Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Life For Sale

I was running a little behind where I should’ve been at that moment because of a wrong turn I made on the way back to place I used to know like my own hand. It’s funny how the things you thought were indelible fade while the little things—seemingly so inconsequential—burn bright as embers forever. I’d developed an autopilot muscle memory to guide me to this place over the years that I’d lived there, only to find that my muscles had gotten amnesia in the eight months since I’d last been there.

It was in a marginal part of a crappy town, the roads badly designed by people who obviously hadn’t expected the town to survive as long as it had. Prosaically, the streets bore letters and numbers instead of names, and alternated with identically numerated “place, court, and drive” roads that went in circles or dead ended inexplicably in cul-de-sacs and gravel lots. Like they were just making it up as they went along. Sixty more people just moved into town, guess we’d better add a street over here behind the auto parts store.

When I’d first moved in with Michael and Monica at this place two years, earlier I’d get lost every day on the way home—following 5th Place as opposed to 5th Street, or vice versa—as the streets arced nonsensically through a path that must have seemed like a good idea to somebody, once. I’ve never lived in a town as randomly patchwork in design, but eventually I’d sorted this particular corner of it out by landmarks, as opposed to decrypting the schemes of the lunatics in the city “planning” department. 

But in the dark, in a bit of a rush, none of that helped me as I groped my way back to my old home in the dark. Not wanting to be late for the occasion, I was going pretty fast as I rounded the corner onto N. 8th Street. That quickly changed as the flashing police lights came into view at the end of the block, and I came up off the gas with reflexive guilt.

November 8, 1998. I’d been sober nine months and one day. Really nothing in comparison to the previous two thousand two hundred and twenty eight days of nonstop bender I’d been on, but it was something I’d eked out and was feeling pretty good about. When you’ve been high literally every single minute of every single day for years on end, paranoia is like a background Spider Sense that can either drive you mad or save your life. For me it had been mostly the latter, as I’d narrowly escaped prison time on at least three occasions, by scant inches. But sobriety was a different reality, so I had to remind myself that the staccato strobe of red, white, and blue playing through the trees at the end of the street was nothing for me to worry about.

That was a nice five seconds, when I actually believed that.

A mutual friend, Serina, had introduced Monica and I at a very opportune time for the both of us. I’d recently discovered that I’d moved in with a psychopath that I’d met through a newspaper ad, and I was looking for a couch to crash on while I plotted my exit strategy. It so happened that Monica was at the house when I came to prevail upon Serina’s hospitality, as I had numerous times before. Monica and her boyfriend, Michael, were in need of a roommate to fill a vacancy left by a Hippie-Dippie-Herbal-Gerbil who’d followed the rainbow to some love-in in Sturgis without warning, leaving everyone high and dry for rent. And since I didn’t want to wind up putting the fucking lotion in the basket, we hatched a mutually beneficial plan that very night. I’d known Monica for all of an hour before we decided to move in together.

Michael and Monica were a bit of an odd couple in some respects. She was a positive dreamer, passionate and amiable, while he was a pragmatic realist, which is a term that cynics have made up to describe themselves. Monica hailed from the Midwest and always had a smile and a kid’s sense of gee-whizz adventure. Michael was the only guy I’d ever met that actually embodied exactly what his Zodiac sign said he should be like. Taurus the Bull, stubborn and practical all day long. I’m not a flowery metaphysical guy, but Michael was every bit the way millennia of astrologers said he would be.

He worked in a plywood mill by night, and blew glass in a home-made shop by day. He and Monica would sell their striking wares at Saturday markets around the State, while I plodded along as a truck driver. They made for an unlikely and wonderful couple, and we eventually melded into a pretty good team for a while. I was a dedicated Church attender at the time and would often debate and discuss things with Michael, who was fairly adept at articulating a cogent metaphysical view that, although considerably different than mine, was still logically consistent, if such a thing can be said. He was alternately stolid and silent, and then deeply loquacious on subjects that interested him. We could go days barely saying a word to one another, and then throw steaks on the grill and hash out the deepest problems the world had in a single night. He bought the steak, I bought the beer.

It was through this relationship with Michael and Monica that I learned the truth that it’s better to become friends with roommates than to become roommates with friends. Things could stew for a while and then become quite heated, usually over my poor housekeeping habits, and then go back to being fine again. No harm done. Being such a pragmatist, Michael even discovered a way to get me to smoke my cigars outside rather than in my room where they would stink up the whole house. He designed and built me a beautiful bench that sat out on the front stoop, where I would often spend the early hours of the evening reading, smoking, and hanging out with the occasional friend that dropped by.

