Sock Monkeys and Second Hand Smokes

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I’ve cleaned up after smokers for most of my life. My Uncle David and Uncle Gene filled up the paths and gutters in front of Nana’s house with cigarette butts. My mother and father contributed to the accumulation of paper and tobacco when they came to visit me or take Nana shopping. On those days when I was supposed to push the manual mower across the lawn until all the dandelions turned to dust, I was supposed sweep up all those brown and white cylinders flicked from family member’s hands like the final stage of a rocket to the moon.

Uncle David had one of those contraptions used to roll your own cigarettes in those days before rolling your own only required tobacco, paper, and spit. He showed me how to use it and explained that it saved him money, but he soon tired of the work and went back to buying packs and cartons when he could afford them.

Sometimes I would help an older boy, who wasn’t supposed to be smoking, collect butts from the gutter so that he could make his own cigarettes. I offered to get Uncle David’s device, but he showed me that just the cigarette paper, spit, and a match was all that he needed and offered me one of his handmade Frankensmokes. Considering all the mouths that salivated and sucked smoke through the secondhand tobacco found in the gutter, and the possibility that tiny bugs might already be living in it, I wasn’t too keen on putting one of those things in my mouth.

The cigarette machine would eventually find its way into the backroom. The backroom was filled with stuff that wasn’t being used anymore, but might someday be useful again. The backroom was the basement and the attic for a house that had neither. There was an old dresser in the backroom with a mirror attached. David had covered the mirror with small decals of Vargas girls from Esquire magazine.

I found things like a wood burnishing kit, leatherwork, and a Boy Scout Manual in the dresser. I also found charms, the kind girls would add to a necklace or a bracelet, and I found old trading cards with comic sayings and funny illustrations that reminded me of the artwork in Mad magazine. I also found an old printing device that I was never able to figure out. I wanted to print my own magazine, but there were no instructions. I could only pretend.

Nana was afraid that I would get ink all over the carpet, but she did let me play with the printer on the front lawn. Looking back, I think the stuff in the backroom was a conglomeration of things left behind by Uncle Gene, Uncle David, and my mother. I loved poking around and discovering interesting artifacts. When I was young, there were treasures everywhere: The photos and postcards under Grandma’s bed; the Shirley Temple doll, the Mexican marionette, and the ukulele in Grandma’s closet; and the old movies in the drawer in the dining room. I’m still looking for treasures in the backroom, but now they only exist in my head. There are only a few artifacts from that time left. Mostly photos, but I still have my favorite chimpanzee and the sock monkey that Grandma gave me.

Growing up at Nana’s house, I seldom made it past the linen closet. At the end of the hall, the door on the left lead to Uncle David’s room and that was off limits. The linen closet, on the right, contained some scary things on the top shelf.  The door to the backroom was at the far end of the hall.  It took a lot of courage to get past the linen closet and into the backroom and explore its many treasures, but I was a brave little archaeologist.

 

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There Were Three Trees In the Backyard

Elvis Presley's "Hillbilly" Movie

Elvis Presley’s “Hillbilly” Movie

There were three trees in the backyard, apricot, apple, and fig. I called the fig tree “The Elevator” because you could scoot out on a long branch and it would gently lower you to the ground. I remember demonstrating this to my cousins, Carolyn and Billy, when they came to visit one time. The apple tree was great for climbing. I could look into Mrs. DeElton’s yard or off through the haze of the Nimitz Freeway towards Alameda. The apple tree eventually got sick and died. The apricot tree offered the best fruits for preserves and I helped Grandma put them up in Mason jars once or twice. Most years, the fruit just fell to the ground and was eaten by birds.

Grandma referred to Carolyn as my “kissin’ cousin”, but I don’t think I ever kissed her. I preferred playing with her more than I liked playing with Billy. He was a rough boy and teased me constantly. I was a city boy and he was like a country cousin suspicious and disrespectful of my bookish ways.

Someone had gotten me a subscription to the National Geographic School Bulletin and a series of Science Club booklets. The booklets came in the mail with a sheet of lick and stick color illustrations that were perforated like stamps. The black and white illustrations were included with the text. My favorite volumes from the Science Club series of books were the ones about space travel, magnetism, light, and photography. I had a chemistry kit and a  microscope. The microscope wasn’t very powerful, but it let me look closely at blood and boogers. When you buy a young boy a microscope, what do you think he’s going to look at?

Uncle Gene and Aunt Sue went to World’s Fair in Seattle in 1962.  When they came for a visit Nana in 1964, I had never been to a fair, especially one that was so prestigious. Nana told Grandma that she couldn’t understand how Gene and Sue could afford to go to the World’s Fair when times were so tough. That’s why they were staying at her house.

