Dancing While White

As we all now know that for a long time in San Diego I lived in a racially mixed neighborhood. I was the mixture. Any-HOO this is not another post about racism. It’s a post about vari-colored people living their lives and having a good time spontaneously in the most ordinary place in the simplest way.

We also know I loved disco. We might also know that I like film — especially, probably, French film. Back in the late 90s/early 2000s there were still places where a person rented video tapes. The one I frequented most was Hollywood Video on University Ave and 52nd street in San Diego, basically down the hill from San Diego State and just when I made the right turn into the deep “hood” where I lived.

One afternoon on my way home from school, I stopped in Hollywood Video and found it nearly empty. Yay! They had an amazing selection of foreign films. Netflix doesn’t compare to what that little outlet of the chain store had. There was a market for foreign films there because the “hood” was one of the first places people landed after making their “world migration.” In my neighborhood were many refugees. Some from Afghanistan, some from Somalia, Ethiopia. Others from Thailand and Cambodia. French is still a “lingua franca.” (ha ha)

So there I was, looking at the French films, trying to pick one, and suddenly I heard Michael Jackson’s voice coming out of the giant screen in the back of the store. It was his great disco album, Off the Wall.

I hurried back, expecting a good video (I wasn’t disappointed). Another woman was there already, a black woman about my same age (that would have been late 40s). Michael Jackson was just starting to sing “Rock With You.”

“That’s when Michael Jackson was good,” she said.

“He was still black then.”

“You got that right, sister!”

We high fived and danced together until the song was over. Yeah, she was better.

Language Problems

In Guangzhou in 1983, toward the end of spring, I discovered the most incorrigible mosquito bite on my left forearm. Not only did it NOT go away, but it seemed to grow. We’d recently emerged from an El Niño winter — rain for four months — into a torrid spring. It wasn’t torrid in the sense of suddenly exposed bosoms and spread legs, but torrid in the sense of, “Holy fuck! Is my sweat EVER going to dry?”

After a couple of months trying to deal with this mosquito bite, and seeing it grow into an odd circle, I asked my friend, Lia. “What’s up with this?”

“Xien (癣),” she said. Pronounced she-en. “We can get medicine in Shi Pai. It’s very common. There are two kinds of medicine. One works quickly, but it burns. The other, well, men might use it when they get xien down there,” she nodded toward the ground, signifying the pubic area. We walked over to the pharmacy in the village and I came home with a little bottle of burning stuff. Soon the xien was cleared up.

Fast forward, I dunno, maybe four years? A wet winter in San Diego, another El Niño. I noticed that xien had returned. But what the hell was it in ENGLISH???? I had no idea. Luckily, I lived in the neighborhood where “world migrations end” and, at that period, were thousands of Asian immigrants in the Section 8 housing in my little barrio of the world. There were Chinese pharmacies all up and down University Boulevard.

One afternoon, on my way home from school (I walked the four miles) I stopped into one of these pharmacies. I felt as if the doorway was a magic portal to my Chinese home village of Shipai. All around me were the familiar jars of raw materials — desiccated lizards, snakes, spiders, herbs, dried ginseng, mysterious roots I couldn’t identify, slices of nutmeg, star anise… In the case in front of the the man were boxes and bottles of common Chinese remedies — even the famous hepatitis crystals from which my ex had had to make tea were there. I saw my favorite cold remedy — Gan Mao Ling. An abacus rested on the counter. I had to look around a few times to understand where I was. Outside the open door was University Boulevard. Inside this dim room was China. The smell! Wow. I closed my eyes and savored the transport of nostalgia.

“Can I help you?” He looked at me very bewildered.

I put my arm on the counter and said, “I have xien and I need some medicine.”

“Why you come here and not grocery store?”

“I don’t know what it’s called in English.”

How completely insane I must have seemed to him.

“Why you not know?”

