Saturday, February 7, 2015

Call Me Skinny, But Don't Call Me Late


In the early years, during those golden days that defined some of my earliest memories, the Lagunitas school bus dropped us off at the highway at the bottom of Arroyo Road, and it was over a mile to my house. Pete Sutton's house was about a quarter of a mile up the road from the highway. By then, I was tired of walking, so I'd follow him home.

I was also nearly a year younger than most of my kindergarten classmates, so I was a baby walking that long walk home. My grandmother did not walk down the road to greet me after school, I was on my own. I guess she figured that because we walked to church in Lagunitas every Sunday, I knew the way. True.

I literally dropped out of kindergarten because the walk to the bus stop was just too far for my short four-year-old legs and, wandering attention span. Too many distractions: the creek, the water nymphs, the gopher snake stretched across the road, shooting stars and milkmaids bordering the road just waiting to be picked.

Sometimes Mr. Dingman would wait for me at the bottom of the road, or, if I missed the bus, he'd angrily honk and pick me up me on the reverse run after he'd collected the rest of the kids in Lagunitas, hollering at me all the while. But more often than not, I stood forlornly at the empty crossroads of Arroyo Road and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard waiting for a school bus that would never come.

By the time I got to first grade, I had to catch the bus. I had to go to school, or else I was a truant. It was the law.

By then I had developed some quirky bus neuroses. I'd dream that I finally caught the bus to school on the wrong side of the road (coming back from Lagunitas—which meant I already missed my bus, this was my second chance at hell). The door hissing like a dragon, and Mr. Dingman's wrath, was the first obstacle. Then, facing down a sea of staring kids frightened me so much I nearly peed my pants and swooned with fear. Finding an empty seat or a friendly face was like running the gauntlet. Clearly, this tripartite dream was based on real-life experience.

But there was more: When I took my new red wool coat off, to hang it on the coathook in the back of Mrs. Ramsey's first grade classroom, I discovered, too late, I had forgotten to put my dress on. There I was in my frilly knickers and grubby undershirt for all the world to see. Kids sniggering. I died of embarrassment every time, as it was a vivid reoccurring dream Freud would've loved to sink his eyeteeth into.

Or I'd dream of catching the bus home, but no one else was on the bus, not even the driver, as it barreled and careened through Lagunitas canyon at dusk, like it was possessed. Forget Stephen King's "Christine." Vroom!

Coming home from school was a different matter. I had classmates to walk with. Sort of. But Jeff Sutton, Joan Lindsey, Diane Moyle, and Billy Joe Bianchi would ditch us little kids, or walk too fast for us to catch up. That left me and Pete standing at the crossroads. (Pete's dad, a pianist, had already gone down to the jazz crossroads at midnight, but that's another story). So I took the easiest route, I followed Pete home. Pete's mom, Chuck (Charlene), fed us peanut butter and exotic store-bought grape jelly sandwiches, and sometimes she even gave me a ride home in the green VW bus. 

To his credit, Peter never ditched me, though he could have. I'm sure I was a little pest. I remember playing in the creek, hiking up to Forest Farm Camp, and building Lincoln logs with him in his room. Kid stuff like that. Jeff was far too cool to hang out with us. I wasn't allowed in the army blanket chair fort. And besides, I was, you know, a girl.

(I don't remember when the school bus started coming up to the bend at Barranca Road to turn around where Joan Lindsey's house was, but that was a year or two later, as more families with kids were moving into the Valley. By then there were so many of us, they couldn't NOT pick us up.)

I was devastated when the Suttons moved to Lagunitas. I'd lost a playmate. No more free lunch. No more reason to drop by the Sutton house as he lived way up the hill. Then, as I got older, I was  too shy. Then, we all got way too cool (or too stoned), and we hardly spoke to each other during that long stretch of gravelly road that transported us across the gawky years of high school and hormones. Or even at College of Marin—though we were in the same pottery class for years.

(What's funny about this aside, is that when Ralph Sutton died, Pete said his father was a man of few words: "every couple of years he completes a sentence." That pretty much summed us up too. Until Facebook came along. This bloggy bit was inspired by a running rantlet with Pete. He's paying me back for all the times I ate his peanut butter sandwiches. It really was a long walk home and his house was the closest refuge…)

Nobody ever had any money in those days, and feeding the neighborhood kids was what families did. I remember eating cereal at 5PM (I thought it was scandalous) with the twins, Adrian and Adair (Lara) Daly. Their house was a mob scene and it was a free for all, with Connie and Mickey yelling at the top of their lungs, not to drink up all the milk or eat up all the cereal. Shannon was a kid of few words, he'd merely hitch the bowl up closer to his gaping maw and shovel it all in before the empty cereal box even hit the ground.

