A rollicking account of a paralyzed Gen Xer coming of age in the oft-times sordid Hollywood rock scene of the 1980’s
We rented a place at “Our Town Apartments.” The mega complex, billed as “A Place for Kids and Their Families,” sat right across the street from Orange Coast College. It sported a community center with pool tables, swimming pool, BBQs, and a “Teen Center.” Pops had Mondays off, and we’d play pool or go see movies like Blazing Saddles, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, or The Man with the Golden Gun. Even though Jaws played for more than two years at the nearest cinema, we never saw it.
Pops was the assistant manager at a spectacular Italian restaurant, Matteo’s, in Corona Del Mar. He got his start in the food service game fresh off the boat, and was a world-class cook who made me anything to order. Say I wanted pork chops, with eggs over medium, and sourdough toast for breakfast, or veal piccata and handmade ravioli for dinner, I asked and received. And it was perfect. I especially dug Lebanese food. Whenever I put in a request, he’d hit the Middle Eastern market and make a heap of that stuff so I could chow down on piles of crispy falafel and the hidden healthiness of hummus, then wash it all back with eight pieces of baklava.
When it came to politics and lifestyle, Pops was the opposite of Ma. He hated weed as much as she hated alcohol, and would give me an occasional sip of beer to counter the occasional hits-o-weed Ma had shared. Pops loved America as it was, and often said, “There are some screwed up things in this country, but it’s far better than anywhere else in the world.” Ma and her friends would never admit they disliked the U.S.A., they’d just cite so many flaws in need of addressing that it seemed to be an endless list of grievances. Through their own worldviews, Ma and Pops could agree the Vietnam War was a complete fiasco, but the fall of Saigon made me realize that there is something far worse than war; losing a war.
Pops never displayed a Lebanese flag. Though at times he’d sit around with his Lebanese buddies, speaking a language that sounded like they were getting ready to hock loogies on each other, and every so often one of his towel-head buddies would suggest, “Let’s start a Little Lebanon.” He’d summarily dismiss the suggestion and remind them there was a big Lebanon they could go to.
The closest school was Kellybrook Elementary. But it was far enough away that I rode a big yellow bus – in reality, a rolling can full of loud and obnoxious brats. After school, we’d get dropped off in front of the apartments and settle scores. Within days of moving there, I had lost fights on consecutive days to a kid named Chris. So I became friends with him and his buddy Mark. Except for those few rounds with Chris, I didn’t box much, unlike in L.A., where fights occurred several times a week.
I was still in fourth grade, and back on my school-a-year pace. Mrs. Fleisher had to be my all-time prettiest teacher. Me likey a lot, especially when my off-colored innuendos made her blush. I had a mad crush on a lil’ cutie pie classmate, Tina. Her long, jet black hair, mocha skin, and dark, almond-shaped eyes drove me wild. So I desperately tried to make her like me by being a constant pest. I excelled at pestering, and that’s probably why it took a month to realize she lived right downstairs from us. But her dad’s evil eye told me that I should not come knocking.
A few months passed with me staying out of trouble, until the day I got busted liberating a few bucks’ worth of change from Pops’ five-gallon water bottle. During my punishment, he realized the spanking of my butt wasn’t fazing me. He then regained my undivided attention with a discipline technique his dear old dad had employed, spanking the bottom of my bare feet with a leather belt. It hurt like a motherfucker, Pops. That whoopin’ spoke loud and clear. “I’ll hurt you if you keep fucking around!” My big takeaway was to make every effort to avoid getting caught during future misdeeds.
Pops wanted me under constant supervision, so he hired a sweet and pretty babysitter, Pam, who lived across the complex. Having to keep everyone informed of my comings and goings, and the confinement within our complex’s geographical boundaries, took getting used to. At least the place was huge and swarming with kids. It seemed as though there was always some sort of adventure to enjoy. We’d have the occasional BB gun fights, or “borrow” little kids’ Big Wheels for demolition chariot races. I loved shredding the street course that was our complex, and acquired a lifelong love of sidewalk surfing.
Even though it was far outside my boundary, a few of us went to the flat track – “brakes make mistakes” – motorcycle races at the Orange County Fairgrounds. That speedway shit was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I loved it from the moment they burst from the starting gates, all through them sliding sideways, kicking up dirt chunks while drifting inches apart through the corners. The occasional stacking into the wall feet from us was merely icing on the cake. Those sights, sounds, and the smell of burning race fuel drew me to the speedway whenever I could sneak away.
I had yet to realize that not smoking was far cooler, so I’d hang out with the older kids at the Teen Center, playing pool and smoking cigarettes. One day, I volunteered to get smokes from a gas station vending machine, outside Pops’ stated boundary, and figured it’d be a quick shot over there on my bike. Who’d know? After trying to beat a yellow light, where a hurried driver’s rabbit-start knocked me off my bike, I slid across the asphalt into the intersection and said, “Shit,” and thought, “I’m going to be in so much trouble.”
