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?

Friday, April 28, 2017

Big Wheel Keep On Turnin'

It is my considered opinion that it’s good to be the King. Much better than not being the King. I spent the first five years of my life not being the King, and it sucked. Then I became the King, and all was well. King of what, you may ask? All. Of. It.

Although you wouldn’t know it to look at me now, parts of my life were spent not being totally awesome at all times. In fact, I grew up wearing Toughskins jeans, Pro-Wings tennis shoes, and various other house-brand garments from Zodys, K-Mart, and Monkey-Wards. My parents probably thought I didn’t know the difference between Izod Lacoste and Sears Braggin’ Dragon, but I did. Oh, I did.

Of course, I wasn’t born knowing the difference, I had to be taught. And who better to teach you to that there’s something wrong with you than all the other kids? There you are,  just walking down the street secure in the knowledge that Mom and Dad are doing right by you, only to discover that they let you out the door thinkin' you ballin’, when in fact your Garanimal-clad ass is subject to ridicule in those streets because of their dereliction. It’s child-abuse, really.

Apparently, real Vans have a distinctive waffle tread on the bottom that the Payless version don’t have. Apparently, real Lego are not interchangeable with Duplo blocks, Lincoln Logs do not play well with Frontier Logs, and real Big-Wheels aren’t made of metal. All of which I discovered the hard way. Walk outside all atwitter with the excitement of new stuff, only to be met with derision in the street over something so nebulous as a stamp, a brand, or a label on your stuff. How the hell anyone knew which one was the ‘right’ one was beyond me. But it was easy to tell which was the wrong one, because it was always whatever I had. What are the odds?

Of all the egregious counterfeits I ever tried to pass off as ready for prime-time, nothing compared to
my metal big-wheel. The popular (read: name-brand) Big-Wheel was a plastic dragster-style tricycle, with recumbent seating and flashy coloring. Mine was brown metal but had chopper-style handlebars on it, which I thought kicked-ass. It turned out that I was wrong about that. Additionally, being much heavier it didn’t have great off-the-line speed, since the inertia was tough for five-year-old legs to overcome. Meaning that not only was it drab, it was slow. So the length of time it took for me to go from excitement about my uniqueness to humiliation for the exact same reason was quicker than popping a Pop-Tart. 

Once other children have deemed something worthy of mockery, your otherwise beatified parents can offer no redemption. So their explanation of the virtues of an indestructible big-wheel meant nothing to me, because durability implies longevity and the spectrum of time. And as a kid there was no such thing as later, or down the road, or in the long-run. All I had was right now, and right now I didn’t fit in. Taking pity on me, my Dad took the big-wheel to work with him at the Naval Base in Monterey. There he had a couple of Mid-shipmen engineers disassemble and spray-paint it hot-rod purple, complete with shiny metallic flakes, which would obviously make it much faster. It was so badass. 

Or it was, until I took it outside. 

“Look at your gay big-wheel!” Bryan Verbrugge exclaimed from astride his name-brand Big-Wheel. His twin brother Kevin was the first to join in the chorus of laughter and pointing that spread quickly through the semi-circle of other kids. “Ooooh, so shiny!” Kevin cooed, he with his hornet-like Green-Machine—obviously someone that could never be uncool. I’d literally never heard the word “gay,” but it didn't seem complimentary.

In that moment, I was filled with a hopeless certainty that I could never escape the inherent unworthiness that seemed to attend my very existence. Then this black rage boiled over in me and I fired
up my gay big-wheel and set a collision course. Do you have any idea what happens when forty-five pounds of five-year-old astride twenty-five pounds of steel hits an all-plastic Big-Wheel at full-tilt ramming-speed? The effect was spectacular; that iconic front wheel and the suspension forks folded like a pizza-box struck by a sledgehammer. 

Both Bryan and I were equally shocked by the result, although our reactions diverged immediately thereafter. He started to scream bloody murder over his irreparably-mangled toy, while I was exultant with the sudden, shocking recognition of the power I and my unique big-wheel possessed. But then his brother Kevin instantly yelled the two most terrifying words that a five-year-old can hear: “I’m telling!” He flipped a quick one-eighty on his agile Green-Machine and high-tailed it out of there. At first, I was worried that he was going to my house to tell my folks, but when I realized he was headed home to tell his own parents I was truly terrified. I took off after him post-haste, with no plan other than to silence him.

With his head-start and the inertia of my heavier ride, there was no way I could catch up to him. That
didn’t stop me from pedaling pell-mell after him, as though my life depended on it. When we hit the downhill slope at the other end of Mervine St. near where he lived, something unexpected began to happen: my big-wheel started to pick up speed. Like, so much speed that my feet couldn’t stay on the furiously revolving pedals and were thrown clear, almost derailing my pursuit. Instead, I lifted them up by the front forks, gripped those chopper-handlebars for dear life, and let my gay big-wheel do its own thing. The greater weight of my shiny dragster on the downhill straightaway allowed me to overtake Kevin and his fancy plastic Green-Machine. 

He looked back just in time to see me bearing down on him; I can only imagine the maniacal look I must’ve been wearing to inspire such terror in him.  When my front tire drilled his right rear tire he immediately spun out of control and crashed, ass-over-teakettle. Like his twin's before him, Kevin's steed was permanently damaged as well, the plastic rear wheel being badly dented, and thus the Green-Machine was never the same.

Over the next several days I got invited to join in a bunch of the other kids’ reindeer games—seemingly impromptu sessions of a newly-developed interest in demolition-derby. But given that me and my gay big-wheel were always the target, it soon became clear that there was nothing spontaneous about it, and these kids might not be my friends. They were out to get me. But none of that mattered, because my fabulous purple steed was pure steel, and as long as I kept my feet tucked, I was invulnerable to their paltry plastic attacks. Sadly, they could not say the same. Bitches gotta recognize, the King stands alone. 

Eventually word got around to the parents that I was the one destroying all the Big-Wheels in town, at which point my own parents attempted to rein-in the reign of O’B The Terrible by teaching me to ride a bike instead. But it was too late, I was on my path and I been ballin’ ever since.

What can I say? You come at the King, you best not miss.