Once, I was at a summer camp in Oregon. There was a kid there, Zach Zalac, which I thought was the greatest name in the world, and he was from Michigan and had never been outside of the midwest. It was an eight-day camp, and after a few days, we were in the woods, and he asked if he could ask me a question.
“Have you ever seen the ocean?”
What I said: Sure, it’s like 30 minutes away.
What I could have said: You can go there and your mom packs a cooler full of food and you set up a giant, steel and plastic umbrella, and lay out your towels on the sand, sand so hot that you can barely stand to step on it in bare feet, and then you wait to have sunscreen put on, and then you run down to the tide line, which is firmer, and dare each other to jump in the water, which is cold, but suddenly you are being called back for lunch and you’re wet and covered in salt and there is sand in your bathing suit that itches so you have to go back in the water to shake it out and “ANDREW COME BACK NOW” so you run up and dry yourself with the sandy towel, and then there are sandwiches in foil and fruit and straws slammed into Capri Suns, the bottom part because poking them into the top is so difficult to get just right, and because your little fingers are covered in sand you bite down on pieces, and then you have to wipe your hands off, but now the sand is in your sandwich and it’s annoying but that’s all you have, so you eat, and save a mouthful of juice to wash it all down, and you run back to the water but you can’t go in for thirty minutes, so you draw in the tideline and build castles until it’s time to go in or go home.
“Have you ever seen a palm tree?”
What I said: Sure, there is one in my back yard.
What I could have said: It’s in the back, on the left, and every few years my parents have to pay to have the dead leaves chopped away; rats build nests between the fronds. It is set away from the cactus garden that dad put in because he loves cactuses, cacti, collecting them and putting them in specific places that only he understands, surrounded by the giant Jade plants, which are near the pencil plants, the magical aloe vera growing wild, and the bottlebrush plants with the bright red flowers that you can pull off and shoot through straws like spitwads and pretend they are poison darts to kill your enemies, your siblings, your friends. There’s the plum tree, too, which has small, tart red plums that my dad eats compulsively whenever they appear, and the lemon tree that blossoms in fall and drops fruit in winter, and when the wind blows up the valley and through Richard’s yard – Richard, the neighbor, who was a professor of biology and tends to dozens of plants himself – you can’t tell if it is honeysuckle or lemon or ambrosia. And Richard grows pomegranates, and the bush is next to our fence and he lets it grow over, and when it drops fruit, we eat them – maybe one a year, at most, mom puts a plastic tablecloth on the plastic table on the patio and slices them open onto disposable plates and we spoon out the seeds, dying our faces and hands and tongues and clothes red, spitting out seeds because we don’t think to just chew them and swallow, the tart flesh popping between our teeth, not realizing that not everyone lives like this – that it’s a miracle that these are free, that we have so many that we don’t know what to do with them so they just rot on the compost heap so they don’t fall down to be eaten by rats or possums. All of the plants are around the border of our yard, and in the middle is a rough, spiky, drought-resistant grass, which can cut you if you slide it across your skin just so like a knife, and the two sections – the plants and the grass – are divided by a small moat that we have to maintain every year with little spades. Looking back, I don’t know if that moat was maintained to manage water, or to keep the grass from growing in between the plants, or just to keep us busy, and I wonder: did anyone else on our block have these little moats? Did Nate Nanzer’s family make him dig them in his back yard? Brandon Thomas? Jason Seiler?
Yes, I’ve seen palm trees, I have one in my yard that I can touch any time I want, and it’s by far the least impressive or interesting plant I know of.
“Are Circle Ks real?”