I loved that spot, and even though I knew it was a diplomatic way to move me outside, I still appreciated the courtesy and his craftsmanship. In fact, it was on that bench that I heard the voice that told me I was done getting high. Which, in turn, is what caused the problems that had kept me away from there for the previous eight months.

Between the moment I’d decided to heed the voice of Grace that told me it was time to change—February 7, 5:22 PM—and the moment that anybody else noticed was almost two weeks. I didn’t make a deal out of it, which is kind of a deal in itself since I’m given to pontification. Somehow I knew that I needed to keep my mouth shut if I was going to succeed, lest I start delivering sermons I’m not morally qualified to give. So as it happens, the first people to notice were Michael and Monica.

We’d gathered for what was a pleasant ritual for us, a Friday night meal together followed by a movie on his big screen. After steaks and beer we assembled in the living room, cued up the movie, and then it happened. It seems I’d passed the bong without hitting on it one too many times, and the jig was finally up. Michael asked if I’d quit, and I told him I had. I was as terse as I could be, not trusting myself to refrain from self-righteous bloviating, and certainly not wanting to convey some judgment I didn’t feel toward either of them. Michael wasn’t having any of it, and he laid into me like I’d delivered a smug indictment on him and Monica. Since I knew for a fact that I hadn’t—but that I’d previously been given to waxing rhapsodic in unbelievably douchey fashion—I let him get a few licks in before I mentioned to him that I’d quit two weeks previous and hadn’t said a damn thing about it. Then I pointed out that the only reason they even knew was because he’d asked. Otherwise I would literally never have mentioned it. Ever. That ended the discussion out of logical necessity, but not the animosity that had been generated between us.

Within a few weeks, the unfortunate incident had driven a wedge between us such that it was becoming pretty uncomfortable for me to be there. Monica was very sweet, and every bit as friendly and nonjudgmental as she’d always been—and remains to this day—but Michael was as stubborn as… well, a bull. Circumstances arose shortly thereafter that allowed me to take over the lease of a great little duplex, so I moved within a month of our falling out. It occurred to me later that it was for the best since my fledgling sobriety had the best chance of survival when I wasn’t living in the shadow of temptation twenty four hours a day. And it turned out to be great for Michael and Monica as well, since they found it within themselves to quit their day jobs and pursue their crafts full time, which they succeeded at quite admirably.

It was both refreshing and a bit terrifying to be living on my own. Even in the cyclical phases during the years of our cohabitation when I didn’t spend a lot of time with Michael and Monica, they were still a presence in the house; a source of security and fellowship. As the weeks became months, and I adjusted to the realities of sobriety and living completely on my own for the first time, I began to regret the circumstances of our separation, and saw things from a different perspective. Like the drama of the blow-up was just a device that gave all of us the steam to propel ourselves from a safe rut and into the next phase of our respective lives. In that light, the animosity seemed ridiculous, like a team of actors being upset with each other in real life for the lines they’d acted out on some stage. So one night when I saw their vehicle at Serina’s house, I swung in unannounced.

We wound up getting Chinese takeout from our favorite place in town, Kowloon’s, and talking for a good long time. I passed the bong to the next guy more than once that night, as I have a million times since then, and seeing that in a neutral context seemed to resolve something for Michael. And so we turned the page to the next chapter, for which I’ve always been grateful. After that we’d all get together every month or so, go to the movies or out to dinner, and things began to get back to normal. I’m not the kind of guy who has enemies in life; I’m too lazy to maintain dramas and exhausting lists of grievances, so it was a continual bur under my saddle to be at silent odds with Michael for all those months. What an unparalleled relief it was to move away from all that, although I hadn’t ever returned to the house. Not until that night.

When I realized that the two cop cars were actually parked in front of my former home I was filled with a kind of dread that has no name. Seeing an officer sitting on my bench beside the front door, filling out some paperwork on a clipboard, was deeply disconcerting, such that I almost drove on by without stopping. Had there been an arrest? Would I get busted, too? I had to tell the lizard part of my brain to be quiet, and reassure it that we were clean and sober, so the cops were our friends again. Instead, I pulled up on the opposite side of the street and stopped, just watching the strobe of their lights for one of the longest moments of my life. The other officer, who wasn’t engaged in the bureaucracy of enforcement, came right over to my truck like he’d been expecting me. It turns out, he had.

