Spring 2008, Volume 4

Memoir by Antonio Salinas

First It Was Pippi Longstocking

First it was Pippi Longstocking. When I was six I wrote stories about her, adaptations of the movies, of a classic threesome with Tommy and Anika. She had her monkey, Mr. Nelson, and her dad, the grizzly seaman, and her quest always was to make him proud of her.

Mr. Nelson was the secret weapon as he could find things unseen. He corresponds, therefore, to one's inner sneak. Obviously, Anika and Tommy represent our feminine and masculine sides. The dad had something sad to him. He seemed unfulfilled, maybe because Pippi's mom wasn't around, but Pippi tried to make it up to him.

Children, it's said, like heroes with super traits because it empowers their sense of self. I was no exception to how children feel powerless, having none of the maneuvers to defend myself but all the emotions. I don't see childhood as grand, a freedom from responsibility. My childhood I remember as a maelstrom of emotion. Not having a voice. Always being led by the nose. It must be that kids get older, I thought, and mature, that being an adult would mean discussing respectfully everything and as equals. How shocking that it only got worse! How cool, therefore, when Pippi walked a tightrope above the town, concentration itself on her face until she makes it across. Her smile verified that problems were no problem, whereas I never felt blithe.

How I grew up, no one could live without worries. My dad complained about work every workday. My mom's default emotion is dread. This isn't at all to blame them. I simply didn't see adults treating life casually, whether kidding himself or no.

Then came my older siblings. I idealized them as they drove and came and went as it pleased them. I wanted nothing so much as to go some place, say “See ya” offhandedly, dinner and the next day's breakfast ditched, then sleeping in with secrets from the previous night. That would have been the ultimate.

Thinking on it I see that my brothers and sisters are good at faking interesting lives. But pulling weeds Saturdays with my dad while they slept in after Friday I did not realize this. The older ones get the best piece of the action. Such thinking is the bane of the youngest child. I have made up for it since, though. It's the late bloomer effect. My siblings have acceptable if average lives, their energy drained by raising the nephews and nieces. It may be selfish, but my life, even if it has wagered heavy on the side of the poor artist, jumps in comparison to theirs.

Hero-worship I did in college, for the first, but then last, time. Crack jokes, make the look that I had problems no one else could understand. But the rich students had it all over me because they knew how to belong. They mastered any given situation. They were unfazed by things that made me blush, I mean, not that they had to make themselves feel unfazed, they were already.

A. I followed around like a dog. Then I insinuated that she was spoiled. I needed her to feel guilt probably, you know, to know not everyone can be nonchalant. “I won't have a condescending conversation,” she said. That blew me out of the water. Now it doesn't make sense. I make mincemeat now of such flippancy.

At winter break the New York kids went back there. One girl met her parents at their winter home in Scandinavia. At that age I felt winter heaviness plagued only me. Spring break. The cool crowd jet-setted for Turks and Caicos, and I'd hear about it after, I being too poor for that. I basically, however, don't wish for what the rich have. Middle-class pride asserts itself. Stubbornness perhaps.

My dearest bud was Jack. As the black kid with the angelic voice, he was asked to perform at many campus functions. He sang his own compositions and covers of Donny Hathaway. He'd gone to posh boarding schools before, but still just always being himself. He's returned to New York, undoubtedly one of the gifted people in whatever set he finds himself.

Back to family. It's a conscious decision to be poor. How does one navigate that, giving weight to the part which is brilliant, and the breakneck oppression that is a family's mocking, giving you hell on your way? They're only going by the world's dictates, after all. The societal norms. Pull up weeds, soil your hands. The Trinity burn in your thoughts to guide you; you have been lied to by the world. Jesus knew society was wrong, so flip a bird and keep on moving. Life is 50-50. Heaven, hell. I don't care that I am the fly since I am also the windshield.

I had this great “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” Marvin Gaye blazer, senior year of college, and more swell thrift store threads. Under the blazer I wore a shirt borrowed from my girlfriend but interesting, Doc Martens, and jeans or trousers. I was cool for sure. Our apartment was the site of cool parties of red wine and Lowenbraus. I made guava dessert drizzled with cream. I can be a total rat to people. For instance, I let into a kid once in middle school for laying his backpack on mine. But I don't kick people when they're down. I never agree to the abuse of power.

Another site for our circle was Bridget's apartment. Bridgie was hot, not at all intellectual. Jack, kids with names one cannot pronounce and who'd gone to St. So-and-so back east were all there. My in was my fearless pot smoking, my brains, my niceness. Ever polite, by nature and by upbringing, I was. It helped me fit in with the rich set.

