09 January 2013

Hey, I can see my house from here!

Back in 2007, the first summer I worked at Camp Redwood Glen, we took the kids on a hike up to “Cupcake Hill” (so named for no reason I could tell; nothing there looks cupcake-like). As we were walking along the top of the ridge, I said, “Hey, I can see my house from here.”

The kids all thought I was kidding. It was a nice view, but come on.

“No, seriously,” I said, “it’s right there.” It really was. I could see the back porch and everything.

The fascinating thing about using Google Earth, if you’ve never monkeyed around with it, is you can see your house from space, and of course if you’ve got a pretty good memory for the places you’ve lived, you can “fly” to each of these places and take a look at them.

Well, most of them. I can’t remember the address of every place I’ve lived. I was born in San Jose, California, and at the time my parents lived in a trailer park. They lived in a few different trailer parks: The one we lived at when I was born, the one we lived at when my sister Shannon was born, and the one when we briefly lived in Texas. There’s also the duplex we lived at, in San Jose, with my grandmother, Betty Leslie. I don’t know where any of these places are. My parents might.

But once I was old enough to memorize addresses—i.e. when I was about four or so—I have those addresses down. Here’s the first of them, in Hayward, California. We lived here when my brother Chad was born.

This is a narrow street of duplex apartments, and we lived in the next-to-last of them. The houses you now see behind it weren’t there in the mid-1970s. From time to time the back fence would get a loose board, so I’d go exploring in the open field… which annoyed my parents quite a lot. There was also a really sucky “play yard” tucked behind the second building from the street. I can’t tell from Google Earth whether it still exists, but what I remember was a single play structure, totally surrounded by weeds. I also remember the time a neighbor of mine managed to get a bit of asphalt in my eye when we played there once. And the time I scraped the heck out of my knees getting dragged behind a wagon. And the time I fell off a tricycle and knocked out a tooth. Man, I got injured a lot there. I also recall that the kids in the neighborhood stole my stuff quite a lot.

School and church were within walking distance, which helped ’cause Mom didn’t drive yet. There were a few times I remember getting strapped to the kid seat on the back of her bicycle, with Shannon in the front basket. Not the safest way to get kids around, but this was the ’70s. We didn’t even have to wear seat belts.

About a year after Chad was born, my parents were able to afford their first house. So we moved. I recall it was in the middle of my first year of school. The house is also in Hayward. Here it is.

It was in a decent neighborhood, next to the freeway. This was before sound walls were put up, so you could always hear the low roar of the cars in the background. On the other side of the back fence was another neighborhood which my parents did not consider so decent, because the houses were of inferior construction and the residents were poorer. I wasn’t encouraged to go there. I really wasn’t encouraged to go anywhere beyond our street, and of course I stretched the limits of this to about three streets away.

Our neighbors on the left were an older couple. The husband used to work nights and sleep days, so we were encouraged to not play on the side yard in the morning. I threw them into a panic one day because I was playing out back with my sister, and I invented a home invasion/murder scenario, and was imitating a few different voices in order to make our “gang” sound bigger than it was. Apparently my voices sounded adult enough to make our eavesdropping neighbor think this was a real plot. I don’t recall whether she actually called the police, or whether she was gonna. I just remember my parents found the whole thing amusing.

On the right we had an extended Hispanic family whose kids, Ernie and Maria, I played with. The parents spoke Spanish but the kids only knew English. The parents figured this way they could talk about the kids in front of them, and the kids wouldn’t understand a word. Problem is, my parents had put me in a Spanish immersion school, so I actually could understand them. But they didn’t really say anything juicy. I thought it was funny when they talked about me and assumed I didn’t know it. They called me “blancito.”

I don’t know the details, but Dad once pissed off the dad, who was about to punch him until Dad took some kung fu posture. Dad doesn’t know a lick of kung fu, by the way. I also remember having to mow their lawn, since Dad figured it was easier to cut their lawn for them than complain about how they never mowed it. They never mowed their back yard, either; they had grass up to my elbows.

Most of my time was spent playing Batman with Greg, a neighbor boy. I was Batman; well, Batboy. Greg refused to be Robin, so he was Superboy. I couldn’t understand how everybody immediately realized Batboy was me, even though I wore a mask ’n everything. Nobody ever recognized Batman on television. Oh well; unlike the TV show, I never beat anyone up, so there was never any trouble to get into by my playing Batman.

Dad was transferred to San Jose when I was nine, but he had been reading these get-rich-quick books on real estate, and decided to keep this house and rent it out. He still owns it. Throughout my childhood, every time the old tenant moved out and he needed to find a new one, he’d pull us kids out of school for the week, take us all to Hayward, and we’d spend the week cleaning up the house. Mom would steam-clean the rugs and paint the walls, and Dad would do a few repairs and invent some “improvements” that really didn’t do a bloody thing for the house’s resale value. We kids would do all the odd jobs. “That’s why I had kids,” Dad often said; “free labor.”