I sprang to my feet, grabbed my bike, and assured the concerned driver that I was fine. Despite the road rash and blood trickles, he seemed more than willing to take my word for it. I got them smokes and headed back to my teen friends, and told Pops I wiped out on my skateboard.
My buddy Chris pinched some weed from his dad, but we didn’t know how to roll a joint. After settling on empting out a cigarette and stuffing the herb into the hollow paper, we got a slight buzz then went to Mark’s apartment and listened to the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.” One of us had heard about a certain girl who gave some boy a “blow job.” It’s nothing like the word combination suggests, so no one could figure out what the fuck it meant. When we asked Mark’s brother, he seemed shocked by our inquiry and declined explaining. If we would have had internet and saw pictures, we might have climbed over one another to buy that girl an ice cream cone.
During Christmas vacation, Pam invited me along to Big Bear for some snow skiing. I had never skied, but her son Mike was great and gave me several helpful pointers. It required recklessness and speed, so I picked it up quickly. I got so good that on the third day I was able to break my leg into a spiral fracture starting about an inch above my left ankle. I spent eight hours – leg splinted and stretched out behind the backseat of a 1970 Ford Bronco – stuck in New Year’s Day traffic, descending the mountain.
After arriving at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, the doctor wanted to give me a shot at the site of the fracture. I refused and requested that he get on with it. He probably thought he was calling my bluff, and seemed quite surprised when I didn’t make a peep as the bone-crunching realignment was underway. When Pops learned they set the bone without a pain shot, he bragged to his friends about my toughness. The truth is, I was too pussy to get that shot. The whole broken-leg thing ruined a lot of shit for me. Afterward, Pops became determined – through sheer will and denying me anything he perceived as a dangerous activity – to prevent me from further harm.
One spring morning, Pops sat me down to tell of the vasectomy he would soon receive. After explaining what the fuck a vasectomy was, he said, “When you already have the perfect son, you don’t need to have any more children.” I would have called bullshit, but they didn’t have that phrase way back then. Plus, there was a strong possibility that he was being truthful.
Living with Pops, just him and me, was the best half year of my childhood.
But Pops often claimed, “Brothers should be together,” so it all went to shit that summer when Joe moved in with us. Not that I didn’t love and miss my brother; I’d love to have missed him way more – unless I was target shooting. Joe and I picked up right where we left off in the dysfunctional department, and there was blood to prove it.
We moved across town, into a house two miles from the Newport Pier. The new digs were as cool as the Pacific breezes that kept our summer perfect. Next door, the Montessori school’s rooster would piss Pops off every morning, about three hours after he went to sleep. Across the street, the empty lot had a big palm tree that birds would scatter from when hit by a pellet. Or so I’ve been told. Across our back fence lived an old guy, and when vandals egged his sweet 66 Chevelle, Grandpa Frank came over and bitched at Pops about his two little delinquents. After our fervent denials were believed, Pops and Frank became lifelong drinking and fishing buddies.
Another grade, another school, and for fifth grade I attended Newport Heights. My teacher, Mrs. Kroeger, was a no-nonsense woman, yet I offered nonsense daily. Unwilling to change her ways, she stuck to teaching those wanting to learn, and often sent me to hang out with the principal. She never held a grudge, and remained pleasant upon my return. I was shipped to the principal so often, the powers that be eventually decided to try a new approach. We held a big pow-wow, Pops, Mrs. Kroeger, Principal, and me, where they came up with a brilliant plan, dubbed, “systematic exclusion.” If I got sent to the principal, I would be suspended immediately. No ifs, ands, or buts.
A few days later, I got exiled to the principal’s office for some minor shit – petty arson as I recall (kidding). Next thing I knew, they were typing up suspension papers and calling on Pops to come fetch me. Getting suspended from school whilst living with Pops wasn’t the kickback, cartoon-watching, “day off from school” scenario it represented while living with Ma. It was so harsh that I only got suspended two more times during the school year’s remaining months.
It wasn’t all bad; I actually dug the school. There was a brilliant kid, Alexander, who became my best friend. He loved The Beatles, and we’d spend endless hours playing tennis-racket air guitar while singing with Fab Four attitudes, “Yeah yeah yeah.” I was surprised to learn that The Beatles broke up about five years earlier. Before that tidbit, all I knew was they were one of the bands Ma listened to when not listening to the ultra-boring Peter, Paul and Mary. For a while I listened to a lot of Beatles, but now I think they’re overrated.
Pops quit the sweet gig at Matteo’s Restaurant, with its rich and famous clientele, to strike out on his own at the Marquis Restaurant, on Newport Boulevard about three blocks from our house. Just about every day, Joe and I rode our bikes over there to grab a bite, drink all the free soda we wanted, and play the genesis of video games, Pong, on one of those tabletop models.