There was "poor" and then there was "really poor." The Bagleys, who were newcomers, were in the really poor camp, right out of Grapes of Wrath. After a good game of olly-olly-oxen-free, or kick-the-can, with the Weavers and the Magnussens, we were all skinned knees and grubbier than dirt. No formalities, like washing up before dinner, were enforced.

We gleefully ate the wilted vegetables Mr. Bagley couldn't sell from his vegetable truck. There were so many of us, the Bagleys set up a couple of doors on sawhorses in the bulldozed lot, and we'd have at it. Mountains of white welfare rice with salt and butter, watery zucchini and catsup under an indigo sky and wavering stars never tasted so good.

Seeking nourishment for an inarticulate hunger, I went from house to house, grazing with the other Valley kids. Scott Weaver's mom made the most outrageous raised yeast doughnuts, I'd eat them, still warm, granules of sugar crystals riming my lips. Nothing else even comes close to those airy doughnuts of memory. Forget Dunkin' Doughnuts.

Billy Joe Bianchi's grandmother dragged me into her kitchen and fed me raviolis and spongecake, saying, "Mangia, mangia." "Eat, eat." And so I did. As I tucked in, she grated cheese rinds into a big jar; and when the golden sponge cake hanging upside down in its cake pan, was cool, it'd slough onto the table, whispering unintelligible secrets, and we'd eat divine food of the gods. Billy Joe usually ditched me to do chores, so I was fair game for Mary Bianchi's brand of cheek-pinching ministrations. After all, she'd fed my grandmother's children too.

One of my best friends, Stephanie Stone's newly blended family was so large, they never even noticed another ravening mouth at the table. New step-mom Helen was doing a bang-up job feeding her small army. Shopping was a field expedition. We'd load the shopping carts with gallons of condensed milk and field provisions. Then a dozen of us would stand in the cattle truck all the way home, leaning into the turns over White's Hill.

Micaela Miranda Wall's stepmom Betty Lang, a potter, held an open larder policy too. Dense homemade honey wheat bread and slabs of sharp cheddar, and garlicky salads, so hot it burned your tongue. My job was to rub a clove of garlic into the wooden salad bowl. I practically lived at Micaela's house when we were tweenies. We'd get long skirts from the Goodwill and slit them in two to make twin miniskirts. We were peas in a pod.

I'd also head over to another neighbor's across the way for Second Dinner. They didn't have kids, but they had a TV, which was part of the draw, I'm sure. There was only one or two channels to choose from, and there was also a lot of snow—depending on the vagaries of reception so far from civilization.

During the summer months, I used to peer through a knothole in the fence, watching kids play in the pool until Barbara Scott took pity on me and invited me in for a swim. I learned to swim late in life, I was ten. I was floating on a big sausage balloon and it popped in the deep end. My grannie dragged me down to Barbano's Summer Camp across from Pete's house, for my first swimming lesson. But lessons cost money so, after I mastered the dogpaddle, I finished learning to swim at the Scott's pool. Barbara Scott put me to work, lifeguarding the little kids, babysitting, or making props for a play she was producing.

I was never turned away from anyone's table. It was as if I was trying on different families, to see how they all lived. For the most part, the common denominator was a large family. I had only my baby brother, and my parents had dumped me off at my grandmother's house by the time I was four. So I had issues of abandonment. I was like a stray dog turning up at the dinner table.

You'd think my grandmother wasn't a good cook, but she was. I rarely missed a meal at home either. She'd already raised eight kids, so we were unofficial numbers nine and ten. She was done with parenting. The way I was eating, I should've been the size of a house. But I was a lonesome, skinny little kid, so skinny, that Jimmy Bohman, who was at least a year younger than me, used to sneer, and call me "Flaco" and "Skinny" at school.

I must've had a tapeworm or something, I ate like a horse. And I was horse crazy too. Horses were my saving grace, they offered me a steady circle of friends, they also exponentially expanded my dining horizon, and getting home was a piece of cake. But that's fodder for another tale.

Now I'd give anything to be able to eat like that—and still be called Skinny too. Guess I'll nibble on these words instead.


See original version (from a Facebook post): Jazz Hands and Second Dinners









Sir Francis Drake High School jettisoned our bus system. There was no bus and It was a long walk to Drake, then home again over White's Hill. 
Seems like trouble getting to school was a reoccurring theme. For an expanded version of this IJ article, see my previous post, Shank's Mare Ironically, when we got to high school, our school bus was cancelled by Reaganomics.

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