There was a new baby girl named Linda and who didn’t do much but poop and cry. A new baby boy was on the way. He would be named Eddie. The house smelled terrible all the time and Nana was always in a bad mood. She would refer to Sue and the kids as “Okies”, but never had a bad thing to say about her grandson, Uncle Gene. I didn’t like my mother’s older brother. He was just another one of Nana’s evil henchmen and always willing to beat me, just like Uncle David. I did like my Aunt Sue. She was sweet, gentle, and soft spoken. She had the magical glow of a woman with a child on the way. Giving birth to six kids between 1960 and 1967 meant that she almost always had a glow on. Once again, I found myself questioning Nana’s attitudes and name calling, but I kept it to myself.

Over the years, Gene took me to places where I had never been like the International House of Pancakes, McDonald’s, and the Rainbow Car “Warsh”. Until I had a Public Speaking class in College, I always said “warsh”, instead of “wash”. It was the way my people talked. Maybe, I wasn’t all that much a city boy after all. One time when my father couldn’t take Nana grocery shopping at Safeway and Lucky’s, Gene took her to a grocery store where everything was supposed to be cheaper. Nana complained all the way home that she couldn’t find any of the brands that she usually bought. As a shopper, Nana was loyal to the brands she had been buying for years.

Gene and Sue went to Oregon, where Eddie was born, for awhile.  Eventually they came back to Oakland and moved into a house near the McArthur Freeway that was walking distance from Nana’s house. Sometimes Nana would have to babysit which pretty much meant sending me and the older kids into the backyard while she watched over the babies. This didn’t go well. When Billy and Eddie started throwing rocks at me one time, I responded with even bigger rocks and broke Billy’s tooth and gave Eddie a bump on the head.

My father and Gene got into it over the incident and I think my father had to pay for a trip to the dentist. Since I was older than my cousins, I was cast as the bully. To my mind, I was the one being picked on. It was two against one. Besides, if I ran inside and told Nana, I would have been called a tattle tale. Childhood logic says it’s better to be a bully sometimes than to ever be called a tattle tale.

I don’t remember ever going to a dentist until I was old enough to pay for it myself. My father used to say that when your teeth went bad, the best thing to do was have them all pulled and get dentures. Both my parents had dentures and were avid denture supporters.

In later years, Gene and Sue would show up unannounced in Davis or Grass Valley with a car load of kids. I got the impression from my father that they were there to borrow gas money or see a free movie. A movie was never a problem, but my family never had that much money on hand. My father and mother lived from paycheck to paycheck. I never knew what my mother thought of these visits, but my father’s feelings about Gene, Sue, and my cousins from my mother’s side of the family were as outspoken as Nana’s.

When I was living in West Hollywood with my then girlfriend and soon to be wife, we took in my father who had made a bad investment with his pension. One night, while Cari and I were out, a call came from my cousin Carolyn hoping to reconnect. My father said that they had talked for a little while and she had left her number. He then explained that he had misplaced the number. My guess is that he never actually took it down. He never really took a liking to any part of my mother’s family.

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I Never Learned to Play a Musical Instrument

Frankenstein

An Angry Mob

I never learned to play a musical instrument. Jeannie and I would go to an old woman’s house around the corner and pound on her piano once in awhile. She would offer us old Halloween candy and let us play for hours. At first, we thought she might be a witch, but her ancient Three Musketeers bars won us over.

The old woman was a little deaf, so she didn’t really care what we did or what it sounded like. Her house was small and the living room was filled with all kinds of clocks. There were two grandfather clocks and there was one of those clocks under glass with golden balls that revolved on the hour. There was even a cuckoo clock with a little bird that would pop out say “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” She would turn the hands of the bigger clocks backwards or forwards, so that we could hear them chime using a little gold key.

When I was in the fourth grade, I had the chance to learn a musical instrument. I really wanted to learn how to play the piano, but I was told that there wasn’t a piano available. I had to pick another instrument. The music teacher suggested the clarinet. He took one out of the instrument closet and showed me how to assemble it. I was fascinated by the way the parts went together, but I thought it was kind of weird that you had to suck on the reed before you could actually play it.

Assembling the clarinet was a lot like putting a weapon together. It reminded me of a scene from Mission Impossible. “Michael, your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to learn how to play this musical instrument.” I kept asking if there was a piano available and I kept being told that there wasn’t one.

My father wasn’t happy about renting a clarinet for me. As much as he liked music, he didn’t believe that I would practice. He was right. Every time I tried to practice, Nana or Uncle David would complain. The only support that I received was from Grandma, but she was working most of the time. It was hard for me to apply myself in a hostile environment.

There was a summer program at Frick Junior High School and my music teacher advised that I would be a better player next year if I went to summer school. I would walk along Foothill Boulevard, past Seminary to get to my class with a friend. I was surprised to see the bars open so early in the morning. One day, on a dare, I yelled “DRUNKS!” into the bar while walking home from class. I didn’t have anything against drunks, but a dare is a dare. I would hurry past the bar, from then on, for fear of a reprimand, or worse, drunks with torches and pitch forks like something out of a Universal horror movie.