The house in San Jose looks significantly better than it used to. Here it is.

From this angle it looks smaller than it actually is; the second story is sorta invisible. The neighborhood went from being mixed-race to predominantly Vietnamese in the 1990s. The housing prices also skyrocketed, which Dad still occasionally bitches about.

At the time I was really impressed by it being a four-bedroom two-story house, but today I realize how shoddy its construction actually was. The walls weren’t insulated, and were remarkably thin. Walking up the stairs, or shutting the front door, or jumping around upstairs, would reverberate through the entire house. Dad had to regularly tell us to keep our voices down ’cause “the neighbors will hear you.” To some degree this was because he was trying to hide some of his more bizarre behavior, but in general it was because the walls seemed to be made of toilet paper and spit, and we kids were loud. Or I was loud, anyway.

The parents took the downstairs. We kids had the upstairs. All our toys and mess and noise were meant to be kept upstairs, though it trickled down from time to time on the way to the back or front yards. I spent a lot of time bicycling and roller-skating up and down the street (and through various people’s front yards) and again playing with the neighbors.

On the left was a Hawaiian family whose son Kimo became my brother’s best friend. I quickly discovered the parents would buy any items which my school forced me to sell as fundraisers. Candy bars, magazines, tacky jewelry (which offended Mom because of its high prices and bad quality), they’d kindly buy it all. Although Mom drew the line at the jewelry: She made me go door-to-door again, and take back all the orders. But she particularly made me go to our next-door neighbors: “The only reason she bought all that from you is that she’s being nice.”

On the right was a black family whose kids I got along with at first… till Dad got involved. See, the kids parked their bikes and Big Wheels on their driveway. Dad, for some insane reason, decided this was unacceptable. He spoke to the father about it. The father, quite rightly, told Dad it was none of his business. Dad decided to make it his business: One day, he gathered all the bikes and Big Wheels from the driveway, and left them across the street. In retaliation, the kids weren’t allowed to play with me anymore. The older kids took to letting the air out of Dad’s tires, or propping nails underneath them in such a way as to embed the nails in the tires whenever Dad backed out of the driveway.

Eventually Dad concluded his real estate holdings might be enough for him to live in semi-retirement. Or at least that’s what he told us at the time. So he went into the Air Force Reserves. He would be stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, so my parents started looking at Fairfield and Vacaville for a new place to live. Meanwhile, Dad went to Oklahoma for training.

They found a really nice, really large house… which we never lived in. For reasons I still don’t get, it was inconvenient to move into it, and we never did move there. My parents rented it out and bought another house. This one:

It was ridiculously small. By this point we were a family of six, and we growing children had to be crammed into two of the three bedrooms. We worked with it, but it wasn’t fun.

By this point I was in junior high school, and never really got to know the neighbors. There was school, church, and a certain Commodore 64 which I spent a whole lot of free time learning to program. Dad got to know, and irritate, the neighbors.

We were there for a little more than a year. In the meanwhile my parents sold the San Jose house, and used it to buy another, much bigger house, We moved there.

Incidentally, the current state of this house is horrible. The guy who currently owns it has been trying to replace the roof himself, and while he’s at it he’s been changing the shape of it, and likely violating a whole bunch of building codes in the process. The backyard is full of junk and dogs. The front yard isn’t much better.

The newer, bigger house had four bedrooms and a huge backyard, with a basketball court. I was really jazzed about the court; not that I was any good at basketball, but now I could practice! But then Dad parked his trailer and a van on it, and so much for my pathetic white-boy hoop dreams. The concrete wasn’t reinforced either, and cracked under the unreasonable weight.

I lived here all through high school. Again, never really got to know the neighborhood kids, except for one good friend, Akbar, who lived two streets down. I actually got to know the next neighborhood over quite a bit better: I got a paper route in that neighborhood, and knew all those neighbors. Just not my own.

The summer I graduated from high school, my parents separated. Dad’s behavior had made life pretty impossible for all of us. So since the previous house had no tenant at the time, Mom packed all her stuff—and we kids, who didn’t want to live with Dad, packed all our stuff too—and we crammed ourselves back into it. It was still a tiny house, but we fit a lot better without Dad. He’s a bit of a pack rat, you see.

We lived there about two years before Dad realized that it was stupid for him to live in the big house, and Mom and us kids to live in the small one. So they traded houses. In those two years, Dad managed to completely wreck the backyard. But otherwise it was the same house as before, with lots of space. I got my old room back.

Soon after, I moved to Sacramento. I kept bouncing around from there. And I suppose I’ll write about my post-childhood houses another time.