I’d been in a bit of a hurry to get there because the three of us were resurrecting a tradition that we’d always enjoyed: watching X-Files with no lights on, we’re dans la maison. It was the night of the Season 6 premier, and we were making an event out of it. Like every cheapskate bachelor, I’d brought a sixer and a bag of chips to the house because I was the only person who didn’t know yet.

The officer informed me that there had been an accident, and that Monica was waiting for me over at Serina’s house. That was truly an awful moment, hearing him say the names of my friends. When things are as they should be we live in general anonymity, never having anyone in an official capacity know our names. When your friends’ names come out of an officer’s mouth, it’s like the bottom has fallen out of the world. I asked him what had happened, but he would go into no details and just told me I should go to Serina’s.

Then, in my shock, I stupidly said to him, “Does this mean there’s no X-Files premier here tonight?” He looked at me with pity, shook his head and said, “I don’t think so.”

I had no problems navigating out of that neighborhood on autopilot muscle memory alone.

When the door opened at Serina’s the X-Files were on, and I looked over Serina’s shoulder at Monica who sat on the couch, numbly staring into eternity. When Monica looked up and saw me, her face twisted into a masque of sorrow and tears that said everything. Michael had died unexpectedly, in a freak accident at their house while she was away for the day, selling their glass to a shop in Portland. The police were just waiting at the house, having been told to expect my arrival at eight and to redirect me into the arms of my friends. That’s a courtesy I’ve always appreciated, even all these years later, since I otherwise would’ve been greeted by a cold door that never opened.

The days following were a montage of the kind of grief and workaday chores that must be attended to at every person’s passing. That Hippie-Dippie Herbal-Gerbal came and helped me clear out Michael’s more sensitive possessions, the kind you don’t want your mom finding as she boxes up your stuff. Back then you didn’t just clear a guy’s internet history… Having gone through everything, and divvied up his heirlooms and mementos to his loved ones, we then held an estate sale that was one of the most existentially disturbing experiences I’ve ever had.

We arranged Michael’s clothes and belonging on tables in the house and driveway, then invited every stranger in the surrounding neighborhoods to come and purchase it all. As I’d been working to get his stuff in order I realized what great taste Michael had in clothing, all name brands. When I thought of how many hours of his life he’d had to work for the money
used to buy that stuff, watching opportunistic vultures bargain hunting while they ran their grubby hands over the sum total of his possessions—haggling over the two dollar price tag on a forty dollar Ralph Lauren shirt—made me want an asteroid to end our civilization for good. I mean, seeing some lumpy, nappy-headed shrew who couldn’t be bothered to change out of her muumuu before she came into a stranger’s house to pick clean it clean, while she complained about exchanging pennies for what he’d worked irretrievable midnight hours in a hot mill for is too much to ask of anyone. But we all smiled and ushered it right out the door. Of course, it all has to go somewhere, just don’t look too closely at the business of how it happens. It’s not good for you.

The surreal downshift from an episode of The X-Files to selling my buddy’s earthly possessions and then conducting his memorial service (my first) was something that’s stayed with me all of my days. I’m glad we mended what turned out to be a pointless rift while there was still time. Being rid of animosity made room for things that I needed to learn. Not only for the obvious reasons of how quickly life can change, but also for how it is quantified, like it or not.

Because of Michael, I’ve never looked at money the same again. It’s merely a representation of time to me now, and nothing else. The only true currency is time. We measure out the days of our lives, the finite amount of time and energy we have to hunt, gather, and entertain ourselves, until it’s time for somebody to box it up for sale. That bothered me for months following Michael’s passing, until I realized that it’s only sad if you’re misspending it. If you’re punching a clock, waiting for the weekend, anesthetizing yourself with distractions, and shopping your way to enlightenment, it’s an absolute travesty. But if I trade a day for a memory or a laugh—really, any connection… If I spend a minute in contemplation, an hour lending an ear… If I invest time, instead of hemorrhaging it…

We’re getting older by the minute, spending the only currency we have, no matter what. The question then is, what are we trading it for? It seems worth it to me to spend my savings on garnering wisdom, sharing kindness, forging connections and creating meaning. While it seems a waste to invest in continuing a legacy of insult and injury, rehearsing and rehashing all the stories we tell ourselves, about how we’ve been done wrong and it’s not our fault how we turned out. That’s just too expensive.

