I am sitting in the dark back seat of the Packard reading comic books and thinking about death while my folks take a breather in a roadhouse called the No Tomorrow. We are in Gallup, New Mexico, 1948, on our way back to California after a year in Texas. We took a restless, circular route, as if trying to throw someone off our track. Fort Worth to New York to Michigan, then back down to Texas through Kansas and Oklahoma, and now we are on Route 66, 700 miles from paradise. That’s what Mitzi calls it, meaning California. San Diego to be exact. This time, Mitzi says, we will definitely put down roots.”
This passage opens a section of my novel The Mortician's Apprentice. And in many ways, that nearly forgotten version of San Diego was paradise.
In 1948 San Diego was a small, slow-moving city, by contemporary urban standards. The divided highway that ran through Balboa Park was the closest thing we had to a freeway. The San Diego Padres (along with the Los Angeles Angels, the Hollywood Stars, the Oakland Oaks, the Sacramento Solons, and the San Francisco Seals) belonged to the old Pacific Coast League — triple-A minor league baseball at its best. And the toughest football in town was played by the Marine recruits at MCRD.
Mission Valley of 1948 was all truck farms, flower gardens, and dairies; Mission Bay was a puddle; no condos blitzed the beaches from Del Mar to the Silver Strand; north of Fletcher Hills and east of El Cajon was the “backcountry.” There was no shared-with-Los Angeles canopy of beige air. Old Town was in quaint disrepair. The El Cortez Hotel was singular: a demi-skyscraper, festooned with huge AM radio masts. Horton Plaza (given to the people of San Diego “in perpetuity”) was a place where elderly folk fed pigeons and swapped small talk. Time moved slowly. No one seemed to be in a hurry. There was, after all, no place better to go. Which, to me, is the most workable definition of paradise. Even us wisecracking, always-cool teenagers called it “God’s Country” with an embarrassing reverence we could not have explained.
The city had its fast side, of course — the clip joints and dives of lower Broadway that preyed on sailors and Marines, the old Hollywood Theater burlesque shows. (I remember you, Roxanne, the stripper I fell in love with from the safe distance of row 19. Nights, I dreamed of your tasseled breasts, dreams that left embarrassing evidence in the bed sheets.) And then there were the accessible, if risky, excesses of Tijuana.
Did it exist in the way I remember it? I can’t prove it. Memory is tricky. And inevitably, at some point, history becomes myth. All I can do as a fiction writer attempting to revisit his own personal history is to try to reassemble from memory — edited and distorted by time and sentiment — the images and impressions of that disappeared town. I give shape to them now, just as they gave shape to me then. The process of writing acts like a dredge on memory. What you have presumed forgotten rises, as if by sorcery, to the surface of consciousness. And like all sorcery, one is never quite sure if the manifestations are real or illusion or a mixture of both.
My wife and I are at the zoo. It’s our first visit in more than 20 years. It’s a disappointing experience. The zoo has changed. The animals are less accessible to the public. Good for the animals, bad for the public. I remember the old zoo, remember visiting the giant silverback gorilla Albert and his witty young companion Robert. A crowd of a hundred leaned against the rail and chattered at the apes. We were smaller, less dignified anthropoids making a rude display that only drove Albert into a greater meditative distraction, while Robert planned a comic strategy. Kids tossed crushed paper cups at the gorillas, and a man in a business suit barked annoyingly like a baboon. Robert weaved back and forth in front of us, knuckle-walking along the apron of the concrete moat with speedy gorilla grace. He was collecting something behind the knuckles of his big leathery hands. Paper missiles bounced unnoticed off his shoulders. Some fool threw a wad of bubble gum.
Albert knew what Robert had in mind and chose to not witness the coming ruckus. The crowd was slow to grasp Robert’s game. When they did, it was too late. Suddenly, Robert stopped his back-and-forth gamboling and faced us. Swiftly and accurately he flung the dung he had been collecting, in a sweet, underhanded side-arm. A wicked chunk hit the baboon-barking man squarely on his gabardine lapel. He howled with baboon outrage. The crowd stumbled over itself trying to escape Robert’s next volley. Robert allowed himself a small grin as he lobbed another turd grenade casually into our midst.
In the 1994 version of the San Diego Zoo, the giant apes are behind glass windows too small to accommodate the crowd that presses against them.
It is a hot and muggy day. I stop at a refreshment stand and ask for two large lemonades.
“Lemon — what?” says the Vietnamese girl who takes my order.
She glances around her cubicle, looking for help. “Is some type drink?” she asks.
“Yes. Lemonade. It’s a type of drink,” I say.
She confers with a coworker. “Pink lemonade. That okay?” she says, and I feel as if I had ordered something so far off the menu that it will have to be flown in from another continent.
“Pink is fine,” I say.
“Two dollars,” she says.
I expect this incident will find its way into one of my fictions someday just as Robert’s joke found its way into my first novel, A Lovely Monster. The San Diego of that novel was a truly fictional place, an idealized version without rough edges.
In The Mortician's Apprentice, I wanted to find whatever was left of that slow-moving seaside town of the late ’40s and early ’50s. History, as some historians contend, is fiction. This is because the density and particularity of life can never be captured in words. And personal memory is history subjected to a process of prejudicial selection and weeding-out that results in the grossest of all fictions, our identity. We make ourselves up from what we choose to remember.
This is something to worry about. I have seen it in my own family — in my parents, in my children, and in myself. We all have different versions of the shared past. I remember a terrifying train ride to a boarding school where I would be imprisoned at age six for a full year; but my mother, who had just divorced my father, remembers only that it was a pleasant day, and that the fall colors of upstate New York were beautiful, and how the sway of the train made her giddy. Warehousing her troublesome kid for a year would give her the freedom she wanted. That was the source of her giddiness.