“I lived in Guangzhou for a year and got it there. I never had it in America and I don’t know…”

He reached under the counter and brought out a black light. He turned it on and pointed it at my arm. The xien glowed. “You can use this,” he put a tube of Tinactin on the counter, “Or this Chinese medicine,” He set the familiar bottle of burning stuff next to the Tinactin.

That’s how I learned that I had ringworm and that ringworm is a fungus. I also learned that the word xien means “glow.”


Department Stores and Garage Doors

As a little kid, I had nightmares of being abandoned by my family. I almost think I was born with “abandonment issues” because I had the same fears in real life — especially if I went shopping with my mom and “lost” her in the (to me) tall racks of clothing. I have a dim memory — mostly colors (pink and gray) — of screaming (my mom would say, “bloody murder”) because I couldn’t see my mom.

As it happened in real life, my family is all gone and I’m still here. The fear of abandonment has not (heh heh) abandoned me, either.

I think little kids — well, me, anyway — know they’re small and relatively helpless, very dependent on their adults. It really is the worst thing that can happen to be left behind by your grownups.

Back in the day when I live in the “hood” there were a lot of illegal immigrants living there. They worked hard — three jobs were not uncommon for those people who were struggling with all their might to get a better life for their children. They risked a lot crossing the border, most from Mexico but many from points even farther south.

Unless you’ve seen the way the very poor live in Mexico, it’s pretty easy to be indifferent, but I had seen it. Here’s a clue for anyone who hasn’t. When I replaced my garage door, the man who replaced it (it was one big heavy panel of wood) told me he would take it to Tijuana where someone would use it as a wall for their shack.

A couple of these families lived in houses a few doors down from me. Lucio and his mom managed to stay long enough for him to finish middle school, but the family next to them were not so lucky. They had two little girls who, every day, dressed to the nines, hair perfect, shiny shoes, marched to the local elementary school where they were caught in the bilingual bind. The early 90s were a confusing time for Mexican kids in American schools. Should they be taught to read in Spanish, English or both? Some afternoons I helped these little girls with their homework, and I saw that they might not learn to read because of the confusion in the educational system. Basic literacy should have nothing to do with politics. “Teach them Spanish, teach them English, who cares but be sure they can READ! It really doesn’t matter WHAT language. We all learn second languages anyway.”

One late afternoon I was hanging out at home, maybe grading papers — I don’t remember — and there was a child-high knock on my front door. It was the little girls. “No one is at our house,” said the older one.

“Come in and we can do your homework ’til your mom gets home.”

They came in and we worked on spelling and the alphabet and whatever they had in their book bags. Night fell and no one came for them. The little girls were worried and so was I. What had happened? Finally, the police came through the neighborhood knocking on doors, looking for the girls. The little girls’ mother and grandmother had been picked up by “La Migra” and were in a detention cell at INS. Their aunt was coming from Tijuana to get them.

I know the little girls felt they had been abandoned when what had really happened was that their grownups had been stolen.

When I hear the rant about immigration and “building a wall,” and all of this horrendous cant and the egregious threats to close the border and stop aid to Central and South American countries, I’m disgusted. Most of the people I have known who crossed illegally were not drug dealers or perpetrators of violent crime or out to “take jobs from real Amuricans.” They just wanted a better life for their family. They didn’t want to raise their kids in shacks made of old garage doors.

Oh, here’s a diagram made by the Border Patrol showing how effective the “fence” is against smuggling. 🙂 The red lines are lines INTO the United States. The semi-diagonal line at the bottom is the fence.


One Bark Family

Back when I lived in the “hood” — City Heights in San Diego — a young Navy guy and his Japanese bride moved into a house at the end of the street. She’d gotten knocked up in Japan and he’d “had to” marry her. He bought a house and a Labrador retriever puppy who lived tied up to a tree in front. The wife was named Sunny and the dog was named Shadow. Soon Sean (the baby) came along and about two years later the Navy guy was gone, never to be seen again. Sean was walking, Shadow was escaping, there was another dog, Blackie, a border collie mix, and Sunny was turning tricks to earn a living.