To this day I’ve never seen the first episode of Season 6 of The X-Files, entitled “The Beginning.” I could Netflix it any time I want, of course, but I never do. I can’t even say why. I guess it’s just too expensive.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Act II

On July 1, 1991, I quit a job that I had no idea would be the last easy thing to happen to me for twenty-five years. It didn’t seem like much at the time; I was just the Division Secretary for the fourteen locations of the Southern California franchises of Rent-A-Center. I answered phones, wrote correspondence, and tracked bank deposits by the various Branch Managers. Not to mention drying the tears of a bunch of deadbeats renting TVs and couches by the week. The part time schedule was perfect for my Freshman and Sophomore years at City College; giving me enough money to pay for school and get into just enough—but not too much—trouble. I hated to leave, but parted good terms with my boss, Patti Sarro, and followed my parents into the wilds of rural Washington where they had recently moved, because the job wasn’t enough to pay for my life in SoCal without them.

I thought I wouldn’t be gone that long, maybe a year. I’d pick up my schooling in Washington and finish my AA in Psychology to keep my degree rolling along, maybe find another part-time job to save money for the move back to good ol’ Long Beach when I was ready to transfer to CSULB. Right away, I hit two major roadblocks that derailed my plan. My life, really.

First, the cost of community college for out-of-staters was literally twenty times the rate I’d been paying in California. So I decided to wait a year to establish residency and work to save money for school. It seemed reasonable, especially since I had no other choice. Community college credits just can’t be $300 a pop. Little did I know that my school career didn’t have a year’s shelf-life left in it. By the time the year was up I was a drug addict with a super-hot girlfriend and no interest in going back to school. Go figure.

Second, my Californian citizenship apparently made me ineligible for every office job I applied for (despite a glowing recommendation from Patti, and beating my competitors at the typing test by an embarrassing margin). So I spent the first four months of that residency year looking for a job—any job—sans friends or money, only to discover that I was also apparently unsuited to tear tickets at the movie theater, flip burgers at Carl’s Jr., or clean out cages at the pet store (although I also had nine months experience doing exactly that). It turns out that I was marginally qualified to mop up lakes of diarrhea in the locked dementia wards of an Alzheimer's care facility 45 minutes from my house. I say ‘marginally’ because of how many times I had to call on the supervisor to land an interview, and again subsequently to actually get hired. All things being equal, I should have been a slam-dunk hire, and I absolutely was not. 

And thus began my love affair with manual labor. And drugs. And crazy women (OK, I may have already had a jump-start on that last one). Eventually I kicked the latter two habits, but the first was a sonuvabitch to shake. 

I cleaned toilets for almost two years, just getting high and partying every available minute. I waited tables for another year after that, then followed my crazy-hot girlfriend to Eugene, Oregon, and went to work for her hardcase dad, Doug, doing construction. Eventually I ditched the crazy chick, and made a couple of stabs at getting back into school, earning ersatz AA’s in a two of fields of study: Theology and Hypnotherapy. 

So, technically I was qualified to become ordained as a minister, but I’d figured out that I hate people and religion, so I just kept right on building houses, driving trucks, running forklifts, and digging ditches instead. At one point, I actually made a short go of using hypnosis to help people quit smoking and lose weight, but then I met and started dating the least crazy woman I’d ever known, and she thought hypnosis was “of the Devil.” So I weighed the value of a nascent career against the likelihood of me meeting another super-hot-but-not-too-crazy girl, and then went back to building houses, driving trucks, running forklifts, and digging ditches for another seventeen years. But I married the girl, so… Score!

The construction industry is made up one third of outright crooks who have been, should be, or are on their way to jail; one third of dilettantes, delinquents, and dolts too lazy to finish school, and not talented enough to master the high-wire act of logistics, diplomacy, and trigonometry actually required to do the job; leaving just a third of the total number to be filled by intelligent, talented, people of integrity. The odds are bad, and I met and worked with every kind along the way, finding work with far too many of the first third. But it’s a young man’s game, and if you don’t have an exit strategy by the time you’re forty—at the very latest—you’re gonna have a bad time. So by forty-five, I was definitely having a bad time.