At Frick, I would go to a room filled with woodwind players. It was easy for me to get lost in the back of the room. The teacher couldn’t possibly hear how badly I played. I didn’t even blow sometimes. At some point the teacher mentioned that he lived in Hayward, so I asked my father for a couple of passes to Hayward Motor Movie. I gave those to the teacher and not too surprisingly got a good grade in the class.

When the next school year started, I had learned absolutely nothing. I was scared that my regular music teacher would find out. When it came time to practice with the smaller group on the Horace Mann stage, I couldn’t even follow the music that we were given. When music class was over, I asked the teacher if we could talk. I confided that I didn’t practice because nobody wanted to listen to me and I never really wanted to play the clarinet. Was there any possibility for me to learn how to play piano? Once again I was told no, so I turned in my instrument and returned to my fifth grade class defeated, but proud that I had admitted my defeat rather than suffer the embarrassment of another rehearsal, or even worse, a performance.

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Uncle David Usually Had Firecrackers and Cherry Bombs

Are You Experienced Album Cover

Are You Experienced Album Cover

Uncle David usually had firecrackers and cherry bombs when the Fourth of July rolled around. I liked sparklers, the metal ones, but I loved the various fountains that shot colorful sparks up into the air. The higher the better.

In the Summer of 1969, there were no fireworks stands in East Oakland, but my new friend, Nick, told me that if we took a bus out to Union City, I could stock up at one of the legal stands on the bus route. He was living with family in Union City and we could hang out and listen to records after I made my firework’s selection.

Nick was tall and grew his hair longer than any of my other friends. He even had the start of what looked like a mustache and a goatee. It was just a hint of the growth to come. His record collection was made up of artists who would soon be dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. I had been listening to music recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, so I could tell that Janis and Jim were under the influence of something that had its roots in Blues and Jazz. Hendrix was too, but it was harder to hear it with all that feedback and reverb. It sounded like he was trying to find a sound that no one had ever heard before, but something was holding him back. It was loud, cacophonous, sad, and filled with longing. Nick would have played me every album he owned, but the time was short and I needed to catch a bus back to Belvedere Street with my stash of fireworks.

I couldn’t wait until the Fourth. Every night I tried out a new fountain, rated the experience on my highly esoteric scale, then discussed it with my circle of friends the next day.  There was a lot more room in Mrs. DeElton’s gravelly backyard, so I would light my “safe and sane” fireworks there instead of in Nana’s grassy overgrown backyard. I liked to run and jump through the cascade of star light, crackle, and pop which wasn’t exactly “safe” or “sane”.

Come the Fourth, I was worried that some concerned neighbor might call the police on me. I took my final selection of fireworks into Mrs. DeElton’s backyard. No one was home and I was all alone, but I didn’t feel alone. Then, I noticed that the old man who kept a vegetable garden next-door was watching me through his window and seemed to be enjoying the show.  The firelight reflected on his window and I could see his face glisten and his eyes sparkling with each new fountain that I lit. The old man used to give me and the other kids fresh carrots right out of the ground. Jeannie had told me that his wife had died recently and he didn’t talk much anymore. A voice called out my name and I spotted Uncle David silhouetted in the streetlight. I yelled back that I was almost done and would be home soon. He watched while I finished off my final fireworks.

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Uncle David Wasn’t Around Much

Poster for The Witchmaker

Poster for The Witchmaker

Uncle David wasn’t around much the summer of 1969, but evidence of his interests were almost everywhere at Nana’s house. I discovered his Steppenwolf, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, The Ventures and Beach Boys albums and used the TV in his bedroom to watch a rerun of Jack Palance’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Palance was always convincing when it came to evil and repressed violence. “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Spinning Wheel” were album tracks that appealed to my imagination. The Ventures hadn’t yet replaced Leroy Anderson as the background music of late night TV. They were still cool. Listening to the Beach Boys, I kept hearing Chuck Berry melodies and was happy to see he was given credit in the track listing parenthesis. I wondered why the Beach Boys weren’t doing something original like The Beatles, then I heard “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” and recognized that they could also do something new and original. I discovered an old pinball machine and everything necessary to assemble a shotgun shell in the garage. I even found David’s shotgun.

I spent a lot of time that summer talking to Curt, Norman, and one of their new friends, Nick, about the drug references in Beatle songs. These discussions took place on a couch in Mrs. DeElton’s basement where the old barber chair was still the centerpiece. I still liked to go for a spin and would listen to the trio talk about getting high and sex while I went round and round. They were extremely interested in hallucinogenic drugs. Curt even said that he had tried LSD once on the other side of the basement where it was dark and dirty.

