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.”

Jurassic Park

Last time I wrote to this prompt I inserted one of the stories from Free Magic Show. Here’s another one. San Diego, 1993, I was living in City Heights, a high crime, low income area of the city. 20 years later I know it was one of the happiest times of my life.


I’m home alone, bored, lonely, frustrated and a little angry. My knee is up and iced; the brace is loosened, but never off. I manage to get to and from class on the crutches belonging to Che Pablo Salvador Mulholland, but it’s very hard work. I’m running a seminar for teachers and I never look good, cool, polished, anything but sweaty and irritable and tired. It’s the hottest time of the year and the cart that’s supposed to transport me from place to place on the campus never shows up. Finally I’m cleared to drive one myself, but I don’t like it so I go back to the clump slump crash of crutch walking.

I miss the boys; I miss hiking; I miss my friend Mike with whom I’d broken up a few weeks before when he made the comment that if I had his kid, I’d be giving birth to my own grandchild. He’s only 15 years younger; it’d be half-a grandchild. I’d missed a period and was scared; I don’t realize I’m just heading into menopause.

The phone rings.

“Martha? It’s Jimmy. Craig and me had this idea.”

“Yeah, what?” Grrrrr.

“You do so many nice things for us. I know it’s no fun being on crutches and stuff.”

“No. I feel like I’m in jail.”

“Can you drive now?”


“Well, Jurassic Park’s at the dollar movies Tuesday. We want to take you to the movies and to Mickey D’s for dinner. It’s 25 cent burgers on Tuesday. That’s tomorrow. Can you come?”

I’m dumstruck. All bitter feelings vanish. I have a meeting that night of the Citizens Advisory Council for Mission Trails Regional Park, but I think I’m going to miss it.

“I’d love that, Jimmy.”

“We miss you.”

“Yeah, well I miss you too.” I’m super emotional in this ordeal and my eyes fill. “What time?”

“Come and get us at 4. The movie starts at 4:30. Oh, and Martha, we’re paying.”


I get home from school about 3 and change my clothes and get into the truck and head to IB. All the boys are at Jimmy’s house. There’s Jimmy, Mikey, Jason, Greg and Craig. They’re cleaned up and ready to go, grinning, and silly, and I expect them to start turning somersaults and I feel the same way. Jimmy breaks the spell by saying, “Nice crutches, gimp.”

At the movies, they pay my way, very proudly having each pitched in a quarter (except Mikey) and we stand in front of the candy counter and they say, “You can have whatever you want, Martha. We have five dollars.” I pick some Red Vines and Jimmy says, “You need a Coke, but we’ll get a big one and split it, OK? But I’m not sharing it with butt crust (his little brother).”

“Jimmy!” Mikey whines and sulks and stops and gets his own.

We go into the theater and sit together, two rows from the front. The movie starts. We are the audience, except for a few people scattered in the back. We love the movie even when we think it’s dumb. At the end, we leave, a lot less hungry than we were when we went in. It’s been a candy orgy, but dinner is yet to come and two doors down are 25 cent burgers. We line up.

“Arrrrgh!” roars Jason at Mikey, holding his hands up like little Tyrannosaurus forelegs.

“RrrrrrrrRRRRGH!” snarls Mikey in return, jumping toward Jason’s throat.

“Cut it out, Butt Munch. What do you want?”

“I got my own money,” says Mikey, still pissed at Jimmy.

“I’m not talking to you, Butt Crust. I’m talking to Martha,” says Jimmy, all largesse.

“Umm, I’ll just have a burger.”

“You can have fries, Martha. I got enough.” He holds out his hand.

“OK. A cheesburger and fries and water.”

“Water? Don’t you want a coke?”

“Just had one.”

“You can have another one, Martha. It’s OK.”

So we order our 25 cent burgers and sit together in a booth in this freezing cold, antiseptic, yellow and red monstrosity. They are on their best behavior, taking me out. No one sticks French fries up their own or anyone else’s nose. I feel a little uncomfortable in this formality, but I adapt and am honored.

Then the event is over. I take them home and head back to City Heights feeling loved, less lonely, less angry and anxious for everything to be restored to normal.

Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That…

One of Denver’s “nothing” streets, E. 13th Avenue. It wasn’t Colfax, where it was all happening and it was a zoo, but it worked. Every morning I launched myself from my apartment on 12th and Marion and arrived half hour later at the law firm on 17th and Welton. I didn’t take exactly the same route every day, and, after I’d made the walk for a while, I turned it into a loop. Going? Down past the capital building, then across the park to Broadway, then to 16th street — much more interesting before the Mall was built — then over to work. Coming home? Up 17th street past Trinity Methodist church. The map below shows it exactly — down on the blue dotted line, back on the gray trail that’s NOT Colfax.