At our place, my girlfriend and I washing dishes, it was hot, I did lifeguarding in the summer. We'd end up doing it on the floor between the weed pipe and the Stevie Wonder records, till four in the morning. Then I'd let out a puff of air like a stud. I'd say, C'mon, let's go to Denny's. It was the cherry on top for going at it all night. A young man at twenty-one. After a workout at the gym I'd go for a jog around the block. Get riled, and get to it. Hero-worshiping myself. Work, screw. School, screw.

In high school there were ideas of whom I could admire. In college you're on top of the world so you focus on yourself. Totally narrow. But in high school, it was the idea of tomorrow. I wanted to shoulder some kind of a job to buy holiday presents for others. Voting meant a lot. An adult opinion. To know surface streets as opposed to freeway traffic. Changing car oil. My best friend already had a kid, so it meant everything to go to her apartment, for there were money problems and baby food about. Back then it was about trying on adult conversation for size. My take had to be about writing, politics, and stuff. You read “The Dead,” for instance, and you think about it; and only later does the story's reality register.

Since college means life on top of the world, after college means the bottoming out. In Iron John Robert Bly employs katabasis, the Greek term for the drop after school. It is like that. After college life is the snow that's gone dirty. Abstractions left on the platform. Next stop—hell. You learn you're better off than some, but the rest are much better off than you. Like middle school, oddly. Brats in middle school are like recent college graduates. They think they're not kids anymore. All braggadocio. The title for the stage of middle school and after college. The thirties are like high school because it mellows out. Middle school and one's twenties are about the pain of being unsure. I still dream of her. The blood of it. I won't be gainsaid that relationships are other than tugs of war. You see at breaking up it was a competition, a crazy one. Love's best part is the meeting. To see her through the love goggles, it is another kind of hero worship. There was agape, everything done in good faith, our love done to a turn. I noticed, however, a web surrounding me. I felt more like a man that there was a soft lovely lady pinning jealousy at me.

The life force took me to her land, the Bay Area. A boring life with her friends. I was definitely cooler than they. Second, I was a saint. I should have blown shit up. I should have blown up the corral I was in. The matching up was great because I was expansive where she was small, she got bigger when I felt shy. When music plays I sing lyrics sometimes. I did it in this uncanny way, she said. I find the great lyric; it's my gift, apparently. I was a conjurer, she thought. I had to go.

I'm still so proud of the relationship because it was done in good faith. I stretched incredibly in that closeness.

One early afternoon as my mind is busiest in a class about Environmental Design. It was a freer form of architecture, and it was my first class with a real professor. We called her by her first name. It was something endearing and truncated, maybe Chris. She wore fitted shirts, always white, and pedal pushers, always black. Her glasses for farsightedness she wore occasionally, achieving a tongue-in-cheek intellectualism. No makeup, not because she looked like a thinker but because she was always moving her hands, creating, and it lent itself to her being a working mother. In her early forties, although she seemed in her mid-thirties. Talking about her daughter gave me the impression that she was a few years younger than we, her students taking a summer course for kicks while in high school. She and her daughter were an established family in my mind, like another unit shopping at Trader Joe's or invited by friends to dinner.

The rigor of the class floored me. Art teachers disabused me of thinking art was kickback creativity. I had to learn that discipline and exercise make art get noticed, in this competitive world, and that they give the artist longevity.

We went to the Hollyhock House at Barnsdall Park, marking a full circle for me because I'd had art class Saturdays there when a small kid. We went to the Onyx for coffee, at the time when coffeehouses were for bohemians and for émigrés playing chess. I wanted to go to art school for college I told my mom. She made a sign that she supported me if that was what I wanted seriously.

One day we were busy in class, our hearts aligning to the passion Chris felt for architecture, while Minnie, a girl from another class, passed our class's open door. We'd agreed to have music on while working on our projects, so Minnie asked incredulously, “Is that Tori Amos?” Someone said yes, casually while setting hairs astray behind her ears, barely making eye contact with the foreigner's question. We're busy; yes, isn't Tori cool?

Chris' horn-rimmed glasses were of a piece with the X-acto knives that were a class requirement, and these were of a piece with Rilke's Letters, the class's required reading. My horizons were expanding.

We all thought college was a forthcoming conclusion. Nobody made fun of the gay professors, although that was standard procedure at my regular high school. We didn't snicker at anyone who represented Otis because they were how we imagined ourselves in the future. Hopefully, as them.

I gathered the thinking on what creativity should look like. The surroundings in art school seemed to me as appealing as saving work on a disk. I suppose it elevated me above the working class in the way that a quality experience is a tonic. The culture of school, not their studies, is what students actually learn.

Harder and harder the class got. Everybody was asleep at my house, and I was up piecing a model together, losing sleep.