I didn’t spend much time with Nana and Grandma that summer. Nana wasn’t feeling well and Grandma was away at work most of the time. I was on my own, doing whatever I wanted to do, and that was just fine with me. The previous summer, I had slept in Grandma’s bed, but this time around I used an extra bed in David’s room.  I was told not to mention sleeping with Grandma to any of my friends. I wasn’t really sure why that was important since I slept with Grandma when I was little, but Nana and Grandma seemed to be concerned about what other people might think, so I kept it to myself. At the time, I thought it might have something to do with them being too poor to have an extra bed for me, but now I realize that they didn’t want people to think I was being sexually abused. I wasn’t.

The summer of 1969, I spent a lot of time meditating on Mrs. DeElton’s front stairs. I would sit there with my eyes closed for a longtime letting my mind wander. Jeannie gave me some chocolate that she said was dosed with a mind altering drug, but it was only Ex-Lax. My mind was not altered. David came by while I was sitting on the stairs and we talked for a long time about many things. He seemed different to me. Nicer.

David had been to Vietnam and had stories about Vietnamese prostitutes with razor blades between their legs that they used to emasculate American soldiers. He didn’t talk about war. All he had to share was sexual horror stories. He talked me into buying his pinball machine for fifteen dollars, but when it came time to go home at the end of summer, my father told me that there was no place to put it and no way to transport it. It was left behind with my fifteen dollars.

I was becoming a horror film aficionado and there was a film playing at the Fairfax called The Witchmaker that was a must see. I was told that there was some female nudity in the film, which was true, but as low budget horror movies go this one had some scary moments. It was dark when the film got out. I didn’t walk home. I ran.

I had been reading a pornographic novel that I found in David’s room.  Thanks to the novel’s graphic descriptions of various kinds of love making, I could hold my own in the boys club discussions that went on in Mrs. DeElton’s basement. The carnival aspect of some of the Beatles’ songs and our teenage knowledge of carnival type rides like the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Zipper lead to the creation of the Sex Fair, a teenager’s misogynistic fantasy that was Fellinesque before any of us had ever heard of Fellini. The Zipper, for example, became the Unzip Her.

Vincent Price made so many bad movies better. I saw House of Wax, in 3D, on the big screen when it was re-released in the early sixties, but my first exposure to The Tingler was on afternoon TV. All the kids on the block must have been watching that movie. We were all talking about it for days. I put a rubber glove in the bathroom sink and covered it with catsup to scare Jeannie when I was about ten and she ran home in tears. In the summer of 1969, I decided to take scarring the girl-next-door one step further.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that a shotgun shell without a load of BBs was just a cap and gun with just a cap was a cap gun. I went around the neighborhood popping off blanks and at one point held the gun out Grandma’s bedroom window and called Jeannie to her bedroom window. I pointed the gun and shot right at her.  Boy, was she frightened. I never saw anyone look that frightened who wasn’t in a movie. I guess she didn’t tell on me because there were no repercussions to my blast. I put the gun away and never felt like playing with guns again unless it was for a movie or a photoshoot.

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I’ve Always Been a Collector

Flying Saucers Here And Now

UFO Paperback

I have always been a collector. As a child, I collected DC and Marvel comics, Beatles’ memorabilia, and paperback books filled with daily comic strips like Peanuts.  I cultivated a slightly twisted sense of humor collecting Addams Family bubble gum cards, issues of Mad Magazine and Mad paperback books. I sought out new and used copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, which appeared irregularly on the news stand, published by punster, Forrest J. Ackerman. This might have contributed to my affliction for word play.

As I got older, I collected comedy albums, old radio shows, movie posters, 8×10 movie stills, lobby cards, and movie press books. I enjoyed accumulating biographies and books about music, movies, radio, TV, and theatre. 78rpm records, theatre and concert programs, and entertainment based magazines started piling up in the 1970s. For awhile, I even collected stamps.

In the late sixties, while my friends were reading science fiction novels, I collected books about UFO sightings, abductions, and hoaxes. It was an interesting diversion that pretty much ended after I read the questionable, but entertaining, works of Erich von Däniken.  All my UFO research made films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and TV shows like and The X-Files all the more enjoyable in my future past.  During the late sixties, I was eagerly watching the skies while watching reruns of the Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, and a short lived series called The Invaders.

The girls next-door subscribed to Highlights Magazine and owned a bunch of booklets with the word “Phonics” in the title. Jeannie embraced this teaching method with religious fervor and expressed an attitude of superiority over me when it came to her knowledge of the written word.  While I was doing my best to learn my times tables using the mimeographed sheets of numbers that I brought home from school. Jeannie had a full deck of Flash Cards that she pulled out of her toy box whenever the subject of multiplication came up. She was quick to correct me when I was wrong. Success went without any sort of reward.

Jeannie was also an expert on sex. She explained the differences between girls and boys to me using her baby sister as a genital model and a medical reference book with celluloid overlay pages to explain what goes on inside the female body. It all seemed pretty technical to me, but she obviously knew more than I did. She was also familiar with male anatomy, or so she said. She went to see Seconds at the Fairfax with her mom. She told me that she saw Rock Hudson naked.