Looking to break out of hammer-swinging and into the management side had quite a few stops-and-starts, numerous misfires, and crushing setbacks. I was beginning to despair when Lindsay came across a job opening at the University of Oregon. I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for the prospect because, in this area, the University is the gold-standard of employers. As such, I found myself in a pool of applicants two-hundred deep, ranging from in-house University employees to the manager of the local mall. Not to mention every unqualified working-stiff just reaching out for the brass ring in Hail-Mary fashion, like me.

So no one was more surprised than me when they emailed me, having failed to get me on my cell a half-dozen times. Apparently, my dumb ass had transposed two of the digits in my number on my resume; somehow they still wanted to interview me, though. I killed at the first interview, which has always been a gift for me. Hell, even twenty-five years earlier, Patti had said that she had no earthly reason to hire me. Aside from being able to type, at eighteen I had no skills or experience to speak of; but that interview was a mix of charm and pure moxie, so hire me she did. And despite the dead-eyed guy on the panel of interviewers at the University—who clearly loathed me and saw right through the camouflage of my freshly-purchased khakis and polo-shirt—I brazened and bullshitted my way through to a second interview.

It took the University forever to set up the next round of interviews, and by the time they did, two hundred applicants had been winnowed to two; it was just me and the manager of the mall. Between the day that they called to set it up and the actual day of the interview, one week had passed. On day three of that week, The Almighty stepped in. What I couldn’t know walking into that second interview—heart in hands at the possible escape from the serfdom of manual labor—was that the University had suffered a major flood in one of the buildings that the successful candidate would be managing. So the second interview took place almost entirely at the site of this flood, and Steve, the Manager of the department, had only one question: “Say you’re the guy that opens the door on Monday morning and the flood water comes rushing out over your feet. What do you do? Annnnnd…Go!”

What he couldn’t know then—and I couldn’t believe—was that my whole job for the previous fifteen years had been specializing in insurance restoration of buildings damaged by fires and… floods. I’d literally been doing exactly that kind of work all day, right up to the minute I took the afternoon off to go to the interview. I’d say the scenario presented was slow-pitch softball for me, but it was more of a stationary target like T-Ball, and I knocked that shit out of the park. Yellowstone Park, that is.

It didn’t hurt that the woman whose retirement was creating the vacancy—and who had literally invented the job—Michelle, had favored me from the very beginning. Although other candidates had more experience in commercial property management, she recognized a diplomatic quality in me that would actually be of more value in the day-to-day duties of the job. So she went toe-to-toe with her boss Steve and, like the Center just picking up the Running Back—ball and all—straight-up carried me into the end-zone.  

Once I had the job and learned the whole back-story of all the things that went wrong on my end (including some attempted-sabotage by one of the clients at my previous job), and all the things that went incredibly right for me on their end, I couldn’t do anything but laugh. I came in with all the standard worries about a new job: a new boss, a new crew of guys, being part of a Union. In spite of all that, I had the sense that everything was going to be OK. More than OK, even. The circumstances and events surrounding me couldn’t have been more tailor-made if I’d contrived it as a plot device myself, and I had the unshakable sense that that’s exactly what it was. Just not one written by me.

The transition over the past year has been strange. I write the work orders, issue assignments, and inspect the work after it’s done, but literally never touch a tool. I’m actually forbidden to do so by Union rules. Every time I even pick up a screwdriver to tighten a screw in my office I’m taking my career into my hands, so I start singing the Judas Priest song “Breaking the Law,” like Beavis and Butthead. After being here for the better part of a year, I finally sold my giant Sprinter van, Vanadu. That was a tough one to let go, finally surrendering the last vestiges of an identity that had defined me for so long. I still miss the sawdust and drywall smell of that old warhorse every morning when I get into my new truck. New-Car-smell is nice, but there’s no substitute for that comforting aroma of world-building. Alas.

On the other hand, not being covered in cuts, bruises, bandages, and blackened fingernails every single day does have its charms. Having money to travel to see friends, or just buy the odd song on iTunes or cup of fancy coffee if I feel like it, is pretty great. It also turns out that without the back-breaking labor of my average day, I have way more energy and a better attitude towards life. Lindsay says I’m like a new man. I concur.