One morning, as I passed a large brick apartment building I (inexplicably) noticed the sounds of passing traffic. Maybe because it was the first warm day after a longish winter, and people had their windows rolled down, I heard music coming from the various cars. At that moment I had the idea that it would make a cool movie, just this, my 7 a.m. walk to work and the sound track, radios and tape decks of the random passing songs. (You don’t hear any of this if you’re wearing ear buds, but the Walkman had not yet been invented and/or if it had, I couldn’t have afforded one.)

So if you ask me for the sound track for MY life? I’d say it’s just that. Me moving along toward the destination accompanied by random, passing songs. The most dramatic of these moments happened in San Diego, at the corner of University and 54th. This is a mixed neighborhood in every way. It is near housing where many brand-new immigrants go to live. The ethnic mixture of this hood changed almost daily. At this particular moment, the Cambodians were moving on, leaving a gap that would be filled by Eritreans, Somalis and Afghanis. New immigrants still wear their “colorful national costumes.” It was also a neighborhood with a lot of gang activity — Mexican and African American territorial disputes raged constantly, and, at that point, the Hells Angels were still a presence. And within all that were people like me just trying to put a life together in one of the only financially affordable (it’s not any more) sections in San Diego.

It was the mid/late 90s. I was in a friend’s truck, coming down the hill from school to this intersection. On this corner was a largish and newer Asian mall with a restaurant and grocery story, pool hall, manicure shop, etc. Across the street was the soon to be defunct Jewish Community center. Across from that was K-Mart and a Chinese restaurant of the all-you-can-eat buffet variety. The next corner was houses, up on a hill. My friend had just asked if I’d ever heard Cypress Hill. I’d just asked what kind of music it was. He’d just said, “Rap,” and I’d just said, “I don’t like rap,” and he’d just answered, “Listen to this anyway.” At the moment we reached the intersection, the whole mad reality of City Heights, San Diego, was crossing the street in front of us, this song came on. Never has the vision of street reality coincided so perfectly with a song, the sound track of the moment.


Daily Prompt: First Sight, Whether a person, a pet, an object, or a place, write about something or someone you connected with from the very first second.

It was kind of strange because he was just a kid, a boy, 12 years old. He was in the garage with my ex-husband (good X, not evil X) and a bunch of other kids, including his little brother, Mikey. They were building and repairing bikes. He had a home-cut Mohawk, sun-bleached hair, green eyes, freckles and a crooked grin. He wasn’t even as tall as I am, yet, and I’m only 5’2″. He looked up at me from the vise where he had his bike fork. “This is Martha,” said my ex.
“Hi.” He grinned.”Hi,” I said, suddenly getting a kind of electricity from this kid, a feeling I’d had in the past when a relationship turned out to be important. I didn’t give it any thought at the time, but I remembered it, and Jimmy turned out to be one of my life’s best friends. I was 40.

Now don’t jump to weird conclusions. I don’t know about you, but there’s a part of me that IS a 12 year old boy. I have never BEEN a 12 year old boy, but that pre-pubescent moment, pre-romantic relationships, the first signs of adult physical power and skill, the liberty of being self-responsible in the “age of accountability” — well, I was happy at that age. At times I feel that all the other happiness in my life (though real) has been negotiated, compromised. At 40, I didn’t know my “inner 12 year old” wanted out.

That was the beginning of a 7 year adventure with a gang of “underprivileged” white kids and their homemade and patched together BMX bikes. Jimmy was the solid center of that gang, the sane and determined soul that held everyone and everything together. I spent my weekends with them — starting on Thursdays, usually — and a video camera I bought once I’d seen exactly what BMX is and how beautiful they were riding the jumps, and while most adults looked at me as the boy’s benefactor, it was a two-way street. Here is a story from our adventures that shows something of Jimmy’s importance to me in MY life. My life would seriously have been much less if I had not met him and spent four years filming wild boys and sharing their weekends. In this story, Jimmy is 13. His little brother, Mikey, is 9 and their friend, Ryan is 13. They all live on my street in a bad neighborhood (once San Diego’s “Crime Capital”)  City Heights.

Background: In 1992 I was chosen to go to Hong Kong to conduct a business writing program for Hong Kong businessmen through the American Language Institute. I was incredibly excited and worked it out so that after Hong Kong I would return to Guangzhou, to the university where I had taught 10 years before, and do the same seminar or whatever they wanted. I was going home.