I was an avid book collector at an early age, even before my taste turned to the revolving comic book rack. I was a Little Golden Book junkie getting my weekly fix at the supermarket. Using Tinker Toys, I build a device that dispensed books. It was like a gum ball machine for books. No coin required.

In the second grade, I got my first taste of the school library. The first book that I checked out was The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss. I was a member of the Cat In the Hat Book Club, but this wasn’t one of the books offered. The illustrations were much more detailed and the book was bigger than the standard size of my club editions. It was easier to get lost between the pages of a bigger book. Unlike the Seuss I knew, this Seuss didn’t rhyme.

Soon after my school library initiation, I got my first library card from the Oakland Public Library branch on Foothill Boulevard.  Having my own library card made me feel important. I bought a wallet where I could keep it and my address book.

Around this time, Nana bought me a watch and my father bought me a miniature pipe. I didn’t smoke, but it was cool to have what amounted to a real pipe like my father’s. It was a cosmopolitan sort of pipe, not the corncob style sported by Mammy Yocum in the Li’l Abner comic strip. For the most part, my father smoked unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes, but he liked to smoke a pipe, have a highball (Canadian Club whiskey and club soda on the rocks), when he read, watched TV, or listened to music.

Even though my father spent most of his life running movie theatres, he seldom watched movies on the big screen, except in snippets. He would watch movies on TV cut to pieces, and broken up by commercials, regularly, but the big screen held no fascination. The only time, I remember going to see a movie as a family was when The Godfather came out in 1972. We were on our way home from a Holiday dinner at my Aunt Margie and Uncle Rocky’s house in Fremont. Margie and Rocky had seen it and were raving about it.

We stopped at the Grand Lake Theatre on our way home to see it. It was custom among theater managers to offer other theater managers a free pass. The manager wasn’t around, but my father knew the cashier. She used to be one of his employees, so there was no problem getting into the movie for free.

We came in about half an hour into the movie and stayed over to watch the beginning. When my father did watch movies, it wasn’t unusual for him to watch it piece meal and put them together in his head later. Linear continuity wasn’t a requirement in my household. Information was gathered and processed in a completely non-linear fashion that made it easy for me to embrace the stream of consciousness radio plays of Arch Oboler and the “un-stuck” novels of Kurt Vonnegut Jr as a teenager.

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My Father Was a Theater Manager

Ray Maginot

Ray Maginot

My father was a theater manager. It wasn’t what he wanted to be, but it is how he will be remembered. He went to a trade school to become a traffic manager. In the years after World War II, dealing with freight, by truck and train, must have seemed like a safe career option for a guy who enjoyed books, movies, and going to Light Operas at the Curran and other San Francisco venues. He once told me that he would have preferred managing theatrical houses to movie theaters. He also told me that he would like to go to New York City and see a Broadway show, but that never happened either.

My father had fond memories of a piano bar where the pianist would play “Manhattan” whenever he came in the door. I think it was the same nightclub where they had a microphone in the bathroom. Unsuspecting customer’s had their bathroom activities amplified as part of the evening’s entertainment. The bathroom antics would give way to risqué parodies of popular songs.

Before I was born, my father had collected a substantial amount of books and records, 78s and LPs. His taste went from the classical to the comedic. He liked everything from Tchaikovsky to Big Band Swing, but he wasn’t really hep on rock and roll.

He had 78s of Stan Freberg’s Dragnet satires and Mel Blanc doing his Warner Brothers cartoon characters. I accidently broke his copy of “Tweet, Tweet, Tweety” and “Yosemite Sam” which was a major disappointment for both of us. I listened over and over to his comedy LPs, “My Son the Folk Singer” by Allen Sherman, “The First Family” by Vaughn Meader, and “Inside Shelley Berman”. When I was older, he let me listen to his Nipsey Russell and Rusty Warren albums. I in turn, shared my copy of “It’s a Gas”, torn from the pages of Mad magazine. I built my own record collection starting with comedy albums, Big Bands, and Broadway Shows, eventually finding my way back to rock and roll.

My father’s trade school certification didn’t pay off or pan out. He couldn’t pass the physical exam when he applied for his first shipping job. Seems he had a brain tumor that could kill him at any minute and they didn’t like his limp which was a birth defect. When he died, it was from pancreatic cancer. That tumor never did kick in.

My father lost his faith in the Catholic Church and he lost his faith in education. He pretty much believed that anything worth learning can be self taught and school was a place where you served time before entering the work force. I was his employee when it was time to graduate high school and he told me that I had to work on graduation day. My right of passage would have to be the all night party which didn’t start until after my shift was over.

My father was married once before he married my mother. I have a wonderful half sister, Nicki, who I seldom saw growing up because she lived with her mother and her step-father. My father told me that while he was working his first wife, Betty, would go out dancing with one of his friends. He didn’t dance because of his limp. Well, not in public. I saw him cut a rug once in awhile. When I was a teenager, he told me that one of the things that hurt him the most was being called “a cripple” by Betty when he found her at home with one of his friends. It was a sad story.