In search of equal pay for equal work, Ma quit the insurance business to be a night-shift hack at Red and White Taxi. She took a walk on the wild side and began dating a cool, Harley-riding fellow cabbie, Harold. No more Gardena, she relocated to a bachelor apartment right next to the Hollywood Bowl, one of those old-school courtyard apartment complexes that at one time littered Hollywood. Not wanting to blow it with Harold by having Joe and me visit together, separate visits were also part of the new plan.
The restaurant business provides a steady stream of liquored-up ladies for the non-discerning dick. Pops had so many notches on his headboard that he was well on his way to whittling it down to a toothpick. One Saturday morning, while Joe was away, I went into Pops’ room and discovered him snuggled up with the latest of his thousand conquests. Big-tittied, blond Jonelle, fresh off the boat from Seattle, was the singer-keyboard player for the lounge act “Full Sail.” The band was huge on the Red Onion circuit, or at least the one by the airport. She had dropped by the Marquis to visit a friend, leader of the restaurant’s house band, sat in, did a couple of top-forty tunes, and then later did Pops. That particular morning, he was in a great mood and asked, “You ready for Knott’s Berry Farm?”
That was Pops’ default – meet my kids – destination to hang with babes who had passed the first audition. We had a fun day of fried chicken, Independence Hall, rides, and pennies flattened on railroad tracks. Jonelle was full of positive energy, sweet, fun, and pretty. We got along great, and her and Pops couldn’t keep their hands off of each other, or tongues in their own mouths. Within two months, Pops and Jonelle took a quickie trip to Fabulous Las Vegas and returned as man and wife.
For Christmas, Ma bought me and Joe Britannia jean jackets. They had flamboyant flair with awesome, wide 70s lapels, and across the back shoulders she decorated them with rhinestones. JOE fit neatly on his, but RACHED was too much, so we went with my initials. It wasn’t my plan to get a nickname, but when you’re rocking a sweet jean jacket with a glittering R.A.Z. emblazoned across the back, folks automatically start calling out, “Hey, Raz.”
Soon after 1976 began, Joe moved back with Ma, which made Ma and Jonelle almost as happy as me. Because Jonelle dug King Tut and pyramids, she and Pops baked me an eleven-layer pyramid cake for my eleventh birthday. Pops also gave me a sweet Remington .22 rifle, and every few weeks we’d hit an outdoor target range or the Salton Sea to shoot up the nearby desert. I had gun safety ingrained in my brain, and knew right away not to fuck around with weapons. It was made crystal clear to me that if I ever went into Pops’ closet and even looked at the guns, he would knock me around. Plus, I’d never get to go to the range again.
Despite being a hundred-eighty degrees oppressive from the freedom at Ma’s, Pops was cool in many ways, especially after Jonelle loosened him up. She was a musician and a music lover, and we’d tool around in her Opel GT, a sporty little two-seater that looked like a shrunken Corvette, and sing along with “At the Copa,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Junk Food Junkie,” or a hundred other tunes squawking out of the AM speaker.
Shortly after hearing Benny and the Jets on the radio, I hurried out to purchase my first rock record, Elton John’s Greatest Hits. I immediately realized that piano was the instrument for me, so I had Jonelle convince Pops to rent one from Coast Music, and my old, shoddy trumpet got exiled to its case in the back of the garage. But it sucked ass big time getting lessons. I needed to “Crocodile Rock,” but was stuck with a never-ending repetition of scales. After a few dozen lessons, I could barely plink out a shaky, passionless version of something closely resembling “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Plus, if I didn’t practice every frickin’ day for at least an hour, Pops busted my balls about me being “unserious.” To get him off my back, I told him, “I hate playing piano… send it back.”
In 1976, a first-class postage stamp cost thirteen cents and had the Liberty Bell on it, along with “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land.” More importantly, being two hundred years since declaring independence from Britain, Americans celebrated our nation’s bicentennial. Everyone felt very proud of our country and we all went apeshit with patriotism. At school, we studied the Revolutionary War and our Founding Fathers. Disneyland, still a patriotic American company, even let Orange County students into the “Happiest Place on Earth” for free, which led to some of the happiest parents on earth. In those days, them idiotic mouse-ear hats didn’t cost eighty bucks, either. While super cute when worn by Japanese chicks in schoolgirl outfits, I still don’t get it.
Later in the year, we studied slavery and the American Civil War – which wasn’t very. I even memorized the Gettysburg Address. After a lesson on slavery, our teacher had me debate with another student, Brett. I argued the anti-slavery position. Figuring that with slavery’s inherent evil and a few basic facts, my case was the most compelling and would sell itself, I didn’t prepare even a lick. After I laid out my case, Brett presented a bunch of hooey about how slaves had it made, with no worries about rent, food, or unemployment. They got a sweet retirement, too. My rebuttal was weak, a scoff and snicker, while basically mocking his argument as bullshit. But Brett’s careful preparation, structured argument, and personal popularity all combined with mid-70s, white-bread Costa Mesa to deliver a pro-slavery vote from my classmates.
