My favorite childhood ritual was this: the first barefoot summer walk across smoldering pavement. Scurry for shade. Walk on your heels, or on your toes. Up from the beach, across the asphalt alley — quickly! — down the sidewalk to Harry’s Market on Mission Boulevard, where a few scavenged empty pop bottles were miraculously transformed into a few cents. This ritual hot walk, a little bit of pain to be savored and shared, itself marked a miraculous transformation: all my young friends and I, inhabitants of the cottages and apartments along the Mission Beach shore, who only a few weeks before had been reasonably behaved schoolchildren, suddenly changed into a pack of near feral creatures let loose to freedom for the summer. Free to play all day long on the beach. Our beach.
By mid-July we’d have toughened the soles of our feet enough to take a slow noontime stroll down the hot sidewalk of one of the courts to Harry’s Market. This, of course, was after many strenuous games of tag, played in the sand, and after endless rounds of hide-and-seek among the bungalows and apartment buildings, after lots of bicycling and roller skating up and down Ocean Front Walk. In Mission Beach, summertime was the best time.
Autumn, not summer, was the best time in Oregon. That’s when the wind whipped our cheeks fresh and crisp as a Delicious apple, when our footsteps crackled across the frosty ground. Oregon never learned to summer well. My parents tried to explain to me as best they could what had happened to them and why we were moving to California. Some kind of disastrous financial affair I didn’t quite understand. I thought I’d probably miss my friends, but I knew what two things I’d miss most of all: our backyard cherry tree (perfect for climbing), and our neighbor’s quarter-horse (I could ride it bareback). Were there cowgirls in San Diego? Could you climb a palm tree? All I knew about was Disneyland — but that wasn’t even in San Diego.
We packed all of our belongings and our five cats into a U-Haul trailer. To mollify me, my folks got me a new pair of sneakers, striped with different colors. I wore them all the way south. We left in autumn, in September, but arrived in summer. Another miracle. The family stopped to gather resources at a small motel in Ocean Beach, and while the other kids dutifully trundled off to school, I spent two weeks, warming myself on the beach. Finally my father got a job at the Belmont Park Amusement Center, and we moved into a small bungalow on Strand Way. Sharing this tiny one-bedroom beach cottage with my folks seemed like a vacation. We were only one long jump away from the ocean. I didn’t realize then exactly how far we’d traveled, from Oregon and from my past life.
Faye was my best friend during those early days in Mission Beach. We were in the same grade at school, even though she was about a year older than I. You see, Faye’s mother was often away and Faye had used the opportunities to get into trouble; she’d been in juvenile hall more than once. Faye’s older sister, a teenager, wasn’t around much either; she was developing a talent for hot-wiring cars, and, I think now, sometimes worked as a smalltime hooker. Faye’s other sister, Lily, was a couple of months younger than I, a grade behind us in school.
Faye got into trouble because she loved to run free on the beach, and because she’d steal any large dog (she had a preference for German shepherds) or any bicycle she could. One time when she was ten, her case worker caught her with three stolen dogs and a garage crammed full of stolen bicycles. She would steal presents for her friends. Faye was a tough, sturdy girl and she made sure that none of the other kids picked on me because of my slender size and inexperience. I helped Faye with her math.
One bleak October night, when our family had especially little money, Faye came to dinner bringing gifts. She gave us a frozen pizza, and had presents for each of us; my gift was a plastic golf-score counter. It was pretty clear that Faye had stolen all of these things, but we kept them and ate the pizza that night. It would have been silly to do anything else because we were hungry. Some storekeepers may have let her steal things because she was hungry then, too. I just hoped she hadn’t stolen the things from my friend Harry, at his market.
Later, Faye started spending time with a young Englishman who lived in one of the apartments nearby. Faye missed her father so terribly that she’d take any substitute handy. My mother had begun cleaning apartments, doing laundry, and ironing to help earn money. She’d seen a lot of strange books and papers in this Englishman’s room. We’ve since concluded that he was writing a doctoral dissertation about the sociology of beach life. One afternoon Faye and the Englishman tied me up with kelp and pushed me into a large pit on the beach. It was too big for me to get out. I cried in terror but no one heard me; I thought I might drown as the tide rolled in. Finally Faye came and got me out of the pit. Eventually I forgave Faye, but I never trusted her fully after that. It wasn’t a bad lesson to learn — it was only unfortunate that I had to learn it at such a young age. I learned a lot of things too early in Mission Beach.
My friend David, the first person I’d met when we moved to the beach, had an older brother named Carl, who was a little younger than I, a couple of inches shorter, but about my weight. Carl was a bully, he liked to hit his younger brother. Sometimes he even hit David over the head with a shovel, which I thought was terrible. One day the three of us were playing together, and I couldn’t stand it any longer. Carl hit David, so I hit Carl. “There, see what he feels like,” I told him. I’d never done anything like that before. Carl cried. That didn’t make me happy, but I felt good about protecting someone who needed help. I still feel that way sometimes in similar situations. I thought I’d done a little bit to pay for all the protection I’d gotten from Faye.