Shadow got little or no attention and somehow had sized me up as a person who liked dogs, so many mornings she’d slip out of the noose and come to my front porch. She would bark one “Woof” and I’d go outside and take her for a walk in the grungy canyon nearby and throw a ball for her. Then I’d take her home, refasten her to her tree, and come home. I didn’t — then — have a dog of my own.

Time passed, Shadow had a litter of puppies, one of which became my first dog, Truffle, who also only barked one “Woof” whenever she barked. A kid down the street named Shadow and Truffle the “One bark family.”

Truffle and Molly in the Medicine Wheel

Truffle, Big Red Dog, and Molly

Sean and Blackie began following Shadow to my house. When Shadow and her litter were ultimately picked up by Animal Control, Sean and Blackie (called “Brackie” by Sunny) came on their own. I very often fed them both breakfast. Blackie had figured out how to drop the bar on Sean’s crib and let himself and Sean out every morning.

Sunny, in the interval, got pregnant again but this Navy guy didn’t marry her.

Meanwhile, in Japan, her father died leaving her a substantial amount of money. Sunny, who was not a professional prostitute, started another career and began driving a popsickle truck through the neighborhood. Before long, her mother came to live with her in San Diego. They moved out of the hood and when I saw them last — two or three years later — Sunny had a beautiful akita, an old mom, a seven year old son, and a beautiful red-haired daughter.

That is the story of Shadow, matriarch of the One Bark Family.



Witches of Chamoune Avenue

A long time ago when I lived in City Heights, a colorful neighborhood of San Diego, my neighbor, Letha, died. That left two houses needing to be occupied. One of them ended up rented to a nice Wiccan couple.

The woman was about 5’1″ and about 230 pounds. The man was about 6’5″ and roughly the same weight. The woman had a Kim Kardassian ass and frizzy gray hair. She was also missing several teeth. They had recently adopted an African refugee, a 3 year old boy named Rhys. They moved into the little white craftsman house on the corner that was surrounded by very tall trees — including a monkey-tail pine that dropped five pound pine cones at odd intervals. Those that fell from near the top made the ground shake when they hit Earth.

September 21 rolled around and they spent much of that morning cleaning up the yard. Because I only casually noticed them, I didn’t see them arranging rocks carefully in a circle or setting up a fire pit in the middle. I took the dogs hiking and came back just as dusk was falling and noticed there were more than a dozen cars parked around their house. Later I noticed there was a fire and people were standing in a circle around the fire. They wore white robes, most of them, but some of the men, including the husband, were wearing purple or some other dark color. Little Rhys stood beside his adopted mom.

“Witches,” I thought, and forgot about it.

Not long after there were sirens and flashing lights. “Yikes,” I thought, “not another shooting.”

The next day the cops went door-to-door with flyers and small envelopes that turned out to contain invitations to a tea party at the new neighbor’s house the following Saturday afternoon. The cop said, “Hi, I wanted to explain what was going on last night at your neighbor’s house. It wasn’t a Klan meeting. It was a religious ceremony. Your new neighbors are witches so there’s nothing to worry about.”

The One Reader

Daily Prompt: Singular Sensation: If you could have a guarantee that one, specific person was reading your blog, who would you want that person to be? Why? What do you want to say to them?

“Hi, Dad.”
“Hi MAK. What’s this?”
“Remember how you used to tell me that someday computers would be as small and as common as toasters?”
“Oh yeah. I remember.”
“Well this thing is my computer.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Nope. That isn’t even the smallest one I have. Here,” I hand him the iPod my friend left in my car. He ended up giving it me after search after search failed to turn it up, and he had bought a new one.
“That’s great, MAK. That’s really wonderful.”
“It’s everything. It plays music, works as a camera, I can run slide shows for my students from it. I can use it to write, keep track of expenses and there’s a thing now called the Internet. We’re connected to people all over the world if we want to be. We can even use it as a picture phone, you know, like on the Jetsons?”
My dad looked amazed, but also a little troubled. “I bet Big Brother is watching all the time.”
“He might be but the interesting thing is that people just give it away. It’s pretty easy for Big Brother. I think we’re heading toward a thing I’d call ‘Social Totalitarianism’ where everyone happily jumps into the soup of homogenization they call ‘connectivity’.”
“So what’s this? Is that you?”
“Yeah, when I was 30.”
“Did you do what I asked? Did you keep writing?”