The last Friday before summer vacation was “Crazy Day,” when nearly everyone dressed up in costume. My friends, Alexander, Brett, Brian, and me went as The Beatles. Artsy-fartsy Jonelle helped us make cardboard cut-out guitars, with wooden supports for the necks and painted fronts. No need for wigs, because we were already rocking the shaggy locks. I made a cassette for my little red Panasonic portable, and we lip-synced and sang along with “Drive My Car,” “Love Me Do,” “Day Tripper,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” We shook our heads “Woooooo” just like Paul and John did in the concert films Alexander had dragged me to. The schoolgirls played along by chasing us around campus while tearing at our clothes. God bless schoolgirls!
Once school let out, Joe came down for an extended stay. After a ten scuffles in four days, Pops devised a plan to solve our issues once and for all. He handcuffed us together. Believe it or not, handcuffing two people together does not create stronger bonds of lasting friendship. All I ever wanted was just to be left alone, but I was stuck and couldn’t get away. Worst of all, my right hand was cuffed to his left. Advantage, Joe. He’d just yank me close then clock me. The whole handcuff thing, and ensuing hilarity, was the last straw. Soon after the shackling, Ma and Pops settled custody, with each getting their favorite.
The newlyweds were living a blissful existence and decided they must breed, so Pops got his vasectomy reversed and walked around bowlegged with a pained expression for a week. Life was good and I was happy. School was out, Joe was out of my hair, Pops was in love, and me and Jonelle got along great. I got me some roller skates and did tons of skating at Harbor Roller Rink, and spent lots of time at the beach. Happiness is overrated.
Two steps, a skip, and a jump into summer vacation, Pops’ restaurateur dreams evaporated in a puff of overdue invoices.
Before he mustered the will for a job hunt, Jonelle convinced workaholic Pops he needed a vacation. Not aware of the just-a-little-bit concept, they scored a brand-spanking-new Chevy Blazer, sold everything that wouldn’t fit inside, and we headed north to Alaska. Besides, doesn’t the end of a school year mean it’s time to relocate?
That kick-ass truck got packed to the gills, with me crammed sideways behind the front seats. We didn’t rock out much, because Pops was anti; mostly we just talked or listened to AM radio whilst motoring northward. We spent a few days with friends in Grants Pass, Oregon, then about a week in Seattle, Washington with Jonelle’s folks. Thank goodness we left tons of stuff in Seattle, because it gave me room to stretch out. It took us a little longer than normal to cross into Canada, because Pops was still a Lebanese national and told the border guard about the semi-auto rifle onboard. The Mountie got a bit of giggle at the Marlin .22, and then we were on our way.
We camped, hiked, and fished, with the whole plan being there was no plan. If we liked a particular spot, we’d layover for a couple of days.
British Columbia was beyond beautiful, plus, halfway up a mountain trail, I found forty bucks Canadian; lovely-ay.
After an unreasonably cold night in the Yukon Territory, a fellow camper told us the night before had reached thirty below zero. Pops believed him, but I think he saw the Cali license plates and was fucking with us. On the way to Fairbanks, I tagged the Alaskan Pipeline “RAZ.” But, as an ongoing construction project, it was painted over by the next day. We went to Denali State Park and scaled Mt McKinley. Actually, we just drove near it and camped out after the sun went down, around midnight. We followed the road to Anchorage, and then on to the astonishing Glacier Bay.
The O.G. plan was to round-trip the Alcan Highway, but we dilly-dallied so much that it was already going on September, a month and a half getting there and only ten days in Alaska. To save time and get me back for schoolin’, we hopped aboard the ferry to Seattle. Then it was back to Grants Pass, where I enrolled in sixth grade. But the night before school began, plans changed and Lake Tahoe became the place to settle down. I had wanted to be a downhill racer since watching it on TV during the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, so the moment I heard they taught skiing at school, I was sold on Tahoe.
One thing amazes me to this day. We managed to drive all the way to Alaska, fishing nearly every day, but never caught a single supper. By the time we got done traveling to the arctic and back, we all hated one other. I couldn’t wait to enroll in school and take a break from the constant adult scrutiny and lack of music.
Sixth grade at Meyers Elementary began two weeks late for me, and about fifteen years before Jaycee Dugard attended. The school had an unusual layout and different vibe from any school I ever saw. Classrooms were wide open spaces. Mine was one where fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students learned together at one of six round tables. Up to eight of us sat together, making it far easier to clown around, built-in audience and all. I was the “new kid” for what seemed like forever. From day one, a big, mean girl on the school bus picked on me relentlessly. One day, as I stepped down from the bus near home, she yelled, “Tomorrow, I’m going to kick the new kid’s ass!” As the bus pulled away, everyone hung out the windows to laugh and jeer.