Oddly, the story was meant to be a testimonial to my mother, who loved him unconditionally. My mother and I seldom saw eye to eye. He wanted me to understand that he and my mother were a team and that I needed to be more understanding and compassionate where she was concerned.

My father had routines. Popcorn and butter warming machines had to be turned on a few hours before the movie theater opened. Sometimes he would pick me up at school and we would go down to the theater to “turn the stuff on” and top off the inventory in preparation for the evening show.

The movie theater was like a playground to me. I would do somersaults down the aisle to the stage of the Fruitvale Theatre. One time, I got on stage and sang “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad” to an empty theater. I was surprised to hear applause at the end of my song from my father and another manager who was visiting.

I was always excited to spend time with my sister.  On one occasion, she was dropped off at Nana’s house. I think we were going to see Disney’s The Sword and the Stone. Someone had told me that my father would be picking us up and then picking up my mother at the apartment on 35th Avenue. I wanted to show my sister how knowledgeable I was of the back streets that went from Nana’s house to my parents’ apartment. Nicki willingly followed her little brother and we both got into trouble for wandering off and scaring everyone.  I grew up as an only child, but the few times I saw my sister felt tremendously significant.

My father took me to the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Ice Follies. He also took me to a puppet show with marionettes and a variety show with magicians and vaudeville acts including a chimpanzee. The chimp was going to be a featured performer at a Summer Matinee.

We were guests at the variety show and we got to go backstage. I was very impressed by all the scenery hiding in the rafters. We came in the stage door and our guide took us to our seats and introduced us to a black man who was sitting behind us and smoking a sweet smelling cigar. His name was Earl Hines, known to jazz aficionados as “Fatha”. My father was very glad to meet him, and so was I. I had no idea who he was, but I could tell that he was a very important man. I kept looking back at him over the seat and he seemed to be very amused by that.

When the chimp came to the Del Mar, the theater my father ran in San Leandro, he went totally nuts. It may have been part of the act. He ran from the stage and into the lobby, then upstairs to the balcony. Then he climbed down from the balcony and ran back to the stage. It was all very exciting. Before the show, I was able to meet with the chimp and shake his hand. My father liked chimps. I would get him birthday and Father’s Day cards that had chimps dressed like people because I knew they would make him laugh.

My father told me that there were two kinds of theater managers, housekeepers and promoters. He was a housekeeper. He didn’t like promotions. They were just more work. Growing up, I was under the impression that the most important part of being a theater manager was making sure the seats didn’t collapse and didn’t have any holes. People abused their theater seats. They cut them with knives, they jumped on them until they wouldn’t stay up, and they covered the bottoms with gum and other sticky stuff. It seemed to me that theater seats weren’t really for watching movies. They were receptacles of a patron’s anger.

When I hear the words, “red tape”, I don’t think about hassles. I think about all the rolls of red tape that my father and his employees went through so people could sit comfortably and enjoy a movie. The phrase “picking your seat” was a triple entendre to my father. It referred to pulling your underwear out of your butt, finding a good place to watch a movie, and what customers did to the red tape on the seat cushions.

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Drive-Ins Were Passion Pits

Greasy Kid Stuff

Greasy Kid Stuff

Drive-Ins were passion pits. That’s what I heard. In 1966, my father was the manager of the Motor Movies on Tennyson Road and Mission Boulevard in Hayward. Hayward Motor Movies, as it was usually called, was my father’s first outdoor theater. He had been running the Del Mar in San Leandro while my mother was running the Fruitvale in Oakland. My mother gave up her managerial position so that they could work together again. They would save on gas and time since she didn’t drive. It would also give my father a pair of eyes behind the candy counter to make sure that there wasn’t any theft or pilfering.

When his theaters came up short, my father always made up the difference. When employees stole from the theater, they weren’t stealing from United Artists, my father and mother’s employer, they were stealing from my family. I think it was more of a survival technique than work ethic. I know that my parents got by sometimes by borrowing money from petty cash or from the candy and cigarette machines. The box office had its own system of checks and balances, ticket stubs that had to be put in an envelope at the end of the day and mailed to the main office in San Francisco.

At Hayward Motor Movies, the box office and the manager’s office were in the same building. The marquee was only a few feet from the ground, so every once in a while someone would shuffle the letters to spell something other than the titles of the current double bill. This wasn’t a major hassle for my father. I think he actually liked some of the anagrams that would pop up overnight.

I remember climbing up on the platform in front of the Motor Movie marquee one day and singing “Hanky Panky”. Tommy James and the Shondells covered the song that year and I was driving my father crazy humming it constantly in the car. I couldn’t get it out of my head.