Oh man, I hate these stress driven “right-before-the-semester-starts-am-I-getting-those-classes” dreams. I roll over.

“So?” Damn. The dream is on the other side of my bed, too.
“I did, Dad. It hasn’t gone anywhere.”
“What do you mean it ‘hasn’t gone anywhere’?”
“You were right, you know, when you said if you don’t have your career in place by 35 forget it. I didn’t.”
“I didn’t know everything. I coulda’ been wrong.”
“No. I don’t think you were. I was pretty confused much of the time. And, you know, I got married.”
“How did that work?”
“I warned you about that, didn’t I? I sat you on my knee and played ‘We’ll Sing in the Sunshine’.”
“Well, Mom said…”
“You need to be free, honey. Are you free?”

In my sleep I feel like an abysmal failure. Yes, I had a strange dad and a strange “dad situation.” He died at age 45 of complications resulting from MS. I was barely 20. The Christmas before he gave me a beautiful pen and pencil set. The tag he wrote in his own scraggly hand-writing. “Keep writing. Dad.”

He knew he didn’t have long to live; he didn’t want to live much longer, either. He was in and out of comas, strung with IVs. That Christmas tag was my dad’s last bit of instruction to me. Keep writing.

“I have been writing this whole time, Dad. Writing and writing and writing and teaching writing. That’s one thing I never wondered about, whether writing was a good thing for me to do or not. It’s always been a good thing.”

“Do you write poetry? When I died you were writing poetry. Good poetry, too.”

“No. Poetry is, well, poetry is,” I paused. How in the world could I explain to my Dad all that poetry has been to me in the intervening forty years? How life itself is poetry, how he is one of the lines that runs through my life-poem? Maybe THE line? I never thought of this before. “I write stories, Dad, and non-fiction stuff. Here, Dad, read this. You’re in it.”

“I’m in it? A story about me?”

“Yes, in a way. A story of the echoes of you, my looking for you all through these years, and finding you.”

That’s enough to wake me up. This is one thing I’d like him to read. It’s a story — a true story — from the early ’90’s when I was living in a “mixed” neighborhood in San Diego (City Heights) and hanging out with a bunch of boys who rode BMX bikes. They were “at risk” kids and, for some odd reason, our lives converged for several years and we were friends. The boys are Jimmy and his little brother, Mikey, and their friends. At the time of the story, Jimmy is fifteen, Mikey ten or so. They used to ride with me in my truck to the BMX jumps at Mission Trails Regional Park. They jumped while I hiked with my dogs.  Jim is my ex-husband.

Born to Be Wild

After he gets beaten up, Jimmy’s mom sends him to live with his uncle in IB, but Mikey is living with his mom, the twins and his little sister in the rickety squat in the alley nearby. When I get home from school the afternoon of the concert, Mikey and his friend Marc are sitting on the front porch, their bikes sprawled across the lawn.

Mikey“What’s up?” I ask, knowing perfectly what’s up. The little boys, age 10 or so, want to go to the jumps. They hope I’m going hiking. I’m always afraid to take them without the big boys who will watch them and care for them in that dangerous playground. I usually turn them down, and this time I have a reason.

“Are you going to Mission?”

“Not today. Jim and I are going to the Del Mar Fair.”

“Can we go?” Mike asks.

“We won’t get home until after midnight. That’s kind of late for you.”

“Why so late?”

“We’re going to a concert.”

“Who?” asks Mikey.


They start jumping up and down and singing, “Born to Be Wild!”

“You know the band?”

“Yeah. It’s my dad’s favorite.” I should have thought. Mikey’s dad is a biker guy who lives in Nevada. It’s clear from looking at their mom that she spent many tough biker-babe days on the back a chopper.