I figured the next day would be the end of it, because after I beat her silly she’d leave me the fuck alone. When Jonelle asked me about my day, I told of the bully bitch and my plan to put her down.
A clearly disappointed Jonelle said to me, “A real man never hits a girl.” Something about it not being a fair fight and a no-win situation.
Seemed reasonable, so the next day I informed my tormentor that “I don’t fight girls.”
Then she tried egging me on, but I Ghandied that lil’ babe until I had her carrying my books. And even though I felt like it at times, I have never slapped a bitch up.
It was an election year, and that fall’s race between President Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter was winding down. Ma had trained me to hate Ford, the evil, Republican, unelected crony of Nixon, so I was fervently pro Jimmy Carter. I even made some handwritten “Vote for Jimmy Carter” posters to paste up around school on Election Day. Our school was a polling place, and I believe I broke some electioneering laws. But no biggie, I was supporting a Democrat.
I managed to gain a little respect playing wide receiver/unstoppable pass-rusher for my lunchtime football league team. Between my catching every deep ball sent in my direction, barreling through the opponents’ O-line, and sacking – well, two-hand touching – the QB, we muscled our way into the championship game. Down by five points when the lunch bell rang, and one play toward glory, our QB hurled a bomb toward me as I streaked from right to left across the back of the end zone. The perfectly thrown ball hit my outstretched palms but passed through my fingers and bounced away. Arrrrgggggg. That loss still bothers me far more than it should.
Our house was on Lake Tahoe Boulevard in California, about ten miles from Nevada, where Pops worked as a swing-shift bartender at Harrah’s. It may sound like a major throughway, but it was a two-lane mountain road that saw little traffic. There was no fence around the property, just wide open space littered with tall pines, absolutely beautiful scenery with blue skies, and fresh air. Not old enough to smoke, drink, or gamble (around adults), there wasn’t much for me to do except cause mayhem in the woods. I didn’t have a bike, and they hadn’t invented the “mountain bike” yet, or I would have scored one by hook or by crook and tore up those hills.
Compared to southern California, Tahoe was unbearably cold. So, at times, I’d open the fridge for warmth. By December, I had chopped enough firewood to stack seven feet high along the whole side of our house. Then we moved right next door, and I got to move all those fucking logs to the side of that house. At some point during our adventure to America’s final frontier, Pops realized he wasn’t as fond of Jonelle as he originally believed. A grand opportunity presented itself when she went home for the holidays, and at the boarding gate, she got presented with a one-way ticket.
The next week, I flew straight out of Tahoe aboard a big PSA Airlines L-188 Electra turboprop to visit Ma for Christmas. She had come up in life by scoring a bitchin’ apartment, at a third of market rent, a block from Century City. After Ma left for work, Joe and me burned a fat joint and cranked Tommy on that beautiful Harman Kardon hi-fi.
When the New Year began, Ma enrolled me at Fairburn Elementary, which kind of gave away that Pops had found a brilliant way to simplify his life: one-way plane tickets. Despite all that fucking wood I had chopped, and not getting a chance to ski, I was happy to get away from the manipulative, power-hungry asshole that never missed an opportunity to demonstrate he wielded all power over my life. Plus, I would get to grow my hair out again.
The night after my first day of school, Pops showed up to Ma’s. Jonelle threw a wrench in his freedom plan when she called and said, “I’m pregnant.” Early the next morning, we drove south to pick her up from John Wayne Airport. At the time, it was named Orange County Airport because The Duke was still on the right side of the grass. We were once again a hapless family.
We stayed with friends, John and his sexy wife, Pam. John was the guitar player, singer, and leader of the cover band Full Sail, of which Jonelle had been a member for about a week. The group practiced at the house, in a room just off a kitchen overrun with mice. They had a midget drummer, Andy, who left his kit set up at all times. He agreed to give me drum lessons, but it never worked out due to me being a dick. Around that time, Randy Newman had a song, “Short People.” Full Sail didn’t do that song, mostly soft rock, Eagles, Boz Skaggs, George Benson. They were decent players, and John would ham it up and crack funny one-liners between songs.
Even though we were staying clear across Costa Mesa, I enrolled back at Newport Heights – my third school in one year and the start of a new trend. Because I didn’t need to make new friends, it was like coming home. The Eagles released “New Kid in Town,” which made me think about Tahoe and I felt like it fit my life. I quickly realized returning to Costa Mesa wasn’t a passage back to the place I was before.
My newest teacher, Mr. Kelly, was ultra cool. Students had semi-private cubicles and no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all lesson plans. We studied at our own pace, without distraction. On Fridays, Mr. Kelly would let us bring records to play in class. Stuff like Steve Miller Band, Frampton, Boston, Kansas, and Styx seemed quite popular amongst my classmates. When a kid brought Led Zeppelin’s Presence, “Achilles Last Stand” soured me on Zep for years.