And the job has turned out to be the easiest thing to happen to me in twenty-five years. At the end of the first week, my predecessor Michelle asked me if I was feeling overwhelmed by the work. I couldn’t help but laugh aloud. I told her that everything the job entails in a week I used to do on any given Tuesday, with a phone on my shoulder while I hung a sheet of drywall over my head single-handedly. I may be given to hyperbole, but that isn’t an example of it. Learning the alphabet soup of acronyms has been the hardest part.

My predecessor and benefactor, Michelle, front and center. My boss Steve behind her and to the right. 

The crew here is fantastic, which was a big worry, since I’ve always had good luck with that in my
career and didn’t want to land anywhere that I was stuck with a bunch of dickheads who couldn’t be fired because of the Union. In a bizarre turn of events, the last client I worked for before leaving construction behind was a guy named Richard, who is on the crew of guys I now supervise here at the University. Another fella turned out to be the cousin of an old friend and co-worker from my truck driving days. And the dead-eyed guy on the hiring board at my first interview? He turned out to be one of the best guys in the whole department, he just happens to have Resting Bastard Face is all.

The big boss, Steve, is terrific. Probably the best manager since Patti Sarro, and our leadership styles dovetail perfectly. Turns out he’s from Long Beach, too. Though he’s fifteen years my senior, we both grew up having bonfires at Bolsa Chica and Huntington Beach, hot-rodding down Shell Hill, and binging on hash browns at Hof’s Hut. We even moved out of Long Beach the same year, ’91. He was a Millikan guy, but I don’t hold it against him. In fact, I like to remind him that every time he comes to work in UO Duck colors, first and foremost he’s wearing Long Beach Poly colors. I waited till I was fully vested in the Union before I opened my big mouth about that though. I mean, I may have been a toilet-scrubbing-ditch-digging-truck-driving-drug-addict, a two pack-a-day smoker, and a small-time drug-dealer and money-launderer, but I’m not a fucking moron.

Patti Sarro and husband Tom, back in the day
All things considered, this is the best job I’ve had since sweet-talking Patti into giving a cocky punk a chance somewhere he had no earthly business being. And as long as I don’t mind drying the tears of Millennials and PhDs for the foreseeable future, I could easily slide into home from here. Who says there are no second acts in American lives? OK, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. That’s pretty good…

Eh, fuck that guy.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Searching For Home

Four years ago, when I first began to write my most popular blog story, “Last Dance in the City of Ruins,” I went looking for images from my old home in Naples, Italy on Google Earth. When I’m searching for inspiration it helps to stir up old feelings and memories, so I’ll often revisit yearbooks, letters, pictures, social media, and even satellite imagery. It was then that I realized that I didn’t know my address there; in fact, I had no idea even the name of the street we lived on. In my defense, the names were in Italian, which is all Greek to me. So I had no idea where to tell Google to look, and apparently “Parco Aranceto, Naples, Italy” meant nothing to them. It probably didn’t help that I couldn’t spell “Aranceto,” which is Italian for “orange grove.” After that, my Italian repertoire is mostly curse words, which is surprisingly unhelpful.

At that point I started to feel kind of stupid, since I could recite every other address I’d lived at from birth to my present home from memory. Which, for a Military Brat, is really saying something (Total of 21 so far). So I started at a major housing tract in the area called Parco Azzurro (which Google had heard of), where we went to get pizza, swim in the pool, and cause mischief we wouldn’t dare try in our own neighborhood, little Parco Aranceto. From the front gates of Azzurro I traced my way down the virtual road—one click-and-drag at a time—to an all-ages drinking establishment known as The K-Bar, where most of my friends had their first bouts with alcoholism. I knew I could find my way home from there because I’d done it under cover of darkness more than once (even at a dead run), so surely I could click my way there from the comfort of my couch, merely 8,695 miles and 9 time-zones away.

Turns out, not so much.

The large square is Parco Azzurro, the smaller one is Aranceto

I searched for a good long while, until I realized that if Google doesn’t know it exists, you have to wonder if it still does. What a strange power that gives them. It was very frustrating, and with great disappointment I eventually concluded that they had razed the old Parco in favor of a day-spa that seemed to be exactly where I left my old home in 1985. How could it be that the place where I smoked my first cigarette, learned how to brawl, and played my first game of Spin the Bottle should be expunged from the Earth? Was it something I said? Still, as much as I want every single place I’ve ever set my foot to be curated as a museum of my youth and monument to my existence, I begrudgingly understood why little Parco Aranceto might be bulldozed in favor of more modern trappings.