I have a photograph of myself in that hoarding school, dressed in navy-blue first-Communion suit. The look on my face is murderously dark; here was a killer — or a writer — in embryo. This is an invention favorable to my notion of who I am. The real truth is buried in the unrecallable details. My father recently told me, “I came to see you at that school. You begged me to take you away. But I couldn’t do that. You screamed at me as I walked away.” I didn’t remember this, possibly for good reasons. But why have I always flown into rages when someone turned his back on me, literally or figuratively? Why have I always rebelled against patriarchal authority? The mystery of personality is intact.
“The shining city, marching its white houses down to the rim of the sea! Perfect city, perfect sea, under perfect skies! This is it, this is what we’ve been searching for. What great things are in store for us! We are home at last, the place we’ve been drifting toward for years. Our town forever, our special place. No more wandering unwelcomed into dead ends, no more half-baked attempts at transplanting our lives. From now on we’ll know where we are and we’ll know how to belong. We are not fugitives — we want to belong. From now on we will be able to see clearly what is best, what is second-best, and what to avoid. We will live as people were meant to live, happy and safe in the salt-washed air, among groves of bright oranges and velvety avocados.”
The narrator of The Mortician’s Apprentice, Oz, feels this rush of happy optimism as he drives his mother’s Packard down Highway 80, heading into the sunset. But remembered this way, place is transmuted into nostalgia. (This passage works as an ironic set piece in the context of the somewhat less sanguine novel.)
One of my novels was recently turned down by a movie producer because “Hollywood isn’t into nostalgia these days." Nostalgia! We’ve come to think of it as a longing for things gone, a judgment against the present. But the word’s Greek roots tell another story. Nostos — the return home; but the easily recognizable algia means pain. The painful return home.
I don’t look on my personal past with Hollywood's notion of nostalgia. I think, God, I’m glad that’s over with. I like to think of myself as someone who lives in the present and perhaps partially in the future. (A failing, I admit. Living in the future is a head game designed to take one’s attention away from the problems at hand. “One of these days... When my ship comes in... As soon as I get my act together....”) I remember going to the Ken Theater in Kensington (is it still there?) at age 16 or 17 and seeing, for the first time in my life, naked women. It was a Swedish movie with subtitles too long to read and keep my eyes on those blond breasts at the same time. So I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what the movie was about — but, God, those breasts! Someday, I thought, I will know women like that. And maybe sooner rather than later. Gonad-driven daydreams make you live in the undefined future.
I grew up on the east edge of Rolando Village. Rolando was, and is, a fine neighborhood of middle-class houses and lawns; but our street, Judson Way, was an unpaved road that went through a shallow arroyo. The houses were less attractive, the lawns more likely to have crabgrass. Our house was in the bottom of the arroyo, and in the rainy season a small torrent would run through a ditch in our back yard.
I went back to this neighborhood recently, and not much has changed. Someone tried to upgrade our house — a former one-room schoolhouse. They tore off the old redwood siding and gave it a nice up-to-date stuccoing and a double-door entryway. An addition jutting out behind the house probably doubles its square-footage. The hundred-foot-tall eucalyptus in the back yard is gone, the tree I used to climb to hang radio antennas capable of dragging in shortwave stations from around the world. I suppose the house is worth something over a hundred thousand now. My mother and stepfather paid six thousand for it in 1948.
Going back has its dangers. Good times and bad times are recalled with equal force. I slammed my stepfather against the wall when I was 19 because he was beating my mother. I didn’t know who started it, and I didn’t care. I was making a statement: Goodbye.
I left home, went to live in a fraternity house on La Mesa Boulevard. I was a fairly bright kid, but I flunked every other course I took at San Diego State, a tiny college back then of 3500 students. The old campus of lovely, Spanish-style, one-story buildings is still there, but it’s buried behind huge utilitarian structures that now house 30- to 40,000 students.
My record at Helix High hadn’t been much better. I was at best indifferent to my academic surroundings, but mostly I was just plain bored. Which may, after all, be the healthiest reaction to high school. Boredom, I have come to believe, is one of the motivating forces behind acts of creation and acts of destruction. It can be argued that there is a fine and tricky line between the artistic and criminal personality. Why else has respectable society always regarded its artists with suspicion?
These moods, these failings, come back again and again to haunt my fiction. I want to know things about myself that have nothing to do with an exact recovery of historical events. The only history useful to our well-being is our psychic history.
My wife and I are driving up El Cajon Boulevard. It hasn’t changed much, not really. Businesses, of course, come and go (there wasn’t anything remotely like the Hung Vuong Pho restaurant back then), but the character of the old street is pretty much unchanged. Somewhere around 70th Street I see three teenage boys sitting on a curb, laughing and gesturing. “That’s me and my buddies,” I say. They give us the finger, and I laugh. “That’s us, 40 years ago.”
We turn up College Avenue, retracing my drive from the Pi Kappa Alpha house in La Mesa (long gone) to the campus. But there has been a nasty head-on at the Montezuma intersection, and we are forced to detour. We drive around the narrow streets just off College Avenue, and I see more ghosts — boys and girls lounging in the midday heat, two tall boys firing spiral passes to each other, an elderly man examining his hedge. A kid walking up the sidewalk looks exactly like a kid I knew 40 years ago. I check the impulse to roll down the window and call to him, “Don! Hey, Don! It’s me, Rick!”
This is a vacuum that can suck you in. You begin to see the past, and the past becomes something undead. But this is a critical mistake. I am the ghost here, the irrelevant being haunting these old streets.
Real nostalgia is dangerous. It turns you into a shade, a rootless drifter. I may be the sum of my experiences, but this place is not in the equation.