Whenever we weren’t being closely supervised on the playground, we played a game called “smear the queer.” The object was whoever had the football would get tackled and then dog-piled upon. The school staff repeatedly ordered us to stop smearing queers, preferring we played touch football or dodgeball. Dodgeball was the most fun, because you could nail an opponent in the face with the volleyball, right in front of a teacher, and not get in a lick of trouble.
Pops wasn’t digging his shitty life shacked up in a band house with a bunch of pot-smoking hippies. When he began lashing out at me, I decided to get the fuck out of there. One morning, I woke before dawn, snuck into the band room to help myself to a couple of twenties from their payroll cash, and then set out for Ma’s. I wasn’t even in L.A. an hour when Pops was on the phone threatening Ma that he’d alert the authorities if she kept me. By nightfall, I was aboard a southbound bus. On the ride back from the station, Pops told me that legally I couldn’t choose parents until I was thirteen. I knew right then that in a year, it would be adios, Pops.
They missed Pops so much at Matteo’s Restaurant that they begged him back, with a promotion to manager. Barely a month passed before he had enough to rent and furnish the back house of a duplex, a block over from the house we lived in before heading north to Alaska. We shared a garage with the cool carpenter dude living in the front house. Tom was twenty-two-ish, a skilled woodworker and generally handy-man. I spent lots of time in the garage, wrenching on stuff alongside Tom, and learned a great deal from him. There’s no doubt that I’m a much wiser person for being around him during that period of my life. He taught me tons of stuff, while encouraging me to follow my mechanical instincts. More than once, he gave me the verbal pat on the back – “You’re pretty smart to have figured that out.”
Quite the opposite of Pops, who’d often belittle, saying stuff like, “If you told me everything you know, you’d run out of things to say in less than five minutes.”
I became fond of treasure-hunt-trash-digging in the alleys behind our neighborhood’s houses. One day, I recovered a broken-down lawnmower and rolled it back to our garage. With Tom’s help, I was able to get it running and didn’t have to use a damn push mower anymore to do our landscaping. When I noticed a neighbor who couldn’t get his lawnmower started, I told him, “I’ll mow your lawn for five bucks.” He jumped on it, and gave me another five to mow the backyard. The next Saturday, I set out early with my mower and a can of gas to knock on any door whose lawn needed a cut. Easy money.
By the time school let out, Jonelle’s belly was huge, and I was stoked to be getting a little sister or brother. I had become quite attached to her, even willingly calling her Mom. We’d sit around watching TV and cracking up at Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood Tonight. I felt that I could confide in Jonelle, until one day, Pops used something against me that I had shared with her in confidence. After that, she got absolutely no information from me, ever.
The seminal moment of my young life came soon after I received my very first slap-mag. Ma had gotten Joe a prescription to Playboy for his thirteenth birthday, and during a visit he gave me one to take home. A few nights later, while up in an article eyeballs deep, the first of my million DNA samples was produced. I had quite the jerk ethic, and after that night all I wanted to do was girls, or women. I often wondered if female teachers, girl classmates, friends’ mothers, or mothers’ friends realized how many loads were lost on their account. Without a girlfriend, it was like before the washing machine was invented: when all loads were done by hand.
Summer came and we didn’t move. I took swimming lessons, with the long-term goal of becoming a lifeguard. I had watched Endless Summer at the Costa Mesa Theater so many times that I was gnarly stoked when Pops finally agreed to let me get surf lessons. I then began waking at the crack of dawn to ride my bike two miles to my surf spot and catch a few waves before the ocean closed to surfers.
I played baseball in a city league, and our coach, Mr. J, was super cool. I had diamond dreams of becoming a pro baseball player, and figured I was at least third best on the team. But probably not, because even if I was a far better hitter, fielder, or could throw harder, it would not have made up for my being slower than paint drying in the arctic. Still, I believed a World Series MVP beckoned, so mimicked Pete Rose’s batting stance and had a bunch of Johnny Bench training merchandise. In the playoffs, during our first single elimination game, down by one in the final inning, I led off with a double. A ground out to the right side got me to third. Our next batter blistered a ball over the shortstop’s head and I bolted toward home. Only problem, shortstop caught it and doubled me off of third. Game over!
Pops was making some decent coin, so he scored a 1957 Chevy hobby project.
We’d wrench on that beautiful beast and it was cool hanging out. It had a cassette player, so I’d always have Jonelle drive in that car so we could rock out. There were times when Jonelle offered sage advice, like “The way a person behaves when no one is watching is who they really are.” But another one that she stuck inside my brain was pure fiction: “Sleep doesn’t accumulate,” which meant if a person only slept one hour a night for five weeks, then got a full eight hours sleep, they’re all caught up. Wrong – that’s the kind of misinformation that leads to one nodding off behind the wheel and barreling into a bus full of blind-disabled-economically-disadvantaged-transgendered-minority youths.