China was the greatest love I had experienced until then and it was years before I recovered from the broken heart of having left. Not that I didn’t try to keep the wound open by studying about China, bringing home stray Chinese people I met at the post office, writing a book proving that Pearl S. Buck wrote from the Chinese rather than the Western literary tradition. In 1992 I was still “carrying a torch” for China and going back was all I thought of. Naw, that’s not not true. Looking through the journals I wrote at this time, I actually thought of many other things, many of them quite silly.

Jimmy was out of school and hanging out with me whenever he could, including going with me to work. He had conceived a code of honor in relation to those who mattered to him, his family, his friends, that they should be defended from all the dragons and monsters and evil-doers.

I was married. It was a marriage that possibly should have worked, but it didn’t work. Bottom line, both of us were just not good at forming an intimate relationship with anyone in our close environment. Jim didn’t see such a thing between his parents as he grew up, and I grew up in a house where the closer I was to someone, the more likely they were to hurt me. By 1992, we were very near the end of our marriage, but we didn’t know it yet. Jimmy was the first to point it out to me, and the “man” who demonstrated that what I needed and what I had were not the same thing. That is what this story is about, the wisdom of a 14 year old boy offered to a 40 year old woman, and a kind of love that opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t known anything about.
We leave tomorrow and Jim’s passport is still not here. The INS had a problem legitimizing Jim’s presence in the U.S. He was not born here, but rather in Canada, and we’ve had a whole run around with getting this taken care of so Jim can go with me to Hong Kong. Jimmy shows up early in the morning; he’s going to help me photocopy materials for the class. He jumps in the truck.

“You must be excited!” he says.
“I’m very excited. But we haven’t gotten Jim’s passport yet.”
“You’re taking that guy? Why are you taking him? He doesn’t even like you.”
I’m stunned. “He’s my husband.”
“So? Take me.”
“You don’t have a passport, Jimmy, or I might think about it.” I look at his home-hacked Mohawk, home-poked ear piercing, and know I’d be proud to have him along. Those elderly Chinese women I knew on my old campus, who had come from the mountains of Hai Nan Island, would just think I’d brought my own tribal warlord.

We’ve been listening to Right Said Fred — “I’m Too Sexy”. The boys mimic the video in a way that that makes parody out of parody with their skinny boy chests, the random safety pin hanging from the random pink nipple, the briefs with the elastic separated from the cotton in back, the jeans falling down not out of fashion but because they’re too big, the worn Vans. Mikey, Jimmy’s little brother is the funniest, doing his little “…walk on the catwalk.” Jimmy turns on the music. Right Said Fred takes us all the way to the intersection of Chamoune and University at which point Jimmy giggles and says, “I’m…too sexy for this tape!” ejects it and throws it out the window in a winsome, elegant little over the shoulder toss.

I laugh. The serious moment has passed. We arrive at school and are ready to begin our last minute prep, when the boss tells me that he got a fax explaining that the program has been cancelled because there was a “fire in the venue.”

“Fire my ass,” I think. “They don’t want me and this is their way of saving everyone’s face.” Fuck the Chinese. I am over my love affair. I see them for what they are. Not me. Damn them. I know exactly what had happened. The ALI lacks the cultural awareness to fully appreciate that sending a young woman is something of an insult; to begin this relationship — which they hope will turn into a lucrative contact — they should send the boss.

Jimmy and I get back into the truck. Jimmy says, “I bet you’re disappointed.”
“Yeah.” I’m actually fighting tears. “I really wanted to go.”
“Maybe there’ll be another chance.”

We’re silent. No music, no talk. Damn. I bought very nice clothes for this.

My husband, Jim, is home when we arrive. Ryan and Jimmy’s little brother Mikey are there, too. Ryan is a great kid with a weird mom. Ryan’s big liability is that he is physically as beautiful as any girl. Tall, slender, enormous blue eyes, blond hair. He’s wearing his Guns n’ Roses “Use Your Illusion II” t-shirt which Jimmy mocks mercilessly. Jimmy has intuitively — and accurately — determined that Ryan needs a thicker skin or he’s going to be crucified.

“Are you hungry?” I ask Jim, thinking we could all go to Taco Bell, but while we’re eating lunch, it hits me what has happened and the whole world seems a little askew, surreal, dishonest. I am really disappointed and angry; I’m sad, in fact.

We walk down the street a bit. The light is flat ugly and white. We pass a dead yellow cat in the gutter, really the last thing I need to see at that point. It looks like Sandy, the cat owned by my Chinese brother when I lived in Canton. It seems to represent all my now flattened dreams.

