Monday, December 7, 2009

Only 16 [May 7, 2007]]

Late in 1962, my mother decided we’d outgrown Playa del Rey. She and my dad bought a house in a new development between Sunset and Topanga Blvds. up the hill from Pacific Coast Highway, very near to the future site of the Getty Museum. I was miserable. I’d just finished my first semester at Westchester High School, where I was a nobody, if the king of my English class — which of course was as close to being a complete nobody as you could get. But at least I knew a few fellow nobodies with whom to eat lunch.

I didn’t like the smell of the Santa Monica High School history building, where my locker was located. I didn’t like that I didn’t know a soul. The girls seemed very much less gorgeous than Westchester’s, not that I’d have had the nerve to try to talk to any. I ate my lunch alone in the Greek Theatre and hated my life. As far as I could see, there was nothing sweet about being on the verge of 16.

We were the last stop for one of the buses that brought the eager young scholars of Malibu into Santa Monica each day. It collected us in the morning in the parking lot of Ted’s Rancho, a restaurant in which I would later work as a busboy, and then as a parking attendant. I spoke to my first Negroes there, and actually became slightly friendly with Collins Hall, who’d worked himself up from dishwasher to chef, to the infinite disgruntlement of the place’s redneck head chef, who didn't seem enamoured of little Jewish boys either. Trying to ingratiate myself to Collins, I wrote out his name in olde English script (much as, in 2007, I'd work up a Web page for him -- and much as, througout his last few decades, my dad would have offered to draw his caricature. Some things never change.)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Every morning on the bus to school, I would hear Peter, Paul & Mary’s Puff the Magic Dragon, which I loathed fervently, and Skeeter Davis’s End of the World, which I adored. I never spoke to anyone, and no one ever spoke to me. But it beat the first day, when I’d been unable to ascertain where to catch the bus home, and, self-dramaatising little twerp that I was, wound up walking the four miles home. A pedarest in a big blue sedan offered me a ride, which I declined. It would be another 20 years before I received another homosexual proposition. I sang the New Christy Minstrels’ Greenback Dollar to myself as I trudged miserably along Pacific Coast Highway. It was the height (which is to say nadir) of the pre-Beatles folk scare. My own favourite music was the soundtrack of the movie version of West Side Story. My staunch heterosexuality notwithstanding, I had a small crush on one of the members of the Jets.

It was pretty desolate up in Sunset Mesa, as only a couple of dozen houses had been completed and moved into. Our own was perpetually freezing and under-illuminated. My parents had just barely managed a mortgage, and were intent on saving a few cents wherever possible. I was very lonely. I found a girl, Midge Gale, who lived down the hill a bit, quite sexy (with my hormones absolutely screaming at me to procreate, I pretty much found anything in a skirt and lipstick quite sexy), but of course lacked the nerve to make my longing known. I am misusing the word prided when I say I prided myself on being the first kid up the long steep hill from PCH every afternoon. I hoped it appeared as though being the fastest kid up the hill was more important to me than copulaing with Midge Gale. I could hardly have been lonelier.

At Orville Wright Junior High School, boys were supposed to climb a steel pole. I’d never managed it, though I’d finally figured out how to get up the rope one, glacially. There were no poles in sight at Samohi, but different humiliations awaited. The likes of me interacted with black and chicano “classmates” only in PE; academic classes were segregated on the basis of scholastic aptitude, and apparently only us white (and – yes, yes – Jewish) kids had any. Tenth grade physical education for boys included wrestling, at which I was approximately as good as pole-climbing. I barely beat the poor soul everyone pinned within around 10 seconds. While losing to another, a shifty-eyed, ducktailed, snide-looking one with an odd surname, I took a blow to the side of my head that made me see stars for the only time in my life.

Against all odds, we became friends. A recent immigrant from the suburbs of Minneapolis, he was as shy and alienated and acerbic as I. We both read The Catcher in the Rye, banned at Samohi, and regarded ourselves as extremely hip. We addressed one another as chief, as Maurice the pimp addresses Holden Caulfield in one memorable section of the novel. Naturally his parents moved him back to the Midwest just as I was starting to take for granted having someone with whom to eat lunch.
My loneliness was like a severe bruise that never healed. The phrase painfully shy isn't figurative, but literal.

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