Most Italians in the area lived in what we would consider to be gated communities, which were called Parcos. The houses themselves were often quite lavish, architecturally speaking; balconies and rooftop terraces were common in even the most modest homes, and tile, plaster, and stucco were the order of the day. But you wouldn't know it from the outside, since the government had imposed a bizarre beauty tax on the houses (Sounds stupid, but they also literally elected pornstar to Parliament expressly because she was a pornstar, so...), meaning the exteriors were often left to neglect to side-step the collector. But the insides were all the more beautiful; paintings, frescoes, and tile mosaics were regular features in even average homes.

Not so at Parco Aranceto. The Parco was out in the boonies of Pozzuoli, itself a laconic suburb on the outskirts of Naples, proper. Instead of individual homes like those in the other Parcos, little Aranceto consisted of two blocks of eight townhouses each, alternating between two basic layouts. We were surrounded on all sides by agriculture and farming. Our name may have meant orange grove, but we were actually ensconced by apricots, peaches, and an inexplicable thatch of bamboo on three sides. Just over the uphill wall was a farm that raised pigs, run by a diminutive but delightfully imperious granny named Mama Nina, equally revered and feared by all. 

While other Parcos had dozens of homes in them, and were made up of complicated roads and cul-de-sacs, Aranceto was tiny, a straightaway just an eighth of a mile long. Which I knew because I would run the length of it eight times a day to get my mile time down so I didn’t fail PE. Or vomit in front of all the girls at the conclusion of our weekly mile-run on Fridays. You know, hypothetically speaking.

The long strip of street was home to Americanos on skateboards, Italians playing soccer, and Parco-spanning water-balloon fights.

Being out in the middle of nowhere, we had a quarter-mile walk to and from the bus stop each day, where we were the first pickup in the morning and the last drop-off in the afternoon. Such was our status in the pecking order of more affluent, higher-ranking officers whose families lived in much ritzier Parco Cuma. Not to mention how glamorous the bus stop itself was, being situated at the community dumpster that served the entire area, meaning that each day the stop smelled worse and worse, right up to pick-up day. Even now, any time I hear the words “garbage strike,” a chill goes through me. Not sure why.

Depending on who it was (whether or not you liked them), it was either the best or the worst feeling in the world to take your seat on the bus and look up the road to see someone running late and booking the quarter mile so as to not have to get a ride with Mom and Dad. The bus drivers were Italian and had little patience for privileged Americanos, so they’d often take off and leave a kid who was a hundred steps from making it, just for fun. 

The road leading to the bus stop had farms on both sides, and the farmers were said to be rabid about trespassers. That plus the barbed-wire fences added verisimilitude to the claims that a friend of a friend (read: urban legend) had been peppered with bird-shot as he ran across one of the fields on a dare. Aside from the blood-thirsty boogeyman farmers themselves (who actually did kill our cat, T.T.), the fields were stocked mostly with water buffalo, from which was harvested, among other things, milk for Mozzarella cheese. Only in retrospect does it seem kind of hinky that we bought balls of Mozzarella di buffala—sold in water-filled bags tied off with a rubber-band—from a guy with an igloo cooler bungeed to the back of a Vespa, who cruised around hawking his wares like the ice-cream man. A dozen years later, I discovered that eating the milk of a water-buffalo that eats poison oak/ivy communicates an immunity to you the eater. So while literally everyone on a ten-person camping trip got poison oak/ivy from the hike, I walked away scott-free. Thanks, Shady Vespa-Dude!

Despite its inauspicious location and design, the homes in Aranceto were charming and cozy. The whole Parco was tiled in Italian Marble, which sounds fancy here in America, but was actually cheap as gravel to them. I don't even think they called it Italian Marble. Just marble. So the floors were always cool, and laying down in the living room on a hot summer day was almost as good as having air-conditioning, which no one had. We had two bathrooms, but they were both served by the same twenty-five gallon hot water-heater, which taught me to either bear the wrath of my sister, or take military showers of five minutes or less. I learned to choose the latter, a habit I am still in today. Meaning the five minute showers, not avoiding the wrath of my sister. Couldn't care less about that anymore.

Notice the bidet on the right. We used it as a foot-washing station

That was a fun banister to slide down, unless you were in socks. Then it was a deathtrap.