I began believing that Jonelle was dumber than a box of remedial rocks, because some of the things she did, or ways she acted, made no sense. I figured that I just hadn’t noticed before. In reality, being almost full term, hormones were fucking with her. By the 4th of July, she was a week past her due date and had attempted to induce a few times using various home remedies. A few nights later, we went to a Mexican restaurant, where Jonelle smoked some Marlboros, had a few margaritas, and ate loads of spicy food. The next morning, she complained of gnarly indigestion, but assured Pops that it wasn’t time. Twenty minutes after he left for work, a waterfall cascaded forth from Jonelle’s nether regions and she said, “My water just broke.”
Three hours later, my little brother, Hassan, was born at Hoag Hospital. He was a cool kid, and we instantly got along. I dug hanging out with him, and babysat whenever Jonelle needed a break. I was like a twelve-year-old uncle, changing diapers, tossing him high into the air, and learning the stages of child development. Who knew those little fuckers couldn’t even hold up their tiny heads for the first couple of months, or how much they loved beer and weed? It was a good summer, Pops was stoked about his baby boy, and Jonelle was an ecstatic mother.
My buddy Dan would lean over the crib to baby-talk quote Bugs Bunny, “Hassan chop.” In his late teens, with a pained grimace, Hassan told me how much he hated hearing that shit throughout his school years. I laughed and told him he was only two days old the first time it was uttered in his direction. We both agreed that it beat the hell out of Rat-Shit.
I’d liberate two bucks in quarters from Pops’ change jar a few times a week, then buy a six-pack of Miller High Life to wash down the roaches I stole from Jonelle. Back then, a kid need only stand in front of a convenience store for a few minutes to get someone to buy beer. I was beginning to rethink bolting to L.A. the day after I turned thirteen. School wasn’t that bad, plus I was going to be in junior high with people I knew. I had also gotten kind of attached to the friends on my block. With the combination of getting older, keeping busy with parentally approved activity, and figuring out how to work Pops’ system – wait till he went to work to seek adventure, don’t tell Jonelle a thing – it allowed me far more freedom. For sure the biggest reason of all for my new attitude – it was really cool to have a baby brother.
I got a paper route, but it sucked. I had to collect my own accounts, and between getting stiffed and daily triple scoops of Thrifty’s ice cream, I barely had twenty dollars in my pocket at the end of the month. I could have pulled in far more than that in a few hours cutting lawns. But I soldiered on as to not be a quitter. Then, on August sixteenth, as I sat in my front yard read-folding newspapers, near the bottom of the front page I saw an “Extra” with a Memphis Tennessee byline: “Elvis Presley Dead.” To me, it was a sign. Within a minute, my stack of Daily Pilots was in the trashcan and I was inside listening to rock ‘n’ roll. A few hours later, my prick-hustler route manager came knocking on the door to scream about missing deliveries, so I pointed him toward the trash and said, “’The King’ died,” then slammed the door in his face.
After a fun, eventful summer, I was okay with school starting. It wasn’t my first time attending class at Ensign Junior High, but academic seventh grade wasn’t anything like summer school home economics, and far more challenging than expected. But I was down for the struggle presented by the new school structure, as well as thrilled by a vastly expanded girl pool to swim in. Probably the most unexpected change – never gave it a prior thought – was having to figure out the likes and dislikes of several different teachers, or basically what I could get away with. Plus, I never before had the displeasure of being under command of a gym teacher. In many instances, when the powerless are given even a hint of power, they will abuse it. Another big change was community showers, when suddenly the world could see what I was working with. Respect!
At some point during the prior summer, my bigmouthed friend Dan told Jonelle about the “Loadie-Circle” at Ensign, which he claimed was a group of kids who went out onto the field and sat in a circle to smoke pot. That way they could see teachers coming and stash incriminating evidence if authority approached. I figured it was bullshit, but he insisted. A few weeks after the school year began, she told Pops about it and he began researching private schools.
One morning, while the folks were away, I foolishly showed a friend how sweetly a 57 Chevy motor hummed. That night, one of our asshole neighbors dropped by to bitch at Pops about some unrelated bullshit, but as an added bonus he threw in being woken from his nap by me revving the car engine. Next thing I knew, my lip was spontaneously bleeding, right after Pops fucking hit me. I had provided the needed excuse for him to pull me out of that evil school with its phantom “Loadie-Circle.”
I took my swollen lip and transferred to Newport Christian, a Christian school, because it was cheapest. The school taught seventh through twelfth grades, and its campus was a work in progress, with half the property a taped-off construction zone. There was a chapel for my twice-a-week bible study and mass on Wednesdays. For the son of a Muslim immigrant, who’d only been to church three times he could remember, it was quite a change to be memorizing “New Testament” verses as homework. One night, as I sat on my bed reading the Bible and making my cheat sheet, Pops walked in and looked a bit shocked. “What are you doing?” he asked.
I looked up from the scripture. “I’m doing my Bible lessons.”