“You have to ask your mom, Mikey, and I need PROOF you asked her so tell her to call me, OK? You won’t get home until maybe 1 a.m., depending on the traffic, and it’s a school night.”

“Yay!” They jump up, grab their bikes and spin home. Minutes later, I’m on the phone with Mikey’s mom.

“Are you sure you want them? They can be a handful.”

“It’ll be fun.”

“What time should they be ready?”

“We’ll leave as soon as Jim gets home from work. Two hours?”

“OK. Do you want me to send them down?”

“No. Jim’s unpredictable. We’ll come get them. I’ll call you first.”

“Great, Martha. Thank you so much. I appreciate everything you do for my boys. I don’t know where they’d be without you.”

I have a lump in my throat. There is nothing generous in anything I do “for” the boys. We’re in it together. Whatever I might do for them, they do ten-fold for me. “It’s nothing. I love them.”

“They love you, too.”

“I know. I just think they’re great. I love their sport. Have you seen them?”

“No. I’m too scared to watch. I saw it on TV once. Still, I think it’s better for them to do that than all the other things around nowadays for kids to get in trouble with, but I don’t want to watch it.”

I laugh. “I can understand that, but it’s very beautiful and they are very good. See you in a bit.”

At 7:00 we go get Mikey and Marc. I knock on the door of this unbelievable house. It’s a white Craftsman cottage from the twenties. The stones and bricks that once held it off the ground have disintegrated or been kicked out of the way. It’s held up, literally, with whatever solid scrap rock and concrete block the boys have found lying in the alley. At one point a plastic milk crate has been pressed into service I’ve contributed some concrete paving stones I found in my back yard to this task. I have never been inside.

I knock. Colleen opens the door leading directly to the kitchen. The room is lit by candles, to save money on electricity. “They’re almost ready.” Marc is ready, standing by the kitchen table in clean jeans and a plaid shirt, grinning, his pale hair wetted and combed flat against his head. Normally, he has a “Dennis-the-Menace” cowlick. When his hair dries, the lick springs back up. Mikey comes out. My eyes are by then used to the dim light and I look around. The room is neat, as neat and clean as it could be. This is a one bedroom house in which a woman and at least five kids are living. The walls are covered, literally covered, crawling with, German cockroaches. I think of an article I read of terrible infections from cockroaches crawling into the ears of the sleeping children, dying there, rotting. I’m simultaneously nauseated and moved to tears over this unnecessary poverty. I’m shattered with respect for this woman who holds her family together and opens the little space she has to all the kids who want to spend the weekend up here with her sons and with me. I feel guilty for never opening my much larger house to them, but then I think it’s enough I have a truck and keep the kids from getting into trouble by taking them to the jumps. It is her joy to offer a home.

“You guys ready?” I swallow the lump in my throat.

“Born to be Wild!” they say together, little fists thrust into the air.

“Their dad loves Steppenwolf. I’m sure they told you.” The year before, this elusive all-but-vanished male progenitor had sent them money to visit him in Nevada. “Me too,” she smiles, and sucks deep on her cigarette.

The drive to Del Mar is the customary mess by which we all earn the right to go to the fair. The stage is set up on the race track and we stand behind the fence, as close to the band as we can. The long summer day drifts into dark; the stage lights come up, and John Kay and Steppenwolf take the stage. The little boys jump up and down in excitement. It’s not only their first real, grownup concert, but it’s Steppenwolf.

