Saturday, April 3, 2010

Valley Boy

I attended kindergarten and first grade in a portion of the San Fernando Valley that only a year or two before had been farmland. Then the farmers realized they’d make a lot more money selling their land to developers eager to toss up cheap tracts for World War II veterans finally ready to start families than growing plums. At Melvin Avenue School in Reseda, I had classmates who believed that chocolate milk came from brown cows, and that him was a possessive pronoun. I got in lots of fistfights for disputing such allegations.

I trace my love of melody back to the pop music I heard in the house in Reseda where, as was traditional for six- and seven-year-olds in those days, I lived with my parents. I’m well aware that people of my vintage are supposed to believe, fervently, that there was only crapola before Elvis, but how I loved some of it. Even at six I found "Where Is Your Heart?" (Theme from Moulin Rouge) poignant and beautiful, Frankie Laine’s "I Believe" moving and inspirational, and Eddie Fisher’s “O Mein Papa” absolutely heartbreaking. In my own defense, I point out that I detested “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” from first hearing.

I remember gazing out of my bedroom window at our desolate back yard the Sunday afternoon before I was to begin first grade and marveling that I would soon be able to spell. I remember too discovering genital self-stimulation at around that time, and thinking it wonderful fun, but possibly depraved, though of course I, who couldn’t even spell yet, wouldn’t have used that word. It never occurred to me to discuss my discovery with Stephanie, the girl next door, who, as was traditional at the time, would play the helpless maiden to my brave cowboy or soldier. For my seventh birthday, I resolved to stop stimulating myself, and have never masturbated since. The foregoing sentence may contain inaccuracies.

It was in the desolate back yard of the house on Keswick Street that I was first aware of playing a character outside of traditional children’s make-believe of the sort I enjoyed with Stephanie. My dad had made a little clubhouse in the corner of the yard, with a sign proudly proclaiming Varity Club because there were no online dictionaries in those days, nor even a line to be on, and I suspect we didn’t even have a traditional dictionary; he erred in the direction of brevity in trying to spell variety. In any event, the day of the club’s launch, I was discombobulated by the level of interest it had generated among other children on the block. As I winged a welcoming speech about the wondrous array of enjoyable activities members would soon be enjoying, I felt as though channeling some smarmy television MC. Within 24 hours, all that remained of the club was the sign.

I have always been a little anhedonic, and naturally blame it at least in part on my parents’ deep distrust of pleasure. I wanted passionately to be allowed to stay up past my bedtime once a week for Superman (the TV series starring George Reeves) in those days, but was never allowed to. And it wasn’t as though there were VCRs then, or Netflix. There were barely TVs!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The person with whom I duked it out most often was Mr. Michael Schultz, from next door — the door not Stephanie's. All I ever saw at home was my parents capitulating — my dad to my mom, my mom to everyone in the world but my dad — and I became a reliable thrower-in of the towel myself. One day, though, Mike really pissed me off, and I could see unprecedented fear in his eyes as we exchanged punches. Then he got me right in the trachea, and I couldn’t breathe, and had to forfeit the bout. It would be the closest I’d ever come to winning a fistfight. It may have been the last fistfight of my life. From that point forward, I just naturally assumed I’d lose.

There was no San Diego Freeway in those days, and just barely automobiles, so any excursion to the glamorous other side of the Santa Monica Mountains involved a fairly arduous drive over the Sepulveda Pass. The good news was that coming home we would always go past Liberace’s house, with its piano-shaped swimming pool. I cannot remember a single instance of my thinking, “Some day I too will have a pool like that.” But of course it would be years before I’d conquer my fear of water and learn to swim.

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