He scoffed, “Of all people, you’re the last one I expected…”
I just stared ahead and kept my thoughts to myself: “Dude, you fucking sent me to a Christian school, and now I’m getting mocked for doing Bible lessons.”
The school sat two miles away, across Newport Boulevard, with students from far and wide. Not even in middle school for a month, still adjusting, and then poof I’ve left my friends behind to tackle a far more challenging curriculum. The teachers and administrators there cut me absolutely no slack. If I missed turning in an assignment, they’d give me detention and mail a slip to the house. Pops went ballistic after receiving the first one. For the rest of the year, I was the good son who brought the mail in daily, and only two more of those notices made it past my screening. I shudder to think what would’ve transpired had Pops received the other twenty or more discipline notices.
Newport Christian schoolgirls were not allowed to wear pants, only dresses and skirts that fell below the knee. Which was a plus, because I found dresses far more visually appealing. One morning, my attention was drawn like metal to a magnet on a fine young lady ascending the stairs. I tried not to gawk, but I was getting a great up-skirt view and allowed myself an extended peek. Some kid ratted me out and I ended up in the principal’s office, where he instituted a new no-standing-under-the-stairs policy. The principal also took notice of my Levi 501s, which were against the school’s dress code. No one had said anything about my jeans for a month, but next thing I knew, I was corduroy boy. Which I later learned was Helen Keller’s favorite color. The worst part of the school’s dress code? It gave Pops an excuse to buzz-cut me every two weeks.
Despite all the outside bullshit, I had lots of neighborhood friends, and a baby in the house was super fun. My brother and me got along so well that Jonelle would leave him with me for a few hours at a time to go do what she do. It seemed like Hassan had just been born when I got more great news: Jonelle was pregnant again. I didn’t have to feed or house them babies, only play with them, and they’re better than even the cutest cuddly puppy, so I would have been cool with ten more.
My folks might have been competing for my affection, because that Christmas, Pops bought me the exact bike I wanted, instead of the usual second-hand junker from the friend of a friend. And for my birthday a month later, Ma came through big time and got me a hi-fi record player system from “Cal Stereo.” Joe told me, “Now that you’re thirteen, you can do whatever you want.” Even though Pops didn’t buy into that plan, it didn’t matter, because I was officially a teenager.
A couple of life’s most prominent memories occurred that spring. One morning, I was in my backyard blowing up plastic army men with firecrackers when I heard the most deliciously nasty song ever. A neighbor kid was washing his car while cranking out Queen’s “Get Down, Make Love.” It blew my head. Around the same time, I was at my cute neighbor Jill’s house, and she pointed – “Hey, Raz, look at the clock.” It was 12:34 on 5/6/78. Do you remember where you were?
A month later, just in time for summer vacation, I got me another little brother, Omar. He had some lungs on him, but I wasn’t yet aware that wailing non-stop was a sign of intelligence. Lots of energy that kid, and the little fucker would let you know if he wasn’t digging his current situation. But I’d quiet him down by singing or giving him twelve shots of tequila. Just kidding; three shots did the trick. But I love him, and was totally stoked to have another brother. He also got the coolest name of all of us boys.
We moved clear across Costa Mesa into a two-story house at the end of a cul-de-sac, on the bluff about a quarter mile from the Huntington Beach border. There were no kids my age living on our street, and I didn’t attend the nearby public school, so that summer’s entertainment was hanging out at the nearby liquor store, thumbing through hardcore slap-mags when no one was around. The mustached dude who worked the counter was quite friendly, even inviting me to his apartment to check out his porn mags and watch a few Super 8 films. I never took him up on it. Looking back, I’m guessing that he was gay.
Jonelle would often head off and leave me with the babies. I enjoyed it, except those times when she disappeared all day and I had something else planned. Babysitting paid a dollar an hour, theoretically, and in less than two months, she owed me more than a hundred-fifty bucks. When I wanted to buy a radio-controlled car and she blew me off, my plan to verbally invoice her in front of Pops backfired when he told me, “We shouldn’t have to pay you to take care of your brothers.”
Within weeks of starting eighth grade at Newport Christian, my Grandma and Aunt, who I had never met, came to visit. A few days after they arrived, Jonelle got the wild idea that it would be a great experience to travel back to Lebanon with them to meet Pops’ whole family, while seeing the Lebanese Civil War from the front row. Pops agreed that sending us away was a grand idea, and when Grandma headed home, we were to ride along while he stayed in America.
Ma was pretty irritated about it when she found out, which I made sure she found out about immediately. Even though I felt immense guilt for abandoning my little brothers, I wasn’t into heading to the Middle East. It was time to get out of Dodge. A few days before my scheduled departure to Beirut, with nothing but fifty dollars and the clothes on my back, I went to the liquor store to catch a cab to the airport, and then took the shuttle to LAX.
As Ma rode me home, Los Angeles’ northern horizon was choked with smoke, glowing with orange-tinged blackness by an inferno torching the hills of Agoura and Malibu. There are no signs.