A strange and dangerous place for a closet.
Only accessible by ladder by children.
Being out in the Italian countryside, we didn’t have fireworks for the 4th of July, because that meant nothing to them. But summer nights were warm as bathwater and we often spent them outside, lounging on the retaining wall around the garden in the front of the house, watching heat-lightning dance from cloud to cloud. It was there that I had my first true make-out session with a girl, a dark-haired Italian beauty named Francesca. She spoke barely a word of English and I could only swear in Italian, which was surprisingly unhelpful. But she offered me an unfiltered Fortuna, which we smoked together, and somehow we figured out the rest. Unfortunately, Francesca was also the cousin of my next-door neighbor nemesis Diego, and was only in Pozzuoli to visit from Bari, on the east coast. So when he caught she and I necking, he literally tried to split my head open with a shovel on the spot. It kind of put a damper on the mood. But I guess we had some fireworks after all.

If we were lacking in traditional fireworks on our national holiday, there were fireworks aplenty on New Year’s Eve. The Italian kids were an aggressive and rambunctious bunch that loved to throw ladyfingers and cherry-bombs at us and each other. In retaliation, my buddy Jon and I went up to my balcony and turned it into a shooter’s nest by loading bottlerockets into green glass coke bottles, mounting them on our shoulder like a bazooka, and raining terror down on Diego and his minions in the street. Leave it to the Americans to up the ante

by weaponizing simple fireworks into surface to surface missiles. What can I say? You mess with the best, you die like the rest.

Since we had a huge orchard just over the wall, legions of fruit bats would spend the summer nights revolving in constant orbit around the street lights, swooping to feast on moths and mosquitoes. One night, I was out on the balcony shaking perennial cookie crumbs out of my sheets, when the elastic edge of the fitted sheet caught a bat in it. I hauled the sheet in, not realizing I had a low-threadcount sack-of-bat in my hands. He burst from the sheet, slammed into my chest and turned and flew back into the sheet, ricocheting and rebounding between my face and chest and the sheet for what seemed like dozens of times, letting out these awful little chirps that sounded like pure panic. He was panicked and screeching. Him. Not me. Finally I threw the sheet off the balcony just to end the standoff. He was gone by the time I retrieved it, but the grit from the asphalt street made it into my bed. Not really an improvement over cookie crumbs.

When we weren’t busy carpet-bombing the place with bottlerockets and water balloons, we’d engage in various other hijinks. One of the older kids soldered a half-dozen tin-cans together to make a Polish cannon, which today would be known by the more politically correct name of “potato gun.” Suffice it to say that it uses lighter fluid and an open flame to fire potatoes—or in our case, stolen fruit from the orchard—for great distances. Say... an eighth of a mile or so. The wall at the end of the Parco made for a great place to play spirited bouts of high-stakesand often painfulButts-Up, while the streets were ringing with music from my tiny boombox.

My tape collection included Michael Jackson, of course, but also soundtracks to "Breakin'" and "Beat Street." Really, anything by Sugarhill Gang, Newcleus, and Grandmaster Flash, because that’s what you need when you’re putting on a moonwalking clinic. A very sad little moonwalking clinic. Diego and friends may not have known what moonwalking was, but  they knew we weren’t doing it right. Still can’t, to this day. They'd gather round and laugh, calling,  "Pazzo Americanos!" I just now learned what that means, so I say "Stronzo!" I'm sure he'd know just what I mean by that. 

Obviously, today you can find Parco Aranceto on Google Earth, because thanks to the beauty of capitalism they are gentrifying and putting up for sale what we used to rent, hence these wistful images. The orchards are gone, the farm up the hill seems to be a bigger, more industrialized operation, where Mama Nina probably isn't there to turn a blind eye to drunken Americanos coming and going through the operation at all hours. I’m guessing Diego has moved on to breaking thumbs for the Maffia, which is why I can’t find him on Google. Least ways searching “Diego from Pozzuoli, Italy,” returns no usable results. 

But searching “Parco Aranceto” will bring up Goggle images from “Last Dance in the City of Ruins,” on the blog Which is nice. And in the searching, I've dusted off my Italian and finally learned my old address: Strada Provinciale via Licola-Cuma, 174, unita 8.  

You may not be able to go home again, but sometimes you can Google it. 

Roll Call: Laura Elliott, Brien Elliott, Rae Ann Whitmire, Jon Fitzsimmons, Derek Paige, Julie Stafford, Brett Snyder, Sherry Snyder. Who am I missing?