My aptitude grew for environmental design, however, because of its being a total experience. The girls brought snacks like hummus, and we all sat cross-legged. Near downtown, that art school. It couldn't be another way. Art appreciation meant the streets, L.A. as good as anywhere because of its ferocity. San Francisco meant good living. New York, when I was fifteen, felt like a self-contained entity, a postcard. Art was the portfolio I carried on the bus. But not strategies for real world survival, like in a medieval town.

Thinking about Chris is like using a cold compress on a hot day. I didn't bond in particular with other kids at Otis. In the pictures taken of each department at summer's end I was closing in on Chris but not claiming her for myself alone. I project a perfect psychology onto her with favorable details, a black-and-white photo of an ideal person. She had exotic soups or sandwiches for lunch on weekdays, omelets on weekends. She did not like going to the dentist, and she was self-conscious about her teeth growing up. In class I melted into concentration while the soundtrack of Henry and June played.

In the Bay, the neighbors were an older couple next door, and other kids that were European or something, but not interesting. They all thought the black guy downstairs was weird, but he wasn't. The excitement was the street sweep passing by and you had to move your car to avoid a ticket. It was a drag, they'd say. Not police raids, not boyfriends, not kids. Moving your car away from the street sweep.

Rain on windowpanes is a Bay Area memory. At the apartment on Fortieth Street, the back part was the kitchen that was flush with the sidewalk, and the gray window peeked onto the back entry to our four-unit building. We had finished wine bottles on the windowsill. The bedroom had windows onto the bus stop, so Meghan covered these with tapestries. So the bedroom was totally dark. The bedroom closet's contents skittered all over the floor, and the bed was hardly ever made.

There was the Terrace Street house, living with Meghan and her two friends. I bought sweet peas and placed them by the kitchen sink. Everyone went to work during the day, then came home at night, drank wine and watched TV, and did it again and again for months. Always polite and convivial I was, ever the saint, but I think I felt kind of eaten alive. I regularly saw a therapist, but it didn't feel like it helped.

Just slightly roughed up, back in Los Angeles. Per the katabasis thing I wound up with roommates, the kind you can't take home to Momma. But as I wound up in my own Dickens dropout story, my own Down and Out in Paris and London, the Bay went backward. You're on the carnival's outside, you see the pretty people inside, and yet . . . You're with the wrong crowd, but there's the moment of gladness that is more hard-won. It was too pretty before. At this point, I don't trust a soul.

The times at Spago, the cheese and wine plastic feeling is much sweeter now. There are moments, though, very far away from easy street. The stakes are higher in that people lose their minds to religion. That's if they're inclined not to be criminals. Everything is rough in Echo Park. The criminals in turn like bottoming out and feeling calloused. Only to be in the light, the drugged hallucination. Whatever it takes to get a release.

Leaving the Bay I felt led by a guide, something better at wisdom than me. Cosmic, like. Like the lady who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, compelled to one place to feel it out, then on to something else. Not excited, but right. I took the 101 through Gilroy, Salinas, the artichoke fields, all of its green. The Steinbeck country, Solvang. My Saab, my used car I got up in the Bay from work as a counselor for the homeless; and it was the car I deserved. I played soul music and Spanish music, and all this greenery went past.

North on the 101, it feels contiguous, moving headlong for the Bay Area. L.A., however, is this big splat that dominates the south. No wonder the movie about racial problems in L.A. is called "Crash." It's what I love, an anomaly.

Perhaps not classically beautiful, Los Angeles. But in antiquity, thinking of Greece and the Mediterranean, Los Angeles is that sort of beauty. Cold weather suits elevated thinking, people say. Not to me. In fact, Plato thought dry weather better for thinking. When it's hot, at some point you have to go outside and play. This is actually better for the mind.

Wagering on the side of the poor, starving artist. What's strange is that some people are still on the other side of the dial. They're fine, they're in contact with everything middle class. I wonder how they do it, and then I think they're faking. We believe what is projected to us. My life is more brilliant than YouTube, in any case. L.A. is scary, but where you grow up is where things have a way of making sense. One does admire the sights one knows, the buildings seen as a kid, the parking lot where one learned to drive. L.A. is always a step ahead of me. You run from what you know, go on to be a hot shot in New York, but if anything about you is great it goes back to where you grew up. In L.A. it doesn't matter who you are, always there is someone cooler than you around the corner.

BIO:  “I am an English as a Second Language Teacher in Los Angeles, previously published in Awakenings Journal and Pacific Grilling, a cookbook. I received a Bachelor's degree in English from Occidental College in 1997. Writing has been my hobby for as long as I can recall.”