They play all their old hits, the long version of “The Pusher” and “Monster” and some songs from the album that came out after the Berlin Wall fell. John Kay was born in East Berlin and had gone back in 1990 and played a concert on the rubble of the wall. Then, the sixth song, “Born to Be Wild.” At the very first chords, the crowd goes nuts. It is iconic. It is Easy Rider, it’s the beginning of heavy metal, it’s a generation of people for whom Strawberry Fields are NOT forever, people who wanted something raw and loud with a throbbing bass line. I was such a one, and at one point in my first marriage, my abusive husband threw my Steppenwolf albums in the dumpster, saying, “There’s more to life than a 10 minute drum solo.” Whatever that might have been, I don’t think he had any idea, none that he demonstrated to me beyond pushing me down stairs and kicking me in the crotch as I lay on the floor. Well, either you like Steppenwolf or you don’t. I do, and I am surrounded by paunchy middle-aged men playing air guitars, young guys who raise their fists in the air, and everyone singing along, badly. I look back at Mikey and Marc, who found a place to stand where they can see better, and see two small, freckled faces, singing ALL THE WORDS at the top of their lungs, absolutely happy. Stunning.

“This was the best night of my LIFE!” says Mikey.

“Mine too!” shrieks Marc.

They’re still jumping up and down as we thread through the carnival to the exit.

“You wanna’ ride something? You wanna’ ride that?” I point at the Bayern Curve.

bayern curve“Is that a roller coaster?” asks Mikey.

“Kind of, but faster.” I realize it’s a LOT like a very fast ride on a BMX bike over several jumps, one after the other.

Jim never rides these things, so we hand him our jackets and packs and give the carnie our tickets. No one else is riding. “Sit between us!” says Mikey.

“You don’t want that. The guy by the door gets smashed. It’s better if you smash me than I smash you. You’ll understand when the ride gets going.”

“Pull the bar down, guys,” says the carnie, and the little boys pull the bar down. “OK kids, hold on!” The carnie shouts switches on the ride. The first circuit is slow, the next a bit faster then the ride gets going, faster and faster. The little boys’ bodies slam against my side. Their mouths are open in huge scared-happy smiles; their cheeks are pulled back by the spinning force. Their carefully combed hair stands up and back from their foreheads. They scream and yell and we go around and around and around. Too soon, the ride comes to a stop.

“You guys wanna’ go again?” asks the carnie. No one is waiting for the ride. “I’ll let you ride for free.” This is some kind of perfect night, Steppenwolf and free rides.


The ride starts up again, slow, faster, fast. This time, the boys know what to expect and anxiously wait for that first fast loop. The ride runs for a full ten minutes. I am loving it as much as the boys are. Fighting the “G-force,” I turn to look at them. Somehow, my dad is reflected in their freckles, their grins, their joy at the wild ride. My dad loved a roller coaster, but I never rode one with him. By the time I was big enough to ride, he was too ill.

My heart skips a beat. I had recently dreamed about the boys, and, magically, about my father. In the dream, I sat on the tailgate of the truck on a Friday afternoon, waiting for the boys to show up. They came down the street, whizzing dragonflies on their bikes, brightly colored jerseys, white-painted cardboard with black numbers fixed to their handlebars with twist-ties. Jimmy rode up to me and said, “I made a new friend. He wants to go with us.” A kid with dishwater blond hair was behind Jimmy. He rode the same put-together bike the others rode, with a homemade race number,  wearing shin guards made from a thrown away diving suit.

“Sure. There’s room in the truck,” I tell Jimmy in the dream.

The kid looked up at me from under his baseball hat. I recognized his snow-shadow blue eyes, the curl in the middle of his forehead, the freckles; I knew that face, but whose face was it? He smiled. The broken front tooth. “Hi, MAK,” he said. It was my dad. It was my dad as one of these wild boys. “Well, of course,” I think later. “This is just the kind of boy he was, a boy who ran away from his brutal, drunken dad at 13 and hopped a freight to Canada. If he were alive now, here, and this age, he’d be Jimmy, or Mikey. Another wild Irish boy lost in America.” I woke up from the dream realizing that I was nearly the age my dad was when he died and that the life I would live would be years, a part, a transition, my dad had not lived, and that, miraculously, I’d been given the chance to live this wild boy part, too.

As we spin around the Bayern Curve, I feel my dad is in the car with us. “Live this with all your heart, MAK,” he says inside my heart, “this is the part of life I never had.”
My Dad finishes reading and looks back at me. “Oh MAK,” he says. “Thank you.”