The set up was pretty typical. The snack bar was near the back of the property. The bathrooms and the projection booth were located in a building in front of the snack bar. You had to go down some cement stairs to use the bathroom. There was a drainage issue. When it rained this underground bunker frequently flood.

There was a fence in front of the projection booth, so that people wouldn’t cast shadows on the screen by walking directly in front of the projector beam. The screen was pretty high up. It was located just behind a playground where kids would continue to play even after the movie started. Inventory was kept in the screen tower, but had to be well protected from field mice, rats, and birds. All perishable items were kept in a big walk-in freezer in the snack bar.

The drive-in audience was much more informal than an indoor theater audience. Parents would bring their kids to a drive-in dressed in their pajamas. Drive-ins were the urban alternative to camping out. Patron’s cars established a home base near a speaker post and the occupants of the cars would either remain in the vehicle or spread out using lawn chairs, pillows and blankets. Drive-ins offered a cheap night out for families, but they were also a breeding ground for young adults.  Drive-ins didn’t serve alcohol, but the consumption level was much higher than in a movie theater. Sometimes skirmishes would break out among feuding tribes of teenagers. Gang fights didn’t just happen in the movies. I remember my father complaining about the riff raff that films like Wild Angels and Hell’s Angels on Wheels brought in.

Whenever I went to work with my parents, which was happening more and more often, we would stop at a cafe for lunch that had great cold turkey sandwiches and potato salad. There was usually a newspaper available and I could read the comics. I always read Peanuts and Odd Bodkins. I wasn’t quite sure what Odd Bodkins was all about, but it had a seductive subversive quality that I liked.

It was a long ride from Oakland to Hayward. We mostly drove the city streets instead of the congested highway. I would bring a good supply of comic books to pass the time. It was the pre-seat belt days and I would lie on the floor in the backseat enjoying the latest Fantastic Four, Batman, Superman and Spiderman issues while my mother and father discussed what need to be done when we got to the theater.

A typical day at the drive-in included playing on the playground, watching a movie, then going to the office and rolling coins. There were simple plastic sorting machines to separate the quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies, but when it came to rolling the coins, it was all done by hand. The paper rolls had to be stamped with the bank account number first, then the rolling would begin. I guess you could say rolling coins was my first job.  As it would turn out, rolling coins was my father’s last job.

The typical drive-in in those days had speakers that you hung on your window and heaters that you could put on the floor of your car to keep you warm on a cold night. It wasn’t necessary to run down your battery using your radio. Still, people did run down their batteries. It was against theater policy to give patrons a jump start for fear of a law suit. The main office didn’t want patrons accusing theater employees of damage to a car’s electrical system.  The patrons were on their own if their battery went dead. They could find another patron to help them or call the auto club. After a fatal accident at another drive-in, patrons were told that they had to stay in their cars and watch the movie. Lawn chairs and blankets were no longer an option.

At this point in my life, I was obsessed by super heroes and UFOs. When it got dark on Belvedere Street, I would spend hours standing on the curb, gazing up at the stars. I could identify both dippers, big and little, Aries, and I could point out Venus and Mars. I had seen Pinocchio and wishing on stars was a night time ritual.

From Mrs. DeElton’s back porch, I could watch planes arriving and departing the Oakland Airport. Mrs DeElton lived in the duplex next-door to Nana. The Pace family were her tenants.  Mrs. DeElton didn’t seem to mind me playing in her backyard or parking on her back porch. I had binoculars that I would sometimes use to watch the movies playing at the Coliseum Drive-In.  I remember watching The Sand Pebbles and trying to read Steve McQueen’s lips. Now that my father ran a drive-in, drive-in movies were my new obsession.

I had heard that drive-ins were a great place to take your girl friend and if you were lucky you might even get to make out. I had never kissed a girl and I really wanted to give it a try. I asked my father if I could bring Theresa to the drive-in to see A Man Called Flintstone. My parents and Theresa’s parents met and agreed that it would be alright as long as Theresa’s sisters, Pam and Sandy, were part of the deal. Since my parents would be working, we would be unattended for most of the evening and the girls wouldn’t be getting back to Oakland until very late. Theresa’s older sister, Pam, was very intuitive. I think she was able to read my mind. She was actually taunting me to kiss her sister. On the way home, I gave Theresa a peck on the cheek and she gave me a nasty look. Pam and Sandy laughed. I remember my mother turned around to see what was so funny and we all put on the face of innocence.

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It Wasn’t Long After

Fantastic Voyage Poster Art

Fantastic Voyage Poster Art

It wasn’t long after my first drive-in movie date that I found out that Hayward Motor Movie was going to be torn down so that Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) could build a terminal and a parking lot. I would soon be leaving Nana and Grandma. I would finally be moving in with my parents for the first time in my life. They would be taking over Westlane Auto Movie in Davis. There was a trailer and we would all live together right there on the drive-in. I wasn’t even going to finish out the fifth grade at Horace Mann.

