. I remember 107º days, the sharp dryness of the western desert, white concrete under bicycle tires, the smell of eucalyptus and bottle brush. The first thing I knew how to spell was “McDonald’s,” because there was one next to his office, and one day my parents were talking about where to go to dinner and my dad started to spell out “M-C-D” and I said “YEAH!!!” and he realized I could spell something, so we went there as a prize.
We lived on a hill, and around the corner, a three minute bicycle ride away, either down the treacherous Olive Hill, which had tree roots that shoved the sidewalk up into vicious jump ramps for our BMX bikes, or past Andy Vance’s house, and Josh Cagwin’s, was 7-11. They had video games in a corner, and I always spent all of my allowance there; I would go down with Gabe Feeley, and we’d play Golden Axe, or Street Fighter II, or whatever fighter jet game they had. We’d keep running up to the counter for more quarters and, when the money was almost out, I’d get candy and we’d eat it on the way home. Caramellos were my favorite, followed by Big League Chew. There were other neighborhood kids around me – Brandon Thomas, Jaime Crippen, Erika Birrenkott. We didn’t play with them much, though, and I wonder what happened to them and their siblings, their parents.
At home, I’d read. A lot. I had a bookshelf that had a hundred books – a hundred! – and I thought it was the greatest thing in the world, because books were what my parents read, too. My first books were part of some abridged kids set, with illustrated Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Treasure Island books that we got at Kay-Bee Toys for fifty cents or a dollar, often on sale. Once, we went to San Francisco and took a tour of Alcatraz, and I got a book about it. A few weeks later, my mother found me behind the couch, crying; I didn’t want to go to Alcatraz. She explained that I wouldn’t have to go if I didn’t do things like run an international criminal organization, or kill a lot of people. That made me feel better.
We had a pool in the back yard – circular, above ground, which my mother kept clean; we’d run around in circles, as much for exercise and to tire us out as to get the water rotating so that the filter could clear out the leaves. I haven’t thought about that pool in decades; it must have been four feet high, eighteen across. It seemed massive then, and fun. Now, when I swim, it’s laps, and it is far more tiring and a lot less fun. When did the pool stop being fun?
When I was living in Cleveland, I often wondered what it would have been like to have grown up there instead of California. Why did I reject the Golden State? Why did I move away? I always told people that it was because California was too expensive, too crowded, too dull, but now I look back and think: I’d love it if my kids could someday take off to the beach and get sandy and salty and tanned. I’d love for them to have a favorite burrito at Los Panchos, and to get a sugar buzz of a large Horchata; to see how they liked mixing the different hot sauces and eating as many free pickled carrots as they could from the little plastic cups. I’d love for them to learn to skateboard down actual palm-lined streets, to know what it smells like to drive to Crest on a summer night with the windows down and pick out the sage and the alfalfa in the air and see the orange edge on the horizon; to sit on the boardwalk and watch for the green flash while people run or roller blade or bicycle or skate behind us, to feel the tightness of a sunburn coming on under a cotton hoodie stolen from a one night stand, drinking Coronas from a brown paper bag. I’d I’d like for them to not really know their neighbors, because in California you don’t really know your neighbors, and in Edinburgh you do, and even though it’s wonderful to have the people around you care about you and want to be part of your life and community, there’s also something constricting about it, like you can’t really be free to be whoever you want to be because of that community, because of that human need to conform, and in California, even though so many people are cookie cutter tanned and blond and fit, that need is diminished, and there’s something great about that. More than anything, I’d like for my kids to feel able to do whatever they wanted to do, and even though that freedom is not something that only exists in California, it is exemplified there, and this might be the first time I missed the State of my youth, not because of my youth but because of that State and what it represents.
But anyway, I bought a book at a thrift store called “Dear Dad, from you to me,” and it’s a journal for fathers to write things to their kids so that someday their kids might know something about them. It has various prompts, and this was one of them.