It’s September, and I’m writing this column not from a hotel room in Waikiki, not from a window seat looking down 10,000 meters at the Pacific Ocean, nor even from a departure lounge at Kansai Airport. I am instead stuck in a holding pattern between home and school that looks to continue for the rest of 2020. Since I can’t go anywhere abroad this summer, much less home to see Mom, allow me to indulge in a few memories from the hoods (childhood neighborhood).
When we’re kids, we always want a role model to look up to. As for me, I looked up to the neighborhood bully, Doug—because he usually had me flat on the ground with his foot on my stomach. Some of us picked up hobbies in elementary school like collecting comic books or playing instruments. I played the trombone. A girl down the street played the piano. Doug was handy with a few instruments, too: usually blunt ones.
One year there was an artist living in our neighbors’ basement. None of us knew exactly why he was there. He might have been finishing a degree at the university or giving some guest lectures or something like that. His stay was temporary, so the university asked our neighbors, who were on sabbatical and renting out their house, to let him stay in their basement rather than make him find an apartment. What he was doing there at the time didn’t interest us nearly as much as what he used to do: Disney animation! He had worked in Los Angeles painting animation cells for some of our favorite films of the 70s, like Robin Hood and Winnie the Pooh. He was very happy (at least for the first few weeks after he arrived) to entertain us by showing us rough sketches and telling us stories about those films. I happened to be visiting him once with Doug, the neighborhood bully, who could actually be a likable kid sometimes—at least when he wasn’t running around at midnight throwing stone-filled snowballs at people’s mailboxes. As the visiting artist talked with us, he was quickly able to figure out the power dynamic between Doug and me, and when we finally cajoled him into drawing a picture of us, he whipped out a quick but exquisite Disneyesque pencil drawing of two boys, one with his fist planted firmly in the kidney area of the other. Along the bottom he wrote: “Scott was Got by a Slug from Doug.” I haven’t seen that drawing for ages. I wish I could say I still have it somewhere, but I’m pretty sure Doug has it.
Back in those days there were enough kids on my street to form a modest soccer team, had we leaned that way—or a formidable youth gang, had we leaned another. One reason we didn’t choose soccer may have been that our most readily available play area was not a flat, grassy expanse sporting nets at either end, but rather a huge rising mass of bumpy, undeveloped foothills climbing toward the mountains. These hills were full of thickets, crevasses, and mounds of Volkswagen-sized boulders that were great places to lose a soccer ball. So we spent our time there playing other games, such as Suicide Bike Ride (“If you brake, you’re a fake!”), or Spare Tire Pachinko. The best result I remember from the latter game was when, as the tire gained speed bouncing down the hill, it hit a curb on the street below and flew nearly high enough to land on the roof of my own house. Had it succeeded, of course, I would never have been able to brag about it at the dinner table.
Speaking of dinnertime: On weekends, as evening approached and it was time to eat, our numbers, as well as the vast size of the play space we ran around in, created interface problems for our parents who were trying to contact us and get us home. So the parents—ok, I’m basically talking here about the mothers—invented unique family calls that could be easily recognized by their particular child. For example, at the house next to mine, Erik’s mother—who had studied in Austria some years ago—would step out the door and sing a brief, two-note descending melody in a beautiful Alpine soprano: “Oo-oo!” If she went unheard the first time, she’d sing it again in a higher register. Once we heard it, Erik would say, “That’s me. I gotta go.” Amy’s mom, from across the street, forsook using her voice altogether and simply rang a giant iron triangle hanging from their patio. My own mother, though, couldn’t be bothered with customized kid calling: “Scaaaahhhhtt!” was all I ever heard.