Yes, they are real, and not, as he suspected, just a made-up convenience store that they use for movies. But for just hanging out, it’s better to go to Parkway Plaza – not the one now, in 2019, but the one before Westfield took over and built up and put a parking garage around it and added a WalMart. It used to be an indoor mall without even a food court; when the food court came in, in fact, it was terrifying and wondrous. But you used to be able to go to the Kay-Bee Toys and get books – abridged kids books of epic tales like Tom Sawyer and the Count of Monte Cristo. I had dozens of those, and of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that I could read for hours, did read for hours. I lined them all up in order on bookshelves, and counted them every day to make sure they were all there. I brought them in bed with me, lined up in rows at my feet, feeling their weight on the blanket as I snuggled down. I didn’t read them in bed – then, as now, it was good enough to have them around; I took comfort in their mere presence, in their mere existence. But the special trips were to Grossmont Center – perhaps a five minute drive further than Parkway Plaza, but an outdoor mall, which for some reason felt like a world of luxury away. And just as Parkway Plaza had Kay-Bee Toys, Grossmont Center usually meant a trip to Toys-R-Us, which was a hundred times bigger, with massive aisles and walls that stretched up to the sky. Once, when I was maybe three, I shoplifted some pens from Toys-R-Us and my parents didn’t find out until we were down the freeway; they turned around and made me give the pens back, apologizing profusely. That’s the kind of people they were: honest.
But I gave him shorter answers, not knowing that he would have loved the longer ones. The life I lived was different than he could ever have imagined, coming from Detroit, Michigan; only twenty years later, while driving through a deserted downtown Detroit, and thinking about Zach Zalac, did I realize that what I probably described to him even in a dulled-down manner must have sounded like an impossible Hollywood fantasy.
But my earliest memories?
The Southern California when I was in elementary school was always hot. It was a dry heat, which never meant much to me when I was growing up; I never knew anything but dry heat until I was sixteen, in Indianapolis, Indiana, for a church conference, and walking outside was a different heat, an unpleasant clinging thickness that made all of the attendees stay in the cool, air-conditioned hotel, or use the skywalks to go to the shopping mall where they had a food court and an Abercrombie and Fitch, which at that time we’d never heard of in San Diego. But growing up, the heat was all around us – during the day, with the sun on our faces in the back yard, the tough, drought-resistant grass crunching under our feet, sprinklers on in the evenings so that the water had a chance to soak into the bone-dry soil before being sucked up into the atmosphere. If you sweated, even through your clothes, so that your Quiksilver or Steussy or Airwalk shirt soaked through, it was dry within a few minutes, anyway. It snowed once when we were out on the playground, the flakes floating down, and none of us had ever seen anything like it, so we ran around the playground and tried to catch them to make snowballs, and I wonder what the teachers thought, if they knew how magical that moment was for us, and if they remember it, too.
I remember the windows open in the evenings, which were cooler – the kind of cool evenings that they show in movies about 1930s Los Angeles. My parents would open the windows at night and then close them in the morning, trying to keep the cool air inside. But at night, I would lie on the bottom bunk with my stuffed animals and my books, and try to figure out where the crickets were chirping outside, how close and in which direction. There were always crickets at night – they were the soundtrack of going to sleep. And there were ants in the day – little black ones, in trails, and we’d stick incense in their anthills and smoke them out, or Brian Wilcox would bring over Mexican firecrackers that he got when he went to watch his dad drag race in Baja, and we’d ride our bikes into the desert that is now a WalMart Super Center and stick bottle rockets or Black Cats into the holes, light the fuses, and run.
I remember my mom driving me over to Jason Howe’s trailer park, which was so close to school that he could walk. It smelled of cats, and cigarettes, and beer, or at least it does in my imagination, which I think is lying to me because I also distinctly remember his parents saying they were Mormons. When he came over to my house, we’d play video games; when I went over to his, we’d shoot BB guns. My crowning achievement was once, we’d shot a TDK-90 tape up so badly that it was hanging from a nail by the tape strip, trying to stay alive, and with one BB left in the gun I spun around and shot from my hip and pierced the tape, the plastic casing clattering to the ground, Jason, open-mouthed, then cheering, running over, picking it up like a sacred object, looking at the split tape, then jumping up and down as if we’d won the World Series, which we cared about back then. I was so proud that I told my mom, even though I wasn’t supposed to be touching BB guns much less shooting them, and I was supposed to tell her if anyone ever showed one to me, even, and I think we didn’t go over to Jason Howe’s house much after that.