Grandma helped me pick out a set of jeweled squirrel pins that were popular at the time for Theresa. My father drove me by her house so I could drop off the gift. Theresa wasn’t home, so I gave the little package to her mother. There would be letters and phone calls, but I wouldn’t see Theresa again until 2011. She is now happily married and has held the same job for more years than I can possibly imagine.

I spent my last days in Oakland drawing mazes and eyeballs. Some of the eyeball drawings had people coming down a rope. I was a big fan of Fantastic Voyage. The story of people miniturized and injected into the body of a dying man had captured my imagination.

Because I was going to be living in a trailer, and space was limited, I was instructed to get rid of as much of my personal property as I could. This meant giving away most of my books to the cousins on my mother’s side and selling my comic book collection to my cousin, Kim, on my father’s side. I was told that we all had to make sacrifices because we were starting over.

At last, we were going to be a family. I remember sitting in the multipurpose room at Horace Mann waiting for my parents to pick me up on my last day of school. I had good memories of the multipurpose room; macoroni and cheese lunches, assemblies, including one where Captain Satellite, a local TV celebrity, came to visit us. I had acted in a play where all the kids were different planets on the Horace Mann stage. For a short time, I played the clarinet. The music room was attached to the stage and we would take out music stands and folding chairs and practice on the stage. There was a portable record player that teachers would wheel out in front of the stage and we would learn folk dances. At one assembly a sixth grade girl sang “Downtown” and blew me away with her impression of Petula Clark. Was it real or was she just lip-syncing to the record? I think it was real.

I thought about all these things while I attempted to draw Raquel Welch in a scuba suit dangling from an eyeball. My mother came through the double doors and the montage that was playing in my head came to an end. I was about to make my escape to fifteen acres of asphalt surrounded by farm land.

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Nana Had a Rule

Mr. Ed Talking Hand Puppet

Mr. Ed Talking Hand Puppet

Nana had a rule. On birthdays and holidays she would provide me with toys and Grandma Chapman would give me clothes. Grandma Chapman was my father’s mother. She had married into the Maginot family. When her Maginot husband died, she married Wayne Chapman, who my father despised.

When I knew Wayne, he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and was constantly in the care of Grandma Chapman. She would have to buy plates that didn’t have a pattern because he would keep trying to pick off the painted flower when he ate.

Wayne didn’t like my father’s bookish ways. During the war, my father was curious about what Hitler had up his sleeve and so he brought home a copy of Mein Kampf from the library. Wayne had a fit and threw the book in the street berating my father for showing an interest in what Der Fuehrer had to say.

My Aunt Margie must of gotten along better with Wayne as she was always supportive during the years leading up to his death, but my father had a strong dislike for the man that he never hid from me or my mother.

Nana was resistant to any form of obsolescence. Many of my toys were hand me downs from my mother and my uncles, but there was new stuff too.  Nana was vigilant when anything broke down before it had served its time.

I had a Mr. Ed talking hand puppet. When you pulled the string, Ed would say things like “I’m a horse of course” and “Wilburrrr”. Ed stopped talking and when Nana couldn’t get the department store to replace him for me, she went directly to Mattel.

I came home from the Ice Follies one time with a blow up pink elephant on a stick that had bells on it. It was leaking at one of the seams and wouldn’t stay inflated. I wasn’t really as attached to this stupid elephant, it was really a baby toy, but Nana made phone calls and a replacement arrived by mail. I think the replacement might have been blue instead of pink, but it’s the thought that counts.

Grandma Chapman must have been a night owl. Whenever I went to her house, she was reading books by Jack Parr and Steve Allen, both hosts of the Tonight Show before the Carson years. There were also books from Toastmasters, joke books, and collections of familiar quotations. The magazines of choice were Reader’s Digest and TV Guide. TV Guide crossword puzzles were something I did with my father starting in the late nineteen sixties into the mid nineteen seventies when way too much of my life was spent in front of a TV screen.

Nana wasn’t always happy about the clothes Grandma Chapman bought for me. She would criticize, modify, and take them back to the store if they didn’t meet her aesthetic standards. When it came to clothes, Nana wanted them to last and not be too trendy. Sometimes, Nana would call Grandma Chapman to complain about one of her purchases and my father would have to patch things up between these two rivals for my affection.

Nana and my father were always at odds, but he needed to stay in her good graces because she was my caregiver and keeper for most of my childhood. My father and mother worked six days a week. On their one day off, the first order of the day was to take Nana to Safeway and Lucky’s. For my sake, they were always subservient to Nana’s shopping needs.

I always liked going to Lucky’s. They had magazines, comic books, and a small toy section. I might go home with a kite or a balsa wood airplane with a rubber band propeller. Sometimes, my father would have to use the tube tester and determine which tubes needed to be replaced in the TV, a radio, or some device from work.  I was fascinated with all the dials and meters. After testing, my father would have to find the clerk with the key to the cabinet, so that he could get his tubes. It was a truly tubular time.

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