Uprooted from my childhood home in California in 1985 at twelve years old, I have been a visitor in every other town Iâ€™ve lived in until I found Arizona, Californiaâ€™s next door neighbor. Michigan, Kansas, Utah, and Missouri are places I experienced and observed while I lived there, but they were never my home.
Twenty-five years after I left L.A., Israel and I arrived a couple hours early to a business trade show in Anaheim last January. Looking at Google Maps on Israelâ€™s phone as we located our hotel, I saw how close my old neighborhood sat, just to the north. In twenty-five years I never once found time to revisit, though I longed to.
â€œLetâ€™s go over there!â€ I said to Israel. Since Iâ€™m currently writing a short story that combines many of the experiences I had living in that tough area, he was curious, so we drove the fifteen minutes to the congested city and the not-so-nice neighborhood that assisted my parents in raising me.
We entered Whittier and as we drove down Imperial Highway I scanned the cinder block wall to our left, knowing my tiny old house sat somewhere on the other side. Finally, when I recognized the Hand Car Wash and the Carriage Family Restaurant, still standing twenty-five years after I last saw them, we turned onto the street that led to my neighborhood. Memories dislodged themselves as we drove down the sloped road that many times propelled four friends, plus myself, piled on one bike with a banana seat.
I saw homes I had played in with friends I sometimes liked and sometimes fought with. I remembered areas we avoided on days when the bullies were spewing their threats. We drove by the place where I first experienced the wind getting knocked out of me â€”by a boyâ€™s footâ€” plus the couple of victorious spots where I got to be the one to punch some threatening boys.
We turned left onto my surprisingly narrow street, Lucinda Drive, and it made a sharp immediate curve to the right. At first I thought someone altered the road. That sharp curve used to be wide and expansive and veered only gradually. At least, thatâ€™s how I remember it. And my own house number popped up on the road before it was supposed to. In fact, Israel is the one who identified my house and he had to show me the address on the curb before I accepted it as mine, not just because everything looked so much smaller and tighter from my adult perspective, but also because my house and yard, as well as the neighboring ones, looked totally different.
I guess that makes sense. They werenâ€™t the most attractive houses when I lived there. In twenty-five years, someone is sure to change them, especially since itâ€™s hard to upgrade in L.A. where the only option for many residents is to renovate instead of to abandon and buy something new.
My old white house with dark brown trim is now a soft yellowy cream with white accents (better, in my opinion). Most of the planter off the garage is now grass. My dadâ€™s white gravel landscaping at the very front of the yard, with its little wooden bridge and trees, is gone, and now the lawn stretches all the way to the curb (that part, not better, in my opinion).
First and second base for our kickball games â€” two trees on the side of my yard â€” are gone, too. We used to tie two long ropes from one of those trees to the other for a game we made to determine social status. My siblings, our neighborhood friends and I would stand on the lower rope, a couple of feet off the ground. We would grab the higher rope in our hands, and then we shook both ropes back and forth as hard as we could to knock each other off. Right away I figured out that those of us who shook the ropes with wild aggression had the control, while those who clung for stability always fell off.
(In the photo above I’m the fourth one over from the left, wearing pink overalls)
The houses that belonged to my crew of friends are even less recognizable than mine. They look newer now than they did when they were twenty-five years younger. But scattered around the neighborhood I found frozen remnants that have hardly changed. One thing that looks exactly as I remember, as if twenty-five years never happened at all, is The Ditch.
The Ditch is a canal. I donâ€™t know why we didnâ€™t just call it a canal, but we didnâ€™t. We called it The Ditch â€” which is actually a more fitting term for its ragged ugliness, anyway. This ditch separates my own neighborhood from one that housed my elementary school. Its bridge led to the tree covered school banks which the teachers regularly reminded us not to climb, since it was a common site for drug transactions. Everyday we crossed the ditch and walked alongside the banks to get to school and everyday we ran at the top of the banks (ignoring the teachers) until we reached the ditch again to go home.
The ditch sits at a lower elevation than everything else and all of the neighborhood gutters and sewers feed into it. It is the concrete valley of my neighborhood, an exciting bicycle adventure for us as kids. We would stand our bikes at the top of the blackish gravelly asphalt hill on one side and jump onto our pedals as the downhill momentum pushed us onto and across the bridge and up the rocky asphalt hill on the other side.
We ignored the sign on the locked fence that threatened $500 fines for entering the ditch. We loved to climb that fence and play in the shallow water, catching polywogs. We hid under the bridge when police helicopters flew over (it was a neighborhood that required their regular patrol). They would see us and yell through a megaphone, â€œGet out of the ditch!â€ Knowing it was a forbidden play-place, I sometimes visualized the possibility that water might actually burst through the big holes that opened at our favorite polywog gathering spot while we were there.
My wild and gritty childhood in that neighborhood ended just as I was turning thirteen years old and starting puberty. Nothing in my new world resembled the old. Not the cushy, wealthier area we moved to in Michigan. Not the inside nor the outside of my own self. Iâ€™ve almost felt like two different people; the open-eyed wanderer me post my thirteenth birthday and that young ignorant girl running around that crazy neighborhood. Standing on my old yard for the first time in twenty-five years last month, seeing the homes of lost friends and neighbors, then looking down on the totally unchanged ditch, I validated a lot of fuzzy memories. I rediscovered others that had burrowed into my unconscious. I got to see and feel that the place of so many of my stories is real.
That visit mended a fissure in my life that divided the first twelve years from the rest. I didnâ€™t expect to finally feel that the child-version of myself wasnâ€™t just a character in a story of which I have so many memories. I didnâ€™t know I would make such an emotional connection with my past. Those stories really were mine â€” thankfully. Theyâ€™re on the rough side, but I like them. That was me, and I finally feel like I have roots.