I remember getting rabbits. My sister was sick, very sick, and when she was on what must have felt like a death bed, she pulled a promise out of my father: if she recovered, which was very unlikely, she could have a rabbit. Two. The next day, she was on the mend, and suddenly we had hutches built in the back yard.
I remember earthquakes. We always drilled for them at school, during the day; we’d get the alarm, and crawl under our desks, giggling with fear, and then we’d march out in straight lines, a break in the lessons, but earthquakes always seemed to actually occur during the night, away from school. It’s incredibly scary to be a child and be shaken awake; it’s even scarier when the adults in your life, the most strong and stable people you could imagine, are running, screaming, to cover you, to make sure you’re OK, holding you even though you weren’t screaming until they were screaming, holding you as much to comfort themselves and protect you from their fear.
I remember running away from home – this might be my absolute earliest memory. I don’t know what prompted it, but I decided one night, before going to bed, that I was going to run away from home. I announced it to my parents, and my father – a pediatrician, and very good at dealing with children, explained to me all the things I’d need for a life on the road. Then, he helped me get a little bag together with some of them, and opened the front door. The big, round light outside was on, and it was blackness beyond; crickets chirped, and flies and moths swarmed the light, gently smashing into it and flying away. (How many thousands of generations of bugs I have seen!) And he said he’d let me go if I wanted to, and that he loved me. And it was dark outside, and he closed the door, and I went to bed.
I remember always being picked last for recess sports at W. D. Hall. The sports we chose to play seemed to go in fashions; there was baseball, Butts Up, Four Square, soccer, football, and probably a dozen other games I don’t remember now; the boys all played together, and I don’t know what the girls did (perhaps one of them can comment and let me know? Marina? Stacey? Jaime? Erika?). But I was the youngest I could possibly be for my year, and small, and I was always picked last, especially after I got glasses. I also wasn’t very good at most of the sports, except I was very good at defending in soccer, and I could stay out of the way.
That’s generalities; specifically, once, the score was tied in a game of football, and the quarterback – maybe Brandon, maybe Shawn, maybe Jason, maybe Nate – had an idea. Someone hiked the ball, and he threw it to me, and I ran. Nobody had thought to guard me, because there was no way that I’d ever get passed the ball, and after the high fives and cheering and the high of going back to class a winner, as someone who could win a game, I thought: there’s a lesson there. And so in high school, I made it my private motto: overestimate others, and always be underestimated. I wish that there was an historic Latin equivalent, but no bother – we don’t have a coat of arms.
And on family: I remember, in elementary school, Polak was a slur for Polish people, who, it was generally decided, were the stupidest. For a history class, everyone had to ask their parents for family origin: where did all of these American kids come from? And I was fine with saying I was Chinese, from Africa, on my dad’s side, but I put Russian on my mom’s side because I didn’t want to be labeled the dumb Polak for the rest of my childhood. I’m ashamed of that now, but I remember justifying the lie to myself: unless I do this, unless I mislead them, I will suffer.
Next to W. D. Hall elementary school, there were waste dumps, and mean, chained-up dogs that barked at kids when they were running on the tracks, and a concrete sewer with sloped sides that, when it was dry, you could run up and down, pretending you were an airplane and finding lost tennis balls. Why did our parents let us go to school next to demolition sites?
I remember when Stacey Hannekamp and Jason Seiler started “Going Out.” It was impossibly mature.
And at some point: the school got too big, so they started building temporary mobile classrooms. Mrs. Lord’s fifth grade class was in one. That year, there was also a kid, Kaleo, from Hawaii, and Brian Wilcox hated him; on the last day of school, they got in an epic, room-clearing, desk-smashing fight, and we didn’t see Kaleo again. I remember the fear in his eyes as Mrs. Lord tried to keep them separated, and the fury in Brian’s – the determination to hurt, to inflict pain, without reason, without pity. I don’t think that I’d seen that sort of destructive focus before.
I hope they’re both, they’re all, doing well.