At home I ask Jim if he wants to go hiking with me. A few hours under the open sky will make me feel better, but I’m lonely in my disappointment and don’t want to go just with the dogs. Jim he tells me he has a Toastmasters thing, so no; he won’t go along. As I turn to go inside, I hear Jimmy yell something but the angry noise in my head, angry at the Hong Kong businessmen, my boss and now Jim, blocks the words. Jimmy takes off on his bike. I change clothes as fast as I can thinking, “Fuck Jim,” get in my truck and head to Big Dog Health and Fitness Spa (Mission Trails) for a couple of hours with Molly and Truffle to do as my mom says, “Get my head on straight.”

When I return my whole life changes.

Jimmy is sitting on the curb in front of my house. “What are you doing?”
“Waiting for you,” he says. “I went home to ask my mom if I could go with you, but when I got back, you were gone. You’ve had a big disappointment today and you shouldn’t have to be alone.”
“Wow,” I think. I was gone at least two hours. To Jimmy I say, “Well, go ask your mom if you can go with me for pizza.”
“Can Ryan go?”
“Sure, and Mikey. I’ll go clean up. Come back in about an hour, OK?”

This is our first of many, many trips to Woodstocks. Good pizza, indestructible atmosphere, and the ability to feed half a dozen boys on $20. We sit in the corner that will later become ours, and we play Megadeath “Anarchy in the UK” on the jukebox, then Iron Maiden, then Metallica. We discuss their comparative merits. Only Metallica has any merits. We use paper plates for Frisbees, plug the tops of the salt shakers with torn napkins and loosen the tops on the pepper shakers. We sprinkle too much chili on Ryan’s pizza and then the best moment comes. Ryan goes to the men’s room and comes back. “Martha, can I borrow fifty cents?”
“What for, Ryan?” I’m amused and flabbergasted; he’s 13 and there’s only one thing for sale in the men’s room. We’ve already put enough into the jukebox. It’ll play our four selections over and over for the next hour.
“They have these cool stickers in the men’s room. I’d like to buy one.”
Jimmy actually gets Coke up his nose at that, and then it sprays everywhere. At nine years old Mikey has NO idea, and I’m trying not to laugh.
I say. “I’m pretty sure they’re not stickers. I think they’re probably condoms.”
“Are you sure? The ones on the machine have cool spiders and stuff. One says, ‘Spyder Skiwear’. It’s got this cool spider on it. I want that one.”
“Ryan, people probably put stickers on the condom machine.”
“Do you want to come and look?”
“I don’t think the other guys in there would appreciate it if I went in there to check out the condom machine.”
“Yeah, sure.”He wipes the Coke off his face with his napkin and follows Ryan into the men’s room. Mikey and I wait and wait and wait. They finally come back, both laughing like maniacs. I hear Jimmy say, “Dude, you gotta’ learn to read.”


Post Script: Not long after this, I got a video camera because I wanted to make a movie of our adventures. We wanted to film this scene so we staged it at Woodstocks. It required I follow the boys into the men’s room with the video camera. We actually did this, but the challenge of getting the men’s room to ourselves and acting out that bit was more than we could handle without side-splitting laughter. It took about 8 tries and a couple of surprised — and embarrassed — men. I had to be the one with the camera since all the boys were too goofy to film that shot.

As for Jimmy and the rest, well, Jimmy ultimately rode pro BMX; he got the sponsorship he always dreamed of. He and his brother, Mikey, both graduated high school — that made their mom both relieved and proud. I still know Jimmy. He’s very happily married with two kids (his lifelong dream was to be a dad).

The Hood. The Day the Guy Was Shot

Dusk. Friday. Late spring, a normal Friday. 1993. Phone rings, “Can we come down?”

“Sure, of course.”

“See you in a few.”

I go out onto the front porch to wait for the boys to whirrrrr down on their BMXs. The air has that bright end of sunset red tinge. Standing in the middle of my street and looking southwest, you can see a strip of ocean and the lights of Tijuana, on a clear days you can see the bull ring. My old neighbor, Letha, and I sometimes watched fireworks on Coronado and in Imperial Beach on the Fourth of July from that very vantage point sharing a glass of wine. Thinking of that, I get up from my porch and walk out into the street and look toward the ocean. Fog is fast gathering down there and the bright sunset is swallowed, dusk no longer tinged with gold. I hear a gunshot behind me, and not far. I turn toward the sound and take a few steps up the street. My heart goes cold when I see the boys coming on their bikes. Where’s the shooter? They stop at the corner. I began walking as fast as I can toward them. I hear Jimmy, “Don’t let her see, Jason! Stop her!”

