|Photo by Jonathan Cosens|
We lived in a collection of deteriorating Victorian houses, converted into massive apartments with shiny, hard wooden floors, built-in china hutches, and curvy, sensual Spanish architecture. The houses were in no particular formation, built where greedy-eyed landlords could find a place to put them. We tried our best to make sense out of the chaos by decorating our porches and front windows with anything we could afford or find.
Behind the old apartment buildings was a massive lot of land that had become an unofficial junkyard. Old, abandoned cars were our jungle gyms; gutted tires and greasy rope our swings, hubcaps and rims our imaginary serving plates for make-believe dinner parties. Intertwined among the cars was a catacomb of doors, pallets, windows, scrap wood, paint cans, and rusted appliances. It was the ultimate maze, a perfect place for hide-and-seek. Beyond the junkyard was a huge hill of dirt, nearly a quarter of mile in diameter. It took twenty minutes to climb, but once you made it to the top, you could see the ocean in the distance and the etched skyline of downtown San Diego.
I was 9. I was a student at Sherman Elementary School. Because of the large Hispanic population, I was given a bilingual education. I was starring in a school production of Blanca Nieves (Snow White). My best friends were Kevin and Sally. Kevin looked like a young Michael Jackson and Sally was short and freckled. The three of us were labeled as “gifted” and placed in a classroom for advanced students. Our first assignment was to take apart a lawn mower engine and then reassemble it. Kevin and Sally and I didn’t care about engine parts. We would spend recess singing Killing Me Softly with His Song and playing Chinese jump rope. Everything in my life revolved around music and roller skating. Gloria Gaynor had declared I Will Survive, Blondie blasted from car radios, and my role models consisted of The Bionic Woman and Charlie’s Angels.
Kevin and Sally did not live in my neighborhood. There, my friends were a bossy girl named Maribelle, her twin brother Roberto, and a boy named Nathan. To me, Nathan was the coolest guy in the world. Since Maribelle and Roberto and I were a year younger than him, Nathan was our protector, our surrogate older brother. He was also a creative genius.
On a rainy day, when the junkyard was flooding, Nathan told us that we were going to make a movie. He grabbed his father’s tape recorder and showed us how to speak into it. For hours, we made up elaborate stories, all of which took place during World War II. We would use records – mostly soundtracks and scores from epic movies – and add them to our own stories. In truth, we were independent film makers without even realizing our vocation. My voice was high for a boy, so I was always elected to play the female roles: the widowed wife, the seductive nurse, the ingénue of a tragic love story. Maribelle didn’t want to be heard on the tape recorder. She worried that her English wasn’t good enough. So, she was in charge of sound effects. Nathan’s stories grew more complex and detailed as the summer passed, until we were recording three-hour sagas.
Outside, we all feared Señora Morales. She was old, embittered, and wore huge flowery aprons and black, pointed shoes. Señora Morales would stand on her front porch and wait for us to ride by on our Big Wheels. If the noise bothered her, she would snatch us off of our speeding toys by our hair and shriek at us in Spanish.
The old man who lived across from Maribelle and her brother became our best friend. To the adults, he was Mr. Jones, but to us he became simply Jonesy. He loved everything that was science fiction, most importantly episodes of Star Trek. He walked with a swoop from a bad back and wore brown suspenders, polyester pants, and wrinkled shirts that were always buttoned wrong. His face was scruffy, but his eyes were kind. Jonesy was a war veteran and often told us wild tales of World War II. These inspired us and we retold many of them into the tape recorder.
Jonesy had two children that were grown and lived far away. His son wrote letters to Jonesy, always asking for money. One day, Jonesy borrowed Maribelle’s red wagon and took his television set to a pawn shop. He came back three hours later and sat down on the top step of his porch. When we saw tears in Jonesy’s eyes, we were concerned. He explained to us that his son needed money in the worst way. He didn’t have a choice but to pawn his television. We knew Jonesy was sad because he couldn’t watch his favorite television program. I asked Jonesy why his daughter didn’t buy him a new television. He explained to me that his daughter had devoted her life to God and because Jonesy took a sip of liquor every now and then, she had disowned him.
We expected Jonesy to stay inside of his house where he could miss his television in private. Instead, the next morning, Jonesy was waiting for us on his porch. “The four of you need your own place,” he told us. “I’m going to help you build it.”
It took three days to build our club house. Under Jonesy’s guidance, we took wooden pallets and scrap wood from the junkyard and went to work. Nathan borrowed tools from his father. Maribelle cut up an old blanket and used the fabric to make curtains. Roberto and I went to stores in the neighborhood and asked politely if we could have their discarded milk crates, which we would use as furniture. Jonesy brought us packages of sugar cookies and glasses of Kool-Aid, all the while offering us words of encouragement. On the third day, our clubhouse stood at the bottom of the hill, ready for us to make our own. For the four of us, the sense of accomplishment that we felt was immeasurable.
During summer, all of the apartments became infested with cockroaches. One day, I poured a glass of milk and three cockroaches dropped out of the carton and began swimming in my glass. It was at that moment, that my mother decided we were moving. After a week of contemplating, she announced that we were going up north, to live in a little town called Paradise. I assumed there were no bugs in Paradise.
As we started to pack our apartment, my mother decided to leave a small television behind. It was an old set and the picture was fuzzy, but I knew that it would be appreciated by someone. On instinct, I carried the set to Jonesy’s apartment. I placed it down on his front step, knocked on the door and then took refuge in a nearby shrub. Jonesy opened the door, discovered the gift, placed a hand over his heart and to my surprise, he began to cry. He struggled to pick up the television and carry it into his house. I thought about helping him, but I knew he would feel better if he carried the set on his own. Jonesy closed the door. Seconds later, I heard a commercial, followed by the theme music to I Love Lucy. In a matter of minutes, I knew Star Trek would begin. Smiling, I ran towards the waiting moving truck. Within an hour, we were on the road, heading towards Paradise.