I’m scared for the boys. There’s someone with a gun up there. Jimmy, Mikey and Marc stay where they are while Jason rides quickly toward me. I wish they would just come HERE. We could go inside. The news tells daily of drive-bys. I don’t want them lost to that random killing.

“You wanna see me do a can-can, Martha?” Jason asks and launches into this complicated trick.

“What happened?” I ask.

“How about a Bunny Hop? Do you wanna’ see me do a bunny hop?”

“Jason, what happened?” I now hear sirens in the distance, coming from the fire department a mile up the street.

His response is, “Don’t go up there, Martha.”

“Is it a body, Jason?”

“Yeah. Some guy was shot.”

By then I’m at the corner. The boys try to stand in front of me, shielding me from the sight of a middle-aged Mexican lying face down in the dirt beside a neighbor’s driveway.

“Is he dead?” I ask the boys.

No one has ventured any closer than the corner where we stand roughly 30 feet from the body.

We hear screaming and running coming from the alley down which this man had run. A woman’s voice, a man’s voice. If they’re saying anything, I can’t understand it. It might not even be words, just crying and screaming; fear, rage and anguish seeking expression.

He’s just a man. He’s wearing navy blue work pants and a white shirt; the kind of sensible, serious black steel-toed shoes a delivery guy wears to protect his feet. That this simple person would be involved in some deathly drama seems absurd. I stare without really getting what I’m seeing. The boys are worried. I should not see things like this. Their Martha should never see anything so ugly.

I realize this and think that it’s my job, as an adult, to shelter the boys, but here they are sheltering me. I decide to let them, and I turn toward home.

“Let’s go home,” I say. “The cops will be here and it’s their business, not ours.”

“I wonder what happened?” asks Mikey.

No one answers. Not long before, maybe only a year, someone had broken into Ryan’s house and cut up his mother. We learned of this the morning after, when Jimmy went down to get Ryan to go to the jumps. The house was cordoned off with Do Not Enter Crime Scene tape. He came back up the street to get me, to go down there, to get me to go look. It was horrifying, chilling. There was blood on the concrete sidewalk by the front door on the stucco walls and on the door itself. Someone had been hurt badly. Neighbors said that the fire department had taken Ryan’s mom away on a gurney. Ryan had stayed with the neighbor for an hour or so until his dad came and got him. We never saw Ryan again.

Our neighborhood is constantly in competition with two others for having the most violent crimes. It’s the result of the clashes of cultures and drug gangs (Asian vs. Mexican vs. Black vs. White meth farmers and dealers). It’s the result of people working three jobs to hold a life together, exhausted, frustrated, poor people who want more than they’ll ever have — their desires fed by the outrageous entertainment centers for which they’ve hocked their lives. It’s the result of passion and love and cheating and child-stealing and coyote depositing and INS deporting and all the rough unjust moving around of people for one reason or the other. It’s the result of despair.

Larry McMurtry wrote about California in the introduction to his book of essays about Texas, In a Narrow Grave.

“…present-day Texas is a very rich subject, particularly for the novelist. Present-day California might be even richer, but California, whether as a subject or a place to live, is almost too taxing. There the confusion is greater, the rivalries of manners more intense: the question is whether anyone can live in California and comprehend it clearly now…”

It’s a very good question. My gang of white adolescent boys and I stand on the edges of this violent, multi-ethnic neighborhood some distant sentimental liberal has named the “Urban Village,” and watch it shoot itself, knife itself, beat itself up mostly in relation to race, custom, language, territory, drugs.

“For the Mexicans,” says my neighbor Chayo, “it’s about territory, not drugs. For the Blacks and Asians it’s about territory and drugs.” For the Whites? No one knows. Few hang around, only people like me who can’t move; finances hold us here. Where would I get another house in San Diego for $800/month? The white neighbors across the street have lived here since the ‘60’s when it was a beautiful neighborhood. Most of the older Mexicans have lived here that long, too, and attended Hoover High when it was one of the best high schools in San Diego. Old photos of the hood show fancy cars, immaculate lawns and gardens, men in white shirts and fedoras, women in pretty shirt-dresses with aprons. But this Mexican is face down next to the light pole, dead. None of us knows why.

We sit on the curb under the palm tree in my front yard, watching the street. Night falls soft and starlit somewhere, but here the sky is a wild red and blue disco show of police cars and fire engines. No one asks questions, looks for witnesses or talks to neighbors. It seems they simply examine the body, check his I.D. and haul him away. Chances are good he has no I.D., another “Illegal” come up to earn a living where he might actually have that chance. Most of our stories have no better or more meaningful ending than that.

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.”